Canon EOS R3 Solves Genuine Problems — But Can It Pummel Sony A1?

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The third time is the charm. After two previous teasers, Canon’s third announcement for the EOS R3 is the real deal. The Canon EOS R3, a flagship camera for sports, wildlife, and photojournalism, is expected to begin shipping at the end of November. Previous announcements have already detailed the camera’s major features. Those include 30 fps burst shooting, eye-control autofocus, and a 24.1-megapixel Canon-made stacked sensor. But, today’s announcement offers details on the seemingly small features that dramatically improve the shooting experience.

Canon EOS R3 Tech Specs

With two pre-launch teasers, Canon has already shared many of the camera’s biggest features. Here’s a quick summary of the R3’s biggest selling points:

  • 24.1 megapixel, back-illuminated stocked CMOS sensor: Yes, Canon’s flagship mirrorless is actually going to have fewer megapixels than the EOS R5. But, the camera is geared towards photographers who value speed more than pore-level resolution. The biggest takeaway here is that Canon designed this sensor and it’s totally new. It also still has the optical low pass filter. This sensor can’t be found in other cameras.
  • IBIS: The R3 has the same in-body image stabilization as the R5 and R6, which is up to eight stops with certain lenses.
  • Dual Pixel CMOS: The autofocus is rated down to -7.5 EV.
  • 30 fps burst: The Canon EOS R3 can shoot at 30 fps, and that’s even in 14-bit RAW.
  • Eye-Control AF: This autofocus feature uses sensors to move the autofocus point to wherever your eye is looking.
  • Networking tools: Made for journalists on a deadline, the R3 includes mobile and wired file transfers to a server or cloud.
  • Weather-sealed: The R3 is weather-sealed to the same level as the 1D X series. The chassis is full metal magnesium alloy.
  • 4K 60 fps video with 6K oversampling: Unlike some earlier mirrorless models, the R3 has longer recording times. With a new overheat control mode, videographers can get 60 minutes or more of 4K 60 fps oversampled video. Canon caught some flack for short record times in earlier mirrorless cameras, but the R3 can outdo the 30 minutes most cameras are capable of.
  • Two card slots: The EOS R3 has a CF Express slot and an SD card slot.
  • Battery life: If you use full mode and the viewfinder, the R3 is rated for 440 shots. In power-saving mode, you’ll get 760, or with power-saving mode and the screen, 860.
  • 1.8 pounds: The R3 is almost half the weight of the 3.17 pound 1D X Mark III. While the 1D X Mark III is a large DSLR, it’s still a surprising number considering the EOS R3 still has the built-in vertical grip.

Canon EOS R3 Autofocus

As a portrait photographer, I love eye AF, but I hate having to switch modes back and forth to use it. The Canon EOS R3 takes a different approach. Eye (as well as face, animal, and vehicle) autofocus is available in every autofocus area mode. The R3 looks for eyes and faces in the image. But, it doesn’t focus on them until the autofocus point is moved close. For example, eye AF will lock on when the autofocus point is on or near the person’s body. Otherwise, it functions just like a moveable autofocus point. Eye AF can be turned on and off using the Set button at the back. That means there’s no mode switching or menu digging required. If, say, you wanted to focus on a hand, you can switch off the eye AF so the point doesn’t move to the face.

Because eye AF can be used in any mode, Canon renamed the Face + Tracking mode to Entire Area AF. The Flexible Zone mode can also now be customized to three different shapes or sizes. Photographers can also now set people, pet, and vehicle priority, which tells the system what to focus on when there are multiple subjects.

The R3 is also capable of shooting in dark scenes down to -7.5 EV. Despite being late to the game, Canon’s low light autofocus is one of the best, if not the best, among mirrorless options. One of the first shoots that I did when I got my hands on an R6 was a jar of fireflies at dusk, using autofocus. The R3, on paper, is rated for one more stop than the R6. If Canon really has managed to improve on the R6’s already great autofocus, it’s going to be a great performer for photographers working in low light.

The R3’s updated autofocus doesn’t even need to be limited to joystick control. Using sensors in the viewfinder that track the position of the eye, the R3 can move the focus point to where you are looking. It’s a feature from some of Canon’s older film cameras that’s coming to digital for the first time. Canon admits it’s not for every situation or every photographer. If it works, it could be a much faster way of adjusting autofocus for fast action.

