Photographer. Recovering writer of software.

First impressions of the Canon RF system

Trialling the Canon RF system over 48 hours leads to some predictable conclusions — it's incredible, but not as much of a joy to use as a Leica M.

First impressions of the Canon RF system
Canon R6 & RF 50mm @ 1.2. Edited with Lightroom CC on iPad

Once I had made the decision to concentrate on "Adventure Photography" for lack of a better term, it was clear the Leica M10 wasn't the camera for me. It was going to be a heart-wrenching sale because the M10 was/is my dream camera but I needed to fund a more suitable system.

Canon was the obvious option as I've never really got on with the Sonys that I've tried, so I organised a 48 hour test drive with an R5, a 50mm 1.2 and the venerable 70-200mm 2.8.

Unfortunately, fate forced my hand when the M10 got flung out of my bag onto a concrete floor — yes, I flinched like you just did — writing off the Voigtlander 50mm APO attached and providing an inflection point to change kit. I ended up using the insurance payout to buy an R6, a nifty-fifty and a spare battery, which allowed me to get straight back to shooting.

Using my R6 and the borrowed R5 and lenses across four distinct shoots with family shots sprinkled in, I felt I got a good sense of the system.

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TL;DR — The Canon RF system is very good and more than meets my requirements for commercial work, but sometimes I miss the predictability and joy of the Leica M system.

I will spare you photos of the kit, I'm sure we all know what these cameras and lenses look like by now. Instead I'll share a selection of photos I took over my 48 hours with the equipment.

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Caveat — Note how many times the words "I", and "me" appear in the post. This isn't narcism, but me trying to emphasise that this has been my experience with the RF system. There are plenty of objective reviews and analysis of this equipment, but this post is instead very subjective. Your mileage may vary.
Canon R6 & RF 50mm @ f1.2. Edited with Capture One 22

Autofocus

AF was one of two reasons I felt the M10 wasn't suited for the photography I was trying to do. No doubt the M10 can be accurately focussed on fast moving subjects at wide apertures, and I even managed it occasion; but when getting paid relies on getting the shot, a good AF system is a sensible safety net.

In this regard the Canon RF system performs brilliantly. The AUTO AF — where the camera decides what to focus on with no input from the photographer — is exceptional and almost telepathic, only occasionally being dim-witted. My penchant for dirty foregrounds often threw it, but could still overcome large, distracting subjects in the foreground to pick up the small, distant, fast and erratically moving face that I actually wanted to focus on.

Whilst not a good picture, the autofocus system picked out Will running even with a prominent foreground and a moving background.

Using a focus point to indicate the desired subject to starting tracking provides a much more predicatable experience. Placing the AF point over the face, half-holding the shutter to initiate the tracking and then recomposing felt very reminiscent of focusing the M — just without the need to take the shot before the subject moves out of the preset focal plane.

I still found that sometimes the camera would decide to start tracking something else whilst I was recomposing, despite giving a very clear indication of what I wanted to track. I suspect I'll need to start adjusting the "stickiness" of the AF to suit my use.

Canon R5 & RF 70-200mm @ 70mm / f4. Edited with Capture One 22

I found this focus-and-recompose method preferable to moving the AF point with the joystick because the tracking is (mostly) excellent and the joystick on both the R5 and R6 felt a bit wooden. It felt like it didn't want to move diagonally as easily as it did vertically or horizontally, leaving it with a notchy feel. The joysticks on Fujis and Leicas are much more fluid by comparison. I didn't use the touch screen to select AF points as I had it folded away most of the time.

R3 vs. R5 vs. R6

The R3 seems to meet my needs perfectly — weather-sealing, frames-per-second, battery-life, eye AF to select focus points, optimum megapixels etc — but price and availability made it unrealistic until I was certain I liked the system.

Despite never owning a camera with IBIS before, I felt it was a non-negotiable feature which left the R5 and R6 to decide between. On paper, the R5 feels the better choice...if it didn't have that 45 megapixel sensor. I don't feel I need the resolution and don't want to make the low-light compromise that comes with increased pixel density.

Canon R5 & RF 50mm @ 1.2. Edited with Capture One 22

Predictably, I much preferred the handling of the R5. I received my R6 about a week before the R5 and was perfectly happy with the PASM dial instead of the top LCD...until I started using the R5.

Because I shoot with the screen facing inwards 95% of the time, I used the top LCD of the R5 all the time to adjust aperture and shutter speed in anticipation of taking the shot (much like I used to with the Leica M10 and my Fuji XT-3 before it) and switching between the R5 and R6 only highlighted it's absence. Before this test drive, I felt I could run an R5 and an R6 side-by-side but now feel it's got to be two of the same body.

The resolution of the R6 has been more than enough for the shots I've taken so far. Having the ability to crop heavily as you can with the R5 would be nice, but given the choice I'd rather "crop" optically with a longer focal length or using my feet as I've always done. I can certainly see situations where the extra resolution of the R5 would be helpful — but it's not enough to justify the expense for what I'm currently doing.

Longterm I still like the idea of running an R3 for all the reasons I originally stated, but I'll be putting my money in glass before buying another body.

Canon R5 & RF 70-200mm at 70mm / f2.8. Edited with Capture One 22.

Frames-per-second

I instantly found myself relying on bursts because there is a very slight shutter lag on both the R5 and R6. Using the mechanical shutter to avoid wobbly limbs (and get 14 bit RAWs rather than 12) the speed was too slow to guarantee that the frame I wanted was part of the burst.

This alone is a very compelling reason for that stacked sensor in the R3 as long as I can learn to fire short bursts, rather than just holding the shutter down and filling my card instantly! However, I think I might try to learn and anticipate the shutter lag, aiming for moment I want in a single frame rather than adopt a spray-and-pray approach, which always requires chimping to check you caught the frame you want.

