Canon EOS 5Ds Review — The Megapixel Monster

Overview

Long have we heard the mantra “more megapixels is better” and long have we known that that isn’t always the case. But when Canon unveiled a 50 megapixel variant of the 5D, we just can’t help but get excited.

Just as we thought the megapixel war had ended, Canon doubled the pixel count of the 5D III, to bring us the world’s highest resolution DSLR – the 5Ds. For some, that may be a rather unwieldy resolution. But if you are into landscape, portraiture, forensic science, or just love pixel-peeping (don’t we all, sometimes?) you may have found yourself the ultimate camera.

It might interest you to know that the 5Ds strap has gold wordings
It might interest you to know that the 5Ds strap has gold wordings, as is the “5Ds”on the camera body.

The 5Ds R

The 5DS R. Sorry, no gold lettering here.
The 5Ds R. Sorry, no gold lettering here.

Canon offers two variants of the camera. While the 5Ds comes with an anti-aliasing (AA) filter that’s standard on most cameras, the 5Ds has a self cancelling optical low pass filter (OLPF). The AA filter blurs the image slightly before it reaches the sensor so that we don’t get artefacts like moiré. Although this is useful, if you know how to avoid causing these artefacts, you can squeeze even more detail out of a camera (especially one that sports 50.6MP) by doing away with the filter.

True enough, images on the 5Ds R appear to be ever so slightly sharper than those from the non-R variant. Do look out for out for our upcoming review of the 5Ds R, where we will compare the two cameras.

Sensor and Chip

The sensor seen in the 5DS and 5DS R
The sensor seen in the 5Ds and 5Ds R

The highlight of the 5Ds is the new sensor. In fact, an apt description for this camera would be “a high-resolution 5D III”. As expected, the 5Ds puts out an unbelievable amount of detail. The problem is that this is only so under ideal conditions.  Unfortunately, the camera is so sharp that even microscopic amounts of shake show up on the pixel level, meaning that you need a pair of steady hands (or a tripod), and a faster shutter speed than usual.

This issue is not a new one, however; the problem first showed up on Nikon’s 36.3MP D810. So you can imagine how much more prominent it would be on the 50.6MP 5Ds. In fact, Canon went to great lengths to even design a whole new, motor-driven mirror mechanism to reduce vibrations. Still, it does take a bit of practice to get pin-sharp photos.

You also get to shoot in 1.3x and 1.6x crop mode, just like Nikon’s DX mode. And thanks to the megapixel-stuffed sensor, the crops come out at a resolution of 19.6 and 30.5 megapixels respectively, which is still sufficient resolution to put up on a billboard. The 5Ds effectively becomes a 7D II, albeit a slow one. However, subject tracking is improved, since the AF points cover almost the entire 1.3x crop view.

Too much of a good thing?

But with more pixels crammed into the same area, bad things happen. Pixel pitch (a fancy term for the size of each pixel) decreases.  With smaller pixels, less light can be collected, so there’s more noise and a lower dynamic range. The 5D III has a pixel pitch of 6.25 microns, while the 5Ds is 4.14 microns. That’s approximately the same size as the 7D II (4.11 microns).

Indeed, on the pixel level, the noise profile of the 5Ds is similar to the 7D II, rather than the 5D III. Case in point; the ISO on the 5Ds is limited to 12,800 (expanded), while on the 5D III it can be expanded to a mind boggling 102,400. You can take a look at our 7D II sample photos here to see for yourself.

DXOMark's comparison of the dynamic ranges of the 5DS, 5D III, and 6D
DxOMark’s comparison of the dynamic ranges of the 5Ds, 5D III, and 6D

Canon maintains that the dynamic range is comparable to the 5D III. Even so, it still lags behind the competition substantially in this area. According to DPreview, the Nikon D810 and Sony A7R II can be pushed approximately 6EV and still show less noise than a 5Ds that is pushed 2EV.

