Autofocus and performance

Cropped out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 200 | 1/500 sec | F2.8 | Adapted Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS II USM @ 200mm

The EOS R comes with Canon's Dual Pixel on-sensor autofocus system that covers 88 % of the frame horizontally and 100% of the frame vertically. The system is capable of great performance in a wide range of scenarios, but there will be occasions where you'll need to remember to tweak your settings for best results.

Key takeaways:

  • Overall autofocus performance is impressive, even at the highest burst speeds
  • Single AF is fast, accurate and currently leads the market in low-light performance
  • Pupil detection is very accurate, but only works in Single AF
  • Autofocus tracking in continuous or servo AF works very well with distant subjects and telephoto lenses, but unpredictable hunting can result in missed shots
  • Moving your AF area with the 4-way controller is far too slow, but touchpad AF makes up for this somewhat
  • Good buffer, but relatively slow maximum burst rate compared to peers

System overview

AF diagram: Canon

The EOS R is advertised as having 5655 AF points, covering 88% of the frame horizontally and 100% of the frame vertically. While the sheer number of AF points sounds impressive, there is no provision to reduce the number of selectable points if you want to move your AF area with the four-way controller - there are always 87 positions in the horizontal dimension, and 65 vertically.

This means that, while you have incredible control over your AF area placement, adjusting it is a very slow affair. Tapping on the touchscreen or using Touch and Drag AF with the viewfinder to your eye is far more effective if you need to move your AF area quickly. You can also use Touch and Drag AF to move between detected faces in a scene with multiple people.

As long as you and your subject remain fairly still, Pupil Detection is an excellent way to ensure accurate autofocus in portraits with shallow depth-of-field.
ISO 100 | 1/160 sec | F2 | Canon RF 50mm F1.2 L
Photo by Rishi Sanyal

Autofocus area modes

The autofocus area modes will be broadly familiar to existing Canon users, and are a sort of blend between what you'll find on the EOS 6D Mark II and 5D Mark IV. Here is the complete list.

EOS R autofocus area modes
  • Face + Tracking (with optional Pupil Detection*)
  • 1-point AF (small)*
  • 1-point AF (normal)
  • Expand AF area
  • Expand AF area (surround)
  • Zone AF
  • Large Zone AF (Vertical)
  • Large Zone AF (Horizontal)
*Only available in Single AF

The addition of Pupil Detection ensures precise portrait focus accuracy, particularly helpful when shooting at wide apertures. Unfortunately, it's only available in Single AF, so you and your subject will need to take care to remain still when using this mode. Additionally, enabling and disabling Pupil Detection from the Q menu can be confusing at first, because when it says 'Enable', that means it's currently enabled, not that you need to hit the 'Info' button to enable it:

But continuing on with Single AF, we have to admit we're very impressed with how well the camera can acquire focus in dim conditions, especially with a bright prime lens. In short, it's the best performance we've yet seen from a mirrorless camera as light levels drop.

Servo AF (Canon vernacular for continuous AF) with tracking works well with distant subjects and telephoto lenses, but we found in more everyday, social use with shorter lenses that it was prone to hunting, missing focus even in moderate light, and jumping off to adjacent subjects.

Face + Tracking mode is incompatible with the digital level. If you are prone to crooked horizons, you'll need to make sure you're in one of the other AF area modes to keep everything squared up. And lastly, for whatever reason, the camera refuses to zoom into your selected AF point in playback, even if you've selected this in the menus.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's dive into some examples.

Continuous autofocus performance

To test continuous AF performance, we first try to shoot a subject approaching at a steady speed using the central AF point. This lets us see how good the camera is at assessing subject distance and whether it can drive its lens to that point quickly.

Straight On

We then have the subject weave across the camera's AF region in a way the camera can't predict. This has the advantage that the approach rate varies as the subject changes direction. For this test we use the camera's subject tracking mode, so it needs to identify and follow a subject around the scene, as well as trying to keep it in focus.

In these situations, we found the EOS R to perform well, with a high hit rate across a series of runs. This was the case regardless of whether we were shooting at 3 fps with 'Tracking Priority,' or the 5 fps max rate with autofocus.

Now let's see how the EOS R did with our low light exercise, meant to simulate a dimly lit social event.

