Now that the big three camera manufacturers have released powerful flagship mirrorless full-frame cameras – the Canon R3, Sony A1, and Nikon Z 9 – the playing field looks more level than ever before. But impressive specs and sample photos only tell the manufacturer’s side of the story, while independent camera reviewers may tell another. And sometimes set the record straight.
For Canon the EOS R3 is its mirrorlesss version of to the immensely popular sports-oriented 1D DSLR series; the Nikon Z 9 (or is it Z9?) is the company’s big comeback; and the A1, released almost a year earlier in January 2021, is Sony’s reminder that it’s a step ahead in the mirrorless game.
All three cameras are latest flagship models designed for serious professional photographers.
Inside Imaging planned to write this article in late 2021, but was surprised there wasn’t any proper Nikon Z 9 reviews after the launch date. Might have something to do with the global supply chain disruptions, and we may have to become conditioned to having review delays rather than a smattering of them shortly after, or before, the release date.
Since the Z 9 reviews are the newest, we’ll start there.
Nikon Z 9
The 45.7 megapixel stacked CMOS sensor camera, a kind-of mirrorless D6, has a local recommended price of $9000.
Margaret Brown, Photo Review technical editor and Australia’s finest camera reviewer, handed the Z 9 the rating of 9 out of 10. She describes the Z 9 as being ‘a complex and highly developed piece of imaging equipment’ that is ‘built like a brick’ and will reward those willing to learn and configure it to suit their style.
Photo Review grades gear on various spec metrics and the Z 9 only just falls short for its autofocusing system, despite the new AF being a big selling point with ‘deep learning technology for subject detection’. The problem isn’t the AF performance, but navigating and making sense of all the different settings, and therein lies the steep learning curve.
‘It’s worth noting it takes a while to figure out the Z9’s sophisticated AF system – particularly the subject detection settings – because the camera isn’t configured to make it easy to swap quickly between AF modes beyond the most basic levels,’ writes Margaret. ‘When recording video clips and shooting burst sequences of fast-moving subjects we found it essential to lock onto the subject at the start of the recording, especially with birds in flight.
‘It would be useful to be able to change subject detection modes with a single button press instead of having to set them up in the custom memories. That option is often not fast enough. Purchasers of the camera will also need to be able to figure out a quick way to change metering modes because there doesn’t appear to be any way to do it with a single button press.
Margaret points readers to a Z 9 review by Nikon guru, Thom Hogan, who describes it as a ‘great camera, the best mirrorless camera Nikon has made to date, and arguably one of the best cameras you can buy at the moment’.
‘That doesn’t make it “perfect”,’ he adds, ‘I see evidence of rushed engineering, and I also see that Nikon still hasn’t clearly heard a number of things that we photographers have been asking for or would prefer’. He lists a number of ergonomic and handling issues, such as tilting the LCD, card slot door mechanism, shooting method dial, and describes the AF system as seeming ‘not fully developed’.
‘As good as it is – and it’s really good – trying to take control from the system isn’t as straightforward as it needs to be,’ Thom writes.
Since the Z 9 can record a whopping 8K video, let’s listen to what the cinematographers at CineD have to say about it.
‘Who would have guessed that Nikon, a company known for its traditional business behavior would be the first to introduce groundbreaking video features like Internal 10-bit 4K ProRes HQ, next to soon-to-come 8K60p 12-bit ProRes RAW, and 12-bit N-RAW video recording in their flagship camera,’ writes Johnnie Behiri for CineD. ‘Top this with long 8K recording times and no immediate evidence of overheating issues and we might have a winner here.’
Johnnie, who became ‘frustrated as hell’ with the overheating Canon R6, is ‘happy to report that the Nikon Z 9 shows that it can be done differently’ after continuously recording over two hours of 8K without any hiccups. There is no internal fan, but rather a heat-dissipating magnesium alloy design. He concludes its a ‘very capable filming tool’.
Canon EOS R3
If the Z 9 is Nikon’s mirrorless D6, then the Canon EOS R3 – capable of capturing 30 fps with its 24.1-megapixel sensor – is its mirrorless answer to the 1Dx Mk III.
Inside Imaging searched far and wide for a common criticism of the R3. Something similar to the Z 9’s complex AF and menu system. But after trawling through reviews, it seems the shortcomings are few.
PCMag‘s senior digital camera analyst, Jim Fisher, rates the R3 4.5 out of 5, handing it the Editors’ Choice award for ‘top-notch performance’, and TechX Award for the ‘groundbreaking HDR viewfinder’. The viewfinder is somewhat ironically complimented for being closer to an optical viewfinder, which could be now regarded as legacy technology.
Jim compares the R3’s stacked CMOS sensor with the Sony a9 II.
‘The sensor in the EOS R3 is Canon’s first crack at a stacked chip, and it matches the 24-megapixel resolution of the cameras in the a9 lineup. One difference is that the R3’s sensor is built around Canon’s Dual Pixel AF phase detection system, an autofocus method that works differently than Sony’s masked focus pixel approach.
