Why The New Nikon Z9 Is a Big Problem for Canon (and Sony)

Launched in the last few weeks, the Nikon Z9 and Canon R3 join Sony’s already-available Alpha 1 camera at the top of each brand’s respective camera lineups. The specifications of all three cameras are impressive, and if you didn’t think DSLR was dead before, you must now see the writing on the wall.

I don’t think anyone was surprised to see Sony get their top-line camera to the market first. Sony has, after all, been in the mirrorless game much longer than Canon and Nikon. The a1 camera has been in the hands of professionals for more than six months, myself included.

Amongst my relatively small community of pro photographer friends, the launch of the Sony a1 caused the loss of one more Canon shooter and one more Nikon shooter. Both were people sick of waiting for pro solutions from their respective brands. Yes, my sample size is small, but it’s no secret that both Canon and Nikon lost a lot of pros to Sony in recent years. In short, both brands needed to respond, and they needed to do it quickly.

Canon began teasing the R3 many months before its final launch. I don’t doubt that Canon used this tactic to stem the flow of professionals who were jealously eyeing the Sony a1 on store shelves. It was wise to do so, and I think it worked. I polled my Canon friends during the period, and they all seemed happy. Those considering a switch to Sony had paused that thought, and all were keen to get an R3.

Before the launch of the Z9, Nikon had faced a tough year in the press. Numerous reports of financial difficulties surfaced during the pandemic, and the lack of news regarding a top-of-the-line camera undoubtedly hurt them in the professional market. I think the R5 camera slowed the leak of professionals moving from Canon to Sony, but from what I saw, they were leaving Nikon at pace. To be honest, I was starting to write Nikon off as a contender in the pro marketplace.

In October 2021, Nikon’s pro community all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the covers came off the Z9. More than a few eyebrows were raised by Canon and Sony users, too. On paper, at least, the Nikon Z9 didn’t just catch up with their competitors; it blew right past them in some areas. Suddenly, Nikon is back in the game, and the phrase “a D3 moment” is being murmured in the pro community.

Just one week after the official launch, PetaPixel is reporting that there have been over 400,000 pre-orders for the Z9. A truly phenomenal number of cameras for a pro body. If Nikon hit their target of 35,000 Z9s produced per month, it will already take a year to fulfil those numbers. I expect the final timeframe to be considerably longer as more orders pour in by the day. I hope those considering this camera have placed a pre-order!

Canon’s Big Problems With the R3

That 24MP Resolution

The Canon R3 has a 24MP sensor and can shoot at up to 30fps with the electronic shutter and 12fps with the mechanical shutter. These would be impressive specifications a couple of years ago, but the R3 joins a market that already contains the Sony a1 – a camera capable of shooting 30fps with a 50MP sensor, and the Z9 – a camera capable of shooting 30fps with a 45.7MP sensor.

For as long as I can remember, professionals have had to choose between speed and resolution. If you wanted a high megapixel camera, you had to sacrifice some continuous shooting speed. The Sony a1 is the first camera I have purchased where I didn’t feel like I had to make that choice, and now, with the Z9, Nikon users don’t have to make that choice either.

SpecificationCanon R3Sony a1Nikon Z9
Resolution24.1MP50.1MP45.7MP
VideoUp to 6K RAW @60p8k @30p8K RAW @30P + ProRes
FPS30fps(electronic)/12fps mechanical30fps(electronic)/10fps mechanical20fps RAW/30fps JPEG(electronic)
Viewfinder Resolution5,760,000 Dot9,437,184 Dot3,690,000 Dot
AF PointsPhase Detection: 1053Phase Detection: 759
Contrast Detection: 425
Phase Detection: 493
Screen Resolution4,150,000 Dot1,440,000 Dot2,100,000 Dot
Price$5999$6499$5499
Of course, these specifications don’t describe the entire camera. But they are the ones I’m initially interested in when a new camera is launched.

Canon’s users will say 24MP is plenty of resolution for a magazine cover or a double-page spread. And they’re not wrong. I used to reassure myself that the Sony a9 II’s 24MP resolution was acceptable for the very same reason. But you know what? There were many times, especially shooting wildlife, where I wanted more. Sometimes I wanted to crop my image because the animal was too far away. Sometimes I wanted to create a larger print, and occasionally I wished I could give my clients the ability to crop my horizontal images to a vertical for increased editorial layout flexibility. Who wouldn’t want more resolution if the speed wasn’t being compromised?

Are we reverting to the days of the Canon 1D and 1Ds cameras, where one is the speed demon, and one is the resolution tortoise?

