Which five cameras would I recommend to seriously serious photographers. And why.

On a boat in Venice. Minox or Leica M. 

As a grizzled and weathered survivor in the field of photography I often get asked by young, aspiring professional photographers which camera (or camera system) they should buy. I spew all the usual, commonplace drivel about choosing the correct camera for their interest/style/niche of photography. But it's actually a pretty easy thing to make the case that there are multiple systems, each with their own tradeoffs and compromises, that will do the job, interchangeably, for the vast majority of jobs photographers come across in day-to-day work. And there is a strong case to be made for renting highly specialized cameras when the need arises for something outside the usual boundary lines of performance.

For example, most of a photographer's work might be the creation of portraits for the web. Occasionally they might be asked to do a campaign in which the images will be used very, very large, and will be printed in four color across an enormous span. I won't use the example of a "billboard" because if by "billboard" you mean the ones along the side of highways, sitting 50 feet in the air which we all drive by at 55 MPH (or 90 in Texas....) you could easily use an iPhone photograph and have resolution to spare. I mean something that might be printed 8x10 feet tall and presented in a convention center where viewer could walk up and ostensibly put a loupe on the print and look for detail. Or at least put a nose on it.

In a scenario like this it would make sense to rent something like a Phase One 150 megapixel camera or a Fuji 100 megapixel camera to do the job exactly right. But those may be cameras that don't make economic sense to buy for a business that can effectively use the output of a 24 megapixel sensor most of the time without breaking a sweat.

If you are going to do good work and also work within a reasonable budget then there are about five cameras that make pretty good business sense for rank and file photographers. The more affluent among them might want to choose more elegant and expensive cameras but at a certain point this will just reflect personal taste more than anything else.

So, what do I recommend to people and why? It all depends on my mood but there are certain cameras that deliver more than enough performance to get the jobs done and they aren't always the most obvious ones on the dealer's shelves.

You might expect me to suggest that one only look to the full frame cameras to satisfy the rigors of professional work but that's not the case. The first two cameras I'll suggest are exactly counter to the common assumption that bigger is always better. And I'm melding the first two cameras together to serve as one because, if you are making choices within this format I'll assume that you'll go for one or the other.

My first choice (not necessarily in order of preference!) would be either the Olympus EM-1 mk 2 or the Panasonic G9. My experiences are mostly with the G9 but since the cameras share the same basic sensor and deliver nearly equivalent results it really doesn't matter which one you finally choose. What you'll end up with is a state of the art micro 4:3 camera that can free range across both maker's lens lines, picking and choosing the optics that work best for you. Contrary to popular belief the abilities of the smaller format are, within the envelope of most commercial jobs, not nearly as far apart in imaging quality as we are generally led to believe.

Both cameras have absolutely killer image stabilizations systems and most of the pro series lenses in each line up are superb. I routinely matched the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 Pro lens with the Panasonic G9 camera body for images that were breathtaking. I've used  the G9s, and before that, GH5s for landscapes, portraits and live theater documentation with nearly perfect results. In fact, a quick hop through my "absolute favorites" folder showed me that a huge proportion of images I've shot and liked in the last four years were done with cameras like these. Yes, you'll need to use faster and sharper lenses to get the same kind of limited depth of field that you could get with less expensive lens options in bigger formats. But the trade off is.....not much. You'll spend more on Olympus's fast, Pro lenses but not nearly as much as I just dropped  on one 50mm f1.4 for the Lumix FF cameras!

The G9 is weather sealed, robust, has a great EVF and, as I wrote above, basically defines the top of the  charts for image stabilization. A very recent firmware update greatly enhances its already great 4K video chops and even battery life is near the top of the heap for mirrorless cameras. You can piece together a great two lens starter system with zooms from either maker and you'll save both space and money doing so compared with any of the full frame selections.

