The fruit of Canon's R&D emerges from the shadows

Canon has been the best selling camera brand for most of the digital era. Different people might ascribe this dominance to different areas of strength, be that lens design, ergonomics, color response or simply very successful marketing that’s resulted in a history of cameras that people want at a price they’re willing to pay. For the past few years though, its once proud reputation for innovation hasn’t seemed so evident.

Canon’s US press releases still proudly boast about how many patents the company has been granted, but its electronics development prowess hasn’t shone especially brightly in recent models. The EOS R5's disclosed specs reveal a camera capable of generating and processing immense amounts of data. This suggests a leap forward in Canon's semiconductor design and one that might shed some light on why some of their most recent cameras have seemed somewhat lackluster.

Blimey!

It’s difficult to over-stress how much of a technical challenge it is to capture and record 8K footage. Just four years ago virtually every camera maker we interviewed said that 4K was really difficult because of the heat generated in the process and there are many models that stop recording or become very hot if they shoot for extended periods. Canon is promising a camera that can capture four times as much data, from the full width of its sensor while still being able to run its dual pixel AF system in parallel.

The EOS R5's disclosed specs suggests a leap forward in Canon's semiconductor design

If that doesn’t strike you as ground-breaking, consider that the EOS R5 can shoot 4K at up to 120 fps. Then look around the current batch of large sensor cameras and count how many can achieve 4K/60. It’s a short list, and one that gets even shorter if you mark off the ones that can only do so using a cropped region of their sensor. The EOS R5 almost certainly sub-samples to achieve this, but that's still a lot of data.

We don't know the camera's full specs (such as recording duration) yet, but this all points to a radical improvement in sensor and processing technologies.

A history of innovation

Canon was the first camera maker to fully embrace CMOS technology for its DSLRs, which gave it industry-leading performance for many years (it was another seven years until we saw a camera with a CMOS chip from Sony Semiconductor). It was also the first company to produce a large sensor camera that could capture Full HD video. Technologies such Dual Pixel AF show that the company has continued to work away at pushing its cameras forwards.

And yet, the last few generations of Canon stills cameras haven’t always sparkled, particularly in terms of video: notably the most processor-intensive feature. The EOS 5D Mark IV had to crop its sensor to deliver 4K and still showed a fair amount of rolling shutter when it did, suggesting there was a major bottleneck either in terms of sensor readout rate or the ability to process this data fast enough.

It's also interesting to note that Canon cameras tend to achieve much lower shot-count ratings per Watt Hour of battery capacity than other companies manage, which is likely to be indicative of lower processor efficiency.

The EOS R, as the first RF mount camera, had plenty of innovations in it, but its cropped 4K video suggests a similar lack of processing power to that of the EOS 5D IV, which wasn't especially cutting edge two years earlier. The EOS R5 is a vast leap forward from this.

And this has seen Canon's specs begin to fall behind. This need to crop to produce 4K video was off the pace in when the 5D IV was launched in 2016 (Sony’s a7R II offered full-width 4K capture a year earlier), so to see that same limitation in 2018’s EOS R looked a little embarrassing compared to the oversampled 4K footage offered by Leica, Nikon, Panasonic, Sigma and Sony in their contemporaneous full frame models. It's a similar story with the EOS 6D II and EOS RP and, despite the appearance of a novel 32MP sensor in the EOS M6 Mark II, the need to sub-sample the chip to generate its video also hints at a processing bottleneck.

So why had this company with a history of innovation dropped so far behind its rivals?

What’s been going on, then?

While it sources 1-inch and smaller sensors from other companies, Canon makes its own APS-C and full-frame sensors and generally hasn’t made them available to rival camera companies. This means that Canon has to recoup its R&D costs entirely from its own models, whereas most other camera makers buy all of their sensors in from a supplier that can spread out those costs amongst its many customers. That obviously creates an incentive for Canon to keep using the same chips for as long as it can.

The differing challenges of building cinema and consumer cameras make it impossible to say whether know-how has been reserved for the Cinema EOS line or has trickled down from it.

Another possibility is that Canon has been keeping this know-how for its more profitable pro video users, holding the main EOS line back to avoid cannibalizing its Cinema EOS sales. But this isn't necessarily true: the Cinema EOS cameras work in an environment where large batteries and built-in fans are the norm, meaning there isn't the same pressure on them to be as super-efficient as the mainline EOS cameras need to be. So I'm not sure that’s what we’ve seen: if anything it's just as likely that the EOS R5 is benefitting from lessons Canon learned through the process of developing the Cinema EOS line.

Playing the long game

Instead, I wonder whether Canon made the decision to step back from the constant two-year development cycle for sensors and processors that other camera makers build their model ranges around, and instead decided to conduct a longer-term project to reclaim the technological lead it’d previously enjoyed.

There are, perhaps, parallels with the way Canon approached its switch to autofocus, back in the 1980s: seemingly content to let Minolta and Nikon own the AF market, only to leap ahead with its EOS system.

Taking a longer-term approach would explain both why the company had dropped so far behind and how it can now not just to catch up but jump ahead

We may never know for sure, but I can't think of a time when Canon has so clearly fallen behind what the rest of its rivals are offering. That's why it looks to me like the apparent lull in Canon’s innovation might have been because it wasn’t content to just keep up with its rivals but instead was willing to cede a little ground in the short term, so that it could take a significant lead in the long run. That would explain both why the company had seemingly dropped so far behind and how it's now looks able not just to catch up, but to jump ahead.

Of course this is likely to be little comfort for customers who bought Canon cameras from the end of the previous cycle, built on technology that was significantly outdated in comparison to their rivals.

So while the rest of the market has been constantly tussling over small gains, seemingly leaving Canon in the dust, the industry's biggest player appears to have been patiently working to leapfrog them all, taking a bigger lead (in spec terms at least) than we've become used to seeing in the industry.