The Canon 5D Mark III - Here Comes the (R)Evolution

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Late last night, shortly before Canon's official announcement of the Canon 5D Mark III, I finished editing episode number 52 of a water damage restoration training series I've been working on for the last year. To me it is a major milestone for a business venture I embarked on over a year ago. I release one video a week to premium subscribers. So, 52 episodes represents one year of content - all produced with my Canon 5D Mark II. It's apt that publishing the 52nd episode ended on the same evening as the announcement of the Canon 5D Mark III.

It's no stretch for me to say that the 5Dmk2 was - to use an overused phrase - a game-changer to me and my business. This camera has allowed me to produce quality HD content in a way that I could not have imagined prior to 2009.

I'm both a still photographer and videographer - truly a "convergence" user if there ever was one! The 5Dmk2 was - and still is - a near perfect fit for what I do.

The Canon 5D Mark III - Evolutionary Refinement versus Game-changer Hype

Last night's announcement from Canon may have disappointed some. I think that a mistaken way to view the new Canon 5D Mark III.

The original iPhone released in 2007 was a game-changer. All subsequent iPhones were evolutionary refinements of an already remarkable device. Each iteration only served to make it better. So it is with the Canon 5D Mark III - it is an exquisite refinement of it's remarkable predecessor. It's not a game-changer. Nor should it be.

Some may have hoped that the Canon 5D Mark III would a C300 in a DSLR body. However, the C300 is purely a video camera. A great one at that. The Canon 5D Mark III is a completely different beast. It's a convergence tool - marrying possibly the best still full-frame sensor camera available with competent video features. The video features have been refined. Canon claims moire has been significantly reduced. That alone makes the upgrade worthwhile. Of course, as bad as moire is on the 5D Mark II, I never ever had a client point it out in any footage I shot for them. We artists and geeks tend to view things in a way most viewers do not. But I digress...

Good Video Becomes Better Video

Say what you will about H.264 compression on the Canon 5D Mark II and the lack of uncompressed HDMI output - it hasn't stopped feature films being shot with this camera (Act of Valor comes to mind). We've all managed to coerce 8-bit grunge into beautiful cinema whether for the big screen or for YouTube. I admit, though, that I wish it was better. Indeed, the Canon 5D Mark III gets us closer to better footage. Actually, that improvement started with Canon EOS-1DX and it evidently is now incorporated into the EOS-5D Mark III.

While footage is still encapsulated in a H.264 wrapper, there are now two different compression methods available: ALL-I or IPB. Those scary acronyms mean you have a choice in quality.

According to Canon:

When shooting movies, the frames that are captured are usually split into key frames or Intra-Frames and predicted frames. These Intra-frames are used as reference frames to help with compression.

The first type of compression available is IPB. The B in IPB stands for Bi-directional compression. With IPB differential compression is carried out by predicting the content of future frames, with reference to both previously captured frames and subsequent frames. Like the IPP compression method used in previous EOS DSLRs, some data is stored in a Group Of Pictures (GOP), meaning that frame-by-frame editing will result in lower image quality. When using IPB editing video in-camera to trim clips can only be done in one-second increments.

The second method of compression is designed for users working in high-end editing systems or those looking for the very highest quality. This compression is called ALL-I. ALL-I stands for ‘Intra-coded Frame' and it differs from IPB and IPP because all frames captured are treated as Intra-frames or key frames. Although each frame is still compressed, there is no further compression as each frame is seen as an individual image.

When filming with ALL-I, file sizes will be around three times larger than with IPB, and it is easier to edit to an individual frame without degrading the image quality. Despite the extra file size, ALL-I compressed footage actually requires less computer processing power than IPB or IPP and consequently will playback more smoothly on lower specification computers. This is because there is no rendering needed to extrapolate data from the GOPs used in IPP and IPB.

When shooting movies, the frames that are captured are usually split into key frames or Intra-Frames and predicted frames. These Intra-frames are used as reference frames to help with compression.

The first type of compression available is IPB. The B in IPB stands for Bi-directional compression. With IPB differential compression is carried out by predicting the content of future frames, with reference to both previously captured frames and subsequent frames. Like the IPP compression method used in previous EOS DSLRs, some data is stored in a Group Of Pictures (GOP), meaning that frame-by-frame editing will result in lower image quality. When using IPB editing video in-camera to trim clips can only be done in one-second increments.

The second method of compression is designed for users working in high-end editing systems or those looking for the very highest quality. This compression is called ALL-I. ALL-I stands for ‘Intra-coded Frame' and it differs from IPB and IPP because all frames captured are treated as Intra-frames or key frames. Although each frame is still compressed, there is no further compression as each frame is seen as an individual image.

