Xmas 2013 picks

_7000541 copy

Here’s one to get you into the spirit of Christmas: either treat yourself, treat a very good friend, or better yet, get somebody to treat you*. This list is mostly composed of new releases for 2013, or new items I’ve discovered during the course of the year. For a complete list of recommendations, see this page. Please note, all links from this page do award me a small referral commission; it doesn’t increase your price, but it does help to pay for all the bandwidth this site uses – thanks for your support!

*Here’s hoping the wife reads one of my articles for a change!

Under $100

Sandisk Extreme memory cards (from $19; Amazon | B&H) – You can never have enough storage. And a fast card can make the difference between your camera feeling snappy and frustrating. I never buy the fastest cards; you’re often paying a significant premium for speed you can’t always use.

Any one of Nick Brandt’s books ($49-90; Amazon) – See my review of his first book here. Gorgeous images of strong subjects presented in an impeccable manner; anybody who loves photography should have at least one. Final book in the trilogy now available, too – Across This Ravaged Land.

Wacom Intuos 6×4″ tablet ($79, or $99 with touch; Amazon | B&H) – I’ve come to the conclusion this is perhaps the most useful tablet you can buy; it’s cheap and gives you pretty much everything its bigger brother does. Pen feel is excellent, you can make it wireless if you wish, and it’s very small, making it handy for travel. There’s even a loop so you don’t lose your pen. If you’ve been unsure about using a tablet for editing – especially dodging and burning – this is the one to get your feet wet with, and possibly the only tablet you’ll ever need.

Fuji Acros 100 film (About $6 a roll; review; Amazon | B&H) – Perhaps the best B&W film ever made; a modern, low-grain emulsion that has incredible resolution and dynamic range; rich shadows and highlights that go on forever. It’s also very easy to handle, difficult to scratch, and develops well in a variety of solutions. Minimal to no base dye layer for easy scanning/ copying and printing. Pushes well up to ISO 800; my serendipitous discovery of the year; now my favourite film and pretty much all I shoot.

Any one of my teaching videosThe perfect way to up your game and have the opportunity to attend a workshop without having to fly anywhere! We cover photoshop at various levels; the fundamentals of photography; the compact camera masterclass, how to see, and of course the outstanding images workshop series.

Under $500

WD Passport Ultra 2TB portable USB 3.0 drives ($130, Amazon | B&H) – Fast, capacious, and perfect for backups in the field and while travelling. I’ve got a whole bunch of these and simply don’t think if I run out of storage; just go get another one.

Billingham Hadley Digital (around $200; Amazon | B&H) – My new travel bag; big enough to fit a Hasselblad, film and GR, but small enough to a) keep things light, and b) ensure you actually think about what you bring so you don’t accidentally pack the kitchen sink. Very well made, doesn’t scream ‘camera bag’ – and also waterproof.

Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini ($229, possibly less if you get lucky. Review | Amazon) – This camera is the bargain pick here: a very competent, large-sensor interchangeable lens camera with an excellent kit lens – for less than most compacts! Yes, it’s a generation old, but at this price – you really can’t complain. And it doesn’t hold any less imaging potential than it used to.

Panasonic Lumix LX7 (From $299 up, depending on where the wind blows; review | Amazon | B&H) – Getting a bit older now, but still an excellent compact with a standout lens and image stabilization system, and with the option to add an EVF. Not that many solutions are this versatile – or this affordable. A handy thing to have in a bag or pocket at all times.

Voigtlander VC-Meter II ($225; Amazon | B&H) – A rather neat little gadget for anybody who still shoots film: sits in the hotshoe and serves as an averaging meter. I keep one in my pocket most of the time to check exposure; all of the time when I’m shooting with the Hasselblad. Beautifully made, very easy to use, and accurate, too.

Apple iPad Mini (from $335; Amazon | B&H) – This thing has become a permanent fixture in my travel bag; even when I’m out teaching in the field. I can show examples, present my portfolio, check my email, read a book, and not get lost. It’s thin, light, and the battery goes forever. Finally, an iPad size that makes sense – no point carrying a full size one around, I’d rather have a MacBook Air.

