The only way to choose the best professional camera is to be very clear about what you need it for. 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, autofocus and low-light performance above all else, even if that means lower resolution. HOWEVER, the new Sony A1 could be a sign of the future – a pro camera that really can do everything.
If you're a photographer/videographer combined, a mirrorless cameras is the clear choice – but here resolution definitely takes a back seat, and it's all about uncropped capture, recording times, frame rates and codecs. If video is your speciality, you might want to take a look at our video-centric camera guides:
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
Sony has really set the cat amongst the pigeons, though, with the release of the Sony Alpha A1. This new 50MP mirrorless camera beats Sony's own sports and video-centric models for features and, on paper at least, performance.
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 new Nikon Z7 II aren't far behind, and neither is the new Sony A1 or the Panasonic Lumix S1R.
And now there's a new challenger in the full frame high-resolution market, of course, – the remarkable Canon EOS R5. The high resolution and amazing 8K video capability has really shaken things up.
Beyond that, there's the medium format market, which has most definitely not stood still. We were especially excited when the Fujifilm GFX 100, but the arrival of the much smaller GFX 100s has stunned everyone, not least for its super-competitive price tag. Let's not forget the expensive but amazing Phase One XT and the brilliant and affordable (by medium format standards) 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.
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.
Best professional camera in 2021
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.
See also: Best Canon cameras
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. What's more – and this might sound a little strange – it's taken the arrival of the much more expensive Sony A1 to realize just how good the Canon EOS R5 actually is.
Read more: Canon EOS R5 review
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.
Read more: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III review
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.
Read more: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV review
The EOS R6 is the serious enthusiast's model of the EOS R series, taking the place of the slightly muddled EOS R, and for those who don't need the leading-edge tech and resolution of the EOS R5 (more on which below). Its combination of speed, video and low light capabilities give it professional appeal too. What you get on the EOS R6 is a top shooting speed of 20fps, and autofocus that borrows the deep-learning tech from the EOS-1D X Mark III, meaning it gets better as you use it. The resolution is just 20.1MP, but this means the pixels are larger, for better low-light performance. Indeed, the R6 edges out the R5 in this department, with a standard ISO range of 100-102,400 that's expandable to 50-204,800. When you combine this with the introduction of Canon's 5-axis in-body image stabilisation system that provides up to eight stops of effective compensation, this is a seriously capable low-light camera. You have to decide, though, if you want speed, cost and low light capability more than outright resolution.
Read more: Canon EOS R6 review
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. We also hear rumors of a new Sony-beating Nikon mirrorless camera later in 2021, but so far this is just rumor...
See also: Best Nikon cameras
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.
Read more: Nikon D6 hands on review
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.
Read more: Nikon D850 review
The Z7 II is Nikon's flagship full frame mirrorless camera and an updated version of the original Z7. All the changes that we’ve seen on the Z7 II compared to the original Z7 are certainly welcome, but we can’t help feeling that Nikon’s played it a bit safe. We’d like to have seen even more of a jump to really make it a serious threat to the likes of the Canon EOS R5 and Alpha A7R IV. But still, the Nikon Z7 II has a lot going for it. It might not have a standout feature that sets it apart from its competitors, but the Nikon Z7 II delivers solidly across the board and is a great mirrorless camera. Nikon's changes – dual processors and dual memory card slots, for example – have made a great camera even better.
Read more: Nikon Z7 II review
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. The choice for Sony fans has just got a lot more complicated, of course, with the release of the Sony Alpha A1. This new camera beats both the A9 II and the A7S III for features, but we haven't had a sample for testing yet, so we won't add it to our list until we've tried it out for ourselves.
See also: Best Sony cameras
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 only cloud on the horizon for the A9 II is the new Alpha A1. It costs about 50% more than the A9 II, but beats in on paper in just above every respect – and with twice the resolution.
Read more: Sony A9 Mark II review
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 with it. Not even the new Sony A1, at twice the price, can match this resolution.
Read more: Sony A7R IV review
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. The red-hot news here is that Fujifilm has just shoehorned the tech from the GFX 100 into the GFX 100s, a camera no larger than a pro DSLR and – amazingly – cheaper than the new Sony A1. The GFX 100s looks stunning and we will publish a full review just as soon as we can get a sample.
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.
