Full-frame mirrorless vs. full-frame DSLR: what's best?

Action photographer Richard Walch shooting with a Canon EOS R, one leg on each side of a steep coastal cliff.
On some assignments, Richard Walch finds the light weight of the Canon EOS R is definitely an advantage. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Richard Walch

Which is better, a traditional full-frame DSLR or the new mirrorless full-frame Canon EOS R System? We asked leading extreme sports photographer and Canon Ambassador Richard Walch for his Canon full-frame comparison.

Richard Walch is one of the world's most experienced action photographers. He has been using Canon cameras professionally for more than 25 years. Best known for his snow sports and sailing images, Richard works in the most extreme environments on fast-moving shoots where failing to get the shot is not an option. That's why he chooses the right camera for each job.

A tightly-packed group of racehorses thunder around a track in snowy conditions.
Richard is famed for capturing the action in all conditions, as he did in this photograph of horse racing in very unusual circumstances. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/2500 sec, f/4.0, ISO250. © Richard Walch

"Before I go on each job, I work out which is the perfect camera system for me to take," he explains. "For full-frame DSLR, Canon has a huge range of bodies and lenses to choose from. I love the rugged quality and the great battery life."

But Richard is at the top of his game because he is always looking for the edge to take his images to the next level. And right now, for some assignments, that edge is the new technology in the Canon EOS R System and its groundbreaking RF lenses.

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"I depend on technology – I see it as supporting what I'm trying to do with my images. The Canon EOS R has definitely earned a place in my bag and is exciting to work with," Richard says. "Once you get past just checking the spec sheets and start to use the camera, you realise it has features that can move your creativity forward.

"For me the best images are spontaneous, and the EOS R gives you stunning full-frame quality in a package that's super portable. But you can't forget Canon has worked on the EOS DSLR range for 30 years. They are super reliable and built tough. So now I have a choice."

So how does he choose? What's the difference between full-frame DSLRs and the mirrorless full-frame EOS R System? From his expert perspective, what benefits does each offer, and when would he use one rather than the other?

How do you choose what kit to take on a shoot?

"When it comes to high-speed action, a Canon DSLR like the EOS-1D X Mark II is hard to beat. It shoots at 14fps with lightning-speed autofocus, so you're never going to miss a shot. There's a massive choice of lenses, and all the controls are at your fingertips. And working with an optical viewfinder gives you a pure and natural way to connect with the subject. You feel the moment; you see the shot and take the image. It's the way we shot for decades.

"If I go to the mountains to shoot skiing, the EOS-1D X Mark II battery will last even if it's very cold. If I'm shooting a downhill ski race, you only have a split second when the skier flies into your frame. It's critical the camera is super fast, and the EOS-1D X Mark II is perfect.

"But if I want the highest resolution for a billboard campaign or large custom print, I'd use the 50.6MP EOS 5DS R – it's unbeatable especially when there's enough light in a studio or for flash work.

"The EOS R is similar in spec to the EOS 5D Mark IV, with a sensor of around 30.3-megapixels and Dual Pixel CMOS AF, and both are great all-round cameras. If you're a traditional photographer who has used DSLRs for years and doesn't want to change, the DSLR is still perfect. But I'm very open to new technologies, and to taking a new product and finding out what it can do for me. I'm willing to spend a day or two figuring it out. That makes me a perfect customer for the EOS R."

A multiple-exposure view of a skier executing a jump from a ramp, viewed from above.
A striking multiple-exposure image of a skier executing a jump. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/7.1, ISO200. © Richard Walch
A slackline walker holds a blazing torch overhead with both hands.
The EOS R System demonstrates its exceptional low-light capabilities in this photo of a slackline walker lit only by the torch he is carrying. Taken on a Canon EOS R with an EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/3.5, ISO1000. © Richard Walch

What are the biggest advantages you have found in the Canon EOS R compared to a full-frame DSLR such as the EOS 5D Mark IV?

"The low-light performance of the EOS R is phenomenal. It can see in the dark! That's thanks to the electronic viewfinder [EVF] and LCD screen, as well as low-light autofocus, which mean you can keep shooting when the light has long gone.

"Also, the EOS R controls can be almost endlessly customised, which means you can shoot how you want, very quickly. There are two extra controls, the Multi Function bar and the Lens Control Ring, which can be mapped to almost whatever you want, such as exposure compensation.

