Canon 6D Field Test

by Dan Havlik

The Canon captures images with good dynamic range and lots of subtle detail thanks to its impressive 20.2-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor. (Photo by Jordan Matter)

I was pretty excited when I first got a chance to play with a prototype Canon EOS 6D at the Photokina imaging show in Germany last year. Along with the Nikon D600, which shares more than a few traits with the 6D (don't tell that to Canon or Nikon!), Canon's latest prosumer DSLR seems to solve a problem that has confounded camera manufacturers for years. How do you create an affordable full-frame sensor DSLR? Both the 20.2-megapixel Canon 6D and 24.3-megapixel Nikon D600 seem to answer that question by offering pretty sophisticated full-framers at virtually the same price tag.

You might say, "Well, $2,000 isn't exactly affordable, now is it?" And you'd have a point. But considering the costs of manufacturing a full-frame chip versus an APS-C size sensor, or even the pinkie-nail sized chips in compact cameras, Canon and Nikon have priced the 6D and D600 surprisingly competitively for the category. The $2,000 range of the 6D and D600 may just hit a sweet spot for prosumers and advanced amateurs.

At least that's what the companies hope, and after shooting with both of these cameras, I can say you do get a lot of bang for your buck with these "affordable" full-framers. We've already reviewed the Nikon D600, so let's take a look at Canon's offering, the EOS 6D, which adds two features its Nikon rival doesn't have: built-in Wi-Fi and GPS.

In the hand. My initial impression of the Canon 6D -- which still holds true now -- is that it looks and feels like a mini 5D Mark III. And, for me, that's a good thing. The step-up 5D III model is a solidly built HD-DSLR, combining the serious and durable aesthetics of Canon's professional 1D line with the portability and accessibility of 5D models before it. In terms of looks and camera build, the Canon 6D sits just below the 5D III and the APS-C-sensor-driven 7D, which both have full magnesium alloy bodies. The 6D features an aluminum alloy and polycarbonate chassis, while the shell is part-magnesium alloy. The top panel is polycarbonate, likely a necessity because of the integrated GPS and Wi-Fi radios.

With dimensions of 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8-inches (145 x 111 x 71 mm) and a measured weight of 27.4 ounces (778 g) with SD card and its proprietary, rechargeable battery loaded, the 6D is certainly on the small side for a full-frame DSLR but it does not feel slight. (Incidentally, the 6D's size puts it closely in line with the Nikon D600, though the Nikon camera's body is a bit deeper and about 3 ounces heavier.)

The Canon 6D is about 20% lighter than the 5D Mark III and if you've held that model before, the 6D won't feel quite as robust with a slightly less solid build overall. But if you're moving up from an entry-level DSLR, such as a Rebel, the 6D will feel impressive and almost luxurious. The body has extensive textured rubber on the exterior, both on the handgrip and the opposing side. There's also faux-leather rubber on the back of the camera, including the thumbrest. Overall, the 6D feels refreshingly lightweight, comfy and well protected.

To help keep the weight, size and cost down, Canon decided to forgo the pop-up flash with the 6D, a feature that's standard on most prosumers DSLRs. Some novice photographers stepping up in class to the 6D might miss the built-in flash but there is, of course, a hot shoe on top if you want to add an external flash. The 6D is not quite as fully weatherized as the 5D Mark III but it's on par with the 7D, and can withstand a few raindrops and splashes.

It should be said that while both the Canon 6D and Nikon D600 are noticeably smaller and lighter than other current full-frame DSLRs on the market, don't expect to be able to fit either of these cameras in your pocket (possibly in a large coat pocket if you have a short prime lens attached, but even that would be a tight fit).

When I attached a few zoom lenses, including a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8, the 6D didn't feel that different than a 5D Mark III. Sure, there are less expensive, lighter zoom lenses out there that would make the 6D a more portable package, but the reason one buys a full-frame camera is to get the most out of your glass. So, therein lies one of the paradoxes of the 6D: the full-frame camera body might be relatively lightweight and reasonably priced but the top-notch lenses you'll want to use with it definitely won't be.

Overall, the Canon 6D is an extremely comfortable and surprisingly sturdy DSLR to use. While pros might scoff at the 6D's build, they're not who this camera is designed for. Anyone moving up in class from compact cameras and consumer or APS-C-based DSLRs will find the design of the fully-framed 6D to be just right.

