Imaging Resource Camera of the Year 2021: Best Professional Full-frame Camera, Best Standard Lens & Best Telephoto Lens
posted Thursday, November 18, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
Today's Camera of the Year award focuses on the professional image creator -- the photographer, the videographer, the creative who makes their living with a camera in their hand. While a large number of cameras these days, at varying price levels, can succeed in many different professional work environments, "professional-level" cameras are those creative tools that feature (ideally) the best image quality, the highest-precision and highest-performance autofocusing technology, fast continuous shooting speeds, deep buffers, and versatile video recording features. Plus, a pro-level camera should also offer the best durability and construction possible because who knows where the next job will take you; you want your camera, the tool of your livelihood, to withstand the potential rain, dust, drops and dings that come with the job. Reliability is a crucial characteristic of a professional-level camera.
In addition to our Pro Camera picks, we also have two final Lens of the Year Award categories to unveil, Best Standard Lens and Best Telephoto Lens. Standard lens focal lengths fit that middle-ground between wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses. Offering a "normal" or standard field of view, these lenses offer a more natural perspective that is similar to the human eye. These lenses make great portrait lenses, having low distortion and bright apertures for good subject isolation. However, they are still quite versatile for a number of different subjects. Then, we go a little longer with our Best Telephoto lens of the year. A workhorse lens category, these optics are used for all sorts of photographic pursuits, from pleasingly compressed-perspective landscapes and fast sports moments to portraits and weddings.
Ready to see the winners? Scroll on down!
Best Professional Full-Frame Camera: Sony Alpha 1
Where to start with the Sony Alpha 1? If you are a professional creator, whether it's fine art, portraiture or editorial, sports or wildlife -- or even video production -- the Sony Alpha 1 feels supremely capable of handling just about any creative endeavor. As Sony's highest-end flagship mirrorless camera, the A1 is the Sony camera. The model with all the bells and whistles. And, of course, a price tag to go with it. On the outside, the Sony A1 features an updated design, with better ergonomics, a deep handgrip, lots and lots of customizable physical controls and buttons, plus excellent durability and weather-sealing. It also features pro-oriented amenities, such as built-in 1000BASE-T Ethernet, faster Wi-Fi, a full-size HDMI port, and dual card slots with support for super-fast CFexpress Type A cards.
For high-resolution subjects, the Sony A1's 50-megapixel sensor has the resolution needed for all but the most demanding fine detail needs. Plus, it offers overall fantastic image quality at a wide range of ISO and excellent dynamic range that we've come to expect from Sony full-frame cameras. At the same time, the camera's stacked sensor design plus a fast processor allows for outstanding performance capabilities as well -- little to no rolling shutter, the ability to shoot 50MP full-res images at up to 30fps (!), plus excellent real-time tracking for people, animals and birds. If you shoot wildlife, sports, action, motorsports, the A1 is amazingly capable; it's fast to shoot, fast to focus, and the buffer depth is impressive.
Given its speed and resolution -- and the lack of a fully-articulating LCD, although it tilts -- the Alpha 1 is arguably designed more for still photographers than video creators. However, in no way, shape or form is the A1 lacking in the video department. The A1 offers impressive video capabilities, including 10-bit 8K video up to 30fps, 4K at up to 120fps and 16-bit RAW video out via the full-size HDMI port. The camera's unique "heat-dissipating design" allows it to continuously record high-quality footage for extended periods, despite the camera's overall small size.
All in all, if you can look past the $6500 price tag, which for a professional-level camera isn't completely out of the ordinary, the Sony A1 screams performance, quality and versatility.
Professional Full-Frame Camera of Distinction: Nikon Z7 II
Like the Nikon Z6 II, the Nikon Z7 II just missed our cutoff for the 2020 Camera of the Year Awards. And, like the Z6 II, the Z7 II improves upon the strengths of the original Z7 camera while addressing many of the camera's (relatively minor) shortcomings. The Nikon Z6 and Z7 were Nikon's first full-frame mirrorless cameras and helped get the Z system off to a strong start. The Z7 II continues Nikon's dedicated work by delivering the same excellent image quality as the original Z7 while improving autofocus, performance, video and overall usability.
The addition of a second card slot and a second processor pay significant dividends in real-world use. The Nikon Z7 II is well-suited to enthusiasts and professional photographers alike due to its excellent 45.7-megapixel image sensor, well-rounded autofocus system and impressive performance. The Z7 II is markedly improved. While the Z7 felt like a camera nearly ready for primetime, the Z7 II is entirely prepared for demanding professional photography workflows for both stills and video.
The Nikon Z7 II doesn't quite have the resolving power and speed of the Sony A1, but the Z7 II is an excellent camera for just about any photographic situation. Nikon's upcoming Z9 camera may be the Z system's new flagship model, but for all but the most demanding pro photographers, the Z7 II is a nearly perfect choice.