"Shooting with an EVF has been a revelation – you really get to appreciate 'What You See Is What You Get' when it comes to exposure and depth of field. There is certainly far less looking at the back of the camera to check focus and exposure. It makes shooting so much quicker, and you can stay really focused on your subject as nothing gets in the way.

"Because it's mirrorless, the EOS R has a totally silent shutter mode, which will get you taking pictures in previously tricky situations.

"When you change the lens with the camera off, the EOS R automatically closes a shutter to protect the sensor. For shooting action where there is dust or snow, that's ideal."

Four kayakers racing in rough water.
A full-frame DSLR excels at capturing the wide dynamic range of this watersports event. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/2000 sec, f/5.0, ISO800. © Richard Walch

Are there any disadvantages of shooting with the EOS R?

"Of course, if you upgrade from a Canon DSLR to a new Canon DSLR, you don't have to learn anything new. On the EOS R, some things are different [such as the new controls], and you have to get used to it. But if you are willing to go to the next level, you should give it some time.

"The EOS R has only one memory card slot. If you have a shoot where there is no way you could risk losing the data and it makes you more confident if you have two slots, then use an EOS-1D X Mark II or EOS 5D Mark IV. But I've never lost images in-camera and am more relaxed about it."

What about lens choice?

"Canon has a huge range of EF and EF-S lenses for DSLRs. But you can use them on the EOS R System cameras with a range of smart EF-EOS R Mount Adapters. They are not adapters that take light away or change the focal length like a teleconverter. The same engineers that designed EF and RF lenses designed these adapters, so they really made sure the experience is seamless, and there's no loss of quality or functionality.

A slackline walker balancing on a line between rocky cliffs over water.

Daredevil ropewalkers and the full-frame EOS R

Hanging off a cliff on the coast of Ireland, editorial photographer Richard Walch put the EOS R to the test.

"In fact they made it even smarter, because there is an adapter with a Control Ring, which brings a new interface to EF and EF-S lenses.

"There is also an adapter that has a drop-in filter mount, so you can use variable neutral density or circular polarising filters, for example.

"I have used the EOS R with long lenses such as the EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM and the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x on a safari, and it was perfect. You have to trust the adapter."

How have you found the new RF lenses?

"The Canon EOS R System has a new, larger RF Mount that allows lens design that's never been possible before. And the lens quality is a real standout. The new glass extends the range of what is possible, especially the RF 28-70mm F2L USM zoom. It's an L-series lens with fantastic quality made possible by the new mount design.

"It is reasonably heavy, but it can replace three prime lenses. If you usually have a 28mm, a 50mm and an 85mm lens, you could leave these three lenses at home and just take this one zoom.

"For a wedding photographer, for example, they can take one camera and one zoom. They'll be faster and can work completely silently.

"The range of fast RF lenses, such as the RF 50mm F1.2L USM, backs up the fact that the EOS R System is so good at low light. You can really work with the shallow depth of field. And the optical design is so good you can really use them wide open. You don't have to stop down to get sharp images. Of course, wide open the depth of field is so small, you need accurate autofocus."

A view from some distance of a slackline walker on a line between rocky cliffs over swirling water.
Richard used an EOS R to photograph German slackline athletes One Inch Dreams on the north-west coast of Ireland. With every manoeuvre a death-defying challenge, there were no retakes, so Richard had to get the shot first time, relying on the EOS R's autofocus in low light such as this. Taken on a Canon EOS R with an EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/5.6, ISO640. © Richard Walch

How does the autofocus compare?

"For sport and action, nothing is better than the EOS-1D X Mark II. But on the EOS R there are lots more focus points, and it makes a huge difference, especially with the touch-and-drag focusing using the touchscreen.

"When I use the EOS-1D X Mark II, I change the AF point every time I pick up the camera. I am used to the process, but for every shot I have to think about where the focus point needs to be. With the EOS R, you can select the point with your finger on the back of the screen.

"It takes a while to get used to it – and it's not so good wearing gloves on a snowy mountain! But for the majority of shooting, it is very smooth. You can have a powerful lens, opened all the way up, then use your point focus, and it nails it."

