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a7R II vs 5DS - the big debate!

18 June 2015

a7R II vs 5DS - the big debate!

Face off!

The last 7 days have just been extraordinary. I’ve witnessed some pre-launch hype and brand battles before but this one really has EVERYONE talking. As of Friday, all I had to go on was what everyone else had – specs (though rarely does that stop everyone suddenly exclaiming which is best!).

This Monday morning, that all changed when I firstly picked up our first 5DS. For us as a hire company, it’s a no brainer to buy them – effectively a higher resolution 5D Mk 3 that will appeal to some if not all Canon customers. I can see many applications for it and regardless of anything else out on the market, it makes perfect sense for Canon to produce it.

5DS pickup

New toy collected

I picked it up en route to the Sony launch of the a7R II, RX10 II and RX100 IV cameras at Pinewood. Here was going to be my first chance to get my hands on the a7R II to compare. Whilst it wasn’t a production spec camera (and still on an early firmware) and so I couldn’t really compare like for like, it still gave me an early indication of what we were looking at.

So let’s be clear about one thing here that has really held back the a7R for a lot of DSLR users - that’s AF. Myself and my friends from Zeiss did a quick test of AF with not only a Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8ZA lens that Sony had put on the a7R II but also with Zeiss’ new 1.8/85mm Batis lens. So how good was it? The 55mm was a tiny bit faster than the Batis (but it wasn’t huge). How did that compare to the Canon? Not as fast – the Canon was as lightning fast as you’d expect. BUT (and it’s a big but), for most situations a7R II was fast enough (light-years away from the a7R – think a7II but better), only in low light did the difference become noticeable. The reality is that only a small number of people will be combining this resolution with action (wildlife photographers most likely) and for them, the 5DS is a no brainer. It has the same detailed AF presets as the 5D Mk 3 and for those people, it will be brilliant.

Sony a7R IIThe lovely Batis attached to the a7RII

Sony made a big thing about the ability to use the Phase AF sensors when mounting on a Sony EA Alpha adaptor. This obviously lead to me wondering whether this would be the same with a Metabones EF adaptor and EF lens. I did try on the sample I had and it was most definitely quicker than before (no more contrast AF shuffle) but I wouldn’t say it was lightning fast. Now I’ve read reports that people HAVE seen quick AF with one so again perhaps it was firmware differences. Just goes to show you really have to take pre-production cameras with a bit of a pinch of salt. It's also worth noting that rumours have started circulating that Metabones are working on an electronic Nikon F adaptor to take advantage of the autofocus. It seems things could get very interesting!

Speaking of Zeiss, let’s talk about lenses here because with these high resolution cameras, lens quality really comes into the mix. I have to say the Batis lenses are just hugely impressive and are what the E Mount full frame system has been waiting for. I increased my order on the spot! Combined with that new a7R II sensor, the results that we saw on the day were astonishing. It’s still too early to really tell but it reminded me of when we first tried a Sigma Art prime on a D800 and stood back and went ‘Wow’!

One thing we did notice with the Canon was it appeared really soft at 100% with a 24-70mm f/2.8 Mk 2 lens I had brought along. Bit of AF Microadjustment improved things considerably which is interesting. Firstly, it highlights just how sensitive the 5DS is to AF adjustment for each lens and secondly just how much the massive resolution shows any flaw whatsoever!! Interestingly, I’ve rarely had any problems with my a7r and I’ve used plenty of our lenses with 5D Mk 3’s without problem. If you think it was just one lens, then you’re wrong. The 11-24mm worked absolutely fine but I had to adjust the Sigma 50mm Art by a couple of stops to ensure it was sharp.

That 11-24mm is a cracker but it does also show that there is a great variance in quality amongst the L lenses (which we already knew when we did Otus comparisons on the a7R last year) - some may not fare so well.

Wheel5DS with 11-24mm lens @ 1/200 sec; f/10; ISO 100

Decent glass is going to be more important than ever and I hope Canon wisely think about launching some high end primes. Does that mean there’s no point using with cheaper glass? Not at all, I took a non L prime and had a play. Yes, it showed up the lens’ limitations but it did take advantage of the greater resolution (certainly in the middle) so like for like, compared to say a 5D Mk III, once you’d shrunk the image down to a comparable resolution, the result was better. My point is, to really make that sensor shine, it deserves decent glass. Image no question, it’s Otus all the way or Sigma Art if you want AF. Just make sure it’s an EF mounted Otus as I tried one of our Nikon F mount Otus 85mm’s with a Fotodiox adaptor (all I had on the day) and still the focus assist doesn’t work so you’ve got no choice but to use liveview and at 1.4 on an 85mm shooting something at 8ft, that’s bloody hard to do handheld and hit bang on your chosen focal point.

Canon EOS 5DS sample image5DS with Otus 85mm @ f/1.4; 1/640; ISO 1600

Especially when you’re so used to having the use of an EVF where you can use expanded focus (and peaking if you want). I have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve used an SLR. I took the 5DS down to Brighton with me on Tuesday afternoon to see Gordon Laing from Cameralabs. I had orders coming in so I only had that body for a day more. We shot with the 11-24mm mostly (as I knew it was one of Canon’s best L lenses they’ve produced). I also took down an Otus for two reasons. Firstly I wanted to see what we could do with it and secondly I wanted to understand how much of a hassle it was to use with a mirrored camera when shooting with it on an a7r is just second nature.

