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a wedding photographer’s review of the Canon 5D Mark4

a real life review

I’ve been shooting Canon bodies and lenses for as long as I have been shooting weddings. I was an early, early digital adopter – I switched from film to digital with 6.3 megapixels of Canon 10D goodness, and I loved the hell out of that camera. Then Canon released the first affordable full frame body with the original 5D, and to say it rocked my world is an understatement. I learnt how to make images with a 35mm SLR and a fast 50mm prime, and here was a digital body that brought that feeling back. Since then, I’ve owned every iteration of the 5D, using and abusing the hell out of them.

Anyway, this is the first time I’ve felt the need to actually go to the effort of reviewing a camera body. A real life review, from the perspective of a real life, full time, working wedding photographer. If you know anything about this camera, you know that the early buzz was… a tiny bit underwhelming. You know, more megapixels, sure. Slightly better AF? Yeah, whatever. That whole Dual Pixel RAW thing that seemed kinda, well, gimmicky…? Have a look at Canon’s official page for the 5D4 here, if you want to check out all the specs.

I’ll get to the specifics. But let’s cut to the chase, for those of you who don’t want to read a whole lot more words.

This is the best camera ever made for wedding photographers.

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I’m not talking about your old school wedding shooters. I’m talking about those who want to push the limits of their gear, those who want to try new techniques, those who need a body that does exactly want they want, and delivers, every time. I’m talking about trying new techniques the very first time I used these cameras. At a wedding. Getting the shot you want faster, and getting the shot you pray for more often than not. Getting it in great light, and nailing it in terrible light.

So, specifics. I’m going to approach this very much as a comparison to the 5D Mark 3, ‘cos roughly 87% of purchasers will be upgrading*.

The body is a bit smaller, a bit lighter, a bit chunkier. The controls are damn near identical to the Mark 3, except for the little button next to the Q button on the back. It feels great. Weatherproofing is supposed to be improved over the Mark 3 – which I shot with during crazy thunderstorms. It would be easy to think that not much has changed, but, well, you’ll see…

The obvious change is the AF system. It’s basically ripped wholesale from the 1DX Mark 2, and it’s freaking good. Slightly better coverage (a bigger spread of points), the same number of AF points as the Mark 3 (61, with 41 being cross type), but it is much, much better. It’s fast, it’s accurate, and seems… well, more responsive. Shooting in dark churches and receptions was way less frustrating. Still got missed focus, but not as much, and often attributable to user error. If you have shot with the Mark 3 you know that it’s AF system had a mind of it’s own. The Mark 4 just gets on with the job. Tracking focus with Servo is much improved too. Which leads nicely to one of the very fine, rather giant advances…

EOS iTR AF. Seems like a gimmick. I know I have always been pretty dismissive of any and all face detection features in pro bodies. Hey! I’m a pro! I tell the camera where to focus. It don’t tell me, dude! And if you are shooting through the viewfinder, the face detection is… well, I wouldn’t trust it to track a bride across the frame when she walks down the aisle.

But. But. Oh my. So it turns out that Dual Pixel RAW is basically useless for the much touted post image AF adjustment. Unless you’re one of the four photographers who actually use Canon’s DPP software. If you really want to know more about the aspects of Dual Pixel RAW that you will never use, check out this vid.

But when you shoot in LiveView, the Mark 4 uses Dual Pixel technology for AF. And it is optimised to focus on the eyes. And it works. I’m actually astonished that Canon isn’t shouting about this feature, as I see it as being, quite simply, totally killer. I only discovered it’s power through this video.

Think about that for a second. It detects the face, and focuses smack bang, using pixel level info, bypassing any need for micro focus adjust shenanigans, directly on the eyes. Wide open at f/1.2 into insanely strong backlight. It often works faster and more accurately than shooting through the viewfinder. The next images were all shot in LiveView, using iTR face tracking, generally holding the camera at an interesting angle that didn’t allow me to use the VF even if I wanted to.

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Yup. It’s that good. And it’s fast. Like, really fast. And it latches onto the nearest detected face as soon as you thumb open Live View. Then you can zap through each face with the joystick. Easily. Intuitively. Too slow doing that way? Use the touchscreen. Once again, it becomes second nature very quickly. You can easily shoot one handed doing this, holding the camera wherever you want. Look, I know some folks will moan about the lack of a flip out screen, and sure, it would be pretty cool. But you know, make do. If you can see the screen, you can shoot. If you can’t see the screen, you can still shoot. I find I shoot blind at receptions a lot already, enabling me to react and get shots faster than I ever could with the Mark 3.

It works in Servo mode too. It’s even cooler. Hold the back button to maintain focus, and the camera will track the face through damn near the entire frame, wherever it goes. And it tracks as fast as Servo does through the VF. It can be fooled – say, if the subject turns their head away completely. It can fail to recognise a face if its too far way. But then you just touch the screen to tell it where to focus, and it seamlessly changes focus modes without having to drill through menus.

