From a full-frame perspective, the Nikon Z9, Canon R3, and Sony a1 are arguably the best cameras you can buy today. In terms of being featured packed, they all give you the absolute best for each dollar you invest in them. They are all stellar performers in their own right, exhibiting the pinnacle of mirrorless camera technology today. Each of these cameras excels in various aspects. They are designed to cater to photographers and videographers who demand the utmost performance and capabilities. We won’t pick sides over whether any of these flagships are outright winners over the other. This comparison aims to show you the key strengths of each of these cameras in relation to the others.
Before we dive into sizing up each of these flagships, let’s pore over the key points that we noted in our reviews. In our detailed review of the Canon R3, we said
“The Canon R3 has a top burst speed that’s actually useful because of a great autofocus system and a faster processor to limit rolling shutter. This camera can not only shoot in the dark but print ISO 128,000 and still look good. While the R5 may make more sense for detail work, the R3 is an exceptional low-light and fast-action camera. “
The Sony a1 is the costliest among the three. Aside from this minor niggle, we only had high praise for it:
“The Sony a1 is a camera designed for professionals who need the best in stills and video. 50MP images at 30 frames per second with autofocus make this camera a must-have for pro sports, pro wildlife, and photojournalists. It’s pricey at $6,499. However, if you need a solid camera that can produce high-resolution images by the bucket load and 8K video, the Sony a1 is a no-compromise camera that delivers.”
The Nikon Z9 is their first mirrorless camera that really got its competition to turn heads. And with every significant firmware update they’ve brought out, the camera has gotten so many updates that it’s almost like a new model each time:
“The Nikon z9 is Nikon’s most innovative camera in years. It’s quite a workhorse with a fully electronic shutter, workable 3D tracking autofocus, and various autofocus scene detection features. It’s also very well weather-sealed and has incredible battery life. It trails behind Sony and Canon in some ways. But in other ways, it absolutely blows them out of the water. In my mind, it’s the first genuinely professional-feeling mirrorless camera that uses 35mm full-frame sensors.”
Table of Contents
Here, we’ll talk about innovations from the big ones.
Upgraded Tech From The Past
Canon’s bringing back Eye Control AF technology with the R3. Yes, you read that right – you get to control the autofocus point with your eyes. It definitely sounds like something from the future, but it’s actually something Canon introduced back in 1992. There’s a slight catch; those wearing sunglasses or even eyeglasses may face difficulties using this feature. It’s something that improves over time with frequent calibration.
This feature doesn’t move the actual autofocus point until you focus the camera. There’s a brown circle that shows where the camera is going to focus using Eye Control AF. Once you start to focus, the AF point moves over.
The Canon R3 also comes with a new kind of hotshoe that allows audio recording to video through it, much like what some Sony Alpha vlogging cameras support.
Rolling Shutter – What’s That?
Using a stacked sensor that takes advantage of high-speed RAM, Sony has almost eliminated rolling shutter entirely when you use the electronic shutter in the a1. And having so much RAM also enables the a1 to keep firing away 50-megapixel images at 30 frames per second without stuttering. A bird detection AF mode makes its way to this camera too.
Who Needs A Mechanical Shutter Anyway?
Here’s a real biggie – there’s no mechanical shutter at all in the Z9. Nikon made a real daring move by making the Z9 a completely electronic shutter camera. They also added a lot of features, in a good way, that Nikon owners and fans have been wanting in their mirrorless cameras for years. 3D tracking, vehicle detection AF mode, and illuminated buttons finally make their debut in a Z camera.
Here we’re discussing ergonomics.
Smart Controller Anyone?
The Canon R3 is one of those mirrorless cameras that feels ergonomically as comfortable to grab as a DSLR. Thankfully it’s significantly lighter (a third, to be precise) than the Canon EOS 1DX Mark III camera it was modeled after. The addition of the vertical grip enhances its handling and introduces an extra array of controls tailored for portrait-oriented shooting. Essentials like the shutter, front and rear dials, M-Fn button, AF on, AF joystick, and AF area mode are readily accessible even when the camera is held in this orientation. To differentiate it from more prosumer models like the Canon R6, an extra LCD has been added to the top of the R3. The mode dial has also disappeared from here and has been replaced by a mode button beside the rear dial. A solid 5.76 million dot resolution LCD resides at the back.
Arguably, the standout feature of the Canon R3 is the addition of what they call the Smart Controller. It’s a sensor embedded in the AF-ON button catering to back button focus practitioners. Photographers using this focusing technique can drag their fingers across it to jump to different AF points. Think of it as a tiny touchscreen feature that allows you to slide across the various AF points, choosing one much faster than if you could by using the joystick.
