Camera of the Year 2017: Best Enthusiast & Premium Compact Cameras

by IR Staff

posted Monday, November 20, 2017 at 2:01 PM EST


 
 

Enthusiast-grade cameras represent top-tier performance and image quality without the need to spend the extra premium for the top-of-the-line professional models, and are consistently the most popular cameras on our website. Since the majority of our readers (and us humble camera reviewers!) are not full-time professional photographers but rather just very passionate devotees of the craft, this makes sense. After all, we want "the best" but don't necessarily need every bell and whistle that some of the professional-grade models offer. Below we have listed our picks for the best of the enthusiast world for 2017.

We also dive into another vastly popular market segment here with the inclusion of Premium Compact cameras. From the tiny models that deliver top-tier image quality, to the best of the fixed-lens street shooters and the best from the tough and rugged world, we have you covered here. These tend to be the models that enthusiasts grab when they're traveling or otherwise on the go -- when they want to travel light while keeping the image quality and performance features they've grown accustomed to with their "primary" rig. They do indeed get better every year, and we've certainly enjoyed reviewing and writing about this year's crop for you!

 

Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast DSLR - Nikon D7500

 
 

The enthusiast class of cameras is one of the most popular and with good reason. A good enthusiast camera combines high performance and versatility with a price tag that is within the reach of many photographers. The best enthusiast cameras typically borrow features from high-end flagship cameras as well. One such camera is the Nikon D7500, Nikon's $1,250 APS-C DSLR. With its excellent blend of features, performance and value, the Nikon D7500 is our Enthusiast DSLR Camera of the Year.

 
 

Utilizing the same 20.9-megapixel DX-format sensor as the flagship DX camera, the Nikon D500, the D7500 delivers very good image quality. While it may not be as quick as the D500 nor offer the same professional autofocus system, the D7500 remains a very fast camera, with shooting speeds over 8 frames per second and a speedy, accurate autofocus system. Plus, the D7500 can record 4K UHD video and Full HD video at 60fps as well. That's a lot of performance for the price.

While it may not reinvent the wheel, the Nikon D7500 takes a lot of cues from last year's Best Enthusiast DSLR, the Nikon D500, and has made significant improvements over its predecessor, the popular Nikon D7200. The Nikon D7500 is a feature-rich camera that offers incredible image quality in a compact lightweight body and with a palatable price. The Nikon D7500 is the epitome of an enthusiast DSLR.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast DSLR - Canon 6D Mark II

 
 

Arriving some five years after its predecessor, the Canon 6D II may have been a long time coming, but we think it was worth the wait. Providing full-frame image quality at just under the magic two thousand dollar mark, the Canon 6D II offers good handling from a fairly compact body complete with a versatile tilt/swivel LCD monitor. Performance is good for the class too, with the 6D II capable of 6.5 frames per second burst capture for 20 raw or ~100 JPEG frames, and is able to lock focus quickly whether shooting through the viewfinder or in live view mode.

 
 

Dynamic range, admittedly, is a bit of a weak spot, with the Canon 6D II trailing not only its rivals, but even its predecessor by just a bit. But for many photographers, the 6D II's dynamic range will prove more than sufficient. And in real-world shooting, the Canon 6D II's optical low-pass filter -- a rare option in a modern DSLR -- will help to avoid unsightly moiré and false-color effects that can bedevil many of its OLPF-free rivals. For the video creators, a more valid concern would be the lack of support for 4K video capture. However, if you can live with shooting good quality Full HD footage instead, the 6D II offers an entry into Canon's full-frame EOS ecosystem at a price tag that won't break the bank!

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast DSLR - Pentax KP

 
 

Faced by an onslaught of compact mirrorless cameras, the designers at Ricoh went back to the drawing board to see how they could pare down a DSLR, keeping size to an absolute minimum without dispensing with any of its features -- and especially not that all-important optical viewfinder. The result is the Pentax KP, an SLR camera which debuts a clever new interchangeable grip system that allows you to tailor its ergonomics to your own hands and chosen lens. Affordably priced at just under the magic thousand dollar mark, the Pentax KP might be pretty compact, but it nevertheless still packs in the features.

 
 

Perhaps most importantly of all, image quality is good. There's also a swift phase-detection autofocus system, a tilting LCD monitor and a sensor-shift stabilization system with all the usual Pentax wizardry, not only fighting blur from camera shake but also doubling as an automatic horizon leveler, an on-demand low-pass filter and even as a tool with which to enhance the finer details when shooting static scenes. Really, all we'd like to see added into the mix are a touch-screen and a more capable movie mode. But if you're not a movie shooter, prefer to work through the viewfinder, and aren't already tied into a rival system, it's hard to argue against the affordable, compact and yet feature-rich Pentax KP!

