The headlines for 2015: DSLRs are disappearing, technologies are transforming video and photography—and you shoot almost everything with your phone. To support that first claim, consider that the $700 Canon PowerShot G7 X (page 64) can capture 6.5 frames per second, the same as DSLRs costing five times as much. Like every still camera here, it ditches heavy mechanical innards for mirrorless digital systems, so you get a smaller device that does just as much. Other tech leaps allow the Gear of the Year–winning Nikon 1 V3 to shoot video at an incredible 1,200 frames per second and the Lytro Illum (page 65) to capture every detail in the frame—from a grain of sand on the beach to a ship in the harbor—as if it were the focal point of the shot. And phone photography? It’s all about the apps.
The 1 V3 ($1,200) is faster and, in many ways, more capable than a DSLR. It’s also cheaper, lighter, and smaller. Read the full Gear of the Year review.
Olympus Pen E-PL7
Best For: Replacing your current adventure camera.
The Test: Want the advantage of dozens of lens options minus the weight, bulk, and cost? Get this ($600). It absolutely crushed a test shoot during a Colorado ski tour; the 16-megapixel sensor didn’t pixelate highlights even in white-room blowing snow. And at a mere 19.5 ounces with a 14–42mm zoom lens, it was easy to use one-handed. The smartphone-style controls are brilliant, and the battery tolerated temperatures near zero.
The Verdict: “My new favorite travel camera,” concluded one tester. getolympus.com
Sony Alpha a7 II
Best For: Channeling Ansel Adams.
The Test: With a ginormous 25-megapixel sensor—at 35.8 by 23.9 millimeters, it’s twice the size of the Nikon 1 V3’s—the a7 II ($1,700) is all about big, layered images. You can fire away in any light or even no light: at ultrahigh ISO, night shots didn’t get grainy. The meaty chassis is loaded with functions, and it’s the first mirrorless, full-frame-sensor camera with image stabilization, so any lens gets steadied at low shutter speeds.
The Verdict: No other camera on this side of $4,000 makes outdoor images as rich and detailed. sony.com
Canon PowerShot G7 X
Best For: Getting the shot, no matter what.
The Test: This is a stout machine that was also easily pocketable when hiking and biking ($700). Testers fell in love with the big, bold external controls, from the knurled dial around the lens (for focus, aperture, and shutter speed) to the oversize shutter button. It’s the only camera on this page without swappable lenses, but the 20-megapixel sensor and ultrabright lens let you capture richer images than you’d get with a similar point-and-shoot.
The Verdict: A tough, intuitive player. usa.canon.com
Best For: Fast action.
The Test: Like the Sony, the NX1 ($1,499) has a 1/8,000 shutter. Unlike the Sony, it also shoots 4K video and has continuous still-photo autofocus, which tracks and meters, making it ideal for sports and wildlife. At a bit heavier than a pound, the weather-sealed NX1 is no flyweight portable, though this mirrorless camera is still half the weight of a DSLR with similar capabilities. Bonus: it features both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The Verdict: The most impressive sports shooter we tested. $2,800 with 16–50mm lens; samsung.com
Best For: Action-cam newbies.
The Test: In 2011, GoPro debuted the HD Hero2 for just under $300. Now you can get its equal, the Hero, for around a third of that ($130). It fires 1080p video and has a very bright f/2.8 lens with auto-low-light detection (something the Hero2 never had), which means your footage won’t go dark when you bomb your downhill bike into misty trees. Like its pricier siblings, the Hero has an automatic time-lapse function that lets you stitch together hundreds of frames—ideal for shooting a midnight summer-solstice sky.
The Verdict: All the action cam most of us will ever need. gopro.com
Best For: Snapping first, focusing later.
The Test: Imagine that every time you took a picture, you reeled off dozens of shots utilizing every point of focus in the frame, from the wildflower field in the foreground to the snowy peak two miles away. The Illum ($1,599) uses software to do something like this with each snap of the shutter, by layering all that information into a single master image. After the fact, you adjust depth of field for printing. If you share the image online (at pictures.lytro.com), anyone with the Lytro Desktop app can also switch between focal points.
The Verdict: The best use of image-making technology to date. lytro.com
VSN Mobil V.360
Best For: Capturing life in 360 degrees.
The Test: Mount the V.360 ($449) on your bike or surfboard and shoot the action from every angle simultaneously—then put the POV where you want it during editing. We used the V.360 in time-lapse mode to capture jaw-dropping images of the Milky Way that panned from horizon to horizon. At four by three inches and weighing half a pound, it’s a little bulky for attaching to a helmet, and we wish it could handle vertical panoramas in addition to horizontal (results display letterboxed), but the V.360’s stills and video are unlike anything else out there.
The Verdict: One camera that does the work of many. vsnmobil.com