Jedi Vs Sith: A 5D Mk II Autofocus Test

The problem that many users complain about with the Canon 5D Mk II is the autofocus abilities in low-light. These users claim it to be very poor and the clamors have forced Canon to revamp the focusing system as is seen in the 1D Mk IV and 7D. The other night here in New York City, there was a giant Lightsaber battle in Christie Park, put on by NewMindSpace. The situation called for extremely low light, extremely fast-moving subjects, and a dead flash that could not assist with focusing. So how did it hold up?

As I’ve stated many times before, the Canon 5D Mk II’s autofocus vastly improves with a flash like the 430 EX II attached. After months of use, the batteries in mine finally died. So shooting this event was going to involve using the autofocus system.

Please note that all images were post-processed to save them.

Different methods were tried to get the shots. Attached to the camera was the 85mm F1.8—a reasonable choice for the event: fast glass and a short-telephoto with a large lens hood to protect from attacking Sith warriors.

The first method I used was using all the focusing points combined with manual override. This proved to be a bit inefficient even at dusk. For the most part though, it nailed the shots in dusk lighting. When nighttime came though (by 9PM), it was a different story: the camera just couldn’t keep up with such fast moving objects and the rays of light being scattered randomly around. This is also where I needed to open the f-stop up all the way to let in the maximum amounts of light. Additionally, all photos were shot at no slower than 1/100th of a second to ensure quality sharpness and clarity. Occasionally, the shutter speed was set to 1/80th or a bit slower. ISO speed was set to 6400.

As a reference point, shooting started at around 8PM and lasted until around 9:30 PM. Also know that I knew fully well that my 5D Mk II would probably not be able to keep up in such dim light, but I wanted to test it out anyway.

So this forced another method of attack because of the average output of missed shots vs accurate photos. This time the focus selection points were used. As noted by many other 5D Mk II users, this helps with autofocusing quite a bit more in situations that are tough to shoot. This worked fairly well, but eventually all of the photos appeared to be composed similarly. I refrain from saying that it worked terrifically because of the Sith and Jedi warriors moving around, parrying, dodging, etc. The 5D MK II couldn’t always keep up.

This is where I switched the camera into manual mode. This required paying careful attention (in very low light) to what was in focus. The hyperfocal length shooting style was also utilized when my eyes couldn’t focus correctly (or the camera). Image trying to capture a moving subject in lighting at 9PM at night when all there is is orange street lights (all positioned fairly far away). Then throw multiple subjects into the fray and fast moving lights. How would you shoot it.

Overall, while I did get a couple of keepers, using the 5D MK II at an event like this without a flash was a bit of a disaster, be it a small one. Had this been a paid gig, all batteries would have been fully charged. However, this was also quite a learning experience. I’m not even sure if my 7D would have been able to keep up. Chances are more than likely that it would’ve done fine. However, I would like to see how the 1D Mk IV performs in such a chaotic event.

To be fair, I also wonder what shooting with something like the 50mm F1.2 or the 85mm F1.2 would have been like in this situation.

As a constructive criticism, Canon would do well with not only improving the focusing system but also working on developing a zone selection system similar to that of the 7D and 1D MK IV.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, I’m really interested to hear how you would’ve approached the situation.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.