It’s neither the cheapest nor the easiest to carry, but the best digital camera is Panasonic Lumix S1. The competition is certainly very stiff, but the S1 delivers an unbeatable combination of great low light performance from its 24-megapixel full-frame sensor and extreme high-resolution imaging thanks to it’s 96-megapixel multi-shot mode. It also has one of the best control layouts we’ve ever seen on a camera, mirrorless or otherwise, and is built to hold up to the demands of professional wear and tear.
There are more choices in cameras than ever before, and there is no shortage of great ones. Here are a few of our favorites, from compact point-and-shoots to professional DSLRs.
At a glance
Why you should buy this: Impressive image quality, robust design, and functional controls
Who’s it for: Professionals, landscape photographers, and serious photo enthusiasts
Why we choose the Panasonic S1:
The Panasonic Lumix S1 isn’t exactly what we expected from a mirrorless camera — but in many ways, it exceeds expectations enough to be the most impressive model on the market. Besides the excellent image quality coming from the full-frame 24-megapixel sensor, a 96-megapixel high-resolution mode lets you capture even more detail when using a tripod. We were very impressed with the out-of-camera JPEG image quality, which produces excellent color and contrast, while the RAW images offer plenty of flexibility and strong high-ISO performance.
The S1 uses contrast detection autofocus instead of the usually faster phase detection, but Panasonic narrowed the gap thanks to its proprietary Depth From Defocus technology. Autofocus tracking and subject recognition are very good, even in low light, and while speed is often indistinguishable from competing phase-detection systems, we did notice some occasional misses that cropped up seemingly at random. Still, the good outweighs the bad.
A comfortable user interface seals the S1’s position atop this list. The control scheme doesn’t skimp on anything and is highly customizable, offering more direct access control than mirrorless cameras from other brands. It also offers both SD and XQD card slots, with support for even faster CFExpress cards coming in the future. The body is fully weather sealed and houses one of the best electronic viewfinders we’ve seen, with 5.7 million pixels of resolution and a refresh rate of 120 frames per second.
On the downside, all of this makes the camera quite heavy. At about 2.25 pounds, it weighs more than some full-frame DSLRs. The Lumix S1 may not be the best camera for travel photography because of that, but the Lumix S1 is otherwise a tremendous achievement that leaves very little to be desired.
Read our Panasonic Lumix S1 review or see more best mirrorless cameras
Why should you buy this: While Sony calls this their basic camera, the performance is anything but.
Who’s it for: Pros and enthusiasts who want both portability, performance and full-frame
Why we picked the Sony A7 III:
The Sony A7 line has long been one of our favorite mirrorless cameras — and the A7 III mixes some of the best qualities of the series together in one camera. With the low light performance of the A7S II, the dynamic range of the A7R III, and some of the A9’s blazing speed, the A7 III is plenty of camera for many photographers — and yet it’s the least expensive current full-frame model in the series.
The A7 III sports a backlit 24-megapixel sensor that delivers impressive image quality, with great results even at very high ISOs. Equally impressive is the dynamic range, which helps keep more of the details in the shadows and highlights intact. That five-axis stabilization system doesn’t hurt, either. The camera also offers a solid 4K video mode, with a plethora of customizable options for adjusting the look of the picture.
Sony has had time to fine-tune the A7 the third generation is a refined, high-end product. Autofocus is quick to lock on, the 10-fps burst rate holds for 40 RAW files, and the battery life — at over 700 exposures — is the best we’ve seen in mirrorless.
The control scheme isn’t our favorite, and many competing cameras use higher resolution viewfinders, but the Sony A7 III offers plenty of features for the price. If you need more resolution, the Sony A7R III has it — but the A7 III is a lot of camera for $2,000.
Read our Sony A7 III hands-on review or see more best mirrorless cameras
Why should you buy this: 45MP images plus 7fps continuous shooting speed.
Who’s it for: Studio, portrait, landscape, wedding, wildlife, and potentially even sports photographers.
Why we picked the Nikon D850:
Nikon’s D800-series DSLRs have always been good at one thing: Providing ultra-high resolution full-frame sensors. But the D850 takes this recipe and incorporates some exciting new ingredients. And unlike its predecessors, the D850 is not a one-trick pony; it has grown into a full multimedia machine, making it the best DSLR of this generation.
First, it nearly ten more megapixels than the D810, up to 45.7. The sensor is entirely new and backside-illuminated (BSI), just the second such sensor since Sony’s 42MP unit, the A7R Mark II. BSI sensors are more sensitive to light thanks to the circuitry being placed on the backside (hence the name) of the sensor, rather than the front, which is far more common. With a base ISO of 64, it promises a deep well capacity for impressive dynamic range. Anyone who was a fan of the D810 or D800 should feel right at home with the D850.
