Adding Full-Frame to the Toolkit

Aglais io, the European peacock/neitoperhonen (an EOS R5 test).

With my focus on nature and bird photography, I have long preferred APS-C format cameras, due to the better “reach” (narrower field-of-view, with the same optics) that is important for photographing shy, far-away birds and animals particularly. Said that, several producers, Canon included, have put most of their research and development efforts into the full frame camera systems. I discussed the Canon EOS R System earlier in this blog (in February 2020), and while at that point I was committed with the EOS M line of APS-C cameras and lenses, I was also growing frustrated at the bad ergonomics and other limitations of EOS M cameras. However, there were also several downsides as well as possible long-term benefits in the more “professional” full frame EOS R System that left me hesitant at what to do in the long run. This summer, after rather lengthy consideration and research, I finally made the leap into the new, “full-frame era”. Or, more appropriately (as will explained below), I just decided to add one more tool into my toolkit.

EOS R5, with Sigma 150-600 mm C (shot late at night, with my EOS M50 and the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM).

When EOS R5 camera was introduced in summer 2020, much of the attention was focused on its amazing 8K video capabilities. However, as I am not a cinematographer, my interest was at the side of still image photography. The main “sales points” of R5 in this area include a 45 megapixel, full-frame sensor, up to 20 fps speed in continuous shooting (electronic shutter, and up to 12 fps mechanical), a built-in image stabiliser (up to 8 stops, with some selected modern lenses), and – perhaps most importantly for me – a really good autofocus system trained with machine-learning to pick up the shapes and even the eyes of animals and humans alike. There are additional benefits when moving from smaller, APS-C cameras, such as a really nice, deep grip to hold on (with M50 only two or three of my fingers, in addition to thumb, can touch the small body while carrying it), the full set of three rotary dials (enough for setting dedicated controls for both ISO, aperture and shutter speed, each with a dedicated physical control), longer-working batteries, better weatherproofing, dual card slots, less noise in low light, etc., etc. It is also worth noting that R5 uses the same processor (DIGIC X) as the more expensive, professional flagship DSLR camera EOS-1D X Mark II.

Muscicapa striata, the spotted flycatcher/harmaasieppo (testing R5 in a low light, fast situation inside a forest).

There are also significant downsides in a full-frame camera system, when compared to APS-C ones. The financial one is the most obvious: this is a much more expensive camera than any I have owned before. It is also worth noticing the camera body is just the first part of the investment, as the new, R system lenses are also generally expensive. They are robust, of high optical and physical quality, large and heavy. Going to a casual camera walk or run around a new city while on tourist mode, I will definitely rather prefer carrying the compact EOS M50 (387 g), coupled with e.g. the small and light EF-M 55-200 mm (260 g), rather than R5 (738 g) and RF 70-200 mm F2.8L IS (1070 g); there is also several thousands of euros/dollars price difference. Not to discuss the price and weight of any full-frame glass which reaches into the 400-600 mm area, which is where the true bird and wildlife photography generally tends to start. Thus, to sum up, I will not give up my EOS M camera and lenses anytime soon. There are uses and needs for both the large and the compact system. A serious R Series camera and lens setup is something that you would particularly take out when you are working for some particular, photographic goal or project. (This is why some people are actually paid to use these things. That is what “professional” means, after all.) The small system is good for those long walks.

Delichon urbicum, the house martin/räystäspääsky (a collage of shots testing the animal AF tracking of R5 with a very fast moving, flying bird).

