(This blog entry was written a few days prior to the release of the newer Canon 5D MKIII in February of 2012. In my opinion, Canon missed the target of nearly everything I’d hoped would’ve appeared in the new MKIII. Dang, don’t you hate it when that happens?)
My spy in Japan tells me that the new Canon 5D MKIII is due to be released any day now, although they’re not sure what it’s going to be named. I hope they stay with the 5D name, because it’s already seared into our psyche as near legendary status (like the ultra-cool, classic Leica M6); and besides, “5E” sounds kind of lame, like the room number they send the boneheads to when they mess up. In Tlingit, Eeeee means something bad, so that will not do at all, no sir.
This essay is kind of a departure for me, because just about all of my published material in books has been about art, not camera gear. For artists, digital techno gear has become something that we have to stay on top of in order to push our art along. It doesn’t necessarily mean that gear drives the look of our art, I think it means that we need to constantly question how to make it all easier to get the looks that we imagine.
Run-of-the-mill, dull digital camera review sites & dealers
I’ve been noticing that many of the typical digital camera review sites write nearly identical reviews of each other with little new information. Too many of them lean towards the banal techno-babble style and they often merely parrot the blurbs from the camera manufacturers. So much for original thinking. With the internet we’re pretty much overrun with dummies who simply cut and paste from other sites. Like we won’t notice. On the other hand, there are some very good ones out there too and I’ve come to look forward to their reviews before going to play with a new camera at the camera store. I’m impressed with B&H when I go to NY and had my own favorite people at Gassers in San Francisco. The first place I met my wife was at a camera store in San Francisco, so as you can see, I’m serious about this stuff, no messin’ around.
The Real Deal; the best photographic gear reviewers in history (stand up & take your hat off)
The premium labs for performing accurate scientific measurements of photographic equipment simply do not exist outside of camera manufacturers anymore. Dang. It means that the independent scientific quantification of photographic equipment is really quite minimal compared to past decades when it was very rigorous and lively. It means we’re regressing on this front, and if we don’t watch out, we may be grunting our reviews to each other.
My own 5D MKII experiences
I got my own 5D MKII three years ago, in February of 2009, and it was love at first sight. I was wrangled into shooting an annual report for Sealaska Corporation in Alaska and needed to bring a good all-around camera with me. The Canon 5D MKII was perfect because it worked just as well in a studio setting as in a driving winter blizzard; harsh elements. I ran it through it’s paces, gave it the works from a hard driving pro who wrings every little bit out of his gear. After that I used the camera on a one-year Arts and Humanities Fellowship on a project having to do with the Global Climate Crisis, a couple trips to Aotearora (New Zealand) to work with cool Maori artists, and various art projects. It hasn’t failed me yet.
I’m fairly familiar with this 5D MKII and have grown to like it’s tough build, fairly compact size, ease of use and very intuitive controls, not to mention its sumptuous 21 Megapixel photographs.I like how Canon has evolved their camera designs from one camera generation to the next, because if you know one well, chances are good you’ll know the others too. Keep that going Canon, it’s brilliant. However, there are a few improvements that could be made, and hopefully they’ll show up on the new 5D MKIII, so here goes with my suggestions.
Drum roll please:
#1 Increased megapixel size and more efficient electronics, the medium format slayer on the loose
Of course, a digital camera is really a computer with a lens that captures images, and like us, it’s only as good as the brains that run it. I vote for the one with the better brains. In that sense, Canon did a superb job with it’s Digic 4 processor. They say that every 18 months computers double their processing power and speed, so we’re likely in for quite a jump in hardcore image crunching power with the new MKIII. I would bet that we have an increase in ISO speed with less noise, but who knows? If this is the case, it would also foster the logic of increased megapixel size. I’m guessing 38 Megapixels, only because of the math with improved processor performance.
If we do in fact end up with a 5D that has 38 Megapixels at an affordable price, that would mean that this MKIII went beyond being a straightforward DSLR and could theoretically represent a medium format slayer; that digital medium format cameras are on notice that their days are numbered. Especially if all those pixels can be fit onto a full sized sensor that didn’t have to make the leap to a larger medium format sized sensor. If this is the case, I can see why it took longer than usual for this MKIII to be released.
I would also make the argument that Canon should not charge a medium format price for a camera with this amount of megapixels. One of the reasons that the Canon 5D MKII was such a bestseller was because Canon did not get overly greedy with the price and charged a fair price for the camera. If Canon wants sales to skyrocket for a camera with this kind of configuration, it has to be priced affordably or else they’ll just sit on shelves in the store.
