Pros: Light weight, low-light autofocus and image quality
Cons: Single SD slot, few autofocus points
I do most of my photography in black and white with the Leica M Monochrom. Most days I choose a single lens and then head out the door, trying to grab shots either on my way to or from work or if traveling, wherever I end up. With the Leica all lenses (except for the tri-Elmar which I do not own) are prime lenses, meaning a single focal length, and the zoom function is handled by the photographer’s feet. It is a refreshing and simple type of photography, where I think as much about line, shadow and texture as I do about photographing a specific person, place or thing. The Leica M Monochrom is, in my opinion, the perfect tool for this type of photography and is probably my most prized possession. What it is not perfect for is anything longer than 90mm, shorter than 28mm or for fast-moving action. Then there is the matter of color, which it does in Ford Model T style, any color you want, as long as it is black (or white, or gray).
So if I like shooting in black-and-white and going for abstract images with a single prime lens, why am I reviewing the Canon 6D full-frame DSLR camera? Simple, while I love abstract photography and even enjoy landscape and portraiture in black and white, most of the world actually likes color and some subjects simply require color to convey their beauty. Leica makes excellent color cameras and I currently own one of them, the X2 and recently sold another, the M8.2. What those cameras lack, however, is a modern full-frame sensor and the ability to use very long or very wide focal lengths. I bought the Canon 6D along with the 24-105mm f/4 L lens in a bundle with the plan to supplement with an ultrawide (probably the 17-40mm f/4 L) and a long telephoto (70-200 f/4 L IS) to give me a DSLR outfit capable of photographing about 99% of what I might ever want to photograph.
This is a very high-end camera with a professional quality sensor, and Canon “L” series lenses are of very high quality. The 6D and L lenses are also dust and moisture sealed, and so I will not hesitate to use these in inclement weather or harsh conditions where I would usually not want to risk taking out the unsealed and super-expensive Leica equipment.
Okay, I’ll also admit that I got my annual bonus at work and just had a little money burning a hole in pocket that was roughly 6D and kit lens sized. It had been two about a year since I’ve shot with a DSLR (Sony A850) and there are situations where I missed viewing through the lens, having fast autofocus and the convenience and speed of a zoom lens. Different tools for different jobs and all that.
Okay, on to the Canon EOS 6D. This is a full-frame, or FX sensor camera, which means that the image sensor is the same size as that of 35mm film. Unlike most consumer-grade DSLR cameras, there is no crop factor. A 24mm wideangle lens is still a 24mm wideangle lens when mounted on the 6D, unlike the 38mm equivalent it becomes on a 1.6X crop-sensor camera like Canon’s many varieties of Digital Rebel. Your lenses will behave exactly as you remember from the film days.
This camera has 20 megapixels, which sounds quite ordinary as many point-and-shoots have the same pixel count, but all pixels are not created equal. The larger sensor size means that each pixel is larger, MUCH larger than on any point-and-shoot, and combined with Canon’s latest sensor technology (Canon is one of the only camera companies that doesn’t use Sony sensors these days) you get extremely good low-light/high-ISO performance.
To compare the quality of this camera’s low-light images I went to my hard drive and pulled up some of my Sony A850 images. The A850 is also a full-frame camera with a slightly higher 24 megapixel resolution, but older sensor technology. Shooting some landmarks in Bakersfield, CA in daylight and after sunset, I put similar images side-by-side and looked at the difference. This was a good comparison because it is the same place I test all of my cameras to see their real-world performance at various ISO levels. Where the tests fail is in that I cannot use the same lenses. The Sony A850 was tested with a Minolta 50mm f/1.4 made in 1986, while the 6D was tested with a brand-new Canon 24-105mm f/4 zoom. I zoomed the Canon to 50mm and took my test shots at f/5.6, just as I did with the Sony last year.
At ISO 100 (base on both cameras) there was no noise to speak of whatsoever. The Canon held more detail in the shadows and both were about equal in the highlights. Color and white balance are a bit different, but close, with both cameras producing vibrant, natural color.
At ISO 200 both were still perfect.
At ISO 400 there is a very small amount of noise in the Sony, with the Canon still noise-free.
ISO 800 still excellent with both cameras, Canon still close to perfect.
ISO 1600 the Sony is starting to get noisy, while the Canon looks much like the Sony at ISO 400.