When filming with ALL-I, file sizes will be around three times larger than with IPB, and it is easier to edit to an individual frame without degrading the image quality. Despite the extra file size, ALL-I compressed footage actually requires less computer processing power than IPB or IPP and consequently will playback more smoothly on lower specification computers. This is because there is no rendering needed to extrapolate data from the GOPs used in IPP and IPB.

Guess which setting I'll use if I get this camera? Despite the larger file sizes produced when filmming with ALL-I, the improved quality may be worth it. That should make CF and SD card manufacturers happy as I will have to buy more of them! The bit rate of 24fps at 1080p in ALL-I mode is 685 MB/min according to Canon. That's a funny way of say 11 MBps. Anyhow, that means a 8 GB CF or SD card holds about 11 minutes of video. With IPB you can put 32 minutes of video on an 8 GB card.

And did I mention - less moire? The new Digic 5+ processor - operating 17 times faster than the old DIGIC 4 processor - I suppose eliminates the need to do the hideous 2 lines skipping that haunts the 5Dmk2.

Headphone monitoring of audio is a welcome feature. Hopefully the pre-amps are better in the camera than the 5Dmk2. The ability to see the audio levels in live view and adjust while filmming is audio awesomeness.

We still get 1920x1080p video at 24, 25, or 30fps. New is the ability to shoot 1280x720p video at 50fps or 60fps. Sure, it would have been nice to get the higher frame rates for 1080p. Video length has been increased to 29 minutes and 59 seconds.

Be Still My Beating Heart

As much as I love doing video, I still do a significant amount of still photography for business and pleasure. The things that excited me the most were features that only still photographers would care about. About all I can go by for now is reading the same spec sheets as everyone else. Alas, my photographer's heart has been crushed. The thing that has frustrated me the most about the 5D Mark II is the limited automatic exposure bracketing range of 3 stops. It appears to still have this arbitrary limitation. I just don't get it. It's a software feature. There is no sound reason to limit AEB to 3 exposures. Magic Lantern showed that it can be done (though it's done very buggily in ML). There are many times that I need more than 3 stops for bracketed HDR. This is disappointing.

The Mark III also has a new HDR feature. This appears to be AEB combined with in-camera HDR merging and tone-mapping (hence the so-called five different effect settings). This could be useful in some situations. I do use the HDR feature in the iPhone for some situations. For fine HDR control, though, 3 exposures just don't cut it, and so an HDR photographer is going to have to manually setup extended exposures and process in post.

The multi-exposure feature is a waste to me. I'll do my compositing in Photoshop on a 27" screen where I can see what I'm doing - and non-destructively at that. What were Canon engineers thinking?

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is foremost a still camera. Why cripple it? The AEB limitation is absurd. I would have rather seen the firmware developers focus time on providing that instead of silly multi-exposure.

Carl, take a deep breath.

All better.

Let The (R)Evolution Begin

The Canon 5D Mark II changed the world of video production profoundly for a lot of people. When it was released, we were stunned by what it could do. Perhaps Vincent Laforet's Reverie can only be done once - it was revolutionary. Fast forward a little over three years later - videographers now have an army of video capable DSLR's and large-sensor video cameras to choose from. It's an evolutionary progression of technology. The 5D Mark III, therefore, is evolutionary. It is a capable, competent "convergence" tool for still photographers who shoot video. For filmmakers, the Canon 5D Mark III brings a welcome refinement in improvements in audio monitor, frame rates, and improve compression.

The price for this evolutionary iteration of the 5D? $3,499. Ouch! The Mark II was $2,499. That was part of what made it "revolutionary" - the price combined with stunning HD (even with moire), color, and bokeh. What is in the new camera to justify the huge jump in price? If it had clean HDMI, 1080p 60fps, 9 (or better 14) AEB exposure, I'd be sold today. Canon is going to continue to sell the Mark II. This strikes me as marketing by committee. May I recommend that Canon management read Walter Isaacson's excellent biography on Steve Jobs. Product fragmentation and an unwillingness to self cannabolize their own products can't be good for them - and especially to the people who buy their product. So, I call foul on the ridiculously high price of the Mark III. It's not just the camera that's gotten expensive. Remember the recent v2.0 of the 24-70mm f2.8 L lens that weighs in at $1,000 more than the first version. The new speedlight is $600. The old adage "you get what you pay for" only goes so far. In my estimation, Canon has blown it.

Bottom line: from what I can see in the specs, this camera looks to be a good, but overpriced, evolutionary upgrade to the legendary EOS 5D line.

Will I buy it? I don't know. My 5D Mark II - warts, dents, scratches, short-comings and all - did not stop working at midnight last night. At the price Canon is asking for the Mark III, well, that gives me pause. I was a Nikon guy for over 30 years. I've only been a Canon guy for 3 years so I have no loyalty to Canon. The Nikon D800 is interesting to me. It's $500 less than the 5Dmk3 and has clean uncompressed HDMI output. I'll wait, digest, analyze before making the leap.