Canon 5DS R Review: Checkmate

Canon's bold move aims to end the megapixel war, but in today's age, can a one-trick pony still carry a knight?


by Daven Mathies  |  June 25, 2015

Canon mythos teaches us that the “L” in L-series lenses stands for luxury. I offer a different explanation: since the beginning, Canon has been building to this very moment, the release of the EOS 5DS and 5DS R. Both new DSLRs feature full-frame sensors serving up 50 megapixels. The Roman numeral for 50, of course, is L. Mystery solved. And this makes sense, because any lens not bearing the L designation will likely fail miserably to live up to the standards this new sensor expects. Of course, many genuine L-series lenses are also not likely to deliver, mainly older models, so… Well, maybe L isn’t actually a Roman numeral in this case. Still, if you buy this camera, you should probably make sure that your lens collection contains at least one piece of Canon glass sporting a red ring.

Or a lens that says “Zeiss Otus” on it, as the 55mm f/1.4 lens I brought on this review does. (Yes, I know, I’m spoiled.)

One of the best things about new technology is how old it makes current technology sound. Take the once-mighty Nikon D810, for example, which I proudly proclaimed “king of the hill” just one year ago, despite it having a paltry 36 megapixels. How could a mere 36MP sensor possibly be any good at all? No professional in his or her right mind could ever make due with such a piffling pixel count. I recall my high school photography teacher once saying, “it will take at least four megapixels before digital can catch up to film.” FOUR?! Why did anyone even bother making a 4MP digital camera? (And what was my teacher smoking?)

I only shot the EOS 5DS R for this review, but just about everything here applies to the EOS 5DS, as well. (An aside: does anyone else agree that it’s time Canon dropped the “EOS” bit? Nobody even knows what that means anymore.) It’s interesting that Canon decided to produce two models of essentially the same camera. Didn’t Nikon already run this very experiment with the D800 and D800e three years go? The differences between the two Canons and those two Nikons are exactly the same: the model with the extra letter has a “cancelled” anti-alias filter and costs $200 more. The effect of anti-alias cancellation is a slight resolution boost at the potential expense of incurring moiré. However, in Nikon’s case, the worries over moiré turned out to be largely unfounded. Nikon has since gone on to produce only one version of the D810, which doesn’t include an anti-aliasing filter at all. This is why I chose to review the 5DS R over the 5DS; in my opinion, it is the only version that should exist. Photographers who are interested in this camera are so for one simple reason: 50 megapixels. I simply can’t imagine such a photographer saying, “I want just shy of the maximum resolution possible.”

At a Glance:

  • 50MP full-frame sensor
  • 61-point AF
  • 5 FPS burst rate
  • CF and SD card slots
  • USB 3.0

Truth be told, the vast majority of photographers, professional or otherwise, do not need 50 megapixels. They don’t need 36. They probably don’t even need 24. (They do need more than 4.) But there are those who will continually seek out the most resolution they can get, and in that regard, the Canon 5DS R is the current leader among 35mm-format cameras. And despite most people not needing it, there are practical applications of having this much resolution. For one, it offers an incredible level of freedom to crop (or to fix grossly tilted horizons, which I, for one, find particularly useful.) It also makes it easy to purposely shoot wide and reframe in post. Such a technique ensures you don’t inadvertently crop out important elements of the scene, and it keeps your subject closer to the center of the frame, where lenses are sharpest and have the least distortion. It also affords one the ability to turn a single frame into several different pictures which could be done to fit different aspect ratios or for multi-panel print displays. Say you’re working on a campaign that will feature web ads, print banners, and a magazine spread. With the 5DS R, you can just shoot wide, then crop out all the different versions you need from a single image. Of course, there are plenty of creative reasons for not shooting this way, but the option is there.

When it comes to actually achieving the full 50MP worth of resolution, however, this is perhaps easier said than done. As we outlined back in 2012, there are several technical issues photographers should be aware of when it comes to maximizing resolution, from shutter vibration to lens diffraction. This applies to all cameras, but the greater the resolution, the more noticeable the effects.

Above: original photo (top) plus close-up and detail crops. Click to enlarge.

Above: effect of diffraction. F/22 (top), F/11, and F/5.6.

As for the issue of vibration, Canon has gone to great lengths to mitigate it. A reinforced tripod mount provides better rigidity and a redesigned mirror and shutter mechanism reduce vibrations. (And you are using a tripod, right?) Canon even included a user-selectable shutter delay, so photographers can determine how long the shutter should wait after the mirror raises before firing. This allows users to choose between absolute minimum vibration or faster operation, depending on their needs.

Diffraction, however, cannot be engineered out (at least not without pulling some quantum trickery to force light to behave as particles instead of a wave). For comparison, the Nikon D810 begins to lose resolution due to diffraction somewhere between f/8 and f/11. The smaller pixels of the 5DS R mean its diffraction limit arrives even sooner, around f/5.6 according to my tests. To clarify, this does not mean that the 5DS R will have less resolution than a D810 at smaller apertures. It just means maximum performance will likely be in the f/4-f/5.6 range, whereas the D810 can continue to achieve its maximum performance through f/8 or so. This is of potential concern to landscape and macro photographers who are accustomed to shooting at very small apertures to gain greater depth of field. The only way to maximize sharpness and maximize depth of field on a 5DS R (or a D810, for that matter) is through focus stacking. If that sounds like too much work to you (as it does to me) and you’d prefer a simpler way to get the highest-resolution, deep depth of field landscapes, you might want to look elsewhere.

