Canon 5DS For Wildlife Mini-Review

I’ll admit I was nervous. I recently went to the arctic and had an amazing trip, photographing polar bears, walrus, and more in autumn light. Before the trip, I only had a Canon 5D MkIII which, while still a great camera, is getting a little old. I wasn’t sure what the right camera to bring would be given the new Canon 5DS seemed to have more resolution than I needed (making workflow in the field a pain) and hadn’t gotten great reviews for its high ISO performance.

When the Sony A7RII was announced, I pre-ordered one, thinking it’d be a perfect camera for this trip. Specifically, I thought its great dynamic range and high ISO performance would make it excellent for the variable light, its high-res files would capture amazing detail, and its on-sensor Phase Detection AF would let me have fast AF with my Canon lenses. Unfortunately, as I found before, when I had it in-hand, I discovered it wasn’t quite as versatile as I needed (while still being an amazing camera).

Canon markets the 5DS as a great camera for studio and landscape work, but what would it be like with wildlife? I decided to trust my previous excellent experience with Canon EOS and to bring a 5DS and a 5DSR with me. Long story short, they performed amazingly well, I’m in love with the detail, and higher ISOs (1600 – 3200) are fine as long as you have very good technique, but I wouldn’t go beyond 3200.

First, the stuff you’d expect. The build quality is excellent and rugged, and the buttons and controls are easy to use with gloves. This doesn’t matter walking around downtown SF shooting, but when it’s below freezing out and you’re sitting on a zodiac not really moving for hours by a glacier, with wind coming off the glacier chilling you to the bone…it matters.

I set mine up with these changes:

  • AF triggered by the back button, not a shutter half-press.
  • The joystick lets me change AF points.
  • Case 2 AF with the last 2 options set to +1.
  • AF point + M-Fn changes AF mode.
  • The Set button lets me change ISO while shooting.

Previously, the only camera I’d used auto ISO on was the Fuji X100S, as it worked perfectly. I ended up shooting auto ISO a lot with the 5DS (restricted to 100 – 3200) and generally liked it. Canon’s firmware seems to use a 1/focal length shutter speed rule to switch ISOs (if you’re shooting at 50mm, it’ll pick an ISO that gives you a 1/50 sec shutter speed).

I do have a couple gripes about auto ISO. The biggest is that if I’m on a tripod, I would prefer a lower ISO and slower shutter speed, but the camera still uses the 1/focal length guide. I really wish there was a better computer on board that would take both motion in the frame and motion from an accelerometer into account so that it’d pick lower ISOs more often but not so slow my subjects were blurry. Second, as far as I could tell, if I manually picked an ISO, I couldn’t use either the ISO button or the Set button to return to auto ISO: I’d have to dig into the menu and select it again. Yuck.

Since the 5DS doesn’t have an electronic front curtain and there can be a bit of shake, I biased auto ISO slightly faster and got much better results hand-holding than without the bias. Annoyingly, the IS on my lens didn’t seem to make a difference for the shutter speeds I needed.

Two other settings I use are continuous high speed drive and AI Servo. I was also using tracking AF with all 61 points, and I’d manually pick the initial focus point. (Basically, put the specific point you pick over the subject, press and hold the AF button, and watch it track the subject as it moves.) It’s not quite as slick as Sony’s Lock-On AF, but it works. If anything, I found my AF results as good or better than with a 1DX. Heck, I nailed a series of an arctic skua attacking a black-legged kittiwake.

An arctic skua attacks a black-legged kittiwake, trying to steal its fish.

An arctic skua attacks a black-legged kittiwake, trying to steal its fish.

Next, the resolution. I have one word: wow. I’m seriously in love with this detail. That previous shot? Here it is at 100%, and you can see the fish tail hanging out of the bird’s mouth.

The 5DS has so much resolution you can see the fish the skua's trying to steal.

The 5DS has so much resolution you can see the fish the skua’s trying to steal.

Here’s another shot, backlit, of an arctic tern feeding its baby and a 100% crop.

An arctic tern feeds its young.

An arctic tern feeds its young.

Check out the detail in that fish!

Check out the detail in that fish!

And one more (I can’t resist!) of a walrus’ eye.

A pile of walrus at sunrise.

A pile of walrus at sunrise.

