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Shoot in the dark. That's essentially what you can do with the Canon 5D Mark III -- with a top sensitivity of ISO 102,400, what was once unfathomable could soon become an acceptable standard. While point-and-shoot manufacturers are adding WiFi and GPS, and tweaking algorithms in an effort to boost sensitivity beyond the 6400 mark, Canon and Nikon are making clear cases for a DSLR upgrade, by drastically improving image quality. The 5D Mark II had an excellent three-year run, but with its 22.3-megapixel sensor, 1.04M-dot 3.2-inch LCD, improved autofocus and high-performance video capabilities, Canon's latest full-frame DSLR is an entirely different beast, and a very compelling successor.

We spent two glorious weeks with a pre-production 5D Mark III before reluctantly shipping it back to Canon. The biggest benefit (for us, at least) has been high-ISO shooting. While the former 5D could theoretically handle ISO 25,600 captures as well, its native range topped out at 6400 -- venturing beyond that territory meant taking a hit on image quality, making it a seldom-used feature that benefited the camera's spec sheet far more than our low-light snap collection. With this latest iteration, we were able to capture sharp images in environments where there was far too little light to make out details with the naked eye, just as we have with the larger (and pricier) Nikon D3S. Our resulting scenes look like they were lit with sophisticated rigs, or in an environment that allotted far more natural light than was actually available. Low-light shooting is but one benefit of the Mark III, however, so join us past the break for a closer look in our field review.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Canon

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Pros

  • Incredible image quality through ISO 25,600
  • Excellent focusing system
  • Comprehensive HD video options
  • Brilliant 3.2-inch LCD with wide viewing angle

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No autofocus during video capture
Summary

If you're in the market for a full-frame DSLR, you can't go wrong with Canon's 5D Mark III.


Silent shooting

You made it past the break! As a gesture of our appreciation, we're going to let you in on a little Mark III secret -- in fact, if that high-ISO shooting wasn't in the picture, this could very well have been our favorite new feature. It's called Silent Single, and it literally allows you to capture an image without hearing that familiar shutter sound. Clunk. Clunk. Or clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk -- six times every second in high-speed mode. You can even do your rapid-fire snapping in Silent Continuous, though you're limited to three frames per second rather than the typical six, with an available workaround (more on that in a moment).

There's no question that silent shooting will impact your experience. Sure, you'll never be able to mask the fact that you're lugging around a full-size DSLR -- so good luck being discreet -- but you will be able to avoid attracting attention each time you snap a frame. The practical applications for this are endless -- wedding photographers won't have to worry about disrupting the ceremony, street shooters can avoid alerting their subjects and nature photogs won't have to worry about frightening wildlife and ruining their shots. The feature will also be more than welcome on film and television sets, where photographers are often required to use cumbersome (and pricey) noise suppression equipment. It's not silent, as its name suggests, but it's very very very quiet.



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So should you simply set Silent Single and forget it? For many photographers, there's really no reason not to. The mode uses a process called Pulse Width Modulation, which slows the speed of the mirror mechanism and the shutter charging motor. Because both operate at a slightly reduced speed, there's a longer delay between the time you hit the shutter release and when the camera begins an exposure, but unless you need every second-fraction you can get, you shouldn't have any issue here. There's also a "Silent Shooting" mode available when in Live View, though this operates by using the CMOS sensor to control the start of an exposure, rather than the first curtain of the mechanical shutter. This mode can be even more advantageous, since it's completely vibration-free. It's also compatible with the high-speed continuous drive mode, letting you capture six frames per second -- double the count available in Silent Continuous.



ISO 25,600 and beyond

Yes, you know the Mark III can capture usable images at ISO 25,600 -- the top sensitivity available on the 5D Mark II -- but there's a noticeable improvement with this year's model, even with our pre-production sample, as you can see in the 100-percent comparison below. There's also an option to jump even further -- to ISO 51,200 and 102,400 -- but you'll only want to venture that high if you're more concerned about freezing the action than snapping a printable image.



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On our first day with the 5D paired with a 24-105mm f/4 L lens, we spent some time exploring Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea, capturing sharp frames of building interiors from outside the barricades. If you're been to a similar complex in Asia -- The Forbidden City in Beijing, perhaps, or temples in Thailand -- you're entirely familiar with the scene of tourists forcing their way to the front of a group, point-and-shoot in hand with the flash engaged. After patiently waiting our turn, we were able to snap tack-sharp shots with natural light, holding the camera by hand. The same applied to night scenes, and other interior shots.



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But what really sealed the deal was an evening shoot around Lower Manhattan. We first came upon the World Trade Center construction site, with 4 WTC shining bright against the sky at dusk. There was more than enough light to snag crisp handheld shots at ISO 3200.



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Minutes later, with the sun far below the horizon, we walked through Battery Park City towards the Hudson. We flipped to 12,800 to snag ferries hovering above the river, layered afront the New Jersey skyline.



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Then, ISO 25,600 became the norm, as we were able to capture daffodils at 1/40 second, and freeze cyclists and joggers mid-stride, lit by nothing but ordinary street lamps.



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Next, a stop at an elevated position just above a small pedestrial bridge, with blue street lamps and a view of Jersey City in the background.



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Just past the waterfront, we happened upon a view of a fog-covered 1 WTC, which you can see below as photographed from the southern tip of Manhattan.



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We then made our way over to Stone Street, to capture the happy hour excitement, lit by a variety of dim street and building fixtures.