‘Despite the different approach, neither underlying technology shows an advantage in the real world – both approaches have netted cameras with world-class focus systems. The R3’s autofocus is a bit more mature than what you find in the a9 II, though. It can recognise more types of animals, including birds, as well as different types of motorsport vehicles. Sony has added these features in its newest stacked model, the 50MP a1, and Nikon includes similarly smart subject recognition in the 45-megapixel Z 9, its first stacked sensor camera.’
Canon’s exciting new Eye Control Focus, which allows photographers to focus on subjects by looking at them, is far from perfect according to Jim Fisher, who doesn’t have perfect eyesight. He ‘found that the system struggled to track my vision’, particularly in the top third of the frame, and it wasn’t great at focussing on birds in flight or in trees. Ahead of release, Canon acknowledged Eye Control’s caveats, such as how it may not perform properly for photographers with vision issues or those who wear glasses and contacts, and wasn’t ideal for all shooting situations.
Techradar‘s R3 reviewers, Mark Wilson and Dave Stevenson, had a better experience with Eye Control AF, calling it ‘virtually magical’ and ‘far more than a gimmick’. They also claim no other camera provides more options for controlling AF, and ‘there’s now very little excuse for not nailing your focus’. And, there is also no excuse to ever miss a shot.
‘It’s actually impossible to only shoot a single frame – you just can’t get your finger off the shutter button fast enough. That means you won’t want to use the EOS R3 at full chat in more than a handful of situations, but when push comes to shove and you simply can’t afford to miss the shot – we’re thinking the flower chuck at a wedding, the moment the leopard springs from its cover, the instant the sprinter crosses the finish line – the R3’s continuous mode leaves you perilously short of excuses.’
Sound like a good problem to have!
PCMag’s review concludes the R3 does ‘move the needle forward for mirrorless’, thanks to the outstanding AF system and HDR viewfinder; while TechRadar‘s verdict is its one of the best sports and wildlife cameras ever made.
The R3 may be more comparable to the Sony a9 II, but having been announced in October 2019 it’s now old news in the world of new cameras. And rumours have it the successor is on the way. So we’re looking at Sony’s biggest new camera – the A1, a 50-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor camera, unveiled in early 2021.
Jim Fisher, again for PCMag, also handed the A1 a 4.5 stars and Editor’s Choice award due to the camera’s overall performance. He described the A1 as a ‘cut above’ Sony’s other cameras, with specs to please pretty much everyone.
‘We love what the stacked sensor does to keep you in the moment – there’s something to be said about capturing a scene without any interruption in the viewfinder. There’s plenty of speed and resolution too, as well as a complete video toolkit.’
He points out that the difference in sensor image quality isn’t vast or really worth comparing to other cameras. Nowadays they’re all amazing. It’s the sensor speed that makes a difference.
‘Mirrorless cameras with standard sensors also offer silent capture, but show a stuttering view in the EVF,’ Jim writes ‘With the a1, the viewfinder always shows a smooth view of the world, and it never goes dark. It’s more similar to using a rangefinder or TLR than an SLR, and is a real benefit for capturing photos of subjects in motion.’
While this feature was unique to Sony back in early 2021 and up to when this review was written, it’s fair to say Nikon and Canon caught up with aforementioned Z 9 and R3 cameras.
Imaging Resource‘s Jeremy Gray found the autofocus excellent, ‘it proved to be adept and fast with everything I threw at it. It very rarely came up short and succeeded in ways that few other cameras can match. As far as I’m concerned, the Sony A1 is now the camera to beat with respect to autofocus speed and performance.’
The primary (and minor) caveats are with the camera’s ability to shoot 30 fps.
‘Suppose you want to use uncompressed RAW or lossless compressed RAW, the A1 tops out at a still-very-fast 20 fps. If you want to use the mechanical shutter, speeds drop further to 10 fps. Like with most of the highlight-worthy features of any camera, there’s no free lunch with the A1. If you want the fastest speed, there are tradeoffs. However, for many photographers, the tradeoff is probably worth it. For me? I like lossless RAW files and 20 fps is plenty fast for what I like to shoot.’
Margaret from Photo Review only took issue with the price – an RRP of $10,499. She points out there are other Sony cameras suited for specific styles at lower prices.
‘But the high price puts it out of the reach of most photo enthusiasts, even the most serious of them. Those who shoot mainly portraits or landscapes will be better served by the Sony A7R IV, which offers a slightly higher resolution but is considerably cheaper. Similarly, photographers who only shoot sport and don’t require 8K video or 50-megapixel resolution should consider the 24.2-megapixel α9 II. It’s about two thirds of the price of the Alpha 1 and its frame-rate of the A9 II is slower at 20fps compared to the A1 at 30 fps. Interestingly, in reality, very few sports photographers ‘spray-and-pray’, so 20 fps should be more than enough for their requirements.’
Each review mentioned in this article goes much deeper into the technical side and real world shooting experience of the cameras. It’s a pretty great moment to be a photographer in the market for an upgrade, as these three cameras set new benchmarks for mirrorless full-frame technology.