Seriously, if you have a budget of $500 for a camera body, do not pass go, do not collect $200… just find whoever is selling one, and buy a Canon 5D. This camera has reached almost legendary status when it comes to skin tones, and overall portrait use. Noisy high ISO is among the most natural looking I have seen, which makes it kinda nice, even though it’s noisy. I started this article as “the best camera at $500ish” but the prices seem to have dropped significantly in the past year. Bought one today for $300, with many recent eBay sales showing low $300s. Get one.
The original Canon 5D was released in 2005, so as of this article, it’s 8 years old, a dinosaur by current technology standards. At the time though, 12.8MP was top notch, and full frame was expensive as hell. Then this guy came around as the most affordable full frame DSLR (at about $3k) It was worth every penny back in 2005, and it is worth far more than it currently costs, now that it’s 1/6 the original box price.
Sharissa – Canon 5D – EF 100mm f/2 – Neewer C180 monolights – Generic 42″ Softbox Umbrellas
What really sets this camera apart from all of the other cameras in the “$500 and less” market, though? There are Rebels out there that are technically cleaner at ISO 6400 (which this camera can’t even do) than this is at ISO 1600… The Nikon D5200 doubles the resolution at 24MP. So what is it?
Personally I think it all boils down to the aesthetic qualities of this particular full frame sensor. First, and the easiest to measure and quantify is the fact that it is a Full Frame sensor. Having a larger sensor, while still having (relatively) fewer megapixels means that each site on the sensor is larger. Just imagine how cramped the Nikon D5200 sensor is… with twice the sensor sites, but 1/3 the size. Having these larger sites means that each one can potentially capture more accurate detail, or more precise color, or with less light. This is all potential, though, but many believe this is why Nikon stayed in the 12MP region for so long, and focused on getting as much out of those fewer pixels as possible before moving on.
The second benefit of a Full Frame sensor is that they are capable of shallower depth of field than their cropped counterparts. If this is a style that appeals to you, it’s another reason to consider a Canon 5D. Just as you would multiply a lens’s focal length by the cropped camera’s crop factor to get the equivalent field of view, so should you multiply the aperture by the same crop factor to get the equivalent depth of field.
If you were shooting a Canon Rebel with a 50mm f/1.4 lens wide open, it would give a similar field of view / DOF as an 80mm lens shot at f/2.3 on a full frame camera. So if you were to take an 85mm lens, and shoot at anything wider than f/2.3, it just gets shallower and shallower than a cropped camera is capable of (full frame in general is capable of about 1 and 1/3 stop shallower than a cropped camera.)
Misha – Canon 5D – EF 50mm f/1.4 – YN560 II Speedlight – Flashpoint 86″ Parabolic Umbrella
WHAT IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO
It all boils down to two things. The first, and something that really appeals to me as a portrait photographer, is the aesthetic qualities this particular sensor has. The skin tones just seem to stand out more than any other camera I have used (especially in natural light) along with low light performance that while not as clean as modern cameras, has a much more natural look to the noise.
The second, is the capability of shallower depth of field. Again speaking as a portrait photographer, it’s something we chase after. We typically want shallower depth of field, and sharper lenses at those wide apertures to give us that depth of field. Full Frame sensors let us stretch that DOF narrower, or get sharper images by stopping down, while matching the depth of field of a cropped camera shooting wide open.
The below image, I think, is the perfect example of what I am talking about. Straight out of camera, ISO 1600 (max) with a 50mm f/1.4 lens shot wide open. This shot is one of the first instances where I thought to myself: Damn, I love this camera. The picture is noisier than what I get at ISO 6400+ on my modern camera, but the noise just seems ‘right.’ And the skin tones… everything about so many of the images I shoot with this camera just scream out to me “this is what a camera should be.”
Maverick, at his 3rd birthday party – Canon 5D – EF 50mm f/1.4 – Natural Light (window)
Yes, I am a FanBoy of this camera, and I honestly think that no other camera (for still photos only) can compare to it in the $500 range. Do I think it’s the best ever overall camera? No, I reserve that for the Nikon D600 (currently.) But at the end of the day, the amount of awesomeness this camera provides for the relatively low cost just can’t be beat. If fantastic, natural portraits are your thing, or the depth of field that a full frame sensor can allow you… this camera should definitely be on your radar.