Bird photography with the R6 revisited

Started May 10, 2021 | Discussions thread
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BirdShooter7 Veteran Member • Posts: 8,862
Bird photography with the R6 revisited

A few months ago I rented an R6 for a week and overall really liked the camera. I got lots of photos that made me happy but struggled a bit with the idea that 20MP might be too limiting for bird photography considering a 1.6x crop only leaves a little less than 8MP, a pixel density that I haven’t dealt with since back in the 30d days.

Roseate Spoonbill

I didn’t feel too thrilled about ponying up an additional $1400 for the R5 but at least it would offer a 17.5MP crop, which is pretty close to what I’ve been used to with my 7d mk2. I ended up renting a R5 for a week then had an opportunity to borrow another R5 for a couple weeks weeks after that. When I needed it the extra pixels were nice to have for sure and just like with the R6, I really enjoyed using the R5.

Nelson’s Sparrow

To be clear, I am pretty thrilled with both cameras and would be happy using either one. They are without a doubt fantastic tools for photography but in the end I decided that the R6 was probably the better option for me so a few weeks ago I ordered one for my very own.


I struggled quite a bit with the decision of which camera to buy and delayed making the purchase as long as possible in hopes that some official word from Canon would come out about the development of the rumored R7 (RF mount 7d mk2 replacement). With the pandemic my travel opportunities have been almost nonexistent so waiting wasn’t too difficult but with both my 7d mk2 and 90d out of commission and not economically practical to repair I was stuck with only an M50 and EOS RP to use going into the spring migration, which for those of you who don’t know, is something of a big deal in SE Texas. As the first waves of migrants started showing up on the coast my purchase couldn’t wait any longer.

Tricolored Heron

To give some context, I almost exclusively do bird photography so this camera is being purchased for that purpose. Eventually I will buy a second one as a backup as it becomes more practical to travel again. I prefer to have a backup that is the same as my primary body so I don’t have to struggle with the differences between models if something happens to my primary body. I spend a lot of money and effort traveling for bird photography and don’t want gear issues to limit my opportunities. For this reason the price difference between the R5 and R6 was even more important than it would have been if I didn’t mind having different bodies.

Scarlet Tanager

I tend not to do a lot of photography from blinds or around feeders, though I’m definitely not opposed to taking advantage of those sorts of opportunities when they come along. Most of my photography is out in the environment and by far my favorite subjects are the small songbirds. Having said that, I definitely enjoy photographing shorebirds, waders, waterfowl and even the occasional raptor; pretty much if it has feathers, I’ll photograph it.

Northern Parula

The lenses I used for all of these photos were the EF 500mm f/4L IS USM and the mk2 version of the same lens. Most of the time I also had an EF 1.4x III attached. I almost exclusively used the electronic shutter. All of the images here were taken over the past few weeks using the R6.

Roseate Spoonbill

I am for the most part thrilled with the performance of EF lenses on these cameras using an adapter. My older EF 500mm f/4L IS USM works very well (fast and accurate AF and no reduction in image quality. There are, however, some limitations. The most obvious is that the frame rate maxes out at 6.7FPS and the active AF area is significantly reduced compared to what you get with the mk2 version of the lens.

Boat-tailed Grackle

The other thing I observed with both the R5 and R6 with this lens is that when I have the IS turned on I get frequent lock-ups that almost always require the battery to be removed and reinstalled to get the camera to work again. I also noticed that these lock-ups tend to happen when the camera is going into power saving mode. Turning the IS switch on the lens to the off position eliminates the problem in my experience. I don’t know if this issue is common to all lenses of this model, mine is about 20 years old and is from one of the earliest production runs. More recent units might not suffer from this issue.

Tennessee Warbler

The mk2 version of the EF 500mm f/4 works beautifully with the R5 and R6, no issues at all using IS and I can get the full 12FPS with the mechanical shutter and full AF area. I really have no complaints at all with this combination, even with the 1.4x iii or 2x iii.

Green Heron

With both the R5 and R6 I’ve been thrilled with the animal eye AF, especially when it comes to photographing flying birds. The eye detect AF and blazing fast frame rate pretty much make photographing flying birds easy. The AF isn’t perfect but it is a pretty big step up from anything else I’ve tried.

Cliff Swallow

Shots like these were very easy to get with the camera tracking the eye perfectly through a long series of shots allowing for a good variety of wing positions. Though the AF box did stay on the eye for the entire sequence I do regularly observe that not all of the shots are in perfect focus. The majority are when viewed at 100% but there always seem to be some shots that are a little off. Not by far but just a little softer when viewed at 100%. I don’t believe it’s because the AF motor in the lens can’t keep up because shots like these don’t require large movements of the focusing group since the birds aren’t changing their distance very fast and I have had lots of instances where birds were flying directly at me and the AF was able to keep up.

Pine Warbler

The place where the eye AF wasn’t as effective for me was on the small songbirds moving through the canopy and dense vegetation. The eye detect AF seems to find eyes everywhere in the leaves and I have found more times than not I’m better off just reverting to spot AF, which works great on both cameras.

