My Canon R5 Experience

I rented a Canon R5 from LensRentals for a week so that I could try out a 45 MP mirrorless camera with a high continuous shooting speed and great autofocus. The R5 is a $3,900 camera that directly competes with Nikon’s Z7 II and Sony’s A7R, but has capabilities similar to the Z9 and A1. Despite the winter cold, I took about 4000 shots of seagulls, my dog, my kids, and other things around the house to test it out.

The process with LensRentals was pretty flawless. The camera was due to arrive on a Friday but came a day early at no extra charge. The kit is robust and the camera is packed like a Russian doll. Inside the cardboard box was a thick plastic case with heavy duty latches, the kind you’d take on a plane so the equipment inside can’t be crushed. Inside the case was a soft photo bag containing the R5 body, the battery and charger wrapped in foam, and another case with the lens and a piece of foam buffer. There was no way this thing moved at all during shipping. It included a return shipping label, instructions, and a piece of tape with a very long cheeky message written on it.

I kept my order simple: a body and a single kit lens – Canon’s prosumer RF 24 – 105 mm f/4 L IS. I’ve owned Canon’s older EF version before and I own Nikon’s equivalent now. They’re all sharp, have a very usable zoom range, and are fast enough for most situations. Adding a 50mm f/1.8 and a 70 – 200 f/4 would have provided a few more testing options but I decided the 24 – 105 would be enough to evaluate the camera while minimizing cost.

Body & Controls

The body is robust. It’s about the size of my Nikon D750, but a bit thinner. It’s comfortable to use, with a good grip. The controls feel solid and the dials are well-balanced. A few of the buttons could benefit from being raised to make them easier to use with gloves, but overall it’s ok. With the lens attached it didn’t feel much lighter than a regular DSLR. It’s an unfair comparison, but the R5 is far better ergonomically than my tiny Sony a6100.

The camera itself is easy to get used to. Some of the buttons are in different places than my Nikons and some have different functions, but a camera is a camera and they all generally work the same. The R5 has more buttons than my Canon 7D did back in the day, but I still prefer Nikon’s layout and default assignments. The R5 doesn’t have buttons assigned to exposure compensation, ISO, or bracketing, all of which I use frequently. They can be assigned if desired, but I tried to keep the standard assignments for evaluation purposes. I was happy to use Canon’s famous rear wheel again and I was happy to have it in addition to a top and back dial as well. I’ve always loved the rear wheel for image review, but it was at the expense of having two dials. The R5 has all of them.

Canon’s RF lenses also have a great feature called the “control ring” which is a customizable ring separate from the zoom and focus rings. It’s available on most RF lenses and even one of Canon’s EF to RF adapters. I set mine to control autofocus area selection and it was really convenient. It’s even “clicked” so you feel when it moves from one option to the next, making it easy to make selections by counting clicks. I’d love to see something like this on Nikon, but I not holding out.

Responsiveness & EVF

One of the disadvantages of mirrorless cameras is their startup time – DSLRs are almost instant while mirrorless cameras have EVFs to initialize and other things that slow them down. I found the R5 to be extremely responsive overall. While it didn’t turn on as fast as my DSLRs, it only took a couple of seconds to get ready and I didn’t find that I missed shots waking up the EVF from sleep like I do on my Sony. The UI was responsive and I never saw any delay (something I get regularly on my Sony).

The EVF was a pleasure to use – bright, crisp, and smooth even at the default power-saving 60 hz. At 1600 x 1200 pixels it’s much higher resolution than my a6100 (800 x 600) and didn’t make me wish for an optical viewfinder. At times though, the frame rate struggled a bit and things got choppy. Enabling the battery-guzzling 120 hz mode addressed this in most situations, but it wasn’t worth the cost to keep on continuously. I saw some slideshow effect when taking bursts of moving subjects but it was minimal and didn’t prevent me from tracking them. Again, it was far better than my Sony.

I had exposure preview turned on the entire time and I have to say that I don’t think Canon has that down yet. In about 25% of the cases the EVF showed an image that was noticeably brighter than the recorded image. I find Nikon and Sony’s exposure preview to be much more accurate. I considered turning it off on the R5.

Autofocus & Subject Tracking

Autofocus works very well on this camera. It’s extremely fast – near instant – and it finds the eyes of subjects well. It locks on a bit faster than my Sony (which is already very fast) and much faster than the Z50 I had. It finds eyes well and does it at distances a bit further away than my Sony. The R5 recognizes birds (my Sony doesn’t and my Z50 didn’t) and it worked reliably.

While I didn’t have a chance to test out all of the focus modes, I liked that it had a vertical and horizontal wide area option that could be moved across the frame. I prefer the vertical area, which takes up about ⅓ of the frame, as I often compose my subjects to one side. I wish I could move the area ⅓ of the frame at a time (two “clicks” to get to the other side), but that isn’t an option. The R5’s +1 setting for focus movement speed helps quite a bit though and moves it to the other side of the frame quickly enough.

