Exploring Canon's intelligent autofocus system

Find out how the intelligent autofocus system in the Canon EOS R5, EOS R6 and EOS-1D X Mark III "makes it practically impossible to miss a shot".
A groom and five groomsmen of various ages, most wearing sunglasses, walk towards the camera smiling broadly.

Foliage waving in front of the camera, sunglasses, goggles or even a full-face helmet cause no problems for the intelligent face-recognition and tracking abilities of the Canon EOS R5's autofocus. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 30mm, 1/3200 sec, f/2.2 and ISO100. © Félicia Sisco

How does Canon's intelligent autofocus work, which Canon cameras use deep learning AF, and how can this latest Canon autofocus technology help you to capture better shots and improve your hit rate?

Originally developed for the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, the intelligent autofocus system with deep learning algorithms is also present on the Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R6. Wedding, fashion and portrait photographer and Canon Ambassador Félicia Sisco has already found it invaluable.

"It was crazy, with wedding guests jumping up and down all over the place," Félicia says of a recent assignment. Such a scenario might sound like an autofocus nightmare, but Félicia's Canon EOS R5 never missed a beat. In fact, she has been impressed with the EOS R5's AF since her first experience with it. "The first time I used the EOS R5 was for a very difficult fashion shoot with lots of movement," she says. "The autofocus was incredible. Now I'd feel lost without it." Félicia has also used the Canon EOS R6, which utilises the same deep-learning artificial intelligence autofocus system.

Canon Europe Professional Imaging Product Specialist Mike Burnhill explains that this latest iteration of the EOS iTR AFX system uses 'deep learned' artificial intelligence. The system is based on an algorithm that teaches itself by scanning millions of images. The system essentially learns how to recognise the heads of people, even if they're skiers wearing goggles, racing drivers wearing helmets, or gymnasts upside down or even facing away from the camera. Deep learning is a huge leap forward from the intelligent autofocus systems of previous Canon cameras.

Head turned away from the camera and facing a full-length mirror, a bride adjusts the back of her dress with the help of her young bridesmaid.

The intelligent autofocus system in the Canon EOS R5 is capable of recognising heads even with the subject's face turned away from the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/3.2 and ISO1000. © Félicia Sisco

Dressed in their wedding attire, a bride leans down to her young bridesmaid to rub noses playfully.

With the Canon EOS R5 intelligent autofocus system, face detection works without the need for eye contact, and you can easily switch between different faces in the frame. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 85mm, 1/100 sec, f/2 and ISO3200. © Félicia Sisco

Automatic face detection

At the busy wedding shoot using the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, Félicia was delighted at how the autofocus system is every bit as good in both cameras. "I love that the cameras have autofocus points everywhere, across the whole frame," she says. "I no longer need to line up the eye of a person with a particular AF point in the camera. The system automatically detects the face and the eyes and jumps straight to them."

Over a career spanning 40 years, Félicia's favourite lenses have long been the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM primes, particularly in situations where an ultra-tight depth of field demands critically accurate focusing. "Photographers using older kit have told me they have problems autofocusing with these lenses and getting consistent results. I show them the Canon EOS R5 with the RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens and there's no longer a problem."

Lightning-fast AF acquisition

Félicia is also impressed by the lightning-fast speed with which the intelligent autofocus can recognise and lock on to a face. Mike explains that the system scans the entire scene 120 times per second to build up a picture of the environment. Even during a burst of shots in high-speed continuous drive mode, the DIGIC X processor scans the scene 60 times every second, while simultaneously processing and outputting images at up to 20 frames per second.

Another critical factor in the speed of autofocus is how fast the camera can communicate with the lens, and here the RF mount delivers a new level of performance. By way of comparison, Mike says: "Back in 1987 when we launched the EF lens mount, the communication speed was like walking between the camera and lens. With the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and a current EF lens, it's more like riding a moped. With the RF mount, it's like being on a bullet train."

The end result is that the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 can acquire autofocus in a class-leading 0.05 seconds, after which tracking performance is superb.

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Touching black and white image of a bride adjusting her smiling father's tie as they stand in a doorway, while her young bridesmaid watches.

Félicia doesn't leave everything to the camera's intelligence. She's also a big fan of using her thumb on the camera's touchscreen to focus on a particular point in the scene. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 50mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.2 and ISO1250. © Félicia Sisco

Autofocus tracking

Autofocus tracking works with spectacular speed, accuracy and consistency in both face-detection and eye-detection modes. "I was shooting a model on a swing, so she was moving backwards and forwards, as well as up and down," says Félicia. "Autofocus instantly locked on to her eye and tracked her flawlessly as she moved."

