Canon 5D Mark IV: End of the DSLR Era

It has taken four and a half years for Canon to announce the successor to the 5D Mark III, an eternity given today's much shorter product cycles from competitors like Sony and Panasonic. What does the 5D Mark IV tell us about where Canon and the industry are headed? Who is it for? Should you get one? With guys like Tony Northrup (my favorite imaging blogger) and bud planetMitch over at planet5D having already gone hands-on -- and taking a few pages from other industries and other things happening in ours -- we have a really good idea about the answers. Video at end of post.

Sexy time! Four and a half years in the making, the Canon 5D Mk IV body is now selling at B&H and Amazon for $3,499, almost $1,000 more than the 5D Mk III. Worth it? Read on.

Sexy time! Four and a half years in the making, the Canon 5D Mk IV body is now selling at B&H and Amazon for $3,499, almost $1,000 more than the 5D Mk III. Worth it? Read on.

Let's cut straight to it: the 5D Mk IV is a significant step up from the 5D Mk III in terms of specifications, but it cannot escape the limitations of being a DSLR nor Canon's prime directive, the same one as all other publicly-held companies: maximizing shareholder wealth.

The Bump in Specifications

The one big change most people have clamored for is now here: full 4K DCI video. There are also a number of other changes of varying import, depending on who you are and what you want to do with the camera:

  • Bigger sensor (30mp vs. 22.3mp)
  • Touch screen with more pixels
  • Improved auto-focus (lifted from the 1DX II)
  • GPS
  • Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • Dual Pixel RAW
  • HDR in 1080
  • Slightly higher frame rate (7fps)

In Practice

Here's what we already know, courtesy of Canon and especially Tony Northrup (Tony has already done three videos; I'd start here) and planetMitch (I'd start here): 

  • The 5D Mark IV is indeed sharper than the Mark III, but moiré and rolling shutter are even to slightly worse (still, Sony's a7r II with its 42mp sensor is 40% sharper as a stills camera).
  • If you like touch screens you'll be happy the 5D Mark IV has one, but it doesn't tilt or swing out and it uses the same interface as the 5D Mark III, which in 2016 will be comforting to some and appalling to others (it doesn't hold a candle to my new favorite interface in physical cameras, the one found on Hasselblad's H6D and X1D.
  • Auto focus was already good and now it's better: Tony says it's the best out there, but I wonder how much better it is than the best autofocus system I've personally ever used - the one found in the Sony a6300 [B&H|Amazon]. And I wonder how many Canon lenses can actually take advantage of dual pixel autofocus (actually, I can calculate the answer based on a conversation I had last year with Chuck Westfall -- the basic answer is "only a few" - they have to employ STM technology).
  • GPS tagging is a nice feature.
  • WiFi implementation doesn't hold a candle to smartphones, and they are indeed the new bogey. Canon isn't alone in this -- Sony's is pretty awful, too, but I'm guessing all physical camera manufacturers' implementations for getting images onto the web are terrible. None of them are software companies, and I haven't read nor seen a single review -- other than Tony's mention of Nikon's Snap Bridge -- that comes close to ease of use of a smartphone.
  • I don't use NFC.
  • Dual Pixel Raw appears to over-promise and under-deliver in the ability to shift focus after the shot. This isn't a Lytros light field camera, and I'm guessing neither Dual Pixel Raw nor Canon's newest autofocus does as good a job on autofocusing on eyes as Sony's Eye Focus. In order to use it, you have to use Canon software.
  • HDR actually looks pretty interesting and to me is an appealing alternative to shooting in log (which the 5D Mark IV doesn't have anyway but the Sonys do) and then spending more time in post teasing out the final image. On the other hand, it only works in HD.
  • The new top frame rate for stills is just two thirds that of the Sony a6300 (11fps) which is less than 1/3 the price of the 5D Mark IV.
  • There's no in-body image stabilization (IBIS).

Now let's get into the most important thing from where I stand: the 4K video implementation.

  • The 5D Mark IV suffers from an ENORMOUS 1.75x crop factor in UHD (by comparison, there's NO crop factor of consequence on the a6300, and none on the a7r II [B&H|Amazon] unless you want switch to APS-C mode, which is brilliant). This alone pretty much makes 4K a non-starter, as you cannot switch back and forth between still and 4K mode without switching lenses when you're trying to reach the bottom end of your full frame zoom range -- and you may even have to buy a whole new lens to get there.
  • Canon's 4K codec is terribly inefficient, resulting in 266GB for one hour's worth of footage, compared to 40G from the Sony a7r II and Panasonic GH4 [B&H|Amazon].
  • Frame rate is limited to 30fps in 4K (you can only get to 60fps in FHD, 120fps at 720 compared to 96fps on the GH4 in FHD and 120fps FHD on the Sony a6300).
  • You can't send the 4K signal out through the HDMI port, making recording to an external recorder impossible. 
  • There are still no focus or exposure assists through the viewfinder because it's an optical finder -- you can't even USE the viewfinder when shooting video: you must rely instead on the rear LCD panel.
  • As I wrote above, there's no log setting.
  • I'm guessing it's 8-bit 4:2:0, same as most others anywhere near the price (the sole exception being the Panasonic GH4, which records 10-bit 4:2:2 internally).

