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The Canon EOS R5 Is a Mirrorless Workhorse

Despite being a long-time Nikon shooter and a fan of their latest mirrorless offerings, it’s only fair to keep an eye on what the competition is doing. So, with the right level of begging, I was able to get my hands on the Canon EOS R5 and thought I would offer a few brief thoughts.

First off, this won’t be a point-by-point comparison of the Canon EOS R5 versus the Nikon Z 7II or the Sony a1. I still haven’t held an a1. And, as a Nikon user, I may use my current Nikons as points of reference, but the intention is not to steer you in the direction of one brand versus another. Which camera is right for your shooting style, budget and client needs all go into determining your best fit. Instead, I’ll keep the focus on what it was like for me, spending some time with the R5 and how it fits into my own workflow.

Speaking of my own workflow, a brief background: I am a lifestyle, fitness, and activewear photographer, director, and cinematographer. I generally shoot advertising campaigns for various brands that, more often than not, feature fast-moving athletes shot on location or in the studio. My main demands for a camera are that it has enough megapixels to be cropped to multiple layouts while still being printed at a large scale, expert autofocus to be able to keep up with my on-screen talent, and dependability to know that, of all the things that can go wrong on set, my camera should be the least of my concerns. And, most importantly if not most quantifiably, I need a camera that is built for speed. By that, I mean, I need a camera that just gets out of my way and allows my OCD to take over and just flow without me having to slow down to fiddle with the camera settings any more than is absolutely necessary.

Traditionally, I have been a Nikon DSLR shooter. Oddly enough, I learned photography using a Canon film camera prior to moving to Nikon when digital came onto the scene. Since then, I’ve mainly shot with a Nikon, currently the D850, but have often shot with the Canon 5D Mark IV quite a bit for a client whose studio is stocked with them. I’ve either owned or spent a significant amount of time shooting at least 10 mirrorless cameras over the last few years, but have yet to find one that really felt like an upgrade from my D850. So, the bulk of my mirrorless experience thus far has been flirting with various models but really only using them in handpicked situations rather than as my daily shooter.

I wrote in a recent article about the importance of Nikon really getting the upcoming Z 9 release right. While the market progressing from DSLR to mirrorless opens up big opportunities for new sales, the likelihood that making the switch will eventually lead to repurchasing one’s entire lens lineup means that it’s no longer as significant of financial advantage for a photographer to stay within one brand when transitioning from DSLR to mirrorless. So, the Z 9 is going to need to be at the same level, if not better, as the offerings from Sony and Canon to make sure their legacy DSLR install base remains within the brand when making the switch.

With so many recent YouTubers and comment sections lighting up with projections of Nikon’s demise and/or blasting the company’s mirrorless offerings (usually without much thought of real-world use cases), the perception has been that the competition might be offering something that Nikon is not. And while I should make clear up front that I don’t have any particular plans to switch brands, as someone who both shoots professionally and writes about the industry, I thought it only prudent that I get a little first-hand experience to see what all the fuss was about.

What I Love About The Canon R5

Size

Right out of the box, the R5 seemed to meld to my hand. And I mean that in the most literal sense possible. In the early days of mirrorless, the one thing you would hear over and over again as the main benefit was that they were lighter than their DSLR counterparts. And, for the most part, this is true. Although to be fair, I’ve found that once you put on a pro-level zoom, the size and weight differences, though valid, are not quite as significant as they might seem. The one downside of this shedding of weight that gets very little airtime though is that (logically) the cameras come in smaller bodies.  

While this sounds like an advantage, if you have large clumsy hands, as I do, sometimes, mirrorless bodies can feel a bit too small. They are fine when just walking around and shooting for fun. But, as soon as I get on set with a client and the pressure is on to move at a rapid pace, I find myself accidentally bumping each and every one of the highly customizable buttons and fighting with my camera just to have a smooth shooting experience. For instance, I do really love the new Nikon Z bodies. The only thing that I don’t like about their ergonomics, however, is that the grips are just a wee bit too short for me to fit my entire hand. Therefore, my pinky finger inevitably ends up dangling off of the bottom when I’m shooting. So, even though the cameras are objectively lighter than my DSLR, because I have to support the weight with three fingers instead of four, they end up feeling just as heavy and aren’t quite as comfortable. That issue is specific to my own personal hand size. But these little things can make a big difference in user experience and ultimately the end result.  

The moment I took the R5 out of the box, the grip felt very comfortable in the hand. Trying to find the objective reason why it was feeling so comfortable, I held it up next to my Nikon Z 6 and realized that the grip is just a little bit taller on the R5. It’s just tall enough that I can fit my whole hand on the grip and removes any fear that I might drop it if I’m not paying full attention. That lack of fear frees up just one more brain cell that I can spend on shooting instead.

Autofocus 

I’d heard stories about the speed of the R5 autofocus performance, but had not yet had an opportunity to play with it myself. In my early and highly scientific test that I call “Chasing the Dog Around the Backyard,” it was already apparent that the hype was well earned. But more than the basic question of focus accuracy, what makes the R5 autofocus so special is the ease of use.

