Imaging Resource Camera of the Year 2021: Best Enthusiast Crop-Sensor Camera, Best Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens, Best Super-Telephoto Lens
posted Tuesday, November 16, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
Our 2021 Camera of the Year awards continue today as we step up into the enthusiast world, both in terms of cameras and lenses. This is the territory most frequented by our long-term readers... the gear that aims to do it all!
To be clear on our definition of "enthusiast," we consider an enthusiast someone who's practiced their craft for many years, perhaps even decades. This is way beyond amateur, even beyond "hobbyist" and right on the heels of a professional. An enthusiast will often spend more than $1500 on a new camera body or lens, and sometimes far more.
Again, we're highlighting both cameras and lenses simultaneously. Up first, we present our Best Enthusiast Crop-Sensor Cameras of 2021. Then for lenses, we look at a couple of popular but more specialized styles of lenses: our picks for Best Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses and Best Super-telephoto Lenses of the year!
Best Enthusiast Crop-Sensor Camera 2021: Panasonic GH5 II
The new Panasonic GH5 II builds upon the foundation of the wildly popular GH5 camera, changing little about its physical design -- and for a good reason: if it isn't broke, don't fix it -- while introducing some pleasing improvements under the hood. The original GH5 was a stunningly versatile and feature-packed mirrorless camera for both stills and video. However, given the quality, performance and high-end video specs, it's no surprise the GH5 is particularly popular for video creators ranging from enthusiasts to professionals.
The new GH5 II builds upon the legacy of the original with several new features, improvements and upgrades to its specs and imaging pipeline. The exterior, as mentioned, remains largely the same -- though the EVF is better and the rear screen is higher resolution. The sensor has a new anti-reflective coating, and the newer image processor brought over from the S1H brings several improvements, including faster AF and more intelligent subject tracking capabilities, improved dynamic range, plus even more video features. The GH5 II includes Cinema 4K (4096 x 2160) at up to 60fps in 4:2:0 10bit and C4K 30p at 4:2:2 10bit as well as 6K Anamorphic using the entire sensor area, plus better HDMI output and V-LogL support out of the box. Another big area of improvement is live streaming video, both wired and wireless. With a paired smart device, you can live stream directly from the GH5 II to sites like YouTube and Facebook as well as access manual settings for streaming on other platforms like Twitch.
Though the GH5 II might not be drastically different from its predecessor, the new Lumix GH5 II represents yet another refinement for Panasonic's popular GH line of Micro Four Thirds cameras. For enthusiast creators, especially those with a heavy focus on video, the Panasonic GH5 II offers a thoroughly impressive array of features, performance and image quality, all for an even better starting price.
Enthusiast Crop-Sensor Camera of Distinction: Pentax K-3 III
Pentax is as devoted to DSLR technology as Pentax fans are dedicated to the company's cameras and lenses. While the industry giants have shifted their focus to mirrorless camera technology, Pentax remains committed to DSLR cameras. Their newest camera, the Pentax K-3 III, is a testament to the company's rigorous approach to camera design and development.
Pentax's engineers carefully considered just about every aspect of the K-3 III, and the attention to detail shows through in the camera's intelligent design and rich offering of features. The weather-sealed camera is robustly built and feels very solid in the hands. DSLR technology lends itself well to a chunky, larger camera body. While not all mirrorless cameras are thin and compact, they can be. Not so for a DSLR. Pentax uses the relatively large body to great effect with a great front grip and excellent physical controls.
The K-3 III's optical viewfinder is excellent. While it doesn't have the bells and whistles of a good EVF, the OVF has 1.05x magnification and is among the largest and brightest OVFs we've used, including those in full-frame DSLR cameras.
When it comes to image quality, the K-3 III's new 25.7-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS image sensor delivers impressive performance for an APS-C sensor. Where the camera comes up a bit short is concerning its autofocus performance. The K-3 III has a new autofocus system, the SAFOX 13 AF system, and despite being new, it feels a bit outdated in use. After using many mirrorless cameras, we have gotten used to the autofocus points covering much of the images sensor, but it's not easy to offer on a DSLR.
Nonetheless, the K-3 III isn't winning Runner-Up in the Enthusiast Crop-Sensor because of a lack of competition. It earns the honor because it is a good example of a modern DSLR camera that focuses on the strengths of DSLR technology without chasing mirrorless competition. We wrote, 'The [K-3 III] is well-designed and very comfortable to use. The optical viewfinder is one of the best I've seen. Image quality from the new image sensor is impressive, too, especially when the improved autofocus system delivers (which it doesn't do quite as often as I'd like).'
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Best Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens 2021: Sony FE 14mm F1.8 GM
Sony's widest and brightest full-frame prime lens is an absolutely stunning optic. As part of their G Master series, the FE 14mm F1.4 GM lens is one of Sony's top-of-the-line lenses, featuring the best of the best when it comes to optical design, technology, features and build quality. It's not really a surprise to see this lens delivering fantastic results.
