My end-2012 picks – or a Christmas gift list for photographers

Assuming you have photographer friends whom you’d like to buy a little something for over the festive season, this list is for you. It’s also for you if you just want to indulge yourself; go ahead, there’s nothing wrong with that. I suppose if you were really cunning, you could send one or many items from here to other people as heavy hints (and no, I’m not doing that).

On a more serious note, the list represents some of what I think are the best products of the year – both major purchases and minor ones. Not all will be useful for everybody, but they’re only here because they’re good. Some may surprise you, others may not.

In the interests of full disclosure, the links in the text below take you to the product page on Amazon with a small referral fee credited to me for each purchase. It doesn’t cost you any more, but it does help keep the site running. Thanks in advance for your support!

This year’s king of the hill has to be the Sony RX100 – one incredible amount of sensor crammed into that tiny body. Amazingly, despite the increase in resolution, I think pixel-level performance is actually better than the Nikon 1s. For JPEG only shooters – people who don’t do any postprocessing, i.e. your average non-photogrpaher family member or friend – then the Fuji XF1 is superb. If you like lots of external dials and controls, the Canon G15 is a surprisingly nice-feeling package; it isn’t as compact nor is the lens as fast as the Panasonic LX7, but then again it has a bit more reach, too. The nearly-as-good LX5 predecessor is now heavily discounted at $249 and excellent value for money. I’m going to lump the large sensor compacts in here too: of these, I like the Leica X2 and I’ve been impressed by the image samples from the Sigma DP1M and DP2M; however, I’ve not shot with them so I have no idea if they’re still as maddeningly slow as the originals.

Without question, the latest generation of Olympus cameras deserves mention – the OM-D being my pick, of course. I would skip the E-PL5 unless you really need that swivel LCD and just get the E-PM2; same sensor at a lower size and price point. Now that the prices are absurdly low, the Nikon V1 actually becomes interesting: it’s small, fast, has an EVF, and a pretty decent kit lens. Plus if you get bored of it, there are fast primes. The Panasonic GH3 is now shipping in some parts of the world; I haven’t handled one, but it looks like a beast. I wouldn’t actually buy it though; at this size and price, you’ve got plenty of interesting DSLR options. You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of the Fuji X mount and Sony NEX cameras; truth is I haven’t spent enough time with either to form an opinion. There are things I like, and things I don’t, which mean that I can’t make an objective recommendation either way.

My first pick for something that will both do everything and live a long life is probably going to be a surprise – it’s still the Nikon D700; unless you need more resolution, then buy the D800E (don’t bother with the regular D800 unless you shoot a lot of fabrics); if weight is a concern, the D600 (but this would be my last choice because of ergonomics). If you’re a birder or wildlife shooter, don’t rule out the D7000 – yes, it’s probably going to be replaced in the next year or so, but until then, prices are great, and it’s not going to take any worse pictures after. In fact, most of the time it’s all the camera most people need. For those on a bit of a budget, the D3200 is also worth a look: the sensor in that is excellent, and the camera (aside from weather sealing) is pretty much where the pro bodies were just a few years ago. It’s price – $50 less than the RX100, including the surprisingly competent kit lens – is also food for thought. I won’t comment on other systems out of lack of familiarity with the current offerings.

In the M4/3 world, my nod has to go to the Olympus 45/1.8, the Olympus 60/2.8 Macro and the Olympus 75/1.8; the Panasonic 100-300 is an interesting option if you need reach. And as a stocking stuffer or bit of fun, how can we forget that crazy Olympus 15/8 Body Cap? For DSLR systems, with few exceptions you can’t go wrong with any of the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 or ZE lenses; my picks are the 2.8/21, 2/28, 2/35, 2/50 Makro-Planar and 2/100 Makro-Planar. I’m sure the new 2/135 APO and 1.4/55 Distagon are both awesome, it’s just that neither are available yet. Similarly, for M-mount shooters: take a look at the Zeiss 2/50 Planar. It’ll surprise you. Otherwise, the Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE is a superlative lens, as are the usual other Summilux suspects. For Nikon shooters, I actually like the new f1.8 G releases – the 28/1.8G, 50/1.8G and 85/1.8G are all superb, even wide open on a D800E. I picked up a 24-120/4 VR a couple of days ago, and it’s too soon to come to a decisive conclusion, but all early indications point to this being an excellent lens. If you’re thinking of the new 70-200/4 VR, I’m on the fence on this one: it’s optically superb, but it isn’t much lighter, smaller or cheaper than the 70-200/2.8 VRII. I’d probably just go for the big one.

