(Image credit: James Artaius)
What is the best professional camera – that’s a question with at least three different answers! If you’re a commercial, travel, landscape or fashion photographer you’ll probably favor high resolution over high continuous shooting speeds. If you’re a sports photographer, it’s shooting speed and autofocus above all else. And if you’re a photographer/videographer, some of the best professional cameras are in the emerging mirrorless market.
Professional sports cameras took a knock in 2020, when the whole sporting calendar went into lockdown. The three main contenders here are the amazing Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, the updated and upgraded Sony A9 Mark II and the new Nikon D6, but we may have to wait until 2021 to see which one comes out on top – though we have carried out our own epic Olympic shootout:
• Olympic shootout: Nikon D6 vs Canon EOS-1D X Mark III vs Sony A9 II
• The best full frame cameras today
Our full Nikon D6 review is imminent, but we’ve already published our Nikon D6 vs Canon EOS-1D X Mark III vs Sony A9 II shoot-out to see which would have won Olympic gold.
It’s not all about frame rates and AF systems, though. Sports photographers require speed, durability and responsiveness, but regular commercial photographers also need a balance of resolution and versatility, and high-resolution full frame cameras have become affordable mainstream options. Sony has claimed the crown for the highest resolution yet in a full-frame camera with the Sony A7R Mark IV, but the Nikon D850 and Nikon Z 7 aren’t far behind, or the Panasonic Lumix S1R.
And now there’s a new challenger in the full frame high-resolution market – the remarkable Canon EOS R5. We’ll be hearing more about this shortly!
Beyond that, there’s the medium format market, which has most definitely not stood still. We’ve been especially excited by the Fujifilm GFX 100, and the expensive but amazing Phase One XT and we’ve just taken delivery of the remarkable new Hasselblad 907X 50C…
And then, of course, there’s video. We have to mention the brand new Sony A7S Mark III, though it’s a bit too video-centric to make it a good candidate for this round-up, and – of course – the extraordinary Canon EOS R5 and its 8K video. Yes, you read that right.
Of course, picking the best professional camera is not just about picking the one with the best or most enticing specifications. You have to look at the system as a whole, its lenses, its other models, and what is set to be released in its future. Before making a choice, it’s worth asking yourself a series of questions:
1) Are you switching from a different systems? If this is the case, it’s well worth looking into whether there’s any potential for compatibility between your existing and new system (i.e. using lens mount adapters). ‘Migrating’ an existing system is much simpler and cheaper than starting again with a whole new setup.
2) What lenses will you need? Think about the kind of work you need and the lenses you need for it, and check whether the system you’re considering can meet those needs. Lens guides can be useful here, such as our guides to the best Canon lenses or best Nikon lenses.
3) DSLR or mirrorless? While it does sometimes feel like mirrorless is taking over the world, the best DSLR cameras do still have their advantages and some, like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, are breaking new ground. Read our guide to DSLR vs mirrorless cameras if you’re still not sure.
4) Video vs stills? Are you shooting video as well as stills? While both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can and do produce excellent video, mirrorless currently has the edge here, so if video is part of your portfolio then it’s worth factoring this into consideration.
With all this in mind, we’ve divided our professional camera guide into six brands and listed our top picks for each one. With professional cameras, it’s much more important to think about the system than about individual camera models, so we hope this helps you get a clear idea of the kind of setup you want.
We’ve stopped short of ultra-high-end Phase One and Hasselblad cameras, but otherwise we cover the whole price range from just over £1,000 to nearly £10,000. So whatever your budget, there should be something here for you.
The best professional camera in 2020
Canon offers a large range of professional lenses and produces some of the most highly-regarded pro cameras. Canon has traditionally been known for its DSLRs, especially in professional circles, but it’s shifting its attention wholesale to its new mirrorless EOS R system, and the original EOS R and beginner-orientated EOS RP were just the opening salvo – the EOS R5 is the camera that’s caught our attention, and that of every other pro photographer out there, we suspect.
