Designing the latest Canon tech

Exclusive insights and behind-the-scenes details from members of Canon's design teams.

Product design, Apple's late CEO Steve Jobs once said, "is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." Features and controls, the interface and even the underlying technologies are all design decisions, as much as aesthetics and appearance are. In great products, form and function are inseparable.

Canon is an acclaimed leader in camera design innovation. Canon's developers and engineers continue to embrace new possibilities in the fields of optics, electronics and mechanics, reimagining camera concepts and delivering major technological advancements. Here we look at the design principles and tech behind some of the latest Canon kit and share some fascinating behind-the-scenes details from Canon's design and development teams, from the big ideas behind groundbreaking cameras to the significant little details in lens design.

Pencils and a pen lie on a sheet of design concept sketches of Canon EOS 5D cameras.

Canon builds on photographers' feedback when designing new cameras, concentrating on the EOS ethos of "Fast, Comfortable, High image quality". However, there are some fundamental differences in tech and design philosophies between DLSRs like the EOS 5D series and the full-frame mirrorless EOS R System cameras.

A Canon EOS R5 with a number of mockups behind it, some consisting of only the grip part of the camera.

Every aspect of the physical build of a new Canon camera goes through stringent assessment procedures. Dozens of mock-ups are made to test and verify the comfort and operability of every design idea.

1. The EOS R System is about optical design, not about going mirrorless

The full-frame mirrorless EOS R System is groundbreaking but, for Canon's engineers, the goal was not simply designing a new range of mirrorless cameras. The impetus was instead the development of even higher-performance lenses – "Reimagining Optical Excellence". From this objective came the internal codename Project R, which in turn led to the name EOS R. From an engineering standpoint, a mirrorless system made sense because it means designers can concentrate on optical excellence without the constraints of accommodating a reflex mirror within the camera body, between the lens and the sensor, which among other things requires more complex optical engineering to make the lens focus light at the right point. Eliminating all this frees designers to create sensational new lenses that work at the optimum distance from the sensor.

2. It's not about downsizing

Some might say the main advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they're smaller and more lightweight than DSLRs. That can certainly be a bonus, but it wasn't the driving force behind the EOS R System, as it was for example in the design of the EOS 100D in 2013, reveals Canon Inc.'s Chief Designer Hironori Oishi. Instead, the key decision was the design of the RF Mount, which has a wide throat (54mm internal diameter) similar to the EF mount but a much shorter flange distance from the mount to the sensor (20mm – less than half the distance in a full-frame EOS DSLR).

Not only is the RF Mount at the heart of the optical design, but the entire system is built around it – the designers called it "Mount Core Design". So the dimensions of the RF Mount determine, for example, the diameter of the base of each RF lens, but the designers took pains "to ensure that there is a space where your fingers can fit regardless of which lens is attached," Mr Oishi says. In fact, the smaller size presented significant design challenges, he explains. "It was difficult to make handling and operating the more compact body feel comparable to conventional models." Consequently, "we carefully examined the layout, size and shape of each component."

A Canon EOS R5 surrounded by numerous components used in its construction.

In the EOS R series cameras, Canon's "Mount Core Design" concept means everything is built around the revolutionary RF Mount. The high-precision build of the EOS R5 shown here makes extensive use of magnesium alloy for strength, rigidity and lightness, as well as for its heat-dissipating properties.

Canon Inc. Chief Designer Hironori Oishi.

Canon Inc. Chief Designer Hironori Oishi.

3. It's not just about pushing the boundaries

Even when focusing on innovation and introducing new technologies, Canon's designers were mindful of the needs and expectations of existing users. "We always look to the future, but it can never be separated from history and tradition," says Mr Oishi. "It is very important that users can enjoy evolution without feeling uncomfortable." So in fact the design process doesn't begin with the new tech but with researching and understanding the user, and design ideas are continually tested for usability. Even a camera as radically innovative as the EOS R5 builds on the familiar EOS control and menu system, so that users can apply the shooting know-how they already have.

In the EOS R5 body design too, Mr Oishi explains, "we valued the handling and operability developed in the EOS 5D series, and aimed to design something that would feel natural to users. This doesn't appear in the specs, but it is something that users of 5-series cameras place a special emphasis on.

"In addition, a camera with 5-series numbering is special to Canon. In the EOS R5, we aimed for a design with a dignified style that says this is a 5-series camera. We tried to create a unique new form inheriting the smooth, curved surface characteristic of EOS and fusing this with the sharp shape that shows a sense of evolution."

That said, the balance between innovation and continuity isn't always the same, Mr Oishi adds: "EOS R (RF) is a system with a lot of potential, and we would like to try various approaches including challenging ones."

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4. The cameras and lenses introduce a new, modern design language

Even though it builds on Canon's 30-year EOS heritage, the EOS R System gave Canon's designers the opportunity to develop a new, unified design language for both the cameras and their RF lenses.

