EOS 6D is still Canon’s budget full-frame leader

Canon really took its time getting an enthusiast-level full-frame camera to market. Despite first-mover advantage with the legendary Canon EOS 1DS, the only full-frame camera on the market for several years, launches since then have been slow despite enthusiasts begging for a camera with a bigger sensor. The flagship 1DS was revamped three times, and was then joined by the 1DX and a semi-pro level 5D which is now in its third generation, or fourth if you include the S-model super-megapixel cameras. But for those unable to face the stiff price and weight of those two cameras, there has been no budget choice.

Enter the Canon EOS 6D, a top-level enthusiast camera that’s significantly smaller than cheaper than its full-frame big brothers. With built-in Wifi and GPS, it features some of the latest technology and a 20.2MP sensor with a huge ISO range. You’d think the camera-buying world would be going wild with enthusiasm. But largely, they’re not.

Canon 6D handles low light very well
Canon 6D handles low light very well

The problem is that Nikon launched its own enthusiast-level full-frame DSLR a few months earlier which is now slightly cheaper than the Canon. Then came Sony with its swivel-screen A99. And worse still, the Nikon D600 has a far more pro-level spec pretty much right across the board. More megapixels, far more advanced autofocus, faster 5.5fps shooting rate, twin card slots, 100% viewfinder coverage. 3.2in LCD screen and a more pro video spec, such as clean HDMI output and a headphone socket. Plus a pop-up flash. All of which the 6D doesn’t have. And the upgraded D610 is even better.

It would be easy to write off the 6D, especially when you consider the excellent results the Nikon has been getting. But to do that would be to miss the little Canon’s charms and great results, plus the unique benefits of built-in Wifi and GPS.

Of course, most pro photographers are wedded to a camera system already, and have an armoury of lenses. If you’re a die-hard Canon shooter, then adding a 6D to your kit could make sense. It’s an ideal top-quality travel camera, offering a smaller body than a 5D with big results and the benefit of being able to add location info to every picture by the GPS. And its near-silent shutter could be a boost to travellers, too. If you are using a Canon crop-sensor camera and looking to make the step up to full frame relatively affordably, then the 6D could be your next camera, as long as you don’t mind buying a new set of full-frame lenses.

Low light is ideal for full-frame cameras
Low light is ideal for full-frame cameras

Either way, the 6D offers the real benefits of full-frame cameras which are better image quality and lower noise, especially at higher ISOs. The viewfinder is far larger, too. Plus it’s far easier to get a shallow depth of field as the lenses required are longer focal length than those used for smaller sensor cameras to get the same angle of view. A 50mm lens on a crop-sensor camera is roughly equivalent to an 85mm on a full frame body. And at the same aperture and distance, the longer lens will have a shallower depth of field.

The heart of the 6D is its 20.2MP sensor which offers a very impressive ISO range of 100-25,600. This can be expanded to as low as 50 and as high as 102,800. Simply put, the results are very impressive. The image quality in terms of fine detail and tonal gradation are excellent. The noise is very well controlled at high ISO, making it genuinely useful as a low-light camera. The dynamic range is good, with great shadow detail and highlights retained remarkably well. In terms of performance, the sensor gives results very close to the 5D MkIII, a far more expensive camera. It’s certainly better than the sensor in the ageing 5D MkII which has been a benchmark camera for several years. The 6D has a thoroughly modern sensor, made by a camera manufacturer who knows how to get the best out of it. It will give truly top-quality professional results better than any of Canon’s crop-sensor cameras, which to many is reason enough to buy the camera straight away.

Low light and fast action were no sweat for the 6D
Low light and fast action were no sweat for the 6D

We used the 6D with studio flash indoors, with HMI continuous lights in a studio, indoors using ambient light, outdoors using flash and ambient and in the O2 Arena to photograph motocross action under the stadium lights. In every case, the image quality was truly excellent and the colours natural. At low ISO the level of detail was fantastic, and at high ISO the noise control was amazing, too. Not quite at the level of the Nikon D4 which we compared it to, of course, as that is the flagship high-ISO camera.

