The best full-frame cameras for 2019, from DSLR to mirrorless

The biggest indicator of a camera’s image quality (aside from the person standing behind it) is the size of the sensor. And the biggest sensor on a mainstream camera is full frame, or 35mm. But to be truly great, a camera needs more than a big sensor. Loaded with bells and whistles for all manner of photographers, the Panasonic Lumix S1 is the best full-frame camera you can buy, combining a 24-megapixel sensor and excellent image stabilization system that performs double duty in a high-resolution mode, creating 96MP composite photos. The camera also has an excellent video mode, solid build quality, and the best electronic viewfinder we’ve ever seen.

After reviewing dozens of models, we’ve rounded up our favorite full-frame cameras here. The Lumix S1 may be our top pick, but it won’t be for everyone. Here are the other best full-frame cameras you can buy, from lower-cost entry-level models to professional DSLRs.

At a glance

Best full-frame camera overall: Panasonic Lumix S1

Panasonic Lumix S1
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Excellent image quality meets user-friendly design

Who’s it for: professionals, landscape photographers and serious photo enthusiasts

Why we choose the Panasonic S1:

This is Panasonic’s first full-frame camera and if there’s one thing we can say about it, it’s that Panasonic sure knows how to get it right straight out of the gate. The Lumix S1 may be part of an entirely new series from a manufacturer known in the photo world only for its smaller Micro Four Thirds cameras, but it has the best blend between image quality and design. The 24-megapixel sensor can shoot 96-megapixel images thanks to a multi-shot high-resolution mode, giving you the best of both worlds between easy-to-handle, small files and large, high-detail images when you need them. High-resolution mode requires a tripod, but no other camera on this list can do that. JPEGs are excellent without post-processing effort, while RAW files were among the most flexible we’ve seen and still held up well at higher ISOs.

The Lumix S1 isn’t the only camera producing excellent images, however — what puts the camera at the top is that the image quality is mixed with a fast Depth from Defocus autofocus system that does well with subject tracking and low light. While the camera had some occasional autofocus misses, focus was largely spot-on. In-body stabilization is also a big plus, for both still photography and video.

Speaking of video, a recent paid firmware update (free with purchase of the camera) unlocked support for V-Log and 10-bit recording, making the S1 one of the most capable video cameras on this list. These features target professional video shooters and won’t be needed for the average user, but it shows just how far Panasonic is willing to go to deliver a one-size-fits-all solution for professional hybrid shooters who need a capable still and video camera in one.

The design of the camera gives the S1 just enough of an edge over competing cameras to sit at the top of the list. The controls are easy to customize and there are two memory card slots (yes, we’re looking at you, Nikon Z 6 and Canon EOS R). The body is weather-sealed and the electronic viewfinder has 5.7 million dots of resolution, the highest on the market. One of the biggest downsides to the camera, however, also lies in the design — it’s quite a bit heavier than other full-frame mirrorless cameras, and is even heavier than some full-frame DSLRs.

Read our Panasonic S1 review

Best full frame DSLR: Nikon D850

What is a DSLR camera
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Excellent images mesh with quick performance and an excellent control scheme

Who’s it for: Professional photographers and serious enthusiasts

Why we choose the Nikon D850:

Long live the DSLR — while options like the mirrorless Z 6 are much smaller, the D850 proves there’s still plenty to love about the DSLR. The 45-megapixel sensor captures excellent details and color in JPEGs with class-leading dynamic range and flexibility in post when shooting RAWs. It also includes a capable 4K video mode, internal time-lapse shooting, and a plethora of built-in advanced shooting options.

High-resolution cameras tend to be slow, but that’s not the case with the D850. Images can be snapped at 7 frames per second without modifications, or at an impressive 9 fps with an add-on battery grip and the larger EN-EL18b battery. Autofocus is excellent — where mirrorless cameras sometimes struggle in low light, the D850 can lock on quickly even in dark scenes.

The D850 may not be as small as a full-frame mirrorless camera, but the DSLR makes use of that real estate well. The control scheme is comfortable, with advanced features like a joystick, secondary LCD screen, tilting LCD screen, and several buttons that can light up in the dark. It is also fully weather-sealed for resistance against moisture and dust. And as a DSLR, battery life is also excellent, and well above the mirrorless cameras on this list.

Read our Nikon D850 review

The best Sony full-frame: Sony A7 III

Sony A7 III
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Full frame for everyone with the right mix of image quality, features, and price

Who’s it for: Anyone looking for full frame quality, from enthusiast to pro

Why we choose the Sony A7 III:

Sure, the Sony A7R III may have the higher resolution and more advanced features, but the Sony A7 II is one of the most impressive ‘basic’ cameras out there. Not really all that basic, the A7 III has the low light prowess of the Sony A7S II with the dynamic range of the A7R III and speed that’s not too far off the much pricier A9. Photos are shot from a 24-megapixel sensor that captures excellent images, with some of the best high ISO quality we’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the A7 III is its autofocus system. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the camera can recognize subjects and set the focus mode accordingly, automatically detecting faces and eyes within the frame. It uses very advanced tracking algorithms to keep up with moving subjects, making it the best focusing system we’ve ever used. There’s nothing else like it.

Burst speed crosses the double-digit threshold to 10 fps, fast enough even for more challenging subjects like sports or wildlife. The A7 III will also keep up that pace for 40 RAW files. These uncommonly good specifications in an entry-level model. Mixing in in-body stabilization helps the camera capture far-off action and sharper low light images. 4K video is excellent, although lacks the 10-bit options of the Lumix S1 and Nikon Z 6.

