I love Canon cameras. I really do. And it was with great regret that I moved away from Canon last year after being an EOS system user my entire life. I started when I was 5 years old on my father’s EOS 300 film cameras and have then enjoyed every camera up to and including the 5D Mark III, but there was a problem.
I’m sure it wasn’t just me, I’m sure a lot of other pros felt like Canon wasn’t listening. The fact that it felt like I had been abandoned by the system I’d bought into throughout my career hadn’t come at a great time. I was at a crossroads in my career and wanted to make the jump into medium format. At that time I just couldn’t keep my Canon cameras as they weren’t a viable backup with the vast difference in resolution. To me, the only option looked like it was to jump over to Nikon and use their D800 bodies as backups for my Mamiya Leaf and Credo system that I had bought into.
I wasn’t the only person thinking about the switch — it was a conversation that was becoming more and more common when I caught up with other photographers. There seemed to be a general feeling of frustration towards Canon.
For those not familiar with my work, I’m a music and portrait photographer based in London specializing in press shots for artists, labels and magazines. Over the past ten years, I’ve travelled the world with bands on tour or for portrait commissions. I now shoot for a whole host of people and changing focus of my work toward more commercial and advertising arenas, while continuing with portraiture.
I’ve used most cameras in the market and owned all the Canon cameras from the 10D to the 1 series. I’ve also owned Hasselblads (Hassle Blads) and have shot medium format for a few years alongside my 35mm format work, so I have experience in all the main systems.
The feeling of abandonment was frustrating and I wasn’t the only pro feeling that we were being ignored by Canon. So I decided to dive in headfirst and move towards the high megapixel arena. When the switch happened, I sold all my Canon gear (all L series and 5D Mark IIIs) and dropped some serious cash on the Leaf System and Nikon backups.
There was then the inevitable learning curve of learning how these cameras differ from something you’ve used your entire career and how they differed from each other. It felt like the high megapixel vote had been left for dead by Canon — it had been years since the launch of the D800, and then Nikon released the D800e, which went unanswered by Canon. As well as the Leaf and Nikon kit, I also bought a Fuji X100T for behind-the-scenes shots and to use as a daily camera.
Here’s the main Nikon kit:
And here is the main Mamiya setup
So that’s what I switched to. Did I enjoy the new kit? Yes, but only for a few months. I think the novelty and the learning carried me through but there were some things done differently, some that weren’t done at all and some that were just awful. The main points I’ll go into below are broken down into the different systems.
I don’t want this to be a bashing piece — I will say that the quality of the Nikon was good and the quality of the Leaf is phenomenal but to me there is more to using a camera than the finished file. I didn’t get into photography because of the output. Of course that’s a large part of it, but I’ve always loved the process, the clunk and whirrs and the feel of the camera. If I don’t like using a camera then it’s a struggle to enjoy shooting with it!
Here are my good, bad and the ugly points about the Nikon and Leaf systems.
– Good Image Quality
– USB 3.0 Tether
– Comfortable to use
– Deals with rear-curtain flash well
– Slow to use
– No preview on rear screen whilst tethering
– Skin tones look weird on rear screen
– Picture profiles are not as nice as Canons
– Unreliable tethering – had to power cycle often
– Can’t save to card whilst tethered
– Locking of flash/trigger isn’t secure as Canon
– Cannot skip images 10 at a time
– Button not as good/fast as Canon wheel
– AF slow and inaccurate
– No preview on rear screen whilst tethering
– Amazing Image Quality
– USB 3.0 Tether
– Touch screen
– Screen Quality
– Tethers well to Capture One
– Slow to use… really slow.
– Slow to skip through images
– Autofocus inaccurate
– Autofocus slow and hunts regularly
– Awful battery life
– System freezes a lot
– Multiple battery types/chargers
– Lenses are very fragile/sensitive
– Auto WB – not accurate
– Small line of lenses that are very expensive
– Not comfortable to use
– Repairs take weeks (you send to Denmark)
– Fires flash early in about 1/10 shots
– Single memory card slot
– LS Lenses add noticeable delay to shot
– Locks up/freezes and has to be reset
– Firmware requires battery grip (~£1000)
– Firmware a mess – locked my back up
– Awful noise in low light (CCD back)
– No picture profiles for preview screen
– No pro service like CPS/NPS
– Hard to use menus on back
– Custom functions are a nightmare to change
As you can see, I haven’t really enjoyed using the systems above – there are multiple problems that I didn’t like and it meant that I wasn’t enjoying using the cameras. I’d consider this the biggest downside of the systems, I just didn’t like them.
Imagine spending that much money and then finding out you aren’t really a fan (I had used both of these systems before, hired in on jobs, but it’s one thing to hire them for a day and an entirely different one to live with them). Both of the systems were very slow and difficult to review images on.