A Sandisk Extreme SSD (From $120; Amazon | B&H) – Perhaps the easiest way to give your computer a kick up the backside; moving your programs and OS onto an SSD will certainly liven things up. Makes an enormous difference when it comes to postprocessing as your primary drive can effectively act as extra RAM; if you’re completely insane, replace all of your storage with these, too. I have dual 480GB versions of this drive occupying the two bays inside my Mac Mini and used for both storage and OS; the machine is positively instantaneous. A perfect way to spend more time in the field shooting (or with your family), and less time in front of the PC!


Ricoh GR ($799; Review | Amazon | B&H) – Perhaps the best compact of 2013, and certainly one of the most difficult to get hold of! Packing an APS-C sensor inside a body not much larger than its 1/1.7″-sensored predecessors, the GR’s image quality plays in a much, much higher league. It’ll give DSLRs a run for their money because of the outstanding lens; corner performance even wide open at f2.8 is astounding. Controls are infinitely configurable, and the DNG files make for excellent B&W conversions. I don’t leave home without it.

Apple Mac Mini – (From $599; Amazon | B&H) – Many of you will be surprised to discover that a slightly pimped up version of this is my workhorse – with 16GB of RAM and dual SSDs, it positively flies. It’s the most easily upgradeable Mac model this side of the Mac Pro, and far more cost effective. For most things, not much slower, either. Highly recommended.

A used Hasselblad V series – Not so easy to find, not so easy to use, but once you see the negatives…you’ll be hooked. Photographing with one is both a unique experience and an interesting way to instantly force yourself to change the way you see and work; it might well be for the better. Also a beautifully made object in its own right. Perhaps the most reliable place to start is KEH, or if you want a rarer or more minty model, then look for Bellamy Hunt at Japan Camera Hunter.

$1000 and up

Apple MacBook Air (From $948 – Amazon | B&H) – Nearly the perfect travel computer. The 11″ model is great if you’ve got a desktop primary – the screen is a bit small for prolonged photoshop; the 13″ will cover all needs. Both will now run for a whole day on one battery, and have more than enough horsepower even to handle D800E and medium format files – I know, because I’m doing it. RAM and SSD upgrades highly recommended, too; you can’t out these in afterwards.

Apple Mac Pro (from $2999, available soon) – Speed, speed speed. And a design like a nuclear warhead. What’s not to like, apart from the price?

Olympus OM-D E-M1 ($1,399 – review | Amazon | B&H) – Best of the compact system cameras; incredibly tough build, PDAF on-sensor, very responsive, great ergonomics. Takes the already excellent E-M5 and makes it even better still. Quite possibly more camera than 99% of the population will ever need. I bought two.

Olympus ZD 12-40/2.8 PRO ($999 – review | Amazon | B&H) – Perfect travel pairing for the E-M1; excellent optics, weather-sealed to the same degree, and with a very impressive 20cm near focus distance at all focal lengths – more importantly, there’s no degradation in image quality whatsoever. Also has a handy sliding manual focus ring with hard stops at both ends – a rarity in the mirrorless world, and very useful for pulling focus for video.

Nikon D800E ($2,999 – Amazon | B&H) – My workhorse. I admit I’m slowly coming around to love this one; it’s not an irrational sort of love, but how can the files make you feel any other way? Without question, the highest image quality you can get without going medium format – and even then, it gives a lot of those cameras a run for their money, too.

Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 Distagon, in Canon EOS and Nikon F mounts ($3999 – B&H) – Perhaps the ultimate normal lens: from all of the samples I’ve seen, absolutely incredible cross-frame performance wide open and at any aperture; Zeiss decided traditional double-Gauss-derived planar designs weren’t good enough for the likes of the D800E, so they used a Distagon derivative with an image circle large enough for medium format. Can you say ‘no compromises’? This is probably the only lens I’ve ever ordered without using it first, based on full size samples and reputation/ track record alone. That should say quite a lot, I think…

Profoto B1 wireless TTL monolight with built in battery ($1,999 each – B&H) – I demoed these recently and found them to basically be speedlights on steroids – 500W/S steroids, to be precise. Very, very impressive, and offering multi-system remote control from the radio trigger that goes on the hotshoe. I’m waiting for the Nikon version – it’ll be available early 2014; the remote’s TTL pins are camera-specific, of course.

