In today’s crowded market, there is no shortage of great cameras. From entry-level models to full-frame flagships, it’s hard to find a camera that isn’t capable of taking breathtaking photos and videos. Still, there will always be those that stand out above the rest, that help push the industry forward with innovative sensors, improved usability, or just by offering a great combination of features at an affordable price.
We’ve previously looked at the best point-and-shoot cameras and the best DSLRs for beginners, but it is time now to look at the best digital cameras you can buy overall. These are the models trying new things, leading the charge, and paving the road on which future cameras will follow. In addition to our overall winner, we’ve selected four alternates that each stand out in their respective areas of expertise.
Why should you buy this: Outstanding speed, zero-blackout continuous shooting, 4K video.
Who’s it for: Professionals and enthusiasts who want the latest tech and best performance.
How much will it cost: $4,499 (body only)
Why we picked the Sony A9:
In our hands-on Sony A9 review, we called it an “awesome example of where camera technology is headed.” Since its first mirrorless camera, Sony has always been on the cutting edge of imaging tech, and that’s why the A9 is our pick for best digital camera overall.
To be sure, the A9 is not the camera for everyone, especially at a price of $4,500. Its key selling points are features that will matter most to sports and action photographers, but it pushes so far beyond the status quo of mirrorless cameras in this regard that everyone will be paying close attention to it. The sensor is a newly developed 24-megapixel unit built using a “stacked” CMOS design, the first for a full-frame camera (albeit not the first in general — the RX100 Mark V uses a 1-inch stacked sensor). Thanks to this design, the A9 can read out data 20 times faster than the A7 II, which also uses a 24MP sensor.
So what does that readout speed translate too in the real world? Full-resolution RAW images at 20 frames per second (fps). That’s faster than the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, both of which are workhorse cameras for professional sports shooters, despite the fact that the A9 has a 4MP advantage over them.
Of course, speed without accuracy is meaningless, which is why the Sony A9 is graced with a 693-point phase-detection autofocus system that covers more than 90 percent of the frame. At least on paper, this is a significant improvement both over Sony’s A7 series and basically every other camera in existence. And in experience, we certainly found nothing to complain about.
Complementing the high speed shooting is an electronic shutter with a fastest speed of 1/32,000 of a second. It’s designed to minimize the jello-cam effect, and also allows the A9 to shoot completely silently. But that’s not all: With the electronic shutter engaged, the camera can shoot at 20 fps with no viewfinder blackout between frames. That means photographers trying to track high-speed subjects won’t lose sight of their targets for even a split second.
Again, most photographers won’t need what the A9 is offering, but it is a technical powerhouse and a true achievement in photographic innovation that can’t be ignored. It’s the type of camera we’re lucky to see once in a decade.
Our Sony A9 hands-on review
The best mirrorless camera
Sony A7 III
Why should you buy this: Impressive features at a price point that punches above its weight
Who’s it for: Enthusiast photographers who want a versatile and capable camera for a variety of subjects
How much will it cost: $2000 (body only), $2,400 (kit with Sony’s 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens)
Why we picked the Sony A7 III:
Sony calls the A7 III its “basic model” camera. But that’s underselling it. The A7 III is essentially the best parts of the A9 distilled into a full-frame mirrorless camera that costs less than half the price of its flagship counterpart.
At its core is a brand new 24.2MP backside illuminated CMOS sensor. It shoots 14-bit RAW photos with 15 stops of dynamic range and at up to 10 frames per second. Sure, it’s not the 20 FPS the A9 offers, but for $2,500 less, it’s safe to say it’s a decent trade-off. ISO sensitivity has also improved alongside the new sensor with a native sensitivity range of 100-51,200.
The stand-out feature of the A7 III is the 693-point hybrid autofocus system first seen in the A9. Compared to the 139-point autofocus system of the A7 II, the difference is night and day. Another welcomed feature taken from the A9 is the inclusion of dual memory card slots (one UHS-I and one UHS-II).
Known for being a weak spot in other Sony cameras, the battery of the A7 III is also improved. Thanks to a new NP-FZ100 battery, the A7 III is rated for 710 shots per charge.
As we’ve come to expect from Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras, the A7 III features 4K recording at 30 FPS. If you don’t mind dropping the resolution down to 1080p, you can even capture slow-mo footage at 120 FPS. The addition of HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma) and S-Log3 profiles give even more creative control in post-production for those who want to get the most out of their footage.
