If there's one question that will start a riot in a group of photographers, it's “what camera brand is best?” Okay, so that's (hopefully) a bit of exaggeration, but it's a highly debatable topic. While there is no right answer as to the top camera brand, each manufacturer offers a certain set of characteristics that tends to apply to nearly every camera in the bunch.
One year, Nikon may have the best camera on the market and Canon may take that title another year—it's the individual camera that matters more than the brand. Still, each brand usually has an area that they're best in. And since many brands have different terminology and switching a DSLR and mirrorless system to a new brand becomes quite expensive, there's something to be said for brand loyalty.
If you haven't found a manufacturer you love yet, here are the top camera brands and the pros and cons of each one.
Camera Brands: Nikon
Releasing their first camera in 1948, Nikon is one of the most well-known camera brands, with a long and colorful history. Nikon created their own Nikkor lens line in 1962 and introduced an all-weather camera the following year. The company's first digital interchangeable lens cameras were released in 1994, with the Coolpix line of compact cameras kicking off in 1997.
The Nikon D1 was one of the first digital DSLRs priced for general consumers and not professionals—and to this day, Nikon still seems to hold an edge when it comes to offering low-priced DSLRs. The Nikon D3300, for example, sits right around $500. The only similarly priced Canon DSLRs are that low because they are a few years old.
Besides just being an affordable entry point, Nikon's DSLRs are known for their excellent image quality. Low light performance has seen big improvements in the past few years. Nikon's full frame cameras are favored by many professionals and come in a wide range of options from the most affordable D750 to the $6,500 D4S. Nikon's naming system is pretty easy to decipher—APS-C DSLRs have four-digit names like D7200 and the full frame options have three or one digit, with the single digits being the most full-featured.
Nikon has a unique mirrorless lineup, designated simply with a “1”. The 1 is for the 1-inch sensor, which is smaller than most other mirrorless cameras. Why go with the smaller sensor? While that sacrifices some resolution, the Nikon 1 cameras offer unheard of speed. Where many mirrorless cameras only get 5 fps, the Nikon 1 J5 gets a super speedy 20 fps burst mode. Most photographers will prefer the bigger resolution, but that speed comes in handy for photographing sports or active kids.
While we'd put money on any new Nikon DSLR being a great camera, their compact cameras are a bit more hit and miss. The Nikon P900 is a great super zoom with a big 83x zoom range, but our impression of the P600 was just okay. More Nikon compact cameras are offering better performance than just a few years ago, but this is one category where it really pays to read the camera reviews for that particular model.
Camera Brands: Canon
Canon's founder took apart a Leica camera and discovered it wasn't made of anything but a few basic materials. That started the company off on a quest to create cameras affordable enough for the masses, with the first one being released in 1934. While there are some exceptions, Canon's cameras today are typically competitively priced with other camera brands. While the Canon brand extends beyond just imaging products, that means wi-fi equipped Canon cameras are directly compatible with their wireless printers.
Canon's DSLRs are well-loved, and for good reason. While one year it may seem like Canon is behind on making upgrades, another year and they'll see big jumps. 2015 was the year of resolution for Canon, offering the 50 megapixel EOS 5DS and upping the resolution on their entry-level models to 24 megapixels. Introduced late in 2014, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is worth mentioning because of a nice 10 fps burst speed—about twice the average speed of most similar DSLRs and an option previously inaccessible without picking up a $6,000 DSLR.
Canon hasn't quite jumped into the mirrorless bandwagon with both feet, and that's okay, since their DSLRs are still top options among pros and enthusiasts. The mirrorless EOS M had a disappointing autofocus, and the update, the M2, was only released in Japan and China. The EOS M3 offers significant improvement over Canon's earlier models, though it doesn't seem to compete with other manufacturers quite yet. It offers the same sensor as Canon's entry-level DSLRs, but a slower burst and autofocus speed. The EOS M10 is geared more towards social media enthusiasts.
Despite offering the fastest DSLR for the price, speed seems to be a sticking point for Canon compacts in recent years. Speed is much easier to come by in a smaller camera, yet Canon's recent consumer compact options have had pretty slow burst speeds. The SX410 has just 2.2 in low light mode and .5 across all the other modes. The older ELPH 340 has a 10.5 fps burst, while the new model has only 2.6. It's disappointing to see Canon go backwards in speed with their compacts, especially when fewer companies are manufacturing them, and we're hoping that slow burst trend comes to an end soon.
Canon's advanced compacts, however, continue to be excellent options. Most are outfitted with a big 1.5” sensor, which is even larger than the ones used in the popular Sony RX line. The G3 X, for example, offers a big zoom on an advanced compact, which isn't as widely available. A few recent releases offer a 1” sensor at a very competitive price, like the G9 X.
Camera Brands: Sony
While Nikon and Canon still devote most of their efforts to DSLRs, Sony has taken the opposite approach, dropping the DSLR line and focusing on mirrorless and compact cameras. While Sony doesn't have a film history, they started developing digital cameras in the 80s and are often among the first to release new technologies. Sony was the first to release technology like sweep panoramas, as well as several different sensor technologies that make cameras what they are today.
One of Sony's biggest accomplishments is creating the first full frame mirrorless camera line, the a7. While the camera still suffers from traits that are characteristic of pretty much every mirrorless camera like a short battery life, it's a pretty big feat and many photographers have opted to pick up the smaller, lighter full frame camera. The brand has a few more affordable mirrorless options as well, many of which boasted the “smallest yet” title at the time of their release. Cameras like the a5100 offer an APS-C sensor in a small $500 camera.