My second choice would be the Fuji X-T3. The sensor in the X-T3 is great and a close competitor to full frame but the thing that drives the Fuji system is the great selection of both zoom and prime lenses. The body is priced more like an entry level camera but the still and video features are on par with the very best of the larger sensor competitors. I'd get mine with a battery grip to add some handling surface and also to supplement the smaller than comfortable battery capacity. The finder is superb but the one caveat is that you'll only get image stabilization via a handful of Fuji lenses. If you are a long zoom lens fan you'll be well accommodated with the superb (and well stabilized) 50-140mm f2.8 lens. While the unstablized 16-55mm f2.8 is wonderful you might also look at the 16-80 f4.0 which has the most current and effective stabilization in the system. Once you have the wide to standard and medium to long zoom lenses sorted you can galavant through the lens catalog and backfill with wonderful, small prime lenses to your heart's content. You will love the Fuji color. And the Fuji 4K video. Both are as advertised: super good.

A secondary benefit of the X-T3 is the smaller form factor and lower weight compared to full frame systems. It might be the best travel system for people who are on and off planes too much....

My third suggestion to many people is the Nikon Z6. I happen to think that 24 megapixels is the sweet spot for so many uses. While the Z7 offers nearly 50 megapixels of resolution it isn't as good a video camera as the Z6 and I'd wager that the Z6 is also the better low light camera. But what you get with either camera is a great still imaging tool in a small and facile body that gets raves for handling and ergonomics. Nikon knows how to do neutral color correctly and judging from the lenses I've played with for their Z system they will soon have a decent selection of dedicated lenses that out perform their previous lenses and take advantage of the new, bigger lens mount.

Since the system is perceived as lagging in terms of lenses and accessories you'll find good deals on kits through the rest of the year. There's no one feature that stands out for either camera; I think the system's strength is that they get an "A" or "A-" for all aspects of their new cameras and the balance of features, handling and on sensor performance create a strong argument for the system's adaptation by beginners or transition from the venerable F system by long term loyalists. With nice lenses (so far), a very nice EVF and wonderful haptics I think the system will do well and provide a great foundation for anyone working for money in the field of photography.

A new firmware upgrade brings bunch of new capabilities for video shooters too. Don't just reflexively buy a Sony as a result of peer pressure and online sales manipulation by large review sites. The Nikon Z is, in my mind, the equal of the Sony A7x system in everything except lenses....And Nikon might fix that situation more quickly than we expect.

My fourth suggestion is the "easy way out/ nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM computers" route. Just tell the person who asks for your advice to go ahead and buy the Sony A7III. As I've said above, the sensors across most camera lines, at 24 megapixel, are all better than most people will need and totally up to the task of making professional images across a wide range of disciplines. I'd skip the 60 megapixel version (the A7R4) because I think they went a step too far and it suffers from higher noise at high and low ISOs, and a measureable drop in dynamic range versus their lower resolution (42-47.5) competitors.

The bigger pixel wells of the A7III will make more attractive images and provide better high ISO performance. Lately, Sony is playing like Ford Motors in 1966. General Motors is the sales leader and analogous to what Canon is in the camera world. Canon pumps out a lot of "Chevy Novas" and "Chevy Biscaynes" and every once in a while they try their luck with a (1DXx) huge Suburban. Sony is busy pumping out Mustangs and Thunderbirds along with a fleet of APS-C Mavericks and pre-Fiestas.

All of Sony's product line drives well on the spec sheets which leads millions to buy their products because, with the demise of bricks and mortar retailers where you could test drive the handling of the cameras, all most consumers have left is the spec sheet and the mail order venue. In my opinion this lack of pre-sale/hands-on trial is what keeps Sony's engine running. If you could handle one right next to a Nikon Z7 or a (big-boned Lumix S1) fewer people would be sporting ugly Sony camera straps attached to so many cameras that are so physically uncomfortable to use...and handle. Too many sharp edges. Too little bulk to hold comfortably. Lackluster control surfaces and poor menus. But there it is...

But the reason I would recommend them to my friends who are heavy into left-brained thinking is precisely the fact that these cameras tic so many boxes on the old, linear thinking check list. These are the guys who want to know: how much horsepower??! etc. etc. and the Sony's deliver the numbers.

Of the full frame Sony line the A7III is the most civilized. The sensor delivers at least as well as virtually the same sensor in the Nikon Z6. The battery has been vastly improved over previous models. The raw files are finally 14 bit (fine print applies) and the video is still 8 bit but decent. The Sony line has some really good lenses but you'll want to be sure to test yours out before the return period expires since the folks who test them at Lensrentals.com say that some of the Sony lenses they've tested have some bigger variances in image quality/performances from one product to the next....

