This article was written in November 2009, by Matthew Dillon dillon at backplane.com. Note that have decided to stick with a more perceptual review as there are plenty of technical reviews already on the web.
So after several years of ramping up slowly I finally felt that digital camera technology had progressed enough for me to get a professional camera with a full-frame sensor. I've been with Canon forever so I stuck with them and got the 5D Mark II along with the 24-105 F4 L, the 100-400 F4 L, The 580 Ex II flash, and the WFT-E4A Wifi grip. That was the most I could afford to begin with. I still intend to get one or two primes to really make use of the camera's resolution in low-light. This stuff is expensive so please forgive me for not having a whole range of lens from the get-go!
I've loved photography ever since I was a kid and I love owning the hardware, so I tend to stick with a camera for many years. My previous camera was the Canon 10D, a real work-horse for its time and still an excellent camera despite its limited dynamic range and ISO. I didn't feel the need to upgrade until the 5D Mark II came out.
The 5D Mark II lives up to my expectations. Even the L lenses can't quite make use of the sensor's full 5616x3744 resolution. Even so the ridiculously high resolution of the camera gives me a lot of wiggle room in post-production. I was a little scared to take shots at ISO 3200, and of course I still don't unless I have no choice, but the camera's resolution makes them very easy to clean up in post. It is possible to remove just about all the noise simply by down-rezing to 2808x1872 and doing two medium NR passes. Even using Canon's own software instead of Lightroom I was able to figure out a post production path that left the detail and sharpness pretty much intact. (basically RAW -> medium 3/4 NR -> TIFF16 and then another medium 3/4 NR + downrez -> published JPEG).
Where the Camera really shines is at ISO <= 2000. The post-production cleanup work required is minimal and no down-rezing is needed. With older cameras I was always careful to use as low an ISO setting as possible for the shot. With this camera there's no real reason to go lower then ISO 1000 or so unless you are doing very long multi-second exposures.
One of the main reasons I got this camera was for the full-frame sensor. After many years with smaller sensors I finally got tired of the lens crops. I am very happy with the viewfinder coverage and light gathering capabilities of the 5D Mark II. The camera's high resolution allows me to use tricks in post (such as down-rezing) which I could not use use on previous cameras. Why did I get F4L zoom/tele lens instead of F2.8L lenses? Weight. The 2.8's are twice as heavy. This way I can lug the 100-400 around in my pack. I figured the camera's high ISO and sensor resolution would make up for it and it does.
Even so I have definitely come across several situations where I'd really have liked to have a F1.2 prime. Being able to cut down by 3 stops is a big deal. Indoor thankgiving/dinner shots at 1/60 second / ISO 3200 with F4 lens work without the flash but sit a bit outside the sweet spot. A F1.2 prime at ISO 1200 and then cropping in post-production would likely be superior.
Canon's new batteries and the Camera's much improved automatic power saving features makes battery life a non-issue. One battery is good for 600+ shots, even more. Even if you are using the wifi grip (which has its own battery), the grip uses so much less power you can just swap the grip battery with the camera battery when the camera battery gets low, if need be.
Shooting modes are typical Canon. The auto-ISO is a new feature for me which doesn't work as well as I had hoped. For example, I would have preferred being able to put the camera in Manual mode with the ISO on auto and have it adjust the ISO automatically for the exposure. It doesn't. The camera also definitely needs a feature to set the maximum auto ISO in Av or Tv mode. For that matter I'd like to be able to put a lower and upper bound on the F-Stop in Tv mode and the speed in Av mode too. It isn't a big deal, I'm just a bit surprised that Canon doesn't have these feature to really make best use of the huge ISO range available. I would really love these features for the custom function modes.
I usually leave the ISO in manual mode anyway. The camera is so forgiving with regards to being able to clean up shots in post-production that one really only needs to rough-tune the ISO. In fact, setting the ISO has such a dramatic effect on how flash exposures work that you generally want to set it manually anyway.
The Auto-focus works about the same as on previous Canon cameras. That is, it works well but not as well as on a Nikon. One out of every 100 shots or so will mis-focus (no big deal). I just leave the AF on one-shot mode for the most part so I can compose the shots. On the plus side I really like being able to set the focus point with the little multi-controller.
Setting the AF micro-adjustment is easy via the custom function, and the camera will remember the setting for each of your lens. Because Canon's TTL AF system does not use the sensor there can be an offset between what the AF system thinks is focused and what is actually focused on the sensor. Set the telephoto/zoom to mid-range and point at something mid-distance (like 15-20 feet away). Put the camera in live-view mode and hold the AF-ON button down until it focuses. This is perfect focus (since it is using the sensor and not the TTL AF system). Now observe the focus setting on the lens itself, take the camera out of live-view mode and half-press the shutter to make it auto-focus while continuing to observe the focus on the lens itself (don't bother looking through the viewfinder). Note how far the focus setting on the lens shifts. Then change the micro-adjustment to match the shift and repeat until you no longer see a noticeable shift between focusing modes. I had to do this with my 28-105mm lens but once I did the focus was perfect. My 100-400mm lens required no adjustment.
