The Game is Afoot – first of the 2020 crop of sports cameras announced

Camera & Technology

September 4, 2019 ·

Dan Wells

No matter how much it might look like it, this is not a D5 with a D6 label on it… The prism housing is slightly different.

At midnight Eastern Daylight Time, September ¾, 2019, Nikon announced the development of the D6 professional sports/photojournalism DSLR. The timing may be (mildly) newsworthy, but the development announcement of the D6 was approximately as predictable as the sun rising in the East. Every 4 years, Nikon and Canon announce high-speed professional DSLRs, in time that they are in the hands of the world’s sports photographers for the Summer Olympics. A development announcement the fall before the Olympics is relatively standard, then we will see specifications by winter or spring, and pros who order theirs early will be shooting them in time to be familiar with them before the Opening Ceremony. Expect Canon to follow suit shortly.

Nikon also announced the development of a 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens – the first from a major camera manufacturer, although Sigma has made such a lens since 2005. It is a wonderfully useful focal range for indoor and shorter-range sporting events, and it is probably also aimed at the Olympics. No specifications or prices are available for body or lens…

There are several things that will be more interesting to watch than whether Canon calls their inevitable release the EOS 1Dx mkIII or comes up with a new name… First is whether any unexpected players show up to the Tokyo Olympics (note the location of the Games – the Japanese camera makers may be even more interested than usual this year). Sony is widely believed to be close to release on a new generation of their high-speed A9, their video-focused A7s mkII, or both. Either or both would be logical Olympic cameras. There is some possibility that Sony builds a body that combines both functions. At least one Sony is nearly certain – but which will it be? Or both? Or a hybrid? Either Fujifilm, Olympus or both could show up to the Games – Fujifilm has three upcoming bodies registered with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (one is the X-Pro 3, which is the opposite of a sports camera – but one of the other two could be)? Olympus is very interested in the sports market, and the Olympics are a logical window for an E-M1 mk II successor.

Also worth watching is whether we see any high-speed mirrorless models from Nikon or Canon. Both will release their expected DSLR, as Nikon just confirmed – but either or both could release a mirrorless version as well. As the Z7 is a “mirrorless D850”, there could be a “mirrorless D6” or a “mirrorless 1Dx mkIII”. The first-party lens adapters work well enough that the long lenses being mostly DSLR-mount may not be a problem (perhaps Nikon or Canon might introduce a heavily reinforced adapter meant to hang a 600mm f4 off of)? A mirrorless body would have significant advantages for photographers switching back and forth between stills and video. There is a slight possibility that someone introduces a hybrid viewfinder with both optical and electronic modes – Fujifilm has done this in the X-Pro series, but it’s never been done in a DSLR. That might require a fixed, semitransparent mirror? Fixed-mirror SLRs have existed since 1965’s Canon Pellix, and, more recently, Sony made a few digital cameras with a fixed mirror (to allow phase-detection AF) and an electronic viewfinder.

The last item to watch is resolution, speed and video capabilities. Any professional sports camera will shoot well over 10 fps (useless for almost anything except sports, but critical there). How far above that will they get? Will resolution stay in the 20-24 MP range? Where will video go in terms of resolution and quality? 6K video could work on a 24 MP sensor, but 8K would require a sensor over 40 MP. While these are specialized cameras of use mainly to sports photographers and other photojournalists, the manufacturers often use them to introduce features that later spread to general-purpose cameras. They also use them to build up their brand – the sea of white lenses at sporting events is invaluable marketing for Canon.

Dan Wells

September 2019

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Dan Wells, "Shuttterbug" on the trail, is a landscape photographer, long-distance hiker and student in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He lives in Cambridge, MA when not in wild places photographing and contemplating our connection to the natural world. Dan's images try to capture the spirit he finds in places where, in the worlds of the Wilderness Act of 1964, "Man himself is but a visitor". He has hiked 230 miles of Vermont's Long Trail and 450 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with his cameras, as well as photographing in numerous National Parks, Seashores and Forests over the years - often in the offseason when few people think to be there. In the summer of 2020, Dan plans to hike a stretch of hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, focusing on his own and others' spiritual connection to these special places, and making images that document these connections. Over years of personal work and teaching photography, Dan has used a variety of equipment (presently Nikon Z7 and Fujifilm APS-C). He is looking for the perfect combination of light weight, ruggedness and superb image quality.

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