Xmas 2015 hardware picks

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Let it never be said I don’t put my money where my mouth is. The full recommended gear list is here.

Another year is coming to a rapid close (where did it go?) and we find ourselves at the end of one of the best years in some time for both the photographer and the equipment collector. We’ve seen some genuinely innovative technology, some yawns, some WTFs, and some boundary pushing to find that last 0.01%. What follows is both my year in review and a wishlist in case you don’t know how to spend your year end bonuses…

Note: some of you may have seen a different post go up this morning. I apologise – that’s meant to be for another day, and once again the WordPress scheduler has messed up after my computer changed timezones…

It’s probably easiest to split this up by category.

Trend of the year – Drones, 4K, VR, Surround 3D video
There’s no question more and more content is being recorded and pushed with the intention of capturing attention through immersion. The challenge is the output medium isn’t quite there yet: we can record more than we can adequately show or recreate. My guess is that this stuff won’t become really mainstream until we have an easy way for everybody to consume the content – that includes hardware, software and easily available bandwidth. Can photographers still survive shooting only stills? I think so, but it’s going to be an increasingly niche and market. I do have one big fear though: accidents arising from inexperienced drone operators. One death and it’s going to be legislated up the wazoo. Sadly, it’s probably only a matter of time.

Accessory of the year – Sugru
Sugru is a bit of a wildcard. Those of you who’ve been paying attention to the reviews or seen my cameras in person will have noticed them sporting black silicone rubber putty in places; this is Sugru. It’s a permanent mouldable silicone adhesive that also happens to be the ultimate tool for fixing the ergonomic shortcomings of any camera. I’ve applied it to the grips of my E-M5II, A7RII (see above image) and for making focusing tabs on my Otii; they are now amongst the most comfortable cameras I’ve used. I’ve even managed to make a Quattro grip ergonomic and a perfect seal on my earbuds for traveling. I’m sure you can probably think of other applications – I just wish I’d had this stuff when I was using an L-bracket as a handgrip for the Hasselblad/CFV. Highly, highly recommended.

Honorable mention: The Metabones smart adaptors represent a bit more of a subtle shift. We are coming closer and closer to the dissolution of the camera ‘system’ as we know it: previously, we almost had to buy everything from the same manufacturer. Not so: the proliferation and increasing sophistication of adaptors means cross-brand solutions are mostly workable. It’s clunky, but only going to get better. Realistically, it means having the best tool for the job is no longer as expensive as it used to be – and beyond that, we have greater ability to achieve consistency across a wider range of shooting conditions (by using the same lenses). This is of course something the cinema industry has been aiming to for as long as we can remember – fast cuts have to match seamlessly between different lenses and cameras – but is relatively new for stills. I suspect the only reason we’re even seeing this happening at all is the increasingly rapid stills-video convergence.

Bag of the year – F-Stop Kenti
This is a very personal and contentious category, because it depends on one’s own personal physique as much as the hardware you carry. I got one of these early in the year, and whilst it isn’t a new bag per se, I’ve been consistently impressed by both how much stuff it can carry, and how well the harnesses distribute the weight. It’s relatively easy to work out of, and you never seem to run out of pockets. The only thing I don’t like about it is actually the waist straps – in an urban environment they’re a bit of a flappy pain, and putting them around the front lands up interfering with side pocket access. But for extensive walking, they’re quite useful for spreading the load. Never has it been so easy to carry far too much…

‘Innovation’ of the year – Olympus E-M1 firmware 4.0, Sony A7RII firmware 2.0
I struggled for quite a while to find something that would fit the bill for innovation. Fixing something that shouldn’t have been broken to begin with hardly counts, but at least it shows two things: firstly, manufacturers are finally listening and secondly, if you improve functionality even later in the camera’s life, you’ll potentially open up the way for a second wave of adopters for whom the camera didn’t work the first time around. Hopefully we’ll also see some genuinely useful features get added like Olympus’ focus bracketing. Come to think of it, there’s no reason why we can’t have a choice between Olympus-style shift or Pentax-style RGB stacking out of the A7RII, either…

Lens of the year (low end, below $500) – Nikon 55-200/4-5.6 VR II
I was thinking of picking the Tamron 16-300 f3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD Macro since never have there been so many acronyms and boxes ticked by one lens…if you really want one that does it all, here’s your choice. Just make sure you have the body to match: somewhere around the lower end of 12-16MP is probably about right. The Nikon 55-200II, on the other hand, is a serious lens. It matches the resolving power of the D5500. It’s small, light and compact. It isn’t expensive on its own, but really good value when bundled with another body or purchased second hand (I paid ~$120 for mine, in like new condition; you can find new bulk/separated-from-kit copies for about $140 on Amazon).

Lens of the year (midrange, $500 to $1500) – An indecisive four-way tie between the Sigma Art 20/1.4, Zeiss 2.8/21 LoxiaZeiss Milvus 1.4/85 and Zeiss Batis 1.8/85 Sonnar
I was impressed by all four of these lenses for different reasons. The Sigma because it really pushes what’s possible in lens design; it isn’t apochromatic like the Otii, but it’s darned close and wider and faster than anything else to date. Resolving power on 42MP sensors is impressive even wide open – it’s simply an impressive feat of optical engineering, and smaller than the Otus 28 to boot; inclusion of AF at one fifth of the price is takes it into mind boggling. Similarly, the Zeiss 2.8/21 Loxia really shows the direction in which I think lens design should go: trading off a bit more aperture still for smaller, extremely high quality, well-corrected optical designs. Being mostly electronic and in a short-flange mount is unfortunate, but it’s a really impressive lens without reservation. In fact, I think it’s a toss up between the Sigma and Loxia for the title of best 20/21mm. Lastly, the Batis is a sort of Goldilocks: it has the smooth rendition of a Sonnar, but can be bitingly sharp when it needs to be; it has AF and a stabiliser for pre-mark II bodies. Interestingly, two of the lenses here are E-mount only.