The R3 naming scheme tells us there will eventually be a Canon R1 in the lineup, probably in mid-late 2022. I do not doubt that the R1 will match the resolution of the Nikon Z9 and Sony a1, probably even beat them, but will it force that choice between speed and resolution? Are we reverting to the days of the Canon 1D and 1Ds cameras, where one is the speed demon, and one is the resolution tortoise?

If Canon is not going to force that choice, and the R1 will deliver both high resolution AND high speed, what is the point of the R3? Would it not have been better to get the R1 to market first and go head-to-head on specs with the Sony a1 and now the Z9?

If I were still a Canon shooter, I’d be looking at the Z9 and the a1 with at least some sense of longing right now. Love the larger pro-sized bodies? There’s your Z9. Love a smaller, lighter camera that doesn’t sacrifice any performance? There’s your a1.

There’s the argument that the R3 will be like the Sony a9 series cameras. A capable pro camera that targets wire services and newspapers by offering speed, enough resolution for editorial use, and a lower price than the absolute top-of-the-line cameras. But this argument leads us to Canon’s next problem with the R3; price.

That $5999 Price

At launch, the Canon R3 costs $5999, which is $500 cheaper than their last 1-Series DSLR, the 1D X Mark III. Considered in a Canon vacuum, that seems like a reasonable price. Even considered in a Canon+Sony vacuum, it compares favourably to the Sony a1’s $6499 price. Canon’s big problem, though, is the $5499 price of the Nikon Z9.

In the Z9, you have a camera that offers twice the resolution, comparable speed and vastly superior video capabilities, for $500 less than the R3. It’s little wonder that pre-orders are breaking Nikon’s previous records. On its own, that’s a problem for Canon. Considering that the upcoming Canon R1 must indeed be priced at a significant premium over the R3, the Z9’z price becomes even more of a problem. Offering the R1 at a higher price than the Z9 will mean it has to outperform it in every way, but this leads us to the next problem; video specifications.

The Canon Cinema EOS Lineup (and Sony CineAlta)

The Canon cripple hammer is famous, and to be fair, Sony does have one too. The cripple hammer is used on camera specifications to protect the sales of a more expensive camera or a camera in a completely different lineup. For example, you cannot put 8K RAW video recording in a $6000 mirrorless camera when you sell a $15,000 cinema camera (C500 II) with the same specifications. Sales cannibalization would be instantaneous.

Canon’s and Sony’s problem is that Nikon doesn’t have a range of cinema cameras to protect. This is why the Z9 will shoot 8K RAW footage and why it’s the only mirrorless camera to shoot the professional ProRes format in camera. Both of these features are a huge deal to professional filmmakers.

Not only are these features likely to have some filmmakers looking at the Z9 instead of Canon and Sony’s cinema camera lineups, but it also puts both brands in a very tough spot for their following mirrorless models or firmware updates. Will they be forced to sacrifice sales of their cinema cameras to keep pace with the Nikon Z9? When it comes to Canon upcoming R1, I don’t see how they can release it without ProRes and 8K RAW, particularly if they are going to price it at a premium compared to the Z9.

Changes to Come

The impressive specifications and aggressive pricing strategy of the Z9 will force changes in the pro market. Canon and Sony will note the unprecedented number of Z9 pre-orders, and I expect we will see changes to the prices of their cameras.

In some ways, the significant number of pre-orders and a massive backlog of Z9s will work in favour of their competitors. Until the Z9 is readily available on shelves, probably more than a year from now, there is less incentive for Canon and Sony to adjust their pricing. When they do, I expect we will see a $500-$1000 reduction in the price of the a1 and a $500 reduction in the cost of the R3 when the R1 launches. This would bring the R3, Z9 and a1 to the same price point while allowing a little more room above the R3 for the R1. 100% speculation, of course, but I think it seems logical.

I think Sony will be happy enough to compete side-by-side with the Z9, at least until the a1 II launch, if they move it to roughly the same price point. The camera specifications (a1 vs Z9) are similar. Where they differ in favour of the Nikon, the Sony camera wins a lot of points back with its tiny size, slightly higher resolution and faster 30fps RAW shooting speed.

For Canon, though, I think this will be a headache. If they have to reduce the price of the R3 by $500 to bring it in line with the Z9, it raises significant questions about the R1 price point. To receive a higher price tag than the Z9, the R1 will have to be better in every way and do so at a relatively small premium over Nikon’s offering. If it comes in at more than $1000 above the Z9, it’s going to be a tough sell. They will also be forced into the only very gentle application of the cripple hammer with regard to video specifications.

