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Canon EOS R5 - initial review for bird and wildlife photography (November 2020)


Canon EOS R5 with the Canon EF 500L IS f4 II lens & x2 TC III

Contents

Introduction
Having spent a couple of years digiscoping (starting with a 3 Mp Nikon 995), my first DSLR was a 7 Mp Canon EOS 350D, purchased in 2006. There then following a series of upgrades and, by December 2014, I had a 20 Mp Canon EOS 7D mk II.  These upgrades were each essentially incremental with relatively small improvements each time. The cumulative effect was however pretty significant and the 7D mk II kept me happy for several years during which time I racked up a shutter count of over 250,000 - a figure that is approaching the expected lifetime of the shutter.

From sometime in 2019 I began to consider options for a better camera as it was clear the technology had moved on considerably since 2014. There wasn't an obvious replacement in the APC (1.6 crop) range of Canon cameras. I didn't want to move to a full frame camera with a similar number of pixels, as I feared I would miss the  extra "reach" provided by the APC crop sensor. I even toyed with the idea of switching manufacturer to Sony (who appeared to be the market leader) or the Olympus micro 4/3 sensor cameras. But with a substantial investment already in Canon lenses I wasn't going to make such a major change in a hurry.

In early 2020 I became aware of the rumours emerging of a new Canon "game-changing" full frame mirrorless model. The early specs were sketchy but the suggestion of a full frame sensor with a large number of pixels (or sensor elements) attracted my attention, as this would in theory provide a comparable reach to the APC sensor in the 7DII. As other details of the spec emerged I got very interested indeed and placed a pre-order with Wex Photographic on the evening of the day after its launch (June 10th). Little was I to know that this slight (less than 24hr) delay meant I would be waiting several weeks longer for it to be delivered!

The first batch of R5's were due for delivery in late July but it was soon apparent Wex hadn't received a large enough batch to satisfy my order. And so it proved for the next batch in August. Finally after about 6 weeks of waiting, I got the news from Wex I had been waiting for and a few days later my R5 arrived! Fortunately I had ordered an ex-stock RF to AF mount adaptor from Clifton Cameras at the same time as my R5 pre-order as these were also in very short supply. Even now (mid November 2020) both the R5 and the mount adaptor are not yet in stock anywhere in the UK, as far as I am aware.

Initial impressions
Straight out of the box, the camera was ticking many of my boxes. It was lighter and smaller than the 7DII despite containing a full frame sensor (as the mirrorless design does away with the need for the cumbersome mirror mechanism needed in DSLRs). The design was also very pleasing with nice rounded/beveled edges to the body. The controls were familiar to someone long used to Canon cameras and the addition of extra control wheels allows all the key settings to be adjusted very quickly (e.g. for Av shooting - aperture, ISO and exposure compensation).

I have now been using this camera for about two months and have found it lives up to all the hype surrounding its launch. It really does seem to be the "game changer" I was hoping for. The step up from the 7DII is not incremental at all, more like a quantum leap! 

Here is a list of the main advantages of this camera as I see them for bird and wildlife photography, as well as a few disadvantages:

Advantages
Autofocus - especially the animal eye detection feature
Of all the benefits of the R5, the animal eye detection auto focus must be the most important. Its aim is to track a bird's (or animal's) eye all over the field of view. This is possible because the R5 has a huge number of AF areas all over the sensor, unlike the 7DII which has a relatively limited number concentrated towards the centre. When the animal eye detection is working well and locked-on it is amazing and allows me to forget about the focus area and concentrate on other things like composition.

My experience to date is that this feature is indeed remarkably effective on perched birds and slowly moving subjects when it can find and lock-on to eyes even at a substantial distance.  However rapidly and erratically moving targets are clearly more challenging, especially flying birds. For these the AF often fails to find the eye but will often correctly locate the head.  But it is not perfect and can sometimes lock-on to the wrong part of the bird (e.g. rear end or wing tips). There is also a slight lag to it, so that the active AF area may fail to keep up with a poorly tracked bird that is moving rapidly across the field of view. There are however some sensitivity and acceleration parameters that I need to tweak to see if this can be improved. Others are recommending using -1 values for these parameters but I'm not sure this is the best for flight shots. Time will tell.

