Canon is celebrating its 12th consecutive year as the world’s leading interchangeable lens camera manufacturer. But for some time it has been trailing behind the rest of the pack for image resolution with its highest megapixel camera, the 24.2MP 760D, way behind Nikon’s 36.3MP D810 and Sony’s 36.4MP Alpha 7R CSC. But the new 5DS and 5DS R, which boast the highest ever resolution full-frame sensor, have not only addressed that imbalance, they’ve completely blown the competition out of the water. The cameras can now even compete with the resolution of digital medium-format models such as the Pentax 645Z – that’s a first for a DSLR. These new cameras sit alongside the ever-popular 5D MkIII, adopting its body design and the bulk of its feature-set. They’re aimed at photographers who need that exceptional level of detail for heavy cropping or large-scale printing. The question is, can a DSLR with such a high pixel count really perform, or will its huge resolution make it a victim of its own unique selling point?
The headline stealer in the 5DS is the new 50.6MP full-frame sensor. With a resolution more than double that of the 5D MkIII, it’s able to make excellent quality prints up to A1 at 250dpi. This goes far beyond the needs of the average user, and way further than that currently favoured by many pros. Unfortunately, with great power comes great file sizes. The camera’s RAWs are around 65MB each, meaning that roughly only 123 shots can be saved to an 8GB card. That said, smaller RAW files of 28MP and 12MP can be selected. At full resolution, images from this camera are 300MB in size in Photoshop’s 16-bit mode, so having a high-spec computer is a must. An optical low-pass filter is present on the sensor, reducing the risk of moiré and false colours.
The camera is fitted with dual DIGIC 6 processors, the same arrangement found in the 7D MkII. This allows for a relatively respectable burst of 5fps for 14 RAW files or 510 JPEGs. The native ISO range for both cameras is 100-6400, which is 2 stops less than the 5D MkIII and 1 stop less than Nikon’s D810. While we would have liked a wider ISO range, it won’t be an issue for the studio and landscape photographers at whom this camera is aimed.
With such a high resolution, small camera movements are more visible in the images. To combat this Canon has introduced a Mirror Vibration Control System that uses motors to drive the mirror up and down in a more controlled fashion. This mechanism also slightly softens the shutter’s sound.
With 65 autofocus points, 45 of which are cross-type including five of the most sensitive dual cross-type, the phase-detect AF system on the 5DS is similar to that found on the 5D MkIII. Rated to -2EV it’s quick and responsive in most shooting conditions, with an AF-assist beam aiding focus acquisition in low light. The camera also has Intelligent Tracking and Recognition (iTR) AF technology as found on the 7D MkII and 1D X. This uses colour and face information to recognise subjects as they move around the frame, helping to improve the performance of its tracking modes.
For accurate metering, the 5DS uses a 150,000-pixel RGB + IR sensor, also taken from the 7D MkII. It recognises an excellent 252-zones, working virtually without fault in our tests. The camera also features an anti-flicker system that can detect and compensate for flickering light sources, automatically adjusting shutter timings to reduce unpredictable exposure and colour changes.
Built around the same sensor and body as the 5DS, the 5DS R has one main difference – its dual low-pass filter. While the single filter found on the 5DS removes the risk of moiré when shooting some man-made patterns, it comes at the cost of a slight loss to sharpness. The 5DS R’s second filter counteracts this, preserving more detail, but reintroduces the risk of moiré. With its £300 premium this camera will predominantly appeal to landscapers.
Other features and video
The 3.2in 1040k-dot Clear View II TFT monitor, the same as the one on the 5D MkIII, offers bright menu operation and clear Live View playback. Unsurprisingly it’s fixed and not touch-sensitive. The camera’s viewfinder boasts 100% coverage and an adjustable dioptre. With one of the camera’s various crop and ratio modes selected, this viewfinder helpfully greys out the areas of the frame that won’t appear in the final image. Unlike Canon’s last full-frame release, the 6D, the 5DS doesn’t feature Wi-Fi or GPS functionality.
When it comes to video, Canon is quick to point out that the 5DS is ‘more prone to moiré and skewing, making it less suitable for high-end video production’, before continuing to recommend the 5D MkIII as a better alternative. It does maintain the ability to record Full HD footage at 30fps, though not uncompressed footage via its HDMI port. There’s still an input for an external microphone, along with its in-built stereo mics, but a headphone socket for audio monitoring has been removed, further limiting its suitability for serious video work. One video feature that has been gained over the 5D MkIII, however, is the ability to use Movie Servo AF, allowing the tracking of subjects while recording. A creative Time Lapse Movie function is also found on the 5DS, a first for an EOS camera. This takes a continuous series of images before automatically combining them into a Full HD movie file.
With such huge file sizes, Canon has wisely given the camera a USB 3.0 port. The camera also has remote and PC terminal inputs and standard hotshoe, and as expected, there’s no in-built flash. The 5DS is capable of 700 shots from one full battery charge.
