The Best All-Around Cameras

bythom bestthreeallaround

Most of you aren’t photographing a particular specialty. Thus, what you want is a well-rounded camera that can do everything pretty well. A Nikon D850 isn’t as good at fast action as a D6, but it performs decently for action. Likewise, a Sony A1 isn’t designed as a landscape camera, but it handles that type of photography well. 

What do I mean by all-around camera? Look at the header bar at the top of the page: portrait, landscape, travel, wildlife, sports, birds. I take photos in all those categories (and more) regularly. I need a camera that is great at all those disciplines.

So what are the leading contenders these days for all-around cameras? Having used pretty much everything on the market while pushing them into things they don’t normally do or weren’t designed for, here’s my current thinking about the most likely candidates for "best":

  • Canon 5D Mark IV — This one’s getting long in the tooth compared to the others, but it’s still a solid jack-of-all-trades for many. 30mp is at the low-end for all-around cameras now, the video is dated (4K 30 Motion JPEG), and the focus system has fallen behind the state-of-the-art, so the 5D Mark IV is just barely hanging on as an all-around camera, and only for some. Personally, it’s not close to one of my top picks. Too bad Canon won’t take the R5 sensor and use it to create a 5D Mark V. That might be enough for the 5D to get back on my top list.
  • Canon R5 — Everyone got all caught up in the 8K and overheating hype and missed the fact that this camera is really well-rounded. Indeed, it’s Canon’s best, most well-rounded camera to date. Canon users need to pay attention to this model, it’s the one they probably really want.
  • Fujifilm X-T4 — Everything else in Fujifilm’s lineup goes down one or another rabbit hole that keeps them from being what I’d considered all-around candidates. The problems I have with the X-T4 are that we’re at only 26mp with no pixel shift, the autofocus is good but not as good as the leaders, and we have a few other little nits we’d need to ignore. I personally don’t feel an X-T4 is all-around enough for me to use it that way.
  • Nikon D850 — For several years, the D850 was the camera that I considered “the best all-around camera you can buy.” Amazingly, it’s holding its own even today. There’s little this excellent DSLR can’t do acceptably well, though fast frame rates will require the vertical grip and a different battery.
  • Nikon Z7 II — While much of the software and hardware of the Z7 II is patterned off the D850 and the Z7 II can photograph fast without a grip and bigger battery, a number of small things make it “not a D850 equivalent,” and thus not quite as capable of being your all-around camera. Sadly, the missing bits are mostly firmware and a couple of extra buttons, which would be easy for Nikon to fix, but they didn’t do so with the update to the II model.
  • Olympus E-M1 Mark III — Surprised to see it on this list? Don’t be. It’s an incredibly well-rounded camera, just with a small crop sensor. While the 20mp count is low for an all-rounder, the E-M1 Mark III does have a sophisticated pixel-shift capability, which fills in the gap, at least for non-moving subjects. Better still, Olympus is still the only one really pushing things like Live Composite, which provides yet another capability in the camera. (The E-M1X is basically the same camera with a vertical grip built in. However I don’t actually consider it so much an all-around camera because of its bulk.)
  • Panasonic S5 — Some might argue the S1R is the all-rounder, but Panasonic addressed a number of small things that just make the S5 a better camera. Sure, it’s only 24mp, but like the Olympus I just mentioned, it can pixel-shift to get higher resolutions on static subjects. The sore point in considering any Panasonic camera as an all-around camera is the focus system, which just isn’t up to the level of state-of-the-art Canikony. 
  • Sony A7R Mark IV — My previous runner up to the D850 for best all-around camera was the Sony A7R Mark III. I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t believe the A7R Mark IV is quite as versatile. This has a lot to do with the image sensor, which at 60mp and above ISO 800 I’m just seeing enough more noise that it’s an issue compared to other camera choices I have. Moreover, I’ve seen too many Mark IV’s with slightly mis-aligned mount/sensors such that those extra pixels get garbled at the left/right edges of the frame. Several of us have shimmed our Mark IV’s, and that’s generally not a sign of a good out-of-the-box all-around camera. Still, I know people treating the Mark IV that way. But if you have a Mark III and think you need to move up for the extra pixels, I’d tend to say no.
  • Sony A1 — The latest camera to appear is the last on my short list. Sony wanted this camera to be an all-around camera, and for the most part they’ve succeeded admirably. You start to see why if you use flash, photograph any action, or need great state-of-the-art, out-of-camera results (e.g. 10-bit HEIF with HLG). If you asked me to give you a quick description of the A1 I’d say “an A9 with A7R-like resolution coupled with the best of Sony’s video bits.” That sounds all-around to me. 

