The Sony a1 Versus Nikon Z 9 Versus Canon R5: Who Has the Right Strategy?

The Sony a1 Versus Nikon Z 9 Versus Canon R5: Who Has the Right Strategy?

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. 

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38 Comments

Reginald Walton's picture

Thing is, if you're already in either of those ecco systems, you'll be fine with that particular brand. It comes down to the person behind the camera at this point.

Keith Meinhold's picture

AP chose Sony as their professional camera platform partly because of lighter weight and smaller size - perhaps what constitutes pro-spec has evolved.

Michael Dougherty's picture

I also read that the price was very heavily discounted. A loss leader.

Nick Arora's picture

I'd argue that the "lighter weight" of Sony cameras (and mirrorless cameras in general) is highly exaggerated. There are many wonderful reasons to move to a mirrorless system or to prefer one brand over another, but "weight savings" is not a particularly strong argument

WestEndFoto .'s picture

Once you put the lens and grip on...........

Simon Hartmann's picture

I would say that the weight is THE difference between the systems. As is video-specs if youre grading (and thus profit from the much better DR in slog3 + heat management).
I personally chose Sony specifically for the size. If you look at the total system (sony + tamron 28-75, or the gm 1.4 primes) the sonys have a much smaller and lighter footprint.
If size is of no concern then thats useless, but i value the smaller system a lot.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Sony pro lenses are as big and heavy or more so than many Canon RF lenses.
So 1 oz in the body is nothong. Big lenses need a camera you can hold onto not petite like the Sony.

Robert McCaslan's picture

The pro-spec is overrated. I've had the D5 and continue to use the d850 with a grip--only because that's the way to get to 9fps. The D850 with grip is a clunky mess. I prefer the D5 handling to the D850, but prefer something more compact than either. Yes, I know many (but is it all?) photojournalists prefer the unibody design, but there are many pros who are happy or happier with the more compact Sony-sized body. Now, the size of the Z9 has me intrigued. It might actually be a happy medium. A unibody design in a form factor that isn't substantially bigger than the Z7 and R5 bodies. I hope that Canon follows suit in this respect. I for one do not want to schlep around a D6/1D X-sized monstrosity, but I absolutely want the performance.

Garrett Stevensen's picture

"their slightly older offering was the one the really", I think you meant, "their slightly older offering was the one that really..."

David Pavlich's picture

A1...flagship. Z9....flagship. R5....not the flagship. Again, this proves Canon has produced a very, very good camera. I'll come back when you compare the R1, the flagship, to the other two.

Matt Williams's picture

I mean, he points that out directly in the article and it's all there is to compare at the moment. And it's a fair comparison, with very similar specs and general concept to the a1.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Precisely, it appears it takes the best of Sony and Nikon just to equal Canon's second tier camera.

Dan Jefferies's picture

I've been fighting with the Canon 80D vs the Canon R6. Without micro-focus adjustment I advise all beginners to switch to mirrorless but since I'm capable of adjusting my own lenses I'm holding my own fairly well with the 80D. And unlike Olympus you can't really change any button to what you want on the R6. It is slightly crippled in that comparison. Not to say the R6 isn't absolutely awesome, it's just that an experienced photographer CAN go toe to toe with what they have right now and if you have the Canon 5D IV you're still in great shape.

Larry Chism's picture

The agencies that provide bodies, lenses, batteries, memory and all the other accessories and kit for the Olympics have been preping for Tokyo for 24 months. The only current pro-spec bodies are Nikon D6 and Canon 1D X Mark III. Who thinks they are going to change their equipment now? Who really thinks any agency will use a prosumer camera that over heats or fails part of the time?

The Olympic Marketing effort will fall to the camera companies and their ambassadors and this will play out on their home turf in their own backyard. Nikon, who has the most gain - Canon, who has the most to loose and Sony who is not on the field.

AJ L's picture

They’re not going to equip everybody with Z9’s. But they’ll have a few people using them to test and showcase.