Nowadays it makes just as much sense for really serious photographers to just default to buying Sigma Art lenses for the E Sonys. They are more solidly built and seem to outperform many of the Sonys.

Sony has buzz right now. It's hard to go wrong with a recommendation. But just remember that since this person has asked (and received ) your recommendation they'll be circling back to you in a panic, trying to decipher the menus. Bone up on the manual, just in case.

Finally, I'm going off the reservation with a quirky recommendation for the Canon 5Dmk3/4 as my fifth entry. This is the defacto recommendation for anyone in your sphere who is a traditionalist, or female wedding photographer/children's portrait photographer. Don't know why but if you polled all the retail (portraits, weddings, bar mitzvahs, engagements) photographers from coast to coast you would most likely find that the vast majority are shooting their work with Canon 5 series DSLRs and once they learn how to operate that one system, it's the camera habitat that becomes their safety blanket and security zone for a long time.

And, for lots of logical reasons this makes sense. The camera and the form factor are time tested. There is no real associated risk to using a type of camera that comes with a long history of success and reliability. It works well with flash. The sensor isn't the world leader for high ISO but it's not bad and the colors in the files are well loved by customer and shooter.

Looking in the bags of many wedding and portrait photographers shows me that once you adapt this system you enter into a cult in which there is a not-so-secret required kit that consists of: One camera body. One 24-105mm L series zoom, and one 70-200mm L series zoom. There is also an ancient technology 50mm f1.4 lens which is routinely used at its widest aperture to deliver images in which there is one tiny and thin slice of sharpness surrounded by oceans of "bokeh" (by which they mean "stuff that is out of focus.").

It's the ultimate safe choice. It's the most ubiquitous toolset in the retail end of the profession and one that delivers, weekend after weekend. The biggest plus beyond its tenure? Pretty much the same amazing battery life found in most DSLRs.

The curious will seek out the cameras I've listed above this one. The incurious and fearful (or obsessively practical) are all in for the Canon 5D series and just the exact lenses that they've previously seen on someone's video "tutorial." Sorry, no substitutions.

So why am I not recommending the Lumix S1 or S1R? I think it's too hard to convey exactly what the value proposition is to all but a small handful of users. And so many people are so price sensitive that they'll gladly sacrifice some aspect of the S1 series I think is brilliant just in order to save the one time cost of a couple hundred bucks. Convincing most people otherwise is just hard work. And since I don't sell cameras for Panasonic I just don't have the bandwidth.....

This was written as a counterpoint to my earlier column on using iPhones as cameras. 

More later. Happy Holidays.


James Moule said...

I completely agree with your basic message. Two nits: 1) I and my friends find the Olympus menus system much more confusing than Sony or the others. 2) You did not mention the excellent Zeiss lenses for Sony.

Michael Matthews said...

Couldn’t agree more on the Panasonic G9.

Of course it could be like that ridiculous J.D.Power “Initial Quality Study”, where they survey new car buyers after 90 days of ownership and let them confirm the righteousness of their choices. But the G9 offers a klutz like me huge improvement in ease of handling over the Olympus EM5.2. The menu system is more coherent. And the little bump in megapixel count won’t hurt, although it’s not likely to make any visible difference in image quality.

I thought as I placed my order I would probably be the last person to buy an M4/3 camera. I hope that’s not the case. Somebody has to buy my EM5.2 so I can pay for it.

Greg Heins said...

I probably have some kind of brain disability that has made me prefer the Olympus system with its one-touch access to everything I might possibly need to adjust versus the Panasonic system (and it’s not for lack of trying with 2 Lumixes in my possession). But I do like your inclusion of Canon. As the saying goes, 40 million French people can’t be wrong and although I’ve never used the newer Canons, I’d be perfectly happy to start now. And then if there turned out to be something I needed to know, I’d just ask the photographer next to me.

Anonymous said...

If you are being asked by a "seriously serious" photographer, then they have already formed their own intentions and always ignore your advice once given. (They really just want to know if you agree with their selection.) If however it's a casual photographer genuinely asking advice, then always recommend a better iPhone. I found this out over the years.

I am also wondering if in another year (probably less) you will have graduated to the Leica SL2 and lenses. You are within sniffing distance now of course. 😉
Peter Wright.