Sample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photo

Images captured using the RF 35mm F1.8 Macro

For this exercise, rather than letting the camera automatically choose which object or face to track, we opted to choose an area that we can use to initiate tracking on a given subject. We did this by setting the EOS R to 'Face + Tracking' mode, but adjusted the 'Initial Servo AF pt' setting, which is the last option on page 5 of the AF menu options.

This is not only because face detection can override another object we want to track (and because face detection occasionally detects faces in everyday objects), but in case the EOS R struggled with properly identifying a person's face we could simply choose it ourselves.

In our use, it appears that if you place the AF area over a person's face and initiate tracking, the camera is still using face detection in the background, since the box stays perfectly surrounding their face. In the video above, notice how when Dan's face is obscured by a drink, the camera reverts to tracking him with a number of boxes, then goes back to recognizing his face.

Soccer and Frisbee - autofocus, viewfinder, buffer

Processed and cropped in Adobe Camera Raw 11.
ISO 12800 | 1/500 sec | F2.8 | Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8 L IS II USM

To confirm our results in the real world, we took it to a club soccer match and an Ultimate Frisbee practice session. We almost exclusively used Face + Tracking mode, not only because it's the most challenging for the camera, but because using the other area modes was challenging for us because of the camera's ergonomics.

As mentioned earlier, the main two ways to control your AF area are the touchscreen (using Touch-and-Drag with your eye to the finder, or the four-way controller). But the former is too imprecise to use with fast action, and the latter is too slow. So it turned out that leaving the camera in Face + Tracking mode but allowing us to select the starting point - in this case, simply leaving the starting point in the center and initiating focus after placing it over our intended subject - was the best way of working.

Successful tracking (AF area reported in Digital Photo Pro)

Basically, you have a central AF area, place it over your subject and initiate tracking - the EOS R will then draw a box around your chosen subject and track it around the frame. This proved to be a reasonable way of working, taking into account that the EOS R is really not aimed at sports shooters. I was particularly impressed by how, in crucial moments, I could reliably initiate focus on a subject before rapidly re-framing and the camera would stick to the subject relatively well.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the camera always maintained accurate focus, nor always stuck to the initial subject, as shown in the example below.

Tracking failure (AF area reported in Digital Photo Pro)

The biggest limitation, besides the fact that tracking still isn't as reliable in the EOS R as manually keeping an AF area over your subject, is the viewfinder and burst speeds. The viewfinder itself is nice and high-res, but it's difficult to follow fast action when using the highest burst speed.

You do get a live view at the lower burst speed of 3 fps, but that's going to be too slow for most users, even if you aren't shooting professional sports. At the 5 fps speed, there is no viewfinder blackout, but you're limited to a slideshow of images as they're taken. There's a menu option to enable a live feed between images at 5 fps, which should help users follow action somewhat, but it's unavailable with adapted lenses.

Another minor complaint for those hoping to use the EOS R for sports: while the buffer is fine, the camera for some reason freezes the Live View for a fraction of a second once the buffer has written the last image to the card and cleared. It's off-putting, and very distracting.

Hunting in casual use

We noted in some situations that previous Canon cameras can, during tracking, briefly hunt unnecessarily in one direction or another, resulting in out-of-focus shots. This happens both when tracking faces and when tracking other subjects.

The below images were taken in rapid succession, both using face detection. Even at web sizes, the image on the left is clearly out of focus. And given that Canon's started off the RF system with lenses like the RF 50mm F1.2L, critical focus - even for those that aren't necessarily moving that much - is extremely important with such shallow depth of field.

AF-C often briefly hunts despite little to no subject / photographer movement. This leads to a surprisingly high number of out-of-focus shots like this one. Just a moment later, the camera reacquired focus, before quickly 'wobbling' again and causing the next shot to be out-of focus again.

Metering concerns

We've also noticed that the EOS R's 'evaluative metering' is very heavily weighted toward the brightness of the object or subject that is under your chosen autofocus area. To a degree, we expect this with evaluative metering, but the behavior on the EOS R is more exaggerated than we expect from mirrorless systems that essentially have the entire image to work with for accurate metering.

In some cases, this can lead to drastically different exposures, even in images with very similar composition taken moments apart, such as the scene below. This can not only require frequent manipulation of your exposure composition, but could also add to your editing workflow if you must fix the brightness of some of your images in post processing.

EV 0 exposure.

Photo by Rishi Sanyal
A moment later the camera decided to give this slightly recomposed shot a whopping 2.3EV less exposure.