All in all, the A7 III is exactly what we had hoped for and more in the third-generation A7 camera. It brought the best of the A9 to a price point that is astonishing when you compare it to DSLRs that cost twice as much.
Our Sony A7 III hands-on review
The best DSLR camera
Why should you buy this: 45MP images plus 7fps continuous shooting speed.
Who’s it for: Studio, portrait, landscape, wedding, wildlife, and potentially even sports photographers.
How much will it cost: $3,300 (body only)
Why we picked the Nikon D850:
Nikon’s D800-series DSLRs have always been good at one thing: Providing ultra-high resolution full-frame sensors. But the D850 takes this recipe and incorporates some exciting new ingredients. And unlike its predecessors, the D850 is not a one-trick pony; it has grown into a full multimedia machine.
First, it boosts resolution over the D810 by almost ten megapixels, up to 45.7. The sensor is entirely new and backside-illuminated (BSI), just the second such sensor since Sony’s 42MP unit, the A7R Mark II. BSI sensors are more sensitive to light thanks to the circuitry being placed on the backside (hence the name) of the sensor, rather than the front, which is far more common. With a base ISO of 64, it promises a deep well capacity for impressive dynamic range. Anyone who was a fan of the D810 or D800 should feel right at home with the D850.
But that’s not all, because the D850 can also shoot continuously at up to 7 fps with a buffer than can hold 170 12-bit RAW files, or 51 in the higher-quality 14-bit mode. This is already impressive for such a high-resolution sensor, but users can get even more speed if they opt for the MB-D18 vertical battery grip and EN-EL18b battery (also used in the D5), which bumps performance up to 9 fps.
Nikon has also stepped up its video game with the D850, offering 4K recording from the full width of the sensor — the first for a full-frame DSLR.
All of that resolution, speed, and 4K video make for some pretty hefty storage requirements, which is why the Nikon D850 sports both SDXC and XQD card slots. SDXC is widely available, but XQD offers the best possible performance with theoretical transfer rates of up to 1,000 megabytes per second (current cards top out around 440MB per second).
The best photo/video hybrid
Panasonic Lumix GH5
Why should you buy this: Incredible 4K/60p video with no time limits, great control layout, lots of features
Who’s it for: Photojournalists, filmmakers, and anyone who needs a single camera that can play multiple roles
How much will it cost: $2,000
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:
Like digging a well and striking gold by accident, Panasonic hit a home run several years ago with the introduction of the Lumix DMC-GH2. The mirrorless camera provided Full HD video that was well ahead of its time for comparable cameras, and videographers and filmmakers jumped on it. The GH2 became somewhat of a legend among the low-budget filmmaking community, and Panasonic was smart to take heed. Every iteration of the GH camera since then has doubled down on video features, and the latest GH5 is the best yet.
The GH5 takes 4K video to new levels, offering 60p recording that no other camera in this class has. It can also shoot 10-bit 4:2:2 video both internally and externally over HDMI, albeit not at 60p. That means increased color resolution and smooth gradations from shadows to highlights, which is particularly important for color grading in postproduction. These features help the GH5 push up into cinema camera territory, at a fraction of the cost of such cameras. And thanks to its Micro Four Thirds lens mount, videographers can adapt all types of legacy lenses to the system to achieve that classic film look.
But as important as video is to the Lumix GH5, Panasonic hasn’t neglected its role as a still camera, either. It has internal 5-axis stabilization that works in conjunction with select lenses that have lens-based stabilization for even greater shake-reducing power. It offers a new 6K Photo mode that lets users extract still frames at 18MP from a burst shot at 30 fps. And when using the mechanical shutter and full 20MP resolution, it can still shoot at 12 fps — right in line with flagship DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.
Our full Panasonic Lumix GH5 review
The best non-interchangeable lens camera
Sony RX10 IV
Why should you buy this: Incredible zoom range, good image quality, 4K video
Who’s it for: Travel and adventure photographers, soccer parents, and pros in need of a solid B camera
How much will it cost: $1,700
Why we picked the Sony RX10 IV:
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer a lot of flexibility if you have the money and time to bother with multiple interchangeable lenses. But for those who need a one-size-fits-all solution to multiple photographic challenges, Sony’s RX10 IV may be the answer. At $1,700, it isn’t exactly cheap for what is, essentially, a very advanced point-and-shoot. But you get a lot for your money with the RX10 IV.
