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Why Doesn't Sony Sell a Pro Mirrorless Body?

Why Doesn't Sony Sell a Pro Mirrorless Body?

If there's one thing that's certain with Nikon and Canon's product lines, it's the availability of a professional specification camera body. With their pivot to mirrorless, it's understandable that they haven't released a MILC version yet. So why doesn't Sony have a pro-spec body?

Pro-spec camera bodies have a long history, largely vested in their ability to endure long periods of abuse from news photographers. In fact, the legendary Nikon F saved Don McCullin's life taking a bullet in the process. Pro bodies are therefore manufactured to high standards that make them virtually indestructible, alongside significant weatherproofing to enable them to resist water and dust ingress. This high level of manufacture comes at a cost in terms of price, size, and weight. If it looks like a tank, then it probably is a tank!

What is Pro-Spec?

In terms of current offerings, Nikon's D6 and Canon's 1DX Mk III both take their design cues right from the very beginning of the DSLR in the form of the rather unimaginatively named Nikon D1 and Canon 1D released at the turn of the millennium. The current 1DX Mk III weighs in at an almighty 1.44 kg and that's before you attach any kind of lens to it! At $6,500 it's going to make a dent in your wallet, long before it sustains any kind of damage. These are cameras designed for extreme working lives and have a shutter rating of some 400,000 actuations, along with batteries that can deliver up to 4,000 images. Their overall specification is designed to allow them to perform where other cameras will generally fail. This can be boiled down to low light, high speed, photography, the extremes of which severely stress cameras.

Taking the second constraint, high speed refers to both the shooting and autofocus tracking speed of the camera that allows you to freeze tack-sharp fast moving action. You need to be able to achieve high shutter speeds using either the mechanical or electronic shutter and then sustain writing image data out to the memory card. The first constraint — low light — is the bane of a "well exposed" photo however pro-spec cameras take this to new levels. Low light can result from low incident light levels, slow apertures, or fast shutter speeds, or a combination of all three.

Perhaps the most demanding pro users are therefore sports photographers. If you are shooting indoor sports with fast moving action and poor lighting, under a requirement to deliver high quality imagery (who doesn't?) then you have a perfect storm of low light, fast shutter speeds, fast shooting, and fast tracking AF. Camera specifications therefore try to hit this sweet spot and — in the case of Canon and Nikon — have been the development showgrounds of their technology that then follows a trickle down to low specification models. For example, Canon's 1DX Mk III is remarkably able to shoot at 20 fps for up to 1,000 raw files and has unnervingly accurate AI powered AF. One of the trade-offs for achieving this class-leading shooting ability is sensor resolution with the 1DX Mk III coming in at 20.2 MP, however that relatively modest specification has two major benefits. The individual pixels are large and, matched with the latest silicon, enables the Nikon D6 to achieve a staggering extended-ISO of 3.28M: invaluable if you need that news shot in near darkness. Modest resolution also means smaller file sizes which enable the cameras to achieve those high shooting speeds and, coupled with the latest on-board processor and plenty of memory, write them out to those dual CFexpress cards. Add in an expanded battery, portrait/landscape grips and you have a workhorse suitable for the daily grind — any daily grind.

Mirrorless Pro-Spec?

One of the reasons that Nikon and Canon have been so reluctant to jump in with both feet to the mirrorless future — besides the need to retire their DSLR offerings — is that they don't believe a mirrorless camera can have fast AF and continuous shooting. Or at least they didn't until Sony produced the a9, a camera which is class leading in this regard. Unfortunately it isn't in a pro-spec camera body and the Achilles heel remains battery life with the a9 II rated at a paltry 500 shots, although to be fair it isn't designed to the same demanding specification as the D6 and 1DX Mk III.

With both Canon and Sony rumored to be readying the release of pro-spec cameras in 2021, the question remains as to why Sony hasn't produced one already. Whilst their first E-mount camera, the NEX-3, may well have tested the market, the release of the a7, a7R, and a7S triumverate most certainly wasn't an experiment. This was a commitment to a mirrorless lineup and, when they realized how successful it was, turned in to a full strategic shift. What stands out in the short history of the full frame E-mount is how unerringly Sony has stuck to this three camera lineup, its only variation coming in the form of the a9 and a7C.

