Canon EOS R Field Test

Canon starts new full-frame mirrorless system off on the right foot

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 09/27/2018

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/8.0, 1/200s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

After many rumors, Canon finally jumped into the world of full-frame mirrorless with the EOS R camera. The company already has the Canon EOS M series of APS-C mirrorless cameras and while they are good, they haven't scratched the itch of enthusiast or professional photographers due to a general lack of high-end features and lenses. The new Canon R might may leave something to be desired for professionals in terms of the camera's features and specifications. However, the new RF lenses launching alongside the camera are certainly high-end and signal that the EOS R is not like the EOS M, but rather is the beginning of a new generation for Canon, which will definitely include pro-oriented mirrorless cameras.

The primary marketing term for the new EOS R is "Be the Revolution." I'm not sure I buy the notion that the new system is revolutionary, but it's at least a meaningful evolution and I'm optimistic that it is setting the stage for many great cameras and lenses to come. However, I can't speak to specific upcoming future products, as there are no public details regarding future lenses or cameras in the new EOS R system, so let's take a look at what we do have in the EOS R camera.

Key Features

  • 30.3-megapixel full-frame image sensor
  • Tilt/swivel touchscreen display
  • Large, high-resolution electronic viewfinder
  • New DIGIC 8 image processor
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF
  • 4K/30p video recording

Camera Body Design and Real-World Handling

I had the chance to chat with the lead designer of the EOS R. Our conversation shed light on the objectives of the camera's design and how much consideration goes into every aspect of the camera body, from the shape of body details all the way down to the materials used for buttons and dials. The team at Canon responsible for this new full-frame mirrorless camera and lenses went through numerous revisions, including many sculptures and 3D printings, before settling on the production models. The camera and lenses were designed in conjunction with one another and their look evokes this. The materials used for the EOS R and new RF lenses are consistent, and the final look is stylish, modern and familiar.

A lot of thought went into the design of the EOS R, including its front grip.

The primary design language of the Canon R is compact and familiar. The camera is not what I would call small, but for a full-frame camera, it certainly is quite compact, especially compared to Canon's full-frame DSLR cameras. With this decrease in size and weight comes a decrease in ease-of-use. At the same time, the camera feels quite similar to an EOS DSLR. There are common design elements between the two cameras, including the shape of the front grip and how the camera feels to hold. A driving force of the design was making it so that the gap between the front grip and lens mount was the same distance on the EOS R as it is on the 6D Mark II, so the familiarity is no coincidence. It's a little detail, but it's something that makes the camera feel very good to hold.

On the less positive side, a smaller camera body means less room for buttons. Gone are handy row of buttons on the top of the camera, including a dedicated ISO button, and there are less buttons on the rear of the camera. While you retain control over all settings, there have been compromises in terms of the speed with which you can access and change settings. The touchscreen has become increasingly important as a way to interact with the camera. The touchscreen does looks nice, and the tilting mechanism is very good. Changing ISO and other exposure settings is as simple as touching that section of the display, so that is certainly nice. It's not as good as large, dedicated buttons and dials, especially when wearing gloves, but it works fine in most cases to use the touchscreen for these settings.

Alternatively, you can use the new Touch Bar control. Located just to the left of the thumb rest, the new Touch Bar is a highly customizable touch-sensitive control. For example, I have mine set up so that I can tap the left side to go to ISO 100 and the right side to set the camera to Auto ISO. It's a great idea in theory, less so in practice, however. By default, you must hold your finger down for a few seconds to "charge" the bar before you can use it.; in a sense "unlocking" the control. That's a bit frustrating. On the other hand, the alternative is having it work instantly when you touch it, making it far too easy to accidentally touch. I have yet to find a perfect way to integrate the Touch Bar into my workflow, but I have to say that it's a solid idea and the customization you can do with it is impressive. I'm confident some people will find a way to utilize it well within their workflow.

With less space on the camera, the EOS R has fewer buttons. In some cases, this is not a problem. However, in other cases, it can take an extra step to change a setting when compared to a full-frame Canon DSLR. Further, the camera can, at times, feel cramped.

