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Rumors of the original Canon 5D started circulating in early August of 2005. A few other full-frame digital cameras existed at the time, but their large physical size and hefty price tags were deal breakers for the majority of photographers. It seemed like everyone wanted the same thing—a DSLR with a full-frame sensor that didn't have a crop factor, in a body size that was reminiscent of a 35mm film SLR, and at a price that was more within reach. On August 22, 2005, the 5D delivered.
Most photographers in the mid 2000's had developed their eye using 35mm film cameras. When they attached a 50mm lens and looked through the viewfinder, they expected to see a 50mm focal range. However, nearly all the DSLR cameras available at the time were using APS-C-sized sensors, which introduce a significant amount of crop factor. The classic nifty fifty is cropped to 80mm. This compromise threw many people off, and proved to be a persistent nuisance.
In order to appreciate fully the importance of the original 5D, you need to understand the landscape of cameras that existed at that time. Introduced in the year 2000 and not available for purchase until the spring of 2002, the Contax N Digital was the first digital camera to feature a full-frame sensor.
While the Contax N Digital was nicely built, and featured an appealing selection of compatible Zeiss lenses, it was only really usable at 100 ISO, and it had a reputation for burning through batteries quickly (it ran on four rechargeable AA's). It had auto focus; however, it was too slow for sports and other types of professional uses. The resolution it provided looked nice, but many didn't find it to be significantly better than the APS-C cameras of the day, especially considering its hefty price tag.
The second full-frame DSLR to hit the market was the Canon EOS-1Ds. Unlike the Contax N Digital which fell short of most people's expectations, and was ultimately discontinued after only one year, the EOS-1Ds struck a nerve with professional photographers. Its higher-resolution 11-megapixel CMOS sensor (the Contax N Digital had a CCD sensor) and its ability to work with a wide range of lenses, was enough to lure a large number of film shooters to the digital realm. However, its price was prohibitively expensive, and it weighed 3.49 lbs.
The third full-frame DSLR to come along was the Kodak Professional DCS Pro 14n. This camera was officially announced one day before EOS-1Ds, but took longer to ship. The DCS Pro 14n had a competitive price, and touted a 14-megapixel sensor; however, it proved to be slow to power up, slow to write files, and the images often suffered from noise and moiré. It also didn't help that it was large, heavy, and fairly awkward to handle. It failed to quell the collective desire for truly functional full-frame camera, as did the two other iterations of this camera—the DCS Pro SLR/n (which featured a Nikon F-mount), and the DCS Pro SLR/c (with a Canon EF-mount).
It's important to keep in mind that even though digital cameras were a big deal at this time, traditional 35mm film cameras were still extremely popular. The majority of photographers were not swayed by the digital offerings that had found their way into the marketplace. It took a few more years, but the tipping point finally came in late August 2005.
While the Canon EOS-1Ds supplied photographers with a highly-functional full-frame digital camera, it was also somewhat large and expensive. Two of the most striking attributes of the original 5D were that it was half the price and half the weight of the 1Ds. The lower cost opened the door to a much larger pool of customers, and the dramatically decreased size and weight made it very attractive to current owners of the 1Ds.
A higher-resolution 12.8-megapixel CMOS sensor made the 5D even more attractive, and its LCD screen, which by today's standards seems small, came in a larger size, at 2.5". Further tempting dyed-in-the-wool film shooters was the fact that the 5D was compatible with nearly every Canon lens produced in the past 18 years, reaching as far back as 1987 (with the exception of EF-S lenses). Finally, the field-of-view of Canon's EF-mount lenses would be equivalent to that of 35mm film SLRs, in a similar, single-grip body size.
Unlike earlier attempts from other manufacturers, the 5D offered a workable ISO range, which was a welcome companion to the low-light benefits afforded by its large sensor. It featured a nine-point AF system with six assist points, and a magnesium-alloy construction. It was a joy for photographers to gain the wide-angle and shallow-depth-of-field capabilities that a full-frame camera provides, along with the enormous advantages of shooting digitally.
Obviously, not everything was perfect in the original 5D. The viewfinder offered only 96% coverage, and compared to contemporary APS-C cameras like the Canon 20D, the 5D was noticeably more sluggish. These shortcomings were completely forgivable, however, considering how many profound advancements it provided. Plus, unbeknownst to users at the time, the Canon 5D line would go on to become a force that would disrupt entire creative industries, redefining what's possible with an unassuming, relatively small camera body.
In the summer of 2008, rumors started spreading that something big from Canon was on the horizon...