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. 

Log in or register to post comments

42 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Danged mini-USB ports breaking! Had to break one to be convinced to get a genuine jerk-stopper.

Richard Bradbury's picture

I made my own with a cable tie and a lanyard snap hook. No way that jerk stopper is worth £25.

The cables are great though from tether tools. The bright orange has prevented me from going ass over tit a few times.

Also I hear you re the usb port. Had the main board replaced on my primary 5DII recently after 2 years straight of tethering.

The design of those ports is crap.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah there are lots of options. The Jerk stopper is very expensive for what it is, but it has lasted several years.

If I have been a Canon shooter (I use Nikon since 40 years) I would be happy to buy a mark II if the money asked for it was OK. My friend shoots professionally and the files from her Canon 5D mark II are lovely.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah, I am sure Nikon has a similar model, I have only used Canon for 35mm cameras so I am not sure what it would be. The files are great though.

Owain Shaw's picture

Still using my Canon 5D Mark II as well, and still finding it to be plenty of camera for my own needs in 2019. It might not have the latest bells and whistles but my pictures still come out looking great, and that one AF point is enough for me ... especially because I've gone back to Manual Focus lately. I'm likely to use this camera until it dies and then consider what I'd like to buy when that time comes but for now, it's plenty good enough for my personal projects.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah they are plenty good enough for most applications. You will no doubt get years more use from it.

Tony Tumminello's picture

My 5D Mark II is a few thousand clicks away from what Canon rates those shutters for, so it's on death watch as far as I'm concerned. When it eventually fails, I'm not sure if I'm going to upgrade the camera or get the shutter replaced. It's such a workhorse of a body that I've been very happy with, and since I don't do a ton of action work I'm not sure if an upgrade to the Mark III or IV would be worth it for me.

Scott Choucino's picture

I wouldn’t worry too much, mine went to around 4-500,000 shutter actuations each.

For action the upgrades worth it, but I couldn’t justify it if I didn’t shoot at least 30% of that sort of thing.

Tony Tumminello's picture

We have a 5D Mark IV in the office which I get to play with and spoil myself with, but for personal use there's no pressing reason for me to move up. I even use my original 5D at times just for the fun of it. Sure it's not the same quality as any remotely modern full frame, but it has the experience of handling like a film camera that just so happens to spit out digital files which I rather like when I'm in the mood.

Richard Bradbury's picture

I have to agree regarding the shutter count. My last 5D II body to be added to the kit had 96k on at time of purchase.

They will fail when they fail.

Oliver Kmia's picture

One of my 6Ds is above 500k but Canon rates this camera for 100k actuations. You should be fine ;)

Richard Bradbury's picture

Solid article Scott.

Even at what 11 years old the 5D II has plenty of life in it yet for a range of work. I have put £2500 in bodies (3 all used) and repairs so far so not a bad ROI at all. Not had a shutter die yet but when it happens I will just get it replaced.

Had a Canon 5Ds on order recently but came to my senses and cancelled it. Three 5D II bodies are enough for what I and my clients need right now

I am looking in to time lapse more myself and am curious as to what your workflow is on that. Possible future article?

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah I will pop something together. It's a very simple thing to set up. It does rack up the shutter count though.

Spy Black's picture

The studio I work still has one Mk II. Not that we love it somehow, the studio owners are cheapskates that run everything into the ground, and this one has miraculously survived. :-) Certainly robust workhorses, but for the accuracy in color we need for some of the product work we do I can't say they're really great, their successor either. We make do with them. Still, it churns on until death doth part.

Scott Choucino's picture

What calibration are you using for your colour accuracy?

Spy Black's picture

Well besides calibrated monitors we tried X-Rite on LR/CR and one of the photographers had something he did on CO (3 of the studios are tethered via CO). In each case all that happened was colorspace got jumbled around, but the cameras reacted the same way. I've never seen anything like it actually. Wood records red hot, and the cameras have the strange phenomenon of imposing a color cast, per image, based on the predominant color in the image. Prints and artwork are a nightmare. I wound up convincing the company to get a Nikon to shoot prints and artwork, because that was requiring massive retouching (re; time). We ran some tests with Nikon, Sony Olympus, and Panasonic cameras and none of them exhibited any excessive color problems (Nikon and Olympus were the most accurate). They worked right out of the gate.

I suspect how Canon's "color science" are popular for "skin tones" is the reason behind what we're seeing. The cameras are great for wedding, fashion, portrait, and non color critical stuff like sports and live events like concerts and such. They're well made, robust and reliable machine for sure.

