There are few things more painful to a photographer than missing a shot. We’ve all been there. You missed focus, you left your camera set in manual on all the wrong settings, your timing was off, or you just plain blew it. It happens, but there’s nothing worse than when it’s camera error.
I’ve been shooting with mirrorless cameras since 2013, dating back to the Sony NEX-3. Clearly, a lot has changed since then, but until recently, major advancements in autofocus have been slower to arrive than increased resolution or high ISO capabilities. For sports and wildlife photographers, a responsive AF system is critical—you’re working in situations where getting another take is usually out of the question. This was certainly the case for me during a recent trip to Botswana, where I had the unique opportunity to shoot with the new Canon EOS R3 before it was officially released.
I’ve always found birds in flight to be among the most difficult of subjects, which was why I thought they would be the perfect subject to truly test the camera. Birds are fast, skittish to approach and change course on the turn of a dime once they take flight. They’re a polarizing subject, incredibly frustrating when it’s not working and outrageously fun when it is. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace failure as part of the process. It’s slightly easier to accept when it’s human error, but when it’s equipment, it always feels less forgivable because you’re telling yourself you would have nailed it otherwise. Based on past experiences, I was eager to see what the EOS R3 could do.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a place known for bird diversity due to a mix of ecosystems that range from wetland to woodland, open grassland and savannah bushveld. You can move around by truck, by boat and on foot in certain areas, making it the perfect place to choose your own adventure.
Mornings on safari often begin the same. It’s dark, the air is crisp, the sounds of nature are waking up all around you, and your ISO is cranked on your camera to compensate for the low light. It’s my favorite time of the day because it feels like anything is possible; you never know what you’re going to see and that keeps your head on a swivel.
I spent the first day on a boat, moving up the Chobe River and working the riparian shoreline. Animals of all shapes and sizes are drawn to the river early in the morning and at the end of the day, making it an absolute honey hole if you can find the right spot. One of my first encounters was with a large herd of elephants bathing and drinking from the river. I had set out for birds, but I wasn’t about to let a good opportunity pass. Elephants are beautiful, but they certainly take their time, generally with moderate, subtle action.
Just beyond the herd, however, was a troop of baboons playing fanatically on the eroded cliffs of the riverbank. Unlike the elephants, this was fast action and highly animated as they wrestled, ambushed each other, and kicked up dust in the process. I switched over to Servo AF with Animal priority and panned frantically to keep up. With so many baboons running around, picking a good target was the hardest part. I stuck with the young ones; they were playful and less concerned about food or water. Right out of the gate, I was surprised with how rapid and accurate the EOS R3 was, rarely missing focus and sticking to the baboons as they passed through shallow tree branches, kicked up large areas of dust and passed by other baboons in the troop.
The big test was when the baboons would jump from the dirt mounds in my general direction. These quick bursts of movement toward the camera are often harder to track than horizontal or vertical moves and require the lens to rack at a much faster rate to keep up. It’s all about the animal’s eye. If that’s not sharp, it’s tough to make the shot count. The camera locked on to my chosen subject consistently, a tough ask for quick, erratic movements. It was easily outperforming my previous experience with autofocus on mirrorless cameras, which gave me more confidence that I wouldn’t miss the shot.
I returned to the Chobe River on foot the following morning with my friend Isaac Mpuchane, a local photographer and guide who knows where many of the hidden spots are. He took me to an area on a rise that overlooked the river, a vantage that gave us a nice clean backdrop of the water. We sat patiently in the blue hour, cold and with visible steam exiting our mouths with every exhalation into the shivery morning as we scanned for movement.
There’s nothing like that first kiss of sun at dawn. It gets into your core and is clearly universal because things went from zero to 60 immediately. Birds began taking flight down to the bank of the river. I was particularly interested in photographing helmeted guineafowl in flight, which Isaac said we would likely see. This species is typically found foraging on the ground, seldom taking flight for short distances and only when necessary. It’s in those brief moments when you get a glimpse of the birds’ beautiful plumage. I set the EOS R3 to ISO 2000 with a shutter speed of 1/4000 sec. to ensure I would freeze the action. One by one, they started to depart from the trees and undergrowth from invisible hides, swooping in to get close to the river. The warm light decorated their feathers in flight, and the backdrop was the distraction-free blue water of the Chobe. Each pass was unexpected, so my reaction time was short. I once again put my faith in the AF system and panned fast to keep up with each fleeting pass, hoping to nab a frame of a shot I’d been wanting to get for years.
I find it hard to work from a tripod or monopod in these situations, I miss too many opportunities, so I prefer to go handheld. The Canon EOS R3 is a lot lighter than I expected, weighing just over 2 pounds and pretty easy to hold. The rapid pans I made to follow the action are an easy recipe for rolling shutter, but the camera was able to minimize this, and the frames were tack sharp, specifically in the eye where it matters.
As the morning pressed on, more and more birds continued to show up, including numerous pied kingfishers. These little birds hunt with lighting precision, incredibly difficult to track and a big ask for autofocus. To hedge my bets, I switched the EOS R3’s continuous shooting rate to 30 fps, a speed that felt like overkill until I put it to work. I spent the better part of an hour watching a pied kingfisher hunt and managed to get a sequence of it emerging from the water and shaking off droplets in flight in crisp clarity. The EOS R3 eliminates any blackout when using electronic shutter, and this is a huge benefit when tracking subjects that are small and fast, especially at 30 fps, which would otherwise be disorientating.
That evening we took to the field, where Isaac showed me a few tucked-away water holes. It was the beginning of the dry season, making these areas a hot spot at sunset. When working out of a truck, I typically shoot with two bodies. In this case, I had one EOS R3 mounted with the Canon RF600mm F4 L IS USM and another EOS R3 mounted with the RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM for versatility. We arrived early to a relatively quiet pond and spotted tiny, colorful bee-eaters hunting from the branches.
If you’ve photographed bee-eaters, you know these birds are incredibly fast, hunting insects from the air, and can drive you mad trying to predict their movements. The trick is to work near the perch they hunt from, as they often return to this point. The EOS R3 locked in, and I managed to get numerous in-flight images with an insect grasped in the bird’s beak.
It wasn’t long before sandgrouse started to fly in to drink and gather water in their feathers to bring back to their nests. These birds have an interesting pattern when they fly, which is to say it looks like they’re going to wreck at any moment. They drift, banking erratically, and come in fast. I exited the truck and was lying down by the wheel well to get low and stay as hidden as I could, firing away using the camera’s silent shutter as tiny flocks entered the scene. If you’re lucky, they won’t see you and will comfortably settle into the water. There’s often an explosion of droplets from the pond and their water-filled feathers; to freeze this, you want your shutter set to a very high speed. One of the great features of the EOS R3 is that you can shoot as fast as 1/64,000 sec.
Over the next week, we worked the field, encountering lions, jackals, giraffes and so much more. I stuck to my plan, focusing on mostly small birds along the way, taking advantage of everything we encountered. I put the EOS R3 through an obstacle course of low light, thick branches, busy backgrounds and as many fast subjects as I could find. The camera’s 24.1-megapixel resolution was an early concern of mine—it’s about half the resolution of the EOS R5—but I was blown away with how tack sharp, rich with detail and clean the EOS R3’s images are. It’s an incredibly versatile camera and has found a permanent home in my bag next to my R5.
See more of Keith Ladzinski’s work at ladzinski.com.