Today, I’d like to discuss a camera that I’ve talked about once before. After my initial glowing review, how has the Canon EOS R5 held up after six months of operation in the real world?
Those of you who read my weekly column might be aware that I am officially a Nikonian. The Nikon pro bodies such as my current D850 are the backbone of my professional career. At least in terms of gear. And, despite the topic of today’s article, I have no plans to sell off my Nikons any time soon. So this article won’t be a comparison between Canon and Nikon, Canon and Sony, Canon and Fuji, or any other potential matchup.
Rather I'd simply like to discuss the Canon EOS R5 on its own terms. After getting a chance to review the Canon EOS R5 a few months ago, I ended up enjoying shooting with it so much that I purchased one for myself. It hasn’t replaced my D850. You’re going to have to pry that thing from my lifeless hands. But, after initially being something of an impulse buy, it has eventually found a comfortable slot in the same camera bag right alongside my Nikon. In fact, over the course of owning it for the last several months, it has even earned a significant share of game time both in ways that I anticipated and in others that I wasn’t expecting.
I already wrote an in-depth review of the camera back when I had it in for a month of testing. But as any photographer knows, camera tests don’t amount to a hill of beans. What really matters is how it performs in the field. And, since even a month isn’t a long enough time to really uncover both the warts and the benefits of a camera system, I thought I would revisit my view of the camera after having really tried to push its limits on real-world assignments over the course of the year. Aside from the basic specs, what are the benefits or drawbacks that have actually ended up having an impact on my workflow over the last few months?
My Initial Impression
Back in March, when I first reviewed the camera, my summary was that, while it didn’t make me run out and sell my D850, the R5 is a true workhorse for the mirrorless age. Built solid and with a host of features, it is more than capable of being the A camera in pretty much any photographer’s kit.
That basic assessment still holds. So I won’t rehash my initial review. But now that my R5 has gone in and out of battle through a plethora of professional shoots, I wanted to revisit my evaluation. Have any of my thoughts changed after using it with live ammunition? Which features have proved to be worth their weight in gold and which are more trouble than they are worth?
It’s hard to put into words just how impressive the autofocus capabilities of the Canon R5 really are. No autofocus system is perfect. And I’ve been more than capable of getting sharp images for years with various camera bodies despite them lacking things like face and eye detection. So it’s not like purchasing an R5 is the only way to get sharp images. It’s just that this camera makes focusing so darn easy. What makes it so easy is that I find it very rare that I have to pay much attention to focusing at all. I simply push down the AF-ON button and somehow the camera knows what to focus on and does it instantly. No modes need to be changed. No special techniques. Just push the button.
Now, of course, this is affected by my own specific use case. 99% of the subjects I photograph are human beings with (presumably) eyes and faces. So, the camera probably doesn't have to try too hard to guess what, or more rather who, I want in focus. It’s not like I’m pointing at a mountain of rocks and I’m asking it to identify the shiny one. But, with the subjects I shoot, the camera has consistently picked correctly at least 95% of the time and been able to maintain that focus throughout the rather rapid movements that my models often subject it to.
The same has held true for video. Usually, when I’m shooting video I’m using cine lenses and manually focusing. But those times when I’m rushing and I need to just slap an autofocus lens on and go? The R5’s ability to track faces and eyes makes run-and-gun video capture especially effective and it’s something I can really depend on in a pinch. This is especially helpful if you find yourself as a one-man or one-woman band doing gimbal work or something else that makes manual focus pulls somewhat impractical.
For those times when I’m not shooting a model, I have customized the * button on my R5 to automatically switch into a single-point and trigger autofocus. This allows me to leave the camera in the face and eye tracking mode pretty much 100% of the time then shift my thumb over about an inch if I want to immediately activate a single-point focusing mode. So, if I’m out doing street photography, for example, and I want to switch from capturing faces to capture a very specific leaf on a very specific tree, it’s easy to do without ever entering menus or taking my eye from the viewfinder. This is a feature my D850 has and, as someone who is always in a rush, is a small efficiency that I've really come to appreciate.
I think one of the less obvious reasons why shooting the R5 alongside my D850 has been so seamless is because the R5 is a bit bigger than most mirrorless cameras. Usually, extra size might be a drawback. But, I like a bit of girth in my cameras. The larger size fits easier in my hands and the added real estate and button spacing make it less likely that I will accidentally change my settings by unknowingly hitting a customization button when adjusting my hand position. I can’t say the same for some of the other mirrorless cameras I’ve used over the years which tend to focus on small bodies covered in customization buttons which I personally never use and generally have to end up switching to off to combat my own clumsiness. But the R5 is big enough and buttons are spaced enough that I don’t find myself accidentally changing things that I don’t want to and ruining a shot
I can’t think of many cameras that I’ve owned that have found themselves shapeshifting into so many different configurations. There’s the base photo mode with the 24-70 f/2.8 mounted. There’s the light walkaround mode with the plastic fantastic 50mm f/1.8. Then there are the times when I remove my Peak Design Slide camera strap and slide the R5 into the Small Rig cage with the top handle to capture run and gun video. There’s the R5 with the EF adapter so that I can mount my cinema lenses and follow focus and really make videos in earnest.
Whatever the job is, I’m pretty confident that the R5 can handle it. Given my choice, I’d always prefer to have separate bodies do separate tasks. But that’s not always an option. And other times you simply want to travel light. So while there may be better solutions in some cases, there are few times when the R5 won’t be capable of providing whatever assets my clients need.
The Flip-Out Screen
When I first tried the flip-out screen, I sort of liked it. But at this point, I’m a committed fully articulating LCD kind of guy. I know that flip-out screens are, for some reason I don’t fully understand, a point of contention. But, heaven help me, flip out screens have won me over.
