Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Canon 1DS Mark II, Canon 1D Mark II & Mark III, Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 5D, and Wedding Photography

On the brink of the majority of my 2009 wedding photography season (I had one wedding in January), I have been looking around for another camera to accompany my trusty old Canon 5D. I've used this 5D for over two years as my main camera for weddings and portrait sessions; it's got some mileage on it and I'm worried I might get to the end of its shutter lifespan any day now. (Having to get a new shutter isn't the end of the world; but it *is* expensive and puts the camera out of commission for a week or so.) So I really think it's time for a new "main" camera to shoot weddings with. Perhaps the trusty old 5D can take over the role of "second" camera...(?)

I've always shot weddings--and will continue to do so--with two cameras for at least two reasons:

  1. It makes two different lenses (e.g., wide angle and telephoto) immediately available at all times
  2. I have a backup immediately available if something goes wrong with one of the cameras or lenses
Last year I used a Canon 1D Mark II as my second camera. It was an ideal camera to put a 70-200mm lens on and take photos outdoors or indoors. The camera is relatively big and heavy, but this helps to steady your shots when you're using a big and heavy telephoto zoom lens (like a 70-200 f/2.8) that tends to tip everything forward. It also worked well with my 15mm fisheye lens because the 1.3 crop factor of the 1D series cropped some of the most distorted part of the image (for which fisheye lenses are famous), but left lots of nice wide angle coverage.

I considered moving the 1D over to being my main camera with the flash for weddings (my "main" wedding camera always has a flash attached for when I need some flash lighting), but I found that it never performed as well with my 580EX II or my 550EX flashes compared to my 5D. Also, I've gotten used to having the 12.8 megapixels of the 5D--especially for large group shots, because I like to leave extra space around the groups in the image so my clients can crop them to different sizes and aspect ratios--and feel that 8 megapixels is on the edge of acceptability. One other factor playing into this decision was my new involvement in stock photography where they really prefer as many megapixels as you can give them. I decided to sell the 1D Mark II.

What about the new 21 megapixel 5D Mark II? Isn't that what 90% of wedding shooters using Canon equipment are doing?! Well, the main thing I like about the 5D Mark II is the ability to shoot at even higher ISOs than the 5D or 1D Mark II (6400 ISO and even 12800 ISO look usable on the 5D Mark II). But the camera I'm looking for here is my main camera with the flash attached; I usually shoot the low-light, non-flash photos at weddings using my second camera with the "specialty" lenses attached (e.g., my f/1.2 and f/2 primes). The 5D Mark II is an expensive "second" camera! Especially because I would want the vertical grip on it to make work better with the 70-200 f/2.8 telephoto zoom. With the grip, the 5D Mark II is pushing the $3000 barrier. I also have an issue with the autofocusing system on the 5D Mark II being the same as the 5D; both of which aren't that good in low light compared to the 1-series. Plus 21 megapixels is overkill for my needs; and the HD video capabilities aren't something I care to get involved with at this point.

What about the 1D Mark III? It's got the great low-light focusing capabilities of the 1-series cameras! I borrowed and used the 1D Mark III for four weddings last year. I like the focusing system and used the max ISO of 6400 quite regularly. But in addition to many of the reasons I've ruled out the 5D Mark II (including it working better as a second camera than my main camera), the 1D Mark III is more expensive (about $4000) and has only 10 megapixels...which is fine for wedding photography, but which makes it less attractive for stock photography than even the 5D. (Note: high ISO capabilities are of little value for stock photography because they [the stock photo companies] seldom accept images with an ISO of higher than 800 from *any* camera.)

Well, let me tell you, I convinced myself that the Canon 1DS Mark II was the camera I was looking for! It's got 16.7 megapixels (plenty of resolution for stock and weddings), the 1-series focusing system that works well in low light, and it's a workhorse tested to 200,000 shutter actuations! Sure, it doesn't have a self-cleaning sensor and the LCD is only 2". But I've only had one camera with a self-cleaning sensor and many of my LCDs have been 2" or smaller (e.g., the 1.8" LCD on the 20D), and none of this scared me off.

So, I found a $2100 1DS Mark II in really nice shape and bought it. It had fewer than 50,000 shutter actuations and should last, I felt, at least a couple of wedding seasons. I did some preliminary testing and found it to worked well. I compared images to my 5D and saw that the noise at 1600 and 3200 ISO was even slightly lower on the 1DS. I was pretty happy!