The 5dII was the worst camera i have every used the focus was shocking!
https://www.hackerweddingphotography.co.uk
https://www.hackerphotography.co.uk

Scott Choucino's picture

I have heard a lot of complaints about AF, but with all of the bodies I have used I've never had an issue.

I wince every time I think of the 5D2. As a Canon shooter, that was the last of the truly Oh-Wow moment of my brand -- the camera everyone was talking about, and coveting. I'm still a Canon guy (and like my 5DS), but I crave one more Oh-Wow Canon entry in my lifetime.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah it was a major jump in the world of digital. I think the 5Ds is the next landmark camera, but it's not that much of a leap

jacob kerns's picture

The Canon 5d Mark II was the reason I switched to Nikon. I shot Canon film and the Canon 5d Mark II was the camera I switched to digital with. It was defective out of the box (focusing issues) and Canon wouldn't fix it. So much so that the Camera store I bought it from was so embarrassed by Canon's actions he let me swap to Nikon straight up 3 months after purchase.

Matei Horvath's picture

I might be hated for saying this here and don't want to rain on anyone's parade. I had the original 5D but when the mark II came out I absolutely despised it. While I agree they are workhorses, it's not my cup of tea. And I admire anyone that can take amazing pictures with this camera but all it did to ma was made me switch to a different system. Also, might just be me but spending $1,500 on a camera and $4,100 on repairs that just doesn't add up. You would have bought two second hand Mark III or a Mark IV and a lens with that (both mark II and IV much, much better imho)

Scott Choucino's picture

I think you might have the numbers mixed up. Its about $1700 on repairs. At any point I could have upgraded, but with the use I give cameras, they would all need repairs eventually to. But, with all of these things its a risk. You might spend $700 on a repair, get the camera back and then it bricks the next day.

Gerry O'Brien's picture

My 5D Mark II was a real workhorse for 8 years, until a light snowfall got some moisture inside the electronics and left me with a delightful paperweight. I upgraded to the 5D Mark IV, and love it. 50% more pixels and better moisture seals too.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah I hear the weather sealing is greatly improved on the Mk IV.

Matthew Saville's picture

The Canon 5D2 was the epitome of Canon's business tactic, "oh, if you want THAT feature, you need to buy our $8,000 flagship!"

Canon thought they could get away with it because Nikon was still so new to the full-frame market, even when the D700 came out, offering almost all the flagship features of the D3 but with a $3K price tag. (Including D3 AF, and 8 FPS when using a battery grip, too!) In the following years, however, I lost count of how many fellow wedding and portrait photographers ditched their 5D/5D2 in favor of the D700.

Yeah, the 5D2 was a ground-breaking camera in that it was the first DSLR to offer 1080p video, but that was about it. Everything else about it was a severely held-back version of a 1-series camera, from the Rebel-like AF system, frame rate and other speed-related features, to the image quality that proved to be the tip of the iceberg for Canon hitting a brick wall in terms of base ISO dynamic range.

The thing that solidified my distaste for Canon's business model was an ad that I saw in a magazine: in quite a few issues they ran an ad for the 5D2 which had a fisheye shot of a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset, with amazing dynamic range, and whatever tag line Canon thought was smart about the 5-series' newfound resolution boost. (After all, it was a lot like the 1Ds3 sensor, so it had to be good, right?)

Unfortunately, a few issues later, I saw a tutorial article published by the Canon-sponsored landscape photographer who had actually made that image. It was an HDR composite and required either a 5EV or 7EV bracket in order to achieve decent detail in both the highlights and shadows.

I kid you not. This actually happened. If you want to I'm sure you can look it up; it was in Outdoor Photographer Magazine around the time the 5D2 was released, within the first year or so.

Yeah, it was a ground-breaking camera. It was also a dark mark in Canon's history that they should be ashamed of.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah I dreamed of owning a few 1DSmk3 bodies, but for the higher specs, the price just wasn't justifiable.

Matthew Saville's picture

There was a very narrow window when $8K was an OK price for a flagship DSLR. They got away with it in the 1Ds series for a bit, and Nikon barely got in on the tail end of that price range with the D3X, but after Nikon joined the full-frame game, Canon realized just how mediocre their 1Ds series sensors were compared to the next generation that was coming, and they also realized that Nikon was going to force their hand in the $3K range, leading to the 5D3 with 1-series autofocus, dual card slots, and the D800 of course, the birth of the lineage of landscape kings.

It's crazy what you can get a 1Ds2 or even a 1Ds3 for these days, they're dirt cheap.

More comments