You’ll notice there were no DSLR entries in this year’s list other than the D800E; I’m just not very excited by any of the new releases; they’ve frankly been just a little bit more of the same, or near franken-misses like the Df. It’s disappointing that the manufacturers don’t have much imagination, but perhaps that’s more of a business decision than anything else. When the gravy train stops, hopefully we will start to see a bit more innovation. In any case, hopefully one (or more) of these will materialize under your tree in a few weeks! MT


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


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


  1. Coming back to what you´ve said about most recent DSLR releases, I absolutely agree! What is your opinion about changeable focus screens e.g. for the Df? I really miss that and a better support of manual focus, especially ´cause of my Zeiss lenses, would be my only selling point for another DSLR these days. Already own three FX bodies, why a Df then?

    • They shot themselves in the foot. Why release a camera with pre AI lens support, but no good means to focus those lenses? Idiots. It is no easier to focus than the rest of the current Nikon DSLRs, i.e. difficult.

      • Exactly! Isn´t there a Nikon user group btw, which might address this to Nikon as an “urgent change request”? Sorry, I am an IT guy, this works in my business sometimes, even with the large suppliers.

        • You would think so, but most of the camera companies – Nikon, Leica and Canon especially – are so arrogant that they do whatever they please, because they can get away with it.

  2. I bought myself an SSD, but haven’t installed it yet due to extreme static-producing weather for past week. My long hair is standing straight up after I comb it – I am not going to trust only to some measly gounded pad and wristband to shield the works.
    Ramana, if you like manual focusing, go for it.

  3. Ming, since you recommended Olympus e-pm1, what are your thoughts on using canon fd lenses with a MFT adapter on it? Cameta is selling refurbished e-pm1 body for ~$130. The MFT lens adapter costs ~$15 and if one has a used 50mm f1.8 fd lens, u get a nice system for $150. Of course, one has to live with manual focusing.

  4. I have a question about the Olympus 12-40mm. I have the 12mm F2, and while the manual focus mode is fun, I’ve found it to be useless for video. The reason is that the focus does not change smoothly, but rather in steps. Fine for photos, but for video you can actually see the abrupt jumps. Does the 12-40mm suffer from the same problem?

  5. I am new to the digital camera world. I have noticed that all your photos have the same quality and texture regardless of the camera that you use. This makes it difficult to decide which camera to buy based on photos alone. Do you set up the cameras the same? If so what are your settings? You also do work in post production. What percentage is that of the photo process?
    I am narrowing my list of what camera I need as opposed to what I want or what someone else has. Your input is appreciated.
    Thanks Mike

    • Every shot is different. Every camera is different. Therefore all settings are different. You cannot add in what wasn’t there in the first place, only enhance the presentation. And fundamentally, the reason my images have the same style/ signature is because they’re all just tools: I compose with them according to the same rules/ logic/ method of seeing, and adapt to whatever particular strengths/ weaknesses they have. The best camera for you is the one that feels right and intuitive, not throne that somebody else recommends.

  6. John Joyce says:

    “CS:GO at 2560x1440px and high/max settings on everything”

    Better tell Apple, so that they can do the necessary brain surgery on it to prevent this sort of thing happening.

    BTW, what EIZO do you have?

    • Haha, better they don’t know so I can go about my occasional gaming in peace.

      I’m running a 27″ Thunderbolt Display, no Eizo – they’re nearly impossible to find in Malaysia.

  7. John Joyce says:

    Ming, I’m fascinated frankly by what you have said about the Mac Mini.

    You have the SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration? And an i7 chip with hyperthreading? Tried running Apple Motion on it? How hot does the thing run?

    Since there is a new Mac Mini model due (with expected better integrated graphics), you have caused me to reflect. I was about to pull the trigger on the 15 inch MBP with the 750m card. I would prefer to spend the money on Campari.

    • Yes, SSDs in RAID 0, and the i7 with hyper threading. Haven’t run Apple Motion on it, but it handles everything I can throw on it without issue – even running CS:GO at 2560x1440px and high/max settings on everything. If you are going to use it for video rendering, a dedicated graphics card would probably be a better bet. For stills and everything else, the Mini is more than enough computer – even for somebody like me who deals with hundreds or even thousands of 36MP files a week.