Controls. In terms of controls, as you might suspect, the Canon EOS 6D mimics the 5D Mark III but with some distinct differences. For one, the layout on back of the 6D is more Spartan than the 5D Mark III, with the buttons moved from the left panel next to the LCD monitor over toward the center-right side of the 6D's rear. This is not a big deal, especially since most people interested in this camera will not have shot with a 5D Mark III previously. Some of the buttons, including those for playback, magnify, and trash are small and slightly scrunched though, and I don't like the smaller Quick Control Dial. Along with being diminutive, the wheel is stiff and not very responsive. The multi-direction pad in the center of the wheel is also tough to press when you're in a hurry.

Another victim of cost (and size) cutting with the budget-friendly 6D is the useful, multi-direction joystick from the 5D Mark III. That's a bummer, especially for beginners moving up to the 6D, but you've got to get rid of something. Canon Rebel users will likely already be familiar with the rear Quick Menu button (identified by the Q icon), and it has become my preferred method for making fast changes to important functions such as ISO, exposure compensation and white balance. While the 6D has an ISO button on top, there's no physical white balance button, which is disappointing. One thing that I did like was that Canon included the Live View/Movie Record switch and button cluster on the back of the 6D. It's a really simple and fast set-up, which appears on the 5D Mark III but not on the lower-tier Rebels.

Like the 5D Mark III, the Canon 6D's knurled mode dial on top of the camera has a central locking button and most of the familiar settings. But while the 5D Mark III's dial looked strangely half filled, the 6D piles on the options including a Scene (SCN) mode setting, which lets you pick from a variety of pre-sets including familiar ones such as Sports, Close-up, Landscape and Portrait, as well as less common ones including Night Portrait, Handheld Night Scene and HDR Backlight Control.

The Canon EOS 6D's mode dial also offers a Creative Auto (CA) mode option, which I actually found to be a little more confusing than it should be. When CA mode is selected you can choose from one of nine "Ambiance-based shots," including Standard, Vivid, Soft, Warm, Intense, Cool, Brighter, Darker or Monochrome. Scroll down though and you can also select whether to blur or sharpen the background. The CA mode also lets you choose the Drive mode, including Single, Continuous (approximately 4.5 shots per second), Silent single shooting, Silent continuous shooting, Self-timer (10 sec./Remote control), or Self-timer (2 seconds/Remote control). That's a lot of combinations to choose from and, hopefully, more adventurous novices will take advantage of them. I'm not sure how much I would on a regular basis, though they were fun to experiment with.

In terms of controls, the most important of them all (at least in my book), is placed front and center in slight indent on top of the Canon 6D's handgrip: the responsive and well-positioned shutter button. The 6D loves to take pictures, which is a trait any photographer should appreciate.

LCD Screen. The LCD monitor on the 6D is quite nice, as is true on all of Canon's latest DSLRs. It's a 3-inch, Clear View LCD panel with 1.04-million dots of resolution, and images looked sharp in playback and the video feed was crisp with a good refresh rate. Again, no real surprises here since most of Canon's DSLRs have sweet LCDs. The 6D's screen is not a flip-out, articulating display, which is harder to weatherproof. It's also a slight downgrade in size from the 5D Mark III, which has a 3.2-inch LCD.

The Canon 6D's screen has a good 170-degree viewing angle if you want to let others see what you've shot, while Live View mode offers 100% coverage. Speaking of Live View, the 6D has a decent digital, single-axis level gauge function that you can use during live view. It'll help you keep your horizons level -- I'm admittedly poor at eye-balling without the gauge -- but it's a step down from the dual-axis level on the pricier 5D Mark III, which also shows front and back pitch.

The 6D display's Clear View designation is a notch below the Clear View II screen that's on the 5D Mark III, and the main difference is the higher-end screen fares better in outdoor lighting, with higher contrast and less glare. Truth be told, I haven't used any camera LCD that doesn't wash out somewhat in bright light and the 6D is no exception. But, of course, that's what the 6D's optical viewfinder is for. Like the LCD screen, it's a good one, offering about 98% coverage in our testing, which is actually a tick higher than Canon's 97% advertised spec. The 6D's optical viewfinder offers 0.71x magnification, 21mm eyepoint, and a -3 to +1 diopter.

Autofocus. Along with being smaller and less expensive than the 5D Mark III, the Canon 6D has a different, somewhat less sophisticated autofocus system. Where the 5D Mark III boasts a pro-level 61-point High Density Reticular Autofocus System (with up to 41 cross-type points and five dual cross-type points), the 6D's employs a rather basic 11-point system with one cross-type point in the center. However, the 6D's center AF point has a working range rated at -3 to 18 EV, while the 5D Mark III's AF system is rated at - 2 to 18 EV and Nikon D600's -1 to 19 EV. This means the Canon 6D should be able to focus in lower light when using the center AF point.

