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Canon EOS 6D review: A lovely camera, but watch the trade-offs

The company's "budget" full-frame camera produces some great photos, but as a whole it leaves us feeling a bit ambivalent.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography | PCs and laptops | Gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
9 min read

In some respects, it's hard to tell who Canon's targeting with the EOS 6D, its "budget" full-frame camera. It's got some fairly consumer-y features and specifications. GPS? Check. Built-in Wi-Fi? Check. Single SD card slot? Check. Viewfinder with less than 100 percent coverage? Check. Wimpy autofocus system? Check. On the other hand, it's missing things like a built-in flash that you'd expect in a nonpro camera.


Canon EOS 6D

The Good

The <b>Canon EOS 6D</b> delivers the photo and video quality you expect from a full-frame sensor, in a well-designed and relatively lightweight body.

The Bad

While the camera has nice extra features, like Wi-Fi and GPS support, it's missing some basics for the price like on-camera flash, multiple card slots, and a 100 percent-coverage viewfinder.

The Bottom Line

The photo quality you get from the EOS 6D makes it well worth the upgrade over a consumer APS-C model, but between this and comparable or higher-end models it's a less obvious choice.

It's not that the 6D isn't a really nice camera -- I happen to like it a lot. It's got great photo and good video quality, relatively fluid operational design with a soft shutter action, and a solid (but not weatherproof) build. But ultimately I find it a confusing buy and just a tiny bit of a letdown.

Image quality
I'm extremely impressed with the EOS 6D's photo quality; it delivers excellent JPEG processing and noise reduction, great dynamic range and tonal quality, and accurate colors if you change the defaults. JPEG shots are relatively clean through ISO 800 and still quite good through ISO 1600, even for large prints. And depending upon scene content and usage, you could probably get away with it all the way up through ISO 12800. By ISO 1600 I see noticeable advantages to shooting raw over JPEG for noise processing; Canon favors noise suppression over detail preservation, and I'm willing to accept a little grain. All of that's tweakable in the camera, of course, if you're dead set on JPEGs.

I'm going out on a limb: despite all the numbers I see on the Internet saying that the Nikon D600 has a better dynamic range, in practice I find the EOS 6D has more recoverable highlight detail in seemingly clipped areas than the D600. I can get better results overall on the D600's highlights using Nikon's Capture NX2 software than with either Adobe Lightroom or Phase One Capture Pro, but even then I couldn't reclaim some detail in comparable situations. I find the 6D and D600 roughly comparable when it comes to shadow detail.

The 6D's default Picture Style setting (Auto) seems more fine-tuned than I've seen in previous models, pulling back on the contrast and saturation so that it doesn't lose as much shadow detail or shift hues.

Video generally looks good, though the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's is still better (smoother tonality and better handling of contrast in high-contrast conditions), and you need to use the All-I codec to prevent some of the aliasing and moiré.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

Canon EOS 6D gives great photo quality for the money (pictures)

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The 6D performs pretty well, but "pretty well," while making it comparable to the 5D Mark II, still puts it behind the Nikon 600D; its biggest issue is rather sluggish low-light autofocus, at least with the few lenses I shot with. (The lab tests were performed with the 24-105mm f4L IS lens, but I shot with a variety of lenses during my field tests. Note that while these numbers aren't comparable with those of most older cameras we tested, the 6D was tested using the same methodology as the D600, so those are comparable.) It powers on, focuses and shoots in roughly 0.6 second. Under bright conditions, it focuses, exposes, and shoots in 0.4 second, but that rises to about 1.3 seconds in dim light.

Although occasionally a camera doesn't feel as sluggish in field testing as it does in the lab, in this case it did; I could feel the various lenses hunting before locking focus. Even the EOS 7D feels more responsive in low light. That might be attributable to the measly single cross-type sensor in the AF array. It fares well in typical shooting, though, taking just under 0.3 second for two sequential shots, either raw or JPEG.

For continuous shooting, the 6D maintains a solid rate of 4.5 frames per second for either raw or JPEG. While the JPEG buffer is essentially unlimited -- it maintained 4.5fps for at least 30 shots without slowing -- shooting raw slows after 20 shots to about 2fps. The buffer lasts for about eight full-quality raw+JPEG shots before stopping to process. Though I didn't have enough time for significant burst-shooting testing, I wasn't thrilled with the AF system's speed when it came to to locking on the subject and tracking.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
JPEG shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim light)
Shutter lag (typical)
Canon EOS 6D
Nikon D600

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Canon EOS 6D

I also find the 6D's metering a little inconsistent. I routinely had to shoot with +2/3 to +1 stop exposure compensation in addition to spot metering when using lenses faster than f4; the spot is huge, about 3.5 percent of the viewfinder (for comparison, the D600's is 1.5 percent).

Design and features
The 6D has a fine, well-built, and comfortable-to-shoot-with body, though the buttons that on other EOS models run down the left side of the LCD on the 6D are scattered around the back, so it can be disorienting jumping between the 6D and other bodies. Of course, that change is part of why the 6D's body is smaller than the company's other full-frame models. And some of the weight loss comes from the construction: an aluminum chassis covered by reinforced polycarbonate, though it's as dust- and weather-resistant as the 7D.

In fact, in a lot of ways in design and build the 6D is reminiscent of the 60D: same feel, single SD card slot, and control dial with inset navigation switch and set button on the back (as opposed to the joystick on the higher-end models and the 7D). As with other EOS bodies, the mode dial sits on the left shoulder, and has the usual assortment of manual, semimanual, and automatic modes plus bulb and two custom settings slots. It has Canon's now-typical center lock button, which I always find a little awkward, but not an interface deal-killer.

