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GEAR – Is it hard to take sharp pictures with the Canon 5Ds R?


I recently bought the new Canon 5Ds R camera primarily to take advantage of its 50 megapixel sensor for landscape photography. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself using it more and more even with my telephoto lens. Why? Because I really like the ability to change between full-frame, 1.3x, and 1.6x modes on the fly (I set the little multi-function button next to the shutter button to change between crop modes). When shooting wildlife or birds, I’m normally scrambling to take teleconverters on and off as I frame more loosely or more tightly. With the new body I have the benefit of switching between the different crop modes on the fly and without even lifting my eye from the viewfinder while at the same time composing in-camera, a challenge I enjoy and an important part of photography in my opinion.

Nonetheless, when using the Canon 5Ds R for this type of photography, one reads a number of online complaints about the camera. I’ll agree with one but will take issue with the other two, sharing here a photo of a black guan I took in a Costa Rican cloud forest the other day to back up my issue with those two complaints.

The first complaint is that the frame rate is slow, and the large files can quickly fill up the camera’s buffer. I agree with this and, when I’m shooting action such as a bird in flight, I’ll usually grab my 7DII. I don’t think anyone would ever claim that the 5Ds R was made for action shooting. But, for portraits of animals and birds, these two drawbacks are not a big issue at all for the 5Ds R.

The second complaint (actually it’s more of a consideration than a complaint) about the camera is that it is harder to obtain sharp images because of the increased pixel density. The excellent resolution of the sensor means that poor technique will be exposed and magnified, rendering images less sharp. Some reviewers recommend that users may need 2 to 3 extra stops of shutter speed over what they normally would be used to for getting sharp pictures. While I understand the logic behind this, I simply haven’t found this to be the case with the new camera.

The third complaint relates to high ISO. “The new camera only goes to ISO 6400 (expandable to 12,800) while the (insert camera model here) goes up to 52,800!” The important thing about ISO is, of course, how a camera performs at the ISO values that we actually use. No one expects to get a publishable shot out of ISO 52,800 so whether the 5Ds R goes there or not is a moot point. I’ve found that, in keeping with a number of other reviews, I’ll shoot the new 5Ds R just as I shot the 5DIII — going to ISO 3200 without too much thought if I need to and even going to ISO 6400 if I have to. When viewing a 5Ds R image at 100%, there can at first glance appear to be more noise than say the Canon 5D III. But upon downsizing the 5Ds R file for print or web, the difference disappears. And of course, upsizing a 5D III or 7D II to make a big print would also cancel any initial noise advantage that the sensors with less resolution might have originally enjoyed. A Canon 5Ds R file will print at very nearly 20 x 30 inches at 300 ppi without any upsizing!

By way of example, I took a photo of the turkey-like Black Guan at the very end of a rainy day last week in a Costa Rican cloud forest. To test whether I really needed more shutter speed to get a sharp picture, I shot handheld and at a very slow shutter speed for handholding a 300 mm f/2.8 lens — 1/100th of a second. I also shot wide open at f/2.8 so I really had to nail my focus. Finally, I cranked the ISO up to 2000, which is a pretty high value when you’re working in very low light. (Taking ISOs way up in good light is not a valid test in my mind because you’re still dealing with lots of photons!)

To sum up, this situation had all the ingredients to make the attempt to get a sharp picture a total failure on the new Canon 5Ds R. I used the Canon 5Ds R and the Canon 300 mm f/2.8 L IS Version I lens and shot handheld. My settings were f/2.8, ISO 2000, 1/100th of a second, single point autofocus over the bird’s eye, and manual mode with spot metering. I exposed a little on the dark side in order to keep the bright patch of skin near the bird’s beak from blowing out. Let’s see how I did!
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This is my RAW file straight out of the camera. I shot and composed in the 1.3 crop mode on the 5Ds R, meaning my compositional choice would give me a 30.5 megapixel (6768×4512) image. Sweet! On my exposure, I’m just barely losing detail in some of the dark feathers at the bottom right edge of the screen, and I’m fine with that as it gives a vignetting effect that keeps the viewer’s eye going to the bird’s face.

As an aside, here is the full-frame image from the same file. Even though I shot in the 5Ds R’s 1.3 mode, the camera keeps the complete 50 MP RAW file. Lightroom picks up the crop mode information so when I import the file in Lightroom, it shows up with my in-camera framing as above. But, if I ever wanted to choose an alternate crop, I have the file from the entire full-frame sensor at the ready.

Here’s an extreme closeup extracted from my file. Is it the sharpest picture I’ve ever taken? Of course not. But, is it acceptably sharp, especially given the conditions and my settings? I think so, and more importantly for the purposes of this post, I feel that it is about what I would have expected to get under the same conditions with the Canon 1D Mark IV, the Canon 7DII, or the Canon 5DIII.

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About the author Gregory Basco:
Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders.

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