I took more photos than ever before but most went in the bin. There were about the same number of keepers from 600 shots on the Canon as I would get out of maybe two rolls of film on my 100% manual Leica M2. Not sure whether that says more about the camera or the luddite using it!

Battery life

I never exhausted a battery during my time with the cameras, but my longest shoot was only just over an hour with ~600 shots with the display folded away 95% of the time; so I wasn't exactly pushing the limits.

Battery anxiety would be an issue on longer shoots, and I can see myself carrying a stack of spares when away from a charger for any length of time. Another benefit of the R3...

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Update: 21 July 2022 — I've found that my R6 has very poor battery life when left idle for extended periods of time. Over the course of a day I exhausted a battery only having taken 137 photos. I might need to adjust my settings or get used to turning the camera off between photos, but I was surprised that it used so much whilst at idle.

RAWs

I shot CRAW all weekend and enjoyed the smaller file sizes that meant that even my 2015-vintage iPad Pro could handle edits with ease.

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Update: 21 July 2022 — It occurred to me that using the compressed RAW would actually be harder on low power devices like an aging iPad as the file needs to be decompressed first! A quick test showed that my iPad was even faster at browsing through uncompressed RAWs but of course the import time suffered thanks to larger file sizes. 

None of my test shoots required huge dynamic range or stretching the colours in post, but so far the CR3 RAWs seem to hold up well in both Capture One and Lightroom.

Lightroom seemed to handle the colours better than Capture One, which was a surprise as CO has been my preference for the past few years, always being demonstrably better than Lightroom. Apparently not the case with the Canons. I'll need to continue editing my images in both applications across a wider range of conditions before I can definitively say I prefer one more than the other.

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Update: 21 July 2022 — Lightroom and Capture One are pretty close after more extensive tests. I don't feel that either handle the CR3 files particularly well, with images looking overly saturated and sharpened, and too contrasty. Overall I think that CO's ProStandard profile gives it the slight edge when working with trickier files that need more work. Surprisingly, I'm underwhelmed by the latitude of the Canon RAWs and their colour.

The CrossFit gym proved a challenge, but that's nothing new. Between very warm lights, chipboard walls and subjects with flushed skin I've always found it particularly difficult to edit photos taken here. Normally I lean on monochrome edits or using other subjects to break up the wall-of-orange that the chipboard creates.

Overall, I still prefer the DNGs that came from the Leica M10 and Leica SL — the colours feel natural straight out of camera, but with a slight enhancement that is hard to explain — cliche right?!!?!

Handling

Somehow both cameras were very familiar even though the last Canon I used was a 400D about 15 years ago. The controls look haphazard, but they fall under fingers well, and memorising them was surprisingly easy.

I love the M-Fn button next to the shutter, which when combined with the top LCD of the R5 was perfect for rapidly changing settings. I also used it in conjunction with the control ring on the RF lenses to adjust exposure compensation which was a novel experience but felt natural.

There's not much to say here, they are objectively worse looking than any Leica, but "design" isn't how something looks, it's how it works. From that perspective the grip is more comfortable (despite balancing much larger, heavier lenses), the buttons are easy to find and use and the focus very quickly becomes the picture you're taking rather than the camera you're using.

Lenses

Of the lenses I've tried — 50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.2 & 70-200mm 2.8 — I've found the lenses to be very good, but big and heavy. However, this is very much on par with similar fast, high quality, autofocus lenses from any system. The diameter is perhaps the only dimension they feel large in thanks to the very wide RF mount. This impression is to be expected when M glass is my reference point. A weekend with these two cameras and L-series lenses highlighted how important a good carry system is when multiple lenses and bodies are required.

I was more comfortable using a zoom than I expected but still prefer the single purpose feel of a prime. I like to shoot wide, and wide, fast primes are practically non-existant at the moment in the RF system. I'll cross my fingers for something like a fast 24mm or 28mm.

I still have some questions over which lenses I’ll buy beyond the nifty fifty. I think I’d jump on a fast 35mm or 28mm if they sold one, but I guess the 15-35mm 2.8 is my best bet until they do.

"Adventure photography" — particularly clean, commercial work — demands a telephoto and the test drive was a perfect opportunity to try out the 70-200mm. It's incredibly capable but I'm not used to and not necessarily a fan of the compression and extreme shallow depth of field a longer lens gives. The 50mm at 1.2 was very pleasing to my eye, but 200mm at 2.8 feels unnatural.

I'm loathe to spend the money on a lens I don't particularly like just because "I need it". The 100-500mm might suit my preferences better, where it clearly offers range to get shots I otherwise couldn't get — such as surf photos — but with base apertures that can still create a shallow-enough depth of field.

A three lens kit of 15-35mm 2.8, 50mm and 100-500mm being a good trinity that covers my needs. I can use my 50mm 1.8 for now, adding the 1.2 last. However, at  an eye-watering £8000 for these three lenses I need to be certain before commiting! That leads me to my last point...

Affinity

I think I can continue investing in the system safe in the knowledge it will be good for the work I'm trying to create, but I don’t think the RF system is one I’ll ever get excited about.

I consider the RF system very much to be "tools of the trade”. It exists for the results it produces rather than the joy of using it. I'm saddened by that — the contrast to my M2 and previous M10 is always fresh in my mind. Put another way, if I could reliably achieve the same results with a smaller, more intentional setup then that would be my preference, but I don't think I could deliver the kind of work that my ideal clients would pay for.

More images

Family photos. Unedited RAW files passed through Capture One 22.

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