The 85 Milvus is worth a mention in more detail for very specific reasons. It isn’t an impressive feat of optical engineering, it isn’t that cheap or small or light, but it does have a rather special rendering, I think. The 85 Milvus uses almost the same optical formula as the incredible 85 Otus but minus one aspherical element and internal focusing. This change lowers chromatic aberration performance somewhat (there are traces of longitudinal CA) and overall microcontrast/resolving power as a result – but we also gain a smoother overall rendition, and there is no texture to bokeh of point sources (caused by moulded aspherical elements). This may well be the best all-round 85mm: fast, a third of the cost of the Otus 85, better rendering of OOF areas wide open (and slightly lower micro contrast being more flattering for portraiture) as well as almost matching its performance stopped down. I wanted to add the Nikon AFS 300/4 PF VR to the list – but I really can’t, as it doesn’t do what it claims on the box: VR doesn’t play nice with all D810s (resulting in inconsistent production of double images), even after firmware upgrades. A shame, because without VR this thing looks stellar – and is very small to boot.

Lastly, I realize I’m late to the party but wanted to add two honourable mentions: firstly, the Nikon AFS 200-500/5.6 E VR for bringing that kind of quality/reach combination at a crazy price – in my part of the world, it’s cheaper than a 70-200/4 VR, to put things in perspective. Yet it doesn’t feel as though optics or build or any other aspect of the lens have been compromised in the process. It elicits great want, but I personally do not have a need – so I refrained. The second honourable mention is for the older 2013 Sigma 18-35/1.8 Art – I used one for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by the performance, which appears to exceed even the Nikon 1.8G primes. It also covers FF from 28mm up, 1.2x from 20mm up, and square at most focal lengths. A bargain at $800…

Lens of the year (high end, over $1500) – Zeiss 1.4/28 Otus APO-Distagon
Those who have read my review of this lens will know that I have bittersweet feelings about it. On one hand, it is an engineering tour de force: there has never been a wide angle like it, much less one that tops out at f1.4 and has a very high degree of apochromatic correction to boot. But focusing it on any DSLR is like playing roulette; the optical finders and focusing screens are simply inadequately precise, and on top of that, the focus transition isn’t that distinct simply because it’s a wide angle. On a mirrorless body, the ergonomics are a disaster: you’ve got 1.5kg hanging off an adaptor with all the weight way out the front. And don’t forget those 95mm front filters. But then you look at the images and all the trouble seems worth it again. In many ways, this is very much the Otus line in a nutshell: they are the ultimate lenses for now and the only series whose resolving power wide open matches all current sensors. But the tradeoff is one of unavoidable physics: size, weight and cost. I am fortunate enough to own all three, but I will never carry them at the same time. If you must have the best – this (and a sherpa) is your only choice.

An honorable mention goes to the Nikon AFS 24-70/2.8 E VR: performance is truly impressive across the entire range and a clear notch above the old lens; VR is tenacious and seemingly immobile once locked on. However, the price and size are both eye-watering. If you are a PJ or event shooter, this will buy you another usable stop or two – and for that alone it might be worthwhile. Personally, I’ll stick to my 24-120/4 VR – I mostly work stopped down and find the extra reach more useful.

Camera of the year (below $2000) – The Nikon D5500
The first camera is going to be a bit of a surprise to regular readers; paired with the ubiquitous AFS 35/1.8 DX G, we have an answer to the light/fun/responsive 50mm-e question. Paired with good glass – with which it balances surprisingly well, thanks to the great grip design – image quality is very, very impressive: it’s like a D810 but with 33% less pixels. It’s responsive, lighter, and the battery lasts about five times longer than the A7RII. I use it in three ways: as a light, always-present telephoto option with the 55-200 mentioned above, solo with the 18-35/1.8, or paired with the Q and 24-120 VR for effectively 28-180mm-e coverage.

Ergonomics are really excellent, even for large hands. The screen rotates in both axes and AF is pretty darn fast. And you can use the touch screen like a trackpad to move the AF point with your eye to the finder – one of the more genuinely useful implementations (please Leica, can we have this for the Q?) that’s not even in the top of the line pro models. On top of that, whilst the body is expensive – approaching a used D7200 – there are frequently official factory refurbs that sell for $100 less than the body only price – but include the kit lens, too. It’s amazing just how good the low-end cameras have gotten. There is one gotcha with the D5500, though: there’s no AF fine tune function, and the AF system back focuses massively under tungsten light (despite being retuned by Nikon several times, and being spot on from about 3500K upwards).

An honourable mention goes to the 2013 Ricoh GR Digital (V): this may be an odd choice considering it is a 2013 camera, but the 2015 mark II model added nothing useful and compounded insult by increasing the price. The positive consequence is the old one became even cheaper, but no less capable. Still the best compact you can buy – remember, a Leica Q won’t fit in your pocket. (Actually, it might after removing that much cash from it.)

