It’s been a full decade now since Canon dipped its toe into the mirrorless camera business, but they’ve only really cracked on with it since launching the full frame EOS R in 2018; which seems a lifetime ago. Since then, Canon’s brought out seven more R camera bodies, and almost thirty new lenses for them, and announced the discontinuing of two entire camera systems in favour of this new one. But it wasn’t until they launched their first two pro-level R bodies (the R5 and R6) in 2020, that people really began to take notice. But a COVID-caused slowing down of manufacture and supply, followed immediately by economic collapse in Sri Lanka, meant camera imports were severely restricted. Testing out the new babies were just a dream, until a few weeks ago.
Canon’s initial go at mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras were cute, but not really serious. The compact APS-C EOS M system, launched all the way back in 2012, were cool and fun little cameras. They were impressive in their own right, but no one was going to mistake them for professional bits of kit, even though some of the better ones were making inroads into the vlogger community. The real pros wanted full frame, durable, fuck-the-weather cameras and lenses. And these were not that.
I’ve tried out the EOS R several times in the last couple of years, trying to make up my mind on mirrorless, as I waited to get my mitts on an R5 or R6. A skeptic since Sony first started to tout a mirrorless future for us all, I was pleasantly surprised by the R and the first couple of RF-mount lenses that accompanied it. The camera certainly had its flaws, and clearly wasn’t the mirrorless equivalent of Canon’s undisputed all round champ, the 5DMkIV, but it made it clear that something impressive this way hove. I’d seen the R5 and R6 down at Metropolitan’s Canon Image Square store for a good year, but there’d been no chance of taking one out for a spin. There just weren’t any to spare. Until September, when I got a few days with the R6.*
The R6 certainly looks the business; sleek, with its two-tone gunmetal and black finish. Its lack of a mirror gives it a lower profile, like some sort of pilotless stealth fighter. The detailing on its dials and buttons are a definite step up from the DSLR range; finer, more delicate, and better finished. There’s even a subtle but noticeable improvement over the EOS R; the craquelure texture of the grip being finer. It exudes quality. And there are insightful little additions that make sense. The shutter closes when you switch the R6 off, so the sensor is protected while you change lenses. The dials, buttons, and toggle switches are all fully programmable, to minimise having to take your eye away from the viewfinder.
This intuition extends to the lenses too. Canon has added a new programmable ring to its RF-mount glass, which can adjust any setting you want. Shutter speed is the only one of the exposure triangle points I adjust on the fly, leaving aperture and ISO settings alone until I have a few seconds to pause; but with the new Ring of Power set for aperture control, I can tweak that too while shooting. The lens hoods all have little release buttons that need to be depressed to unscrew the hoods. While this might seem annoying to some since it’s no longer just grab-and-twist, I like it because, when locked, the hoods seem to fit more snugly and firmly than those on the EF lenses. Which brings me to the RF mount itself. Like the hoods, the mount seems a bit fiddly. Quickly whipping off a lens and slapping on a new one isn’t so straightforward as it was with the EF mount. The RF requires a more precise touch to align lens to camera, and it takes a bit of practice if you’re going to be doing this in the dark or on the run. The same precision is needed for the lens rear cap and the camera body cap. But once the firm rotation has locked the lens in place, it does leave you with yet another impression of quality. It feels as if the R cameras and lenses have been built to finer allowances. It’s like the satisfying ‘thunk!’ of closing a BMW or Mercedes door versus one on a Toyota.
Setting up the R6 for shooting is pretty straightforward if you’ve used a Canon digital camera before. The menus are the same, though the selectable options are vastly more than in the past, and you can choose to set up very precisely for the shoot you have planned, or simply pick more all-round settings for just walkabout use. It pays to familiarise yourself with the auto-focus settings in particular, since things like eye-tracking and continuous focus may be invaluable in certain situations, they can be quite annoying in others, if not switched off. At this point, even if you have fairly slender fingers, like me, you’ll probably discover that the R6’s LCD touch display is too small. The R6’s loku akki, the R5, got the 8.1cm display from the 5DMkIV, while podi nangi got the 7.62cm one from the 6DMkII. This seems to work OK when adjusting settings on the ‘INFO’ screen, but was near impossible for me when navigating through the menus, leaving me to use a combo of fingers, buttons, and dials to get along. The display on the older R, at 8cm, didn’t cause me any similar issues so, hopefully, when an R6MkII comes out it’ll have a bigger display. Watch out also for the viewfinder sensor (just below the viewfinder) while fiddling around on the touch display, because if your ham fist moves across it, the sensor will think it’s your face and, annoyingly, switch the screen from LCD display to the electronic viewfinder. That’s its job, but it’s a bit too enthu about it. I remember this being more of a problem on the R, and if Canon’s done something about this, kudos for that.