Read more: Fujifilm X-T4 review
The GFX 100 is big and expensive compared to regular cameras, but in the world of medium format photography (sensors larger than 35mm full frame), it's a positive bargain. It's also a groundbreaking camera that changes our expectations about what medium format cameras can do. Its 100-megapixel resolution challenged our own testing procedures, its in-body stabilisation is a medium format first, and its hybrid AF (thanks to a recent firmware update) is a huge step forward. On the downside, the in-body stabilisation is valuable extra insurance, but you'd be unwise to rely on it, and while the body is relatively compact, when it's matched up with Fujifilm's medium format glass, the combination gets quite tiring for prolonged handheld use. But this camera's image quality is simply spectacular, and once you've seen what it can do, any handling quibbles are instantly forgotten. HOWEVER, the new GFX 100s is far smaller and far cheaper, so the advantages of the bigger camera are looking pretty slim today.
Read more: Fujifilm GFX 100 review
Panasonic’s range is now split between its existing Micro Four Thirds cameras with smaller sensors but legendary 4K video capabilities, and its new full frame mirrorless Lumix S models – and with no upgrade path at all between these systems. There are an increasing number of native Lumix S lenses right now, thanks to the L-Mount Alliance and the work of other lens makers like Sigma and Leica. The Lumix S system is developing fast but will require heavy investment in an all-new system.
See also: Best Panasonic cameras
The new Lumix S range is a very interesting proposition for professional photographers, especially now that the range of L-mount lenses available is now quite good, and growing fast. The Lumix S1R is the most enticing proposition for pros, combining 4K video capture with a high-speed 6K photo mode and huge 47.3MP resolution. The 5.76-million dot electronic viewfinder is amazing, and the S1R handles very well too. The 24MP Lumix S1 is cheaper and a little better at video, but that's a cost decision – if you're really serious about video, the pricier Lumix S1H is the one to go for.
Read more: Panasonic Lumix S1R review
If 4K video is at the top of your wish-list ahead of high-resolution stills, the weather-sealed, dust-proof and even freeze-proof GH5 is a very strong contender (there’s also the even more video-centric GH5S, but that’s limited to 10MP stills). You get fast continuous shooting and also Panasonic’s 6K Photo mode for extracting 18MP stills from 30fps capture. The GH5 can’t compete with the rest for still images, but for video-first users, it’s a much cheaper alternative to full frame. It's also benefiting from some heavy discounting these days, so it's an opportunity to get into professional level video, without paying the usual prices. It feels like it's been around forever, but if you compare the GH5's video specs with the best of its rivals, it's clearly still right up there with the best.
Compared to the spectacular developments from other camera makers, Olympus has had a pretty quiet time of it. It's soldiered on with its relatively modest Micro Four Thirds format in a maelstrom of medium format bombshells and armies of full frame mirrorless cameras. In this environment, a 20MP Micro Four Thirds sensor seems hopelessly outgunned. And yet it isn't. The MFT format's size brings substantial cost and weight advantages that its fans will be only too pleased to tell you about.
It's unlikely Olympus will ever fully overcome resistance to its smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor format, which is one quarter the size of those in its full frame rivals, but that's a pity because this system has a lot to offer. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III is actually a very effective all-round professional camera for general photography. When shooting sport, its autofocus and frame rate are a good match for more expensive full frame rivals and its Pro Capture mode (up to 60fps) is just jaw-dropping. When high resolution is essential, its 50MP and 80MP options can square up against many medium format cameras, admittedly with static subjects not moving ones. And when shooting absolutely anything, its 7.5 stops of image stabilization outperform every camera on the market.
Olympus raised a few eyebrows when it launched the OM-D E-M1X, a big new professional camera aimed squarely at the sports market, but with what looked like very similar specs to the existing E-M1. But dig deeper and you find the E-M1X is a very different beast, with an integrated grip for bigger battery capacity and duplicated horizontal/vertical shooting controls and a dual processing system that dramatically ups the game for autofocus tracking, with a new AI system for recognising and tracking subjects. What many won't realise, too, is that Olympus has an extremely compelling pro lens line-up, especially for telephoto lenses, and while the Olympus MFT sensor is smaller than the full frame sensors used by Canon, Nikon and Sony pro cameras, it will cost a lot less to build a full professional system – and it will be a lot lighter to carry around. If 20MP is enough (it is for EOS-1D X Mark III and Nikon D6 devotees!), then the E-M1X is a very powerful professional proposition indeed. It's undermined slightly by the E-M1 Mark III, which borrows some of its tech, but the E-MX's big, chunky body gives it a serious handling advantage, especially with bigger lenses.
Read more: Olympus OM-D E-M1X review
How to choose a pro system
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.
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