  8. Ming, as a physicist with a special interest in exotic watches, you might want (or at least want to photograph) a Hoptroff No. 10, cesium atomic clock pocket watch, with an accuracy of 1.5 seconds per millenium.

  9. rwestcott says:

    Hi Ming, great article, lots of fun and good suggestions. One thought re buying any of the items on the list. If I click on Amazon, say, you get a % and I like that. But I am connected to the US site. If I then navigate to the UK site (where I live) do you still get the % … ? If not, could you post UK links as well? Cheers, Robert

  10. John Prosper says:

    I forgot the new mini iPad with Retina display was only introduced in the USA last month. Anyway, since I bought into the Apple world a couple years ago with my 13″ MacBookPro (no Retina display), I thought it would be easier for me to add an Apple handheld computer to replace my old Palm. I am greatly impressed by your comment that the mini iPad effectively can replace the full size iPad for portable portfolio presentation, along with other uses. I currently use my Palm for reading books and light computing. The extra resolution and storage space of the mini iPad, especially the Retina display model should be super.

  11. John Prosper says:

    You prefer the standard mini iPad over the new mini iPad with Retina display? I ask because I have been wondering whether the extra resolution would make a substantial improvement. Besides, eventually I will have to retire my old Palm handheld computer.

    • Haven’t seen one – they’re not available here yet. I imagine the new one will be better more for its extra horsepower and snappiness, not just the display…

  12. Dear Santa,

    I’ve been very nice, and my D700 is so last year, so Santa, please get me a Sony A7r instead of a D800 (but with that same wonderful sensor), so I can more easily focus all those amazing apochromatic manual focus SLR lenses with these tired old eyes. … (Or Santa, please wait ’till next year if Nikon will hurry and make a Sony A7r copy with a Nikon F mount, instead of a silly DF trying to look much thinner and simpler than it is … and please, please, please an entirely silent electronic shutter so finally nothing at all will vibrate.) … And Santa, please leave a lump of coal for the engineer who didn’t put an interchangeable focus screen with split image prism in the D800 or DF, and one lump of coal for the video engineer who messed up the sharpness of the D800’s live view, and lastly, one lump of coal for every engineer who just forgot to add an electronic viewfinder to their latest DSLR design.

    P.S. My Hasselblads, Rolleiflex, and stereo Rolleidoscop are getting a bit lonely, so also, Santa, please get them a quiet Voigtlander Bessa II 6×9 folding rangefinder as a Yuletide playmate.

  13. Barry Reid says:

    Mmm, nice list but I’d argue the Hadley Pro is a better travel bag than the Hadley Digital. Purely because of the pocket on the back which is A4 (i.e. magazine) sized.

    • Yes it is, but if you fill it, you’re probably carrying too much stuff. I use another bag to get everything there, then the Hadley Digital to hold the spare lenses and accessories since the camera is always in hand anyway.

  14. Hi Ming,
    Is it difficult to upgrade the Mac Mini with SSD’s…?
    I’ve heard some say the 2nd drive is a little tricky.

    Any worries about voiding the warranty?
    Other than that, it seems that the Mac Mini is more and more a bargain.
    (Set it up and forget it…)

    On a separate note, I hope that Panasonic gets smart and sends you their G6 or GH3 to try out soon.
    I’ve heard good things.

    Although the EM1 is pretty darn good, I have a feeling that the Panasonic gear is under-rated…

    • If you’re handy with a screwdriver, the Mini can be stripped down in about 10min. Not difficult at all. No idea if it voids the warranty – probably does on the hard drive, but then again, why make the thing user-accessible if that wasn’t the intention? Aside from the Pro series, it’s by far the easiest Mac to upgrade.

      I don’t have time to waste reviewing cameras that are of no use or interest to me. I am a commercial photographer who happens to also run a website, not a review blogger who claims to be a photographer. I already reviewed the GH3; it’s decent for video, but as a stills camera, a bit of a disaster.

      • “I don’t have time to waste reviewing cameras that are of no use or interest to me. I am a commercial photographer who happens to also run a website, not a review blogger who claims to be a photographer.”

