Flagship cameras today are aimed at wider audiences than ever before. They often have more resolution, less weight, and even (taking inflation into account) lower prices. Most of all, their features are geared toward far more than just fast-paced sporting events. But does that mean a flagship camera is right for you?
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What Is a Flagship Camera in the First Place?
Not everyone is going to agree upon the definition of a flagship camera. I define it as the camera positioned at the top of a company’s lineup – and generally the most expensive – suited for demanding, professional work. That’s still a subjective definition, but it’s the best I can do. I would place the following cameras as the flagship(s) for each camera company:
- Canon EOS R3 / Canon 1DX Mark III
- Nikon Z9 / Nikon D6
- Sony a1
- Olympus OM-1
- Pentax K1 Mark II
- Fuji X-H2S (or X-H2) / Fuji GFX 100
- Panasonic GH6 / Panasonic S5 IIX (or S1R)
The list above isn’t perfect. Some of these are not quite professional-caliber cameras, despite being the most advanced that the company makes at the moment. In other cases, it might be unclear which of two cameras would be the “true” flagship within a particular lineup. Even so, that list roughly sums up the state of the flagship camera market today.
The Sacrifices to Reach the Top
I find it interesting that the cameras I listed above aren’t necessarily the most advanced in every way among a company’s lineup. Many of them are lower in resolution, for example, compared to alternative cameras that the company makes.
Canon is a great example of this. Even though the EOS R3 is pretty clearly their mirrorless flagship – at least until the EOS R1 is announced – it falls behind the EOS R5 in sheer resolution (24 versus 45 megapixels, and 6K versus 8K video). For plenty of photographers, gaining some extra speed is not worth throwing away almost half the camera’s pixels. Did I really need 30 FPS for the photo below?
Something similar can be said of Nikon’s DSLR lineup, where the flagship D6 is so heavily optimized for speed that it sacrificed a lot of resolution. The less expensive Nikon D850 is not only higher in that respect, but it also has a lower base ISO, resulting in better image quality in a lot of common situations. Plenty of photographers would rightly consider the D850 a better camera for their needs, regardless of price.
Then there’s size and weight. A lot of flagship cameras are massive beasts with integrated battery grips, weighing well over 2 pounds / north of 1 kilo. This additional bulk is often necessary in order to accommodate the various ports and connectivity features that some professional applications require. But the reality is, whether you need those features or not, you’re paying for them when you get a flagship camera (in more ways than just price).
In short, flagship cameras usually sacrifice a few things in order to maximize speed, connectivity, and handling features. So, just because a camera is “at the top” doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for every task.
The Flagship-Lite Cameras
Nikon did something unusual in July of 2008. That’s when they announced the D700 – a DSLR that launched for a price of $3000.
I bring up the D700 in today’s article because it was shockingly similar to Nikon’s flagship at the time, the $5000 Nikon D3. Aside from the D3’s built-in grip and additional ports, the biggest difference was that the D3 could reach 9 FPS, while the D700 (plus optional battery grip) could reach “just” 8 FPS!
Basically, the D700 was a flagship mini. It didn’t have quite all the features of the D3, but it matched the D3’s autofocus system and image sensor without bringing any major compromises of its own. No wonder the D700 was such a success. In fact, it was so successful that Nikon spent years avoiding any similar camera launch, for fear of cannibalizing their own lineup! Only now, about 15 years later, do we get the Nikon Z8 – which is essentially a “lite” version of the Z9.
Nikon is not the only company to make a flagship-lite camera. Another modern example is the difference between Fuji’s top-of-the-line medium format GFX 100 and their GFX 100S. The GFX 100S is a whopping $4000 cheaper ($6000 versus $10,000 MSRP), yet it’s basically the same camera, just without an integrated grip. Some of the few remaining small differences even favor the GFX 100S.
You can find similar examples with almost any company. The Canon EOS R5 that I mentioned earlier is nipping at the heels of the EOS R3 in terms of autofocus and high-FPS capabilities, while bringing much more resolution to the table. Meanwhile, the Sony a7R V has more resolution, a slightly improved autofocus system, and a lower price compared to the flagship Sony a1. “Flagship lite” may be a stretch in these cases, since they’re pretty different cameras, but they remain excellent alternatives that don’t cost $6000+.