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast Zoom - Sony RX10 IV

 
 

We've long been big fans of Sony's RX10-series cameras, and there's no question about it, the Sony RX10 IV is our new favorite! The RX10 line was the first to pair a relatively large 1-inch-type sensor with a far-reaching zoom lens for a one-size-fits-all camera that gives great image quality and boatloads of zoom in a relatively compact, DSLR-like body. And now, the next-gen RX10 IV brings unprecedented performance in a similarly-portable, comfortable and versatile package.

 
 

Although it sports a versatile 25x optical zoom lens and a 20.1-megapixel sensor, this year's Sony RX10 IV is barely any larger than a typical consumer DSLR with a much shorter kit zoom lens mounted. Yet it offers wide-angle through telephoto coverage that would require a bag full of interchangeable lenses to match with an interchangeable-lens camera. And its performance almost defies belief: You can shoot 24 full-resolution frames per second with a buffer depth in the hundreds of frames, and its autofocus system is no slouch either, with an impressive array of 315 phase detection AF points covering most of the image frame.

And it's not just a capable still camera, either. The Sony RX10 IV makes for a well-equipped video shooter as well, capable of recording extremely high-quality 4K footage in-camera, not to mention some really fun slow-mo capabilities, too. And thanks to its proxy mode, which will simultaneously record 4K and Full HD footage of the same scene, you can use the lower-res footage to make light work of editing, only swapping in the much higher-resolution 4K content when it comes time to render your final cut.

Really, the only flies in the ointment here are a very steep pricetag by fixed-lens camera standards, and the lack of support for high-speed UHS-II memory cards, which could have significantly reduced buffer write times. But with buffer depths well above 100 frames regardless of file format, you shouldn't often find yourself waiting on the buffer to clear. And as for the price, well... the Sony RX10 IV is pretty much unrivaled as the market stands right now, and will let you shoot photos that its more laggardly rivals would have missed. You get what you pay for and then some, and until a true rival comes along, we can't blame Sony for wanting a decent return on its investment!

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast Mirrorless - Sony A6500

 
 

Sony has absolutely been killing it with the quality of their cameras over the past couple years, and the A6500 is yet another example of their commitment to excellence. You'll find many photographers that dip their expectations lower when they come across a camera with an APS-C sensor, but it's as if Sony doesn't want that to be the normal response. In fact, they seem keen on increasing the perceived value of a smaller sensor camera and added so many excellent features into the A6500 that it's hard not to be impressed. 

 
 

The A6500 introduced a far superior autofocusing system than we had ever seen in a mirrorless crop sensor camera and combined that with a much-improved buffer over the A6300. The result is a camera that can actually handle shooting action, which is a huge plus. The addition of a touchscreen makes the camera much more fluid to control, and the in-body image stabilization makes the camera more adaptive to changing environments and lighting conditions. That stabilization also comes in handy with video recording, which the A6500 also excels at, capable of outputting 4K video with a full sensor-wide readout and no pixel skipping or line binning. Unfortunately, there is no headphone jack, which is a bit of a disappointment but by no means a deal-breaker. 

The body design was subtly restyled to be more comfortable to hold, and all of the controls feel easily reachable and pleasantly tactile. The firmware and menu systems were also updated and result in an overall better experience. Overall, the A6500 packs a huge number of impressive features into a small, lightweight and easy-to-use body. It shines as the latest standard for enthusiast-grade APS-C cameras and what we as consumers should expect of them.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast Mirrorless - Fujifilm X-E3

 
 

For the very large enthusiast photographer category, there are a lot of great mirrorless options from a wide variety of manufacturers. With that said, Fujifilm has delivered a couple of excellent enthusiast mirrorless cameras this year including the X-E3. For the photographer looking to get a great kit without breaking the bank nor sacrificing image quality and functionality, the Fujifilm X-E3 is a great option. The rangefinder-styled X-E3 has the same imaging pipeline as the high-end X-Pro2 and almost exactly the same performance; all for under $900 for the camera body.