First up is the 20MP 1-inch-type sensor, the same “stacked” CMOS unit from the RX100 V (and the same general technology as employed in the Sony A9). That means great image quality and blazing-fast performance. How fast? Try 24 fps — yes, even faster than the A9.
That sensor is matched with a massive 24-600mm (full-frame equivalent) f/2.4-4 zoom lens. While it’s the same optics as the RX10 III, autofocus performance has been improved, with Sony advertising the fastest AF speed for its class, taking just 0.03 seconds to acquire focus. That’s thanks to a Hybrid AF system that combines 315 phase-detection points with standard contrast detection.
Of course, this being a Sony, the RX10 IV still has plenty more up its sleeve. Namely, a 4K video mode that’s capable of recording full-width video at 100 megabits per second. It even features Sony’s S-Log3 gamma profile for maximum dynamic range, making it a solid option as a B camera for higher-end productions, particularly documentaries or travel films where size is important.
How We Test
We always look for cameras that combine image quality, usability, and value, but for this list we paid particularly close attention to innovative features. We selected the models we felt were challenging the limits of what a still camera can be, either by implementing features that open new creative doors for photographers or by offering exceptional value, bringing high-end features to new users. Every camera on this list has been used by Digital Trends staff. For a full run down on how we test, you can read our digital camera test methodology here.
Understanding camera terminology
New to digital cameras? Here are some helpful explanations of some of the terminology and tech that you’re likely to run into along your search. There’s a lot of jargon out there, and understanding it is key to knowing what you’re getting.
DSLR – This stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. This type of camera uses a mirror to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. The mirror then moves out of the way when the shutter button is pressed, allowing the light to pass through the shutter and land on the sensor.
Mirrorless – A mirrorless camera, as the name suggests, does not use a mirror. Instead, light from the lens goes directly to the sensor and photos are framed on the LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller than DSLRs because of this.
Sensor – The digital equivalent to film, the sensor is covered in light-sensitive pixels. Each sensor “sees” only red, green, or blue light, the data being combined later into a full-color image.
Megapixel (MP) – One million pixels. Used to denote the resolution of a sensor. A 24MP sensor has 24 million pixels.
Shutter – A physical curtain that opens and closes in front of the sensor to expose it to light. Many cameras also employ optional electronic shutters, which bypass the mechanical version.
Shutter speed – The length of time the shutter remains open to expose the sensor to light. Shutter speeds typically range from 1/8,000 of a second to as slow as 30 seconds. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed in, but this also can lead to blurry images. A faster shutter freezes action, but does not let in as much light.
Lens – The eye of the camera. A lens is made up of several different glass elements that focus the light onto the sensor. Wide-angle lenses have a larger field of view (good for landscapes and group photos) and telephoto lenses have a narrower field of view (good for single-subject shots like wildlife and portraits).
Aperture – The diaphragm in a lens that can open or close to increase or decrease the amount of light the lens allows in. A wider aperture also creates a shallow depth of field, which allows for a subject to be in focus while the background is blurred, a technique often used for portraits. A small aperture keeps more distance in focus and is often used for landscapes.
F-number – You’ll see this on the lenses of both interchangeable-lens cameras and fixed-lens models. The f-number refers to the size of a lens’s aperture, but a smaller number means a larger aperture. Lenses are identified by their maximum aperture value, so if you see 50mm f/1.4 that means that lens can open up to a maximum of f/1.4, not that f/1.4 is it’s only aperture setting. When shopping lenses, looking at the f-number is an easy way to compare which can let in more light and produce a shallower depth of field.
IS – Image stabilization. Different manufacturers brand this in different ways, such as OIS (optical image stabilization), OSS (Optical Steady Shot) or VR (vibration reduction). Different manufacturers put stabilization in the sensor, the lens, or both.
FPS – Frames per second.
4K UHD – 4K Ultra High Definition video has a frame size of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (roughly 4,000 lines of resolution) and is four times the pixel count as Full HD 1080p.
Full HD 1080p – Full High Definition video has a frame size of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The “p” refers to “progressive scanning,” as opposed to “interlaced scanning” which is less common today.