I should clarify, it’s not that cameras like the Canon R5 or Sony a7R V (or even the GFX 100S and Nikon Z8) beat the flagships in pure features. They generally lack some of the professional-oriented connectivity options that the flagship has, along with some missing “odds and ends” that you may care about. But they at least occupy a similar plane of existence, yet cost substantially less.
You See It. But Do You Need It?
Almost every time that I test a new camera these days, I’m struck by how high in quality it is. But I’m also human. The allure of the best is hard to ignore. And I don’t begrudge anyone who does chase after the highest quality camera equipment they can find.
That’s where flagship cameras come in. They can be very alluring, especially – ironically – for photographers who don’t need them. These cameras practically sit atop a pedestal; you see a million amazing photos from the photographers who use them, and you envision the photos you could take, too. (Never mind the fact that, while you were shopping for your current camera, you saw just as many good sample photos taken with it.)
But the reality is, despite all this, a flagship is not necessarily the best camera that a company makes. Rather, flagship cameras are nothing but tools. They are keys that fit certain locks. Other cameras easily can be better, because “better” depends on the photographer – your budget, intended subjects, shooting environment, and other circumstances.
Just because a flagship is the most expensive camera you can find, overflowing with features, does not make it any more likely to deliver you better photos than a cheaper camera. It very well may be the opposite.
Personally, when I’m considering a camera upgrade, I try to think as concretely as possible about how I actually use my existing cameras moment-to-moment in the field. A lot of today’s newest, most impressive features will only improve my photos in my imagination. For instance, I simply don’t need an AI-powered subject recognition autofocus system for my landscape photography! Heck, I barely need autofocus at all.
Likewise, plenty of wildlife photographers are dreaming of, say, a Canon EOS R3, for obvious reasons. Yet the EOS R6 II (or even the cheaper R6 / R7 / R8) will deliver the same results 95% of the time – but actually better, because you can put the extra thousands of dollars toward longer and brighter lenses. And certainly for stationary subjects like the one below, anything approaching an R3 is completely overkill – if not simply the wrong tool for the job.
This isn’t to say you should avoid flagship cameras. Like I said, they’re tools. If you’re an event or broadcast pro, of course they would be good cameras to buy for your needs (or more likely, your agency/company has already bought several copies of them ages ago). There’s no siren song involved in those purchases, just necessary business expenses.
Beyond that, some camera companies don’t have obvious alternatives to their flagships at the moment. Pentax comes to mind, with just two options for full-frame digital (both in the K1 series and pretty similar cameras). In those situations, it makes a lot of practical sense to get the top-end camera, even if you think it’s overkill in some ways.
This is exactly what happened with Nikon’s Z9 before the Z8 was announced. Yes, lots of photographers bought the Z9 despite not needing half the features, and now we see a ton of copies on the used market. But I prefer to look at things a different way: Lots of photographers were able to shoot with the Z9 for eighteen months of photography when there was no real Nikon Z alternative, and even if the Z8 suits them better now, that still adds up to a lot of great photos.
Today, often, the top-shelf cameras for sports and wildlife photography are also best-in-class for slower-paced genres like landscape photography. It lends a mystique to flagship cameras that makes more photographers dream about them than ever before – since they’re not just for sporting event pros any more.
But a lot of that mystique is an illusion. Few photographers truly need a flagship camera or would necessarily see their photos improve if they got one. Instead, I recommend trying to see a camera company’s lineup for what it is: a series of creative tools, which, at their best, get out of our way and let us concentrate on the photos we’re taking.
If your work would benefit in concrete ways from a flagship camera, that’s something you already know – and I’m sure you’ve bought one already or are saving up right now. On the other hand, if you have little photographic reason to get one, but you’re hovering over the “buy” button anyway, you already know that it’s a bad idea. The point of photography isn’t GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), but rather STAP: Simply take a photo! I hope this article helped make that clear.
Note, the captions under the photos in this article are deliberately incorrect. None of these photos were taken with flagship cameras! Rather, in order, the cameras used were the Fuji X-T30, Canon EOS R, Nikon D7500, Nikon D7000, Sony a7R II, Nikon Zfc, Canon 80D, and Nikon Z6 II. All other data and settings in the captions are accurate :)