Top Dogs

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re interested in “best in class” in terms of a camera. What exactly would that be?

We’re not going to consider price or format here, we’re simply trying to pick best performance.

First we have to define some classes. My classes might not exactly match yours, but this is how my photographic life is structured photographically, so that’s how I’m going to present it:

  • Speed Workhorse
  • Pixel Proliferator
  • Smaller Workhorse
  • All-in-One
  • Pocketable Rocket

Speed Workhorse
Canon and Nikon have owned this category for some time with their top DSLR efforts. Both iterated this year (1DxII, D5) and pushed things forward. Get in a time machine and go back 20 years and hand either of those models to a working pro and they’ll foam at the mouth with excitement. Heck, you might only have to travel back 5-10 years to do that. It’s hard to argue against either product, especially when you couple them with the huge existing lens sets from both companies. Both companies also get a little extra credit for having very credible crop sensor versions of their top product (7DII, D500). 

The lens set is really important here. That’s because Sony’s recent A99 Mark II surprise certainly can make claims to be in the same category as the Canikon Titans. The question is whether or not the lens set you’d use with the A99II is too dependent upon lenses made 10+ years ago, or if it has significant gaps in it (e.g. practical 200-400mm zoom).

Meanwhile, Fujifilm and Olympus are clearly trying to get in the same water, though with smaller sensors. Olympus certainly has the lens set to match up to a pro’s needs already, Fujifilm a little less so, particularly as you reach into telephoto needs. The real question for Olympus is whether “speed” as a requirement also means high ISO values. The real question for Fujifilm is whether they can fill in the telephoto lens lineup.

Still, I just don’t see how you beat a 1DxII or D5 for sports and wildlife today, which is where a lot of the Need for Speed demand is. If you’re on a budget, pick the 7DII or D500. If you don’t shoot a lot of telephoto, consider the X-T2. 

Pixel Proliferation
This category is getting a lot of love, especially since we’ve got “affordable” medium format now entering into the picture. The Nikon D800, then D810, really has had a long lock on this category, especially when you consider that those cameras were extremely well-rounded shooters with a deep and wide available lens set. In a pinch, you can use a D810 for just about anything, which makes the fact that it does it with so many pixels that were so nicely rendered how it became my “best all around DSLR” for the past two years. 

What’s changed is that Nikon has clear competition in this category now. You have to consider the Canon 5Ds/r, the Fujifilm GFX, the Hasselblad XCD, the Ricoh K-1, and the Sony A7rII if you’re a pixel pusher, and each of those has something that the D810 doesn’t. The 5Ds/r has more pixels, the GFX/XCD have a bigger capture format and more pixels, the K-1 has multi-shot capabilities on still subjects that get us essentially non-Bayer data, and the A7rII is a pretty small package that has some things that the D810 doesn’t (42mp versus 36mp isn’t enough difference to matter, IMHO). 

But even though it’s the oldest of the bunch, the D810 is still holding it’s own, and I anticipate any update to it to push it back more clearly as the all-around pixel champ. If you’re rich and only shoot at a few mostly mid-range focal lengths, pick one of the medium format cameras. If you’re willing to compromise on lens quality somewhat for convenient size, pick the Sony A7rII (once we start matching up f/2.8 lenses, the smaller body size really doesn’t factor in to your kit size, and the D810 is far better ergonomically). If you’ve got a large Canon lens set, pick the 5Ds/r. 

Smaller Workhorse
What I’m referring to here is the “good enough” camera that’s a jack of all (most) trades. There isn’t anything it’s terrible at, but it’s the best of nothing. You really have to consider lens set here, and you have to consider sensor size. The former because it’s not really a jack of all trades if the lenses aren’t there (buzz, buzz). The latter because it determines the “good enough” bar you’re trying to get over.

With full frame, the cameras in this category that stand out are the Canon 6D, the Nikon D750, and the Sony A7II. The Sony lags on lenses and ergonomics, and if you’re not going to go with the f/4 lens set, I think ends up off the table for consideration. The Canon and the Nikon are really good all-around cameras, though I think the D750 edges the 6D, mostly because it sets a very high image quality bar. It’s not just “good enough,” but about as good as 24mp full frame gets. The D750 with the right recent f/1.8G primes is stunningly good, and certainly falls into the “smaller” category when kit size is considered.