No big surprise here, but subject tracking is much better on the R5 than my Z50. It’s also better than my Sony, but only by a small margin. It’s fast, catches onto subjects quickly, and stays locked pretty well. It was very easy to use and made it feel like action shots were easier to get.

That said, the keeper rate for my bursts was lower than I expected and not that much better than what I get on my Sony or even my Nikon DSLRs. Maybe 10% of the shots were critically sharp, 25% were usably sharp, and the rest weren’t sharp enough to use. Part of this could have been my subjects – my dog galloping toward the camera is a challenge for any AF system. Part of this could have been the lens not being able to focus fast enough. Part of this is probably my technique – not placing myself correctly or zooming in / out enough. It goes to show that AI-based tracking is only one part of getting a great action shot – you need good lighting on the subject for the details to show, a powerful lens motor that can focus quickly for bursts, really high shutter speeds to freeze the action, and you still need technique to bring it all together..

While the R5’s Eye AF is reliable and fast, it has the same challenges that Sony and Nikon do. It sometimes confuses eye-like patterns for actual eyes. This happened when I took a photo of a Seagull from the back. Its eyes weren’t visible but its back feathers had white circles on black that looked eye-like. It also loses the subject and focuses on the background on occasion, sometimes for no discernible reason (like on a non-moving subject). People make a huge deal about this kind of thing online as if it makes a camera useless, but the fix is easy: let go of the focus button and focus again. Tada! All set.

So what about that 20 fps maximum burst rate? I’m happy to report that it’s real! To make it happen you need a battery that is more than half full, a fast memory card, electronic shutter enabled, and a shutter speed over 1/1000. With those criteria met I was able to quickly add hundreds of photos to my memory card in just a few minutes! The sequence above consists of 20 frames shot in one second. At that rate, scrolling through the images is almost as smooth as watching a movie in a cinema. While they weren’t all perfectly sharp, the bursts that worked provided more final image options to choose from.

RAW Format, Rolling Shutter, and Image Stabilization

Using Canon’s highly-compressed C-RAW format I can fit almost 1800 images on my 64 GB CF Express card. C-RAW creates images that are 20 – 30 MB in size at the expense of a bit of data being thrown away in the shadows. That’s the same size as the files that come out of my 24 MP D750 and 25 – 50% smaller than my 36 MP D800!

C-RAW is a nice compromise to extend the buffer and increase storage space. Speaking of the buffer, I never had an issue with the R5. Even in lossless RAW format the R5 can deliver images for 7 seconds straight. Add feathering to that mix and I basically had an endless buffer. Very nice!

Using electronic shutter introduces the risk of banding and distortion based on the readout speed of the sensor. Nikon’s Z9 is famous for having a readout speed so fast that it doesn’t even have a mechanical shutter, but it’s an expensive pro-level camera. The R5 doesn’t read out as quickly, but still is pretty impressive in terms of its rolling shutter. I didn’t take a lot of sports shots but I did notice a slightly oblong basketball in a few shots. I didn’t see any issues with misinformed bird wings or distorted vertical lines like I frequently see on my Sony. I saw some banding indoors, but it was much finer than on my Sony. For my purposes I found the rolling shutter risk to be acceptable to move from 12 fps up to 20 fps when needed.

The R5 combines its in-body sensor stabilization with lens stabilization for up to 8 stops of shake reduction. While I didn’t focus on this while I had the camera, I also didn’t lose any shots due to the shakiness of my hands. The dense sensors of my D500 and D800 exacerbate the shakiness of my hands even at “normal” shutter speeds of 1/focal length. I didn’t see that on the R5, even at 1/15 which I can never use on my other cameras. Bravo Canon on the image stabilization!

Image Quality

Canon has made huge strides since I owned my 7D, but it isn’t up to Nikon standards just yet. Regular images with good exposure and average contrast are no problem on any camera. Images that have high contrast (mid-day sports, mid-day animals), lots of shadows (interiors), or high ISO (sports, animals) are where the challenges start. I’ve been spoiled by my D750’s dynamic range, low noise, and ISO invariance allowing me to make significant adjustments on images with challenging exposures. My D800, D500, and Sony a6100 aren’t quite as good, but they are still pretty flexible in post.

The R5 has much better shadow recovery than my 7D did, but I’m not loving the noise I’m seeing. At ISO 3200 and above I’d compare it roughly to what I get from my D500, though sometimes I see noise at ISO 2000 and lower that is worse. A 45 MP sensor is always going to have more noise than a 24 MP sensor, but it seems to creep in a lot more than I expected. When I edit images I’m seeing noise appear pretty dramatically when lifting shadows, which is something I rarely get on my Nikons and Sony. The 12-bit readout of the electronic shutter and lossy C-RAW format exacerbate this issue as they don’t capture as much data compared to my other cameras.