The easiest way to figure out who's on top is relatively simple: figure out which camera is the best all-around one within each brand, then figure out how those top-of-brand cameras compare to one another. So, here we go. I’m going to reveal my top three, and in the order I’d consider them here in Spring 2021 if I wasn’t vested in any mount:

  1. Sony A1 (US$6500) — Surprise! Right, I’m a Nikon shill (not!). Sony got so many things right about this camera that it feels awkward talking about anything that wasn’t perfectly right (the Rear LCD, some footnotes that point out particular setting limitations [e.g. what it takes to get 30 fps], and some strangeness in the saving of and custom recall settings). Can the A1 be used for sports? Absolutely. Can the A1 be used for wildlife? Absolutely. Can the A1 be used for landscape? Absolutely. Can the A1 be used in the studio or for portraits? Absolutely. We hit a couple of nits you have to work around with astrophotography and few other specialties, but the Sony A1 can still do those decently, too. Even the menu system feels right now, even if it might be foreign at first to a newcomer. 
  2. Nikon D850 (US$2500) — Really? Still? A big YES. It starts at the image sensor, which is still essentially state-of-the-art for everything other than 8K video even four years later. Yes, to get 9 fps for action you’ll need the vertical grip and an EN-EL18 battery, which is a small drawback. However, I have no qualms using the D850 as is for pretty much any of my work these days. And I have absolutely no issues with the images it produces. The D850’s weakest point would be its 4K video, so it’s not a camera I’d select if video was one of my primary uses. However, the 4K video out of the D850 is still quite good, and certainly broadcast worthy in the right hands. The D850 is one of those “buy it and use it to death” cameras. Extra credit: for some the Z7 II actually might be better for their particular all around balance. That would depend upon which photographic discipline is your primary use, versus which are auxiliary uses. Nikon could have made the decision a perfect “just pick DSLR or mirrorless,” but they didn’t (we did get that with the Z6/D780). 
  3. Canon R5 (US$3900) — You’re probably surprised again. You shouldn’t be. The R5 shows that Canon’s top camera designers got back on their game, although some of the details seem to indicate that they might have been a little rushed. Those genre questions I asked about the A1? Instead of “absolutely” as my answer I’d tend to say “certainly” with the R5, thus its rating here. How do the I define the difference in those two words? With the A1 when I write “absolutely” I simply have no qualms. It does what I need it to do how I expect it to do it. When I substitute “certainly” for the R5 I’m saying that the camera can still do that job, but I might have some small reservations or nits about how it does it. Emphasis on “small.” I believe a lot of people underestimate the R5 (and R6, which shares most traits). It’s a really good camera that can be used for virtually every photographic purpose.

Just out of the top three for me would be the Olympus E-M1 Mark III, so I need to tell you why it’s out of the top three. Mostly it’s the small 20mp sensor and the autofocus performance. Both those things aren’t quite at the level of what I expect these days. Not that the E-M1 Mark III is a slouch, it just doesn’t reach the same heights as my choices. 

Canon, Nikon, and Sony make nearly 90% of all the interchangeable lens cameras sold. Which means that most of you reading this are vested in those three mounts. Which makes things really easy: Canon users looking for their next all-around camera should right now choose the R5, Nikon users looking for a long-term all-around camera should get the D850 (or maybe the Z7 II), and Sony customers now have that A1 to consider (though many would be well served by picking up an A7R Mark III at discount). 

Of course you might have noticed the prices attached to each of my three top choices. The Nikon D850 is a clear bargain compared to the Sony A1. Indeed, you could buy the D850, the 24-70mm f/2.8E, and the 70-200mm f/2.8E for the price of just the Sony A1 body right now. It's rare that Nikon's been the bargain choice with their top models, let alone an overwhelming bargain choice.

If you pick something other than those three in those mounts, you’re either specializing or you’re compromising something, in my view. That’s your choice. I don’t expect everyone (anyone?) to agree with my assessment here. But you readers keep asking for it, so there it is. 

Oh, one final bit: is my wallet where my keyboard is? Are any of these cameras in my long-term gear closet? Yep. I bought a Sony A1 and I’ve owned a Nikon D850 for some time. I use them regularly. I don’t have much in the way of Canon lenses, thus I’ve not opted to buy the R5, but if I did have a stable of Canon lenses, I wouldn’t hesitate. 

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