Imaging Resource Camera of the Year 2021: Best Intermediate-Level Camera, Best Premium Compact Camera & Best Wide-Angle Lens
posted Monday, November 15, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
It's that time of year, everyone... Camera of the Year time! Over the course of this past year, there have been several terrific cameras released from nearly every major manufacturer, and it's been an honor testing them on your behalf both in the lab and in the field. We've now sorted, deliberated and decided on our winning cameras and lenses!
As we do most years in these awards, we will be rolling them out in daily waves across this entire week. However, we'll be changing things up ever-so-slightly, announcing our picks for the Best Lenses of the Year alongside our camera winners over the course of the week. There were so many great lenses released this year that we felt they deserved to share the limelight during awards week!
Today, we're pleased to showcase our selection for Best Intermediate-Level Cameras. The Intermediate-level category is somewhat tricky, as these cameras are more advanced and more expensive than your typical "entry-level" camera, but they still maintain a balance when it comes to price. If you're serious about capturing terrific imagery without breaking the bank, these are some cameras to consider. We also present our pick for the Best Premium Compact Camera as well as our selection for the Best Wide-Angle Lenses!
Best Intermediate-Level Camera 2021: Nikon Z fc
As smartphones have continued to fill the role of a compact entry-level camera more and more, the 'entry-level' camera segment has essentially vanished. Gone are the days of new $600 DSLR camera kits. For this year's edition of the Camera of the Year Awards, we've shifted from 'entry level' to 'intermediate level,' covering interchangeable lens cameras that cost around $1,000-1,500. One such camera is the Nikon Z fc. The Z fc blends style and performance to great success. With a retro-inspired style borrowed from 1982's Nikon FM2 35mm film camera, the Z fc has old-school cool and new-school technology.
The Z fc uses the same 20.9-megapixel DX-format CMOS image sensor as the Nikon Z50. That's not the only shared feature with the Z fc and Z50. The cameras have the same 209-point hybrid autofocus system and deliver similar overall performance. However, the Z fc adds a useful Vari-Angle display and improved physical controls thanks to the retro-styled dials.
In real-world testing, the Z fc performed well. Priced at just under $1,000 for the body only and around $1,100 for a versatile kit with a special edition silver lens, the camera's image quality, autofocus, performance, video and shooting features make the Z fc an attractive option for aspiring photographers. The camera is easy to use for beginners. Yet, it's also capable for enthusiast photographers who want to dig into settings and get the most from the camera's impressive image sensor. The Nikon Z fc successfully combines usability and capability.
In our hands-on review for the Z fc, we wrote that 'The camera's design may be what attracts people to the Z fc, but its good image quality, strong autofocus and a nice suite of features will likely be what makes people stick around.' The Nikon Z fc has all the makings of a great intermediate-level camera.
Intermediate-Level Camera of Distinction: Fujifilm X-E4
Compact, sleek and understated, combined with the versatility of interchangeable lenses, is the name of the game with the Fujifilm X-E4. The X-E4 looks similar to the fixed-lens X100V camera -- small, portable and with a stylish, rangefinder-style design -- yet with the added functionality of using different lenses. On the outside, the styling has become a little sleeker and more modern than the previous generations, but it still oozes style. The camera gains some nice modern touches, too, such as a tilting touchscreen and USB-C.
The big story is the internal upgrades, with the X-E4 gaining Fujifilm's latest-generation 26MP APS-C X-Trans sensor and a faster, quad-core X Processor 4 imaging processor. The AF system, as well, gets a sizable upgrade in performance and functionality. Overall, the image quality and performance capabilities of this tiny camera are impressive. The X-E4 shares essentially the same imaging pipeline with Fujifilm's higher-end X Series cameras, so the imaging performance is right there. It might lack some nice amenities, such as in-body image stabilization or rugged weather-sealing. However, with a price point of under $900, the Fuji X-E4 offers a lot of camera for a fair price for anyone looking for a small, easy-to-use camera with a lot of functionality.
• • •
Best Premium Compact Camera 2021: Ricoh GR IIIx
In some ways, the Ricoh GR IIIx essentially wins this category by default, as it was really the only premium compact camera to debut this past year. Nonetheless, we still feel it's a camera worthy of recognition. A unique camera series with a dedicated enthusiast following, the Ricoh GR family is more than just a mere point-and-shoot camera, and the latest GR III series especially so. Packed with a large 24MP APS-C sensor, the GR III and new GR IIIx offers better image quality than most compact cameras, many of which use small 1-inch-type sensors, if not smaller. Plus, the camera offers fast hybrid AF with phase-detection AF, sensor-shift image stabilization, full manual controls and advanced shooting modes as well as lots of user customization. And, of course, all of this is crammed into a tiny camera that slips into your pocket.
What's new with the GR IIIx, in particular, is its all-new lens. Like previous generations, the GR IIIx has a fixed prime lens. But this new "X" model offers a longer 40mm-equivalent F2.8 prime rather than the wider 28mm-eq. used in previous-generation Ricoh GR models. The camera now has a focal length that's more closely matched to the human eye. It's a more natural field of view that can be useful for a wide variety of subjects and notably, allows for a bit more subjection isolation potential compared to its wider-angle siblings.
