Earlier today, DxOMark released their evaluation of the Canon 5D Mark IV, concluding that it has made notable strides in sensor performance. Anecdotally speaking, I can corroborate their results based on my time with Canon's latest generation of bodies. For years, many have bemoaned the company's sensors as lacking in dynamic range and being generations behind those of Nikon and Sony, but it seems now that they have essentially caught up to their rivals. However, for the everyday work of photographers, the story is a bit more complicated.
The 5D Mark IV and Why It Matters
The 5D Mark IV is the latest in a new generation of Canon cameras whose sensors represent a major step toward the future for the company. Beginning with the 80D and continuing with the 1D X Mark II, the move to on-chip ADC (among other improvements) has meant reduced read noise, giving better dynamic range. Practically speaking, it's translated to notably easier photography for me. Scenes which normally set off red flags in my head with regards to exposure are now far less worrisome. While I loved my 5D Mark III, its 11.7 stops of dynamic range and poor file latitude meant exposing scenes I couldn't bracket was sometimes an exercise in choosing what information I was going to lose. In particular, shadows had a nasty habit of quickly developing red noise and distinct vertical bands when pushed, meaning the standard technique of preserving highlights via underexposure had to be done very carefully and with less latitude than on other cameras. Just say "shadow banding" to any 5D Mark III shooter and watch them immediately sigh and gaze off into the distance, longingly dreaming of cleaner files.
So, imagine my delight when the 1D X Mark II came along with 13.5 stops of dynamic range and astoundingly improved post-processing latitude. Scenes that used to make me cringe no longer present even a slight challenge. In a very practical and measurable sense, it has improved my output. For example, I recently shot a wedding at which the ceremony took place in a dark room with a large, northwest-facing window directly behind the couple. It took place at 4 p.m., making it a backlit nightmare. Strobing was out, as it was too intrusive to the ceremony. So, I underexposed the couple to preserve the garden scene outside the window. I ended up pushing the shadows about two stops in post, which would have been a disaster had I been using my 5D Mark III, but worked perfectly well with the 1D X Mark II. We also took some portraits beneath a large tree at about 5 p.m. with the couple in a fairly deep shadow under the tree and bright highlights from the sun filtering through. Shown below is the result with only global edits and a radial filter on the couple applied.
Had this been taken on my 5D Mark III, my initial exposure would have had to have been far more to the right, and those sparkly yellow highlights would have become much less appealing, crunchy splotches. Sure, I could have bracketed, but we had very little time for portraits and I wanted to move on. Numbers aside, that's a tangible, worthwhile improvement, and it's the reason why I recently sold my 5D Mark III and am now rocking a 5D Mark IV.
What makes the 5D Mark IV more impressive is that unlike the 1D X Mark II, it received a substantial bump in resolution (almost 40%), and its noise performance is also notably improved. As DxOMark reports, its dynamic range at base ISO is 13.6 stops, giving it a two-stop improvement over its predecessor. While it's not quite of the 14-to-14.5-stop levels of Nikon and Sony cameras, it has closed the gap enough that I would wager 99% of photographers could not discern the difference. What makes this achievement particularly impressive is that Canon also improved resolution and noise performance, and it's rare that the aggregate of the three is improved so substantially across a single generation. For example, Nikon improved the high-ISO performance of the D5 over its predecessor, but its base ISO dynamic range is almost a stop lower. Of course, the D5 is not meant to be their dynamic range monster like the D750 and D810, but rather, the point is to illustrate just how difficult it is to improve all three metrics simultaneously. Sensor development is a tricky thing. And so, the 5D Mark IV is certainly something that should make Canon shooters very happy to own; in my few days with mine, I'm quite thrilled with the results.
Why It Doesn't Matter
Photography existed before the 5D Mark IV and D750 did. And people have been doing amazing work with lesser cameras for generations before. For example, if you check out our new tutorial, "Where Art Meets Architecture 2," you'll see that the 5D Mark III that I was bemoaning (in a relative sense) above and its dynamic range cousin, the 5DS R (12.4 stops), are more than good enough for Mike Kelley. For every rant about measurements I see on an Internet forum, I can find an example of a photographer who does great work with far less capable tech. Even as a mathematician, numbers are only worth so much to me.
That's because the truth of the matter is that modern professional-level cameras are small marvels of technology, and when placed in the hands of a capable photographer, they will get the shot, whether their badge says "Mark III" or "Mark IV." At this point, improvements are less necessary than they are supplemental. I would go so far as to say that I truly believe that there is no job that is possible with one brand's equipment, but not another's. Much like my shot above, these improvements just make our lives easier; they don't rewrite photography.
And so, we should rejoice in some sense. Canon has equalized the sensor game, or at least brought it close enough that the "Nikon/Sony/Fuji/Pentax's dynamic range is so much better" argument is essentially irrelevant. But if you ask me, it was never relevant. The difference between 11.7 and 13.6 stops is not a hard-and-fast line on one side of which rests a certain realm of possible shots and on the other rests another realm. That's because there's a bridge between those two realms: technique. I'm excited for the 5D Mark IV's performance, but I don't place my livelihood in it.