8K and Downsampled 4K
The 8K on this camera will go in both the positives and negatives portion of this article. But the good stuff first. The 8K video from this video, as well as the 4K HQ (which is downsampled 8K) is absolutely beautiful. It’s good enough that on several occasions I have opted to use my R5 rather than bring out my cinema cameras for certain jobs. That’s not to say that it’s suddenly an Arri Alexa LF, but the camera produces video that can compete with almost any camera on the market at a very reasonable price.
File Formats and 8K Processing
Okay, now for the flipside. No doubt, the 8K on the R5 is amazing. Wow. But, as you might expect, the files are massive and at multiple points over the last several months it has appeared clear that the 8K files are actually attempting to murder my computer. This is probably something that can be fixed by buying a more maxed-out computer. But, as I don’t have the budget for that at the moment, I’m left with trying to edit the R5 files on what I’ve got, which is a more than decent Apple iMac 27 inch with a fair amount of memory to work with.
It’s not that I can’t edit the 8K files. But it can be an adventure. Sometimes the footage plays back smoothly. Sometimes it’s more jittery than a landing on Omaha Beach. This adventure is made more complicated by the fact that, even when not shooting 8K raw video, the R5 still seems determined to bring about my computer's early demise. Mostly, this is because, for some reason, Canon decided to make all the internal footage from the camera record in H265. I’m not a technical genius, so I won’t even begin to try to explain the difference between H264 and H265. From what I’ve been told, the H265 footage is supposed to offer advantages in terms of data compression. All I know in practical terms is that H265 files do not like to playback smoothly in my editing software. I’ve tried H265 video from a few different cameras and pretty much every time I drop it on a timeline, my computer simply says “no.”
This problem can be fixed by transcoding all the footage to ProRes or to another easier-to-edit format before you start editing. Or, you can get around this by mounting an external monitor, such as the Atmos Ninja V, and recording in ProRes from the start. But both of these options somewhat dull the allure of the R5’s ability to record all these amazing files internally in-camera. If you don’t mount the monitor and record internally, you save the weight and ergonomic hit you take having to worry about an added accessory, but you pretty much have to plan on adding additional time in post for transcoding. Or, if you mount the monitor, then you lose one of the benefits of opting for the R5 over a larger cine camera in the first place, which is its smaller size.
Up until the recent release of the Atmos Ninja V+, recording externally would have also meant that you would be limited to 4K recording. I haven’t tried the new 8K combination yet myself, but apparently, with Canon releasing the latest firmware, you can now record 8K ProRes Raw directly from the R5 into the Ninja V+ which should make my post-production life significantly easier.
As an added note, it should also make my storage costs significantly more manageable as well. Aside from processing, the sheer amount of memory necessary to record 8K can make what you thought was a voluminous memory card seem rather puny. Recording to a SSD in the Ninja V+ should lower storage costs dramatically.
I am only putting this here because I know that the word “overheating” will forever be synonymous with the Canon EOS R5 and that it is a big reason why some might have passed upon initial release. As a point of actual fact, however, the camera has only overheated on me once since I’ve been shooting with it. It did, however, happen to come at a pretty inopportune time. I was doing a shoot in the desert and had completed about 95% of the images I needed and then boom, the dreaded overheating notice. I was actually somewhat surprised as I was mainly shooting stills that day and only a handful of video. Thankfully, I had brought a backup body and was able to complete the shoot. But the backup was from a different manufacturer, so it took a bit (a small bit) of editing in post to get the files to look alike. It wasn’t the end of the world, but, because overheating is a possibility, that does mean that you have to have a contingency plan if I want to use the R5 as my main body on a shoot.
Other than that one instance, however, I have not run into a significant overheating problem. Just something that I look forward to seeing fixed in a future R5c as is rumored.
The On/Off Switch
Yes, you read that correctly. After six months, I’m still aggravated by the on/off switch. No, I am not an idiot. Well, not a complete idiot. And yes I am fully capable of flipping a switch from right to left and back again. But after being a Nikon shooter for decades and having hardwired muscle memory that the on/off switch should be on the right side of the camera encircling the shutter button, I find myself constantly forgetting to remember to look on the left side of the R5 to turn the camera off after using it. No, this is not a shortcoming of the camera. I’m sure I will eventually be able to remember to flip the switch with my left hand at the end of a shoot. But it’s a good thing I roll with so many extra batteries, because, at this point, I still seem to be constantly accidentally leaving the R5 on when I put it back in my bag. Then, the next day when I take it out to shoot, I find myself wondering how my battery has already drained to zero. Hardly Canon’s fault. But I am finding it amazing how hard it has been to get my brain accustomed to the idea that I have to turn the camera off on the left side instead of the right. Bad Chris.
So I guess the real question, after several months of real-world use, is whether or not I am happy with my investment? In the case of the R5, I can say categorically that the R5 has ended up being a smart purchase. Did the camera make me a better photographer? No. A camera doesn’t make you better. You make yourself better through practice and pushing yourself creatively. But what the R5 has proven itself to be is a smartly designed workhorse capable of nearly flawlessly performing all the tasks required by professional photographers. Is it better as a still camera than a dedicated video camera? Yes. But, let's not forget, it is a still camera. The video benefits are supposed to be extra. So a camera can do worse than be an amazing still camera with fantastic, if somewhat imperfect, video capabilities.
Whether it is the right camera for you or not will depend on a lot of things, from your budget to your workflow and individual needs. So I can’t tell you that. But within my workflow, the camera has given me no reason to doubt that it will perform exactly as I expect when under pressure. I can plan my shoot based on creativity rather than the limitations of my gear. And, like my D850, the R5 does a great job of getting out of the way and letting me translate the images in my head into memorable photographs.