Black-billed Cuckoo

Another place where I’ve found the eye AF stumbles is when I’ve been photographing birds actively feeding or preening. One example was while watching a Semipalmated Sandpiper feeding on a mudflat. It’s head was down with its beak in the mud and it’s tail and wingtips were pointing up in the air. The R6 decided that the tail and wingtips looked like a head and the camera tracked that instead of the eye, despite the bird being quite large in the frame.

Roseate Spoonbill

Another example was with a Little Blue Heron feeding in the marsh. The R6 would pretty easily lock onto the eye when I had a profile view but as it walked around and turned its head in various directions the eye AF would quickly drift off and lock onto some other part of the bird.

Prothonotary Warbler

Sometimes I do find that either of these cameras will be nicely locked onto the eye and during a burst the focus will just drift off for no apparent reason, all the while the focus box is showing locked onto the bird’s eye.

So in conclusion, the bird eye AF is much better than any AF system I’ve ever experienced but there is still considerable room for improvement.

Great Egret

One place that I did notice a pretty significant advantage of the R5 vs the R6 was the rolling shutter effect when using the electronic shutter. With the R5 I saw much fewer cases of distorted looking images than I’m seeing with the R6. Having said that, I do find the electronic shutter to be very usable even with the R6 for bird photography. I don’t hesitate to use it.

Black-necked Stilt

The viewfinder of the R5 is higher specced than the one in the R6. However, I really struggle to see a difference in actual use. Personally I don’t find this a compelling reason to choose the R5 over the R6.

Swainson’s Warbler

I find both of the viewfinders to be perfectly fine for capturing action shots but I don’t find either to be as good as an optical viewfinder. That said, I find the step down in viewfinder experience to be well with the step up in AF performance and silent shutter. I’m getting as many if not more excellent action shots with the R6 as I ever did with any of the numerous SLRs that I’ve owned, including the 1d models.

Blackburnian Warbler

One thing that I was a little surprised that I missed when going from the R5 to the R6 was the top LCD display. I found that it was a quick way to glance down at the camera to confirm that the camera is in sleep mode and not still active. I have a tendency to activate the viewfinder accidentally before the camera goes into sleep mode and have found myself walking down trails with the IS running and viewfinder active resulting in depleted batteries... With the R6 I have to actually bring the viewfinder up to my eye to confirm that the camera went to sleep.

Least Bittern

One of the things that concerned me the most when the R5 and R6 were announced was the battery life. Thankfully I’m finding that I’m not having an issue at all with it in actual use. With the R6 and the old EF 500mm f/4L IS USM using the mechanical shutter or EFCS I use about two full batteries a day which usually amounts to a couple thousand images.

When I use the electronic shutter I can get through most days with a single battery, though sometimes I’ve had to use a second battery for the last hour or two. Overall, I’m very pleased with battery life.

Black-and-white Warbler

Something I love about both the R5 and R6 is the flip-out LCD screen. As I get older, laying on my belly in the mud has less and less appeal and I find the flip-out screen in conjunction with the eye-detect AF to be a crazy powerful combination when it comes to getting low angle shots without getting too dirty. I don’t think I could ever go back to a camera without a flip-out screen.

Black Tern

The new 16-point lowpass filter on the R5 really is a nice feature that I wish was present on the R6. The level of detail that I have been able to get from the R5 is truly impressive and from reviewing photos I took using the 5Ds I’d say the R5 seems to reveal at least as much detail as the higher MP sensor. This, wasn’t a direct comparison so please take it with a grain of salt but it certainly is the impression I was left with after reviewing a bunch of photos of birds that I took with the two cameras. The R6, on the other hand has the older tech lowpass filter which is good and definitely delivers the amount of detail I am used to but it would be nice to have the same tech on the 20MP sensor. I’m not surprised that it was omitted on the R6, there have to be some incentives to pay the extra for the R5 and in my mind this is certainly one.

Lesser Yellowlegs

One thing I never really warmed up to on the R5 was the electronic mode dial. I found it to be a little clumsy to use even when I eliminated all the modes that I don’t use. The R6 has a traditional mode dial and since I pretty much only use Av or M mode and they are right next to each other I can switch between modes very rapidly so for me this was an advantage of the R6 though it really is a personal preference type of thing. I’m sure there are plenty of people who prefer the R5 mode dial.


I don’t do any video these days so I don’t really have any comments about the R6 (or R5 for that matter) when it comes to video. My R6 hasn’t taken a single video so far.

Orchard Oriole

With all that out of the way I’ll get back to the feature that caused me the most frustration when deciding what camera to order. Ultimately, what I really want is an R5/R6 body with a ~32MP sensor similar to that from the 90D and all of the AF goodies that came with the R5/R6. Both the R5 and R6 mean that I’m taking a step backward in pixel density so neither really thrills me in that area.

