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Gear Test: Canon 6D

Recently, Canon introduced its third and lowest priced camera, in a line-up of full frame sensor cameras. However, can the new Canon 6D stand up to the competition? Mark Bauer took it for a spin on location and here are his findings

Introduction

Only around a decade ago, the announcement of an ‘affordable’ full frame DSLR would have been big news. But with a number of full-frame models now available from 3 different companies, and 5 models with street prices under £2,300, the simple fact of its existence is not enough for the 6D to make much impact; it needs to compete on its feature set, ergonomics and performance.

Canon itself has 3 models in its current full-frame line up, all very similar in terms of megapixel count, and so distinguished mainly in terms of build quality, features and handling. The distinction between the top-of-the line 1Dx and the other two full-frame cameras is obvious, both in these areas and in terms of price. However, the 5D Mk III and 6D are both mid-range DSLRs and so must have presented Canon with a much bigger challenge in terms of how to separate them: trim down the 6D too much, and it will lose its appeal, keep it too close to the 5D Mk III and you take sales away from the higher-priced model. There is a huge risk of confusing the customer and having the two models compete against each other.

So, has Canon managed to get the balance right with the 6D? Has the £700 saving over the 5D Mk III resulted in too many compromises or, as a landscape photographer, can you save a fair chunk of money and essentially obtain the same results and performance from the 6D as you can from its more expensive cousin?

EOS-6D-FRA-w-EF-24-105mm-L
 

Features

The 6D’s feature list is very long, and I could fill my word count for this review just by writing down everything on the list, so it is probably best to restrict myself to the edited highlights:

  • 20.2 MP full-frame sensor
  • ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to 50-102,800)
  • 4.5 fps
  • 1080p30 video recording
  • 11 point AF system, cross-type centre point, sensitive to -3 EV
  • 63 zone metering
  • 97% viewfinder coverage
  • 1040K dot 3” LCD
  • Single SD card slot
  • Electronic level
  • In-camera HDR and multiple exposures
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS

Lyme-Regis-4-0728So, what the 6D loses in comparison with its older sibling is a bit of build quality, although apparently, it still offers weather sealing to the same specification; some autofocus capability (not important for landscape, but if you dabble in wildlife photography as well, could be a deal breaker); a little bit of speed; 0.2” off the rear LCD and 3% of the viewfinder coverage. For most landscape photographers, that is not a lot to lose in order to save £700, and the 6D even gains a couple of things that the 5D Mk III lacks; namely Wi-Fi and GPS. How useful these last two features are in real life is debatable, however.

In Use

I shot with the 6D for just over a fortnight, taking it as far afield as Iceland, to photograph the northern lights. I was able to push the camera, not only in terms of its image quality in difficult shooting situations, but also with regard to its robustness, in fairly harsh conditions at times.

The body is based around that of the 60D, with a couple of modifications to accommodate a full-frame rather than APS-C sensor, the most obvious being the slightly larger pentaprism, and the fixed, rather than articulated rear LCD. This latter change is a shame, in my opinion, as there are many advantages to an articulated screen; Canon claims that the fixed screen is to improve durability. Personally, I think this is a bit of a red herring; if you want a more rugged camera, there is another option in the line-up. With a camera such as the 6D, I’d be willing to trade a little durability for better functionality.

The smaller form factor has led to a different control layout from the 5D/7D series cameras, and this is the main issue I have with the 6D. Rather than having the main control buttons lined up along the left-hand edge of the rear LCD, they are scattered around the back of the camera. There is no joystick, but instead an 8-way controller which sits inside the rear control dial. This does not fall neatly to hand, as does the joystick on the 1, 5 and 7 series models, but is rather awkward to access, requiring an uncomfortable change of hand position. Furthermore, the ‘Play’ and ‘Magnify’ buttons, although reached easily by the thumb, are almost flush to the surface of the camera, rather than being raised. This makes them not as easy to press as they should be, especially when wearing gloves, and, at times, I found myself having to spend a moment looking for them, rather than just being able to get on and use them; perhaps not a major problem, but certainly an irritation over time.

Faxifoss-0615
 
Of course, the problems I had very likely are the result of my being more used to working with the control layout of the 5D and 1D cameras, and someone upgrading from, say a 60D (presumably a large part of the target market), probably would not feel the same way. However, it does raise the question of why Canon does not have more consistency of design and control layout across its range. From a professional’s point of view, there are some important issues here, which go beyond the level of minor irritation: if using the 6D as a second body, with your main body being a 5D Mk III or 1Dx, the differences in layout and handling will be confusing when switching from one camera to the other. In rapidly changing conditions, this could lead even to missed opportunities.

My own preference would be for the 6D to be slightly larger, with the same, or similar, control layout as the 5D Mk III. It could still be made quite a bit lighter, and probably slightly smaller, and would then have appeal both as a main camera for the enthusiast and a back-up camera for the professional.

In the hand, the 6D feels quite a bit lighter than the 5D Mk III, and also has more of a plastic touch, although the body actually is pretty robust and should survive what the average landscape photographer is likely to do to it. I shot with it at the coast on a blustery day and also in -10º C in Iceland. At the end of that shoot, ice was forming on the camera, but it suffered no ill effects. What really impressed me at the time was the battery life; after 3 hours of shooting long exposures in freezing conditions, the battery indicator still showed 4 bars! I certainly have no hesitation in subjecting the 6D to the day-to-day rigours of professional landscape photography.

