Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
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.
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:
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
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
Frame rate and buffer size
Electronic view finder (EVF)
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)
No micro AF adjustments
Size and weight
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.
However after a few freezes back in February it seemed to have gone away but then re-appeared today (20 April) for the first time in a couple of months, again when tracking, not shooting. I am hoping it stays a very rare fault.
Initially I was staggered by the cost of the CFx cards from Sony, Sandisk and the likes and went for the cheaper option of a 128Gb PROGRADE CFx card. With this card, for which a sustained write speed of "only" 140 MB/sec is quoted, I found the buffer was getting filled after only about 60-80 raws.
This was fine for a few months, but I then started to hit the buffer limit increasingly often, so I decided to fork out on a Sony Tough CFx card, which is supposed to be THE one to go for. However, even with this card I find the buffer fills after typically about 100 raws, compared with the 180 figure claimed by Canon. Hopefully I won't start hitting this limit nearly as often as with the slower PROGRADE card!
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 (but the buffer size would be reduced).
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?
But on occasion, I find it very useful to leave the screen on continuously showing the live image for extended periods, e.g. when waiting for fast moving birds such as tits to land momentarily on a perch. In this mode, the battery drains away quite rapidly and the "green" fastest shooting mode can be lost after only about an hour or maybe slightly longer. Having some spares is then essential for a prolonged session.
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. Also the battery needs to have a good level of charge in it, to give the "green" H+ shooting symbol, which indicated the full 12 frames/sec. Somewhere just below 50% charge the green changes to black which indicates a slower frame rate of only about 8-9 frames/sec.
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.
This is an outline of the main stages I go through for files from the R5:
1. FastStone Image Viewer - for short listing files
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
3. Digital Photo Professional 4 - for raw conversion of
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Signal-to-noise (SNR) plots from
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!