From a design standpoint, one might assume a full-frame lens that is this wide and with this bright of an aperture would be a large and heavy lens. Traditionally, this would be true, but Sony's engineers seemingly achieved the impossible. Thanks to the unique optical design, which includes two XA elements, and its smaller dual XD Linear Motor AF system, the FE 14mm F1.8 is shockingly small and lightweight. The lens weighs only about one pound (460g), is less than four inches (99.8mm) long and has a maximum diameter of around 3.3 inches (83mm). Compared to a competing lens, which weighs nearly 2.6 lbs. (1170g) and is almost fives inches (126mm) long, the Sony FE 14mm F1.8 lens is amazingly small. The result is an easy-to-carry lens, one that balances nicely with Sony's equally compact full-frame cameras. This all makes for a combination you can easily travel or hike with and not be weighed down by an awkwardly bulky lens. The lens is also extremely rugged, with durable construction and dust- and moisture-resistant sealing.
Optically, the FE 14mm F1.8 GM lens is outstanding. Central sharpness, in particular, is excellent, even at F1.8. Our review noted that corner performance is slightly soft wide-open, but not to a severe degree. Stopping down does help sharpness overall, but F1.8 performance is very good. With the combination of a wide perspective and a fast aperture, we were also thrilled to see the lens perform very well with astrophotography pursuits. Comatic aberration is very well controlled in this lens. If you photograph the night sky with a Sony camera, keep your eye on this lens.
Overall, while a 14mm prime lens is somewhat limiting in terms of versatility, the Sony FE 14mm F1.8 GM is a stunning ultra-wide-angle lens. If you want crisp ultra-wide landscape vistas, dramatic close-up shots and clear, sharp starscapes, this ultra-wide lens is the one to get. It performs very well, focuses quickly, feels rugged and is very compact and light. An all-around fantastic lens.
Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens of Distinction: Nikon Z 14-24mm F2.8 S
The Nikon 14-24mm F2.8G lens is one of the best wide-angle lenses available for the Nikon F mount. It's no surprise, then, that Nikon has revisited the lens for its mirrorless Nikon Z system. However, it's not a simple mount swap, the Nikon Z 14-24mm F2.8 S Nikkor lens features an all-new design and optical construction. The Z 14-24mm F2.8 S is nearly a pound lighter than the original 14-24mm F2.8G lens and, in a fantastic move for landscape photographers, Nikon's new ultra-wide zoom lens accepts screw-on front filters. Granted, the front filters are 112mm, so they're large and expensive, but there's no substitute for a circular polarizing filter.
The Z 14-24mm F2.8 S is very well-built, offering S-line construction and build quality. The weather-sealed lens includes an OLED information display, excellent zoom ring and a nice focus ring. It is built to rigorous professional standards, and you can feel the quality when using the lens.
Inside the lens are 16 lens elements, including three aspherical elements and Nikon's sophisticated ARNEO and Nano Crystal Coatings. The resulting image quality is superb. The lens is sharp across the frame throughout the zoom range and even when shooting wide open. Coma is pretty well controlled, too, making the lens well-suited to landscapes and nightscapes alike.
Nikon has knocked it out of the park with its Z 14-24mm F2.8 S lens. If not for Sony's incredible 14mm F1.8 GM lens, the Z 14-24mm F2.8 S would have been crowned this year's winner in the ultra-wide-angle lens category. The 14-24mm F2.8 S is a must-have lens for enthusiast and professional landscape photographers alike.
Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens of Distinction: Olympus 8-25mm F4 PRO
This versatile Olympus zoom is a somewhat odd choice to categorize solely as an "ultra-wide-angle lens," as its zoom range can put it all the way out into "standard" lens territory. However, since it offers a wider perspective than, for instance, the Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 and 12-45mm F4 PRO lenses, we felt it should go on the list for Micro Four Thirds users in the market for an ultra-wide-angle lens.
The Olympus 8-25mm F4 PRO lens can also be thought of as an alternative to Olympus, or OM Digital's, earlier 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens. For those who don't need that 7mm focal length or an F2.8 aperture, the 8-25mm is arguably a better choice for several reasons. It's less expensive, lighter in weight, allows for screw-on front filters and has a much more versatile zoom range. The Olympus 8-25mm F4 Pro is a clever lens. It doesn't feel exactly like a do-it-all "travel zoom lens," but it has some of that handy versatility. At the same time, it offers a pleasingly wide field of view option, letting you capture expansive, dramatic landscape vistas.
In terms of design and functionality, the Olympus 8-25mm F4 Pro lens looks and feels much like Olympus' other Zuiko PRO-series lenses. The lens is compact and lightweight while still feeling solid and well built. The lens features metal construction and has the characteristically thorough weather-sealing for which Olympus Zuiko PRO lenses are known. The lens is made well and can handle harsh conditions.
