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Canon EOS R3 vs Nikon Z9

Canon EOS R3 vs Nikon Z9
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

Nikon announced that the Z9 was in development on 10th March 2021 but we had to wait until 28th October 2021 to know its full specification. It sits alongside the company’s flagship DSLR, the D6 and it’s aimed at professional wildlife, sport and news photographers.

Canon followed a similar path, announcing the development of the EOS R3 on 14th April 2021 and teasing us for months with snippets of information and then revealing the full specification on 14th September 2021. It’s also aimed at professional sports and news photographers, but according to Canon, the R3 sits below the EOS-1D X Mark III, the company’s flagship DSLR.

So while it may seem that the Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 have been around for a long time, they have actually only come to market quite recently. Indeed, they are both still on pre-order in the UK and are listed as on backorder in the USA.

So how do these two high-end cameras compare? Let’s take a look at their key specifications.

• See also: Canon EOS R3 vs Sony A1

1. Sensor

(Image credit: Nikon)

Canon EOS R3: 24.1Mp full-frame BSI stacked CMOS
Nikon Z9: 45.7MP full-frame BSI stacked CMOS

The stand-out difference between the two cameras’ sensors is that the Nikon Z9 has almost twice the pixel count. This enables the Nikon camera to capture more detail but, as usual, it also has an impact on the sensitivity range as it's more of a challenge to keep noise in check. Consequently the Z9’s range for stills is ISO 64-25,600, expandable to ISO 32-102,400 while the Canon EOS R3’s is ISO 100-102,400 expandable to ISO 50-204,800.

Notably, both cameras feature the latest technology, having backside-illuminated stacked sensors.

2. Continuous shooting

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS R3: Electronic shutter: 30fps for 540 JPEGs or 150 raw images, Mechanical shutter / 1st curtain electronic: 12fps for 1000+ JPEG or 1000 raw images
Nikon Z9: 20fps for up to 1000+ raw (high efficiency) files, 30fps for up to 1000+ normal-quality JPEGs, or 120fps normal-quality 11Mp JPEGs

These specifications highlight another key difference between the Canon EOS R3 and the Nikon Z9; the Z9 doesn’t have a mechanical shutter. It relies instead entirely on the electronic shutter. We’ve only seen this before with the Sigma fp and fp L but, unlike the Sigma cameras, the Z9 has a very fast readout so the rolling shutter effect isn’t a problem.

The Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 are both capable of shooting at 30fps, but with the Z9 it means shooting normal-quality JPEGs whereas the R3 can shoot raw and JPEG files at that rate. The maximum continuous shooting speed that allows raw-file recording on the Z9 is 20fps. In most instances, that’s likely to be more than enough, but the EOS R3 has the edge.

If you need even faster shooting speeds, the Z9 can capture 11Mp images at 120fps with full AF and metering functionality.

3. Video

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS R3: 6K (6000 x 3164) 60p/50p/30p/25p/24p
Nikon Z9: 8K (7680 x 4320): 30p/25p/24p

The headline video specification for the Nikon Z9 is its ability to record 8K video internally at up to 30p. As usual with high-end cameras, there’s a collection of codecs available, including Apple ProRes 422 HQ, and a future firmware update is promised to enable 8K 60p and 8K raw internal recording.

Meanwhile, the maximum video resolution possible with the R3 is ‘just’ 6K, but the frame rate goes up to 60p and there’s internal 12-bit raw recording capability.

Both cameras use the full sensor area for recording video and you can record for beyond the usual 30 minute limitation.

4. Autofocus

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS R3: 1,093-point Dual Pixel CMOS AF II phase detection AF system
Nikon Z9: 493-point hybrid AF system

Both cameras have the most advanced AF system available from their manufacturer. The R3 wins the award for the most AF points with 1,093, but the Z9 calculates the focus 120 times a second rather than 60. However, the R3’s AF system is sensitive down to -7.5EV while the Z9’s only goes down to -6.5EV.