As a stills camera, the Canon EOS R5 is simply Canon’s finest product ever. It’s the perfect amalgamation of the EOS R’s form, the EOS 5D’s function, and the professional-grade autofocus of the EOS-1D X. If you’re a stills or hybrid shooter who flits between photography and videography, it’s one of the best cameras you will ever have the pleasure of using. It has attracted some attention for the wrong reasons, notably overheating (or the threat of it) when recording 8K video, but this shouldn’t detract from this camera’s extraordinary capabilities. It’s not perfect at everything, but given its resolution, its frame rate and its video capabilities combined, this is genuinely a landmark camera.
With the Canon EOS1-D X Mark III, Canon has released a camera packed with leading-edge tech, including deep learning AF, an optical Smart Controller, HEIF and HDR PQ support, CFexpress, 12-bit internal 4K RAW, head tracking and so much more. Canon has combined the advantages of DSLR and mirrorless to produce a hybrid body that can shoot according to what the situation demands. While it lacks some of the luxuries of mirrorless models, this camera does so much that no other system can – it’s a genuine glimpse into the future. Offering the best of both worlds, with the sheer speed of an optical DSLR with the advanced accuracy of mirrorless, it’s a true hybrid system that moulds to the needs of individual professionals and individual shooting scenarios. The DSLR is not dead. The tank-like EOS-1D X Mark III has absorbed the technical advances of mirrorless cameras and added a few of its own to product an awesome professional sports and action photography tool.
On paper, the EOS 5D Mark IV looks a distinct second best to rival cameras with higher resolutions, faster frame rates and better 4K video features – the EOS 5D Mark IV applies a heavy 4K video crop that makes ‘wide’ shots more difficult. Nevertheless, the 5D Mark IV has proved itself a very effective, durable and versatile camera for countless professional photographers, and its Dual Pixel AF technology gives it a peppy autofocus performance in live view and video modes. This camera was launched way back in 2016, though, and with no replacement announced or even rumored, it’s getting harder to recommend this solid but ageing workhorse.
The EOS R is Canon’s first full frame mirrorless camera, and while it received a lukewarm reception in some sections of the camera community, it’s still a powerful and effective tool for professionals who want to migrate to mirrorless, or even step up to full frame from Canon’s smaller APS-C models. It has the same resolution and 4K crop factor of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and only one memory card slot, but it does have a more powerful Dual Pixel CMOS AF system and promises the same kind of all-round capability as the 5D Mark IV. The good news is that following the launch of the EOS R5 and EOS R6, EOS R prices are steadily eroding and it’s becoming an ever more attractive buy. It might not offer cutting edge tech any more, but the EOS R could still offer very compelling value.
Like Canon, Nikon also offers a huge range of professional lenses, and a choice of pro camera bodies. Nikon has also taken its first steps in the full frame mirrorless market with the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 and, as with the Canon EOS R, these cameras can use existing current Nikon DSLR lenses, without restriction, via an adaptor, so Nikon users can try a ‘sidegrade’ to mirrorless a step at a time rather than having to swap out a whole system.
Canon made some big technological leaps with the EOS-1D X Mark III, but the Nikon D6 is more conventional. Nikon will no doubt have wanted to make sure that owners of the D5 will be able to make a seamless switch to the new camera, which has a band new 105-point AF system, 14fps continuous shooting and a 10.5fps silent mode. Nikon has also concentrated on professional workflow and connectivity options, not just headline-grabbing technologies. If you’re buying your firs pro sports DSLR, the Canon has the edge, but if you’re a long-time Nikon user with a bag full of lenses, the D6 is the obvious candidate for your next upgrade.
Where the Nikon D6 is built for sheer speed, durability and responsiveness, the D850 is built for resolution – though it can still capture images at 7fps, or 9fps with the optional battery grip. Some may say the D850 is the high-point of DSLR resolution and perhaps that last great DSLR release, but it does not feel like a dinosaur. Its big, chunky body feels good in the hand and great with bigger lenses, and while its live view AF may be sluggish, it’s a very powerful, modern-feeling camera – a superb all-rounder that actually feels as tough, rugged, fresh and exciting now as when it was launched back in 2017.
