Enter the Unicorn. . .trailing clouds of smoke. (Where there's smoke, there's heat, but more about that in a moment. . .)
Since the beginning of the digital camera era, photographers have complained that, to borrow from Veruca Salt, they "want it now." -- one all-purpose camera that does everything well. For two decades, digital cameras, especially at the top level, were bifructated into high frame rate, low megapixel sports and action cameras and high megapixel low frame rate studio and general purpose cameras. This was pretty much dictated by the fixed image processing pipeline maximum capacity available for a given level of technology. Although pipeline capacity tended to increase over time, for any snapshot in time the capacity was (more or less) limited, hence the tradeoff of megapixels and frame rates. As a subsidiary consequece, photographers with a wide range of interests often had to purchase two cameras, one of each type, to cover all of their activities.
But, photographers nevertheless dreamed of a camera that could do it all -- the mythical unicorn camera that had both high megapixels and a high frame rate. Alas, for two decades, in the words of the song, ". . .as sure as you're born, you're never gonna see no unicorn." This was partly due to the restrictions placed on processing pipeline capacity by extant technology and partly due to the inherent limitations of the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera type, a holdover from the film era.
Well, time and technology march on, and those days are over. With the rise of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) and the inexorable progress of technology, the unicorn camera has finally arrived, in the form of Canon's newly announced EOS R5 MILC -- 45 megapixels and up to 20 frames per second. With people and animal eye tracking for good measure! So, just how does it stack up to the previous generation of both action cameras and general purpose cameras? Let us find out.
A Brief Comparison
For comparison purposes, we'll choose the EOS 1DX Mk III, the latest EOS sports and action DSLR, which is contemporaneous with the R5, and the 5D MkIV general purpose camera that the R5 nominally replaces in the Canon hierarchy. For the 1DX MkIII, the first frame rate value is for mechanical shutter and the second is for elecronic shutter (ES). For the R5 the values are mechanical or electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) followed by electronic. Note that bit depth drops with ES, and on the R5, at the highest frame rate (H+).
Undeniably, there are many attributes that matter when choosing a camera. Use cases are an important determiner, but let us concentrate on camera characteristics only. These include build quality, functional features and capabilities, ergonomics and customizability, dynamic range, high ISO noise characteristics, color science, and many others. As the summary table of key metrics above illustrates, and leaving aside the ruggedization aspects, the R5 can compete as both an action camera and a general purpose camera.
With that in mind, let's look at a few specific points that emerge from initial and brief use of the R5. Note that not all are unalloyed positives -- for instance, optical viewfinders (OVF) still provide a more immediate and accurate view of reality than electronic viewfinders (EVF), although the latter are capable of displaying far more information. Most DSLRs now provide a live view on the rear screen that can also provide similar information to that available with an EVF -- but in the case of the DSLR one must hold the camera out at arm's length to take advantage of that additional information.
Having said that, here are a few initial observations, in no particular order of importance, and subject to change as experience is gained. All experience so far is with adapted EF lenses using the control ring adapter. Lenses include the original 24-105 f5L, 600mm f4L and 2X, 50mm f2.8L TS-E and 24mm f3.5L TS-E. These findings reflect my preferences and my use cases, and may or may not be the same as others with different viewpoints.
In addition to these points, image quality is excellent. Canon colors are easy to edit, and dynamic range is increased over 5D MkIV. With IBIS, image resolution for hand held exposures is visibly better than earlier tripod-mounted 20 megapixel cameras, as observed on the USAF 1951 resolution test chart. Noise is well controlled, making ISO 6400 a viable setting -- and ISO 12800 available if absolutely necessary via noise reduction filtering, albeit with some loss of faint detail.
Next, there is the matter of customization. Each new generation of camera seems to provide more customization options, and the R5 is no exception. Here, we introduce four categories: dials, buttons, custom shooting modes and My Menu selections. Needless to say, customization is a highly personal matter, and likely no two photographers will choose exactly the same setup. And, one must admit that the settings below are subject to change as additional shooting experience is gained.
Control dials. The addition of a control ring allows one to use up to four dials for exposure adjustment, each of which can be assigned to one of the five attributes of the exposure pentagon. The latter term is introduced here in recognition of the fact that the accepted and long standing exposure triangle -- aperture, shutter speed and ISO value -- should for completeness be supplemented with exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation. With the R5, one can map four of these to separate dials. In my case, only flash exposure compensation requires additional actions to adjust. Here are the allocations
Control buttons. Next, one can map the various camera control buttons to different functions. After much experimentation, I've settled on the following allocation for certain of the key buttons. The Q button and the magnify button are unmodified.
