Extended REAL WORLD REVIEW
OK I admit I'm a bit late to the game in terms of a straight up review of Canon's 5DSR. With the buzz around the camera and my place in the queue I was never going to get a review unit during the early days! Because of that, I've taken the more unusual approach of writing the review in terms of a longer term, extended use of the camera and how I thought it felt. To give it a thorough evaluation & see how it performs across a range of different scenarios I took the camera and a couple of lenses on a 3 week trip around China! As a result, this will be a slightly unconventional "experiential" travel review tying heavily into the trip and 16 days of non-stop use. Hopefully it will give me more of a deeper, longer term insight than some of the other early reviews of the camera.
The Canon 5DSR is one of two 50-megapixel resolution monsters which Canon released in 2015. Where it differs from its sister camera, the 5DS, is that the 5DSR has an additional filter which cancels out the optical low-pass filter that removes moire. The result, in theory, should be noticeably sharper looking images at the expense of potential image artefacts in some shooting situations. Otherwise, the cameras are technically identical.
So what follows is less one of my standard reviews and more of an account of the situations I encountered during my travels & how the camera fared. If you want a more "traditional" review then check out my 5DS review - this camera is functionally identical to its sibling, it produces great images if the conditions & your technique are good and the 5DSR definitely has a small but noticeable sharpness improvement over the 5DSR.
Out of the Box
The camera, battery & charger, neck strap and array of manuals & booklets.
Three Weeks With the 5DSR
I'll admit upfront I was a little nervous about limiting myself to a single camera for a trip. I normally like to pack for every eventuality! Although I did take a second camera on the trip, an infrared converted Canon 500D, the 5DSR was going to be my main camera. I took a range of lenses covering a focal range from 16mm to 200mm so I'd be able to test the camera out on a range of different scenes.
I can summarise what it's like to use the camera and how it handles quite easily - in fact I already have. Unsurprisingly, it is to all intents-and-purposes identical to the 5DS but this is a good thing. Specificall, because the increase in resolution from the cancelled low-pass filter means the camera is even more prone to camera shake & mirror slap blurring the final image. Put in different terms, when you have very high resolution sensors with tiny pixels, the effect of camera motion is more noticeable & pronounced than with larger pixels. It's easier for images on the 50mp sensors to be very slightly blurry as compared to say 20mp sensors. Canon were aware of this and rebuilt the 5DS/R chassis to account for it. I didn't notice this being any more pronounced than the 5DS so right off the bat one of my concerns was happily addressed.
Otherwise it's just the same as the 5DS and by extension, very similar to the other Canon pro bodies. Anyone familiar with a Canon camera will be right at home with the 5DSR. I appreciated this fact when picking up my review body the day before I flew and despite having no time to familiarise myself was able to hit the ground running. I know that when you own a camera you become accustomed to the menu layouts and many people argue that having more options & functions available to you is better than fewer but I have a different personal view. Although I use hundreds of different cameras a year and therefore have to constantly learn new menus pretty frequently, I find that the simpler & more concise the menus & control layouts are, the easier & more productive it is to shoot. For me, anything that isn't making my shooting experience faster and smoother is getting in the way. Canon still continue to lead in this area for me.
The 5DSR isn't the biggest or heaviest in the DSLR world but it's not far off. It's a chunky, reassuringly solid block. This doesn't bother me normally but I was curious to see if that opinion would shift much after two weeks of lugging the camera and lenses around! In retrospect while I'm sure that a smaller, more compact solution may have made shooting more comfortable, my experience with the 5DSR wasn't uncomfortable. I'm also sure if I'd packed an entirely mirrorless setup my bag might have been a little lighter yet even though I did a huge amount of walking and hiking on the trip I didn't find myself wishing for a lighter setup. It's a personal choice and while I acknowledge the point Micro Four Thirds evangelists will make about the benefits of smaller kit, the size & weight of the 5DSR just did not bother me. My personal preference on this is that I prefer to go with the best image quality options I have available to me first, size & weight second. Besides, if we're being honest, it's not like I'm hauling a large format body around with me! The difference may be a couple of kilos but that's not a problem. It's a balancing act/compromise that's unique to each individual. The size & weight of the 5DSR will be an obstacle for some, but for my travel the weight was not a problem.
