Canon 5Ds R Upgrade?


I'm not a "gear" guy. I don't obsess over collecting photography equipment and I don't root for brands like they're football teams. My equipment are simply tools I use to get my thoughts on paper. However, all tools have limitations, and those limitations can get in the way of the creative process. And if a better solution comes along that removes some of those limitations and is affordable, it gets my attention.

I've been using the Canon 5Ds R since it released in 2016. It was a significant upgrade from the Canon 5D MkII, which was an equally significant upgrade over the now-ancient Canon 40D which I began learning on in 2010. The 5Ds R has been a great system and it makes some great files to work with. However, the past few years have seen some major changes in the industry. Mirrorless systems have pretty much killed off DSLR's, and advances in sensor technology have led to gains in dynamic range and ISO performance.

Tim shooting with the Canon 5Ds R in Peek-a-Boo Canyon, Utah
The 5Ds R has been a great workhorse the past 7 years.

The benefits of mirrorless that mean the most to me and would vastly improve my current system are:

1. Dynamic Range. I'm often shooting directly into the light at sunrise and sunset and these are usually the scenes with the greatest dynamic range. To avoid crushed shadows or blown highlights, you have to either take two exposures and blend them manually in post processing or push the shadows up which results in less shadow details and increased noise. The newest generation of sensors developed in the past few years have better QE (quantum efficiency) and gather more light from the shadows with less noise.

Sunrise on Mount Hood with reflections in Mirror Lake in Oregon

A common situation for me: Shooting sunrise with bright orange clouds overhead and deep forest shadows below. There is a huge tonal difference between the two that any camera would struggle with. A sensor with higher dynamic range would improve shadow detail and noise without losing the detail and color saturation in the clouds.

2. ISO performance. Same story here. When I need to run higher ISO to stop motion in the early morning light, having a cleaner high ISO gives me a lot more flexibility and better data to work with. Modern sensors do much better than those from 5+ years ago.

Blue nighttime photograph of a cypress tree with stars on caddo lake in Texas.

A good example of when ISO performance comes in handy. I didn't want the stars to trail so I was limited on shutter speed to about 10 seconds. Having a higher ISO performance will result in greater flexibility in nighttime and low light situations.

3. Weight & Size. I never considered the 5Ds R to be a heavy body as the lenses I use are generally heavier. And I pretty much leave the system on the tripod when I'm hiking around which pretty much doubles the weight. It's a lot to move around. Because the mirrorless system, uh, doesn't have a mirror, the camera body doesn't need to be as large so mirrorless bodies are shallower and lighter than their DSLR counterparts. And because the camera lens can mount closer to the sensor, the lenses are designed to be a bit shorter (and thus lighter) as well. Any weight and volume I can lose out of the bag or off my shoulder is a big plus.

Tim hiking through the sand dunes at death valley
Hiking through sand is tough. Getting some of that weight out of my bag and off my tripod (not to mention off my mid-section!) would help.

4. Flip-out Screen. I often shoot down low, on my knees or lying on the ground. It becomes even more awkward if the camera is pointed up as I have to get my eye underneath the camera which is suspended from the tripod. I've even laid on my back and looked through the viewfinder upside down when there was no other way. A flip-out screen would be great to have in these situations.

Tim shooting a historic church in New Mexico
When working with a tripod, shots like these can be a pain to get without a flip-out screen. Even without the tripod, I can see a lot of creative possibilities open up when I don't have to have my head behind the camera to see the composition.

5. Stabilization. I shoot from a tripod 99% of the time, and I recommend new photographers to do so as well as it forces you to slow down and think instead of machine-gun shooting at everything that moves. However, once you move past that training-wheel phase, tripods should only do one thing, and that is stabilize the camera resulting in a sharper image. However, the side-effect is that it does indeed slow you down and can often get in the way of the creative process. They're often large, heavy, awkward to carry, and awkward to operate. I'm much less likely to try different, creative compositions if I'm tethered to some cumbersome sticks that only allow me certain orientations and heights without re-configuring.

While Lens stabilization is pretty good, it's not good enough for low light work, especially when trying to avoid noise. Mirrorless cameras (at least many of them) have in-body stabilization where the sensor itself detects motion and shifts and can even be used in conjunction with lens stabilization for a combined effect. This would go a long way to allow me to leave the tripod behind in some situations.

Tim shooting handheld in early morning light
I was tracking a duck trolling around in the lake and couldn't do it well with my tripod set up. It was a lot darker than this image shows (well before sunrise) and the lens stabilization wasn't enough. I could have used extra in-body stabilization, not to mention better ISO performance, to get this shot.

The recurring theme with most of these is that a modern mirrorless system would remove more limitations, allowing me to focus more on creativity.

Of course, there must be some compromises. We wouldn't want the choice to be too easy!

1. EVF. DSLR's have an optical view finder where you are actually looking through the lens like an optical scope. When the exposure is taken, the mirror flips up and exposes the sensor to the light path. Because mirrorless cameras are... uh... mirrorless, you can only see what the sensor is seeing electronically. So inside of the viewfinder is a small screen that behaves much like the screen on the back of the camera in live view. While screen and processing technology is improving, I have concerns that I'll find the "lag" when moving the camera while looking into the EVF bothersome. I also have concerns that the resolution of the EVF will be low enough to be a distraction. I haven't looked through an EVF of a modern mirrorless camera so these concerns may prove to be no problem at all. Until then, replacing the OVF with the EVF is my greatest cause of apprehension.

2. Mirror covering. A small difference, but something to note... the DSLR has the mirror protecting the sensor from dust and blowing precipitation when changing lenses. Mirrorless cameras expose the sensor completely to the elements (and possible scratching if something is dropped in there). I'm not too worried about this and the mirror can be easily cleaned by a local professional, but it needs to be on the list.

3. Lens mount. Mirrorless systems have different lens mounts - at least Canon's does. I'd need to get an adaptor to use my current lenses and slowly migrate to the RF system. The RF lenses are, for the time being at least, more expensive than their EF counterparts and I don't know if that will change. While I don't ever like the idea of using an adaptor, in this case it makes a lot more sense than completely migrating my lens collection due to the cost and the fact that not all lenses I use are currently available in RF.

That pretty much covers my research into mirrorless systems in general. In my next blog entry, I'll cover specific camera systems I've been considering.