Canon EOS R hands-on review

Both revolution and evolution, Canon's EOS R is the latest mirrorless challenger

Highs

  • 5DM IV sensor in a smaller body
  • Lots of customization
  • Solid lineup of lenses from the get-go
  • Three adapters, each with a specific purpose

Lows

  • No in-body image stabilization
  • Low frame rate in continuous mode

When Canon asked itself whether the EOS R was an “evolution or a revolution,” the answer was simply “yes.” Although it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, this inquiry and accompanying answer is one we kept coming back to during our hands-on time with the EOS R.

On one hand, it’s hard to ignore the newness of it all. It’s Canon’s first foray into full-frame mirrorless cameras, with an all new lens mount and a slew of new options and customizations never before seen in a camera. On the other hand, it pulls plenty of inspiration — physical and otherwise — from Canon’s other cameras, most notably the Canon 5D Mark IV.

The EOS R comes at the heels of another similar mirrorless full-frame camera line, the Nikon Z-series, including the Z6 and the hotly anticipated Nikon Z7. While these models are exciting introductions for both companies, they also signal that the entire camera industry is now onboard with mirrorless. (Note: This isn’t Canon’s first mirrorless camera. Canon has the EOS-M APS-C lineup, which aren’t going away.) However, with Canon and Nikon late to the game — Sony dominates in full-frame mirrorless — does the EOS R have what it takes to catch up? It’s too early to say in this preview, but, for now, we can take a look at what we do know.

Canon EOS R Hands-on
Gannon Burgett/Digital Trends

Design

The first thing we noticed about the EOS R is how balanced it seems. Considering how much smaller it is than its DSLR counterparts, it’s easy to think the EOS R will somehow feel less substantial or insignificant in terms of build quality. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Once you nail down the customizations, it quickly becomes apparent how much EOS R’s new tools improve workflow.

The footprint is smaller than most of Canon’s DSLRs, yet the EOS R is no lightweight; it has a construction that says to photographers, “you can take me into the most demanding environments.” We used the EOS R in the natural surroundings of Maui, Hawaii, where Canon launched the camera (we were guests of Canon, but all opinion is entirely our own), and faced everything from waves and sand to sun and rocky terrains.

The grip is nearly identical in size to Canon’s 5D cameras. The dials and buttons have a nice tactile response, and even with larger lenses — such as Canon’s new 400mm F/2.8 L IS III — the EOS R’s new RF-mount is strong. In summary: the EOS R is built like Canon’s DSLRs, with quality.

As of this writing, we’re barely 72 hours into holding the camera for the first time, so there’s still some kinks to work out, like getting the right customizations set up and becoming familiar with the new control ring of the RF lenses and Multi-function Bar on the back of the camera — the latter being a customizable touch-sensitive navigation tool that we can’t yet determine if it’s gimmicky or useful.

Some of it feels unnatural at first until you really spend some time setting up the various customizable options to the settings and tools available, but once you do nail down the customizations you need, it quickly becomes apparent how significant these new tools will become in photographer’s workflow, especially when we picked up our 5D Mark III for the first time after two days with the EOS R.

Specs

Thanks to a leaked specs list — that was verified as authentic by Canon reps — it didn’t come as much of a surprise that the EOS R was effectively a Canon 5D Mark IV sensor stuck in a smaller frame with a redesigned lens mount.

The Canon EOS R isn’t something you switch to, it’s something you add to the family.

But it’s not just a 5D Mark IV in a smaller body, as there are a few upgrades, such as the new Digic 8 image processor (compared to the Digic 6+ found in the 5D Mark IV) and 3.15-inch Vari-angle touchscreen LCD on the back of the camera (this trumps the Nikon Z7’s tilting LCD when it comes to shooting video), but nothing about the EOS R is necessarily mind-blowing.

It’s easy to think Canon missed the mark in a few areas, depending on your genre of photography or cinematography, but the EOS R proves as a strong base for the new EOS RF system to grow on. To paraphrase Canon’s own words, the EOS R isn’t something you switch to, it’s something you add to the family.

