Photography / Hands-on Review

The Megapixel War's Latest Contenders: the Sony a7R II and Canon 5DS R

This year saw a huge number of revolutionary cameras, but the obvious standouts were the 50.6-megapixel EOS 5DS R DSLR from Canon and the 42.4-megapixel Alpha a7R II mirrorless from Sony. The main reason was the astounding resolutions and full-frame sensors of each; the second is that this is the first time we have seen such similar feature sets in both a DSLR and mirrorless camera, leaving many customers confused as to which one is best for them. So, we took the 5DS R and a7R II out and put them head-to-head in a variety of tests to help you find out which is best for you.


First thing we wanted to know was whether the 8MP difference really was noticeable. Sure, the jump from 8MP to 16MP is great, but once we get to such high megapixel counts, it takes substantially more pixels in order to see a difference. For this test we wanted to make sure that as many variables as possible remained the same, so we used Canon’s excellent EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens on both cameras, set to the same aperture.

Sony a7R II

As you can see, at base ISO there appears to be an ever-so-slight edge to the Canon, likely due to the additional pixels. Both images are quite spectacular and, if you want to make a large print, I don’t think either will leave you lacking. If we take the Sony file and enlarge it to match the Canon, the difference becomes practically non-existent and the limiting factor will then become either the screen or printer. So, in real-life tests, I would not expect to see a drastic improvement from the extra 8MP of the 5DS R.

Canon 5DS R

Results: A tie, as the difference will not be noticeable in real-world use.

ISO Performance

The second most important stat in cameras today is low-light, or ISO, performance. We set both of these cameras up on the same tripod with the same lens and moved through the different ISO levels. This is the first time I saw one camera taking the lead—the Sony a7R II. Once we hit around ISO 3200-6400, you can see that the a7R II is doing a much better job at handling noise, no doubt thanks to the use of a back-illuminated CMOS sensor design and its slightly smaller pixel count.

ISO 50 ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200 ISO 6400
ISO 12800 ISO 25600 ISO 51200 ISO 102400

Sony ISO test results

What is impressive is that Sony provides low-light performance at least two stops greater than the Canon, which really is not surprising, given the differences in their rated maximum ISOs. Also, with built-in image stabilization of the a7R II, users can get a longer exposure for still subjects. So, if you find yourself constantly shooting in less-than-ideal lighting, the Sony seems to be the better choice.

ISO 50 ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
ISO 3200 ISO 6400 ISO 12800

Canon ISO test results

Results: Sony takes this one, with at least a two-stop advantage at higher ISOs and the built-in stabilization system.

Dynamic Range and Raw Files

Some of the most demanding scenes you can shoot are landscapes and cityscapes, due to bright skies and dark shadows that test the ability of a camera to handle shadows and highlights. We headed out to Highbridge Park, in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, to take some shots of the trees and buildings from a high vantage point. We made sure to use the same lenses on both cameras, the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, mounted them on a tripod during shooting, and used a spot meter with bracketing to ensure properly exposed shots.

Sony a7R II Canon 5DS R

This was a fairly bright and sunny day in New York City, so we had ample opportunity to shoot high-contrast scenes, such as this one that combines light highways, the sky, and trees that have the potential to hide details in the deep shadows. First, let’s take a look at the highlights. Both cameras, when they are set to expose properly, seem to do a great job at retaining detail. When we try to pull detail from an overexposed image, we can see that they are still fairly close, but the Sony appears to a do a better job in keeping data that we would normally expect to just be lost.

On the other end, pushing the shadows revealed a different story. The Canon, when pushed heavily, tends to show a lot more noise, as well as pushing more quickly into a magenta color cast. This is where Sony’s sensitivity advantage seems to play a huge role in the shadows, providing excellent detail with minimal noise even when underexposed.

Sony a7R II Canon 5DS R

In a series of other photos we shot in the park, as well as in Jumel Terrace, we can see similar performance and results in both the shadows and highlights. The Sony seems to have a much better dynamic range and more malleable raw files.

