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 Loxia, Zeiss 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
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