Look into the viewfinder of a consumer-grade digital SLR and you’ll notice a startling difference compared with a film camera and the same lens: Your view is cropped, in much the same way black bars crop a widescreen movie to fit an older TV.
Those black bars are gone with Canon’s breakthrough 12.8MP EOS 5D camera, the first semi-affordable full-frame digital SLR. Peer through the beautifully bright viewfinder of the 5D and you’ll be stunned by how much of the image you’ve been missing with your run-of-the-mill SLR.
That “black bar” effect is due to the size of the camera’s image sensor. While a normal frame of film is roughly 36x24mm in size, the average consumer digital SLR, such as Canon’s EOS 20D or Rebel XT, features a sensor that’s about 22.5x15mm. The smaller sensors in these cameras, in effect, turn a “normal” 50mm lens into an 80mm telephoto. An ultra-wide angle 20mm lens is equivalent to an average 32mm lens.
Why doesn’t everybody use a full-frame sensor? The problem is cost. The larger the sensor, the lower the yield. The lower the yield, the more it costs. That’s the breakthrough with the 5D. While a $3,300 street price sounds steep, the company’s first full-frame camera cost $8,000 in 2003.
To lower the price, Canon cut out pro features such as weather resistance and a more advanced auto-focus system. That doesn’t mean the 5D is a featherweight that’ll short out on a humid day. In fact, the magnesium alloy body feels more solid than the EOS 20D body and should survive light rains or mist just fine. Just don’t expect to cover a hurricane with it.
Even without pro-level auto focus, the 5D is still improved over the 20D. Focus response is snappy and accurate, even in low-light conditions. We also like the diminutive size of the 5D compared with the huge pro bodies that scream “rob me at knife point, please.” Given its three-frames-per-second capture rate, the 5D isn’t intended as a sports camera, but its deep buffer of 60 JPEG or 17 RAW files, and fast write times to Compact Flash cards mean you’ll likely never wait for a shot.
We compared the 12.8MP 5D to an 8.2MP EOS 20D and Nikon’s 12.4MP Nikon D2X. In low-light conditions, the 5D’s high ISO performance is stunning. At 1600 ISO, it outclasses the 20D, which was the previous benchmark for low noise, or “grain.” Thanks to improved noise algorithms, and a sensor that isn’t as crowded with pixels as the smaller sensors in the D2X and 20D, the 5D is the new camera to beat for low-light photography. In resolution, as expected, there’s no discernible difference between the D2X and the 5D, but both offer a bit more detail than the 20D’s 8.2MP.
Is the 5D right for you? As any photographer will tell you, a camera is just a tool, and you pick the right tool for the job. The 5D is the tool for landscape, wedding, studio, or street photography, but not the best tool for sports or action shoots. We give Canon kudos for getting a full-frame sensor into the hands of serious amateurs, but Canon isn’t demonstrating the zany, out-of-the-box thinking that Nikon has with its D2X, which features an even more “cropped” mode to increase the frame rate from 5fps to 8fps at the cost of resolution.
Still, hold the 5D up to your eyeball, and you’ll have a hard time looking through the viewfinder of a cropped camera again.
Month Reviewed: February 2006
+ Henri Cartier-Besson: Butter-smooth images in low light, no crop factor, and a huge LCD.