Yellow-throated Warbler

When the cameras were announced the R5 seemed like a no-brainer with its higher pixel density but the reality is that I’m actually going back to a little below the now ancient 7D and I have to deal with the huge 45MP files. Still, 45MP sounds pretty exciting and now that I have used it, I definitely think it’s a “nice to have” feature. When you can fill the frame with the composition you want the level of detail is truly impressive. With that in mind, what I demonstrated to myself with the R6 was that if you fill the frame with your composition, 20MP is also quite impressive looking on my 27” 4K display and it also looks fabulous up to 11x14” (the largest I have printed an R6 image so far). Certainly, the R5 will do even larger with the same quality but for me I rarely print that large.

Kentucky Warbler

The real advantage to me of the 45MP is for cropping, so how much cropping do I really need? The general rule of bird photography is that you never can have too much focal length because birds aren’t terribly interested in allowing potential predators to get close enough to do them harm. Long focal lengths and high pixel density are the traditional tools to try to defeat that problem. When I rented the R6 my main goal was to really see how much cropping was really needed if I use all of my skills to get close. What I found was that most of the time I actually was able to get close enough.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Another thing I started really paying attention to when I got my hands on the R5 was just how far away I could be and still get an acceptable image from the 45MP sensor. What I found was that even with the higher pixel density I still needed to be fairly close, 45MP certainly isn’t a magic bullet. The R5 definitely wasn’t going allow me to be lazy when it comes to doing my part to get close.

Purple Gallinule

What I really wasn’t prepared for when I started using the R5 is just how much data is generated with a 45MP camera at 20FPS. I knew it would be a lot but I didn’t fully comprehend it until I saw how fast I was filling hard drives. One of the things I was most excited about with the R5/6 was the access to really fast frame rates to more easily catch action shots. The fast frame rate coupled with the eye-detect AF really does make capturing amazing action shots a lot easier though the endeavor still has a fairly low probability of success. Even with a lot of experience watching various species of birds and their behaviors, action sequences are often unpredictable and can last a relatively long time.

Gray-cheeked Thrush

When I had the R5 one of the subjects that I spent a lot of time with were Short-eared Owls. In my area they are usually active for a short time around sunrise and a short time around sunset. The owls hunt over a large area and you certainly aren’t guaranteed a close pass on any given visit. For this reason, I typically take photos of them even when they are a bit further away than I would prefer because that might be all you get after driving for more than an hour to get to the location. My first experience with the new cameras and the owls was with the R6. When the owls started getting in range, I would start blasting away at 12 or sometimes 20FPS and sometimes the owls would turn and get quite close. The buffer would never run out, the camera would just keep going as long as I pressed the shutter button and I never missed any close passes. With the R5 I quickly discovered that I had to be very careful about when I started taking photos. On my first trip to the owls with the R5 I started taking photos at about the same distance where I started with the R6. This time the owl turned and started flying directly at me a few seconds after I had started my burst. Unfortunately, the buffer filled up right about the time the bird was getting where I really wanted it and I missed all the best opportunities.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Frustrated by this I went out and bought a Sony Tough 128GB CF Express type B card to see if it would solve my problem. Long story short, it didn’t, I was still hitting the buffer limit and missing shots. Thinking, maybe the Sony tough card was possibly the problem I borrowed a friend’s SanDisk 512GB Extreme PRO CFExpress Type B card and though it did do a little better than the Sony card it definitely didn’t solve my issue. I figured I’d just have to be more judicious about when I started and stopped my bursts. That resulted on a couple of trips with no photos taken at all because I was waiting for the birds to get really close before I started and they only got sort of close. The reality is that those “sort of close” shots were solidly in the realm of usable but I didn’t take them because I was afraid of missing something better. This never was an issue with the R6 and it definitely is frustrating to do 3 hours of driving and another three hours of sitting out in the cold only to come home empty handed when opportunities were right in front of me.

Great Blue Heron w/Mud Snake

Another thing I noticed while using the R5/6 was that the eye detect AF really allows me to use a lot more of the frame that I was using with my previous cameras. In the past I was usually stuck using the center AF point to track action because I couldn’t really rely on the zone AF modes to track my subject. This meant that I always had to stay far enough back that I could crop for the composition that I wanted. With the R5/6 I no longer have to do that. I can more often frame the photo the way I want in the camera and don’t have to crop nearly as much. For this reason, I’m getting more use out of those 20MP of the R6 than I would have with the same 20MP in a camera without eye-AF.

Horned Lark

In the end I found myself feeling much freer to click away when using the R6 than I was with the R5 and that is something that makes my overall photography experience a lot better. I’m giving up some ultimate image quality for a better shooting experience that still produces results that make me very pleased. If you aren’t a high-volume shooter like me then the decision would very likely go the other direction.

Purple Gallinule

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Some of my bird photos can be viewed here:

Canon EOS 30D Canon EOS 5DS Canon EOS 7D Canon EOS M50 (EOS Kiss M) Canon EOS R5 Canon EOS R6 Canon EOS R7 Canon EOS-1D
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