Camera of the year (high end, above $2000) – Leica Q Typ 116, with the Sony A7RII as runner up
Anybody who has shot with the Q 116 will know why it justifies its place in this list. It is probably the first of the new generation of all-electronic (finder, AF, mirrorless, touch screen etc.) cameras that has the immediacy, responsiveness and haptics of the best of any camera. It is a transparent camera in the best way possible, and has very, very well thought out ergonomics that never seem to get in the way. I have never at any point wished for an optical finder with this camera.  Sure, there are optical compromises with the lens (some focus shift, field curvature, distortion, heavy software correction) to achieve size and cost objectives, but it matches pretty well to the 24MP sensor. I would have liked the sensor from the D810 or A7RII, but then it would become a precision ‘slow tool’ instead of a do-anything documentary camera with an incredibly wide shooting envelope. I’ve used it for everything from reportage in environmentally very unpleasant situations to handheld longish exposure nightscapes to family images at home, and it’s performed flawlessly. Unconsciously, it has turned out to be the camera I reach for when I need to grab a shot or carry only one camera – I have over 10,000 frames on my counter and never used the burst mode other than during early review testing. For the first time in years, Leica has succeeded in producing what feels like a true digital successor to the film M gestalt. Yes, it’s horribly expensive, but it has no competition.

I make no secret of my mixed feelings towards the A7RII. It nearly didn’t make the list, but the firmware update brought it back into contention because at least image quality is now a notch higher. It is the haptic opposite of the Q: an electronic gadget, not a camera. You have to think like a computer or software engineer to make sense of the menus and operate it fluidly. I still do not find it enjoyable to shoot, there are a lot of compromises in just about every aspect of operation (and let’s not talk about file compression), but I do also acknowledge that it does bring a remarkable amount of technology to the table in a way that also expands the shooting envelope – and enough so that I bought one and am still using it, more than I expected to. All things considered, you can still get a better image out of the A7RII than anything else under most conditions, and it’s actually easier to use as a tripod-based body than a D810 or 5DSR because the whole thing is optimised for live view to begin with. This does not mean it has the highest image quality at the price point or sensor size full stop – but it comes close, and stays at that level for a much wider shooting envelope that the competition.

The caveat is you have to be willing to live with the slowness, battery life and demandingness on lenses – basically, it shoots like a very small medium format body. Have expectations as such, and you’ll be fine. Sony’s willingness to cave and provide 14 bit raw at least shows they are listening to customers, and is encouraging for the longevity of the system (even if separating the sensor division and the confusion over the A mount/ DSLR future sends decidedly mixed signals about commitment to the camera business as a whole). Image quality is noticeably better after the update, though operation is even slower. Now all they need to do is follow through with the other haptic aspects of the camera – and up write speed – and the competition can pack up and go home.

Some of you may be wondering why the Leica SL did not make the list – the answer is once again close, but no cigar. There are things it does better than almost any other camera – responsiveness, AF speed, some UI elements – but also things that should really have been caught in firmware (lack of fast exposure compensation, for one). And the size of the whole thing really negates the mirrorless advantage and introduces new ergonomic challenges; you can’t use image quality as an argument either because the sensor is only 24MP (likely to avoid cannibalising S sales, and putting even more demands on the optics). At the prices Leica are asking – there’s really no excuses.

2015 has yielded an embarrassment of riches for the photographer – it has been some time since any of us have had a technical excuse for missing an image, but even more so now. A lot of the trends we’ve expected in the last few years have come to pass – mobiles effectively killing compacts, resolution trends continuing, video convergence etc. – but there have been a few surprises, too. Mainly, the silence of the incumbents towards the mirrorless challenge – it has been looming for years, yet all we get are 240MP prototypes. Surely as much as you are trapped into your current system, and you’re going to have user and R&D write-offs – it must be better to endure them now and cannibalise your own system in the switch than leave it to the competition? Worse still for them, I think one of the major future trends is going to be one of ‘system universality’, or ‘lens invariance’ – no longer will users pick systems based on staying within that system, but we will assemble a collection of lenses that work, and then change bodies independently of that. I may run a Sony body for some things, a Leica Q for others, and a Nikon for still others. But if you’re not in the lens game, or your lenses don’t offer something unique, you’d better watch out for Zeiss, Sigma and the rest. There is no economic or weight attraction in having one in each focal length for every system. I am fairly sure I am not alone in thinking I wouldn’t mind spending say $3-4,000 on a lens, but that lens has to have a wide shooting envelope and effectively be the last lens I ever buy in that focal length. Perhaps 2016 will be a year of optics…MT

The full recommended gear list is here.


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  1. How do you think the A7II does, considering the a7rII did make your list? It’s sub $2k just like the d5500 and is apparently decent fast – at least compared to the original models.

  2. If you buy the D5500 you can get the 55-200 VRII in a bundle for only $95 more at Adorama

    • I thought they only bundled it with the wide kit or the wide kit and the tele – not just with the tele alone. Odd choice given most people would be buying it as a sole first camera?

