Canon Invents a New Kind of Camera

Popsci.com's resident gear and gadget guru Sean Captain reviews the new Pro SLR, which doubles as a high-end HD camcorder.

Shutterbugs rejoice! The camera wars are heating up: meaning an avalanche of cool new tech as companies try to one-up each other. Canon’s latest salvo is the EOS 5D Mark II ($2,700 without lens), the extremely long-awaited successor to the popular 5D pro digicam. The Mark II blows away its predecessor in every way, both expected and unexpected.

Here are the key specs:

The full-frame sensor’s resolution nearly doubles from 12.8 to 21 megapixels, but trimming the space in-between pixels allows Canon to pack more without making them smaller.

Light sensitivity goes from ISO 100 to 6400, with the option to expand (i.e. no guarantee of image quality) to ISO 25,600 ¬ matching the near night-vision capabilities of
Nikon’s D3 and D700 cameras.

3.9 frames per second. And if they are JPEGs (vs. RAW), you can shoot an unlimited amount with the latest high-speed compact flash cards.

Full high-def video recording at 1920 by 1080i and 30 frames per second using MPEG-4 compression.

Video capability is the shocker. Not because it hasn’t been done before: Nikon introduced the first SLR to record HD video, the D90, on August 27. But it’s done so much better in the 5D Mark II. The resolution and frame-rate are higher (1080i vs. 720p, 30fps vs. 24fps). And the recording is far more practical because Canon adds autofocus, a feature agonizingly missing from the Nikon D90. Canon not only matches Nikon’s integrated mono mic but adds a jack for an external stereo mic to record at CD quality.

At this point, the 5D Mark II isn’t just an SLR with a cool extra feature, it’s a genuine movie camera. Its ability to take different lenses (nearly everything in Canon’s arsenal) leapfrogs it over all the consumer camcorders with built-in lenses and makes it a budget competitor to professional camcorders like Canon’s own [ XL H1S ](http://www.usa.canon.com/consumer/controller?act=ModelInfoAct&tabact=BoxCo ntentsTabAct&fcategoryid=175&modelid=17035#ModelDetailAct ) ($9,000, with lens).

It’s also bizarre for Canon to make a two-in-one out of a “serious” professional product. We’re more likely to see that with mid-range consumer gadgets. No pro cameraman would pick this SLR over a “real” video camera. But a pro photographer with the Mark II can double as a cameraman, allowing one person to photograph and video everything from traffic accidents to weddings.

That’s assuming this thing actually shoots top-notch video, which we won’t know till we get a review unit in November or December. But given that Canon is one of the top makers of video cameras, we’re optimistic.

The one weird glitch: Canon limits video clips to about 12 minutes so this thing won’t be taxed as a video camera in Europe. That’s probably plenty enough for a single clip. But if you need more, don’t be surprised if firmware hacks start popping up in a few months. According to Canon, there’s no technical reason why the thing can’t shoot longer.

Oh, and what about photos, the main purpose of this thing? Here Canon is aiming directly at the powerful Nikon D700, a camera that I have come to love. In terms of speed, the two companies are pretty well matched. Color has always been simply a personal preference: Some people swear by Nikon, and swear at Canon. Other people do the opposite. But with the Mark II, Canon is introducing new color filters on the image sensor that it claims will produce richer hues.
(Unfortunately, that¹s all we know.)

The real battle will probably be in low-light shooting. Nikon has been the leader recently, snatching a role long held by Canon. It will be a challenge to match or beat Nikon. But if Canon does, it offers the benefit of extra resolution: The D3 and D700 offer 12 megapixels.