In the actual bird photography, comparing ASP-C and R5/full-frame in the field, there are similarly plusses and minuses. The main strength (and one of the key reasons why I made this investment in the first place) of R5 is that the large, 45-megapixel sensor coupled with the image stabilisation and powerful AF system allows taking more, and more sharply focused images to start with. With very fast-moving objects like flying and bush-jumping birds, only a small fraction of photos is generally usable. A fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera-and-lens system makes a great difference in an actual wildlife photography situation. There is a “crop mode” in R5, which will narrow down the field of view into the same as the APS-C camera (applying Canon’s 1.6x crop factor, in-camera). But the full-frame image of R5, when cropped so that it would represent the same field of view as my old M50 APS-C camera is “only” 17.3 megapixels (my much cheaper M50 has 24.1 with that same field of view). However, the experience of shooting birds and wildlife with R5 is indeed better than M50: it is much easier to keep e.g. a flying falcon or swallow within the large image frame of R5, and the powerful AF system does a really good job in keeping the bird sharp in the image – as long as the photographer is capable of taking care of the targeting and composition at somewhat decent level.

Asio otus, the northern long-eared owl/sarvipöllö (it was almost completely dark, at midnight, at this point – testing the animal AF tracking of EOS R5 at the ultimate ISO 51200, f/6.3, 600 mm focal length, exposure 1/2000 s.).

In the 45-megapixel images there is room for cropping in many different ways. The optical quality does not magically change, of course, with the upgrade of camera body if one is still using same lenses as before; though, the reduction of noise and better low-light capabilities mean that it is possible to shoot birds with even pretty “slow” lenses (like my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 C DG OS HSM), while going rather high ISO sensitivity values, and still come up with frames that can be used, particularly if software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are applied in the postproduction. The main benefits of this upgrade from a crop-camera to a full-frame one in the end come from multiple areas, mostly ones related to the art and craft of composing and creating images, while it needs to be emphasised that the baseline optical image quality remains at the domain of lenses used.

A far-away osprey (Pandion haliaetus, kalasääski) fishing – EOS R5 does excellent work in tracking in harsh light, yet my zoom lens is also showing its limitations here, at this distance and with a lot of cropping applied.

There is apparently an interesting learning curve that comes with the transition from Canon’s entry-level into a full-frame/professional cameras. After couple of weeks, my automated procedures and reactions are still largely coming from the APS-C world, and, for example, I even still occasionally try to find the power switch from the old location (at top right; in R5 the switch is at top left). There are no pre-programmed “easy” photography modes such as the sports, macro, or portrait modes in the EOS R5 (there is the fully automatic, “smart” A+ mode, however). The idea seems to be that a photographer who wants to use a “pro” camera must understand the underlying logic of photography technique enough, and be able to set up different aperture, exposure etc. priorities according to the subject matter, scene, and desired effects.

It is nice to have a fast-focusing camera when e.g. a flock of Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, meriharakka) suddenly appear overhead.

The full user’s manual for R5 is 921 pages, and I have the feeling I have only just scratched the surface of what this camera can do, and how it should be set up. But I have at least started personalising the main settings, such as customising three back buttons for quick access into my three key wildlife focusing modes: animal-eye autofocus, spot AF, and single-point AF. The logic here is that when I can see the animal/bird relatively clearly (or, e.g., when I try to photograph a flying bird), I use back-button AF technique first with the AF-ON button set for “Eye Detection AF”. Secondly my asterisk (AE lock) button is now set for spot AF mode, and the last (AF point selection) button for single-point AF. These two are normally used when the focused subject is half-hidden, hiding among branches as is often the case; after the initial AF lock, the system usually is able to follow by tracking, so the focus stays locked, when the target has initially been pointed and identified. For this initial selection, there is both a joystick and a large LCD touchscreen that can be used for moving the focus point around. Currently, I find myself using the touchscreen more.

Falco tinnunculus (the common kestrel, tuulihaukka) – again, it was great to experience how effortlessly EOS R5 was able to keep the focus on the far-away falcon, while it was hunting.

There is more learning to be done, and I expect the possibilities opened up by the new system to challenge me for several years to come, in search for both better – or just more interesting – pictures and more improved photographic techniques and new ways of photographic thinking. However, my old cameras and lenses still remain in my toolkit, and they also have their times, places, and uses.

This common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos, rantasipi) was captured late night while at lake with SUP / paddle boarding – this time again with my lighter EOS M50 camera.

Have a happy photographic summer!

Enlightened by Full Frame?

