The Canon EOS 6D might sound like the dream ticket for full-frame DSLR aspirers. It's the first time that Canon's dipped its toe into the "budget" full-frame pond. But, to be realistic, its £1600 body-only asking price is still more the cash equivalent of a dive than a doggy-paddle.
Canon's playing a different game with this DSLR. From the outset the 6D is clear to show off its technological hand: it's all built-in GPS and Wi-Fi. But what of the core user experience - with an entry-level-sounding 11-point autofocus system and cut-back 97 per cent field-of-view optical viewfinder has Canon got the balance right or is the EOS 6D pushing away its audience potential before eyes have even left the spec sheet?
Big Guns Battle: Canon 6D vs Nikon D600
When the EOS 6D was announced just four days after Nikon unveiled its D600, it was bitter sweet: while the Canon scored points for its smaller size and weight, higher resolution screen, built-in tech such as GPS and Wi-Fi and the lower-than-Nikon anticipated retail price it had to offset its positives against some more entry-level features that its Nikon rival magnified thanks to its upgraded spec.
READ: Nikon D600 review
In part it's been Canon's bid to differentiate the 6D from the pricier and all-round more professional EOS 5D Mark III that's almost forced the hand to to mix in such entry-level features. Case in point is the 6D's 11-point autofocus system that, while it may not be as point-heavy as the marginally nippier 5D Mark III's 61-point autofocus system, it's the presence of the Nikon D600's 39-point system that, on paper, reads rather cuttingly.
But there is a bit of a twist to this tale. For starters, the arrangement of AF points across the D600 doesn't feel any wider to our eyes than the 6D's array, and secondly the Canon is the more sensitive of the two in lower light - its maximum sensitivity of up to -3EV is an apparent two stops to its advantage, and is more sensitive than any other Canon DSLR out there.
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 2500 image sample
Not only does that sound really impressive, it is in practice too. The 6D will genuinely lock on to a subject in very little light and still make a decent exposure if you have a lens with a wide enough aperture. We're talking to the point where it's tricky to see any real detail or colour by eye, such as in this dark shot below.
Use the 6D's centre-only AF point and it has more chance of focusing in low light without using the AF assist lamp. But the D600 is the winner when it comes to focus tracking moving subjects, and as the latter model also has 33 cross-type AF points it's our preferred system for both portrait and landscape orientation shooting.
We're not just plucking assumptions out of thin air either: both the Canon and Nikon cameras are sat on the Pocket-lint review desk, so we've seen and compared them side by side. A fairer weigh-up than simply assessing numbers from a basic spec sheet.
But there's one Canon 6D feature that the spec sheet clearly highlights, and it's one we're disappointed by: the viewfinder. Yes it's comfortable to the eye and at 0.71x it's of a decent magnification, but it only offers a 97 per cent field-of-view which means the outermost edges of a shot won't be seen in preview. Dang.
Of course this isn't a comparison piece, it's a standalone review, and there's plenty of merit that the EOS 6D sells itself on.
Primarily it's the camera's small size. Indeed the 6D is the smallest and lightest full-frame DSLR on the market, although any camera with a sensor this large is hardly going to be tiny.
The 6D's layout is generally a success too, and not a million miles away from similar Canon cameras, albeit with a handful of subtle differences. For example, the omission of the rear joystick-like thumb control that features on the 5D Mark III makes adjusting focus point on the 6D a little bit fiddlier, although a combination of both front thumbwheel and rear rotational d-pad can be used to shift horizontal and vertical selection. Not a serious bother when there aren't that many AF points to select from.
The top panel also has single-access buttons to AF, drive, ISO and metering, whereas the 5D Mark III and other Canon DSLRs have dual-use buttons to include exposure compensation and white balance. With the 6D that means a little more menu digging using the quick menu. Not really sure why, as it would hardly be a cost implication to keep the usual dual-function set up. Playback and delete keys also move to the right side of the rear, rather than the usual left-lying position.
Elsewhere there are the usual staples, none of which defy Canon convention, including the light-up information panel on top and a mode dial on the opposite side. However the depth-of-field-preview button to the camera's front does feel a little strangely positioned for comfortable use with all lenses.
The addition of built-in GPS and Wi-Fi extras are a first for a Canon full-frame DSLR which, while they do give the 6D an up-to-date sheen, are also - for a number of reasons - the cause for that deflated feeling. We'd rather pay less cash up front and not have them featured, or - and here's a key point - surely many users would prefer a 100 per cent field-of-view optical viewfinder or other beefed-up spec within the price instead?
Having built-in GPS with no impact to physical size is definitely a bonus. Wi-Fi, as a concept, is a "nice to have" too. But both features impact on battery life.
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 1250 sample image
The 6D happens to share the same LP-E6 rechargeable li-ion version as found in the 5D Mark III so it has the juice to keep the camera shooting for up to around about 900 shots per charge. Switch on these techy features, however, and kiss that figure goodbye. Fortunately it's quick and easy to turn Wi-Fi off from within the quick menu as required.
As with previous Canon Wi-Fi implementation, such as in the PowerShot S110 compact camera, the set up process is rather long-winded, but, and certainly for the sake of security, that's an issue that's overcome once all passwords are punched into the camera. Punch being the operative word, as it will most likely make you feel like punching something on account of how user-friendliness has been thrown out of the window. Each of the different connectivity types requires a full individual set up, rather than a one pass suits all logic. Once these short pains are out of the way the door of practicality opens. And there's some decent potential here.
There are multiple ways to use the Wi-Fi: to transfer images between cameras; to connect to a smartphone as a direct pairing or via a LAN; as a remote control using the EOS Utility software on your PC or Mac; to print wirelessly via PictBridge; upload pictures via Web service using Canon Image Gateway; or to connect to a DLNA network and view images on other devices also wired to that network, such as your telly.
