My first time as a photographer at the Billabong Pro was in 2002. At the time, I could only afford a set of ‘ancient’ equipment: a Canon T90 film camera (perhaps the great grandfather of today’s EOS-range) with a manual focus Canon FD 600mm f4.5 lens. It took me about 10 days to perfect my manual focus technique and by the time the final of the contest was run on a glorious sunshine day with perfect waves, I got the shot I was looking for – on the second last frame of my last roll of Fuji Velvia 50 ASA film (do I hear you saying ‘low ISO’?). That photo was published as a double-page spread in the local surfing magazine called ZIGZAG later in 2002.
Fast forward to 2012 and ten years later, my Canon equipment is really a world apart from the old T90 manual focus film camera.
This year, I was privileged to make use of the following equipment:
Canon 5D MkIII camera with battery grip
Canon EF 600mm f4L IS Mk I prime super telephoto lens
Canon EF 17-40mm f4L super-wide lens
Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS lens
Benro tripod with the gimbal-type tripod head
Lowepro AW600 II trekker camera bag (backpack style bag that takes 600mm with camera fitted)
Using the 5D MkIII
The first aspect of the 5D MkIII I wanted to test was the new auto focus system, since it is the first time since the EOS-3 that Canon fitted a focus system from a 1-series into a non-1-series camera body.
Surfing, although it has plenty of action, features fluid movement and is relatively predictable and is not as fast-moving as some other sports. However, tracking a subject with a 600mm lens that has both a very narrow field of view (around 3 degrees) and very shallow depth of field (on a full frame camera like the 5D, at f5.6 and subject distance of 25 meters away the depth of field is only 55 cm!) is challenging for any AF system.
The AF-system on the camera provides 61 focus points which can be used in several different methods and configurations (for instance, using only one specific point, or groupings of 1 plus 4 adjacent, or 1 plus 8 adjacent). On top of that, Canon has developed 6 different preset AF-system scenario settings, which are called ‘Cases’. In particular, I was interested in using ‘Case 2 – continue tracking subject ignoring possible obstacles’ – for surfing. With surfing, it very often happens that you are tracking a surfer on a wave moving towards you or across the frame when suddenly a seagull flies into the focus area or the spray from a closer wave shoots up in front of you. With most AF systems, the camera would re-focus (in AF-servo mode) on the seagull or spray and the shot would be ruined as the surfer and wave would be completely out of focus. I’m happy to report that ‘Case 2’ works flawlessly for this particular scenario. I never once lost tracking on a surfer, despite birds and spray obscuring the main subject momentarily.
I can’t make any claims on the 5D MkIII’s AF-system for other types of sport, but for surfing it worked exceptionally well. The system is really accurate, fast and responsive and a joy to use. In terms of ‘keeper rate’: Out of around 4,000 surfing images captured over 5 days in lighting conditions ranging from dawn to rain to bright sunshine, I had less than 50 images that were not perfectly in focus.
Many sport and wildlife photographers prefer to separate the autofocus and shutter release function on two separate buttons. With this technique, the shutter release button is set up to *only* release the shutter and focus (tracking) is done with a button re-assigned in function to control the AF. On most previous Canon EOS models, one of the back buttons near the top LCD could be re-programmed to do this. With the 5D Mk III, Canon have added an extra, dedicated ‘AF-ON’ button to do exactly this. I personally don’t use this technique, but those that do will welcome the addition of this button.
So much has been said already about the High ISO ability of the 5D Mk III, that I have very little to add. All I will say is that on my 7D I would seldom venture above ISO 400 for the sake of Image Quality and to keep noise at bay. On the 5D Mk III, I shoot at ISO 400 by default and have no hesitation to shoot at ISO 800 or ISO 1000 when I need to. For surfing, shooting in bright daylight, I didn’t really need high ISO. In the ‘bad old days’ of film, I shot surfing on ISO 50 slide film. It is nice though to have higher ISO with such little noise, so now I can have my cake and eat it, so to speak: fast shutter speed and smaller apertures for a bit more depth of field.
The Canon 5D Mk III has a magnificent sensor and you can see it clearly when processing or editing the RAW (and also JPEG) files. Stills or video, the files are magnificent. It is so good, that you really need the very best lenses you can get your hands on to do it justice. Conversely, the camera will show you what your lenses really are capable of (good and bad).
For me, the 22 Megapixels is more than enough to allow for whatever cropping or print size I need in the real world. Having said that, my personal philosophy is to ‘capture the intended image when you press the shutter release’, so I prefer not relying on cropping later. However, sometimes you just can’t get as close as you’d like to, for whatever reason or restriction and it really helps that you can crop and get the image you wanted – and still have lots of detail and data.