The R6 (along with the R5) finally gets the dual card slots demanded by professional photographers, and which sidelined the R and RP, and held even the 6DMkII back from true pro use. And sticking with the R6’s bias towards still photography, both slots take SD cards, avoiding the need to fork out for the expensive CFExpress Type-B card the R5 takes and, which though mostly for video use, is unavoidable for a still photographer who wants a backup card onboard.
SHOOTING THE R6
So preliminaries done, I headed off to the beach, an RF 24-105mm f/4-7.1 on the R6. This lens may not be the upper-end f/4L, but it proved an excellent lens nonetheless. I was mostly planning some lowlight landscape shooting, and while I had a tripod along, I wanted to see what the R6’s vaunted lowlight performance was like offhand. Most of my work as a travel and documentary photographer prevents me from using lights and light modifiers. Sometimes, even a tripod isn’t possible.
I got down to Kalametiya, on the southern Sri Lankan coast, in time for sunset, but what I really wanted was twilight. Once the sun was below the horizon, I headed down a promontory to the rocks at the end, from where I hoped to get a shot of dusk falling over the surfline. It gave me everything I was looking for: a dark landscape with plenty of contrast between sea and sand, rapid movement, and a dramatic sky. I’d try it handheld.
All sample images below are clickable for full-size viewing.
The results were impressive, to say the least. The combination of the R6’s in-body image stabilisation (IBIS), the excellent 20.1MP sensor based on the one in the 1DxMkIII (Canon’s last flagship DSLR, launched just six months before the R6), and the lens’ own image stabilisation, gave me the ability to shoot at unbelievably slow shutter speeds, precariously perched as I was on wet and wind-swept rocks. I chose to shoot wide open as I always do when shooting handheld, rather than at traditional landscape apertures, with a shutter speed of roughly 1/25. All was good. But as the light faded, I opted to keep the ISO down at 100, and just slow my shutter speed. 1/16, 1/8, how slow could I go? Well, in the end I went down to 1/6, and everything still looked halal. I believe I could have slowed down to as much as 1/3 or even 1/2, if I needed to. I didn’t, only because there was nothing absolutely motionless and interesting enough in the frame to anchor it. But this sort of performance was mind-blowing. When I’d first shot an R a couple of years ago, I was able to handhold it at a max of 1/8, since it had no IBIS. Impressive as that had been, it had been in a rock-solid shooting position, not in these conditions. If anyone still needed convincing that mirrorless has the edge over DSLRs, just the removal of that clunky folding mirror from the equation should have done it.
The next morning, I was up at 5am, tripod to hand, to set up for a more conventional landscape shot. Kalametiya faces almost due south and (depending on the time of the year) provides both sunrise and sunset views from the same spot. Ocean Cottage, where I was staying, has a superbly placed infinity pool, so I decided to try and get some nice reflections of the morning sun on its surface. Everything went to plan; the dawn painted the sky something spectacular, the sun rose, I snapped pictures. Life was good.
The only hiccup was quite minor. I hadn’t switched off ‘continuous focus’ in the menus, so the RF 24-105mm had a tendency to wander off focus when the light and contrast was low, hunting for something better to grab than what I had selected. This gave me the only out-of-focus shots of these two sets, mostly with the R6 on the tripod and Drive Mode set to ’10sec self timer’, giving the ‘continuous focus’ time to fall off the bike between me pressing the shutter button and the shot being taken. It did happen a couple of times while I was framing the handheld sunset shots too, but I was able to spot it in time to correct. You’ll only notice ‘continuous focus’ is on if you’ve got a lens with a noisy autofocus mounted. I didn’t hear anything with the RF 24-105mm f/4-7.1, but when I tried an EF 50mm f/1.4 the buzzing could have drowned out a vibrator in a nunnery.
