What Constitutes Pro?

A legitimate question is starting to appear now that full frame mirrorless is starting to flesh out: what is it that constitutes "pro gear"? 

Note: this article is really only directed at full frame mirrorless. Opening the subject up to other formats introduces additional topics that would need to be addressed.

It's interesting that Canon, and to a far lesser degree, Nikon, are going through a similar transition to what Sony did early on, and that can be confusing to potential buyers. 

Let's start back with the A7 and the original 24-70mm f/4 ZA FE lens. I wouldn't characterize either that camera or that lens as "professional." The original A7 body was missing a lot, both in features and performance, and had a lot of loose ends to it. It wasn't a bad camera, for sure, but it wasn't the tool that a professional would want to be using daily. Likewise, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens was pretty marginal, and even the step up Sony offered—the 24-70mm f/4 ZA—just didn't perform well outside the very central area. I've got a lot of very smeared corners in shots taken with those combos taken back in 2014. Not pro.

Today, of course, we have the Sony A9 and GM lenses. By contrast to the early Sony full frame efforts: very pro. Far more attention to details that make a difference to a working photographer, and far better performance. For me, it wasn't until 2017 that I felt that Sony was really producing the top level gear I wanted and could count on.

Contrast that to Canon RF. 

Oh my, the RF lenses so far rock. Some of the best optics I've seen. But the R and RP bodies really aren't at the same level, in my opinion. It really feels at the moment like I have to compromise on body to use really great lenses. I—and many pros—don't like compromises, especially when we're paying big bucks to build out a new system.

Nikon is somewhere closer to today's Sony than Canon. The Nikkor S-line lenses are quite good, a couple so good you might put them on the "rock" scale. The bodies are also quite good, about Sony Mark 2.5 or higher overall. Equal to or better than the Mark 3's in some respects, a bit behind in others. 

As many of you know, my mantra is Optimal Data. By that, I mean that I want the best possible pixel data I can obtain in the field. Obviously, lens and sensor quality play into that. But I—and other pros—don't want to have to struggle to get that. Features, controls, and many more things come into play if we want to make that lens and sensor sing the best song that it can.

So I thought it might be a good time to put a straw man proposal out there. Just what are the current truly "pro level" products out there in full frame mirrorless? 

(/Thom puts on flak jacket, dons hardhat, and hides behind block wall...)

Canon

  • RF 24-105mm f/4L IS (yes, it squeezes in, IMO)
  • RF 28-70mm f/2L (though no IS)
  • RF 50mm f/1.2L
  • RF 85mm f/1.2L

Yep, like I wrote above: all lenses, no bodies. 

The RP clearly is an entry level body akin to the 6Dm2 in DSLRs. The R is kind of like the 5Dm4 but not. As I've noted before, the R seems like an experiment in UI/UX. While many pros are using the R body, it's because that's all they've got that comes close to what they really want. Most Canon R shooters I've talked to have a long list of things they'd like to see addressed, which is generally not the sign of "pro" level.

Nikon

  • Z6
  • Z7
  • 14-30mm f/4 S (barely, and not for some people)
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S
  • 24-70mm f/4 S
  • 35mm f/1.8 S
  • 50mm f/1.8 S

Hmm, that's pretty much everything Nikon has put out in the Z system so far. With the exception of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the two primes, I'd say the rest is a bit down towards the bottom of what I'd call pro and what some might call prosumer (something we'll see repeated in my straw man a bit later ;~).

I've put this one to the test, though, shooting hired events and sessions just with the Z's. Those three lenses I mentioned are clearly where I would like them to be, the rest close enough that I can call it pro and live with it. The bodies do the work I need, though there are probably two or three things I'd like to see changed/improved.

Panasonic

  • S1
  • S1R
  • 24-105mm f/4 OIS
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 70-200mm f/4 OIS

I don't have a lot of experience with the Panasonic gear yet. I'm waiting until this fall to do a full, thorough analysis with S1 gear in actual shooting situations. But I've handled and shot just enough with these items at Panasonic events and trade shows to come to a strong enough conclusion for a straw man proposal: Panasonic is pretty much trying to be "pro" from the get go, and arguably getting there.

Sony

  • A7m3
  • A7Rm3
  • A9
  • all GM lenses (16-35mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8, 135mm f/1.8, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 400mm f/2.8)
  • most G lenses (24-105mm f/4, 28-135mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4, 90mm f/2.8)
  • a few others (12-24mm f/4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 55mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8)

Some of you might wonder why I don't put the A7Sm2 on the list: the Mark II's were right below my hypothetical bar, but the A7Sm2, in particular, doesn't really work out to be a great still shooter for most of us, IMO. Those that also shoot video would have a different opinion on that, but I'm trying to keep my straw man list to products that we pros would rely on day in, day out, no matter the job. 

(/Thom walks back out in open, takes off flak jacket and removes hardhat)

I did this thought experiment to try to get a grip around all the gear that's been through my hands lately, tying to make sure that I had some basic bar I was considering for just how good and useful it might be.

Sony, clearly, had a head start and is further along. It won't be long before I have to add more Sony gear to my list, I think. (Note there are some recently announced items I haven't really had a chance to use with final production units, such as the two long telephotos just announced.) 

I like where Sony is today. On the lens side I have no real complaints, as I can find optics I'd trust no matter what camera I put them on. The camera side is good, and what I'd call pro level, but boy are them some small things (sometimes literally, like buttons ;~) I'd like to see them address. For my sports work I'd be perfectly happy shooting with an A9. And I was using an A7Rm3 for quite a long time alongside my Nikon D850 DSLR (now mostly done with a Z7).

Nikon, meanwhile, is really tempting me. I'm actually going to try an upcoming dive into Africa solely with Z gear. I think it's at a high enough level to play with the big boys (top DSLRs), but with some careful choices, it saves me size/weight in the Land Cruiser and flight hopping. I'll obviously report on that after I've done it, with all the pros and cons of what happened. But Nikon shot high and mostly hit the target is my current feeling. My sense from the Nikon Ambassadors that I know is that while they're obviously playing to Nikon's marketing needs in using and talking about the Z's, they're enjoying that, not fighting the gear.

I'm also impressed with Panasonic. In some ways, the Panasonic cameras just feel like what we pros were used to with DSLRs. The S1 twins are well thought out and solid performers so far. The only problem? They're a little too much like DSLRs when all is said and done, as they're the biggest of the bodies, and the lenses so far also have a lot of heft to them.

It's with Canon where I'm still scratching my head. Those two RF primes I listed are really, really, really good. But I feel like they're currently let down by the cameras I have to use them on. I should say this: I don't feel like the 6Dm2 is a pro level camera, so with the RP using the same sensor, similar controls with similar performance, the RP isn't going to get me excited. Likewise, the 5Dm4 feels like an aging DSLR these days, so the R with the same basic sensor, a strange set of controls that are not very Canon-like, and similar performance, the R also doesn't get me excited.

I can't imagine that Canon would put out the lenses they did without having a camera body coming that they believe lives up to the same level, so basically I'm in wait-and-see mode with Canon, as are a lot of others.

I don't think we'll have long to wait. The 2020 Summer Olympics are a home game, and where thousands of photographers descend with pro gear trying to cover everything from opening ceremonies to sports action, portraits, street-type shooting, and more. Everyone will be touting their "pro" gear in 2020, so if something's missing today, I expect it to show up soon. 

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