There’s a joke I like to make:
“The reason I buy an expensive cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, and other gear is simple: so that when I’m out in the field and fail to capture a compelling image, I can lay the blame solely where it belongs… on mother nature!”
I have a shorter version that goes like this:
They’re both true.
I have a Canon 5D Mark II camera. I’ve owned this camera (or rather a version of it – I now have two) since December 2008. It’s by far the best camera I have ever owned. It’s arguably the best camera for landscape photography that Canon makes.
It’s also not good enough.
I use four criteria when evaluating any camera:
- Physical design, durability, and reliability
The first two categories are annoyances. They don’t prevent images from being captured, they just make the process more tedious. The last two categories do make images (of acceptable quality) impossible to capture, place limits on photographer creativity, and also happen to affect every single camera on Earth. As such they’re a larger topic and I’ll cover them in a separate post.
I started off whining about my beloved Canon 5D Mark II so let me start doing that again. Note that the reference for all of these complaints is natural landscape photography, which for me means natural light, on a tripod, using manual focus (so I will completely ignore any issues with external flashes, image stabilization, or autofocus).
Physical design, durability, and reliability
The Canon 5D Mark II is not (nor does it claim to be) a weather-sealed camera. It suffers from large temperature variances (which cause condensation to form inside the camera) and external moisture (from rain, snow, or waterfall spray). Both these sources of moisture break the electronics of the camera, sometimes permanently.
Temperature variances can be accommodated by placing a ziplocked bag around the camera (and lenses) so that they adjust to the ambient air temperature without condensation. Rain and spray can be mitigated as well (using plastic bags, rain covers, and other inconveniences), but this threat cannot be eliminated completely unless you choose to never photograph in the rain, snow, or near waterfalls.
This camera demands to be babied. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I shoot in heavy rain and waterfall spray all the time. I’ve had my camera go out of commission several times due to external moisture issues, this is even after covering it up when I wasn’t shooting. A camera body shouldn’t need to be as large and heavy as a 1D in order to be weather sealed. Given the number of professionals that shoot with this body the lack of weather sealing is a real issue. I know I treat my gear harder than just about everyone, but that’s because I’m more worried about capturing a compelling image than hoping my camera can survive a little temporary spray from a waterfall.
To be fair, I have used the camera in temperatures ranging from -15F to 122F and it had no problems performing in those extreme temperatures. But add a little water to the mix and watch out.
There is no shortage of usability issues with this camera, most of which could be fixed with software updates. Here are some that come to mind.
- Exposure bracketing. Currently you can bracket three exposures. 99% of the time that’s one exposure more than I need to capture sufficient dynamic range. This means that I either take a third wasteful exposure or that I use manual and adjust the shutter speed between each paired set of exposures. Dumb! Just let me bracket two exposures (better yet, let me bracket an arbitrary number of exposures). Also we should be able to bracket an arbitrary distance between exposures, not just up to two stops.
- Exposure compensation. Currently you can set the exposure compensation to +/- 2 stops (the Canon 1D series supports +/- 3 stops). There are times when I want to use exposure compensation more than two stops, so why not allow it? Why have a fixed number line at all? As I scroll to the left of -2, -3 should show up, as I keep scrolling, -4 should show up (and likewise when compensating in the opposite direction). Exposure arithmetic is fun, but not that fun.
- I realize that some people like that fat dial for switching between Av, Tv, M, and Bulb exposure modes. But it is extremely rare that I iterate between exposure modes on the same shoot (one of the main reasons I do this is when going from M to Bulb, and that’s because of another usability stupidity I’ll describe next). I do often switch from horizontal to vertical orientation, doing this will often cause the dial to flip from Av to Tv. It would be good if there was a custom function to disable this dial and set in the camera. I would actually be fine if the dial was gone altogether, but I’m likely in the minority.
- Limiting in camera exposures to 30 seconds. This really doesn’t make sense. I would like to be able to exposures of any length in the camera without requiring an intervalometer. Other intervalometer features should be supported in camera as well (including delays between the first exposure, delays between each exposure, duration of each exposure, and number of exposures). For any exposure that needs to be over 30 seconds, I’m again forced to do exposure arithmetic and need an intervalometer or remote switch.
- I should be able to use the LCD screen (and related functions) when the camera is in the middle of an exposure (this is most often needed when shooting a long series of exposures at night, it would be good to check that, say, the lens hasn’t fogged up or something else stupid has happened when you’re devoting 2 hours to a shot).
- Disable mirror lockup automatically when the camera is in the Bulb exposure mode, or at least have a custom function to enable that behavior. There’s nothing quite as awesome as waiting 4 minutes for an exposure to finish when you realize all you did was flip the mirror.
- The exposure mode should be viewable in the viewfinder, as should the focal length and focus distance.
Those are all things that annoy me about my specific camera, they’re all fairly minor and they’re all within the realms of current technology to fix (and could all be addressed with the Canon 5D Mark III).
There are other feature and quality issues that affect every camera, many of which aren’t going to be addressed within the next 15 years let alone the next camera release, and I’ll get to those in a future post.