Few of us really need so much resolution, but the 61-megapixel full-frame sensor inside theis only one reason it’s the best digital camera. Competition in the full-frame space is stiffer than ever, but Sony continues to lead the industry by pushing technological boundaries. The A7R IV isn’t just the highest-resolution full-frame model, it also features the best autofocus system we’ve tested and can fire away at a snappy 10 frames per second.
As with most things, the best doesn’t cheap, and the A7R IV’s high cost will keep it out of reach of many photographers. Fortunately, there are more choices in cameras than ever before, and no shortage of great ones.
At a glance:
- Best digital camera overall: Sony A7R IV
- Best DSLR camera: Nikon D780
- Best digital camera for travel: Sony RX100 VII
- Best digital camera for kids: Olympus Tough TG-6
- Best digital camera for beginners: Sony A6100
- Best digital camera for video: Panasonic Lumix GH5
Why should you buy this: 61 megapixels of full-frame glory
Who’s it for: Professional and enthusiast photographers that like big prints, big details, or big crops
Why we picked the Sony A7R IV:
I remember when 45 megapixels was a big deal — it wasn’t that long ago, but apparently Sony thinks it’s time to move forward. The A7R IV packs a 61MP full-frame sensor. That’s enough resolution to make very detailed 30-inch prints, or crop a photo significantly and still get a sharp result. But while many high-resolution cameras will slow you down, the A7R IV can fire away at a 10 frames per second. That won’t win a race with the sports-oriented A9, but it’s plenty of speed for most users.
If somehow 61 megapixels isn’t enough, the A7R IV’s pixel shift mode can be used to create a 240-megapixel image, although you’ll have to stitch it together later using Sony’s proprietary software. Equally impressive are the 15 stops of dynamic range that will hold onto more shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast scenes.
The A7R IV also includes in the same features that have kept the entire A7 series at the top of our lists for years. 5-axis stabilization is built into the body, the autofocus system is the best in the business thanks to Real-Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye AF, and it can even shoot decent 4K video despite the processing challenge presented by that 61MP sensor.
Those features are wrapped up in a body that’s familiar to anyone who’s handled a Sony mirrorless camera before, but Sony has made some small enhancements. The grip is a bit deeper and the weather sealing has been improved. Battery life is also excellent for a mirrorless camera, with a CIPA rating of 670 exposures.
Sony is clearly targeting working professionals with the A7R IV, but that doesn’t mean enthusiasts such as myself aren’t drooling over it. No, it’s not cheap, but if you want the best, it’s worth it.
Why should you buy this: Balanced performance, features, images quality, and price
Who’s it for: Anyone who still needs an optical viewfinder and marathon battery life.
Why we picked the Nikon D780:
The D780 isn’t just Nikon’s newest DSLR, it’s also the most refined. It replaces the incredibly popular D750 — from way back in 2014 — and uses an updated 24-megapixel sensor. It is Nikon’s first DSLR to incorporate on-chip phase-detection autofocus, a feature inherited from its mirrorless Z series that gives the D780 responsive performance in live view and video modes. The eye-detection autofocus, in particular, is very impressive.
In fact, the D780 is essentially the DSLR version of the mirrorless Nikon Z 6.
That does beg the question: Why buy the D780 when you could just get the Z 6, which is currently quite a bit cheaper? Honestly, I think most people are better off doing exactly that. Mirrorless cameras offer advantages in packaging, user friendliness, and, at least in this case, price. The Z 6 is a capable camera and I love the strategy Nikon is taking with its Z-series lenses.
The D780, then, is more of a specialist. Many photographers still love using an optical viewfinder, and the D780’s, if nothing new, is still nice, offering 100% frame coverage and a bright pentaprism. Additionally, the larger body of a DSLR can be more comfortable when paired with certain lenses, especially longer zooms that grow too front-heavy on mirrorless cameras.
Battery life is another advantage. Optical viewfinders draw very little power. Combined with efficiency improvements, the D780 can work all day long with a CIPA rating of 2,260 shots per charge. I have to imagine only a small group of people actually need that kind of long-lasting power, but it’s a welcome feature for those who do and means you can save money by not having to buy spare batteries.
The higher-resolution D850 was my previous choice for best DSLR, and that’s still the better camera for some photographers, namely working pros. I think the D780 offers the best balance of features for the price, however, and its 4K video and faster live-view autofocus make it the right choice for the majority of customers. I wish Nikon had put an AF joystick on it, but oh well — you can’t win them all.
See more best DSLR cameras
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 VII:
The seventh generation of Sony’s revolutionary advanced compact improves on an already excellent recipe by adding a no-blackout viewfinder, faster autofocus, and a 3.5mm microphone port. That’s mixed in with a list of don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken features carried over from the RX100 VI.
