A Lifetime Review of the Canon 5D Mark II

A Lifetime Review of the Canon 5D Mark II

I am about to buy my new cameras, so I thought a review of my trusty fleet of Canon 5D Mark II cameras was in order.

Inspired by Andy Day's post about his Canon 6D, I though I would add my thoughts on the Canon 5D Mark II, especially as we have had several upgrades since then, like the 5D Mark IV that I have rented, but never wanted to purchase. I have had this camera for a very long time, in fact, for the duration of my career as a professional photographer. The first one cost me $1,500 second hand, I then got a second one for £1,000, then a third for $700, and then the last two I purchased cost me $600 each. I have shot about 20 TB of stills on these cameras over the years I have owned them (I do a lot of time-lapse work).

It’s probably worth mentioning that I am not a gear head. For eight years of my photography career, I have worked with the Canon 17-40 f/4L, Sigma 35mm Art, Canon 85mm f/1.8, and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L. It is only recently that I have expanded my lens collection to add macro lenses, tilt-shift lenses, and a 50mm Sigma Art lens. I also don’t have any sentimental feeling toward this camera, hence, having gone through five of them in eight years. I am brutal with my kit and will happily sacrifice a camera for a photograph. However, the one in the image above is the first one that I purchased all those years ago. The shutter count on this is a little scary, but I still use it most days, and it works flawlessly.

The Good

For the work I did, these cameras were true workhorses. I could shoot video, studio, and event work. They are built really well, and I had often shot out in the rain for a full day with no protection. But, my work evolved over the years. When I started out, I shot anything that paid, as we almost all do. Nowadays, I only really work in food photography and very selective genres of portrait photography. These cameras have carried me through from shooting for local clients right through to worldwide campaigns for household names. They are versatile, reliable, and offer great image quality.

The colors are lovely once you know how to work with them, the dynamic range seems fine for most things I shoot, although I would say the orange and red colors seem to have less than the rest, but I don't find myself lacking in these areas. I can get great skin tones as well as pretty accurate food colors when I want them. The ISO capabilities were great for what work I did, and the video function at the time was groundbreaking. I shot a short inflight film on them years ago, as well as promo videos for a big car brand; everyone was happy with the results. And today, the video is plenty good enough, and I rarely venture above ISO 160.

Having had the same camera for so long is also a massive advantage. I know exactly what the files will look like when I open them up and exactly what I can do to them to achieve the final result. This is a massive timesaver. I have to rent bigger cameras now days, and there is always that anxiety having not had the time shooting with them daily that I will struggle to get the output I am looking for. I am a firm believer that you are going to get better images with a camera that you have had for longer and know like the back of your hand than you will with the latest camera that you have only owned for a year. But I am a technophobe, so take from that what you will.

Spec-wise, it has a PC sync port, which is useful, USB tethering, which is vital, and a maximum shutter speed of 1/8,000 of a second, which has been extremely useful with certain clients. The battery life is really impressive, and although I own a box of 15 Canon batteries, I can usually get through a full day with whats in the battery grip. I just like to be prepared!

The Bad

With eight years of shooting, I really can't complain, as this camera has been great. However, it wasn’t all good. Those tether ports would repeatedly break or become temperamental, costing me around $400 a repair (three times). I did blow through two shutters, but I did get a lot out of them. I had a PC board break before a shoot, which was another $500 repair. So all in with purchase and repairs (get in the comments if my math is bad): $5,600, which I think is pretty good for eight years of professional use. I certainly made my money back. If I had purchased duplicate bodies at all purchase points throughout the years of upgrades (5D Mark III and 5D Mark IV), I would have spent $12,000 more (ish), and I wouldn't have made any more money. So, I would basically have lost $12,000 over the last perhaps 4-6 years of the eight years use. Again, loose findings with too many variables, but the short is, I would have less money in my bank for no gain in my field of photography. 

It only had one AF point of any use, which nowadays isn’t an issue, but when I was shooting events weekly, it was a real pain in the behind. It also only had one card slot, again, not an issue for the work I do now where I am tethered, but I did get the fear when I was shooting weddings back in the day. I still shoot the odd time-sensitive item with the single card slot, but I tend to use multiple cameras, so I always have something should a card die. That and using cards no bigger than 8 GB helps calm the nerves.

Where Do I Go From Here?

My work has changed dramatically in the last few years. What I need now is greater resolution, for both practical reasons, in terms of print size, as well as for economical reasons. Some of the social media work I do requires me to break images down into lots of smaller ones, having the resolution at the point of cropping certainly helps keep the integrity of the image.