You can never have too many memory cards: the Sandisk Extreme HD SD cards are a good tradeoff between speed and price. Extreme Pros are faster, but they’re also significantly costlier. If you’re a Leica shooter, you’re out of luck though – it seems that these cards still cause errors even with the latest firmware. Go for the Transcend Class 10 cards instead. I’ve got a new favorite bag: the not-very-sexy-sounding Kata LPS-216DL. It swallows a surprisingly large amount of stuff without looking like it won’t pass luggage screening. There is of course the old favorite too – the Billingham Hadley Pro. A couple of other things I can’t do without are a good assortment of flashguns – the Nikon SB900 is perfect, no need the SB910 – and batteries to power them. Sanyo Eneloops are my choice because they don’t suffer from serious self-discharge issues. The Maha C801D quick charger is also handy because it’ll top off between one and eight batteries in about fifteen minutes. Not forgetting tripods, I’m a big fan of the Gitzo 1542T Traveller; it’s small, light and very sturdy. For studio work, there’s the larger 5562T Systematic. Their heads are utter rubbish though, so look elsewhere; the Manfrotto 468MG Hydrostat series are the best ballheads I’ve used to date; however I’m preferring the precision of a geared head these days; here, try the Manfrotto 410.

I’m not going to recommend either of the Retina MacBook Pros or the new iMac; none of those is upgradeable, and the retina experience isn’t that great for non-retina native apps. Not to mention if you plan to do any serious retouching, you might miss stuff even at 100% – but your clients on non-retina computers won’t. Look at the 2.3 i7 Mac Mini instead for power (and ease of teardown/ upgrade later) and the 11″ MacBook Air for portability. That said, it really is powerful enough to be your primary computer even if you’re a reasonably prolific shooter – you’ll just need some external storage to go with it. WD makes 2TB portable drives that are USB 3.0-powered and let you take a backup wherever you go. For heavier needs, get their 6TB array. Finally, you can’t beat a tablet for editing – in this case, the Wacom Intuos 5 – but don’t bother with touch or wireless, they’re just gimmicks. I’d add Photoshop CS6 to the list, but I’m guessing most of you already have it.

There were a few notable releases for me this year – Vivian Maier’s two posthumous books (Street Photographer and Out of The Shadows) being particular highlights; I really wanted to get Kubrick’s Light and Shadows this year, but it looks as though it won’t be available til 2013 (unless you want a collector’s edition). I know it’s not strictly photographic, but Modernist Cuisine has some awesome food photography work in it. And if you’re a foodie, then the actual content is a bonus. Susan Sontag on Photography is not new but still a worthwhile read, too. I also rather liked Kevin Erskine’s Supercell and Reza’s War+Peace (not a new book, but new to me this year). If you want to learn about light and form…take a look at any of the complete Da Vinci anthologies – pay specific attention to his portrait poses. Finally, something random – not photographic at all, but I do appreciate the illustration: The Geometry of Pasta.

Something vintage and indestructible – I see plenty of clean Nikon F2s and F3s (and even F5s) on Ebay going for a song. It’s a shame. Uniqlo has a whole range of camera-related T-shirts; the irony being that I don’t actually have any of the cameras on the shirts (Fuji X100, Ricoh GR-Digital, Sinar, Pentax Q…I drew the line at buying the Canon one and went for Hokkaido Butter instead). I also rather like these polar bears, but I suppose that’s more of a personal thing. Happy shopping! MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Thanks for the great article Ming! I saw that you approve of the 24-120 VR. It is beginning to be a popular choice. Do you think that it is worth double the cost of the new 24-85 VR for any other reason than the extended focal length? How about the constant f4 over the f3.5-4.5 of the latter? I see the great bundle deals on the D600 right now and contemplating getting one. I already have the D600 28, 50, and 85 1.8 lenses and I love that setup. However only having one body and no zoom can be difficult at times. Plus I am thinking I should probably have a backup as I sometimes shoot for money (small time). My second thought would be to use the $2k that I would spend on the bundle on something else… maybe a 24-70 2.8. Thoughts? Thank you!