        Understood! (I know reviews or gear lust is not your thing…)
        Ironically, your background as a commercial photographer (and not being a review blogger ) is what makes you an excellent reviewer.

        • It’s simple economics. It doesn’t make any money, and consumes a huge amount of time. There are plenty of other ‘reviewers’ out there who frankly have no clue what they’re talking about – just look at their rubbish images – but seem to be extremely popular because they shout very loudly and offer group hugs and mutual adoration based on one’s ability to afford expensive gear – ability to use it is irrelevant.

  15. I hope to get my rental copy of the Otus for my D800E soon. I thought I would try it out first but I’m sure it is just putting off the inevitable. 🙂
    I know already I am doomed as I have and have loved my 50MP. Look forward to seeing some of your images with it. And I liked your m 50/2 APO images of Nediah, I guess we will soon see how the Otus compares.

  16. Can I just say, the lead photograph is amazing and enigmatic in equal measure. It strikes exactly that thing — that magic balance — that Tim mentioned, that Barthes theorized about, the sensation of looking a photograph and kind of knowing but not really knowing, and not wanting to know [savoring the mystery]—all at the same time.

    = ART

  17. So it is Ricoh GR over Coolpix A. Or is this recommendation based on price difference? Currently the two cameras seem to have about an equal pricing in Europe, 650-700e. Also compatibility with wifi and flash accessories is a bonus for a Nikon user.

    • GR for two reasons: the DNGs are better source material for B&W conversions, and it takes an excellent 21mm converter. It works better for what I want at the moment.

      The A remains my recommendation if you’re primarily a color shooter, however.

      • Thanks. The real problem for a Nikon photographer is to find a rationale why to buy Ricoh. If there were Coolpix GR, I would have already bought the camera 😉

        And yes, my priority is color, but jpg quality does not matter.

      • Ming, when I was emailing with Tom about GR vs. Coolpix A, it was with some irony that I realized that two of my favorite images of yours were captured with a GR in color (the forest) and C A in B&W (London dawn). I guess at this level of camera excellence, we are talking about small differences, and it’s the soft, round accessory 6 inches behind the camera that makes all the difference. And I’m looking forward to the forest print!

        And thanks Tom for reminding us what it’s all about. I am ashamed to admit that I had not looked too carefully at the article’s lead image before diving into the gearlust …

        • No choice: we use what we’ve got! I didn’t have the other camera in either of those situations. Would the images have been better? Sure, but by how much? The composition certainly wouldn’t change.

          Your Forest should be arriving soon – the UK ones all seemed to arrive early this week…

          • As luck would have it, the prints just showed up in my mailbox! The shipping box was pretty beaten up, but the prints themselves look intact — I have to remember to add a note requesting a stronger container for the next print sale. The route from KL to here seems to be fraught.

            They’re both (Forest and Amsterdam Arch) far, far more beautiful than I had imagined. Maybe it’s the baryta, but dare I say it, they look better than the first print run (London Dawn and Oculus). To anyone who likes Ming’s photography: you owe it to yourself to get a print. As good as the web stuff looks for what they are, they are a pale shadow of the print. The prints are in another whole galaxy in quality.

            • Thanks Andre – glad you like them! I wanted to raise the bar on the first run, and I intend to continue doing so – though from here on, it’s very much diminishing returns. The paper itself is a big step up, as are the source files and proofing process – we went through fifteen proofs for The Forest to get the colors perfect. As for Amsterdam Arch, I think it’s a representative example of why I’m a strong believer in this hybrid film-digital process for black and white work. I’m just very happy that it’s not just me seeing it! 🙂

              Next time we’re going to try using PVC pipe tubes. It will drive cost up a bit, but then again, they also make a good storage container. The post office recommended packing is clearly a bit of a disaster.

  18. Forgot to mention I picked up a GR after the Coolpix debacle (which was also a delivery debacle but i persevered)…..but alas it turns up the day I left and now I’m away for 3 weeks with a risk of it being sent back to sender…..frantic emails being sent to hold it at the post office a bit longer…..

    • Let us hope this camera actually reaches your hands…

      • Sigh, for the amount of effort in actually obtaining this damn thing it better be the best thing since sliced bread and of course make my photos absolutely amazing :p

        • But of course. We all know that it’s all in the camera, which is why I bought the Otus…

          • Do you know why Zeiss chose 55mm for the Otus as opposed to the more common 50mm?