A totally redesigned viewfinder with a custom quick menu

The R3 houses more than just a Canon-developed sensor. The mirrorless uses a new Canon-developed 5.76 million dot electronic viewfinder. Canon says that it’s made to reduce lag during continuous shooting.

The viewfinder includes a new optical viewfinder simulation mode. This, Canon explains, essentially puts an HDR photo in the EVF rather than an exposure-accurate image. That’s all well and good, but I’m more excited about how easy it is to switch modes. Turning off the exposure preview will increase the autofocus performance, particularly in low light. The EVF mode can be set to the M Fn button, allowing photographers to check the exposure, then quickly switch back to the faster mode. Digging in the menus to switch the exposure preview on and off is a pain, so this is great to see.

The ability to customize the Q or quick menu is another seemingly small change that could be a big boost to the shooting experience. New customization options allow photographers to drag and drop Q menu items to wherever they want on the viewfinder.

The viewfinder is capable of no-blackout shooting, but with a caveat. The no-blackout mode uses the electronic shutter only. The shutter will also blackout if the buffer is full, which is rated for 150 RAW photos. Canon says the electronic shutter has improved the motion distortion over the same mode on the 1D X Mark III. The electronic shutter can also shoot up to 1/64000 sec. And, it’s still possible to use a flash with the electronic shutter. 

The electronic shutter is also part of a Quick Silent mode. This turns off the fake shutter noise when using the electronic shutter. But, it also turns off things like the AF assist beam and self-timer lights. It’s more of a stealth mode than just switching to the electronic shutter alone.

Besides motion distortion, electronic shutters are prone to banding, but the R3’s new flicker detection mode could help some. In the auto flicker detection mode, you point the camera in the direction of the light, and the camera measures the light frequency and adjusts the settings. It’s designed to avoid those random dark photos because the camera fired during a flicker. I can see this being a big help with LED Christmas lights, photographing a projector screen, and working indoors with overhead LED lighting. LED lights aren’t ready to replace flashes; they’re not strong enough to overpower the sun. But, the anti-flicker could help those working with video lights or ring lights.

The R3’s headlining 30 fps is available only with that electronic shutter. The mechanical shutter is limited to 12 shots per second. In both cases, continuous autofocus is available but AE, flash metering, and white balance are fixed from the first frame. There’s a lot of fine print here too. With anti-flicker on, the electronic shutter burst speed is between 20 fps and 24 fps. With flash and electronic shutter, the max burst speed is 15 fps, and only with post-2007 EL and EX Speedlites.

Is the industry ready for the Canon EOS R3?

For the most part, a sports-oriented, high-end mirrorless is a long time coming from Canon. But, there are a few features that may feel a bit before their time, while others don’t quite measure up. I just finished testing a camera that only has an electronic shutter, and it was a major downfall. The quick silent mode and blackout-free options will need to have superior control of rolling shutter and banding if they are going to be selling points. Otherwise, they’re just features that are nice to have when needed but limited in application.

And then there’s the obvious: are photographers going to pay more for a lower resolution camera? The R3 is slated to cost about $6,000. The R5 costs about $3,900 and has a 45-megapixel sensor. The R5 is still going to be the better option for portraits and landscapes, while the R3 is aiming for action and low light. 

Some photographers are going to prefer that speed over the resolution. But, the Sony a1 offers both, with 30 fps on a 50-megapixel sensor. Both cameras can use flash with the electronic shutter, but Sony has a higher sync speed.

Photographers often complain about Sony’s menu systems. The R3’s ability to use eye AF and switch viewfinder modes without the menu are going to factor into the decision. Sometimes, it’s those small things that make a big difference in the overall shooting experience and which camera feels more natural. 

Another major difference is size. The R3 has a built-in battery grip, making it larger but possibly more ergonomic than the a1. Previous R series cameras have grips that feel very much like a DSLR. They’re larger but very comfortable.

The Canon EOS R3 is slated to ship in November for a list price of about $6,000. It may fall behind the Sony a9 at some points. But, seemingly small features like flash with electronic shutter and eye AF in any mode may improve the experience enough to sway photographers out of the megapixel race.

Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a photographer and tech writer based in Michigan. She shoots weddings and portraits at Hillary K Photography. A mother of three, she enjoys hiking, camping, crafting, and reading.