I’d like to see the electronics made more efficiently so that they use less power. I realize that the big LCD screen sucks up a lot of battery power, maybe that could be tweaked to be more efficient. Maybe even a firmware option so that only 40% of the screen is used in a pinch when you’re running low on power. The batteries are inordinately expensive. On the other hand, I am happy with the image processor. It operates quickly and I’ve never had to wait for the frame capture to catch up with my shooting, even when shooting in fast bursts (such as my aerial photos of a coal mine from a small plane when I had to shoot like a machine gunner).
#2 Keep the full frame sensor size
The full frame sensor is a perfect size for the array of lenses already out there, so I’d advocate for the sensor to stay the same size for optimal image quality while making the body smaller. In the future, smaller sensors are going to be the norm, but the technology is not there yet. I can easily imagine image sensors eventually being reduced to only the smallest fraction of the current full sized sensor, which will be a most excellent prospect because it will also mean having pro cameras and lenses that are only a fraction of the current size. Until that day, keep the full sized sensor and try and cram more pixels onto it without compromising image quality. Big cameras are a 20th century contrivance and should join the ranks of 8-track tape players, so pretty please with sugar on top, don’t make the 5D larger. Good riddance big cameras, bring on the tiny cameras with quality that current high-end pro cameras can only dream about.
#3 Wifi & GPS, because after all, we’re on the run, always
Wifi capability for a pro digital camera is long overdue. Look at what makes the iPhone so popular, it’s ability to easily send photos. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to log onto a wifi connection and have the ability to send high-end photographs? This would help make any pro DSLR an instant bestseller. Just make sure that the controls are fast and intuitive so that we don’t have to mess around too much, we’re likely to be in a hurry. Wifi should’ve been made available to pros before amateurs, but better late than never. As long as you’re at it, put in a GPS, because we like to occasionally geotag photos along the way, it would come in handy. It’s critical to have the ability to easily switch it off though, because after all, some of our places are meant to be secret; mystery is good.
#4 Make it more rugged man, don’t hold back
Don’t get me wrong, the 5D MKII is tough, but it lacks the formidable feel of the previous generation of film cameras. Even after all these years of shooting with DSLR’s in snow storms and pouring rain, I still get the feeling that they’ll fail me if I shoot in the snow or rain for too long. Maybe it means using an even more robust covering with more rugged seals. I noticed that the camera body covering gets a little slippery when it gets moist. I want a camera that’ll be able to take a direct phaser blast and keep on shooting without skipping a beat, no wimpy cameras allowed.
#5 Figure out how to get rid of the image sensor filter
Let’s be honest here, it’s kind of ridiculous to make an image sensor with a filter in front of it that softens the image sharpness. This is where film is still better than digital photography. You can’t beat the sharpness from a film camera with a set of high quality lenses, and in the second decade of the 21st century, that’s just plain silly. Are sharp photos too much to ask for? This may be even more challenging to get rid of because of the addition of the integrated cleaning system, which puts even more material in front of the sensor, but does make it cleaner. It’s like making lenses out of the best quality glass and putting a cheap filter on it, resulting in unsharp photos. In this instance, film beats digital cameras, it’s no contest.
#6 Do a better job of streamlining the stinkin’ postprocessing tasks
Every single photographer will agree that postprocessing simply takes way too long. It eats into slim profit margins and turns photographers into computer slaves. Instead of spending time on the creative end of things behind the camera, we’re spending more and more time in front of a computer doing postprocessing tasks. It means that our digital workflow is taking way too long. For an example, why not have the photographs shot at a native resolution of 150 or 300 pixels per inch, since these are already standard sizes for digital editing? Programs like Lightroom are automating many of the postprocessing tasks, but the interface settings between the camera and postprocessing software could be improved and speeded up substantially.
Another reality is that editing film is way faster than editing digital photos. It used to be that a professional photographer would shoot with transparency film, do a set of edits on a light table and simply put the film away in some orderly fashion. A big job could be edited and archived in less than a couple hours. With digital photography it can take days instead of hours to do the same thing. In this sense, digital photography is still way behind film photography and needs to be dramatically speeded up.
Maybe it simply means figuring out a way to speed up the electronic pipeline between the camera and the computer so that archiving and database protocols are way more automated than now. I get the feeling that this is caveman work, striking two stones together to build a fire and we’re missing something very basic here. Maybe it just means that this particular part of the evolution of digital photography is going too slow and something needs to be jump started to get it up to the proper speed. A better compression scheme for files? Pixels that are dual function? You read it here first. This is a copyrighted idea so don’t steal it. Fly me over to Japan to talk to your research and development people; I’ve got some interesting ideas on how to do this, we can solve this bottleneck.
