Camera Review: Canon EOS 6D
MARCH 14, 2013
By Dan Havlik
In our February issue, we rounded up all of the new full-frame DSLRs released in the past year and there were a boatload of them. Why so many? The main reason is that manufacturers, seeking to seriously differentiate their top-of-the-line cameras from the onslaught of tiny smartphone imagers, realize that a bigger sensor in a camera can be a strong selling point. (Along with the cameras we looked at in the “7 Full-Frame DSLRs” feature, Sony has put a 24.3-megapixel, 35mm-sized CMOS sensor in its Cyber-shot RX1 compact camera. Cool concept but at $2,800, I wonder who the audience is?)
Which brings us to the 20.2-megapixel Canon EOS 6D, a full-frame camera aimed at prosumers and photo enthusiasts but, also, quite potentially at pros seeking an inexpensive and lightweight back-up camera. And at $2,099 (body only), the slimmed down 6D is a compelling argument for this new category of camera. Last year I reviewed the 6D’s main competitor, the 24.3-megapixel, full-frame Nikon D600 (also $2,099), and despite a few minor quibbles, I genuinely liked that model and could see pros snapping up a few as well.
While their price tags are nearly identical and their feature sets are similar, the Canon 6D and Nikon D600 have a few key differences. Advanced amateurs and photo enthusiasts, who might be buying into a DSLR system for the very first time, probably don’t have a stash of quality Canon or Nikon lenses to use with one of these cameras. Pros, on the other hand, are likely to already be well appointed. So let’s get this out of the way: If you’re a Canon shooter who’s interested in one of these models and has a bevy of Canon glass already, go with the EOS 6D. If you’re a Nikon shooter, then go with the D600.
Ultimately, the differences between these two cameras are not enough to force you to switch brand (and pricey lens) allegiances. They’re both quite impressive. Since we already looked at the Nikon D600 back in November, now’s the time to take the Canon 6D for a ride.
There’s no mistaking it: The Canon 6D is like a mini-EOS 5D Mark III. What I liked about the 6D, however, and what might attract pros to this somewhat petite full-framer, is that in terms of build and image quality, you don’t sacrifice much by going with the less expensive prosumer model. You do save a significant amount of money, however: the 6D is about $1,400 less.
I put the Canon 6D through its paces with my occasional co-tester Jordan Matter, a photographer who is a dyed-in-the-wool pro-DSLR user. Jordan’s current camera is the Nikon D3S, which is quite beefy, with a fully weather-sealed build. In terms of size and heft, the 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8-inch, 26.7-ounce 6D didn’t impress him much. “Feels like a toy,” he says, which is pretty much his standard response whenever he co-tests a non-pro product with me. But Jordan warmed to the 6D the more he tried it, especially when he saw its image quality (more about that later). I mention this because most pros might feel, at first blush, that the 6D (or Nikon D600, for that matter) isn’t enough “camera” for them. Give it time.
The 6D is 20 percent lighter than the 5D Mark III and does have a more plastic build, making it feel slightly less sturdy. (In an effort to make the 6D smaller and lighter, Canon has also eliminated the pop-up flash on the new camera.) The 6D is built with an aluminum chassis inside but the outer body is made of polycarbonate.
One redeeming factor is the extensive use of rubber on the 6D’s exterior, both on the handgrip and the opposite front and back of the camera. The rear right thumbrest side of the camera is also rubberized, making the 6D feel comfy and well protected. Canon says the 6D is as weatherized as its APS-C-sensor-based EOS 7D DSLR, which it closely resembles. All in all, the 6D feels a lot more ergonomic and substantial in person than when I first heard about it.
At the same time, don’t expect the 6D to be so small and slim that you’ll be able to fit it in your pocket. (Maybe in a large coat pocket if you have a short prime lens attached, but even that’s a stretch.) In the hand, the 6D doesn’t feel significantly lighter or more svelte than 5D Mark III. It’s noticeable, yes, in that you might be able to squeeze two 6D bodies into a bag that could only fit one 5D Mark III, but add a zoom lens to it and the difference is negligible.
One significant change to the rear of the 6D—compared to the 5D Mark III—is that the buttons have been moved from the left panel next to the LCD screen, toward the center of the back of the camera on the right side of the display. Not a huge deal but the buttons for functions such as playback, magnify, and trash are smaller and scrunched. I also don’t like the new, smaller, Quick Control dial on back of the 6D. Along with being tiny, it’s stiff and not very responsive. The center, multidirection toggle is also hard to press. And there’s no multidirection joystick on back, as with the 5D Mark III. But hey, at the 6D’s budget-friendly price, you’ve got to cut something.
It’s taken me a while with Canon’s recent DSLRs, but the rear Quick Menu button (identified by the Q icon), has become my preferred method for making fast changes to important functions such as ISO, exposure compensation and white balance. (While there is an ISO button on top of the 6D, there’s no exterior white balance button, which is disappointing.)
