Cameras of the Year: Best Pro & Enthusiast Cameras of 2014

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posted Wednesday, December 31, 2014 at 5:07 PM EDT

The Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards

 
 

Best Pro & Enthusiast Cameras of 2014

While we cover our share of entry-level cameras, it's the enthusiast cameras -- be they mirrorless, DSLR or enthusiast zoom -- that we most often grab for our own shooting. The newest technology, best image quality and fastest performance are hard to pass up. The story in the enthusiast world is actually very similar to that of the entry-level. Specifically, more functionality is available for less money than we've ever seen in the past. That makes the enthusiast and pro categories more approachable than ever before. Looking for your next camera? Read on for our picks!

 

Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast DSLR: Canon 7D Mark II

 
 

At long last, Canon unveiled the update to the EOS 7D (7D Mark II vs 7D), their venerable flagship APS-C digital SLR camera. The new Canon 7D Mark II is five years in the making and brings with it a host of upgrades and refinements that are perfectly suited for the action, sports and wildlife photographer, the multi-media video producer and pretty much everyone else in between. Beefed up specs and other under-the-hood improvements, subtle control tweaks, and improved build quality are the name of the game for the 7D Mark II.

The original 7D featured dual DIGIC 4 image processors, which was a first for a non-1D-series EOS camera. The new 7D Mark II now features dual DIGIC 6 processors, giving this camera more processing power than any other EOS camera, including the 1D X (7D Mark II vs 1D X)! 

 
 

Autofocus performance underwent a serious upgrade as well, now having 65 cross-type AF points (the center point can focus at f/8, too). With up to 10fps burst shooting, a 31-frame RAW buffer (1000+ with JPEG), more advanced Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology and customizable AF tracking schemes using the AI Servo AF III system, the 7D Mark II does a great job shooting action, sports, wildlife and anything else that moves.

All in all, the Canon 7D Mark II is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but as they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The 7D was a rugged camera and the 7D Mark II is a big step forward in that area too, featuring the best weather sealing our friend Roger Cicala of Lensrentals.com has ever seen. Canon has again managed to squeeze professional, 1D-like specs and features into a smaller, lighter, and more affordable camera. All in all, the Canon 7D Mark II represents the current state of the art for enthusiast-grade DSLRs.

Body Only: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 18-135mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast DSLR: Nikon D750

 
 

Nikon's developed a very well-rounded lineup of full-frame DSLRs, but this year's D750 hit a real sweet spot. Surprisingly compact and lightweight -- thanks to its advanced monocoque-style body -- and with an all-new 24-megapixel sensor delivering exceptional image quality, the Nikon D750 delivers exceptional performance in a compact, approachable package. It's not exactly cheap, but as full-frame bodies go, its midrange price makes it a genuine bargain, given its superior capabilities.

Among its primary attributes, the D750 offers excellent image quality, particularly at higher ISOs, and its 51-point "3D" autofocus system is quick, accurate and reliable. Combined with a burst rate of 6.5fps (it measured 6.6-6.7fps in our tests), it's surprisingly nimble for a full-frame camera of its resolution. It's also a very competent video performer, capable of 1080/60p for super-smooth full HD video, with both mic and headphone jacks and clean HDMI output for use with external video recorders. Rounding out the package are a gorgeous 3.2-inch tilting 1.2 million-dot LCD screen and WiFi connectivity that supports both image downloading and remote control of the camera. With a magnesium-alloy body and extensive weather sealing, this is also a camera that can stand up to both the elements and hard usage.

All in all, the D750 delivers exceptional value for the money, with top-notch full-frame image quality, a great AF system, high continuous-mode frame rates and great video capabilities. It really hits the sweet spot in the full-frame enthusiast market, and many pros will welcome it as an unusually capable second body. We wouldn't be surprised if the D750 turns out to be Nikon's biggest-selling full-frame body ever.

