Three leading brands, three leading cameras (with two in shops), and three different approaches. Has Sony, Nikon, or Canon got the best strategic approach for grabbing the mirrorless market?
The big news of the week was Nikon's announcement of their new pro-spec mirrorless camera, the Z 9, that will sport a new stacked CMOS sensor, 8K video recording, and vertical handgrip. At face value, the sensor bears similarities to that used in Sony's a1 and would be expected to have the same speed improvements. The rumored specification of the Z 9 suggests a 20 fps shooting rate, 50-60 megapixel output, 16-bit raw, and general overall performance that surpasses the D6. Indeed, it's been described as a D6 body combined with Canon EOS R5 imaging, Sony a9 II AF, and blackout-free EVF.
Whether the Z 9 can attain such levels of hype remains to be seen; however, one thing that appears to be missing from discussions so far is that it is a pro-spec body: if the Z 9 is being touted as a D6 body, then the assumption is that it has the build quality and weather-sealing to match. This is a big deal and something I had bemoaned last year when wondering why Sony didn't sell a pro-spec body. That brings us neatly to Sony's a1, which made headlines earlier this year for its top-line specs: that stacked CMOS sensor with 50 MP and blackout-free shooting at 30 fps for 155 raw images. However, they also introduced improved AF, faster flash sync speeds, and 8K video.
In terms of Canon's R5, their slightly older offering was the one the really kicked off the camera equivalent of the space race. The main specs whetted the appetite with the dual-pixel 45 -megapixel sensor, IBIS, and 8K video. Fstoppers' Nando Harmsen reviewed the R5 and was equally impressed by how well it performed and stacked up against the headlines.
Three Cameras, Three Strategic Approaches
The three top-end cameras highlight three different approaches to filling out the product lines for Nikon, Sony, and Canon. It obviously goes without saying that the a1 and R5 are cameras you can get your hands on at the moment (if they are in stock), while the Z 9 is in development although close to a physical product, possibly tested during the Tokyo Olympics and released in the fall. For Sony, this is a step in a new direction: previously, it has worked on its a7 triumvirate, selling older models alongside newer ones; however marketplace differentiation led it to release the a9 and the a1. The a1 is undoubtedly its top model, and, perhaps under mounting pressure from Nikon and Canon, Sony is being forced to expand its range. It's a great camera, possibly the best contemporary camera. What it doesn't provide is a pro-spec body, and the key question remains: is this is product category Sony will develop?
That brings us on to the R5, which Fstoppers' Nando Harmsen described as a
mirrorless version of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, with a lot of improvements that have become possible because of the mirrorless system
This is a nice way of thinking of the camera: it's a great product, but not their intended top-level camera. Perhaps that is reflected in the $3,900 price, while the a1 is at a slightly more wallet-emptying $6,500. If Nikon comes to launch first, will the Z 9 be the first pro-spec camera to hit the market? That would certainly be a surprising turn of events given Nikon's largely poor recent business results. However, what we now seem to have is Sony pursuing a "generalist" top-level camera in the form of the a1, which produces the best image quality targeted at all photographers who need that. We then have Canon, who seem to be mimicking their DSLR strategy, however filling out their range from the bottom up, leaving the pro-spec camera to last. The R5 perhaps sits one small peg below the a1 but should suit most users' needs. Nikon is out of sync with both Sony and Canon, and while the Z7 II is well received, it isn't quite on level. However, their range of cameras perhaps feels more balanced.
What Is the Future of Camera Development?
It was on the cost factor that Fstoppers' Alex Cooke was a little more skeptical about Sony's a1: is it really worth $2,600 more than the R5? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all the recent camera developments has been the sensors used. They really are breaking new ground with significant gains being made at higher resolutions for both stills and video, along with reducing rolling effects (and the potential for a global shutter). This is allied to significant increases in in-camera processing to enable those very fast raw shooting speeds. Are we seeing the end of the divide between high-resolution and fast-shooting cameras? Will the only differentiation of a "pro-spec" camera be the build quality and weather-sealing?
As I noted in this earlier post, if 2021 is an Olympic year, it is possible that we could see two pro bodies arrive touting the very best in technology that mirrorless has to offer. The greatest gains are being made in the sensor technologies, and as we've seen with DSLRs, the top-of-the-range cameras are often used as technology demonstrations that can then trickle down to lower-level cameras. In fact, these cameras have traditionally sold in small numbers, so it's arguable that manufacturers see them as loss leaders that can be used to develop new technologies while making the most of marketing through their promotion with working pros. In that sense, they are simply sunk development costs. Perhaps two aspects that will remain a challenge for future development will be battery life and computational photography, both areas that smartphone manufacturers have invested in heavily — areas that camera manufacturers are lagging behind in.
Whatever comes to pass, we appear to have three different approaches to selling and filling out mirrorless camera ranges for 2021, which makes it eye-watering for the consumer. Whether you are already deep in one ecosystem or looking to jump ship, you will have plenty to choose from this year.