    • No problem. Yes, I recently picked one up for walk-around architecture work where it isn’t practical for me to have a tripod and bag full of lenses – sometimes I need to grab a quick shot from the middle of a street crossing or something – it works pretty well, providing you stop down a bit and use ACR’s profile to correct distortion. I tried a few copies of the 24-85, and there was far too much sample variation for my liking…I think you might well be able to get one that’s just as good, but I didn’t have the patience. For you – 24-70 if you shoot available light. I’m either on a tripod, with controlled lighting or doing daylight architecture, so I can stop down.

      • Thank you Ming! What you are saying about the 24-120 vs the 24-85 makes sense. I do prefer available light. That is why I really like the 1.8 series I think. Plus the brighter viewfinder is so much nicer for me as my vision is not the best. As an “up and coming photographer” who tries to be as efficient, practical, and economical as possible with gear purchases would you recommend spending money on a good zoom (24-70), a second body (D600), or just waiting for a while. My only frustration with my current setup stems from cases where I need to quickly change focal lengths to get different perspectives (e.g., outside when it is dusty, during an event, etc)? Plus I have the nagging fear of something failing while doing work for a client and not having a backup. I greatly appreciate your advice!

        • Your primes will still be much better optically than the 24-70, as well as faster. A second body might be an interesting option…especially since Nikon seems to have extended the rebates in the US, which make the 24-85 effectively free…

  2. David Babsky says:

    Ming, you might like to add to your books list “The Ongoing Moment” by Geoff Dyer ..if a book about photography by ( looks like..) a non-photographer doesn’t drive you nuts. Dyer’s opinions make a very good read a similar way to Sontag. Why not treat yourself for Christmas, no; forget that: I’ve just treated you for Christmas! So “Watch the skies!” ..I mean, watch the letter box! All the best for Xmas.

  3. Though provoking (and potentially wallet breaking!) list, thanks.

    I’m in the camp that finds the 70-200/4 very interesting, primarily due to weight and size savings. But the glass is half full or half empty, depending on how one looks at it.

    On Zeiss lenses, I’ve been using the 25/2 for a few months and like it a lot. Originally bought it because the image quality and handling (minus AF) was better than on a Nikkor 28/1.8G and have not been disappointed. Granted, it doesn’t really suit your lineup, unless you specifically want a 25 mm lens, but just raising it as a possibility for those looking for a high quality wide. I use it with a 50/2.

    And finally Merry Xmas! Santa is really a pagan thing, but I guess that goes down even worse than christianity over there… (not that I know, so enlighten me if I’m wrong) Just want to make the distinction that Xmas is not an exclusively christian thing.

  4. Hi,
    In the M4/3 world, what about the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 ? You don’t mention it either in your Camerapedia. Is there a particular reason to that ?

    • Haven’t use it beyond a couple of test shots at the dealer. Not enough to form a meaningful opinion.

      • Nice piece of lens, in my opinion. Would maybe deserve a review…

        • I’ve said this literally hundreds of times all over the site: a review means I have to buy it. And I’m not doing that unless I’m going to use it because to do otherwise is both economically unfeasible and not a good use of time. I’m a commercial photographer first and a blogger a distant second. Sorry.

  5. Jason Pitcher says:

    I have to take issue with your pick of the 70-200 f2.8 over the f4 version. Not much difference in price? $1,000! Weight? 21oz lighter.


    • Much less of a price difference here, and less so after adding the tripod collar – which you need if you intend to do any tripod work since the weight of the lens will render the whole thing very unstable. I didn’t personally feel it was that much lighter. Both are in the ‘inconvenient’ category for me, so I’d rather personally have the 2.8.

      • Ming, still not convinced. I’ve got one on order, so I hope to test it out personally. Why use a tripod collar? I have the 24-70mm f2.8, and that is 2oz heavier than the 70-200mm f4. As you know, it doesn’t have a tripod collar and I don’t find it unwieldy. I’m looking at this for hand held work mainly, but I will use it regularly on a tripod. I travel extensively, so a more compact and lighter 70-200 is just the ticket.

