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.
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.