Let’s look at cameras in a little different way than usual. Normally, we all look at the specs and features of cameras and think about what pictures that camera is capable of creating. I’m not suggesting we should ordinarily do anything differently. But just for today, let’s look at things in reverse. Rather than looking at the camera and thinking about what pictures it might create, let’s look at the pictures that have been created and think about the camera that created them. Specifically, let’s look at the best pictures we can find and see what camera they were actually taken with.
What might that tell us? Two things:
- First, it would show us what cameras are capable of creating the best pictures. While we all know that the skill of the photographer is really responsible for great pictures, by seeing which cameras were used we can know for a fact which cameras are capable of taking these outstanding pictures (because it had actually done it).
- Secondly, it would show us which cameras the serious photographers who know how to get the best pictures actually choose. It is similar to a poll of the top photographers.
What Are the Best Photos?
But, wait a second, how do we determine which are the best pictures? Surely that is a subjective matter. And no doubt, it is, but one method of choosing the best photos has already been done for us.
Every day, great photographers post their work on 500px.com. Every day, those photos are being rated by the audience at large and given scores. The scores are anywhere from 0-100, with anything over 80 being considered “popular.” Once you start getting much over 90, you can be pretty well assured the pictures will be outstanding. Most of the time the camera data is posted along with the picture. Therefore, it is a simple matter for us to take the top pictures from 500px and look at what was used by the photographer create the picture.
That’s exactly what I have done. Over the last few months, I have gone to 500px every few days and recorded the camera that was used for every picture that scored a 98 or above in the landscape and city & architecture categories. Since I only recorded the top pictures, there were not very many pictures each day. Typically, there would only be about 15-20 pictures scoring 98 or above in these categories. To have enough data, I recorded over a period of a few months. Once I had a few hundred entries, the percentages you will see in this article started to take shape. Once I got to about 500 entries, I found that the percentages were no longer changing, so I decided I was in a position to report the results.
Which Camera Are the Best Photos Taken With?
So, what are photographers using to capture the best pictures? Let’s start with a broad brush and look at the brands or systems that are used the most often. Here are the top brands:
As you can see, the vast majority of top photographs were taken with Canon and Nikon cameras, and virtually all these cameras were DSLRs. About 10% of the top photographs were taken using Sony cameras, and virtually all of these were mirrorless cameras.
This tells us something important about the current state of photography, which is that the “demise of the DSLR” is perhaps overstated. You can see that over 80% of the top photos were taken with a DSLR. That doesn’t mean that sizeable numbers of these photographers won’t go mirrorless tomorrow, but for the moment the DSLR is the choice of most top photographers.
At the same time, it must be noted that the Sony mirrorless models are only a few years old so they have made great inroads in a short period of time among the top photographers. In addition, I should note that a healthy chunk of the “other” category was made up of Fujifilm mirrorless cameras.
The Camera Models
Now let’s talk about the individual models used in creating the top photographs. Comparing models of camera presented one tricky question, which was whether to count the refresh of a camera model as the same model of a new product. For example, should I count the Canon 7D mark ii as a separate camera from the Canon 7D, or combine them into one entry?
I decided to show you both ways. Therefore, for each chart below, you will see individual models listed on the left side. In that left-hand column, I split up the original and replacement models and treat them separately. Using the same example, the Canon 7D and 7D mark ii would be treated as separate cameras. On the right side, I combine them and show the combined percentages.
Let’s start with Canon. Here are the Canon models used the most often to create the top photos:
As you can see, most of the top photographs taken by Canon shooters were taken with the 5D Mark iii. This is not terribly surprising that it has been Canon’s flagship model for a long time. The prevalence of the 5D line is even more pronounced when you combine the 5D mark ii and mark iii. Almost half of the top photos taken with Canon cameras (44.7%) were taken with a Canon 5D.
As I understand it, the 5DS and the 5DS R are not considered by Canon to be a refresh of the 5D line. Therefore, these models were treated separately. Despite the fact that this line of cameras is pretty new, the 5DS R already accounts for 5.5% of the top photos shot with Canon cameras, and the 5DS/5DS R line accounts for 7.4% of such pictures. This is a very expensive line of cameras, so it appears that the top shooters really value the high resolution offered by this camera.
