Camera, schmamera, you have a phone, right? Well, we all do. But smartphone photos, even if you have the very latest gear, are only so good. Print anything bigger than a 5 x 7 shot and it’s just not as rich, clear, or powerful as it could’ve been from a “real” camera. Ditto video, where the ability to shoot in 4K and bounce that sucker to your flat screen is very much mind-blowing. Seriously, whether it’s your kid’s first step, or your own antics the first time you stand up on a surfboard, the video potential of digital cameras should not be sniffed at.
Naturally, the next question is: what to buy? And, as there are so many different styles of camera, there’s no “one” answer. So instead, we’ve assembled a variety of models that boast varying talents, from very serious shooters for photo buffs to those that are just easy to point and click. All are packed with tech and the pixel-grabbing power to put your smartphone to shame. Whether you’re a hobbyist or just trying to be a good documentarian dad, documenting your family’s epic moments over the years, that distinction is the key.
Best Enthusiast Camera: Fujifilm XT-2
Mirrorless cameras cut the bulk of DSLRs by eliminating the “single-lens-reflex” mechanics that bounce light to the sensor. Fuji was one of the first out of the box with truly great mirrorless options, and the XT2 is their stellar latest edition. It shoots huge, 24 MP images with an excellent sensor that offers wide dynamic range (less blown out) and very good multi-point focus. And, thanks to its 1/8000 shutter, you’ll never miss freeze-framing your kids’ best expressions. There’s also a smart, semi-auto mode that lets the camera auto-expose even if your daughter runs from sun to shadow across your backyard. The video is also glorious, capturing rich 4K, and thanks to the tilting and rotating LCD, you can chase a toddler around all day without ever having to actually crawl to get the shot.
Best Pocket Cam: Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70
You probably think a pocket camera and your phone are identical. Nooope. Try 30x zoom, which this cam pulls off fantastically, with your smartphone and you’ll see a grainy blob (because smartphone zooming is just cropping). The tracking auto-focus of the Panasonic lets you lock on a subject and just keep shooting while the 1/16000 shutter means you’ll never miss an action shot. At an even smaller footprint than most smartphones, the DC-ZS70 easily fits in a shirt or jeans pocket, and the articulating screen flips to face the camera’s front—perfect for selfies with your kids. Bonus: 20MP RAW format images also let you noodle more in Photoshop than more compressed jpegs shot by your phone.
Best Beginner DSLR: Canon Rebel 7ti
If you’ve always wanted a DSLR and never had the reason to pull the trigger, the newest Rebel is your excuse. The deal is that the camera actually coaches you on how to shoot. Sure, you can fire away in auto mode — at which, by the way, the Rebel is excellent. But if you want to learn about depth of field, exposure compensation, etc., the menus teach you about the effect of making manual changes (once you’re on your way to becoming Ansel Adams, you can switch off the coaching.) Another plus: Unlike a lot of DSLRs, the 7ti lets you shoot by using the LCD screen and its results are just as quick. Not to mention, and a nifty subject tracking function lets you tap on, say, your kid chasing your new puppy around the kitchen floor and the camera keeps the action in focus.
Best Pro Level: Nikon D5
No camera we’ve tested can match the D5’s extraordinary capability and dead-simple, straightforward ease of use. For instance, its sophisticated, 153-point image detection system blankets the entire frame in tiny sensors, and not only detects the motion of any subject you’re tracking, but also meters that subject and the sources of light in the frame. The result: The subject is in perfect focus, and also perfectly lit, and none of the remaining frame is over- or under-exposed. Oh, yeah, the D5 fires up to 12 frames-per-second and you can hold down the shutter for an astonishing 200 images, which is basically like filming. All of this should equal puny battery life right? Not so much: You can take 3,780 shots before that’s an issue.
Best Action + Wearable: GoPro Hero5 Session
Want a rugged cam that track surf vacations and first steps? Try this diminutive shooter. About half the size of a standard GoPro, it uses voice control to start and stop videos or to snap photos. If your hands are otherwise occupied, say, rowing a standup paddleboard—or holding your kid — you’re still free to capture that moment you’re otherwise going to miss. And because it’s so tiny, you can mount the Session anywhere. Specs-wise, this thing crushes, with 4K video and in-camera image stabilization (nope, your phone doesn’t do that), and higher dynamic range than any phone sensor, too. That is, it can handle super contrasty shots without over/underexposing parts of the frame. Pair the cam back to Wi-Fi and all your footage is in the cloud, for immediate social media sharing.
Best Instant: Fujifilm instax mini 90 NEO CLASSIC
Polaroid schmolaroid. Fujifilm’s line of Instax instant film is an entirely richer product, with deeper saturation and better color clarity. And Fuji has a whole line of cameras to use it, enabling you to shoot superb instant shots. The mini 90 is great, too, because its controls are super simple, yet its party, kids, landscape, and macro modes let you do more than just press the trigger. The double exposure mode is especially clever: Snap one shot, move the subject or change the scene, and snap another, and the two images layer on top of each other. Best of all, the shots develop in about two minutes, ready to be stuck to the fridge or passed around to friends.