Chillout TGIF: Canon EOS R and lenses

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We continue our coverage of camera systems with the Canon EOS R – the giant camera company’s first serious foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. The EOS R is a full frame mirrorless camera, and comes with a totally new lens RF lens ecosystem. Here is our take of the EOS R camera system, after spending two weeks with a loaner set in use daily for our photography works.

Note: while the EOS R is capable of video, I did not shoot any video with it while it was with me. And this review is only limited to the still photography aspects.

The majors came late to the mirrorless game. Both Canon and Nikon fired their first serious salvo only in 2018 while the game began as early as 2008 with the Panasonic G1 (the forefather of the GH-2 which I still use on an ongoing basis). The Panasonic’s sensor is based on the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) concept and is smaller (17.3mm x 13mm) compared to the APS-C sensors (nominally 23mm x 15mm) and full frame sensors (24mm x 36mm). The mirrorless design allowed for a short flange distance as a direct consequence of deleting the mirror. Olympus followed in 2009 as part of the Micro Four Thirds consortium, and the duo have been the most prolific producers of MFT cameras since. Other manufacturers who have made MFT bodies include Xiaomi, DJI, Blackmagic, JVC and the now defunct Kodak. Each of whom made the token camera body in this format. And traditionally, the MFT market is seen as the amateur sector, though many professional photographers were quick to recognize the benefits and use the system professionally.

Canon EOS R with the EF50 f/1.2 lens attached.

But it was not until the Leica M9 was introduced in 2009, when the world saw the first full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens digital camera, using a rangefinder focusing system. As is typical of Leica, this was targeted at the top of the hierarchy, and is an expensive camera. But allowed users to take advantage of the phenomenal M lenses which Leica is famous for. Sony was the first to introduce an autofocus full-frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens digital camera, the α7, in 2013. And Leica quickly followed with the Leica SL (Typ 601) in 2015.

Nikon and Canon each launched full-frame mirrorless cameras in September 2018. Also announced in September 2018, the L-Mount Alliance saw Panasonic and Sigma using the Leica L-Mount for their own full-frame mirrorless cameras. Panasonic announced its S1R and S1 cameras then, and Sigma announced the fp in 2019.

Canon EOS R

The EOS R was released in 2018, and was not Canon’s first mirrorless camera. Canon introduced the EOS M in 2012 with an APS-C sensor. At introduction, the EOS R had early firmware which was plagued with numerous problems. In 2019, Canon released a new firmware which brought the EOS R up to the level where it can be considered as an advanced camera system. The new firmware 1.4 adds the following improvements:

  • Enhanced eye detection Auto Focus (AF) for improved face and eye recognition at greater distances.
  • Improved Auto Focus (AF) performance helps the camera to focus on and track smaller subjects.
  • Reduces lag time between the actual Auto Focus (AF) and the AF frame display for images in the viewfinder or on the LCD.
  • Fixes a phenomenon in which the AF frame size cannot be changed in the Servo AF setting.

Our review camera is in this latest firmware level.

Canon also announced the EOS R5, a new full frame camera in February 2020. This was a developmental announcement and the web was filled with many speculations on what this new body may bring. To date, Canon have not published final specifications yet, but many expect this to be the high end EOS R, with full bells and whistles. Availability date is also not been announced, but we have a commitment from Canon Singapore for a loaner to try out when it becomes available. We were told this is likely late 2Q or early 3Q 2020.

The EOS R body

The Canon EOS R body looks like a regular Canon EOS DSLR body. With the elimination of the mirror box, the body is thinner than the EOS 5DmkIV body, measuring 135.8 x 98.3 x 84.4mm compared to 151 x 116 x 76 mm. The smaller EOS R body is immediately noticed as one handles the body. The weight of the body is also rather light at only 580g (the 5DmkIV weighs 860g). The body is made from a magnesium alloy with polycarbonate and glass fibre parts. Subjectively, it lacks the feel and handling of a high end professional camera, unlike its big brothers, the 5DmkIV or the 1DxmkIII.

The grip is ergonomically designed and comfortable to hold, though with the L lenses that are in the RF lens lineup, the setup tends to be front heavy – this is inevitable with the combination of a light body and heavy lenses.

The EOS R features a shutter curtain which is down when the camera is powered off. This protects the sensor and helps with dust prevention when the lens is removed.

The body is weather sealed, and for some photographers it may be important to note that it only has one card slot. May be a deal breaker for some, but for me, I did not really miss the second card slot.

One interesting feature, which I feel other mirrorless cameras should adopt is the EOS R has a shutter curtain which is drawn across the sensor when the camera is powered off. This protects the sensor and also helps with reduction in dust on the sensor when the lens is removed, for example when changing lenses.

The full frame sensor.

When powered on, the shutter curtain is lifted, and the sensor revealed.

