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Thoughts on the new Canon gear for Bird Photography

I have long expected that mirrorless camera bodies would come to dominate serious photography in general. I currently have what some call a “bridge” camera, a Sony RX10 IV which has 20 MP in a mirrorless body and a Zeiss lens which zooms from 24mm to 600mm at F4.0. This simple, but expensive Sony focuses quickly and has a silent shutter that can shoot up to 24 fps. I only use a speed of 10 fps, though.

The silent shutter is a nice feature for photographing birds.

I still use the Canon 7D II and attach a Sigma Sport 150mm – 600mm to it. I tend to use this setup for distant subjects and also flying subjects. The Canon lens factor of 1.6 makes this combination reach out to 960mm, significantly more than the above Sony. It is not a mirrorless body, though.

For a non-mirrorless body, the lens functions slightly differently from one built for mirrorless body. The electrical contacts between the lens and the body will differ. Firstly, when you depress the shutter, the mirror in the DSLR flips up and the lens stops down to the desired setting. For a mirrorless body, there is no mirror to flip up, but the lens still must stop down. Also, the distance from the back end of the mirrorless lens to the sensor in the camera is less because there is no mirror. Basically you will likely desire new lenses if you convert from a mirrored body to a mirrorless one. There are converters, but a meticulous photographer would not wish to use such.

Canon has been moving to mirrorless gear for some time now, but this past week released its first serious body, the R5. This is a full-frame body which has 45 megapixels. Another feature of mirrorless bodies is that they employ video screens in the viewfinder and the back LCD. In this Canon model the EVF, electronic viewfinder has over 5 million pixels and refreshes 120 times per second. That is, in a mirrored body, the mirror flips up when an exposure is made and the view goes black. However, in a mirrorless body, the view never goes black. And being mirrorless, this new Canon can fire up to 20 fps with no shutter noise. (The limiting factor is likely the processing speed of having 45 MP images captured, written and stored on the memory card.) The buffer is very large (over 80 RAW images, I believe).

These features are appealing, but are they as appealing for a Bird Photographer? The big missing feature is the lens factor. As it has a full-frame sensor, a 600mm lens is just a 600mm lens. So I would give up the increased magnification to 960mm if I converted.

Canon also released a number of new mirrorless-compatible lenses for this camera and a couple of them are surprising. For many Birders, the Canon 100mm – 400mm L zoom lens is a staple. The new mirrorless equivalent is 100mm to 500mm, but the max zoom F-stop is F7.1. It’s also an “L” lens and is expensive, significantly more than the price of the 100mm – 400mm L lens.

Canon also released two relatively cheap fixed F-stop big lenses – a 600mm F11 and a 800mm F11. And with these Canon also released 2 new converters, a 1.4X and a 2X which are designed to fit onto its new mirrorless lenses.

Canon is utilizing a feature of mirrorless bodies for such lenses. With a mirrored body, the attaching of an F11 lens results in a very dim viewfinder, in many cases too dim for focusing properly. However, the mirrorless body has an electronic viewfinder and the brightness of the view is unaffected by the dim lens. Canon also claims that autofocus is available to F22. That is, one could attach a 2X converter to the 800mm F11 and obtain a 1600mm magnification at F22 and retain autofocus. Note that these lenses are fixed WRT F-stop. F11 is all you get.

These new lenses are “cheap” when compared to the Big Whites, with both being priced at a $1,000 or less. They use diffractive optics (DO) and STM motors. That is, they are not of the same quality as the Big Whites. The focusing motor will not focus as quickly as that of a Big White.

What does this mean for Birding? The slow focusing bothers me. Birds-in-flight shots seem dubious. However, they are light. The 800mm F11 weighs just 1.2 kg (the Big White 800mm F5.6 weighs 4.5 kg). The new Canon R5 also has in-body image stabilization and coupled with these lenses, Canon claims 5 stops equivalence of stabilization. That is, it may be possible to hand-hold these lenses with the new mirrorless body. The mirrorless Canon R5 body weighs about 0.7 kg.

Note that the new 100mm – 500mm L lens could use the 2X converter as well and obtain a 1000mm view at F14. However, the converter will only attach at a zoom of 300mm or more. With the new technology, perhaps birds-in-flight photos are feasible.

One of the unknown features is the availability of EVF zooming. E.g., if I am focusing on a small object in the center of the frame, could I obtain a zoom in the viewfinder?

As a bonus one of the features of this camera body is 8k video. Probably aimed at film makers. And it is capable of 4k video at 120fps. The R5 has slots for high speed memory cards such as the CF express type B which can write data at over 1000 megabits/second (needed for such video).

The cost of the R5 body is $3900 US. The price of the RF100mm to 500mm L zoom is $2700 US. The 1.4X extender costs $500 US.

Worth it for Bird Photography? I don’t know yet. E.g., an equivalent Sony mirrorless system would include its 61 MP A7R IV body and its 200mm to 600mm zoom lens which tops out at F6.3. The Sony body is priced at $3500 US and the zoom lens at $2000 US. The Sony 1.4X extender costs $550 US.

Normally when you upgrade a camera body, you have an investment in compatible lenses that you can take with you to the new body. I.e., changing from Canon to Sony is less likely if you already have an investment in compatible lenses in one system. For example, I have 4 Canon “L” lenses which are not mirrorless. If I moved to the Canon R5, I would only be able to use these lenses with some sort of converter which in turn I expect will degrade the quality of the lenses (e.g., the focal point on a mirrorless body is closer than that on a mirrored body and hence the converter would have to refract the light to a new focal point). However,if you decide to go mirrorless, you will also likely need to buy new lenses, thus making the switch “easier”.
Just fyi the EF to RF adapter has been out and well tested for over a year and comes in 3 variants, the most interesting of which lets you drop in filters. These small filters are between the camera and lens so buy one polarizer for all your lenses including curved ultra wides (maybe vignetting at the widest) and super teles.
Simply adjusts the distance between camera and lens with no glass unless you get the one to add filters.
Reviews are they work flawlessly. Will wait and see with production reviews in a few weeks.
Cheers, Bruce
Alas, newer lenses are often updatable via software. For example, suppose I moved to Sony and used a Canon EF to Sony E adapter. However, when I purchased the Sigma 150-600mm Sports lens I also purchased a USB connected Sigma updater for Canon. I have used it to update some features on this lens.
But what happens if I connect the lens to a Sony camera via an adapter? The lens internal firmware is geared to Canon, not Sony. The Updater will likely only accept Canon updates. In fact, the physical updater connects to the lens with a Canon EF connection. One must purchase an updater for every system separately.
In other words I shall lose some functionality by using a system adapter. I have checked and Sigma will convert the lens to a Sony E-mount for $600, but it would have to be sent to Japan for this service and would be out of my hands for around 6 weeks. (I'm sure Canon doesn't offer a similar conversion service.) Certainly $600 is cheaper than purchasing a new lens. If I go this route, then I would likely buy the new Sigma 100-400mm Contemporary lens to use while the larger lens was away. (The Sony A7R IV is a full-frame body, but has an APS-C setting which equates to a 26 MP APS-C sensor like that in the Canon 7D II, which is only 20 MP. That is, I would gain about 25% more pixels to resolve my subjects over the Canon 7D II if I used the Sony A7R IV with the same lens. Conversely, if I used the new Canon mirrorless R5, I would lose about 12.5% of the number of pixels used to resolve a subject when compared to the Canon 7D II.)

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