While on paper that might sound significant, it's less noticeable in real-world use. I think most prosumer photographers will probably find the 6D's 11-point AF to be more than enough to handle most shooting situations, though.

However, there's some bad news. In certain circumstances, such as when shooting in very low light and in extremely low contrast situations, the Canon 6D struggled, a bit, to find focus. Such as when some sample shots taken in a bar and around the pool table (see above and below) captured by my co-tester, pro-photographer Jordan Matter. I say "a bit" because it still achieved focus lock but was just not as quick in these situations as both the 5D Mark III and Nikon D600 were. (It's worth noting that the Nikon D600 has a 39-point AF system, with 9 cross type points.) Consequently, if you're an aspiring wedding or sports photographer who might have to deal with tricky lighting on a regular basis -- such as during a wedding reception or in a poorly lit stadium -- the Canon 6D might not be for you.

Otherwise though, I was actually quite impressed with my results from the Canon 6D's 11-point AF system. I expected it to feel slower and less responsive than Canon's other higher-end EOS DSLRs, but it was surprisingly spritely. In good, outdoor lighting, you'll have no complaints about the 6D's AF. I also deliberately shot with the 6D in low-contrast settings and swung the camera quickly from subject to subject to see how fast it would take to refocus, and the 6D hung in like a champ. Those shots, which were captured using a rather high-end 24-70mm f/2.8 Canon lens, had very good sharpness when reviewed later on my computer.

The Canon EOS 6D's 11-point autofocus system is both responsive and accurate when shooting in a variety of conditions, from full sunlight at base ISO to indoor settings at much higher ISOs.

Performance. The Canon 6D is a decent performer for a prosumer, full-frame DSLR. (Ok, at the time of this writing there are only two cameras that qualify in this category, but the 6D was still reasonably fast all around.)

Start up and shut down times for the 6D were fast enough -- 0.5 and 0.3 second, respectively -- that they were difficult to measure. The 6D also did well in clearing its buffer, taking just two seconds to get ready to take a photo after we fired off 20 consecutive large/fine JPEGs. It took about 9 seconds to clear the buffer after shooting 17 RAW images and 7 seconds after 7 RAW+L/F JPEG photos. Of course, it helps to have a fast card (which we highly recommend), and we tested the 6D with the blazing fast SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/s SDHC card, which is UHS-I compliant.

Our lab timed the Canon 6D's autofocus shutter lag, using single center-point AF, at 0.290 second, which is actually slower than average for a prosumer DSLR. It's hardly noticeable in real world-usage, however, and I found the 6D to be generally quick to lock in on a subject and snap a photo when I pressed the shutter.

When using the full 11-point Auto Section AF mode, the 6D was faster, according to our lab tests, averaging 0.206 second (though it varied widely, between 0.1 and 0.3 in our tests.)

Just how fast is the Canon EOS 6D? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

As with most cameras, prefocusing by half pressing the shutter is the way to go with the Canon 6D. This produced a lag time of just 0.059 second, which is quite fast for a DSLR. On the other hand, AF lag in Live View mode was longer, which is no surprise. We clocked it at about 1.7 seconds using the phase-detection based AF "Quick Mode." Strangely, using Live Mode, (contrast-detection AF), it was a lot faster at 0.7 second.

Bottom line: If you're moving up in class from an entry-level DSLR or even a compact or point-and-shoot camera, the Canon 6D is going to feel hella fast.

The Canon 6D does a nice job capturing action, but just don't expect the same results you'd get with, say, a Canon 1DX.

In terms of shooting speed, the 6D is capable of firing off up to 4.5 frames per second in burst mode (the lab measured 4.4), a fair tick slower than the 5D III's 6 frames per second, and about a frame per second slower than the Nikon D600. But it's just enough for shooting basic action, such as capturing modeling poses, candid photographs and low intensity sports. For faster action such as basketball, soccer or anything at the Olympic level, however, you'll want to step up to Canon or Nikon's pro DSLRs. The 6D's generous camera buffer also lets you keep shooting JPEGs until the SD card fills. When shooting RAW, you get a decent 17-frame buffer until the camera needs to pause to catch up.

Image quality. The Canon EOS 6D's CMOS sensor is a smidge smaller than the 5D Mark III's - 35.8 x 23.9mm vs. 36 x 24mm -- so it's not technically full frame. That's not that big of a deal, however. It didn't seem to compromise image quality during our testing. I actually found that image quality from the 6D was about equal to the results I got from the 5D Mark III and that's saying something: the 5D Mark III was one of the best cameras I shot with last year.