        As usual, the old adage that “your milage may vary” applies. I look forward to try it for myself.


        • You use the collar for the same reason you use a tripod in the first place: stability. The 70-200 is longer than the 24-70 physically and optically, which means that the center of gravity is farther out and thus magnifies camera shake. If you’re going for image quality then balance is necessary for stability – its why most superteles have a few tripod holes in their feet, to provide balance with different camera bodies it TC combinations. It’s of course especially important for the D800…and why I use a 5-series gitzo with that body.

  6. The fact that the new Olympus 17/1.8 is not on your list… Well, I have the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4, so stick to it (or keep it), would you say? Thanks, Ming

  7. Hi Ming, now you confused me, what happened to “I’ll never do any serious editing on my 11” MacBook Air because the screen has terrible color.” ? However, interesting point on the retina, which I havn’t heard before. Will consider it while looking for a replacement fror my late 2008 macbook 13″.
    Btw, congrats on your ipad app.
    Best, Frank

    • It does have terrible color. But for emergency and on-location work, it’s better than not being able to edit at all. And carrying around a full-fat 15″ pro is no fun at all. The 13″ Air’s screen is much better though, so if you want an all-in-one replacement, then that would be my pick. For serious desktop work I have the Mini and a 27″ Thunderbolt display.

  8. You forgot to put your App in the list…

  9. Kim Davidson says:

    Ming, I want to say thank you and let you know my new Wacom intuso5 tablet is on its way via your Amazon link. I have learned so much in short order from you and look forward to so much more. Wishing you the happiest holiday season.

  10. Digital Adrian says:

    You dont mention any Ricoh anymore. Is the GR digital IV officially outclassed by the Sony?

    • I think so.

      • Digital Adrian says:

        You liked the III quite a lot. Have you ever had the opportunitie to play with the IV, as it is a bit cheaper than the RX100?

        And a great Xmas to you, ofcourse.

        • I did. The sensor on the RX100 is quite a bit better, plus of course you gain IS and don’t lose any aperture with the lens; you also gain a useful long end. The IV is a good incremental improvement, but is slower than the RX100 and doens’t match its performance. In a world without it, that would probably be my choice.

  11. Hi Ming,
    Google Nexus 10 tablet with 300ppi screen is excellent for viewing higher rez portfolio images and blogs which have high IQ images.
    My Xmas present to myself is the Sony RX1, a great street camera and for social settings where dslr is too intimidating. Can’t wait to gd t mine next week!

  12. Have a great Xmas Ming. I suppose you have noticed it is the exact opposite of Ramadan :). where you guys are to behave and be disciplined for a month, we Christians do the opposite. My hope to everyone is we put our differences behind us, because when push comes to shove, we pull our pants on one leg at a time, no matter what colour or creed we are and most importantly, it dont make one damn diff to our photographic skills. 🙂 🙂


    • Actually, the misbehaviour comes right after – so depending on the year, it’s probably right around the same time, actually 🙂

      Merry Christmas, and yes, ultimately we’re all in this together.

  13. Ming great picks! I have already read the amazing Vivian Maier’s Street Photographer & I have just order from your link to her next book, Out Of The Shadows. I can’t wait to receive it! I wish you Merry Christmas!

  14. Thank You for the list and Merry Christmas Ming!!!

  15. Great list 😀
    Interested in what you say about the retina displays and missing details that your clients might notice. Can you explain?

    • Thanks. Simply: at 100%, a retina display renders the pixels 1/4 the area of a comparable size, non-retina display. I might miss some pixel-level dust if I’m retouching on retina; my clients – most of which use uncalibrated, let alone retina displays – would certainly see it and call me out.

  16. Ming, excellent article as always. On the Nikon 70-200mm f/4, will you be posting a review anytime soon? It seems that the f/4 is quite a bit smaller/lighter than the f/2.8 VRII, but I suppose that is also a matter of degree. And on the D800/E, to the extent focus is still an issue from time to time, I am wondering whether f/4 is the new f/2.8 since we have plenty of room with the ISO to play with?

