What You Should Buy

This is point in the year more cameras are sold than any other time. If you’re not buying a camera as a gift for someone else, you’re probably buying your own “present” using the justification of Christmas ;~). 

Before picking a few winners, let me say this: pretty much any digital camera launched in the last year is way above the “good enough” bar for most people. If you buy pretty much any of those cameras and can’t get good results up to about what the biggest inkjet printers can produce (13x19”) in most types of light (e.g to about ISO 3200), it’s not the camera you should be examining (unless it’s broken). 

The real issue for most people is convenience. How much do they have to learn and master to get those excellent results? A camera with a complex, inexplicable menu system “isn’t as good” as one that pretty much shoots magically out of the box, at least for most people. Lots of folk get excited about mirrorless focus speeds these days, but forget that one of the key attributes of DSLRs was the control of the focus system. 

Personally, I’ve always held as my standard “optimal data.” By that I mean what camera allows me to get the best possible set of image data? That’s a trickier question than just “sensor capability.” You can have a great sensor and terrible exposure control and get worse results than with a camera that has a good sensor and great exposure control, for example. Ditto with focus. Ditto with flash. Ditto with lens capabilities. Ditto with a long list of things. 

So with that in mind, I’m going to “anoint” a few cameras that I think are clear winners. The ones that you should be thinking of buying this holiday season if you think that you need a new camera and you desire optimal data. I’ll probably offend a few folk along the way who think their camera is “better” or that I missed something. However, I’ll remind you that I’m one of the few folk who actually goes out and shoots with most of these products in real situations and was trained by some of the pixel peeping best. Still, these are my opinions, not facts, so don’t fall over yourself if I don’t name your camera ;~). 

Best Pocket Camera
The Sony RX100III, hands down, and that’s despite having a number of flaws in the UI and full user control of critical elements, such as autofocus. First and foremost, it really does fit in a shirt pocket. There are a lot of pocket pretenders out there that don’t fit in a standard shirt pocket, but maybe do just fine in your jacket pocket. 

Sony’s managed to create a better 1” sensor than Nikon did with Aptina, and the Nikon sensor was clearly pulling above its weight class when it appeared. The BSI in the latest model of the Sony does net a bit more dynamic range and low light performance than the original RX100 had, so Sony didn’t sit on its hands when they started iterating this camera. Expect excellent 20mp data sets in good light. Expect that you’ll probably be applying noise reduction at ISO 800 and above. But that’s okay. At 20mp we’re often in the diffraction zone with this camera, and I tend to consider it an excellent 10-12mp camera right up to about ISO 3200 when all is said and done. If you need more pixels than that from your pocket, you’re even more into the tail end of quality than I am. Congratulations. Unfortunately, you won’t find what you’re looking for ;~)

One glaring UI flaw is the EVF/power link. Pop up the EVF and the camera turns on. Okay, great. Push the EVF back down and the camera turns off. No, not so great. That’s because there are lots of times when I want to go from the EVF to the tilting LCD for some reason, and the power cycling on this camera is sluggish. It’s not an instant on camera. Thus it shouldn’t also be an instant off camera. Focus control is also limited, as it is on virtually all the Sony compacts and mirrorless cameras. Someone at Sony needs to talk to someone who actually plays AF systems like a violin virtuoso and rethink their controls. 

That said, this camera goes everywhere with me, and it’s always performed to my high expectations. I’ve had a photo editor look at one of my RX100III photos and think it came from my D810. I’m very satisfied with my RX100III, even though I could describe about a dozen things that would make it even better. 

Two suggestions: buy one of the optional stick-on grips and extra batteries.

Honorable mention: the Panasonic LX100. No, it won’t fit in a shirt pocket. But purist photographers will love the controls, I think (real aperture ring, real shutter speed ring, real exposure compensation ring, etc.). The bigger sensor is a plus (though it dictated the size of the camera), and the lens is really nice, too. If only I wore jackets all the time (written a few minutes after my neighbors saw me out shoveling snow in a t-shirt and flip flops ;~). 

Best All-Around Camera
Another win for Sony, though a narrow one: the RX10. Again with that 1” sensor, but the big news is the 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens and some pretty nifty video capabilities. When I heard that National Geographic photographer Bob Krist was using one it took me about all of a half second to think “yeah, that makes sense.” 

I will say that this camera is all about compromise, as any all-in-product tends to be. It’s not the smallest or lightest option you can find. It’s not the one with the biggest lens. It’s not the biggest sensor, either. When people talk about “good enough,” the RX10 is pretty much a perfect example in almost every respect. It has good enough AF. It has a good enough sensor. It has good enough features. It has more than good enough handling. And it has a fantastic lens that’s versatile, and some really excellent video abilities, including the ability to export uncompressed 1080P/60 video if you need it. 