Kimmeridge-6D-0718
 

Performance and Image Quality

This is where the 6D scores highly. At low ISO, images are clean and very detailed. Shadow detail is good, and I found that the files stood up to quite a lot of processing, in much the same way as the 5D Mk III images.

The camera really excels at high ISO. It is unusual for me to shoot much above ISO 400, and hardly ever above 1600, but shooting at night in Iceland necessitated pushing things a little further. It was with some trepidation that I dialled in ISO 3200, but I need not have worried; the resulting files showed a lot less noise than I was expecting, and what noise there was, cleaned up really well in processing. Good exposure technique is necessary, though, as the further into the shadows you go, the uglier things get, noise-wise. For best results, you need to ‘expose to the right’, but as long as you do, pushing up the ISO is no problem. I did some comparisons with my 5D Mk II, and the 6D noticeably had less noise at ISO 3200 and 1600, and immediately became my camera of choice for aurora photography.

As well as being very good in low light at high ISO, the 6D also delivers the goods when shooting long exposures in low light. Files were very clean and detailed, there were very few ‘hot’ pixels and there was no need to set long exposure noise reduction. This is a camera which will keep the Lee ‘Big Stopper’ fans happy.

Portland-4-0741
 
Colour and contrast are good, straight out of the camera, with very little processing needed. Generally speaking, although the files can take a lot of punishment in the raw converter, I found they needed very little work to get them looking how I wanted them to look. Dynamic range is very good: laboratory tests conducted by others suggest that it is not as wide as the latest Nikons, but certainly I did not run into any problems and found it perfectly adequate for the situations in which I shot.

The 6D clearly is not designed as an action camera, and the autofocus system is fairly basic. The centre focusing point is very accurate, however, and works effectively in very low light; something which proved helpful when trying to find infinity focus with a wide angle zoom when shooting the northern lights.

The vast majority of landscape photographers, however, do not rely on AF, and how well ‘Live View’ works is of far more interest. The good news is that it works extremely well. The rear LCD is a joy to use, a clear improvement on the previous generation. It is easy to see, even in bright light, and shows plenty of detail even in poor light.

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All of this makes precise manual focusing a breeze. The only slight fly in the ointment is the aforementioned lack of joystick for moving the square focusing point around; the 8-way controller just is not as instinctive.

The live histogram is very useful and works well with the 6D, though as with other models, remember that the metering is taken from the magnifying window, so if you close ‘Live View’ and then shoot, the metering will change, and you may not get the result you were expecting.

The ‘Live View’ screen also can show an electronic spirit-level, which is another excellent and especially welcome feature.

EOS-6D-BCK-w-BG-E13
 

Final Thoughts

Objectively speaking, the 6D is an excellent piece of kit; it is packed with features and delivers superb image quality. For those on a budget, it provides a genuine alternative to the pricier 5D Mk III, without having to give up too much for the £700 saving. It is worth noting, however, that Nikon’s competing model, the D600, has a street price around £150 less than the 6D, and apart from GPS and Wi-Fi, provides pretty much the same features and a few extra megapixels.

Subjectively speaking, I felt that, although the 6D is a very capable camera, I just did not get excited by it, and found that a couple of handling issues, placement and ‘feel’ of some control buttons, and the replacement of the joystick with a rather awkwardly placed control pad, made it less than a joy to use.

However, I have to stress the word ‘subjectively’ in the previous paragraph, and I am sure there are plenty of other photographers who will find that the handling of the 6D really suits them. If you still have a local camera shop, I suggest visiting it and trying the 6D for size. If its ergonomics suit you, then I really recommend it, as it is a well-featured, well put together camera that delivers great results.

Oh, and if you have tried it out in your local camera store and decide to buy one, get it from them.

EOS-6D-TOP
 
 

The Bottom Line

Pingvellir-4-0634The 6D is a highly competent camera which delivers excellent image quality. It is quite capable of delivering professional quality results, and I had no qualms about using it on ‘real’ shoots. While there are compromises regarding its handling compared with the 5D Mk III, the importance of these is highly subjective: what might drive one photographer mad may well not bother another. A lot depends probably on which previous model you are moving from.

If your budget does not stretch to a 5D Mk III, then it is fairly simple; the 6D is recommended. If your budget does include the 5D Mk III, then things are a little more complicated, but, basically, it comes down to whether you prefer a smaller, lighter camera or one with a little more heft and solidity, and the importance of certain specific handling differences.

In Favour

  • Records very good detail
  • Excellent high ISO
  • Good colour/contrast straight out of the camera
  • Light but robust
  • Very good LCD and implementation of ‘Live View’
  • Range of features

Against

  • Placement of some buttons
  • 8-way controller instead of joystick
  • More expensive than its direct competitor

Rating

  • Features: 8.5/10
  • Handling: 6.5/10
  • Performance: 8.5/10
  • Image Quality: 8/10
  • Value for Money: 7.5/10
  • Overall: 39/50

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 26 of Landscape Photography Magazine.


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About Author

Mark Bauer

Mark Bauer is one of the UK’s leading landscape photographers with work published worldwide. He is the author of 3 books, including ‘The Landscape Photography Workshop’ (with Ross Hoddinott).

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