The Nikon vs. Canon rivalry persists in the professional camera world.

With their latest generation of pro-level interchangeable lens cameras, Canon and Nikon have once again followed each other closely, as they have done since the 1970s. So it’s no surprise that the Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 were introduced so close together, demonstrating the brands’ differing philosophical approaches to the implementation of a professional camera once again.

While the EOS R3 and the Z 9 have a lot in common, they’re also very different in a few essential ways… Over the decades of the two competing in the pro division, this has been the case.

Of course, the major news this time is that we’re seeing the first full-frame mirrorless pro cameras from the conventional rivals, so there’s a little more riding on their individual designs given that all potential purchasers will be dealing with a whole system rather than just a few of new bodies.

However, even if there is the potential of transferring camps, I do not anticipate many people doing so… at least not those who are purchasing their own equipment. Canon and Nikon fans have become accustomed to one another’s products, but in the beginning, it was undoubtedly more of a competition to win over new customers.

The Canon EOS-1 was debuted in 1989 to compete with Nikon’s F4, which had been introduced a year earlier. It is safe to conclude that Canon has had the upper hand since then, most likely when Canon introduced the original EOS-1 in 1989 to compete with Nikon’s F4. As the first professional-level autofocus 35mm SLRs (the Nikon F3AF was simply a test model), the underlying technological difference between Canon and Nikon would prove critical over the years to come — Canon chose lens-based autofocus motors, while Nikon opted for an in-body drive. It required making the extremely risky choice to switch to a completely electronic lens mount, but as a result, Canon acquired a significant advantage in AF performance, which it continued to improve with the EOS-1N and EOS-1V models that followed.

The Nikon F5 – perhaps the greatest 35mm SLR Nikon has ever manufactured – and the introduction of motorized AF-S Nikkor lenses did not deter Canon from establishing itself as the leader in the professional market, laying the groundwork for its switch to digital photography with the EOS-1D in late 2001. Canon really came into its stride with the EOS1Ds, which were released less than a year later and had its own full-frame CMOS sensor (at a time when CCDs were still the norm) and a then-massive 11MP resolution. Once again, a fundamental technical difference left its imprint, and Canon’s choice to manufacture its own sensors has unquestionably put the company in a stronger position to control its own future.

Nikon didn’t catch up with Canon until 2007, when the much-lauded D3 arrived on the scene and, anecdotally at least, converted a number of its own users. From then on, things have remained quite equally matched all the way up to the present EOS-1D X Mark III and Nikon D6 – which are comparable yet distinct from one another. For starters, the Canon is considerably more of a hybrid still/video camera than the Nikon, which is primarily a photography camera.

Canon has said that there will be no more professional-level DSLRs, and it’s reasonable to infer that the same will be true for Nikon. There’s also another, a very serious competitor in the full-frame mirrorless market, with Sony looking to have closely followed Canon’s development path with the creation of their FE mount system. Of course, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and Olympus (a.k.a. OM-System) are also aiming their cameras towards professional photographers with the OM-D E-M1X, which is likely the closest current competitor to the EOS R3 and Z 9… at least in terms of design philosophy.

Consequently, have the days of the classic Canon versus Nikon pro camera competition come to an end? I, for one, do not believe this to be the case. The heritage and history of both brands still matter in the professional camera market, despite Sony’s best efforts (which are unquestionably impressive), and the R3 and Z 9 demonstrate that both are capable of being more than competitive in this new era of mirrorless configurations and hybrid still/video designs. And, as demonstrated by the RF 70-200mm f/4 and Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zooms that I used when trying out these two cameras, both systems are thriving with new mirrorless lenses, so this is no longer a concern when compared to the more established systems.

The truly wonderful news is that these cameras have retained their essences, which are firmly entrenched in solidly photographic backgrounds, and that these influences can still be seen on a variety of levels, from conception to application.

The original Nikon F (1959) and Canon F-1 (1971) cameras represent a significant step forward, but the common attitude of providing the most competent and dependable instruments available to meet the demanding needs of photographers remains unchanged.

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