As with all of Canon’s newer DSLRs, the 6D has a nice, 3-inch LCD screen with 1.04 million dots of resolution. It’s not one of those flip-out, articulating screens, which are harder to weatherproof, but I didn’t mind so much. (It’s a slight downgrade from the 5D Mark III, however, which has a 3.2-inch LCD.)
In short, the feeling of shooting with the 6D is a lot like how I felt about the Nikon D600: After a few minutes of using the camera, you completely forget you’re shooting with a “more affordable” full-frame DSLR aimed at prosumers.
Along with size and price, one of the main differences between the Canon 6D and 5D Mark III is the new camera’s autofocus (AF) system. Where the 5D Mark III boasts a 61-Point High Density Reticular AF (with up to 41 cross-type points and five dual cross-type points), the 6D sports a rather pedestrian 11-point system with one cross-type point in the center.
On paper, that sounds significant and in certain circumstances such as shooting in low light and extremely low-contrast situations (such as in the tricky light of a wedding reception or, in some cases, for sports) the 6D might not be up to the task. I say “might not” because I was actually quite impressed with my results from the 6D’s 11-point AF system. I expected it to feel slower and less responsive than Canon’s higher end EOS DSLRs, but it was surprisingly fleet afoot. I deliberately shot with it in low-contrast settings and swung the camera quickly from subject to subject to see how fast it would take to refocus, and the 6D hung in like a champ. Those shots, reviewed later on my computer and in prints, had excellent sharpness. (It’s worth noting that the Nikon D600 has a 39-point AF system, with nine cross-type points, and I found that camera’s focusing speed and accuracy to be stellar.)
The 6D’s CMOS sensor is a smidge smaller than the 5D Mark III’s—35.8 x 23.9 mm versus 36 x 24 mm—so it’s not, technically, full frame. That’s not a big deal, however, as I’ll explain in the next section about image quality.
In terms of speed, the 6D’s actually faster than the 5D Mark III (both cameras use DIGIC 5+ Image Processors, incidentally), capable of firing off up to 4.5 frames per second (fps) versus 3.9 fps for the higher end model. Again, this is not a big difference but it’s interesting to note that Canon’s less expensive camera has a faster frame rate. In real-world use, the 4.5 fps burst speed was just enough to capture basic action, such as working with models, candid photography and low-intensity sports. For faster action such as basketball, soccer or anything on the Olympic level, however, you’d want to step up to Canon or Nikon’s flagship SLRs. The 6D’s generous camera buffer also lets you keep shooting JPEGs until the SD card fills. When shooting RAW, you get a decent 15-frame buffer until the camera needs to pause to catch up.
While the 6D has a decent maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, the maximum flash sync speed is just 1/180 of a second, which doesn’t make it ideal for freezing motion using ambient lighting in the studio and/or strobes.
Some pros might not like that the 6D only has a single SD card slot for storing photos—the 5D Mark III has CompactFlash and SD slots—and, for me, I much prefer the dual-slot model, where I can store RAW images to one and JPEGs to the other. Plus, the 20-megapixel imager in the 6D is still rather large, producing 6 to 8 MB JPEG files and 20 to 25 MB RAW files. If you shoot a lot—and most pros do—you could start to miss an overflow card slot.
The other differences between the two cameras are rather minor: The 5D Mark III has a 150,000-cycle shutter life expectancy versus 100,000 for the 6D; there’s 97 percent viewfinder coverage on the 6D compared to 100 percent on the 5D Mark III; and there are a few more modes and functions on the 5D Mark III.
But where the 6D trumps that camera and the Nikon D600 is in two tricked-out features: built-in Wi-Fi and GPS tagging. The 6D’s in-camera GPS receiver, personally, I can take or leave. I (usually) know where my images were captured and have no desire to put them on one of those digital maps, in the included Map Utility software or Apple Aperture, to see where I’ve been. For those who do like this feature, however, the 6D’s GPS is solid, recording longitude, latitude, elevation and universal time code in your shots while also sporting a GPS logging function.
In-camera wireless connectivity, on the other hand, is something I see tremendous potential for. Camera manufacturers have been trying to implement it for years but, so far, with no great success. Most of the setups I’ve tried have been glitchy and the built-in Wi-Fi in Canon’s own compact PowerShot cameras is practically unusable. The 6D’s built-in Wi-Fi is 802.11 B/G/N capable with a reported range of 100 feet, which I found to be pretty accurate. Canon has updated the Wi-Fi interface, making it a lot easier to use, especially when connecting the 6D to an iPhone or Android smartphone with the help of Canon’s free EOS Remote app. I was able to easily share images with my iPhone, at a reduced size; get a live view from the camera on the phone; and control basic functions on the camera via the app, including firing the shutter, focusing by touching the iPhone’s screen, and adjusting ISO, aperture, shutter speed, etc.
In other ways, the 6D’s Wi-Fi is less successful. For instance, the built-in Wi-Fi transmitter also lets you wirelessly send your shots to social-networking sites but you first need to go through the Canon iMage Gateway online album and library site, which adds an extra step to the process. You can also send your shots to a wireless printer from the 6D but I don’t know many photographers who would do that. (Most photographers like to review or edit their images on a computer before printing.) Also, there does not appear to be any way to directly transfer images wirelessly from the 6D to a computer—i.e. eliminating the need for a card reader—which would seem to be the point of having Wi-Fi in a camera in the first place.
