One could argue that the iPhone 6s is the most versatile camera on the market right now. It takes stunningly crisp photos, shoots rich 4K video, instantly connects with Instagram—and, most important, because it’s your everyday communication hub, it’s the camera you’ll use all the time. But even if you concede that fact, there are many good reasons to purchase a dedicated camera—or even a drone. While smartphones take great images and video, serious cameras are capable of nailing the details and capturing high-speed action. We’ve been blown away by new mirrorless models that have mind-bogglingly high ISOs and drones so intuitive that they turn us all into Hollywood cinematographers. The category has never been more exciting—and we’ve never been so fired up to get out and shoot.
Sony A7S II
Gear of the Year
The A7S II has only 12.2 megapixels, but there’s a good reason for that. Packing fewer pixels onto the sensor lets each one be a little bigger and drink in more light, making this camera a low-light beast with a top expandable ISO of 409,600 (for comparison, many other high-end cameras top out at 50,000). Add five-axis stabilization that helps eliminate camera shake on long exposures, plus a processor that reduces noise (pixelation), and you have a camera that lives to shoot in the dark. Photographers can forgo a tripod when other cameras would need one, and depth of field isn’t a problem at dawn or dusk. Of course, all that low-light tech also helps with video. Those large pixels allow the A7S II to shoot ultraclean and rich internal 4K video at 30 fps or 1080p HD video at 120 fps. If that isn’t enough, Sony just released an expanded line of sharp and fast f/2.8 lenses that will please photographers and videographers alike.
Apple iPhone 6s
Best For: Always having it on you.
The Test: The iPhone 6s features one of the most versatile cameras available. A 12-megapixel sensor (the regular 6 had an eight-megapixel camera) offers tons of resolution and detail, plus room to crop. The autostabilized timelapse video is gorgeous, and it shoots crisp 4K video and syrupy slo-mo footage at 240 fps. It’s no DSLR, but it still locks onto your subject whip-fast while shooting action footage and has a respectable f/2.2 aperture. Plus, it works within Apple’s vast app ecosystem.
The Verdict: The best all-around phone camera on the market.
Price $649 and up
Nikon Coolpix P900
Best For: Zooming in.
The Test: You can’t change the lens on this point-and-shoot camera, but that’s not a problem, because it has a gigantic 24-to-2,000-millimeter zoom and stays sharp even when cranked out, courtesy of high-quality Nikkor glass. For comparison, you’d likely spend several times what this entire camera costs if you outfitted a mirrorless camera with a similar lens setup. A Wi-Fi card lets you send images to external devices, and well-placed dials allow for quick adjustments. The P900 doesn’t shoot RAW images, only JPEGs, but there’s still plenty of resolution for making big prints.
The Verdict: A great low-cost option for people who want a terrific lens.
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II
Best For: Traveling light.
The Test: Without a lens, this svelte camera is just twice as thick and about as long as the iPhone 6s, but it comes packed with an array of pro-quality features: a five-axis stabilization system (similar to what the Gear of the Year–winning Sony offers), an ISO that reaches a respectable 25,600, rich 1080p hi-def video at 60 fps, and external shutter-speed and aperture dials that let you quickly access the controls without having to thumb through a cluttered digital menu. We also love the large selection of swappable lenses. Bonus points: it has both slo-mo and 4K video.
The Verdict: The best mirrorless camera you can buy for less than $1,000.
Best For: Shooting movies.
The Test: The 3DR Solo drone is designed for aspiring filmmakers: it helps you nail complicated aerial shots. In follow mode, the drone sticks to a certain height—anywhere from just off the ground to 150 feet in the sky, as pre-programmed—and tracks a phone. Put it in orbit mode and it’ll circle a predetermined spot while you control the height, radius, and camera angle. Finally, cable-cam mode flies the drone up or down at a set angle to help create perspective in your scene.
The Verdict: The first drone that makes pro-caliber shooting accessible to the rest of us.
Best For: Capturing panoramas.
The Test: Until recently, 360-degree video was wildly complicated to produce. The 360fly changes that. Simply mount the tennis-ball-size camera to your helmet, pair it with the app on your Android or iOS phone, start shooting, then upload your immersive footage to YouTube’s 360-degree channel or view it using a VR headset like Google Cardboard. You don’t actually get a full 360 degrees—it’s more like 240, because the camera body cuts off the bottom of the frame. The footage is also fairly low-res, but it still makes for some unique home videos.
The Verdict: A breakthrough videography tool that’ll only get better.
Parrot Bebop 2
Best For: Ounce counters.
The Test: At just over a pound (17.6 ounces), the Parrot Bebop 2 is tiny yet rich in features. It comes with a 14-megapixel camera that also shoots tri-axis image-stabilized 1080p video, held steady in 25-mile-per-hour winds, and has a GPS-enabled auto-return feature—it will always come back to where it took off, even if the drone loses contact with the smartphone app you use to fly it. The camera did struggle with dark-to-light transitions, so it’s not ideal for high-end moviemaking, but the clips still looked awesome on YouTube and Instagram.
The Verdict: This is the drone you bring when you’re headed way off the grid.