The other real benefits of the 6D are the built-in Wifi and GPS. The GPS is great for travelling, of course, as it embeds location data into your photos. But it’s the benefits of the Wifi that is largely not yet appreciated by many photographers. The Wifi means you can do all the modern stuff like upload pictures direct to Facebook, of course, or transfer your images to your iPad or smart phone. Or even direct to a Wifi printer. A real benefit is that using Canon’s EOS Remote app for iPhone or Android, you can control your camera wirelessly from your phone. You can change exposure settings and see exactly what your camera is seeing via its Live view. Plus release the shutter, of course.

All this technology sounds good and it does work, but it still does feel like we’re in version 1.0. It’s a bit fiddly to set up initially. Other cameras can have Wifi or GPS, but it’s via accessory plug-in units. The 6D is leading the way in DSLR connectivity.

However, where it’s not leading the way is in lots of features that we have come to expect in cameras that cost around £1100, like a 100% viewfinder and the latest autofocus systems.

The rival Nikon D600 has 39 AF points, of which nine are the sensitive cross-type. The Canon 5D MkIII has 63 points, with 41 cross-type and five super-sensitive double-cross sensors. It leaves the 6D looking like the poor relation, with its 11 points with only one cross-type right in the centre of the frame.

But in practice, the autofocus was very impressive. Shooting fast-moving motorcycles in poor light is a test for any system, and the 6D coped admirably with very few misses. The majority of the time the more accurate centre sensor was used, but we also tried the outer points and they worked surprisingly well too. One real benefit of the 6D is that its autofocus works in light levels as low as -3EV, making it the most sensitive on the market. It could be ideal for wedding photographers who often struggle to get their focus to lock on in low light.

Crash, bang, wallop. The 6D is fast enough for most applications
Crash, bang, wallop. The 6D is fast enough for most applications

One area where the 6D did lack when shooting action was its speed, though. With a lower frame rate than its rivals, it’s not the best action camera. And despite using a fast Sandisk card, the buffer filled up quickly even at 4.5fps. We were shooting full-size j-pegs and Raw files simultaneously, though. But it’s definitely not a speed king like a Canon 1-series or even the 7D.

It’s when faced with high-pressure work like shooting sports that the shortfalls of the 6D become a bit more obvious. Compared to the other single-digit-series Canons, the 6D just feels a bit more fiddly to use. It has the traditional Canon thumb wheel on the back plate and finger dial on the front that many will feel at home with. But it lacks things like a dedicated white balance button. And the AF-ON button, for those who like to use back-button focus, is squeezed in next to the other AF controls. And worst of all is the pad on the back which you use to change the focus points. It’s four small buttons around the main control wheel. It works, but it’s fiddly and nowhere near as nice or intuitive as the joystick on other cameras.

Under a bit of stress while working, the 6D just slows you down a bit as it’s just not as ergonomically sorted and easy to use as more pro-level cameras. Slow down a bit, take your time, delve into menus a bit more often and it’s no problem.

Af tracking is good, even in low light
Af tracking is good, even in low light

Of course, being a camera aimed at enthusiasts moving up to more advanced DSLRs, there are quite a few concessions made to automation that professionals probably won’t use. Like the “Creative Auto” scene modes and HDR that only works on j-pegs. But the “Q” button on the rear is genuinely useful. Push it and it brings up a quick menu of all the important shooting parameters on one screen that you can quickly change.

The viewfinder itself is roomy and bright, especially if you’re moving up from smaller DSLRs. But it only offers a 97% view rather than the 100% on most pro cameras. The 6D also doesn’t offer an LCD overlay in the viewfinder to show grid lines, like most recent high-end Canons. Instead, you have to buy and manually change the focusing screen.