But most people buy crop sensor cameras for a smaller workhorse. There things get very fuzzy. In terms of bodies, the Canon 80D and Nikon D7200 are the strongholds of the Big Two. Of those, I think the D7200 is the better rounded camera. Just as I’d claim that the D810 is the best all-around full frame DSLR, I’d claim that the D7200 is the best all-around APS/DX DSLR. 

However, for a smaller sensor workhorse camera you really have to consider mirrorless these days. The two that come to mind are the Sony A6300/A6500, and the Fujifilm X-T2. Both these are approaching DSLR-level capabilities in every way. Each has a fairly clear differential that intrigues the photographer looking at this category. 

For the Sony A6xxx models, it’s the very small size of the camera and their strong video capabilities. Coupled with the f/4 lenses, you end up with a very compact kit, though slightly compromised in the corners of the frame (vignetting, sharpness, and losses due to auto distortion control). 

For the Fujifilm X-T2, the advantages are the huge view through the EVF—you really have to see it and compare directly to the others in this category at the same time to fully appreciate it—coupled with a very well thought out set of lenses that have excellent characteristics. 

This is one reason why I’ve been harping on Nikon (and more recently Canon) to improve its crop sensor lens lineup (coupled with my buzz, buzz every time I mention it in passing). The Canon 80D and the Nikon D7200 would just clearly own this category hands down, no matter how good the mirrorless offerings are, if they just had a full, size-appropriate lens set. Coupled with the advantage they get in the telephoto range due to the existing full frame lens set they can mount, there’d just be no reason to switch to mirrorless had Canikon protected the realm. 

That said, I’d still point to the Nikon D7200 as a clear leader here. But I’m also going to point you to third-party lenses instead of Nikon lenses for the wide angle through normal focal range (buzz, buzz). Tsk, tsk, Nikon. 

As we leave the interchangeable lens cameras we get to the category where you buy a single product that does everything for you. That means it needs a great sensor, good controls, excellent focus performance, and a great lens with a fairly wide focal range. 

The Sony RX10III really owns this category (as did its predecessors; disclosure: I bought my mom one of these). 1” sensor, DSLR-style body and controls, a 24-600mm (equivalent) f/2.4-4 lens up front. Yep, all-in-one. That the RX10III also is a credible 4K video camera just adds to the all-ness. At 37 ounces (1051g) it’s not terrible in size, clocking in at even the crop-sensor-DSLR-with-kit-lens type of weight. 

The limiting factor on the RX10III is the sensor. As good as the 1” sensor is, we’re still three stops down from the expected full frame sensor performance, all else equal. The secondary limiting factor is that many things are little laggy compared to the DSLR world: EVF, focus, buffer, zooming, etc. 

Still, it’s a pretty impressive package that is capable of great results used well. The only real competitor to it is the Panasonic FZ2200/2500 (and perhaps the older FZ1000). A bit less lens (24-400mm equivalent), but a slightly faster focus system, and a slight more tilt towards handling the video side as opposed to the still side.

Pocketable Rocket
It seems clear that the Sony RX100V is setting a new bar here. At one time I might have argued that—with the right lens—a Nikon 1 might get a nomination here, it’s just tough to match what RX100V provides in such a small package. The Panasonic LX10 and the Nikon DL24-85 (should it ever appear) are looking a lot less best in class than when they were announced, though again we’re not considering price in this article.

Full Kit
I shoot a wide range of things from sports to wildlife, events to product shots. Obviously, I have needs that are beyond a single of the categories I list above. Since I have a Nikon lens set in the gear closet, I tend towards staying in the Nikon realm, but that doesn’t stop me from evaluating and considering the others. 

So what do I shoot with?

Speed: D5 and D4, D500 at times
Pixels: D810
Small Workhorse: D7200, D500 at times
All-in-One: not a category I’m currently using
Pocketable: been using an LX100, but that will change soon, probably to the Sony RX100V, but I’m waiting to actually get hands on with the recent cameras first

And the other products I can recommend based on shooting experience:

Speed: 1Dx, 1DxII, perhaps 7DII on budget
Pixels: 5Dr/s, A7rII, maybe K-1 if you’ve got the right lens set
Small Workhorse: 6D, D750 for full frame, X-T2, A6300 for crop sensor
All-in-One: RX10III, FZ2200/2500, FZ1000 on a budget
Pocketable: still examining this category

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