In daily use

The camera is well designed, with button placement which is in logical locations all over the body. And even though I have not used a Canon body since I sold my EOS 1DmkIII in 2010, it was easy to re-adapt to the EOS R body. One interesting feature is that the back features a customizable M-Fn bar, instead of another button, dial, d-pad or joystick. The M-Fn bar responds to touch, and swipes, and is a rather innovative idea, but I found it to be too easy to accidentally touch, and disabled it during its two week stay with me.

Rear LCD.

The operations are quite standard, and almost everything works as it should. Autofocus was quite fast and accurate, as one might expect with the Dual Pixel AF, but it surpasses existing models, coming with 5,655 selectable AF points and boasting 100% horizontal and close to 90% vertical coverage.

The EOS R’s 0.5-inch OLED electronic viewfinder has 3.69 million dots, 0.76x magnification, and a generous 23mm eye point. This proved to be sufficiently large and clear for easy to use framing and focusing. At the rear, there’s a retractable 3.15-inch, touch-enabled 2.1 million-dot LCD.

I had one distressing quirk with the EOS R body I had, and perhaps it is a problem with only this particular unit, but the camera resets itself to ISO 100 after a while, even though I have set the ISO manually at 200. I find this to be frustrating to work with, as the camera’s ISO performance is good enough that at ISO 200, the noise performance produces almost the same image quality as at 100. But as it is one stop faster, allows me to shoot at f/16 instead of f/11 with the same lighting power and get a larger depth of field.

I shoot only in raw, and curiously, Adobe Bridge does not show the thumbnail on the import screen. Adobe Bridge has no issues with files produced by other cameras.

Another quirk I found is that in importing the raw files using Adobe Bridge, I am not able to preview the thumbnails, as shown above. This can be frustrating as well, especially if I do multiple sessions within the same day, and it becomes difficult to quickly identify which photograph belong to which session.

Another quirk is that Adobe Camera Raw does not automatically apply the lens correction to the file, but I have to manually check the box for lens correction every time. In the other systems I use, including the Canon 1DmkIV, the lens profile is automatically applied.

The lens ecosystem

For a new camera format, Canon abandoned the DSLR EF and EFS lens system in favour of a new RF mount. The roadmap for the RF lenses is being rolled out, but with the use of the R Mount Adapter, all EF lenses can be used. This includes a whole universe of Canon made EF lenses, as well as third party lenses. An enormous lens ecosystem.

The latest Canon RF lens Roadmap (February 2020). Click top right corner to see full screen on desktop. (Image credit: Canon)

The new RF mount uses the same 54 mm diameter of the EF mount, but the flange distance is reduced from 44 mm to just 20 mm. This is mainly due to the deletion of the mirror assembly, and allows the optics engineers to design lenses which can be technically superior.

The three lenses we had on loan. From left – RF50L, EF100L with adapter and RF35.

Currently, the RF series boasts of 9 native lenses. There are 4 primes – 35/1.8, 50/1.2L and two 85/1.2Ls (!). We note that of this prime lens lineup, 3 out of the 4 are from the Canon L line (Luxury line, meaning professional series). We also note there are two 85mm f/1.2 L lenses. This is a popular portrait focal length. The regular 85L is supplemented by a 85L DS, where the DS suffix denotes the presence of Defocus Smoothing technology. This is a new coating on two of its elements that’s said to help smooth out the edges of out-of-focus areas, which the company claims is more necessary here given the more severe correction for chromatic aberration. The effect is similar to some specialized lenses from Fujifilm and Sony that contain comparable apodization elements. I used to own the EF 85L f/1,2, but did not get to try either RF 85L lenses.

There are also 5 zooms – 15-35/2.8L, 24-70/2.8L, 24-70/2L, 24-105/4L, 24-240 (non L) and 70-200/2.8L. The predominance of L lenses, which offer excellent and high end image quality is interesting,. Perhaps an indication of what the Canon management’s line of thought on the intent of the EOS R system.

Canon EOS R with RF35 Macro lens.

The L lenses are all very large, and quite heavy. For example, the RF50L weighs 980g, whereas the small RF35 is small and lightweight at only 305g. The RF lenses have a command ring, which is programmable to perform many functions. For me, I use it to change ISO, and find this to be very convenient. This system is very similar to the one used in the L Alliance lenses like those from the Leica SL stable.

UCanon EOS R with EF 100L with adapter.

As alluded, I had three lenses on loan. The RF 35, the RF 50L, and the EF 100L with adapter.

The RF 50mm f/1.2 L USM is an excellent piece of optics, and designed to meet specifications of almost no compromises. The lens performs very well, although it benefits from digital correction performed with Adobe Camera Raw. The digital adjustment corrects for a small amount of spherical correction at the edges, and vignetting. The lens is pin sharp, especially at the center. The bokeh is quite excellent as well, with the out of focus areas being beautifully creamy.

Portrait taken in a dark hawker center with the RF 50L. The lens is very sharp and the bokeh is very smooth, creamy and pleasant.