#7 Sturdy interchangeable LCD viewfinder prism & magnifier attachment
One of the really amazing things that medium format camera manufacturers did was to make an entire array of viewfinders that used high quality optics for image magnification and to help shade bright light. Many also had high quality prisms so that you could hold the camera comfortably and naturally while composing your photos.This should be a built-in option for high-end viewfinders to attach to the 5D MKIII LCD screen. For an example, look at the variety of viewfinders that Hasselblad made for their viewing screens. They were both lightweight, had high quality viewing, and built extra rugged so they could take being banged around in everyday use. It’s completely absurd to not have the option of a built-in viewfinder for the LCD screen on a professional camera. I hope that the 5D MKIII eliminates this glaring shortcoming, especially with the advent of shooting digital video, but even with everyday still photography.
#8 Metering, camera controls, digital noise, white balance, etc.
I’m generally impressed with the camera controls and would advocate for increased simplicity whenever possible. As the electronics, image processor and firmware become ever-more sophisticated, their design should aim towards making the camera operations easier and more automated. It’s good to go into manual override along the way too, and there is much to be said for a clean, uncluttered design. If the controls become more sophisticated, something is wrong, because the controls should become simpler as the circuitry becomes more sophisticated. Therefore, the MKIII should be even easier to operate than the MKII.
I do like the philosophy of using dials and buttons for many of the more commonly used controls, it is way faster than navigating through all the layers of menu items. The menu items are nicely and logically planned out too though; I’d try and hold onto this simplicity in future versions.
There is always a bit of digital noise to deal with and this has to do with improved sensor technology. I get the sense that this is very evolutionary and will improve by degrees, unless there is a leap in technology, which could very well may happen at some point. I am certain that in 20 years we’ll be laughing at how crude today’s high-end DSLR cameras were designed. Same with things like white balance and more precise metering. It seems to me that it’s time for a leap in image quality for RAW files with things like an expanded exposure latitude with a broader dynamic range. I don’t want the sky, only better digital photographs.
Same with white balance; it seems that this is also one of the holy grails of digital photography in that it’s a constant quest for making it better. The bottom line lies with how well the camera sensor and image processor interprets specific scenes. The easiest scenes to replicate are simply ones with bright daylight. Good old 5000º Kelvin is easy as pie to interpret, even for cheap point and shoot amateur cameras. I would give the 5D MKII high grades on making accurate photographs in tricky lighting. One of the hallmarks of a good pro is how they make great photos in low light or mixed lighting. I would encourage the Canon research and development people to keep hammering away at how the 5D interprets white balance and to make it even more sensitive to the light and to keep striving for precision, especially in challenging situations.
#9 Don’t sweat the small stuff, but…
I do miss having a built-in flash, even if it’s a piddly wink. It’s useful in a pinch when you just need a burst of light quickly. Sometimes I try raising my hands towards the heavens and bellowing “LET THERE BE LIGHT,” but it hasn’t worked that well yet. I’ll get back to you on that one.
I was horrified at the tinny quality of the built-in microphone. It sounded like a 1960’s recording device, not a 21st century microphone on a top of the line digital camera. For the first time ever, I found myself purchasing an external sound recorder for one of my pro cameras. Even a video neophyte like me didn’t like the built-in mic, so video pros must’ve been even more disappointed.
Yes, we photographers can still sometimes focus better than the autofocus function, especially in tricky situations where you’re using a specialized lens or are shooting a scene with a complex composition where the auto settings may be utterly confused and it’s preventing a photograph from being made quickly. We pros need speed in all situations and it simply does not do to wait for the camera to try and decide where to focus, which is why a better interchangeable viewing screen is critical for getting sharp photos fast.
High Definition Video is all the rage
I’ll confess that video is my weakness and I hardly use it, although I am learning. Shooting high definition video is obviously both an art and a skill with a broad array of collaborators that are necessary if you are to do a bona fide video production. I can see that shooting video is radically different than still photography, and it takes way more production skills in order to do it well, such as scriptwriting, directing, sound, lighting, editing and so on. One of the key elements that is driving the push towards video is the reality that so much of the online content is leaning towards video, and even amateur point and shoot cameras can shoot decent video for online purposes. It makes me curious as to whether us photography professors need to rethink our photography curriculums so that they are more inclusive of current trends like digital video. In the past, video production would be a separate program; maybe now they need to be more closely linked.
I’m not even going to pretend to be an HD digital video pro, but instead, will send you to the Canon website where they have a very informative place for you to learn about what the Canon 5D is capable of producing in the hands of video professionals; check this out:
State of the art
Well, there you have it; my nine (or was that 11?) suggestions for taking the MKIII way better than the MKII. Like I mentioned at the beginning, I suspect that the camera is due to be released fairly soon, and it’ll be fun to see which features Canon has implemented into their new 5D. And I hope that Canon takes me up on my request to talk with their research people as to how to add dramatic speed to their pixels. Until then, happy shooting.
Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil, 2012, All Rights Reserved.