I’ve been approached by a few different photographers asking about recommendations for upgrading their cameras. Most of these inquiries have been from talented amateur photographers looking to “go pro” and get better shots. Usually, my first reaction is that it isn’t the gear that gets you the great shots…although it does help. Your skill in understanding how to use what you have is most important. That said, there are many reasons why upgrading from an entry-level DSLR camera makes sense.
More often than not photographers at this level have done some research and know about the technical details of the cameras, but are looking for a bit of first-hand user feedback. With that in mind I’m going to take a look at two of Canon’s “pro-sumer” cameras that have been on the market now for a couple of years, the 5D mkII and the 7D. In a follow-up article I will have a photographer friend of mine relate his experiences in shooting with various Nikon brand cameras in this same level.
Living with the 7D
I’ve owned my 7D now for about 2 years. This camera has been my sidekick on numerous fashion shoots, a good number of roller derby sports events, weddings, family gatherings, pestering my cat and countless random forays into other photographic realms. I can honestly say that I have never ceased to be impressed with how well this camera functions. I can get good sharp images while tracking a fast moving skater in fairly low light. The crop-sensor format gives you a nice close-up range when shooting with a 70-200mm lens. The 7D is also quite at home in a studio cranking out fantastically detailed portraits or macro work. Once you’re familiar with the control layout the camera is a breeze to set up for any shooting scenario you get involved with.
The image below shows a relative comparison of the zoom factor with the 7D’s crop sensor vs. the 5D mkII’s full frame. I shot the opposing camera body from the same location with the same lens at 6400 ISO.
Experiences with the 5D mkII
For the purposes of comparison, I borrowed a 5d mkII from a photographer buddy of mine, Marc Lebryk. He gave me a quick synopsis of his likes and dislikes of the camera and after spending a few weeks putting the camera through its paces I’m pretty much in agreement with him. It’s a great camera…but. Some things about it weren’t really updated when it came out. The auto focus system is an older design, unchanged from the original 5D. It just feels a little sluggish in comparison to the 7D. It doesn’t track moving subjects as well and shoots fewer frames per second…although still more than a Rebel. On the plus side, it’s a full frame camera that delivers absolutely stunning 21 megapixel images vs. the 7D’s 18. When I loaded the first few test frames onto my computer I just kept repeating…”Wow.”
When the 5D mkII came out its high-ISO capabilities were big news. Now that the buzz has died down a little bit and even better high-ISO cameras have been developed, I think it’s worth mentioning that you might not be completely thrilled with the pictures you get in low-light conditions. They are certainly much improved over earlier camera models like a 40D (which is my back-up body). But if you’re expecting to get a studio quality shots at high ISO settings, you’ll be disappointed. For reference – the cat’s eye image at the beginning of this post was shot with ISO set to 12800. It’s certainly a nice image, but still too grainy to maintain fine detail when printing large format prints. (Still, I think it’s fantastic that I’m reflected in Shaggy’s eye…Meow?)
The 5D mkII’s low-light capabilities are marginally better than the 7D, but the exposures are more consistent with the 7D. What do I mean by that? Well, I set each camera at ISO setting of 6400 in manual mode using my 24-105 f4L lens with an aperture of f4.0 and 1/400th shutter speed. I set the cameras to burst and fired off as many consecutive images as each would handle in a RAW file format. The 7D stopped shooting at 18. The 5D mkII stopped at 14. Comparing each exposure, there was slight variation in the images from the 5D mkII, but virtually none from the 7D. The noise level was fairly equal, but the 7D had a higher occurrence of hot pixels. Not much, but a noticeable difference. Does that exposure variation with the 5D mkII matter? Probably not for 99.9% of photographers. It was not much variation at all and was only noticeable doing a test like this. If you were to shoot a series of high-speed images to combine into a single stop-motion style composite image, you might notice a difference, but it would be a very simple fix to adjust that back in to match.
I’ll be honest – I’m not the best person to ask about shooting video with these cameras. I’ve done it, and they both do capture full High-definition video quite well, but I use a dedicated video camera for my video work. Why?? Because these DSLR’s weren’t designed to shoot for an hour continuously. The sensors start to overheat after about 7-8 minutes and the camera stops recording until it cools off. Additionally, the audio capabilities are lacking in comparison to a full-fledged video camera. That said, they can produce some phenomenal video (The season Finale of House was shot using only 5D mkII’s). So if it’s something you’re going to consider, either one of these cameras can get good results.
So, between the two, as a generally great all-around entry into the big-leagues camera body the 7D is a very solid performer. It produces great images with excellent saturation and contrast, sufficient resolution for all but the most insane enlargements and has a great autofocus system. If you are going to be primarily concerned with the best image quality you can get for the money, the 5D mkII will serve you well. Its bigger sensor with more pixels gives you photos that are just breathtaking…when they’re in focus. Which, they will be if you primarily do one-shot focusing and aren’t trying to chase around a gaggle of children at a wedding reception. For a studio or landscape photographer who wants the bigger images and isn’t interested in rapid fire shooting, the 5D is a winner. If you like to shoot sports, the 7D’s crop-sensor (which effectively gives you a longer telephoto), high-speed shooting and autofocus systems will delight you. When I first unleashed the burst mode on mine in a sports-photography class the look on everyone’s face was priceless. You’d think I had just opened up on the scene with a machine gun! Certainly, there are faster cameras out there. The newly announced 1DX can belt out about 14 frames a second…and you could get four 7D’s for the same price.