Canon 5DS R Field Test Part I

Big sensor, big resolution, big responsibility

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Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/4.0, 1/1600s, ISO 400, 1.6x Crop Mode
This image has been cropped slightly. Click to view unedited version. (See also: RAW file)

Canon's niche-market DSLRs

The Canon 5DS R and 5DS cameras are perhaps two of the most specialized, or niche-market DSLRs that Canon's ever produced (well, perhaps not counting a couple of astrophotography-specific variants of their 20D and 60D). Canon's wide-ranging traditional DSLR models varied along the price scale in terms of size, build and level of features and performance, but were ultimately well-suited for general use and with a variety of subject matter. These two full-frame 50.6-megapixel monsters, on the other hand, with their massive image resolutions as well as limited high ISO performance and video capabilities are focused squarely on a few avenues -- namely, professional-level landscapes, portraiture or other studio-based and/or commercial applications, which all typically demand large print sizes and lots and lots of detail.  

As a long-time Canon user, needless to say, I was very excited to try out the new Canon 5DS R camera. If you're familiar with Canon's enthusiast-level and prosumer DSLRs, such as the 7D Mark II or better yet, the 5D Mark III, you'll feel right at home with the 5DS R (and standard "S" model as well) since it looks and feels identical to the Mark III.

Familiar territory with the 5D Mark III's design

Having shot with the 7D Mark II and 5D Mark III, as well as both of these cameras' predecessors, I was very familiar with the 5DS R's controls and ergonomics. The camera's large-ish body fits and feels great in my hands, and the controls are generally right where I want them. My only nit-pick, really, in terms of a change I'd like to see -- on this camera and Canon's other models -- would be a rear control dial up near where your thumb rests on the back of the camera. I like the large Quick Control Dial for scrolling though images and navigating menus, but when the camera is up at my eye, a secondary control wheel right near your thumb would be fantastic, I think, and would add just a bit more comfort and ease of use while shooting.

Apart from that minor detail, I have no big qualms about the control scheme of the 5DS R. The buttons are large and easy to press. I liked the new AF area-selection thumb lever that Canon added around the multi-directional joystick button on the 7D Mark II. While the "M-Fn" button near the shutter release serves the same purpose by default, the thumb lever is quite convenient and frees-up the programmable M-Fn button for other functions. I would have liked this on the 5DS R, but I can live without it.

Also, as a left-eye dominant photographer, I appreciate the slightly larger size of Canon's bigger EOS bodies as well as the more pronounced eyecup and dedicated AF-ON button that's a bit further to the right than on some other cameras I've used. This helps avoid having my thumb pressed right up against my face if I choose to use back-button focus, which I often do.

For landscape shooting, I often use a tripod and would have loved a tilting LCD screen, but for this class of camera, I wouldn't have expected such a feature -- more wishful thinking, I'd say. Built-in Wi-Fi would have been another wonderful feature to have, as well -- but again, a feature I wouldn't have expected for a camera of this category. The cool built-in 1.6x and 1.3x crop modes let you get some extra "reach" from your telephoto lenses, making the 5DS and 5DS R cameras quite versatile for wildlife photography. Having built-in Wi-Fi in this situation would make it simple work to set up some remote shooting without any extra equipment such as cable releases or wireless radio triggers.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 400, 1.6x Crop Mode (See also: RAW file)

At this stage of my 5DS R Field Test, I've primarily shot during daytime hours, so I'll focus on the image quality performance at low to mid-ISOs for now. I'll then come back with a Part II installment after spending some time shooting higher ISOs, as well as video. The 5DS and 5DS R models, with so many pixels crammed onto their 35mm full-frame sensor, have a pixel pitch of about 4.1 microns, which is similar to the 20.2MP APS-C sensor inside the 7D Mark II. The 5D Mark III on the other hand has a pixel pitch of about 6.3 microns. What this boils down to is a disadvantage to high ISO performance for these new 50.6-megapixel cameras compared to its 5D Mark III sibling, all else being equal. Canon has thus stated that the high ISO performance of the 5DS and 5DS R cameras are similar to the 7D Mark II.

