Review of the Canon R5 and Bearded Vultures

I hope you had a wonderful festive season with family and friends, and that you are well rested for the year ahead.

I started my holiday with an incredible visit to the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle, which was not only great from a photographic perspective but also a wonderful tonic for the soul.

I had booked the trip in September to celebrate our move to the Midlands and being so close to this phenomenal photographic destination. Although I had been to the hide on several occasions before, I had two specific reasons for visiting again. Firstly, I wanted to experience the hide in mid-summer. Although most photographers consider winter as the best time to go, I wanted to see for myself and I also wanted to take images with the beautiful, green backgrounds that summer provides. Secondly, I wanted to put my new Canon R5 to the test and thought that the hide would provide many opportunities to do just this. Although I had been experimenting with the camera for over 3 months already, I wanted to ensure I had taken enough flight and action shots before giving my thoughts on its performance.

The trip exceeded all my expectations; with my R5 camera taking just under 3000 images and my own eyes experiencing Bearded Vultures like never before. Perhaps I was just lucky, but if my first trip in December is anything to go by, I would encourage people to look beyond winter.

An adult Bearded Vulture takes off, with a small shin-bone in its talons, in front of the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa). This was undoubtedly my best trip to Giant’s Castle, partly because of the accommodating Vultures but also because of the incredible performance of the Canon R5.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600| 1/2500s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Given the success of the outing, this next newsletter will not only provide my thoughts on Canon’s new, mirrorless camera but also show you the portfolio of images I captured within the 48 hour period of being at Giant’s Castle. As much as I could try and take credit for the images, I think they speak more loudly about the camera’s skills than mine!

My thoughts on the R5 are not meant to replace a detailed technical or a comprehensive practical review. I didn’t test image quality or performance in all conditions and at every possible iso level, and I haven’t covered every aspect of the camera and its features. Hence, I encourage you to read more widely before making a purchase decision.

The write up is instead targeted at photographers like myself who want an open and honest take on the camera for bird photography; providing the good, the bad and the ugly. Although I read a number of reviews before making my own choice, I found that many of them spoke primarily of the positive or too generally, and failed to address some of the issues for bird photography, which were obvious when the camera landed in my lap. Hopefully this newsletter will be informative (albeit high level) and help you decide whether it is time to enter the mirrorless market or buy an R5.

An adult Bearded Vulture collects a bone, for late afternoon lunch, before making a quick getaway in front of the Vulture’s Hide at Giant’s Castle.

Before I give my thoughts, it is probably worthwhile describing my bird photography preferences, as these influence both my choice of camera and the review that follows. As most of you know my favourite genre of bird photography is “habitat shots”, which try to capture the essence of birds in their environment and thus, are taken from a fair distance from the bird and often when the bird is framed by branches or foliage. I also like pushing the boundaries from a creativity perspective and thus look to take images in varying light conditions; from low light to backlit and using different camera techniques. That said, I also enjoy close-up portraits of birds, especially if they are rare or hard to find, and I like being able to capture action and flight when it happens. Given my preference for habitat shots, however, I prefer a camera body with better image quality and higher megapixels (for cropping purposes) over one with high frames per second. Hence, my go-to camera for many years has been the 5d mkiv. If I was more focused on flight and action, it would have been the 1D X mkii (now mkiii).


Mirrorless, mirrorless, mirrorless!

An adult Bearded Vulture drops a recently collected bone in front of the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle. The R5’s animal eye autofocus makes photographing action much easier than in the past. With a relatively clear background, the autofocus identifies the eye quickly and keeps locked on the eye throughout the sequence of shots.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600| 1/3200s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

If you have been locked in a cupboard for 18 months without any access to society or the internet, you may be the only person in the photographic world who hasn’t heard of the mirrorless revolution. Undoubtedly this is the most disruptive new technology to hit the photography industry for many a decade. New brands such as Sony are challenging the giants in the industry; Nikon and Canon, to produce Cameras that have both fast shutter speeds, incredible iso performance and crazy megapixels. This is pretty much a dream come true for bird photographers (myself included), as it combines awesome image quality AND a fantastic frame rate!

