Mark-II be or not Mark-II?
July 25, 2011 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Trying to decide on a DSLR. The deciding factor is low-light performance... but I'm not sure how good is "good enough." Principally, I'm waffling between the Canon 5D and the Canon 5D Mark-II, which seem to vary almost exclusively in their low-light performance. However, since the "Mark I" 5D has a full-frame sensor (and therefore should have much better low-light performance than any smaller sensor out there, based merely on quantum light noise)... is it good enough for flashless inside photography? The price difference is basically 100%, since I can bet a "Mark I" for $1k used. Personal experiences, please?
posted by IAmBroom to Technology (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a Canon guy through and through, but if I were looking for low light performance exclusively, I'd be looking at Nikons. I don't know how or why, but their low light performance just blows me away every time I see it.
posted by sanka at 10:00 AM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have the 5D Mark II, and it is a phenomenal camera for low light scenarios--and, I think, much better than the 5D in that regard, as the 5D used an earlier generation sensor. For just general photography, I think a $1,000 5D (if you can find one) is a good deal. But if you're specifically looking for high-ISO performance, I'd definitely save for the 5D Mark II.

That said, the rumor mills suggest that the 5D Mark III is going to be released in the next year (though, obviously, we waited years for the Mark II, so take this with a grain of salt). When that happens I expect the high-ISO performance to be further improved, and the Mark II will drop in price. If you can wait, you might do yourself a favor.

On the 5D Mark II, I have routinely shot at 3200, and I think it is as good, or better, than shooting at 400 on earlier generations of Canon DSLRs (though not thinking of the 5D in particular). My beef with shooting at 3200, though, is that I find that the image gets a very warm color cast (not just in tungsten light) that I think is hard to correct for fully. However, that is part of 5D Mark II look--my dad shot for a long time with a Nikon DSLR which he thought produced a very cool tone out of the camera. Obviously, we're both shooting in RAW and can adjust the white balance--but there's something more to it. It's been a long time since I posted photos to the flickr account associated with my MeFi account, but if you check out the middle set of meetup pics though my profile, you can see the rosy cast. I have a better workflow now, but I still have to deal with that hue and it bugs me.

A 5D Mark II and the 35mm 1.4L is a fantastic low-light combo.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:05 AM on July 25, 2011

I never need a flash with my Mark II. Do you mind minor graininess in the lowest light images? Especially with a little post-processing, the images are pretty amazing. You should test one out for yourself, to see whether the images are clean enough.

Also, does the hd video not matter to you, even as a secondary, once in a while feature? Because the video on the Mark II lives up to the hype.
posted by umbĂș at 10:07 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's your budget? It's almost always better to skimp on a body and spend more on glass.

That said, while I love my 5D, the 5D2 does have better IQ, weather sealing, and video. You might want to wait for the 5D3 to come out later this year, however, as that will force down the price of the 5D2 (and the 5D).

The Nikon D700 is a great camera with excellent low light performance, although in other ways its image quality is lesser than that of either the 5D models. It's also very expensive. Nikon is coming out with its D800 replacement model soon; it might be wise to wait for that to come out, so that the newer model can force down the price of the D700.

Also, you don't necessarily need a full frame camera. All modern APS-C sensor DSLRs have excellent low light performance. Search on Flickr for photos from D7000s, 7Ds, and K-5s. You'll be impressed.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agreed with Admiral Haddock on all points. I own both the 5D and 5D2 and although the 5D can definitely hold its own in low light, the 5D2 is ridiculously good. Make sure to include lenses in your budget - a 5D and 35 1.4L combo will generally take better pictures than a 5D2 and a crappy kit lens.
posted by ajackson at 10:21 AM on July 25, 2011

If you want to shoot a lot in low light conditions I can't recommend the 5d. When I got mine, I was thrilled with the low light performance, and though it hasn't gotten any worse since then, I now often find it wanting. I don't really feel it's good sense to get every generation, so I'm holding out for the mk3.

I'm not sure what to recommend for a new buyer though - now is a crummy time to get a mk2, since the mk3 will be offering more improvements probably in the next 6 or 7 months.
posted by aubilenon at 10:39 AM on July 25, 2011

The determining factor for the images you would get is the weaker link in the camera+lens combo, so you really need to think about the lens at the same time as your consider the camera.

