Photography and Art

Monday, September 24, 2007

Canon 5d First Impressions Part II

It's day two of my Canon 5d experience and I'm still down for the count with this chest cold. I finally got tired of sitting around on my butt and ventured forth for a walk just after lunch. One of the projects that I'm currently working on is a portfolio of construction images for my two year-old grandson. He's absolutely in love with construction equipment and Bob the Builder, so I've been taking photos of bulldozers and diggers for his bedroom wall.

There is a construction site not far from our house where they have knocked down an old shopping mall and are building a new-style shopping "village" with open-air stores and street parking. There are bulldozers and diggers galore on the site. Where better to test the Canon 5d?

The main challenges were the lighting and the distance between spectators and the action. The lighting at noon was pretty harsh, with the sun nearly directly overhead. Stout chain link fencing kept the spectators well away from the machinery and the fencing was fairly high.

At first, I took only my Canon 70-300 mm DO telephoto zoom lens to try to get close enough to the action. This proved to be a good choice -- the machines were right in range and the business end of the lens is only 58 mm wide so it fit between the fence links. After I got home, I decided to drive back later in the day and take a couple of wide angle shots with the Canon 17-40 mm L lens. The 77 mm diameter lens wouldn't fit inside the chain links, but I was able to find a higher perch to take the panoramic view that was needed.

And how did the Canon 5d perform? Let me first give you a caveat. I'm agin pixel peeping in general unless the performance of the sensor is getting in the way of capturing the image you want. The purchase of the 5d was done because of its full-size sensor (and how Canon lenses behave with it) and its compact size. It wouldn't have bothered me necessarily if the sensor had been 8 megapixels or even 6 megapixels. It's interesting to note that the review of the Canon 17-40 lens referred to above, done by Michael Reichmann, was written in 2003 when a top-of-the-line Canon digital camera was an 11 megapixel model. No one complained about having not enough pixels.

My comments will be constrained to how the camera felt in the field, whether it intruded into the picture taking and whether it produced usable images. Here are my comments:

  • The camera handles extremely well. Both lenses seemed totally in balance with the weight of the camera. I can't imagine using the 70-300 DO lens with, for example, a Canon Rebel DSLR because the lens weighs a lot more than the camera does and would dwarf it physically. On the other hand, I've seen the pros wrestling with Canon 1Ds models of various vintage and couldn't imagine toting one of those beasts on a nice walk on a sunny day. It would be enought to give you a back ache. Again, the camera would outweigh the lens and be out of balance.
  • As with yesterday's shoot, I loved the sound of the shutter. It sounds like my film camera.
  • The controls of the camera fall readily to hand. Of course, it helps if you've had a number of Canon cameras, but that's the beauty of sticking to one brand. All three cameras in my bag (Elan film, 20d and 5d) have identical controls, so there's never a false moment when you're screwing around looking for a dial or messing with a menu.
  • I was shooting raw files and developed them in Adobe Lightroom. The results were pretty decent. Given the lighting conditions, I expected that the focus would be spot on (lots of light to work with) and it was. I expected the photos to be too harsh and contrasty, but the camera seemed to have enough dynamic range to produce usable images. The histograms were spread out nicely and only a touch of exposure/blacks adjustment was needed. There was not a single image with highlights blown out. That's pretty incredible given the strong light and the highly reflective metal surfaces out there in a construction site.
  • I did cheat a little and zoomed in to 3:1 to make sure that my sensor wasn't a dud. Noise was very, very low as expected. At ISO 100, I didn't even bother to take the photos through a Photoshop and Noise Ninja round trip.
  • The overall impression was very positive. The photos required virtually no adjustment in Lightroom other than very minor exposure tweaking, a touch of clarity and just a touch of saturation (the camera is set at a the default saturation and is a tad low for my liking, especially for construction pics for a toddler).
  • If the 5d wasn't new and in need of a good work-out, I would have chosen the 20d for this project. Nearly all the shots needed just a touch of cropping to get the subject into a perfect position. In other words, the subjects were just a bit beyond the range of the 300 mm end of the zoom with the full frame camera. The 20d would have filled its frame with the subject and would have brought its full 8 megapixels to bear. By cropping the 5d, I estimate I was down to around 7 megapixels or more. Oh no! Not a megapixel short! In reality, either camera would have done really well.
  • However, the 5d was perfect for the wide angle shot at 17mm. I got nearly the whole construction site into the viewfinder and that was pretty cool. The full-frame sensor pushed the Canon 17-40 mm lens to its limit at the wide angle end and there was some vignetting (darkening of the image at the corners), but Lightroom has a tool that makes it a snap to fix this problem.
  • Yes, I could have bought the Canon 10-22 mm EF-S lens and fitted it to the 20D to get the same result as the 5d with the 17-40 zoom for much less money, but my main walk-about lens is a Canon 24-105 L lens and it is designed perfectly for a full-frame sensor like the 5d.
In summary, the Canon 5d is just a pleasure to use. It blends into the background as it should and frees the photographer to get into that lovely zone where the concern is purely for the subject and the light.

Here are a couple of the photos from the shoot. The first was shot with the 70-300 DO lens and the second was shot with the 17-40. Both were given a very light dusting in Lightroom:

Big Digger, little Digger

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