Last Updated on 10/12/2021 by Chris Gampat
Buying a camera is a little like dating. Every camera has its annoyances — you just have to choose the one whose weird quirks are either endearing or ignorable. As the Reviews Editor at The Phoblographer, I test cameras for a living. Yet, when I decided I was done with my DSLR, I wasn’t quite sure in which direction I wanted to head next. To continue the dating analogy, I hadn’t had the this-is-the-one moment. I hadn’t yet fallen in love. I hadn’t found the top mirrorless camera for me.
This test was made possible by the folks over at Lensrentals. Can’t find the gear you want? You should take a look at the Lensrentals Keeper Test-Drive Program. You can rent it and then if you want to purchase it, they’ll give you a price quote. Go take a look! This is not a sponsored post, but if you click the links and make a purchase, we may receive affiliate revenue to help keep the staff paid and the server running.
I decided to take my own advice: try before you buy. I tested five cameras, all from different manufacturers, paired with their best portrait lens. I rented gear from Lensrentals, which offers a Keeper Test Drive program that allows you to buy your rental. With Lens Keeper, what you already paid for the rental is subtracted from the final price. (I also rented some of this gear from their respective companies.)
The camera is only half the equation, and while I had used these cameras in the past, most of the lenses I haven’t tried. I wanted to compare each one side-by-side. I tested the following combinations to see which is the top mirrorless camera:
- Canon EOS R6 with the RF 85mm f1.2L USM
- Fujifilm X-T4 with the 50mm f1 R WR
- Nikon Z6 II with the Nikkor Z 50mm f1.2 S
- Panasonic S5 with the Lumix S 85mm f1.8
- Sony a7 III with the FE 85mm f1.2 GM
Why I Ditched the DSLR — and What I Want in My Next Camera
My current — err, previous — camera is the Nikon D850. To be clear, I still like my D850. But, I needed to upgrade some of my lenses, and it didn’t make much sense for me to invest in DSLR glass. I want the in-body stabilization of mirrorless. I want an electronic viewfinder with autofocus points that go all the way to the edge of the frame. I want eye AF.
As a wedding and portrait photographer, I don’t need the fastest camera out there. I need great image quality and good low-light autofocus. Weddings involve editing a few hundred photos, so great images right out of the camera is a plus. And, with many of my weddings being a 10- to 12-hour day, I wanted something lighter than my D850 with a comfortable grip. Switching to an entirely new system isn’t cheap, so cost was also a big consideration.
My clients have no idea what bokeh even is. But, they’ll notice when their skin looks seasickness green, washed-out pale, or tomato red.
I could have successfully shot weddings with any of the five cameras I tested. But, I found one option that hit the most things on my wish list. One whose quirks mesh well with my own. Here’s how each system compared.
Nikon Z6 II with the Z 50mm f1.2 S
- The lenses are super sharp.
- The grip and controls are ergonomic, and easy for me to transition to from the D850.
- I already own Nikon flashes, batteries, and QXD cards.
- The low light autofocus is behind the others.
- The colors are a bit too green.
- The Z system doesn’t have an 85mm f1.2 yet.
Read the full Nikon Z6 II Review
Z lenses are what sparked my search for the next camera system in the first place. The lenses are very sharp; there’s no need to stop down. There isn’t even a need to keep the subject towards the center of the frame. But, the best thing about the Z6 II is the lenses, which means I would still be updating my lenses. And I would save some money by reusing my current flashes, batteries, and XQD cards.
Coming from the D850, the Z6 II is comfortable. I have Nikon ingrained into my muscle memory. The Z6 II requires the least amount of practice to get familiar with. The grip was also one of my favorites. It’s comfortable, yet the camera is smaller than my D850 and also smaller than options like the R6.
Check out our 5-minute review of the Nikon 50mm f1.2! Subscribe to us on YouTube!
The biggest flaw that took the Z6 II off my list is the autofocus. The original Z6 would have led to a lot of frustrations trying to shoot a dark dance floor. The Z6 II can compete, but it lags behind a bit. Trying to photograph a bride getting ready in a room that was lit only by one lamp that was behind her, the Z6 II couldn’t focus and I had to grab a different camera. On the dance floor, it wasn’t terrible: just a 15 percent miss rate. I know I could photograph weddings with the Z6 II, but there might be a few moments this camera would miss.
The other disappointment is that Nikon’s 85mm is an f1.8. I want both the f1.2 aperture and the longer focal length of 85mm. I’m sure it will come with time, but I had to sacrifice the longer focal length for the brighter aperture.
