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 probably represents the current state-of-the-art in mirrorless focus when tracking subjects, though it has not equaled what the Nikon D5 can do as some seem to claim. Surprisingly, the 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 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 Fujifilm X-T2/X-H1 and Sony A7III/A7rIII/A9/A6500 have very good continuous servo autofocus, but not yet to the level of the best DSLRs. 
  • Best Low Light. The Sony A7sII is the clear winner here, with the A7III and A9 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 three strong contenders for wide dynamic range: Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T2; Olympus E-M5II, E-M1II, and Pen-F; plus Sony A6300 and A6500. 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. 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 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 A7rII (and now A7rIII) pushed that game further to 42mp. It’s currently the highest resolution mirrorless camera by a fair margin (though the medium format Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm GFX now top it at 50mp; they’re in a much higher price class, 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 A7rIII). 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 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 are not winners because video is buried on those cameras and have some impacts from the X-Trans sensor use, while many of the other contenders make recording video easier. The Fujifilm X-H1 corrects much of this, so even within a model line you can often find “better video." For outright capability, the best choice is still probably the Panasonic GH5 models, particularly if you want to shoot 4K. 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, the GH5/GH5s and Sony A7sII are still probably 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 wins hands down, due to both choice and quality. Fujifilm gets a strong nod of appreciation for producing excellent lenses with a reasonable choice. But Fujifilm still needs more choice, especially at the telephoto end. In my estimation, Sony APS-C is mostly let down by their lenses (Sony full frame now has a fairly wide set of good 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 is about the best 35mm equivalent option out there, and clearly superior to the Olympus 17mm, but the 35mm FE-mount Sony Zeiss outclasses both.    

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. I nominate the older Canon EOS M3 and M10, which you can still find available, and which despite being fine cameras are a large disappointment in the focus department. There are compact cameras that perform better. Fortunately, Canon addressed this with the latest Ms, the EOS M5, M6, and M50 are decent with autofocus.
  • Worst Low Light. I'd tend to award this prize to most of the earlier 12mp Panasonic m4/3 models (the GH2 was somewhat better than the rest. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is currently the state of the art for m4/3, but you just can’t overcome small sensors when it comes to low light. You do have a lot of fast lens choices in m4/3, so you can mitigate the problem to a degree. While some people complain about m4/3 low light performance, we're still far better off than we were with film. Nikon 1 has the same issues as m4/3 in low light, but because Nikon hasn’t been updating that system it’s tough to put it at the bottom of the heap, as it wasn’t bottom when it was introduced. The clear bottom of the heap for low light is the Ricoh Q series cameras, by the way, mainly because they use such a small sensor (smaller than 1”).
  • Worst Dynamic Range. The Nikon 1 and Pentax Q. But in pure measurement terms we're talking about a difference of maybe 18% with the Nikon J5 compared to some larger sensors (not full frame). Considering its small sensor, the Nikon J5 is actually performing a bit above expectations. I should point out that, of the current cameras, the Pentax Q series is clearly the measured worst performer here and elsewhere. But it's trading size against image quality by using a compact camera sensor.
  • 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 even 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 is a big issue, in which case avoid any of the cameras that can’t give you a minimum of 16mp, and avoid cameras with AA (antialiasing) filters if you can.  
  • Worst Video. The Leica M9, which has none ;~). Leica did eventually update the M to include video, but you can still buy a M9 variation without it. 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-A5. 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 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 and recent Sony FE win hands down, while everyone else is still playing catch up.   
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