Perhaps surprisingly then, even with a five year lead on Nikon and Canon, Sony finds itself potentially being out-competed on a mirrorless product in the form of a pro-spec body. Although Canon has had a slow start to its full frame mirrorless journey, the bottom line of MILC sales shows it has been successful and the release of the R5 and R6 underlines its commitment to filling out its pro level camera offerings. Could we see two pro bodies arrive in 2021, possibly in an Olympic year? What's interesting is that Nikon and Canon have traditionally followed a four year Olympic cycle for their pro-spec bodies, with the rumored mirrorless variants clearly outside of that timetable. When did Sony commit to design and manufacture and why didn't it target the Olympics which would have been headline grabbing? Whilst battery life would seem to be one of the primary limiting factors, their a9 is a clear demonstration of viability. How will the new model fit with the a9 product line? One of the other limiting factors is lens availability; no pro will buy the body without the supporting lenses and Sony has its bases well covered, whilst Canon is rapidly filling out its range. Within this context, what are Nikon's plans and how does its timetable unfold? With MILC sales now likely to drive manufacturers income, the roadmap for the following 3 years will be telling.

Finally, it would be remiss not to return full circle to the father of mirrorless in the form of Olympus' Four-Thirds E-1. The Four Thirds crop factor gave it advantages of reach and speed, as well as being smaller, lighter, and cheaper that its competitors. Built to a high spec, Olympus targeted it at pro news and sports shooters but it fell down on shooting speed and AF. Olympus returned to this space in 2019 in the form of the E-M1X which was again built to a high specification, incorporated IBIS, and had fast shooting speeds. It was the best digital camera they had ever made, however its fortunes underline a general truth. Pro spec bodies don't sell in volume and therefore aren't a source of significant income. There is undoubtedly a niche for them, however their role is in testing new technologies and building a network of professional shooters as ambassadors for the brand. Is Sony's reluctance to enter this market segment a rare misstep?

Body image courtesy Oswald Engelhardt via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.

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42 Comments

Gary Pardy's picture

I think "pro-spec" can mean different things for mirrorless than it does for DSLRs. Sony is the only manufacturer offering anything close to "pro-spec" in terms of battery life and performance. The only question is whether you want maximum megapixels with the A7R IV, or the autofocus and high speed shooting of the A9 II. If battery life and portrait grip are essential specs, attach a battery grip to either and you are leagues ahead of other flagship full frame mirrorless cameras.

jim hughes's picture

About half of camera marketing revolves around finessing the word "pro".

Deleted Account's picture

My best guess is that the market of people who actually require a camera as rugged as a 1Dx series body is just extremely small and niche. Unless you're a conflict photographer or something, the A9-series will probably work just fine. The battery life can certainly be a concern depending on what you're looking to do, but again relatively few people would be unable to carry around extra batteries and swap them out as needed so other things probably took priority. As it stands, you are starting to see a few Sony's out there in sports and photojournalism so it's clear that the cameras are gaining adoption (it's going to be slow since PJ's are notoriously slow to adopt new equipment anyway). Alternatively, maybe they simply don't feel that the tech is 100% ready from prime-time at that level yet and they don't want to blow their first impression by releasing a potentially disappointing product. Lots of possibilities, but I doubt Sony is going to tell us.

sam dasso's picture

"These are cameras designed for extreme working lives and have a shutter rating of some 400,000 actuation"
Well, Sony cameras starting with A7RII are rated at 500,000 actuation.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Oh look, another click-bait article on Fstoppers...

Hello? Sony A9 and A9II ring a bell???

Good god...

Mark Alameel's picture

Well... the article does mention the A9 favorably...

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Mike's their go to Clickbait writer.

Perrone Ford's picture

To be fair, I haven't looked at the specs of the A9ii, but the A9 just wasn't cutting it on a number of fronts for the kinds of use sports pros needed. Too small, too few lenses at the time, service network was sparse, inability to even tag photos, no voice memo, weather sealing, etc.

There are a few more lenses now, and maybe they've addressed some of the shortcomings, but some failings are really just down to form factor. At least Canon and Nikon understand that after a couple of decades.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

As far as I remember it was released with 100-400 alongside. Does it work for sports?

Marek Stefech's picture

A9 are not a pro cameras

Marek Stefech's picture

A9 is really not camera for professional

Marek Stefech's picture

I'll explain, a professional photographer can do professional work with almost every camera on the market, but that doesn´t mean almost every camera is a professional camera. For a professional, a camera is a tool, and a professional cameras focuses on work, A9 never will be a pro camera if will be in body like this, its painful to hold this camera with a lot of lenses because there is almost no space for fingers, grip is short and big enough only for 4 fingers.... another thing is there missing display on the top, and so many functionality are not on buttons. And the big problem is menu, this menu is not for professionals.

David Ha's picture

That's stupid. Design define what is pro or not?

Marek Stefech's picture

You are still wrong guys, of coure design matter, if you dont have a good ergonomic, wheather sealing and etc. Its nonsense to call A9 pro camera

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Just stop, you’re not making yourself look or sound any better with each one of these fallacy-filled posts.