But that’s not all, because the D850 can also shoot continuously at up to 7 fps with a buffer than can hold 170 12-bit RAW files, or 51 in the higher-quality 14-bit mode. This is already impressive for such a high-resolution sensor, but users can get even more speed if they opt for the MB-D18 vertical battery grip and EN-EL18b battery (also used in the D5), which bumps performance up to 9 fps.
Nikon has also stepped up its video game with the D850, offering 4K recording from the full width of the sensor — the first for a full-frame DSLR.
All of that resolution, speed, and 4K video make for some pretty hefty storage requirements, which is why the Nikon D850 sports both SD and XQD card slots. SD is widely available, but XQD offers the best possible performance with theoretical transfer rates of up to 1,000 megabytes per second (current cards top out around 440MB per second).
Read our Nikon D850 review or see more best DSLR cameras
Why should you buy this: Impressive performance and image quality.
Who’s it for: Photo enthusiasts and pros on the go.
Why we picked the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VII:
Time and time again, a Sony RX100 camera takes our top pick for best point-and-shoot. The seventh generation of Sony’s revolutionary point-and-shoot improves on an already excellent recipe by adding a no-blackout viewfinder, faster autofocus, and a 3.5mm microphone port. That’s mixed in with a list of don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken features that carry over from the RX100 VI..
The “stacked” 20-megapixel, 1-inch-type sensor returns, offering blazing fast performance up to 20 frames per second in continuous mode, identical to Sony’s flagship A9 mirrorless camera. While that’s four frames slower than the sixth generation, it allows for the no-blackout viewfinder, so you follow the action in real time and can keep moving subjects in the frame more easily. Autofocus is even faster than the RX100 VI, taking just 0.02 seconds in ideal conditions.
Being a Sony, the RX100 VII also includes a full complement of video features. It can shoot 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p at up to 120 fps, and super-slow-motion at 240, 480, and even 960 fps. It also features Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) for capturing the maximum dynamic range and playing back HDR content on compatible televisions, a feature normally reserved for much higher-end cameras. The compact also includes a 3.5mm audio jack now, a first for the series.
But perhaps best of all is that none of the RX100 VII’s advanced features are thrown in your face. They are there if you go looking for them, but if you want to sit back and enjoy an easy-to-use pocket camera, then you can do that without hassle.
The high price is certainly not for everyone, but the RX100 VII is a camera that you can grow into over time. You can also still buy older RX100 models brand new for much less money, and while they can’t match the performance of the mark VI, they still shoot stunning images thanks to very similar sensors. If the improved viewfinder, slightly faster autofocus and mic jack don’t impress you, you can save some cash by opting for the still great Sony RX100 VI.
Read our Sony RX100 VI coverage or see more best point-and-shoot cameras
Why should you buy this: Water, dust, and shock-proof; built-in GPS.
Who’s it for: Outdoor adventurers and travelers of all types
Why we picked the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-6:
When you need a camera that can handle being dropped down a small cliff into a stream and then run over by an ATV and live to tell about it, the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-6 is for you.
With adventurers in mind, the TG-6 is waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, drop-proof from a height of 7 feet, and crush-proof to 200 pounds of pressure. It features a built-in GPS with geotagging and location logging abilities that can create a map of your adventure viewable in the Olympus Image Track app.
While its sensor is smaller than the 1-inch units in most advanced compacts, it’s still not too shabby in the image quality department. The 12MP sensor pairs nicely with the 25-100mm (full-frame equivalent) f/2.0-4.9 lens. It also offers RAW files for maximum quality; a 20fps burst mode; and 4K video. Plus, it has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, like an excellent macro mode and an effortless Live Composite mode that makes light-painting a breeze.
The TG-6 doesn’t have many improvements over the TG-5, but the newer model is actually cheaper than the old version (unless, of course, you can find a used one). Don’t hesitate to pick up the TG-5 if you find a good deal, but the TG-6 has reduced lens flaring and improved focus stacking along with some new accessories.
Sure, most smartphones have some degree of weatherproofing these days, and with a decent case they can even survive a good tumble, but why risk damaging your phone when cameras like the TG-6 are around?
Read our Olympus Tough TG-6 coverage or see more best travel cameras
Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a beginner-friendly price tag that doesn’t skimp on features.
Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless cameras
Why we picked the Sony A6100:
Sony’s full frame mirrorless cameras are excellent — but expensive. The Sony A6100 brings some of our favorite features from the A7 series into a camera that’s less than $900, including a lens. And as an added bonus, the camera is an E-Mount, which means you can buy full-frame lenses if you want to upgrade to the A7 series once you have more experience (and cash).