Surf photography presents its own challenges for any camera’s metering system: one moment the wave consists of a dark wall of water rising and dominating the frame and the next it breaks and most of the frame is filled with bright white foam. The water also adds another dimension: in the morning the waves are backlit when the sun rises over the sea and the translucent water invariably creates silhouettes of the surfers in front of them. When the sun moves over in the afternoon, the bright white foam on the waves fool the metering system into drastically underexposing. The only way to handle this, is for the photographer to apply the appropriate exposure compensation, and this is exactly what I had to do in the extreme cases.
Having said that, using evaluative metering, I found the metering system to be very accurate and reliable. With the 5D Mki and 7D I owned before, I almost always had to use at least 1/3 stop of over exposure to get a ‘correct’ exposure. It would seem Canon addressed that and in most conditions not using any exposure compensation settings will deliver very pleasing results and accurate exposures.
I also noticed that when post-processing the images in Lightroom 4.1 (you need LR 4.1 as earlier versions do not support the 5D Mk III RAW file format), that the RAW files seem to offer a better dynamic range (compared to the 5D MKii or 7D, for instance) and therefore make for easier or even less editing. This, combined with the accurate metering helps to produce files that you can do a lot more with in post processing.
Handling and camera layout
After using the camera for around 12 hours per day for 5 days, I became much more familiar with all the button placements and menu structures. It was a quick learning curve from the 7D; the biggest change is probably the magnify buttons that have moved from the top right thumb position to left of the display and now zoom in/out is handled by the main dial at the shutter button. Initially I was annoyed, but got used to the new system very quickly and now prefer it.
The menu structure can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming at first, because the camera just has so many options and new features (the autofocus alone now has its own dedicated sub-menu). I was a bit frustrated trying to navigate with the joystick button in the menu structure to find a particular setting, until I discovered that pressing the ‘Q’ button jumps between sub-menu tabs, which makes for much faster navigation. Of course, you can also create your own ‘My Menu’ where you can list any setting that you use often and want to access quickly. I’ve put the ‘Mirror Lockup’-setting here, for instance.
The ergonomics and design of the 5D Mk III are really superb, especially when the new battery grip is added (like I did). The grip improves the balance of the camera when using larger lenses (like the L-series) and for big hands makes for a more comfortable grip. The vertical / extra battery grip is intended for exactly that – adding a second battery for extended shooting and to make for more comfortable shooting when holding the camera in portrait mode. With previous designs there was just one problem: it was almost impossible to reach the joystick controller while shooting in portrait mode to change the focus points. On the 5D Mk III vertical grip, Canon has finally added a second joystick controller for portrait mode, which is a huge and very welcome improvement. The only thing I don’t like is that the relative position of the controller to the shutter release is different from when shooting in landscape mode, so the button is not where you would naturally expect it to be. You soon get used to it, though.
Other new design changes are that the depth-of-field preview button is now on the same side of the camera as the shutter release, just on the other side of the lens mount. I initially thought this was superficial, but actually found the location to be really handy (no punt intended). The only drawback is that it is not that easy to locate when shooting with the vertical grip in portrait mode.
The mode-setting dial now has a lock button to prevent accidental changes. I can see how that is a benefit, but was worried that it would be annoying to first have to depress the centre button before you could rotate the dial. In practice, it works well and for me was a non-issue.
Frames per Second rate
The Canon 5D Mk III provides quite an improvement from the previous 5D models in terms of continuous shooting. At full speed, it can deliver just over 6 frames per second. I’ve found that to achieve this, you need a suitably fast (CF) memory card and you should have selected storing images only onto this card and shoot only JPEG or RAW, not both. Also, for some reason Canon has opted to fit a slower SD card slot on the camera and the SD card is definitely slower than the CF card slot. So, no use in buying the fastest and more expensive SD cards for this camera.
Many people have wondered if the faster frame rate that the 5D Mk III now offers, finally qualifies it also as a sports and wildlife camera and not just a high-resolution (but slow) portrait and landscape camera. On the improvement in the AF system alone, I would say it is very capable for sport and wildlife.
On the frame rate, I would say the answer depends entirely on what your needs are and what subject matter you are shooting. For surfing, I found that 6 fps was more than adequate. Just to put things in perspective: high-end film cameras like the EOS1-N typically shot 6 fps and that was good enough for the pro’s then….then again, with the cost of pro film and only 36 frames on a roll, who would want to ‘burn film’ any faster back then!
There is another aspect to frame rate: the huge amount of data storage needed (and time you will spend in post processing to sort through all the thousands of images you shot!)
