Camera of the Year Roundtable: Madavor Photo Editors debate the best cameras of 2020
posted Monday, January 4, 2021 at 11:59 AM EDT
Ever since we named the game-changing Sony RX1 our Best Overall Camera in 2012, we've been bringing you our choices for the Best of the Best from the world of camera and lens gear each year. It's been an honor to do so, and yet never without much thought and healthy debating amongst our ranks of colleagues in determining our final choices, especially in the higher-end worlds.
Now we're part of the Madavor Media team and our photographic experience pool has expanded! As such, we thought it would be fun to bring you some of our insider thinking on how we come to these decisions... and what our top editors believe from a personal standpoint regarding the favorite picks from our 2020 Camera of the Year awards. The world of photography equipment has evolved so much in the past decade, and the capabilities of the gear is simply astounding these days for the price.
So much to think about and choices to wade through, and we felt that adding our personal thoughts might help you in honing yours. And once you've had a chance to digest our thoughts, please share yours with us in the comments section down below!
Dave Etchells (Founder of Imaging Resource)
This is both an easy and difficult piece to write; on the one hand, I completely agree with the Imaging Resource writers, editors and readers – the Canon EOS R5 is an easy pick for the best camera of 2020. From its 45 megapixel sensor to its 20fps continuous shooting speed to Canon’s exceptional Dual-Pixel CMOS autofocus to its superior video chops, it’s a total tour de force.
When it comes to my personal shooting needs and preferences, though, it’s a tougher decision.
As William Brawley mentions elsewhere here, the R5 is the camera a lot of us were hoping for when the R-series was first introduced in the fall of 2018. The first EOS R was a capable enough body, but in terms of capability and features, it wasn’t all that different from the existing SLR models in the EOS stable; the biggest advancement was the new RF mount itself.
After that initial reaction, the EOS RP in early 2019 was a further letdown for some; an entry-level model akin to Nikon’s recently-released Z5. It turns out this was a very deliberate move, though, as Canon’s Yoshiyuki Mizoguchi explained in an exclusive interview in January 2019. Despite the overall strategy, a lot of enthusiast and pro shooters were impatient for a higher-end model – and the R5 and R6 were resounding answers. The EOS R5 was the obvious choice for Camera of the Year.
When it comes to my own personal preferences, though, the choice isn’t so clear. I wish I had unlimited funds and could have a different camera body and system for every whim and shooting situation.
The battleship-like build quality, great feature set and reasonable price of the Panasonic S5 make a compelling case for it, and the L-mount alliance between Panasonic, Sigma and Leica means it has a ton of really excellent optics available for it. Then there’s the Fujifilm X-T4; I love Fuji’s style, they make superb lenses, and I’m a huge fan of Fujifilm’s Film Simulations; I love what they do for my photography. Jeremy Gray mentions the Nikon Z5, and I agree with all his points: I’ve been a Nikon shooter since high school, and to me, no one can touch Nikon for ergonomics and overall “camera-ness”. The first time I laid hands on the original Z7, I was like “ahhh, now this is what a camera should feel like!” The Z5 delivers a fantastic full-frame experience at a great price, and Nikon’s S-series lenses are flat-out amazing.
At the end of the day though, if I had to pick just one among all the cameras mentioned, I’d go for the Olympus E-M1 III. The smaller Four Thirds sensor gives up about a stop of image noise at high ISOs, but that doesn’t bother me for two reasons. First, the E-M1 III is darn good at high ISOs in its own right; I have no qualms when shooting at ISO 6,400 with it, and even higher settings give passable results. Second, Olympus smokes the competition when it comes to image stabilization. (Check out my deep-dive video about IS technology for an exclusive inside look at all the bits and pieces that make image stabilization systems work.)
For me, image stabilization is an absolute must, and Olympus arguably does it better than anyone else. It’s incredibly liberating being able to shoot half-second exposures handheld, even with a long tele. Olympus’ IS system stands out even more when it comes to video shooting; the E-M1 III’s in-body IS is impressive enough, but when you strap on an IS-equipped Olympus lens, you can almost manage without a gimbal. (It’s marginal for me, but people more skilled at walking smoothly will do just fine ;-)
Then there’s all-weather usability: Olympus has absolutely world-class weather sealing. I can and have shot in torrential downpours with Olympus cameras and lenses, without a single thought for the camera’s well-being.
The winning point for me is the sheer portability, though: You can’t really appreciate the benefits of a Micro Four Thirds system until you’ve lugged a couple of bodies and a full kit of lenses for a day, after having done the same full-frame systems in the past.