  3. My friend, what advice would you give to someone building a full frame system from scratch today – with no lenses in the bag. Nikon, Sony, Canon? I would like a small camera I guess, but I think the “true test” of size would be with a 27-70 zoom attached, as that would be my holliday companion. So perhaps I’m really asking; what is the best standard zoom and camera combination? Low light quality is for me more important than AF speed (no children,no sports). I will need some primes, but there must be a good standard zoom for the system – does such a zoom excist for the A7 line from Sony? Today I have too many cameras, but not really anythig to build from (EOS 20D, 5D mark1, Pentax K50, Olympus OM D E5… …and Sony RX1, two Sigma DP Merrils, Leica X Vario…- and my old Leica M8.2). I had the A7R for one year, with only one lens. Sold it because I got a good price and the new the next model would soon come. I liked it, but not sure about that standard zoom…? Max cost would be that of the 5DSR… And yes, I will give away some gear and never look back – one system for the rest of my life! 🙂

    • I don’t think it exists. They all trade off something for something else; Sony has no f2.8 zooms, the DSLRs have size/weight limitations and no built in stabilisation. If it was a one-size fits all then I’d probably get a D750 and 24-120/4 VR or 24-70/2.8 VR.

  4. Ming, have you tried any non-standard viewfinder screens for focusing the Otus 28? (Or any other purpose, for that matter…)

    • Yes. Accuracy is still poor as these screens cannot distinguish much below about f2.8, and require perfect mirror alignment and planarity. Live view and an LCD magnifier is still much better.

  5. Question about sugru: how well does it stick to a well-used grip? I bought a used camera and want to modify its grip a tad… Is soap and water good enough to clean it before applying?

    • Not sure; I’ve only ever used it on new grips or really clean items. The grip may be somewhat surface-porous to a degree, so it’s hard to say.

      • The sugru works! It’s amazing!

        I turned the uncomfortable grip of the original 5D into something that feels like a part of my hand by bulking up the front a bit like on your A7Rii, and building myself a chunky, deep thumb ridge on the right side of the back like on Canon’s newer cameras.

        I can’t put it down anymore because my hand just keeps finding its way back to the camera just to hold it, whereas before I was afraid of dropping it (and shaking from having to grip so hard) when using heavier lenses.

        • 🙂 Just beware that it isn’t always removable afterwards, which might of course affect resale value.

          • It looks like should I ever tire of the camera (unlikely), I can just buy new grips on ebay and replace the Sugru’d ones.

            Just as an aside: the camera has bizarre, magical highlight rendering that always looks good, even if things are horribly clipped. It’s like adding two stops of usable DR, because I don’t have to be afraid of clipping in the slightest. Does this sound something like the behavior of the D810’s highlights that you wrote about in your long term review?

            • So long as there’s no Sugru on the metal, yes, you should be fine. The thing with the D810’s highlight rendering is that it actually is recoverable and doesn’t clip til much later…so no, it’s not quite the same thing (if my experience with the 5DSR is anything to go by.)

              • The 5D does play *very* nicely with highlight reconstruction, so far in my experience always having a full stop of headroom, and even if it’s clipped after that, it’s still very pleasant.

                My 60D and GR don’t behave anywhere nearly as nicely in the highlights; if it’s clipped, highlight reconstruction is more likely to give nasty color artifacts, and even if that’s not happening, the final unrecoverable clipping (like when shooting into the sun, for example) is ugly by comparison.

                • Smaller pixels tend to be less forgiving of highlight recovery simply because there’s a higher chance all three of the color channels have clipped – at this point, no recovery is possible.

  6. Sugru? I will have to make its acquaintance. This winter’s craft project may be macro flash modifiers.

  7. But the Nikon D5500 has a significant limitation for anyone with older style manual focus lenses, in that it does not allow exposure automation unless the attached lens is electronic, i.e., with chip and electrical contacts. In contrast, for example, the Nikon D7000 series provides aperture priority exposure automation with non-electronic AI’d, AI, and AIS Nikkor lenses, Voigtlander SL, Zeiss ZF, and Leica R and C/Y lenses adapted with unchipped Leitax Nikon F mounts, while the Nikon D3000 and D5000 series will not allow even aperture priority exposures with these older style non-electronic manual focus lenses.

  8. I still think the A is right up there with the GR, I understand your concern with the BW rendering though. Having owned both the thing that I found was not only was the A, a bit more robust, but at least in the U.S., I had a better time dealing with Nikon for repair work. To bad it a dead end product, at least the GR line has a future.

    • I agree, though the A isn’t easily available anymore it seems – and support for the GR Isn’t that bad in the rest of the world. That said, the frequency with which I keep hearing both cameras need repair is quite scary for compacts…

  9. Larry Kincaid says:

    Thanks, Ming. I just received my Leica Q for “Christmas” (from June) from PopFlash at a great price (below US $4,000). Of course, it’s already lived up to all of the hype. But what totally surprised me when I finally got ahold of one was the small size. Somehow it looks larger on the screen, even when next to larger cameras. What shocked me–because nobody mentioned it–is that it fit into my old Luigi leather half-case for my Leica M6, with a bit of room to spare. Alas, the proper digital replacement for what got me started down this path, the M6. In a sense, no camera you carry around should be larger than the M6. That’s why I balked at the new M, it’s larger size. The Q is the perfect size for me. I was also to test the somewhat controversial built-in cropping which allows you to select the perspective/framing in advance while still getting the full-sized DNG. Everyone should know by now that portraits with a 28mm lens often distort the subject if you stand too close. By using the pre-framed 50mm selection to take the photo you ensure that you are avoiding that distortion and actually getting the exact equivalent of what a 50mm lens would give you. At the push of a button.

