The Magnificent Dozen (Updated List 2020)
October 2020, Carl Garrard
Magnificent Seven article about two years ago (here), I've tested and reviewed more cameras in that time than in any two year period in the past. During which time, a few more cameras have managed to really stand out as my favorites, so I thought I'd update my all time list to include these as well. As I stated in my first article; in order for a camera to reach my all time favorite list, it has to have several special qualities about it that make it stand out from the rest. There really is no set list of qualities it must have, rather, it must have the right combination of qualities to give it that something special- that at the end of the day makes it a camera that I never want to part with. These are also cameras that constantly beg my attention to be used for whatever subjective reason, and subsequently they are the ones I never lose interest in. Some cameras just have mojo, and it matters not what category they are in, or how expensive they are, they just have... it.
In addition to the Magnificent Seven, I offer here to you five more of my very favorite cameras as a list. These are cameras in their class that I'd highly recommend to anyone. This list is not made lightly, and has taken much consideration and comparison to so many other cameras both in my collection and previously reviewed. So without further ado, here are my five additional top favorites of all time.
Canon's Rebel XSI (450D) - The XSI changed the rebel forever. It brought so many modern features to this line of cameras it was an instant hit. Arguably it's still the best of all the XXXD/Rebel designs, being the last stills only, full featured rebel in the lineup. With a moderate 12mp of resolution, it's pixels are much larger than its successors and its overall image quality impresses even to this day. Although it's ISO tops out only at 1600, Canon could have easily included 3200 and possibly 6400. It's got some of the cleanest raw files in the entire lineup, and every ISO setting is completely usable. It also sports the largest viewfinder of all the Rebels (.87x magnification), and better build quality than today's successors. It was the first to have a 3" lcd, live view, a multitude of of additions and tweaks to its design that would become standard. Canon never again would take such a big leap forward in this class of camera. Every Rebel since would only take incremental advances forward, adding video, more megapixels, and flippy screens. To this day, it's still my favorite to use. Even with its very small grip it's so solid to hold, ergonomics are impressive with many large raised buttons that are well positioned, and fast accurate autofocus. In some ways I actually prefer using it over my 80D. It's smaller, yet capable, and still a blast to use (12 years after its announcement), and modern featured enough to evade ever becoming an outdated relic. This is a great stills only camera, just for photographers.
Panasonic Lumix G95- If I were to pick only one mirrorless camera from any manufacturer today that had a smaller than full frame sensor this is the one camera I'd choose. I absolutely love this camera. How it feels in hand, all the incremental improvements this series has seen culminated into a near work of art. Starting with its perfect grip, I've never felt such a comfortable grip on any camera to date. It's such a solid camera too, literally, and in its specifications. There is so much refinement in its ergonomics, design, and features I couldn't even begin to list them. It's just an absolute dark horse, my favorite mirrorless camera of all. 9/10 times I preferred to use the G95 even over the G9 which was supposed to be designed for still shooters. The G95 has no quirks to speak of, it does everything better than it should, and its absolutely fun to use. Every time I use the G95 I'm reminded of how good mirrorless cameras can be if companies just paid more attention. It's grip, refinements in design, and build quality make it the one and only mirrorless I'd choose if I had only one choice. It's too bad it's only available paired with a kit lens, the price keeps it out of more hands than anything. Plus its predecessor wasn't too bad either. It's a camera you have to use to truly appreciate, one of my favorite cameras ever.
