What makes the best digital camera? Is it speed, resolution, or autofocus? While all those are important factors, I’d argue what truly makes a great camera is not something that comes through on a spec sheet. This is why I think the Fujifilm X-T4 is the best camera — not because it has the most megapixels, the biggest sensor, or the fastest performance, but because more than any other camera, it inspired me to pick it up and shoot it.
That’s not to say it’s a technical slouch. Far from it, it’s the most balanced camera I’ve ever used thanks to a combination of great image quality, solid performance, and excellent video features. But it doesn’t win any one of those categories outright.
If money is no object, you may want to check out the Canon EOS R5 or another full-frame camera. The R5 is a very impressive still camera with a powerful, if impractical, 8K video mode — but it costs over twice as much as the X-T4. Fortunately, in 2020, there’s no such thing as a bad camera, and you have plenty of options at a variety of prices.
At a glance:
Best digital camera overall: Fujifilm X-T4
Why should you buy this: A high-performance, well-rounded camera that won’t break your back
Who’s it for: Enthusiast photographers, or anyone looking for a one-size-fits-all camera
Why we picked the Fujifilm X-T4:
The X-T4 uses a 26-megapixels APS-C sensor, a format that is roughly half the size of full frame. (If it’s resolution and sensor size you’re after, Fujifilm has you covered there, too, with the 100MP, medium-format Fujifilm GFX 100.) The X-T4, however, is for those of us who prefer practicality and usability over outright resolution — and that’s most people. The smaller sensor means a smaller overall package, and the X-T4 crams professional features into a lightweight, easy-to-carry camera.
Don’t take that to mean that the X-T4 is a slouch when it comes to image quality. Its X-Trans sensor delivers stunning detail and dynamic range, and Fujifilm’s in-camera film simulations reproduce a range of popular film looks with no editing required. Plus, there’s no other camera that delivers a shooting experience quite like the Fujifilm X-T4.
The classic design with analog-inspired control dials is married to modern features like 5-axis sensor-shift stabilization, 4K/60 video, and a fully articulating monitor. It covers the gamut from street photography to video production and everything in between, and it does all of these things to a very high degree of competence.
I’ve always enjoyed shooting Fujifilm X-series cameras but couldn’t ignore their few quirks. The X-T4 is the first model to address virtually very complaint I’ve ever lodged, even solving one problem (the lack of stabilization in older models) that was previously thought to be impossible due to size constraints. Battery life has nearly doubled, the articulating screen is great for video, and face- and eye-tracking autofocus encroaches on Sony territory — although that’s one area that still leaves room for improvement. The newly designed shutter is whisper-quiet and can fire away at 15 frames per second, which, honestly, is more speed than any Fujifilm photographer was even asking for.
The X-T4 does carry over much of the same tech as the Fujifilm X-T3, including the sensor, image processor, and 3.69-million dot electronic viewfinder. The video mode is largely the same, as well, but Full HD can now hit 240 fps compared to the X-T3’s 120 fps. That means the X-T3, which is nowmay be the better choice for you if you don’t need stabilization, super-speed continuous shooting, or extreme slow-motion video.
But for me personally, after shooting the X-T4 and experiencing how all its features work in concert, I don’t want to shoot anything less.
Read our Fujifilm X-T4 review or see more best mirrorless cameras
Best DSLR camera: Nikon D780
Why should you buy this: Balanced performance, features, image quality, and price
Who’s it for: Anyone who still needs an optical viewfinder and marathon battery life.
Why we picked the Nikon D780:
The D780 is Nikon’s most refined DSLR. It replaces the incredibly popular D750 — from way back in 2014 — and uses an updated 24-megapixel sensor. It is Nikon’s first DSLR to incorporate on-chip phase-detection autofocus, a feature inherited from its mirrorless Z series that gives the D780 responsive performance in live view and video modes. The eye-detection autofocus, in particular, is very impressive.
In fact, the D780 is essentially the DSLR version of the mirrorless Nikon Z 6.
That does beg the question: Why buy the D780 when you could just get the Z 6, which is currently quite a bit cheaper? Honestly, I think most people are better off doing exactly that. Mirrorless cameras offer advantages in packaging, user friendliness, and, at least in this case, price. The Z 6 is a capable camera and I love the strategy Nikon is taking with its Z-series lenses.
