Choosing a professional camera system is a little more complicated than selecting a camera for your own private or casual use. You need to think about the whole camera system, not just the camera itself. In fact you need to ask yourself a whole series of questions:
1) Are you migrating from an existing camera system? If you are, you may want to choose new equipment that’s compatible with lenses, accessories and camera bodies you already have. ‘Migrating’ an existing system is much simpler and cheaper than starting again with a whole new setup.
2) What lenses will you need? Camera bodies come and go, but lenses have a much longer life and are arguably just as important for specialised business needs. Check to see which maker offers the lenses you need before making a final decision.
3) DSLR or mirrorless? Canon and Nikon now offer a choice, and despite what mirrorless zealots might say, DSLRs do still have advantages and you should choose the camera type you’re most comfortable handling and using.
Read more: DSLR vs mirrorless cameras
So rather than just giving you a mixed-up list of pro brands and cameras to consider, we’ve split them up into four chief brands and listed our top professional picks for each one. With professional cameras, it’s much more important to think about the system than about individual camera models.
With one exception, we’ve chosen only full frame cameras, and we’ve given roughly equal weight to stills and video shooting.
Canon pro cameras
Canon offers a large range of professional lenses and produces some of the most highly-regarded pro cameras. With the EOS R and EOS RP, it’s now entered the full frame mirrorless market too, and while there aren’t many ‘native’ RF lenses yet, you can use regular EF DSLR lenses on these cameras with an adaptor, so Canon users who want to try mirrorless can now do so with a relatively low-cost, low-risk ‘migration’.
See also: Best Canon cameras
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Still the top choice for many sports/action/press photographers
Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 20.2MP | Lens mount: Canon EF | Screen: 3.2in fixed LCD, 1,62million dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Max burst speed: 14fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional
Full frame mirrorless cameras may be making all the headlines, but it’s easy to forget that DSLRs are still extremely popular with professionals and still have many advantages, notably their optical viewfinders, big, grippable bodies, AF performance and battery life. The EOS-1D X is expensive, and we hear there is a Mark III version being tested at the 2020 Olympics, but the EOS-1D X Mark II is still a very powerful professional sports/press camera, and it has powerful 4K video capabilities too.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
An all-round workhorse DSLR that’s versatile and popular with pros
Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full-frame | Megapixels: 30.4MP | Lens mount: Canon EF | LCD: 3.2in touchscreen, 1.62million dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional
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.
Canon EOS R
It hasn’t had the best reception, but the EOS R is a decent camera
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full frame CMOS, 36x24mm | Megapixels: 30.3MP | Lens Mount: Canon RF | Autofocus: 5,655 Dual Pixel AF positions | Screen type: 3.15-inch fully articulating touch screen, 2.1M dots | Max burst speed: 8fps | Movies: 4K UHD at 29.97P | User level: Enthusiast
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. Read more: Canon EOS R review
Nikon pro cameras
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.
See also: Best Nikon cameras
Nikon’s answer to the EOS-1D X Mark II is fast, tough and powerful
Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full-frame | Megapixels: 20.8MP | Autofocus: 153-point AF, 99 cross-type | Screen type: 3.2-inch, 2,360,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 14fps | Movies: 4K | User level: Professional
Nikon’s Z-series mirrorless cameras have impressing AF systems and continuous shooting speeds, but they can’t match the D5’s 14fps, huge buffer depth, super-responsive autofocus and lag-free viewfinder. It’s been around a little while now, but the D5 is still Nikon’s top sports/press camera and its only real competition is the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II – thought Nikon photographers may also be taking a close look at the Sony A9.
The ultimate DSLR? The D850 has power, resolution and speed
Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full-frame | Megapixels: 45.7MP | Lens mount: Nikon F | LCD: 3.2in tilting touchscreen, 2.3million dots | Viewfinder: Optical | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 7fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional
Where the Nikon D5 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 feels as fresh and exciting now as when it was launched. Read more: Nikon D850 review
Nikon's first full frame mirrorless camera hits the ground running
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full frame CMOS, 35.9x23.9mm | Megapixels: 45.7MP | Lens Mount: Nikon Z | Autofocus: 93-point phase detection AF | Screen type: 3.2-inch LCD, tilting, 2,100K-dot resolution | Max burst speed: 9fps | Movies: 4K UHD | User level: Enthusiast
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 Z7 and the 24-megapixel Z6 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. Read more: Nikon Z7 review
Sony pro cameras
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.
See also: Best Sony cameras
Sony’s flagship is a mirrorless alternative to the D5 and EOS-1D X II
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full Frame | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens: Sony E mount | LCD: 3in tilting touchscreen, 1.44million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 20fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional
The A9 is more expensive than Sony’s A7 cameras and has no more resolution than the A7 III base model, but it’s built for speed and responsiveness, not resolution. The A9’s AF system is not only incredibly quick, but its tracking performance is first-rate. Partner that with 20fps burst shooting for 241 Raw files or 362 JPEG images, and a large and bright EVF that doesn’t black-out when you’re shooting, and you’ve got a camera that can easily compete with the Canon EOS-1D Mark II and Nikon D5. Read more: Sony A9 review
Sony A7R III
A stunning blend of resolution, speed, 4K video and value
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full-frame | Megapixels: 42.2 MP | Lens mount: Sony | LCD: 3in tilting touchscreen, 1.44 million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 10fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast/Professional
The A7R III is Sony’s highest-resolution full frame mirrorless camera, but recent price drops have meant that it’s also very competitively priced. It combines a 42.2-megapixel sensor, excellent 4K video capabilities and impressive 10fps continuous shooting. While the Sony A9 is designed for out-and-out speed and responsiveness, the A7R III is much more suitable for all-round photography at the highest quality levels. Read more: Sony A7R III review
Panasonic pro cameras
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 only a handful of native Lumix S lenses right now, but the L-Mount Alliance (Panasonic, Leica and Sigma) is promising 42 lenses by the end of 2020. The Lumix S system is developing fast but will require heavy investment in an all-new system.
See also: Best Panasonic cameras
Panasonic Lumix S1R
Too new for long-term evaluation yet, the S1R looks impressive
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 47.3MP | Lens mount: L-Mount | LCD: 3.2in tri-axial touchscreen, 2.1million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 9fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Professional
The new Lumix S range is a very interesting proposition for professional photographers. The downside is that a full range of lenses is still up to two years away, and there are signs that Panasonic is positioning this as a premium product, so don’t expect it to be a cheap alternative to the rest. The Lumix S1R looks the most enticing proposition for pros, combining excellent 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. Read more: Panasonic Lumix S1R hands on review
Panasonic Lumix GH5
A great choice for video-first shooters, and certainly the cheapest
Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: Micro Four Thirds | Megapixels: 20.3MP | Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds mount | LCD: 3.2in touchscreen, 1.62million dots | Viewfinder: EVF | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 12fps | Max video resolution: 4K | User level: Enthusiast/Professional
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.
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