Before the end of my 7-day testing period, I put a 580EX II flash on the 1DS and took it to a fashion show. I generally stay away from flash photography as much as possible. But there are times at weddings--especially during night-time wedding receptions--when I simply can't avoid using my flash or flashes to provide some needed light.

The fashion show was taking place in a somewhat dark gymnasium in the late afternoon on a dark, dreary, and cold early Spring day. I was taking some photos at 3200 ISO with my 70-200 f/2.8L IS lens on my 5D and the shutter speed was still quite low: 1/40 and 1/30 sec. I tried a few flash photos with the 1DS; but since the ceiling was so high and there were no walls around, I didn't like the absence of reflected light (I usually "bounce" the light from my flash as much as possible) and didn't take many flash photos.

Well, I had promised to take photos of a certain group of models because I knew one of the models in the group. It was getting time for me to leave, so I gathered the group for photos. It was evening at this point and quite dark; so I was going to have to use the flash. Well, I discovered that the 1DS was having quite a lot of trouble focusing to take the flash photos! This was true when the models were standing still and even worse when I tried to take of photo of them walking toward me.

I believe part of the problem stemmed from sporatic functioning of the AF Assist light; when the AF Assist wasn't coming on, it was having lots of trouble focusing and allowing me to take the photo. It was pretty embarrassing when I couldn't get it to work in a timely fashion standing in front of these models!

The next day, I decided I needed to get to the heart of the problem. I have the Canon 580EX II Speedlight and the older 550EX Speedlight. So I did a bunch of side-by-side tests. I put the 580EX II on the 5D and tried some shots without the lights on in my basement; then I put it on the 1DS and tried the same shots. I did the same thing with the 550EX on the two cameras.

The AF Assist was working on both cameras with both flashes; so I'm not sure why I had *that* problem the night before; maybe it was one of those weird temporary problems that goes away if you turn the camera or flash off and back on.

In any case, here's what I found: compared to using a flash on my 5D, there was a slight but significant delay in the flash firing and the shutter opening on the 1DS MkII, even when the AF Assist light was working. The delay was long enough that if you were photographing someone walking in a low light situation (e.g., a wedding couple coming toward you down the aisle in a dark church), the focus would never lock in, the flash would never fire, and the shutter would never trigger. *This* was exactly the problem I was having at the fashion show!

I tried all sorts of different settings to get rid of this delay on the 1DS MkII. The only solution that came close was putting the camera focusing system in AI Servo mode, regardless of whether the subject was moving. This got rid of the delay, but most of the flash pictures taken were out-of-focus; i.e., it no longer stopped me from triggering the shutter and flash until it was in focus, but then most of the time it was out-of-focus!

Now I don't know if this is an issue with this particular copy of the 1DS or if I'm missing some other setting I could tweak (I swear I tried them all); but I decided this flash delay killed any chance this camera had for being my "main" wedding camera. I sent it back.

So, where does that leave me?

It occurred to me that I have no problem with the 5D being my "main" wedding camera with the flash attached. The only problem I have is using my current 5D because it's been through so many weddings! But if I could find another one that hasn't been used so much, it should make a fine main wedding camera.

Even though I have some reservations about buying used camera equipment from a place like eBay which, obviously, features camera equipment used by non-professionals; it's the perfect kind of place to find camera equipment that hasn't gotten much use. Even though professionals may be better about taking care of their equipment (this isn't always so), they actually *use* the equipment because that's what they use for their work! Amateur photographers, on the other hand, may go through phases of taking photos and ultimately give the equipment light overall use. Also, amateurs may treat their equipment better because it's part of an enjoyable hobby.

In any case, I decided to buy a relatively lightly used 5D on eBay to be my "main" camera with flash attached for weddings. I also bought two other things to set up my trusty old 5D as a good second camera: 1) I bought a vertical grip to make it easier to handle with the big 70-200 f/2.8L IS attached, and 2) I bought a Canon ST-E2 Speedlight Transmitter to give it an AF Assist light in particularly low-light situations (and also to do some creative lighting during wedding receptions in conjunction with my two flashes...more on this in a later post).

So, we will see where these decisions take me. I'll have more to say later in the wedding season!


Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: http://www.mgm-photography.com/.

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