Magpie (Harakka), 15 February, 2020.

I have long been in Canon camp in terms of my DSLR equipment, and it was interesting to notice that they announced last week a new, improved full frame mirrorless camera body: EOS R5 (link to official short annoucement). While Canon was left behind competitors such as Sony in entering the mirrorless era, this time the camera giant appears to be serious. This new flagship is promised to feature in-body image stabilization that “will work in combination with the lens stabilization system” – first in Canon cameras. Also, while the implementations of 4k video in Canon DSLRs have left professionals critical in past, this camera is promised to feature 8k video. The leaks (featured in sites like Canon Rumors) have been discussing further features such as a 45mp full frame sensor, 12/20fps continuous shooting, and Canon also verified a new, “Image.Canon” cloud platform, which will be used to stream photos for further editing live, while shooting.

Hatanpää, 15 February 2020.

But does one really need a system like that? Aren’t cameras already good enough, with comparable image quality available at fraction of the cost (EOS R5 might be in 3500-4000 euros range, body only).

In some sense such critique might be true. I have not named the equipment I have used for shooting the photos featured in this blog post, for example – some are taken with my mirrorless systems camera, some are coming from a smartphone camera. For online publishing and hobbyist use, many contemporary camera systems are “good enough”, and can be flexibly utilized for different kinds of purposes. And the lens is today way more important element than the camera body, or the sensor.

Standing in the rain. February 15, 2020.

Said that, there are some elements where a professional, full frame camera is indeed stronger than a consumer model with an APS-C (crop) sensor, for example. It can capture more light into the larger sensor and thus deliver somewhat wider dynamic range and less noise under similar conditions. Thus, one might be able to use higher ISO values and get noise-free, professional looking and sharp images in lower light conditions.

On the other hand, the larger sensor optically means more narrow depth of field – this is something that a portrait photographer working in studio might love, but it might actually be a limitation for a landscape photographer. I do actually like using my smartphone for most everyday event photography and some landscape photos, too, as the small lens and sensor is good for such uses (if you understand the limitations, too). A modern, mirrorless APS-C camera is actually a really flexible tool for many purposes, but ideally one has a selection of good quality lenses to suit the mount and smaller format camera. For Canon, there is striking difference in R&D investments Canon have made in recent years into the full frame, mirrorless RF mount lenses, as compared to the “consumer line” M mount lenses. This is based on business thinking, of course: the casual photographers are changing into using smartphones more and more, and there is smaller market and much tighter competition left in the high-end, professional and serious enthusiast lenses and cameras, where Canon (and Nikon, and many others) are hoping to make their profits in the future.

Thus: more expensive professional full frame optimised lenses, and only few for APS-C systems? We’ll see, but it might indeed be that smaller budget hobbyists (like myself) will need to turn towards third-party developers for filling in the gaps left by Canon.

Systems in the rain…

One downside of the more compact, cheaper APS-C cameras (like Canon M mount systems) is that while they are much nicer to carry around, they do not have as good ergonomics and weather proofing as more pro-grade, full frame alternatives. This is aggravated in winter conditions. It is sometimes close to impossible to get your cold, gloved fingers to strike the right buttons and dials when they are as small as in my EOS M50. The cheaper camera bodies and lenses are also missing the silicone seals and gaskets that are typically an element that secures all connectors, couplings and buttons in a pro system. Thus, I get a bit nervous when outside with my budget-friendly system in a weather like today. But, after some time spent in careful wiping and cleaning, everything seems to continue working just fine.

Joining the company. 15 February, 2020.

Absolute number one lesson I have learned in these years of photography, is that the main limitation of getting great photos is rarely in equipment. There are more and less optimal, or innovative, ways of using same setup, and with careful study and experimentation it is possible to learn ways of working around technical limitations. The top-of-the-line, full frame professional camera and lenses system might have wider “opportunity space” for someone who has learned how to use it. But with additional complexity, heavy and expensive elements, those systems also have their inevitable downsides. – Happy photography, everyone!