Larry Chism's picture

You miss the point, Nikon will have a flagship pro body in the Z9 and pro grade Z lenses out to 600mm; Canon has not even hinted at a flagship pro body on their new mount or long lenses in the pro class; Sony is stuck with an a1, a high priced pro-sumer body with the same lenses line-up as last year.

Nikon may field a large team of photographers just leading up to and including the Olympics. The timing for Nikon could not be better.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

I would not count Canon out on this. There is still four months to go.

Robert McCaslan's picture

Definitely don't count Canon out. Like Nikon, Canon will have pros shooting a pro-level Canon body at the Olympics with exotic RF prime lenses (maybe even a zoom?). The R1 rumors are all over the place as well as rumors for a full panoply of exotic primes.
Meanwhile, Sony has its AP contract, and don't forget, that the 600GM is considered the best 600mm lens on the market (similar weight as the Canon EF version with marginally better IQ). The 400mm GM is right there as well.

So, it's shaping up to be a 3-horse race, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how this race shakes out.

Larry Chism's picture

Canon has to be present with a new flagship pro camera this summer, Nikon has forced Canon to step up R&D. The Canon problem is one of perception and production, will they could have 2 systems present, the existing agency supplied equipment and the new system.

Lawrence Huber's picture

I wonder if the new long primes will all be DO lenses.
Small, light and agile for sport action shooting and such.
I believe the current 600mm and 800mm RF lenses are DO and Canon frequently tests things like this prior to incorporating into the pro version like the pellix mirror and DPAF.

Robert McCaslan's picture

I'd love to see premium-level DO (or pf lenses for Nikon) released soon. I love shooting handheld, so hiking around with a 7-8lb behemoth that requires a tripod/monopod is a no-go for me. If one of these companies comes out with an f/4 600mm (or longer) lens that is 6lbs or lighter, I'm all in.

Ozzy 666's picture

Mike, you are right to analyze the strategy, but having 7300 euro Sony A1 and Z9 in the same price bracket - i would hardly call - "plenty of choice" :( It is actually all about Sony's controversial marketing decision slapping pro price on not so pro body (they had to make it a bit bigger with top lcd at least), creating quite a mess in the market. Let's take a look. Canon is a clear winner here because their overpiced R5 ( together with external zoom 70-200 and f7.1 100-500 for ridiculous almost 3k pricetags) suddenly looks like a bargain. Nikon survival is simply depends on Sony. Strangely enough Sony agreed to sell A1 based sensor technology to Nikon almost immediately after A1 release without waiting usual 12-18 month period, however looks like on one condition, that Nikon will sell it also in the same pro price bracket. So here comes Z9 with Nikon saving their face and Sony increasing sensor sales without compromising A1. The only loosers are us - mere mortals who cannot afford 7300 euro price tags. Technology is here but we will have to wait another 2 years untill it will be trickled down to 7r or Z7 price levels and even then those pretty expensive bodies will be stripped down to provide differentiation with A1 and Z9. Pity. Would have been more logical in my opinion to upgrade A9-3 to 36mp, A7-4 also to 36 but without sport specs. A7r with 48mp " new normal" do everything standard and A7SR super resolution to 60mp. Though i can understand Sony's decision to provide an answer to Canon R5, but to avoid, unfortunately for us, price war at all.

Frank Carenza's picture

It’s wonderful to have flagship cameras that can do amazing things. What’s really needed are amazing technologies in mass market cameras 24-32 Megapixel cameras Full Frame or APSC that can instantly load photos to smartphones, tablets, computers, and directly to Facebook, Instagram or other programs. People take great pleasure photographing but publishing to the Internet is why the smartphones are successful.

Spy Black's picture

...which is why I'm amazed cameras don't have SIM options, especially flagship cameras to allow immediate uploading of images to press.

WestEndFoto .'s picture

This is a thoughtful article.