    The cropping gives you a smaller file size, but once again, this is not a 6MP, 12MP, or 18MP digital camera. It’s full-frame 24MP to begin with. But I never could tell how much you would be losing for the final print when you pre-crop like this. After my own tests, I now know. With all set for printing with 300dpi, you get the following print sizes: at the native 28mm 13.3 x 20 inches without enlargement (68.7MP, 4000 x 8000 pixels). With the 35mm pre-crop jpg, 10.7 x 16 inches (43.9MP, 3200 x 4800 pixels), and at 50mm you get a 8 x 12 inch print (24.7MP, 2400 x 3600 pixels). How often do you print a portrait larger than 8 x 10, and it can probably withstand a digital increase to 11 x 14 to print “large.” For street, landscape, architecture, you’d still want the 28 or 35 mm frame.

    But what pleased me the most was the sense that I was holding my old (now sold) M6 in my hands again. Reincarnated in a 2015 digital form. But the old half-case is not open in the back, so the LCD screen cannot be seen. So, to use it I have to make due with the EVF and no “chimping” or fiddlng with settings. What? That means that I’ve been spared the US $ 19,000 cost of the Leica (M) Edition 60 which purposely omits the LCD screen so you can focus on photography, just like you did with the old film Leicas. I can now tell my wife how much money “we” saved by buying a cheap Leica Q. P.S. Anything above 50mm, I use my Olympus M1.

  10. Jos Martens says:

    Yours is a wise, well reasoned wish list .Thanks for all the valuable effort you put in this blog.
    Could you elaborate on the FF coverage of the Sigma 18-35 and eventually compare it with Sigma’s 24-35 f2 ART?

    • Thanks. Not used the 24-35. The 18-35 covers FF from 28-35 without vignetting (and no hood, obviously), 16:9 from 24-35, 1.2x from 20-35. Note there will be noticeable vignettes (but never completely black) at all focal lengths.

  11. Dear Ming, thank you so much for this website. I’ve read most of your articles of the past 24 months or so and I deeply admire your awesome work, aesthetically and philosophically alike. I can’t help but wonder how someone can just be so productive and generate so much quality content. This is only my second comment and I’d like to apologise for being a fusspot (once again), but you keep referring to your Otus lenses as “Otii” in Latin plural – which would mean that the singular was “Otius”. Wouldn’t it be more correct to call them “Oti” instead? Or “Otuses”, even if it may look less … posh.
    I am looking forward to reading your next articles, and I wish you all the best for you and your family.

  12. Frans Richard says:

    Sugru was the tip of the year for me! Just ordered some. Thanks Ming. 🙂
    Looking forward to 2016, what do you think about this kickstarter project, the Lumu Power light meter?

  13. Ming,

    Some advices needed.

    I like to shoot light weighted at 3 focal lengths, wide, 50mm, and a portrait. I don’t like to change lens because I have an impatient kid running around. I6 to 24 mpx are good enough for me. I believe lens are more important. I also like to do night shots or shots in dimly lit restaurant, so stabilization is needed in one of the bodies. Live-view is needed. Money is not an issue.

    My current setup is an omd em5mk2 + gm1 +gm5

    • Money is not an issue.

      Build your own camera, or three 😉

    • Pana-Leica 15mm, Olympus 25mm, and Olympus 45mm. Very light-weight, sharp lenses and allows you to switch bodies around depending on which one you want stabilised. Don’t be put off by the relatively low cost – anything better requires compromising weight more than price.

    • Michiel953 says:

      Do you mean carrying three different cameras is easier (with that impatient kid running around) than changing lenses? Possibly. The DP Merrils are made for you then.

      I’ve got two (twins) two and a half year old girls running around. I just screw the 35mm to my D810, and hope for the best. For all other situations where more focal lengths might be appropriate, I pre-think and take the 35 and the 58. Or the 24 and the… 85? Whatever. I get by.

      • Yes and no – depends much on the size of those three cameras! I’d rather not risk dropping lenses in a hurry, but I’d also rather not carry three D4s…

        Nine out of ten times I’ll just grab the Q.

        • Michiel953 says:

          Which is why proffered the three Merrills. The concept of having a different (compact and light) camera for each focal length is creative and innovative, but also alien to me. So it’s interchangeble lenses, with all drawbacks that system brings. Zoom lenses? I felt you’re always, as in always, carrying too much hardware for any given situation. With interchangeable lenses you just turn out to have made the wrong choice when you set out. It’s part of human nature I guess.

  14. Dwaine Dibbly says:

    Great to see Sugru get a mention! I’ve been using the stuff for a few years now. Keep the packets in the refrigerator and you can greatly extend their life.

  15. Ming,

    I recently picked up the Sigma 18-35 for my D7100 and was absolutely stunned. It completely changed my standards for lenses now (I’ve never used an Otus). I feel spoiled and ruined. The D7100 + Sigma 18-35 + Nikon 70-200 f/4 + Nikon 50 f/1.8 and I’m set. Great flexibility, reasonable weight (and I can always leave the 70-200 at home/hotel if needed), and easy to fly with (In my F-Stop Kenti, of course)! I was on a three week trip in Prague, Budapest, and Vienna with this combo (plus a handful of others though the only one that got any use was the Nikon 10-24 for its wide end) and blissfully happy and finally felt like my equipment did not get in the way except for a few small places (Live-view on the D7100 is still crappy and no tilting screen, but I can live with that). Now if someone will just make an AF DX prime in the 10-16 f/2 ish range….