The 20-megapixel 1-inch-type sensor returns, although continuous shooting speed has dropped slightly from 24 frames per second to 20. As if I’m counting — that’s still ridiculously fast, and the reduction is what allows for the no-blackout viewfinder, arguably a more important feature for keeping up with fast-moving subjects. Additionally, autofocus speed has seen a slight improvement over the VI, too.
Being a Sony, the RX100 VII 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 at reduced resolutions. 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. A 3.5mm microphone jack also found its way into the RX100 VII, a first for the series.
But perhaps best of all is that none of the RX100 VII’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 this is a camera that will easily last you for several years. If you don’t need the latest and greatest, you can still buy older RX100 models brand new for much less money. They can’t match the performance of the mark VII, but they still shoot stunning images thanks to very similar sensors. If the improved viewfinder, slightly faster autofocus, and mic jack don’t impress you, save some cash by opting for the still-great Sony RX100 VI.
See more best point-and-shoot cameras
Why should you buy this: Water, dust, and shock-proof
Who’s it for: Parents, adventurers, and anyone who needs a sturdy point-and-shoot.
Why we picked the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-6:
While Olympus can’t officially call the Tough TG-6 kid-proof, it is waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, can survive a drop from 7 feet, and will even resist 200 pounds of pressure. Your child can drop it in the bath, throw it down the stairs, or run it over with their Tonka truck and the TG-6 will keep ticking. This isn’t built to be a kid’s camera, but it will get the job done.
The TG-6 is about as simple as point-and-shoots get, but it does have some powerful and fun features hidden beneath the surface should you want to use it yourself. The 25-100mm lens offers a decent zoom range and a truly stunning macro mode for detailed close-ups. The light-painting mode is great for camping trips and offers entertainment for creative youngsters armed with flashlights. The camera can even shoot in RAW — although, its small sensor certainly won’t keep up with the image quality from the other cameras on this list. For travel and vacations, it features built-in GPS with geotagging and location logging abilities that can create a map of your adventure viewable in the Olympus Image Track app.
The TG-6 doesn’t have many improvements over the Tough TG-5, but when you can find the TG-5 for sale, it isn’t actually any cheaper. And 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-6 are around?
Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a beginner-friendly price tag that doesn’t skimp on features.
Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless cameras
Why we picked the Sony A6100:
Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras are excellent — but expensive. The Sony A6100 brings some of the best features from the A7 series into a camera that’s less than $900 (including a lens). It still uses the same Sony E mount as the A7, too, so you can use all of the same lenses if you want to be able to upgrade to a full-frame model down the road.
The A6100 sports a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that’s smaller than full-frame, helping the camera keep its low profile. While that does mean low light performance won’t match the full-frame Sonys, it still delivers excellent results for most situations.
You also get Sony’s incredible 425-point hybrid autofocus system. Like the latest A7 models, the A6100 includes Sony’s artificial-intelligence-based Real Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye autofocus technologies for recognizing and following subjects. Its especially useful when shooting photos at 11 fps, the A6100’s maximum burst speed. From keeping up with your pets to capturing all the action of your kid’s little league game, the A6100 has it covered.
Beyond still photography, the A6100 is a strong performer for movies, too. It shoots 4K video and gives you a microphone jack if you want to get serious about upping the audio quality.
While the A6100 is missing out on extras like the image stabilization — a feature included in the pricier Sony A6600 — the camera wraps several big features into an affordable, compact camera. I’m not the biggest fan of Sony’s menu system, but the A6100’s touchscreen makes it easier to use and lends the camera a smartphone-esque feel, making it approachable to first-time camera buyers.
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 of the cameras on this list shoot 4K video, but only in the Lumix GH5 is video not a secondary focus. Where many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have short recording limits, the GH5 will happily continue shooting until the card fills up or the battery dies.
Beyond that, it was one of the first cameras to offer smooth-as-butter 60-fps 4K. It also includes 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 which produces film-like footage suitable for color grading. Even if you don’t care about those features today, I can attest that once you’ve learned how to use them, it’s hard to go back to a lesser machine. Compared to most other mirrorless cameras, the GH5 leaves you room to grow into.
The camera can also hold its own among for still photos. Autofocus is lighting fast and it can shoot 9 frames per second with continuous autofocus, or 12 with focus locked. 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.
While you can buy cameras with larger or higher-resolution sensors for the same price, the GH5 has an unbeatable best mix of photo and video features and outclasses many cameras costing much more when it comes to advanced video functions. The even more video-centric Lumix GH5S further raises the bar, but I’ve kept the standard GH5 in this spot as it’s cheaper, better for still photography, and easier to use thanks to its in-body image stabilization, which the GH5S lacks. Video pros should look into the S model, however.
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, while bigger sensors generally offer better image quality, they also require bigger lenses. This is why DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with full-frame sensors can be very large, while point-and-shoots and camera phones are impressively compact.
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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