Canon EOS R5 Review For Nature Photography

Hands-on with Canon’s best mirrorless camera yet, plus innovative super-tele lenses

A brief two years ago, we wrote about a significant breakthrough in photographic technology of particular interest to Canon users: the 30.3-megapixel, full-frame EOS R mirrorless camera. Here we offer a major update in the progression of the EOS R system with a review of the new 45-megapixel Canon EOS R5, two of its dedicated lenses perfect for wildlife photography—the RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM and the RF800mm F11 IS STM—and other EOS R5 and EF lens combinations I use in my nature-oriented projects.

Image of a hummingbird taken with the Canon EOS R5.

Resting Hummer. The light weight and long reach of the EOS R5 and RF800mm F11 IS STM lens and RF 1.4x extender (1120mm) combination allowed me to approach this female Anna’s hummingbird as she rested on a branch and photograph her, handheld, at the closest focus point of the lens. Animal and eye detection functions helped to target the autofocus. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 6400.

If you’re new to mirrorless photography, you might want to review that earlier article for discussion of how mirrorless differs from DSLR technology. In this piece, we’re going to talk about Canon’s latest expression of mirrorless and the achievement of a milestone in the history of photography that is nearly as significant as the transition from film to digital capture. Here’s why the EOS R5 system is a huge upgrade for me—and for any Canon-based nature and wildlife photographer.

The Canon EOS R5 Is A Major Upgrade

I’ve been working exclusively with the Canon EOS R5 since mid-June. Even in this very unusual year of limited opportunity to work far afield, my location in central Oregon has offered a variety of subjects: documenting the progression of a family of rare Oregon tundra swans from hatching to fledging; following the flight of herons, falcons, hawks, hummingbirds and other wild birds; capturing newborn fawns and velvet-antlered bucks; immersing myself in fields of dahlias, cosmos and wildflowers; and generating high-resolution floral studies in my studio. Here are the major attributes of the EOS R5 that changed my photographic approach and improved the outcomes in all these environments.

Electronic Viewfinder. An essential element of mirrorless technology, the electronic viewfinder allows us to see the image the camera is going to capture with the settings in place at the time. While this is an obvious benefit, in some previous iterations, the display was slow to respond, resulting in missed opportunities to capture ongoing action. In the EOS R5, this feature is instantaneous, high resolution and flawless.

Image of a blue heron taken with the Canon EOS R5

Tadpole for Breakfast. Sunrise silhouettes a great blue heron as it downs a tiny tadpole. Handheld Canon EOS R5, RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens and RF 1.4x extender (700mm). Exposure: 1/3000 sec., ƒ/27, ISO 1600.

Speed. Frame-capture rates are really important to wildlife photographers, and the Canon EOS R5’s capabilities are significant, with 12 fps using the camera’s mechanical shutter and up to 20 fps with its electronic shutter. The electronic capture is silent, which can be an important asset when working with wildlife in the field or from a blind. For those concerned about rolling shutter that may occur with rapid electronic capture rates, I did find it present in macro images of flying insects such as bees, where the rendition of the wings can be distorted. However, when working with flying birds at 20 fps, I saw no evidence of rolling shutter. It is a bit unnerving to depress the shutter and hear no capture-confirming sound in response. And at those rates, there is a tendency to shoot many more frames than expected, and that means a lot of extra editing. But the positive point is that you will find “the shot” somewhere in the sequence, and that’s what it’s all about.

Higher ISOs. Increased light sensitivity (ISO) is a complementary aspect of capture speed in that it can enable the use of faster shutter speeds and/or smaller apertures for increased depth of field while maintaining excellent image quality. In the past, the DSLR cameras I’ve used maxed out at less than ISO 1600 before quality became unacceptable for my purposes. I find that the Canon EOS R5 generates excellent image quality at ISO 1600, and I’ve pushed it to ISO 3200 and 6400 with good results. In a pinch, you can go to ISO 12800 for a usable image. In general, I would say I’ve gained at least two stops of speed because of the improved ISO capability of the EOS R5.