I think most of the complaints about soft-focus are due to people not making use of the micro-adjustment feature. Also keep in mind that the output is going to look slightly soft at 100% crop no matter what because the sensor has a higher resolution than any non-prime L lens can do.
Shooting video is a bit hokey on the focus... it isn't a camcorder, but I'm getting better and better at it. I can see why people are gobbling these cameras up for professional video work and where there is so much demand for movie frame rates that Canon is rolling those features into the next rev of the firmware. A few tricks for starters: (1) Set the custom function to start shooting video from shooting mode with the SET button. (2) Stick with the wide angle views which are more forgiving on the focus, (3) Use the normal through-the-lens AF to start (in shooting mode) before going into movie mode and (4) Use manual focus once you are in movie mode with the live view zoom button. I don't use the auto-focus-while-taking-video feature because it requires holding the button down and the camera takes too long to seek into the proper focus. Again, it isn't a cam-corder. Try to maintain a fixed distance from your target. Always take the video at full resolution, it gives you more options in post-production (particularly your ability to remove noise). The video files are going to be huge (about 400 MBytes/minute), the camera generates an extremely high quality 40MBit video stream.
The camera has massive dynamic range for both shots and video. Even when I blew it and set the F-stop too high in low light I was able to recover a viewable video in post-production by downrezzing the 1920x1080. In normal light the output is insanely good.
Always take shots in full RAW mode. Do not use sRAW1 or sRAW2, there's no point. Saving JPEGs along with the RAWs is useful only if you intend to upload small JPEGs via the Wifi grip, otherwise just save as a RAW. The resolution the full RAWs provide and the 14-bit dynamic range for RAW pixels (vs 8 bits in the JPEGs) give you enormous flexibility in post-production.
Canon never gets white-balance right and still doesn't in weird mixed lighting conditions, but it doesn't really matter since it can be trivially fixed in post production. Even when the camera gets it right I want to fiddle with it anyway to match it to the scene.
Canon cameras tend to take slightly softer pictures vs Nikon. Think stills verses action. It's a matter of taste, I guess, but since we do post production anyway (you don't buy a camera this expensive and NOT do post-production on your shots!) it is easy enough to adjust. Just make sure the camera isn't soft across the entire focal plane as that implies you need to make a micro-adjustment for your lens.
Buy Adobe lightroom. The software Canon ships with the camera works, it isn't bad at all if you don't need layers (i.e. if you just work on whole photo as a whole), but you still want to get lightroom. Canon packed all the primary features one needs into their software but their batch processing functions for generating output files could use some work.
I purchased two high-end SanDisk Extreme UDMA 16GB flash cards and despite the cost I have to recommend going this route. The RAWs are in excess of 30 MBytes each. The 16G card fits about ~500 shots and it is great for taking video too. The 40-60 MB/sec transfer rate is an absolute requirement if you don't want the pipeline to stall out or for your PC uploads to take forever.
Don't be stickler trying to optimize down your storage use. Upgrade your system to fit the new reality. Terrabyte drives and DVD-R/RW are now mandatory. A fast machine to process the huge RAW files is mandatory.
I rate the grip a B+. I'd give it an A- but during conference shooting when the Wifi got spotty the grip would sometimes lock the camera out of its flash card for long periods of time (the camera would refuse to shutdown because it still had a photo pipeline to flush out). Also, turning off the power control on the grip doesn't power it down for some reason.
Beyond those two nits the grip works very well. It essentially uploads the pics in parallel with your shooting and although it does not auto-retry on failures it only takes a few flicks in the camera'a menu to tell it to resend everything it missed. You can tell the grip to upload the JPEG, the RAW, or both. I upload small JPEGs to a blind FTP path on my BSD box for instant gratification (and its fun to be able to see the updates in real time from anyone's browser), and when I get home I upload the RAWs at ~40 MBits/sec cable-free, so no complaints there.
Another reason I got this camera was that I really wanted to be able to take shots without the flash in low or medium light. Of course, I was coming from a world where the flash had to run at full power due to the limited ISO range of older cameras.
What I like about the flash the most with this camera is that I have complete control over flash power and its effect on the shot simply by adjusting the ISO I take the picture at. The Camera's large usable ISO range makes it possibe and I have found that I prefer running the ISO up to 1200 even with the flash to get more natural looking shots.
I've gotten completely attached to higher-ISO shooting with this camera and flash combination. I often can't even see the flash's light spectrum in the pre-processed output most of the time. I can bounce the flash in far more situations then previously. Using it as a fill-flash works perfectly, and the flash appears to have a much larger coverage area when used with higher ISO settings. The flash even uses much less power and its set of 4xPowerEX 2700 mAh AA's easily lasts 400 shots. What is there not to like?
The pull-out white card (ostensibly to put a twinkle it people's eyes) also throws enough less-indirect light in a bounce shot to provide some fill, providing the maximum dynamic range for post-production and making contrast adjustments trivial.
It all adds up to crazy-good output. The 580 Ex II is perfect. Literally. I do not have a single complaint about it. I am very impressed with the battery management, power draw, multi-firing queue, automatic exposure, pull-out white card, and other features. IT lives up to my expectations.