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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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Previous comments
Herco le Fevre's picture

It all depends what kind of 'pro' you are. As a fashion photographer I can clearly remember the days I was lugging around a 1D or 5D and have lame arms and shoulders at the end of the day. The A7/A9 are a relief without any drawbacks for me. I'd guess the average wedding shooter will feel similar. However, when you're in downtown Faluja without any functional wall sockets for days, other things start to matter I guess. So, there's no such thing as a 'Pro' camera. There are camera's that get the job done and others that don't. But the job varies greatly...and so will the camera.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Being a hobbyist I have no need for a "PRO" camera but I went Sony in 2014 after using a T2i for 4 years, could not find support after those years for it, was the newer models only. But after much research, a lot, I found Sony's A7,R,S to be way ahead of others and at the time Sony had few lenses BUT with an adapter,$25, I could use ALL my Canon FD and EF-S lenses (still have/use). I went with the A7S because it did 5 frames @ +/- 3 ev, at the time HDR was popular but was and is still the best for Milky Ways. Ah! Then came IBIS and 42MP and the 1224 f/4 G, I took this camera to the big tourist place Az. Page and Grand Canyon and I was able to shoot bracketed shots in Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe bend WITHOUT sticks where everyone else was chained to sticks for just a single shot (2017) and the widest lens I saw was a 24mm and I even had a 10mm that was made for the A7 body. Yes a Canon T**** was about $1K with 2 kit lenses and yes a Sony body was about $2K but with all the bells and whistles of a Canon or Nikon would be $10K +!!! Now a pro maybe able to afford all of that or was it a magazine or paper paying for it like when they were paying $200K just for photos for a story. A hobbyist looks for long lasting value for less $. And when you see more and better tools, well I question the Pro label of something costing so MUCH More but with Less in the box. And with just 5 years have been able to get lenses from 10mm to 600mm (1800mm with a 2x and APS-C mode) with only 4 lenses in my bag (but have more but hardly use) one GM (1224), one G (200-600), regular 24-240 (very sharp) and a Voigtlander 10mm. How many does a pro have, oh! sharp, sharper and sharpest! Many complain about cost for Sony GM lenses but fail to show the cost of others by others. I have never had buyers remorse with a Sony and all my gear bought with credit card points and from a seller giving points for my next item, so double the value and was basically free. A hobbyist looking for pro tools but for way less.

Mark Harris's picture

FSTOPPERS is officially "THE VERGE" of the camera world.

Marek Stefech's picture

i have a Sony A7Rlll, and i am suffering with the grip, there is too small space between grim and lenses.

Ludwig Heinrich's picture

" Is Sony's reluctance to enter this market segment a rare misstep?"
Don't see that myself.I think they have developed and extended their range of cameras quite well. Many Professional photographers already use Sony cameras but they haven't made a 1.5kg brick for the extreme use case. Maybe that has lost them a few dozen sales? I can't imagine there are all that many people crying out for such a device. Sony has been quite successful at building cameras to market segments so I think it is a deliberate choice, rather than a misstep, as there is simply no need for them to cover ALL niche use cases. Probably also a sensible choice as they are now No.2 in Camera manufacturers having overtaken Nikon—although still a long way behind Canon.

Randy Little's picture

Same comment
The AP didn't just switch to exclusively Sony cameras because A9ii is not a pro camera.

David Ha's picture

This is a stupid article and clearly, the author doesn't know Sony a9. He just wanna defend outdated DSLR cameas against mirrorless cameras by ignoring facts.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Well this is Fstoppers, seems like it's become the photography-equivalent of BGR.COM from the IT world, in other words, a smut rag filled with totally inept authors, though not all, as there are still some good ones floating about.

Luke Adams's picture

For wedding photography, I don’t think I could have asked for a camera that was any more “pro” than when I bought the then new Sony A7R3. Ridiculously useful Eye-Af, awesome dynamic range, good battery life, lightweight for long days, good FPS, dual card slots, great video specs, all wrapped up in WYSIWUG mirroless tech. There was absolutely NO other camera like it at the time.

Gary Pardy's picture

What a monster of a camera. All the strengths of the A7III and A7RII with none of the RII's weaknesses.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

The A7RIII is my current do-all camera, and I LOVE IT! Coming from Nikon DSLR’s, it completely changed the way I perform photography, and just like you, at the time, it was THE camera to get.

To add to that, if I was to get a MILC now, I would STILL go with the A7RIII over the A7RIV, as it has better low-light ISO noise performance, and the changes to the IV are not sufficient enough to justify going to that model.

Randy Little's picture

So the AP officially switching to Sony A9ii clearly hasn't been noticed by author or half of the commenters.