Results: Sony squeezes out a victory here, showing better retention of detail in the highlights and shadows. However, it should be noted that in most real-world shooting applications, users will not be pushing and pulling to the extent where these differences will be noticeable. The shots here are some of the more extreme examples shooters will encounter in day-to-day shooting.

Color Rendition

For this test we took on skin tones with a couple of portraits on a neutral background with the Standard picture profile on each camera. Right away, you can see that the 5DS R offers more vibrant and warmer colors, something which is very pleasing to the eye. The Sony comes close, but it lacks the pop of the Canon, partially in the way that it tends to favor a cooler overall color palette. Though, I must admit this one is definitely up to the viewer, but in general, the colors from Canon will start out more pleasing with less work to be done later, which is important if you find yourself shooting JPEGs often.

Sony a7R II Canon 5DS R

Results: Canon wins out-of-the-box regarding colors, especially when it comes to shooting people. This will save many shooters a lot of time when it comes to getting good looking images during the editing stage.


This is definitely a more subjective arena, based on subject matter, but one easy comparison comes with the menu system. The Canon’s AF menu is comprehensive, allowing users to dial-in speed, tracking, priority, and more for a variety of different subject matter. This is much better than Sony’s simplistic two-setting system with fast and standard options for tracking and focusing speed.

On paper, it seems that Sony would easily win with a massive 45% coverage with 399 on-sensor phase-detect AF points, compared to Canon’s 61-point AF sensor. However, in practice, the two come in much closer (in my experience) with the Canon 5DS R being easier to operate, and more reliable when the settings were dialed-in. Also, though both waned in low-light, the independent sensor in the 5DS R appeared to maintain its speed better than the a7R II.

Results: Canon has more reliable focusing, and the ability to dial-in numerous settings keeps the DSLR just a bit ahead of Sony’s impressive 399-point system.

Menus and Operation

Every camera menu has its own quirks and nuances, and every system takes time before one becomes properly adjusted. However, when you have to work with two cameras side-by-side and need to access the same features, simplicity and ease-of-use differences become immediately noticeable. We did a lot of bracketing with images in order to guarantee we had the shots we needed for a fair review, and after switching out bodies, it was clear that Canon’s setup was obviously better. The buttons make sense and the menus are both color coded and understandable.

The Sony’s menu, on the other hand, had vague wording for numerous features, certain tabs that were filled with a variety of unrelated options, and it split up certain items that just make sense to go together. If you followed my review of the a7R II a couple of months ago, you will see that this was one of my huge issues with the camera. The only saving grace here is the ability to customize the buttons to do almost anything you want. But, it really isn’t enough to save a menu system that has been critically panned in every camera that shares the design.

Also involved with operation is battery life. This one was easy, as DSLRs both have larger batteries and are less power hungry. The 5DS R was a clear winner here, with battery life that lasts for hundreds of shots without worry, compared to a camera that requires an extra battery or two for a day of shooting.

Results: Canon’s menus and button layout are much more intuitive and sensible. Also, DSLRs have battery life that can last for days, as opposed to the hours we commonly see with mirrorless bodies.

Body Design

Let us start this debate with the optical versus electronic viewfinder. This really comes down to personal preference, as each has its advantages and disadvantages. The 5DS R’s optical pentaprism viewfinder is a classic design that provides an image with no lag and can be used without turning the camera on. Also, since this is an optical system, users can find that it feels more natural and comfortable than viewing the screen in an EVF.

Sony’s electronic implementation offers a variety of new benefits not possible with the OVF. This includes focus aids such as magnification and peaking; tools such as zebras, histograms, and frame markers; and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get image as it is pulling it directly from the sensor. While important, other features in these cameras will likely have a bigger impact on your decision than the EVF versus OVF.

