When you’re watching a press conference and all of a sudden you hear a cacophony of shutter snaps, most of the time you’re hearing Canon DSLRs. Canon’s EOS cameras have long been the go-to for professional photographers the world over, prized for their combination of focus accuracy, image quality, and the company’s legendary lens library and customer service.
One thing that Canon isn’t well-known for is rapid change. In the past decade, in particular, Canon has been slow to upgrade its offerings, meaning its cameras often lag behind the pack when it comes to cutting edge features. Where its more nimble competitors like Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Fuji, and Panasonic have been churning out model after model, Canon’s been content to stick with the same full-frame lineup since 2012.
However, this year that all changed. Canon released two full-frame bodies, including the Canon EOS 5DS (MSRP $3,699.99) and the EOS 5DSR, each packing 50-megapixel full-frame image sensors. That sounds great on paper, but it’s been more than two years since the 5D Mark III came out. Can Canon reclaim its place at the top, or has its competition finally passed it by?
Design & Handling
Meet the 5DS, same as the 5D mark III… sort of
If there’s one hallmark of the Canon design ethos, it’s a steadfast refusal to change much from year to year. For many pros, this is a huge plus: If you know your way around 2012’s 5D Mark III, you know your way around a brand new 5DS. If you’re upgrading from another 5D-series camera, there really aren’t any curveballs here—The controls are likely exactly where they are on your old camera. This is key for professionals, because there’s no time wasted learning the ins and outs of a new camera body.
On the back of the camera you’ll find exactly the same controls and layout as the 5D Mark III: a control wheel near the Quick-menu button, a control stick to the right of the 3.2-inch LCD, and a battery of buttons flanking the left of the screen. On the top of the camera is the shutter release, another control wheel, and a secondary LCD surrounded by your main shooting controls: autofocus, ISO, exposure, white balance, and a button for activating the LCD’s backlight.
On the right side of the 5DS is a door hiding the CF and SD card slots, while the left side houses an HDMI port, remote port, USB, and a microphone jack. That’s right: once again, there’s no headphone jack, in keeping with every other Canon DSLR except for the 5D Mark III. It’s a baffling omission, especially given Canon’s reputation among filmmakers. When nearly every other competitor in this space includes a headphone jack, you’d hope Canon would too, but the message is clear: the 5DS isn’t for filmmakers.
The menu system of the 5DS is very straightforward and easy to use, though it will take some acclimation if you’re converting from another brand. In general we find the Canon menu to be the simplest to use, but your mileage will vary. The biggest advantage here is the superb focus customization menu. It’s still unlike anything else on the market, letting you tailor the autofocus system’s tracking speed and sensitivity exactly to your liking.
Actually shooting with the 5DS is a breeze, thanks to the chunky, deep grip; it makes the durable magnesium alloy body easy to hold. It’s a huge DSLR to be sure, but this time it’s got the horsepower to match its weight class. Underneath that dense exterior is the star of the show: the 50-megapixel sensor backed up by dual Digic 6 processors—a formidable combo that allows the camera to keep up with the massive amount of data it records every time you hit the shutter button.
Personally, I recommend getting a more padded strap instead of using the nylon fabric one included with the 5DS. Though the camera is a lot lighter than it looks, the combined weight of the lenses you’ll be using plus the 5DS’s body is a little cumbersome. It’s not as bad as say, a Canon EOS-1D X, but it’s still a hefty piece of equipment if you take it out with a piece of glass like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II likeKyle Looney and I did.
A camera built for its sensor
If you’re looking at the 5DS and hoping for a litany of new features, I’ve got bad news: You’re not going to find many. That’s because Canon—for better or worse—decided that the 5DS’s main draw was going to be its mammoth 50-megapixel sensor, and not things like 4K video.
Consequently, most of changes that were made are all geared to accommodate that 50+ megapixel behemoth of a sensor—and little else. Not only did Canon have to cram two Digic 6 processors in the 5DS to handle all the extra information, but the mirror assembly also had to completely re-designed. When you have a 50+ megapixel resolution, it’s a lot easier to cause accidental blur from even the tiniest shake—including that of the mirror going up and down.
So Canon ditched the traditional spring design in favor of using more dampers and gears—making for a much smoother experience overall. The shutter itself is also a fair bit quieter than on past models, though if you really want to ditch the noise, you’ll have to activate the silent-shooting mode. Though that means using the rear LCD instead of your viewfinder, it’s a great option if you go shooting at events like weddings or the occasional performance.
I will point out that despite the 5D Mark III’s pedigree as a videographer’s tool, the 5DS won’t gain much street cred among cinematic circles. We already mentioned the lack of a headphone jack, but the EOS 5DS also doesn’t support clean HDMI output, so using external video recorders is basically useless. You’re also limited to just 1080/30p video. If you want 60p or 4K video you’ll simply need to pick another camera.