Image quality from the Canon 6D was on par with the results we got from the 5D Mark III, and that’s saying something because the 5D Mark III was one of the best cameras we shot with last year. I’ve already mentioned that the 6D’s sensor is just a fraction smaller than the 5D Mark III’s chip, but the 6D’s individual pixel size is larger because it has slightly less resolution. The 20.3-megapixel 6D’s pixels are 6.5 microns a piece versus 6.2 microns in the 5D Mark III’s 22.3-megapixel sensor.
Yes, those are the sorts of numbers that might give pixel peepers a hard-on, but how does it translate into the real world? Well, all joking aside, Jordan and I were both extremely impressed with the 6D’s skills as an available-light camera. He continues to work on his “Dancers Among Us” photos, the vast majority of which are shot without any type of artificial light. Images he shot with the 6D and Tamron SP 70-200mm, f/2.8 Di VC USD lens (also reviewed in this issue) of a dancer performing at night on a Manhattan street and inside a dimly lit bar were virtually noise-free up to ISO 3200. Shots at ISO 6400 were also quite nice: crisp and clear with only a bit of color noise in the shadow areas. Realistically, you can easily get away with pushing the 6D to ISO 12800 if you need it, which gives you a lot of versatility. (Maximum ISO, in the 6D’s expanded mode, is 102400 while minimum is 50. In contrast, the D600’s expanded range is ISO 50 to 25600.)
Part of the credit should be given to the DIGIC 5+ image processor, which, on the 5D Mark III and elsewhere, has proven to be fairly good at tamping down noise when images are output from the camera’s sensor. The 6D uses 14-bit analogue-to-digital conversion on its sensor to produce images that had great color and excellent dynamic range while keeping noise in check. In daylight and with strobes, results were even better, letting us make the most of the sharpness from the excellent 70-200mm Tamron lens.
The 6D’s HD video quality is about on par with the 5D Mark III but doesn’t offer quite as robust a feature set. For one thing, there’s no headphone jack for checking audio levels as you shoot. (The 5D Mark III has a headphone jack built-in.) Otherwise, the 6D can shoot full 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) HD with manual exposure control at a range of frame rates including 30 fps, 25 fps or 24 fps. You can also shoot 720p at 60 fps or 50 fps, or in the high-quality All-I intraframe video format—but you’ll need a UHS-I compliant SD card to do that. (It’s also worth noting that you have to disable the 6D’s Wi-Fi when shooting video, so there’s no way to monitor a live video feed on an iPad or iPhone while you shoot.)
Overall, my video results from the 6D were lovely, thanks to the big image sensor, which produces that stunning, shallow depth of field familiar to users of Canon’s HD-DSLRs. While writing this review, there had been some chatter on the Internet that the 6D had issues with producing moiré—which are strange, multicolored stripes that can occur in subjects with intersecting grid-like patterns—in its video. I deliberately shot with the 6D in situations where moiré might occur, such as the intricate brickwork on a building, intersecting power lines and the suspension cables on a bridge, and only saw moderate instances of moiré. One place it turned up severely was in the vents of window air conditioners but otherwise it didn’t seem worse than with other HD-DSLRs. Good to keep an eye on this potential issue, though. Hopefully a firmware update can fix it if there’s a problem.
The Bottom Line
Many of the new full-frame cameras that were announced in 2012 have been making their way into the hands of photographers in 2013. It will be interesting to see how the excellent, relatively slimmed down Canon EOS 6D fits into the overall market. On the one hand, it offers a camera build and a price that puts it more in line with APS-C-sensor-based prosumer DSLRs of the past. On the other hand, the 6D has enough features and such superb image quality that it should also attract pros looking for a small, back-up camera body. While its 11-point AF system is a step down from what you’d find in pro cameras and its flash sync speed is too slow for serious studio work, the 6D adds high-end features including built-in GPS and Wi-Fi that most top-of-the-line cameras don’t offer. In the end, the 6D leaves us in the same place as that other prosumer full-frame DSLR, the Nikon D600, which I reviewed very favorably last year: A very nice camera, for sure, at a great price but where exactly is its niche? Photographers will decide in the coming months.
Pros: Superb overall image quality; excellent performance at high ISOs in low light; built-in Wi-Fi is an improvement over previous models; good overall speed for shooting candids, photographing models in a runway setting and capturing sports; nice, weather-sealed camera build that feels smaller but not too petite or flimsy
Cons: The 11-point autofocus system performed well but is a step down from pro DSLRs and the competing camera from Nikon; maximum 1/180 flash sync speed is a notch slow for studio strobe work; only one SD card slot; no headphone jack for video
Price: $2,099 (body only); www.usa.canon.com
Read all of our camera reviews at www.pdnonline.com/cameras.