The other key point about the AF is that it is not limited to f5.6 apertures or f8 (central focus point only) as my 7DII is, and as I believe most (all?) Canon DSLRs are. Hence I can use my 500f4 with my x2 extender (f8) and still get tracking across the whole field of view. This should also apply to the f11 combination of the f5.6 100-400 zoom lens with a x2 extender added, although I haven't tried it yet.

Given that the animal eye detection AF is good but not infallible there is a need to be able to quickly switch to the more traditional spot/area based AF. Fortunately this can be achieved using double back button focusing, with one button for animal eye and another for spot/area AF. See below for how I've set this up on my R5.

Autofocus - accuracy
I believe the animal eye detection AF uses phase sensitive technology which is more accurate than the contrast sensitive AF in my 7DII. This is giving tangible benefits in focusing accuracy and consistency. Looking carefully at each image of a stationary bird in a burst of shots I can still see some small variations in focus at 1:1 magnification.  But these are generally considerably less than with the 7DII, even when using the x2 extender. Also there is minimal or no "hunting" with the x2 extender  - a problem I often have with the 7DII.

45Mp Sensor
In my view the 45Mp full frame sensor is another major benefit. It allows huge amounts of cropping of the full resolution images which are 8218 x 5482 pixels in size! If this is cropped by 1.6 to the size of an APC sized sensor, the image still has 5136 x 3426 pixels - only slightly less my 20Mp 7DII. So as I remarked earlier, the "reach" of the R5 for distant subjects is very similar to that of my 7DII with its APC sensor. 

Of course smaller pixels are usually associated with higher image noise levels, but my own measurements of image noise level  suggest the noise on the R5 is about one stop better than on the 7DII, when using Adobe Camera Raw for raw conversion. It will be very interesting to see what DXoMark find when they eventually get around to testing the R5.

On my 7DII, I was generally OK with the results up to ISO 3200, after my post-processing, so in theory this should mean I can go up to ISO 6400 with the R5 and get similar quality

Seamless use with AF lenses
Canon's mirrorless cameras all use a new lens mounting standard - RF instead of the AF used by their DSLRs. Fortunately, Canon also provide an effective mount adaptor that allows usage of AF lenses on the R5. In my experience this works very well. It has no optical components so there is no degradation in image quality and the AF and other controls etc all seem to work fine. Just as well given my considerable investment in AF lenses!

Frame rate and buffer size
With the mechanical shutter the R5 can achieve 12 frames/sec compared with the 10 frames/sec on my 7DII. The electronic shutter gives a remarkable 20 frames/sec but I haven't tried that yet as I'm a  bit worried about rolling shutter effects. These high frame rates are combined with a remarkably large buffer. Canon quote the buffer size as allowing up to about 180 full resolution raw images when used with a CF Express memory card. I only find about half that with my 128Gb CF Express memory card.  This must be due to the speed of my card being less than that of the larger capacity CFx cards which are very expensive. In any case I have to date never hit the limit with a buffer size of 80-90 raws (i.e. 7-8 secs worth of shooting @12 frames/sec). This is a much more common problem with the 7DII which has a buffer size of only about 30 raws (at most 3 secs worth). If it becomes a problem, say with the electronic shutter, I will need to consider whether the financial outlay needed for a 256Gb CFx card is justified.

Electronic view finder (EVF)
The electronic view finder takes a little getting used to but on the high refresh rate setting it is very smooth and works well on moving subjects such as birds in flight. Its key benefit is that it shows you what you are going to get. So there is no need to guess what the best exposure compensation will be. There is even a real-time histogram in the top right corner of the EVF to help you (provided you have enabled the right option!).

The other important benefit of the EVF is that you still get a bright image even in low light conditions with a slow lens (e.g. with a x2 extender on an f4 lens).

The slight downside is that usually the EVF has switched itself off when I first come to look through it, so that it is showing nothing but black! This is a bit disconcerting to someone used to a DLSR viewfinder which is of course always on. However if I remember to half press the shutter button as I raise the camera to my eye, the EVF will have fired up by the time I am looking through it.