The rear LCD screen is bright and useful, but at 3 inches is smaller than on most of the latest high-end cameras. It also doesn’t swivel out and articulate, which would have been very useful, especially for video.

It's no speed merchant but the 6D has a fast enough frame rate
It’s no speed merchant but the 6D has a fast enough frame rate

Video is, of course, a major part of all new DSLRs and the 6D has a very useful, high-quality 1080 HD video function that can be controlled fully manually. It even offers 60fps slow-motion, albeit at 720p rather than full 1080 HD. There is no headphone jack and no way of recording uncompressed files, either. So it’s not a videographer’s dream DSLR. Also, the on-chip phase detection AF that helps retain focus during live view, as found on the 650D, is missing, too.

In many ways, that sums up the new Canon 6D. It has the latest full-frame sensor that can give staggering results in both photo and video. But the camera itself is rather uninspiring in its spec. OK, it may have GPS and Wifi built in which is very nice, but it lacks behind a lot of other, less expensive cameras in many ways.

Great image quality and good handling make the 6D a top camera and it's not too pricey
Great image quality and good handling make the 6D a top camera and it’s not too pricey

A less advanced autofocus, 97% viewfinder, clunky ergonomics, slow frame rate and small buffer, single card slot and average sized screen are bettered on many cameras. With a 6D, you’re not buying the latest in camera technology. And to many, that won’t matter. What you have is a small and less expensive full-frame DSLR with a cracking sensor that’s ideal for travelling light, especially with its GPS data tagging.

Canon 6D faces its older siblings

If you’re a Canon user and want to enter the full-frame market at a more affordable price, then the 6D may seem like the best option as it’s now around £1100. But for even less money, you can still buy a new Canon EOS 5D MkII which has been the benchmark camera for years.

The 21 MP 5D MkII may be superseded by the newer MkIII model, but it still offers a more rugged, pro-spec body than the 6D with slightly more megapixels on its sensor. The 5D’s autofocus is, on paper, more advanced than the 6D but in practice, the newer camera wins out. The 6D also has a far wider ISO range, from 50 to a staggering 102,400 while the 5D Mk II only goes from 100-6400.

If you want a faster, more sport-orientated camera then the 18MP Canon 7D is still also a good bet, and is even cheaper again. Of course it’s not full frame, but does have fast AF with 19 cross-type AF points and a blazing quick 8fps speed.

So the older cameras may seem to have some benefits over the more consumer-level spec of the 6D, but it’s obviously the final image that really matters.

So we tested a 6D, 5D MkII and 7D against each other in a studio lit with HMI continuous lights, right through the whole range of ISO settings. We used a Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime lens on all the cameras, which were mounted on a tripod and released remotely. But as the 7D is a crop sensor camera, we also repeated the test using a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 32mm to give a roughly equivalent field of view.

At base ISO of 100, there was little to choose between each of the cameras, although the 6D did have a slight edge in how smooth the image was. Both full frame cameras had improved shadow detail compared to the 7D. By 400 ISO, the full frame cameras really did show their benefit with less noise, more detail and a smoother look. Even at ISO 400, the 6D was marginally better and less noisy than the 5D MkII. By 1600 ISO, the gap began to widen with the 6D obviously superior to the 5d MkII and significantly better than the 7D.

A 100% crop from the 7D at 3200 ISO shows very good noise control. It can be improved using noise reduction software too
A 100% crop from the 7D at 3200 ISO shows very good noise control. It can be improved using noise reduction software too

As the 7D and 5D MkII reached their upper limit of 6400 ISO, the 6D was almost a full stop better. In other words, the 6D at 12,800 was relatively close to the 7D at 6400. And with an upper limit of 102,400, the 6D just kept on going. Of course, those super-high ISO figures are not really going to give great quality. But the 6D was still producing very acceptable results at 25,600 ISO.

  • First published in Photo Professional magazine