The Canon 6D was my first grown-up camera, back in 2013. I loved how Canon’s colors looked like the best version of reality, and how sharp its glass was, and the 6D was the most affordable way to get into full-frame photography. As the years went on, though, I came to believe the mirrorless cameras were the way of the future, and Canon was slow to adapt, so I jumped ship for Sony in 2015. I still missed that glass and those colors, though.
Nearly four years since I abandoned the brand, Canon got its act together and released its first full-frame mirrorless camera, the EOS R. I was giddy (yes, on rare occasions, professional gadget nerds still get giddy), and wondered if it would be enough to woo me back into Canon’s ecosystem. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It takes beautiful pictures, but this is the camera that Canon should have come out with two or three years ago.
Let’s start with the basics. The EOS R is a full-frame mirrorless camera, full-frame meaning its image sensor is roughly the same size as a piece of 35mm film, and mirrorless meaning it doesn’t have a mirror that mechanically flips up and down (like a DSLR). It shoots 30.3-megapixel photos, which puts it kind of weirdly between its competitors. For example, Sony has the A7 III which shoots 24MP photos and the A7R III which shoots 42.4MP photos, and Nikon has the new Z6 at 24.5MP and the Z7 at 45.7MP (which we reviewed, too).
Canon is using this launch as an opportunity to retool its lens mount. The new RF system has a wider 54mm mount with a shorter 20mm flange, meaning it’s a lot wider to let more light in, and the distance from the lens to sensor is shorter, which should aid its focusing capabilities. All of Canon’s new RF lenses will have a new ring on them (in addition to focus and zoom rings) that can be mapped to control aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or exposure comp. Canon has three adapters that allow you to use your old glass without any loss in quality, and the pricier ones also feature that ring to give you added control (the top-end one also has a built-in ND filter).
I’m happy to report that the new lenses, when paired with the EOS R, take gorgeous photos. I tested the camera with Canon’s new version of its legendary workhorse lens, the 24-105mm f/4, and its new 50mm f/1.2. That 50mm is one of the best lenses I’ve ever used. The images it produced were razor sharp with such delicately soft bokeh (the blurring of background stuff). When I pulled everything into Adobe Lightroom for editing, there were a bunch of images I took with the 50mm where I was like, “Wow, I’m not going to touch that at all.” I do wish this lens had image stabilization, though, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.
The RF 24-105mm is every bit the versatile lens you’d expect it to be. It stays crisp regardless of what level of zoom or aperture you select. I began by testing it on a beach in Malibu, and fortunately, I still had it on the next morning... when I had to get out of Dodge. The morning of November 9th, 2018 the Wooley fires were tearing across Malibu, and the entire city was evacuated. The lens and this camera held up in a high-stress, very real-world situation, and the photos it produced were good enough for publication.
The colors this camera produces are just as I remember, and man, I’ve missed them. Things look vibrant but realistic. The dynamic range is decent, and it retains a good deal of information in the shadows while doing a good job of keeping highlights from being blown out. That gives you a lot of flexibility in editing. That said, it doesn’t have as much dynamic range as the full-frame cameras from Sony or Nikon. With those, you get a couple more stops of flexibility in either direction, but the EOS R is close enough to be considered quite good. At higher ISO you do see some noise, but ISO 6400 is usable.
The EOS R also has a dual-pixel autofocus system, which I found to be very fast in general. Even more impressive, it boasts 5,655 autofocus points that cover 88-percent of the horizontal space on the sensor and 100-percent of the vertical space. That’s unparalleled. In certain modes (i.e. Face Tracking) you can opt to have it aim for the subject’s closest eye, and it worked quite well, if not quite as reliably as Sony’s Eye-AF, which is still best in class.
There’s some stuff to like about the camera’s body, too. Grip-snobs will appreciate the depth of its handle and how secure it feels in your hand. Some people don’t like that Sony’s cameras have shallow grips, but personally, it’s never bothered me. To each their own. Vloggers and other types who do a lot of self-shooting will appreciate that the LCD screen fully articulates, meaning it swings out and can be flipped to face frontwards to help you frame your shot. At 3.15 inches that screen is slightly larger and also sharper (2.1 million dots) than Sony’s and is on par with the Nikon Z7’s LCD. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is bright and crisp, too, and there’s an OLED top panel that displays relevant shooting information (current settings, battery level, number of shots remaining, and so on).
That big rear LCD is also a touchscreen, and unlike Sony, Canon does a really good job of implementing it into the UI. You can use it throughout the intuitive menu system, for example. Nikon and Canon both nailed this, and it’s crazy to me that Sony, with its giant headstart on mirrorless cameras, is still flailing here. Battery life is passable. It’s CIPA-rated to 370 shots, but that’s far behind the Sony A7 III and A7R III. It does have an Eco mode that should extend it to 450 shots, which is more respectable.