To digress for just a moment, I (and many of my friends and fellow shooters) are waiting for the day when we can switch to mirrorless. Some truly great photographers have already done so. But for mine, they are still just not fast handling enough. Also, super crappy battery life. A well designed DSLR is, simply, the fastest camera to operate. This will change, I know. Looking forward to it.

So, yeah, shooting in LiveView is something I do a lot now. It’s so very reliable, flexible and simple. I love capturing people on the move, changing the angle to suit my whims, trusting the camera to grab critical focus. And I do trust it – one of the first tests I did was a portrait sequence where the couple walked towards me, while I held the camera on the ground and shot through the grass. I took 19 frames. 18 of them were pin sharp. The other one was still totally good enough. This is with the 135L, wide open at f/2.0.

So, yup. The AF is better. And different. You’re gonna love it, as soon as you start to get to grips with it. It actually boggles my mind that Canon is touting the Dual Pixel RAW focus shift as a feature, when in the real world it is the LiveView focus improvements that are the real revolution.

Wedding photographers do not shoot in bright sunlit fields of golden corn all the time. We spend a lot of time in dark receptions, dim churches with multiple conflicting light sources, all that. Good high ISO quality is very important to us. As in, it is the very first question I get asked about the Mark 4s. Every time.

So, it’s better than the mark 3. Greatly in some ways, marginally in others. Allow me to explain. And feel free to look up the Canon 5D Mark 4 DXO results if you care about that sort of thing. At 6400ISO and beyond, you will get noise. But, like the Mark 3, that noise is not blotchy chroma speckles (remember the 5D Mark 2 – I do!), its just, well, grain like. And the detail retention and colour is great. I’m totally happy shooting at 6400, and will go to 12800 if I need to. And when I do, I look at the files, and remember that this beastie is a 30 megapixel monster. So much detail. Even at super high ISO. I like. So yeah, good, but not revolutionary. This next shot is at 6400, and pushed to bring out some shadow detail.

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Where it is substantially improved is in dynamic range. Canon have finally moved to an on board Analog Digital Converter (ADC). Meaning you can push the  crap out of your files, and they don’t turn to grainy, banded mush. Meaning also that you can underexpose in dark scenes (for shutter speed reasons), and not have extra noise introduced when you bump the exposure in post. Others have written about this (ISO invariance and dynamic range) with far more technical nous than I can muster, and this is a real world review, yeah. So, for a wedding photographer, once again, it means you are more likely to get that shot. Beginning to see a pattern here…? If you want to read a far more detailed and technical explanation of the new sensor’s abilities, have a look at this article.

Haven’t had time to set up OCF or lights and need to shoot dancing? Bump the shutter and push exposure in post. Catching that glorious last ray of sunshine? Expose for the highs, push the shadows in post. That’s a new feeling for us Canon shooters, alright. (But we’ve always had the 85L f/1.2, of course…)

And while we’re discussing all things sensor related, look, 30 megapixels (I really prefer the term megapickles, FYI) is a ton. You will get two things. Lots and lots and lots of detail. And some really biiigggg files – high ISO RAWs come in at up to 45MB. Ouch. Fortunately, if you use LR, Smart Previews renders file sizes basically irrelevant, in terms of speed, so that’s cool. And you are going to like these files. Come on, it’s a Canon sensor. These files, with great glass, look luscious. Colour rendition seems a touch different, but I’m stuck with beta versions of camera profiles for the moment, so I’ll reserve judgement. But as you trawl through your images, you are going to come across some which have that medium format pop. It’s pretty cool. And it makes me want to shoot primes wide open even more than I do already, so there’s that.

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OK. What else do you need to know? Practical things, I guess. The battery life is not even close to the Mark 3. I shoot with grips, so two batteries per body, and I come home with around 30% power in each body. To compare, if the Mark 3s ever dropped below 50%, it meant I had been shooting for at LEAST 12 hours. Its the first time in years I’ve been grateful I have backup batteries in the bag. The lighter weight is excellent, though – you notice it straightaway, and you feel it even more after shooting for the aforementioned 12 hours. There are more options for customisation of controls, but it still feels a bit arbitrary – not every control can be applied to every switch, for example.

The screen is great. Provided you remember it’s a touch screen. And when you do, bon! Super fast reviewing/focus/changing settings etc. I’m totally a touchscreen convert. I love it. Still no histogram overlay on full screen preview, though – which seems to be the most obvious possible display. Come on Canon – I know what shutter speed and aperture I use! Show me the image filling the screen, with an RGB histogram in the corner. Really. But flicking to LiveView, tapping the screen where you want to focus – even right on the edge of frame and nailing the shot at f/1.2 is pretty worthwhile.

