Imaging Resource Camera of the Year 2018: Best Enthusiast Cameras & Best Cameras for Video
posted Thursday, December 20, 2018 at 1:59 PM EST
Enthusiast-class cameras can be a tricky bunch to categorize. There's not necessarily a hard-and-fast rule for what designates a camera as an "enthusiast" model. They are, in many respects, top-of-the-line cameras when it comes to image quality and performance features. However, many manufacturers offer cameras that go a step beyond, with professional-level image capture features, blazing-fast AF and sequential shooting speeds, and bomb-proof construction. Those are the camera tools that professionals rely on to get the job done.
However, there are many of us -- yes, both you the reader and many of us here at IR -- who aren't working professional photographers. And while we'd love just to grab the best-of-the-best off the shelf and go shoot, we don't often need or want to spend that premium price for "the best" top-of-the-line camera. Hence, the "enthusiast" level. For the most part, an enthusiast camera, in our eyes, can be defined into a price range segment, somewhere around $1500-2000. This year, we saw both full-frame and crop-frame cameras make it into the "enthusiast" level category, and below we've highlighted our picks for the best of the best enthusiast cameras of 2018!
Of course, we'd be remiss not to put some attention towards video. The vast majority of cameras, from big rigs to pocket-cams, shoot video. Some have all the bells and whistles, and some are more simple affairs. When it comes to our picks for video-shooting cameras, we're focusing on photo-centric cameras that offer video shooting features. In other words, we do not include camcorders or dedicated cinema cameras -- that's a whole different ball game. Nevertheless, with the ever-increasing popularity of video, we wanted to share our picks for the best photo-centric cameras for video shooters as well.
There was a time when "enthusiast" and "full frame" could not exist together in the same sentence. The Canon 6D was the first to change that narrative, and Sony's ensuing A7 cameras continued the legacy of giving enthusiast shooters an amazing full-frame product at a strikingly affordable price point. With the A7 III, perhaps calling it an enthusiast camera sells it short because of how much can be accomplished with it. But because it's so easy to use and because its price point is so approachable, it can easily be categorized as a full-frame camera for the masses.
The A7 III's 24-megapixel sensor strikes an excellent balance between resolving power and reasonable file sizes. It's great for the budding photographer, and the average professional shooter rarely requires more than that. At low ISOs, the detail and color rendition are truly marvelous, making it a great choice for sports photography, wildlife, family portraiture and more. It performs extremely well in low-light situations, with impressive detail retention and well-controlled noise.
Speaking of sports photography, the A7 III has what is probably the best autofocus system in its class, with a 693-point focal-plane phase-detection autofocus system that shares a lot in common with the Sony A9. It can fire up to 10 frames per second while calculating the correct autofocus point the entire time, making it one of the best cameras for capturing action that you can buy, and easily the best at this price point for full-frame cameras. You can also shoot all day long without much worry, as Sony's improved battery lasts significantly longer than its predecessors and has created a new standard for mirrorless battery life.
But the A7 III doesn't stop there -- it's not just a stills camera but an outstanding video camera as well. It carries the Sony heritage of full-frame 4K readout with no pixel binning or line skipping, so the visual quality of the 4K footage is spectacular. Though it can only capture up to 30p in 4K, it has many more options in its equally-good Full HD video, including 120 frames per second. On top of all that, it includes S-Log for those who want to get even more in-depth with their video shooting. For a hybrid photo/video camera, it's hard to ask for more in this department. It's one of the few cameras on the market that can capture full-frame 4K video, and combined with its aforementioned autofocus, it can track and capture moving subjects in stunning high definition with ease.
If you've used Sony mirrorless cameras before, you'll find the A7 III to physically feel and shoot just like any other from the top-selling mirrorless company. The menu system, though still not the best, has made incremental changes over the past few iterations of cameras to be slightly less of a bear to navigate If you're looking for a full-frame mirrorless camera that truly achieves balance in its features, it's hard to not immediately point to the Sony A7 III as the epitome of that mindset.
Let's see: a big full-frame sensor, fast AF and burst performance, rugged weather-sealing, and excellent image quality for stills and 4K video? Oh yeah, and for a price that's just $1,999? Say hello to the Nikon Z6, a camera with all the makings of an excellent enthusiast-class camera. We had so many enthusiast-level cameras this year that we had to split the category between full-frame and crop-frame models, and for the full-frame segment, we obviously had to tip our hat to this new enthusiast offering from Nikon!