The very nature of what’s required to work with this camera limits its appeal, but Canon is very aware of that. This is not a camera that intends to do anything other than provide the maximum resolution possible, and that means compromises had to be made. The high ISO limit of 6400 is so 2008 and the 5 FPS burst rate is easily bested by cameras costing several times less. Then there’s the matter of actually working with 50MP raw files. When I picked up our display model for this review, some joker I work with had put a decade-old 512MB card in it. Number of shots remaining? Four. That’s 128MB per image! (This appears to be a conservative estimate, as actual file sizes in my test ranged from about 60 to 75MB.)

I should probably mention something about video, since the 5D line has been a mainstay of videographers since the Mark II. But it turns out, videographers expect a lot today for $3900, like 4K resolution, clean HDMI output, and at the very least, a headphone jack—all things the 5DS and 5DS R lack. But that’s all okay, because if you want to shoot video, sports, or work in low light situations, this isn’t the camera for you, and Canon is perfectly fine telling you that. They will happily sell you a 5D Mark III. (Which, by the way, has come down in price a lot since its introduction, and we probably have a ton of them in stock. Hint hint.)

It’s impossible to make a camera that pleases everyone, so Canon instead focused on making a camera for a very specific user. While everyone else is complaining about the lack of features in a $3900 camera (myself included), that niche user is contentedly creating some stunning photographs with a camera built specifically for her. If you’re willing and able to give the 5DS R the time it deserves, it will reward you handsomely with incredibly detailed images that make you pause a long moment just to take them in. I’ve already found one good use for it: I call someone into my office, show them a 5DS R image, then say, “check this out,” and hit the Z key to zoom in to 100%. Inevitably, minds are blown. The question is, is that worth blowing four grand? To the right person, sure; for most of us, probably not.

After all, resolution is only one metric of image quality, and arguably not the most important one. In all other regards, the 5DS R is on par but not noteworthy. Raw image quality is good right out of the camera, especially for skin tones. I did have trouble getting JPEGs to look good for landscapes, though—not a huge issue, since I imagine most people will be shooting in raw anyway. There’s also a noticeable amount of noise, even at lower ISO settings, but that’s to be expected and is hardly visible at anything less than 100% magnification. Highlight recovery in the raw files wasn’t great, but there’s actually a decent amount of shadow latitude, which surprised me. It might not match the stellar dynamic range of the Nikon D810, but it is certainly usable, and considering the pixel count, commendable.

“It’s impossible to make a camera that pleases everyone.”

Even with regard to resolution, where this camera aims to excel, you really should use a tripod to get the best results. Most of the images I shot handheld were disappointingly blurry at 100% magnification, but this could also have been a result of shutter speed and lens combinations. I got decent results at higher shutter speeds (1/500 sec. and faster). Really, though, this is even true of today’s lower-end cameras, such as Canon’s Rebel T6s, which has an even smaller pixel pitch. I also recommend using live view and manual focus, as phase-detection autofocus may not be accurate enough in some instances, especially for portraits shot at wide apertures. The sensor just demands so much, and it reveals all the faults of your lenses and technique. Speaking of lenses, Canon’s ultra-wide 11-24mm f/4 is comically wide and a blast to shoot, but it is far too soft in the corners for the 5DS R (which is going to be an issue for any lens that wide). The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, on the other hand, is probably the best lens I’ve ever used and perfectly suited for this camera. There is virtually no difference between f/4 and wide open, even at the edges, and the natural vignetting that occurs at f/1.4 is actually something I really like.

Canon EF 11-24mm f/4 at 11mm.

Zeiss Otus 55mm at f/1.4.

If your budget doesn’t include room for dropping a few thousand on lenses, though, or if you’re not the type to break out a tripod every time you go out to shoot, then my honest recommendation is to not buy this camera. Get a 5D Mark III and save yourself some hard drive space—not to mention money. Clearly, the 5DS R is at home in the studio, but that’s not to say it can’t be used in other situations. To do so, you really have to love the process of photography, though, and need to be ready to work through some frustrations in the beginning.

The Canon 5DS R is a camera the likes of which I didn’t expect to see this late in the game. It’s the first camera in a long time to not advertise itself as a miracle machine that can solve all of your image-making problems. It is brutally honest about what it is and what it is not, and that type of honesty is reassuring. It is a very powerful camera when placed in the right hands (hands, admittedly, much better than mine). Furthermore, it is simply a wonderfully-constructed machine that feels solid and dependable like only an old-school SLR can. Mechanically, it is the DSLR perfected. It still weighs a ton (especially with the enormous 11-24mm lens attached, yikes). However, that’s just the price you pay for a camera like this. Size, weight, cost—these are trivial complaints for anyone considering a 5DS R in the first place.

Wittingly or not, we’ve all been pawns in the megapixel war that’s been waging since the dawn of digital photography. Canon appeared to cede control to Nikon over the past few years, but that turned out to be nothing but a ruse: they had simply retreated underground to strategize their endgame play. When they reemerged, it was with a weapon designed to do just one thing: win the war. The 5DS R will likely, I’ll even say hopefully, remain the highest-resolution 35mm-format camera for many years. From here on out, we will continue to see technological advancements of many kinds, but there is simply no reason to bother competing on the basis of pixel count any longer. The megapixel war is over. But the truth is, Canon’s victory is largely symbolic; most of us had already stopped caring.

But for those stalwart few who didn’t, lucky you, because this is quite a machine.

Overall Assessment

  • Studio 94%
  • Photojournalism 71%
  • Travel 60%
  • Casual 39%
  • Filmmaking 44%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

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