The Z7 II earns runner-up in our Professional Full Frame Camera of the Year category thanks to the Z7 II's impressive performance and intelligent improvements. In our Nikon Z7 review, we wrote, 'For Nikon DSLR owners still waiting to make the upgrade to a Nikon mirrorless camera, the Z7 II is an amazing place to start. If you want excellent high-resolution image quality, great features, and reliable performance, the Z7 II is the camera for you.' It's not just an excellent camera for existing Nikon shooters, though, the Nikon Z7 II holds up well to the competition across the full-frame mirrorless camera segment.
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Best Standard Lens 2021: Fujinon GF 80mm F1.7 R WR
Alongside the excellent GFX 100S camera, Fujifilm announced the Fujinon GF 80mm F1.7 R WR lens. With a maximum aperture of F1.7, the GF 80mm F1.7 R WR is the fastest autofocus lens for a mirrorless medium format camera system. The lens delivers a focal length equivalent to 63mm on a full-frame camera, and it's a great focal length for a wide range of subjects, including portraiture, landscapes and still life photography.
The GF 80mm F1.7 lens delivers across all fronts. A standard lens must be sharp and free of distortion. Ideally, a great standard prime lens also has a fast maximum aperture yet isn't too large and heavy. The GF 80mm F1.7 ticks all these boxes within the context of a medium format camera system. When shooting wide open, the lens delivers excellent optimal sharpness. When at F1.7, the bokeh is nearly perfect.
As we pointed out in our review, the GF 80mm F1.7 lens isn't perfect. It has some issues with chromatic aberrations and flare, and the autofocus system is quite loud. However, it breaks new ground in terms of maximum aperture for mirrorless medium format cameras and produces fantastic image quality overall.
Choosing between the Fujinon GF 80mm F1.7 R WR lens and the Nikon Z 50mm F1.2 S Nikkor lens was difficult. While the Nikon 50mm F1.2 S may deliver better overall image quality and performance, the GF 80mm F1.7 R WR features more innovation, thus earning the title of 2021's best standard prime lens.
Standard Lens of Distinction: Nikon Z 50mm F1.2 S
When Nikon released the Z6 and Z7 cameras, thus launching its new mirrorless camera system, Nikon released the 50mm F1.8 S lens. It has stood as a great S-line standard prime lens. However, the only other option for photographers wanting a faster aperture was the Noct lens, which is manual focus and $8,000. At least, that was the case until 2021, when Nikon released the Z 50mm F1.2 S lens.
Since the Nikon Z 50mm F1.2 S lens is relatively large, heavy and expensive ($2,100), many photographers will look at the 50mm F1.8 S lens as a suitable alternative. However, dealing with a higher price and additional weight of the 50mm F1.2 S is well worth it if you want some of the best sharpness and bokeh available. The Z 50mm F1.2 S is one of Nikon's sharpest Z lenses yet, which is a tall order since the Z system is full of fantastic glass. It also exhibits outstanding control over aberrations and offers reliable autofocus.
A good standard prime lens is a staple in every camera system. With the addition of the 50mm F1.2 S to the existing 50mm F1.8 S, the Nikon Z system now has fantastic lenses for Z shooters to choose from. The Z 50mm F1.2 S is very deserving of recognition in this year's best standard prime lens category thanks to its outstanding image quality, build quality and overall performance. It's one of the best 50mm prime lenses we've used.
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Best Telephoto Lens 2021: Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II
Sony had a busy 2021. The Japanese company released a lot of excellent lenses this year. While it's hard to pick out the best new Sony lens, it's not difficult at all to name the FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II as the best telephoto lens of 2021.
The original 70-200mm F2.8 GM lens is great. It would have been difficult to point out many flaws with the G Master lens. However, after going hands-on with the 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II, the first-ever 'Mark II' G Master lens, it's clear that Sony's engineers have made significant strides over the past few years in terms of optical design and performance. The 70-200mm F2.8 GM II is incredibly sharp across the entire image area at F2.8 throughout its entire zoom range, which is an impressive feat. The bokeh performance is also excellent. It's staggering how good the image quality is.
Perhaps even more impressive is the gains Sony has made concerning autofocus performance. With four XD Linear Motors for autofocus, a first for Sony, the new 70-200mm GM II lens is lightning-quick. Often, it feels like the autofocus is instantaneous with pressing the shutter release, especially on the Sony A1.
Sony also revisited the lens's design. While it may look the same as the original 70-200mm F2.8 GM lens at first, a closer inspection reveals improved controls, such as a dedicated aperture control ring. The GM II version is also 435 grams lighter, which is a 29% weight reduction. To sum it up, the lens has better image quality, faster autofocus and an improved design. While a 'Mark II' version of the 70-200mm F2.8 GM lens may not have been strictly necessary, we're glad that Sony released it because the FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II is among the very best new lenses in 2021.
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Check out our other 2021 Camera of the Year Awards