ISO 3200 the Sony falls apart, while the Canon is still excellent, slightly better than the Sony at ISO 800.
ISO 6400 the Canon looks about like the Sony at ISO 1600, perhaps a bit better. I did not test the Sony at ISO 6400.
Depth of Field:
The other reason photographers like full-frame cameras is for the greater control over depth of field that they give. Depth of field is simply the area in front of and behind the point of focus that remain in sharp focus. Depth of field increases (farther in front and behind) as a given lens is focused farther away, or when a shorter focal length is used. Sensor size increases the field of view, allowing longer focal length lenses to be used at a given distance and subject size (magnification ratio). Most crop-sensor cameras have a 1.5X crop factor, making a 24mm lens perform like a 35mm lens on full-frame at the same subject distance. Similarly to make the subject the same size with the same lens, the photographer will need to move farther from the subject with a crop-format camera to get the same image size.
Since longer focal length or closer distance reduced depth of field, it is far easier to get narrow depth of field on a full-frame camera than on a crop camera. This is great if you want to put a distracting background out-of-focus, and not so great if you want an entire scene in sharp focus from foreground to background (both crop and full-frame have advantages and disadvantages).
Since I am a self-admitted bokeh fanatic (bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus rendering, not just being out-of-focus), full-frame is a huge advantage to me and I always go for the largest sensor I can get and try to use the longest focal length at the shortest distance for what I am shooting. As an example, I would much rather take a portrait with an 50mm lens at 5 feet on full-frame than that same image with a 35mm lens on crop-format because all else being equal, I will have less depth of field.
Another advantage of those larger individual pixels is an increase in dynamic range, which is the range from darkest shadow to brightest highlight before the camera clips, or can no longer resolve detail. My Leica M Monochrom has perhaps the best shadow detail of any camera I’ve ever used, digital or film, but it is very poor with highlights due to its single monochrome channel that once clipped, is simply white with no detail whatsoever. The Canon 6D is outstanding in its shadow detail, better than any color digital camera I’ve ever tried, and better in the highlights than many, though my old Sony NEX7 mirrorless with its 24 megapixel crop sensor held more detail in the highlights, but only slightly. Many internet reviewers claim that Canon’s sensor technology is behind Nikon and Sony when it comes to dynamic range and image samples online show this to be true, but the full-frame 6D is still very, very good. I always shoot RAW and underexpose by 1/3 stop by default, and really don’t worry about blown highlights.
Auto-focus, or AF, is actually an area where crop-sensor cameras often have an advantage. Everything being equal, focusing points are easier to place close together than far apart, and since a full-frame sensor has a wider field of view, the same autofocus system will cover a smaller portion of the frame than that same AF system would on a crop sensor. With the 6D Canon seems to have embraced this limitation and simply designed a system that look extremely simple and low-end for a semi-pro camera. Where Nikon’s competing D610 has 39 focus point with many of them the more sophisticated cross type (vertical AND horizontal), the 6D has a mere 11 focus point, and only the center point is of the cross-type.
That said, the 6D has some very special AF tricks. For one, that center AF point is currently as of this writing THE MOST SENSITIVE af point on any camera sold today. It is rated to EV -3, which Canon describes as “moonlight”, where most cameras start at EV 1 and very best previous system was a full stop behind at EV -2. This means that the 6D will accurately focus where other cameras will not.
Where the 11 point AF fails is in the tracking of moving subjects. This was definitely a design choice, and while it makes the 6D a very poor sports camera, the outstanding low-light AF compliments to very good high-ISO performance to make the 6D one of the best DSLR cameras available for low light work.
GPS and Wifi:
The 6D is pitched by Canon as being ideal for portraiture, travel and landscape photography, and part of that marketing is based on the GPS and wifi features. GPS with tagging allows the camera to embed location information in the digital files which then can help the photographer to recall exactly where each images was captured. This is a great feature for travel photographers and was a big help to me with my old Sony A77 when I travelled across South Korea.
Wifi is also useful as it allows with a Canon app for the photographer to remotely control the camera with an Apple or Android smart phone or table, and also to use that device to view images. Honestly I see this as more of a gimmick, but if I had a retina iPad I might change my mind. I haven’t tried the wifi for image transfer yet, as I still prefer to simply remove my memory cards and transfer directly.
