Canon 5D classic in 2020: downsizing to 12Mp

Canon 5D classic

In his latest post, TOP’s Mike Johnston (The Online Photographer) asked:

“How did so much time pass that I can be nostalgic about old digital cameras?!”

My answer is: 15 years.

A few months back I picked up super duper cheap a nice Canon 5D “classic” (the very first version, in all its 12Mp glory), mostly because of the price and the nice Canon flash it came with. I had for years a 5D mark II, loved the color rendering, but I didn’t like very much everything else because it burned the highlights like crazy and there was no way to lift the shadows without horrible banding. Remember: I live in the super sunny South of Italy and I shoot a lot of woodland photography, where contrasts are extreme.

I started shooting with the 5d “classic” during the lockdown, and I quickly discovered that:

  1. it reacts almost like film to highlights. I can blow them almost 3 full stops and still fully recover them. Yes the shadows are crap, you can’t recover almost anything, but I rarely if ever need to.
  2. with a couple of presets I managed to tailor to the output of this camera (1 color, 1 b/w) I can process ALL my pictures in a couple of seconds flat. Compare this with the several minutes I have to spend on Fuji or Nikon files to massage them to my own taste. And I tried for years to develop a couple presets for Sony (when I used that), Fuji, Nikon etc. that worked well with pretty much all my images, but to no avail. And by the way, Canon JPGs (with a couple tweaks I did) are way nicer than Fuji’s, at least for my own taste.



      
  3. I really like a camera with fewer controls than a jet aircraft
  4. I can shoot it all day at 800 Iso, and still be able to blow up the files pretty big, because even when there is noise, it is still pleasant, even if no, it doesn’t look like film grain (only film grain looks like film grain)
  5. (but I already new this) even if I was an early adopter of EVFs and I’ve used plenty of mirrorless cameras (Sony, Fuji, Olympus etc) I still prefer NOT to see a filtered version of the world, because it limits my imagination (if I keep the exposure preview on) or at the very least it keeps me not “in the moment” (I’m conscious I’m looking at a screen). This was for me the main reason to buy the X-Pro 2 (optical viewfinder), but I quickly discovered that it still looked like the finder of a digital camera, even with all the indicators turned off. Even worse, in really low light, maybe because it has some kind of LCD layer on top, you can’t really see anything. And I mean: anything. You can’t even compose. I compared side to side the X-Pro 2 with the 5D, and with this oldie-but-goodie I had no problem seeing an interior moonlit scene; I was even able to focus manually, albeit it took a few attempts!

Long story short: I’m selling my Nikon and Fuji and all their lenses (they are on eBay right now!). I’ll keep only my m4/3 kit because of its size.

Yes, the weight of the Canon 5D is considerably more than the one of a mirrorless camera, especially paired with something like the (amazing) Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art series. But the results are worth the effort, and anyway I’m accustomed to lugging around medium and large format film cameras. Besides, I plan to buy at some point the nice 40mm f/2.8 pancake, to make the camera really portable for those occasions where I really want to travel light.

12Mp are plenty for printing even really detailed scenes at the very least up to 50x70cm, and probably up to 60x90cm (but I’ve yet to try this size). And side-to-side they are sharper than the 16Mp micro 4/3 Olympus OM-D E-M10’s files (that I know for a fact I can print up to 60x90cm without a hitch) and once upscaled surprisingly difficult to tell apart even from 36Mp Nikon’s files, as long as the subject doesn’t have a lot of intricate detail.

With most subjects, my guess is that exactly the slight lack of sharpness compared to a 100Mp monster what renders Canon 5D images less hyperreal and more photographic in rendering.

Another big plus is that a 12Mp sensor has a really low pixel density, so I can actually handheld the camera at decent shutter speeds without inducing camera shake just because…you know…I’m alive. Needless to say that importing, exporting and working on 12Mp files in Lightroom is exceedingly fast…

That said, I might pick up a 50Mp 5Ds or 5Ds-R for when I really want to print BIG or I want the hyperreal effect (woodland scenes with loads of intricate detail and such). But even than I plan to use the 12Mp 5D for pretty much everything else. Yes, it is that good.

If you plan to buy one, check the serial number for a later batch or check that the mirror has been fixed (it should have a sort of two additional metal strips along the sides barely visible, Google it): cameras from the first series had a tendency for the mirror to come off.

P.s.: to answer to the other question Mike posed, on m4/3 my favorite lens is the Panasonic 25/1.7, even if we had a rocky start. That lens has a spectacularly nice way of rendering a scene, especially portraits close-up.