Using a smartphone to control the camera is fun and may have some application for more unusual shoots. What we preferred was the ability to view the images from the camera's inserted SD card on the phone - and while the iPhone 4S that collaborated for this aspect of this test isn't particularly huge on the screen front, we imagine that an iPad experience would escalate that to a whole other level. It's even possible to delete images from the camera via the device. Just go easy on the finger bashing as to not make any mistakes.
Other features such as the EOS Utility software are also cool. Not only can a computer then be used to control the 6D through a given network, but almost all the camera's settings can also be adjusted and the program offers a wireless way to give a tethered shooting experience, albeit without the physical tether. "Tetherless tethered shooting" - you heard it here first. The transfer speed of full size files is limited by your particular network, but they'll all get to their destination folder eventually.
Canon EOS 6D "wireless tether" and remote controls via Wi-Fi using EOS Utility
There are built-in features to the EOS Utility software such as the ability to load an image to superimpose as a background, which is great to use as a comparison point. Imagine if, say, you're shooting portraits over several days at different locations and want to do a quick check to ensure that the subject distance, scale and framing matches the rest of the series. You can do all that, and take direct benefit of your computer's larger-than-6D screen too.
The software's biggest downside is just how power hungry it is - its impact was felt even on the Macbook Pro used for testing, where response became sluggish with the program open. We tried to use Lightroom 4 instead, but, from what we can tell, Canon's WFTPairing software doesn't have any "direct in" to the Adobe software. A workaround is to leave the EOS Utility running in the background and set Lightroom to automatically import from a given folder. However, this doesn't cut out the need to have the Canon specific software open, so it's likely to be even harder on your computer's processor.
However, other Wi-Fi features are limited, as we have already criticised in the S110 review. Canon's force-feeding of its Canon Image Gateway - an online gallery for which you'll need to register - cripples the potential of its upload to web feature. While it is possible to share with Facebook, Twitter and via email, each will only operate as a link back to the Gateway service. Not cool, Canon, and miles off the mark when the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Camera - despite its different target audience - make sharing and navigating easier than ever before. We want images shared directly within Twitter, or sent as attachments in emails, or at least to have these options available.
Some good footing, but it needs to advance and morph into something that's more user friendly and less of a battery drain. It will happen, it's just not quite, er, connected on all fronts on this occasion, despite some definite perks.
A significant reason to buy full-frame is the resulting picture quality. It's not all about pixel count, but about depth of field control and lower noise at mid ISO settings than would be possible or expected from an APS-C sensor.
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 1250 sample image
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 1250, 100 per cent crop shows how well detail is held
The EOS 6D comes loaded with a 20-megapixel sensor, so it's a little less resolute than the EOS 5D Mark III but higher resolution than the top-spec EOS 1D X. Despite the subtle difference in resolution between the trio the 6D delivers results very similar to its bigger bros.
READ: Canon EOS 1D X review
So here's the thing: it's tricky to tell one camera's shots apart from the next. Given that context the EOS 6D is undeniably great value for money.
The camera's sensitivity runs from ISO 100 through to ISO 25,600, and there are rather unnecessary expansion options up to ISO 102,400 too. Keep within the given standard sensitivity range and results are grand from the lowest to mid ISO settings, though even results at ISO 3200 remain top quality.
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 1000 sample image
If you're hyper critical or anticipate doing a lot of brushing in Photoshop then you'll want to stick to the lower ISO settings, but the clarity of an ISO 400 raw file from the 6D matched up with the right lens is a great thing to behold. It's noise-free.
Video capture is another key part of the Canon 6D's specification, able to record 1080p files at 24 or 25fps (30fps NTSC) using either ALL-I or IPB compression. The former will deliver files in the region of 600MB for a minute of footage which, for quality hounds, is awesome.
Either compression type uses the H.264 codec to deliver MOV files direct from the camera, but as there's just a single SD card slot - no CF to be found here - we feel that cards are likely to fill up fast. There's plenty of room to have built-in dual card functionality, whether dual SD or otherwise, but it didn't happen in the 6D for some unknown reason.
Canon EOS 6D - ISO 200 sample image
As well as full manual controls with live adjustment available during recording, there's also an exposure lock with +/-3EV of exposure compensation, while manual focus control is preferable to the clunkier, live-view-based single autofocus.
The only real downside is the lack of a clean HDMI output that's further highlighted by the fact the Nikon D600 has this option. Still, that's only one for the super-high-end.
The Canon EOS 6D leaves a lot to be considered; it raises as many questions as it answers on the budget full-frame front.
On the one hand, it delivers full-frame quality that's undeniably excellent, arguably little-to-no different from any other full-frame Canon DSLRs but at a price that's far more affordable. For some that'll be reason enough to cross the Canon EOS 5D Mark III off the wishlist and go and buy a 6D straight away.
But Canon's made a full-frame camera that, in many respects, is less advanced than the APS-C sensor EOS 7D, largely as a result of its limited autofocus points and a partially restricted viewfinder.
Then, of course, there's the Nikon D600 to add to the equation which, for the most part, is a bit of a thorn in the side of the EOS 6D from both overall performance and output quality points of view.
The Canon does have it's individual positives though: the -3EV sensitive autofocus is super-sensitive in low light, while Wi-Fi's wireless "tethered" shooting control will certainly be of use to some, despite its impact to an otherwise good battery life. Built in GPS is also a bonus.
Overall the EOS 6D is a mix of some heady highs mixed up with some minor disappointments that lead to its score slipping down the scale a smidgen. It's still a cracking DSLR, at a welcome price point, but it does have its work cut out when considering the competition. For our money we'd have preferred a little more core spec in place of the techy stuff.
£1600 (body only)