Body Only: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 24-120mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast DSLR: Sony A77 II

Canon and Nikon have been the dominant forces in the DSLR world for a long time, but Sony and their Translucent Mirror (SLT) Alpha cameras offer similar image quality and performance as well as a number of unique features. Case in point: the Sony A77 II. Sony's latest flagship APS-C sized DSLR-style camera offers not only a high-resolution 24.3MP APS-C sensor and Sony's latest Bionz X image processor, but also a beefed-up AF system with 79 AF points and 12fps continuous burst shooting.

Thanks to the SLT design, the A77 II replaces the moving mirror of DSLRs with a fixed, translucent mirror that allows for fast, full-time AF in live-view and for video recording -- something that many traditional DSLRs struggle with. The A77 II's design also provides an electronic viewfinder as opposed to an optical one. The OLED 2,359,296-dot EVF is bright, provides 100% coverage and allows for all sorts of information displays and overlays that you can't get with a traditional DSLR (not to mention a great way to capture video in bright conditions, and its stunning resolution).

The Sony A77 II is a solidly-built, feature-packed camera aimed particularly at action and sports photography with its fast burst shooting and deep buffer depth. The A77 II has noticeably better image quality than its predecessor (A77 II vs A77) and meets or exceeds the image quality of its competitors. Combine that with sensor-shift image stabilization, and the Sony A77 II should definitely be on your short list if you're upgrading from the original A77 or need a high performance, crop-sensor DSLR-style camera.

Body Only:  Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 16-50mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast Mirrorless: Sony A7 II

A little over a year after Sony unveiled the groundbreaking A7-series of full-frame mirrorless cameras, the company wowed us again with the second generation version of its "base-model" camera, aptly-named the Sony A7 II, with the world's first 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization system for a full-frame ILC. The new model still includes many of the same specs and features of the original Sony A7: The same high-res 24.3MP CMOS sensor; the same Bionz X image processor; and the same Fast Hybrid AF system with 117 on-chip phase detect points and 25 CDAF points (A7 II vs A7).

However, in addition to the new "SteadyShot Inside" system, the A7 II features a number of other improvements, both inside and out. Sony listened to its customers and improved the exterior design, with a deeper, more comfortable handgrip and re-positioned controls and dials with better ergonomics. The body is also a full, two-part magnesium chassis with improved dust- and moisture-resistance. And, taking cues from the A7S (A7 II vs A7S), the Sony A7 II has a beefed-up, solid metal lens mount, as well as higher-end video specs.

The Sony A7 II was a rather unexpected and late-in-the-year announcement from Sony, and as such, the camera is currently still undergoing our rigorous review process. However, our initial investigation into the A7 II's image quality and sensor-shift image stabilization has returned impressive results. Add that to the fact that the A7-series took the top spot in last year's Camera of the Year Awards, and we feel very confident that the Sony A7 II is, in fact, an equally remarkable  enthusiast-level mirrorless camera worthy of praise and distinction. The A7 II is the best -- and the only -- option for full-frame image quality in a compact, well-built body with sensor shift image stabilization.

Body Only: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 28-70mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast Mirrorless: Panasonic GH4

 
 

The Panasonic GH3 (GH4 vs GH3) was already a fantastic camera and one of the best Micro Four Thirds models available, yet Panasonic managed to make it even better with the GH4. Still image quality remains mostly unchanged, but dynamic range has been improved. The big story with the GH4 is not only the unique and powerful Depth from Defocus (DFD) (more about the system here) AF system, but also its video recording features, which includes high-quality internal 4K recording and very high bitrate HD video, among other pro-level features.


Defying the trend of on-chip phase detect, the GH4 keeps things in focus with just a contrast-detect AF system, though with a unique and innovative DFD system for near-instantaneous AF performance with minimal hunting (when using Panasonic-brand lenses). The new quad-core image processor can chew through images, with a 7fps continuous burst with AF or 12fps burst without it.

For filmmakers, the GH4 is a dream camera with internal recording (and clean HDMI output) of both Cinema 4K and Ultra HD, plus HD video at 50, 100 and 200 Mbps bitrates and other video formats. The GH4 is therefore ready to tackle nearly any video project you can throw at it, from a professional 4K commercial project to an independent documentary to a quick vacation video.

