Silent shooting: what is it, and what can it do for you?

An Indian bride, photographed over her groom's shoulder, looking up at him.
"During a wedding, you may want to shoot as many pictures of a moment as possible but do it silently," says Canon Europe's John Maurice. Wedding photographer Sanjay Jogia finds the Canon EOS R's silent shooting invaluable. "There are many, many quiet moments in a wedding," he says. "And the clatter of the shutter can be a real distraction. During portraits, for example, it can be quite intimidating." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/4.0 and ISO250. © Sanjay Jogia

When Canon introduced the groundbreaking full frame mirrorless EOS R, photographers loved its silent shooting feature. Candid wedding photo specialist Markus Morawetz, for example, said: "I don't want to distract anyone, so try to be as stealthy as a ninja. The absolutely silent shooting on my Canon EOS R helps me to stay unnoticed." Photojournalist Tasneem Alsultan found silent shooting indispensable when photographing the private lives of women in Saudi Arabia. And family photographer Helen Bartlett says the EOS R's silent shutter has transformed her work with babies and children. Now, with the announcement of the exciting Canon EOS R5, more photographers will be eager to discover all that the Canon EOS R System has to offer.

But other Canon EOS cameras before the EOS R also offered a 'silent' shooting mode, including professional models from the EOS 5D Mark II (released 2008) to the EOS-1D X Mark II (2016) and enthusiast cameras such as the EOS 70D (2013) and the mirrorless EOS M50 (early 2018). Do all these silent shooting modes work in the same way? Do they all have the same benefits and shortcomings, if any? When would it be helpful to enable these modes, and are there any restrictions to shooting with them?

We put six frequently asked questions about silent shooting to John Maurice, European Product Marketing Manager at Canon Europe, and asked some professional photographers about using silent shooting in their work.

The mirror mechanism from a DSLR, shown with the mirror down and then raised.
When you take a photo with a DSLR, the mirror flips up out of the way so that the sensor can be exposed to light. In DSLRs with a Live View mode, the mirror can be locked open, temporarily eliminating the noise and vibration of the mirror movement but disabling the viewfinder, so you have to use the camera screen to compose your image instead.

1. A number of Canon EOS cameras have a 'silent' shooting option. Do they all work in the same way?

John Maurice explains: "'Silent' mode was introduced many years ago, before the development of electronic shutters – it softened the noise of a DSLR but did not eliminate all sound. With a DSLR, you have to physically move the mirror out of the way before you can expose the sensor to light, and then you have to return the mirror to its normal position when the exposure ends. In order to reduce the noise created by this mechanism, we looked at ways of slowing it down and damping vibrations. This resulted in the S or 'Silent' single and continuous shooting drive modes in advanced and professional Canon EOS DSLRs. However, I would describe it as more of a softer sound than complete silence. As true silent shooting is now possible, Canon is renaming the 'silent' shooting mode based on the traditional DSLR technology as 'soft' shooting.

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"Silent LV (Live View) shooting can also be enabled in the menu of a number of EOS cameras, including the EOS R, EOS 5D Mark IV and EOS 7D Mark II. With this set to Mode 1, the usual shutter sound is suppressed, but the camera operates as normal and continuous shooting is possible. Set it to Mode 2, and you can press the shutter button to take a single shot as normal during Live View shooting, but if you hold the button down, the camera operation will be suspended until you return the button to its halfway position. This allows you to put your camera behind your back or even move to a different location before taking your finger off the button. In this way you can prevent the second shutter sound happening at the time of the exposure itself.

"With mirrorless cameras it's possible to be even quieter because there is, of course, no mirror mechanism. However, they still have a mechanical shutter that needs to open and close in front of the sensor, so they aren't completely silent when using this, but the development of electronic shutters has provided a solution. When an electronic shutter – also known as a silent shutter – is enabled, the mechanical shutter is locked open and the imaging sensor is essentially read electronically to obtain the exposure."

A cutaway depiction of the mirror mechanism in the Canon EOS 5DS.
Over the years, Canon has developed a number of innovative mirror technologies, including the Mirror Vibration Control System used in the Canon EOS 5DS, which damps the movement of the mirror mechanism. Similar technologies are used to reduce the noise of the mirror, but typically at the cost of slowing the mirror movement and therefore slightly reducing shooting speed.

2. How quiet is the camera when using the silent shutter?

"Even using an electronic shutter, there is still some audible noise because the lens has to perform its function. There's an aperture mechanism, and there's some focusing noise and perhaps an Image Stabilizer to start and stop. But even inside the lens we have produced technologies that make those elements quieter. So if you look at our STM lenses, which use stepper motor focusing technology, or the Nano USM lenses, which use what is probably the most advanced focusing technology we have right now, those are much smoother and quieter in operation. They have been designed primarily with shooting video in mind, because you don't want the noise of the focus motor being recorded, especially when you're using the internal microphone on the camera. So any focusing sounds on those lenses are almost unnoticeable in most ambient conditions."

A drawing of the shutter unit in a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
The moving parts in a mechanical shutter unit (such as this one in the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) are precision engineered to operate as smoothly and quietly as possible, but where there is physical movement there is the likelihood of some sound – you can't change the laws of physics!

3. Which Canon EOS cameras have a silent shutter function?

"The EOS R, EOS RP and EOS-1D X Mark III all have the electronic/silent shutter option. You can also use the EOS-1D X Mark III as a conventional DSLR as it has a mechanical shutter and both single and continuous 'soft shooting' drive modes for reduced noise when used this way.

"The EOS-1D X Mark III has very fine control over mirror bounce, and it's been reduced dramatically in order to stabilise AF and cut vibrations. As you can imagine, shooting at 16 frames per second requires very precise mirror control, as you need to stop the mirror and put it back into its position as quickly as possible. This allows the AF sensor to take an accurate reading before the next frame is taken.

