Canon 5DS

Real World Review

The first digital SLRs were released around the turn of the millenium and by the standards of the time were megapixel monsters. While most consumer digital cameras were still hovering around the single megapixel mark, the new generation of DSLRs were coming out with unheard of numbers like 3 or even 4 megapixels! Very soon after all major manufacturers then went head to head in the megapixel wars. It was a race to see who could cram the most pixels into a camera, even after camera resolutions had quickly passed the minimum useful number needed for most photographers. For many years the megapixel was touted as the single most important measure of a camera.

Eventually, almost a decade later, the megapixel counts stabilised. Photographers were  savvier about what was important to them in a camera and focus shifted to other features such as dynamic range & low-light performance. Megapixel counts still trended upwards but at a much slower rate. In 2012 Nikon, using a Sony sensor, changed the game with their D800. Ramping up the megapixel count to 36 it demonstrated that there were tangible technical benefits from a high resolution sensor and, more importantly, proved there was a section of the market very keen to take advantage of it. Sony followed up with their own 36mp A7R and all eyes switched to see if Canon would take the bait and produce a high-megapixel camera of their own.

It took a few years - time enough for both Nikon & Sony to release their second generation models - but with the 5DS/5DSR Canon have not only re-joined the war but upped the ante. With 50.6 megapixels, more than a third higher than the competition, photographers have understandably been quite excited to see how Canon's new camera stacks up against the competition. With new 120mp SLRs announced, are we set to see another megapixel "arms race" begin? I've spent several weeks with it and given it a thorough assessment. 

Just in case... there are some macro photos of spiders and creepy-crawlies below. Proceed at your own risk! :)

Out of the Box

Everything you'd expect from a pro-grade camera. The camera itself, LP-E6N battery (more on this later) plus charger, strap, USB cable, manuals and all the associated Canon software.

5DS or 5DSR - What's The Difference?

The Canon Australia site has a very clear description of the differences. In summary, the cameras are essentially identical but for a Low Pass Filter on the 5DS. This is added to reduce the effect of moire but blurs the image slightly and reduces resolution. The 5DSR does away with this filter, increasing the potential resolution but likely increasing the post-processing burden to correct and moire & false-colour effects.

Usage & Handling

First impressions are pretty consistent with what I've come to expect from top-end Canon gear. Reassuringly solid & weighty in the hand, and especially well-balanced when paired with good glass, it definitely has the feel of a reliable & professional unit. In particular, it felt very similar to the 5D mark 3, unsurprisingly so given it's the latest extension of that line. At 845g it's not light but in comparison to its nearest rival, Sony's new A7RII, it's only 200g heavier. I think this goes to show how the previously disparate mirrorless and DSLR camps are converging, slowly, towards a "best of both worlds" solution. It's undoubtedly chunkier in dimensions than its mirrorless relatives which comes as no surprise.

I was actually a little surprised the 5DS didn't feel heavier as one of the changes Canon has made to the chassis is to add structural reinforcement to the chassis. This is directly related to the new sensor; with the increased resolution afforded by 50 megapixels comes an increased tendency for camera shake to blur the shot. Not only have Canon reinforced and damped the body, the 5DS also features a tweaked mirror design in an attempt to further limit blur caused by the internal mirror slapping up & down. Though it's not the most scientific of studies I did compare the number of shots taken vs. sharp keepers for the 5DS along with recent review images taken using of the 7D2, 760D and 6D. I noticed a fairly comparable rate across all cameras so the structural improvements appear to have been worthwhile.

It comes with two memory card slots, one for Compact Flash (CF) and another for SD. As with other professional grade cameras it does NOT have a built-in flash, only a hot shoe for external flash connection.

I was happy to see that Canon have included the anti-flicker white balance correction mode, seen in the 7D mark 2 and 760D, which is hugely useful. I'm not sure but I think it's the first time this feature has made it onto a full-frame camera too.

As you can see the control layout is pretty standard and at first glance looks almost identical to the 5D mark 3. I'm not sure if Canon have tweaked the design of the little "nipple" joystick but I found this one was a lot easier (and less painful) to use than that on the 5D3 and 7D2. Maybe it's just some slight divergence between individual units.

It's getting a little boring having to write it each time but again Canon have their sensible, well-designed menu system. It's no understatement that keep things simple & consistent across models helps immensely; it makes it much easier to get to grips with new cameras and when teach beginners, demonstrating features in an easy-to-use way visibly makes them lean towards that model. 

