It’s feature-and-price creep, but who’s complaining: The Canon 5D Mark III digital SLR comes with a 22.3 megapixel sensor, 6 frames per second shooting, and a raft of gotta-have secondary features such as automatic HDR imaging and in-camera picture rating. The full-frame body is $3,500, up $500 list over the Canon 5D Mark II (both with no lens), about $1,000 above the current street price. Some much-improved accessories are jaw-droppers: a radio-control Speedlite 600EX-RT for $630 and a wired/wireless WFT-E7A file transmitter for $850.
For the last decade, the Canon 5D Mark I, II and now III have been the pro’s backup to Canon’s main battle tank DSLRs costing $5,000-$7,000. If you own a Canon Rebel, even three grand for a camera before buying a single lens seems breathtaking. If you’re a professional shooting portraits, commercial work, or weddings, or an enthusiast looking to expand your photographic reach, the Mark III porridge is just right, neither too hot nor cold. With 6 fps shooting, it’s even a passable action camera with much improved autofocus.
Nikon fanatics will gloat because their baby, the full-frame Nikon D800, rings in at 36 megapixels and costs about the same as the Canon 5D Mark III at $3,000 street. At a plodding 4 fps, the D800 is not the camera to capture greyhound racing, though. There’s even an enhanced sharpness Nikon D800e($3,300), without the low-pass filter. Canon is banking on most photographers not needing Nikon’s 33MB images. The camera should be an artistic tool, not a source of glee at Seagate and Western Digital every time you click the shutter.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is also the sum of a dozen nice little features. Press the Rate button while you’re waiting for the next pitch or for the bride to adjust the groom’s tie, and you can rate the previous photos 1-5 stars. There are dual memory cards, one CF, one SD. (Nikon may be one up on Canon here with the newest memory format,XQD, on some of its new cameras. XQD is faster and more rugged, if not yet standard.) Standard ISO goes up to 51,200, almost 10 times more than the Mark II. Canon says there’s a two f-stop improvement in low light quality. Want to take a high dynamic range (HDR) photo that stitches together three different exposures? The Mark III does it in-camera and also saves the separate images. A quiet mode won’t startle children, ministers, or judges and still allows 3 fps shooting.
Autofocusing is improved (Canon claims by 50%) with a 61-point auto-focus screen and Digic 5+ processor. Canon appears to be gearing its autofocus toward f/2.8 and some f/4 lenses favored by pros; not all AF points work with slower lenses (f/5.6, f/8) but the camera will eventually find focus. This is important: Autofocus speed is a hot button with some action shooters who abandoned Canon for Nikon five years ago; Canon has since made autofocus and low-light quality priority. Water and dust sealing is improved but you still need to be careful changing lenses outdoors and use a rain shield when it’s raining not drizzling.
Canon says it has stepped up the video capabilities; the 5D Mark II has been perhaps the most popular DSLR video camera among serious photographers. The 5D Mark III allows for two methods of SMPTE time-code embedding for ease of synchronizing multiple-camera footage and audio in post-production. Not that anyone expected it, but this is not the next generation of high-def video with 4K imaging, even if the sensor itself is capable of 5760×3840 pixels at max resolution shooting still photos. The Mark III shoots up to 1920×1080 progressive (1080p) at 30 fps.
Some features you might like aren’t there. The rear LCD is brighter but not hinged for over-the-head shooting. (Some sub-$1,000 Canons do that.) USB is 2.0 not 3.0. Canon refuses to integrate even a half-fast GPS module that would be always available if not quite as accurate, thus ignoring pros whose stock-agency shots would sell better if clients could search by location. Instead, the shoe-mount GPS Receiver GP-E2 will be available for $390 and injects not just latitude-longitude but elevation, time of day, and the compass heading. In theory, you could relocate the exact GPS coordinates of the photo (not camera) by adding in the focus distance-to-subject.
What else? The new Speedlite 600EX-RT at $630 blows by the Speedlite 580 EX II ($450 street) with wireless radio control (new), a bit more power, beam adjustment for 20-200mm lenses, and legacy infrared control. Infrared triggering of multiple flashes works fine indoors, not so well outdoors in the sun. Canon says the radio transmitter works out to 100 feet and controls up to 15 additional flashes in five groups, allowing for automatic flash metering; a Linked Shooting feature lets you remotely trigger 15 remote cameras simultaneously. Built-in radio control is going to narrow the appeal of the Pocket Wizard brand remotes used now by pros, especially since RF interference issues with previous Canon (but not Nikon) strobes drove Pocket Wizard users crazy. Where Canon radios work to 100 feet, PWs are good to 1,000 feet, but the mainstream PWs can’t auto-control exposure. The two brands are apparently not compatible. As a preemptive measure at Canon and also at cheaper competitors, Pocket Wizard just introduced an improved, cost-reduced Pocket Wizard Plus III for $140.
The new wireless file transmitter also has a gigabit wired connection. The new battery grip works well in portrait mode for shooting, well, portraits. If you don’t want a $630 flash atop your camera, you can swap in Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT that does all the wireless controlling (but no flashtube) for $470, meaning for $160 extra you could get an entire flash.
If you’re looking at higher-end Canon DSLRs, meaning those selling for $1,000 and up, here’s the pecking order:
The Canon EOS-1D X, due this spring at $6,800, is the workhorse: 18.1-megapixel full frame sensor, 5184×2456 pixels, blazing 12 fps shooting, 400,000-count shutter life, and serious weather-sealing. It does full-HD video, uses two CF card slots, and will work with all the accessories just announced for the 5D Mark III. There’s no built-in flash, no GPS.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III, out this month, is also full-frame, has the highest resolution of any Canon camera, and a few unique features such as HDR imaging, and separate CF/SD slots. There’s no built-in flash. Shutter life is rated at 150,000 cycles, and the dual-battery grip BG-E11 runs $490. You can buy two 5D Mark IIIs for the price of one EOS-1D X. Canon will also sell a 5D Mark III kit with the workhorse 24-105mm f/4 lens at $4,300, saving you $350. While it’s only $500 costlier on list price, the outgoing 21.1-megapixel 5d Mark II at street is selling for as little as $2,400.
The Canon EOS 7D is an 18-megapixel crop-sensor still and full-HD video camera with a 1.6X multiplier, so a 200mm telephoto lens is effectively a 320mm. It shoots 8 fps, which is good enough for most users, and ISO up to 12,800 (decent, not world-class). There’s a single CF slot. Autofocus isn’t as sophisticated as on the 5D Mark III or 1D X. Shutter life is rated at 150,000 clicks. There’s a built-in flash and wireless (IR not RF) controller for Canon strobes. The 7D, like the sub-$1,000 Canon Rebels, suffers from a lack of highest-quality wide angle prime (fixed focal length) and zoom lenses. For instance, the Canon EF-S 10-22mm ultrawide zoom f/3.5-4.5 ($800) has the same coverage as the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II ($1,500) zoom on full-frame cameras, but build quality and low light capabilities aren’t comparable. List price of the 7D is $1,700 and street price has been as low as $1,400; either way you can get two 7Ds for the price of one 5D Mark III, or four 7Ds for the price of a 1D X. Accessories are cheaper, too: $175 for the BG-E7 battery grip, for instance. The 5D Mark III, Canon EOS 60D, and 7D (but not 1D X) take the same LP-E6 batteries if you mix and match cameras.
Read more at Canon, and start saving up.