Like many of its fellow mirrorless counterparts, the Sony a1 closely resembles the Sony a7s III in terms of ergonomics. The camera’s hand grip is notably deep and comfortable, ensuring a firm hold accommodating even those with larger hands.
Familiar Feel In A New Look
Visibly Nikon, but not very similar to any of its flagship DSLRs, is the Z9. Hardcode Nikon users will be delighted with this camera’s placement of dials and buttons. Even though it’s smaller than the D6, you still get three Fn buttons in the front for your customization. The large LCD tilts in 4 axes, a first for Nikon mirrorless cameras. There’s a secondary, smaller LCD on the top and a Kensington lock on the left. They’ve also finally added a lever in the on/off switch that allows you to illuminate the buttons.
We take our quality tests very seriously at The Phoblographer. Especially weather sealing tests. If a manufacturer claims a certain level of weather resistance for their gear, be sure that we’ll test those claims to see if they hold up.
Lives Up To Its Price Tag
It’s USD 6000, and for that price, the Canon R3 definitely sounds like an all-weather kind of camera. The controls and dials felt great during our tests, and a light drizzle did nothing to dampen the operation speeds of the camera. We doused it with a glass of water to see how it would hold up – no issues whatsoever. When you want to swap out lenses, a physical shutter helps protect the R3’s sensor from the elements.
Compared to previous models, the build quality of the Sony a1 is a significant improvement. Port covers aren’t flimsy anymore, and the overall touch and feel responses are reassuring. The a1 is probably the best camera they’ve brought out in terms of weather sealing. Despite using it in challenging conditions for a week, no dust made its way to the sensor.
All Weather Wonder
Even an NYC blizzard couldn’t stop the Nikon Z9 from working without a hitch. And I’ve used it in Dubai in over 100F temperatures outdoors without any issues. This is Nikon’s toughest cookie yet.
Ease Of Use
With the Canon R3, even seasoned Canon photographers might find the learning curve to be a bit steeper than they’d have initially expected. And a lot of this has to do with getting familiarized and comfortable with the new Eye Control AF and the Smart Controller button. Being two completely new features for most Canon users, getting used to these and imbibing them into their workflow can be time-consuming. The animal and bird AF can definitely result in a lot more keepers, when used for wildlife photography. And sports photographers especially will appreciate the ability to shoot up to 195fps stills.
Sony did the smart thing and ported their new menu system to the a1. It’s a welcome addition, especially considering the price you’re paying for it. While the EVF is packed spectacularly with 9.44 million dots, we only wish they’d been as generous with the LCD, which is stuck with a 1.4 million dot panel. Something that really needs mentioning again is the fantastic electronic sensor on the Sony a1. The absolute lack of rolling shutter effect in the images we took really left us in awe at the speed of the sensor readout. The IBIS is good enough to take a 1-second exposure without any noticeable shake in the images.
Why Doesn’t Every Camera Have Illuminated Buttons
Illuminated buttons on the Nikon Z9 should be standard on all cameras by now. It’s a shame that Nikon feels only the flagships deserve this feature. Still, from a software perspective, Nikon continues to wow Z9 users with each new firmware update. The Jan 2023 version adds a Pre Release Capture, which allows you to pre-record up to a second before you press the shutter. You can also set it to record even a bit after releasing the same. With the most recent firmware 4.0 release, you get Auto Capture. This feature allows the camera to automatically trigger the shutter when something walks into a specific portion of the frame. An excellent addition for remote camera photography in wildlife and sports.
We’re all dying to know about the autofocus, right?
Canon R3 – 1053 point dual pixel AF
Could you really ask for more points to fill up the viewfinder? Canon maximizes the potential of each of these with superfast autofocus that’s more than capable of keeping up with the 30fps burst rate. Utilizing what appears to be an EVF WYSIWYG simulation, even when it’s really dark, to perfectly nail focus, the R3 had no trouble focusing on a face, even in the dimly lit scenario seen above.
There seemed to be no trouble with the Canon R3’s autofocus system locking perfectly on the eyes of even tiny birds, such as this Black-Capped Chickadee. Even on small insects, the AF system could clearly distinguish the head from the rest of the body. Face detection and tracking aren’t limited to some AF modes like older Canon mirrorless cameras. But it might not work perfectly when the face isn’t taking up too much of the frame, such as while using an ultrawide lens.
Sony a1 AF – Great In Good Light
If you’re shooting in well-lit to low-light conditions, the autofocus system on the Sony a1 won’t disappoint you. Whatever the focus and/or subject mode you choose, expect it to deliver the goods on time. That’s not to say it’s a poor performer in poorly lit conditions. AF remains accurate even here, but the speed with which it locks on to subjects correctly takes a bit of a hit. Don’t worry about its Eye AF capabilities; the a1 never really missed this during our testing.