Images in good lighting look great but I just can’t get over the noise. It gets better when images are scaled down so it might just be the way of life with a high resolution sensor. I’ve read that Adobe has noisy RAW processing for the R5 and the Canon’s Digital Photo Professional produces much better results. I tried it briefly and while I saw less noise I also saw a lot more artifacts caused by noise reduction. Canon DPP isn’t Apple Silicon native so it’s also really slow.

That said, I didn’t have great lighting conditions for most of my time with the R5 and I didn’t have lenses any faster than f/4. It’s unfair to make a call on image quality just yet. I need to do more research into RAW processing and would need some additional time with it to take photos in better conditions. Based on my research the sensor in the Z7/Z9 should be better, but it will still exhibit more noise than my 24 MP sensor.

I also found that white balance in my living room was consistently more orange than any of my Nikons or my Sony, often significantly. It could have been the orange glow of the pellet stove throwing it off, but I don’t have issues with any of my other cameras.

Anyway, here are some images from my time with the R5.

Miscellaneous Pros

  • Older Canons didn’t support full time manual focusing, which allows manual adjustment of focus even in AF mode. The R5 does, just like my Nikons.
  • The mechanical shutter on the R5 is so quiet. It is the quietest shutter I’ve ever heard on a camera, even chugging away at 12 fps. It’s so quiet that I don’t know if I’d ever need the electronic shutter in anything but silent or high continues shooting environments
  • It closes the shutter over the image sensor when turned off in order to protect the sensor from dust. The Z9 does this with its “shutter shield” but the Z7 doesn’t.
  • It includes a “blank” display mode for the back screen which makes it function just like a DSLR – shoot through the viewfinder, review on the back screen. My Sony does this and the Z9 has a similar feature called “prioritize viewfinder”. The other Z-series Nikons do not support this, and it’s really annoying.

Miscellaneous Cons

  • Battery life was pretty bad, even with the EVF set to 60 hz. An hour of continuous shooting drains the battery to about 50%, which isn’t terrible for mirrorless, but it’s far less than I get on my DSLRs. I’d need to bring extra batteries to get through a day of shooting.
  • Auto ISO didn’t always update when I changed shutter speeds – sometimes it would raise the ISO to its max 12,800 and not lower it when I reduced the shutter speed. The result: overexposed and unnecessarily noisy images. This is not an issue I’ve ever had on my Nikons or my Sony.
  • Video mode was very unintuitive, being hidden in the Mode menu. I’m used to a dedicated video button, even on pro DSLRs that have mode buttons instead of mode dials. It took me over a day to figure out how to get into video mode on the R5.
  • The Q menu (like the i menu on Nikon and the function menu on Sony) is not customizable as it is on those systems. I particularly like this on Sony because I can assign a block to quickly change from mechanical to electronic shutter and to change the subject tracking mode.
  • I struggled with the placement of the shutter button. Canon has always put its shutter button at the front of the camera on a slant. It doesn’t stick out at all and I found it difficult to locate with gloves on. I prefer my Nikons because the shutter button is raised by surrounding it with the power switch. It’s also a bit closer to the top of the camera, making it easier to reach in general and easy to find with gloves on.
  • The R5 jiggles a lot. That isn’t really a ding and is common with cameras that have in body stabilization because the image sensor is on a platform that moves around. My Sony doesn’t have sensor stabilization so I wasn’t prepared for how jingly the camera felt and how much sound it made. I felt like the camera was falling apart.

Conclusion

Despite some image quality challenges I need to continue investigating, I was very satisfied with the R5. It lived up to its reputation for being a very competent camera, and while it costs $800 more than a Nikon Z7 II (list price), it’s much closer to the Z9 in performance. If I was going to buy into a new system, I think the R5 would be my choice. I would miss a few things from my Nikons, but none of them are deal breakers. It’s amazing that Canon had this level of performance over a year before Nikon could even compete. It may not have the 61 MP resolution of the Sony A7R, but it handily beats it in burst performance, which is more important to me.

So will I switch? No, not yet. Using the R5 actually might help me wait even a bit longer for Nikon. The R5 is a great camera, but its shown me that while I can sometimes get better photos with it, the majority of the time I can get the same images out of the cameras I already own. I want higher frame rates, Eye AF, and subject recognition, but I feel like I can wait for Nikon’s version of that. If the Z9’s autofocus is as good as I continue to read it is and if it trickles down to Nikon’s next mirrorless camera I think I’ll be all set. The Z7 II has the same resolution as the R5 but has better dynamic range, slightly better noise control, and slightly better detail. A Z7-class camera with improved autofocus and a larger buffer would give me everything I’m looking for and I could use it with most of my existing lenses.

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