Annoyingly, they both had image review issues. I know it’s not a common issue but I always put picture profiles on my images in camera. However, Nikon’s picture presets are basic and made skintones look awful. With the Leaf back on the other system, it did not have any picture profile support — in the latest firmware they have enabled a black and white preview mode but when I installed that firmware it wasn’t compatible with my body firmware and caused the back to crash. I rolled back and my previews were stuck in black and white. Not ideal. In the end I found myself shooting in black and white on the Nikon as I simply could not get skin tones to look how I wanted them to — it got quite boring explaining to people that the shots were in colour but displayed in black and white.
So, to summarise — I found that both systems were slow and frustrating to use. I wasn’t getting the look I wanted and I couldn’t get my head around the rear screens. I started to not enjoy using the cameras and they were relegated to tools that I just had to use through necessity rather than desire. On top of that, the medium format kit — which had cost me a huge amount of money — was very fragile compared to the Nikon and Canon systems. It locked up a lot and was generally not massively reliable to use. The picture quality was truly amazing but it’s the journey to get it that was uncomfortable. I was getting increasingly paranoid about the gear failing or breaking on an important shoot.
Then a bomb dropped earlier this year when Canon announced the high megapixel body that I had been after for the past few years. I got straight onto the guys at Calumet at Drummond Street in London and pre-ordered two bodies and a full set of lenses knowing it wouldn’t be shipping for months. It gave me a bit of time to prep the swap and figure out what I was going to do about the other gear and how I would finance it. I should probably note at this point that Canon and Calumet have had nothing to do with this article, what happens next I paid for in full and I did take a loss on the gear. I’ve not been compensated in any way for this piece (I feel it’s always nice to be up front about things like this).
I ordered two of the Canon 5DS cameras — I had thought about the R version but I didn’t want to run the risk of added Moiré. Lens-wise, I decided to go for slower lenses as I felt I needed the image stabilisation more than the speed and opted for three lenses: the 24-70 F/4 L IS, 16-35 F/4 L IS and the 100mm F/2.8 IS L. So far I really like all the lenses, I’ve never really shot too wide but it’s useful to have the IS. I think I definitely made the right decision and so far haven’t missed the speed — I always stopped down anyway, so it’s not a problem!
A couple of things made the swap a little less painful: Calumet was offering a trade-in bonus for bodies towards the 5DS and then on top of that Canon was offering a summer cash back on all the lenses I wanted to get a hold of — thanks to both of those things I found it all a little easier! I chopped in all my Nikon equipment and that really helped.
Here’s the Nikon kit sitting sadly in the corner, do I miss it? No.
I’m a week in with the 5DS. That’s 4 full day shoots and 4 shorter shoots, and it hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s faster than the D800 and the AF is so much better. I haven’t been able to tether it properly yet as I’m waiting for Capture One to release an update to support full tethering support, but if tethering is anything like the 5D Mark III then I will enjoy it. It’ll just be much faster thanks to the USB 3.0.
Here is the new setup:
Just to give you an idea of the quality achievable from the Canon 5DS, I have taken a shot on my Mamiya full setup with the 80mm lens and compared it to the same shot taken on the Canon. A lot of talk has been made about this being a ‘medium format killer’ etc etc. I’m not so sure, but have a look at the files below and see what you think. My rather fetching model is called Ken and he lives permanently in my studio as a pre-light (or to scare people as a prank).
I let the cameras do auto white balance so you can see how much they differ. Both shots were taken at the exact settings (f/6.3 ISO 100 at 1/160). No settings have been applied — just auto white balance and opened in camera raw.
Here’s a shot from the Mamiya (on the right is a 100% crop, click to enlarge):
And here’s that same shot from the Canon with the 100mm 2.8 L IS lens (100% crop on the right, click to enlarge):
The 5DS is a great camera. I really enjoy using it and I think I’ll be really happy using it as a workhorse camera for a couple of years. The images I’ve had out of it are very very good, as are the new lenses I’ve bought. It’ll be fantastic to tether it when Capture One releases an update soon and so far I haven’t really got any complaints. The thumb button took a little time to get used to, as it’s very sensitive, but that’s it so far!
I’ll keep the Mamiya system for the larger commissions when sizes past 40/50mp are required, but for my day to do I’ll be using the new Canon. It looks to me like it’s a camera for almost all shoots, and hopefully will be a proper workhorse.
I’ll say here for the sake of fairness that Nikon has apparently addressed some of the issues I’ve mentioned above in the D810, and Mamiya (Phase One) have just announced a new camera body. But at £4,500 for the body (without a prism!) I think I’ll just rent them in on a job by job basis.
Do I think the 5DS is a medium format killer? No. I think they are two very different camera systems with advantages to both. One thing that I am sure of is that the world of medium format is going to have to step it up or become more accessible. As DSLRs try to be more like medium format, I think it would do the industry no harm if the medium format world tried to be a little more like the DSLR world in ease of use, speed, durability and autofocus.