A Bearded Vulture swoops in to land at the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle. The Canon R5 is a total game changer when it comes to “bird in flight” photography. It locks onto the eye of the subject within seconds and all you have to do as the photographer is keep the bird in the frame and push the shutter button.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600| 1/2500s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

When I first heard about mirrorless, I was somewhat sceptical and waited some time before jumping on the bandwagon. A big reason for delaying was that several photographers I respected had tried the best mirrorless cameras on offer and had concluded that they weren’t quite there yet from a bird photography perspective, and hence had remained with their current camera bodies.

Added to this, my favourite brand; Canon, was some distance behind its competitors when it came to mirrorless and I didn’t want to swap out all my kit and learn a new operating system. I also thought that Canon was likely to catch up!

This Jackal Buzzard swooped in so quickly that I would have had little chance of getting this sharp with my usual rig. The R5, however, seemed to manage it with ease. This image is almost full frame: 7034 x 4692.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/800s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.3 | no Flash

This all changed a few months back, however, when Canon brought out its flagship, mirrorless camera; the R5. With a shutter speed of 12 frames per second (20 fps with its electronic shutter), 45 megapixels at its disposal and a focusing system that promised to automatically detect and focus on a bird or animal’s eye, the camera held much promise and immediately sparked my interest.

After watching and reading numerous reviews, the camera seemed to check out and I decided to take the plunge in September. Fortunately, I had a prime lens to trade in, so the financial implications were far less onerous than having to cough up the full R82k purchase price. It has been over four months of experimenting with the camera now and I feel I am in a decent position to share some of my thoughts with you.

A Bearded Vulture takes off from its well-known landing spot at Giant’s Castle. Normally I would take a sequence of flight photographs and around 20% to 30% would be sharp on the head. With the R5 I don’t even have to zoom in on the jpegs, as at least 80% of the time, the camera nails the focus. Pretty impressive if you ask me! Dimensions 7226 x 4820.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600| 1/2500s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Let’s start with the good: In a nutshell, the R5 exceeded all my expectations when it came to flight and action photography. Moreover, the Camera’s iso performance and image quality is next level, which enables me to take images which were previously impossible. Added to this, the effectiveness of the animal eye autofocus enables me to spend more time focusing on composition and creativity, and thus adds another dimension to my “habitat shot” photography; which will allow me to push the creative envelope even further in the future.

The new animal eye autofocus system: This is probably the most talked about feature of the R5 and a real game changer when it comes to focusing on birds in flight or fast-moving subjects. It locks onto the target far faster than any camera I have ever experienced. All you need to do is see a blur in the viewfinder (by getting the autofocus within reach of the subject), follow the blur and push the focus button down. The camera locks onto the eye immediately (most of the time) and your only job as the photographer is to keep the subject within the frame and keep taking images. The camera does the rest!

A Bearded Vulture suddenly appears in front of the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle. One of the amazing features of the Canon R5 is how quickly the animal eye autofocus locks onto the eye of the subject. I had moments when I would lose a Vulture (or Dove or Swallow) through foliage or other obstacles and the autofocus would immediately pick it up as it re-appeared. This enabled me to get images that would otherwise have been impossible with my previous cameras. Dimensions 7276 x 4853.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000| 1/2000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This sounds easier than it is, as there are a few things you need to setup on the camera to make this possible. Firstly, I found that it helped to set front button focus on spot AF and not animal eye. This allows you to focus the camera on where you want animal eye AF to start searching for an eye. Without doing this, focusing can be quite frustrating as the focus jumps all over the place and often searches in the wrong places. I then set my back button focus to animal eye AF. In that, I would use my front button to get the focus in the vicinity of where the bird was or where it would be flying into and then use back button focus to lock onto the eye.

I found this to be incredibly effective, especially when there is separation between the bird and the background. Once locked on the eye, the camera was sensational and as long as you kept the subject in the viewfinder I found approximately 80% (if not more) of my flight photographs were sharp on the head.

An almost full frame “habitat shot” of an adult Bearded Vulture in flight. (Dimensions 6886 x 4592). The animal eye autofocus was so reliable that I was able to position slow flying birds in the frame, so as to achieve the composition I was looking for. This is a big deal for the type of photography I most enjoy and will add significantly to creativity going forward.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000| 1/3200s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

As much as I was super impressed by the autofocus, the real game changer for me was that the bird could be at the bottom right or top left of the frame, and the animal eye AF would stay locked on and ensure that the image remained pin sharp on the head of the bird.