My answer was pretty quick in coming forward. Gordon find it a nightmare to shoot with and quickly moved back to using the 11-24mm!! Now had we used an EF mount one where the focus assist would have lit up, that would have helped enormously. But it’s all so much hassle when you’re used to EVF’s that just make life so easy! As Gordon said, “it’s a bloody nightmare trying to do this without an EVF!”

What am I trying to get across by saying this? Look, there are those that will stand by optical view finders until the world ends and that’s fine. But use an EVF for long enough in varying scenarios and you soon miss having one. The reality is at this resolution this is absolutely no way whatsoever I can focus manually at f/1.4 through the viewfinder and always expect it to be bang in focus – not at 50MP. So I have to count on AF to pin it. I tried the camera manually using focus assist with the Sigma lens and it’s usually pretty close but again it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that just because the light went on, I was exactly on point. Perhaps I’m just too set in my ways having used the a7 range for too long….

One thing I’m also set in my ways now is having the ability to shoot lower res stills off the camera straight onto my iPad via Wifi. It’s great to be able to share images whilst out and about. I just don’t get why Canon don’t offer this??

So what’s the resolution like on the Canon? Well, look for yourself - it’s pretty damn impressive. Massively better than the a7R II? I doubt you’ll see a huge difference to be honest – it’s too early to say until I can compare two RAW files like for like. Dynamic range is also very good – I’ve read some reports saying that it’s lousy like the 7D Mk II. Must have been using a different camera to me because I thought it pulled up the shadows and pulled down highlights pretty well to be honest. Feel free to judge for yourself.

Cyclist JPEG5DS with 11-24mm lens JPEG out of camera @ f/10; 1/160 sec; ISO 100 

Cyclist5DS with 11-24mm lens RAW @ f/10; 1/160 sec; ISO 100

Pavillion 2 JPEG5DS with 11-24mm lens JPEG out of camera @ f/10; 1/320 sec; ISO 100

Pavilion 25DS with 11-24mm lens RAW @ f/10; 1/320 sec; ISO 100

I’ve been using the Pentax 645Z a lot recently which is just extraordinary when it comes to what that sensor can capture. So to say I was surprised by the 5DS is a good thing. But I know the a7R II will be good because I’ve been getting away with murder on exposures on the a7R for a long time now!!

Let’s quickly talk about noise here. I know when I did comparisons between the a7R and a7s when the latter first came out, that a7R held its own up to 12,800 ISO and it wasn’t until after that that the lower light capabilities outshone the loss of detail in the a7R image that couldn’t be recovered. Yes there was noise on the image but you had so much detail, you could still reduce the noise and produce something acceptable. We’re all assuming the a7R II will improve on this. This wasn’t clear on Monday when I tried a pre-production sample but I must point out that this was not the final product.

The 5DS is no low light king but again, let’s be realistic here. Noise becomes evident at full resolution above about 800 ISO and is quite noticeable above 3200 but as with the a7R above, you can get away masking some of this because you have so much detail, reducing the noise of the image stills gives you something acceptable at lower resolutions. So you CAN shoot at 12,800 ISO but just don’t expect to show it off at full resolution.

a7R II JPEG5DS and 11-24mm lens JPEG out of camera @ f/5.6; 1/125 sec; ISO 6400

a7R II RAW5DS and 11-24mm lens RAW @ f/5.6; 1/125 sec; ISO 6400

The thing is I still haven’t even talked about the fact that the a7R II also can shoot in 4K in Super 35mm with no pixel binning, S-Log2, XAVC-S codec and time coding. Again, I can’t say what it’s truly like but the launch footage looks good. I popped over to James Miller’s yesterday to have a look at the footage coming off the 5DS – results were not that surprising really – similar to a 5D Mk 3 but possibly not as good. Whilst I was there I also grabbed a shot of Buddy below using the Sigma 50mm Art lens on the 5DS.


I digress - have a look at James’ recoloured footage shot with the a7R II below and see what you think.

All I’ve read for the last day has been ‘Canon killer’ this and that. Hmmm… What to say? The 5DS was a logical step for Canon to produce and it’s a very good camera. I’d love them to produce some ‘ultra’ primes to go with the camera that really show what the sensor can do. After the IQ disappointment of the 7D Mk II, I am really pleased to say it’s a good ‘un! I can see a lot of Canon customers being very happy with the camera and wondering what all the fuss is about. I feel a bit sorry for the 5DS as it really is a bloody good camera. I do think some will find the ISO range a bit limiting if they want to use that full resolution but it’s a big sensor so really is that a surprise? You’re also going to need to stock up on decent memory cards as the RAW files are big and don’t forget a battery grip as it’s a bit hungrier on power.

Back to the debate, I can however also see the other side of things. I’ve read a lot of people thinking that this is the time to switch away from either Canon or Nikon (Canon especially). IF the production cameras can focus quickly with a Metabones adaptor using Canon EF lenses, then one of the biggest photography hurdles has just been leapt over. It might be a bit slower but for many the advantages will outweigh the negatives. We’ll know for sure soon enough!

That Sony are forging ahead at a pace is quite astonishing. If you think it’s limited to just the a7R II, you’re dead wrong. The other two cameras launched on Monday at Pinewood I’ll go over in more detail elsewhere and are just as impressive.

For me personally as an a7R user, I am as happy as anything. I can still use my manual lenses but for the first time I can actually think about bolting an AF lens on when needs be and actually still reap the rewards of that astonishing sensor. And that’s before I even think about the quality of the 4K footage. Happy days! Oh and those Batis lenses! Did I mention them?!