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's autofocus system has received several fundamental updates since the camera was first reviewed. This page assesses the behavior and performance of firmware v1.6.

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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
  • Eye detection works well, even with shallow depth of field
  • 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
  • Setting an initial AF point is the most effective way to operate AF tracking, and the camera will use this to reliably track the face and eyes of your selected subject
  • Good buffer, but relatively slow maximum burst rate compared to peers

The EOS R uses Canon's Dual Pixel AF system, in which every pixel on the sensor is made up from two photodiodes behind a single microlens. This gives you one left-looking half pixel and one right-looking half pixel. Comparing the differing views from the left and right-looking images provides a degree of distance awareness that underpins the autofocus.

AF diagram: Canon

The camera lets you choose from any of 5655 AF points, covering the whole height and most of the width of the sensor, providing much greater compositional freedom than could be directly achieved with a DSLR.

AF point control

There are four mains methods for positioning the point. The first is to press the AF Point button and scroll the dials, with one dial scrolling vertically, the other horizontally; as you might on a Canon DSLR. Having already pressed the AF Point button, the second method is to press a direction on the four-way controller, which moves the AF position with greater precision.

The rear screen and the four-way controller are the most sensible ways to control your autofocus point, but you can also use the twin control dials after hitting the AF Point button if you prefer.

The other two methods of placing the AF point utilize the touchscreen. You can either tap where you want to position the AF point or, when the camera is held up to your eye, use the rear screen as a touchpad. This second 'Touch & drag' method can be set so that a swipe moves the point relative to its current position, or to position the AF point where you tap on the screen. Different areas of the screen can be made inactive, to avoid inadvertent operation.

AF area modes

The EOS R offers a series of AF area modes, from the fairly automated 'Face + Tracking' mode to individually selected points. The other modes essentially vary the size and the shape of the AF point, to match your subject and how well you expect to be able to keep your chosen area over your subject.

EOS R autofocus area modes
  • Face + Tracking (with optional Pupil Detection)
  • 1-point AF (small / normal)
  • Expand AF area (cross)
  • Expand AF area (around)
  • Zone AF
  • Large Zone AF (Vertical)
  • Large Zone AF (Horizontal)

In 1-point mode, scrolling the dials moves the point to any of 143 positions (an 13 x 11 array). Nudging the four-way controller moves on a finer 87 x 65 position grid, to give access to the full 5655 points. This second method is, of course, a lot slower, so may be better for fine-tuning that initial point selection.

The Face + Tracking mode is rather more automated. By default, it will choose a face if it can find one. If there's no face in the scene it'll just choose to focus on something nearby that's positioned near the center of the frame. If you tap on the screen, it'll track that subject.

There's up to a two second pause between you tapping on the screen and the initial green box being replaced by the white bracketed 'in focus' tracking target. The camera will already be tracking the subject but there'll be a significant lag before you can take a photo. Engaging 'Continuous AF', the mode where the camera always tries to stay approximately in focus, even when you're not taking pictures, essentially eliminates this lag.

Autofocus tracking

Our preferred method of subject tracking is to change the menu setting 'AF 5|Initial Servo AF pt for Face + Tracking.' It's set to 'Auto' by default, but changing it lets you set an initial AF point for Tracking mode, either its own point or one shared with the other single-point AF modes. This lets you set the AF point in advance, rather than after your subject is already in the frame.

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

Again, specifying an initial point avoids the ~2 second focus delay and starts tracking your subject the moment you half-press the shutter. Working this way avoids the need to use the battery-heavy 'Continuous AF' function. We've also found the tracking started this way to be more dependable than the tap-to-track version.

If you're pointing your target at, or very close to, a face when you initiate tracking, it will use face detection to maintain its tracking, which is less likely to get distracted by other objects.

Face / Eye detection

On top of the face detection that's an integral part of the EOS R's tracking mode is Pupil Detection: Canon's name for eye detection. This is enabled by hitting the 'Info' button when you choose Face + Tracking mode from the Q menu.

A potentially confusing typo in the interface persists in firmware 1.6, which can make it a little difficult to know whether Eye AF is active or not. When the camera says '[Info: Eye] Enable' it actually means 'Enabled', so when you're first getting used to the camera, you'll have to remember that this isn't an instruction to press the Info button to enable the function: it's already on.

You can select which face in a scene to focus on by tapping on its position on the rear screen by specifying that AF tracking should start on one particular person.

Autofocus performance

AF Tracking performance, particularly if set to start from a pre-chosen initial AF point is very good. The camera is quick to acquire a subject and one of the more dependable systems in terms of staying on the specified subject.

Out-of-camera JPEG.
ISO 16000 | 1/800 sec | F2.8 | Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM

The camera's fairly modest continuous shooting rate is the bigger limit on its capability as a sports and action camera, but our existing tests suggest it's effective at driving the lenses to the correct depth as well as maintaining its lock on a moving subject. The viewfinder only shows a slideshow of action at 5fps, which can make it difficult to follow what's happening.

Unfortunately we're not currently able to re-test the tracking to check whether it is still prone to occasional focus hunting, which we saw when we first tested the camera.

Face/Eye detection

With firmware version 1.6, the EOS R is able to recognize eyes even when the face is quite small in the frame, making it usable in a wide range of circumstances. It's pretty quick to identify an eye and will stay focused on the eye pretty determinedly. It will continue to focus on the subject's face if it loses its ability to see the eye.

Each of these images represents the farthest distance-to-subject for which the camera can attain focus on the eye. As you can see, the latest firmware can detect eyes at much greater distances than before, allowing its use for a much wider range of photographs.

The camera is also very tolerant of the subject turning away. We found that the camera would continue to maintain its lock on a person even when they turn away from the camera. So long as they don't leave the frame or turn more than about 90 degrees away from the camera, it'll continue to recognize them as the person it's mean to be tracking.

Canon RF 85mm F1.2 DS | F1.8 | 1/500 sec | ISO 250
Photo: Richard Butler

Focus precision appears to be good, even when working with very shallow depth of field. However, while the camera is very good at identifying eyes even when subjects are wearing glasses, we found that it would tend to focus on the glasses frames, not the eye itself.

We also found the camera would sometimes lose track of eyes and revert to face detection, in the middle of a series of shots. The results and hit rate are sufficient to make it our favored way to shoot portraits, though.

Selecting a face

When you have more than one face in the scene, the camera will focus the one you tap on, or the one under the AF point if you're in initial AF point mode. The camera is pretty dogged in its tracking of the original subject. It appears to consider distance as well as position in the frame, so isn't distracted by a different person appearing closer or in the position where tracking was first initiated and will only jump to another person if the initial face leaves the frame or disappears from view for an extended period. This means you don't have to worry about your subject looking away as you shoot.

If you're not using the initial AF point mode, the camera will show a box around one of the faces in the scene, with arrows on either side denoting you can use the four-way controller to select among that subject's eyes or jump to another face in the scene.