The 6D is very small and light for a full-frame DSLR, and in fact this was the primary reason I bought it. Along with Nikon’s D610 and new Df, the 6D is much closer in size and weight to crop-sensor camera, which makes it a much better travel companion.
While small and light for a full-frame DSLR, this thing is still a big and heavy beast of a camera. It is only a little bit heavier than my Leica, but about twice as large in total volume. Add the larger and heavier SLR lenses and you have a pretty hefty package. With the Canon 24-105L the whole things weighs about the same as my M Monochrom with 35, 50 AND 90mm lenses. Of course, it is also more versatile and doesn’t require lens changes.
In terms of handling, this camera is terrific. The body is easy to hold, with a very comfortable grip and easily accessible controls. The front dial controls either shutter speed, aperture or program shift , depending on mode, while the rear dial controls exposure compensation in automatic modes or aperture in manual (front dial controls shutter speed in manual). ISO is accessed with a dedicated button. The exposure compensation dial at the rear can be quickly locked or unlocked with a simple sliding switch.
As previously stated, the camera body is dust and moisture sealed. With a similarly sealed lens such as the 24-105mm f/4L that is frequently bundled with this camera, you have a single unit that covers almost every photographic situation from wide landscape to portrait telephoto and can do so in wet or dusty conditions. That is the scenario that I imagine myself using the 6D most, as a travel camera with just the single lens and no camera bag.
As a Canon EOS camera, the 6D will accept any Canon autofocus lens produced since 1987 EXCEPT FOR EF-S, which are only for crop-sensor cameras. I haven’t tried to mount one, and would suggest doing so at your own risk as the mirror is considerably larger on a full-frame camera. Even if a crop lens did mount, it would most likely produce severe vignetting on the 6D’s full-frame sensor.
This is not a sports camera, so in addition to lacking the dozens of AF points a sports camera requires, the 6D also is fairly slow with a maximum shooting rate of 4.5 frames per second and a buffer that will fill quickly at that speed.
The 6D, unlike other professional cameras has only a single SD card slot. This means no redundant back-up, no extra capacity and no separate card for video.
Speaking of video, while the 6D will accept an external microphone, it does not have a headphone jack. Other Canon pro cameras give more control for video.
Canon has a ton of accessories available for this camera and it works with well with all of them. I generally shoot everything with available light, but the 6D can control multiple flash units wirelessly. It also has advanced settings with compatible flash units for fill, adjustable ratios and control groups for different groups of flashes. I haven’t used flash with the 6D and cannot comment on how easy it is to use or how well it works. I’ve used the similar Sony flash system and it was powerful indeed, and by what I’ve read in the 6D manual, this camera should essentially do the same thing.
Battery life is fantastic, IF YOU DON’T USE GPS AND WIFI. I’ve already taken roughly 1,000 exposures with the 6D and the battery still shows a half charge. I bought a spare battery, but doubt I will need it.
To sum it up, the 6D is a fantastic camera for portraiture, travel and landscape photography, and is lacking for sports or dedicated video use. As it is precisely for portraiture, travel and landscape photography that Canon markets the 6D, I have no problem with its deficiencies in other areas.
The AF system in particular has received a lot of criticism online for having only 11 AF points and with only one of those points of the cross type. I see it differently, with the AF system admittedly too simplistic for sports, but exactly what a portrait, travel or landscape photographer would want due to its easy operation and class-leading low-light focusing ability. In that regard, it is perhaps the best AF system on the market.
What is most important about any camera is the images it captures. First in that the camera makes it easy for the photographer to capture the image in the first place, and second the quality of that image once moved to the computer or printed. The first aspect, capturing the image, will depend entirely on what sort of photographer you are. If you shoot motorsports, for example, this is not the camera for you. If you shoot mostly portraiture and travel like I do, then you will likely find the 6D to be about the best Canon has to offer today.
In terms of image quality, the files from the 6D are excellent indeed. Sure, Sony’s new 24 and 36 megapixel sensors have more dynamic range, but the 6D’s sensor is very close, and excels at high-ISO, low light. Combined with the light weight of the camera body, the extra high-ISO image quality allows the travel photographer to carry smaller and lighter f/4 instead of large and heavy f/2.8 lenses without any sacrifice in image quality. For travel photography I cannot imagine a better DSLR camera.