Back home in Colombo, I decided I’d try some cityscapes under more trying conditions than I had faced down south. It had been a bit drizzly and overcast in the evenings, so I thought that would be perfectly imperfect. So I got myself up to the rooftop of the Cinnamon Red hotel half an hour before sunset, only to find that the Mövenpick Hotel up the road had decided it was going to plant itself squarely between myself and the setting sun. Not a great start, but I had come here for a challenge. Having abandoned the idea of shooting the sunset, there was nothing to do but have a beer and wait for blue hour which, when it did arrive, brought along a bit of fine rain just for laughs. Not exactly happy hour, then. The Cinnamon Red has a high steel and perspex barrier running around its rooftop (safety first, etc) that ensures there isn’t actually anywhere to set up a camera on a tripod that will not include this barrier in any shot of the city, 26 floors below. Peering through the drizzle, I spotted some wooden pool loungers lined up against the perspex barrier, and I figured if I climbed onto one of those I should be able to take some handheld shots over the barrier. This would also be a good excuse to ditch the tripod, as the loungers were too shaky (and by now, too slippery) to balance a tripod on.
This time I had the RF 24-105mm f/4L pro lens on the R6, and for once, Canon Metropolitan had given me a hood for it, so if I worked fast I could make sure no raindrops got on the glass. The R6 is weather-sealed to the same level as the 6DMkII and the R, both of which are a step slightly below the R3, R5, 1DxMkIII, and 5DMkIV. I have myself stood in pouring rain for an hour with a 5DMkIII on a shoot for The New York Times, and can swear everything worked perfectly when I pressed the shutter button. I’ve not had any challenging weather conditions when using the R or the R6, but I saw a review of the R when it first came out in 2018, where the reviewer left it under a bathroom shower for half an hour and then shot it with no trouble at all. So if the R6 claims to have the same weather sealing as the R, I’d be quite satisfied with that. Anyway, once I had clambered atop the pool lounger and leaned over the perspex, I turned a bit away from the wind coming off the sea to keep the rain off the glass, and tried to brace myself. There was no way to stay as steady even as I’d been down in Kalametiya, so I decided there was nothing for it but to select a more realistic shutter speed of about 1/125, and kick up the ISO to 5,000. There was still quite a bit of light in the sky and, as is my habit with landscapes, I underexposed a stop or two, planning to bring up the shadows in editing.
Looking at the RAW files later, however, I realised I might have overdone the underexposure a tad, given the unusual lighting conditions of dark buildings, bright streets, lit windows, and twilight sky. The end result looks OK on the screen, but a 100% crop shows some grain in the lighter areas (none in the shadows). I feel the fault was mine rather than the R6’s; I should have chosen evaluative metering, and just trusted it when adjusting exposure, instead of using my gut. A lot of the reason for this misunderstanding between me and the R6 was my failure to grasp the new ISO invariance in its sensor. Unlike the one on the 1DxMkIII that it’s based on, the R6’s sensor is designed to take advantage of ISO. This means that it’s better to underexpose by dropping the ISO rather than upping the shutter speed, since the resulting image is biased towards a better ISO tolerance. There’s no point having a clever camera around if you’re not going to listen to it.
Street & Portrait
Next, I was quite keen to see how the R6 performed as a street shooter, since this is an environment that gives a good approximation of what it’s like to shoot documentary and photojournalistic pictures. Street photography is also a hobby. For this, my usual weapon of choice has been my old 600D with the EF-S 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens, a combo which is surprisingly compact for a DSLR. A year or two ago I tried out the mirrorless APS-C M6MkII, which was sweet, even though Canon Metropolitan didn’t have the EF-M 22mm f/2 pancake lens in stock at the time. Canon’s not fielded an RF mount pancake lens yet; but since it has one for each of its other systems, rumour has it that one is coming. Just not today. The RF 35mm f/1.8 would have to do dual service for me as a street and portrait lens.
Colombo’s major market district, the Pettah, is one of my favourite areas for street photography. In addition to the street markets and general hubbub associated with them, there are interesting churches, mosques, and colonial era buildings that make great backdrops for some interesting and characterful people. I like to get there early, ideally at dawn, when the famous century-old Manning Market is at its busiest; but that place closed down in 2020; operations being moved to a modern (and utterly boring) complex just outside the city. So instead I got to Pettah around 6.30am, walked up the still shuttered Front Street and took a right onto Prince Street. This is an enjoyable morning route, as the western end of this narrow street (and the parallel Keyzer Street) are lined with stores selling electrical appliances, stationary, clothes, and mobile phones, all still shut at this early hour, while the far eastern end was a wholesale dry goods market already well into its business day. You sort of ease into the noisy chaos by degrees as you walk along, pausing for cups of tea, beef samosas, and an occasional smoke, along the way.