PEOPLE, places & PANDAS
Like all of the current crop of high-resolution sensored cameras, the 5DSR is really going to excel in situations where you can take your time, shoot using a tripod and for scenes where the benefits of super-high resolution sensors will really shine through. Landscapes, studio work, even macro photography for example. I began by ignoring all of that and followed baby pandas around their sanctuary :)
If I'm being honest, it wasn't hard for autofocus on the 5DSR to track & shoot them. They're fairly slow and sort of famous for being contrasty colours! The only real challenge was distance and I needed to crop in a little after I was limited to shooting at 200mm.
The AF is the same as that on the 5DS, 61-point phase detection. I did find with the 5DS, and obviously it's the same with the -R version, that the AF points are perhaps slightly more clustered around the centre than I'd prefer. With such high resolution you need your AF to be accurate or slight blurring will be more apparent. In decent lighting conditions the AF performed well enough and paired with L-lenses was certainly fast enough too. I wouldn't say the AF on the 5DSR was the best I've ever seen but rather that it did the job OK in the majority of cases. As you'll see from later shots, when the pollution elsewhere in China impacted visibility, the camera did struggle more than I'd expect and I was forced to fall back onto manual focus on more than one occasion. For studio or meticulous, patient landscape photography it won't be an issue because you can take your time.
The second leg of the trip was to Xi'an. I had been warned by friends there wasn't a lot to see and do in Xi'an outside of the Terracotta Warriors and unfortunately that assessment was pretty much true. Although Chengdu had been perpetually overcast , Xi'an marked the beginning of a perpetual, choking smog that blighted the rest of our entire tour of mainland China which didn't really help its appeal!
That said, wandering around some of the older streets in Xi'an as well as the more touristy Muslim Quarter was fun and you do see some unusual things going on...
Thankfully the Terracotta Warriors are indoors and largely free from the haze blighting the rest of the region.
This was really the first time I'd be testing the dynamic-range & low-light capabilities of the 5DSR on the trip. The warehouses the warriors are housed in are quite dark overall but with strips of glass on the ceilings to let in light. Combined, it made wide angle shots difficult to balance the brightest & darkest areas of the scene and tighter shots, such as that above, required pushing the ISO to 3200 and beyond to keep the shutter speed fast enough to hand-hold. Using a tripod wasn't an option.
Like the 5DS, the high ISO performance of the 5DSR lags behind the likes of the A7R2 and even Canon's own 5D3 and 6D. The native ISO maximum of 6400 doesn't really cut it in my opinion, far from it. While images are sometimes rescuable in Lightroom it's probably the single biggest disappointment and most frustrating aspect of the camera. The lack of dynamic range can be worked around by exposure bracketing but if the lighting is so low your forced into pushing your ISO high then you're screwed.
On the new main-line train route between Xi'an and Beijing sits the World Heritage site of Pingyao. If you can imagine an ancient Chinese town like you might see in the movies then that's Pingyao. The old city is surrounded by its original wall dating back almost 3,000 years. Outside the wall a new, modern town is springing up but inside the streets, homes and shops are all very similar to how you'd imagine them back in the days of Imperial China. Sadly the everpresent smog hung like a shroud above the rooftops but I think it actually suited Pingyao in some strange way. With small chimneys chugging out coal-fire smoke directly into the streets there was a wonderful "real-fire" smell and the smog made added to the ambience. It's just a shame it's hugely toxic :)
The smog that pervaded every single destination on our trip was a constant nightmare to photograph in. Even shooting using ND grads to make sure the sky wasn't blown out didn't matter - because the skies were always pearly white it LOOKED like they were blown out. More of than not I tried to avoid including too much sky and where I had to I just gave up trying to handle it. More dynamic range would have helped, especially in Pingyao where the streets were dark and the sky much brighter, but more dynamic range wouldn't have made the skies more interesting - they were simply the featureless, flat, horrible white expanse you see in some of the images.
The two images above have been processed to my own artistic taste but the image below is a good example of how the scene looked straight out of camera. The smoke was a murky orange fog and you can see the difference between brightest & darkest points here.
Beijing was one of the places I spent the most time in but photographically it was moribund. The smog was even worse, the people unco-operative on the streets and the sights miserable from a photography perspective. I'm pleased I visited and also saw the Great Wall and the Forbidden City but it will not be somewhere I choose to go back in a hurry. I have exactly one photograph I like from the Beijing leg of the trip, taken on the Great Wall.
