The latest crop of high-end cameras are smaller and lighter, but just as capable—if not more so—than their predecessors.
BEST FOR: Nasty Conditions
Ruggedized cameras tend to take lousy pictures. Not the AW1 ($800). It’s tough enough to survive a drop from six and a half feet, operates at minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit and in water as deep as 49 feet, and comes equipped with a sharp 14.2-megapixel sensor. A clever sliding mode-control bar lets you switch from, say, video to still photography single-handedly, and a built-in GPS lets you easily geo-tag images.
Canon EOS Rebel SL1
BEST FOR: DSLR Holdouts
The buzz among camera geeks these days is about the transition away from internal mirrors, which add bulk and weight. But don’t call the DSLR dead yet. A case in point is the Rebel SL1 ($650), which has a sensor that’s a third larger than that of the mirrorless Olympus—and costs $750 less. Despite a rugged aluminum body, the Rebel is insanely light, and we’ve found no faster-focusing camera for the dough.
Olympus OM-D E-M1
BEST FOR: Control Freaks
The knock against mirrorless cameras has been for the lack of manual control, but the weather- and freeze-proof E-M1 ($1,400; body only) suffers no such shortcoming. Buttons for ISO, exposure compensation, and other settings mean you can shoot with skill. The superb, low-noise sensor produces fantastic images, from tight macros of flowers to distant, sunset-lit coyotes, while the camera’s chunky knurled dials let you make fine adjustments without removing your gloves.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1
BEST FOR: Versatility
No other replaceable-lens camera is this portable, period. The GM1 ($750) has the same-size sensor but weighs half as much as the Olympus, and it’s barely bigger than most point-and-shoots. We hiked with it all day in a vest pocket and hardly remembered it was there. Like the Olympus, the GM1 uses four-thirds lenses, so there are hundreds of lens options. Max shutter is a very fast 1/16,000 of a second, and we swooned for the superb time-lapse function.
DJI Phantom 2 Vision
BEST FOR: Newbie Drone Pilots
This is by far the easiest UAV to fly ($1,200), thanks to an on-board GPS that stabilizes the copter and then returns it automatically to the takeoff spot when the battery runs dry (in about 25 minutes). Out of the box, all you need is a smartphone app to operate the camera and display altitude, speed, and distance. The Wi-Fi range of 300 meters is superb, and the included camera’s 1080p video is sharp, rivaling GoPro’s for color, resolution, and light sensitivity.
Garmin Virb Elite
BEST FOR: YouTube Training Series
GoPro’s biggest weakness is Garmin’s greatest strength. Where the former’s on-camera controls are maddeningly complex, the Virb’s ($400) are decidedly simple. It’s also armored and waterproof; no external case required. The camera pairs seamlessly with Garmin’s heart-rate monitors and GPS devices, so you can use them as remotes or overlay footage with your stats. Smart: an automatic start-stop function pauses during boring moments (based on telemetry) and resumes once you’re ripping again.
GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition
BEST FOR: Serious Adventure Filmmakers
The latest offering ($400) from the category king is smaller (by 20 percent) than the last iteration and features numerous improvements, including a glass lens that’s 33 percent sharper, an ultrawide-angle shooting mode (1440p), and an ultra-slo-mo mode (240 frames per second). But the best reason to upgrade is the four-times-faster Wi-Fi: Live View on your smartphone just went from choppy to supersharp, and footage no longer takes for-ev-er to post-view.
Sony QX100 Lens-Style
BEST FOR: Instagram Icons
How do you get your Android or iOS phone to take DSLR-quality images? Mate it to this Sony lens ($500), which has its own 20.2-megapixel sensor and 3.6x zoom. Once you sync the devices, your phone acts as viewfinder, postproduction editing studio, and sharing tool. The images are stunning: rich in color, ridiculously sharp, and devoid of sensor noise. Try it once and you’ll never go back.
BEST FOR: iPhone Users in Rugged Environments
Many cases inhibit photography, but the PhotoProX ($150) expands it with four detachable camera lenses that thread to the outside of the hard case. The optical zoom gets you closer, the fisheye turns panoramas into funhouse-mirror perspectives, and the macro let us lock in ultra-detailed wildlife pics. (It also comes with a standard lens.) Add on tripod, suction, and handlebar mounts (not included) and you can shoot anything from low-light stills to slow-motion video. Nice: it’s waterproof to 33 feet and drop-proof from 30 feet.
Nokia Lumia 1520
BEST FOR: Point-and-Shoot Obsessives
With its 20-megapixel sensor and superior manual controls, this Windows phablet ($99 with contract) bests any Android or iOS device when it comes to photos and video. You can finesse shutter speed (from a superslow four seconds to a crazy-fast 1/16,000), ISO, exposure compensation, and manual focus. The 1520 is also the only mobile device that lets you embed phone-captured video in GoPro footage, so you get an extra angle. Photoshoppers will love the ability to take pictures in DNG for maximum postproduction massaging.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
BEST FOR: Android Users Shooting the Moon—Literally
This is the ultimate night-shot phone ($200 with contract). It combines a threaded tripod mount, a manual shutter that will stay open for a whopping 16 seconds, manual ISO (to reduce noise), a huge 16MB CMOS sensor, and a voice-control option, so you can snap images sans camera shake. Use those features in combination and the Galaxy will capture glorious shots of your dance party… or the Milky Way. Note: the camera’s 10x optical zoom gets all the hype, but it does its best work at wide angles rather than fully telescoped.