(Editor’s Note: We welcome Sean McLean to Photofocus. Sean is a photographer and software engineer residing in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Santa Cruz, CA. Sean studied Art with a Multimedia Design Option at California State University East Bay. Some of Sean’s favorite activities are blogging, landscapes, portraiture and building communities of local photographers. Sean’s website is seanmcleanphotography.com, where the mood is generally light and the spelling is generally poor.)

I’ve been sitting on an article about the Canon EOS RP for a few weeks. That’s partly because the RP isn’t “new” anymore (it was released March 2019), and mostly because I tend to let “perfect be the enemy of good.” So let’s aim for “good.”

Late to the party

The EOS R and RP were both compelling. The EOS R6 and R5 are new and even more compelling. But the RP fascinated me, so I ran through my checklist. There needs to be a very good reason for me to buy new gear. I start the conversation with myself by asking some tough questions:

Will this make me a better photographer? Well, no.

What problem does this solve? For me, there was low-light performance,  having an articulating LCD screen, human eye detection autofocus and using existing lenses with an adapter (which are even sharper than before).

Are there higher priorities? At the moment, my big priorities were under control. And plus, I found a refurbished RP at an unusually low price.

Another thing that I liked about the RP is that it’s a little weird. Yeah I know, I read that too. I’ve always had a soft spot for what I think is the underdog. This little dude seemed to go nearly unnoticed on the mirrorless scene and I couldn’t find a good reason for that.

Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t at such a low price I’d stick with my 5D Mark III until I wear it out. The RP is surprisingly little. Every review I found mentioned the tiny size and that it felt a little funny in hand, to the point where they all suggested a grip extension. I have big, gorilla-like hands, but I don’t mind the smaller camera body at all.

Portrait performance

Natural light

I was especially interested in the eye autofocus feature, so I spent an afternoon with one of my model friends. Rohanna wore a coat with a checkered pattern which created a problem immediately. It looks like the feature can’t tell the difference between the intersecting checkers and a human eye.

The documentation mentions this situation has potential and I can confirm. It would focus on her hat, her earrings and her coat, but not her eye. Lesson learned. I placed the focus point manually and ran with it like I would with my DSLRs. That’s OK, I learned something new and how to work around it.

In a studio setting

Rohanna and I scheduled a studio session a couple of weeks later. I hoped to simplify her outfit and try the eye autofocus again. I learned a new and frustrating lesson, being the electronic viewfinder. With a typical DSLR, light enters the lens barrel, reflects off the mirror and into the prism for the eyepiece. What you see is with available light.

What I learned about the RP eyepiece is that exposure simulation is enabled by default. That’s a great thing in the field but absolutely useless to me in the studio. If I’m composing a portrait indoors at f/8 and 1/160s for my strobes, then the viewfinder shows me a black display.

Exposure simulation was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, but I was used to what a DSLR does through the eyepiece. I set the RP down and went back to my 5D Mark III for the rest of the studio session. I kept my language under control, which I take to mean I’ve grown a little. It would find Rohanna’s eye just fine but I couldn’t compose the photograph aside from a green square on a black background.

It took me a few days to discover that I had to disable exposure simulation. I didn’t find this detail in the product documentation — I had to find this on YouTube, shared by a studio photographer who happens to prefer the RP. You’d better believe I sent him a thank-you note.

Once I had that detail figured out, I had far more success and it opened up new creative possibilities. I applied the lessons learned during a session with Danielle Crook at Santa Cruz Harbor. The goal was to illuminate her while capturing bokeh from holiday lights on boats in the harbor. We started with some beach sunset fun.

Then the opposite situation happened

Recently I used the RP for landscapes in Big Sur. Two of the features I rely on for landscapes include the built-in level and the histogram.

When I arrived at the scene I set up the snazzy RP on my tripod, framed the composition, checked my level, and … hmm … where was my histogram?

Fun fact: I participated in a conversation with Donald Giannatti a few weeks ago, in which he asked me why I display my histogram in RGB. His point was (paraphrased a little) “What would you do about it if one channel was overexposed?” My response was that it was less about doing something about it, and more about confirming my approach. This was an acceptable answer. Yay me.

Light was fading fast and I frantically went through the menu system looking for ways to return functionality. It took me a while to remember that I had left it setup for studio use. Usually my landscape checklist includes setting my ISO to 100, disabling image stabilization and setting the white balance to daylight.

I didn’t anticipate this little gotcha — the histogram isn’t displayed when exposure simulation is disabled. This is mentioned in the documentation but it’s a single bullet point and easily missed. Without the histogram, I’m just guessing and tend to underexpose by about a stop. Once I had my core tools back in place I was able to get the job done. The fortunate thing was I expected this scene to be at its best moments after sunset. I got it in ambient light so I lucked out, but I won’t repeat that mistake.

Is the EOS RP  a “professional camera?” I think that depends on your needs. I think it’s as much of a pro camera as the 6D Mark II. It’s missing dual card slots, which probably knocks it out of contention for a lot of wedding and event photographers.

Having said that, I’ve seen plenty of wedding photographers using the 6D Mark II, so clearly this isn’t a deal breaker for everybody. I think any quality camera is potentially a professional camera when used by a skilled photographer.