In the case of the RF lenses, the finish, aesthetics and markings are all different from those of EF lenses. "The design philosophy of EF lenses includes a lot of lines and notations on the lens barrel," says Canon Inc.'s Seishiro Takano, Design Center Lead. "In contrast, RF lenses express power and ease of use by eliminating unnecessary elements." So the legibility of information is improved, for example, by omitting the "mm" alongside the focal lengths marked on the lens.

The same simpler design language is carried through in the cameras, so for example the design of the viewfinder part flows from the front to converge at the eyepiece, with a minimalistic shape that clearly expresses the "flow of light" – the fact that in these cameras light can be delivered directly to your eye without going through a mirror or pentaprism.

"In addition," says Mr Oishi, "we wanted to make the design of the EOS R Series even more special, so we developed a special paint containing particles called pearls which have special reflectivity. This enhances the shadows and makes the EOS R shape even more attractive."

Design sketch of Canon EOS R5.

While it is recognisably an EOS camera, the design concept for the EOS R5 expresses the "flow of light" in a full-frame mirrorless system while at the same time optimising the configuration of the controls for users to shoot without taking their eye from the viewfinder.

Design sketches for Canon PowerShot G3 X.

High-end design philosophies are applied with equal dedication to Canon's compact, fixed-lens cameras such as the PowerShot G3 X, which retain intuitive interfaces and control systems engineered for usability to enable creative photography with speed, ease and simplicity.

5. Faster communication means the lenses can do even more

When it launched in 1987, the Canon EOS system took the photographic world by storm. The revolutionary EF Mount at its heart was fully electronic, eliminating all mechanical linkages and enabling electromagnetic aperture control and in-lens autofocus drives, which meant faster, more precise AF and exposure control than ever before. Now the RF Mount, along with a giant leap in processor power within the lens, takes things to the next level, with a huge boost in the speed and capacity of data communication between camera and lens. How huge? Canon Europe Professional Imaging Product Specialist Mike Burnhill put it like this: "Back in 1987, when we launched the EF lens mount, let's say the communication speed was like walking between the camera and lens. With the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and a current EF lens, it's more like riding a moped. With the RF Mount, it's like being on a bullet train."

As a result of this leap in communication speed and bandwidth, AF acquisition and tracking performance are vastly improved. Hybrid (dual-sensing) IS systems can share information from both the lens and the sensor, and in-body IS in the EOS R5 and EOS R6 working in tandem with lens-based IS can achieve breakthrough levels of stabilisation. The control ring on RF lenses can be used to adjust shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and other settings on the fly. Metering and aperture control can be more precise, and adjustments can be made in even finer increments (as fine as 1/8-stop). Lens aberration and distortion data can be stored within the lens and processed in real time, so that Digital Lens Optimization (DLO) and lens corrections can take place instantly instead of having to be applied post-shoot, and distortion correction and DLO are available in video for the first time.

And all this, the optical engineers say, is just the beginning, such is the potential of the tech for future development. The advantages of the RF Mount are being realised in hybrid stills and video cameras such as the EOS R5, with its landmark 8K video capability, as well as the revolutionary EOS C70 cinema camera.

Cross-section showing inside a Canon EOS R camera and RF lens.

12 Canon EOS R System FAQs answered

Is full-frame mirrorless right for you? We answer 12 frequently asked questions about the EOS R5, EOS R6, EOS R, EOS RP and RF lenses.

6. EVFs are designed by lens experts

Canon set out to make the electronic viewfinders (EVFs) in EOS R System cameras as good as scientifically possible, to give you an accurate live preview of the effects of your exposure, white balance and other settings, and even to make it possible to see what you're shooting in previously prohibitive low-light conditions. With that in mind, the EVFs were developed by the same Optical Product Development Center responsible for the design of RF lenses. The optical engineers ensured the EVFs were physically large and had a high-resolution, highly responsive, accurate organic display. They also placed great emphasis on "visibility" and clarity – particularly on how to mitigate blurring and distortion when your eye moves away from the optical axis or focuses on the periphery of the viewfinder image. The result is a crystal-clear image across the whole area of the viewfinder, based on a superior design and the use of an aspherical lens, so that the preview image as well as important camera data will be pin-sharp right into the corners of the display.

Cutaway diagram of EOS R System camera and lens showing high-precision parts and the use of sealing materials.

Maintaining Canon's legendary standards for streamlined yet robust construction, the EOS R family of cameras and the accompanying RF lenses are based on high-precision engineering (highlighted in green) and extensive use of dust- and moisture-resistant materials (in red).

Cross-section showing inside a Canon EOS R System camera electronic viewfinder.

The EVF in an EOS R System camera is the product of advanced optical engineering just as meticulous as the lens design, and the same development team is responsible for both.

7. It's designed to operate without looking at the controls

With a DSLR, it is true, you have a direct connection with the scene through the optical viewfinder. However, you perform most settings while looking at the controls on the camera body or LCD. With an EOS R System camera, you can seamlessly do everything required without taking your eye from the viewfinder, from shooting preparation, confirming exposure and white balance in the EVF display, shooting, and even playback. Thanks largely to those superb EVFs, it is possible to "immerse yourself in shooting" in an unprecedented way, and the camera is designed for you to do so.