The two cameras are also able to detect and focus on a range of subjects (humans, animals and vehicles) automatically and they use a hierarchal system that means if the eyes are detectable it will focus on them. If the eyes aren’t visible they will target the head and if the head is not detectable, they focus on the body.

While the Z9 can be set to detect any of those subjects specifically, it can be set to detect any of them, which can be useful. With the Canon EOS R3, however, you have to specify which subject you want it to look for.

5. Stabilisation

Canon EOS R3: 5-axis giving up to 8EV shutter speed compensation
Nikon Z9: 5-axis giving up to 6EV shutter speed compensation

With their DSLRs, Canon and Nikon always relied on lens-based image stabilisation but both companies introduced in-body stabilisation (IBIS) for their mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z9 is capable of compensating for up to 6EV of shutter speed when it’s used with a stabilised (VR) lens. The Canon R3, however, can achieve up to 8EV compensation depending upon the lens that’s mounted.

These stabilisation system work in stills or video mode and can be augmented with digital stabilisation in video mode. 

6. Viewfinder

(Image credit: Nikon)

Canon EOS R3: 0.5-inch 5.76-million-dot OLED
Nikon Z9: 0.5-inch 3.69-million-dot, 3,000-nit OLED

Although the Z9 has what Nikon claims is the brightest electronic viewfinder currently available, its 3.69-million-dot resolution lags behind the 5.76-million-dot resolution of the R3. The R3’s viewfinder refresh rate is also higher at up to 120fps whereas the Z9’s tops out at 60fps. 

The Canon R3 also features Eye Control AF which uses 8 sensor to detect the position of the photographer’s eye and can then move the AF point accordingly.

7. Screen

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon EOS R3: 3.2-inch 4.15-million-dot vari-angle touchscreen
Nikon Z9: 3.2-inch 2.1-million-dot 4-way-tilting touch-screen

Again, Canon wins the resolution competition with a 4.15-million-dot screen rather than Nikon’s 2.1-million-dot device. 

Both screens can be angled to give a good view from a range of shooting positions but they adopt a different approach. The Canon R3 has the vari-angle screen style that we’ve seen many times before but the Z9 has a 4-way tilt mechanism that means that the screen always sits behind the camera rather than out to the side. However, it can’t be flipped to face forwards like the R3’s screen.

8. Storage

Canon EOS R3: Dual slots, 1 CFexpress, 1 UHS-II SD
Nikon Z9: Dual CFexpress slots

Both cameras have dual card slots. Nikon has kept things consistent by opting for two CFexpress cards, but these cards are less common and more expensive than SD type media. Canon on the other hand, gives the option to use less expensive SD cards but you need the latest, fastest cards to get the best from the camera.

Canon EOS R3 vs Nikon Z9: conclusions

Canon EOS R3 vs Nikon Z9

(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

The Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 are both very impressive cameras. The Z9 is particularly attractive to creators who want to be able to capture large images or shoot 8K video but the R3 appeals for sports and action content, thanks to its better low-light ability, faster continuous shooting rate for raw files and better resolution screen and viewfinder.

How we test cameras

We test mirrorless and DSLR cameras both in real-world shooting scenarios and in carefully controlled lab conditions. Our lab tests measure resolution, dynamic range and signal to noise ratio. Resolution is measured using ISO resolution charts, dynamic range is measured using DxO Analyzer test equipment and DxO Analyzer is also used for noise analysis across the camera's ISO range. We use these real-world testing and lab results to inform our comments in buying guides. For compact cameras and phones, we judge on real world handling and photographic results alone. 

Angela has been testing camera gear from all the major manufacturers since January 2004 and has been Amateur Photographer’s Technical Editor and Head of Testing for Future Publishing’s photography portfolio (Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon MagazineN-PhotoPractical PhotoshopPhotography Week and Professional Photography magazines, as well as the Digital Camera World and TechRadar websites).