"Switch to Live View shooting via the rear screen and you can use the electronic shutter to shoot silently, plus you still get continuous autofocus and the ability to track subjects thanks to the CMOS Dual Pixel AF system. All at 20 frames per second."

A golfer squats on his knees to line up a shot on the green, as five others watch. Taken by Marc Aspland.
During a golf tournament, you’re not allowed to make a sound when players are preparing to take a shot because it can put them off. Electronic silent shutter can eliminate audible noise, although there is a risk of the 'rolling shutter' effect with fast motion such as a swinging club. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/6.3 and ISO640. © Marc Aspland

4. When is a silent shutter going to be useful?

"Users have said to us that there are situations where they want the camera to be less intrusive, or they want to remain unnoticed and not disrupt the event that's going on – at a wedding, for instance, where you're allowed to take pictures but it's desirable not to make a noise during the ceremony.

"Press conferences and interviews are also good examples of situations where it's advantageous to shoot as quietly as possible. There are particular organisations that will want to preserve the sound quality of their press conferences and not have any distractions, especially when there are video crews there as well who are recording audio too."

Documentary photographer Brent Stirton notes that the silent shutter feature has been invaluable to him on assignments. "A lot of the time when people talk to you about 'silent shutter' it's actually a whisper shutter, but the Canon EOS R is completely silent," says Brent, who has shot in hazardous places around the world. "When you're in places where you'd rather be drawing as little attention to yourself as possible, it's really nice to have that. You're not threatening or intimidating in any way."

Closer to home, family photographer Helen Bartlett says the EOS R's silent shutter has made a huge difference in her work. "There's always that moment when you're trying to capture a newborn asleep and you get this really loud 'ker-clunk'. The baby's eyes shoot open, and then you have to try to get them back to sleep. Then there's another 'ker-clunk', so the whole thing can get really drawn out," she recounts. "Having that silent shutter is incredible, not just for newborns, but also if a kid is really tired and you're trying to give them space. It means you can still engage with them, without the camera putting them off."

A close-up of a baby's face, looking down. Taken by Helen Bartlett.
Family photographer Helen Bartlett finds the electronic silent shutter on her Canon EOS R invaluable for shooting intimate close-ups without startling or alarming her subject. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Helen Bartlett
Wildlife photographer Marina Cano lies on the ground using a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III to take a close-up of a meerkat in the Kalahari Desert.
Professional wildlife photographers will find silent shooting hugely helpful when they're working close-up and want to avoid disturbing their subjects, as Canon Ambassador Marina Cano found using the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III on a shoot in the Kalahari Desert, the first wildlife shoot with the camera. © Fergus Kennedy

5. So why shouldn't I shoot with the silent shutter all the time?

"Well, there are some side effects to using an electronic shutter," John continues. "The speed at which data is read out from the sensor is not as fast as it is when you take a picture using a mechanical shutter, and this can give you a 'rolling shutter' effect.

A seated couple laughing in delight as confetti falls around them. Taken by Markus Morawetz.

Candid wedding photography

Markus Morawetz is a master of capturing intimate moments. Using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and EOS R, his "soulful storytelling" encapsulates emotion in a way that remains vivid years later.

"All cameras that have an electronic shutter suffer from rolling shutter to varying degrees, as it's a technical constraint that applies to widely used sensor designs. With an electronic shutter, the camera has to read data line by line down the imaging sensor, and this takes time. During that time, the fastest moving subject may have changed its position in the frame – or the camera may have moved or panned around. You can see where this has happened in the resulting shot, with lines appearing bent or objects looking stretched or 'warped'. This is why Silent Shooting is not recommended for very fast subjects.

"You can also get a strobing or banding effect under fluorescent lighting due to the frequency of the light not matching the sensor readout speed. It's for the same reason that it's not possible to use flash during Silent Shooting. The flash occurs for such a short time that it would only illuminate the portion of the frame that is being read out as the flash fires. Even using high-speed sync wouldn't work; you'd still end up with an uneven exposure across the frame where the flash strobes during the exposure.

"The S mode on DSLRs slows the mirror moving up and down inside the camera, so it can lead to a slight lag between pressing the shutter button and a picture being taken, and it reduces the continuous shooting speed because the mirror is slowed down to prioritise being quieter."

A Canon EOS R with Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens.
The Canon EOS R's silent shutter now works in continuous shooting drive mode as well as single shot, thanks to a firmware upgrade. "When you shoot continuously moving subjects with electronic shutter, you may see rolling shutter and strobing effects," says John. "But it was a feature heavily requested by users, so that's why we introduced it."
A toddler sits laughing happily under a sheet. Taken by Helen Bartlett.
Helen Bartlett's aim is to capture her young subjects behaving as naturally as possible, and avoiding the intrusive clattering of a traditional shutter helps her stay unobtrusive. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/320 sec, f/3 and ISO1600. © Helen Bartlett

6. Why is the EOS RP's silent shutter option only available as a Special Scene Mode, rather than a menu option you can use in any of the Creative Zone modes?

"The EOS RP is a more entry-level full frame mirrorless camera than the EOS R. The design and ergonomics are different – it's simpler to use and the lightest full frame camera we've ever made. We anticipate that many users of this camera will be enthusiasts using full-frame for the first time and on a more casual basis, so they may not necessarily be aware of some of the unwanted side effects of using an electronic shutter.

"So, what we wanted to do with the EOS RP was remove the silent shutter option from the drive menu so that it couldn't be set by accident, and put it into a Special Scene Mode that has to be specifically selected, with guidance in the menu to assist the user."

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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