Always with a thumb clamped on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, herewith TOP's totally idiosyncratic, completely subjective, plausibly deniable, and cheerfully self-incriminating list of Digital Cameras We Love at the cusp of 2015—the digital cameras we think are the hottest at the moment and the most desirable.
1. Sony A7II. And the camera o' the moment is...
Canon and Nikon should thank their lucky stars that Sony doesn't understand the old Camera System concept that they themselves have understood for so long. A Canon rep explained to me back in the '90s that Canon didn't care if it ever recouped its investment costs on the three tilt-shift lenses for the EOS system...the point was that certain pros needed such lenses and would switch to the Canon system in order to get them. Which meant that those pros would also begin buying Canon bodies, Canon lenses, and Canon accessories, and would switch from NPS to CPS, and would lend their implicit endorsement and the prestige of their professional accomplishments to Canon instead of to Nikon. Sure enough, over the next dozen years I heard many stories of pros switching systems to get their hands on those lenses—or the white fluorite teles, or some other goodie that Canon had created specifically to entice them. And that is how Canon went from #2 to #1.
And that is why Sony will stay at #3. Sony's happy throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall strategy—the opposite of the Camera System concept—is, however, keeping amateurs and enthusiasts delighted and entertained. With its go-anywhere, do-anything product strategy and fictional roadmaps of phantom lenses that never materialize, Sony has become the most fun camera company of all, even eclipsing Fuji in that regard. And Nikon and Canon sit safe and smug behind their allegedly unbreachable Maginot Line of oldthink DSLRs.
And the most delightful of all Sony's entertaining products in 2014 have been the full-frame mirrorless A7[x] cameras. There were three, including the original A7, the 36-megapixel A7R, and the speedy videocentric A7S. But now, before the ink is even dry on the A7's paper manual (the camera was introduced a mere 14 months ago), Sony has retooled it, revising the grip and shutter button and adding the world's first full-frame five-axis in-body image stabilization.
Our standard advice for Sony is the same as for Kyocera's old Contax (for which Zeiss also made lenses): make sure the lenses and accessories you want already exist and are offered for sale, and do not count on any particular lenses, even specifically promised ones, actually appearing at any time in the future. You have been warned! Sony is not a system camera company.
But if you can deal with that, oh boy are these things wonderful.
2. Olympus OM-D E-M1. An interesting and curious fact about photography is that even many people who do it for a living also do it as a hobby. It's not unique in that respect—I know some car mechanics who are the same way, and even some airline pilots who fly small planes for fun. Few camera types offer more pure fun than mirrorless Micro 4/3. You can adapt other lenses, or use a broad array of native Micro 4/3 lenses from Olympus, Panasonic, Panasonic/Leica, Voigtländer, Rokinon, Bower, Tamron, Tokina, Mitakon, Samyang, Sigma, and even a company incongruously (well, in this instance at least) called "SLR Magic." This de facto lineup might not be very rationalized or comprehensive, but it sure is fun—a 21mm-e ƒ/0.95 lens—made of metal? Are you kidding?
The OM-D E-M1 is one of two premium/flagship/"pro" Micro 4/3 cameras (the other being the GH4). Although the menus are a bit of a Chinese puzzle box, the build quality is what you'd expect for the price, the ergonomics are outta this world, and the 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS) works a treat. A hit from the get-go and a very fine effort from the engineers at Oly.
3. Sony RX100 III. One way to remove a system's lens line from consideration is to buy a fixed lens camera (such as our #10). While we love both the popular Fuji X100t and the beautiful full-frame Sony RX1, the current king of pocketable fixed-lens cameras for enthusiast photographers is the wee little 1"-sensor Sony RX100III.
It's had a surprisingly long reign, considering the fierce competition from all quarters and the fickle nature of consumers. Sony releases new models even while the old model is still selling fine, like Honda does with Accords. It's a tried and tested way of staying on top.
It's smaller than you can get a sense for online, so it really is handy to carry around in a pocket, briefcase, glovebox, or purse. As for the best reason to get one, consider Dpreview's comment: "The RX100 III offers the best image quality of any pocketable camera we've ever seen." 'Nuff said.