Sony has long been focused on mirrorless, and the A7 III uses a more modern design that’s reminiscent of that. It’s comparatively sparse on direct-access controls, and the menu system isn’t our favorite. The EVF is also lower resolution, at 2.36 million pixels, compared to the similarly-priced Nikon Z 6. But when it comes to performance, it can’t be beat.

Read our Sony A7 III review

The best Nikon full-frame camera: Nikon Z 6

Nikon Z6 Hands-on
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Excellent images, DSLR-like design, and Nikkor glass compatibility

Who’s it for: Enthusiasts, semi-pros and professionals

Why we choose the Nikon Z 6:

Nikon’s DSLR heritage is evident in the company’s new pair of mirrorless cameras — and that’s a good thing. The Nikon Z 6 has a 24-megapixel sensor — much less than the Z 7’s 45 megapixels — but the tradeoff is better speed and a lower price. While the Z 7 is excellent and captures more detailed photographs, the Z 6 is the camera that will fit more photographer’s needs and budget.

Unlike the company’s DSLRs, the Z 6 offers in-body stabilization that’s excellent for using slower shutter speeds with any lens. Mixed with the full-frame sensor, that helps the Z 6 shoot impressive images in limited light, producing excellent results even at high ISOs.

The Z 6 also shoots along at a snappy 12 fps if you don’t need full access to the viewfinder, or 5 fps with live view. The 273-point hybrid autofocus system is good, but not the best in the class — autofocus is slower in low light and photographers that need quick autofocus in tough environments such as dark dance floors and theaters should consider the D850 instead. But for a first generation mirrorless model, the focus system worked well in most scenarios.

In-body stabilization isn’t the only feature that surpasses the company’s DSLRs — the Z 6 is Nikon’s best camera for video so far. The camera can record 8-bit 4K internally, or 10-bit in the new N-Log flat color profile with external recording equipment. A planned firmware update will even allow for RAW video output over the HDMI port, a first for a hybrid mirrorless camera. Despite not having the brand recognition when it comes to video, Nikon really impressed us with the quality of video coming out of the Z 6.

All those features are wrapped up into a body that’s slimmer than a DSLR, but borrows from the company’s DSLR history, with a secondary LCD screen, a comfortable control scheme, and weather sealing. EVF resolution is 3.69 million dots, putting it between the Sony A7 III and Lumix S1. Ergonomically and functionally, the design is a step above the A7 III without getting into the size territory of the S1.

Read our Nikon Z 6 review

The best Canon full-frame camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Stellar images mixed with excellent autofocus and great design

Who’s it for: Enthusiasts, semi-pros and professionals

Why we choose the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV:

One of our favorite DSLRs, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV impresses across the board — and in particular, with its mix between image quality and performance. The camera sports a 30-megapixel sensor that squeezes out a little more resolution than many competing cameras at the same price point. With solid images even pushing to higher ISOs, the 5D Mark IV is a camera that performs just as well in studio as out on the field.

What seals the 5D Mark IV’s spot, however, is the performance that’s coupled with that image quality. Autofocus is good — as you’d expect — but what’s a bit less expected is that the 5D Mark IV focuses just as well in live view mode, where most DSLRs (including the D850 above) see a serious slowdown. Burst speed is also solid at 7 fps.

Good live view autofocus can be life saver in video mode. The 5D Mark IV wouldn’t be our first pick for a video camera, but it does offer 4K resolution, albeit from a cropped area of the sensor. While video quality might be higher on the D850, the lack of good autofocus will make it more difficult to use.

Like any high-end Canon, the ergonomics are comfortable and the body is weather-sealed. The screen doesn’t tilt, but that’s a small issue and there’s little to complain about other than that.

Now three years old, the 5D is starting to show it’s age, but it’s still a well-rounded machine with lots of life left in it.

Read our Canon 5D Mark IV review

The best cheap full-frame camera: Sony A7 II

Sony Alpha A7 Mark II review front angle
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Full frame quality, for cheap

Who’s it for: Budget photographers looking for the best quality for the lowest price

Why we choose the Sony A7 II:

Sony has been developing great full-frame mirrorless cameras for three generations now, and those first two generations are still available to buy new. That means photographers on a budget can find excellent image quality for cheap by picking up an older Sony A-series model — and even find more features than a brand new entry-level full-frame camera like the Canon EOS RP. While the original Sony A7 is the cheapest full-frame camera that we’ve seen at under four figures with a lens, the A7 II makes a few big improvements for not a lot more cash.

Using the same resolution as the newest model, the Sony A7 II offers 24MP of full-frame excellence. While not the backlit sensor of the A7 III, the camera still captures excellent images considering the price point. Unlike the original, the A7 II offers five-axis image stabilization.

Steadier low light shots aren’t the only thing Sony improved with the second generation, either. The A7 II has a better autofocus system, and while the quality of the images are similar, video sees big improvements in quality with more options and that stabilization system that keeps camera shake to a minimum.

If you need to shoot action, the 2.5 to 5 fps burst mode of the A7 II may not cut it, and you may want to save a little longer for the 10 fps from the current A7 III. Battery life, low light image quality, and autofocus are also better on the A7 III. But, if you want maximum quality for minimum budget, the Sony A7 II (or even the original Sony A7) is the first place we suggest looking.

Read our Sony A7 II review

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