TLDR: More expensive is better, but not much better.
When we speak about a 35mm SLR camera body, we are basically talking about a light proof box with a hole in it, and a way of mounting the important part of the whole thing, the lens, in front of some film. Someone with some tape and some cardboard could, in theory, create a camera body that produced images of identical quality to those out of a camera that costs many thousands of pounds (looking at you red dot fetishists).
With that in mind, when we’re reviewing 35mm cameras without taking into consideration the lens, we’re basically reviewing usability. And usability, unlike image quality, is entirely subjective.
We’re looking at Canons EOS series, the 5, the 50E and the 500. For anyone unfamiliar with the Canon numbering system, the lower the number the ‘better’ the camera, but because the series has been around for a long time, (well into the digital age Canon simply put a ‘D’ on the end of the numbers now) differing release dates mean that a more recently released camera with a higher number might be ‘better’ than an older one with a lower number.
The 5, the 50 and the 500 represent a spectrum of EOS cameras, from something like entry level with the 500, a camera for the more serious photographer with the 50, and the 5 representing a semi-professional, or ‘prosumer’ model. Canon call these ‘entry level’, ‘enthusiast’ and ‘professional’ levels. Our 5 and 50 are in the ‘enthusiast’ class, and the 500 is ‘entry level’. These days they can all be picked up for less than £50 without lenses, but when they were released the price difference between the 500 and the 5 was significant.
Having all three cameras at once meant that I was able to explore what an ‘enthusiast’ gets that a regular human doesn’t, and see whether it makes any difference at all to me as a camera user in 2018.
The biggest difference is the size and weight of these cameras, the more you are paying, the more you are getting, literally. The 5 is a heavy lug with a lens attached, whereas the 500 is much smaller and lighter. I shoot primarily with a 40mm lens, and whilst the body of the 5 dwarfs this pancake, it looks right at home on the 500. None of these cameras are going to fit in your pocket though, and if you are investing in a good quality strap the additional weight of the 5 isn’t a huge issue.
That extra weight on the 5 and 50 means extra features. Note here that all three cameras have aperture priority, shutter priority and full manual modes – basically all anyone should ever need – so any other ‘features’ are all really just part of the process of convincing us that these cameras are not just boxes with square holes. An example of this is ‘eye control’ – a feature that was introduced on the 5, then left with the 50. This mode lets you select a focus point just by looking at it. It’s very cool – I have no idea how it works but the camera knows where you are looking in the viewfinder, highlights the nearest focussing point, then focusses there! Its magic, and the first time you use it you’ll feel like you are in blade runner. Then you turn it off and never use it again. Same with the many other features the 50 and 5 have over the 500. There is only one custom feature I have turned on which is available only on the 5, and that is to leave a small section of film outside of the canister to make home-development simpler.
Frame rate is also fun to compare, the 500 has a frame rate of 1 – you point your camera at something and it takes a picture. The 50 betters this with a frame rate of 2.5. This means you can hold your finger on the shutter button and take a series of shots in quick succession, more than two a second. The 5 though is ridiculous – it has a frame rate of 5 per second. This means you can burn through a standard 36 frame film in less than eight seconds. This is a faster frame rate than some modern digital cameras, and remember this camera isn’t just opening the shutter, it also has to move the film along for every shot. The 5 also has some insane shutter speeds (8000th of a second!) – like everything else, unless you are doing some extremely specialist photography you are never going to use these features.
Why is the 5 my go to camera then? I could take out the 500 and save some weight. It’s all about the autofocus and metering. Let’s get the boring one out the way first – the 500 does some tricky things with its metering designed to make it as easy as possible for anyone to take well metered shots, it involves weighting and averaging the light across the frame in a way I don’t understand. The 50 gives you more control, with 6 zone evaluative metering, and the 5 does better with 16 zone evaluative metering. The upshot is that with the 500 I have found that shots are less likely to be correctly exposed, and that performance in lower light varied a fair amount from an external meter. The 5 however gives me consistency whether I am inside or out, and with a range of different films.
The autofocus is more important to me though. I don’t really care so much about autofocus zones, even when shooting digital, and the many autofocus zones that offers, I frequently just set my camera to the centre zone and go (for reference the 50 offers three, the 5 offers 5 and the 500 just has the one zone). What I do care about is how quickly the camera focusses. Obviously, this does depend on the lens used, but a quick test across all three cameras with the same lens reveals a big difference in terms of speed, especially in low light. The 500 is not bad, especially outside on a sunny day, but the 5 is blisteringly fast even inside – so fast in fact that it outpaces my digital camera, and outside in the sun its barely noticeable that its even doing the work. I don’t really understand how auto focussing works, but the 500 also fires out a white light, almost like a mini-flash to aid its focussing, up close its quite off putting. The 500 and the 50 obviously still have to use something to aid focussing, but it’s a more discrete red that doesn’t seem to light up everything in sight.
This is the only real difference between these three cameras in terms of my everyday use, a matter of milliseconds in terms of focus. However, it is not all about time, its more to do with trust. I absolutely trust the 5 to get the shot in focus, even in challenging conditions, and I know that when I point the camera at something, even if I don’t have time to properly compose the shot I will get something usable. When you are shooting digital and can set your frame rate nice and high and fire off the camera until its perfect this isn’t such a big issue. But on 35mm, unless you want to call on the 5s ridiculous option to run through a roll of film in a matter of seconds having confidence that you are getting the shot (nearly) every time is why I’d recommend climbing the consumer to enthusiast ladder, and for the sake of 20 or 30 extra pounds to find a well looked after example, you’d be mad to take the 500 over the 50 or the 5 (plus, you know…eye control).