Our pick for the best digital camera is the Panasonic Lumix S1. The competition is certainly very stiff, but the S1 delivers an unbeatable combination of great low light performance from its 24-megapixel full-frame sensor and extreme high-resolution imaging thanks to it’s 96-megapixel multi-shot mode. It also has one of the best control layouts we’ve ever seen on a camera, mirrorless or DSLR, and is built to hold up to the demands of professional wear and tear.
There are more choices in cameras than ever before, and there is no shortage of great ones. Here are a few of our favorites, all of which we have fully reviewed, from compact point-and-shoots to professional DSLRs.
At a glance
- Best digital camera overall: Panasonic Lumix S1
- Best mirrorless camera: Sony A7 III
- Best DSLR: Nikon D850
- Best point-and-shoot camera: Sony RX100 VI
- Best travel camera: Olympus Tough TG-5
- Best camera for beginners: Canon EOS M6
- Best still camera for video: Panasonic Lumix GH5
Why you should buy this: Impressive image quality, robust design, and functional controls
Who’s it for: Professionals, landscape photographers, and serious photo enthusiasts
Why we choose the Panasonic S1:
The Panasonic Lumix S1 isn’t exactly what we expected from a mirrorless camera — but in many ways, it exceeds expectations enough to be the most impressive model on the market. Besides the excellent image quality coming from the full-frame 24-megapixel sensor, a 96-megapixel high-resolution mode lets you capture even more detail when using a tripod. We were very impressed with the out-of-camera JPEG image quality, which produces excellent color and contrast, while the RAW images offer plenty of flexibility and strong high-ISO performance.
The S1 uses contrast detection autofocus instead of the usually faster phase detection, but Panasonic narrowed the gap thanks to its proprietary Depth From Defocus technology. Autofocus tracking and subject recognition are very good, even in low light, and while speed is often indistinguishable from competing phase-detection systems, we did notice some occasional misses that cropped up seemingly at random. Still, the good outweighs the bad.
A comfortable user interface seals the S1’s position atop this list. The control scheme doesn’t skimp on anything and is highly customizable, offering more direct access control than mirrorless cameras from other brands. It also offers both SD and XQD card slots, with support for even faster CFExpress cards coming in the future. The body is fully weather sealed and houses one of the best electronic viewfinders we’ve seen, with 5.7 million pixels of resolution and a refresh rate of 120 frames per second.
On the downside, all of this makes the camera quite heavy. At about 2.25 pounds, it weighs more than some full-frame DSLRs. The Lumix S1 may not be the best camera for travel photography because of that, but the Lumix S1 is otherwise a tremendous achievement that leaves very little to be desired.
Who’s it for: Pros and enthusiasts who want both portability, performance and full-frame
Why we picked the Sony A7 III:
The Sony A7 line has long been one of our favorite mirrorless cameras — and the A7 III mixes some of the best qualities of the series together in one camera. With the low light performance of the A7S II, the dynamic range of the A7R III, and some of the A9’s blazing speed, the A7 III is plenty of camera for many photographers — and yet it’s the least expensive current full-frame model in the series.
The A7 III sports a backlit 24-megapixel sensor that delivers impressive image quality, with great results even at very high ISOs. Equally impressive is the dynamic range, which helps keep more of the details in the shadows and highlights intact. That five-axis stabilization system doesn’t hurt, either. The camera also offers a solid 4K video mode, with a plethora of customizable options for adjusting the look of the picture.
Sony has had time to fine-tune the A7 the third generation is a refined, high-end product. Autofocus is quick to lock on, the 10-fps burst rate holds for 40 RAW files, and the battery life — at over 700 exposures — is the best we’ve seen in mirrorless.
The control scheme isn’t our favorite, and many competing cameras use higher resolution viewfinders, but the Sony A7 III offers plenty of features for the price. If you need more resolution, the Sony A7R III has it — but the A7 III is a lot of camera for $2,000.
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.
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, making it the best DSLR of this generation.
First, it nearly ten more megapixels than the D810, 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 SD and XQD card slots. SD 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).
Why should you buy this: Impressive performance and image quality.
Who’s it for: Photo enthusiasts and pros on the go.
Why we picked the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VI:
Time and time again, a Sony RX100 camera takes our top pick for best point-and-shoot. The sixth generation of Sony’s revolutionary point-and-shoot improves on an already excellent recipe by adding an 8x zoom lens for an equivalent focal length of 24-200mm. To achieve that reach, the maximum aperture has been reduced to f/2.8 at the wide end and f/4 at the telephoto, but that’s still impressive considering how small this camera is.
An updated version of the “stacked” 20-megapixel, 1-inch-type sensor returns, offering blazing fast performance up to 24 frames per second in continuous mode, faster than even Sony’s flagship A9 mirrorless camera. Autofocus is even faster than the RX100 V, acquiring focus in just 0.03 seconds in ideal conditions.
Being a Sony, the RX100 VI also includes a full complement of video features. It can shoot 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p at up to 120 fps, and super-slow-motion at 240, 480, and even 960 fps. It also features Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) for capturing the maximum dynamic range and playing back HDR content on compatible televisions, a feature normally reserved for much higher-end cameras.
But perhaps best of all is that none of the RX100 VI’s advanced features are thrown in your face. They are there if you go looking for them, but if you want to sit back and enjoy an easy-to-use pocket camera, then you can do that without hassle.
The high price is certainly not for everyone, but the RX100 VI is a camera that you can grow into over time. You can also still buy older RX100 models brand new for much less money, and while they can’t match the performance of the mark VI, they still shoot stunning images thanks to very similar sensors.
Why should you buy this: Water, dust, and shock-proof; built-in GPS.