Photographers moving up in class from compact cameras or entry-level DSLRs will really appreciate how well the Canon 6D does in low light at high ISOs. This image was shot at ISO 5,000 and noise is relatively minimal. (Photo by Jordan Matter)

While the Canon 6D's chip might be a fraction smaller, the individual pixel size is larger because the 6D has slightly less resolution. The 20.2-megapixel 6D's photosites are 6.5 microns a piece vs. 6.2 microns in the 5D III's 22.3-megapixel sensor. But how do these numbers translate into the real world? Quite well, it turns out.

As I noted before, I had a professional photographer friend, Jordan Matter, co-test the 6D with me to get another perspective on the camera. In short, we were both impressed with the 6D's skills as an available-light camera.

Jordan is the photographer behind the "Dancers Among Us" project, where he photographs professional dancers performing in everyday settings, typically without artificial light. Last year, "Dancers Among Us" was published in book form by Workman Publishing but Jordan continues to work on the series. He used his 5D Mark III for some of the shots, and was curious to see how the 6D stacked up against it.

The Canon 6D does a good job capturing movement even in tricky lighting.
(Photo by Jordan Matter)

With the Canon 6D paired with a Tamron SP 70-200mm, f/2.8 Di VC USD lens, he captured images of a dancer performing on a Manhattan street at night (above) and hanging out inside a dimly lit bar that were virtually noise-free up to ISO 3,200. Shots at ISO 6,400 were also quite nice: crisp and clear with only a bit of color noise in the shadows. Realistically, you can easily get away with pushing the 6D to ISO 12,800 if you need it, which gives you a lot of versatility. (Maximum ISO, in the 6D's expanded mode, is 102,400, while the minimum is ISO 50. In contrast, the D600's expanded range is ISO 50 to 25,600.)

Part of the credit should be given to the DIGIC 5+ image processor, which, on the 5D Mark III and elsewhere, has proven to be fairly good at tamping down noise when images are output from the camera's sensor. The Canon 6D uses 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion on its sensor to produce images that have great color and dynamic range while keeping noise in check. In daylight and with strobes, results were even better.

I also tested the Canon 6D while shooting publicity portraits of a children's book author/illustrator, which she could use on her book jackets or to promote herself in print or online. In this case, I paired the 6D with a Sigma 35mm F/1.4 DG HSM and shot in bright natural light outdoors and dim hallway lighting indoors. My results were quite good, with the 6D's full-frame chip and the Sigma lens' wide maximum aperture combining to produce images with tack-sharp center focus and attractive, background blur (aka bokeh) to make my subject really stand out.

In decent outdoor light, the Canon EOS 6D produced colors that popped but weren't too oversaturated. Skintones also looked natural, and the nice bokeh is clearly on display here.

While some DSLRs produce images with colors that are too oversaturated -- nearly all cameras oversaturate to some degree, simply because people tend to prefer brighter images -- the Canon 6D struck a good balance, by capturing the robust colors of my subject's scarf, without making it look garish or fake. More importantly for portraits, the author's Caucasian skintones were natural and healthy looking in my 6D shots. (Some consumer DSLRs can make skintones look excessively pink and almost doll-like.) I also shot some indoor hallway portraits, but found the 6D had some problems handling the incandescent lighting using the camera's Auto White Balance, a problem we also came across in our lab testing. In our testing, both the Auto and Incandescent White Balance produced strong reddish and orange casts, respectively. Adjusting White Balance using the Manual setting was much more accurate, but photographers who are moving up in class from a point-and-shoot, compact or consumer DSLR might not want to fiddle too much with that setting.

On the plus side, though, the Canon EOS 6D's excellent high-ISO performance helped me capture relatively clean images at up to ISO 6,400. In low-light test in our lab, the 6D performed very well, capturing bright shots at the lowest light level (1/16 foot-candle), down to the camera's base ISO of 100. Overall, despite a few issues with indoor lighting (which is not uncommon but disappointing nonetheless), the Canon 6D and its full-frame sensor produced excellent images in a range of lighting conditions, with superior detail and sharpness.

1/30s / f/2.8 / ISO 640 / 16mm

You can view the IR Lab's in-depth Canon 6D image quality test results by clicking here, and be sure to read further on in the review for side-by-side comparisons against the 6D's top competitors.

Video. The Canon 6D's HD video quality was stellar, about on par to my results with the 5D Mark III. Photographers who are moving up in class from another entry-level or compact camera should love the video results they get along with how easy the 6D is to use for quickly shooting video on the fly. As mentioned earlier, I really appreciate Canon's Live View/Movie Record switch and button cluster on the back of the 6D. Just flip the switch to the red movie camera icon, press the center button and you're off and recording a movie.

