Five D

Five D Mark

I am happy to share some news with everyone today, I bought myself a new camera! Well, a few years ago actually… seven to be exact, and I thought you guys may be interested in a review. I get the usual “what gear do you use?” questions on a regular basis, reason being that we all enjoy finding out the tricks of other photographers hard earned trade. Its only natural once you get into any craft in which you start to unintentionally become a connoisseur. I feel like I have answered this a number of times in different posts here on 50ft such as this post about my gear in general, but there is one camera that has transformed me as a photographer and rarely gets as much credit as I feel its due. That camera, of course, is the Canon 5D.

First, an abridged history lesson. The 5D was the camera that convinced professional photographers that digital photography was here to stay. The 5D Mark II was the camera that convinced thousands of amateurs and lost young minds with creative aspirations that they too could shoot like a pro. Then Nikon started to finally catch up, followed soon thereafter by Olympus inventing a new breed of smaller yet fully functioning mirror-less digital bodies with interchangeable lenses. Fuji took the idea a step further following Leicas lead and made a few digital cameras aimed at the film lovers. Then of course we have our current top of the heap mid-range DSLR’s such as the 5D Mark III which I will admit is a beautiful camera that is worth every penny should you need such capabilities as it offers.

At any rate, this much is known to most of you. My personal history with cameras played out a bit differently though and it’s something I have touched on before. After happily shooting with my 20D for a while I was lured to the 5D early in its life because of its big beautiful “full frame”sensor. One shot and I was hooked, there was no turning back. This combined with my foray into shooting and editing RAW files and an investment in one great lens locked me in.

When the 5D II came along I had a moment of, ooohhhh… but it was short lived as I started to realize there was nothing I needed from the upgrade, I was not a videographer by any means and the results from the 5D II’s sensor never impressed me all that much. So I stuck with my original 5D and happily went along shooting, buying up older film cameras instead of needlessly upgrading my digital kit. In todays marketplace I feel the original 5D is one of the most overlooked options out there for photographers just starting out or ones shooting on cropped sensor bodies that want to give full frame a go. I regularly see these available today for an average price of $600USD in camera shops and on ebay. Nice ones even.

Here is my short review, they are built like tanks, take beautifully vivid images, and utilize a lens mount with plenty of great options that shows no sign of reaching the end of its life. Now, lets break that down.

During the course of my years spent with this camera I have put it through an almost unfair amount of torture. While I do have camera bags to transport my gear it is almost always outside of the bag on my shoulder, ready to use. Because of this it has collided with its fare share of doorways, cement floors, mud puddles, you name it. There is a chunk of metal missing from the grip near the battery door from a particularly bad fall which had me worried at first but it just kept on shooting. Outside of a few much needed sensor cleanings it takes the same great photos that it always has.

The photos from this camera have always ben distinct and highly natural to me. Part of my love for the sensor in this camera is the fact that the images don’t have that unusual overly pristine digital look to them. Don’t read into that the wrong way, I get nice crisp images, they just hold true to an aesthetic that I love. One that closer mimics the feelings I get while shooting film than most digital cameras give me. Even the noise has grown on me over the years. The full frame sensor gives my lens room to breathe and reach its full potential.

There are technical limits to the sensor of course, such as a moderate 12.8MP image size but 12.8MP is plenty for just about anyone these days unless you rely on unusually large prints on a regular basis. The prints I have produced from these files have been wonderful. There was a time I printed a few images on a large format fabric printer at roughly 4’x5′ (1.2×1.5 meter) and while they were not flawless you would be surprised at how presentable they were.

My only gripe would be, as with most digital cameras still to this day, highlights can easily accidentally get blown out leaving you checking your histograms regularly while out shooting. Walking that line just before this occurs and getting well controlled exposures can get a little tiresome at times. In my experience getting an exposure that works sometimes involves exposing a little lower than I may want to in order to avoid this yet if this involves a higher ISO I am left with a bit more noise than I care for in my shadows as I bring up my levels in post work. While the dynamic range is not as strong some of what technology has brought us recently I have never had too much trouble working with images unless they are dark shots or shooting higher than 800ISO (which is my personal limit with this camera).

“But John, there is no video capability”, at which point you simply need to imagine the a blank stare I am giving you until you come to your senses. This is a still photo camera. There is no shame in that, just be honest with your needs.

Ah, and the lenses. While L glass certainly has its luster and an investment in a good lens will easily outlast the value of your camera, there are plenty of great options out there such as their great 40mm f/2.8 pancake or the underrated 85mm f/1.8 that has always had to live in the shadow of its f/1.2 brother. Then there is the option of buying a cheap lens adaptor and shooting with some vintage glass, something I discussed a while back here on 50ft.