The general rule of thumb with camera sensors is usually that there's a trade-off between sensitivity & resolution. There are multiple factors to consider but generally speaking larger sensors have better light-gathering (and "better" noise characteristics) than smaller sensors, and for any given sensor size the greater the megapixel count the poorer the overall sensitivity & noise handling. This is the same situation with the 5DS - we gain drastically increased resolution at the expense of higher, cleaner ISO values. The standard range is 100-6400 expandable out to 50-12,800. The latter of these is so noisy and ugly it simply is not worth using; to all intents and purposes the camera's working limit is 6400. Even then, I found the results at 6400 to be inconsistent in the final image. Partly this is down to personal preference & experience and I admittedly prefer low-light capability in my personal cameras. I found it made me have to slow down and not simply snap away, trusting in Auto ISO to yield good results. In some respects, it reminded me a little of the Sigma DP1 Quattro, another "high-res" camera which demands a more patient approach to photography. Though I have to stress, the 5DS is a much more capable camera :)

When testing I try to use as wide a range of lenses as possible, from as many different manufacturers as possible. Typically this covers various Samyang, Sigma and Tamron models. To date I've never encountered any compatibility problems even though it's never guaranteed that the autofocus systems on third-party lenses will work reliable. Historically, it's usually only old lenses with new cameras that could potentially have issues. Unfortunately in the case of the 5DS I did encounter some isolated issues in a couple of Tamron lenses. When shooting through the viewfinder performance was exactly as I'd expect; no issues in any AF mode. Switching to live-view was a different issue though, and both the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC and the 150-600mm lenses would not focus at all in this mode, under any circumstance or conditions. The 24-70 would hunt slowly & constantly across the entire focus range and never lock, whereas the 150-600mm wouldn't even hunt and the AF box just flickered.

I've uploaded a very brief sample, shot on iPhone, to illustrate the effect on the 150-600mm lens. It's not the greatest quality but clearly shows the flickering issue and failure to "go green" with a focus lock. There is no audio on this short clip. This has been recognised by Tamron and a lens firmware update has been created to fix the issue - take your lens into a Tamron service centre to resolve this.

In all other situations I found the AF to be generally very good. With Canon lenses it did feel a little snappier as you might expect. It has 61 AF points with 21 cross-type and shares many of the same AF modes as the 7D mark 2 although its overall autofocus performance does lag behind the latter. Testing it out in an indoor badminton tournament the AF of the 5DS paired with a 24-70 f/2.8 was capable although ultimately the poor lighting forced high ISOs and slower shutter speeds. Though it seems somewhat incongruous to have a camera dedicated to a slower, planned photography with an extremely capable autofocus, the fact that Canon are doing this in more & more cameras is a welcome change.

As I hinted at earlier on the ISO limit of 6400 really did bite. I knew that the huge jump in resolution would come at the expense of reduced low-light capability but when you're used to letting the camera hit 6400 in Auto ISO mode and get clean results I swiftly found that I needed to urgently change my mindset with the 5DS. Shooting above 1600 was risky in most circumstances and 6400 is just plain ugly. It definitely demands a slower, more considered approach to shooting.

This was shot at ISO 6400, f/2.8 on a Tamron 24-70mm VC. It's not bad at all given the conditions but is an example of the 5DS pushed to what I felt were the limits.

This was shot at ISO 6400, f/2.8 on a Tamron 24-70mm VC. It's not bad at all given the conditions but is an example of the 5DS pushed to what I felt were the limits.

Chatting to the Canon techie-guys ahead of receiving my review unit, I was warned the battery life for the 5DS was reduced in comparison to other models using the LP-E6 battery. Most of Canon's major DSLRs use this same battery and generally speaking the performance is excellent. The LP-E6N is a new model of battery with the same form factor but some internal changes to adhere to new Japanese battery law. While it does have a very slight increase in capacity, to all intents and purposes it's the same as the LP-E6.

I tried the 5DS using both types batteries and performance was disappointing. In my own personal 6D, the camera easily lasts two days and thousands of shots. I used the 5DS on Canon's recent Photomarathon event and took two fully charged batteries, not expecting to need the second but I barely made it through the event. On one day I was astonished to see a battery fully-charged overnight start flashing red after only a couple of hours - see the screenshot of the camera battery panel below. While I think it's fairly clear the new sensor is more power hungry than predecessors and taken on face value the performance is poor at best, I think there may be some mitigating factors. For instance, I did use Live View to compose landscape shots a little more than I normally would, partly because I was conscious of the need to keep the camera as steady as possible to avoid motion blur. Overall though I felt like I was having to nurse the camera battery through the day, keeping it shut off when not in use and it did give me the same feeling I have when using mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras have the excuse of a MUCH smaller battery :)

I was gob-smacked when I saw this. Full to 10% in a few hours and after only 132 shots. Not acceptable in my opinion.

