In today’s crowded market, there is no shortage of great cameras. From entry-level models to full-frame flagships, you’ll be hard pressed to find a camera in your price point that doesn’t take fantastic stills and video. Still, there will always be those that stand out above the rest, that help push the industry forward with innovative sensors, improved usability, or simply by offering a great combination of features at an affordable price. And 2018 promises a wealth of change.
We’ve previously looked at the best point-and-shoot cameras and the best DSLRs for beginners, but it’s time now to look at the best digital cameras you can buy overall. These are the models trying new things, leading the charge, and paving the road on which future cameras will follow. In addition to our overall winner, we’ve selected four alternates that each stand out in their respective areas of expertise.
At a glance
Why should you buy this: Full-frame image quality with DSLR-like handling
Who’s it for: Professional and enthusiast photographers, particularly those that already have some Nikon lenses
How much will it cost: $2,000 (body only)
Why we picked the Nikon Z6:
The Nikon Z6 is the mirrorless camera for the DSLR hold-outs. While smaller than Nikon’s full-frame DSLRs, the grip (and menu system) feels very much like a DSLR. With professional level weather-sealing, the Z6 is an incredibly well-made camera. While we haven’t always been fans of the early electronic viewfinder, the EVF on the Z6 is big and high resolution, while offering numerous advantages over an optical viewfinder, like focus peaking and an accurate exposure preview.
The Z6 sports a 24.5-megapixel sensor that’s better in low light than the 45MP. Mixed with the 5-axis in-body stabilization, the Z6 delivers impressive low light results — and can even outperform Nikon’s full-frame DSLRs at high ISOs. Colors are what we’d expect from a Nikon and the new Z lenses are very sharp. The Z6 and Z7 also make serious gains in video, including 10-bit 4:2:2 N-Log to an external recorder, something even Sony’s third-generation mirrorless cameras don’t have.
The Z6 also uses a 273-point hybrid autofocus system that, alongside the Z7, is the first on-chip phase-detection autofocus that Nikon has ever done. There’s still room for improvement, particularly when focusing in low light, but continuous autofocus is available even at the maximum 12-frame-per-second continuous shooting speed.
If the Z6 was Nikon’s second or third attempt at making a pro-level mirrorless, it would be less impressive. As an example of what Nikon can do with its first try, it’s quite the accomplishment — and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future. More than any other camera, the Z6 has finally given Sony some real competition in the full-frame mirrorless game and breathed new life into the camera market.
Read our Nikon Z6 review
Sony A7 III
The best full-frame mirrorless camera
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
How much will it cost: $2,000 (body only)
Why we picked the Sony A7 III:
The Sony a7 line has long been one of our favorite mirrorless cameras — and the 7 III mixes some of the best qualities from the series. 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 one of the least expensive in the series.
The A7 III sports a backlit 24-megapixel sensor that delivers impressive image quality, even as the ISO creeps up. Even more 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 4K video is solid, with a plethora of customizable options for adjusting the look of the picture, but it lacks 10-bit output.
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 offer higher resolution viewfinders. But, the Sony A7 III offers plenty of features for the price point, with image quality that really can’t be beat — unless you need more resolution. If you need more resolution, the Sony a7R III has it — but you get a lot of camera for the $2,000 body-only list price.
Read our Sony A7 III hands-on review
The best crop-sensor mirrorless camera
Why should you buy this: Great image and video quality without going full frame
Who’s it for: Photographers who want beautiful pictures (and video) in a compact package
How much will it cost: $1,500 (body only)
Why we picked the Fujifilm X-T3:
The Fujifilm X-T3 isn’t just the best APS-C mirrorless camera — we think it’s the most capable APS-C camera on the market, period. The backlit sensor captures excellent images with a wide dynamic range and solid low light performance. Video improvements finally put a Fujifilm in close competition with other options for serious videographers, utilizing a high bitrate version of the HEVC codec.
While images are excellent, it’s the design that solidifies the X-T3’s place as a winner. The electronic viewfinder is stunning, with a high resolution (3.69 million dots) and fast refresh rate of 100 fps, features that combine for a more optical feel. The X-T3 uses the same excellent control scheme as the X-T2 and feels both retro and futuristic at the same time.
Factor in the updated autofocus system with 425 phase-detection points that cover the entire frame, much improved face and eye tracking, and up to 20 fps shooting with the electronic shutter and the X-T3 is simply one of the most well-rounded cameras available. It’s an incredible value at $1,500. Sure, we miss the in-body stabilization of the more expensive Fujifilm X-H1, but the X-T3 is otherwise the superior machine — by a fair margin.
Read our Fujifilm X-T3 review
The best DSLR camera
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.
How much will it cost: $3,300 (body only)
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 SDXC and XQD card slots. SDXC 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).
Our full Nikon D850 review
Panasonic Lumix GH5
The best photo/video hybrid
Why should you buy this: Incredible 4K/60p video with no time limits, great control layout, lots of features
Who’s it for: Photojournalists, filmmakers, and anyone who needs a single camera that can play multiple roles
How much will it cost: $2,000
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:
Like digging a well and striking gold by accident, Panasonic hit a home run several years ago with the introduction of the Lumix DMC-GH2. The mirrorless camera provided Full HD video that was well ahead of its time for comparable cameras, and videographers and filmmakers jumped on it. The GH2 became somewhat of a legend among the low-budget filmmaking community, and Panasonic was smart to take heed. Every iteration of the GH camera since then has doubled down on video features, and the latest GH5 is the best yet.
