The "Bests" and the "Worsts"

Everyone has different needs and values different things. If you're looking for the "best" at something, you often have to sort through mountains of other information, so I'm going to take a stab at maintaining a page with some of the more important factors people look at. 

Before proceeding, let me first put on my bullet-proof vest and then my armor system on top of that, then crouch behind the three foot walls of my bunker…

  • Best Autofocus. The Sony A9 Mark II represents the current state-of-the-art in mirrorless focus when tracking subjects, though it has not quite equaled what the Nikon D5 (let alone the new D6) can do as some seem to claim (true even after the latest firmware update). Surprisingly, the discontinued Nikon 1 models are still hard to beat in decent light (they struggle a bit in very low light). Their phase detect system embedded in its image sensor is wicked fast, and it has better follow focus characteristics than even some of the latest mirrorless cameras. That said, most of the current mirrorless systems have excellent single servo autofocus (focus once; no subject tracking). The Canon R/RP, Fujifilm X-T4/X-H1, Nikon Z6/Z7, and Sony A7 Mark III/A7R Mark IV/A9 Mark II/A6600 all have very good continuous servo autofocus, but not yet to the level of the best DSLRs. Each tends to be better or worse than the others in specific situations, too. 
  • Best Low Light. The Sony A7S Mark II is the clear winner here, with the Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1H, plus Sony A7 Mark III and A9 Mark II also quite good. The advantage of full frame and those Sony Exmor sensors can’t be denied. While many claim APS-C Fujifilm is at the same place as full frame Sony, it isn’t. 
  • Best Dynamic Range. A log-jam if approached purely from measurements. For crop sensors at base ISO you've got four strong contenders for wide dynamic range: Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T4; Nikon Z50, Olympus E-M5 Mark III, E-M1 Mark III, and Pen-F; plus the Sony A6100, A6400, and A6600. But overall, the larger sensor in the Sony A7 models changed the game here and the Mark III models pushed that up some more: they’ve got better dynamic range and now we can get uncompressed raw data, too. Nikon matches that with the Z6 and Z7, and it appears the Panasonic S1, S1H, and S1R do, too. The medium format Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX now push dynamic range out a bit further, too, and currently represent the best of what mirrorless can do. Still, I personally would contend that at base ISO you'd be quibbling over unimportant nits between most APS-C or larger cameras, and that we've got plenty of dynamic range with most recent mirrorless cameras. While "dynamic range" is often cited by people as the reason they favor camera X over camera Y, in reality I think this is chasing the wrong suspect. Even more curious is how many people who say they want more dynamic range also select higher contrast settings or post process to add contrast, which tends to remove all that extra captured information. Make sure you really know why you want and need more dynamic range before using this as a criteria for evaluating cameras. Caveat: dynamic range is measured and evaluated differently by virtually everyone, and modern cameras now do slightly different things at higher ISO values that may change your decision.
  • Best Resolution. The Sony A7R changed the game, and the A7R Mark II (and now A7R Mark IV) pushed that game further to, now to 60mp. Nikon pushed it to 45mp. Panasonic pushed it to 47mp plus added pixel shift. Those are currently the highest resolution mirrorless cameras by a fair margin (though the medium format Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX now top the full frame ones with 50mp and 100mp; they’re in a much higher price class, and use a different sensor size, though). Some Olympus and Panasonic cameras have a mode that allows them to take high resolution images on a tripod by moving the sensor for eight continuous images that are then converted into a single image file (as does the Sony A7R Mark III and Mark IV). This, too, produces very high resolution, but I can’t consider it “best” because it’s not useful if there’s any camera or subject motion. Caveat: watch out for diffraction, which will tend to visually steal back some of the resolution you may capture. And at these levels, you need good lenses to fully capture what the sensor can record.
  • Best Video. For awhile this was a total no-brainer: Sony Alpha for consumers, GH5 or GH5s for the pros. But because the HD TV bar—even for 4K—isn't set very high and everyone has been adding more video capability with each generation, it's not so clear cut any more, at least for consumers. I suspect that the "convenience" of video is now more important than particular performance aspects for most people. Thus, the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T1 were not winners because video was buried on those cameras and had impacts from the X-Trans sensor use, while many of the other contenders make recording video easier. The Fujifilm X-H1 and X-T4 correct much of this, so even within a model line you can often find “better video." For outright capability the best choice is probably now the Nikon Z6 (surprise!). Not only does it have exceptional 4K in-camera capabilities, but the 10-bit N-log external and with raw capability, is as good as I've seen. Moreover, the Z6's autofocus is the best I've seen on any of the mirrorless cameras for video, and raw video support is coming. That said, the Panasonic GH5/GH5s and S1/S1H, plus the Sony A7S Mark II and A7 Mark III also produce some exceptional video. Note that we now have several video-only players, such as Blackmagic Design, which also warrant a close look. If you’re talking 4K video in low light, the Panasonic GH5s and Sony A7S Mark II are the best choices at the moment. Caveat: a lot of the smaller cameras overheat when doing video for any length of time, most have time restrictions on clips you want to be aware of, and all of them have fairly poor microphone amplifiers in them.
  • Best JPEGs. Probably the most subjective category of "bests," as we all have different preferences in terms of color, contrast, and more. Heck, many of the males reading this have some form of color blindness, which will certainly impact how you evaluate an out-of-camera JPEG. That said, the Olympus mirrorless cameras have consistently excellent JPEGs in my experience, especially if you take the time to tweak the defaults a bit. The Fujifilm models also produce superb, highly regarded JPEGs. Caveat: but those nice looking JPEGs from the Olympus and Fujifilm are not color, saturation, or contrast neutral. Moreover, virtually all the cameras allow you to tweak the look of JPEGs in ways that would allow you to get a look you like. Technically speaking, I don't think there's a best here unless you're lazy. Also, watch out for Auto White Balance. Some systems, notoriously Panasonic, don’t do so well in setting the correct white balance.
  • Best Lenses. The m4/3 system still wins, due to both choice and quality. Fujifilm gets a strong nod of appreciation for producing excellent lenses with a reasonable large choice. But Fujifilm needs even more choice, especially at the telephoto end. In my estimation, Sony APS-C is somewhat let down by their lenses, though Sony full frame now has a fairly wide set of excellent lenses to choose from. If you're one of the 1%, Leica would clearly take the cake for lenses here, but I'm pretty sure that less than 1% of you reading this are in the 1% ;~). Caveat: this is a "best" that is in constant flux, and if you have a particular focal length preference (or preferences), you may be best served by one mount over another. For example, the Zeiss 24mm for the E-mount APS-C was about the best 35mm equivalent option out there, and clearly superior to the Olympus 17mm, but the 35mm FE-mount Sony Zeiss outclasses both, and the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 S tops even that.    