The D780, then, is more of a specialist. Many photographers still love using an optical viewfinder, and the D780’s, if nothing new, is still nice, offering 100% frame coverage and a bright pentaprism. Additionally, the larger body of a DSLR can be more comfortable when paired with certain lenses, especially longer zooms that grow too front-heavy on mirrorless cameras.
Battery life is another advantage. Optical viewfinders draw very little power. Combined with efficiency improvements, the D780 can work all day long with a CIPA rating of 2,260 shots per charge. I have to imagine only a small group of people actually need that kind of long-lasting power, but it’s a welcome feature for those who do and means you can save money by not having to buy spare batteries.
The higher-resolution D850 was my previous choice for best DSLR, and that’s still the better camera for some photographers, namely working pros. I think the D780 offers the best balance of features for the price, however, and its 4K video and faster live-view autofocus make it the right choice for the majority of customers. I wish Nikon had put an AF joystick on it, but oh well — you can’t win them all.
Read our Nikon D780 review or see more best DSLR cameras
Best full-frame mirrorless camera: Canon EOS R5
Why you should buy this: High resolution, excellent autofocus, fast performance, advanced 8K and 4K video.
Who’s it for: Professional photographers and serious enthusiasts.
Why we choose the Canon EOS R5:
The Canon EOS R5 shocked me. After the good-but-not-great EOS R and the positively underwhelming EOS RP, I had grown accustomed to Canon phoning in its mirrorless cameras. But the R5 — and its sister camera, the EOS R6 — sets a new course for the 2-year-old, full-frame EOS R series, and it’s a bold one. The EOS R5 is the most technologically advanced camera I’ve tested, and even though it fails to live up to all of the hype, it still succeeds where it matters most.
The R5’s 45-megapixel sensor puts it in the same class as other high-resolution mirrorless cameras like the Nikon Z 7. It’s not the most pixels you can get in a full-frame camera (that award goes to the 61MP Sony A7R IV), but it’s perfectly tuned to deliver 8K video or 2X oversampled 4K video. It can record RAW 8K at 30 frames per second or compressed, 10-bit 4K at up to 120 fps, although overheating will be an issue in modes above 4K/30.
But make no mistake: While Canon hyped the R5’s video features early on, this is still very much still camera first. The newly developed sensor, which is unique to the R5, is Canon’s best high-resolution chip yet, delivering great color and excellent high-ISO noise performance. Autofocus is another strong suit, and the R5’s subject recognition and tracking is one of the best I’ve used. I was especially impressed by how quickly it identified and locked on to animals, including birds in flight. Combined with the ability to shoot up to 20 frames per second with the electronic shutter and the speed afforded by CFexpress memory cards, the R5 could be an excellent choice for wildlife photographers who require both fast performance and the resolution to make large crops.
The R5 isn’t a perfect camera, however. I took some small issues with the design and handling, including the uncomfortable autofocus joystick and lack of dedicated drive mode and AF mode buttons. It’s also on the heavier side for a mirrorless camera at 1.62 pounds. The biggest drawback, however, is simply the price. While it’s true you get what you pay for, this camera simply isn’t the best value for most customers given what the average photographer needs. But if you want the best tech in the photography world and don’t mind paying for it, you’ll be very happy with the Canon EOS R5.
Read our Canon EOS R5 review or see more best full-frame cameras
Best digital camera for travel: Sony RX100 VII
Why should you buy this: Impressive performance and image quality.
Who’s it for: Photo enthusiasts and pros on the go.
Why we picked the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VII:
The seventh generation of Sony’s revolutionary advanced compact improves on an already excellent recipe by adding a no-blackout viewfinder, faster autofocus, and a 3.5mm microphone port. That’s mixed in with a list of don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken features carried over from the RX100 VI.
The 20-megapixel 1-inch-type sensor returns, although continuous shooting speed has dropped slightly from 24 frames per second to 20. As if I’m counting — that’s still ridiculously fast, and the reduction is what allows for the no-blackout viewfinder, arguably a more important feature for keeping up with fast-moving subjects. Additionally, autofocus speed has seen a slight improvement over the VI, too.