The top of a camera is usually regarded as "a stage for 'placing' and 'showing' controls," says Design Team member Yasuaki Matsuura, but in the EOS R System the designers used "various shaping techniques" to encourage users to operate the camera without taking their eye from the viewfinder. Accordingly, the top of the camera has almost flat, sloping shoulders with control dials and buttons embedded within it, but with subtly different shapes and textures so they can be identified with your fingertips.

The same applies to the RF lenses. Even on a large lens such as the RF 28-70mm F2L USM, it is easy to identify each separate ring – zoom, focus and customisable control ring – by its distinctive diameter and texture, so there is no need to take your eye from the viewfinder to adjust settings.

8. It's about new control methods

Enabling a new, more immersive shooting experience meant devising new controls and features such as the EOS R's customisable multi-function touch bar, which was designed to enable you to make multiple settings quickly with small finger movements. It was an experiment in enabling users to change settings more smoothly while shooting through the EVF, says Mr Oishi. "The operation feel of the EOS R5's multicontroller is also optimally tuned for use in the EVF, allowing you to control it as you like," he adds.

Other features are also designed to make using the camera faster and smoother. On the EOS R5 and EOS R6, you can start recording video without having to switch from stills mode, simply by pressing the Rec button on the top of the camera, which is much faster than on DSLRs where you need to flick the stills/video lever.

"My personal favourites are the control ring on RF lenses and the second sub-electronic dial on the top of the camera," Mr Oishi reveals. With these features among others, "we aimed for a sense of straightforward, direct control of the camera. I feel that we are one step closer to the ideal of bringing the camera and the user together as one."

With users now so accustomed to smartphone-style touch controls and smart menus, could we see a time when everything is controlled from the camera's screen? "There's a good chance that menus will evolve to become smarter and affect the design of the controls," Mr Oishi concedes. "However, in the case of cameras, we believe that the benefits of physical controls are also significant, so we would like to explore various possibilities."

A man's hand relaxed by his side holding a Canon EOS R5 with Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens.

Canon doesn't shy away from rewriting the rule book when developing new cameras such as the EOS R5, but the design process always begins with the user, and design ideas are extensively tested for comfort, handling and usability.

Diagram showing the size and internal components of a conventional super-telephoto lens (top) compared to one with a Multi-Layer Diffractive Optical Element.

Canon uses innovative technologies and materials to make smaller, lighter lenses with enhanced optical qualities. A super-telephoto lens with a Multi-Layer Diffractive Optical Element can be made smaller and lighter than an equivalent lens manufactured with conventional optical elements.

9. The grip is not (just) about gripping

Traditionally, the grip on an SLR camera has a shape that can be gripped firmly. Canon, however, does not believe that this is the real goal. As well as holding the camera, your fingers also have to be able to move around freely and perform various operations. So on EOS R System cameras "the grip is compact, with a finger-friendly shape. However, by smoothing the shape of the front side, which regulates the finger positions, we devised it so your fingers can move freely on the back of the camera," says Mr Matsuura. Dozens of mock-ups were made in order to get the right balance of gripping and operability.

This approach is reflected in the mechanical design as well. Instead of the grip being built around the shape of the battery, the battery holder is positioned diagonally so that the battery fits into the optimal grip shape.

10. It's designed around the user

The developers were so devoted to this principle of user-based design that Canon gathered proprietary data on the hand sizes of people from around the world, which they used to test and refine controls such as the EOS R's multifunction bar. It also influenced the inclusion of the option to customise what settings are displayed in separate setups for shooting stills or movies, so that you can focus on exactly the information you want. The power switch and Quick Control Dial are trapezoidal shapes that are narrower towards the top so that the finger fits the side of the dial. Everything is designed to contribute to the ease of use.

In prioritising usability, Canon is also very responsive to user feedback. The video buttons on the top of the EOS R series are designed in response to user requests, Mr Oishi reveals. "We came up with the Smart Controller on the EOS-1D X Mark III," he adds, "based on feedback from our users saying that something like the touch-and-drag AF would be useful on the 1D series, as well as a system where you can press the AF ON button right after setting the focus point."

11. New technologies make lenses lighter

Canon is a pioneer in developing and utilising innovative new technologies to make lenses lighter-weight and easier to handle as well as improving optical performance. The latest Nano USM motors are tiny but just as powerful as their precursors, giving the newest lenses the same reach as earlier equivalents but with remarkable space savings. The RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM, launched in October 2019, is the first lens to feature Dual Nano USM technology. It has two Nano USM motors, each driving different lens groups, working together to produce faster, more efficient focusing. Multi-layer Diffractive Optical Element technology enables a lens to be made considerably smaller than traditional lens construction. This is especially beneficial with super-telephoto lenses like the RF 600mm F11 IS STM and RF 800mm F11 IS STM. When extended ready for use, the former is almost 40% shorter than its EF counterpart, and the latter is almost 24% shorter than its counterpart in the EF range. This reduction in their working length makes the lenses easier to use hand-held, and they feel more balanced on EOS R System cameras than their bulkier EF counterparts.

Matthew Richards, Ella Taylor & Alex Summersby

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