As for the processor, the 5Ds inherits the Dual DIGIC 6 found on the 7D II, rather than the older DIGIC 5+ found on the 5D III. And for good reason. Each RAW approximates 60MB, so you can imagine the amount of data to be processed in burst shooting. The new chip holds up well to the increased workload, and the burst rate is reduced by only 1fps from the 5D III, to give the 5Ds five 50.6MP shots a second. That’s pretty impressive.

Unfortunately, the buffer isn’t as… buff; you only get 12 shots in before it taps out. That means you can hold the shutter button for less than 3 seconds at a stretch before the 5Ds has to pause to catch its breath. Then again, this camera is not designed for high speed photography. That being said, it wouldn’t fare too badly, given it’s rather average burst speed and robust autofocus (more on AF later).

But first, let’s take a look at some photos.

Image Samples

 Click on “view full size” to truly understand what 50 megapixels means.

Autofocus

The AF module is the same reliable one found on the 5D III, giving us 61 points (of which 41 are cross-type). With it come the usual AF modes and selections found on all the professional Canons. And like the 5D III, it’s a solid performer, managing to keep all 50.6 megapixels sharp. Tracking, too, works as good as the 5D III, though we don’t think it will get much use on a camera aimed at still life photography.

It is important to note that configuring the AF micro-adjustment is a must, especially when shooting with fast lenses, to make the best of the resolution. Even the tiniest of focus misalignment is obvious. But once it’s configured, the amount of detail will blow you away.

Metering

On the 5Ds is the 150,000 RGB+IR pixel system taken from the 7D II, which is an upgrade over the 63-zone version found in the 5D III. We can’t say whether it is better, but it works well, just as it did on the 7D II.

Ergonomics

As with Canon’s latest trend, the 5Ds retains the same intuitive layout found on all the recent models. It’s pretty clear that Canon’s philosophy here is “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” And we aren’t complaining – Canon has one of the best (possibly THE best) controller configurations.

Z-canon-5ds-r-back

Although the AF points are laid out just like on the 5D III, the rest of the viewfinder is modelled after the 7D II. Known as the Intelligent Viewfinder II, it can display pretty much any information you need – which means that you can change settings such as white balance, AF mode and picture quality, or even monitor the battery level without taking your eyes off the viewfinder.

The icons below the AF points only appear when you change those settings, unless you choose to make them stay permanently, so the viewfinder remains uncluttered.
The icons below the AF points only appear when you change those settings, unless you choose to make them stay permanently, so the viewfinder remains uncluttered.

Video

Videographers, stay away.

Video on the 5Ds is, despite the monstrous sensor, still limited to 1080p. In fact, it’s a step back from the 5D III; no uncompressed HDMI, no headphone jack and more discernible artefacts such as moire and rolling shutter. This is a camera made for stills.

Battery

As with the 5D II and III (and most of the other Pro and Semi- Pro Canons), the new 5Ds uses the familiar LP-E6, so your spare batteries are… spared. As for battery life, it is pretty average. Canon rates it at 700 shots per charge, and we got similar performance in our daily usage. Interestingly, the 5D III is rated for 950 shots/charge. Our guess is that it’s the new motor driven mirror in the 5Ds that is drawing the extra power.

Conclusion

In short, the 5Ds is a high resolution 5D III, with incremental upgrades from the 7D II. This makes it surprisingly simple to answer the question of whether you should buy it – it’s as simple as “do you need the resolution?” For most of us, the extra resolution over the 22.3MP 5D III simply isn’t worth the S$900, especially when you factor in the reduced low-light sensitivity But once you mount it on a tripod, and give it enough light, the game changes. If you regularly shoot landscapes, or your work needs to end up on billboards, the 5Ds is possibly the best you can get.

Sure, there is medium format, but do you know how much that costs?

XF-Design-handling_W_print
The lens mounted on this camera costs more than the whole 5Ds. And the $40,000 body has the same resolution as the 5Ds.

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