The 5DS and 5DS R offer two JPEG crop modes. The first has a 1.3x crop that captures a 30.5MP image, and the second captures a 19.6MP file with a 1.6x crop, the same angle-of-view as an APS-C size sensor. Of course, when capturing the entire frame, the 50.6MP resolution allows impressive crops to be made during post-processing that can then be printed comfortably at large sizes.
The 5DS is almost identical in size and shape to the 5D MkIII, while being slightly lighter at 923g. The only obvious change to its design is a slightly raised grip on the front of the camera, in the area where the MkIII model number used to be. This new grip helps improve the ergonomics for two-handed use and menu operation, building on what was already a comfortable design. Canon has also reinforced the camera’s magnesium alloy baseplate and chassis in order to help stabilise the camera when mounted on a tripod, further minimising the risk of camera shake. The 5DS is weather- and dust-sealed just like the brand’s other full-frame models, so it can be used in challenging weather conditions with confidence.
The control layout of the camera is also unchanged from that found on the 5D MkIII, with all major settings kept easily accessible with plenty of dedicated buttons. An index dial just above the shutter and a thumb dial on the back of the camera control all major setting changes, while the camera menu’s main navigational control is done via a joystick. Alongside all of the standard shooting options found on the mode dial, there are three custom modes that can be manually saved and selected.
While the 5D MkIII had 13 customisable functions, the 5DS now has 16. This allows the user to further tailor the camera’s operation to suit their personal shooting style. This customisation control is further aided by the camera’s Quick menu, where displayed settings can now be selected, removed and resized as desired. So if there’s a particular setting that you never use, you can remove it from the screen.
The operation of the camera’s main menu is clean, simple and intuitive enough for those new to Canon cameras to hit the ground running, while remaining very familiar to long-term users. Hidden away in the menu are options for HDR and multiple-exposure shooting.
With such a large pixel count we expected the 5DS to struggle when it came to high ISO performance and dynamic range, a concern strengthened when the camera’s narrow ISO range was confirmed. However, not only is the camera capable of excellent image quality with minimal noise and wide dynamic range, but even up to the camera’s top level of 6400, images remain highly usable with the help of a little noise reduction. In fact, we imagine that if it had wanted to, Canon could have safely given this camera another stop of ISO. Compared with the 5D MkIII, the 5DS captures a much greater level of detail, though on close inspection it is inferior at higher ISO levels, especially at 6400 where there is a fairly marked difference.
The 5DS and 5DS R are not replacement models, but two parts of a new high-resolution line. Based on the design of the highly successful 5D MkIII and incorporating a few of the 7D MkII’s advancements, the 5DS is a more specialist camera than both, aimed specifically at studio and landscape photographers. For those who often find themselves in less than perfect lighting conditions, shooting fast-action subjects or recording video, the 5D MkIII will remain the much more desirable model. In fact, most users will never need more than around 15MP, so in terms of storage space and processing power the huge 50MP files could end up being more of a hindrance than a bonus. That said, if you do want this kind of image resolution, the 5DS is significantly less expensive (less than half the price) than the cheapest medium-format camera currently available, the Pentax 645Z.
Both cameras offer seriously impressive image quality, but the 5DS R with its £300 premium just has the edge for those who only tend to shoot natural subjects (landscape photographers, we’re looking at you). With such a sensor it shouldn’t shock too many that these high-end products demand a professional price-tag, offering value for money only to those who demand the maximum resolution available. While Nikon’s D810 and Sony’s forthcoming 7R II are better-rounded high-res cameras, the extra features they offer, including higher ISO ranges and better video functions, may be superfluous to the needs of much of the target market of the 5DS and 5DS R. Overall, both are excellent cameras that fill an obvious void in the Canon line-up, without sabotaging the brand’s existing models. They won’t, however, be well-suited to everyone – perhaps a replacement to the 5D MkIII will be more appealing to the masses.
- Price: £2699 (Body only as of June 2016)
- Effective resolution: 50.6MP
- Sensor: 36x24mm full-frame CMOS
- Processor: Dual DIGIC 6
- LCD: 3.2in 1040k-dot Clear View II TFT
- Viewfinder: Pentaprism with 100% coverage and dioptre
- Autofocus: 61-point phase detect system with 41 cross-type points inc 5 dual cross-type
- Metering: 150k-pixel RGB + IR sensor
- ISO: 100-6400 (expands to 50-12,800)
- Shooting speed: 5fps for 14 RAWs
- Video: Full HD (1080p) at 30fps
- Pop-up flash: No
- Other features: Hotshoe, PC terminal, mic and remote inputs, USB 3.0 and HDMI outputs, dual card slots
- Battery life: 700 shots
- Card type: CompactFlash, SD, SDHC
- and SDXC
- Size (WxHxD): 152x116x76mm
- Weight: 923g
- Visit: www.canon.co.uk
This review was first published in the August 2015 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.