Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Refreshing Lack of Buttons

One of the greatest features of the Canon EOS 5D Classic (original) is it's lack of features. Introduced in 2005 as "the first affordable full frame DSLR" (that is, equivalent frame size as that of 35mm film), it was hardly affordable then, being priced body only at over $3000.00, but a well cared for used one can be had now for a very affordable $650 or so (I got a much better deal than that on mine).

A look at the rear panel shows the old 5D as being a uniquely sparse, simple camera compared to what it's become today.

The Canon EOS 5D "Classic"
(Stock Photo)

The Newest Evolution EOS 5D Mk. III
(Stock Photo)

As you can see, the new model has sprouted a lot more control buttons, and has moved some of the old ones around to make room for the new. Camera reviewers certainly like lots of buttons, and tend to complain when camera functions are "buried within the menu". I agree - I do like a camera's controls to be on the outside so that the features can be easily accessed. But such is not the case with the 5D Classic. It doesn't have a lot of external control points, and neither does it have a lot of features that can be accessed via the Menu. In fact, it's missing so many features that we now take for granted on top-line DSLR's that many don't consider it to be a viable camera any more. But am I complaining? No, not at all. In fact, I think it would be a great idea for Canon to start building the 5D Classic once again, and actually call it that, and sell it as a truly affordable full-frame picture taking machine, for say around $1000 brand new. It's much the same idea as Boeing continuing to build the old 737 passenger jet.

If Canon were to do this, what would we lose? Here's a list of additional control points on the 5D Mk. III has, which the original 5D did not have:

  • Separation of Power Switch from the Quick Control wheel lock
  • Quick menu button
  • Combined Movie / Live View control button
  • "AF On" button (also found on all EOS lenses)
  • "M-Fn" Button
  • "Image Effects" button
  • "Rate" button (so you can give "star ratings" to pictures right in the camera)
  • "Magnify" button separated from the AF Point button
  • Price - $3500 body only (just to note how much you're paying for all these extra buttons!)
Keep in mind that all I'm talking about here are control points (buttons), not necessarily the features behind them. Sure, it's nice to have a DSLR that shoots HD Video - in fact, the 5D Mk. III has become a real go-to camera for serious video enthusiasts who can equip the camera with video-cam extra hardware, making the 5D a real rival in professional use to much more expensive video equipment.

I'm talking about "buttons" here for one simple reason - the 5D Classic is the only camera I've ever owned that I can operate easily without having to take my eye away from the finder to look at the back. I had a 7D for awhile, which is an APS-C sized pro-grade camera which is set up very similarly to the new 5D Mk. III, and aside from being one of the worst cameras I've ever had for image quality, it was also very difficult to operate. The 5D Classic on the other hand, gives you only the most important control points for taking pictures without taking your eyes away from the viewfinder; there are only six of them:
  1. The combined focus lock (half press) / shutter button
  2. The exposure lock (*) button
  3. The AF multi-point call-up button (just to the right of the * button)
  4. The front control wheel
  5. The rear control wheel
  6. The depth of field preview button
These are all you need for controlling a camera to take pictures with. The 5D Classic only has one unfortunate, unnecessary control point - that is the "multi-directional controller" (joystick) just above the rear control dial. It's supposed to be used to select which AF point you want to use while looking through the viewfinder, but because it's awkwardly placed, and hard to get a feel for with your thumb, I find it much easier to select AF points by rapidly turning the rear control dial - this can be set up as a custom function.

So I hope you can see what I'm getting at here - the 5D Classic control points can be learned very quickly and easily with your eye at the viewfinder, and operate without hitting the wrong buttons that get in your way, BECAUSE THERE ARE NO WRONG BUTTONS..THERE ARE ONLY 6 RIGHT BUTTONS! All of the right buttons on the 5D Classic can be accessed easily with your thumb on the rear, and your index finger on the front; all the while the camera grip beautifully guides you around these control points without looking. The joy-stick controller is an unfortunate and unnecessary mistake, but it's far enough out of reach that it can be easily ignored, and also disabled via the C-f Menu. 

There's only one exception to this easy access design of the Classic- that's the depth of field preview button. There's been a lot of fuss and general agreement among professional camera reviewers that Canon has a long history of getting this wrong, and they're right - it is in a very awkward and hard to locate place way down on the lower left side of the lens mount. All EOS cameras have done it this way since 1985 when the EOS 620 / 650 were introduced. Many argue that it belongs on the right side (for operation with the middle digit of your right hand) - the way Nikon has always done it. The 5D Mk. III has finally done this - putting it on the right hand operation side, as a large button that you press into the body, not laterally towards the lens mount. As for me, I think I prefer it to be on the left hand operation side, as the only control that is meant to be used by your left hand, thus making the right hand less busy - this makes sense to me. But Canon has always put this button way too low, making it necessary to kink your finger to get at it. The idea of moving it up higher, and pressing into the body is nice, but I question the need for moving it to the opposite side of the lens mount.

So, is the 5D Classic still a viable camera? Certainly, it is now a truly affordable way to get into full-frame digital, for a second had unit with prices having only two zeroes and not three. Even if you got one which, through professional use had a worn out shutter, if it could be bought really cheaply as a broken product, typically a shutter replacement costs around $400, so you could get one together with a brand new shutter and still be well under three zeroes, I think. But what about all those missing features that go away with all those added buttons? Well, it depends what you want. If all you want is to take high quality still photos, and don't need video, or if you don't need the ability to apply effects and rate your images inside the camera, and you know that you can really do without 22 mega-pixels for a much more reasonable (and less noisy) 12, then yes, the 5D Classic is exceptional. Unlike the newest high-end cameras, it doesn't require lens micro-focus (a real pit-fall I noticed with the 7D, which caused me to make haste to get rid of it). Another feature that's notably absent from the 5D Classic is Canon's ultra-sonic sensor cleaning thing that kicks in every time you turn the camera off. This felt rather strange, because, starting with the lowly Digital Rebel XS, my first DSLR, the sensor self-clean feature has always been there. With the 5D Classic, you have to clean the sensor manually, which is, in some ways a rather tenuous thing to do.

The 5D Classic feels real heavy, but at 895 Grams it is a tad lighter than the latest Mark III which is 950 Grams. The heaviest APS-C sized DSLR I've owned was the 7D, which comes in at 850 Grams.

EOS 5D, EF 28-80 USM Lens, RAW PP'd Via Canon Digital Camera RAW

EOS 5D, EF 28-80 USM Lens, RAW PP'd Via Photivo for Linux

Having a full frame sensor, the 5D Classic gives you lot's to work with in your Post Processing ("PP"). The above two samples used two different RAW converters on the same picture. My personal preference is Photivo, simply because it is more interactive, and has every conceivable processing feature - quite similar to Adobe Lightroom. I could have tweaked it using Photivo to give a similar result to what I got with the Canon software, but probably not vice-versa. I have a preferred formula of my own in Photivo for outdoor shots, which puts more emphasis on light capture than on high saturation and contrast. Either way, I see nothing wrong with the 5D Classic's image quality - it's certainly far better than what I was getting with the feature rich and excessively complex EOS 7D, which I simply could not stomach.

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