Gear choice is both personal and very situation-dependent, but for the kind of shooting I do, the E-M1 III and the exceptional range of lenses available for it tick all the boxes.
Wes Pitts (Editorial Director - Outdoor Photographer)
I agree with the editors and readers of Imaging Resource—the Canon EOS R5 was easily the best new camera introduced in 2020, and Outdoor Photographer awarded it with our own Editors’ Picks: Camera of the Year.
When we evaluate gear for our annual Editors’ Picks, we’re looking at it through the lens of the unique needs of landscape and wildlife photographers, and the Canon EOS R5 meets both. The camera’s 45-megapixel resolution delivers the details and enlargement possibilities that landscape photographers want, and its continuous shooting speed at 20 fps is ideal for capturing wildlife behavior and birds in flight.
As we noted in our conclusions about the camera for our 2020 Editors’ Picks, “Of all of the impressive full-frame mirrorless cameras introduced this year, it represents an important benchmark in the development of Canon’s EOS R system and full-frame mirrorless cameras more generally.”
For perspective on that statement, while Canon’s original EOS R, introduced in 2018, was a solid debut model, it lacked some of the performance characteristics of Canon’s other flagship models. For example, the original 30.3-megapixel EOS R maxed out at 8 fps continuous shooting, lagging behind the 2016 Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 16 fps and even the APS-C sensor EOS 7D Mark II at 10 fps (a camera that was introduced in 2014).
Comparing the EOS R more broadly to mirrorless leader Sony—and the 42.2-megapixel, 10 fps Sony a7R III introduced a year prior—only reinforced the impression that Canon still had a lot of ground to cover in the full-frame mirrorless race. So although there was much to like about EOS R and a promising future for the system in general, those of us who watched and waited (a long while) for Canon to enter the full-frame mirrorless space weren’t blown away with the original EOS R and couldn’t help but wonder if Canon’s heart was truly in the mirrorless game.
With the introduction of the EOS R5, we’re more confident that EOS R does represent a significant part of Canon’s future strategy, and innovative lens offerings for the system such as the new ƒ/11 super-tele primes reinforces that confidence. We think that the entire photo community benefits from healthy competition, and the EOS R5 is an impressive challenger in the market.
Jeremy Gray (Reviews Editor - Imaging Resource)
My colleagues here have all explained what made the Canon R5, Fujifilm X-T4 and Olympus E-M1 III standout cameras in 2020. They're great cameras across the board, but I want to focus on the Nikon Z5.
When Nikon entered the full-frame mirrorless fray in 2018, it did so with the Nikon Z6 and Z7 cameras. They're great cameras, undoubtedly, but the bodies launched at $2,000 and $3,400 respectively. Regardless of what type of value these prices represented at the time, the cameras were prohibitively expensive for many photographers looking to enter a full-frame mirrorless camera system. This year, Nikon delivered a truly affordable, feature-packed full-frame mirrorless camera with the Nikon Z5, our 'Best Entry-level Full Frame Camera' in 2020.
As of writing, you can find the Z5 body for just under $1,200. It can also be purchased with a 24-50mm kit lens for $1,500 or with a very versatile 24-200mm lens for $2,000, the same price as a Z6 II body. It will come as no surprise that the lower price point includes requisite tradeoffs. You give up some image quality, speed and video performance, but the Z5 is a fantastic bang for your buck and I think it's one of the most important cameras of 2020.
The Z5 shares a similar design with the Z6/Z7 series of cameras. The Z5 ditches the top display and the rear 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen is a bit less sharp, but the Z5 offers excellent ergonomics and one of the best electronic viewfinders on the market. Even though it's a pared-down version of the Z6 series body, the Z5 nails the 'Nikon' feel and delivers a great user experience.
The Z5's 24.3-megapixel CMOS image sensor doesn't have all the same bells and whistles as the Z6/Z6 II's 24.5-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor, but it delivers good image quality in a wide variety of situations. The Z5 uses the same 273-point on-sensor phase-detect AF system as the Z6, covering almost the entire image area with reliable AF points. The Z5 includes some compromises in overall performance, but it rarely feels that way when you're using it.
For photographers demanding top of the line performance or for videographers needing the latest and greatest in 4K video, the Nikon Z5 is not an optimal camera. Within the Nikon mirrorless ecosystem, the Z7(II) delivers superb image quality and the Z6(II) offers fantastic all-around versatility. However, for photographers wanting to experience everything a full-frame mirrorless camera system has to offer – without breaking the bank – the Nikon Z5 is a great choice.
I think that the Nikon Z system required a camera like the Z5. Nikon needed to expand its offerings to ensure that it offers cameras for as many photographers as possible. In a year when people have needed safe and healthy creative outlets more than ever, the Nikon Z5 arrived at the perfect time.