Who's It For?

Well, the 5D Mark IV is not for people focused on video.

It's not for people focused on ultimate still image quality even within the Canon fold (the 5Ds twins hold that honor).

And it's not for people looking for the best bang for the buck across multiple brands.

But if you have a heavy investment in Canon glass as a workaday pro and will be enlarging your images on actual paper beyond, say, A3 size and still want to dip your toe into the 4K, geo-tagging and touch screen waters -- or you really need better autofocus than you already have on the 5D Mark III (and you have and are satisfied with the STM lenses needed to drive ultimate performance from the dual pixel AF system) and in any case you have the money -- the 5D Mark IV makes sense. It's robust as heck, it's proven, it's got a great physical interface, it's part of the incredibly well-populated Canon ecosystem including electronic flash, high quality L zooms and the best telephoto primes in the business -- and you've made a significant investment in equipment and getting to know the manual of arms which you'd have to do all over again if you switched to another brand.

What Does This Tell Us About Canon and the Broader Industry?

Canon is NOT going to cannibalize its EOS Cinema line, even as its pricing remains out of whack.

Like Sony, in fact, Canon's pricing indicates an awareness that unit volumes will continue to fall, and the only way to make up for that is higher margin on lower volume products (witness the announcement of the $28,000 EOS C700 and the recent launch of the $6,000 1DX Mark II -- and even more interestingly, Canon's acquisitions in the security space like this one for $2.8 billion).

Canon is hitting the wall with DSLR technology, and it is choosing not to invest significantly to overcome it.

Hard Disk Drives and Porsche 911s

Perhaps the best way to think about what the 5D Mark IV tells us is to consider hard disk drives and Porsche 911s.

Thirty years ago, Richard N. Foster -- a consultant at McKinsey -- wrote a book titled Innovation: The Attacker's Advantage. It was the first time I was introduced to the concept of S-curves, something that Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen explored years later in his book The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. In it, Christensen did a case study of changing hard drive technology to explain why IBM's lunch was being eaten by new companies like Seagate delivering cheap but inferior drives using newer technology.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

DSLR technology is cresting, and the next technological wave -- mirrorless interchangeable cameras -- is just getting started. On the other hand, with the introduction of multiple lens/sensor units like in Apple's iPhone 7 Plus and Light's L16, it's clear to see what comes after that

DSLR technology is cresting, and the next technological wave -- mirrorless interchangeable cameras -- is just getting started. On the other hand, with the introduction of multiple lens/sensor units like in Apple's iPhone 7 Plus and Light's L16, it's clear to see what comes after that

Instead of hard drives, let's think about Porsche 911s.

For a nice precis on the evolution of the Porsche 911, visit Jalopnik.com, from which this image is taken. The 2017 base 911 starts at $89,400.

For a nice precis on the evolution of the Porsche 911, visit Jalopnik.com, from which this image is taken. The 2017 base 911 starts at $89,400.

Every couple of years, Porsche improves on the original 1963 911. But it can only improve by so much, within the limitations of an iconic design and a decision to put the engine in the rear. Yes,  they can switch from air-cooled to water-cooled engines, increase displacement and use turbochargers. Yes, they can switch from rear wheel drive to all-wheel drive. Yes, they can alter the size of the exterior shell and increase the wheelbase.

But again, only by so much.

In the real, day to day world, however, no one can use even half of the performance of the latest 911 -- and if they want to drive in snow with a rear wheel drive model or just seat four adults comfortably, there are countless other cars at just a fraction of the price that can do a better job.

Subaru, anyone?

All-wheel drive 2017 Subarau WRX is less than $30,000.

All-wheel drive 2017 Subarau WRX is less than $30,000.

What It All Means for You

If you want and can afford a Porsche, you'll buy a Porsche. If you want and can afford the Canon 5D Mark IV, you'll buy one, too.

And you'll love it, with good reason, as I've outlined above.

But the number of us out there who fit into this category is shrinking because there are cheaper alternatives which have reached the point where they are actually better in specific instances -- like the a7R ii for video, or in fact stills as well (as long as you don't mind the ergonomics or the fact that it will overheat when shooting in 4K even after the firmware update).

And then there are the Sony a6300 or even the $798 Panasonic GX85 with 12-32mm lens [B&H|Amazon] .

Poor, Snore or More?

Even though I personally switched from Canon to Sony a couple of years ago, the 5D Mark IV is neither poor nor a snore.  It's an incredibly solid camera which is capable of outstanding images in the right hands.

In most meaningful ways, it is a more capable machine than its predecessor.

But in the end what makes the 5D Mark IV fascinating -- what makes it more important than the camera it replaces -- is that it is the clearest indication of the limits of the technology which spawned the original, and the difference in evolution between that technology and the one closing in - mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.

And then there's what comes after that.