I was gob-smacked when I saw this. Full to 10% in a few hours and after only 132 shots. Not acceptable in my opinion.

Aside from pointing out the unusual battery problem and ISO gripes, I am struggling to find anything worth writing about how the camera handles. This is because in the majority of cases it just functions as you'd expect. It's reliable; it just works

As a final point, it's worth noting that Canon issued an advisory that due to the enhanced resolution capability of the sensor only a subset of its EF lenses are advised for use with the 5DS/5DSR. Lenses not on this list are unable to make full use of the resolving power of the sensor. I have tested the effect of using a recommended vs. not-recommended lens and will share the details in the image quality section below. For now, the list below shows only the recommended lenses.

Image Quality

This is the acid test :) Does the 5DS have demonstrably better image quality than its peers?  How does it handle low-light/high ISO situations? How does it render diffraction blur? 

As usual I've tried to use the camera in a wide variety of situations, including those it's "designed" for as well as other common scenarios. Unfortunately I wasn't able to schedule a portrait shoot during the time I had with the 5DS. I'll aim to do that when I check out the 5DSR.

I started with the areas I thought would challenge it; the low-light/ISO capability. In a nutshell, the 5DS is absolutely fine to ISO 800, pretty good at 1600 and "generally OK" at 3200 - though for the latter this can be quite hit & miss. Converting to black & white generally helps these higher ISO images a lot.  6400 is ugly though, with muddy colours and a notable lack of sharpness. 12,800 is a waste of time.

This shows the ISO handling characteristics from 100 - 12,800.  Upto 1600 is pretty good with clean shadows but afterwards the performance drops off a cliff.  See this page for larger examples.

When you factor in the kind of photography this camera will be used for - studio, landscape, anything in controlled or slower situations - the ISO characteristics are very good. You can push it out of this comfort zone but when it goes too far, the results get worse quite quickly. 

How the sensor handled diffraction was another scenario I was keen to test. The images below show this pretty clearly - upto f/8 everything is fine & I was hard pushed to see any diffraction blurring in the final image. Beyond f/8 things again were scenario dependent but f/16 was realistically the highest I'd ever personally choose to push it. Even then, I'd probably try to keep it at f/11 or lower unless I absolutely had no option.

I used this scene with a tripod mounted camera and fixed aperture to test the diffraction characteristics of the 5DS. Shown below are samples at 100%. With the pixel density equivalent, roughly, to the 7D mark 2 you would expect similar rendering of diffraction blur on the 5DS.

From left to right, f/4, f/8 and f/11, unsharpened crops at 100%

To my eye f/4 is probably the sharpest and although f/8 is still perfectly useable. f/11 shows just how bad the rendering of diffraction at this aperture can be and is an unavoidable side-effect of such a pixel-dense sensor rendering diffraction blur.

My advice would be to use f/8 as a working ceiling and focus stack your shots when enhanced DOF is needed. Keep f/11 in reserve if you really, REALLY need it :)

The rest of this section shows a range of sample images I shot with the 5DS.

A jumping spider shot at f/8, 1/160th sec and ISO 200. A ringflash was used to get the DOF and shutter-speed I needed & you can see the rather unusual-but-cool catchlight in his eyes. In reality this little guy was just under 2cm in length. See below for a 100% crop

The same shot but with a 100% crop. To be honest, the level of detail in this file is absolutely unreal. Blown away by the detail, clarity and sharpness straight out of the RAW files. Though it's had minimal levels of colour balancing, clarity & sharpness applied in Lightroom, the resolution is simply amazing.

Another flash-lit shot, this frog was asleep and totally oblivious to my presence. If I had been a snake he'd have been in big trouble.

Though it is by no means the best option for street photography, in good light it's still quite capable. Paired with the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 VC here shot at f/8, 1/250th sec & ISO 1600. Converting to monochrome helps take the edge off the noise. 