Marek Stefech's picture

you guys just talking like fanboy but dont care about facts... i will try to explain more, if you have a professional tool designers focus on heavy duty, I have experience with shooting longboard races with A9 (i am A7Rlll owner btw. ) and after 3hours blood start flow from my finger because there was not enough space between grim and lens. As well was problem when start raining, the camera is not enough water sealed like R5 or older DSLR. Another thing is missing top display and some buttons, if i have to change setting in few seconds is that problem.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Again, complete BS, please just stop.

Oh, and if you’re bleeding from your fingers because of lack of space, then you shouldn’t have gotten the camera in the first place! *face palm*

There are TONS of people, like myself with long fingers, who have ZERO issue with the gap between the grip and lens barrel. You’re proclaiming the assumption that because of this (out of many of your BS concerns, top display, really?) that this means the A9 / A9II aren’t pro cameras, what a load of crap.

Don John's picture

He didn't say his fingers were bleeding, I think he meant there wasn't enough blood flow because of lack of space. Probably a bad choice of words. However the a9 is only pro in the sense of specs, not in the case of weather sealing/ ergonomics and durability of the body and that is what the article is talking about specifically.

Don John's picture

Too many fanboys here to listen to reasoning from someone who's actually used the camera.

David Ha's picture

That's only your own experience, not the entire pro usrs. Clearly, that's BS.

Marek Stefech's picture

lol, bad water sealing is a fact, confuse menu is a fact, small grip which is too close to mount is a fact "that is only your experience" =)

Edison Wrzosek's picture

You want to talk about bad weather sealing? Should I mention that weather sealing DISASTER known as the $10k Fuji GFX 100???

And bad menu? Have you seen Olympus???

Just stop...

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Yeah, uh huh, a few disgruntled YouTuber's blasting Sony over a "grip problem" or "2 sins of Ergonomics", which BTW is a hyperbolic headline to say the least.

I know a LOT of photographers with BIG hands (long, thick fingers) who have NO issue with their cameras, especially newer A7RIV, A9II, and A7SIII bodies, and even with previous generation bodies.

Their only real issue is the body isn't TALL enough to fit their pinky finger on the grip, and this is due to their smaller size, but MANY of us use grip extenders, L-brackets, battery grips, so, again it's a NON issue.

Oh, BTW, if used in a "professional" setting, the MAJORITY of photographers will be using these cameras with battery grips or L-brackets, so, again, NON issue.

Your arguments against these cameras being "professional" is LAUGHABLE.

Oh, and there is that one little thing of the Associated Press outfitting ALL their reporters globally with SONY cameras, you know, a "pro" news organization giving their "pro" photojournalists supposedly "non-pro" cameras...

If my eyes roll any more they'll fall out of my skull...

Edison Wrzosek's picture

You have NO clue what you're talking about, and you're still blatantly INCORRECT about EVERY SINGLE THING you brought up.

I'm done wasting my time on you, you are clueless about this topic.

Kai Fredriksen's picture

Can´t say a display on top featured at all on my list of things I must have in a professional camera, much like the lenses with a display on top does not win me over due to that display.
I´ll happily trade a top display for the feature Sony has (and I expect many if not most mirrorless cameras have) for me to let the last picture I took "stay" until I half-press the shutter, opens for communication and checking the image without breaking my focus line.

The grip is a fair issue, it was truly painful for my wallet to buy something that made it more ergonomic. Until I looked at my other cameras and the battery grips. "Oh darn, I have always paid for something like that"

Functionality on buttons - that is customizable, if you don´t like Sony`s layout - change it. (I love that most cameras let you do that these days)

The menu is not friendly. But like for any camera I have worked with, the stuff I do regularly is easily accessible and familiar to me. The stuff I don´t use regularly... No matter which camera brand, it seems to lead me down google. Professionally speaking, the only times I go to things I don´t do regularly is when I do personal projects.

Sam Sims's picture

The thing is, the ‘pro’ bodies from Canon and Nikon are DSLR, not mirrorless. I think the wider issue is how mirrorless can produce the exact same experience and features users of D6/1D cameras have come to expect. Canon and Nikon have the edge simply because DSLR tech is still preferable at this level and mirrorless has yet to fully address all shortcomings. OVF vs EVF is a main issue as an OVF is ‘always on’ and isn’t a battery drain like an EVF and doesn’t suffer from shutter blackout or lag when tracking, especially at higher ISO’s. I’ve seen plenty of comments from D6/1D users who say they don’t see a mirror as a problem and don’t see any advantages to a mirrorless sensor in this type of camera.

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