After Sony released the A7 III way back in 2018, I wondered if Canon and Nikon could ever catch up to its autofocus and other technology. With the launch of the 24-megapixel EOS R3, however, it’s Canon that’s on the cutting edge with its “eye control” AF that lets you focus on a subject just by looking at it.
The R3 is also Canon’s first camera with a backside illuminated, stacked sensor. That gives it burst shooting speeds in silent mode of up to 30 fps with autofocus and auto-exposure enabled. Plus, it has top flight video specs with RAW capture at 6K up to 60 fps.
Here’s the rub, though: For $6,000 it has relatively low resolution, while Canon’s own 45-megapixel EOS R5 costs more than $2,000 less. So, who is this camera good for exactly? And is the eye control AF a useful feature, or just a toy? With some help from my pro photographer friends, I spent some time with a final production model to find out.
Body and handling
The first thing you’ll notice on the R3 is the big camera grip body that makes it look like a DSLR and mirrorless camera mashup. Much like the 1DX Mark III that inspired it, it has dual controls for both landscape and portrait shooting modes, including a matching shutter button, dials and joystick.
Despite the big body, the EOS R3 is relatively light at 2.3 pounds including a battery and memory card. The 1DX Mark III, by contrast, tips the scales at 3.17 pounds, while the EOS R5 is 1.6 pounds.
As you’d hope for a big camera, it has a big grip. That gives a feeling of security when you’re holding it, and it handles great even with big telephoto lenses like Canon’s RF 70-200mm f/2.8.
The R3 also packs plenty of dials and buttons so that you can operate the camera without diving into the menus, for the most part. The control layout is similar to the 1DX Mark III and uses the same infrared control button. That lets you set the focus point just by sliding your thumb over it – faster than a joystick, but easier to activate inadvertently until you get used to it.
A dedicated button lets you switch easily between photo and video modes, while giving you separate settings and menus for each mode. However, it uses the same old Canon menus, which aren’t quite as intuitive as on the latest models from Sony, Nikon and Panasonic. You can control it in a variety of ways, though, using the dials, joystick or touchscreen. That makes it quick to get to a setting, once you figure out where it is.
The big 3.2-inch touch display has a crisp 4.15-million dot resolution, nearly double that of the R5. For scrolling through menus, browsing photos and more, it’s extremely responsive – much more so than Sony’s A1 or any other camera I’ve tried for that matter. The display also flips out for low-angle shooting or vlogging, though the R3 is a bit heavy for the latter.
The 5.76-million dot OLED EVF is similarly sharp and offers a smooth 120 Hz refresh rate. It doesn’t stack up on paper to the 9.4-million dot, 240Hz EVF found on the A1, but I couldn’t see much difference between them, to be honest.
It uses the same huge LP-E19 battery from the 1DX Mark III that delivers up to 620 shots on a charge or about two and a quarter hours of 4K 30p video shooting. Depending on how you shoot, you may easily be able to exceed those figures, however.
For storage, you get one fast CFexpress type B and one SD UHS II slot. It’s nice to have the SD option if you prefer to shoot with those cards. However, if you want to back up the CFexpress card with SD, it’s going to slow performance. Since this is mostly a pro camera, Canon should have offered dual slots for both like Sony does, or perhaps two CFexpress slots.
It has a new hotshoe interface that supports Speedlite and other flashes along with accessories like Tascam’s new XLR 4-channel microphone interface. That finally matches what Sony and Panasonic have offered for years now.
The fiddly micro-HDMI port is not ideal for video shooters, and it’s an odd decision considering Canon had space with the R3’s big body. It also comes with USB-C for data transfers and in-camera charging, though you’ll need another optional accessory if you want to power the camera externally while you shoot.
Now, let’s talk about Canon’s new eye control feature. It’s only really useful if you calibrate it, but luckily that’s easy to do – you just stare at five dots. You might need to calibrate it multiple times depending on whether you’re wearing glasses and contacts, or even for different environments. Luckily, you can save up to six different settings.
Once it was calibrated, I could select an object to focus on just by looking at it. Even if the eye control circle wasn’t quite on a subject, the autofocus would usually select it if it was close. From there, the face, eye or subject tracking would kick in as needed to track the subject.
It worked even in tricky environments with lots of subjects or movement, though it turns off once you hit the focus button and start shooting. It worked fine for me, but didn’t function at all for my photographer friend with light blue eyes and an astigmatism. So if you’re interested in the feature, you may want to test it out before making a purchase, as the functionality seems to depend on your eye color and other factors.
First and foremost, the EOS R3 is a speed demon. That starts with the shutter, which goes all the way up to 1/64,000th of a second in electronic mode, faster than any other consumer camera. It also supports some of the fastest bursts we’ve seen, up to 30 fps in silent mode or 12 fps with the mechanical shutter. Unlike some recent Sony models, you get those full speeds with uncompressed and not just lossy RAW files.
You can take a lot of shots in those modes, too. At 30 fps with the electronic shutter, you can shoot 150 shots to an SD UHS II or CFexpress card before the buffer fills, according to Canon. However, I was able to shoot many more than that with a fast CFexpress card, with just a slight reduction in shooting speeds after the 150 frame mark. It’ll handle 1,000 RAW uncompressed photos or more with the mechanical shutter before stopping.
The Dual Pixel autofocus can keep up with those speeds too, so I had very few photos that weren’t sharp. Face and eye detection is fast and fluid for people, though a bit less reliable for animals or birds. The EOS R has a car tracking feature that’s mainly designed for race cars, and unfortunately I didn’t have access to a Bugatti Chiron during testing.