Full HD movie. 1920 x 1080 video at 30p. Click to download or play (73MB MOV).

More experienced videographers, however, might miss a few features from the 5D III that have been left off the 6D. In particular, there's no headphone jack for checking audio levels as you shoot. (The 5D III has a built-in headphone jack.) Otherwise, the 6D can shoot full 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) HD with manual exposure control at a range of frame rates including 30, 25, or 24fps. You can also shoot 720p at 60 or 50fps. And you can shoot with the 6D in the high-quality ALL-I intraframe video format but you'll need a UHS-I compliant SD card to do that. (It's also worth noting that you have to disable the 6D's Wi-Fi when shooting video, so there's no way to monitor a live video feed on an iPad or iPhone while you shoot.)

The Canon 6D's big image sensor produced luscious video results for me, with eye-catching shallow depth of field and creamy color. I also saw very little of the rolling shutter effects that produce a wobbly, jell-o distortion when you aggressively pan while shooting video with some DSLRs. In some early reports on the Canon 6D, some reviewers complained that the camera had issues with producing moiré -- which are strange, multi-colored stripes that can occur in subjects with intersecting grid-like patterns -- in the video. During my testing, I deliberately shot with the 6D in situations where moiré might occur, such as the intricate brickwork on a building, intersecting power lines and the suspension cables on a bridge. I was able to produce instances of moiré, though not as easily as I had expected. One place it turned up severely was in the vents of window air conditioners, however it's highly subject-dependent, and needs just the right repeating detail to trigger it.

Click here for our detailed Canon 6D video analysis page with insight on how the camera handles a variety of recording situations, ranging from night-time shooting to rolling shutter tests.

Wi-Fi and GPS.
The Canon 6D offers two unique features not available on its main rival, the Nikon D600, or on the step-up Canon 5D Mark III model: built-in Wi-Fi and GPS tagging.

In-camera wireless connectivity -- especially on a DSLR -- is something I see big potential for. Camera manufacturers have been trying to implement it for years but, so far, with no great success. Most of the set-ups I've tried have been glitchy, and the built-in Wi-Fi in many of Canon's own compact PowerShot cameras is not very user-friendly.

Luckily, Canon has updated the Wi-Fi interface on the 6D, making it a lot easier to use, especially when connecting the DSLR to an iPhone or Android smartphone or tablet with the help of Canon's free EOS Remote app. I was able to easily share images with my iPhone -- at a reduced size, of course -- get a live view from the camera on the phone, and control several functions on the camera via the app, including firing the shutter, focusing by touching the iPhone's screen, and adjusting ISO, aperture and shutter speed. (Note: You can also transfer photos from the 6D to your computer by pairing it over a wireless network, but you have to use the Canon EOS Utility software that comes packaged with the camera. The software also allows you to remote control the camera much like you can with a smart mobile device.)

Here's a video demonstration of the EOS 6D's remote control capabilities, with Canon's Chuck Westfall walking us through many of the 6D's exciting Wi-Fi capabilities, which you'll see seriously up the ante of what a camera can offer in terms of built-in wireless functionality and convenience.

Canon's Chuck Westfall connects the Canon 6D to a smartphone
via Wi-Fi for both shooting and viewing images.

Additionally, the 6D's built-in Wi-Fi is IEEE 802.11 b/g/n capable with a reported range of 100 feet, which I found to be fairly accurate. Many pro photographers -- as well as enthusiasts who take nature photographs or a lot of self-portraits -- should love this sizable range when paired with the 6D's considerable remote control features. You can also send your shots to a wireless printer from the 6D, but I don't know of many photographers who would do that often, that is, without editing the images first.

Despite the 6D's leg up on many of its competitors, there's still room for improvement with the camera's Wi-Fi capabilities. To post your images on social networking sites, you either need to send it to your smart device first and upload from there or transfer them through the Canon Image Gateway online photo service -- an additional step that some new point-and-shoots can now skip.

While some photographers will like having a GPS receiver built into their DSLR, it's not a must-have feature for me. I (usually) know where my images were captured and have no strong desire to put them on one of those digital maps in the included Map Utility software or Apple Aperture, and see where I've been. For those who do like this feature though, the 6D's GPS is solid, recording longitude, latitude, elevation and universal time code in your shots while also sporting a GPS logging function.

Canon EOS 6D gallery images shot with the Canon EF 24-105mm IS kit lens
The above gallery was shot by our lens specialist Rob Murray to demonstrate how the Canon 6D performs when paired with the EF 24-105mm IS kit lens. Read our IR Lab Optics test results for much greater detail about the lens including macro performance, geometric distortion, chromatic aberration and more.


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