Now, I should point out that discussions of autofocus performance can often easily give way to hyperbole. Autofocus is important. As someone who shoots fast-moving athletes for a living, I can attest to that. But it must also be said that I, and many others, have been getting tack-sharp autofocus for years prior to the advent of mirrorless and things like face and eye-tracking. So, it is entirely possible to get great autofocus from most cameras without necessarily having to spend a small fortune to upgrade every time a manufacturer makes an incremental improvement in the area.

But I will say that what blew me away about the R5 autofocus performance wasn’t just the accuracy, but how little effort I personally had to put in to reap the rewards of that accuracy. As a DSLR shooter, I’ve long perfected the center point focus and recompose method. It's simple, it’s fast, and it works once you get used to the timing. The new Nikon mirrorless cameras, despite what might be thrown about on the web, are also very accurate when it comes to autofocus. The secret, however, is that you have to relearn your focus modes, as focusing on the Nikon mirrorless and Nikon DSLRs require drastically different methods. Equally effective, but different. Once you get used to knowing how to match focus modes to scenes, you are good to go.

But you do have to know which focus modes are which, and you will find yourself changing focus modes frequently throughout the shoot. The R5’s big advantage is that their catch-all mode, the default activated when you take it out of the box, is highly effective. I used the R5 on a recent shoot with a basketball player in the studio. We shot everything from portraits to dunks to everything in between. I shot around 700 frames throughout the course of the day, and there were a grand total of four shots that were out of focus. What makes this feat all the more impressive is that I didn’t change my focus mode once. Not once.

I don’t know exactly how the camera knew what I wanted to be in focus, but somehow, it did. And not having to think about my focus mode or focus points at all really freed up even more brain cells to pour into creativity. In fact, it has been very rare during my time with the R5 that I’ve ever needed to leave that base focusing mode. The only exception was when I wanted to take a shot of a subject through heavy brush with large parts of them intentionally hidden. I wouldn’t expect the camera to know what to focus on in those situations. So, for those shots, I switched into a single point so that I could pick them out through the leaves, and the camera was spot on.

Fully Articulating LCD

This is one of those things that I never really thought that I would like but ended up loving. Now first, I should point out that I pretty much never take still photos using the LCD. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not my style. So, my thoughts on the subject center around video acquisition.

I am also not a vlogger, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time in front of the camera. But, as the business changes, I do find myself more and more needs to be on the other side of the lens for one reason or another. I can, of course, mount a monitor to the top of my camera to be able to see what I look like and if I’m in focus. But, let’s be honest, a lot of times, that is either impractical or simply a pain in the butt. After all, if I am in front of the camera, there’s a good chance that I’d rather be behind it, so I want to make the process of setting up to shoot myself as easy and as painless as possible. Being able to just flip that screen around is a godsend. I might not always choose to shoot without an external monitor. But being able to shoot without one is another small thing that adds up to major gains in productivity.

Internal Video Options

Continuing on from the last point, the R5’s ability to record an absolute multitude of formats, including 8K, internally is another huge advantage. Now, it should be said that even with all the options, because of the nature of my work, I am still far more likely to gravitate to my C200 cinema camera for most motion work. It’s bigger, has more ports, and can run all day. That’s what it’s built for. But there are other times, either when I need my still camera to double as a B camera for video or when I’m out on a still the only assignment that suddenly becomes a video assignment, when being able to acquire high-quality footage that can seamlessly fit into your other footage is a big blessing. Being able to do it without an external monitor which you might not happen to have on you at the time is a massive productivity benefit.

Efficiency

As I mentioned earlier, I usually shoot with a Nikon DSLR, but I often use Canon DSLRs as well for certain clients. I’ve also had the pleasure of shooting with both the Nikon and Canon mirrorless offerings now. The thing that makes my Nikon D850 so amazing and makes it unlikely that I would ever sell it, regardless of what happens in the mirrorless world, is that the darn thing is just so darn efficient. I can pull my D850 out in pretty much any situation and feel very confident that I will not only be able to get the shot but get it quickly and with a minimum amount of fuss.  

I’ve found the latest Nikon cameras to be efficient as well, but as I mentioned earlier, you do need to do a few mental translations to accomplish the same thing when moving from DSLR to mirrorless. The R5, on the other hand, I find to be a much closer experience to shooting with a 5D Mark IV. Actually, it might even be a closer experience to shooting with my D850 as well. I am not an in-house Canon shooter, nor am I someone who would ever be described as “loving” mirrorless. But I have to say, I had absolutely zero problems adjusting to shooting with the R5. It felt very natural to me. It did that thing that my D850 does so well. It simply got the heck out of the way and allowed me to focus on creativity.

What I Don’t Love

Of course, no camera is perfect. So lest you think it was all a big celebration with the R5, I do want to point out one or two things that could definitely use updating.