Because the RF is a new system, it isn’t natively compatible with Canon’s existing EF and EF-S lenses. But thanks to the three adapters to choose from and four new lenses, the transition from shooting Canon DSLRs to the new EOS RF system should be almost seamless — good news if you have a lot invested in EF or EF-S lenses.

Canon EOS R Hands-on
Gannon Burgett/Digital Trends

Three adapter options seem excessive, but each one serves its own purpose, and both the control ring and drop-in filter options are brilliant, as they give additional functionality to older glass — even really old Canon analog glass. Which one should you buy? It depends on what type of existing Canon user you are.

Speaking of lenses, Canon has managed to launch a solid lineup of brand-new RF lenses that will be available within a few months of the EOS R being released. We managed to get our hands on the new RF 50mm F/1.2 ($2,299), RF 24-105mm F/4 ($1,099), and RF 35mm F/1.8 Macro IS ($499) during the first few days with the camera and it’s hard to put into words just how well-built these lenses are.

The Dual Pixel autofocus system is one of the best technologies you’ll find in a modern camera.

Even the RF 35mm F/1.8 Macro IS, which isn’t part of Canon’s L-series and therefore lacks weather sealing and more advanced optical elements, is phenomenal. The 50mm F/1.2 in particular is ridiculous — even wide-open at f/1.2, it’s tack-sharp and has beautiful color rendering, especially skin tones. Then again, at nearly the price of a new EF 70-200mm F/2.8 IS zoom lens, we should hope that’s the case.

What is exciting is that the camera includes Canon’s fantastic Dual Pixel autofocus system. We still need to fully test this feature in the EOS R, but as we found in our 5D Mark IV review, it makes autofocusing when shooting video a breeze. It’s fast and flawless, and it’s one of the best technologies you’ll find in a modern camera today.

One thing we wish Canon added was in-body image stabilization, as Nikon did with the Z7 and Z6. As we found with the Z7, image stabilization comes in handy, especially in low-light conditions, video recording, and when using non-stabilized lenses. While the EOS R is a highly capable camera, we think the addition of in-body IS would have been a nice plus.

The camera has just one memory (SD) slot, but this is either a high or low depending on the type of photography you shoot. Also, we would have liked a higher frame rate when shooting in continuous mode. For now, we’ll reserve final judgment for our full review, after we’ve had more time to play with the camera.

Sample images

The gallery you’ll find below is a collection of JPEG photos taken straight from the EOS R camera, in the Standard picture mode and on auto white balance in Adobe RGB. The only adjustments we made to the images is a little straightening of horizons, slight cropping where necessary, and downsizing to 5,120 pixels in the longest dimension. All metadata should be intact, so feel free to download the images and see what lenses were used and what settings the camera was set on at the time of capture.

The image quality is very good — what we would expect from a higher-end Canon. But, until we have more time to shoot — particularly video, as many observers are already commenting negatively about the cropped 4K quality — we are going to reserve judgment for later.

Of course, it’s subjective and will vary greatly depending on the lens you have in front of the sensor, but image quality is there. We haven’t yet been able to take a look at the RAW files, but the JPEGs from the camera showed fantastic dynamic range and accurate color rendering, especially with skin tones.

Not everyone is going to like the 1.7× crop factor of the video, but seeing 4K/30p video with the ability to ramp it up to 120 frames per second — albeit at the cost of dropping it down to 720p — is nice. Canon offers Canon Log for more dynamic capture, but straight from the camera, the footage looks solid and rack-focusing using the LCD touchscreen is smooth from what we’ve tested so far.

The Canon EOS R camera is set to ship October 2018 for an MSRP of $2,299 body-only and as a kit with the RF 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens for $3,399. We’re going to spend a few more weeks with a full production unit to put it through the paces for a full-length review. Until then, have fun looking at the sample images — and reach out to us if you have any further questions not specifically addressed in our hands-on.

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