    • No, as usual, if I want one I have to buy one. Nikon doesn’t give me loaners here unless it’s for warranty repairs. It doesn’t make sense to me: optically it’s excellent, even on the D800E, but the size and price are close enough to the 2.8 that I’d rather have the 2.8.

      4 might be the new 2.8 because of high ISO improvements, but it definitely doesn’t give you the same DOF characteristics. That said, the 70-200/4 appears to have half a T stop gain on the 24-120/4 at similar focal lengths.

      • Hi Ming, I just received my copy and I have to respectfully disagree on the weight issue; the weight difference (at least in my opinion) is quite substantial given the difference is 2X, and the price difference (at least here in the U.S.) is USD $1,000 though that is less of an issue if you really want the best tool. On the DOF characteristics, quite frankly between 2.8 and 4 I don’t see a tremendous difference (I think Ken Rockwell has a comparison on this and he concluded the same). So on balance I don’t know whether the 2.8 is really the superior choice. The only circumstances under which I think I would prefer the 2.8 is low-light fast action where every stop is critical (I ran into this situation shooting wildlife at dusk), but at 2.8 half of my shots were out of focus because the subjects are moving fast.

        Another circumstance would be if one wanted to use a 1.4 teleconverter, since the 4 would become a 5.6 and that’s just too slow (though when I tried it, the focus was still very fast). But in that situation you can also just choose to shoot in the DX mode and attain that reach (though not an ideal setup in my opinion).

        For landscape, I think the f/4 will do just fine. In fact I believe the f/4 has better corner sharpness.

        For portraits, I always use either the 85mm f/1.4 or the 135mm f/2 DC to maximize the DOF effect wide open (2.8, in that instance, is not enough sometimes). And if I were shooting in studio, the 2.8 is irrelevant anyway.

        For general consumer purposes neither lens make sense (better off with the 18-200 or the 28-300) but the 2.8 even less so.

        So on balance, unless you are shooting fast action in low light or need the versatility in reach with a teleconverter, I don’t see the advantages of a 2.8?

        • Not surprising that the slower lenses are optically better – it’s much easier to design a good slow lens than a good fast one. I’ve been surprised by just how good the 24-120/4 VR is actually (got mine a couple of days ago, used it on assignment yesterday) – providing focus calibration is correct, of course.

          The price difference here is more like $550-600 or so, less once you add the tripod collar cost back in, which makes the 2.8 more attractive economically. DOF difference is there but it of course depends on camera-subject and subject-background distance, on top of focal length.

          There is one more thing that neither of us have touched on – and that’s focus breathing. I think both do it heavily to reach their MFDs – well documented issue with the 2.8 VR I vs 2.8 VR II – but I suspect that the new f4 does it even more to reach 0.95m minimum distance at 200mm…this amy or amy not be an issue.

      • I haven’t checked focus breathing though I am not sure whether that is a huge issue practically since it’s not really intended for super close focusing (would leave it for the macro lens on that?).

        On the tripod issue — my opinion is that the f/4 needs the tripod less than the f/2.8 (for which I also never used a tripod). First, the one stop that the f/4 loses (assuming it’s truly just one stop), the VR III supposedly makes up (that is to be tested). If it is an issue of the subject moving (as opposed to camera shake), then the tripod won’t help you anyway. But given the lighter weight of f/4; it’s certainly easier to hand hold than the f/2.8 (the 21oz different is substantial when you hold it for an extended period of time, or sling it across your shoulder).

        And as you mentioned, optically, for landscape purposes it is probably a superior lens when shot at f/5.6 or f/8.0 at least in the corners. Neither lens are really intended for portraits (the large-aperture primes are best, and I zoom with my feet when taking portraits).

        But, I agree there are limited situations where DOF may make a small difference in favor of the f/2.8 (but very limited circumstances), and limited situations where low-light and/or TC are needed. If I were a professional sports or wedding photographer, or if I were on a wildlife safari, I would opt for the f/2.8. But for everything else, I would probably prefer the f/4. And to note, for the difference in price, you can buy a 105mm f/2.8 VR or 85mm f/1.8G.