The GH5 takes 4K video to new levels, offering 60p recording that no other camera in this class has. It can also shoot 10-bit 4:2:2 video both internally and externally over HDMI, albeit not at 60p. That means increased color resolution and smooth gradations from shadows to highlights, which is particularly important for color grading in postproduction. These features help the GH5 push up into cinema camera territory, at a fraction of the cost of such cameras. And thanks to its Micro Four Thirds lens mount, videographers can adapt all types of legacy lenses to the system to achieve that classic film look.
But as important as video is to the Lumix GH5, Panasonic hasn’t neglected its role as a still camera, either. It has internal 5-axis stabilization that works in conjunction with select lenses that have lens-based stabilization for even greater shake-reducing power. It offers a new 6K Photo mode that lets users extract still frames at 18MP from a burst shot at 30 fps. And when using the mechanical shutter and full 20MP resolution, it can still shoot at 12 fps — right in line with flagship DSLRs from Canon and Nikon.
Our full Panasonic Lumix GH5 review
Sony RX10 IV
The best non-interchangeable lens camera
Why should you buy this: Incredible zoom range, good image quality, 4K video
Who’s it for: Travel and adventure photographers, soccer parents, and pros in need of a solid B camera
How much will it cost: $1,700
Why we picked the Sony RX10 IV:
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer a lot of flexibility if you have the money and time to bother with multiple interchangeable lenses. But for those who need a one-size-fits-all solution to multiple photographic challenges, Sony’s RX10 IV may be the answer. At $1,700, it isn’t exactly cheap for what is, essentially, a very advanced point-and-shoot. But you get a lot for your money with the RX10 IV.
First up is the 20MP 1-inch-type sensor, the same “stacked” CMOS unit from the RX100 V (and the same general technology as employed in the Sony A9). That means great image quality and blazing-fast performance. How fast? Try 24 fps — yes, even faster than the A9.
That sensor is matched with a massive 24-600mm (full-frame equivalent) f/2.4-4 zoom lens. While it’s the same optics as the RX10 III, autofocus performance has been improved, with Sony advertising the fastest AF speed for its class, taking just 0.03 seconds to acquire focus. That’s thanks to a Hybrid AF system that combines 315 phase-detection points with standard contrast detection.
Of course, this being a Sony, the RX10 IV still has plenty more up its sleeve. Namely, a 4K video mode that’s capable of recording full-width video at 100 megabits per second. It even features Sony’s S-Log3 gamma profile for maximum dynamic range, making it a solid option as a B camera for higher-end productions, particularly documentaries or travel films where size is important.
Our full Sony RX10 IV review
How We Test
We always look for cameras that combine image quality, usability, and value, but for this list we paid particularly close attention to innovative features. We selected the models we felt were challenging the limits of what a still camera can be, either by implementing features that open new creative doors for photographers or by offering exceptional value, bringing high-end features to new users. Every camera on this list has been used by Digital Trends staff. For a full run down on how we test, you can read our digital camera test methodology here.
Understanding camera terminology
New to digital cameras? Here are some helpful explanations of some of the terminology and tech that you’re likely to run into along your search. There’s a lot of jargon out there, and understanding it is key to knowing what you’re getting.
DSLR – This stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. This type of camera uses a mirror to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. The mirror then moves out of the way when the shutter button is pressed, allowing the light to pass through the shutter and land on the sensor.
Mirrorless – A mirrorless camera, as the name suggests, does not use a mirror. Instead, light from the lens goes directly to the sensor and photos are framed on the LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller than DSLRs because of this.
Sensor – The digital equivalent to film, the sensor is covered in light-sensitive pixels. Each sensor “sees” only red, green, or blue light, the data being combined later into a full-color image.
Megapixel (MP) – One million pixels. Used to denote the resolution of a sensor. A 24MP sensor has 24 million pixels.
Shutter – A physical curtain that opens and closes in front of the sensor to expose it to light. Many cameras also employ optional electronic shutters, which bypass the mechanical version.
Shutter speed – The length of time the shutter remains open to expose the sensor to light. Shutter speeds typically range from 1/8,000 of a second to as slow as 30 seconds. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is allowed in, but this also can lead to blurry images. A faster shutter freezes action, but does not let in as much light.
Lens – The eye of the camera. A lens is made up of several different glass elements that focus the light onto the sensor. Wide-angle lenses have a larger field of view (good for landscapes and group photos) and telephoto lenses have a narrower field of view (good for single-subject shots like wildlife and portraits).
Aperture – The diaphragm in a lens that can open or close to increase or decrease the amount of light the lens allows in. A wider aperture also creates a shallow depth of field, which allows for a subject to be in focus while the background is blurred, a technique often used for portraits. A small aperture keeps more distance in focus and is often used for landscapes.
F-number – You’ll see this on the lenses of both interchangeable-lens cameras and fixed-lens models. The f-number refers to the size of a lens’s aperture, but a smaller number means a larger aperture. Lenses are identified by their maximum aperture value, so if you see 50mm f/1.4 that means that lens can open up to a maximum of f/1.4, not that f/1.4 is it’s only aperture setting. When shopping lenses, looking at the f-number is an easy way to compare which can let in more light and produce a shallower depth of field.
IS – Image stabilization. Different manufacturers brand this in different ways, such as OIS (optical image stabilization), OSS (Optical Steady Shot) or VR (vibration reduction). Different manufacturers put stabilization in the sensor, the lens, or both.
FPS – Frames per second.
4K UHD – 4K Ultra High Definition video has a frame size of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (roughly 4,000 lines of resolution) and is four times the pixel count as Full HD 1080p.
Full HD 1080p – Full High Definition video has a frame size of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The “p” refers to “progressive scanning,” as opposed to “interlaced scanning” which is less common today.