Cameras of the Year: Best Entry-level and Intermediate Cameras of 2015

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Entry-level and intermediate cameras have come a long way in the past few years! Their capabilities as well as their overall image quality and build quality have made dramatic leaps, placing the best ones closer in functionality to true “enthusiast-grade” cameras and therefore harder to slot into categories. We added our “intermediate” category this year to try and bridge the gap between “entry-level” and “enthusiast” but the lines can still be somewhat hard to define. (If your favorite camera didn’t make the cut in this category, stay tuned for our enthusiast and pro camera winners this Thursday!)

However, it wasn’t hard to define our winners in these categories for 2015! There were some truly outstanding cameras, very much deserving of recognition. For any cameras that strike your fancy, make sure to use the links and dive into our full reviews to see how they might fit your personal shooting style. Our Field Tests are a great place to start, as they’re written based on real-world shooting.

Camera of the Year, Best Intermediate DSLR: Nikon D5500

The Nikon D5500 is much smaller than typical enthusiast-grade DSLRs, and costs a lot less, but that’s where most of the major differences end. The D5500 offers excellent image quality and terrific high ISO performance in addition to excellent ergonomics and touchscreen functionality, the D5500 has become one of the most popular cameras on our site for good reason!

Our field tester dubbed the Nikon D5500 the “Best indoor sports camera for under $1000” as it can handle both the higher ISO demands as well as the autofocus and burst performance specs needed to perform in that trying arena. He also noted, “The D5500 is a joy ergonomically: It feels solid yet lightweight, and the controls are perfectly positioned.” Add to this excellent dynamic range, 24 megapixel resolution, fast start-up times and very good battery life, and you’re looking at quite a capable DSLR for its $699 body-only price.

If you’re looking to capture high-quality images of fast-moving subjects in low light, the Nikon D5500 is a camera that can absolutely get the job done.

 

Camera of Distinction, Intermediate DSLR: Canon T6s

The Canon Rebel line has long been a staple in the entry-level DSLR space, receiving high marks for image quality, ease of use, and an all-around good bang for your buck. The newest Canon Rebel T6s goes a bit beyond “entry-level” by adding advanced DSLR features like a top-deck LCD screen and their Control Dial interface on the back. Plus, it also shares the 70D’s 19-point AF system, and the highest resolution APS-C sensor ever in a Rebel camera at 24.2MP. All of this is, nevertheless, packed into a classically compact Rebel-sized body. It’s small yet comfortable.

Images from the Canon T6s are very detailed, especially at low ISOs, and its high ISO performance is also quite pleasing despite the high-resolution sensor. With a versatile and capable autofocus system, improved Live View focusing features and more enthusiast-level controls, the T6s takes the Rebel series up a notch. Its straightforward functionality is great for an entry-level DSLR shooter, but the Canon T6s also brings over more advanced features and performance from higher-end cameras to satisfy the more experienced photographer as well.

Camera of the Year, Best Intermediate Mirrorless:
Olympus E-M10 II

We fell in love with the Olympus E-M10 II right from the beginning of our testing, and held that love pretty much throughout both laboratory testing and real world experiences. In a world where some cameras are striving to be tiny, and others are still large out of necessity given their sensor size, the E-M10 II sits snugly in that “just right” spot. And while we loved the original E-M10 from 2014, the E-M10 II simply has better and more logical overall ergonomics and controls.

But that’s just the outside…. wait until you see what the insides can do! A quality 16 x 20 inch print at ISO 1600? Check. 5-axis image stabilization? Check. Excellent performance specs and autofocus for its class? Check! Add to this a truckload of features and functionality and you’re looking at an amazing little camera with a body-only street price of just $549! As we stated in our conclusion to the E-M10 II, you’ll be hard-pressed to find all of that for the money in another camera as of this writing.

Simply put, we fell head over heels for the Olympus E-M10 II.