            And it looks absolutely huge from pics….any specific application you have in mind for it – you always have a justification for buying something new (even if it is quite thin 🙂 )

            • No idea. That’s because it IS huge – the size of a 24-70/2.8, easily.

              Fine art large print work with the D800E 🙂

              • Sigh, the Hasselblad just wasn’t enough was it :p

                I’m curious as to how large you are planning on printing 🙂

                • I’m looking at even more resolution on that. It has a pretty limited shooting envelope though.

                  Large? Not that big; the best of the 15MP cameras start getting ropey above 28″ wide or thereabouts.

  19. It’s a shame corvette stingrays dont fit under the tree…

  20. Wonderful:)

  21. How’s the screen on the the MacBook airs for editing purposes. Decent enough for basics? Or a waste of time?

    • Frans Moquette says:

      The screen is decent enough if you can stand its reflectiveness. But you should not do any serious editing on a screen that is not calibrated and in a controlled environment.

    • Color on the 11″ is a disaster but workable with experience. The 13″ is fine, though.

  22. Nice list Ming. As a life long PC user I’ve recently been slipped the kool-aid and am now in the market for a Macbook Pro. Ever thought of doing an article or two of your take on the Macs as it relates to your workflow, both while shooting and post? I’m having a devil of a time deciding between 13″, 15″, (or older 17″) screen sizes, minimum resolutions, retina vs. non, and general horsepower needed to handle my APS-C files comfortably. This would be my primary Photoshop system. Not so much concerned with portability. Thanks.

    • I have, but never got around to it. I split the difference – 11″ air for travel, Mini + 27″ thunderbolt screen for the studio. Both will handle even the CFV-39’s files just fine.

    • Frans Moquette says:

      If portability is not a requirement I suggest you take a look at a Mac mini and one of the better Eizo monitors. You’ll get more bang for your bucks and the monitor can survive many computer upgrades. Apple screens are very glossy, almost like mirrors, and the reflections can be very distracting. Maybe I’m over sensitive, but I hate the Apple screens for their reflectiveness. Go to a store and try them out before buying.

      • I’m editing on a 2008 MBP right now, but what Frans describes is going to be my upgrade plan. I’m just waiting for a Haswell-based Mini to come out so I get the really fast PCIe-based internal drives (like the newest MBAs and MBPs), along with a 13-inch MBA for travel editing. I have a calibrated monitor that I like (Dell 27-inch), though it only covers sRGB unlike the Eizos and some of the NECs which will cover a large part of the AdobeRGB gamut.

        I’ll probably add a USB 3.0 bus-powered SSD like the OWC Aura around for my photo storage.

        Ming, how do you carry your Wacom when you travel? Do you have a case or cover for it, or do you just stick it in a bag? It’s great to hear that the non-Pro/Bamboo tablets are good for editing — I dreaded carrying the medium-sized Pro version around.

      • I don’t have that problem because it’s in a dark corner, but yes, it’s potentially an issue if you work in a very bright environment.

  23. Nice! Is it ok to want multiple items from each category?

  24. I read it. Clearly you have everything already, so no use is it? Funny there was no mention of a Herman Miller Setu chair anywhere…

    • Well, I can’t recommend something I haven’t used or tested properly…

      I haven’t put the Zeiss 2/135 APO-Sonnar down, but trust me, I want one of those too 🙂

      • Is it OK if I copy and paste this and add my own little opening paragraph, written in multi-coloured crayon, “Deer Santa, I hav bin a very gud boi so pleez can i hav…”? Oh, and I might add either Priolites or Profoto Air TTLs…

        • You mean the Profoto B1s? They don’t seem to be available yet, which is why they aren’t on the list…but sure, I might as well add them…

  25. Roger Wojahn says:

    So is it appropriate to simply forward this to family members and girlfriend? The SSD reco is strong and out of the blue. Thank you. I had dismissed the new Olympus Pro soon thinking that with such high f-stop, it wouldn’t render decent Bokeh. But with the close focal distance, maybe I’m mistaken.

%d bloggers like this: