My experience with the R6 for bird photography

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BirdShooter7 Veteran Member • Posts: 6,782
My experience with the R6 for bird photography

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week with the EOS R6 which I used quite a bit for five days doing bird photography. Unfortunately the last two days were a bust due to a tropical storm but I think I got a pretty good feel for how the camera performs for this type of photography, at least my version of it.

Tricolored Heron

Most importantly I liked the camera quite a bit and it has me more excited about mirrorless than I have been so far. I really like the eye-detect AF for birds and am looking forward to seeing how much further Canon can take it.
The first thing I noticed when I started using the R6 is that the controls are quite a bit different from what I’m used to. The first couple of days were pretty frustrating but I eventually got comfortable with them and by the time I had to send the camera back I had to take a couple of days to get used to my 90d again.

Pied-billed Grebe

I don’t own any RF mount lenses so all of my use was with adapted EF lenses using the standard Canon adapter. The lenses used were the EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM II, EF 600mm f/4L IS USM II, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS USM II, EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM, Sigma 150-600 C and Sigma 100-400 C. I also used the EF 1.4x III on both of the 500’s and the 600.

Chimney Swift

One of the bummers for me on the R6 is that my old 500mm f/4 and 400mm f/5.6L only get up to 6.8 FPS with the mechanical shutter.

Long-billed Dowitcher

They will work at 20FPS with the electronic shutter but I found that to be a little limited by the rolling shutter. The other limitation with those lenses is that the active AF area is a little smaller than it is with the other lenses (80% of the frame). I’m not sure why this limitation has been placed on the older lenses since they are capable of delivering faster frame rates on other bodies. I thought it might be to ensure better AF accuracy but as far as I can tell the accuracy with those lenses at 10FPS on the 90d is the same as it is on the R6 at 6.8FPS. Also the Sigma lenses seemed to perform quite well at 12FPS on the R6. Weather it’s intentional or not it’s a pretty good motivation to upgrade to the latest version of the 500.

Ruddy Turnstone, American Oystercatcher and Laughing Gull fight over a dead fish

The rolling shutter was more pronounced than I expected with the R6. I had seen some very encouraging results from the R5 and given that the R6 sensor is based on the 1dx3 sensor I thought it would be at least as good as the R5.
My first session with my local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds quickly clued me in that my expectations might be a bit too high. Most of the shots I took of the birds visiting my feeder had obvious signs of rolling shutter.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ok, hummingbird wings move crazy fast so it’s not the end of the world, I still managed lots of great shots with the mechanical shutter.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I started to really understand the extent of the rolling shutter on the R6. I was at the beach trying to photograph Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones as they flew past. The AF generally did a great job locking onto the relatively small birds and tracked them well but unfortunately about 1/3 of the photos had signs of rolling shutter in the form of oddly bent wings and banding in high motion areas of the photos. It was better performance than I saw with the hummingbirds but still enough to make me decide to stick with the mechanical shutter for those sorts of shots in the future. It’s a shame since those are exactly the types of situations where I want 20FPS.


I also noticed signs of rolling shutter on the wingtips of Royal, Sandwich and Forster’s terns that were flying around that afternoon. Again, the bigger, slower birds didn’t show the issue as often or to the same extent but rolling shutter did mess up some shots of them.

Roseate Spoonbill

Finally when photographing Brown Pelicans I saw some slanted pilings as the birds flew past a nearby pier.
While the rolling shutter was frustrating with the R6, I believe it is significantly improved on the R5. The good news from the afternoon at the beach was that the eye-detect AF performed well. It certainly wasn’t perfect but with the relatively clean backgrounds and the high contrast birds it mostly locked right onto the eye and hung onto it as long as I kept the bird in the frame. It did struggle some with the Brown Pelicans, especially when they were sitting on the water but overall I was pleased with the R6’s ability to detect the bird’s eye and track it.

Royal Tern

What I wasn’t as thrilled about was what I found when I got home and reviewed the photos on my computer. Though the R6 was good at locking onto the eye, the AF system wasn’t as consistent at actually getting the lens to focus exactly on the eye. The AF box would be right on the eye in frame after frame in a sequence but a good number of the shots were slightly out of focus. My hit rate was generally around 50-60% perfectly in focus which is pretty similar to what I get from the 90d in similar situations. Having said this, most of the time the out of focus shots were really close. You probably wouldn’t notice they are off unless you look closely.

Neotropic Cormorant

My thought is that what the R6 is bringing to the table is maybe a slightly improved AF system with a drastically improved system for automatically getting the AF point where it needs to be. In the past I would usually stick with the center AF point and then crop to get the composition I want. With the R6 and eye AF I can use more of the frame and just let the camera handle the placement of the AF point. This is definitely an exciting feature that I’m looking forward to using more in the future.