On paper the 5DS has the same dynamic range as the 5D3, approximately 12 stops. Canon are still lagging slightly in this area and whether or not this is a big deal is largely driven by what you shoot. For the image above the only blown highlight was the lower-left side of the scrolling.

Though landscapes are where the 5DS would get a chance to excel unfortunately I didn't get much of a chance to shoot them! Still, with only minor tweaking in Lightroom the results are still extremely good.

This shot is essentially straight out of camera with one exception - I've boosted the highlights along the length of the tanker to show what kind of detail can be teased out of the RAW files.

I know what you're thinking... the 5DS is a landscape or studio photographer's wet dream but its the macro shots that are the best sample images! This is essentially SOOC with only RAW-processing sharpening applied. Again, at 100% the fine detail is simply staggering.

Another example of how much dynamic range can be teased out of the RAW files - the scene was exposing for the significantly brighter sky & musuem but the foreground was still recoverable. I could have pushed this even further.

To test Canon's claim that some lenses can't do the sensor justice I took one lens NOT on the list, the 17-40 f/4, and one that is recommended, the 11-24mm f/4.  I shot an identical scene with both lenses at a range of different apertures.  With no exceptions, the newer glass outperformed the older glass. The older lens produced perfectly useable results in the vast majority of case. I didn't expect to see much difference, and if there was it wouldn't make much effect, but the resolving power of the camera is such that it does make a visible difference and is especially noticeable in prints.

This is one of the scenes I chose, shooting inside Marina Bay Shoppes on a bright sunny day. The kind we used to get before the perma-haze arrived.

Shot on the 17-40L, 100th sec, f/4, ISO100.

Look at the floor tiles & white grouting between them.

Shot using the 11-24mm f/4, 60th sec, f/4, ISO 100

I hadn't realised the shutter speed changed between shots but it hasn't affected the result. As you can plainly see, the 11-24mm lens is much cleaner wide open and although both lenses improved at f/8 the newer lens still had a noticeable improvement in detail & microcontrast.

Specifications

Some headline specifications are given below but for the full list, click here for Canon's site.

  • 50.6 megapixel CMOS sensor, full frame 36x24mm size, 3:2 aspect ratio
  • EF mount
  • 61 AF point, 21 cross-type multi mode AF system, focus down to -2 EV
  • ISO (50)/100-6400/(12800), expansion modes in parantheses
  • 1/200th flash sync
  • 5fps burst mode (with compatible media)
  • FHD 1920x1080 movie recording, 30/25/24fps

Conclusion

The 5DS is an exceptional camera capable of exceptional results. With good glass, good technique and in the right conditions it's capable of producing images with sharpness & colour rendition I've not seen in any other camera. At its best, the images from this camera are absolutely glorious.

That said, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. Unbelievable resolution comes with its drawbacks and for many photographers it's entirely possible they won't need or even be able to make use of the best the sensor has to offer. This camera excels in certain key genres that can either make full use of the resolution and typically are more suited to patient & considered photography technique. Whereas the 5D mark 3 was a universal step up from the 5D mark 2 that essentially all photographers could see benefit from, the 5DS is more of a new, specialised branch from the same "5D-root". I hesitate to describe it simply as a sidegrade because the image quality is such a step-up, but it's not accurate to claim it's an upgrade.

Overall, if you *know* you will be able to match this camera with the glass it deserves and will use it in the right situations, you will not be disappointed. It will produce simply gorgeous images. Get it now. For everyone else, it's probably not worth ditching what you have just yet; maybe rent one for a weekend to see if it meets your needs and expectations. It is for this reason the camera only has one "pro" - the image quality - and several "cons". Whether these turn out to be showstopping issues for you is entirely down to your own personal needs & shooting style. 

My own experience with the camera swung from extremes of absolute joy at seeing what it's capable of to frustration when I banged my head against the limits of its ISO & battery life. But when the time came to give it back it was very hard to let go... :)

What I'm now wondering is if the 5DS was this good, what about the 5DSR?! It's going to be exciting!

Pros

  • Absolutely astonishing, best-in-class resolution & image quality
  • The image quality is SO good it gets a second mention :)

Cons

  • Disappointing battery life compared to other DSLRs, similar performance to mirrorless cameras
  • Low-light sensitivity is poor; ISO 3200 is probably the useable ceiling, 6400 is almost always horrible
  • Diffraction ceiling is relatively low for the types of work this camera will be used for
  • Best results only possible with a small subset of expensive lenses
  • Large file sizes and RAW files slow lightroom noticeably, even on a brand new computer