With a well-built, weather-sealed construction and the inherent size advantage of the Micro Four Thirds system, plus high performance technology under the hood, Panasonic's GH4 is a top-notch hybrid stills and video camera for the advanced enthusiast and professional multimedia creator.

Body Only: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with YAGH Interface: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast Mirrorless: Fujifilm X-T1

 
 

Retro-styled cameras are gorgeous to look at, and they transport us back to those heady days when we were learning our craft, but there's a reason much of the world has moved on, ergonomically speaking. It's a tricky task to make a digital camera with yesterday's handling, yet all of today's modern conveniences. With the Fujifilm X-T1, Fujifilm has clearly stepped up to that challenge.

The Fujifilm X-T1 is much more than just a retro-styled beauty: It sports excellent image quality and absolutely blazingly-fast performance, and it does so in a body that's surprisingly compact. This is a camera that you'll want to take everywhere you go, and thanks to its solid, weather-sealed, freezeproof construction, you can feel safe doing just that.

Add in conveniences like a tilting display that helps you frame images from difficult angles, in-camera Wi-Fi that will quickly put your photos on your smartphone or tablet (and from there, online), plus high-definition video capture and more, and it's clear that this is one heck of a camera. Perhaps one of our favorite features of the camera is that Fujifilm has never stopped improving it! Thanks to Fujifilm's unusually strong commitment to adding new features with frequent, free firmware updates, the X-T1 continues to improve.

Throughout our review, we found ourselves wanting the Fuji X-T1 by our side whenever we headed off into the great outdoors -- and we're confident that you will as well!

Body Only: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 18-135mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo
Kit with 18-55mm Lens: Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of the Year, Best Professional Camera: Nikon D4s

 
 

Choosing the year's best professional camera is no easy task! Pro photographers know precisely what they need in a camera, and camera makers spare no expense to ensure they fill those needs. There really are no duds to speak of in this category: The pro camera is a workhorse designed to take whatever you can throw at it, and still deliver great pictures the overwhelming majority of the time. Yet one camera stood head and shoulders above the rest this year: the Nikon D4S.

Progression is the name of the game here. If you're a professional photographer, familiarity with your camera is key, and using it needs to be second nature. A refinement of the earlier Nikon D4 (D4S vs D4), the D4S retains everything which made that camera great, and photographers upgrading from the earlier model will feel instantly at home -- yet the Nikon D4S builds upon its much-loved predecessor in a number of important ways.

 
 

One-third faster processing means that you can now shoot at a whopping 11 frames per second with autofocus and exposure adjustment between frames. Burst depths are greater, too, meaning that you can keep up with the action for even longer than before. The already-great battery life has been stretched even further, so you don't run out of juice in the middle of a shoot. And built-in gigabit ethernet gets all those great photos out of the camera and in front of the client in record time.

The Nikon D4S also sports a newly-refined autofocus system which can prevent loss of focus if your focus point slips off the subject briefly, so that you end up with more keepers. Add in a raft of more subtle improvements -- not least of them to the Nikon D4S' movie capture capabilities, since many photographers are now routinely expected to deliver video, not just stills -- and it's clearly time for an upgrade if you're a Nikon-shooting pro!

Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Professional Camera: Pentax 645Z

 
 

Ricoh's medium-format Pentax 645Z is the start of a revolution: The age of the truly capable, affordable medium-format DSLR camera. The all-weather 645Z gives you the huge image sensor and viewfinder view that you'd expect of a medium-format camera, but not the pricetag. Rivals like Hasselblad and Phase One sell their competing cameras for around US$30,000, yet the Pentax 645Z lists for less than a third as much. Its predecessor the 645D was also an excellent value, but the 645Z has significantly expanded its capabilities, especially in the high-ISO realm.

What makes Ricoh's feat all the more impressive is that the Pentax 645Z isn't really all that much more expensive than a professional 35mm full-frame camera, even though its sensor is fully two-thirds larger. The Canon EOS 1D X (1DX vs 645Z), for example, now lists for US$6,800, just 20% less than the medium-format 645Z.