Also, frame rate in a sense determines the timing of the ‘moments’ you capture. All things being equal, if the frame rate is constant and you hold the shutter release down, you are basically at the mercy of the intervals of the frame rate to decide which moments you capture. With the surfing, after I calmed down and realized I was not going to ‘miss’ anything, I switched to single shot and found I had more control of the actual timing of the shot and I much preferred the results. Many ‘purists’ and ‘old school’ photographers will argue that a true professional only needs ‘one shot’ and despise the ‘machine gun’ approach to getting great moments captured. As one press photographer at the contest told me: ‘If you want to shoot that many frames, why don’t you just shoot video?’
A final word on the frame rate: for some subjects, 6 frames will be enough. For others, like birds taking off or in flight where you need a lot of frames to get exactly the right moment of the action (like the position of the wings), 6 frames are not enough. I found that I sometimes missed the 8 frames of the 7D. Then again, for birds I often wished I did own a 1D-series body with 10 or more fps. If your subject really does require you to capture ‘the moment’ in a very short space of time, then start saving for the 1Dx.
The battery life on the 5D Mk III really impressed me, in fact amazed me. One day, I forgot my second battery at home in the charger, but I did not have time to drive back and fetch it. I was sure that I would regret it later, but after 12 hours of non-stop shooting (around 1400 images, if I recall), using AF-SERVO all the time, constantly using menus and viewing images and with the Image Stabiliser of the 600mm lens on the whole day, I still had 20% battery life left at the end of the day! I guess there is a reason why those batteries are so expensive, but the efficiency of the entire camera system has to be admired. Well done, Canon R&D!
I have shot very, very little video in my life and have always preferred still images. However, the fluid motion of a surfer on a long wave just cannot be shown for its beauty with a still image. So, I decided I would try shooting some video with the 5D Mk III. After all, many full-length films have been made using the 5D Mk II.
I soon realized though, that those cinema films were definitely not shot using a ‘standard’ 5D. Whatever anybody says, the 5D was first and foremost designed as a still camera. End of story. It is not easy to use to shoot video at all, in my opinion. The rear LCD is very good in terms of its brightness and resolution, but very uncomfortable to view while shooting video for an extended period of time. I saw one other 5D Mk III at the contest and it was used for shooting High-Definition video, but it had a proper eye piece fitted on top of the LCD.
Apart from the fact that a decent eye piece is needed (remember your eye is glued to the camera, because unlike stills, video is continuous), the AF when shooting video also uses a different system than shooting still images. This system makes me think of the very first AF-systems of the 1980’s that were really poor. The focus ‘hunts’ to find focus and sometimes took 1 or 2 seconds to focus, so that alone makes it unusable. Since video records all the time, you see this focus hunting in the recording, which means you basically have to edit out that part of the clip. The only real solution is manual focus. No surprise there really – the cinema industry employs professional ‘focus-pullers’ to do only that: focus manually. This skill is not to be underestimated and needs lots of practice. Also, you really need additional equipment that provides more precise and smoother control of the manual focus (if you shoot video, you’ll know what I’m referring to. If you don’t, and you intend shooting video, you’d better find out!)
In video mode, you can use the joystick controller to position a big focus square anywhere in the frame (apart from the extreme left and right edges) , which is great for compositional freedom, but moving it around with the joystick is much slower than with stills where you can very rapidly move between focus points.
Despite everything I said above, I did actually get some great video clips of the surfing in full 1080i High-Definition resolution. I ‘cheated’ a little: I moved back far enough so that the distance from the surfers was more than the ‘farthest’ focus distance of the lens (in other words, everything was focused at infinity), switched the lens to manual focus and set it to infinity….and my focus issue for video was gone. I did not have a video fluid head on my tripod and my follow technique needs a lot work, so the video clips still have that ‘home video’ look, but I enjoy them and watching them lets me relive the time at the seaside in great detail.
This article is not meant as an in-depth or technical review and as such I’ll just touch on new features added from the 5D Mk II.
Dual memory card slots
The 5D Mk III now sports both an SD and CF memory card slot (like many of the 1D-series cameras).
This addition, in my opinion, puts the camera in the class of being a ‘professional’ camera. The reason: it offers the redundancy and flexibility that only professionals (those that need to sell their images) would need. I’ve photographed weddings for more than 12 years now and for something like a wedding that cannot be repeated, it is great to have the ability to duplicate all your photos onto a second card.
The dual memory card slots offer many new possibilities, amongst other:
- You can store RAW on one card and JPEG files on the other
- You can shoot both RAW and JPEG to both cards (full redundancy)
- You can use the second card as ‘overflow’ for the first card (great for shooting situations when switching cards would make you miss the shot)
- You can process RAW files from one card in-camera and copy to the other card as JPEG (who needs a PC, do I hear you say?)
