April 2013 update: I used this camera in difficult photography conditions in Iceland (three weeks in very wintery weather) and everything I say below still stands. It did a great job in capturing low noise images of the northern lights and the files look good to me. I really like this camera!
An important note: I like my camera gear because it is a means to an end – it creates the files I need to create photographs. I know as much technical stuff as I need to know to be a proficient photographer and not much more. This is not meant to be a technical review with things like file comparisons and a comprehensive overview of useless camera features (like the direct print option, which seems out of place on an $1,800 camera). It is only meant to summarize my initial impressions of my new favorite camera for my needs as a landscape photographer. Since I could not find any reviews on the camera written by landscape photographers, I thought it would be helpful to share a few observations for anyone looking to upgrade from a 5D2 or move to a Canon full-frame camera.
In February, my Canon 5D Mark II temporarily died in Hawaii after being exposed to a little too much rain and sea spray. The same thing happened in Iceland last year, but the death was permanent and I would have ended up on a three week trip without a working camera if I had not been able to borrow one from my traveling companion (thanks, Ron!). I have finally learned my lesson: I need my own back-up camera if I am going to invest a lot of time and money in traveling to take photos.
I considered all kinds of options, with buying another 5D2 or a 5D3 as the obvious choices since I want to stay with the Canon system. When I started my research, I didn’t know anything about the 6D, assuming that it was a crop-sensor camera like its cousin the 7D. I was happy to find out that the 6D is a 20.2 megapixel camera with a full frame sensor and many improvements over the 5D2. Thus, the 6D is now my primary camera and my faithful, still loved 5D2 has taken up the venerable spot of serving as my backup camera.
Most of the reviews on the Canon 6D conclude the same thing: it is a good but boring camera, with gimmicky bells and whistles like the GPS feature. However, for only a little more than a used 5D2 and $1,200 less than a 5D3, the 6D has a lot to offer the landscape photographer. After using the 6D as my primary camera for two weeks in Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra, I found it to be a great option.
Good at the Things That Actually Matter for Landscape Photographers
The lack of features that many reviews highlight, like the slow frames-per-second rate and only 11 auto-focus points, do not matter to most landscape photographers. Plus, the two megapixel difference between the 6D (20.2) and Canon 5D3 (22.3) is not worth $1,200 to me. When looking at the specifications that do matter, like a full frame sensor with improved dynamic range and good high ISO performance, the 6D becomes a very good option.
Many reviews of the 5D3 and 6D conclude that the file quality for the 6D is comparable to the 5D3. My own experience suggests that the files from the 6D show a small improvement in dynamic range and significant improvement in high ISO performance over the 5D2. We spent a lot of time on low-light twilight and night photography with the 6D, often creating high ISO files for stars. These files show noticeably less noise compared to 5D2 files taken under similar circumstances using the same exposure settings. I have reviewed all of the 2,700 files I have taken with the 6D and I am pleased with the quality of the RAW files produced by the camera and definitely think these files will meet my needs.
The GPS is AWESOME!
The feature in which GPS data is embedded into the image file is repeatedly referred to as a “gimmick” in reviews. Gimmick or not, the GPS has turned out to be my favorite new feature of the camera. Being able to have a precise location of where a given photo was taken is tremendously useful information. While we were in Death Valley, I covered seven miles in hiking through the Eureka Dunes one afternoon, stopping in random spots to take photos and then moving on to the next place that looked interesting with no real path in mind. Knowing the exact location of a photo, like one I took at a random spot in a huge dunefield, means that I can use my handheld GPS to navigate to that spot and try it under different conditions.
Also, loading all of my geo-tagged images into Lightroom 4 and seeing them laid out on a Google map is useful and fun. Leaving the GPS enabled at all times, like I did on this last trip, did drain the battery pretty quickly, which will be a consideration for backpacking trips where battery power is more limited.
Fellow photographer Colby Brown is writing a book on using the 6D. In asking him about his experience with the camera, he told me that his experience indicates that the camera seems more rugged than the 5D2 and similar to the 5D3. This coincides with the information available in online reviews of the camera. I still have not come across a landscape photographer who has used this camera in difficult conditions (i.e. normal usage for many landscape photographers), so the camera’s durability is my main remaining question. Only time will tell on this one but the camera feels well-built and durable after using it extensively.
Other Things I Like
- The 6D also includes some really simple features that make a huge difference in usability. I manually blend exposures when processing photos and in the vast majority of cases, I only need two exposures. Being able to set the camera to take two exposures, rather than the 5D2’s option of three, is a huge space saver for files and eliminates clutter in my Lightroom catalog.
- The camera is smaller and lighter than the 5D2 and 5D3 but still feels substantial. I recently destroyed my heavy Canon 16-35 lens when it rolled into a river, so I have been using this camera with the comparatively lighter Canon 17-40. This set-up is noticeably lighter, which I have enjoyed and will be a benefit when using this set-up for backpacking and longer hiking trips.
- The electronic level is a helpful feature.
- LCD is crisp and beautiful. When reviewing images, the panning and zooming is much faster compared to the 5D2.
- The layout of buttons is completely different than the 5D2 and took a few days to get used to but, overall, I like it more. The buttons are consolidated on the right side of the camera which I found to be easy to use when composing and using the camera on a tripod. I still am pressing the wrong buttons in the dark, but the layout still seems intuitive overall.
A Few Quibbles
- The depth-of-field preview button is in a different location compared to the 5D2 and I really do not like it. I find it difficult to use with the camera mounted on a tripod, especially with an L-plate in portrait orientation.
- The default Live View screen is overloaded with information that is useless to me (like whether the Wifi is enabled). With all of the other customizations available for this camera, I wish that I could customize the default Live View screen to have a lot less clutter. Scrolling through four screens to get to one with less clutter is annoying.
- The camera takes SecureDigital cards. I didn’t think I would care about this since I have used SD cards in the past. When handling a card with files I care about, the cards do feel tiny and I dropped one on a few occasions. I also had to buy a new set of cards, which increased the cost of purchasing the camera.
- Two of my Canon items did not work perfectly with the camera. I had to turn the camera off and on a few times when attaching a lens with my 1.4x extender and my 100-400mm lens because the camera did not recognize this equipment on the first try. When light is changing fast, like a shadow moving up a hillside at sunset, messing with my equipment for an extra minute or two was frustrating. My off-brand remote release also made some functions inoperable (like the zooming in Live View).
The Canon 6D is a hidden gem for landscape photographers! In comparing it to other Canon options, this camera is very affordable, has all of the features necessary to be a joy to use, and most importantly, creates high-quality files. Now, if Canon can just come out with a wide angle zoom like the Nikon 14-24…