In the modern market, most cameras introduced are pretty decent. There is a major paradigm shift going on, where traditional fixed lens digital still cameras have been effectively displaced by new categories of photographic devices, most notably cell phones. All the different compact digital cameras that use fairly small sensors are effectively obsolete, with a couple of exceptions. The only non-interchangeable lens market segment that is doing all right is the so-called “enthusiast compact camera” that use a pretty large (1″ format) image sensor and as such offer significantly better image quality that any currently available cell phone.
I wrote about these camera fairly extensively earlier this year and while there are a few new entrants to this market, the situation has not changed much.
Here, I will offer some brief recommendations and a little bit of my decision making process for a variety of imaging devices:
For all practical purposes, if image quality is important, you need a flagship smartphone. We are down to two operating systems: Apple and Android. In terms of pure image quality, top end Android phones are a little better, but the iPhone is not far behind and is excellent in terms of usability. I use Android and I have recently switched to Google Pixel. Prior to that, I was using Google Nexus 6P. However, I have had my hands on just about every flagship smartphone out there. Google Pixel is pretty much the only option with a top notch smartphone camera in a not supersized body. It also has the best autofocus I have seen on a phone to date. Samsung phones do well in online reviews. I have had a bunch of them and I swear Samsung must be buying those reviews. In terms of pure image quality, Samsung Galaxy phones are good, but in terms of usability, Google Pixel runs circles around them.
Compact Point and Shoot Cameras
First, let’s get it out there: traditional inexpensive point and shoot cameras are simply not worth buying unless for some reason you can not use a smartphone. The exceptions are:
- You need something waterproof/shockproof for swimming, skiing, etc. In terms of image quality, you are better off putting a proper camera into a waterproof case, but that gets bulky. If you need a small camera that does this consider Olympus Tough series. Honestly, if it were me, I would be more likely to look at one of the action cams because for this type of use, video is important. GoPro effectively created the action cam category, and the new Hero5 Black is pretty impressive. That is the way I would go, since for this kind of a camera telephoto lens is not necessary (for my use).
- You are looking for significantly better image quality that you cell phone in a form factor that is still reasonably pocketable. Then, you need one of the enthusiast compact cameras I mentioned earlier. Sony is up to the fifth generation of their RX100 (Mark V), and if you can swing the price tag, it is not a bad way to go. I think Sony has royally crewed up the interface though, so if super fast video modes do not tickle you, save some money and get the Panasonic LX10. Its UI has its own gremlins, but it is much better that Sony’s. Also, while Sony’s autofocus looks awesome on paper and does great in reviews, every time I use it, I get fewer keepers than with Panasonic. Basic image quality for still between the two is about the same. Sony has slightly better 4K video, but both are good. Now, if all you do is street photography and you never do video, I strongly recommend you take a look at Ricoh GR II with its much larger APS-C sensor and fixed 28mm equivalent lens. In blows all the 1″ sensor cameras out of the water in terms of image quality in an almost as compact body. It is a more limiting configuration though, but an excellent UI for photographers.
Bridge style non-interchangeable lens camera
The market is full of fancy looking cameras with what looks like incredibly long zoom lenses (83x, etc). Ignore them. I am talking about models like Nikon P900 and similar. They look nice on paper. When you first get it, you will have a lot of fun playing with that crazy zoom range. Then, as you look at the pictures you will put the camera away and barely ever use it again. In order to get that crazy zoom range, they use small image sensors, similar to what is in your cell phone, but with complicated and not very bright lenses. Stick with bridge cameras that are built around a much larger 1″ sensor. Canon, Sony and Panasonic make such cameras. Nikon announced a few, but can’t quite get them to market. Canon, in my opinion, bungled this category up a bit in terms of video, so that leaves us with Sony and Panasonic. For the money, Panasonic FZ1000 is the one to go. If you are really interested in pro quality video, consider Panasonic FZ2500. If the longest possible zoom is a big deal for you, spend the extra cash for Sony RX1o Mark III.
This includes both mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Anything with interchangeable lenses qualifies. Before I delve into it a bit more, you have to decide what is important for you. If video is important, you should forget about DSLRs. All DSLRs right now have video features and the way they are implemented is almost looks like they were trying to make sure noone uses them.
Honestly, in the modern camera market DSLRs have two things going for them: long battery life and target tracking (i.e. sports photography). They will continue having a notable edge in battery life for a while, but target tracking gap is going to be negligible within a generation.
There is, however, a quirk in the market. Before I get to it, let’s talk about sensor size. There are three sensor sizes in use for cameras that most of us can sorta afford (I am staying from the medium frame discussion for now):
- Full frame or 35mm or FX (in Nikon-speak) is the largest and the best for low light and high ISO performance
- APS-C or DX is about half the area and low light performance is about a stop worse
- Micro 4/3 is a bit smaller than APS-C and low light performance is about 3/4 of stop worse than APS-C
High ISO image quality is important for very low light situations and for action photography where you often need to bump up the ISO in order to use very fast shutter speeds. The only mirrorless system that uses a full frame sensor is Sony A7. It has great technology and excellent image quality. Unfortunately, it also has pretty terrible user experience. Best I can tell, their UI is not designed for humans. Performance is generally sluggish and battery life is about 60% of what Sony claims. If you are a landscape photographer, Sony A7R II should be on your shortlist. Outside of that, if you need a full frame sensor, a DSLR is probably still a better way to go for at least a couple more years. For allround performance for the money, Nikon D750 is worth looking at. It is not a new design, so you can find a good deal on it and the AF system is surprisingly competent. If you do not have legacy lenses from a competing system, and you do not do action photography much, consider Pentax K-1. This is the most image quality for the money you will get. Personally, for the things I do, there is an advantage to Canon lenses (I will explain why later), so I would take a long hard look at the new Canon 5D Mark IV. It is, however, a lot more money. Also, since Canon seems hell bent on protecting their video camera business, 4K video implementation in the new 5D is fundamentally idiotic (I am being rather mild here; you should hear what real videographers have to say about it).