Being a Sony, the RX100 VII also includes a full complement of video features. It can shoot 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p at up to 120 fps, and super-slow-motion at 240, 480, and even 960 fps at reduced resolutions. It also features Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) for capturing the maximum dynamic range and playing back HDR content on compatible televisions, a feature normally reserved for much higher-end cameras. A 3.5mm microphone jack also found its way into the RX100 VII, a first for the series.
But perhaps best of all is that none of the RX100 VII’s advanced features are thrown in your face. They are there if you go looking for them, but if you want to sit back and enjoy an easy-to-use pocket camera, then you can do that without hassle.
The high price is certainly not for everyone, but this is a camera that will easily last you for several years. If you don’t need the latest and greatest, you can still buy older RX100 models brand new for much less money. They can’t match the performance of the mark VII, but they still shoot stunning images thanks to very similar sensors. If the improved viewfinder, slightly faster autofocus, and mic jack don’t impress you, save some cash by opting for the still-great Sony RX100 VI.
See more best point-and-shoot cameras
Best digital camera for kids: Olympus Tough TG-6
Why should you buy this: Water, dust, and shock-proof
Who’s it for: Parents, adventurers, and anyone who needs a sturdy point-and-shoot.
Why we picked the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-6:
While Olympus can’t officially call the Tough TG-6 kid-proof, it is waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, can survive a drop from 7 feet, and will even resist 200 pounds of pressure. Your child can drop it in the bath, throw it down the stairs, or run it over with their Tonka truck and the TG-6 will keep ticking. This isn’t built to be a kid’s camera, but it will get the job done.
The TG-6 is about as simple as point-and-shoots get, but it does have some powerful and fun features hidden beneath the surface should you want to use it yourself. The 25-100mm lens offers a decent zoom range and a truly stunning macro mode for detailed close-ups. The light-painting mode is great for camping trips and offers entertainment for creative youngsters armed with flashlights. The camera can even shoot in RAW — although, its small sensor certainly won’t keep up with the image quality from the other cameras on this list. For travel and vacations, it features built-in GPS with geotagging and location logging abilities that can create a map of your adventure viewable in the Olympus Image Track app.
The TG-6 doesn’t have many improvements over the Tough TG-5, but when you can find the TG-5 for sale, it isn’t actually any cheaper. And sure, most smartphones have some degree of weatherproofing these days, and with a decent case they can even survive a good tumble, but why risk damaging your phone when cameras like the TG-6 are around?
Read our Olympus Stylus Tough TG-5 review or see more best cameras for kids
Best digital camera for beginners: Sony A6100
Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a beginner-friendly price tag that doesn’t skimp on features.
Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless cameras
Why we picked the Sony A6100:
Sony’s full-frame mirrorless cameras are excellent — but expensive. The Sony A6100 brings some of the best features from the A7 series into a camera that’s less than $900 (including a lens). It still uses the same Sony E mount as the A7, too, so you can use all of the same lenses if you want to be able to upgrade to a full-frame model down the road.
The A6100 sports a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor that’s smaller than full-frame, helping the camera keep its low profile. While that does mean low light performance won’t match the full-frame Sonys, it still delivers excellent results for most situations.
You also get Sony’s incredible 425-point hybrid autofocus system. Like the latest A7 models, the A6100 includes Sony’s artificial-intelligence-based Real Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye autofocus technologies for recognizing and following subjects. Its especially useful when shooting photos at 11 fps, the A6100’s maximum burst speed. From keeping up with your pets to capturing all the action of your kid’s little league game, the A6100 has it covered.
Beyond still photography, the A6100 is a strong performer for movies, too. It shoots 4K video and gives you a microphone jack if you want to get serious about upping the audio quality.
While the A6100 is missing out on extras like the image stabilization — a feature included in the pricier Sony A6600 — the camera wraps several big features into an affordable, compact camera. I’m not the biggest fan of Sony’s menu system, but the A6100’s touchscreen makes it easier to use and lends the camera a smartphone-esque feel, making it approachable to first-time camera buyers.