Photographer Richard Walch on a cliff holding a Canon EOS R, with a slackline walker on a line behind.
Having tested the EOS R in the most challenging of conditions, Richard makes space for it in his kit bag on many assignments. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © Richard Walch
Two young red-haired girls by the sea, their hair blown by the wind.
The EOS R also performs exceptionally as a general-purpose full-frame camera for portrait shoots. Taken on a Canon EOS R with an RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.0, ISO200. © Richard Walch

Which type of camera is better for video?

"The differences aren't a matter of whether a camera is mirrorless or a DSLR. Compared to the EOS 5D Mark IV, the EOS R makes it very easy to shoot at different angles thanks to its vari-angle screen. Both have Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which enables smooth and precise pull focus when recording video, but the touch autofocus is easier to operate on the EOS R's tilting screen, with a phenomenal 5,655 manually-selectable AF points.

"If you need to shoot 4K at 60fps then the only camera to do this is the EOS-1D X Mark II – the EOS R and EOS 5D Mark IV only do 4K at up to 30fps. The EOS R shoots slightly narrower 16:9 4K video, where the other two do 17:9. But the EOS R becomes a really powerful option if you connect it to an external recorder, because then it can output 10-bit 4:2:2 and it supports Canon Log for wide 12-stops dynamic range. That makes it a great choice for a professional video workflow.

"And lens-wise there is the RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens, which has Image Stabilization built-in, so is ideal for video even if you're shooting hand-held. It works hand-in-hand with the camera's own Movie Digital IS 5-axis Image Stabilization. It's a stunning combination."

What's your ideal set-up now?

"It's an EOS-1D X Mark II for high-speed sports and an EOS R as a second camera because it excels at different things. Whenever there is hardcore action sport, there is preparation for that and after-parties. That's where the EOS R is perfect. You want to be fast and discreet, and there will be low-light shooting.

"If you put the RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens on the EOS R, it's really small. You can shoot in a style you never could have done before with a full-frame Canon.

"So using an EOS-1D X Mark II and the EOS R, a professional can learn and grow with the mirrorless system, but still have the security of using a well-proven sports camera for the action.

"If you're an enthusiast, the EOS R can do everything you'd need right now. It's similar to the EOS 5D Mark IV but has more options. The EOS R is at the forefront of technology. If you master it today, you will be ready for the future with this new camera system."

كتابة Adam Duckworth

Richard Walch's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The contents of Richard Walch's kitbag, including a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, EOS R, and several lenses.


Canon EOS R

Full frame mirrorless camera that opens up new creative opportunities for photographers and filmmakers. "It gives you stunning full-frame quality in a package that's super portable," says Richard, "and it has features that can move your creativity forward."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160). "A great all-round camera," Richard says.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance. "When it comes to high-speed action, it's hard to beat," says Richard. "It shoots at 14fps with lightning-speed autofocus, so you're never going to miss a shot."


RF 28-70mm F2L USM

A 28-70mm f/2 lens delivering image quality expected of prime lenses. With a super-fast, bright f/2 aperture right across the zoom range it gives stunning results in low light. "An L-series lens with fantastic quality made possible by the new RF Mount design," says Richard.

RF 50mm F1.2L USM

Setting new standards of optical quality and speed, this 50mm f/1.2 prime lens offers supreme sharpness, plus remarkable low-light performance. "The optical design is so good you can really use them wide open," says Richard. "You don't have to stop down to get sharp images."

RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

Featuring fast, silent, Nano USM technology, this 24-105mm f/4 offers photographers and filmmakers a small, light general-purpose lens with 5-stops of image stabilization. "It's ideal for video," says Richard. With the EOS R, "it's a stunning combination."


A fast-aperture 35mm f/1.8 macro lens, offering a naturally wide-angle perspective and close focusing, this is a great lens for everyday creativity where flexibility is key. "It's really small," says Richard, "so you can shoot in a style you never could have done before."

EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

An exceptional super-telephoto performance in the world’s lightest 600mm f/4 lens, delivering outstanding image quality and a polished professional performance. A five-stop Image Stabilizer lets you shoot handheld and react more quickly.


Mount Adapter EF-EOS R

The EOS R System adapters offer full compatibility with Canon EF and EF-S lenses, giving Canon EOS R owners who also own an EOS camera complete integration with their existing lenses. "The experience is seamless," says Richard, "and there's no loss of quality or functionality."

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