Nikon took its time launching its first full frame mirrorless cameras, but its unhurried, careful development process has paid off – both the 45.7 megapixel Z 7 and the 24-megapixel Z 6 already feel like fully mature, finished products. The Z7 is the model we’d recommend for pros, offering huge resolution, good 4K video, a great autofocus system and a compact but wieldy design. Nikon’s steadily beefing up its Z-series lens range and, in the meantime, you can use current Nikon DSLR lenses via the Nikon FTZ adaptor. If you don’t need the Z 7’s mighty resolution but you do need professional videos, take a look at the cheaper but equally robust Nikon Z 6 instead – it’s actually a little more accomplished for video than the Z 7. We’ve put the D6 and D850 above the Z7 in this list, but it’s all a matter of priorities. Nikon’s two pro DSLRs are big, tough and bulletproof, but if you’re looking for a smaller, more video-friendly alternative, this is it.
Sony launched its full frame mirrorless camera system from scratch, and although you can use older Alpha lenses designed for its SLR cameras on the new A7 and A9 bodies, in practice you’re much better off investing in native FE mount lenses. There are now 31 native FE lenses with more to come, so although swapping to Sony might be expensive initially, these cameras have a lot more native lens support than other mirrorless camera brands.
To quote from our own review, the Sony A9 II is the fastest, most ferocious full-frame sports camera we’ve ever used – but this was before we tested the EOS-1D X Mark III. Nevertheless, the Sony A9 Mark II’s blistering speed and autofocus performance are impressive, and matched only by its phenomenal connectivity, which promises to be a game changer for pro shooters. We would love to have seen Sony implement something akin to Olympus’ Pro Capture feature, so that you never miss the critical moment. However, if our most damning criticism is that the A9 II is too fast for us to keep up with, surely that’s nothing but mission accomplished for Sony!
The A7R IV is Sony’s new highest-resolution full frame mirrorless camera, with a record-breaking 61 million pixels and yet still capable of shooting continuously at 10fps. It also has Sony’s usual very good 4K video capabilities, though still capped at 30p. The latest iteration of Sony’s eye AF, however, is stunningly effective at tracking portrait subjects, even in continuous AF. While the Sony A9 is designed for out-and-out speed and responsiveness, the A7R Mark IV is much more suitable for all-round photography at the highest quality levels. It continues the ‘R’ line by offering the highest resolution of any full frame camera, but while its 10fps burst shooting looks good on paper for sports photography, it doesn’t have the buffer capacity and responsiveness of the A9, so its high frame rate is useful to have, but the A7R Mark IV would not be your first choice for sports. HOWEVER, for outright resolution, the A7R Mark IV reigns supreme, and not just in the Sony camp but amongst full frame cameras in general. You have to switch up to medium format to beat this, with all the costs and limitations that go
Fujifilm has moved into the professional arena very successfully with two separate camera ranges. The APS-C X-series flagship is the X-T4, which is pretty cheap in this company but offers exceptional performance for the money and video features that challenge or beat those in much more expensive pro cameras. And then two sensor sizes larger, there’s Fujifilm’s GFX range, which has redefined what medium format cameras can do – and who afford them.
Is the Fujifilm X-T4 a pro camera? We think so, for its combination of speed, AF system and video capabilities. The X-T3, first announced in 2018, was already a seriously impressive camera, lacking only a few key features – in-body image stabilisation and a vari-angle touchscreen. The X-T4 simply adds those in, building on what came before to become one of the best mirrorless cameras around. It still has the sophisticated 26.1MP X-Trans sensor, the super-fast autofocus and the capacity to shoot 4K video. Fujifilm have even improved the shutter over the X-T3, producing a model that lasts longer and can achieve higher sustained burst speeds, and also swapped out the battery for a newer model that lasts much longer.