Dan Havlik (Senior Editor - Digital Photo; Digital Photo Pro; HDVideoPro)
While I can't argue with the Canon R5 being top camera of 2020 – it raised the bar for premium mirrorless cameras in so many ways – it wasn't my favorite to shoot with. That distinction goes to the Fujifilm X-T4, which improves on its much-lauded predecessor without significantly changing it. (And who would want to seriously alter a modern classic like the X-T3 anyways?)
I first tried the X-T4 on a blustery day in New York City in late February. I remember it vividly because in only a few weeks' time, the city would go into lockdown as the full reality of the pandemic became horrifyingly apparent. During my press briefing on the X-T4, I remember remarking to a colleague that I had heard a rumor the Tokyo Olympics might be postponed, and he just shook his head in disbelief. (Oh, how naïve we were back then!)
Maskless (it was a different time) and shivering from the cold, I made my way from the briefing to Grand Central Terminal with the X-T4 cradled discreetly in my hand. Everything felt familiar on this camera: timeless ergonomics, abundant buttons and dials, and a click-quiet shutter. What was new was the 3-inch, vari-angle 1.62M-dot LCD on back of the X-T4 – aka a "flippy screen" – which allowed me to more easily compose images from down low or up high (the X-T3's screen could only tilt back). The XT-4 also adds, of course, five-axis In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) which made the camera great for street photography, particularly during my time in Grand Central, where the light is dodgy at best. And since it's capable of firing off up to 15 frames per second at full resolution, I was able to capture all the hustle and bustle of city life without a problem.
Another welcome change is a new switch on the X-T4 below the shutter speed dial that allowed me to change quickly and seamlessly between still photo shooting and movie shooting. When in movie shooting mode, the X-T4 is capable of capturing pro-level 4K video at 60p and full HD at 240p super slow motion, making this a true hybrid camera. The battery's more powerful too, capable of up to 600 photos per charge in Eco mode, or 500 shots in normal mode. The bigger battery adds a bit of weight, but I hardly noticed and, overall, appreciated the camera's durable, dust-proof/splash-proof/weather-proof body design.
My only gripe about the X-T4? Fujifilm probably doesn't want to hear it because I'm sure they've heard it before: while the camera's 26.1MP APS-C image sensor is nice, a full-frame sensor would be so much nicer. I know, I know…but we all can dream, can't we?
William Brawley (Managing Editor - Imaging Resource)
I'll join in with my colleagues to recognize the Canon R5 as an absolutely superb camera. I most certainly agree, too, that the EOS R5 earned its top spot as the Best Camera of 2020 in our annual award series. The R5 offers fantastic image quality from its new 45MP sensor as well as outstanding performance specs thanks to its new DIGIC X chip. There's also top-notch autofocus from its upgraded Dual Pixel CMOS AF system and finally built-in IBIS from a Canon camera! Plus, the R5 is ruggedly built and comfortably familiar for long-time Canon EOS shooters... There's a lot to love about the Canon R5!
In many ways, I think the EOS R5 (and R6, as well) is what many were hoping to see when the Canon R-series debuted back in 2018. Instead, the first Canon EOS R was rather lackluster in many ways -- falling short in the performance arena, using an older 30MP sensor, and it had some mild ergonomic oddities, to name a few. Perhaps, this release strategy was Canon's plan all along, or maybe the technology behind the R5 and R6 simply wasn't ready for prime time back then? Who knows? Thankfully, the wait is over, though, and those who have yearned for a high-end, high-performance full-frame mirrorless camera from Canon can now add one to their camera bag.
There's no doubt that the R5 is a fantastic camera, and it checks so many boxes for the professional and high-end enthusiast creator. But much like my colleagues Dave Pardue and Dan Havlik here, I'm not so sure that the R5 was my personal favorite camera of 2020. For one thing, I'll second Dave Pardue's thoughts that the nearly-$4000 price tag of the EOS R5 is a bit above the budget line for an enthusiast-level camera; that's squarely into professional territory. And it's certainly more than I would spend on a camera, personally.
For me, it's a difficult pick for my personal favorite of the year; it's either the Olympus E-M1 III or Fujifilm X-T4. I have had the opportunity to use both of these cameras this year, and I've captured some beautiful photos with each. The X-T4, much like its predecessor, excels at high ISO performance, and I think it does have a slight edge over the E-M1 III from a sheer image quality standpoint. Plus, it's hard not to love the styling of the X-T4!
