true reflection
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Canon’s R6 and R5 camera bodies
PETER RYAN

I still vividly remember the excite­ment of getting my first digital sin­gle lens reflex camera (DSLR). The freedom to take hundreds of images revolutionised my birding as well as my photography. Over the past 16 years, photography has become an indispens­ able part of my ornithological toolkit, giving novel insights into birds’ moult, diet and other behaviours, as well as improving my ID skills. Like many bird photographers, I have spent a small for­ tune investing in the steady increase in image resolution and frame rate in the quest for the perfect camera. After a week with the Canon R6, I feel as ex­ cited as when I got my first Canon D10.

In the early 2000s, the debate was whether digital would replace slide film. I have some useless slides from a stunning day on Tristan peak in 2004 because publishers at the time still fa­voured transparencies. How quickly things changed! The past few years have seen a similar revolution brewing – the switch from DSLRs to mirrorless cam­ eras. Mirrorless is nothing new – every point­and­shoot camera is mirrorless. The disadvantage for bird photogra­phy has always been the lag between the sensor and the viewfinder. Until re­cently, you couldn’t hope to track a bird in flight with an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The mirror system in an SLR camera allowed you to literally see the image going to the sensor.

There is one big drawback to the SLR system: when the shutter is triggered, the mirror flips up, cutting off the view­ finder. This is barely noticeable for most bird images, when exposures last a thou­ sandth of a second, but during that time the camera’s focusing system is also blind. This is particularly annoying if you want to shoot videos, because the mir­ ror remains up throughout, forcing you to resort to manual focusing. Mirrorless cameras circumvent this problem be­ cause they use the information from the sensor to focus. And because the view­ finder is digital, that focus can be much more intelligent. Any smartphone worth its salt has face recognition to help you focus on the subject of your image, irrespective of its position in the image.

Sony started the push towards professional mirrorless cameras, quickly cornering the video market and gaining a small but dedicated following in the stills photography market. Other brands followed, but Nikon and Canon were slower to react to the demand for better mirrorless cameras. Their initial offerings were expensive without challenging the top­end DSLRs. But this changed in mid­ 2020 when Canon released its R5 and R6 models. Soon the internet was abuzz with reviews about these cameras’ intelligent focus­tracking capabilities and blistering 20 frames per second electronic shutter speed. I had to get my hands on one to see for myself!

When I received a review model of the R6 it came with the bonus of Canon’s F11 800mm lens, designed specifically for use with the R­series bodies. More on the lens later – first, the R6 camera. Strangely, one of the common complaints about mirrorless bodies is that they are too small! Removing the mirror and prism that takes the image to the optical viewfinder makes the body appreciably smaller and lighter than a DSLR, but smaller can mean fiddlier if you have to work with lots of controls. Canon has cleverly kept the R5 and R6 more or less the same size as its standard DSLRs, with much the same arrangement of control buttons and wheels, so it’s easy to make the switch between the two marques. However, the R6 weighs about one quarter less than a 7D Mark II does, which is a bonus if you’re carrying your camera for long periods.

The lighter body does mean it’s not as well balanced when a massive telephoto lens is attached, but I didn’t find this to be a significant issue. The loss of the mirror also allows the lens to be much closer to the sensor, which helps the design of wide­angle lenses, but it does mean that you need an adaptor – basically an extension tube – to use any EF lens on an R­series body. You can buy either a simple adaptor for about R2100 or a control ring adaptor, which allows you to adjust your ISO and exposure compensation, for R4100. One slight negative on the R6 was the lack of a lock on the programme-mode wheel, which has been moved to the right of the viewfinder. I accidentally changed settings a couple of times. The R5 has a top LCD display, so avoids this issue.

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