If you are not compelled to get a full frame sensor, for the most part I would suggest you stay away from DSLRs and stick with a mirrorless camera system.
The only reason to get a DSLR with a crop sensor is if you are looking for good tracking autofocus (i.e. sports) and the best one for the is Nikon D500. It is not cheap, but it has an absolutely spectacular AF system. It is also waterproof and, importantly for me, it shoots 4K video. That is pretty much the only crop sensor DSLR out there that I might consider buying. If you do not do sports, go mirrorless.
Honestly, with the introduction of Olympus E-M1 Mark II, even sports photography is not really out of reach, but I need to play with that camera a little more to see. For indoor sports, D500 is still better owing to better high ISO performance. There are some outstanding issues with D500, but they are mostly peripheral to taking pictures and videos and I hope Nikon will fix them with firmware updates.
Olympus E-M1 Mark II uses a Micro 4/3 size sensor which is a bit smaller than Canon’s APS-C or Nikon’s DX. All of the Olympus and Panasonic interchangeable lens cameras use Micro-4/3 sensors.
Other mirrorless cameras use APS-C or DX sensors: Fuji X system, Sony A6300 and A6500, Canon EOS M5.
Weirdly, Nikon is not doing anything memorable in the mirrorless space.
All of these are competent cameras. Sony is the most full featured of them and the one I like the least. It looks awesome on paper, but it has all of the same Sony problems: sluggish operation, heat issues and battery life issues. On top of that, Sony decided to not offer lossless raw on their crop sensor cameras, claiming we do not need it. For those of us who do some postprocessing (and if you do not, system cameras are not for you) this can be an absolute show stopper, since it effects how well you can pull up shadows and generally fix exposure. I get lossless raw images from my cellphone, but I can’t get them from a Sony A6500. Basically, if you want to buy a very full featured camera for bragging rights, but do not plan to use any of the features, Sony A6500 is your best choice. For the rest of us, there are other options.
If you already have a bunch of Canon lenses from your old DSLR, the mirrorless EOS M5 is a pretty good choice. Canon finally upgraded their sensor fab, so basic image quality from their newest sensors is quite good. EOS M5 is the only mirrorless camera from Canon with the new sensor. It does not offer 4K video, but aside from that, I like what I see and it integrates well with all Canon lenses via an adapter.
Fuji X system is now pretty well fleshed out and if you want a mirrorless camera with APS-C sensor, this is a pretty good way to go. X-T2 now offers competent 4K video and is the best general purpose camera in Fuji’s line-up, while X-Pro2 leans a bit more toward stills. It sorta comes down to whether you need video and what form factor you like. X-Pro2 is a rangefinder style camera, while X-T2 is more of a traditional SLR style. Both are good cameras and they use more or less the same Sony sensor that is in the A6500. Except, Fuji gets more out of it.
Lastly, we get to Micro-4/3. This is easily the best fleshed out system in the mirrorless world. Since it is based on a slightly smaller sensor, its lenses are also a bit smaller, so the overall system is smaller. The converse is that there is a penalty in low light, although not a huge one. Traditionally, Panasonic Micro-4/s cameras did better with video and Olympus did better with stills. The lines are blurring though as far as flagships are concerned. Newly introduced Olympus E-M1 Mark II is a superb stills camera and a competent video camera. The upcoming Panasonic GH5 is still likely to be better with video, but stills will be no slouch either.
If you are on a budget, Panasonic generally offers what I believe to be the best price to performance ration in the camera world: G80 for those who like DSLR-style bodeis and GX80 for those who prefer rangefinder style bodies. Both have excellent stills features and very respectable video options including 4K. In this price range, I do not like the Olympus offerings, so stick with Panasonic.
As you go a bit higher in price, we have Panasonic GX8 and Olympus Pen-F. GX8 looked so promising that I bought… and two weeks later returned it. It is an extremely competent camera, but I could not grab it without inadvertently pressing a bunch of buttons. Aside from that, I thought it was a very nice design. I know a lot of people love it and it clearly works for them. To me, it is a mess of a UI. Panasonic was trying to make sure there is enough adjustability, so they put in 14 customizable controls instead of leaving some gripping space.
Olympus Pen-F uses the same sensor as GX8 and seems to be a touch better for still image quality, but it is close. Video features, however, are rather limited. If you do anything more than a casual video clip occasionally, this is not the camera for you. Stills performance, however, is excellent as is build quality. If Olympus made the Pen-F weather resistant, I would already own one warts and all, and I still might buy it.
The flagships of the Panasonic and Olympus lines are GH5 and E-M1 Mark II respectively. GH5 is coming out next year. E-M1 Mark II just came out. I’ll talk about GH5 when it is here. The E-M Mark II, however, is a superb camera with incredible speed and image stabilization. If you are after a flagship, give it a look.