Optically, the lens is another excellent performer, following the legacy of prior Olympus PRO lenses. Based on our review, we found the lens to be very sharp, even when used wide open and across the full zoom range. Vignetting is also minimal, and chromatic aberration is essentially a non-issue. Autofocusing is also very fast, much like we've seen from other Olympus MFT lenses. The lens can also focus extremely closely on a subject. It's not a full macro lens -- it's nearly half-macro with a maximum shooting magnification of 0.42x -- the lens can capture dramatic close-up wide-angle images. All in all, this is a very versatile lens, especially for landscape and nature photographers who want strong ultra-wide performance as well as additional zoom versatility and close-focusing creative potential.
Ultra-Wide-Angle Lens of Distinction: Tamron 11-20mm F2.8 Di III-A2 RXD
This year has been jam-packed with ultra-wide-angle lenses across a wide range of camera mounts. While the Nikon Z 14-24mm F2.8 S is a great runner-up for full-frame mirrorless Z cameras, the Tamron 11-20mm F2.8 is an excellent new lens for APS-C E-mount cameras. Offering a 17-30mm equivalent focal length range and constant F2.8 aperture, the Tamron 11-20mm F2.8 Di III-A2 RXD lens is a great choice for landscape and travel photography.
The lens incorporates eXtra Low Dispersion (XLD), Low Dispersion (LD) and Glass-Molded Aspherical (GM) elements to produce impressive image quality with minimal chromatic aberrations. The Rapid eXtra-silent stepping Drive (RXD) autofocus motor delivers quick and quiet autofocus. In the field, the lens captures sharp images with ease, and its relatively lightweight design is a nice bonus when using the Tamron 11-20mm F2.8 as a walkaround lens.
There are many great wide-angle lenses for Sony E-mount, and Tamron's new 11-20mm F2.8 Di III-A RXD is among the best for APS-C cameras.
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Best Super-telephoto Lens 2021: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports
Here at Imaging Resource, we love wildlife photography, and that means we are big fans of super-telephoto lenses. 2021 has been kind to E-mount users looking for an affordable super-telephoto zoom lens, with Sigma and Tamron launching new zooms. While the Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7 Di III VC is lighter and smaller, the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DN Sports offers a valuable extra 100mm of reach and a slightly faster maximum aperture. That makes the Sigma lens larger and heavier, of course, but it's a worthwhile tradeoff for wildlife photography.
The Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports lens is available for E-mount and L-mount. We tested it on a Sony A7R IV camera, and the lens delivered impressive image quality and autofocus performance. While F6.3 may not sound like a fast aperture, the Sigma zoom offers surprisingly good bokeh performance. The lens can also focus surprisingly closely, allowing for impressive close-up capabilities. The lens also promises up to four stops of optical image stabilization correction, which is helpful when trying to keep your shots steady at 600mm. The Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports lens is also weather-sealed, making it a great choice for wildlife photography in adverse elements.
At $1,500, the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports lens represents an outstanding value for your money. It's a versatile super telephoto zoom lens and one of the most fun lenses we used in 2021.
Super-telephoto Lens of Distinction: Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7 Di III VC
Sony E-mount photographers wanting long, supertelephoto zoom lenses had few options beyond Sony's own glass or using adapted DSLR lenses. Sony's options, such as the 100-400mm GM and 200-600mm G lenses, are excellent but expensive. The 200-600mm lens is also quite large. Fortunately, there are two standout alternatives this year from Sigma and Tamron.
The new Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7 Di III VC, in particular, offers not only a highly versatile telephoto zoom range but also a surprisingly compact form factor plus an affordable price point for this type of lens. The Tamron 150-500mm lens offers very good build quality and construction, including weather-sealing. It also provides a nice set of amenities, such as optical image stabilization with adjustable modes, focus limiter settings and an Arca-Swiss-compatible tripod foot.
Optically, the lens is a very strong performer, though the fairly dim aperture range can be limiting when light levels dip. However, when light is good (or if you use it on a camera with good high ISO performance), the lens offers nice sharpness and very good image quality overall. In our testing, the center sharpness, in particular, was very good across the entire zoom range, and the lens also had excellent control over CA and distortion. Autofocus is also particularly impressive, with Tamron's Voice-coil eXtreme-torque Drive linear motor system proving fast and precise, even at 500mm. The AF system is quick and responsive for tracking moving subjects, and the lens also has very impressive close-focusing capabilities.
Overall, the Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7 Di III VC offers a lot of quality and performance at a very fair price point. If you're an enthusiast wildlife photographer looking for a versatile lens that doesn't cost a ton, the Tamron 150-500mm is worth checking out!
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Check out our other 2021 Camera of the Year Awards