 
 

Compared to the X-E2, the X-E3 delivers a lot of meaningful upgrades. It includes a joystick control for the autofocus point, a refined layout and brand-new touchscreen interface. When considering these enhancements plus the higher-resolution sensor and improved performance, it's clear that the X-E3 is not only a big step up from the X-E2 (and X-E2S), but also one of the best enthusiast mirrorless cameras in 2017, particularly for those looking for a compact interchangeable lens camera.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

Camera of Distinction, Enthusiast Mirrorless - Fujifilm X-T20

 
 

Using the same 24.3-megapixel X-Trans sensor as the X-E3, which is also being awarded a Camera of Distinction in the Enthusiast Mirrorless Category, the Fujifilm X-T20 features a style and control layout more akin to a DSLR camera. The X-T20 is still a compact camera, however, taking full advantage of its mirrorless design. The X-T20 checks a lot of boxes for enthusiast photographers and it performs very well in a wide range of shooting situations.

 
 

Image quality and decisive autofocus are a couple of the standout features for the X-T20, but it is also a very good value at well under $1,000. The X-T20 has twin dial controls and can shoot at over 8 frames per second, making it a very versatile camera for shooting fast subjects. Ultimately, the X-T20 is a great example of balance, which is why it is being honored with this "Camera of Distinction" award. It captures excellent images, has a fast processor and accurate autofocus, 4K video recording and does it all with a stylish and functional design and very reasonable price point.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Camera of the Year, Best Premium Compact - Canon G9X Mark II

 
 

There are many compact cameras to choose from and Canon's PowerShot series has long been a source of great compact cameras. This year, Canon released the G9X Mark II, a very compact camera with a relatively large 1-inch-type sensor. The 20-megapixel G9X II includes a 28-84mm-equivalent zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2, which is speedy and allows for good low-light photography.

 
 

The pocketable camera has a 3-inch touchscreen display and can record Full HD video, making it a versatile option for photographers looking for a capable camera they can take with them wherever they go. While some competitors offer a wider built-in lens and others offer tilting displays or 4K video recording, the G9X II occupies a distinct position with its 20.2-megapixel sensor, sub-$500 price point and a bevy of shooting features.

Faster than its predecessor and with improved image quality, the Canon G9X II is a very good compact camera and 2017's best premium compact.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Camera of the Year, Best Enthusiast Fixed Lens Camera - Fujifilm X100F

 
 

At first glance, the Fujifilm X100-series might seem like a very niche product, but with version after version, this premium fixed-lens camera series has grown ever more popular. And for good reason, especially so with this year's Fujifilm X100F. Maintaining its characteristic retro-inspired design complete with fixed 23mm f/2 prime lens, the X100F nevertheless undergoes some welcomed ergonomic refinements that include improved controls, more dials as well as a handy joystick control.

 
 

The biggest improvements, however, are under the hood, bringing over many of the imaging and AF performance specs from the higher-end X-T2 and X-Pro2 cameras. With a 24MP APS-C X-Trans sensor, faster X Processor Pro chip and the X-T2's 325-point hybrid AF system, the Fuji X100F offers better image quality and all-around faster performance than previous models.

Overall, the improved Fuji X100F offers better image quality, features and performance that will surely impress seasoned X100 owners, but it should also make X100 skeptics give it a second chance. Granted, the fixed lens design is not for everyone, but the combination of nimble performance, excellent image quality, a cool design and an all-around compact form-factor really made the camera a pleasure to use. For us, it's far and away the best X100-series yet!

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Camera of the Year, Best Rugged Camera - Olympus TG-5

 
 

We've been big fans of the Olympus Tough line of rugged cameras for many years now. The bright f/2 aperture, the original tough camera with a mode dial, the excellent conversion lenses, and the overall image quality, have all been high-end additions to an otherwise traditionally consumer product. With the TG-5, however, Olympus wasn't content to just rest on their laurels, but instead have really upped the ante for what a rugged camera can be with features that even many of our seasoned enthusiast readers can appreciate.

 
 

For starters, this rugged camera has a control dial. Consumers may not care, but enthusiasts sure do. And it sports the higher-end "Pro Capture" mode which, found on higher-end cameras like the E-M1 Mark II, and it's a very handy shooting tool indeed. And the microscope mode allows in-camera focus-stacking that looks so good you could fool most anyone into thinking the results were from a high-end camera. Additionally, the new 120p high speed video mode is a very usable frame rate that bridges the world of slow-motion and traditional video speeds. Added together, you have a tough and rugged companion for the mountains to the coast and everywhere in between.

Yes, we have enjoyed this rugged line of cameras over the years, but none of them are as good as the Olympus TG-5. If you want a rugged frame with high-end features in compact form, it stands alone at the top of the hill.

Buy now: B&H | Amazon | Adorama

 

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Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards 2017

Best Professional & High-End Cameras

Best Enthusiast & Premium Compact Cameras (current page)

Best Intermediate & Entry-Level Cameras

Best Overall (coming soon)

Best Prime Lenses (coming soon!)

Best Zoom Lenses (coming soon!)