Up to now, this review has pretty much been a love-letter. So, what’s not to like? Well, pretty much everything else. Oy, where to start?
There’s so much about the design of this camera that feels wrong. First, there’s only one card slot (a high-speed SDXC). That right there will probably make this camera a non-starter for professionals. In fact, many drawbacks ruin it for pros. The placement of many buttons is questionable. Both of the dials are on top of the camera, which requires a long reach for my index finger. On the far upper right corner of the back are the Eye Detection AF and the AF Point buttons. Not only are they so far over that your thumb will cramp trying to reach them, but I found that my hand is usually covering them, which resulted in many accidental presses.
There’s a conspicuous lack of a joystick for moving the autofocus point around (no, you can’t even use the D-pad buttons). Instead, you’re supposed to do this on the large LCD, which is extremely annoying if your face is always up against the EVF. There’s also no scroll wheel like you find on Sony cameras and even lesser Canon cameras. That’s such a nice option to have for quickly adjusting ISO or scrolling through photos in playback. Now, the RF lenses’ new ring could be mapped to control ISO, which isn’t a terrible option, but in practice I found myself reaching for it and grabbing the focus ring instead, or vice versa. That’s probably something you’d get used to in time, though.
In general, it just feels like everything takes more clicks to get to than it should. There’s no dedicated mode dial, which should come standard on a camera of this caliber. In general, there’s a lack of custom buttons. Canon even made the baffling decision to make the on/off control into a single-purpose dial. It’s harder to reach (way over on the left side), you can’t feel when it’s on or off, and it takes up space where a mode dial could easily go. Why would they do this?
Then there’s the new Multi-Function Bar on the back. It is a small, non-moving, touch-sensitive surface, which can be mapped to control things like ISO (that’s the default), white balance, focus features, display info, audio controls (when shooting video), and more. It’s pretty bad. As frustrating as it was to accidentally activate it when I didn’t intend to (which happened, even when I enabled the lock on it), it was even more frustrating when I actually meant to use it. It’s just so finicky. Tweaking the ISO (something I often do because I usually shoot in full manual mode) became a game of unlocking the bar, overshooting/undershooting the setting I wanted, accidentally brushing it again, and then still failing to select it. In contrast, on my Sony, I use the clicky scroll-wheel with my thumb, and I’m done in two seconds.
Another big ding is that this camera doesn’t have in-body stabilization. That’s a feature that makes a massive difference if you’re hand shooting (which I am 80-percent of the time), especially in dimmer situations. Some of Canon’s lenses, like the 24-105mm, have built-in stabilization. Others, like my beloved 50mm f/1.2, don’t. Sony and Nikon both have in-body stabilization, and if you buy a lens that also has stabilization, then it’s twice as stabilized. This is a big miss.
And then there’s video. Canon was the pioneer of shooting high-quality video with a DSLR camera body. The 5D Mark II invented that whole game. That’s why it stings so badly that Canon is so far behind here. It can shoot 4K video at 30fps, but it crops the hell out of the image to do so. We’re talking a 1.75x crop! To put that in perspective, cameras with the smaller APS-C sensors only crop 1.5x. I cannot wrap my mind around that. That effectively takes a nice wide 24mm lens and turns it into a 42mm. Not only do you lose so much of your frame, but you lose light, too. It’s not that 4K video looks bad, it doesn’t. It’s still crisp and vibrant, but it’s basically impossible to take any wide shots at 4K. If you want the full width of your lens, you have to shoot 1080p. That’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people (myself included).
Video woes don’t stop there, either. Footage exhibits a lot of rolling shutter effect (objects wobble like jelly when you pan the camera). Not having in-body stabilization becomes very noticeable when shooting hand-held, even when you’re using the stabilized 24-105mm lens. If you want to shoot some sweet 120fps slow motion, you’re limited to 720p. To put that in perspective, the GoPro Hero 3 could do 720p120 back in 2012. Both Sony and Nikon can go to 1080p120.
The issues continue. Canon’s face tracking is one of the fastest and smoothest I’ve seen. Even when shooting at f/1.2 (i.e. very little room for error) and walking quickly toward and away from the camera, it did a fantastic job of staying with me. That would be great, except that it clicks! Audibly! A lot! Every time the focus adjusts it sounds like a small dolphin trying to echolocate its mother. You should be using an external mic for video anyway (all on-camera mics suck), but this forces you into it.
For all of the above reasons, this becomes a camera that I cannot in good conscience recommend to anybody. It’s such a shame because you can see the potential there, and the camera delivers beautiful photos, especially with that 50mm f/1.2, but there are just too many problems you can’t ignore. Other cameras take stunning photos without all the compromises. The best full-frame mirrorless is still the Sony A7R III, with the Sony A7 III not far behind it (and cheaper than the EOS R).
In the grand scheme, this isn’t a bad first effort, and you can see that the groundwork is there for the next generation of this camera to be amazing. Let’s just hope that second generation comes soon.