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What does the EOS R tell us about Canon and the RF mount's future?

What does the EOS R tell us about Canon and the RF mount's future?

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Despite not being tremendously exciting, I believe Canon's EOS R shows a more adventurous attitude, at least by Canon's standards, than we're used to seeing. Having shot with the camera, spoken to Canon and read the tea leaves, here's what I think the EOS R tells us about Canon and the RF's mount's future.

The RF mount

Interestingly, both Canon and Nikon have settled on a similar solution: a short, wide lens mount and have both said it gives them greater design freedom when it comes to making lenses. Canon gave a little more detail about the ways in which it does so.

Both Canon and Nikon have settled on a similar solution: a short and wide lens mount

The shorter flange-back distance allows Canon to mount a large rear lens element much closer to the sensor, and the wide diameter means they can create lenses that don't need to squeeze light through a narrow tunnel. Designing lenses that don't have to make such dramatic adjustments to the course of the light passing through the lens allows lenses with fewer optical aberrations. It allows gives the option to use fewer elements, which can make some lenses lighter.

I said I thought it was an uncharacteristically bold move by Nikon to step away from the F-mount and I think you could say the same for Canon. If someone were trying to be really cynical, they might suggest Canon and Nikon are making such a noise about the use of wide and short designs just so they can imply a design limitation in Sony's narrower E mount. But having shot the 28-70mm F2 wide-open a little over the last few days, I'm more likely to believe there's some benefit to what Nikon and Canon say they're doing.

But perhaps that's where the comparisons with the Nikon should end.

The quiet radical

While Nikon tried to mimic its DSLR's behavior as closely as possible, but primarily using its live-view AF modes, Canon seems to have taken a more open-minded approach. The general perception we see from our readers (and it's one we have some sympathy for), is that Canon is a cautious company with a dominant market position that discourages the kinds of unexpected innovation we see from the likes of Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony.

The EOS R has a number of interesting features, including the habit of stopping down its lens on shutdown. This lets the company close the mechanical shutter to reduce dust ingress, since it minimizes the risk of sunlight condensed by the lens warping the shutter blades.

But that's not true of the EOS R. For years we'e been calling on manufacturers to try to work from a blank sheet of paper, rather than just doing what's always been done. And the more we've used the EOS R, the more it feels like Canon has at least tried to do that. Not to the extent of throwing everything away, but at least using this new system as an opportunity to think about which existing elements they want to maintain and where there's room for something new. So not quite a blank sheet, but at least stopping to consider existing assumptions.

It looks to me like a genuine attempt to create the best of both worlds

More so than the Nikon Z cameras, Canon has taken some elements of its live view AF system: Face + AF Tracking mode, for instance, but then blended this with the way AF points work on its DSLRs. It looks to me like a genuine attempt to create the best of both worlds, rather than being completely constrained by trying to deliver what they think their existing customers will expect.

The EOS R takes the Face + Tracking mode from its live view system but adds the custom option from its DSLRs that lets you choose whether to specify the starting subject or let the camera choose.

There is a lot of continuity, though. For instance in continuous autofocus mode, Face + AF Tracking works, by default, analogously to Canon's 61-point auto system: automatically picking a subject and following it. And, like on those DSLRs, there's a menu option to change this behavior so that you specify the starting point and subject for the camera to track. It's an interesting blend of the live view AF mode with DSLR behavior that I think says a lot about the approach Canon has taken.

The EOS R feels like a 'version 1' product

Oh course the down-side of starting afresh (relatively), is that you introduce new problems and bugs that you'd ironed-out of your existing interface. There are certainly aspects that make the EOS R feels like a 'version 1' product: something we don't usually expect from Canon.

Innovative touches (for better or worse)

The EOS R also shows some innovative touches in its design, some more visible than others.

The M-Fn Bar along the back of the camera can be customized to act as two buttons and a 'swipeable' control pad. None of us have been very impressed, so far.

The funky 'M-Fn Bar' control strip along the back of the camera, for instance. To me it feels a touch gimmicky. I've yet to find anything I really want to assign to it, find it easy to inadvertently operate and have experienced the occasional glitch when I do intentionally use it (another very un-Canon-like experience).

The M-Fn Bar will need to evolve into something useful or will die-out.

It's a fun idea and a very prominent display of original thinking, but it feels to me like the 'Touchbar' that Apple has added to its recent laptops: a device looking for a purpose and one that I think will need to evolve into something useful or will die-out in a couple of generations. Worse still, it occupies a prime location on the back of the camera and, while you can configure it to essentially just act as two buttons, there's only a limited choice over what those two buttons do.

