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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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