Amazing detail in the walrus' eye and face.

Amazing detail in the walrus’ eye and face.

It’s also nice because I could crop an image and still have a 30+MP file!

I was helping a few others out, and when I’d zoom in on a 5D MkIII, 7D MkII, etc. image, I kept mentally going “that’s as far as it zooms?”

Of course the downside is file size and processing time. Lightroom chews through my 13” MacBook Pro Retina’s battery while trying to work with these. For intense shoots, I let my computer run overnight (plugged in), rendering 1:1 previews to make first-pass editing (just a quick keep/reject/flag as a top image) faster. Even after rejecting and deleting a ton of pics, I still have 4,000 keepers from the trip totaling 256GB. I’m a little worried about an upcoming trip where I’ll be shooting a lot and likely not have tons of time to edit.

So what about noise? Well, at lower ISOs (under 400), it’s basically invisible and the dynamic range is excellent. Here’s a shot at ISO 500 where I intentionally underexposed it to meter for the highlights and then boosted the shadows. It looks great to me.

Underexposing this lower-ISO shot and boosting the shadows works well!

Underexposing this lower-ISO shot and boosting the shadows works well!

At higher ISOs, as you’d expect, your dynamic range and ability to manipulate your files is definitely reduced. In fact, I found you really had to have excellent technique (sharp focus + being within 1/2 a stop of the right exposure) or else the images became quite noisy. Lightroom’s noise reduction by default seems a bit strong, too, and it turns the color noise into black speckles. Here’s an example at ISO 3200, and you can see some of the speckles in the bears’ fur.

A larger polar bear warns a smaller bear away from its food.

A larger polar bear warns a smaller bear away from its food.

A 100% crop where the black speckles are visible.

A 100% crop where the black speckles are visible.

A 100% crop with noise reduction off.

A 100% crop with noise reduction off.

Now before you go nuts, you can disable Lightroom’s noise reduction and use a tool like Nik Dfine to clean up the noise quite well. This is a royal pain, though, as each converted TIF file is 250MB+, and I don’t have time or disk space to convert and use Dfine on every high ISO image. I think Lightroom’s noise reduction is good enough for most things, but for prints, I’ll use another tool.

Compared to a 5D MkIII, if I downsize a 5DS file to 21MP, it looks as good or better than a 5D MkIII file. I don’t have a scientific test to back this up, just field observations. Downsizing the file misses the point of using the 5DS, though. I didn’t compare it to a Nikon D810, but I’d expect the noise when you down sample a 50MP file to 36MP to be similar (or just slightly worse) to shooting with the D810.

Given with some cameras you can shoot at ISO 32,000 without thinking twice and get great results, it does feel like 2005 to think of 3200 as the upper ISO limit, but I guess that’s life.

However, one place where the noise is unacceptably bad is in fog. I’ve noticed some issues with noise and fog with previous Canon cameras (I do live in San Francisco…), but the 5DS is blech. This shot is at ISO 640, which is fine in many of my other shots. But when I zoom in to 100% in the indicated area, which has the densest fog, it looks like it’s at 6,400! And if I turn Lightroom’s color noise reduction off, it looks like the sensor puked when it saw fog. I did use a tiny amount of dehaze (setting value of 8) on this shot, but the noise is bad even without dehaze.

When there's fog, the 5DS completely underperforms.

When there’s fog, the 5DS completely underperforms.

100% crop with Lightroom's color noise reduction on (left) and off (right)

100% crop with Lightroom’s color noise reduction on (left) and off (right)

I did not notice a significant difference between the 5DS and 5DSR. Given you can find the 5DS at a significantly lower price than the 5DSR, I don’t think the extra filter to anti-anti-alias in the R is worth it.

I really do wish I had a camera that can hold up in these extreme environments with fast AF and the sensor from the A7RII, giving great dynamic range, high ISO performance, and resolution. Perhaps if Sony releases an A99II with the A7RII’s sensor or the rumored A9 is real, that will be the answer. But for right now, I’m pretty happy with the 5DS. It exceeded my expectations for wildlife in the arctic, and I’m completely enjoying how much detail my images have!

See more images from my trip here, all of which were taken with either a 5DS or 5DSR (except for 2 walrus photos that were taken with a Sony A7R).