Canon Adds a Full Frame Mirrorless

Canon today announced a new full frame mirrorless camera system, the EOS R camera and RF lenses (they also introduced a new 32mm f/1.4 EOS-M lens). 

bythom canon 4

The new Canon system takes aim directly at the space where the Sony A7 and Nikon Z6 sit: the US$2000 full frame mirrorless body (the Canon R's price is US$2299). From enjoying a monopoly at that specification and price point five years ago, Sony now finds itself with both of the duopoly players shoulder-to-shoulder. Let the games begin. 

The interesting thing is that each company took a slightly different path. Sony abandoned the SLR/DSLR crowd and went with an upscale modification of their original mirrorless idea and lens mount from the NEX: small, light, squarish, tech-laden, and a still-not-yet-rationalized UI/menu. Nikon completely abandoned their lens mount, but kept much of the rest of their DSLR DNA intact to keep the ergonomics intact. Now Canon does something no one quite imagined: they've added yet another lens mount specification to their growing list (EF, EF-M, EF-S, now RF) and three adapters that allow you to use EF lenses on the new camera (the extra adapters have tricks up their sleeve, which I'll get to later).

So, Canon comes across mostly traditional, Nikon takes a flyer on the optics side, and Sony has been out there playing tech wars while abandoning ideas (technically, the original Alphas and the original NEXes). It's quite a spectacle, really. 

At yet, at the heart, all three cameras from the major players have (1) full frame; (2) 24-30mp; (3) high video capabilities; and (4) ~US$2000 price point target. So before I get to more details on the new Canon R, let me say this: Sony got many switchers in the 2015-2017 time frame by being very different. Starting today—or at least when the Canon and Nikon ship later this year—I think the amount of switching that goes on slows, maybe even stops. Those legacy lens mounts are still supported well by both Canon and Nikon (via well-done adapters), so the 200 million F and EF lenses out in the wild become a giant gravitational force that holds a lot of people in the Canikon sphere. 

bythom canon r back

So what is the Canon R? 

Inside we have a new 30.3mp sensor with dual-pixel autofocus capabilities. Two things that might be disappointing: no on-sensor image stabilization and the inclusion of an AA filter. Canon is touting a -6EV autofocus capability with 5655 selectable points, both of which would be industry leading (but that -6EV is with an f/1.2 lens and single shot mode; always look for the footnotes ;~). Wi-Fi (b/g/n) and Bluetooth (4.1) are built-in, but not GPS. All this is wrapped up in a dust and drip-proof magnesium body. Overall size is close to that of the Nikon Z cameras, with the Canon's weight being a little less. The Sony A7 bodies still are the smallest of the bunch, but only by a modest margin. 

Of the big three, Canon's R arguably looks more like a DSLR than the others when all is said and done. Nikon and Sony are using a slightly more edgy and distinct styling, while the R retains a lot of the complex curves and slopes of their DSLRs. But let there be little doubt: all three companies have a core body—which houses the connectors, sensor, shutter, electronics—that's now very thin compared to DSLRs. They differ quite a bit on how the hand grip is designed, though.

bythom canon r top

Out back we have an articulating (not tilt) 2.1m dot touchscreen LCD, while internally we have a 3.69m dot EVF. Also like Nikon, Canon has gone to a top LCD using new technology that's easier to see in the dark. 

The R uses the existing LP-E6N battery and gets 350 shots per charge (CIPA) using the EVF without low power operation in effect. There's also an optional BG-E22 battery grip available. Like Nikon, Canon is carrying over most of their DSLR accessories, such as flash unit compatibility (though they did also announce a new small Speedlite). 

Funny thing is that the Nikon Z series was hotly debated over its use of a single XQD slot ("what, only one slot? Not for pros!"). Here we have Canon giving us a single slot, but with an older technology (SD UHS-II). Will we see the same Internet Angst? 

What I'm already seeing is serious Specification Scrutiny. A has X! B has Y! C has Z! X is better than Z! No, Y is better than X and Z! Doesn't matter, C is better than A. Let me just say this: if you're buying a camera based on hours upon hours of comparison crunching, I'd hate to see how you buy cars and houses. The notion that any of these full frame cameras is incompetent at producing great photos seems on its face just dead wrong.

Believe it or not, there is a whole sub-category involving Marketing Complexity that's being taught these days at the B-schools. Some of it involves how people's brains work. When the data inputs (specifications and marketing messages) overwhelm the brain's analytic ability, it's actually easier to steer decision making, or so social psychologists say. For decades there's been a game played by companies at the retail level: make the decision become overwhelming due to details and complexity and then use various in-store strategies to steer the decision to the most optimal dollar intake (or away from a competitor). 