4. Nikon D750. Pros and amateurs alike these days love full-frame—i.e., cameras with 24x36mm sensors. (Nikon's other most-coveted camera is its D810.) The new D750 is the spiritual heir of the exceptionally popular D700. The landscape has changed a lot since the D700 came out, so the two cameras aren't actually all that similar...
...But the gestalt is. With the 24-megapixel sensor similar to the one in the lower-level D610 and most of its other features inherited from the D810, The D750 is the sweet-spot full-frame camera in the Nikon lineup for enthusiasts. And the one most desired by the greatest number of diehard Nikon shooters.
5. Fujifilm X-T1. Yr. Hmbl. Ed.'s favorite camera o' the moment, mainly because of four things: the huge, gorgeous viewfinder; the well-thought-out lens line; the ease with which Fuji's X-trans files convert to B&W; and the knobs 'n' dials aesthetic of the camera controls.
Of course, only two of those four things are exclusive to the X-T1. Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are the way of the future—they'll eventually largely replace SLR mirrors because they'll be easier and cheaper to manufacture once the technology is more developed and more mature. Precision will also be less costly to achieve (there is considerable manufacturing slop built into the design of less expensive SLRs, and various tricks for helping to hide it). That's why it will happen. Why it's good is that there are a lot of advantages to EVFs: they can brighten dark scenes, they can offer various shooting and focusing aids impossible to achieve with optical viewfinders, and they can be converted to different styles (such as B&W) and used for review. (Makers do need to learn to keep the clutter down. You still do need to see what you're pointing the camera at, after all.) The X-T1's viewfinder shows a taste of what the future will hold, and lo, it is good. Very pleasing; sets the "feel" of the whole camera.
The very thing that some people will love about the X-T1 is what other people won't; its old-fashioned controls allow you to check many basic settings visually, but lack the fluidity of configurable control wheels and greater automation. There are still a few shortcomings even to Fuji's knobs 'n' dials implementation—the one thumbwheel is spongy, small, and hard to operate, and the exposure comp dial needs a press-on, press-off lock similar to the Olympus E-M1's PASM dial lock. Still, the X-T1 does the knobs 'n' dials thing the best of any modern camera.
The overriding feeling this wonderful little camera gives you is that it's just seductively fun to use. It does everything well. A perfect hobbyist camera of its time.
[UPDATE: Firmware v.3 was released just yesterday. Thanks to Stephen Scharf for this. —Ed.]
6. Canon 7D Mark II. There is now, finally, the faint scent of obsolescence beginning to cling to the flipping mirror. SLRs, which took the camera market by storm starting in the late 1950s, are finally on their way out. (Good harbingers of what's to come are provided further up on this list.)
And yet the species has reached a state of impressive development and high refinement. A pro photographer TOP reader, Michael J. Perini, writing about his wife's original 7D cameras (she's a pro too, and so is their daughter), said "there is nothing glamorous about a 7D except it works flawlessly, focuses in the dark, and provides gorgeous files at ISO 800...it's a working person's tool. It never breaks...it is a pro workhorse." The 7D Mark II puts all, or nearly all, of the flagship features, the best Canon has, in a standard-sized body. Nothing has been held back. (Michael feels the needs of working pros are often overlooked in photo-website discussions of cameras.)
He himself shoots the full-frame 1Ds Mark III (precursor to the $6,800 1D X), and notes that having full-frame and APS-C cameras that take the same lenses is a big plus in a family of working pros.
7. Ricoh GR. This camera has had a great run. It traces its lineage directly back to a series of film cameras that debuted in 1996, and for the last ten years has gone through a number of iterations as a digital camera with a small sensor. The current GR is the fifth in the digital line, and the first with a large APS-C sensor.
Photographers have loved these cameras right along and many have remained loyal. Adherents give the GR series the highest of marks for real-world usability in the field. Can be called a niche camera, but they are beloved of street shooters the world around, and that's no easy niche to fill.
No one knows what Ricoh will do next, but you can bet it won't stray far from the well-proven—and well-liked—magic recipe.
