Canon Has Been Laying the Groundwork for a Strong Mirrorless System Right Under Our Noses

Canon Has Been Laying the Groundwork for a Strong Mirrorless System Right Under Our Noses

Rewind back to 2013. Mirrorless cameras are in full swing, gobbling up the low and prosumer ends of the market, and amidst all the fuss, Canon puts out its prosumer offering, a seemingly tepid update to the 60D, the 70D.

Olympus launched its pro model that year, the OM-D E-M1, Panasonic released its smallest model, the Lumix GM1, and Sony announced the birth of their now-flourishing full-frame mirrorless system cameras with the a7. Canon’s only offering in that space was the EOS M, which had pretty slow autofocus and didn’t really win the hearts and minds of consumers.

On the surface, neither did the 70D, but hindsight being 20/20, we should have recognized it for what it was: Canon’s true first, and actually quite good, foray into mirrorless cameras, except that it had a mirror.

I’ll explain. Buried in the spec sheet of the 70D was a revolutionary autofocus system designed specifically for live view, and by extension, the electronic viewfinder of a mirrorless camera, such as the recently announced EOS R. To that point in 2013, most mirrorless systems used contrast-based autofocus systems to focus right off the sensor, or pixels scattered across the sensor for phase detection duties. That said, one of the biggest advantages to focusing on the sensor directly is accuracy. Mirrorless systems generally had more accurate focusing because there was no optical viewfinder to gum up the works.

Canon basically took the existing concepts of on-sensor focusing and put them on steroids; 80 percent of the EOS 70D’s sensor did duty for phase detection autofocus. It meant very fast, very accurate autofocus without the back-and-forth hunting commonly seen with contrast-based systems. The coverage was almost across the entire frame. The company accomplished this feat by splitting each pixel’s photodiode to do double duty for focusing and image-making.

This system was called “Dual Pixel CMOS AF,” which was unfortunately a term that caused many eyes to glaze over and not give the system a second look. Canon pressed on with the name and the system, though, rolling out this feature across its DSLR and cinema camera lines. The latter, along with the EOS R, gained the ability to use this system to have a manual focus assist in the form of two triangles that converge on the selected point of focus until they’re green, a very handy tool for those that want to focus on their own.

Taking Dual Pixel CMOS AF out of the DSLR and Into Mirrorless

Things got better along the way. After the 70D, the 7D Mark II added the ability to control the speed how fast the system would rack focus (though this was somewhat limited by the lack of touch-screen on this model), and both the 7D Mark II and the 70D’s successor, the 80D, gained the ability to continuously focus with Dual Pixel AF while firing off still shots. The 80D gained a significant increase in image quality compared to the 70D as well, being the next generation of Dual Pixel CMOS AF. The 1DX Mark II, 5D Mark IV, and 6D Mark II brought this speedy AF to full frame DSLR models.

Along the way, Canon decided to bring the technology to the M mirrorless line with the M5 and its successors. This was a big step for the company. No longer would you have to hold a DSLR at arm’s length and use the rear screen for focusing, you could get the same smooth focusing through the electronic viewfinder, with all the other benefits that come with that, such as being able to preview your exposure, focus peaking, and customizability. This was, in a way, the test bed for the next big thing.

There was a time when the company wouldn’t even apply the term mirrorless to their cameras, even the ones that didn’t have mirrors (like the EOS M series). Fast-forward to 2018, and the tagline right under the name on Canon’s website for the EOS R is “full-frame mirrorless camera.” Clearly, the winds are changing at the big camera companies.

The most important part of any modern camera, right after image quality, is autofocus. Dual Pixel CMOS AF has come a long way and matured into a very fast and capable system from the 70D to the EOS R. While Canon may have seemed late to the mirrorless party, the truth is, they were working on it alll along, right in front of our faces.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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yet they didnt meet the expectations and are staying behind Sony and Nikon ... I mean its canon so color science is on top and I was amazed by AF speed but that is pretty much it .. it is pretty clear it EOS R is reactive fast boiled mirrorless system that sets good base for gen 2 that could be finally big deal ..

Technically, one could say Nikon and Canon are both on Gen 2 (Nikon 1, EOS M). Either way, I'm super curious as to how the PDAF on both systems compare for sports to the current state-of-the-art mirrorless.

Yeah, makes me laugh everyone seems to forget about the EOS M and how it even is on it's kinda 2nd gen.

oh I ment FF of course .. but good correction, thanx :)

even if it is good what is the point when servo on Canon R is so slow.
How many FPS can you get with liveview and C-AF ?