    Thanks for the site as always,

  16. Many expected the sensor of the K3 in the Ricoh GRii and were disapointed.
    For me the following improvements GRii>GR have become important (there are further changes):
    – Wifi: I can place the camera everywhere and control it from my smartphone. Very stealthy since the camera is not very apparent.
    – 10 raw frames in a burst (was 4) @ 6fps.
    – autofocus during movie capture
    – pixel mapping of hot pixels (needed service for this before)
    – exposure compensation during movie capture
    – wireless flash suport

    The improvements are definitely not nil.

    • No, but they’re not worth a $200 premium, either, nor do are they fundamental improvements to the core purpose of the camera. The GR has always been a specialised tool – nobody uses them for movie recording because there are much better performers for less money, for instance. None of the improvements make any meaningful difference to its value as a candid documentary tool: put it this way: there are no images that I would be able to get with the new one I’d have missed with the old one; the shooting envelope is identical.

      • The other day I left the camera (GRii) just beside the altar at a wedding (slightly hidden by some flowers). I was in the sixth or seventh row (behind other relatives) and controlled everything via smartphone. Got some great shots of the bride and groom including ring exchange. Would have been impossible to shoot with the GR, especially since the priest insisted that no one should be running around with a camera during the ceremony (I convinced him the camera is unhearable from two meters distance).

        It obviously depends on what shooting envelope one has in mind. It might reasonably differ for you or others…..

        PS: Price has dropped considerably for the GRii by the way. No camera should be bought for the RSP at introduction (first 2 months)

  17. Lists like this offer the pleasures both of window-shopping and validation. (Perhaps most web reading reflects some form of confirmation-bias.) Still, it’s a pleasure to see that the only item on your list that is at least a couple of years old is the Ricoh GR. I bought it on your recommendation and I’m still trying to extract as much as you do from it. But what a pleasure it is to use! (I’m very impressed, too, that a Q owner still keeps it on his list). Thank you for yet more intelligent reviews, Ming. Best wishes, Peter.

    • Well, the purpose of the list was for 2015 releases – I did similar lists in previous years. Notice how the D810 isn’t on there 🙂 The GR hasn’t got a better replacement – not even its own successor. And my Q continues in my own arsenal as the wide documentary workhorse…

  18. Spend my year-end bonus? Time to break out the Sugru.

    Thanks for your interest in the D5500 and cost efficient lenses. When it’s cooled off in a year or so I may buy one. A fix for the back focus problem may arrived by then. Which is a problem confounding on two levels: why the flood of cameras released with obvious defects? And, why the problem at all? Light is light, right? At least in the visible spectrum. Is this seen in other cameras?

    • I think it may not be a defect so much as a limitation of the AF system. The CAM3500 cameras correct for the offset with software (the D800 was the first camera for which a software update was specifically released to correct this – I assume subsequent cameras incorporated it). I suspect to a degree it has always been a problem since the PDAF system will measure a different distance depending on the wavelength for which it has been calibrated – and incandescent light is much warmer than daylight. It’s just that we haven’t seen it until recently. A little search revealed it’s been a problem for Pentax, Canon and the D7000/7100 also…

      • At the risk of revealing my complete ignorance: would using a filter to offset the warm color of tungsten permit the camera to focus correctly?

        • I don’t see why not. But you’d lose quite a bit of sensitivity in the process because the dominant red channel would have to be brought down to match the blue channel.

          • I’ve had some luck with the Heliopan Digital Filter. This filter has a sharp cut-off at blue (to UV) and red (to IR) edge, letting only visible light pass. Obviously some of the problem is strong light in this range (dark red / beginning IR) that is throwing some autofocus sensors off their tracks. Since this differs from camera to camera you might just need to try if it helps. In my case (Pentax K7 to K3) it helped. In the case of the alreeady improved K3 it completely abolished the issue.

  19. Antonio Veraga says:

    You’re right to elevate firmware into a “best of” innovation win, Ming. It’s underappreciated.

    Camera manufacturers still haven’t learned from Apple that adding to the functionality of the device with regular software/firmware gives Apple another way to keep their customers happy (and loyal) until the hardware improvements of their future models justify a physical upgrade.

    The shortsighted view of the Japanese camera companies has been to add firmware functionality to next year’s model (primarily for lack of developing compelling new hardware features). This highlights the other problem… most camera makers have essentially stopped innovating hardware. As such, other than for an incremental, iterative bump in resolution (at the expense of noise and color quality) there’s basically no need for anyone with modern DSLR to upgrade further.

  20. John Cecilian says:

    Maybe I missed it, but there is no mention, perhaps it came out too late of the new Sony RX1R Mark ii which has the improvements in AF as well as the sensor that were borrowed from the A7R Mark II, In addition, it now has a tilt screen, a pop up EVF, and wifi. The AF appears much faster than the original version and the sensor quality coupled with the specially mated 35mm lens seem quite good as well. Of course, i am not a professional reviewer but the things that people found lacking in the original RX1R (which almost all reviewers found the IQ outstanding) have now been fixed…apparently.