I also found the EF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro USM also to be excellent. This is a reference grade piece of glass which has stood the test of time. The optical quality is superb, and this is the only lens I tried which required no correction in ACR (ticking the lens correction tab on and off makes little difference), as the lens is optically well corrected. All the watch macro photographs are taken with this lens.

The Citizen Kuroshio ’64, photographed with the Canon EOS R and EF100L with R Adapter.

The lens is originally designed for Canon DSLRs, but with the use of the R Adapter, it can be attached easily to the EOS R body and works flawlessly. The adapter has no glass, so will not degrade image quality, as it is just a set of electronics passing signals to and from the lens and body.

Canon EF 100L macro lens with the R Adapter disconnected and to the right.

I also had the 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM lens on hand. This lens is not an L lens, and the optical quality shows. Digital correction is possible under ACR by ticking the tab, and I can see the generous corrections performed from the visible distortion and vignetting as I toggle. I use the lens for general photography, and for lifestyle watch shots, including some wrist shots, as the 35mm focal length allow for a shorter working distance.

The macro designation is a misnomer, as it only focuses down to 1/2 life size. Among the three lenses loaned to me, this lens had the worse image quality, and felt rather plasticky, perhaps an indication that the intended use is commercial and not professional.

Overall, the lenses are generally competent, with the EF 100L being a good reference and useful for watch macro photography. The RF 50L is a good general purpose lens, and I found the RF 35 to be only average in both image quality and build quality.

Competitive Landscape

The EOS R occupies a very strange place in the landscape of mirrorless full frame cameras. The competition are very established. The closest is probably the Nikon Z6, with its 24Mpix sensor and retails for S$3,699.

And perhaps the most prominent is the Sony A7, now in MkIV form which retails for S$4,999. However, the Sony sports a massive 60 Mpix sensor and features In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) which the EOS R lacks. The Leica SL Type 601 is another, as is her L Alliance sister – the Panasonic S1. The SL had a 24Mpix sensor with no IBIS, so is technically comparable to the EOS R. The SL is already replaced by the SL2 which retails for S$9,200. We are expecting a review sample soon from Leica Singapore. The SL2, however features a 47Mpix sensor with a 5 stop IBIS. The Panasonic S1 (S$2,999) has a 24 Mpix sensor while the S1R (S$5,359) has a 47 Mpix sensor and both cameras feature IBIS.

At S$3,399, the EOS R seems to be a good value compared to the competition. However, the lenses, especially the native RF lenses are not inexpensive. And may tip the scales over. For example, the combo I had on loan costs a total of S$9,505; not a small amount of change, so warrants consideration only from the serious amateur photographer. However, it benefits from the large Canon lens ecosystem, both native Canon lenses and from other manufacturers via adapters, including vintage and legacy lenses. Many of which are relatively inexpensive and abundantly available.

Concluding thoughts

The Canon EOS R is a competently designed camera, and is capable of good image quality in use.

For me, however, it lacks the je ne sais quoi, not easy to describe, but perhaps translatable to the subjective feel of the camera and body as well as the shooting experience. Unlike the Hasselblad X1D and the Fujifilm GFX 50 R, I don’t have the urge to constantly want to pick it up and shoot with it.

Canon EOS R with RF35mm/f.1,8.

Perhaps I have been spoilt by the numerous high end cameras that have come my way. I am intimately familiar with the Hasselblad H3D and the former Canon EOS 1DmkIII system which I have owned and used professionally for more than a decade. I also have extensive experience with the Hasselblad X1D, the Leica SL, the Leica CL, the Leica S, the Fujifilm GFX 50S, GFX50R systems. And even the venerated Phase One XF IQ4 150. All much more expensive than the EOS R, and have a substantially better feel. With this background, I give the EOS R a qualified OK rating for a mid-level camera system. But it is possible that someone coming from a more humble camera experience may rate the EOS R as a rather excellent piece of kit.

Canon EOS R Specifications

Sensor: 30.3MP full-frame CMOS, 36 x 24mm
Image processor: Digic 8
AF points: 5,655 Dual Pixel AF positions
ISO range: 100 to 40,000 (exp. 50 to 102,400)
Max image size: 6,720 x 4,480
Metering modes: Evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted
Video: 4K UHD at 29.97p, 25p, 24p, 23.98p – 1.8x crop
Viewfinder: EVF, 3.69m dot OLED, 100% coverage
Memory card: SD / SDHC / SDXC
LCD: 3.15-inch fully articulating touchscreen, 2.1m dots
Max burst: 8fps
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
Size: 135.8 x 98.3 x 84.4mm (body only)
Weight: 580g (body only; 660g with battery and card)
Burst Shooting: 8 fps shooting (5 fps with continuous AF, 3 fps ‘Tracking Priority mode’)
Charging: USB (with some chargers)



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