If you don’t need the A6100’s class-leading autofocus, you may want to check out the Fujifilm X-T200, which features a more refined control layout and better screen and viewfinder.
Read our Sony A6100 review or see more best mirrorless cameras
Best digital camera for video: Sony A7S III
Why should you buy this: Exceptional, full-frame 4K video quality.
Who’s it for: Video pros and advanced enthusiasts.
Why we picked the Sony AX700:
Sony didn’t rewrite the formula for the A7S III, which is built around a 12-megapixel sensor just like the A7S II before it. But while it’s the same resolution, it is a new sensor, now backside-illuminated and with a lower base ISO of 80. Those features should slightly improve noise levels and dynamic range. Measuring 4,240 pixels wide, the sensor delivers 4.2K video, although you can opt for standard 4K with a slight, 1.1X crop. Even at 4.2K, the camera can record 60 frames per second, but you’ll have to drop to regular 4K to hit 120 fps.
Important for video pros, the A7S III is the first Sony Alpha camera to offer 10-bit 4:2:2 color — all the way up to 4K/120. Combined with either Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) or Sony’s S-Log3 color profiles, that means the A7S III is now ready for high dynamic range (HDR) production. Video can be recorded in either h.264 or h.265 compression at up to 280 megabits per second, or in a new all-intraframe codec at up to 600Mbps, which will result in larger files but will be less intensive on your computer when it comes to editing.
And it gets better. When recording externally over HDMI, the A7S III can pipe out 16-bit RAW video. That should mean even greater dynamic range and color depth when paired with an Atomos Ninja V or other RAW-capable external recorder.
Even the best video camera is nothing without great audio, and luckily the A7S III also delivers here. When using the optional XLR microphone adapter, the camera can save four independent audio channels internally. One common use for this would be to combine two external mics with the camera’s built-in stereo mic. And, yes, there’s a headphone jack.
While the A7S III clearly targets the videographer, there are several features that both still and video shooters will appreciate. The new electronic viewfinder boasts over 9 million pixels and is the highest-resolution EVF available. This gives photographers and videographers a bright, detailed view of the scene. The sensor-shift stabilization system is good for 5.5 stops of shake deduction and works in conjunction with Sony’s optically stabilized lenses for the best results. The autofocus system is also all-new, featuring on-chip phase-detection with face and eye-tracking that bring the A7S series in line with Sony’s other mirrorless cameras. And finally, the menu system has been completely redesigned and allows for separate photo and video settings to be stored. This may seem like a minor change, but a more efficient menu removes one of the biggest pain points we’ve had with Sony cameras.
If the cost of the A7S III puts it out of your reach, you might want to consider the. While it uses a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor that won’t match the Sony’s image quality, it offers much of the same advanced control for videographers in a smaller, cheaper package.
Read more about the Sony A7S III
How does a digital camera work?
Digital cameras use a lens to focus light onto an electronic imaging sensor. This sensor — the digital equivalent of analog film — is composed of millions of light-sensitive pixels that see either red, green, or blue light. When processed, those pixels combine to create a full-color image.
Sensors come in a variety of sizes, while bigger sensors generally offer better image quality, they also require bigger lenses. This is why DSLRs and mirrorless cameras with full-frame sensors can be very large, while point-and-shoots and camera phones are impressively compact.
What is a DSLR camera?
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex and it is an evolution of the film-era SLR. These cameras use interchangeable lenses and mirrors to reflect light from the lens up into an optical viewfinder. When you hold your eye to the viewfinder of a DSLR, you are seeing directly through the lens like a window. As optical viewfinders have no pixels, they offer a very clean and responsive view, but they can’t show you exposure simulation in real time and they don’t work at all for video or live view shooting.
What is a mirrorless cameras?
A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses. It’s related to the DSLR, but do not confuse the two as the same. Mirrorless cameras do away with a DSLR’s bulky mirror system (hence the name) and instead use electronic viewfinders, or simply no viewfinder at all. This allows for lighter and smaller designs, but professional models can still be somewhat bulky and heavy. Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses and typically use larger sensors than point-and-shoots, which leads to superior image quality.