In this world of hundreds of auto focus points, phase detection, high ISO performance, burst rate nonsense; is less really more? Is it possible that the Canon 5D Classic, a decade old full frame DSLR, can hold up to the most modern of cameras? Can a camera that was first introduced when the XBOX 360 was about to be released really hold up today and be a competent shooter? I can probably answer those questions as I’ve been a Canon 5D Classic user for the past two years – I have racked up thousands of photographs and countless hours using one, so I thought I’d put together a bit of a review of this ageing DSLR.
Before I Start
First, some backstory. Although it wasn’t the first full frame DSLR (that honour goes to the Contax N which was released all the way back in 2002) the Canon 5D (or 5D Classic as it’s often called today) was still a fairly early model with it being released back in October of 2005. I was only 10 years old at the time, and totally oblivious to it’s existence.
Short of the fairly expensive Canon 1Ds MKii, most DSLRs of the era had APS-C sensors, which weren’t pushing blistering resolution or ISO performances. So to have a lower cost, full frame, DSLR was a huge leg up for Canon. The 5D ran all the way until 2008 when the MKii was announced and released with a vastly improved sensor, video capabilities and a review screen that actually looks ok with a photo on it.
The MKii also didn’t have the massive issue of the mirror coming off during use… The early 5D’s (serial numbers starting with 0 or 1 made in 2005/2006) had the not insignificant issue of the camera wanting to be a full frame mirrorless camera. Early models were offered a free fix from Canon, but it was fixed in the factory with the later versions (serial numbers starting with 2 or 3 made in 2007/2008).
As mentioned, I’ve had mine for around two years now and it hasn’t skipped a beat. The 5D Classic was made to take a tumble and to be used as a photographic tool. I’ve used it in the rain, dropped it, knocked it and even clipped the mirror with legacy lenses. Mine certainly isn’t the prettiest, and it is usually covered in Gorilla tape to cover logos and the corners of the camera. It’s rugged exterior of magnesium alloy really speaks to you that it was built to last, and built to be used and abused – the 5D Classic wasn’t made to look pretty or to sit on the mantle piece.
The 5D Classic Specs
What’re the specs? The Canon 5D Classic uses a 12.8mp sensor, which by today’s standards isn’t exactly high, but I’d argue is more than usable. As mentioned, it is encased in a magnesium alloy body which feels sturdy and well built – I think of it as a reassuring heft when using it.
The ISO range is 100-1600 but can be expanded to 50-3200 in the custom functions. I’ve heard that the ISO 50 contains more noise than ISO 100 due to it being software based, but I haven’t noticed anything in my years of shooting with this camera. Speaking of ISO, it isn’t at all bad for a camera released in 2005. While it isn’t a low light beast, you can easily overcome this by using fast lenses or just reducing the noise in post.
When you have taken your images with your 5D Classic, you might want to check them out on the preview screen on the back…? I would advise not to, as it’s the main downfall of this camera for me. It’s a 2.5” 230,000 pixel LCD panel which is fairly useless for image viewing, but great for the minimal menu – I would recommend to leave the image preview off.
It features a 9 point AF system, which again in today’s world isn’t great, but if you’re like me and use a centre focus point it’s no issue. Just like every other EOS camera, auto focus is fast, though this does depend on the lens you use. All 9 focus points are chosen with the rear nipple nub protrusion, which acts as a form of multi-direction control. Autofocus is activated as normal by half pressing the shutter button with focus confirmation in the viewfinder and/or with the audible ‘beep’.
The controls and interface
The Canon 5D Classic button layout is highly intuitive and easy to use with each button and dial serving a purpose with nothing in the way or complicating matters. Having the rear command dial is a life saver for one handed use, as you can change aperture on the rear dial, shutter speed on the front dial. You can even change the ISO with the same hand by pressing the button on the top in front of the LCD and operating the rear dial.
Speaking of which, the top LCD tells you all of the info you need: Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, drive mode, metering, exposure, file type, battery info etc. This means the rear screen is mainly used for menus and looking at your images as a pixelated mess. The video mode offers an amazing resolution of… 0 x 0 pixels! That’s right, it doesn’t feature a video mode, or even live view! Like I said, it’s a photographers camera, it’s extremely minimal, and that’s why I love it so much!
The viewfinder – which is a massive, huge, Brobdingnagian – shows you your shutter speed, aperture and exposure value as well as focus confirmation and ISO when changing it. While it only covers 96% of the frame, the large size and bright pentaprism setup makes composition really easy. The focus screens are also changeable to suit ones needs, but I’ve used the regular screens for AF lenses and MF lenses with no issues.