If you want a wider-angle view, the standard GR III is still available, but if you like to get things a little closer, all while having a super-compact camera, the Ricoh GR IIIx is the one to grab.
• • •
Best Wide-Angle Lens 2021: Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 GM
Sony has quite a few 35mm primes in its E-mount line already, including a 35mm F2.8 lens that debuted alongside the very first A7 and A7R full-frame cameras. But, this new lens, the FE 35mm F1.4 G Master lens, is Sony's fourth 35mm prime and their best 35mm wide-angle prime lens yet. As part of their top-of-the-line G Master series of lenses, the FE 35mm F1.4 GM is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a stellar lens. The lens features Sony's latest and greatest technology, both in terms of optics but also build quality and AF design.
As for image quality performance, the Sony 35mm GM lens is exceptionally sharp, even when used wide-open. Despite the fast F1.4 aperture, the Sony 35mm GM lens can resolve an impressive amount of detail at F1.4 at both the center and out towards the edges of the frame. Vignetting is minimal, as is distortion and chromatic aberration in most situations. Overall, from a pure image quality standpoint, the Sony FE 35mm F1.4 GM lens is spectacular. The lens also focuses quite closely and produces very smooth, pleasing bokeh in out of focus areas.
When it comes to usability and performance, the Sony 35mm GM lens earns high marks in pretty much every category. Despite the full-frame format and bright aperture, the unique optical design let Sony create a surprisingly small and lightweight lens. It's still fully weather-sealed too! The lens is easy to carry around all day, no matter the weather or shooting conditions. Plus, the 35mm GM's advanced AF system with a dual XD Linear Motor system pays dividends when it comes to AF performance, particularly with Sony's advanced AF features, such as Real-time Eye AF tracking. It's not the fastest-focusing Sony lens we've seen, as it takes a little longer than we expected to rack through its full AF range, but for short AF shifts as well as real-time subject tracking, the lens' AF system is swift, precise and quiet.
Overall, the Sony FE 35mm F1.4 GM is a fantastic lens. It's built well, it performs well and, most importantly, it captures stunningly sharp images. At $1,400 it's certainly a premium lens, but it's our favorite wide-angle lens of 2021.
Wide-Angle Lens of Distinction: Fujifilm XF 18mm F1.4 R LM WR
Fujifilm's latest 18mm prime. Yet another member of Fuji's growing "F1.4" family of primes, this XF 18mm F1.4 lens is a significant upgrade over the older Fujifilm 18mm F2 pancake prime. The XF 18mm F1.4 isn't as small, but the lens is still quite small, despite its bright aperture. Constructed almost entirely from metal, the lens is solid, well built and sealed against inclement weather. There's a nice heft to it, but it's not heavy.
Optically, the lens is an excellent performer, offering sharp performance across much of its aperture range. Wide-open, the lens is very sharp, though it does fair better by stopping down ever-so-slightly. In general, the lens captures crisp detail across the frame, and it also does well suppressing CA and vignetting. If you need a sharp, dependable and fast wide-angle lens for your Fujifilm X Series camera, the XF 18mm F1.4 is the one to get.
Wide-Angle Lens of Distinction: Panasonic S 24mm F1.8
Panasonic continues to grow out its full-frame L-mount family of lenses, one of which is this compact Lumix S 24mm F1.8 wide-angle lens. This surprisingly small and lightweight full-frame lens joins a handful of other Panasonic F1.8 prime lenses, all of which share identical sizes, filter sizes and nearly-identical weights. If you're a videographer, you'll have an easier time swapping between these F1.8 lenses, especially if you're using balance-critical rigs like a gimbal.
For this 24mm F1.8 lens, in particular, it's amazing just how small and light it is, despite the full-frame format and bright F1.8 aperture. The lens weighs just 310g (0.68 lbs) and is just a little over three inches long (82mm). It's a perfect pairing for Panasonic's smaller full-frame camera, the Lumix S5, though it works well with any L-mount camera, really. And despite the small size and lightweight mostly-plastic construction, the lens feels very sturdy in the hand. The build quality is excellent, and the lens features thorough weather-sealing.
Optically, the lens is very sharp, even wide open, especially in the center, though it does do a bit better across the frame if you stop down slightly. Vignetting is present to a degree when shot wide-open, but depending on your subject or look, it could be a pleasing effect (and easily correctable in post, if not). Overall, the Panasonic 24mm F1.8 S lens offers very good image quality as well as fast, quiet autofocusing, plus customizable manual focusing behavior. It's a solid, versatile lens for landscapes, low-light, wide-angle close-up tasks, video and more. If you're a full-frame L-mount user looking for a bright wide-angle lens that doesn't weigh you down, the Panasonic S 24mm F1.8 is one to consider.
• • •
Check out our other 2021 Camera of the Year Awards