Detail, detail and more detail!

For now though, let's take a look at the Canon 5DS R's image quality at low ISOs, its strength. For my shooting, I opted for the "R" model without an optical low-pass filter (or rather a dual filter construction that effectively cancels out the low-pass filter effect, a la the Nikon D800E) since given the camera's massive megapixel count and focus on image detail, I wanted to see just how impressive and detailed the images could be with this line of cameras. And after reviewing the images, simply put, the Canon 5DS R is ridiculous -- in a good way. The detail that can be captured by this camera is amazing!

If you nail it.

Extreme resolution requires added focus on technique

The extreme resolution of the 5DS R comes with its unique caveats. It makes it all the more critical to really nail focus, and use really sharp lenses to get the most out of the sensor. Viewing images at 100%, there's so much resolution that you can really tell even if you miss focus ever so slightly. The depth of field physically does not change as you increase in megapixels, but if you're viewing images at 100 percent on-screen, the perceived depth of field is much more apparent. In other words, at 1:1 on a high-resolution 50MP image, you can much more easily see precisely where the image is in focus and where it's not. Shooting with lenses and apertures that create razor-thin depth of field really forces you to watch your technique to insure crisp images that are in-focus where you want them to be.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II: 70mm, f/4.0, 1/1250s, ISO 250
Even at f/4.0, it's amazing how thin the depth of really is when you zoom into 100%.

Watch that shutter speed

And speaking of technique, the high-resolution sensor also changes the game regarding the long-standing 1/focal length shutter speed "rule" -- a.k.a. the Reciprocal Rule -- which states that the minimum shutter speed required to avoid camera shake when shooting handheld is 1/focal length (i.e. 1/50s for a 50mm lens). With the Canon 5DS R, the individual pixels are so small that a much smaller amount of movement poses a risk for per-pixel blurring, so you'll need to account for this with a faster shutter speed -- perhaps even 1/(2x focal length).

Putting the big sensor to work with L-series lenses

Despite the added concerns with getting critical focus and using faster shutter speeds, I decided to challenge myself and borrow a Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II lens -- a nice long telephoto lens capable of a razor-thin depth of field. What fun! I also brought along a couple sharp zooms, the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II and 16-35mm f/4L IS for some nice versatility. In addition to the 400mm lens, the other two zooms I used proved to be great to use as well. With the 24-70mm for example, even at f/4.0, I was struck by just how shallow the depth of field appeared at 70mm, as indicated in the palm frond photo above. This very sharp lens proved to be a great match to the 5DS R and delivered some very highly-detailed photos.

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II: 24mm, f/2.8, 1/100s, ISO 100, +0.7EV

The Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II might be the heaviest, largest lens I've shot with for any length of time, but this ultra-sharp super telephoto optic and the 5DS R is a very cool, very impressive combo. As someone who loves photographing nature and wildlife, this lens and camera combo is fantastic, if quite a bit heavier and more of a challenge to shoot with than my trusty 7D + 400mm f/5.6L.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/4.5, 1/1600s, ISO 400

Wonderful images at low to mid ISOs

Using a super-sharp lens, the 5DS R can capture stunning detail at lower to mid-ISOs. I was able to capture crisp details, such as individual hairs on the face of a deer, details of the scales on a small lizard (anole) and the distinct barbs of birds' feathers! Color reproduction at default settings looked pleasing and realistic, and dynamic range, while not remarkable, seemed quite adequate for my needs, letting me pull out shadow details and rein in bright highlights as needed.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 400, 1.6x Crop Mode (See also: RAW file)
100% Crop

Now, I mentioned earlier that in my experience with the 5DS R so far, I've shot mainly at lower ISOs. I was shooting during daytime and outdoors, so most of the time I was between ISO 100 and 400. There were a few times that I bumped sensitivity up to ISO 800, and only a couple times to ISO 1250. I was hesitant to bump up the ISO higher than necessary, as I was already aware of the camera's relatively limited high ISO performance compared to the 5D Mark III, for example. That said, given Canon's statement that the 5DS R's noise performance is similar to the 7D Mark II's, and I don't have any issue shooting around ISO 800-1600 on that camera (and even with my personal original 7D for that matter), I found the 5DS R to be perfectly capable at handling these moderately high ISOs.