Resolution. The Canon EOS R5’s 45-megapixel full-frame sensor offers a higher-quality image with more detail and potential for post-capture cropping. By comparison, the R5’s resolution is close to that of the 50-megapixel EOS 5DS R that I’ve used extensively in the past, but the R5 offers far better capture speed in both frames per second and ISO. The R5’s sensor is excellent for both landscape and macro photography, where detail is essential.

Image of a trumpeter swan taken with the Canon EOS R5.

Wild Goose Chase. A female trumpeter swan chases Canada geese from “her” small lake in Central Oregon. The EOS R5’s tracking and AF animal detection helped to keep the swan in focus as she raced around in the low light before sunrise. Handheld Canon EOS R5, RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM at 428mm. Exposure: 1/500 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1600.

Autofocus & Tracking. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II was my previous choice for flying or fast-moving subjects because of its quick autofocus and frame-capture speed. Now I go to the Canon EOS R5 for its incredibly fast tracking mode with animal and eye detection, which works in most situations by placing and keeping the AF directly on the subject’s eye (where it almost always needs to be). It wasn’t that long ago that ƒ/5.6 was the maximum aperture for AF capability. But with the R5’s AF, animal and eye detection all work well in combination with a “slower” lens like the RF800mm F11, even with an RF 1.4x extender attached (achieving 1120mm with a set aperture of ƒ/16). I’ve even added the RF 2x extender to the RF800mm lens (1600mm at ƒ/22), and the AF still works! This combination of reach and sharp focus is really a game-changer for wildlife photography.

Image Stabilization. Here’s where size and stability come together. Because we wildlife photographers need to be mobile when tracking a subject in the wild, we often work handheld. But long lenses need to be steady. The EOS R5 is Canon’s first camera with in-body image stabilization (IBIS), which adds additional stability to many of the RF and EF lenses. For example, when combined with the EOS R5’s IBIS, the RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens offers 6 stops of image stabilization, and with some other RF lenses a total of 8 stops can be achieved. Note that the RF600mm F11 and RF800mm F11 telephotos do not tie into the R5’s IBIS, but they still have 5 and 4 stops of IS, respectively, within the lenses. I’ve found that to be adequate for working handheld with these remarkably lightweight and compact optics.

Focus Bracketing. You know I’m a fan of extreme depth of field in macro and landscape photography. But I also want to control the placement of the depth of field in the image. The Canon EOS R5 (like the EOS RP and the EOS 90D) has automated focus-bracketing, aka stacking, built into the camera, making the technique easy to accomplish in any situation where the subject is motionless, and the camera is on a tripod. We used to move the subject or the camera in slight increments through the plane of focus, but now the photographer sets in-camera the desired number of images and the amount of focus shift between captures, and the camera automates the process within the lens. The resulting images, or whatever portion of them the photographer wants to use, are composited post-capture in stacking software for resulting expanded depth of field. The range of frames needed depends upon the subject; I’ve used more than 180 focus-bracketed images for a macro subject at 1x, and only two or three for a landscape.

Image made with Canon EOS R5's focus bracketing.

Gladiola in Detail. This close-up of a brilliantly colored gladiola blossom was captured using in-camera focus bracketing on a tripod-mounted EOS R5 with an EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens and EF-RF adaptor. The extreme depth of field was derived from post-capture compositing of 146 images taken at 1/30 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 200.

Video. While video isn’t a top priority in my photography, I do occasionally produce it for educational purposes. I have used video more often as a source of still captures (frame grabs from video sequences) that freeze a subject’s behavior. The limiting factor with this method in the past has been the approximate 8-megapixel (24MB) file size of the individual frame. Now the EOS R5’s 8K video produces 35.4-megapixel frame grabs at 30 fps. This is incredible if you need to capture both 8K video and still images at the same time. But if stills are the goal, the R5’s electronic shutter with 20 fps capability is going to produce even higher-quality stop-action images at the full 45-megapixel resolution.

Compatibility With DSLR Lenses & Accessories

One of the smartest things about the EOS R system is its adaptability to EF lenses and accessories originally produced for DSLRs. Canon accessories, such as flash systems (both macro and hot-shoe types) and electronic cable releases work with the Canon EOS R5 in the same ways they worked with previous systems.