A robust mode dial and familiar power switch graces the top of the camera.
It’s not all gravy for stills shooters, either. The 5DS’s native ISO range only extends from 100-6400, expandable to 50-12,800. That’s enough to cover most shooting situations, but many competing cameras go well beyond that now and it’s nice to have the flexibility–especially for edge use cases like law enforcement. Though the camera’s increased resolution means noise would probably be rather annoying at higher ISO settings, that hasn’t stopped Nikon and Sony from pushing the limit.
Need a billboard-sized shot? This is the camera for you.
Obviously, the 5DS has some big shoes to fill. Being the newest addition in a line of professional darlings invites a lot of scrutiny, and some professionals are going to be left disappointed. Though some photographers will love the 5DS, it’s definitely not for everyone.
First things first: with the right glass, this camera hangs with the best of best. Not only is sharpness spot-on, but even shots that are slightly off can be downsampled to boost the illusion of sharpness. You can always add in some software oversharpening with the more granular picture mode controls (or a RAW editor), but by default you won’t see any haloing or other garbage in your shots when you go pixel peeping.
Color error is virtually nonexistent when shooting in Faithful mode.
Secondly, this camera has insanely good color accuracy. After running and re-running the test a few times, the 5DS posted some of the best color accuracy we’ve seen in any camera to date. Though we typically look for color error that’s merely imperceptible, the 5DS outpaces just about every competitor it has. This makes for a fantastic studio camera.
Even at 100% shots are about as crisp as they possibly could be.
If you’re a news photographer contending with moving subjects, the 5DS offers a respectable burst shooting speed, though its capacity isn’t Earth-shattering. If you’re shooting RAW only, you can squeak out about 26 shots at 4.79 shots a second to SD cards. With the CF cards we had on hand we were only able to get about 15 such files, but that’s because our CF cards are a little older and the 50MP files are just so large. Canon does include reduced-size RAW options, and you’ll want to take advantage of those for times when 50 megapixels is just overkill.
Lastly, the 5DS offers a respectable amount of dynamic range, allowing you to really push RAW shots to their limit in post-processing. At base ISO you can expect over 12 stops of dynamic range by the industry standard measure, and the 5DS does an excellent job of preserving a high signal-to-noise ratio even at its highest ISO settings. It’s not quite on par with the Sony A7R II or the Nikon D810, but it’s very close.
Even though the 5DS’ color accuracy is superb, sometimes a little oversaturation is just what the doctor ordered.
But other than that, the 5DS’s results range from “good” to “mediocre.” For example, noise performance is predictably lackluster when viewed at 100%, and video quality hasn’t improved since the 5D Mark III. Unlike its predecessor, the 5DS’s limited options make it a camera you want to avoid for video work. Though you can record decent full HD clips in low light with lovely shallow depth of field, the 1080p resolution eliminates the benefit of a high-res sensor and overall the video isn’t much to write home about—even if you can overlook the lack of features.
It’s another fantastic pro-grade camera, but video shooters need not apply.
All in all, the Canon EOS 5DS is a pro-grade camera that lives up to Canon’s esteemed reputation, but only in the right situation. If you’re a portrait, landscape, or studio photographer, the 5DS has almost everything you could ask for: beautiful image quality, stunning resolution, incredible color and white balance accuracy, and the best autofocus system money can buy.
But the modern photographer often has to do more to keep their clients happy than just take still images, and that might make life a little difficult if you’re a hybrid shooter that takes both stills and video. Simply put, if video is a part of your workflow, you’ll need another camera to handle that. Not only does the 5DS not improve appreciably on the 5D Mark III, it actually loses a few key features like clean HDMI output and a headphone jack.
A brand-new mirror assembly hides inside the 5DS.
But as we mentioned in our initial impressions of the camera, the enhanced resolution is a boon to Canon shooters who lust for a medium format camera like a Hasselblad, Phase One, or the Pentax 645Z but enjoy the convenience and assurance of Canon’s extensive lens library and incredible customer service. For a professional still photographer, those considerations are far more valuable than a few extra whizz-bang features.
If you want something that pushes the technical envelope, you have a few options in this price range. Our favorite is definitely the Sony A7R II, which has a 42.4-megapixel sensor, is much more compact, and can record 4K video for about $500 less than the 5DS.
If you’re a portrait, landscape, or studio photographer, the 5DS has almost everything you could ask for.
If you want to stick with a brand with a slightly more well-established reputation and lens selection, there’s also the Nikon D810. It can nearly match the 5DS for resolution, has more features for those who care about video, and you still get to enjoy the lens selection and support of a camera industry juggernaut.
But if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool still photographer who just wants to shoot, there simply isn’t anything quite like the Canon EOS 5DS. Its combination of a high-resolution sensor, broad lens library, class-leading autofocus, and well-honed control scheme make it a perfect choice for many photographers. The price is steep, but for the right photographer this is as good as it gets.