The GR is a steal right now, too. Not only has the camera settled from its inital (and, at the time, competitive) $800 down to $596.95 (at B&H Photo, this is), but you get the great optical viewfinder and a 32GB card too, for...nuthin'. [UPDATE: The free viewfinder is apparently no more. Deals and prices change daily, almost hourly, at this time of year. The free viewfinder deal was active when this post was written. —Ed.] [UPDATE #2: The free viewfinder is still being offered at Adorama as of noon Thursday. —Ed., with thanks to Yonatan Katznelson] Here's the GR at Amazon and at Amazon UK.
8. How could we ever leave the best camera in the world off the list?
While many people who were wedded to the classic 35mm film rangefinders are grateful that Leica was loyal to them by making digital versions of those cameras, it's the Leica S (Typ 007) that's the truest expression of the Kaufmann era in Leica history. And a brilliant expression it is. A system conceived as a whole, it supremely achieves parallel goals: ease of use and image quality.
Now that the lens line has matured, it's better than it's ever been before, too. The S System Leica lenses are the best lenses available for photography. There are now an even ten of them, including one macro, one zoom and one tilt-shift lens. We'd start out with the 45mm and the 100mm (35mm-e and 80mm-e respectively).
Why no higher on the list? Alas, its high price is an unfortunate barrier to wide adoption, and will keep it out of the hands of many photographers—most people will never get to try one. There are more practical choices. However, this is the camera for you when only the best quality will do.
9. Ricoh Pentax K-3: A fan favorite, winner of popularity polls if not critics' choice awards, Ricoh's Pentax K-3 quietly continues on its way as perhaps the best alternative to the Big Two DSLR makers known collectively as Canikon.
The camera's lineage started out with the workmanlike, well-judged K-7 back in 2009, and has been sensibly evolved since then, through the K-5, K-5II, and K-5IIS. It shows the signs both of its sensible workhorse heritage as well as of its continual refinement, improvement, and updating. Unabashedly APS-C (Pentax's full-frame camera is the medium-format 645Z with its awesome 43.8x32.8mm, 51.4-MP CMOS sensor, the only real competitor to Leica's formidable S), the 24-megapixel K-3's fancy dog trick is its switchable virtual anti-aliasing filter. It is also the best attachment point for Pentax's lineup of very fine prime and pancake lenses, including such gems at the Tokina-built 35mm DA Macro, which is spectacularly good; the delicious and unique DA 20–40mm ƒ/2.8–4 ED Limited DC WR; the tiny 40mm true pancake; and legacy lenses like the beautiful 77mm ƒ/1.8 Limited. They're on the expensive side, but ya gotta love it when expensive things are worth it. Pentax's lens lineup might be a motley—requiring considerable deconstruction and research to get a handle on, too—but it's a cornucopia of treasures.
10. Panasonic LX100: One-half of the Micro 4/3 partnership, Panasonic has been on a roll since the GF1, making not only a plethora of pleasing small interchangeable-lensed digicams such as the GM5 (only available with a lens, alas) but also the formidable GH4, an SLR-style workhorse well equipped for and well known for video. Particularly pleasing is the Leica-like GX7, a handsome and fun-to-use premium compact that is a spectacular bargain right at this moment.
Making our list is the new LX100 which seems to have grabbed a lot of peoples' attention in a positive way. It's a handy all-in-one fixed-zoom camera with a twist: it competes with the smaller 1" sensor cameras by offering a much larger 4/3 sensor, but crops the sensor to offer different aspect ratios. Nice—we approve of whoever thought up that idea. Coupled with a fast Leica-branded 24–75mm lens. Also nice. The LX100 doesn't lead the field in any way but it's a splendidly well-judged compromise of competing factors in every which way, making it the perfect camera to have with you when you can have only one camera with you.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mahn England: "I agree with your summary of the Panasonic. I've acquired the Lumix LX100 to take on a trip to Cuba. For me it is a 'Goldilocks' camera: Not too big (my Canons and their lenses) and not too small (my Sony RX100). It gives me the control I like to have analogous to driving a car with an manual transmission as opposed to a car with an automatic one. It does a lot without shouting 'look at me I'm a serious camera.'"