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We've singled out these high-ISO shots, compiling them in the gallery below, though you'll want to download our original JPEGs to get a better feel.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III high-ISO sample images


Image quality

As you've probably already gathered, we're very impressed with the Mark III's performance, both while capturing images and when it came time to review them after a shoot. So much so, that we wouldn't hesitate to declare that image quality is absolutely spectacular. You can't pass judgement on a professional camera as easily as you can a tablet or smartphone. It's critical to test every setting, venture out into the field to experience every lighting scenario, and review your shots on a large high-res display, examining hundreds of images in great detail. Naturally, frames shot at ISO 800 and below were flawless -- tack-sharp, with excellent color reproduction and spot-on white balance. Jumping into the four-digit ISOs did add some noise to the equation, but it remained nearly indistinguishable through ISO 6400.



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At 12,800 and 25,600, noise became easily visible in brighter areas at a 25-percent view, but both settings are quite usable. In fact, if we're shooting strictly for the web, we wouldn't hesitate to leave the camera tuned to 12,800, or even 25,600 if absolutely necessary. ISO 51,200 and 102,400 are noisy as all hell, to be frank, and while you may find these settings to be usable, especially for the web, use extreme caution to avoid venturing this high whenever possible. Colors became more washed out as the ISO creeped up, so noise isn't the only concern here. Still, we were thrilled with the camera's performance at ISO 12,800 and below, and wouldn't hesitate to use those modes for all but the most critical of shoots. It's also important to note that the camera we used was a pre-production sample, so image quality could further improve, though Canon felt confident enough in this version to permit a review.

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III sample images


Focusing

You can't really prioritize features when it comes to a professional camera -- everything needs to work, very well, and focusing performance is right up there with image quality in our book. When every shot counts, having a flawless focusing system is key, and thanks to the 61-point High Density Reticular Autofocus on board (the same system you'll find on the 1D X), we felt quite fulfilled in this department as well. Frame your subject, hit the shutter release, and the camera focuses -- with dead-on accuracy -- in what seems like an instant. You can select any one of the 61 focus points, and once you do, the Mark III will bring whatever falls directly in front into perfect focus incredibly quickly, even when your subject is in near darkness.



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For example, we were able to focus on our production assistant Jon Turi in a pitch-black room, lit by nothing more than a laptop near its lowest brightness setting at a distance of two feet. The camera took a second to find a lock, but was perfectly accurate once it did. Repeat the process outside, or even in a well-lit room, and that second delay never comes into play. The Mark III focuses just as soon as you hit the shutter release.



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Video

Like its predecessor, the 5D Mark III is an incredibly capable video shooter -- in fact, some of the camera's future owners may not use it to capture stills at all. We certainly don't fit within that elite category, though we did snap some homebrew motion pictures whenever still photos just couldn't do a justice. Video looked fantastic, just as it did on the Mark II. You'll need to focus manually (or before you start a clip), which we've always found to be a challenge, especially when attempting to film a hands-on solo without any cameraman support. But if you're fortunate enough to have a follow focus at your disposal, you should be in good shape here. There's also no mechanical zoom option, so if you're feeling confident enough to tweak it manually during a shot, you'll probably want to use the mic input to avoid picking up any associated noise. And finally, there's no option to capture stills while you're recording video, though if you're shooting in 1080p -- there's support for 1080 at 24/25/30p or 720 at 50/60p -- you'll probably have plenty of frame grabs to use.




Battery life

Battery life shouldn't be an issue on any recent DSLR. Period. This is also the case with the 5D Mark III -- you're likely to fill your memory card long before you exhaust the battery, unless you happen to be using SanDisk's 64GB Class-10 Extreme Pro SD card -- which works beautifully in this camera for both video and 6 fps stills, along with any high-performance CF flavor. We were able to fire off 1,000 stills and a few minutes of HD video before the 1800mAh LP-E6 battery even hit the 50-percent mark, and made it to a whopping 2,200 frames before that compact rectangular pack went kaput. We spent an uncharacteristic amount of time adjusting settings and using Live View, as well, so you'll probably see even more impressive figures. Considering that we're unlikely to push past the 500 mark on even the busiest of shooting days (liveblogs being the obvious exception), it's safe to say the Mark III will make it through an entire week on the CES show floor without requiring a recharge.



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Design


Did we save the best for last? Well, in a way, but you'll spend as much time thinking about the camera's design as we're going to spend on it here. We're really struggling to find any design flaws with the 5D Mark III -- it's a sharp looking camera, with a practical and familiar layout, an intuitive menu structure and a gorgeous optical viewfinder. The stellar 3.2-inch LCD doesn't tilt or swivel, but you can view it from above, below or to either side, if necessary. Some ports have seen some position tweaking, but they're all there: mic input, headphone, mini USB, HDMI, etc. There are SD and CF slots, as we've already covered, along with a slot for the same excellent battery used in the 5D Mark II. It's beautiful. It's familiar. It just works.



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Wrap-up

We honestly haven't been this in love with a camera since we reviewed the Sony NEX-7. And while there's little to compare from a price and design perspective, we're seriously questioning that affair, and completely ready to sacrifice the compact design in favor of this incredibly capable do-everything shooter. At $3,499 for the body only, Canon priced this latest 5D higher than its predecessor, which rang in at $2,699 at launch. Still, if you've been considering a 5D Mark III purchase, don't hesitate -- it's worth the investment, we promise. And if you've already placed your order or have one in the mail, get ready to have your world turned upside-down -- this thing is simply amazing, in every way.


What's a field review, you ask? Essentially, the term serves to clarify that our analysis is based on real-world usage, and that it, however regrettably, won't include the thorough benchmarking a camera of this caliber may ordinarily require. It's a perfectly suitable assessment by a photographer that's spent many hours operating similar equipment, but given the cost and sophistication of such a piece of machinery, we would recommend that professionals also consider reviews from other sources before making a purchase.