Best Versus All-Around

I've written many times that the Nikon D850 is the best all-around ILC you can get, and the Sony A7Rm3 is my runner up. I haven't explicitly laid out the case of how I make such a determination. So let me do so today.

To understand how you get to a really good "all around" camera definition, you have to first understand "best."

Jim Kasson recently posted something that spoke directly to the way I think. 

Think of it this way: what's the best camera for sports? For landscapes? For portraits? For black and white shooting? For macro work? (We can keep generating more task-specific cases, but let's not make this article too long ;~). 

Basically pick a specific category that someone might specialize in and choose the very best still camera tool we currently have available for doing that. What we end up with is something like this:

  • Best sports camera — I'd argue that the Nikon D5 is that camera, with the Sony A9 being a strong contender for certain situations where the 20 fps or silent shooting is truly necessary. There's just not a better camera at capturing moving subjects at any speed at high frame rates than the D5. The "keeper rate" on my D5 is higher than I've achieved on any other camera, and I've spent a lot of time with other products trying to top that. It also helps that the D5 is brutally rugged—never know when that receiver is going to knock me over on the sidelines—and as weatherproof as anything the big boys have made. These things are all reasons why the A9 comes in second, by the way. Yes, I know some Canon fans are upset at this point because I didn't put the 1DXm2 at the same level. But truly, I don't think it is. It's not that the 1DXm2 is a bad camera, it's just that it is now lagging slightly in a number of areas that I feel would be important to a sports shooter. Not lagging by much, but remember, we're trying to define "best." The bars being set here are: focus performance, buffer performance, frame rate, low light performance, ergonomics, battery life, and the intersection of all those things.
  • Best landscape cameraI think we have to look at medium format for this, which nets us the Fujifilm GFX50S as best. Why not the Hasselblad X1D? It's a simpler camera lacking a few features that landscape shooters will almost certainly want. In terms of image quality, though, the differential is pretty much solely dependent upon what lens you put in front of that big 50mp sensor, so one might argue for either camera. I haven't tried all the lenses, so can't say if that shifts my choice a bit. The bars being set here are: dynamic range, pixel count, and static focus help.
  • Best macro cameraWhile macro is basically defined by lenses—which puts an early lead to the big lens sets of Canon and Nikon—the camera can contribute heavily here, too. Focus stacking, dynamic range, ability to remove all shutter/vibration from the image data, and focus peaking become the bars that establish one camera as being better than another here. Arguably the Fujifilm GFX50S and Nikon D850 fit those parameters best at the moment.
  • Best black and white cameraIt won't be a Bayer camera ;~). One might argue that an X-Trans camera would be slightly better, but it won't be an X-Trans camera, either. In all likelihood, it's not even a Leica Monochrom M that turns out to be best, but a Phase One monochrome back. The bar here is simple: full luminance data captured at every position, and plenty of pixel count. 
  • Best portrait cameraHere we'll likely get into some arguments. Portraits (and most studio work) set both a high bar and a low bar simultaneously. And that has mostly to do with moire. While the high-end studio/portrait work wants high resolution, it also doesn't want moire, nor does it want to spend a lot of time doing post processing to remove detail. So this is a tricky category. Very tricky. Cameras that do pixel shift to build RGB data for all capture positions—such as the Olympus E-M1m2, the Panasonic G9, the Sony A7Rm3—have the problem that this function doesn't work with moving subjects, and that can rule them out for portraiture, though not for taking static product shots that include fabrics. I'm not sure there's a "best" in this category, which is a bit shocking considering how big a photographic category it is.

Now take the Nikon D850 and run it against all the "bests" (including in categories I didn't mention here). It's already in one of the lists (macro). It comes reasonably close to the sports camera at the top of list, giving up bits and pieces at each piece of the bar, but not a lot. It comes mighty close to the landscape best, missing a bit with dynamic range and a tiny bit with pixel count. The two weakest aspects would be as a black and white camera or as a portrait camera: in both those cases it has clear weaknesses to whatever we might proclaim as best. 

The Sony A7Rm3 is a bit behind the D850 in sports, landscape, and macro (and again, other categories I'm not defining here). Not far behind, but in my analysis, behind. Which is why I proclaim it as the second-best all-around ILC you can purchase.

At this point you might be able to see how the other cameras start to fall further behind in the all-around category:

  • The m4/3 cameras miss on dynamic range, pixel count (for any moving subject), focus performance, and more in the all-around category compared to those two full frame cameras I just mentioned. Likewise, the DX/APS-C cameras tend to have many of the same weaknesses. (Note: this doesn't make any of them "bad cameras," just that they're not going to get my "all around" endorsement over the two cameras I've identified.)
  • The Canon DSLRs are a bit long-in-the-tooth at one end (e.g. 1DXm2) and didn't quite match the level of the Nikon/Sony at the other (e.g. 5Dm4). The common complaint you hear from Canon users is that they wish their cameras had something that they see in the Nikon DSLRs or Sony mirrorless cameras. Those Canon shooters are basically happy, but they see that they've been leapfrogged. That's not the first time that's happened, and Canon has always eventually leapfrogged back, but that's not the case today as I write this.
  • The Sony A7m3 is an interesting case in point. No, it does not focus as well as even the A9 for sports. No, it doesn't have the pixels for landscapes. It's not set up to shine at macro work. It has a one-axis AA filter which I don't think really solves the moire problem. At least not the way I'd want it solved. Is it a "good all around camera"? Sure. Is it the best? No. 

You'll probably have noticed that I didn't mention event shooters in the above discussion. That's because you never really know what you'll need in event shooting. The pixel count bar typically isn't very high for event shooters, which leads them to lower pixel count cameras to keep low-light abilities up, but in most of the other things an event shooter is going to want the best all-around camera. 

Which is one reason why I see a lot of event shooters step down one step from what I call the two-best all-around cameras to the next two-best: the 24mp full frame cameras, specifically the Nikon D750 and the Sony A7m3. 

I also haven't mentioned video. I do take that into account when I anoint my best all-around comments to a product. As it turns out the Nikon D850 and Sony A7Rm3 are both really good video cameras, with slightly different drawbacks (for Nikon it's video autofocus, for Sony it's the fact that the A7Rm3 bins 4K at full crop, or makes you go to APS-C crop to get a better image). 

Still, I also note that very few DSLR/mirrorless shooters outside a number of Sony vloggers are shooting video with what are effectively still cameras (at Kando 2.0, I noted that many of those Sony vloggers are using A6xxx bodies anyway, because they want something small, light, and better suited to a handheld gimbal). 

So there you have it: I start by trying to define best in a number of photographic categories (again, more than I've described above), then evaluate all cameras against how they stand up to those bests. Sometimes I discover a new "best" winner, as I did when I started using and then reviewed the Nikon D5 (sports). Sometimes I discover a camera that does really well up against the best, as I did when I started using and evaluating the Sony A7Rm3 and Nikon D850 (landscape). 

But I'm always looking at the balance across categories, too. That Nikon D5 is a beast for sports, but it's not even close to the camera I'd pick for landscapes. The Nikon D850 isn't terrible at sports—indeed it's better than we had a couple generations ago—and it is a camera I'd pick up for landscapes.  

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