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There is the option to have an illuminated overlay of info in the viewfinder. But you’ll never use it. At least, I don’t.I keep meaning to switch it off, but I notice the display so rarely that I haven’t changed it. Oh yeah, anti-flicker mode. That’s pretty cool. Every single wedding photographer has come home from a reception and had weird colour and or shadow banding across their images. First though? Oh Sh… bugger. Then you hit up Google or Facebook, and find out that its just crappy floor or LED lights at work. Anti-Flicker mode (disabled by default) with adjust the timing of your images by teensy fractions of a second to try to prevent it. It works. You don’t notice it. Go ahead, turn it on.

The diopter adjustment is not lockable, so it’s still way, way too easy to nudge and panic when you look through the finder and everything is totally blurry no matter what, but if you’re a Canon shooter you are used to that. As I said, the controls are essentially replicated from the Mark 3, so you can pick it up and shoot very easily.

But read the manual first. Seriously. Get to grips with the changes to the AF, and the possibilities. Your enjoyment of shooting will go up. Your clients will thank you for it. Just do it.

Another vast improvement over the Mark 3 is the buffer and card write speed. Hands up if you ever hit the buffer with an SD card in the backup slot (looks over a vast sea of people with raised hands). No longer an issue. I knocked off a 60 image pano in seconds with the Mark 4. With old, slow SD cards. Hit the buffer towards the end, but it clears oh so much faster. I have since upgraded to bigger, faster cards, and just never, ever hit the buffer.. You’re going to need bigger cards, by the way. I’m pretty happy that Canon didn’t shift to C Fast cards for the 5D – helps with the transition. I could get by with the supply of cards I’ve got, but I don’t like switching out when shooting. And 64GB per body isn’t enough for a wedding. I use Sandisk Extreme CF and Extreme Pro SD cards now, 2x128GB in each body. It’s ample.

There’s other things. Built in WiFi. Remember to turn that off when not being used, unless you want to really watch the battery life go down. It’s not something I will use a lot, but its handy for sending a couple of files quickly. And, you know, 30 megapixel Instagram goodness. I can’t see myself ever even turning on the GPS, so I won’t comment on it’s usefulness or accuracy.

OK. Let’s sum up then. It’s a brilliant camera body. The sensor is measurably the best sensor ever made by Canon (remember that DXO review I told you to look for). High ISO is better, dynamic range is improved out of the ballpark, and 30 megapixels… well, I was happy with the 23 of the Mark 3, but having lived with it for a few weeks, you kinda get used to ALL THAT DETAIL!

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It handles as well or better than the Mark 3 in every way, albeit with some of the same minor flaws. Battery life is not as good. But autofocus is just so, so much better. And Live View AF is a game changer. As in, it WILL change the way you shoot. If you’re actually reading all this I imagine you know the specs already. For wedding shooters, frame rate isn’t that important, so 7 frames a second is enough. I keep mine in silent shutter mode all the time, anyway. The shutter sounds different – it has an improved action, that supposedly reduces the possibility of shutter induced vibration. I like the way it sounds, although it might be a tad louder than the Mark 3.canon-5d-mark-4-review007

It fills up memory cards really rather quickly – be prepared. A 30 megapixel sensor means 45MB RAW files once you’re over ISO1600. Conversely, you may find yourself actually shooting less, as you get to know and trust the AF. This is purely subjective, but I find the shutter to be much more responsive, but I sometimes know I’ve missed focus as I shoot. Perhaps Canon have tweaked the shutter action/focus response? In operation, it’s actually a good thing. I’m so used to chimping 100% views to check critical focus with the Mark 3, but with the Mark 4 it’s much more a case of accurate focus of an obvious miss. In the real world, I prefer that by a mile. Still can struggle in backlight when the lens is flaring crazily, but once again, LiveView is your friend. Shield the lens, LV focus,  let the flare back in. Click. When you get to processing the images, you will fall in love with these files. The detail. The contrast. The really just amazingly good colour (yes, I’m aware that’s completely subjective, but I don’t care). Finally, with Canon files, being able to push the crap out of shadows and underexposed images. This, coupled with Canon’s not so takes about but always excellent highlight retention just makes getting every image looking the way you want it to a piece of cake. White balance seems a a lot more accurate too – once again just subjective.

The Canon 5D Mark 4 is, on paper, a pretty good incremental upgrade. In the field, however, it’s a brilliantly capable moment capturing image making machine. It’s not cheap. At all. But if you make a living shooting weddings, it might just be the best camera ever made. It is hands down the best moment capturing device I’ve ever used.

*92% of statistics on the Internet are made up on the spot.

© 2017 DARIN COLLISON | MELBOURNE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER