How Good Is the Canon R3? A Review from a Pro

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Photo of Jeff Cable with R3

Canon made a splash last week when it (finally) announced the full details of its forthcoming EOS R3 camera. The R3, which sits at the top of Canon’s full frame mirrorless line, won’t officially go on sale until November 2021 for $5999, but a few lucky photographers have already been able to shoot with the camera.

One of those photographers is Jeff Cable who used the 24-megapixel R3 extensively during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this past summer. While we’ve already covered some of Cable’s impressions of the R3 during his early testing in Tokyo, he hasn’t been allowed to say much in-depth about the camera until now.

In the below interview with Cable, he gives us the full scoop on the R3 including his early review of its autofocus system, resolving power, and the things he liked and didn’t like about the camera. Along with discussing shooting sports with the R3 at the Olympics, Cable addresses how the camera might (or might not) be suitable for wildlife and event photography.

To see all the technical specifications and details about the Canon R3, read our launch story on the camera from last week. To read more of Cable’s thoughts and impressions on the R3 and see more of his images, read his review on the camera on his blog. You can pre-order the Canon EOS R3 at B&H here and at Amazon here.

Photo shot with Canon R3

Q: What were your general impressions of using the Canon EOS R3 at the Olympics?

Jeff Cable: First off, I liked the fact that the Canon R3 is significantly smaller and lighter than the Canon 1D X Mark III. The 1D X III does get heavy so I appreciated how the R3 was much easier to carry from event to event at the Olympics. Even though the R3 is more compact than the 1D X III, it uses the same battery as that DSLR so you’re getting excellent battery life.

But even more important to me was the camera’s overall speed. The R3 has really fast and accurate focusing and an incredibly fast frame rate. It can’t be overstated how key this is to sports photography and to pretty much any type of photography that involves capturing action. For some events at the Olympics where I was looking for a specific reaction shot, being able to shoot 30 frames per second helped me nail it.

The other thing I loved is the mirrorless experience in general. Specifically, the fact that I could look through the EVF [electronic viewfinder] and see what I was getting. It’s way better than looking through the eyepiece on a DSLR and the R3’s EVF is great quality. I also liked that I could zoom in on an image and see if it was sharp very easily.

I appreciated that the R3 has a CFexpress card slot. CFexpress cards are just faster. Faster to download, faster for everything compared to SD. I actually wish the R3 had two CFexpress card slots rather than one CFexpress and one SD.

It’s funny, when I first shot with the R5 and R6, I said to Canon these are game changers but the R3 takes it up a notch. The face detection is even better with the R3 and while it’s bigger than those two cameras, I like that it has the grip built in. That’s great for sports photography because when you rotate it into vertical mode you still have the buttons on top. The R3 is also slightly less expensive than the 1D X III but you get so much more with it.

One thing to note: while I brought two R5s with me to the Olympics as well, I ended up using the R3 98% of the time. I shot with it for almost everything and even though it was pre-production model, I had no issues with it.

Photo of Canon R3

Q: What do you think about it having 24MP of resolution?

Jeff Cable: I think 24MP is fine for shooting sports. I’d maybe preferred a bit more resolution – I see 30MP as a sweet spot – but as a sports photographer, I don’t really need 50 or 60 or 70MP. For example, the USA Water Polo team has a large billboard in Southern California using one of my images from the Tokyo Olympics and it was taken with the R3 at 24MP. Plus, the more megapixels you pile on, the more noise you’re introducing into the image.

On the other hand, on a photography trip to Africa after the Olympics, I shot everything on a Canon R5, and it was great to capture wildlife with 45MP and crop where necessary. I shot photos of African fish eagles and did a lot of cropping on them, and even if you crop 30 percent of the image, it’s still a 10MB file with the R5. I also didn’t really need the R3’s 30fps in Africa.

Photo shot with Canon R3

Q: Was the full 30 frames per second speed something you used a lot at the Olympics?

Jeff Cable: For stuff I was contractually obligated to shoot, I was mostly using the R3 at max speed, and it really did make a difference. The job of a sports photographer is to capture the peak of action and the R3’s 30fps helped me do that.

For example, for the Women’s Water Polo gold medal game, the US was so far ahead that they pulled the goalie, Ashleigh Johnson, and put in the backup goalie so she could be in a gold medal game. So, I was keyed in on the backup goalie to get one marquee shot of her jumping up and tipping the ball away. I needed that exact moment, and I was able to get it with the fast frame rate.

On the other hand, for a fencing image (below) where I wanted to create a multi-exposure shot, I didn’t want 30fps. It was too fast for a multi-exposure.

Photo shot with Canon R3

Q: How was editing all those images you shot at 30fps?

Jeff Cable: It was brutal. At a typical water polo match in the past, I’d shoot around 1200 images with the Canon 1D X. Now, with the R3, I’d come back with 2500 or 2600 shots. And I’m like, holy crap, my deadlines didn’t change, so now I have to haul ass in the editing room.

All those images did slow me down but the R3’s photos were good so I couldn’t complain too much.

Photo of Jeff Cable with Canon R3

Q: How was the Eye Control Autofocus (AF) feature on the R3?

Jeff Cable: Eye Control worked well but there were some environments where it was more effective for me. I tried it a couple of times at press conferences, and it was great. For instance, when Katie Ledecky is standing in front of me and I want her face in focus, Eye Control AF made it easy to lock in.

During some sports though, the Eye Control AF wasn’t locking in fast enough for what I wanted, so I turned it off and went to back-button focus. Mostly though, I didn’t have time the learn it well enough to use it during the Olympics. I’d like to spend more time experimenting with it. It’s something I’m dying to use for my event photography.

I love the concept of Eye Control AF. It’s cool to be able to train the camera to adjust to you own eye. It reminds me of the stuff that Apple does with their phones.

Photo shot with Canon R3

Q: How was autofocus, overall, on the R3?

Jeff Cable: Really fast, and very accurate. Hit rate is everything in professional photography and the hit rate with the R3 was really good.

Q: What’s the one thing you liked most about the Canon EOS R3?

Jeff Cable: The speed. But I also liked how lightweight it was and how familiar it felt. Canon users will be able to easily pick it up and run with it.

Photo shot with Canon R3

Q: What’s the one thing you liked least about the R3?

Jeff Cable: The SD Card slot is slow. I was shooting RAW plus JPEG to both the CFexpress card and the SD card since I couldn’t easily open the R3’s RAW files yet and needed the JPEGs. Some people don’t know this but shooting RAW plus JPEG slows the camera down more than shooting two RAWs because the camera has to process the image twice.

It was really a drag. I missed some key shots because of it. I was shooting [American gymnast] Jade [Carey] during the floor exercises, and she came off the floor with a huge smile and I missed it. The camera locked up [as the buffer tried to clear] and by the time it had freed up, she was already off the floor. If I was shooting RAW only, I wouldn’t have missed it.

Photo of Canon R3

Q: What’s one thing that surprised you about the R3?

Jeff Cable: I like that you can turn on a simulated noise that makes the R3 sound like it has a DSLR shutter. The R5 and R6 don’t have that. I wanted that audible feedback. With the R3, you can go completely silent and it’s a little disconcerting to a DSLR shooter, especially because there’s no blackout. On the other hand, if I’m shooting a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding, I don’t want that sound so I can turn it off and go completely stealth.

Q: Is the Canon EOS R3 a camera you could see using regularly in your work?

Jeff Cable: Absolutely. For the Olympics, it’s a no brainer. For event photography, the Eye Control AF with the fast focusing and the frame rate would come in handy for the first kiss at a wedding or for the boy going up on a chair at a Bar Mitzvah.

I do want one.

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