If you need to shoot moving people you absolutely need a fast lens, such as Canon 35mm 1.4L, Canon 50mm/1.4, etc. or the Nikon equivalent. If you are shooting a non-moving scene you can also consider a lens with image stabiliser.

As for choosing a camera, I strongly recommend playing with one in a shop (or borrowing a friend's, if you can). Regardless of the technical specs, you may just like some particular camera a lot better than others.
posted by Hediot at 10:41 AM on July 25, 2011

I'm going to against the grain on the advice here. I own a 5DmkII, and three 5Ds, which I use for wedding photography. The original 5D offers exceptional low light performance, and according to me (and other working photographers) produces a nicer look in the files themselves. More organic, a bit less digital-looking.

Many, many working pros still use the 5D every day. The suggestion that it isn't up to snuff is a bunch of baloney.

The 5DmkII has other advantages over the original (such as video, higher ISO range, nicer LCD), but if you have $2500 to spend, then get a 5D and a lens or two. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Not sure what you need all of this for (personal shots mostly?), but you also don't need to jump into L series lenses, necessarily. Canon's cheap 50mm prime absolutely shines on a 5D, and would be a good place to start.

You can buy the 5D used, try it out, and always resell for about the same price if you decide you absolutely must have the mkII.

Memail me if you want more details on anything.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:12 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your subjects are moving or you plan on using the exterior focus points (non center), then I would not recommend either flavor of the 5D. I own the original, and from what I understand the focusing system is the same in both. And on the exterior points it sucks. Bad. If this concerns you find something that has cross type sensors for the exterior focus points.
posted by dave*p at 11:25 AM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

more importantly, what kind of lenses do you have? If money is no object, and you can afford quality glass and a computer to handle the MkII files, then go for it. But in my opinion, you're better off saving the $1500 extra you would have spent on a camera and investing in lenses (which will hold their value much better than a camera body).

The $1500 price difference is enough to invest is some seriously nice glass if you decide later down the road to upgrade to the MkII. The image quality is obviously much better on the MkII, but useless if you don't have nice lenses to take advantage of it.

Personally, I like the colors on the 5D better than the 5DMkII, maybe it's just me.
posted by inertia at 11:41 AM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: This is why camera rentals and lens rentals are ideal. Rent one or both and side by side comparison them.

The glass matters a lot more than the sensor, as does the set up.
posted by iamabot at 11:49 AM on July 25, 2011

I'm one of those horrible Olympus shooters, so low-light obviously isn't one of my concerns. :-)

But if it were, I'd certainly choose Nikon over Canon. Yes, both make great, fully capable cameras. But if that one thing is your primary concern, Nikon has superior high ISO performance.

dpreview has an ISO comparison tool, but I can't locate it right now.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:00 PM on July 25, 2011

Here's an ISO comparison that's favorable to the 5D Mark II. I can't vouch for the source, and I don't know Nikons at all--not sure this is a fair fight. Others can weigh in.

I don't pay attention to Nikon news, but I'm surprised to hear anyone say the high ISO performance on any Nikon is better than the 5D Mark II--this has not been my experience based on the images I've seen. I do think Nikon flash and AF may well be better, though. The rumors I've heard is that the 5D is going to get a new focusing system in Mark III--which I would welcome--I think focusing can be a bit wobbly in low light.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:11 PM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: I don't know that it's generally agreed that Nikon is better in low light than Canon gear. What there is more agreement on, is that auto focus on the Nikons is better. It used to be vastly superior due to some famous flaws in the earlier top of the line Canons, but since then, Canon has largely fixed those issues. At this point Nikon still has an edge in AF, but not like before. FWIW, I think AF is very important in low-light photography, unless you're doing completely static subject studies.
posted by VikingSword at 12:32 PM on July 25, 2011

Response by poster: Good points, all. However, I disagree with comments like iamabot's: "The glass matters a lot more than the sensor, as does the set up." It may be the standard aphorism for these discussions, but it really isn't true here.

I can squeeze an extra half an EV from an f/1.4 vs a 1.8 50mm lens, but the 5DMkII can give me a full EV. Granted, I'm paying $250 for the half-EV (in lenses) and $1000 for the full EV (cameras) (unless you know of an f/1.2 lens out there for less than $1k). As with most things, incremental improvements are exponentially expensive - but the glass is not the most important component, in this case.