If you are used to shooting with a digital SLR camera, then switching to an electronic viewfinder can sometimes be a jarring experience. However, Canon has done a nice job with the EOS R's EVF. It's large, sharp and vibrant with an impressive refresh rate. Specs aside, the viewfinder experience is smooth and natural. It may not be quite as good as an optical viewfinder when following subjects and shooting continuously, due to occasional lag and stuttering, but it does offer the advantage of showing you a preview of how a specific exposure will look given your settings. There's a tradeoff, but more so than EOS M cameras, the EOS R delivers an enjoyable and natural shooting experience through the viewfinder.

As mentioned, the compact camera body has fewer buttons and can feel a bit cramped in use. For example, I accidentally hit the AF-ON button on numerous occasions with my thumb. I ultimately customized the camera's buttons to alleviate the issue. When you shrink a camera, you can't have everything work exactly the way you're used to, at least not compared to a full-frame DSLR camera. Another frustration in the field was the ON/OFF switch being located to the left of the viewfinder. I want to be able to turn the camera on and off with my right hand. The menu button is on the left of the viewfinder as well, meaning I needed to use my second hand to access the menus. On the plus side, the "Quick Menu" is accessible using my right hand, and that offers access to many useful settings.

Considering the right side of the camera, the top display is nice. It's easy to read and by pressing the backlight button – which you can also hold to enable the backlight for the display – you can cycle through information on the display. By default, you see basic shooting settings, but you can switch between that display or being able to see an array of additional camera settings, such as focus mode, metering mode, drive mode, Picture Style, image quality, video quality and more. When you power down the camera, you continue to see the shooting mode, but not basic shooting settings. It's nitpicky of me, but I'd like to be able to see shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings even when the camera is off. I've been told this display takes up very little battery power, so I don't think adding a little more information would greatly affect battery life.

The top of the camera lacks the dedicated settings control buttons of Canon's higher-end DSLR cameras. The top display is nice, although I think it is underutilized.

A bit further to the right is the mode dial, although calling it the mode dial is a bit disingenuous. It's more like a typical rear command dial except you also use it to change the shooting mode. To do this, you must press down on the "mode" button in the center of the top of the dial. I find difficult to press using my right index finger, which is a slight annoyance. And if you want to switch from a still shooting mode to a video shooting mode, you have to press the mode button and then press the "Info" button on the back before you can access the different video modes. You can press the dedicated record button on the top of the camera at any time, but you won't have the same level of control in that case.

It may seem like I've mostly been noting aspects of the camera's design and handling I don't particularly like, so I'd like to finish this section with a quick recap of my favorite aspects of the design. The front grip is great. It feels large without actually being massive. A lot of thought went into the design of the grip and it shows when using the camera. The EVF and rear display are sharp and vibrant, and the tilt/swivel mechanism for the display is top-notch. There's a lot to like about the EOS R's design, and overall it definitely feels like a Canon camera.

Image Sensor and Image Quality

Equipped with a similar 30-megapixel CMOS image sensor as the Canon 5D Mark IV, you can expect a lot of similarities between the EOS R and the 5D IV in terms of image quality. With the new DIGIC 8 image processor, though, Canon states that there should be improved imaging performance, but I haven't noticed any significant change.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 58mm, f/8.0, 1/80s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 58mm, f/8.0, 1/80s, ISO 100.
100 percent crop of the above image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The native ISO range is 100 to 40,000 and is expandable to 50-102,400. That's a lot of flexibility, and the 30-megapixel files offer a good amount of detail throughout a large portion of the ISO range. The EOS R performs well in low light and when shot in good light at or near base ISO, the files are very high-quality and flexible.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/4.0, 1/80s, ISO 6400.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/4.0, 1/80s, ISO 6400.
100 percent crop of the above image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

An aspect of Canon cameras that get a lot of praise, and rightfully so, is the way the cameras reproduce colors. The EOS R continues this trend by delivering pleasing colors and tones that are not overly-saturated by modern standards.

For a fuller analysis of the Canon EOS R's image quality, stay tuned for our image and print quality analyses.

RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/1.2, 1/125s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Autofocus

When using Canon's EOS M cameras – which are certainly not in the same league as the new EOS R – a common praise I've given to various models is that the Dual Pixel CMOS AF focusing system works well in a wide variety of situations. With the EOS R, Dual Pixel CMOS AF is even more impressive. The system covers approximately 88 percent of the horizontal area of the image sensor and 100 percent of the vertical area, although it can be a bit less than this if you are adapting a lens depending on which specific lens you are adapting. Nonetheless, with native lenses and some adapted lenses, this amount of coverage is superb, especially for a full-frame camera.

The strengths don't stop there, the EOS R and its up to 5,655 manually-selectable autofocus points have a native working range from -6 EV to 18 EV, which is very good. While in the real-world, my experience in low light might not have been quite that good, but the EOS R did do well in pre-sunrise shooting conditions. When I needed to manually focus, that worked well too, especially with focus peaking and being able to zoom in on a selected area to verify focus.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 105mm, f/6.3, 1/250s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The touchscreen implementation for autofocus is another strong point with the EOS R. When shooting using the rear display, the touchscreen is quite responsive and it's easy to move the focus point around nearly the entire frame thanks to the extensive coverage area. When shooting through the electronic viewfinder, you can enable Touchpad AF, which is off by default, to allow you to use your thumb to move the focusing point around the frame while you're looking through the viewfinder. It works well and is very useful, especially considering that the camera doesn't have a dedicated AF joystick subselector. In case you're wondering, you can set the directional pad to directly control the autofocus point, at the cost of default shortcut functions, but it takes a very long time to move across the frame due to a combined slow movement speed and the bevy of points. A dedicated AF controller would be ideal, but the touchpad AF function does work well.

It is not a perfect system, however, as there are some weaknesses. The EOS R has good continuous autofocus performance in terms of accuracy, but the camera can't shoot with servo AF beyond 5 frames per second so it isn't an ideal camera for action and sports. Further, the face detect and eye detect autofocus features don't consistently work well and eye detect autofocus is limited to single shot AF mode (does not work with Servo AF).

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 105mm, f/8.0, 1/320s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The Dual Pixel CMOS AF system is very quick in many situations, though, and made few mistakes during my extended time with the camera. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the autofocus capabilities of the EOS R is that while shooting, I very rarely thought about the focusing system at all. It performed very well, allowing me to concentrate on simply shooting, knowing that the camera would take care of autofocus in a consistent and reliable way.

Performance

The Canon EOS R has a new DIGIC 8 image processor and delivers pretty good overall performance. However, the camera is not a speed demon. The EOS R can shoot at up to 8 frames per second with a RAW buffer of 47 shots or 78 C-RAW frames according to Canon (the camera managed 65 RAW or 118 C-RAW frames in our lab tests). The catch is that these speeds are only available with locked autofocus. If you want continuous autofocus performance, the speed drops to 5 fps and drops further to 3 fps in Tracking Priority.

In real-world testing, the speeds occasionally proved a bit limiting and buffer clearing was somewhat sluggish, but otherwise the camera overall felt quite snappy and responsive during use. It isn't going to replace a 1DX-style camera for sports or wildlife shooters, but the EOS R offers enough speed and performance for many different situations.

Shooting Experience

Flying somewhat under the radar is the EOS R's new Fv shooting mode. This "Flexible-priority AE" mode allows the user to adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO to automatic or manual values on the fly. You may be wondering about the relative advantages of this mode, after all, it doesn't necessarily sound different at first. It's different from manual in that you can set some or all of the settings to automatic. It's different from aperture priority, even with some shutter speed controls applied through menus as you can do with certain cameras, because you can manually set a shutter speed at any given time. Ultimately, it is not significantly different, nor did I find myself wanting to use it very often. It is an additional and very flexible option that may fit into some users' workflows well.