Three very capable adapters allow all the EF lenses to work perfectly on Canon mirrorless EOS R camera bodies. There’s actually an advantage to one of these adapters, the EF-EOS R Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter. It connects the EOS R series cameras to all of the EF lenses and allows the addition of either a polarizing or variable neutral density filter between the lens and the camera body. This is the ideal position for placement of such image-modifying filters, and some third-party manufacturers make additional options. I’ve used the adapters with several of my EF lenses. They work perfectly with the EOS R5 and the three EF-RF adapters, which are priced at about $99 for the basic adapter, $200 for the adapter with a Control Ring, and $400 for the adapter with the drop-in filters.

Image of an osprey in flight taken with the Canon EOS R5

I See You. The EOS R5’s Tracking AF with animal and eye detection worked perfectly on this handheld capture of an osprey in flight. Canon EOS R5, RF800mm F11 IS USM. Exposure: 1/4000 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 1600.

So, you can go mirrorless with the R5 or other Canon cameras in the EOS R series without investing in any additional glass. But two of the remarkably affordable and compact new Canon RF lenses have become permanent additions to my inventory for outdoor and wildlife photography: the RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM and the RF800mm F11 IS STM. Here’s why.

Impressive Tele Zoom: RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM

The RF100-500mm is replacing my EF 100-400mm f/4L II lens—and that is really significant because the 100-400mm has been integral to my work for 22 years. I’m not usually that sentimental about gear, but this one was tough. The new lens design made possible by the RF mirrorless mount offers expanded photographic options in a more compact design. The range is 100-500mm; add the 1.4x extender, and you’ve got 420mm to 700mm, or 600mm to 1000mm with the 2x extender. (Due to the protruding front elements of the RF extenders, you can’t use them at less than 300mm, but that’s not an issue since you wouldn’t add the extender unless you needed more than 500mm of reach.) Close focus is 3 to 4 feet. My experience with the RF100-500mm has shown it to be at least as sharp as the EF 100-400mm lens and possibly even better, even with the RF 1.4x or RF 2x extenders. With these combinations, you’ve got options from 100-1000mm with this lens, and even with the maximum aperture approaching ƒ/14, the AF continues to work. It’s the great high-ISO capability of the EOS R5 that makes all this possible.

Image of the Canon EOS R5 along with new super-tele lenses.

The Gear. Here are my new favorite tools for nature and wildlife imaging: Canon EOS R5 body, RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens, RF800mm F11 IS STM lens, RF 1.4x and RF 2x extenders.

Affordable Super-Tele Prime: RF800mm F11 IS STM

This lens and its partner, the RF600mm F11 IS STM, are the source of my new motto, “F/11 and be there.” I never expected to carry an 800mm telephoto lens in a photo-backpack. I’ve worked on many occasions with the monster Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L (Canon’s largest), which weighs just under 10 pounds. The RF800 F11, in contrast, is a lightweight 2.77 pounds. Hand-holding this lens in the field is easy and effective. The optical design of the lens includes double-layer diffraction elements that enable the compact dimensions. The single aperture of ƒ/11 also keeps things simple, and the fixed tripod mount keeps the weight down and the price at about $900. Because of the excellent higher ISO capabilities of the Canon EOS R5, the ƒ/11 aperture is not an issue. I frequently add the RF 1.4x extender, making the lens 1120mm at ƒ/16. I was still able to hand-hold the setup, the AF continued to be viable, and the animal and eye-detection modes worked well. Imagine this on your next photo safari to Africa or Alaska.

What’s In My Bag Now?

Here’s my new setup for heading out to the field: the Canon EOS R5 (with its incredible AF and ISO), the versatile RF100-500mm zoom, the lightweight RF800mm telephoto, and the 1.4x and 2x extenders to increase their reach. Add the EF 24-105mm f/4L and the EF-RF adapter, in case a scenic landscape appears before me. Where big, heavy and expensive used to be the measure of top-level photographic gear, this setup can be had for considerably less investment than its DSLR equivalents. Yes, I really said that. For perhaps the first time in history, learning about George Lepp’s equipment choices can save you money. (My wife Kathy is rolling her eyes.)

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.