Because I already have extra batteries and flashes, buying into the Z system would cost me about $6,400 for the body, the 50mm f1.2, and the 24-70mm f2.8.
Canon EOS R6 with the RF 85mm f1.2
- The grip is comfortable, like DSLR comfortable.
- The lens is sharp wide open.
- Autofocus is good.
- The photos look really nice.
- It’s the most expensive option on my list.
- It’s a pretty heavy combination.
- The photos need some definite color editing.
- The controls seem less intuitive.
Read the full Canon EOS R6 Review.
The Canon EOS R6 is the date that did everything right, but there was no spark. I love the grip, the autofocus is great, and the image quality is excellent. I’ve had the R6 on loan for testing for a while, but it’s not one I’m drawn to for shoots.
I like the R6 and 85mm’s mix of sharpness and bokeh. The lens has a tendency to flare. This created some really sweet effects on the dance floor, but washed out some of my golden hour portraits. The colors need some editing to get perfect, but so did all the other full-frame options I tested.
While I love the R6’s larger size because the grip is more comfortable, it is pretty heavy. With the 85mm f1.2, the combination is more than four pounds. It’s slightly redeemed by the fact that Canon’s RF 24-70mm f2.8 (the other lens I would buy from the start) is lighter than the competition. I’ve also been using Nikon so long that it’s ingrained into my blood. While I like that the R6’s control scheme isn’t prone to bumped controls, I would need a lot of time with the camera before adjustments felt like second nature.
The R6 is the priciest option on my list. To get the body, the 85mm f1.2, the 24-70mm f2.8, and a flash, I would need to invest more than $7,700.
- There are some great L-mount lenses.
- The grip and controls feel great.
- Processing seems really slow sometimes.
- The autofocus struggles in backlighting.
- Some of the shots weren’t sharp.
Read the full Panasonic S5 Review.
The Panasonic S5 was one of the first options I eliminated. Not because it’s bad, but because its flaws sit contradictory to my shooting style. The autofocus held its own on a dark dance floor, but it seemed to struggle with backlit portraits. Backlit portraits during golden hour are a big part of what I do, so it was easy to rule the S5 out early. It’s also pretty heavy and sometimes performed like I had used an old, slow SD card.
But, I can see why photographers would like the S5. I got some great colors, particularly in the soft, even lighting that’s tougher to get a good shot out of. The L mount means access to some great lenses. (Although here, again, I shot with an f1.8 85mm, not an f1.2.) The grip is pretty comfortable. It has good weather-sealing and good in-body stabilization. But, I had a few issues with it.
Sony a7 III with the 85mm f1.2
- This is a super sharp, pixel-peeper-friendly set up.
- The autofocus is good.
- The image quality is excellent, though colors aren’t always ideal.
- I hate the grip.
- The shutter is loud.
- I wish it had a dedicated ISO dial, and not a programmable one.
Read the full Sony a7 III Review.
The Sony a7 III with the 85mm f1.2 attached is a combination for the pixel peepers. The lens is super sharp. But, that full-frame, plus a longer lens at f1.2, means you move quickly from sharp to blurred-to-oblivion. I got some great portraits with this lens. But, I also got some great low-light shots with a low miss rate on the dance floor. (For what it’s worth, I do think Nikon’s lens was slightly sharper on the edges.)
Sharpness, however, is a double-edged sword. I loved that added sharpness in the eyes, and the eyes already seemed like they had been retouched. But, that sharpness applies everywhere, and it’s easier to notice say, the fine hairs that a woman probably doesn’t even see in the mirror. I needed to do more retouching for visible pores. Have you ever edited so many portraits that you memorized where every freckle and pimple was? I also had to retouch the colors more.
Have you ever edited so many portraits that you memorized where every freckle and pimple was?
The Sony a7 III with the 85mm f1.2 isn’t terribly heavy, but the grip really requires two hands. When shooting one-handed — like when I’m holding a prism or a bride’s veil up to the lens — the weight of the entire system rests on that little bump that sits on top of my index finger. In the past, when I’ve used this camera with beefy telephoto lenses, the grip has left a red mark on my finger. Not ideal for shooting a 12-hour wedding. I also wish there were a dedicated ISO dial, not one that you can set on the back.
Still, I think I could have been happy with the a7 III and my clients would have been happy with the image quality. I could have picked up the body, the 85mm, and the 24-70mm f2.8 with a flash for a little over $6,000. Sony’s system has also been around long enough that it’s fairly easy to find used lenses.
Fujifilm X-T4 with the 50mm f1 R WR
- The colors are phenomenal.
- I can actually afford an f1 lens.
- I love the dedicated control dials and the look of this camera.
- This is the lightest combination I tested.
- The shutter is very quiet.
- I love metal lenses.
- This is the most affordable option that I considered.
- The lens isn’t as sharp as Nikon’s or Sony’s.
- It’s not full frame, so I would need to shoot more with prime lenses to make up the difference.
- There’s no higher resolution option to upgrade to in the future.
Read our full Fujifilm X T4 Review.
When I started trying to edit the colors from the other cameras to match the Fujifilm X-T4, I knew I was in trouble. I’ve never really shared images without retouching the color before. With the X-T4, in most cases, I just adjusted the white balance and had Lightroom apply the in-camera color profile to the RAW. With the 50mm f1, it’s not quite as sharp as Nikon’s or Sony’s. But, that also meant I didn’t have to do as much skin retouching.
The X-T4 also had some perks I wasn’t expecting. The mechanical shutter is pretty quiet. The dedicated dials for shutter speed, ISO, and the aperture ring around the lens were easy to jump into and I was quickly making adjustments without pulling my face from the viewfinder. It’s also much lighter than the full-frame options. Also, metal lenses are lovely. When the Z6 II wouldn’t focus in a dark room, I picked this up, and at f1 it locked right on.
Of course, the X-T4 is the only one on this list that’s a crop sensor. I shot with a crop sensor prior to the D850 — I switched because of the lovely way that full-frame renders light and those super soft backgrounds. The sensor is only half of the equation, however. And, with the X system, I can actually afford an f1 lens (unlike Nikon’s $8k Noct). I showed images from four cameras to fellow Phoblographer staff, and most didn’t guess which one was shot on a crop sensor. I showed the images to non-photographer friends, and they looked at me like I was crazy when I told them the cost difference.
The biggest hesitation, then, is that I would need to shoot more with primes than zooms. My most-used lens with my D850 is a 24-70mm f2.8. I can make up for that smaller sensor with primes, but I’m going to need to shoot with two bodies. And, of course, move my feet more. The 50mm f1 lens is sharp, but not quite to the level of Nikon and Sony. Another disadvantage is that the X-T4 is at the top of the line. If I picked the Z6 II or a7 III, I could “upgrade” to the Z7 II or a7R IV later on, when I’m not buying an entire kit at once.
Which Camera Won?
Ultimately, Fujifilm colors won me over. My clients have no idea what bokeh even is. But, they’ll notice when their skin looks seasickness green, washed-out pale, or tomato red. With the X-T4, I can spend less time editing the colors and still deliver images that have lovely colors. We’re pixel peeping in an era where people are blurring their face to oblivion using smartphone filters. And, if a camera can flatter clients, focus in low light, free my hands from the weight of a DSLR, deliver photos faster with fewer edits and cost less, then it isn’t even a difficult decision. Crop sensor or not, Fujifilm stole my heart.
The crop sensor also means a lower price. With the other choices, I would have to save up for a second body and use my D850 as a backup. (Wedding photographers should always have a back-up.) Not only did I get two bodies (one with the 18-80mm f4 kit lens), but I also got both the 50mm f1 and the 90mm f2. I have my eyes on some macro gear and a brighter, wide-angle prime next. But, I’m starting with more for the same price. For my genre and my style, buying cameras that are less expensive in order to buy more advanced lenses makes sense.
We’re pixel-peeping in an era where people are blurring their face to oblivion using smartphone filters.
Choosing a camera is a deeply personal choice. You have to find the camera whose flaws you find quirky, not dealbreakers. As Editor in Chief Chris Gampat said recently, “the best camera is the one that lets you stay in the moment.” For some photographers, the sharpness of Sony or Nikon or the DSLR-like grip of the EOS R series or the L mount glass on the Panasonic S5 draws them in. What helps one photographer stay in the moment could very well prove the opposite for a different photographer.
Fujifilm’s colors spoke to me and pulled me over to the crop sensor system. The ergonomics help me focus on what I’m shooting; the colors help me edit less and shoot more. (And the price didn’t hurt either.) Sony felt like the most technically correct system with plenty of sharpness and contrast, but I didn’t love the ergonomics. Nikon’s option was both comfortable and super sharp, but I wasn’t crazy about the colors or the autofocus. Canon had great autofocus and was not overly sharp, but it was heavy. Panasonic had some nice colors and access to L mount glass, but the performance was clunky. Choosing a camera isn’t an easy decision, but once I spent some time with each one, the X-T4 won me over.