To fully appreciate the "bests" we also have to consider the "worsts." As you're about to see, we've got products that are best at something and worst at something else:

  • Worst Autofocus. The Fujifilm X-T100 has pretty poor autofocus compared to what else is available now (the X-T200 mostly fixed that). Most everything else has perfectly acceptable autofocus speed for most situations.
  • Worst Low Light. While some people complain about m4/3 low light performance, we're still far better off than we were with film. But generally, I'd put the 16mp m4/3 models at the bottom of the heap here. The clear true bottom for low light is the Ricoh Q series cameras, by the way, mainly because they use such a small sensor (smaller than 1”). But you won't find them available in most of the world.
  • Worst Dynamic Range. The now-defunct Nikon 1 and the still current Pentax Q set the low bar for a long time. Given that you're not going to find a Q where you live (unless you live in Japan), now it would be the 16mp m4/3 cameras.
  • Worst Resolution. Depends upon whether we're measuring absolute resolution of a capture or theoretical resolution, plus what our output choice is. Technically most people are talking about sharpness or acuity, not actual resolution, when they use the term "resolution.” Some are just counting pixels. I’d tend to give all the cameras a pass on this category for most normal uses. It's really only if you're going to print big that resolution becomes a critical issue, in which case avoid any of the cameras that can’t give you a minimum of 24mp, and avoid cameras with AA (antialiasing) filters if you can.  
  • Worst Video. A number of other cameras don't have a great deal of flexibility in their video features, or have something crippling, like the 15 fps 4K of the Fujifilm X-T100 (now addressed with the X-T200). Thus, you have to make sure that the camera you choose can actually perform the video format choice you desire. 
  • Worst JPEGs. I’d tend to say the Leica M's, surprisingly. Everyone else has flexible enough controls that I'm pretty sure you can find some setting that'll produce what you want.
  • Worst Lenses. As time passed, I've had to change my answer here: pretty much everyone now makes good to excellent lenses, though Sony in their APS-C offerings still probably has more weaker zooms in its lineup than the rest of the players. Ditto Canon EOS M with the zooms. The real issue here is quantity of lenses. m4/3, Fujifilm X, and recent Sony FE win hands down, while everyone else is still playing catch up.   
text and images © 2020 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2019 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #sansmirror