If you go and read the comments section of the EOS M forum anywhere you can find one and go back to when the 70D was launched, from that point on, you'll find people complaining and wondering about why Canon didn't put their mirrorless sensor (one with DPAF) into an actual mirrorless body.
I wouldn't say they've been developing it right under our noses, I'd say they have been developing it right in front of our faces but also holding it back, too.
They could have brought a FF mirrorless to market several years ago but chose not to. Now, many are going to reward them for their glacially slow pace. There's literally nothing in the R that they didn't have the ability to produce 2-3 years ago. Nothing. And, had they brought the R to market 3 years ago, I think it would have received a far more welcoming reception.
I'm sure Sony is appreciative that they waited, though.

i'll go even further and state that the EOS R is just a "parts bin" development. the only things developed for it were the body and the "touch bar," while the rest of it is just a hodge podge of parts taken from throughout their current and previous lineup, assembled into a single body to create the cheapest camera they could, both in parts and development costs. it's like they wanted to limit risk... or they were so caught off guard with Sony's market penetration, they felt they had to release ANYTHING to hold back the tide of Canon owners taking their lenses to the a7.

they clearly spent all of their time, energy and development funds on the launch lineup of RF lenses, whose specs make them quite impressive. it's just too bad there's nothing equally impressive to put that glass onto, for now. here's hoping the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games sees them release a camera body that's deserving of the glass they've announced. at least you can be sure they will eventually release a worthwhile body since they've committed with the RF lenses. the 28-70mm ƒ/2 makes me moist... and i'm a straight guy.

not just a chubby, but moist, because while i'm a Fujifilm owner, seeing the specs on that lens had me fangirling because photography is photography.

random stuff: come to think of it, based on coincidence i believe they were purely reactive and were also very late. they chose to go all in on the lenses to prove they are dedicated to a mirrorless future knowing they didn't have the time to properly develop a body. yes, time to formulate a lens usually takes longer than a body, but they may have just taken their "coming soon" 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L III and redesigned it into the 28-70mm ƒ/2, ultimately forcing the former's release to be delayed. evidence? coincidentally, it's due for a refresh soon, optical formula should be similar, lacks IS, compromised wide FOV to make it work on RF mount with ƒ/2 aperture instead of just making a 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 for the pros... wowing you with specs to distract you from the truth of it's beginnings. Nikon was brave enough to put out a lens roadmap while Canon did no such thing, because, at the time, they had no idea what they're gonna do next yet.

Strange that no one seems to be commenting on the vastly improved light sensitivity of the AF (-6EV, while Nikon Z offers just -4EV and the Sony A7 III just -3EV) plus the automatic coverage of the sensor, when switching lenses (while Sony A7 users complain a lot about dirty sensors).

The -6EV sensitivity has the caveat of requiring you to be using an f1.2 lens. Still great, but I'm not sure I've seen what the sensitivity is with a slower lens attached; can't seem to find an article that gives the rest of the story which is pretty annoying.

It should be less, in a linear fashion. For instance, at f/2, it should be -4.5 EV. At f/2.8, it should be -3.5. Most manufacturers state the sensitivity at either f/2 or f/2.8 so the gap isn't as large as it seems as those apertures.

At photokina Canon had a very dark room to test the focus ability of the EOS R using the 24-105mm f/4 kit lens.

That's one of the more ingenious things I've seen, I wish every mirrorless would do that, use the shutter to cover the sensor while swapping lenses!

They had to develop some lenses for it. Otherwise I’m sure they would’ve come out with it a while back.

One thing that has me curious though is the EF now. It’s not like that’s been sitting stagnant lens wise.

Only people who didn't see Canon doing this are the Sony users who keep saying Sony is 5 years ahead of Canon. They are also blind to the fact that Sony a7 series was always intended as a small consumer full frame camera. And they wanted the pros to go to an a99, but it just never caught on. So now Sony is trying really hard to push the a7 series towards the pros by engineering out the physical limitations.

looks like it's working

Do you work for Canon. I hear this from so many people. Canon or Nikon are doing us a favour they’ve developed this and that, all in hindsight I might add. It’s their job to make money and sell products and to compete in the market place. Brand loyalty is one thing but brand blindness is another

"Canon Has Been Laying the Groundwork for a Strong Mirrorless System" .... I agree. But they are foundations, question is now, what will they build on it....

So far, nobody seems to be really impressed.

And yet they released a camera which is tres average.

I agree they have been laying the groundwork for a strong mirrorless system for years.

How do you explain the mistakes in the EOS R? You can’t say it’s their first go at it. 😂

Laying groundwork while releasing garbage... da fuq is really going on at Canon ?

You’d think the MarkIV and 6DM2 would teach people to look elsewhere for advancements; Canon doesn’t care about their consumers and people sure love throwing money in the trash.

Millennials... crack me up.

Please elaborate why millennials crack you up. I’m not one so your comment misses if it’s meant to be offensive.

You know that there's an entire market segment that would prefer LESS features, but what features it does have surfaced better, right? Like most studio photographers, portrait photographers and scenic photographers. It's not like any of the current cameras take lousy photos anymore, whether they are your personal favourite brand or not. So, what's garbage to you might be my favourite camera, and vice-versa. In fact, calling them garbage is a wee bit closed minded, no?

I understand your point of view but I also am objective enough to realize that Canon oversold and underproduced what their intentions were.

With all the marketing hype by the company and by their own consumer base, this camera system did nothing to advance the technology that already exists and just gave Canon another means of sucking their consumer base dry of money (the new mount).

I own three Canon bodies because I shot and loved Canon for years. I just got tired of them pushing out the same technology year after year. At some point people have to start holding them accountable for the marketing pitches and false narratives they sell.