The camera industry is waiting for Canon to announce its mirrorless flagship sports shooter, but even three years after the Sony a9 was released, Canon might still be struggling to keep up. With the a9 Mark II on the horizon, they might be in trouble. Here’s why.
In February 2016, Canon launched the EOS-1D X Mark II, its flagship camera and the choice of sports and wildlife photographers around the world, not to mention countless photojournalists who rely on its tank-like build to perform consistently out in the field. I’ve rented this camera on numerous occasions, and despite owning a Sony a7 III, I might do the same again if the right job came along. The way it sits in the hand and the way it performs makes me feel something that my tiny a7 — which I love — simply doesn’t. Furthermore, while I hate the idea of a sausage-measuring party, clients are often reassured when you turn up hauling a massive camera. Their confidence feeds my confidence, making jobs run that little bit smoother.
It’s with this in mind that I started to wonder why Canon has yet to release a mirrorless equivalent and started digging into some of the details. The 1D X Mark II shoots a tasty 14 frames per second, and if you’ve not experienced this yourself, I highly recommend giving it a go. It’s just really nice.
What makes this remarkable is that this is all done with its huge mirror and mechanical shutter flopping around. If you switch to live view (thereby locking the mirror out of the way), the 1D X II squeezes out 16 frames per second, albeit at the price of autoexposure, autofocus, and the fact that you have to rely on the rear LCD display.
Pesky Laws of Physics
When it comes to the 1D X II’s DSLR successor, the mechanics might be a limiting factor. The mirror is quite big and has a long way to move, and though Canon may well take us by surprise, 14 frames per second might be close to its limit. Locking the mirror out of the way is not necessarily a solution either: the mechanical shutter — the leaf-like blades that control the light hitting the sensor — is still a physical element that has to slide around incredibly fast, and pushing that beyond 16 frames per second might be another barrier to boosting the camera’s specifications.
So given that there are potential limitations and that 14 frames per second in itself is probably plenty fast enough for pretty much everything any sports or wildlife photographer is going to shoot, why should Canon care so greatly about improving this aspect of the camera? The 1D X Mark III will be perfectly functional if it packs similar specifications and the mirrorless equivalent will no doubt be equally beastly.
Let's Measure Some Sausages
The answer lies in the shape of the Sony a9 and that sausage-measuring party that we all pretend to hate. Arriving just over a year after the 1D X Mark II, the a9 turned a few heads by boasting 20 frames per second of blackout-free shooting and a buffer of more than 200 raw shots. I don’t recall the last time I felt the need to hold my shutter button down for more than one second, never mind 12 continuous seconds, but no doubt that’s useful to some people. However handy that may or may not be, it’s impressive.
The approach taken by Sony was a quiet revolution in terms of sensor technology. While Canon was busy developing DPAF for super-fast and accurate video autofocusing, Sony was directing its research elsewhere: the Stacked Exmor RS sensor. One of the big steps forward in sensor technology has been the shift from front-side illuminated to back-side illuminated. If you’re not familiar with how this works, you are far from alone (click here for some help). Essentially, it means that a lot of the circuitry in a sensor that used to sit in front of the bits that collect the light has been moved to the back, meaning that more light can get through, thus making the sensor more sensitive. The other huge advantage — and one that Sony has exploited massively — is that you can add more circuitry to a sensor without affecting its light sensitivity. Suddenly, Sony has a stacked sensor that has RAM modules attached to the back of it, speeding up readout, sucking the images into a buffer and immediately freeing the sensor to keep taking images.
Read-out times from the sensor are 20 times faster, and the maximum shutter speed is 1/32,000 of a second — a marked increase on the 1/8000th of a second found in other full-frame flagships. Other advantages emerge. In the Canon 1D X Mark II, the sensor remains “live” throughout a series of shots, relying on the mechanical shutter to control the light. With its extra circuitry, the sensor on the a9 is able to switch the sensor on and off, eliminating the need for the mechanical shutter and making shooting almost completely silent. In most ILCs that use an electronic shutter in this way — whether APS-C or full-frame — the line-by-line readout of the sensor gives rise to rolling shutter. By contrast, the readout on the a9 is so fast that the rolling shutter is almost completely eliminated.
In addition to this, the Sony can do all of this while maintaining autofocus tracking and offering a view through the EVF that doesn’t black out in between individual frames, as there’s no mirror or mechanical shutter to get in the way.
Sony gave itself a massive headstart, and Canon has some hard work to do. For its mirrorless sports/wildlife flagship, not only does it have to find a way of matching Sony, it also has to do it when Sony is not far from releasing the updated version of its own flagship camera, which will no doubt have improved specifications. In addition, Canon has to find a means of incorporating its DPAF technology into whatever it creates to take on not only the a9 but whatever Nikon — which is already using BSI sensors in the D850, Z 6, and Z 7 — also has in the pipeline.
No doubt Canon has been working hard on some new sensors for some time, registering numerous patents for stacked sensors over the last couple of years. What’s worrying is that its research and development has not manifested in their initial forays into the world of mirrorless, and as of last week, there’s now another elephant in the room in the shape of the Sony a7R IV. This is no sports/wildlife shooter (though with ten frames per second, some would beg to differ), but it does demonstrate the terrifying speed at which Sony is developing its sensors. Furthermore, it shows how few qualms it has at aggressively pushing out its new technology when, I would argue, it would be better off adding refinement rather than megapixels.
To make matters worse, the rumors suggest that Sony is not hanging on to this new technology: there’s said to be a 61 megapixel Nikon Z8 coming next year, and guess which sensor it will be using. If Sony wants to undermine Canon's position in the camera industry, giving its sensors to Canon's traditional rival is potentially a very shrewd tactic.
Fortunately for Canon, the sausage-measuring game is only a small part of what makes a successful camera, and those predicting the company’s demise might want to wind in the melodrama. With that said, Sony’s deep pockets and loss-leading camera bodies are certain to shake up a market that is undergoing some notable changes. If you’ve any thoughts on what’s to come — and whether photographers genuinely want or need more than 20 frames per second — please leave a comment below.