Moving on to the rest of the body, the immediate difference is that the Sony a7R II is much smaller than the 5DS R. This is good and bad, depending on who you are. Some people may find the compact Sony body to be just a little too cramped. I personally found the height of the a7R II a little on the short side, with my pinky not able to fit at the bottom. Also, after a day of holding it my hand felt a little tired, something I have never experienced with a DSLR. The 5DS R is an excellent design, something the Canon engineers have spent decades refining. It shows here with an incredibly comfortable and secure feel with buttons that you don’t even have to think about finding when you are out working.

Last, but not least, are the LCD screens. Canon’s is larger at 3.2" compared to Sony’s at 3.0", but the a7R II offers tilt for working at odd angles, while the 5DS R is fixed. Sony's also features a higher 1,228,800-dot resolution count, compared to Canon's 1,040,000-dot resolution. Having shot with both on tripods, the a7R II was definitely easier to work with, but the screen of the 5DS R was clearer and easier to see, especially during live view in daylight conditions. It seemed that the video processing for live view was also much better on the 5DS R.

Results: Tie. Canon’s DSLR form is tried-and-true, with each new camera improving ever so slightly on the last. However, if weight is a critical factor in your camera purchase or you prefer a smaller form, Sony’s lightweight mirrorless bodies are definitely built to handle heavy workloads. The choice of viewfinder and LCD monitor is subjective, as each has its own distinct benefits and drawbacks that can suit one person and bother the other. Sony's designs are more modern and flexible, whereas Canon's are proven technologies that simply work.


This is not a fair comparison, but an important one. Canon came right out and said that the 5DS R was not intended for videographers, while Sony released the a7R II with guns blazing, packing 4K and a Super35 setting without any pixel binning. To keep this part short and to the point, users who are desperately looking for a hybrid camera will definitely be better off with the Sony, thanks to a heavy focus on video features.

One area that could be compared, though, is time lapse. Canon’s 5DS R comes with a built-in intervalometer setting that enables users to get started right away with programmed shoots, while Sony’s a7R II requires the additional purchase of a PlayMemories Camera App to add this function.

Results: Sony easily takes the video category with internal 4K, Picture Profiles, and other incredible options.


While many around here were expecting one camera to easily take the top prize (me included), the actual results of the test were surprising, and once again tell us that the best camera for you comes down to many personal choices. To make a decision easier for you, there are a few clear points that will sway users in one direction or another.

Why should you pick the Canon 5DS R? If you work in a studio or always in good light, prefer the form factor and grip of a DSLR, and want the highest in resolution, the Canon is the better choice. With a variety of different connections for tethering and lights, a more natural feel—thanks to the tried-and-true DSLR body—and an intuitive menu system, photographers will be able to work quickly with a system that has been dependable for years.

Along with this, Canon did take the autofocus section, so users who find they constantly need to shoot action will find the programmable AF system indispensible for capturing images. And, if you already shoot with a Canon DSLR, the 5DS R is a very logical upgrade; especially when you take into account Canon's vast system of native lenses.

Why should you pick the Sony a7R II? Let’s start with the obvious: video. If you require a hybrid camera that can give you the best of both worlds, the Sony a7R II is the camera to beat right now, with a 42.4MP BSI sensor that is capable of recording UHD 4K internally. You will have access to high-res stills and video in a single small package. For stills and raw performance, the Sony did win out here in dynamic range, with the ability to capture fine details in shadows while preserving highlights when pushing and pulling the files.

Also, the back-illuminated sensor provides excellent low-light performance, and the AF system, while not quite as reliable as an SLR, is the best you can get in a mirrorless camera. And, shooters looking to shrink their gear bag will also find the compact mirrorless design very appealing.

Sony a7R II Canon 5DS R
Sony a7R II Canon 5DS R

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Great article, thank you.. One question. Are the last four images shot in RAW or JPEG? Just wondering if the colors are that much better in raw, too, or just the processed JPEG.

I would take the canon, simply becouse of the viefinder, the grip and the weight.