Canon and Sony are both expected to push out flagship releases in 2021. These will likely be targeted for release months before the next Winter Olympics – a reliable, if arbitrary, cycle the camera manufacturers have been respecting for decades. Sony’s rumored pro offering appears to be targeting the Canon EOS R5, rather than Canon’s purported flagship, the 1DX Mark III, which is in many ways less capable of the fully mirrorless alternative.

What is a “Pro Camera”?

Certain conventions have developed around people’s idea of a professional camera. Previous technological limitations drove the flagship models to be integrated-grip, low megapixel, high frame rate, heavy bodies. Some of these conventions may be challenged moving forward, as the technology allows, but interestingly Sony finds itself less able to innovate here because of a desire to prove that its flagship bodies adhere to what the professional photographers perceive as what a flagship should be. The release of the A9 Mark II showed only new refinements that brought the new flagship closer to already-set perceptions of a pro body. Aside from ergonomic changes that made it feel more like a Canon camera, the main improvement was a doubling of the mechanical shutter – something that Sony didn’t previously feel was that important given the 20 frames per second electronic shutter the A9 sported with very little rolling shutter.

While the Canon 1DX Mark III has been well received by reviewers, there are specific features that remain disadvantaged relative to the mirrorless offerings, and it was surprising to see a lack of improvement in some areas – particularly resolution. Some pros think 20 megapixels is plenty, but one of the use cases of the 1DX series is wildlife photography, where denser resolutions are highly valued. Perhaps the most interesting perceived deficiency of the 1DX Mark III was the awkwardness of using it as a mirrorless camera. Sporting a first class tracking system in liveview mode, getting the best tracking out of the camera forces users to use the back screen, which just exaggerates the awkwardness of wielding a camera that feels a bit like two bricks taped together.

Crusty Pros

The culture of professional photography determines market demand for flagship bodies. This culture is male-dominated; concentrated in certain genres; perceives itself is hyper practical; often dismissive of new features as unnecessary or undesirable (until they appear in the flagship bodies, as they did with liveview, flippy screens and touch screen AF point selection). Point is, there is a real liability that innovating too much will lessen the perception of appropriateness for pros – especially for a brand like Sony, which hasn’t yet completely established itself as a pro body player. Sony’s difficulty in ascending to that brand perception is mixed with this crusty culture, but also a deserved reputation for outsourcing service to third parties and the fact that its offerings are mirrorless, a technology viewed still with some suspicion. Canon went to some lengths to package a very nice mirrorless camera inside a DSLR pro body with the 1DX Mark III. The new flagship is an excellent mirrorless camera – if awkward – when the liveview mode flips the mirror out of the way.

Ingredients for a Worthy Flagship Upgrade

Here are features absent in the existing flagships, and may make appearances in the coming revisions:

  • ~45 megapixels (needed for 8K video)
  • 8K video
  • Deliberate heat dissipation to allow for non-limited, high-bitrate video recording
  • Video without time limits during internal recording
  • Dual CFexpress cards
  • Full, 14-bit stills in high frame rate modes
  • Thunderbolt 3, 40 Mbits/sec throughput
  • IBIS
  • ~10 megadot viewfinder operating at 120 frames per second
  • Anti-flicker shooting reduces frame rate less (10 fps rather than 6 fps)
  • Highest frame rates capable even with low battery

It is notable that there are not many features one can think of for a pro upgrade that are not already in the Canon R5 camera, showing how blurred the pro body identity has become. Whether cameras including the above will be delineated as “pro,” and whether a permanently-gripped form factor is employed will determine whether that distinction lives on.