I also have creative directors ask for heavy crops after the fact if the creative direction has been changed after the shoot. Having another 30-70 megapixels to throw away would be useful and save tricky conversations.

My next purchases will be the Canon 5DS and a Phase One system to work alongside each other. I need both for what I do. Traveling and working fast with a Phase One is not always fun, but it produces much nicer colors, and the lenses render food far more favorably than the Canon ones do.The Canon system is fast, portable, and reliable. I don't think I could completely step away from this. I am still renting these cameras at the moment before I decide to commit to a system. Buying as a professional is not the simple cause of purchasing a single Canon 5DS. You need a few backups and to understand the economy of repairs over the lifetime of the purchase. I try to make all purchases from a business point of view, rather than what I would like to have. It must first be justified to the earnings of the company, either by an increase in gross or a decrease in time spent working (so I can go and look for new clients).

Should You Buy a 5D Mark II?

You can pick up used Canon 5D Mark II cameras for very little money now. If you work with studio lighting or with subjects that do not move, this camera is perhaps the best bang for you buck that you can get from Canon and is plenty good enough for commercial applications for small clients and worldwide brands in 2019. It has carried me through to a point where the shoots were being used worldwide for major brands in print campaigns and hasn’t let me down. If it weren't for the resolution that I now need, I would still be shooting with these cameras until something came out from Canon with a higher bit depth. I will keep my Canon 5D Mark II bodies that I have left and use them for shooting b-roll, behind the scenes snaps, any random event work that I find myself doing, and as a travel camera when I fancy taking snaps out and about without looking like I am trying to compensate for something by carrying a Phase One to the local market. 

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42 Comments

Previous comments

I love these work-focused, long-term field reviews. They are so interesting and useful. The only problem is that you have to wait 3 to 6 years for them.

Scott Choucino's picture

haha, yeah, I have a few I have put together for the lenses I use too. They should be dripping through over the next few weeks.

Maksims Ter-Oganesovs's picture

one of the best cameras I have ever seen

Scott Choucino's picture

They are great, especially for the price.

Ed Sanford's picture

Bravo, Great article.... I now have the 5DSR which to me is the next logical step up as long you are not doing sports or heavy nature work. I still carry my trusty 5D MKII as backup and for "junking around" like out on my boat because I don't care if it gets wet. I've taken some of my best work with that camera. I was late in shifting from film to digital and the MKII was my first DSLR. I think that camera deserves a lot of props.

Scott Choucino's picture

yeah I think I will end up chucking one at home and leaving one in the studio for BTS work.

Michael Holst's picture

The 5D2 was a pretty great introduction into Full Frame for me. It was a huge step up from what I had been using in the past and the colors always amazed me. I felt it was time to move onto something new when I grew tired of bringing it with me while traveling. With a career change I didn't need all of the bells and whistles anymore but I will always remember the build quality that it came with. It's just too much camera for my needs now.

My only gripe was getting lens calibration... I could never seem to get it to be consistent and with portraits I'd end up with OOF photos more than I'd like. Could have been user error and wonky lenses more than the camera itself but I could never really get it to work consistently for me.

Scott Choucino's picture

Lens calibration is a really art, it drives me mad and for me to do 3 bodies and all of my lenses, it takes me the entire day!

Michael Holst's picture

I always seemed to get one lens set, then after getting another lens set, the others I had just done would now be off... I made sure that I wasn't overwriting the other lens profiles too... IT SUCKED! It was good incentive to not shoot wide open as much hah.

Richard Bradbury's picture

Not sure how you go about lens calibration Scott, but Focal software is the bomb for it.

https://www.reikanfocal.com/

Sigmas are a pain in the as though because you have to faff with the dock.

I used my original 5D for every gig until the MkIII came out. Then I waited a bit, and picked up a 5DmkII a local catalogue shooter had as a 2nd backup that had little use. I wanted it for a little extra resolution, the better screen, and the video stuff so I could mess about with it.

I still use that 5DmkII for every gig. I've never had a client complain about file quality or size. I know these two damn cameras like they are extensions of my arm. I can adjust stuff with my eyes closed, or while keeping eye contact with client so I don't break the connection.

Unless a meteor comes hurdling towards earth, breaks atmosphere and decides to land in my studio, I don't have any reason to upgrade. It produces gorgeous results when you know how to work with it's limitations.

Cheers,
Sid

Scott Choucino's picture

Absolutely.

I had one of the original 5D cameras when I started out. The skin tones that camera produces are amazing. The only reason I upgraded was for tethering to lightroom. I rarely need more than 10 mega pixels,