Internal Video Options

Wait, what? Didn’t I just use that chapter heading in the pro section? Yes, I did. So, how can the same thing be both a blessing and a curse?

Well, the upside is that the Canon R5 offers a lot of options for video from 8K down to standard HD and allows you to change things like data rates and frame rates. The downside is that the one thing they don’t allow you to change, at least as far as I can tell, is that the videos, aside from raw video, record in H.265 instead of H.264. In theory, H.265 is the newer and “better” codec. But, if you’ve ever tried to edit H.265, you will know that it can be absolute murder on even the most decked-out computer systems. The files won’t play back smoothly in most cases, and in some cases might not be playable at all. As a result, when you shoot a video with the R5, you should expect to spend a healthy amount of time transcoding all of your footage into a more user-friendly format before you start editing (or using proxies). It’s not impossible to do, but it is an annoying extra step that feels entirely unnecessary.

Raw Video Only 8K

Continuing on from the last point, the 8K video on the R5 is both awesome and somewhat limiting. As someone with a very well-defined use for 8K, I find the fact that this camera is capable of that to be a major selling point. I’m not even that bothered by the overheating issue, because I wouldn’t likely be using 8K for long extended takes, but rather picking and choosing my spots.

The raw video was one of the major reasons I bought a Canon EOS C200 a few years back as my cinema camera. Just like raw still images, the idea is to get things right in camera, even more so when dealing with video. But, also like stills, having the raw data available after the fact can allow you to make little changes here and there in post-production that can make a real difference. Or, if you’ve completely screwed the pooch on set, sometimes, having shot raw can really save you in a pinch. The one thing that drove me crazy on my C200 is that in order to shoot raw, you have to shoot 4K. You can’t shoot 1080. Sure, 4K is objectively better than 1080, but sometimes, you just don’t need it, or the large amount of data associated with it and you’d rather retain the raw capabilities, but with smaller file sizes.

Continuing on that all-or-nothing theme, the R5 can shoot raw video as well, but can only do it in 8K. Let’s just say that shooting 8K raw requires a lot of data. Like, a lot a lot. So, if you plan on shooting a great deal of raw footage with the R5, you will be needing to buy several more hard drives.

Summary

So, all in all, how do I feel about the Canon EOS R5? Well, the hype is justified. The R5 is a very solid machine that offers both high-end features and a down-and-dirty speed of use factor that make it a very appealing tool for working photographers who need to deliver the goods in an effective and efficient manner. I’ve only had the camera on loan for a short period of time, so I am sure that I’m missing several other pros and cons that one might realize over time. But for my own specific use case, in the time I’ve had it, the camera has more than lived up to the Canon 5 series legacy. Looking forward to seeing where they can grow from here.

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9 Comments

Jacob H.'s picture

I've been a long-term Canon 5D shooter and decided in 2015 to move to Fuji (both X and later on GFX). Recently I moved to Nikon Z (the Z7II) combined with my trusted H6D for studio work. The value of handling of a camera easily gets underappreciated in the quest for even better specs sheets, but in real life (esp. that of a pro) is one of the most important aspects. In that sense Canon as well as Nikon and also Hasselblad score great and consistently higher than all other brands I've used over time. True workhorses as you call them...

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Yes, poor ergonomics is a deal breaker.

Rhonald Rose's picture

It's nice to see competition is outdoing each other (both in their product and pricing) and it's good for the dedicated camera market.

I myself moved to Fuji (X and GFX) sometime ago (when GFX-50s was announced), selling my 5DMIV and all the lenses (about 8 L glasses).

I was pondering whether I should get a FF and thankfully 100s will fill that space for me (being overall snappy, auto focus) very soon.

However, during my pondering months, I was eyeing R5 (never shot videos not fast moving subjects such as vehicles or athletes) and I am glad it's a very good camera.

Looks like all three FF guys have at least one excellent workhorse camera. Except for personal taste, I don't think anyone picking these cameras will regret their decision.

Michael Piziak's picture

These mirrorless cameras from Canon and Nikon look like an undersized camera body with an oversized lens on them - a cartoonish looking camera that Mickey Mouse would carry around.

Jacob H.'s picture

I guess Mickey is a very smart mouse... ;-). I just love the handling of my Z7II and the Z-lenses. Did however mount an L-bracket for the final touch.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Then buy a Z9 or the Canon equivalent. Or put a grip on them like I have with my D850 and Z7ii bodies.

Spike Hodge's picture

Which mode was "that base focusing mode". I pressed every button and menu Item within an hour of getting my new toy (R6 in fact) so I have no idea what the focus was set to out of the box :-)

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Haha. The one to the far left. The Face tracking :-)

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Fine piece of gear, and I will acknowledge that I am a D850 / Z7ii shooter. But I would certainly tell any Canon shooter that if they like the small size (I don't, both of my Nikon's have the grip attached and I regard them as unusable without it), don't hesitate.

Good time to be a camera gear consumer.