Speed of use
The 5D Classic offers a 3fps continuous burst which is in no way fast. You aren’t going to be capturing fast paced sports in the same way you might be able to with some modern cameras. Although it will shoot up to 1/8000th, which is nice to have even if it’s rarely utilised.
In the hand
The grip is comfortable and features lots of room for large handed people. I’m around 190cm or so, and the Canon 5D Classic fits perfectly in my hand, with everything within reach and without the need to become a digit contortionist. In real world use, it’s no different to the countless other Canons and Nikons out there – if anything the Canon 5D Classic set a precedent for the DSLRs to follow. If you’ve used a pro-body Canon in the last 10 years, you’ll feel right at home with the Canon 5D Classic.
Beware – Opinion Ahead
I feel that modern digital cameras as packed full of features which, in reality, are totally unnecessary. Just think of all the people using film cameras, and for how long they were used perfectly adequately before we had hundreds of focus points or ISOs above 3200-6400.
In my mind, packing more features into cameras doesn’t make for better photographers, in fact, for the most part I feel they just overcomplicate the process for the large majority of users. The Canon 5D Classic was a product of the emerging digital era and the declining film era. While it was packed with a state of the art full frame sensor, it handled and worked more similarly to a film camera than the cameras of today do.
Of course, any modern DSLR will trample over the Canon 5D Classic when it comes to high ISO performance and overall speed of function, but I wouldn’t say that they could trample it with image quality – and how many photographers actually really need all that performance. While you can pull more detail and potentially print bigger with today’s higher megapixel sensors, there is something about the 5D’s superb image quality that they can’t match up to in my opinion.
Many people have come to this conclusion, and I am inclined to agree – the Canon 5D Classic has a certain filmic feel to the images. The colours are so rich and vibrant and there’s a certain organic nature to the images of which the 5D creates. I’ve always found that the images I get out of the 5D Classic rarely need drastic editing, and are usually perfect out of the camera.
The Canon 5D Classic utilises the EF mount which has a vast array of lenses available for it. While the EOS lenses are great, some are often expensive or just out of reach. Thankfully, (unlike the Nikon F system) the EOS system is fairly friendly when it comes to using classic lenses.
Classic lenses can have a new lease of life when coupled to a full frame DSLR. I for one have been using M42 thread mount lenses since I’ve used the 5D Classic which I find really adds another level to the already filmic aesthetic of the 5D’s images.
A lot of the older lenses have a certain optical nuance that newer lenses don’t have, and I’m not just saying they can be softer than a pat of butter during mid summer. Some have that ‘3D pop’ that so many rave about and argue over in forums, some produce unique bokeh, and some even blow you away with the sheer optical performance.
Just a word of advice though, if one is interested in tying out classic lens, be careful of what M42 lenses you use as some can clip the mirror. The Helios 44-2 is a good example of a lens that will clip the mirror when you get close to infinity. To use it, you will have to shave the rear of the lens.
To be honest, the 50mm f/1.8 STM is the lens usually coupled to my camera, but I do like to dabble and use legacy lenses when I can. There are so many great lenses out there, that it’s a shame for them not to be experimented with and enjoyed once in a while!
So… is it worth buying the Canon 5D Classic in 2018? There seems to have been a lot of attention given to this ageing digital camera recently, with various Youtube channels explaining the ins and outs of the camera and comparing it to the latest and greatest offerings.
In my opinion, it’s all down to the user. You have to think about if you can live with the creative limitations that the 5D Classic brings to the table, as well as the thought of using a camera that’s ageing day by day. The price has dropped massively over the last few years and it’s now become an absolute steal – I’ve seen the Canon 5D Classic go for under £200 from time to time and I’m now even considered buying a second body in the knowledge that these cameras are ageing, and – despite the incredible build quality – mine won’t last forever.
Ultimately, it’s my view that if you’re looking for a cheap entrance into the world of full frame DSLRs, you can’t beat the Canon 5D Classic in terms of image quality, lens selection, and catching an outright bargain. The mixture of the beautiful sensor and the film-camera-feel makes it a compelling camera to use. It’s served me rather well over the last couple of years, and I intend to use it until it’s dying day; I really feel as it’s in a class of it’s own. Less really is more, the Canon 5D Classic is a perfect example of this!