I’m happy with my Sony a1. A do-it-all camera in a form factor that makes it easier to carry while hiking or travelling. Many people are going to be delighted with the Z9 if they prefer that larger pro-sized body. If I hadn’t switched to Sony from Canon a few years ago, though, I think I’d be in a weird place right now. Knowing the R1 will have to be much better than the Z9 to be remotely relevant, do I want to spend $6000 this year on an R3 that will get superseded so quickly? Tough call.

Whether this is a D3 moment remains to be seen. But I have to say, bravo, Nikon. The Z9 is a big move.

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Professional photographer based in Yukon, Canada, and founder of Shutter Muse. His editorial work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as Nike, Apple, Adobe and Red Bull.

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6 thoughts on “Why The New Nikon Z9 Is a Big Problem for Canon (and Sony)”

  1. Right now with the big three competing on specs, there is no telling who will be on top in another few short years. I do think Sony will remain at top spot as they tend to respond very aggressively to the competition. That said , it does seem marketing will push features that are thrown in to make it appear the camera delivers more than it actually does. With the Z9 throwing 30FPS out there was aimed squarely at Sony, but if you look closely it’s 30FPS in Jpeg only, no RAW. Also, that 120FPS mode is for 11mpx jpegs. Not very useful but a great marketing gimmick.i suppose if Sony wanted to they could easily update firmware to allow such an option… A nicer option would be 21mpx raw (aps-c mode) at 60FPS l! Now that would be useful!

    Reply
  2. I’m a long time Nikon shooter and seriously thought about switching to Canon when the R3 was announced. I was patient and waited to hear what the Z 9 brought to the table before making a decision. I’m glad I did. I preordered the Z 9 and the new 100-400mm lens. Now I will have to wait quite a while to get either one. I still think the R3 is a desirable camera. The lower resolution will produce cleaner files when shooting at high ISO, which typically happens when photographing wildlife (my favorite genre) at the crack of dawn or after the sun has disappeared for the evening. As most wildlife shooters know, that’s when wildlife tend to be most active.

    Reply
  3. ….long time Canon user ( all the way back to film!)who gravitated to Sony and very happy with Sony a1 and a7RIV and Sony lenses……

    …still….did purchase the Canon R5 given my extensive previous commitment to Canon and all the lenses I had….love the couple of RF lenses I purchased….great camera and use it a lot, although the Sony system is my preferred tool……

    …was kinda interested in R3…..but thought, ” what am I getting?”….nothing that will top my Sony a1, and even compared to their own Canon R5, not that much more….eye focus sounds interesting…..but really, its kind of a Sony a9 II from 2 years ago…..and very expensive…..

    ….I’ll pass for now…..I’m more interested in a Canon R1 in a year or so……

    Reply
  4. Hey, Dan. Thanks for the article. It’s funny how perceptions and memories vary so wildly in all facets of the human experience. It seems photography is no exception. It’s all too easy to “lose sight of the forest through the trees,” as they say. If I might offer a few reactions to your post:

    1. Your sidebar commentary (in the yellow box) near the top of this article reads,

    “Industry history sidebar: Launched in 2007, the D3 was Nikon’s first full-frame digital SLR. This pro-sized camera was a game-changer in a market that the Canon 1-Series cameras had dominated for decades. At the time, Canon did not have a 1-Series full-frame camera, and would not go on to launch the full-frame 1D X for another five years.”

    This is conspicuously false, and as such, conveniently avoids acknowledging what was, at the time, Nikon’s theretofore steadfast (and terribly myopic) refusal to embrace FF sensor technology and FF pro camera development (I distinctly recall Nikon actually creating advertising copy and print editorials attempting, quite irrationally, to argue that cropped-sensors were somehow SUPERIOR to FF sensors — which Nikon seemed to consider a niche or a fad, at the time). In point of fact, Canon had already released their 1Ds FF DSLR to widespread acclaim (and, for many, astonishment) in the fall of 2002 (and its successor, the 1Ds Mk-II, two years later), fully 5 years (and 3 years, respectively), before Nikon FINALLY capitulated and recognized that FF was here to stay, and released their first FF DSLR, the D3, in 2007. Truth be told, although I LOVED my Nikon film cameras and MF Nikkor lenses, when I migrated from silver halide to DSLR in 2004, I reluctantly dropped Nikon and went with Canon specifically BECAUSE it was Canon — and not Nikon — who already had a FF pro DSLR in the marketplace (the 1Ds series) to properly integrate with its rapidly expanding FF glass lineup, not to mention several years of experience developing and refining THEIR OWN FF sensor technologies.