In-body Image Stabilisation (IBIS)
This is the first Canon camera to feature IBIS. Under the right conditions with the shorter focal length RF mount lenses, an incredible 8 stops of stabilisation is claimed with the IBIS working in combination with the lens' own stabilisation (IS). For lenses with their own IS, the IBIS works seemlessly with the lens' IS, and the user isn't aware of exactly what is happening. I am sure that the combined IS with long focal length lenses is a lot less than 8 stops but to date I can't really comment on the effectiveness of the IBIS. I suspect its main benefit could be on lenses which lack their own IS, such as the 180mm macro that I own but seldom use these days.

Shutter sound
The R5's mechanical shutter is much quieter than the machine gun like clicking of DSLRs! The electronic shutter is completely silent.

No micro AF adjustments
With a mirrorless camera the AF sensors are in the same plane as the image sensor and so there are none of the micro AF adjustments that are needed with a DSLR. So no requirement to go through elaborate and time consuming calibration routines, which may change over time, for every lens and extender combination you own!

Size and weight
Compared with Canon DSLR's, the R5 is appreciably more compact and lighter. The R5 weighs just 740g, compared with 910g for the 7D II and a hefty 1440g for the full frame 1DX III (battery included in all cases).

The lightness of the R5 compared with the 7DII is a more noticeable benefit with a lighter lens such as the 100-400 II zoom and less so with the heavier 500mm f4 II prime.

Disadvantages
To date there are very few disadvantages I have found, but if I am being picky, I could mention these:

Freezing
Having had my R5 for about six months, it has now (February 2021) developed an annoying habit of occasionally freezing in action. When this happens it just locks up completely, with a frozen image on the EVF and back screen, and power off doesn't clear it. However removal of the battery for a few second does clear it, and then all is fine (until the next time!). The last time this happened, I was not shooting, just tracking a bird with animal eye detection AF. Some Googling quickly revealed that this, or something very similar has happened to others with R5's. At present I am unsure what to do about it, as it isn't clear what the remedy is. Maybe this is a software issue and a firmware update will cure it.

Price
Clearly this is an expensive camera being about three times more than I paid for the 7DII back in 2014. However the R5 is considerably cheaper than the 1DX Mk III and is a better buy in my opinion. Much of the relatively high price of the R5 must be caused by all the video features, which include its ability to record at an amazing 8k resolution. But at present this is wasted on me - I prefer to stick to stills.

Memory cards
Clearly a 45Mp sensor with a frame rate up to 20/sec generates a huge volume of data very rapidly and fast, high capacity memory cards are needed to store it all. The R5 is one of the first cameras to use the new CF express cards that are indeed very fast but also very expensive! Also their speed appears to depends on their capacity and my relatively modest 128GB card seems substantially slower than the 256 GB and higher capacity cards. This means the buffer size I get is about a factor two less than Canon's quoted figure but for the time being I can live with being able to acquire up to 80-90 raws before the buffer is filled! The R5 also has a slot for SD cards and is compatible with the latest UHS-II cards as well as all the older standards SD, SDHC and SDXC UHS-I. Even the UHS-II SD cards are slower than the fastest CFx cards but are more economical! Of course it is perfectly possible to use the the SD card slot as a backup for when the CFx card becomes full. In this case, even use of a standard very inexpensive SD card with high capacity would serve this purpose well.

File size
A 45Mp sensor generates large files. A typical raw file from the R5 is about 60Mb and when this is converted into a 16-bit tiff, the files size is a staggering 260 Mb or more! Fortunately modern hard disk capacities and speeds mean these this is not a major problem. Also I have no need to retain the 16-bit tiff after finishing the processing. After reducing to 8-bits it is then about the same size as a raw file, i.e. much more reasonable.

I haven't tried the Canon CRAW (compressed raw) format yet as this involves a lossy compression which apparently reduces the file size by about a factor 2. I reckon if I can cope with the full raw files, why bother with the possible loss of quality that CRAW involves?