Glass quality isn't really a factor at all, for this aspect: a crappy f/1.4 will still grab the non-grainy, non-color-noise-ruined shot, even if it has vignetting, distortion, and lacks image stabilization (which won't be needed, if I can shoot at a reasonable speed).

And, "the set up"? Um, lens strap, extended battery, sunshade, off-camera flash (for a flashless shot)... I don't really see the "set up" affecting anything at all, here. Are you talking about something else that I'm missing?


Also, I tracked down some of dpreview's ISO conversations that you mentioned, iamarobot. This thread suggests that Canon routinely comes in 1 stop (EV) more sensitive than its competitors. If that means a Canon ISO 800 = Nikon ISO 1600, that would explain the perception that "Nikon has superior high ISO performance". A Nikon ISO 1600 shot would effectively "be" a Canon 800 shot in photons-to-bits sensitivity, and thus less noisy than an actual Canon ISO 1600 shot.

What I'd prefer to see is some sort of statistical statement of quantified noise at given (consistent) light levels, because "ISO" is really just a label. But that takes mathematical image analysis, something most users and even reviewers simply can't achieve. We developed a MatLab routine to do just that for video cameras, at a former company, but I didn't keep the code, alas...


That being said, the camera rental idea is the bomb. Need to do that!
posted by IAmBroom at 12:43 PM on July 25, 2011

ISO and megapixels are not all that make up image quality, so yes, the glass still matters. You might gain a stop with ISO on the MkII but if you're making the trade off and shooting with cheap glass, that image is going to not have the contrast and sharpness that one with decent glass would. Compare the sharpness of the canon 50mm 1.4 vs 50mm 1.8 opened wide, for example.
posted by inertia at 1:26 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, if you don't care about chromatic aberrations, half as many lp/mm of resolution, focal plane imperfections, drawing styles that vary from lens to lens or anything else lens related, then, yeah, I guess it is all about shooting with the least amount of available light with the fastet lens always wide open with the longest shutter speed possible handheld. Get a 5Dii then.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:37 PM on July 25, 2011

Best answer: There's a 5-page thread on Fred Miranda about this, including some actual comparisons. There's lots of objective comparisons out there if you do some more searching.

Good luck.
posted by hamandcheese at 8:54 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Brian Pucchio: from where I stand (using smaller detector sizes), detector noise completely overwhelms all those niceties of high-quality camera operation. You're missing my point: it's not that I don't care; it's that those are pennywise problems, and I have pounds of light issues.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:27 AM on July 26, 2011

Exactly, so 5Dii it is.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:18 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah, I misread you, Brian Puccio. My apologies.


hamandcheese's first link on Fred Miranda had this interesting note:

A few points. First, Canon recalibrated their nominal ISO levels in the 5DM2 vs the 5DM1. The 5DM1 is about 1/3 stop more conservative in its nominal ISO levels vs the 5DM2, so you have to shoot at a 1/3 stop higher ISO on the 5DM2 to get the equivalent shutter speed on the 5DM1. From DxO mark:

5DM1 nominal ISO 3200 = real ISO 2710
5DM2 nominal ISO 3200 = real ISO 2133

Most online High ISO comparisons ignore these nominal ISO differences because they match ISO and aperture but not shutter speed or they match shutter speed but not aperture.

A really, really good point. In the end, I don't care what ISO 1600 looks like; I care what kind of a shot I can get with a very few photons per pixel accumulated charge over the shutter duration.

With the resolution normalized (5DM2 downsampled), the 5DM2 has about a 1/2 stop advantage over the 5DM1.

Bam! The 5D Mark II has a 1/2-stop advantage over the 5D (original), at similar resolutions. NOW we're talking about spending an extra $1000 to get that last 1/2 f/stop (aka EV) in the camera, while I can buy a 1/2-stop for $250 in the lens. They're cumulative, of course, but I guess I'm saying $1000 for a half-stop is beyond what I'll pay.


In other news, no local camera stores appear to rent cameras. Ritz discontinued renting, as a chain. Pooh.


So, my final answer is: the Canon 5D is "good enough". Thanks, all!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:41 PM on July 27, 2011

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