The Nikon Z6 is an excellent, all-around camera that's designed for versatility. From landscapes and portraiture to wildlife and sports, plus pretty much anything else in-between, the Nikon Z6's 24MP full-frame sensor and fast processor offers detail-rich images, very good high ISO performance, fast burst shooting, and advanced 4K video capabilities. While the native lens selection is limited at the moment, though certain to expand, the Z6 performs quite well with adapted Nikon F-mount DSLR lenses -- it's an excellent camera for current Nikon shooters!
Overall, the Nikon Z6 packs in a lot of features and quality for an impressive price-point. For those enthusiast photographers (and videographers!) out there looking to upgrade to a full-frame system, the Nikon Z6 definitely deserves ample consideration!
It'll be no surprise of course that the Fujifilm X-T3 won this category for Best Enthusiast Crop-Frame Camera, as we've already bestowed it with our highest honor for 2018 in naming it our Camera of the Year! As we've discussed in that write-up, the X-T line has made great strides since it first wowed the camera world in 2014, and has really "come of age" with the release of the X-T3!
While maintaining its elegant exterior adorned with a vast array of old-school physical controls and dials, and a beefed-up exterior at that, the X-T3's internal processing power has been amped considerably. Most notably is the relative improvement across the board with its continuous autofocus engine, one that we've had great success with out in the field. It offers phase detection across the entire sensor, and the results garnered praise from our field testers, such as Eamon Hickey reporting: "I was impressed with the camera's ability to accurately track erratically moving subjects, in quite dark circumstances, and at very high frame rates."
The camera also offers slightly increased resolution, now bumped to a 26mp sensor. Our Senior Editor William Brawley found the image quality quite impressive in the field, and noted that: "The X-T3 is capable of capturing images with fantastic fine detail, excellent colors and a wide dynamic range." He also found the improved and more versatile LCD to be a helpful aid in tricky composition, and learned first-hand that the weather sealing is indeed robust, just as we found with the predecessor X-T2. Managing Editor Dave Pardue also found the C-AF to excel in the field while pairing the camera with the newly-released XF 200mm f/2 lens.
And last but certainly not least, the X-T3 retails for just $1499! It, therefore, falls well within the wheelhouse of most enthusiast photographers' price ranges, and with room to spare for beefing up your lens arsenal! And because we've found the Fujinon line to be among the best in the industry as a whole, you'll have no shortage of fine glass out there to choose from.
It was indeed difficult to find fault with the Fujifilm X-T3. It does not offer IBIS (in-body-image-stabilization) as the higher-end X-H1 does, but once again at $1499 you can't have every single bell and whistle. For enthusiasts looking for a solid offering below $2000, the X-T3 shines very brightly.
When the Panasonic GH5 hit the market, it was hard to imagine a Micro Four Thirds video system could get any better. The improvement over the GH4 was marked, and the number of options for recording ranged from entry-level to high-end professional cinema. There has never really been a camera like it introduced, and it felt like the peak of what could be expected from the system.
But the GH5S proved there was still room to grow. The GH5S took what many considered to be the best possible outcome for the system and carried it even further. ISO performance is already great on the GH5, but the GH5S proved there was more innovation to be had. And while on paper that was really the only huge change from one model to the other, something about the sum of the parts makes the GH5S stand out as not just the best stills camera for video, but one of the best video cameras ever made.
Panasonic has this lovely habit of listening to their users. When they released the original GH5, they included on-sensor image stabilization that many will argue to be the best of any system out there, regardless of sensor size. For a huge number of users, this was a boon. But for the highest-end cinematographers, that floating sensor introduced new problems. Because it could not fully lock in place, mounting the GH5 to vehicles or any object that vibrated a lot resulted in "wobbly" footage, as the sensor was jostled too much in the camera body. Taking that feedback to heart, Panasonic built the GH5S to compliment the GH5, and they removed the sensor stabilization to accommodate the wishes of their highest end users. Additionally, they dramatically improved the sensor's ability to see in the dark. Where the GH5 starts to show noise at ISO 6400, the GH5S is able to go as high as 12,800 before that same level of noise is apparent. That's a huge, huge boost to its abilities. For years, Micro Four Thirds has been harangued by claims that ISO performance will always be limited, but the GH5S shirks that trend and proves there is still so much that this format is capable.