So don’t be so quick to judge this still highly relevant gem of a camera just because it has two older brothers all doped up with marketing and street cred sheen. The original 5D is well worth a look if your in the market for a modest full frame DSLR. I realize most of those reading this now are so locked into one way of thinking that buying an eight year old digital camera seems crazy and to you guys, just keep on keeping on.

Another point I wanted to get across in writing this must be fairly obvious. Gear lust is imaginary, irrelevant, and can lead you down a path of misunderstanding and misplaced reasoning as you develop as a photographer. Lets turn it into a dying trend. I have shot happily and successfully with one camera and a select few lenses all these years only keeping my lust for anything new contained with a few old film cameras along the way. It is vital to understand the difference between wanting a new piece of gear and needing it.

I say this out of experience. I get the bug just like anyone else. There is something to be said about the refreshing feeling of shooting with a new camera but in the end one solid piece of gear will take you a lot further if you allow yourself to fully adapt to it. Just be sure to pick something that complements your ambition and needs and you will be set. It’s also important to realize when enough is enough and having the latest and greatest hanging around your neck will only bring that emotional satisfaction for a short while before the next great new thing rolls into view.

That said, looking ahead, whats that on my horizon? Something new to me, yes, but more on that when the time comes.

(the photo above was shot with my hasselblad a long while back, couldn’t find a nice high res copy is all, see the un-cropped image here on flickr)


  1. Su - August 6, 2013 at 9:10 am

    The 5D series is amazing alright! I recently graduated from college and wanted to try something different for photographing my grad day event, so i rented a 5D MK3 with a 50mm 1.4 for portraits and a 16-35 II L for landscape.. I usually shoot with my 550D and well, the difference was just in every shot.. The color depth is mind blowing and the sharpness with that L series, you know.. I had LOT more usable shots..

    I’m probably going to make it for another 2 years with my 550D. Then its definitely a full frame. 550D feels like another landmark in canon’s APS-C camera manufacturing timeline, the 18MP sensor it uses is well implemented (good up to ISO 400 for usable full res images, ISO 800 for half that resolution, beyond that crop everything to 1024px) (also, the DXO scores for every other camera which implements the same sensor has gone down since then). Combined with a good lens, i can easily go on with it for atleast 2 more years.. Main drawback i feel is the crop sensor.. 50mm is awesome only on a full frame (So i recently got a film Canon Elan on ebay to fulfil my full frame needs). Also considering the fact that i haven’t payed a bomb for my 550D, i am comfortable taking some risks while photographing, doing some experiments, installing magic lantern etc.. When i started learning to take pictures, info on your blog really helped.. Wish you were on FB john, would love to show you my photos..

  2. Dane - August 13, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this post. It’s great to see that the original 5D still holds its ground.

    I have heard complaints from other photographers about poor focusing on the original 5D, that their images were coming out soft. I was wondering what you thought about that. I am really wanting to upgrade my wife’s 60D to a 5D, but I am still on the fence about whether we should save up for a new model or grab a Craigslist 5D.

  3. John Carey - August 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Focusing has never been an issue for me. I do use the center point then re-frame approach which gives stronger results but have never missed a shot, even quick ones, due to slow focus. Also worth noting that my 5D boots up from sleep or being off a few seconds faster than my wife’s markII. So if her needs are modest and your looking for a nice body with a sensor that fully takes advantage of the lenses attached I could easily recommend the 5D.

  4. Robert - August 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    I’d like try a full frame sensor camera and have seen the price range you mentioned but I’m concerned with shutter actuations, I don’t know what is too much for the ‘older’ cameras.

  5. Carlos Cabezas - September 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you John for this post, I was looking to get a backup camera and now I decide to buy a 5D. I have a 6D now and it is a powerful little machine but I don’t have $2000 to buy another one. I have test the 5D Mark1 and the files are fantastic and the blacks are deep and skin tones are wonderful. I shoot most of the times portraits and events. my lenses are 24-105L f4 and the old 80-200L f2.8 from canon. and two primes 50mm 1.8 and 85mm 1.8 that I use the most. I also have two old lens with a convertor ring, two Nikkor lens the 28mm 2.8 and the 50mm 1.8 they are fantastic and very cheap. Sometimes I think that I should buy two 5D Mark 1 and no the 6D but something just make me still hold the 6D as my favorite the all time,, it is very nice, love it! Thanks John!!

  6. Red - March 6, 2017 at 12:07 am

    […] camera defined my style 10+ years ago when I started to shoot with it. For the whole love story I wrote up something about its continued use in 2013 and it’s still all […]

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