The R6 predictably had no issues in the alternate light and shadow of the streets, and I had no reason to get into the ‘INFO’ screen at all. With shutter speed on the main dial, ISO on the thumb-operated quick control dial at the back of the top plate, and aperture on the lens control ring, I could just adjust exposure on the go. I almost always stick to primes when shooting on the street and, usually, I just plant the ISO at 400 and leave it there, with the aperture at f/2.8, and do all exposure adjustments with shutter speed, changing ISO and aperture only in the most extreme of bright and dark situations. But with the R6 I found myself fine-tuning the exposure more often, just because I damn well could without it interrupting my shoot, trusting what I was instantly seeing through the EVF rather than relying on the metering itself.
In the bright conditions of the street, I didn’t bother with eye tracking at all, and stuck to single point AF, as I always have. In fairness, my portrait subjects were fairly cooperative, standing or sitting still for me, and only a blind man would have needed eye tracking. But then I ducked into the warren of narrow alleys that run off from the main streets like a network of cracks, and down those there isn’t a great deal of light even at midday. If you weren’t standing in front of a stall or kiosk, it was pretty dim. So I decided I’d try taking some low light portraits. It was really too dark to see if the eyes were in focus (the R6 has focus peaking, but who has time for that?), so I switched to eye tracking, and it worked superbly, fixing on eyes I couldn’t see with my own, and giving me perfectly focused AF (as fuck) shots every time.
At this juncture I’d like to point out something I feel the R6 is missing. Illuminated buttons. As a photographer who is often adjusting settings in the dark, I’d like to see this feature from the 1DxMkIII and R3 brought in.
People in Action
I now wanted to see how the R6 performed in tracking and capturing action, particularly in low light or rapidly changing light conditions. The Ballet School of Colombo has a superb dance studio in the Musaeus College premises, a few floors up, and with a wall entirely of glass. It was perfect for some classic shots of dancers. My plan was to shoot the rapidly moving young women and girls almost in silhouette against the backlight from the glass wall, letting the late afternoon sunlight of a drizzly day blow itself white and give me some stark monochrome snapshots of graceful shapes caught mid-action.
I set ISO to 200, so that I could speed up the shutter when necessary, and then dived into the R6’s autofocus options. Canon’s autofocus has taken a big leap forward since the 5DMkIV, and even in the four years since the launch of the R. The R6 arrived with eight autofocus options, and eye tracking that could identify both humans and animals. This year, a firmware update added a vehicle tracking ability, as well.** I immediately picked eye tracking and ‘humans’ as the option, and began to shoot, but since I was crouched on the floor in front of the ballet dancers, the girls in the front rank often had their heads moving out of frame, and the camera had a tendency to try to follow their eyes to the edge of the frame (since they were the closest figures) instead of jumping to the second rank of girls. Once I switched to ‘animals’ as the subject to detect, it worked much better, and the R6 followed the movement of the dancers almost flawlessly. It only got a bit confused when figures moved across each other in very close proximity; not always differentiating between the closer dancer and the further one in the high-contrast backlit setting.
Shooting at 12fps, the R6 was smooth as silk, with both mechanical and electronic shutters; with no noticeable flicker in the viewfinder that you see on a DSLR. And it was quiet and vibration free. If shooting a 5DMkIV or 1DxMkIII on ‘high-speed continuous’ is like firing a Browning .50 heavy machine-gun, shooting the R6 on full chat is like firing a Heckler & Koch MP5SD silenced submachine-gun made entirely out of Katrina Kaif’s boobs.
My final assignment for the R6 was a food shoot at Café Kumbuk, in Cinnamon Gardens, and for this I’d be pairing the R6 once more with the RF 35mm f/1.8 instead of the more traditional 50mm I like to use for food photography. I normally prefer a focal length of at least 50mm because it allows me to get in close without having my own shadow or reflection getting in the way of the shot, but the RF 35mm f/1.8’s macro capability, 1:2 magnification, wider field of view, and fast aperture promised to make it a very versatile lens for my style of shooting food. The R6 performed admirably in this role too, and I was able to shoot a couple of dishes just how I like it, up close, with a narrow depth of focus. Tasty.