Stephen Scharf: "I agree the Fujifilm X-T1 is a wonderful camera, and very fun to use, but the 'hobbyist' designation does it a disservice; the number of working professionals that have converted to this camera this year is considerable, and Fujifilm has certified a number of extremely accomplished 'official' X-photographers.
"It is also a sales home-run: Fuji sold more than 2X the forecasted sales volume of this camera this year, and it only became widely available around the end of Q1/beginning of Q2, 2014.
"IMO, the most innovative camera of the year, and not by a ittle ways."
Remi: "SLR are on the way out? If I didn't know you better, I'd think you're trolling.... We've had electronic viewfinders since the 80's and they've improved but nothing beats the actual image viewed through a (large) prism."
Mick Ryan: "f you had claimed last year that the SLR was on the way out I would have thought you'd had too much egg nog. But for the last few months I've left the 5D Mark III in the bag and used the Sony a7R, and I'm a pro. It won't go fast but it definitely will go the way of the medium format."
James Moule: "Another thought about the E-M1: Wildlife photographers need long focal length lenses with very rapid autofocusing. I can tell you from field tests that long focal length legacy lenses are very sharp but have such a long focus delay that they are useless on the E-M1. Olympus's recently released 80–300mm (equivalent) PRO lens plus the matched 1.4X teleconverter gets out to the equivalent of over 400mm which covers mammals. The 600mm (equivalent) prime promised for next year will cover birds.
"No other Micro 4/3 maker has a lens line up that can compare. Neither does Fuji. The new Olympus 80–300mm-e lens and teleconverter was just shipped this month. When enough field test experience has been gathered I expect that wildlife photographers will be abandoning their heavy full frame SLRs and their huge lenses in droves."
Kenneth Tanaka: "As an owner of four other choices on your list I agree with your #1 pick. I've now had Sony's A7R for a year and have used it on demanding projects. It's a remarkable camera that not only produces breathtaking detail but also, with good care and glass, equally breathtaking spacial separations (a quality rarely observed on photo hobby sites).
"The A7II, which I've only had for a couple of weeks, has already revealed itself to be the powerful generalist camera I hoped it would be. Without too deeply diving into detail, two aspects beyond its excellent image quality have strongly impressed me:
1. The A7II's in-body image stabilization (IBIS) system works...well. Being able to shoot with, for example, a fully stabilized Leica 75mm APO-Summicron M on such an outstanding a 24x36 sensor is an experience worth the long wait for me. The FE lenses I've used have all been excellent, especially that 55mm (wow). But the A7R and A7II have created a new experience from my existing excellent Canon EF lenses, too. I now have, for example, a stabilized EF 24–70mm ƒ/2.8L Mark II (wow squared).
2. Sony, like Fujifilm, listens and learns. One of the small engineering weaknesses of the A7R was its FE mount design. The tolerance and materials enabled lenses a bit too much lateral shimmy. Sure enough Sony has remedied this in the A7II's mount. Impressive.
"I don't really hold with ordered 'best' camera lists. Any of these cameras would be a #1 for its owner. But I agree with calling-out the ten cameras here and I especially agree with highlighting Sony's A7II. To borrow an ancient ('80s?) Sony ad slogan, 'It's a Sony, no baloney!'"
John: "I'm surprised at your number 1 choice. I have an A7 II as a rental and I think it's less of a camera than the E-M1 or the X-T1. Only the sensor is larger and better. Yes, it's better than the original, but it isn't there yet. The camera is also getting substantially heavier, meaning soon only the size is an advantage over full-frame DSLR offerings. If any camera impressed this year, it was Pentax 645Z."
Alex S.: "I'm surprised the 645Z didn't made it; playing in the same league as 'the best camera in the world' yet costing 1/3rd is no small feat."
Mike replies: The camera might play in the same league but the lenses don't. There are only four dedicated lenses for the 645Z; the rest are legacy lenses of varying quality, most not close to the standard set by their Leica counterparts. The Leica lens lineup is a major reason why the Leica S is a better overall camera, although, as you point out, the Pentax's cost advantage is just as impressive and might well be the determinant when real people with real money are actually choosing between the two.