The final region I visited in mainland China was the Zhangjiajie National Park. Famous for its towering pillars of rock, its claim to fame - if you believe the Chinese Tourst Board - is that it's the direct inspiration behind the floating rocks you see at the end of Avatar! It's a spectacular place, although like everywhere else it was choked by pollution yet again. This was a huge shame and I was gutted to miss out on some landscape photography opportunities.
The next three images show examples of the beginning, middle & end of my processing flow for the Zhangjiajie landscape images and demonstrate how I tried to make the best of really poor lighting conditions, as well as showing you one of the more spectacular columns of rock.
The first image below is a straight-up RAW conversion - I haven't even applied sharpening at this point, just a quick JPG export so this as close to out of camera as it comes. The skies aren't overexposed as you will see from the second image.
The image below shows the photo after I've used Lightroom's new dehaze function - the difference is quite profound and shows that even though it's a featureless blank, the 5DSR hasn't overexposed the sky. I've also applied moderate image sharpening at this stage too to bring out the detail.
This final image shows the "final" result with white balance corrected and +5 on vibrance to try and offset some of that smothering fog. Some of the fine detail is lost due to JPG compression but the full size image still contains a surprising amount of workable information even though from the first image you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a lost cause!
After two-weeks in mainland China, especially in a wilderness in the middle of nowhere, I needed a return to civilisation! I'd never visited Hong Kong before but I was looking forward to it and not just for the photographic opportunities! The chance to breathe much cleaner air and ditch the gas mask was very much welcomed!
In contrast to the landscapes & slower, more considered shots I'd done in the mainland, in Hong Kong it was almost all street photography. The 5DSR coped better than expected. What follows are a selection of some of the better images from Hong Kong with a little note about each.
To say the Canon 5DSR is a very capable camera that can produce some stunning images is a no-brainer. We all knew that going into this article. What I was interested in was how capable it was when you take it outside the studio. When things get a little murkier, or the light isn't quite how you want it, or you don't have time to set up the tripod... how does it handle those situations?
Generally speaking, the 5DSR is a good but not outstanding choice for travel photographers.
The buying advice I give for the 5DS is exactly the same for the 5DSR - if you're using it in a controlled environment or you have the time & patience to set things up properly and get the best light then you will not find a better Canon camera. The results will be great. Whether you want to pay extra for the 5DSR comes down to whether you want the slightly sharper images. If I were buying, I'd go for the 5DSR over the 5DS but in *every* aspect other than improved sharpness the cameras are identical. However if like me you have a 5D3 or 6D and are wanting to upgrade then this may not be what you want. If you already have a current-generation full-frame camera then the 5DSR is like the 7D2; a specialised side-grade that will excel in a few areas but noticeable lag behind the "generalist" 5D3 and 6D in others. Think carefully before you buy and don't assume newer is better, or more megapixels will give you better photos.
A common question is why bother with high megapixels when 20mp is perfectly fine for most uses and for printing at "normal" sizes. That's very true, but higher print resolutions are not the only benefit from high megapixel sensors. If that was the case then most of us would still be using our 8mp cameras and decrying the current crop of 24mp sensors as pointless. The greater latitude for cropping is one of the strongest arguments and even those sanctimonious super-togs who claim they always get it right in camera will sometimes make mistakes. Let's not forget too the the 5DSR can reveal some astonishing detail too - again, even if what you have right now is "good enough" you can't deny the 5DSR is better. Whether you need it is not a question I can answer but I think the high megapixel bodies we've seen recently have definitely carved out their own niche.
I've also been asked on dozens of occasions whether someone should by the 5DSR or the A7RII. Generally speaking, my advice is to wait to see what the A7RIII will be like, knowing Sony it's just around the corner! However if you simply must buy right now AND you already have a large range of Canon lenses AND you know for sure you'll be shooting with the 5DSR in the situations it's built for then go for it, it's a cracking camera. Just don't rely on it to do everything. If you haven't invested in a camera brand yet then the Sony is the stronger bet, certainly in the short term - the improved higher ISO performance simply means it can do the same as the 5DSR plus that little bit more, making it a more versatile purchase overall.
Personally? I'll stick with my 6D for now because I don't specialise in any one photography genre but I will be eagerly watching to see how the next-generation of massive megapixel monsters pan out. Something with extremely high resolution AND 6D noise performance is the dream :)
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