Some might think it a little pricey, but it’s a well made camera and has that Zeiss-designed lens out front that’s pretty special. It can even shoot silently if you need to, and it has WiFi that mostly works well. I will say that the JPEG rendering needs a bit of tweaking to look its best and it’s not a continuous burst shooting camera, but again, it’s all-in-one, something has to give. 

Let me put it this way, if someone offered you a 24-200mm f/2.8 Zeiss lens for US$1000, would you buy it? Yes, and you get a free camera ;~). A darned good camera.

Best All-Around Mirrorless Camera
Okay, this is a tough call. A really tough call because a lot of companies upped their game in the past year or two. The candidates are: Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus OM-D E-M1, Sony A6000, Sony A7. If I had any experience with it, I might be tempted to put the Samsung NX1 in that list, too. 

The winner is…

…well, okay, a bit more. The interesting thing about the four cameras I mentioned is that the lens sets are diverging. Since you buy a mirrorless camera for the interchangeable lenses (otherwise why not the all-around RX10?), I think everyone has to think about what they value in lenses. Here’s how it breaks down for me:

  • If you need every type of lens in your stable, and especially if you need every focal length of prime: Olympus. I can’t fault m4/3 for lenses. Not at all. I’m getting ready to do an all-m4/3 trip, and frankly there isn’t a lens I would want that isn’t available. Not only available, but damned good optically, if not great. Lens junkies need to consider m4/3.
  • If you’re the old F-mount collector: Fujifilm. No, the Fujifilm cameras aren’t F-mount. But the Fujifilm lens options feel a lot like legacy Nikkors: metal, well-made, aperture rings (many, not all), silky focus rings, and so on. Heck, even Zeiss is making Fujifilm XF mount lenses, and that just reinforces that legacy feeling. I’d say that Fujifilm’s lens lineup is a little inconsistent, though. They range from good to excellent. They seem to have variability in autofocus performance. Stabilization is only on a few lenses. 
  • If you’re the “good enough” type: Sony. This isn’t a slam on Sony’s quality as much as it is on selection. We now have 16-200mm covered in three f/4 zooms. f/4 zooms, not f/2.8. Which means that in some cases you can give back some of the light those Sony sensors do so well with. Thus my “good enough” comment. The f/4 zoom trio (for both E and FE) are quite good. Not the very best lenses in the world, but certainly a cut above kit lenses. Coupled with a scattering of excellent primes, the Sony lens lineup is “good enough” for most people. 


The winner is…

…okay, I have to say something about sensors. In those choices we have m4/3, APS, and full frame. Many of you put too much energy into the sensor and not enough into the lenses and other things. Realistically, m4/3 is not quite a stop behind APS, and APS is a stop behind full frame. But do you really need those stops? And note that an f/4 zoom may be taking them back compared to a faster lens on a smaller sensor.

The winner is Sony A6000. I’ll have my review of this camera shortly, but it quickly became a favorite of mine. Small and competent are the two words that describe it. My comments about autofocus UI I made with the RX100III apply here, too, though. While the focus is fast, it’s not very controllable. Ergonomically, there are some compromises (rear command dial is too far to the edge, you move your thumb to get to it losing some grip on the camera, for instance). But the camera is small, just as its NEX-5 predecessors were. 

I will say that you need to pay some attention to the lens you put on. Some of the E lenses—the 16mm f/2.8 is notorious—are under performers on a 24mp sensor. On the other hand, some lenses can be very good on this camera (e.g. the 10-18mm f/4). 

Best All-Around DSLR
You know what I’m going to write: Nikon D810. This is a monster of a camera and a very good update to the original D800/D800E twins. Yes, I use it for wildlife photography. Yes, I use it for studio work. Yes, I use it for event work. Yes, I use it…well, for almost everything, with the possible exception being sports at night or indoors. 

The update made the camera quieter, improved the autofocus system a bit, and tweaked the hand position in a good way, amongst other things. In essence, Nikon made an already great camera better with the update. It’s my go-to choice of camera for most assignments. 

Honorable mention: the Nikon D750. I really wish Nikon hadn’t made this the consumer controls but rather the pro ones, but other than that it’s hard to find fault with this camera. Why isn’t the better all-around DSLR? Two words: DX crop. When you need it, the D810 is better than a D300 in pixel count, pixel quality, and even usability for the most part. The D750 is more limited when used in DX, as it nets you only 10mp, and it’s in the consumer cladding. 

So there you have it: what I’d buy for several key categories of camera. Indeed, what I have bought. 

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