On the right side you'll find the adjustment dial, plus status LCD with autofocus, drive, ISO, metering, and illumination buttons along the top. On the back right top sit the AF-ON, exposure lock, and AF point buttons, with a Live View/Movie mode switch and record button by the viewfinder. The control layout feels comfortable, and familiar enough if you're used to Canon bodies.

I'm somewhat disappointed by the viewfinder. It's big and bright, but only covers 97 percent of the scene, and lacks a grid overlay option; the 7D's viewfinder has a lower effective magnification factor (0.63x) but I like it better.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II Canon EOS 5D Mark III Canon EOS 6D Nikon D600 Nikon D800/ D800E
Sensor effective resolution 21.1MP CMOS
4-channel readout
14 bit
8-channel readout
12-channel readout
36x24mm 36x24mm 35.8x23.9mm 35.8x24mm 35.9x24mm
Focal- length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
ISO range ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 25600/ 102400 (exp) ISO 100 - ISO 25600/ 102400 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp)
Burst shooting 3.9fps
14 raw/310 JPEG
13 raw/65 JPEG
15 raw/unlimited JPEG
(5fps with battery grip)
VF Optical
100% coverage
100% coverage
97% coverage
100% coverage
100% coverage
AF 9-pt AF
1 cross type
61-pt High Density Reticular AF
21 center diag to f5.6
5 center to f2.8
20 outer to f4
11-pt AF
1 center cross type
9 cross type
15 cross type; 11 cross type to f8
AF exposure range -0.5 - 18
-2 - 20 EV -3 - 18 EV
(center point)
0.5 - 18 EV
-1 - 19 EV -2 - 19 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 200,000 cycles
Metering 35-zone TTL 63-area iFCL 63-area iFCL 2,016-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II 91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III
Metering exposure range 1 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV (est) 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV
IS Optical Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video H.264 MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/25p/ 24p H.264 MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p
H.264 MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p
H.264 MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p/ 25p/24p
all at 24, 12Mbps
H.264 MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p/25p/24p @ 24, 12, 8Mbps
Rated max HD video length at best quality 4GB
(approx 12 minutes)
29m59s 29m59s 20 minutes 4GB/20 minutes
Audio mono; mic input mono; mic input; headphone jack mono; mic input mono; mic input; headphone jack mono; mic input; headphone jack
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3.2 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3.2 inches
921,000 dots
Memory slots 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7) 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC
Wireless flash No No Yes Yes Yes
Wireless transfer Optional
(Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E7A)
(Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E4A)
Wi-Fi Optional
(WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adapter)
Battery life
Live View (CIPA rating)
n/a shots
(1,800 mAh)
950/200 shots
(1,800 mAh)
1,090/220 shots
(1,800 mAh)
900/n/a shots
(1,900 mAh)
900/n/a shots
(1,800 mAh)
Size (inches, WHD) 6x4.5x3 6.1x4.6x3 5.7x4.4x2.8 5.5x4.5x3.2 5.7x4.8x3.2
Body operating weight (ounces) 32.9 33.5 27.5 30.1 35
Mfr. price $2,199 (body only) $3,499 (body only) $2,099 (body only) $2,099.95 (body only) $2,999.95/
$3,299.95 (body only)
n/a $4,299 (with 24-105mm lens) $2,899 (with 24-105mm lens) $2,699 (with 24-85mm lens) n/a
Ship date November 2008 March 2012 December 2012 September 2012 March 2012/April 2012

The Wi-Fi implementation fares pretty well, as long as you bypass all the stuff that requires a Canon Image Gateway membership, like direct uploads to other Web sites. The camera remote app lets you change shutter speed and aperture, ISO sensitivity, and exposure compensation, which is a lot more than some other apps. As is usual, the GPS operation was spotty here in New York; I could get a signal while shooting in Union Square, but practically nowhere else, and if I forgot to turn it off it drained the battery by incessantly hunting for a signal.

Beyond that, it has a fairly standard feature set, with a few notable capabilities. You get a subset of the Servo autofocus settings from the higher-end models. HDR junkies will appreciate its ability to bracket up to seven shots at +/- 3 stops. You can set up to four viewfinder warnings -- monochrome mode, white-balance correction, ISO expansion and spot metering -- that appear as an exclamation point on the screen. On the downside, there's no built-in flash; although I don't recommend using on-camera flash if it's at all possible, it's really nice to have it in a pinch. I miss dual card slots. At least for my needs, a third custom-setting slot would be a lot more useful than either Wi-Fi or GPS. Your mileage may vary. For video shooters, it's a mixed bag. The camera supports time codes, but not clean HDMI output, and lacks a headphone jack.

What's most frustrating is that the 6D should be a clearly better buy than the older, cheaper 7D, but it's not. While the 6D noticeably outshines its APS-C-based sibling in full-frame photo quality and it has a much broader feature set in theory, the 7D has a better viewfinder and faster autofocus, a more durable shutter mechanism, and an extra custom setting slot, just to mention a handful of things.

If you're thinking of moving up from one of Canon's consumer APS-C-based models, like the 60D, it's definitely worth it for the photo and video quality; if you're considering the 6D instead of one of the more expensive full-frame models, it's a fine alternative if you don't mind the 97 percent coverage viewfinder, single SD card slot, less durable shutter, lack of a headphone jack, fewer customizations, and all those other little ways in which you might have to compromise.

As for the Canon EOS 6D versus Nikon D600 decision for people who haven't committed to a system yet or are thinking of switching, overall I think I ultimately prefer the D600. I think the highlight recovery issue is fixable -- at the very least, just by watching how you configure your exposure settings -- and the superior performance and more shooter-friendly feature set weigh in its favor. That said, either camera will deliver the quality benefits of a full-frame model at a less painful price than the higher-end siblings on both sides of the aisle.


Canon EOS 6D

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8