Sony, however, also has an excellent compact camera line that isn't quite as hit or miss as Nikon and Canon's small consumer cameras. The Sony RX100 line is one of the best advanced compacts on the market, with big resolution and capabilities in a handheld camera (but a big price tag too). Their consumer point-and-shoots have been decent in the past as well, though that market receives much less attention today. And while their zooms aren't our top choices, they aren't overly disappointing either.
Sony also made an interesting move by creating smartphone-attachable cameras. Cameras like the like the QX100 offer a much larger sensor and better quality than a smartphone's camera, but connect directly to the phone so you can do pretty much anything that you can do with a smartphone camera. Essentially, these cameras don't have their own screen or operating system—the smartphone provides that. Since the camera connects to the phone through wi-fi though, these cameras are slow and suffer from shutter lag.
Camera Brands: Fujifilm
While Fujifilm was once best known for their film quality, their latest digital cameras are known from their X-Trans sensor technology. By removing the optical low pass filter and randomizing the pattern on the sensor, an X-Trans sensor is capable of capturing a high level of detail with little pattern distortion. The X-Trans cameras we've tested in the past also had excellent color reproduction.
Fujifilm is one of our favorites for mirroless cameras (the other is Olympus). The X-Trans sensors just capture beautiful images and there's a complete line-up from basic and affordable to the feature-packed X-T1. While image quality is what makes the mirrorless lineup stand out, their performance is pretty decent too. Prices tend to be fairly competitive as well. Most of their mirrorless line adopts a retro look that pays homage to the company's film past.
While their mirrorless cameras are among Fujifilm's best cameras, they have a pretty decent set of compact cameras too. They offer affordable advanced compacts like the XQ2, to compacts with the same sensor as entry-level DSLRs, like the X100T. Their zoom cameras are pretty good too, with good picture quality even using the full zoom, and a competitive price tag. While their all-weather cameras aren't our top picks, they offer a good mix of quality and price.
Camera Brands: Olympus
Olympus created the PEN camera line in 1959, aiming to offer performance with portability. While the PEN line was discontinued at the first introduction of digital, the line was brought back to life with the introduction of mirrorless cameras. That performance with portability continues for the brand's PEN mirrorless line. Those first film PENs were used as secondary cameras by some professionals, and today, some professionals rely entirely on the PEN mirrorless lineup.
The Olympus PEN and OM-D lines use a micro Four Thirds sensor, which is smaller than the APS-C sensors used in most DSLRS and many other mirrorless cameras. Regardless, Olympus has built a reputation for image quality. The company's mirrorless lineup is wide and varied, from those designed for the selfie lovers to professional-level options. Their latest models have a speedy autofocus and a more advanced image stabilization system.
Olympus also has a fair share of compact, fixed-lens cameras. One of our favorite things about Olympus compacts is the super macro mode that gets excellent results and is fun to use. The TG-4 tough camera is our top rated waterproof camera because of the bright lens and durability. Their zoom cameras also tend to offer pretty good quality for the price.
Camera Brands: Pentax & Ricoh
Pentax, now merged with Ricoh, is an often overlooked brand, but they have a lot to offer for the right consumer.
Pentax DSLRs are a bit quirky, with six manual modes instead of four, and a bit noisier than a Nikon or Canon, but they offer solid image quality, and a few extras too. Most Pentax DSLRs are weather-sealed to withstand shooting in the rain without a cover. While that's the biggest extra that most brands don't offer so universally, the cameras typically have similar speed and performance specifications to competing Canon and Nikon models.
While Pentax has dabbled in the mirrorless market, options like the QS-1 and Q7 have a smaller 1/1.7” sensor, and don't make up for it in speed like the Nikon 1 line. Where the Q line compensates some is that they're even smaller than most other mirrorless cameras on the market, but that smaller sensor means lower resolution. Still, they make decent options for consumers that want a little more imaging power in a small, simple to use package.
Pentax and Ricoh offer a few compact cameras too, though not as many as other manufacturers. The Ricoh WG-5 isn't as fast as our top waterproof pick, but comes in at a better price and still has a nice bright lens. The brand also offers a very affordable super zoom, the Pentax XG-1.
Camera Brands: Panasonic
While Panasonic manufacturers a wide variety of products from TVs and air conditioners to toothbrushes, they've also carved out a decent photography niche. Perhaps more well known for their camcorders, Panasonic was the first to offer 4K video inside a compact camera, the LZ1000, and inside a mirrorless camera, the GH4, in 2014.
Panasonic mirrorless cameras use a Micro Four Thirds sensor, often wrapped up in a pretty small package. 4K video is now available in several of their mirrorless cameras. While some of Panasonic's mirrorless cameras are more expensive than competing options, they add features like a smaller body, solid burst speed and good video to justify that price.
Panasonic does pretty well with their compact cameras too. Most models are sleek and often feature either some of the latest advances in imaging technology or a budget price tag. The camera brand offers a range of compacts from zoom cameras like ZS50 to inexpensive point-and-shoots like the SZ10.
More Camera Brands
Of course, there are more cameras on the market than just those offered by Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Pentax and Panasonic. Several companies introduce a smaller number of cameras every year.
Just like you can't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't judge a camera just by brand. But, there are a few characteristics that tend to extend to all the cameras in a certain brand. Choosing a camera brand that excels in creating the type of camera you are looking for is a good start, however, don't make assumptions on a single camera from brand alone.