Note that a consequence of mapping the AF-ON button to AF mode toggle is that it removes the possibility of using AF-ON for its intended purpose, i.e. back button focus, which is normally combined with setting the shutter button to control exposure metering and shutter release only. This is a negative, and has resulted in a need for personal muscle memory retraining. Pahrenthetically, one might characterize the trio of autofocus mode, drive mode and AF point selection as the operations triangle, a grouping analagous to the exposure triangle, consisting of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. (Add metering mode -- e.g. evaluative, partial, spot, etc. -- and the operations triangle becomes an operations square.)
Custom shooting modes. There is also the very useful custom shooting modes feature. These can be set up to be accessed in a variety of ways. In our case, as mentioned above, we use the Mf-n button next to the shutter button to toggle through the standard setting and the three custom shooting modes.
With the options available through these four types of customization -- dials, buttons, custom shooting modes and My Menu -- it is possible to set the camera up to be almost an extension of one's image making thought processes.
Bothersome Things. . .or Not
Things about the R5 that bother others, but not me.
No, the R5 is not perfect, especially if any of the above are must haves for an individual. But for the rest of us mortals, who live in a world where engineering compromises and choices among non-perfect alternatives are a reality, the R5 checks too many boxes to be ignored.
The question initially posed was, can the R5's performance compete with both the 1DX series and the 5D MkIV. The answer is, of course, in two parts. First, with respect to the utility of the R5 as a general purpose camera -- portraits, landscape, architecture, etc. -- the R5 is simply superior in virtually every regard, excepting only a mild preference for looking at a scene through an OVF. But, in the end the EVF provides far more useful information, especially when used with tilt-shift lenses. The articulating screen, greater customizability, more megapixels, faster frame rates -- the list goes on and on.
Comparison with the 1DX series for action photography is a little more mixed. The 1DX series does not compromise bit depth at the maximum mechanical shutter frame rate, and it drives focus much better on long telephotos, particularly when used with extenders. Both are capable of 20 frames per second with electronic shutter(1DX MkIII only). However, availability of virtually the entire viewfinder for AF, combined with animal eye tracking, is an enormous plus for the R5 -- as is the IBIS and much higher megapixel count of the R5.
None of these cameras is better in all regards, so whichever is picked will be a compromise in some way. In the end, for action photography it will come down to number of keepers -- images that are well composed (no need to focus and recompose with the R5), properly exposed and, critically, sharply focused. It will take a while to accumulate enough experience to reach a definitive conclusion, but suffice it to say that initial experience is, while mixed, nonetheless encouraging. Perhaps the most concerning deficit of the R5 is its inability to rapidly bring a very out-of-focus long telephoto with extenders (e.g. 600mm f4 with 2X) into focus. Compared to the 1DX MkII, the R5 appears stuck in quicksand, and manual focusing to nearly the subject distance is the only way to get it moving again.
On the other hand, for general puprose photography -- portraits, landscape, travel and the like -- the R5 exceeds the 5DIV in virtually every metric that matters. In particular, the availability of focus peaking and higher screen magnification for use with tilt-shift lenses is a highly useful time saving aid. Hand held photography using tilt is often done using an iterative method whereby the lens focus and degree of tilt are repeatedly and alternately refined until sharpness is achieved across the entire plane desired of focus. Focus peaking reduces the number of steps and iterations greatly, allowing for achieving results not only more rapidly but more reliably and accurately as well.
The ultimate answer may be an expected future R1 professional camera with performance equivalent to the 1DX series and the resolution of a high megapixel studio and landscape camera but with the advantages of mirrorless technology. We can see the future potential with Sony's new Alpha 1, at 50mpx and 30fps, values that would have been inconceivable even a few short years ago.
To close this out, I didn't forget that opening sentence. The cloud of smoke allusion refers to early reports of R5 overheating in some of the high end video modes, e.g. 8K, 4K HQ, 4K 120. These limitations are documented in the camera User Manual, so they were not kept secret -- although more than a few videographers, who perhaps wanted $20,000 dedicated video camera features in a $4000 hybrid camera, have expressed outrage. To quote Roger Cicala, our favorite lens tester, "expectations are a down payment on disappointment."
We have no such expectations, and for our almost exclusively stills-oriented use cases this camera is indeed the closest thing ever to the long-awaited unicorn.