Images here are packed with crisp, fine detail and the background noise appears finely-grained and well-controlled. Looking at the RAW files in Adobe Lightroom, which applies a little color noise reduction by default, I found that well-exposed ISO 800 shots needed little to no luminance noise reduction for my taste. It was only when viewing at 100% that I could see the background and shadow noise.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/3.2, 1/500s, ISO 1250, +0.3EV

Moiré: are you sure you want the "R"?

Ah, the one caveat to the "R" model of the 5DS cameras. Like the earlier Nikon D800E, Canon has not removed the optical low-pass filter, but rather used the second layer to cancel out the subtle blurring effect of the first layer. What you gain from this is additional very fine detail resolving power, but you risk unsightly and often difficult-to-remove moiré and other aliasing artifacts.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/4.5, 1/1250s, ISO 800, 1.6x Crop Mode (See also: RAW file)
100% crop from unedited RAW file (no ACR adjustments) showing visible moiré pattern effects on the fine details of the bird's feathers.

Typically, moiré patterns and false color artifacts pop-up in man-made objects with lots of fine, repeating patterns like metal meshes in fences, brick walls and certain fabric patterns. For those shooting architectural images or fashion photography, the Canon 5DS might therefore be the better choice. For natural subjects, like wildlife and landscapes for example, you can expect moiré to be less of an issue. For the most part, this was my experience as well with the 5DS R. I did, however, come across moiré artifacts a couple times, such as in the above shot of a bright red cardinal (look at the very fine, parallel strands of its feathers), and another in an ultra-wide landscape shot on the deck railing of some far-off houses.

Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS: 35mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 125
100% crop from unedited RAW file (no ACR adjustments) showing visible moiré patterns and false colors on the deck railing.
On the other hand, look how much detail there is even on this ultra wide shot!

Full-frame with a twist: crop modes

While the 5DS R seems clearly focused as a landscape or portraiture camera, there's a unique feature not yet seen on other Canon DSLRs that make it a great wildlife camera, too -- built-in crop modes. While Nikon shooters have long had a similar feature in their full-frame DSLRs, and now even in some of the APS-C ones, the 5DS R and 5DS are the first Canon EOS cameras to have such a feature. You can set the camera to both a 1.3x (APS-H) or 1.6x (Canon's APS-C) size, and the viewfinder will then display a frame line border to help you compose your "cropped" shots.

A point of difference, though, between Nikon's and Canon's crop modes: crop-sensor lenses. With Nikon's crop-mode on their full-frame cameras, mounting a DX-format lens is possible and will automatically enable the FX camera's DX-format crop mode. On the other hand, with the Canon 5DS and 5DS R cameras, Canon's EF-S crop-sensor lenses are still incompatible and cannot not be mounted to these bodies.

A screenshot from Adobe Lightroom displaying the crop tool overlay. This was the "as-shot" crop of the RAW included in the file's metadata. With the 5DS R's in-camera crop modes, you can re-adjust the composition or even un-crop shots using the RAW files, since it captures and records the full-resolution 50MP image.

I put "cropped" in quotes because the 5DS/R does something quite useful with its crop mode. If you're shooting RAW+JPEG, the camera will spit out a cropped, lower resolution JPEG file. If you load the RAW file into an editor, such as Adobe Lightroom, it will appear already cropped as well, however, you still have the full, 50.6MP image at your disposal. If you open the crop tool in Lightroom, for instance, you have the full image to play with. You can "un-crop" or reposition the crop as you see fit to adjust the composition if you happen to mis-frame a shot by accident. I think this is really handy. You can obviously compose for your cropped shot in-camera, but if you happen to get the composition a bit off -- which can happen, especially if you're shooting a burst of frames of a bird in flight or aircraft flying by, for example -- you then have the flexibility to adjust the composition in post-production.