Back on the laptop, the R6’s RAW files looked great, when I opened them in Camera Raw, though I still had the same problems I’ve had in the past with CR3 files, where older versions of Photoshop aren’t able to display icons as thumbnails. It’s also not possible to set older versions of Photoshop as the default method of opening CR3 files. This isn’t a massively huge issue, but if you do use PS (and its Camera Raw plugin) for processing, make sure you’ve got an up to date version of PS for a smoother experience.
The R6’s 20.1MP produce RAW files of approximately 20mb, which is a very manageable size in comparison to the roughly 45mb files from the R. Both the R5 and R6 give photographers the option of shooting compressed CRAW files to minimise data space, but that hardly seems necessary with the R6, unless you plan to instantly share RAW files from the camera to another device via Bluetooth.
Which brings me to one of the dilemmas facing anyone trying to decide whether to buy the R6 or its more expensive sibling, the R5; the choice between two fairly disparate sensor resolutions. The R6’s sensor, an improved version of the 1DxMkIII’s, is well reputed, fast and amazingly good, particularly in low light; but that great performance comes at the cost of resolution which, while well below the R5’s hefty all-new 45MP, is also lower than the R’s 30.3MP (comparable to the the 5DMkIV’s 30.4MP), and even the 6DMkII’s 26.2MP. That yawning gap maybe something for Canon to consider filling when the R6MkII appears. With the R3’s 24MP sensor tackling the needs of the sports and wildlife photographer (albeit at an eye-watering jump in price), and the R7 doing the same in APS-C, the need for a full frame camera with a high-20s MP sensor seems obvious.
Right now, on paper, the R6 remains the R5’s budget option, being edged out very slightly in almost every category of still photography, just as the 5D series edged out the 6D. But on the other hand, if high definition video and stills are not part of your everyday workflow, it seems difficult to justify the price difference between the two (at the time of writing, approximately Rs600,000 plus Rs150-300k more for a Class-B CFExpress card) . In the real world, it’s the price of a high end lens, or even a second camera. The R6 may not be the all-rounder the R5 is, but for a photojournalist or documentary photographer for whom speed, any-light performance, and minimal storage space is more important than high-definition commercial and studio photography, the R6 is clearly the camera to have. For the occasional large print (think billboard size), the recent advances in AI software, such as Topaz Lab’s Gigapixel and the Super Resolution feature in Adobe’s Camera Raw plugin for Photoshop, make it fairly straightforward to scale up an image taken with a 20MP sensor to the equivalent of that from a 40MP one.
I’ve tried out the R6 for five days now, with a selection of lenses, and couldn’t fault it (except for the small niggle of the sensor resolution). I shot it in almost every type of genre common to me as a professional travel and documentary photographer, and I really really like it. If there had been any lingering doubts about mirrorless cameras, the R6 wiped them away. DSLR shooters, regardless of their opinion on mirrorless technology, have by now come to accept that mirrorless is the future, even if that future had been decided for us when our major camera manufacturers all announced the discontinuation of their DSLR lineups. But if anyone still doubted that mirrorless was actually in fact better than a DSLR on performance, the arrival of the R5 and R6 — along with a rapidly expanding range of RF mount lenses — has well and truly put paid to that. The R6 may be the R5’s budget sibling, but it’s still a big step forward on any DSLR you can find, including flagship models like the 1DxMkIII. If you mostly shoot stills, with a bit of video thrown in, and currently own a top end DSLR like the 1DxMkIII or 5DMkIV, the R6 is better, in my opinion, than what you have right now.
It’s so good I just bought one.
*Camera and lenses for this review were provided by Canon Metropolitan, Sri Lanka.
**The R6 I received from Canon Metropolitan hadn’t been updated to the latest firmware version. If you buy an R6 from them you should get them to install it. You can also download it from the Canon Asia site yourself for free.
Cover photo was shot by Praveen Samarakone of Canon Metropolitan, on a Canon EOS R5 & RF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
2 thoughts on “Why Can’t I Just be Happy with My DSLR?”
Fucking outstanding images.