Consequently, this is the first time I have been able to focus on slow flying birds and actually position them where I wanted them in the frame. Full frame, well composed flight shots are now something that are very much within reach. For me this is one of the most incredible features and extends beyond flight photography to my favourite images; “habitat shots”, as well. The ability to quickly use animal eye AF to position the bird where you want it from a composition perspective is a major advantage and will undoubtedly enable greater levels of creativity.

A White-necked Raven chases a sub-adult Bearded Vulture along the cliffs at Giant’s Castle.

45 megapixels: Holy moly! I have always been impressed with the image quality of the 5d mkiv, but this camera is next level. The detail that you can achieve with 45 megapixels is just amazing. This combined with a strong shutter speed and the best iso performance I have experienced in a Canon camera, makes for some very exciting opportunities to take images that were previously impossible and/or to improve on existing images.

To give you a sense of the image quality here is a loose and tight crop of the same image of a sub-adult Bearded Vulture that landed behind the Vulture Hide. Given that I was shooting at iso 2000 and between trees and grass, I was super impressed with how this came out. The top image (before being sized for web) is 7145 x 4787 and the bottom image is 2287 x 1525.
Camera and Lens: Canon R5| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000| 1/1600s | f5.6 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.3 | no Flash

Taking flight shots with a 600mm lens at Giant’s Castle and knowing that your file is likely to remain over 6500 pixels at the longest side, is very rewarding and the images really speak for themselves.

An adult Bearded Vulture glides past me at Giant’s Castle. Spending 10 hours in the hide each day meant I had lots of opportunities to practice my flight shots on gliding Vultures. That being said, this is the most active I have experienced these majestic birds. At one point I could count 4 different birds in front of the hide at the same time.
An adult Bearded Vulture flies straight at me, with dark clouds and shadowed mountains behind it.
A juvenile Bearded Vulture glides past the hide at close quarters. Definitely one of the more evil-looking birds I have seen!

12 or 20 frames per second: 12fps is fine for me (even if you only get this at optimal battery and light conditions). I have been using a 5d mkiv for a number of years, which only has 7 fps, so having an extra 5 fps is really helpful when you want to capture more wing positions and action shots in a sequence. If you have been using the latest Canon 1DXs, however, this isn’t a step up. But then there is 20 fps in electronic shutter mode, which is at least on par! In my opinion and for my type of shooting, the extra megapixels and excellent iso performance, however, gives this camera the edge over any other Canon bodies.

Iso performance and image stabilisation: I still haven’t pushed the limits with regard to iso performance, but have been really impressed with how little noise there is at iso 6400. What I can say for sure is that it is a gigantic step up from my Canon 5d mkiv and is going to make a massive difference to “low light” and flight photography. I just wish I had this camera when photographing birds in the dimly lit forests of Coutada 11, Mozambique.

The image stabilisation, as expected, is pretty awesome! What can go wrong with an in-body image stabilisation that provides up to 8 stops of shake correction? I primarily shoot handheld, so this is an added advantage and what many in the industry consider the best full frame IBIS around.

Compatibility with my 600mm f4 mkiii lens: I was a little worried about how the R5 would work with my EF lens (600 f4 mkiii), but to be honest I haven’t noticed any differences. The converter works like a charm!

This image was taken while it was drizzling at iso 3200. It would normally have quite a lot of noise with my 5d mkiv but with the R5 it has little to no noise to speak of.

Now for the bad and the somewhat ugly: In short, I would prefer not to have to look through an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and found the EVF’s lag to get started and the autofocus’s difficulty in picking out birds in thick, multi-layered environments frustrating. Consequently, I will be keeping my Canon 5d mkiv for specific shooting conditions.

EVF lag and slower to focus in cluttered environments: The EVF takes a bit of getting used and is probably the aspect of the camera that I like least. There is something a little odd about looking at a scene in front of you through a digital interface versus the real thing. The plus side is that the digital view allows you to assess exposure in real time, which is awesome. The resolution is also excellent, and I didn’t have any issues with blackout.

The EVF, however, takes a little while to kick in! Hence if you only have a few seconds to focus on a bird before it flies off, you will miss the shot. This can be a real bummer if you are like me and sometimes attempt to photograph some of the more elusive birds that our planet has to offer. This can be partly prevented by constantly focusing on the area where you think the bird will appear, but this is not an ideal fix.

Added to this, the camera battles to focus on subjects when they are between multi-layered foliage, far away with a busy background or small and in front of a more obvious target. The camera doesn’t have the equivalent of spot focus (i.e. the equivalent focus point is much bigger than on my DSLR cameras) and struggles to engage with birds in the above situations.

