Are DSLRs Still The Best Choice?

I'm going to do one of my end-of-year assessments a little earlier this year. Many of you will be struggling with buying decisions this holiday season because of all the higher-end mirrorless cameras that appeared in and around Photokina. I've now had the chance to use virtually every new camera—some for less time than others, obviously—and I am ready to deliver a quick assessment of The State of the ILC.

Full Frame
This is where all the hoopla has been lately, first from Sony, but now from virtually everyone except Fujifilm and Olympus. 

Let me state right up front: the best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Nikon D850. Still. 

Yes, it's larger and heavier than the mirrorless options. It's also better at more things. While the D850 is nowhere near optimal at this, you can even shoot it silently if you need to. But in terms of all-around? Nothing tops it. You've got a state-of-the-art sensor, focus system, UI/ergonomics, viewfinder, feature set, and a biggish buffer on a fast card (XQD). If I were pressed to make a better camera than the D850, I'd be fixing or improving very small things.

I should note that best all-around to me means the ability to go from high resolution shooting to high speed shooting, among other things. The 24mp cameras don't really manage the first, so to even qualify for my "best" categorization, I'd say we need to be at least at 30mp, probably far more. If you're willing to compromise down to 24mp, then you're not looking for "best overall." You're looking for a more lowest common denominator camera (keep reading).

I've never been disappointed with the images coming out of my D850. Pretty much the only time I want to pick up another body is (a) when I need a "faster" camera, in which case I pick up the D5; and (b) when I want a smaller, lighter camera to pack small for casual travel, in which case I pick up the Nikon Z7 or the Sony A7Rm3.

You'll probably be surprised to hear me say the second-best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Sony A7Rm3. The downside is the Sony UI/ergonomics, which is flawed. But in terms of sensor, focus, viewfinder, feature set, buffer? Right up there near the D850 within the margin or error of my assessment ability. It's also a better choice for those that require silent shooting, and do so often. 

Beyond those two, you're clearly "living with compromise" (though note my comment about the Sony's UI/ergonomics, which is also a compromise for many). 

The Z7's big drawback is its continuous autofocus capability, coupled with some simplification from the D850. The simplification many of you may actually approve of, the continuous autofocus performance you won't (compared to the current alternatives; it could still be better than what you're using). Couple that with a more fixed buffer and some other warts when trying to use the Z7 for fast moving objects you want to shoot continuously and the Z7 starts to fall out of the "best all-around" consideration.

Canon's R and 5DIV both check in at the minimum I'd call high resolution, and with a sensor that just doesn't have the shadow-end punch that Nikon and Sony can produce. I think they're both really good cameras, but the R feels a bit more like a UI experiment to me, and the 5Dm4 just doesn't match the D850 in so many ways it has to fall below it. The 5Dm4 was much more competitive with the Nikon D810, and back in 2016 the Canon/Nikon gap wasn't large at all.

The Canon 5DS (and 5DS R) push far into the high resolution end, but then fail at the high speed end. Moreover, in looking at my 5DS images versus my D850 images, I'm not sure I can say the Canon matches the Nikon, despite more pixels. 

Some of you will be chanting "medium format" at this point. Yes. Okay, I'll grant you that at the high resolution usage end that medium format might be the choice for some. But like the Canon 5DS, the Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X1D aren't exactly competing in the fast camera end required to be an all-around champ.

DX (APS-C)
Our four best all-around contenders here end up as the Canon 7Dm2, Fujifilm X-T3, the Nikon D500, and the Sony A6500. 

I don't want to seem like a Nikon shill—anyone who knows me knows I'm not—but it's another win for Nikon with the D500, though this game is closer than it used to be. 

Nikon has three times paired a top pro camera with a really solid more consumer camera (D1/D100, D3/D300, D5/D500). Each time that's produced a truly winning DX/APS-C body for the masses. Yes, at 20mp the D500 is a little short on photosites compared to the others, but its sensor performs really well at base ISO for resolution, plus handles pushes up into high speeds (ISO and frame rates) as good as we get in DX/APS-C. 

The D500 is a mini D5 (and D850), so: rich in features, high in performance. What it doesn't have (buzz, buzz), is a full lens set. You can fix some of that with third-party offerings, but...

...that brings us to the close runner-up, which I'd claim is the Fujifilm X-T3. Fujifilm continues to narrow all the gaps to Nikon in APS-C, though I'd still say the Fujifilm focus system is still somewhat behind. Fujifilm, though, has a pretty full and appropriate lens set up through 200mm that the D500 doesn't. And for some, that may be enough of a tipping point now (again, keep reading). 

The Sony A6500 has the usual Sony problems (UI/ergonomics), plus some additional ones due to its attempt to stay super small. But it's a very good camera choice where portability is concerned, and very close behind the other two if you don't mind some gimmickry and the small, slightly awkward rangefinder style.

Canon? Sorry Canon fans, last place again. What was a pretty competitive option in 2014 just doesn't match up to what the rest of the pack have done since. Canon needs a new sensor and some new technology in whatever the 7Dm3 turns out to be, but it's not looking like that's coming soon.

Final Words
You really can't go wrong with pretty much any current interchangeable lens camera, though. At least in terms of image quality. 

Most of you reading this are probably more in the "good enough all-around" category, not searching for the "best all-around" one. "Good enough" these days is pretty much any 24mp+ sensor in pretty much any current body, and certainly full frame 24mp is more than enough for most folk. Likewise, most of you never really need to shoot at even 5 fps, let alone the higher speeds we see out of the best bodies these days. 

The Sony A7m3 gets a slight nod from me here. Other than the UI/ergonomics issues, it's a really nice combination of capabilities with an excellent full frame sensor. The Z6 slots behind it because of the same reason the Z7 fails to win best overall: continuous autofocus. 

You can't discount the still-available-but-aging Canon 6Dm2 and Nikon D750, either. I'd give the nod to the Nikon over the Canon if you go DSLR for a "good enough all-around" camera, and Nikon's likely to be pretty aggressive on price this holiday season.

A couple of things struck me in thinking back over digital camera history as I wrote this article:

  • Modern lenses really do tackle low-level problems well. It isn't so much that the latest and greatest lens designs are "sharper" in the central area—even though many are—it's that coma, spherical aberration, chromatic aberration, and corner to corner optical performance are all improved. Improved acuity coupled with more accurate optical corrections is a bit like lifting a veil on your imagery. The best of the most recent lenses have a bite and clarity to them from edge to edge that older lenses don't. Maybe you don't want that, but lenses today are closer to what those with 20/10 vision with few spherical aberrations see naturally: high acuity, high contrast, little elongation or spread of light. 

    In the context of this article, if you're seeking "best all-around" camera, you really also need to consider what lenses you're putting up front, too. Indeed, you can start to cripple a "best" camera a bit by putting a poor performing lens on it.

  • Sensors have lifted a visual veil, too. If I look back at my early DSLR work and what I'm doing today, it isn't really the pixel count that impresses me. Many of us were producing two-page magazine spreads early in the century from our low pixel-count cameras and generally happy with the results. No, it's other things about the image sensor than pixel count that have really made today's cameras tangibly better.

    In particular, shadows are dramatically better. Talk about lifting a veil. The D1 series cameras had blocky, mushy, and inaccurate shadow detail that was near impossible to put useful contrast into. Every Nikon/Sony generation of sensor since has improved on the tonal range below middle gray, to the point where today we can lift detail out from many stops below the exposure and not get anything other than the randomness of photons as an unwanted side effect (i.e. quantum shot noise). 

    Highlights are also better, though not as dramatically. Nikon, in particular, is taking advantage of a non-linear shoulder effect in their sensor response to provide a little highlight recovery, and our computer software has gotten better at dealing with all those data bits in the highlights and pulling them apart gracefully for proper highlight contrasts. 

We're going to start pulling hairs soon (if we aren't already doing that). If you handed me any current Nikon DSLR or mirrorless camera, any Sony mirrorless camera, or any Fujifilm mirrorless camera and asked me to go out and "shoot professionally," I could do it. Ditto for any Canon ILC. How happy I would be would have little to do with sensor size or pixel count. It would solely have to do with whether I was fighting the camera's controls to achieve a desired result or not. 

Which brings me full circle to something I started to write about just over a decade ago: your comfort with the handling of the camera means something often much more important than the details about dynamic range, bit depth, or any other measurement you want to examine. 

Personally, I want the best all-around camera in my hands because I shoot a wide variety of subjects and photographic genres. I don't want to be fighting my camera when I do that. The capabilities (frame rate, pixel count, etc.) have to be good and flexible, sure, but so does the feature set and the handling. 

Nikon is getting that last bit—feature set and handling—"more right" than the others. Sony tends to be more emphasizing the first—capabilities, particularly technical ones—than the others. Canon seems to be lagging both the other giants, but following along. Still, it's difficult to go far wrong with selecting any of their current cameras.

And that takes us to the last point this buying season: with camera sales still on the decline, pricing is going to be used as an incentive to goose sales and lower inventories. As I write this, Sony has lowered the price of the A7m2 kit (a mediocre 28-70mm lens is included) to US$1000 [advertiser link], at least temporarily. That's a price less than half what you'd pay for the current generation equivalent (Nikon Z6, Sony A7m3). Are you really getting double the value by buying the current cameras? Probably not. 

So, take my advice with a grain of whatever mineral you wish to add. I strongly believe I can defend my choices (D850, D500) as "best all-around," but that doesn't mean that they're the right choice for you. Consider buying a generation back or a runner-up to save money and then put what you saved into a better lens, for example. Make sure the camera doesn't get in your way when you're shooting (UI/ergonomics; and a corollary: that it's not too complicated for you to understand all that it can do). 

We actually will live in a world of plenty—other than perhaps Nikon dealer inventories for certain items ;~)—this holiday season. Plentiful great cameras. Plentiful excellent lenses. Plentiful deals that come and go quickly. 

That's actually the reason why I'm writing this article before the buying season rather than after it this year: with all the new additions and temptations, I think you need a strategy for GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) before we get to the big discounting that will occur. Make sure you know what you're looking for and why. And don't be afraid to pick up just about any interchangeable lens camera if it meets your needs.

Both amateurs and pros can take better photos today than they could five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The equipment has gotten better and gives you more options than ever before. You can obsess about the details if you want, but for the most part that won't usefully improve your photography.

text and images © 2018 Thom Hogan
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