Camera of Distinction, Intermediate Mirrorless: Fujifilm X-T10

Taking the same imaging pipeline from their flagship Fuji X-T1 enthusiast-grade camera and placing it into a smaller and more affordable body was a terrific move by Fuji! The Fuji X-T10 will only set you back $699 body-only (or just $999 with the 18-55mm f/2.8-4 kit lens — arguably one of the best kit lenses on the market). The $699/$999 price places the X-T10 into the range of many photographers looking to step up their game from smartphone and point-and-shoot photography, but it also gives X-T1 shooters a very capable option as a back-up to their X-T1.

The X-T10 retains quite a bit of what makes the X-T1 special in the way of all the retro-cool buttons and dials, and yet also offers a handy switch to allow beginners to quickly throw the camera into full “auto” mode and let the X-T10 do all the thinking for them. It also sports Fuji’s well-regarded film simulation modes, including their latest Classic Chrome setting, which we at IR have enjoyed quite a bit. If you’re interested in enthusiast-grade image quality and need to remain below the $1000 price point, the Fuji X-T10 deserves a place at the top of your short list!

Camera of the Year, Best Entry-level Mirrorless:
Panasonic GF7

Panasonic has turned the creation of small, high-performing mirrorless cameras into an art and their GF7 is no exception. Especially when paired with its small 12-32mm (24-64mm 35mm equivalent) kit lens, the GF7 is a compact mirrorless wonder. And at $460 for the kit, the GF7 is priced competitively with Sony’s A5000 (A5000 vs GF7). For just $50 more, Panasonic gives you smaller size, a higher resolution screen with touch interface, faster shooting, faster startup and a deeper JPEG buffer, among other advantages.

In fact, performance is one of the GF7’s trump cards, and we praised its “nimble performance with quick autofocus & fast JPEG burst speeds.” How fast? We actually found the GF7 to shoot slightly faster than Panasonic’s spec of 10 frames-per-second (in electronic shutter mode)! And image quality was fantastic for the size and price. If you can’t tell, the winner for entry-level mirrorless camera of the year was an easy choice!

Camera of the Year, Best Value: Olympus E-PL6

We loved the Olympus E-PL5 from 2012 and gave it high marks both in the lab and out in the field, and it was an easy choice as a Dave’s Pick. The follow-up Olympus E-PL6 is virtually the same camera, with very little changed, and one that was released in 2013 but that didn’t make it to US shores until earlier this year. When we learned that it had now been discounted to a price of just $299 with their very good 14-42mm II kit lens, we knew just what to do: award it as the Best Value of 2015!

We discovered this innocently enough, as one of our reviewers had an old friend who was shopping for a capable camera his daughter could use to move beyond the limitations of smartphone photography, but on a modest $300 budget. At first uncertain what direction to go, our reviewer was relieved to find something he could (heartily) recommend at this price. While we didn’t get one into our lab for review, we’re certain of the imaging pipeline and kit lens as seen in our complete Olympus E-PL5 review, so dive in there for more!

Want a capable ILC to cut your teeth on for just $299? The Olympus E-PL6 is waiting for you.

Camera of Distinction, Great Value: Pentax K-S2

Over the years, Pentax has built quite a reputation for offering value for money in its cameras, and the Pentax K-S2 is no exception. The company’s first DSLR with in-camera Wi-Fi, a retracting kit lens and a tilt-swivel screen, the K-S2 also includes features like go-anywhere weather-sealing, a bright and clear glass pentaprism viewfinder for clearer viewfinder composition and intuitive twin control dials. And at a street price of just US$460, you’re simply not going to find another current-gen DSLR with a similar feature-set at anything remotely resembling the same price. But if you’re lucky, you might happen on an even more spectacular deal: In the run-up to the recent Black Friday weekend you could pick up a Pentax K-S2 with not one but two weather-sealed lenses, a camera bag and flash card for less than $500. With pricing that aggressive, this camera is a no-brainer to take great photos today and give plenty room to grow!

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