Canon EOS 5Ds R Review: Razor Sharp Photography

To uninformed photographers, more might always seem better. Others know though, that too much of a good thing can be bad.

When Canon launched the twin DSLRs, the 5Ds and 5Ds R, they made history by stuffing APS-C level of pixel density into a full-frame sensor. The result? 50 MP of pixel peeping goodness. Is 50 MP inherently bad? Definitely not, but there are specific and limited uses for it.

Who is the camera for? Well, if you like to pixel peep, shoot significant amounts of astrophotography, or require extremely large sized prints, you’re the target audience of these twins. But what, exactly, are the difference(s) between them?

5Ds vs 5Ds R

The 5Ds R's twin -- the 5Ds
The 5Ds R’s twin — the 5Ds

While the 5Ds comes with an anti-aliasing (AA) filter that’s standard on most cameras, the 5Ds R has a self cancelling optical low pass filter (OLPF). An AA filter blurs the image slightly before it reaches the sensor so that we don’t get artefacts like moiré. Although this is useful, if you know how to avoid causing these artefacts, you can squeeze even more detail out of a camera (especially one that sports 50.6MP) by doing away with the filter.

The difference between having and canceling/removing the OLPF | Photo: LDP LLC
The difference between having and canceling/removing the OLPF | Photo: LDP LLC

What this means that the 5Ds will function far better when shooting objects that predominantly feature fabric, but in situations like shooting the milky way, the 5Ds R will come up top thanks to its superior detail.

That’s all.

Yup. That really is all. Everything else is shared between the 5Ds and 5Ds R. The same chassis, motor, sensor, autofocus system, and the like. The only difference is the addition of the second OLPF, which cancels the first one. As such, all I’ll be reviewing here for the 5Ds R will be its image quality, but also something that I shouldn’t have had to write about — the battery.

Given the overlap between both 5Ds DSLRs, everything is identical in look, feel, and use, however the battery life was something that differed greatly between both, so I have decided to add that into the review too.

If you’d like to find out more about what’s not going to be in this review (i.e. how the AF is, the sensor’s dynamic range, etc), head on over to Nigel’s review of the 5Ds.

Now, let’s begin.

Image Samples

To truly understand the power of 50MP combined with a self-cancelling OLPF, click on the images for the full-resolution versions. The images below were all shot in RAW with the EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM, but the last of the edited images was shot with the EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens.

Unedited

As you might have realised, the images above were all shot in fully manual based on the metering reading the camera gave out. Despite the use of spot metering for narrow subjects (e.g. the aircraft) or partial metering (e.g. for the landscapes), the 5Ds R often suggested underexposed values. Out in the field with a monitor not always available for reference, it is easy to end up missing the correct exposure.

Furthermore, while higher ISO performance (e.g. from ISO 1600 and above) was something I found pretty well controlled given the pixel density, the lower ISO values were what didn’t live up to my expectation. Canon’s own enthusiast and professional-grade crop sensor cameras such as the 7D Mark II and 80D have better low ISO noise management.

As seen in the three images of the aircraft shot at night, extremely low shutter speeds (coupled with IS) still allow you to get sharp, non-blurry images from the camera. This was thanks to the heft and size of the 5Ds R which meant that panning at controlled and consistent speeds was far easier than with smaller and lighter cameras.

To actually get a proper sense of what the 5Ds R is capable of, though, have a look at the same samples that have been edited in Adobe Lightroom. These display the true range of the RAW files in shadow and highlight recovery, as well as dynamic range.

Edited

As can be seen above, the shadow recovery is perhaps the most impressive part of the 5Ds R’s images. Going from noisy, significantly underexposed images to the tune of 1 or 1.5 stops to clean, and perfectly exposed (yet still sharp) images is something that is easily done with the quality of the RAW output that is produced by the 5Ds R. Colours are able to pop precisely as they were captured, and fine detail is still preserved with moderately strong noise removal.

Another big advantage of shooting 50MP is that you get huge flexibility in re-framing your shots in post-processing via cropping. Beginning with almost a ‘9K’ (horizontal pixels) image gives you incredible leeway, allowing you humungous crop ability while still being able to spit out an image that’s anywhere as small as 8MP.

Noise Performance

Cramming in a pixel density equal to APS-C sensor cannot be good for a full-frame sensor, and compared to the 5D Mark III noise performance is a definite step down, but the trade-off between noise and the extra detail is (in my opinion) worth it. Have a look at the ISO test images below to find out more. These images were all shot with the EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens.

JPG:

RAW:

In this controlled test, I could not find any trace of more-than-usual noise in low ISO conditions. Furthermore, high ISO performance is also top notch. Extremely miniscule text, as see on the inhaler box, can be read up to ISO 5000, which is a very impressive achievement for a camera that has got such a high pixel density.

Issues with banding are also not present even at the highest ISO (12800, H), and the grain is largely uniform. In short, for the photography the 5Ds R is meant for, you can shoot away at high ISO with impunity, for the noise will not be too much of a bother at all.

Battery Life

For the 5Ds, Nigel found the battery to be exactly what it advertised. Both the 5Ds and 5Ds R use the LP-E6 battery, shared between an absolutely huge number of Canon’s DSLRs, and are both rated at 700 shots. With the 5Ds, even when shooting RAW, the 5Ds was more or less accurate to that figure. Not so for the 5Ds R.

On one of my shoots, after just half a day of languidly shooting landscapes, I looked at the battery in alarm to realise that I’d just 30% left. After having left the hotel with a full charge, I had shot just 300 shots, which had evidently consumed a whopping 70% of battery life. Eventually, the battery gave out at about 400 shots.

Feeling something must obviously have been wrong, I sent the unit back to Canon. However, it seems that they could not find a defect for the unit I received had the same issue. Take note, other 5Ds R users have not encountered this issue, so it could just be my bad luck but I’d recommend having at least 2 spares in your bag for a whole day of stress-free shooting.

Conclusion

The 5Ds R is simply a 5Ds with an added focus on sharpness. It offers the same 50MP, but trades moire reduction ability for the crispness the second OLPF provides. For those who need the crop ability, and the fine detail, the 5Ds R is the camera to get. It’s got great colours, incredible sharpness, and pretty decent noise performance. The tradeoff is the enormously high price of S$5399. With the 5D Mark IV now available, and $200 cheaper too, the 5Ds R is now a very tough sell.

The new 5D Mark IV
The new 5D Mark IV

The former has got a new, 30 MP sensor with a dynamic range that is far better than the 5Ds R has, and it even supports 4K video. Both have the exact same ergonomics, and it does seem that the lower resolution means a longer battery life (not to mention lower storage consumed). Nevertheless, if the resolution and sharpness is a compromise that you cannot make, then it’s certain that the 5Ds R is the camera for you because with this, even billboard sized prints will be as crisp as they were on your monitor. Now isn’t that impressive?

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