The Sony A6100 sports a 24.2 megapixel APS-C sensor that should snap impressive images — not quite as good as full frame, but definitely competitive among similarly priced options. The solid sensor mixes with the autofocus system found in some of Sony’s pricier options, with a 425-point hybrid autofocus. Like the latest a7 models, the A6100 includes real-time eye tracking for quickly snapping sharp photos of people. The camera can snap photos as quick as 11 fps — which isn’t as impressive as the A9, but it’s very good for a camera at this price.
Beyond still photography, the A6100 is a strong performer for video, too. It shoots oversampled 4K and features a microphone jack.
While the A6100 is missing out on extras like the image stabilization included in the pricier A6600, the camera wraps several big features into an affordable camera with a control scheme that’s not daunting for newbies. The electronic viewfinder is simpler than the optical viewfinder on a DSLR, allowing beginners to get a better feel for how the exposure settings change the shot. The tilting touchscreen also lends a bit of a smartphone-esque feel to shooting with the A6400, if you choose to use the touchscreen to shoot instead of the physical controls.
The SonyA9 and A7R III may be Sony’s best mirrorless cameras, but the A6100 puts most of our favorite features into an affordable camera that’s easy for beginners to learn on yet advanced enough not to have you yearning for an even better camera a few months down the road.
See more best mirrorless cameras
Why should you buy this: The GH5 is a hybrid camera that’s can shoot both stills and video without cutting corners.
Who’s it for: Creatives who put as much emphasis on motion content as they do on still photos.
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:
All the cameras on this list shoot video, and most even shoot 4K. But in most cameras, video is a secondary focus. Not so with the Lumix GH5. Where many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have short recording limits for 4K, the GH5 will happily continue shooting until the card fills up or the battery dies — and it boasts smooth-as-butter 60-fps 4K, to boot. Beyond that, it offers a number of video features targeting professional users, including 10-bit 4:2:2 recording, clean HDMI output, and an optional log gamma profile via paid firmware upgrade. (The recently released Lumix GH5S takes video quality to a new level, but the standard model remains the better choice for most users thanks to its 5-axis image stabilization.)
While video is a big selling point for the GH5, the camera can hold its own among other Micro Four Thirds shooters for still photos. The five-axis image stabilization plays a role for both videos and photos, the Depth from Defocus autofocus is nearly as quick as on the Lumix S1, and burst shooting is even faster, up to 9 fps with continuous autofocus or 12 fps with focus locked on the first frame. The GH5 also has several Panasonic-exclusive features, including 4K and 6K photo modes where you can choose the focus point after the shot, merge several images together for a deeper depth of field, or shoot reduced-resolution still photos at 60 or 30 fps, respectively.
Like the hybrid photo-video capabilities, the GH5’s body feels more like a DSLR/mirrorless hybrid. It’s smaller than most DSLRs, but there are plenty of physical controls, a great electronic viewfinder, and dual SD card slots. While you can buy cameras with larger sensors for the same price, the GH5 has the best mix of photo and video options we’ve seen yet, and outclasses many cameras costing much more when it comes to pro video features.
Read our Panasonic Lumix GH5 review or see more best video cameras
How does a digital camera work?
Digital cameras use a lens to focus light onto an electronic imaging sensor. This sensor — the digital equivalent of analog film — is composed of millions of light-sensitive pixels that see either red, green, or blue light. When processed, those pixels combine to create a full-color image. Sensors come in a variety of sizes, and the bigger the sensor, the bigger the lens needs to be. This is why DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can be very large, while point-and-shoots and camera phones are impressively compact. In general, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality — especially in low light settings.
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and it is an evolution of the film-era SLR. These cameras use interchangeable lenses and mirrors to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. When you hold your eye to the viewfinder of a DSLR, you are seeing directly through the lens like a window. As optical viewfinders have no pixels, they offer a very clean and responsive view, but they can’t show you exposure simulation in real time and they don’t work at all for video or live view shooting.
What is a mirrorless cameras?
A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses. It’s related to the DSLR, but do not confuse the two as the same. Mirrorless cameras do away with a DSLR’s bulky mirror system (hence the name) and instead use electronic viewfinders, or simply no viewfinder at all (as is the case in the Canon EOS M6). This allows for lighter and smaller designs, but professional models can still be somewhat bulky and heavy. Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses and typically use larger sensors than point-and-shoots, which leads to superior image quality.
Are digital cameras allowed on airplanes?
Yes. Digital cameras are, in fact, better to take with you than film cameras, as film over ISO 800 can be damaged by x-ray machines. Most camera accessories are also allowed on planes, including tripods. The major thing to watch out for are the lithium ion batteries that digital cameras use. Keep these in your carry-on luggage. Airport baggage handlers may remove them from checked bags as lithium batteries can pose a fire hazard (although the risk is much lower with camera batteries than, say, phone batteries, as they are not nearly as dense).