Battery Life
I am not sure whether to classify this as an advantage or a disadvantage! It is widely known that mirrorless cameras are more power hungry than DSLRs. For the R5, the EVF, particularly on its smooth setting, is said to be particularly battery draining. However I have my R5 set on the maximum power saving settings, so that the EVF and the rear screen automatically shutdown very soon after each usage. During wait times to the next shots very little power is then consumed. Canon quote the battery life at only 200-300 shots, but I am happy to report, in common with many others, that this seems a very pessimistic estimate. For example, in a prolonged all day session in a hide photographing Kestrels, that appeared every hour or two through the day, I took over 1300 shots. It was only towards the end of the day that I needed to change to my second battery.

The special, slightly higher capacity battery that comes with the R5 (LP-E6NH) is very expensive and additional ones are currently unobtainable. Fortunately the R5 is also compatible with the older batteries that my 7DII uses (LP6-E6N). So to get a new spare I purchased another new Canon LP6-E6N, which are pretty pricey for a battery.

Note that the full 12 frames/sec with the mechanical shutter is only obtainable using the R5 battery (LP-E6NH) or the older LP-E6N 7DII battery. Generic third party batteries are mostly the even older LP-E6 type which don't give this highest frame rate.


The R5 on the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II

Settings and buttons
There are plenty of YouTube videos that cover the best settings for the R5 for bird and animal photography. The two best I found were from Jan Wegener and  Whistling Wings Photography.

As these videos cover the R5 settings in great detail, I'm not going to repeat those I use here because I largely followed their recommendations (which reassuringly generally agreed well with one another).

One of the  many advantages of the R5 is that it allows a lot of flexibility on how the various dials and buttons can be configured. After a bit of trial and error, I'm now using a combination which I find works well for me, and isn't exactly the same as the suggestions on either of the above videos. So I thought it might be of interest to give the button configuration I use here.

Button Assignment Reason
Shutter Metering start (only) This stops the shutter button activating the AF - as I am using the back buttons for this.
AF-ON Metering and AF start Pressing this button then activates the selected conventional AF mode (i.e. spot or area).
AE Lock button Eye Detection AF Pressing this button activates the animal eye detection AF.
AF point button Eye Detection AF Pressing this button also activates the animal eye detection AF. I found it best having this key option on both these buttons as they are close together and it is difficult to be sure which I am touching at any one time!
Multi-controllers Direct AF point selection This allows the "joystick" to be used to move the AF area around the screen.
Multi-function button Dial function settings Probably the default. I don't use this button much.
Set button Set AF point to centre Does what is says!
Mode button Mode Default. Changes the shooting mode e.g. Av, M, Tv....
DOF preview button Direct AF method selection Change AF area type - cycles through the enabled AF methods such as spot, area. The most effective way I have found of doing this.

Workflow
Handling the files from the R5 has required considerable changes to the workflow I used for those from the 7DII. This is because the software that can read the CR3 format raw files from the R5 is limited.

This is an outline of the main stages I go through for files from the R5:

1. FastStone Image Viewer - for short listing files
This is a free download and a brilliant replacement to the Canon ZoomBrowser software that I used for many years for sorting through 7DII files to find the interesting ones worthy of closer attention. FastStone excels at this task as it is possible to quickly scroll through all the images in one folder (right arrow) and one key press Q is sufficient to tag any worthy of short listing. To help, clicking on the image blows it up to 1:1 and another click takes the magnification back down again.

After running through all the files from a session, I can then view just the tagged images and then drag them into a new "Short list" folder. Given the number of files generated by the R5, a fast an easy to use tool like this is really important. And its free!

I then use FastStone to create jpegs from all the raw files in my short list folder. It is amazingly quick at generating these jpegs compared with DPP4 below!

2. Photoshop - for viewing the short listed files to make my selection
I use Photoshop to critically study the jpegs in my short list folder at 1:1 magnification to make a final selection of the generally small number of images I want to process fully, as described below.

3. Digital Photo Professional 4 - for raw conversion of selected files
Which raw converter to use is a serious decision for all keen photographers. Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop now support the CR3 files from the R5, as does Canon's own Digital Photo Professional 4 (DPP4) - a free download if you have the camera.

My measurements of the R5 image noise level suggested that Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), as in Lightroom and Photoshop, gave slightly lower noise levels than the present version of DPP4. Hence I started by using ACR as my raw converter of choice for the R5.

