Canon's EOS R5 showed us they were finally taking mirrorless seriously. And now, the EOS R3 has shown us that they are swinging for the fences. And yet, there is still the EOS R1 to come. It is going to be one crazy camera.
If you saw the specs for the Canon EOS R3 that have been released so far (30 fps burst rate, more advanced autofocus than the already spectacular EOS R5, a newly developed stacked CMOS sensor with a back-illuminated design, eye-controlled autofocus, and more) and you assumed that this was Canon's mirrorless flagship making its first public appearance, you would be making a totally reasonable assumption. You would be wrong, though.
Canon has used the "1" designator for flagship bodies for decades now, and they have given us plenty of hints that that remains the case with the R line of mirrorless cameras. The two most obvious hints are the fact that the EOS R5 and EOS R6 are direct analogs to the 5D and 6D series DSLRs and that the company says the EOS R3 "will usher in a new category to the EOS R system, positioned squarely between the EOS R5 and EOS-1D X Mark III cameras," indicating that there is still room to grow. But where do you grow from here?
2021 Canon Is Not 2015 Canon
I have discussed before how Canon seems to have made a paradigm shift in camera design philosophy. Years ago, Canon was known for producing reliable professional workhorses, but for perhaps artificially handicapping feature sets to distinguish camera bodies from each other and for failing to push the technological envelope. Their lenses have always been spectacular, but even as they pushed into full frame mirrorless, their cameras felt overly measured, restrained. This feeling was doubled when one looked at Sony blazing ahead. But the 1D X Mark III and EOS R5 pointed toward a brighter future — not just a quickening of the R&D curve, but a fundamental paradigm shift. Whether it was the likes of Sony and Fuji pushing the company into such a design philosophy shift or something else, it does not really matter; things have changed, and Canon is plowing ahead at a breakneck pace.
Will It Be the Sensor?
Every new camera Canon releases tell us more about the eventual EOS R1, because it sets bars that a flagship must clear to maintain its status at the top of the line model. Traditionally, flagship models have had lower resolutions (normally around 20 megapixels) to enable sports photographers and photojournalists, who are less concerned about high resolution and more about speed, to have the efficiency they need. There were high-resolution bodies, and there were speedy bodies. It was not until the Sony a7R III that we saw a high-resolution full frame camera hit 10 fps.
But with recent mirrorless cameras, like the Sony a1, we have seen technology shift toward speed and resolution together as the norm. So, will we see Canon's next 1 series camera shift toward a 40- or 50-megapixel sensor? Maybe. Canon has said the company has developed a stacked CMOS sensor with a back-illuminated design with vastly higher readout speeds. Canon knows electronic shutters are becoming the future: they mean fewer moving parts to break, less mechanical complexity, silent shooting, and more. Their main drawback is that without a fast readout speed, issues with rolling shutters emerge. Sony showed us with the a9 (and has continued to refine with the a1) that with a fast enough readout speed, most action can be captured with an electronic shutter without issue. But the holy grail, for both stills and video, is a global shutter, and this new sensor indicates attention being paid toward readout times.
Another benefit of the new sensor design is low-light performance, the place where Canon has generally lagged behind other manufacturers. They have made major strides in recent years, and this design could about pull them even, or at least make the differences negligible to all but the most ferocious specs readers.
Recently, Canon's design philosophy seems to be dropping a groundbreaking feature into every new and major announcement — a la Steve Jobs' "one more thing." With their first foray into professional mirrorless, it was the 28-70mm f/2L, the first full frame standard zoom lens with an f/2 maximum aperture. With the EOS R5, it was 8K raw video. With the EOS R3, it seems to be their fastest burst rate ever (and eye-controlled autofocus). So, what will the "one more thing" be with the EOS R1? For a 1 series model, it will have to be a feature that turns the heads of demanding working professionals, not just a "gee-whiz" sort of thing (not that the aforementioned things aren't fantastic). A global shutter could be that thing.
But back to the resolution argument. If it isn't a global shutter, I wouldn't be surprised to see that 40- or 50-megapixel sensor. If it is, though, I would expect it to be lower, particularly since this would be a first — perhaps 25-30 megapixels. Given current card write speeds, that would also allow it to set the burst rate even higher. 40 fps? Maybe. It sounds insane. But then again, even just two years ago, in 2019, cameras like the Sony a1 and EOS R5 sounded insane too. After all, Canon's new philosophy seems to be bludgeoning the competition with raw specs, and so, why not bludgeon the Sony a1's 30 fps burst rate? It would also help distinguish the R1 from the R3, which already sits at 30 fps.
Or perhaps if the R1 does not have a global shutter, it will also sit at 30 fps, but with a faster mechanical shutter than the EOS R3 and EOS R5. The EOS R5 has a mechanical shutter that maxes out at 12 fps. The EOS R3 might also sit at 12 fps, with the EOS R1 getting the 1D X Mark III's 20 fps mechanical shutter, maybe nudged up to 22 fps.
Or Will It Be Something Else?
Maybe it won't be the global shutter. But the EOS R3 has set another benchmark a notch above the EOS R5, which sets the bar the EOS R1 has to clear even higher. What will the R1's "one more thing" be?