Who’s it for: Outdoor adventurers and travelers of all types
Why we picked the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-5:
When you need a camera that can handle being dropped down a small cliff into a stream and then run over by an ATV and live to tell about it, the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-5 is for you.
With adventurers in mind, the TG-5 is waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, drop-proof from a height of 7 feet, and crush-proof to 200 pounds of pressure. It features a built-in GPS with geotagging and location logging abilities that can create a map of your adventure viewable in the Olympus Image Track app.
While its sensor is smaller than the 1-inch units in most of the other cameras on this list, it’s still not too shabby in the image quality department. The resolution has actually dropped from the TG-4 to 12MP, but this improves low-light performance, which pairs nicely with the 25-100mm (full-frame equivalent) f/2.0-4.9 lens. It also offers RAW files for maximum quality; a 20fps burst mode; and 4K video. Plus, it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, like an excellent macro mode and an effortless Live Composite mode that makes light-painting a breeze.
Olympus has since announced the TG-6, but the newest version includes few upgrades — most notably, the lens coatings designed to reduce flare. If the two cameras are priced similarly, go with the TG-6, but if the TG-5 is significantly cheaper, there’s not too much of a feature gap between the two.
Sure, most smartphones have some degree of weatherproofing these days, and with a decent case they can even survive a good tumble, but why risk damaging your phone when cameras like the TG-5 are around?
Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a beginner-friendly price tag.
Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless cameras
Why we picked the Canon EOS M6:
While the growth of the mirrorless ecosystem means there’s now a pro-level performer in every category packed full of incredible features, camera companies aren’t leaving entry-level users behind. The Canon EOS M6 is a beginner-friendly camera that won’t break the bank.
The M6 shares the same sensor as the pricier, more advanced EOS M5, which means image quality is identical to the higher-end model — and we always love to see budget cameras that don’t skimp on image quality. The build quality is also similar and feels solid and durable in the hand. It has a good control layout, with dual command dials that work great in manual exposure mode, giving it some room to grow into.
So if image quality and build are similar, what did the M6 give up to hit that price? It ditches the electronic viewfinder of the M5, leaving only the LCD screen for composing your shot. Like the M5, there’s no 4K video, and since Canon was a bit late to the mirrorless game, there aren’t as many lens options compared to other brands. There is also Canon’s new EOS M50, offers 4K for a similar price point, but we prefer the control layout of the M6.
Why should you buy this: The GH5 is a hybrid camera that’s can shoot both stills and video without cutting corners.
Who’s it for: Creatives who put as much emphasis on motion content as they do on still photos.
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:
All the cameras on this list shoot video, and most even shoot 4K. But in most cameras, video is a secondary focus. Not so with the Lumix GH5. Where many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have short recording limits for 4K, the GH5 will happily continue shooting until the card fills up or the battery dies — and it boasts smooth-as-butter 60-fps 4K, to boot. Beyond that, it offers a number of video features targeting professional users, including 10-bit 4:2:2 recording, clean HDMI output, and an optional log gamma profile via paid firmware upgrade. (The recently released Lumix GH5S takes video quality to a new level, but the standard model remains the better choice for most users thanks to its 5-axis image stabilization.)
While video is a big selling point for the GH5, the camera can hold its own among other Micro Four Thirds shooters for still photos. The five-axis image stabilization plays a role for both videos and photos, the Depth from Defocus autofocus is nearly as quick as on the Lumix S1, and burst shooting is even faster, up to 9 fps with continuous autofocus or 12 fps with focus locked on the first frame. The GH5 also has several Panasonic-exclusive features, including 4K and 6K photo modes where you can choose the focus point after the shot, merge several images together for a deeper depth of field, or shoot reduced-resolution still photos at 60 or 30 fps, respectively.
Like the hybrid photo-video capabilities, the GH5’s body feels more like a DSLR/mirrorless hybrid. It’s smaller than most DSLRs, but there are plenty of physical controls, a great electronic viewfinder, and dual SD card slots. While you can buy cameras with larger sensors for the same price, the GH5 has the best mix of photo and video options we’ve seen yet, and outclasses many cameras costing much more when it comes to pro video features.
How does a digital camera work?
Digital cameras use a lens to focus light onto an electronic imaging sensor. This sensor — the digital equivalent of analog film — is composed of millions of light-sensitive pixels that see either red, green, or blue light. When processed, those pixels combine to create a full-color image. Sensors come in a variety of sizes, and the bigger the sensor, the bigger the lens needs to be. This is why DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can be very large, while point-and-shoots and camera phones are impressively compact. In general, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality — especially in low light settings.
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and it is an evolution of the film-era SLR. These cameras use interchangeable lenses and mirrors to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. When you hold your eye to the viewfinder of a DSLR, you are seeing directly through the lens like a window. As optical viewfinders have no pixels, they offer a very clean and responsive view, but they can’t show you exposure simulation in real time and they don’t work at all for video or live view shooting.
What is a mirrorless cameras?
A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses. It’s related to the DSLR, but do not confuse the two as the same. Mirrorless cameras do away with a DSLR’s bulky mirror system (hence the name) and instead use electronic viewfinders, or simply no viewfinder at all (as is the case in the Canon EOS M6). This allows for lighter and smaller designs, but professional models can still be somewhat bulky and heavy. Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses and typically use larger sensors than point-and-shoots, which leads to superior image quality.
Are digital cameras allowed on airplanes?
Yes. Digital cameras are, in fact, better to take with you than film cameras, as film over ISO 800 can be damaged by x-ray machines. Most camera accessories are also allowed on planes, including tripods. The major thing to watch out for are the lithium ion batteries that digital cameras use. Keep these in your carry-on luggage. Airport baggage handlers may remove them from checked bags as lithium batteries can pose a fire hazard (although the risk is much lower with camera batteries than, say, phone batteries, as they are not nearly as dense).
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