We were all quite impressed with the clicking control dial on all the RF lenses. We were even more impressed that Canon has made an adapter ring that means you retain the capability when working with EF lenses.

An idea I suspect will persist is the additional, clicking control ring on the RF lenses (whose function, cleverly, is duplicated on one of the EF-to-RF adapters Canon offers). It's a cute move - one first tried by Samsung - that lets you quickly access another camera parameter without the body being overrun by dials. We're also told Canon service centers will (for a fee), 'de-click' the dials on your lenses if you need smooth or silent operation for video work.

The illusion of customization

But there are also signs of Canon still being, well, Canon. A criticism we've leveled at Canon over the years is that, even when it does offer customization, it's often very restrictive in how much change it lets you make. Sadly, while the EOS R initially appears to take some steps in the right direction: a large number of buttons are customizable and have an extensive set of custom options available (between 25 and 45, depending on the button), the reality is different. In many instances they're not necessarily the custom options you might want, and you'll still have to learn which features can be placed on which buttons before you can find your preferred setup. Or, at least, the closest to it that Canon allows.

You still can't always do everything you might want: despite lots of options about which dial controls what setting. There's relatively little choice over which dial controls Exposure Compensation, for instance. And there's no easy way to gain access to the Auto ISO threshold setting, without digging into the main menu. There's also little access to drive mode or metering mode, meaning the EOS R is a camera that demands you use the Q.Menu, rather than letting you put everything at your fingertips.

In perhaps the most un-Canon-like move imaginable, it's said it will improve these cameras via firmware updates.

However, in perhaps the most un-Canon-like move imaginable, the company has also said it will implement a new policy of improving these cameras via firmware updates. Fingers crossed.

RF > EOS R

What perhaps makes all of the positives harder to see is that the first camera, the EOS R, isn't very exciting. The pre-launch rumors and use of the 5D IV's sensor led a lot of people to expect an EOS 5D IV level camera, which it most certainly isn't. But even as something more comparable to a 6D Mark II it's still a little underwhelming.

The pictures it takes are great, which shouldn't come as a surprise for a camera with the 5D IV's sensor. The dynamic range isn't class-leading but it's much closer to being competitive than Canon had previously been. It also feels superb when you first pick it up: solid, comfortable and with well-positioned controls, at least for the most part.

After admiring the hand-feel of the camera, the second thing you'll notice is the apparent lack of means of controlling the AF point. The touchpad mode, disabled by default, is the only sensible way to operate the EOS R.

The rest of package is a little less impressive. Heavily cropped 4K video with visible rolling shutter isn't the level of performance most other brands are offering (though the inclusion of Canon-Log and 10-bit output suggest the company wants to do video properly in these cameras). Separate exposure settings for video (which was part of what sounds like an anxiously-made decision to dispense with the conventional mode dial), and separate button custom settings for video are big steps forward.

The EOS R's burst rate (with AF at least) is also poor by contemporary standards, again suggesting a sensor or processor bottleneck.

The bigger picture

But while we're not especially blown-away by the EOS R, I think we're all quite impressed by the system it hints at. It should be pretty obvious that Canon didn't develop a $3000 24-70mm F2 zoom or $2300 50mm F1.2 to be mounted on a $2300 mid-range full frame body. Nor does it seem likely that its engineers works away to produce a 24-105mm F4 with silent autofocus, 1/8th EV aperture control and extremely well controlled focus breathing for a camera whose 4K capture gives it a 40mm equivalent wide-angle field of view.

Canon didn't develop a $3000 24-70mm F2 zoom to be mounted on a mid-range body.

Beyond the system, I also think that the EOS R shows Canon being more flexible and innovative than we're used to seeing, whether it's in the apparent approach to the UI development, the creation of the M-Fn Bar or its stated willingness to improve the camera via firmware updates. Just as I said of Nikon, I hope Canon will retain this more adaptable approach as the system continues to develop.

If you're a Canon DSLR shooter, it's probably not yet time to begin the migration across to the RF system, but the work the company has already done and its apparent approach make us believe it'll look increasingly compelling in the coming years. If that's enough to stop you thinking about jumping-ship (with your existing lenses) to Sony, then I suspect Canon's done what they were trying to achieve. It'll be interesting to see what the RF series leads to.

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