But this is assuredly a professional tool, even if it is vastly more affordable than its direct rivals. Sure, it won't give you the performance of smaller-sensored cameras, but it's swift by medium-format standards, and thanks to the huge, high-res sensor, it takes image quality to the next level as well. With absolutely phenomenal resolution and an extremely wide ISO sensitivity range, the 645Z is a dream come true for landscape, nature and studio photographers, or any other task that demands the highest-possible resolution at a pricetag you can actually justify!

Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of Distinction, Professional Camera: Sony A7S

 
 

Rather than cram in more and more pixels, the Sony A7S takes a deliberate step back, featuring an all-new 12.2-megapixel sensor with huge pixels, allowing for not only unprecedented low-light performance, but also increased dynamic range. In our tests and real-world shooting, the A7S lives up to its claim as an excellent low-light camera. For both still images and video, the Sony A7S can take photos in practically any lighting condition, even in near-complete darkness. Dynamic range, in both photos and video, is impressive.

And speaking of video, the A7S may look like a stills camera, but it also brings a host of professional-level video features including 4K video capture via HDMI, high bitrate HD and SLog2 gamma. The unique sensor is tailor-made for 4K capture and image quality from both 4K and HD video looks very good, with excellent detail, color and, of course, very wide dynamic range and well-controlled noise levels.

All in all, the Sony A7S is a fantastic, pro-oriented camera, plain and simple. At 12 megapixels, images are small enough for speedy importing and editing, as well as fitting tons of files onto a single memory card, yet are still high-resolution enough for all but the most demanding, large-format printing applications. With fantastic low-light performance and great video performance, as well as a very compact and well-built design, the Sony A7S is a prime camera for the professional photographer, from photojournalists and concert photographers to professional and independent filmmakers.

Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon |  Buy from B&H Photo

 

Camera of the Year, Enthusiast Zoom: Panasonic FZ1000

 
 

The heart and soul of an enthusiast zoom camera is its lens, and the Panasonic FZ1000's built-in 16x zoom lens does not disappoint! You'd need a camera bag full of glass to match the capabilities of this bright, far-reaching optic with an interchangeable-lens camera, and that's the big attraction -- especially for travel fans who like to pack light. Bring the Panasonic FZ1000 along with you, and you can be confident of getting the shot almost regardless of your subject -- yet in size it's near-indistinguishable from an entry-level DSLR with 18-55mm kit lens.

Of course, there are plenty of long-zoom cameras with even more powerful zooms, but compared to the Panasonic FZ1000, their sensors are tiny. A small sensor means smaller photodiodes, and -- all else being equal -- lesser sensitivity and/or greater noise. The FZ1000's roomy 1"-type sensor has no such problems. It yields low light image quality that's rivaled only by the Sony RX10 (RX10 vs FZ1000), a camera whose lens has barely half the zoom range.

 
 

And it's not just in the lens department that we think Panasonic has bested the RX10, either. The FZ1000's handling, too, is top notch, and performance is downright superb. Add in an even better electronic viewfinder and a versatile side-mounted, tilt/swivel LCD monitor, in-camera 4K video capture, and a very generous selection of external controls that quickly become second nature -- not to mention a pricetag that's actually less than that of its sole competitor -- and it's clear if you want an enthusiast zoom camera, the Panasonic FZ1000 is your best bet!

Buy from Adorama | Buy from Amazon | Buy from B&H Photo

 

 

Imaging Resource Cameras and Lenses of the Year Awards

This is Part IV in our multi-part Cameras and Lenses of the Year Awards for 2014. We previously announced our picks for the Best Entry-Level Cameras of 2014Best Lenses of 2014 and Best Compact Cameras of 2014. Look for our overall choice for the Camera of the Year this Friday!

Best Entry-Level Cameras of 2014

Best Lenses of 2014

Best Compact Cameras of 2014

Best Professional & Enthusiast Cameras of 2014 (this page)

Camera of the Year, 2014 (and Special Awards) coming soon