However very recently I watched another of the impressive Jan Wegener videos in which he says he is unhappy with the colours obtained using ACR. As a result he has now switched to DPP4 which, in his view, gives much better and brighter colours. I hadn't noticed this until I watched the video but almost simultaneously I was processing a photo of a Crossbill with bright blue sky behind, and didn't like what I was getting with ACR. On the default colour settings it seemed to be giving a nasty greenish tinge to the photo, whereas DPP4 gave a much better blue for the sky and red/orange for the bird.

So it looks like I will also be using DPP4 from now on as my raw converter of choice for the R5.  I always save my files as 16-bit tiffs to avoid any lossy compression and reduction in dynamic range (with the mechanical shutter, the R5 has 14-bit dynamic image).

Because I use NeatImage for noise reduction immediately after the raw converter (see below), I avoid making any changes to the image in DPP4 that might affect the performance of the noise reduction. So the options I use in DPP4 are limited to exposure, white balance and optical corrections. I avoid any changes to highlights, shadows, noise reduction or sharpening, leaving these to later in Photoshop.

4. NeatImage - for noise reduction
I have been a big fan of NeatImage for noise reduction for many years and see no reason to change for the R5, as I often find myself using quite high ISO settings given typical English weather conditions! To apply NeatImage optimally, I have first generated a set of noise profiles. A print-out of the NeatImage calibration target is needed for this, which must then be used to create images taken with different ISO settings and exposure times. Note it is important to use the same raw converter for these calibration images as the photos being processed. So the move from ACR to DPP4 has just caused me to generate a completely new set of noise profiles! Fortunately I still had the original raws to go back to.

Note that I seem to be able to use Neatimage more effectively to compensate for any slight increase in image noise level in DPP4 compared with ACR, than use of the noise reduction parameters in DPP4. This re-affirms my admiration for NeatImage! See here for more details.

5. Photoshop - for image editing, cropping etc
For many years I had used various versions of Photoshop Elements, but more recently I decided to switch to the latest (now 2021) subscription version of Photoshop and Lightroom (which I don't use). The full Photoshop has many advantages over Elements and I think it is well worth the cost of the subscription to have access to this wealth of options. However from this Jan Weneger video it is clear I still have a huge amount to learn!

6. Sharpening
The final stage of my processing almost invariably uses a sharpening method that is based on the combination of an image sharpened in Photoshop using the Smart Sharpen option and the same image without sharpening. For this combination I use my own software to combine the sharpened and unsharpened images. I find this stage useful to give the final image that extra level of detail without introducing any appreciable noise.

Examples
It is early days yet, as currently I've only had two months to play with this new "toy". Already however I am delighted with it. As I said earlier this camera is no mere incremental change from the 7DII.  It is more a huge quantum leap up! The 45Mp sensor and the game changing animal eye detection auto focus are really impressive, as are all the other advantages listed above. Its ergonomics and general ease of handling and operation are also notably good.

The R5 has performed well virtually every time I've used it so far, and has been particularly impressive when stretching the "reach" to its limits when my targets have been a fair way off.

The animal eye detection AF is well illustrated by this photo of two Kestrels. This was taken with the 500mm f4 II lens with a x1.4TC (mark III) at a pay hide, so distance wasn't the issue but this pose was only held for a fraction a second after I got onto the birds. The animal eye AF went straight to the immature's eye and I got two frames before the pose changed. Of these this is second which is slightly sharper than the first.


Two Kestrels posed together for a fraction of a second. ISO 1600, f5.6, 1/1000 sec (click photo to enlarge)

My second example is from a local site without a hide. For this photo I was using the 500f4 II with the x2 TC (mark III) and this Kingfisher was a considerable distance off. As the light wasn't brilliant I was using ISO 4000 and the aperture wide open at f8.  Viewing the image at 1:1 magnification the image sharpness is very good even with the use of the x2 extender. Given the crop used, combined with the 1000 mm focal length lens and extender combination, the effective focal length of this photo is over 3000mm! It is also worth mentioning that the colours on this photo look considerably better on this DPP4 converted image than on the ACR processed one I originally generated.