Least Grebe

During my time with the R6 I did find that it works better with some species of birds than others. Birds like Black-necked Stilts and Snowy Egrets seemed to be very easy for the R6 while Long-billed Dowitchers and Least Grebes seemed to be a real challenge. The AF system also seemed to struggle a good bit more in lower contrast scenes such as Western Sandpipers foraging on mudflats or Clapper Rails moving through the salt marsh. I found that the R6 would lock onto the eye but as the birds moved around it would often quickly lose the eye and lock onto the body of the bird, even when the bird was at close range. This was also the case as I tracked Reddish Egrets and Tricolored Herons foraging in open water with a clean background. As the birds moved around and extended their wings the R6 would rapidly lose the eye and I got lots of shots where the focus was on other pasts of the bird than the eye. So basically the animal eye-AF is pretty impressive but still has plenty of room for improvement.

Red Knot

The low pixel density of the R6 was another area where I felt its limitations. Many times I found that there just wasn’t enough detail in shots of birds at distances that aren’t a problem for the 90d. I had to be very conscious of my distance from the subject so I didn’t rattle off bunches of shots that would need to be deleted. That isn’t to suggest that I didn’t get tons of photos that I liked with the R6 but it was definitely an adjustment that I had to make coming from the 90d.

American Alligator

The build quality of the R6 seemed fine to me though I was being very careful with the camera I was using since it was a rental. My main concern is the amount of weather sealing as I’m usually working around water and it isn’t terribly uncommon for me to get caught in the rain. Other than that I felt like I could shoot with confidence with the R6 and a big heavy lens.

Loggerhead Shrike

I did have a few opportunities to photograph small songbirds with the R6 and overall I was pleased with how it performed. While photographing various species of wood warblers, flycatchers and a handful of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers I managed lots of nice photos, even when the birds were in pretty cluttered settings. This was an area where the auto subject selection tended to struggle. My solution, which seemed to be pretty effective was to program the AF-on button for spot AF with the center AF point. I would use this to get the AF close to my intended subject then let go of the AF-on button and let the auto select (that was set for the half-press of the shutter button) take over. The vast majority of the time the focus locked right onto my intended subject so I was happy.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

A big concern I had about the R6 was the battery life and while I wouldn’t say that it’s great I will say it’s a lot better than I expected. I ended up going through about 4 batteries a day using three LP-E6N’s (all pretty new ones) and the LP-E6NH that the camera came with. It’s definitely not as good as I get with the 90d (usually I only go through one LP-E6N in a day) or the 7d mk2 (usually I go through two LP-E6N’s in a day) but it’s definitely workable.

Tricolored Heron

The rear screen and viewfinder (I pretty much used the R6 exclusively outdoors) were able to get the job done but definitely there is room for improvement. Overall I struggled with brightness in that the viewfinder looked pretty dark much of the time. On the first day I let that trick me into overcompensating with exposure resulting in lots of overexposed images. Once I figured out what was going on I depended on the histogram and just accepted that the viewfinder runs a bit dim. The other issue that took me a bit to get used to was the refresh rate. In brighter conditions it wasn’t a problem but on overcast days and around sunrise and sunset I got some rather amusing views of 8 winged birds flying around. It didn’t stop me from getting good shots but it was pretty odd looking.

Least Grebe

I was generally ok with the lack of slideshow effect. It’s a pretty good improvement over previous R cameras.

Ruddy Turnstone

The biggest area of frustration for me with the R6 was the time it takes to wake up from power saving mode. There were times when I was set up at a water drip waiting for songbirds to come in to bathe. This usually involves a lot of waiting and the camera almost always goes to sleep before a bird comes in for a photo. Usually when a bird does come it doesn’t stay long. There were many times when a bird would come to a favorable perch and I would go for the shot only to catch an empty perch by the time the camera was powered up and ready to go. This was never an issue with my DSLR’s as I can set them to never go to sleep and the battery still lasts for hours. The other times this became an issue was when I was driving around and spotted a bird I wanted a photo of. I try to half press the shutter as I pick the camera out of my lap and get into shooting position but even doing that I missed a bunch of shots of kingfishers and other birds along the road.

Spotted Sandpiper

After looking through all of the photos I took with the R6 and really thinking about my time with it I ended us deciding to cancel my R5 order. This isn’t to suggest that the R6 or R5 aren’t awesome cameras or that I wouldn’t really enjoy owing either of them but given my experience with the R6 and the pandemic and the high cost of the R5 I just don’t think it’s the right time for me to buy. What I REALLY want is an R5 with the 90d sensor in it for ~$2000. That camera may never come but it’s really what I want. The R5, I’m sure, would be a good tool for me but given the cost and that there are enough things about it that I don’t think are ideas I think I want to wait and see if any new firmware updates come along in the next 6-12 months that address some of the issues I had with the camera. For example the slower wake up time, some random lock-ups, better eye-AF performance, faster frame rates with older lenses... Given my opportunities to travel are drastically limited during the pandemic I don’t feel a lot of pressure to have a new camera right away so I feel like I have the luxury to wait and see what comes and the rental of the R6 satisfied a lot of my curiosity about the various new features of these latest cameras.

Roseate Spoonbill

I hope some of this might be used for someone.

Semipalmated Plover

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Some of my bird photos can be viewed here:

Canon EOS 7D Canon EOS R5 Canon EOS R6
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