The cost of the ISO performance boost comes at a loss of megapixels: the GH5S can only capture 10.2-megapixel images, but the benefit is that its video making capabilities were dramatically improved. It can internally capture V-Log 4:2:2 10-bit 4K video in both 24p and 30p, and internally capture 60p in 4:2:0. However, 4:2:2 4Kp60 is available with an external recorder, expanding the camera's pro-oriented capability for those who demand it.
To this day, the GH5S has the most pro-level video features of any camera in its category, only coming against real competition with camcorders that cost two or three times what the GH5S sells for.
The GH5S captures video so crisp and so clean with incredible dynamic range (especially in V-Log) that when you freeze a frame, it could pass as a photograph. Look, there is no perfect camera. There is no perfect capture device. But there are cameras that feel as though they were created with purpose, care and as though the developers not only understood what we as artists wanted, but also saw beyond our desires to craft a finished product that exceeds even the loftiest of expectations. The GH5S is one such camera. It is so wonderfully designed that it is a shame that it may not get the widespread recognition it deserves because of its 10-megapixel label that some will refuse to see beyond. The fact that it isn't designed to be a photo camera as much as it truly excels as being a video camera needs to be taken into consideration. For some reason, the wider audience won't respect it as much as a Canon, a Nikon or a Sony and that's okay. It's not supposed to be any of those cameras. It's supposed to be a Panasonic GH camera, and as one, it is truly the best they've ever made. It absolutely deserves the esteem that comes with Camera of the Year, because in order to get a better video camera, you have to buy a RED or an Arri and those still will not have the ISO capability that the GH5S does. For $2500, you will not find a better video camera. Period. Hard stop. Suffice it to say, you'll be hard pressed to find a better video camera for two, three or even four times the price of the GH5S. That's how good it is, and that's why it wins Camera of the Year, Best Still Camera for Video. Put simply, the Panasonic GH5S is the best video camera in its category and it’s not close.
The Sony A7 III is so very good at so many things, and that includes video production. While it doesn't quite do the myriad of things that the GH5S does, it is no slouch either. It's one of the best full-frame video cameras on the market, and though it lacks a few frame rate options, it's still capable of capturing some very stellar video.
Where the A7 III will be the most excellent is in the hands of a user who doesn't want to fiddle with Log profiles or too much post-production work. That's because the A7 III can't record more than 4:2:0 8-bit internally, or more than 4:2:2 8-bit externally. The lack of 10-bit in any capacity means that shooting in Sony's excellent Log profile will be somewhat limited, as deeper shadows and brighter highlights may show banding or excessive noise as the codec is pushed to its limits.
But that's okay, because Sony's Standard profile looks pretty excellent in just about every case, and the files produced by the A7 III are easy to work with and relatively light in terms of workload on a computer. At the same time, the colors pop, the details are beautifully sharp, and the shooting experience is overall top tier. Because the A7 III makes full use of its sensor, it's one of a few cameras that exist that allow you as the creator to use full-frame lenses and capture a scene exactly how a photo would be taken with the camera. For most of 2018, that capability was only available to you with a Sony camera, and the A7 III was just as good at it as the A7R III and even more so than the A9.
Additionally, thanks to the amount of data that a full-frame sensor can take in, the ISO performance of the A7 III is excellent. Even at the max video ISO of 102,400, the resulting footage looks really quite good. There is a lot of visible noise of course, but it's not overwhelmingly distracting.
The A7 III is very clearly a photo camera first, video camera second. It definitely excels more at the former, while providing a good experience for the latter. Thanks to in-camera image stabilization, a huge number of lenses in the E-mount lineup, good ISO performance, a decent number of video recording options and the fact it's so well priced for a full-frame camera, it's hard to not recommend the A7 III to someone interested in video who also doesn't want to get "lost in the weeds" with a more pro-oriented camera like the GH5S. To that end, the Sony A7 III fills that need wonderfully, and manages to produce top-notch video quality to boot.
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Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards 2018
Best Enthusiast Cameras & Best Cameras for Video (current page)
Best Lenses of the Year (coming soon)