In the Field

Without a long lens to use with the Canon EOS R, I mostly used it as a landscape camera. Ultimately, landscape photography is my favorite type of photography, and I was anxious to put the camera to work. There is a lot to like from a landscape photographer's point of view, but there are also some issues.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/7.1, 1/160s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Starting with the positive aspects, the image quality from the EOS R is quite nice, and I have found that the RAW files are flexible enough for most needs. The dynamic range from the 30-megapixel Canon sensor is good, although not quite up to par with Nikon and Sony's latest full-frame cameras. With that said, the Canon is close, and the image quality overall is very good. I would prefer a camera without an anti-aliasing filter, however, as I appreciate the very fine details which get lost when a camera employs an AA filter.

Another nice aspect of the EOS R in the field is the touchscreen. It looks good, even in bright light, and the tilt/swivel mechanism is great, especially when working on a tripod. I frequently utilized the camera's rear display when composing shots and being able to tilt it was excellent. Further, the low-light autofocus generally worked quite well.

RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/4.0, 1/60s, ISO 2000.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Without a mirror and with a greater emphasis on compact and lightweight design, the EOS R and accompanying 24-105mm f/4 kit lens – which is a great all-around lens, including for landscapes – were easy to carry and worked nicely on my small lightweight tripod. While I am not opposed to carrying heavy gear if it means capturing a better shot, it is nice to have something lightweight that works very well and offers great full-frame image quality.

No camera is perfect, not even for a singular type of photography, and the EOS R is no exception. There are a couple of big issues for me as a landscape photographer based in Maine. I frequently wear gloves while shooting and even with thin gloves, the small buttons of the EOS R are very hard to use. This means that not only is it hard to feel when I press a button, but finding a button, particularly in low light, is difficult as well. Further, the Touch Bar and touchscreen are nearly impossible to use with gloves, which is not an uncommon issue but still a frustration in the field.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/4.0, 20s, ISO 1600.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

As a landscape camera, the EOS R is a good option and could be a great option for those with existing full-frame Canon EF lenses. Plus, when you consider the upcoming EF adapter with a drop-in filter, you will be able to easily use filters with ultra-wide lenses, so that's another positive aspect to consider.

New RF Lens Mount and Lenses

The new RF lens mount has the same 54mm inner diameter but has reduced the flange distance from 44 millimeters to 20mm and increased the number of pin connections from 8 to 12. Optically, a shorter flange distance and shorter back focus distance has many advantages. The closer you can get the rear lens element to the image sensor, the more freedom you have when designing lenses and also you are able to reduce the size and weight of lenses while simultaneously maintaining or even improving image quality. Basically, Canon can produce smaller lenses that are better. The increase of pins from 8 to 12 is something of a future-proofing move, and it allows for more information to travel between the lens and the camera, which can provide improved performance with respect to changing aperture quickly and perhaps even better focus and image stabilization performance. As of now, the increased data throughput is not really being utilized.

The primary takeaway is that Canon has been able to maintain performance with all adapted EF and EF-S lenses while also laying the groundwork for more creative, compact and improved native RF lenses. Existing types of lenses can be made lighter and smaller like in the case of the RF 24-105mm f/4 zoom. They will also be sharper as in the case of the RF 50mm f/1.2 portrait prime. Also, new lens designs are possible with the revised RF mount design, including the new RF 28-70mm f/2 zoom.

Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 L

The Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM is a great example of how the new RF mount allows for existing types of lenses to be better than ever before. With the shorter flange distance, the rear element of the RF 50mm f/1.2 L can get closer to the image sensor than the EF 50mm f/1.2 L lens, which allows for better optical performance across the frame. In terms of sharpness, the difference between the EF 50mm f/1.2 and the RF 50mm f/1.2 is stark. Further, the RF 50mm f/1.2 L is quite light for a lens of its type, and it balances nicely on the EOS R. Plus, it has the new programmable Control Ring, which is awesome.

On the left, we can see the new RF 50mm f/1.2 L MTF charts versus the EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM on the right. The RF version has considerably better sharpness and consistency across the frame.
 
RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/1.2, 1/125s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/1.2, 1/125s, ISO 100.
100 percent crop of the above image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon RF 24-105mm f/4

The new RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM fills a very similar role as the EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens. It offers a versatile focal length, a reasonably quick constant aperture and is an excellent kit lens. The RF 24-105mm f/4 L in particular is compact and lightweight, thanks to the new RF lens mount. It also includes a new smaller Nano USM focusing actuator. The difference in optical quality between the EF 24-105mm and the new RF 24-105mm is not as large as it is when comparing 50mm f/1.2 lenses, but to be able to offer similar – and probably slightly better – imaging performance in a smaller lens is certainly nice. The EOS R and RF 24-105mm f/4 L make an excellent pairing.

When paired with the EOS R, the RF 24-105mm f/4 lens combination is much smaller than the 5D Mark IV with the latest EF 24-105mm f/4 lens.
 
RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 83mm, f/18, 1/400s, ISO 1000.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Who is the Canon EOS R best for?

It's important to note that the Canon EOS R is the first camera in a fledgling new system, so it's unreasonable to expect the camera to have a large variety of native lenses. With that said, for whom does the Canon EOS R make the most sense? People already invested in a full-frame Canon DSLR system.

With the three different EF to RF adapters available, including one with a Control Ring and another with a drop-in filter slot, the EOS R is clearly best for people with existing EF lenses. This lets you to compensate for what the current RF lens lineup is missing, including wide-angle and telephoto lenses. If you don't own Canon lenses already, you are jumping into a new system that has room to grow, but currently doesn't offer a lot of variety in terms of optics. It's similar to the situation with the new Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras, which are definitely aimed at existing Nikon shooters.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 24mm, f/8.0, 1/125s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Having established that caveat, let's consider what the EOS R can do and what it's best at. It's great for traveling and doing landscape photography. The titling screen is excellent in general, but particularly good when working on a tripod. The Dual Pixel CMOS AF system and its excellent frame coverage works very well, and the camera with the new 24-105mm f/4 L kit lens is a pretty compact and lightweight full-frame setup. With the new RF 50mm f/1.2 L lens and the EOS R's good autofocus, the EOS R is also well-suited to portrait photography.

RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/1.4, 1/1000s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Areas where the EOS R comes up a bit short include sports and wildlife photography. There simply aren't the native lenses available yet, and the EOS R is not a super-fast or high-performing camera. AF is good, but the continuous shooting speeds are not up to the standards of something like a 5D Mark IV or 1DX Mark II. Canon has been quick to point out that the EOS R is not really aimed at professionals despite offering good image quality and the same weather sealing as the 5D IV. It may be a nice second camera for a pro, and it certainly can work well in certain professional scenarios, but it's more of an enthusiast camera.

The Canon EOS R is great for:

  • Those with good full-frame Canon EF lenses
  • Photographers wanting a compact and lightweight Canon full-frame camera
  • Photographers who shoot travel, landscape and portrait images

The Canon EOS R is not the best choice for:

  • Sports and wildlife photographers due to the lack of speed and lack of native telephoto optics
  • Photographers who enjoy ample physical controls on their cameras
  • People needing full-frame 4K video recording
RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens at f/1.2, 1/250s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon EOS R Field Test Summary

A promising start to the next chapter in Canon cameras

What I like:

  • Compact and lightweight camera body
  • Excellent tilt/swivel touchscreen display
  • Very good electronic viewfinder
  • Fast Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus with a lot of frame coverage
  • Good image quality
  • Impressive native lenses

What I don't like:

  • Continuous shooting performance is not very impressive
  • Not a lot of native lens variety yet
  • The smaller size raises some usability concerns

There is a lot to like about the Canon EOS R. Even with some issues of usability due to its compact size, the camera is thoughtfully-designed and generally feels very nice to use. It has that "Canon" look and feel, but it may be a camera that is more likely to be added to a bag alongside another Canon camera and lenses, rather than attracting brand-new customers. I'm not a daily Canon shooter, but I get the appeal of their camera systems, especially after using the Canon EOS R. It produces nice images with a certain je ne sais quoi, and the lenses are top-notch.

RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens at 35mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 400.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The new lens mount has already produced the highly-interesting RF 28-70mm f/2 lens and a very sharp 50mm f/1.2 prime. I will be very interested to see what else Canon can do with the new engineering possibilities afforded by the RF lens mount. The Canon EOS R feels like a promising start to Canon's next chapter.

 



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