Shooting sports is this camera’s forte, and at an indoor soccer game with decent lighting, Samuel, the pro photographer I was working with, had only a few out-of-focus shots. It didn’t perform quite as well as the A1 did for birds, but it was still better than most cameras I’ve tried. Overall, the EOS R3 has a very powerful AF system that puts Canon right up there with Sony.
The IBIS system can deliver 8 stops of shake reduction with supported lenses, more than any rival camera. That allowed me to get sharp shots handheld at low shutter speeds when shooting in low light. And thanks to the sensor’s fast readout speeds, rolling shutter is well controlled and only noticeable on fast-moving subjects or quick pans.
The EOS R3 may be Canon’s best mirrorless camera yet for image quality, particularly when it comes to dynamic range. The new 24-megapixel sensor offers at least a stop more dynamic range than the EOS R5, giving you more room for adjustment with RAW images. JPEGs also look great straight out of the camera, with sharpness and noise reduction well balanced.
Canon’s color science is still the best out there, delivering stellar color accuracy and natural skin tones. As usual with Canon, it has a slight bias toward warm tones.
The R3 really shines in low light, too. Noise is nearly non-existent up to ISO 3200, with hardly any noticeable drop in dynamic range. It remains well controlled up to ISO 12,800, and images are usable at ISO 25,600 and even higher if you expose them perfectly.
The biggest downside is the lowish 24-megapixel resolution. With the 45-megapixel EOS R5 or 50-megapixel Sony A1, you can shoot birds or wildlife at a longer distance and still have room to crop in. The R3 is far more limited if you want to retain detail.
Along with my own testing, I loaned the EOS R3 to professional photographer Samuel Dejours from Studio NathSam in Gien France, to get his opinion. “The EOS R3 really handles great, though it’s quite heavy. The Sony A1 is our usual camera and it’s much lighter,” he told me. “However, it does feel better balanced when you use a large telephoto lens. I really liked the infrared autofocus control button; I found it to be much quicker than using the joystick.”
“I was excited to try the eye autofocus. However, despite all attempts of calibration, etc., it simply didn’t work for me. Perhaps with my light-colored eyes, it didn’t work. Hopefully that’s something they can fix with a firmware update.”
“It was nearly at the same level of the A1 for autofocus, though the A1 was perhaps more rapid for certain types of shooting. It was great for sports, with pretty astonishing speed and AF that almost always nailed focus. In terms of image quality, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the A1 and EOS R3 apart if I didn’t know which was which. That makes other things become more important, like the resolution, speed, etc. Overall, it was an excellent experience, and it shows that Canon is really close to Sony for speed, autofocus, video and image quality.”
For a sports camera, the R3 is a surprisingly strong for video. You can shoot DCI 6K RAW at up to 60 fps using the full width of the sensor. It also supports full-frame 4K shooting at up to 120 fps using All-I capture, albeit with subsampling that can reduce detail. Both of these modes also require a CFexpress card as SD-UHS II is too slow.
All other 4K modes at 60p, 30p or under support full sensor oversampling, allowing for extremely sharp video with fine detail. You can also use an APS-C crop for natively sampled (pixel-for-pixel) 4K footage that’s just a touch less sharp, if you need to zoom in slightly for example.
What about overheating? Luckily, the EOS R3 has far fewer restrictions in that regard than the R5 or R6. Regular, oversampled 4K is not temperature limited, and 6K RAW or 4K 60p is good for at least an hour. 4K at 120 fps does have a 12-minute limit, but that’s an exotic use case that would affect very few users. While using the camera, albeit in coldish weather, I received no temperature warnings – even during long takes.
The camera’s excellent high ISO performance is handy for video, allowing more flexibility for indoor shooting. Skin tones are natural and colors accurate, even in relatively low light. The R3 also supports Canon Log 3 or PQ, along with RAW or RAW light, letting you max out the dynamic range. That in turn gives you options to create HDR videos or adjust images in post.
Complimenting all that is the Dual Pixel, AI-powered AF. As we’ve seen before with Canon’s system, it reliably nails focus without any hunting or other annoying issues. Eye tracking is generally fluid and reliable as well.
It’s not quite as sticky as the AF on Sony’s A1, however. It occasionally focused on the background rather than foreground subjects or missed focus altogether. This might be fixable in a future update, though. Keep in mind that the eye control AF function only works with photos and not video.
As for the in-body stabilization with video, it’s only really good for stable handheld shooting and you’ll need a gimbal for anything else. If you try any sudden moves, the system has a tendency to jolt the image, potentially ruining shots. The electronic IBIS mode helps, but it’s not quite as smooth as I’ve seen on cameras like the A1. Meanwhile, rolling shutter is present, but it’s better controlled than on the R5.
The EOS R3 is a speed demon with lowish resolution, solid video chops and a high $6,000 price tag. With that odd mix, it’s mainly designed for news or sports journalists. Other users would do better with higher megapixel cameras like the $6,500 Sony A1 or Canon’s $3,900 EOS R5.
It’s actually Canon’s best mirrorless camera yet for video, which is something I didn’t expect. Though it doesn’t have 8K like the R5, it does offer 6K 60p and has far fewer limitations. It’s hard to justify the price for video alone, however, considering other options out there like the A1, $2,500 EOS R6 or Canon’s all-new $4,500 EOS R5C cinema camera.
Still, it could be a hit in the pro market if Canon can pry the 1DX Mark III and other DSLRs out of photojournalists’ hands. For the rest of us, the EOS R3’s awesome speeds and video capabilities are hopefully a preview of what’s to come in more affordable models down the road. Most importantly, the innovative eye control AF feature, while limited, shows us that Canon can beat Sony at the technical innovation game when it tries.