        • Agree on focus breathing. It might or might not be an issue. But with size and weight being the arguement, carrying a second lens wouldn’t make sense – or perhaps you’d just use the 105VR instead of the 70-200/4, period. Even with VR, I still find a tripod useful for precise repeatable framing, and stability. Example – architectural work, or scenes with fixed props but moving talent, etc. I do this now even though I’ve got high shutter speeds or flash. Curiously, the 24-120/4 VR has a weird double-image issue at 1/90s but not faster or slower than this – 1/200s or 1/30s are not a problem. Not sure if it’s also an issue with the 70-200.

      • David Keyes says:

        I still love your blog and the thoughtful comments by you and your readers. I bought a D800 last summer. I’ve had no problems with it, but based on your subsequent postings, I would have opted for the D800E. (I like sharpness and pixel peeping.) I have these lenses so far: the 28-300 f/3.5-5.6, a 28 mm f/1.8G, a 50mm f/1.8G, a 85mm f/1.8G, and (left over from my F3 and F100 days), a 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5D with a macro switch (which used to give me good results, but I haven’t yet tried it on the D800). Of the 1.8G lenses, my only complaint so far is slow and difficult auto-focus with the 85mm. I’ve pretty much given up and switched to manual focus for anything remotely approaching low light or low contrast.

        I was ready to buy the 70-200 f/2.8 VR2 (based on lots of good reports from you and many others), when along came the 70-200 f/4 VR3. Here is the U.S., as David reports, the new f/4 price is $1,000 cheaper and the weight is about half of the f/2.8. So now I haven’t decided what to do–especially since teleconverters are not ideal for a zoom lens (and even more problematic for an f/4 lens), and I do want more range for wildlife and other distance shots. I would even pass on both 70-200 lenses and get a 300 or 400mm prime lens except for the weight and size. I like to carry my lens around much of the day and to do handheld shots. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is about stretching the limit on that.

        I will be interested to hear more from anyone who has actually been using both the 70/200 f/2.8 and f/4 lenses, or who has done a comparison test. Since I already have the 28-300mm as a general walk-around lens, there is little point in getting either 70-200 lens unless the image quality and resolution would be noticeably better than with my 28-300mm. The only other reason I can think of would be for low light capabilities. Ordinarily, that would swing the decision to the f/2.8 VR2, but Nikon claims that the f/4 with VR3 could have similar low light performance.

        • Short answer: both of the 70-200s are significantly better than the 28-300 optically, especially in the corners. You’ll find the T stop quite a bit higher than the 28-300 too, so even though you might nominally be at f5.6 physical aperture with both lenses, you’ll probably have a stop more light on the 70-200s.

          Given the large price difference over there – I’d look at the 70-200/4 and perhaps either the 300/4, or a manual focus 500/4 AI-P – it’s not as difficult to focus as you think, and the optics are excellent. I used one for wildlife work for years.

      • David Keyes says:

        Thanks for your thoughts, Ming. I looked today at the two 70-200s and at a 300 f/4. I bought the 70-200 7/2.8.

        I deferred getting a teleconverter for the time being until I can learn their benefits if any (as compared to cropping on the computer after shooting, or using a DX crop on the D800 when extra range is needed).

  17. Fun list! How about a monitor recommendation to go with the Mac Mini? Do you use Apple displays? Or some other IPS monitor?

    • I’m using the Thunderbolt Display at the moment, but if you don’t need all the ports, there are plenty of other good options like the high end HPs or Eizos.

  18. Thank you for this! That’s a most useful roundup. I was wondering what your opinion on Pentax K 30 is, but I am not sure you are a pentax shooter. Hope Santa is good for you this year. Have a very happy festive season!

    • No problem. Haven’t used the Pentax – you’re right, I’m not a Pentax shooter – but the base sensor is pretty good. Here’s hoping for Santa too, but I live in a Muslim country and an apartment with no chimney. It’s also 35C outside in the shade. :p

  19. I think I’m getting a set of Sanyo Eneloops and stuffing them down my underpants; my girlfriend says she is getting sick of my serious self-discharge issues … 😉


  1. […] and Mac, check the web… and I immediately found x-mas blog post! It’s a nice list for all those, like me, who have photographer friends, and are looking for […]

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