It's even more of a challenge when obstacles get in the way. Félicia used to struggle to maintain autofocus at weddings when tracking people on the move while flowers, confetti and rice were being thrown, often obscuring their faces. Now, she says, "it's incredible. With the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, autofocus stays locked on the eyes and faces of people even when the camera can't see them."

Mike explains that with 5,940 autofocus areas in the Dual Pixel CMOS AF II system, phase-detection points cover virtually the whole frame. These aren't just looking at what's in focus, but also checking all the defocused areas of the scene. So whereas a conventional system might concentrate on one AF point that's in focus, the Dual Pixel system uses all of the pixels to acquire additional data. It checks defocused objects and how far away they are in the scene. If it senses that a defocused object will cross the path of a focused object, the system can track the movement, work out when the main object will be obscured, and make adjustments to stay locked on.

Adventure photographer Ulla Lohmann has also found the system amazingly effective. "The Canon EOS R5 has let me reimagine the way I shoot," she says. "I was photographing the sunset at a beautiful lake on one occasion and saw a swan, so I tried focus tracking. The focus stayed on the swan even through the reeds. It pushes the boundaries of my creativity."

راكب دراجة جبلية يؤدي حركة بهلوانية في الهواء تحت أشعة الشمس. التُقطت الصورة من أسفل داخل إطار من نبات الخشخاش الأحمر والأعشاب على جانب التل

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The back screen of the Canon EOS R6 is seen as eye-tracking AF locks on to a woman's eye.

Photographers working across different genres have found the intelligent autofocus in the Canon EOS R6 useful.

Diagram of Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF II technology showing how all pixels are capable of both AF and imaging.

The latest iteration of Canon's Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology means every pixel in the sensor can be used for both imaging and AF, ensuring sharpness right across the frame and enabling an astonishing number of selectable AF points – 5,940 on the EOS R5 and 6,072 on the EOS R6.

Animal subject detection

In addition to eye and face-tracking abilities, the EOS R5 and EOS R6 add body and animal detection. Again, millions of existing images needed to be scanned to build up a sufficiently large database. It was a particularly complex task, says Mike. "Just for dogs, you could have a Chihuahua or a Great Dane. If you didn't know they were the same species, would you put them together? Then there are birds. You've got a hummingbird and an ostrich, an owl and a penguin. They're very different shapes, but they're all birds."

The technology rises to the challenge, as wildlife photographer Robert Marc Lehmann attests: "Everything that was hard to achieve for the last couple of years in terms of [photographing] moving animals just became very easy. This is going to be the game-changer for wildlife photography. Even with a sea eagle in flight coming from 100 metres away, the autofocus locks on and keeps [the subject] in focus all of the time. Even during intense turns and everything, it keeps it totally in focus. I just have to press the shutter button and rush out images at 20 frames per second."

A bride and her two young bridesmaids twirl their dresses at sunset on a deserted beach.

This bride's face is comparatively dark in silhouette against the setting sun, but the Canon EOS R5's autofocus system has still locked on instantly. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/4000 sec, f/2.5 and ISO200. © Félicia Sisco

Focusing in low light

Some of Félicia's favourite shots are taken in very low lighting conditions or even in near darkness. She sometimes partially closes curtains when shooting indoors to further reduce the light, or shoots outdoors at night, all without the use of flash. "Whether there's light or no light, the autofocus just works," she says. "I don't need to worry, just shoot, and everything stays sharp." Indeed, with Félicia's Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens, the Canon EOS R5 can autofocus in light levels as low as -6EV, equivalent to shooting in the dead of night under a half-moon.

For capturing the definitive moment, Mike says that intelligent autofocus gives you one less thing to worry about. "Taking a photograph is like juggling. You've got to balance focus, composition, timing and exposure. It's much easier to juggle two balls rather than three. With intelligent autofocus we're taking away one of the balls, so you don't have to concentrate on so many things. It makes things easier and less tiring, and you can get better results."

To sum up, Félicia says that the autofocus performance and reliability of the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 enable her to devote all of her attention to composition and timing. "I shoot with both eyes open. I want to share the emotion and to capture it. I have to be able to trust the camera in my hand as if it were part of me, and I trust the EOS R5 and EOS R6 implicitly. I can simply shoot and know that I'll get the results I want without worrying about technical problems."

كتابة Matthew Richards

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