Professional photographers need a camera that captures their subjects effortlessly and without interference. Things can happen quickly on a job, leaving little time to react – and only one chance to capture those magical moments
This need for speed and precision makes Canon’s new flagship EOS R3 camera a great candidate for capturing fast-paced action. But what’s the big deal when most people carry a phone in their pocket that can record video at 240 FPS (frames per second)? Thanks to a firmware update, the R3 is capable of capturing a 195 FPS burst of up to 50 high-quality RAW photos at 6K resolution. These files also offer a much wider dynamic range than your iPhone, giving you a lot more wiggle room to adjust exposure in post-production.
Motorsport photographer Larry Chen, who captures racing events and car culture around the world, is well versed in quick turnaround shots and tells you about stunts and other notable moments he caught behind the lens. “When I’m doing big stunts on set with Ken Block or Travis Pastrana, which is a one-off, I need to be able to freeze the action,” says Chen. “There are so many things that can happen in just over half a second.” (Full disclosure: Chen is a Canon-sponsored photographer but has shot with the brand’s cameras for most of his career.)
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In one such instance, Chen was filming behind the scenes of Hoonigan’s Gymkhana films. This included everything from death-defying stunts like Ken Block’s harrowing encounter with “Evo Corner” at Pikes Peak, to almost sliding over the edge of a fishing pier. Sure, Chen has already captured those moments with a pro DSLR camera, but the high-speed capability of the mirrorless R3 would have made the process a lot easier with more shots to work with and a better way to freeze the action.
Travis Pastrana recently took over the lead from Ken Block and handled the driving duties for Gymkhana 2020 – skipping a gap in the road in rural Maryland at nearly 165 mph. To capture the moment, Chen mounted a camera to a nearby stop sign that he could remotely trigger to capture the action. However, there was still traces of motion blur, thanks to the car and its wheels moving at such high speed. Canon’s flagship DSLR at the time (the 1DX Mark III) could only achieve a maximum shutter speed of 1/8,000th of a second – which just wasn’t fast enough to perfectly capture Pastrana’s Subaru mid-air. To add some perspective, that’s eight times slower than the R3’s maximum shutter speed.
In addition to recording at 195 FPS, the R3’s mirrorless design (and its electronic shutter) allows for much faster shutter speeds to give photographers more latitude to capture high-speed moments. The R3 can achieve a maximum shutter speed of up to 1/64,000th of a second. The reason for that? There is no mirror to go through before taking a shot, which previously limited the shutter speed of professional DSLR cameras.
The secret to achieving such high frame rates and image quality is that the stacked CMOS sensor works in tandem with the electronic shutter. On a camera, the sensor captures the light that passes through the lens. These photons are then assigned digital values that are translated into a specific color. Many DSLR cameras have this electronics stacked on a board, but the R3 features a “stacked” sensor that separates them onto two substrates. The standard design is sufficient for the comparatively tame demands of a DSLR, but simply can’t keep up with the amount of data when shooting at 195 FPS or extended 30 FPS bursts.
“With traditional sensor designs, it was difficult to realize significant improvements in processing speed due to the limited space to fit the light-receiving (pixels) and signal-processing (circuitry) areas on the same substrate,” says Canon’s Image Communication Business operations team. Splitting the two into a “stacked” design gave them more room to optimize the high-performance functionality of both systems, resulting in significantly faster data processing. This maintains speed while maintaining incredible dynamic range – with almost no crushed shadows or overexposed highlights.
The faster readout speeds also eliminate the rolling shutter effect that used to plague high-speed electronic shutter shooting, causing subjects to appear stretched and deformed. Sure, the design of Canon’s electronic shutter has remained largely unchanged. However, it is now further optimized for action sports photography.
Chen mentioned that the 195 FPS mode would be ideal for filming slow-motion videos. After firing off a barrage of frames, he can stitch them together in post-production to create dynamic footage. It also makes it easier to capture moments like a top fuel dragster jumping off the starting line or even just an action sports hero doing a stunt.
So 195 FPS is great for sports and nature photographers. However, the technology is still in its infancy, with the maximum frame rate limiting you to just 50 shots at a time – at 195fps the R3 burns through those 50 shots in just a quarter of a second. Shooting such a flood of photos isn’t easy either, as the focus and exposure are locked. Once the burst is complete, the camera also locks for nine seconds while all of those images are written to the memory card. The biggest limiting reactant to Canon’s current stratospheric burst rate is the lack of autofocus, which makes it difficult to capture everything moving towards you.
The new 195 FPS technology is innovative and exciting. However, this must not overlook the existing capabilities of the R3. With the electronic shutter, she can shoot at 30 FPS – while maintaining autofocus tracking. This was more than adequate when I gave the camera a proper workout at a recent pro motocross race at Budds Creek in Mechanicsville, Maryland. Such a high burst rate combined with Canon’s vehicle-sensing autofocus system meant I was able to get sharp shots almost every time; This was invaluable as riders blast around the track at near highway speeds, moving through the frame in split seconds.
With such a high chance of getting my subject in focus, I could use more mental bandwidth to compose my shots. “With the R3, there are no longer any limits to my creativity,” says motorsport photographer Matt Marcu. “It allows me to take any shot I could imagine in my head.” And that’s the whole point: set the camera right and you can get almost any picture you want.
After speaking with Marcu, it’s clear that this new and exciting camera technology is about expanding creative freedom. It doesn’t make photography a walk in the park, instead giving photographers more leeway to focus on capturing those important moments. Although the R3’s $5,999 price tag is likely to put off casual and hobbyist photographers, the camera’s stacked-sensor technology is bound to trickle down to more affordable models. High-speed capture is here to stay and will continue to expand the possibilities for photographers to capture and publish great images seamlessly.
technology for speed
With the R3’s capabilities at hand, getting a 195fps capture wasn’t much of a challenge, according to Canon. The biggest changes involved optimizing how fast the sensor can process data and fine-tuning the control system that connects the image sensor and image processor – translating the data from the sensor into an image. Put simply, more photos captured in less time requires the ability to process larger amounts of data at much faster speeds. To test for ourselves if Canon was successful, we shot a potato as it left the barrel of test editor Brad Ford’s homemade potato cannon. One thing you’ll notice is that everything is largely in the same plane of focus and the subject is still – that’s because autofocus locks when shooting at max FPS. Setting my shutter speed to 1/500th of a second gave just the right amount of motion blur to make out the projectile coming out of the barrel against the trees in the background. However, because those 50 shots were captured in such a limited amount of time, I really had to anticipate when the cannon would go off to get the potato in frame. This photo would have been a lot harder to take with a DSLR like the Canon 1DXMark II – 16 times harder in fact, as this camera fires off shots at just 12fps at its fastest setting.
Matt Crisara is an Austinian native who has an unbridled passion for cars and motorsports, both domestic and domestic, and as a cars editor for Popular mechanics, he writes the majority of automotive coverage via digital and print. He previously served as a contributing writer for Motor1 after internships at Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio station focused on the world of motorsport. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he mountain bike raced with the University Club Team. When not working he enjoys sim racing, FPV drones and the great outdoors.