    • I’m not a professional reviewer either, but I am a professional photographer – which means I can’t recommend something I haven’t seen, much less even used…

      I suspect professional reviewers would recommend it because they’d be paid to 🙂

      • Hi Ming,
        Surely, however, you can mention its existence and the fact that, on paper, is a direct competitor to the Leica Q; it’s no small news. You don’t need to use the RX1RII to acknowledge that much.

        • I still don’t see it that way. 28 and 35mm are very different perspectives and definitely NOT interchangeable. Given there’s no TC or WC for either, they don’t overlap – and no, cropping isn’t really an option, either. You can’t compare ~18MP with ~42.

  21. Thank you Ming. I always enjoy your posts on the artistic-side but your lucidity with the technical/gear aspects is to be commended, and the gear articles are what first drew me to your site.

    I’m delighted that you mentioned the Nikon 200-500 and you’re not loath to mention other inexpensive options (the 55-200 II for example). I rented the 200-500 for a wildlife weekend and while it’s vastly larger than what I’ve shot with in the past, on the (also rented) D7200 it was fabulous.

    Merry Christmas!

    P.S. I know you get affiliate-link money from B&H, do you get it from Amazon too (like for the 55-200 linky)?

  22. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    Nothing from Fujifilm. That will light up that camp pretty hot I imagine.

    • Wel, it isn’t my job to please people…

      • Ming,

        I should feel upset as my latest acquisition is the X Pro 1 with 35 and 18 lenses. The kit has been heavily discounted here in the UK recently. In many ways, it is very much like my beloved M6 to use (I never warmed to Leica’s digital M’s) and has AF to boot. But it is easy to understand why it never made your list, nor did other Fuji’s despite their excellent IQ, IMO. I am finding it suits my style and use down to the ground, although others will baulk at its many limitations and which, it has to be admitted, are many.

        • Well, the list is really only for 2015 releases – since I did a similar list for the last two years. As with every list the rationale is biased towards personal preferences and use, and if none of the Fujis fit, I don’t see why that would be a problem for somebody for which they do work…

  23. Thanks for this – lots of options at a variety of price points, which is nice for a hobbyist striving to observe a budget…. I’ve been waiting a long time for a D90/D7xxxx in a D5xxx size body. I realize it’s never going to happen so it’s the D7200 to replace an aging D40 (obviously, I’m not an early adopter or one who lives on the bleeding edge….) In my case, I opted for the slightly higher spec of the 7200 over the 5500 given my needs (commander flash and better autofocus & burst capability – motorsports, wildlife, and herding dogs are common subjects). But the D5500 w/ your 18-35 and 55-200 choices seems like a very capable and lightweight kit. Indeed, the D40 is going to my son and the 55-200 supplementing the 18-55 would be perfect for his pre-teen hands.

    Thank you for your seemingly endless energy in sharing your knowledge and experience. All the best for a healthy and prosperous 2016!

    • Makes sense if the body has to do everything – but given weight is the last thing on my list, I went as light as possible. 🙂

      • Perfectly understandable. Most of my motor racing visits are more social than photographic – last thing I want to do is carry excess weight and numerous lenses when out in the sun all day long. My last such trip included a 70-300 on the D40 and an RX100 for static and garage/pit lane shots. Worked perfectly fine. I realize that moving from 6 to 24 MP will require a less casual approach to lenses. But after living with 3 focus points and an upper ISO 800 (sometimes 400) limit, I’m ready for some shot discipline. Thanks again.

  24. Panasonic are solely focusing on 4K in their Christmas 2015 ad campaign for the Lumix range here in the UK – specifically the ability to pull a still out of a video sequence. First time I personally have seen that idea branded up and marketed to the masses by one of the big camera companies.

    Not surprised you liked the D5500 – I bought my girlfriend a D3300 in the summer (after looking at a number of sexier mirrorless alternatives), and the image quality really does hold its own against my D810. Nowhere near as big a difference as I expected.

    • What they fail to mention is shutter speeds have to be high enough to stop motion to get a sharp still, which makes for jerky video. Motion blur makes for smooth video but crappy stills.

      The 3300 was also under consideration, but the 12 but compressed pipeline (only) killed it for me. And the 5500 is smaller…but has a flip touch screen too!

      • I reckon trawling through 30 FPS video footage to find “the exact image that you had in mind” (as they put it) would get old pretty quickly anyway. Give me a camera responsive enough to just take that one image any day :p It’s bad enough choosing from two or three frames with burst mode…

        Shame about the inevitable 12-bit entry model hamstring-ing. Both the 3X00 and 5X00 lines seem to have made a sizeable leap forward since launch, though; the image problem they have these days isn’t a technical issue, but a lack of showroom appeal :p

        • Or a simple marketing fail: the 5500 is the perfect answer to mirrorless. The size is comparable and usability is high; responsiveness is much better and the lens options are complete. But instead Nikon promotes the 1…and badly.

          • Ming, IMHO, 5500 can’t be an answer to mirrorless. Compare it’s size and weight to Sony’s crop mirrorless and 5500 is not small enough. Of course it wins in focusing speed in low light (what I read, no experience personally) but mirrorless cameras will keep evolving. From manufacturing point of view, mirrors should cost more too (too many parts). I don’t see how Canikon are going to compete in smaller mirrorless space (smaller than FF) without having a real mirrorless one. They seem to be stuck and pretty soon mirrorless will surpass them on focusing speed. flexibility of the mount etc.