You may remember that Best Buy used to have placards under every product that listed a whole set of features and details. In most cases, you couldn't directly compare one placard against another, and that was intentional. What this makes you do is call over a "sales specialist" to help make sense of things. A great and impartial salesperson could probably indeed help you figure out what's best for your needs. Unfortunately, those folk didn't typically exist in that environment. Manufacturers gave out spiffs, retailers had sales goals to meet, and basically you were (and still are in many cases) being spun right over to what they wanted to sell you. 

I've written for over a decade that any current DSLR can produce excellent photos up to the size you can generate from a desktop inkjet printer. Still true. Indeed, it very well may be that almost any camera can do that now. But it would certainly be true of all full frame mirrorless cameras we now have at the near US$2000 price point. My response to those asking the "which brand, which camera" question has long been "the one that feels right." That's not facetious. 

If you've been using the Nikon UI for decades, switching to Sony/Canon will drive you nuts. All the cheese will have moved and been renamed; some was lost in translation. If you've been using the Canon UI for decades, the same thing happens if you try a Nikon or Sony. Sony users, however, have been having major cheese shifts, moving, and hiding going on for quite some time, so I'm not sure how to advise them ;~).

That said, Canon has made a few UI (cheese) changes on the R that might cause some stumbling. The usual line of buttons up top is now an arc, the EOS M5's programmable dial reappears, and we get a new control on the back instead of the vertical dial. But the overloaded button+dial interface remains, and the dial behind the shutter release is still vertical, not horizontal.

The thing is that most people don't use their dedicated cameras often enough so that they can overcome cognitive dissonance in a new system or master more than the top level of controls. Thus, more important than deep level spec analysis is what things seem like when you pick up a camera in question and try using it for a bit. It either feels basically right or you're lost. Don't buy the one that makes you feel lost.

But you can probably already see the "I wanted dual slots," "I wanted faster cards," "I wanted IBIS," "I wanted articulating LCD," "I wanted more/different lenses," "I wanted time-lapse," "I wanted a joystick," "I wanted full touch control," "I wanted fill_in_the_blank" arguments that are already proliferating due to the differences in the the Canon, Nikon, and Sony full frame mirrorless offerings. Ignore those. Buy what feels right, and that probably is the brand you're already using.

In this respect, Canon and Nikon both did (mostly) the right thing with their new entries. You're not going to feel lost. (I'm predicting tons of A7m3 versus Z6 versus R "shootouts" that have disturbingly different conclusions hitting the net later this year ;~)

Meanwhile, Canon also introduced its first RF lenses: 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS, 50mm f/1.2 L, 24-105mm f/4 L IS, and 28-70mm f/2 L. Like Nikon, Canon is sticking close to the mainstream (24-105mm) in focal length, while trying to show off some new design (f/2 zoom). Like Nikon, Canon is relying on their existing lenses to fill the gaps until they can produce additional optics in the new mount form. 

One thing about the new RF lenses: they have an extra (customizable) control ring. So the prime lenses have two rings now, and the zooms three (Nikon also is working on the extra customizable ring premise with future Z lenses).

mount angles

Inner angle is Sony FE, outer is Nikon Z, middle is Canon R (close to scale). In theory, Nikon has the most design flexibility, Sony the least. 

The new RF mount has a flange distance of 20mm with a throat of 54mm. Nikon's Z mount is the "big boy" now, flipping the advantage of the EF over the F mount that reigned through the film SLR and DSLR era. Whether that shows up in any real advantages to users remains to be seen, but Nikon does have more optical design space available to them than Canon and Sony.

The 24-105mm f/4 is the lens most people will likely buy. It sheds about a quarter pound (100g) off the weight from its EF counterpart, and a bit of bulk. The 28-70mm f/2 lens is heavier, longer, and a wider diameter at front (95mm filters), and to me looks a bit unbalanced on the camera (need to try that out for extended shooting, though).

So why would Canon change to this new RF mount, and what about those extra adapters? 

Excellent question, and I believe it is driven by what every camera company can now see they need next: faster mount communications, and perhaps additional mount communications. Bandwidth is not something to ever bet against increasing, and it's happening both internally within the cameras (particularly at the sensor to ISP—DIGIC for Canon—but also in the EVF), but also going to be necessary to keep up externally as well. As sensors work faster, so too will the lens response have to work faster to match that in the future. 

In addition, the angles formed by the new flange/throat openings open up some new optical territory, and I'm pretty sure we'll see Canon and Nikon head right there (Sony is a bit of a disadvantage here). 

The three adapters are: (1) a basic tube that allows mounting an EF lens on the R body; (2) a tube that does the same but has an outer ring that can be programmed for various control functions; and (3) an adapter that has a drop-in slot for polarizers and ND filters.

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