Using the 1.6x crop mode, the 5DS R provides a 5424x3616-resolution cropped JPEG, but leaves the full 8688x5792-resolution RAW file intact should you want or need to make adjustments.
Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 250, 1.6x Crop Mode (See also: RAW file)

Tried-and-true, high-performance autofocus

While the exterior design mimics the 5D Mark III to a "T," in terms of the autofocus system, the 5DS R blends some new technology from the 7D Mark II with the highly flexible 61-point array of the 5D Mark III and 1D X cameras. Using the enhanced iTR AF (aka "Intelligent Tracking & Recognition AF") from the 7D Mark II, the Canon 5DS R combines the 150K-pixel metering system with its AF system for some really nice, fast and accurate AF Servo performance for moving subjects. Despite the weight of the 5DS R and 400mm f/2.8L II lens, I was able to capture birds in flight and some passing fighter jets quickly and accurately. Of course, there were a few shots here and there in the burst of frames that weren't in focus, but it wasn't any more than I've typically experienced shooting similar subjects with other prosumer DSLRs.

Using the 400mm f/2.8L IS II handheld is doable in short spurts. A monopod is recommended, though, to give your arms a rest!
Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/3.2, 1/6400s, ISO 200

Not the quickest burst speeds, but usable

The burst rate for this 50MP behemoth is understandably not the quickest of the bunch at just 5fps (and our IR lab tests show about a 4.8fps burst rate for JPEGs and 4.9fps for RAWs and RAW+JPEG modes), but I found it perfectly acceptable for general shooting of moving subjects, even with relatively fast moving subjects such as pelicans in flight. I often find myself shooting subjects like this in small bursts anyway, and I didn't find the ~5fps rate to be objectionable. With fast-paced sports I'd prefer a faster burst rate, and in that case, a Canon 5DS R at 50 megapixels a pop would not be my camera of choice anyway.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS II: 400mm, f/5.0, 1/4000s, ISO 200

Given my preference for shooting in shorter bursts of frames, I never ran into issues with buffer performance, even while shooting RAW+JPEG. In our lab tests, the 5DS R managed 11 frames in RAW+JPEG mode before the buffer filled, but can manage about 4 more for just RAW mode, and around 28 frames total for JPEG-only mode.

The dual card slot feature was very convenient, and allowed me to separate RAW files to one card and JPEGs to another. (You can also have it sequentially record images to fill one card and then move to the other, or copy to both simultaneously.) I was primarily using either a 600x or 1000x CF card for RAWs and 45MB/s SD cards (the fastest I own) for the JPEGs. Using this setup, I found it took about 7-8 seconds for the camera to finish clearing a full buffer of images. It rarely "choked-up" significantly, though, after the buffer initially filled, and I could keep on shooting more frames after just a short initial pause while the camera continued to write earlier images to the memory cards. I do wish the 5DS R used dual card slots of the same type, be it CF or SD -- though I'd prefer CF since I already own so many of them -- for simplicity's sake as well as using pairs of cards of the same specs/speed.

Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS: 16mm, f/8.0, 1/80s, ISO 100

Canon 5DS R Field Test, Part I - Summary

All in all, the Canon 5DS R is beast of a a good way. The camera feels great, is built well, and stays true to Canon's familiar 5D Mark III design and control layout. At low to mid ISO sensitivities, the camera produces some amazing photos with a stunning amount of detail. And while the low-pass filter canceling design of the "R" model supposedly allows for more detail resolving power, I'd need to shoot the 5DS and 5DS R side-by-side (hint hint -- stay tuned) to see if the "R" is really worth the extra $200 and the risk of moiré.

Watch this space for my Field Test Part II where I'll explore the 5DS R's high ISO performance as well as the camera's video quality and feature set, which like high ISO, is not necessarily this camera's strong suit according to Canon. If you have any question or comments for things you'd like to see me test for my upcoming Part II, be sure to leave a comment below!


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