Jeff said...

I used an Olympus m4/3 camera for a number of years. The size and IS are very nice, the IQ was good as long as I kept the ISO under my person noise limit (for me usually around 1000-1200 but that is an individual choice), and many of the lenses are excellent. However I never mastered the terrible menus and complicated controls and very obscure symbols, and it drove me nuts every time I used it. I almost threw it into the water many times. I think these might be better cameras for people who use them *a lot* and can keep it all in their head or who don't get frustrated by things like this, or just have a much better memory than mine. I switched back to Canon and the camera is not so small or high tech but my picture taking outings are much more pleasant and relaxed now. Maybe my advice would be to just spend a fair amount of time trying out an Olympus camera before you buy one.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Jeff, I concur. The differences between most cameras now are not in sensor capability or focus but mental alignment to menu styles and then how the camera feels in ones hands and in operation. Buying one without engaging with it first is not recommended.

Canon does get their menu and body haptics pretty much just right I the 5 series cameras.

Ray said...

I think if a Serious Photographer is asking which camera they should buy, they either aren't a serious photographer or they aren't really asking a question so much as seeking reaffirmation. My advice is to buy the camera that makes your hands and your heart happy then buy a different camera two years from now if the first one turns out to be inappropriate for your style of photography. Buying a camera is different than getting married and you're not actually joining a tribe.

dinksdad said...

I'd go with the Fuji XT-3 or the Canon RP (full frame and now under $1,000). With the adapter included with the Canon you can use any EOS lens. Good ergonomics, comfortable grip, and the menus won't drive you nuts. I haven't used a G9, but I do like my GX8, which you can get used now for cheap.

Craig Yuill said...

I settled on Nikon as a brand long ago, when the Nikon cameras just seemed to fit my hands better than cameras from other brands, and had (for me) better controls. This started in the film era, and has continued into the present, digital era. My DSLR is a Nikon, and so are my mirrorless (discontinued) Nikon 1 cameras. About a year ago, I was looking at supplementing my Nikon 1 cameras with one of two reasonably-small, affordable, and well-regarded m4/3 mirrorless cameras, both of which are supposed to produce good video and photos. I hated both of them. One had decent ergonomics, but also had an EVF that looked smeary, and produced video colours that were garish. The other had colours that better suited my tastes, but had dreadful ergonomics. Still - people like and use them.

With the Z50 now on the market, I think I will just stick with Nikon. I know that not everyone likes Nikon cameras (or the company), but Nikon cameras work for me. I agree wholeheartedly with your and others' assertions that cameras are really differentiated these days by personal tastes in haptics more than capabilities and overall output.

David B. said...

I'm curious about the following sentence in spotlighting the Canon camera. "This is the defacto recommendation for anyone in your sphere who is a traditionalist, or female wedding photographer/children's portrait photographer."

Why wouldn't you recommend it for male photographers in these specialties?

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

David B. In my limited and purely anecdotal experience men I know tend to want whatever the latest and most technically "advanced" camera system is. They seem to believe that any and all advances in technology will somehow improve their images. The female photographers I know are more pragmatic and more prudent shoppers. They tend to buy a camera system that will last them five or more years. They also tend to be less focused on metrics that might not directly affect final results and more focused on overall value.

All the systems are equally good. Why do more men buy pick up trucks than women? Why are more Prius drivers women?

There are still some differences in the buying and adaptation habits between genders. That's why so many men buy $60,000 pick up trucks with four wheel drive but never go off road, never haul much more that a Christmas tree in their trucks and pay outrageous amounts for gas while so many woman drive practical cars that cost an average of $35,000 or less and are so cost effective to own and operate.

Or I could just be full of crap and a slave to my anecdotal experiences. Your call.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

You will notice that I did include "traditionalists" (non-gender specified) in that sentence.....

David B. said...

Kirk - Thanks, your answer makes perfect sense to me and is pretty much in line with my anecdotal experiences. I just don't know any women photographers (pro or hobbyist) so I didn't make the connection with camera selection.

Jarle Vikshåland said...

Why the XT-3 and not the XH-1 which you warmly recommended just a few days ago ?
I have the XT-3 myself and I am happy with it (I use the sports view finder quite a lot shooting basket ball), but I do find the control layout of the XH-1 more better.