Our annual selection of the best photo gear for 2021 represents the innovations made in the art and technology of photography. Cameras are undeniably moving toward a mirrorless future, and 2021 advanced considerably to that end. Nearly all of the new gear introduced this year was for mirrorless systems. Here are our top picks of those new cameras and lenses that meet the unique needs of nature and adventure photographers.
Camera of the Year 2021: Sony a1
This year was a significant one for flagship mirrorless camera releases from Canon, Nikon and Sony. Canon introduced the EOS R3, which sits at the top of its full-frame mirrorless system and is carefully positioned by Canon as “between” the EOS R5 mirrorless and EOS-1D X DSLR, leaving room for a future mirrorless model above the R3. And just after the print edition of this article hit the press, Nikon unveiled its new flagship, the Z 9, Nikon’s most advanced full-frame mirrorless camera to date and an incredibly impressive camera.
With excellent new flagships from the top three full-frame mirrorless makers being introduced, it was a very competitive year, but we ultimate chose the Sony a1 as our Camera of the Year for 2021. Sony kicked off 2021 by revealing this remarkable model in January, an unusual time for a major camera introduction. Its capabilities set a new benchmark for resolution and speed, making it an exceptionally good choice for wildlife and sports photographers especially.
The Sony a1 features a 50.1-megapixel sensor and continuous shooting rates of up to 30 fps at full resolution with both its mechanical and electronic shutters. These are the key specs that push the Sony a1 to the top of our short list for Camera of the Year. For comparison, the Canon EOS R3 is, at 24.1 megapixels, roughly half the resolution of the Sony a1. And though the R3 can capture 30 fps with its electronic shutter, it tops out at 12 fps with its mechanical shutter, an important distinction for some moving subjects. The 45.7-megapixel Nikon Z 9 offers more resolution than the EOS R3 and comes closer to the a1 in that respect, and though the Z 9 has a compelling ability to capture up to stunning 120 fps at a reduced resolution of 11-megapixels, it tops out at 20 fps for full-resolution RAW files, 10 fps slower than the a1. The Sony a1’s combination of resolution and continuous shooting speeds edged out the competition in our view.
The a1 includes significant advances in autofocus performance. The system employs 759 phase detection AF points that cover approximately 92 percent of the image area and can make 120 AF/AE calculations per second to maintain continuous focus and exposure tracking at the camera’s fastest capture rates, ideal for following fast-moving wildlife. The camera also offers Real-time Eye AF for birds, a new capability of Sony’s evolving AF tracking technology and a big advantage for photographing birds in flight.
Also noteworthy is the Sony a1’s electronic viewfinder, with the fastest refresh rate of any EVF so far at 240 fps—double that of the competition. Electronic viewfinders have been one of the main complaints about mirrorless systems, with many photographers preferring the experience of an optical viewfinder. The Sony a1’s EVF does a lot to bridge the gap with its closer-to-life refresh rate and blackout-free shooting.
All of the Sony a1’s technology comes at a price, of course. At about $6,500 for the body only, it’s among the most expensive full-frame cameras currently on the market. But if your budget allows, you can’t buy a more capable camera this year. Contact: Sony, electronics.sony.com.