My 5d mkiv is much quicker when it comes to immediacy of focus and is often more effective when engaging with subjects in the thick stuff, and hence I am glad I still have it for certain occasions!

A Cape White-eye peers down at me from an old Oak tree in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, South Africa. This kind of image can be difficult to take with the R5 and you may well miss the shot. However, with my 5d I have become very adept at locking focus very quickly in these types of scenarios.

I spent a lot of time near my home, in a beautiful field of dense flowers, testing the focus system on a variety of small birds to double check if it was me or the camera. My conclusion is that it is the camera, and that my previous camera bodies are indeed superior when it comes to immediacy of focus and dealing with dense, multi-layered environments. As mentioned previously, the only way to counter this was to use the front button’s spot AF to focus near the subject and then engage animal eye AF soon afterwards, but even this struggled (approx 20% of the time) if there was no obvious way to get spot AF near where you wanted it. This can be super frustrating if time is of the essence or if you can’t afford to miss the shot.

To be fair, despite these shortfalls, I did find that if you can get the spot AF to focus in the vicinity of the bird, then the animal eye AF can be brilliant, and indeed an improvement, in the thick stuff. I spent many hours shooting White-starred Robins, in a dark, dense forest environment, where the animal eye AF enabled some shots that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve previously.

In the R5’s defence as much as you may miss some images due to EVF lag and some focus difficulties in the thick stuff, it will enable you to get crisp, sharp images in many circumstances where pervious Canon cameras would have failed. For example, if I was using my 5d mkiv for this Red-chested Flufftail, I would likely have been very disappointed and have come away with an image that was soft around the eye and head. This often happens when you have a fast-moving subject darting around at close quarters, but with the animal eye autofocus the R5 nailed it. You don’t get opportunities like this often and hence, it is hard to consider being without this new Canon camera.

Camera freezing: I had the camera freezing once or twice in the first month of usage, but then upgraded the software and haven’t had an issue since.

Battery life: Several reviews I read before purchasing the R5 were concerned about its battery life. I have noticed that the camera is hungrier than my existing DSLR bodies, but I haven’t found this to be an issue. Given you use the latest batteries (LP-E6) and the battery grip, which takes two batteries, you shouldn’t have much to worry about. I spent 10 hours per day in the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle shooting more than I would on any normal day, and only ran out of two batteries after 8 to 9 hours of shooting. (and I was only using one of the latest batteries as stock was not available when I made the initial order).

An adult Bearded vulture lands to pick up a bone in front of the Vulture Hide. What an incredible spectacle and something I would encourage everyone to experience at least once.

In summary, I am very glad I bought the Canon R5! Mirrorless is undoubtedly the future (until a more disruptive technology comes along) and I am glad I have started the journey towards getting the hang of it. I haven’t experienced anything that gets near to competing with the R5 from a flight and action perspective, and the animal eye autofocus adds an extra dimension to my “habitat shot” images and future creativity.

I am also glad that I didn’t change to Sony or some other brand, as I am so used to how my Canon operates and really enjoy its user interface and how it feels in hand. My view is that each of the top brands will regularly leapfrog the other but over time they will keep pace, and hence I feel it makes sense to stick with what I know and love.

I am, however, grateful that I kept my Canon 5d mkiv, as this may still be my go-to camera for specific occasions; where immediacy of focus is important or where I need to navigate dense, multi-layered environments and can’t afford to miss the shot. This doesn’t take away from the R5s benefits, but it is slightly disappointing given that I will need to weigh up which camera to use in different circumstances. For hides, perch and general photography, the R5 is a no-brainer but for rare, skittish birds or dark, dense forest environments I may have to toss a coin. If I am a betting man, however, I think I will probably go with the R5 more often than not, as the iso performance and image quality keep you coming back for more!

Probably the most interesting take away for me, however, is that cameras like the R5 are levelling the playing field when it comes to flight and action photography. With these advancements and others, soon all that will differentiate one photographer from the next is the level of art, uniqueness or creativity that is incorporated in their images. If you agree with this sentiment, then it makes sense to select a camera body that gives you more optionality when it comes to pushing your creative boundaries, and in this regard the R5 seems ahead of the pack.

As always, please let me know what you think of my latest newsletter and feel free to send me any questions or considerations for my next one.

Yours in bird photography