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Canon 5D Mark III Review

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III steps up as the long-awaited successor to the Canon 5D Mark II.

March 07, 2012
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Science Introduction

The Canon 5D Mark III is not a dramatic reimagining of the DSLR, but you'd be forgiven for imagining that to be the case, given the hype in advance of its launch. The truth is that the Mark III is a subtle refinement of the Mark II—but one with several targeted improvements. It retains most of what made the Mark II a great camera while shoring up the areas where it really struggled. In in nearly all of our tests, the Mark III is a better camera than its predecessor—and certainly one of the best DSLRs on the market today.

Shot-to-shot Speed

The Mark III isn't the speediest device around, but it isn't the slowest, either.

With a glut of full frame cameras from every major manufacturer hitting the scene in 2012, it's surprising to remember how rare they were just a few years ago. Full frame sensors are expensive to manufacture and, generally speaking, cameras that use them have been on the slower side. The Mark III isn't a terribly fast camera, maxing out at around 5.2 fps, but that's a huge improvement over the 3.9 fps we saw from the 5D Mark II. It's also a faster speed than you get with the brand-new $2,100, full-frame Canon 6D (4.5 fps), but a hair slower than Nikon's $2,100 D600 (5.5 fps).

So while we can't give the Mark III top marks for its speed, anyone married to the Canon system and looking to upgrade from the Mark II will get a noticeable boost in response time. And when you consider the autofocus improvements, that upgrade becomes even more enticing.

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Autofocus

It's like trading a beige sedan in for a sports car.

Autofocus speed and accuracy are worlds better with the Mark III than they were with the Mark II. Going from a 9-point, 1 cross-type array to a densely-packed 61-point array with 41 cross-type sensors (the same system used in Canon's flagship 1D X) is like going from a boring beige sedan to a cutting-edge sports car. The only difference between the 1D X and the Mark III's AF system is the integration of the metering system—the Mark III utilizes a 63-zone system that isn't nearly as advanced as the one used by the 1D X. As you'd expect, the Mark III handily breezed through our autofocus test, easily locking onto subjects in light levels as low as 10 lux.

Along with the new hardware functionality, the 5D Mark III includes an incredible array of controls that will let the user fine-tune their autofocus performance. Included among these new controls are six case-based AF modes, letting you tweak tracking sensitivity, acceleration/deceleration tracking speed, and AF point auto switching. Each case can be saved in memory, so users can tweak autofocus to suit multiple shooting situations. 5D Mark II owners could only dream of such flexibility.

Noise & Detail Loss

Exceptionally clean high-ISO files highlight the 5D Mark III's strong performance.

We found that the Canon 5D Mark III's full-frame CMOS sensor produced some of the best results we've seen at base ISO (100). At that sensitivity, the camera returned just 0.39% average chroma noise and 0.41% luminance noise, a fluctuation imperceptible at any reasonable viewing distance.

As you move up the ISO scale, the Mark III's armor begins to show some cracks. With noise reduction turned off, noise only crosses the 2% threshold at ISO 12,800 and 3.3% at ISO 25,600, its maximum native ISO. The two high ISO settings, equivalent to 51,200 and 102,400, push it even further, returning noise results in excess of 3.5% with no noise reduction applied. Anything above 6,400 is really pushing the performance of the camera, unless you expect to do heavy editing and can live with significant detail loss due to noise reduction.

Color Reproduction

Accurate colors across the gamut are a strong point for the Mark III.

The Canon 5D Mark III's full-frame sensor, excellent white balance, reliable metering, and reasonable JPEG processing allowed it to produce absolutely wonderful color accuracy under friendly lighting conditions. With a 63-zone dual-layer metering system inherited from the Canon 7D, the Mark III captured accurate color values throughout the color range, with particularly strong results among darker colors.

The Mark III features a number of picture styles, each of which provides slightly different sharpness, saturation, and color tone values. The most accurate mode, "faithful," was able to keep color error to just 2.15, with a saturation level that was just a hair over perfect. This put the Mark III among the best cameras we have tested in this regard, though slightly behind the 1D X. That accuracy, combined with the camera's strong low light performance, enables shooting in limited, natural light settings. Moreover, images are captured in such a way that they accurately reflect the real-life scene.

Video Motion & Sharpness

The 5D Mark III produces excellent footage with a beautiful full-frame aesthetic.

The Mark III had no problems rendering motion effectively in either of its compression modes (IPB or ALL-I), with minimal noise and little artifacting either way. Shooting a standard sharpness chart, we found that the Mark III was able to render, at best, around 700 line pairs per picture height (LPPH) of sharpness horizontally, and 750 vertically with its IPB compression, with ALL-I actually looking slightly softer than that. These numbers aren't much better than what we got from the Mark II, but they come with significantly reduced moire.

One aspect that is not improved is the rolling shutter effect, preventing the effective use of quick pans or capture of truly fast moving subjects. That's less of a problem with software, and really more to do with using a rolling shutter on a CMOS sensor. Until global shutter technology (as used on most CCD sensors typically found in camcorders and high-end video cameras) can be used on these sensors, we don't anticipate much improvement in this area for DSLRs.

Other Tests

Two more bright spots amid stellar overall performance

The 5D Mark III otherwise performed quite ably in our performance testing. Its dynamic range is better than what we've seen from most of the APS-C crop sensors that we've tested, but that advantage is lost at the highest ISO speeds. Finally, we should reserve special mention for the incredibly accurate white balance system, which is miles better than the finicky system we saw on the Nikon D800, the Mark III's chief competition.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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