            • Functionally, I’d still take the 5500 over a crop mirrorless camera though. Weight is actually similar because the body is carbon fibre and not metal. I agree mirrorless will evolve, but we’re not ‘there yet’.

  25. The 18-35 F1.8 you use with the D5500 is the Sigma one? How’s the quality on that one?

  26. Thanks for introducing Sugru to me, looks like a great product!

  27. John Nicholson says:

    So glad to have your posting of Sugru – I know where I’m going to put some on my X-Vario as soon as I can lay my hands on some. And my thumb will be delighted!! (By the way, I think the Leica SL with the 24-90 lens is really the Q-vario rather than a scaled-down S.)

  28. About the first paragraph: let’s hope we do not need a death. This morning I saw this: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/11/toddler-loses-eyeball-after-errant-drone-slices-it-in-half/

    • That’s bad enough.

    • Romano, thankfully, despite this horrific injury, little Oscar has made a remarkable recovery. He was on the local TV news the other day playing happily with his mother and seemingly oblivious to the loss of his eye. Let’s hope this tragic incident is a wake up call to the dangers these devices can pose. I think there may be a call here in the UK for all drones to have some protection against naked rotors. Some models already have these, I understand.

  29. Thanks for this, Ming. Question: With firmware 4.0 out would you change what you wrote in the EM-5 II review re. the EM-1?

    “If you shoot with legacy 4/3 lenses, then the E-M1 is the only one that offers PDAF. But I would avoid the E-M1 simply because you can only shoot single frame stills without shutter shock.”

    • Can’t comment. Haven’t used FW4 extensively enough, and I wouldn’t buy another Olympus with the state of management and support in Malaysia.

      • That’s a good point. I am not sure as to the support available in Israel either. Canon and Nikon yes. So I will probably go the Nikon route – D7200 (though what you wrote about the D5500 makes it compelling offering) – and a Coolpix A sometime in the New Year. Cheers!

    • FW4 finally fixed what shouldn’t have been broken in the first place, i.e. shutter shock issue is now gone even with sequential shooting. There are a couple of caveats though. Firstly, the electronic first curtain mode only works up to 5fps. In full electronic shutter mode you can go up to 11fps, but it doesn’t work well with artificial lighting because the flicker shows at faster shutter speeds. With natural light sources it’s fine as long as you avoid rolling shutter effects.

      For me, installing FW4 was like getting a new camera. The E-M1 is again the flagship model, the only feature it lacks is the high resolution mode of the E-M5ii, and that isn’t very useful in the first place. With the new firmware E-M1 will stay relevant for at least two more years, and looking at current second hand prices, it’s starting to be something of a bargain. For me personally the E-M1 has better ergonomics than any other OM-D and the legacy 4/3 support is great. Now if I could only find a second hand 14-35mm f/2. That’s a lens Olympus should really make for native m4/3.

  30. We’re spoiled for choice, basically, aren’t we? So many interesting innovations and possibilities.

    While these all look nice (and others look flat-out great), I’ve found myself going the other way : towards less automation. I always enjoyed shooting my film cameras with manual focus (which was the only option), although my current setup (an OMD- EM5) has such good autofocus that I tend to use that. Of course you can go manual on the EM5 too, but it’s sort of like film vs digital : a manual focus lens really forces you to check your settings before you shoot, whereas with a camera with such good AF, it is all too easy to fall back on it.

    Something you wrote about the 28 Otus made me think : “But focusing it on any DSLR is like playing roulette”

    I’ve always been intrigued by the manual-focus only lenses (Zeiss in particular) on a good full frame DSLR but, as you have often said, focusing them with the standard focusing screen, without live view, is very tricky wide open. I tried the 100 Makro-Planar on a D800 at the weekend (tried, didn’t buy!) and while I have good eyesight, and the focus confirmation dot suggested that I was in focus, when I looked at the photos later, I was close but definitely not dead-on. I re-read your review of that lens and you suggested as such because of the focus throw.

    My question : do you have any idea if a dedicated focusing screen such as those available for Canon DSLRs would make a significant difference in being able to focus such a lens accurately at wide apertures? I am (as you phrased it) “brand agnostic”, so I don’t care about the maker. Unless I’m mistaken, Canon still allow users to switch out the focusing screens in their DSLRs, whereas Nikon basically does not. Last time I heard about a dedicated focusing screen for a Nikon DSLR was for the D3.

    Any thoughts you have on this would be much appreciated.

    • Focusing screens help but none of the modern ones are any good at f1.4. And it’s all contingent on your mirror alignment – the screen to flange distance must be exactly the same as flange to sensor. I’m not sure the Olympus is any simpler though…

    • L. Ron Hubbard says:

      I’ve gone back to film due to the horrible viewfinders in DSLR’s. I enjoy manual focus far too much to surrender that experience for the lifeless drone of autofocus. A pity that CaNikon can’t develop a DSLR for manual focus fans. Maybe one day.

  31. Gary Morris says:

    I’d swap out the D5500 for the D7100. Current pricing is similar and you can fine tune the auto focus with the D7100.

    • Weight and lack of tilting screen.

      • Although having d750, when have tried the d5500, I were really impressed with the egronomics, weight and image of it. And i am thinking of if only nikon trim down the thickness of the body, that would be waresome, no need for mirrorless for size and weight advantages.

        • Not possible because the flange distance required for the lenses to focus properly is already fixed by the original design parameters of the mount. The rest of the camera is about as thin as they can make it, though.

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