I was personally surprised by the number of Canon 6D cameras used in creating the top photos. The 6D is Canon’s less expensive full-frame model. My guess is that outdoor photographers value its image quality, which equals that of the 5D Mark iii (at a much lower price).
Now let’s take a look at the Nikon cameras. Here are the Nikons used the most often in making the best photos:
As you can see, the Nikon D800 and D810 were the overwhelming choice of the top photographers shooting Nikon. And why not? It is the top model from Nikon and produces pictures with great image quality. It does not hurt that it has been on the market for a long time as well.
While almost half of the top pictures shot with a Nikon camera were taken with the D800 line, no other line of Nikon cameras accounted for more than 15% of these photos. The next two more popular lines of Nikon cameras are the D700 series and D600 series, both of which are full frame cameras. They account for another 27% of the Nikons used to take the top photos on 500px.
The final cameras we will look at our those made by Sony. Here are the Sony models used to take the top photos:
The overwhelming majority of top photographers reach for the a7R line. Between the original a7R and the a7R2, this camera absolutely dominates use by the top photographers at 61.2%. That is significant because it is Sony’s most expensive option, costing $1,500 more than even the next most expensive model (the a72). It appears that outdoor photographers greatly value its high resolution and image quality.
If you look at the a7 and a7R lines together, you see that they account for the vast majority of Sony cameras used. They account for over 80% of all Sony cameras used to take the top photos.
And the Most Preferred Camera Is . . .
Regardless of brand, which individual camera model are the most top photos taken with? Would you believe it is a tie? Well, it is. I know . . . it seems like a cop-out to keep me from having to choose one over the other. But, no joke, it was a tie between the Canon 5D series and the Nikon D800 series. They are exactly even.
Of course, that is comparing the Canon 5D mark ii and mark iii, on the one hand, with the Nikon D800 and D810, on the other hand. If you count just one specific model, the Canon 5D mark iii was the most preferred camera among those taking the best pictures on 500px.
Lessons for Us in What the Top Photographers Use
So what is the upshot of all this?
Clearly the top shooters value the highest performing cameras. They choose the top models from each of the manufacturers. The overwhelming choices are the Nikon D800/810, the Canon 5D, and the Sony a7R. High resolution appears to be valued very much, as they pay significantly more for it.
Further, the top shooters value full frame cameras. All the most commonly used cameras were full frame, but so were the next 2-3 models. For example, the Canon 6D is almost as popular as the 5D Mark iii. The next most popular Nikon cameras are the D600 and D700 series’. The runner-up among Sony cameras is the a7. As a result, full frame cameras account for an overwhelming majority of the top photos taken.
This overwhelming use of full frame cameras might be because I am measuring “outdoor”photos only (since this website is Outdoor Photo Academy, after all). I only pulled pictures from the landscape and city & architecture categories of 500px. Landscape and cityscape photographers are likely to value wide angle shots and high resolution, both of which are achieved better with cameras using larger image sensors. If we included portraits and other sorts of photographs in the data, I’m not sure that the tendency toward full frame would be quite as strong.
While the photographers creating the top photographs tended toward the highest performing, full frame cameras, they did not necessarily reach for the most expensive cameras. In fact, they almost never did. There were virtually no “professional” cameras used for any of the pictures in the sample. The cameras used to capture the top photos included almost no Canon 1DS or 1DX models or Nikon D5 or D4S models. In addition, there were almost no medium format cameras used in taking these photos. The results might be different for those that concentrate on prints though.
Significantly, there were also a lot of cheaper cameras from every manufacturer used to create the top photos. The cameras included the Nikon D3100, 3200, 3300, 5100, 5200, and so on. There were many Canon Rebels used, including very old models like the t1i (500D), t2i (550D) and xTi. Within the Sony models, there were NEX5 and NEX7 cameras used. There were also a few Micro Four Thirds cameras used. In fact, there were even a few pictures that were taken with iPhones!
So I am not offering this data to suggest that you have to use any particular camera. Far from it. In fact, the data suggests you can use almost anything. Still, it is just interesting to see what those who are excelling at photography are using.