Distant Kingfisher ISO 4000, f8, 1/1600 sec (click photo to enlarge)

My final example is from a few days ago at another local site where there was a small flock of Crossbills feeding in the top of a tall conifer. I was well back from the tree, so the distance to the bird must have been tens of metres. Again I was using the 500f4 II with the x2 TC (mark III) but this time it was mounted on a tripod. The full frame shot straight out of the camera below shows how small the bird is in the field of view.

The result after processing using my workflow detailed above is given below. This is close to a 1:1 crop and again shows impressive levels of detail considering the distance to the bird and the use of the x2 extender. Again the colours on this photo look considerably better on this DPP4 converted image than when using ACR.


Even more distant Crossbill. ISO 1600, f10, 1/2000 sec

The example below of a flying Red Kite was obtained using the 100-400 II zoom lens. These rapidly moving and changing targets presented much more of a challenge for the animal eye detection AF and in this early session with the R5 it generally failed to find the eye. I think the overall shape of a flying bird is much more variable than one perched and this is sufficient to confuse the AF. It generally tracked the bird as a whole well but sometimes locked onto the wrong part such as the wing tips or tail. It is possible with tweaks to the AF settings it would be more effective in these circumstances.

But some shots were pretty sharp as this crop illustrates below.


Cropped Red Kite photo. ISO 800, f5.6, 1/2000 sec (click photo to enlarge)

 

Signal-to-noise (SNR) plots from DXOMARK
After some delay, the excellent DXOMARK website is now showing a review of the R5's sensor and quantitative measurements of its performance. For what it is worth, DXOMARK give the R5's sensor an overall rating of 95, which the highest of all Canon's current (Jan 2021) models, including the EOS 1DX III (score = 91). This rating of 95 is however someway short of the highest given which is 102 for a Hasselblad X1D-50c medium format camera. It is hardly surprising that a medium format sensor has a higher performance, but it is also less than the rating of 100 given to the Nikon D850 and the Sony A7R III. But it is not clear to me where this overall score comes from, and Canon sensors tend never to be rated highly by DXOMARK!

Of more interest to me are their signal-to-noise ratio measurements, which are derived from the raw sensor data, before demosaicing, and hence are not subject to the vagaries of the raw converter.

The plot below shows the DXOMARK measurements of SNR 18% as a function of ISO setting for my three most recent Canon cameras - the R5, 7D mk II and the 7D.

The DXOMARK results given above show that the R5 has more than 1 stop better SNR than the 7D Mk II, and almost two stops better SNR than the 7D. These findings are broadly in-line with my own measurements of image noise level, although I have found the raw converter used can also have a significant effect. This is the confirmation I was hoping for that the R5 should significantly out perform the 7D Mk II, allowing me to use higher ISO values (e.g. ISO 6400 instead of ISO 3200) without too much degradation from noise (after noise reduction using Neatimage, that is - see my workflow above).

Also of interest is the next plot below that shows the R5's SNR compared with two other notable full frame Canon DSLRs - the top of the range 1DX Mk III and the 5DS, which has a similar number of pixels to the R5.

The above plot shows that, apart from ISO settings below about 200 (which are of little relevance to me as I never use them!), the R5 gives very similar SNR values to the 1DX Mk III and the 5DS. This is despite the larger sensor element (pixel) size of the 1DX Mk III. This shows the R5 is performing very similarly to the latest Canon DSLRs in terms of SNR.

Until the release of the R5, I think it was widely accepted that Sony was the market leader for full frame mirrorless cameras, and many keen bird photographers had switched, at considerable expense, from Canon (and Nikon?) to Sony. Hence I thought it would be very interesting to see how the R5 compared to the leading Sony models, according to DXOMARK's SNR measurements.

The plot above shows the SNR for the R5 compared with two leading Sony full frame mirrorless cameras - the A7R III which has a similar number of sensor elements to the R5 and the A9 II which has fewer (larger) sensor elements - similar to the Canon 1DX III. Somewhat to my surprise these measurements show the R5 is very close to both these Sony cameras, apart from the small fall off below ISO 200. This is despite the smaller sensor elements in the R5 compared with the A9 II. Hence it does seem that in this respect at least, Canon has indeed caught up with Sony in the mirrorless market. This is reassuring and seems to vindicate my decision to stick with Canon!

 

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