However, while it may not bring ground-breaking changes over its predecessor, I think I have to tip my hat to the Olympus E-M1 III as my 2020 favorite. For one thing, I'm a sucker for small and lightweight, so the Micro Four Thirds platform has an immediate appeal to me. I want my photo gear compact and portable, and the E-M1 III helps achieve that. Furthermore, the camera's image stabilization is some of the best I've seen. Plus, as an owner of an E-M1 Mark II, who's dropped this camera on the ground, dunked it in a river, used it in snow and in the pouring rain -- all without it missing a beat -- I'm quite confident in the E-M1-line's durability. But yes, I do wish there was a newer sensor in the E-M1 III and a higher-resolution EVF, but beyond that, I found the E-M1 III to be comfortable, capable and an all-around pleasure to use.
Dave Pardue (Freelance Content Producer)
In the eight years that I've had the honor of being on the Imaging Resource COTY selection committee, 2020 marks the toughest year for me personally in trying to help determine our Best Overall Camera choice. There have been many years where the choice came down to two awesome cameras, and yet this year for me there were four that I felt deserved consideration, which led to many discussions and plenty of internal ruminating.
It may help readers if I share some brief context into how we arrive at the "Best Overall" in general. If we simply said "What's the best camera, regardless of the price?" then we'd often see cameras such as the Canon 1D X line, the Nikon D line or the Fujifilm GFX line garnering the highest accolade every year, but that's not the direction that we take. The reason is that while they certainly represent the best technology available, and we give those products due attention in our "Professional" category, they're simply out of the price range of our average reader (and myself for that matter) and we therefore concluded many years ago that the "Best Overall" must include price as a key component. It was, in fact, the final determinant in 2018 when we named the Fujifilm X-T3 our Best Overall Camera for 2018 after much friendly internal debate. There were other terrific cameras released that year, but none that could deliver so much firepower for the price as the X-T3 in our collective opinion.
Now moving back to 2020...
For me personally, I was looking very closely at the Olympus E-M1 III, the Fujifilm X-T4, the Panasonic S5 and the Canon EOS R5 for Best Overall consideration. Like the earlier X-T3, the E-M1 Mark II was our Best Overall selection from 2016, and so those two lines already had "Top Pedigree" (so to speak) and I've shot extensively with this year's models and indeed love both. I'd also shot quite a bit with the Panasonic S5 in the field, and had also very much enjoyed shooting with that camera, as it brings an intriguing combination of capabilities to the table in a full-frame package at a very nice price!
The Canon R line had not caught my attention as deserving of Best Overall consideration until this year, as many of us felt when the R5 and R6 arrived at our lab that Canon had finally brought the line into its full potential. They're both terrific cameras, they passed with flying colors in the lab and the field at IR, and both certainly deserve honors in our awards. And yet at $3900 the EOS R5 is above what I consider an enthusiast price tag, and falls more squarely into "professional" territory. Is it a terrific camera? Absolutely! Is it the best camera of 2020 for the price? Not in my personal opinion as an enthusiast photographer as most of our readership is.
All of us have different need sets from our gear as photographers and videographers. I find myself needing specific things like in-body IS for both still shooting (especially for wildlife with long lenses) and certainly for videography. I'd already concluded in a deep-dive across crop-frame cameras that the Olympus E-M1 III was the superior choice for IBIS in that field. I later conducted a test against the R5, S5 and A7S III, and found the IBIS superior to those products as well, across all IBIS tests (walking, driving, etc). This isn't the only consideration in determining the Best Overall camera by a long shot, but it's important to me, and I can purchase two E-M1 III's for the price of the EOS R5.
We only have one slot to fill for Best Overall Camera each year. Fortunately, we allow for more than that one award each year, and so all of these cameras received due attention in our awards in 2020, and all will serve differing types of photographer/videographers out there in the marketplace depending on your personal shooting style and needs from the gear. The Canon EOS R5 is a highly capable, superior imaging tool, and yet the price keeps it off my personal list for The Best in today's market for enthusiast photographers and videographers. My vote goes to the Olympus E-M1 III, with the Fujifilm X-T4 in close second and the Panasonic S5 in third.
Now if I could only own one of each.
Now you know that in addition to being editors of various publications, we're all just regular photographers too, with differing needs and opinions about the gear, just like all of you! Yet in addition to the love of photography, we all share a real passion for the gear that helps us reign in the prized images from the wonderful world out there. It's a privilege getting the chance to review all of them for you, and to share our collective knowledge and findings with you throughout the year.
Happy New Year to all of our readers around the world! And a very Happy 2021 filled with the wonder of photography.
-The Imaging Resource & Madavor Media Teams