Animal and Bird AF modes have been separated with the latest firmware update released in August 2022. But later, in Feb 2023, they combined the two to give you an additional animal/bird AF mode. The keepers are astounding when the a1 nails the focus in Bird AF mode, but we do wish the hit rate was higher. During our tests, while photographing moving birds, we found about 4 in 10 shots to be perfectly focused.
Nikon Z9 – Turn Off Exposure Preview For Best Results
This bit of advice holds good for most mirrorless cameras today but for none more than the Nikon Z line. Especially in low light, learn to trust the meter and turn your LCD preview off. You’ll find that the AF tracking and accuracy are a lot higher. But putting that tip aside, the AF performance of the Z9 blows the Z6 and Z7 lines out of the water. There is simply no comparison in this regard. The Z9 doesn’t just follow your subject’s eyes far better than the other Z cameras; its focusing accuracy gives you way more keepers. It can lock on to human and animal faces even at much further distances than the Z6/II and Z7/II cameras can.
The above image was shot with a Z9 and an F-mount 200-400mm f4 lens. This bird flew so fast that I could barely see it as it whizzed past me. All I remember was briefly pointing the lens toward where I first saw it and activating focus before letting off a shutter burst. The Bird AF tracking was on Auto AF mode, perfectly nailed focus. I’m by no means a wildlife photographer, but even I was super surprised with how much assistance this focus mode could provide.
I’ve been doing sports photography for over 15 years now, and the Nikon Z9 ranks as one of the best cameras for this genre of photography. Some months ago, the World Tennis League held in Dubai was held in a makeshift stadium with floodlights that weren’t as bright as what sporting stadiums would typically have. Even in such challenging conditions, the Z9 could accurately track and correctly focus on fast-moving tennis players with its Eye AF.
So what’s the best?
Canon R3 – Editor’s Choice Winner
With the smallest resolution sensor among the three, the Canon R3 produces the best low-light, high-ISO results. Even at ISO 12800, the files can be printed in large sizes. While shooting RAW, you can quickly recover files with three or more stops of underexposure. Keeping the sensor to just 24 megapixels, while definitely not even close to that of its main competitors, really helps the R3 in the low-light results department. The Canon R3 was one of the best cameras we’ve tested recently, and it bagged our Editors Choice Award. Check out our gallery of images taken with the Canon R3 here.
Sony a1 – Exceptional Dynamic Range
The above image was intentionally underexposed to see what the a1’s sensor could do. The amount of detail we could recover in the shadows here is pretty incredible.
Despite having a very high-resolution sensor, the Sony a1 still shoots incredible images at high ISO values. Have no fear snapping away at even ISO 6400; there are loads of details and hardly any noise in there. It also won our Editor’s Choice Award. Explore more images shot with the Sony a1 in our gallery here.
Nikon Z9 – Their Best Camera So Far
If you’re not a pixel peeper like most of us, you’d struggle to see any difference in the noise levels (up to ISO 6400) between images produced from the Nikon Z9 and the other two cameras here. Even though Nikon used a Sony sensor for this camera, it still produces more noise in the shadows than you’d see on a Sony camera. Chalk that up to Sony’s secret noise processing formulae. We had great results when shooting with natural lighting. With mixed and artificial lighting, the results were a bit of a hit-and-miss at times.
It grabbed a whole five stars but missed out on the Editor’s Choice Award. See more images shot with the Z9 in our gallery here.
Tech Specs Comparison
|Sensor-Shift, 5-axis compensation
|100 to 102400 (Extended: 50 – 204800)
|100 – 32,000
(Extended 50 – 102,400)
|64 to 25600 (Extended: 32 – 102400)
|Max shutter speed
|-3 to +3 EV
|-5 to +5 EV
|-5 to +5 EV
|Continuous Shooting (stills)
|Up to 30 fps (electronic), 12 fps (mechanical)
|Up to 30 fps (electronic), 10 fps (mechanical)
|Up to 30 fps at full resolution
Up to 120 fps at 11 MP
|1053 Phase Detection points
|759 phase-detection and 425 contrast-detection points
|493 Phase Detection points
|5.76 million Dots
|9.44 million dots
|3.69 million dots
|3.2″, 4.15 million dots
|3″, 1.44 million dots
|3.2″ (8.1cm), 2.1 million dots
|Dual CFexpress Type B, SD card
|Dual SD/CFexpress Type A
|Dual Slot: CFexpress Type B / XQD
(W x H x D)
|5.9 x 5.6 x 3.4″
|5.08 x 3.82 x 3.19″
|5.9 × 5.9 × 3.6″
|Weight (Body Only)
|1.8 lbs. (822g)
|2.6 lbs (1179g)