Tim Gallo's picture

I dont know, maybe its only me but - neither r5,a1 or z9 gives me something more than say d850 or d6. thus they dont sound so exciting, though sony is having a fun ride that is fun to watch. aside from video(for which i have video oriented cameras), the newer high resolution sensors are just finally caught up with dslrs... in studios its not much of differences, in fact dslrs are still better in dark studio or with mixed lights. yeah the eye af gives great results, but nothing too drastic.
there were promises of some light-weightness which proved wrong with all this super-bulky expensive lenses.i like the nikon lenses strategy and their prices, but nikon lacks reliable af.
in general [pro] milc bodies are way too expensive to hastily jump the ships.

i feel like nikon will die soon. they play the catch up game and r burdened by bad decisions from top. (i know it first hand) hopefully they keep living though.

the only thing that recently got me excited in mirrorless world is gfx100s and its 80 1.7... especially that lens. thats something i am willing to spend big money on.

Lawrence Huber's picture

The video capabilities of the R5, especially AF, make both D850 and D6 look utterly primitive. Also the incredible DPAF and eye tracking and AF for stills again make both the D850 and D6 look primitive andthrow in fps of the R5 and the D850 and D6 look absolutely pedrstrian.

Matthew Milliren's picture

I'm a little confused, this article down plays the groundbreaking specs of the R5. Even taking into consideration the overheating issues people have brought up about the camera, It is a giant leap forward. I personally own the camera and in real-world use I have never experienced overheating. The R5 is a giant leap forward in camera technology. Full frame 12 bit raw 8K dci recorded internally alone is astounding, not to mention all of the other 10-bit 422 recording options. Again in real-world use I have never ran into an overheating issue with this camera.

Lawrence Huber's picture

It is now coming out that the A1 has overheating issues at a similar level to what the R5 used to have before it was fixed.

Steve McKenzie's picture

"Coming out?" Proof?

Lawrence Huber's picture

I still find it funny that the R5 is still being compared to the best Sony and now Nikon can do.
For a second tier camera equalling the best the other makers can do is a real testament to how good the R5 is and makes one wonder about the R1.

Steve McKenzie's picture

I still find it funny that the R5 wouldn't even exist if Sony hadn't dragged Canon (and Nikon) kicking and screaming to the mirrorless table. Canon had the benefit of 5 years of Sony development to leverage off before releasing a serious mirrorless offering. So did Nikon but seems it didn't help them.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Canon started mirrorless development with the 5D mII. Then the 70D with DPAF.
All research hidden into the DSLRS.
Once they had the far superior DPAF developed and other features over many years they came out with a system playing off all that development and used nothing from Sony at all.
Nikon uses Sony stuff but Canon's DPAF leaps way ahead of Sony's system of AF.

Cameron Hanks's picture

How about instead of pitting brand A against Brand B just pick the Tool that works the best for the situation for you. like others have said, the majority of people that are already invested in a brand are most likely going to stick with it.
and regardless these three cameras are tools they will all take fantastic photos and video.

Steve McKenzie's picture

Seems Nikon just can't let go of the "big brick" camera mentality. Nikon has released a "development announcement". Why would you include a hypothetical camera with no details confirmed in a comparison?

Bernard Languillier's picture

It's all about stacked sensors. You have it or you don't.

All the other aspects of sensor performance are pretty much a commodity these days. Yes, the Nikon has slightly more DR, slightly less high ISO noise, yes the R5 has slightly better AF in some situations... but the huge advantage is the read out speed of the a1 resulting from the usage of a stacked sensor.

We know the Z9 will get one too, we have no clue about Canon's ability/plan to transform the vague patents available on the web into a workable product.

The Z9 is the new D3. Nikon has never failed to outpace their competitors for a top release since 2008 in terms of image quality and AF performance. I don't see why the Z9 should be any different.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Except for the Canon 1DX MIII.
Nikon D5 and D6 do not even come close in AF or speed.
Plus the DPAF that smokes Sony and Nikon in live view AF.
Readout isn't a problem with Canon as we have seen.

Bernard Languillier's picture

Agreed on mirrorless AF compared to the Sony, not in conventional AF, and not compared to the Sony a1.