    Subsequently, Nikon has had some major achievements during its foray into DSLR’s (the D3 and D800/850 being two among several), but when surveying the history of FF DSLR development and innovation (as you did in your sidebar), I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s important to be as fair and as accurate as possible, and towards this end, it’s undeniable that Canon’s 1Ds cameras were hugely innovative and successful, and that they were on the market and being used by pros and enthusiasts for YEARS (which is forever in the digital era) before Nikon finally — and very reluctantly — drug themselves out of the 1990s and into the new FF digital era.

    2. I’m genuinely excited about Nikon’s release of the Z9. So much so, in fact, that I’m seriously considering purchasing one (despite the long cue). Notwithstanding, it’s probably fair and accurate to acknowledge that practically EVERY new release of a flagship camera (or “near-flagship” camera, as in the case of the R3) amplifies waves, disruptions, and uncertainties in the marketplace and in the executive offices of the major players (i.e. Canon, Nikon, and Sony). That’s the nature of the game we’re all playing! Like everything else in life, camera and photo gear purchases are at least as much driven by emotion as they are by what we all like to pretend is “pure logic and reason.” We mostly find “reasons” for doing what we WANT to do anyway, rather than coldly divorcing ourselves of all passion and desire and somehow connecting exclusively with some wellspring of pure rationality or need-fulfillment. The lines between our concepts of “want” and “need” are almost always VERY blurry, shifting, ambiguous, evolving, and, one might even argue, largely imaginary. In any event, my point here is that your contentions

    “To receive a higher price tag than the Z9, the R1 will have to be better in every way and do so at a relatively small premium over Nikon’s offering,” and

    “…the R1 will have to be much better than the Z9 to be remotely relevant…”

    are really founded on quicksand (which doesn’t necessarily make them untrue, just highly uncertain and therefore unreliable, or at least dubious). While I agree that Canon hasn’t left themselves much room to competitively price an R1 above that of the R3 (or, to put it more accurately, they’ve overpriced their R3), it’s also true that there is considerable variability in how consumers (pro’s and enthusiasts alike) judge new camera offerings, and more specifically, what PRIORITIES AND VALUES different people assign to different camera features and capabilities.

    For example, as a passionate landscape/wildlife/aviation still photographer, your contention that the Z9 offers “vastly superior video capabilities” is not only highly debatable (or at the very least, hyperbolic, as the R3’s video capabilities are, by any reasonable standard, truly excellent in their own right, even if not quite as bleeding-edge as those of the new Z9), but for many of us, only modestly or even minimally relevant, as our core concern is still imaging (and again, where video might be desired or required, the video output from the R3 cannot be fairly characterized as anything less than truly EXCELLENT (even if the Z9 might be considered preferable by those who prioritize video performance). For some, shooting at 30 fps RAW; or having Eye-AF; or having 50% greater EVF resolution AND a 120 fps refresh rate; having TWICE as many AF points; or having an LCD with twice as much resolution (all of which the R3 has/can do; none of which the Z9 has/can do) is a priority. For others, these particulars are NOT a priority — or at least not a defining priority — and instead, other things are more important to them. In other words, values, priorities, and judgements vary dramatically between photographers (as with everyone else), and the choices we make clearly validate this observation. Indeed, the judgment of what are the most important qualities in a camera system for even THE SAME photographer ebb and flow and change over time, as the photographer and the marketplace each evolve.

    While pricing may indeed be a tough call for Canon in a future R1 release, that an R1 will have to be “better in every way” or even “much better than the Z9 to be remotely relevant” is really not a well-supported (or a clearly definable) argument. Like any new high-end camera, an R1 will only have to be “exciting, compelling, attractive and capable” to the extent and in the ways which matter most to its prospective buyers (and that group of photographers, whatever its size, will display considerable variability and capriciousness in what they value and in where they place their priorities, even amongst themselves — this is always the case). Your own comments about your experience and subsequent feelings about your a1 are testimony to this reality and to the very slippery terrain underfoot…

    Reply
    • You’re right. My memory was that the 1D X was the first full-frame Canon 1-Series camera. But now that you point it out (rather aggressively, for some reason) I see that I made a simple error with my recollection. I’m only human.

      As for everything else, well, what can I say? You seem destined to voraciously disagree with me. Each to their own.

      Reply

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