Panasonic Lumix GX7- I know, two Panasonic's in a row. Panasonic just got this one right. The GX7 was so ahead of its day. With its highly detailed 2.3 million dot EVF sporting a huge 1.44x view (.72x full frame), best in class grip, a breadth of well placed/ergonomic external customizeable controls, touch activated flip up/down screen, wifi, full magnesium build quality, 1/8000th mechanical shutter (and electronic shutter option), and in body image stabilization, man this camera is just loaded. It's spec list could easily be confused for a camera released today, even though it came out over seven years ago. But this camera isn't so much about the tech as it is how well Panasonic managed to organize all of its designed parts into such an organized choir. Of all the rangefinder styled mirrorless models, it is hands down my favorite even compared to its bigger successor, the GX8. It's more comfortable, much more ergonomic with better placed controls, and the most handsome of all the RF designed cameras from Panasonic. It's image quality is completely adequate for large prints up to ISO 1600, but I especially like its ISO 125 output. To me the GX7 truly embodies the 4/3 format's full potential, bringing high end camera features and performance to a package you can stick in a coat pocket. From excellent stills, to timelapse videos, and awesome HD video quality, the GX7 leaves little to desire and is a cult favorite by many today. Glad I finally got one.
Olympus EP2- With gorgeous looks born from camera Gods, and comfortable ease of use, the little EP2 steals your heart. With an all metal case, it's components are sandwiched between thick upper and lower magnesium and aluminum, topped off with a classy dark metallic brushed stainless front shell. Its less-is-more design and easy to use controls scream mini Leica M to me. Even with a minimalist grip, it's shape and design make it a supreme pleasure to hold and use one handed. It's low ISO output is fantastic (this is no high ISO camera). It's Jpeg color has a character all its own, truly a unique but beautifully rich output. It's not going to win anyone over with its focus speed, menu system, or high ISO output, but that's not what its about. This is a classy camera you bring down town and take your time making beautiful photos. Its dynamic range is limited (even at base ISO), which means that I'm careful to expose my images properly. Oddly this weakness brings more pleasure to using it, and adds to its charm. This camera is all about style and comfort, with its simplicity and surprisingly good low ISO image quality being the icing on the cake. My personal EP2 has a glass screen protector and a 14mm Panasonic f/2.5 II permanently attached to it, both of which I'd recommend. Between its great looks, awesome low ISO images, minimalist design, top notch construction, and excellent ergonomics, it's a camera that begs me to use it more often than I should.
Nikon D500- I don't normally run with the popular crown when it comes to favorite camera choices, but the D500 is an exception to that. It's one of the finest performing DSLR's I've ever used in multiple categories. It doesn't have any inherent heart warming design charm like my other favorites do, not at all. What it does have though, is such compellingly reliable high end performance that normal or not, plain all business DSLR or not, it just makes you fall in love with it. The D500 is certainly capable of being an all rounder too, and one of the best ever. It's AA filterless sensor with 21mp (just shy of) can make huge detail rich prints if you need it too, and it's got every bell and whistle dialed in under its fully weather sealed carbon fiber and magnesium shell. Yet this is undoubtedly not what stands out most for me. It's that the D500 is the race car of cameras. It's so blazingly fast and tenacious it may even scare you. And its ability to track and record moving subjects is unparalleled, like that nothing I've used to date. This camera is all serious business that screams all Pro as soon as you start using it. If one didn't see it's smaller DX sensor with the lens off, they'd swear it was a top level pro full frame camera. From its 1.00x pentaprism viewfinder, to its design and build, and right through to it's image quality, you can't really tell it's a DX camera. The impressive combination of it's winning image quality, professional feel, and unrelenting tenacity will demand its way into your heart. It's an enthusiast forum pro's wet dream, one in which a seasoned armchair quarterback cannot seriously criticize. When the going gets tough, the D500 steps up for you, then leaves them all in the dust. What a masterpiece of a DSLR, one realized through years of progressive design improvements. This is one of Nikon's finest, if not their very best. When performance matters most, this is the camera I'll choose.
At the end of the day using a camera tells you more about it than any review, article, or press release ever will. The top twelve cameras I love the most, have all been used extensively. In my giant collection of cameras, these twelve consistently beg me to use them. Results and experience speak the most when deciding on the best camera designs. I'm proud to have added the five cameras above to the top of my favorites list. If you are a stills shooter, keep these cameras in mind.
Stay focused. Happy Halloween!
p.s. - Curious what the other seven are? Go here: Magnificent Seven