Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

The $1,300 Canon RP is not the best camera made or even the slickest mirrorless camera. It will win no awards for dynamic range or color rendition, and if you’ve got strong feelings about the number of megapixels available in post-production, it will leave you uninspired. But the Canon RP is the cheapest full-frame mirrorless camera available and just good enough to give you the glimpse of a photography future you might not have been able to afford up until now.

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It being a full-frame camera is key here. What does that mean? Digital cameras capture images by exposing the digital sensor to light. The larger the sensor, the more light it can take in per unit of time, which is particularly advantageous in low-light situations. A full-frame camera has a much larger sensor than the usually more affordable micro four thirds or APS-C cameras, and much, much larger than the sensor(s) in your phone.

Two other facts. First, a larger sensor affords you the ability to get better background blur on in a photo. Second, because of the physical size of the sensor, the smaller “crop” sensors will capture a narrower view of a scene. It’s literally cropping out parts of the image versus a full-frame.

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So you can see why a full-frame camera would be appealing. It allows for more light, better blur, and a larger view of an overall image. It gives a photographer much more flexibility in how they shoot—but full-frame cameras are pricey versus crop sensor models. All that extra sensor costs money. Before the Canon RP, the cheapest mirrorless full-frame camera was the Sony A7 III which costs $2,000. That’s less than other mirrorless full-frame cameras, which are typically close to $3,000 or more. If the Canon RP can deliver quality for $1,300, it’ll be a steal.

It could be a boon for a lot of people who previously found full-frame cameras a bit too expensive. This could be the upgrade for your sister, the family photographer, who is still running around with an entry-level Canon Rebel or for your brother, the casual street photographer, that’s been using an old Sony NEX-series camera for five years.

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I own the A7 III and used to be a pretty big fan of Canon DSLRs, so I decided to pit the two formidable brands against each other to see if dropping $700 extra on the A7 III was worth it, or if one could settle for the Canon RP. I mainly wanted to understand what compromises you need to make to get the cost of the camera this low. For this batch of testing, I stuck to photos, though, obviously, there is an entirely different conversation to be had about video.

The camera

Canon has been dabbling in mirrorless cameras for several years, but it feels like it only started taking category seriously in the last year first with the pro-oriented Canon EOS R and now with the RP. Consequently, Canon has felt very late to the mirrorless game, which is dominated by companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus. Canon’s tardiness leads to some significant issues (more on that in the next section), but Canon is also an old hand at making digital cameras and has perfected its menu system and controls.

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Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

It’s noticeably better than my A7 III in this regard. When I set out one night to try and do some funky handheld shots on a pedestrian bridge overlooking the highway with both cameras, I was tempted to toss my A7 III over the ledge in frustration (KIDDING!). Reaching blindly into my bag, I couldn’t tell the two cameras apart. They’re roughly the same size, and with a 24-105mm lens on each, they feel like they weigh the same (the Sony kit weighs approximately a quarter pound more). I ended up pulling out the Canon first. I knew I wanted a longer shutter speed, a wide open aperture, and a low ISO. It took me a few seconds to set everything up, adjusting ISO by tapping the number on the camera’s touch display.

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After taking my shot, I switched to the Sony. Immediately it balked at me. It has two card slots, and I only had one card inside, I first had to go into the settings and choose the slot. Then I adjusted the shutter and aperture quickly enough. But changing ISO required me to program it to a button, or to go into the menu and find the ISO setting. It was a lot of extra work that left me appreciating Canon’s good UI choices.

Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

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The photos

Though it’s not exactly cheap, the Canon RP is ultimately an affordable entry point for people who covet a full-frame mirrorless camera but don’t need or want the features pricier cameras provide. I don’t want to say beginners, but probably not professionals. So I was sure to do a lot of my shooting as a person who doesn’t want to do a lot of post-processing might, shooting JPEG instead of RAW.

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It’s when the Canon shoots in JPEG in simpler partially-automatic modes that it really shines. Almost every JPEG taken with the Canon was infinitely superior to what Sony shot straight. The images were bright, and the colors saturated. Things just popped pleasingly as seen in this comparison of a doorway in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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Now check out these cherry blossoms. Notice just how much pinker the blossoms are on the Canon JPEG, and how much brighter and warmer (potentially too warm) the image is.

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However, overall, I find myself trusting the Sony more in low light. The Sony can extend ISO up to 204,800 with a standard max of 52,200. The Canon only goes up to 102,400 and has a lower standard max of 40,000. At those levels, both can produce a lot of unappealing grain, and when combined the aggressive processing each camera does to JPEGs, you can wind up with some images that look like they were shot with a phone.

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The Sony is just much better at producing a pleasing image from a grainy photo than the Canon. Sony’s RAW image is also significantly better than the Canon’s.

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Again and again, in challenging situations, you could see the incredible difference between what the Sony captured and what the Canon captured. The Canon’s flaws are nicely masked when shooting in JPEG, but with RAW files, it was quite clear that its sensor just isn’t anywhere as good as the Sony’s.

Take, for example, this image of a brick building against a blue sky. These images were taken seconds apart and then edited Photoshop’s RAW editor, where I increased the clarity to make the clouds pop a little more and put the bricks into sharper relief. I also cranked up the vibrance to 100 in both images to make the blue of the sky stand out better against the clouds.

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The A7 III produces a much clearer image with better reproduction of the clouds, a brighter blue sky, and bricks that are in sharper detail. (Even though I shot the Sony photo with a wider aperture.) The bricks seem a muddy mess on the Canon RP. It also has an unpleasant yellow pall on the image despite being corrected to the same color temperature.

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And check out this series of images taken on a tripod at night. The Sony pictures, both the JPEG produced in camera and the one produced from the RAW in photoshop, are clear, crisp, and moody. The Canon images are a hot mess.

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The images of a cat below also highlight the Canon’s problems with capturing dynamic range. A black cat with a splash of white across its chest and shot in a white room means there’s the potential for over or underexposure. But in this case, the Canon doesn’t capture any of the detail in the cat’s fur. She’s a big black blob. The Sony, with the same settings, shows the details of the fur around the cat’s cheeks.

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But the biggest issue in day-to-day shooting is the Canon’s lack of in-camera stabilization, and the images of the cat highlight that too. Shooting at 1/25 can be terrible if you have unsteady hands, and the cat is a little blurry on the Canon because of it. Stabilization on the Sony means I get a crisp image of the cat.

It’s even more evident in these attempts of an evening motion blur shot. Standing on a pedestrian bridge looming over a highway is going to lead to shaking, and even though I had the camera resting on the rail there was still a distinct tremor, so things aren’t quite as sharp as I’d like. But the Sony image is practically usable.

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In the end, none of the Canon RP’s shortcomings are the end of the world. Not every camera can do everything. Even the Sony A7 III isn’t going to be as good as its pricier siblings like the A9. With a tripod and good lighting, the Canon RP is reliable in most circumstances, affording you manual controls and the flexibility of a big sensor camera. It takes lovely little photos when you have a well-lit situation, and the JPEGs will look great without needing to use software.

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For $1,300, the Canon RP succeeds as an entry-level full-frame camera. It does its damnedest to pull off the shot when you can’t be bothered to think about exposure settings, and most of the time it does the job just fine. There are better cameras out there, but they also aren’t nearly as easy to use or as cheap. The Canon RP is wonderfully adequate.

README

  • It’s a $1,300 full-frame mirrorless camera, and that’s cheaper than the closest competition by $700.
  • It shoots lovely JPEGs and is great for new photographers.
  • No in-body stabilization means it can’t pull off some shots pricier cameras can.

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