It is a pity that Canon opted to fit a ‘slower’ SD card slot that does not match the speed of the CF-card slot, but I guess Canon would argue that if speed is your primary concern, then the 1Dx is the camera for you.
In-camera image rating
You can now ‘rate’ images with a dedicated ‘rate’ button to the left of the rear LCD monitor with no rating (default) and anything from 1 to 5 star rating.
This is really useful when you’re shooting thousands of images, yet have to pick the winners quickly and publish them within an hour or so on the web.
Let me explain:
The image rating is recognized by post-processing applications like Lightroom (remember you need LR 4.1 to process the 5D Mk III RAW files or the latest ACR).
A quick filter on star rating and you have your ‘keepers’ that you rated in-camera without having to go through hundreds or thousands of images.
A good practice might be to rate images on the camera you like immediately after viewing them on the camera. You can always change the rating again in post-processing, but at least you’ll save a huge amount of time on the first round of image selection.
There is a another time-saving technique that press photographers use with this rating system. For cameras like the 5D MK III that have dual memory card slots:
Step 1: Rate the images you think you consider are the best in-camera on the primary memory card (sometimes also the bigger storage capacity card)
Step 2: Copy only the rated images across to the second (blank and smaller) memory card
Step 3: Download and edit only the selected images (tens of images from the second card and not thousands from the primary card perhaps).
Slideshow in-camera: It might be a bit of a gimmick, but it could be useful at times: you can now even output your rated images as a slide show from the camera! When you want to show your best images on a larger display (or on the rear LCD), but you don’t have a PC around, this could be very handy, I suppose. Just make sure you pack the relevant cables to connect from camera to external display in your camera bag!
High Dynamic Range (HDR) in-camera
I don’t consider myself a landscape photographer in any way, but I try and capture some landscapes that appeal to me occasionally. I’ve tried to do basic HDR with the feature built in to Photoshop, but I was not very excited about my results. From what I understand, to get decent results requires a lot more skill, careful (manual blending) and some experience. Until I can take better ‘normal’ dynamic range landscape shots to start with, I’ve stayed away from HDR.
That is, until I got my 5D MK III. The in-camera HDR function is very easy to use and I liked the results. The options are a little limited though: the camera only shoots 3 different exposures and you can select over which dynamic range: Auto, ±1 EV, ± 2 EV or ± 3 EV steps and what the output should look like: ‘Natural, Art Standard, Art Vivid, Art Bold, and Art Embossed. You can also tell the camera to store only the final result, or the result plus the original three RAW files also. That way, you can always use the original RAW files and do your own ‘manual’ HDR later. Of course, you can manually shoot as many RAW files at different exposures as you like to use for your own manual HDR composite later, too.
I did learn something about HDR: it is only really suitable for perfectly stationery scenes. Since multiple images of the same subject are merged into one, the slightest movement or change shows up as a blurred or out of focus part in the final image. So, don’t even think about trying this without a tripod!
Multiple exposure in-camera
In the age of digital imaging and the fantastic post processing software available to us, I’m not entirely sure why Canon added this feature. It is the same as in the old days where you could disable frame advance on film and shoot multiple exposures onto one frame, thus creating a composite image. Maybe the guys that used this a lot on film are ecstatic about this addition, I don’t know. If you do want to use this, it needs some careful planning of how you want to overlap images.
Image review in-camera
Canon have added more in-camera options that reduces a travelling photographer’s dependency on downloading first to a PC even further:
You can now compare two images side by side on the rear LCD screen. Once the image are selected, you can zoom in (per image) and for instance compare focus on two different images, or even compare different parts of the same image.
The resolution of the rear LCD screen is sufficiently high and well matched to the viewing thumbnails, that you can trust what you see in-camera: if the image looks ‘soft’ on the display, even when zoomed in, it really is ‘soft’. It won’t look any better (or worse) on a larger monitor. With older Canon cameras, the images often looked ‘soft’ , especially when you zoom in, when they were actually fine when viewed on a large monitor. Now, you can trust the rear LCD. If it looks fine, it most likely is. The only situation where the rear LCD is less effective, is in bright, direct sunlight. However, you can still judge focus well and if you’re worried about exposure, use the histogram to judge rather than what the exposure appears to be on the LCD.
It is very obvious to me that Canon spent years listening to photographers and then carefully designed every single aspect of the 5D Mk III. It really is the very best DSLR that I have owned (I have yet to own a 1D-series). Using it is pure joy and nothing short of an enormous privilege. I find myself with the 5D Mk III constantly in my hand, more inspired and motivated to create the very best photographs I possible can take. I love it!
P.S. I am not a Canon ambassador, nor sponsored by Canon, but I have been using Canon SLR’s for the past 25 years. So, you could fairly conclude that I am a loyal and possibly slightly biased Canon user.