If high ISO image quality is the number one priority on your camera evaluation spreadsheet, and you are a Nikon shooter. This is your winner. It's also the perfect nostalgia booster for anyone who started photography with an SLR (no "D") in their hands.
If you are looking for an incredibly detailed sensor and the ability to use it with Canon, Nikon, Leica, etc. lenses, and you want all that at a reasonable price, then this should be at the top of your short list. It's the D.I.Y. fanatic's dream. Can I wedge a Nikon 43-86mm zoom on there? You bet!
Looking for a camera that's so well stabilized that it takes five times as long to hit the ground when you accidentally drop it? How about the camera that's the most fun to use? Or the one with boxes full of cool lenses? So, what's a few fewer pixels between friends?
It's been an interesting year for cameras. Not that there was a record number of them introduced or that there were tremendous technical breakthroughs to celebrate. This year was like a maturing process for the main camera types. But there's enough going on to keep the enthusiasts clutching their checkbooks and trying to decide if now is the time to plunge in and buy......more cameras.
For full on marketing innovation you've got to hand it to Sony, they turn total product indecision into a plus, wipe out whole product categories and re-label stuff with reckless abandon. We'd call it the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" methodology but so the consumer wall has proved to be more or less Teflon(tm) until now.
But let's drop back a few years and look at where Sony has come from. Five years ago they introduced the rock hard (and heavy as a brick) ultra-traditional DSLR, the a900. They quickly followed with almost exactly the same camera in the form of the a850. These were both built like tanks and made very few concessions to the digital age. No live view. No video. Just full frame sensors (which were rare at the time) and lots of heavy metal. Popular with the Sony faithful (all 50 of them) and a good platform for using Zeiss primes and G series zooms.
But by 2010 these two cameras were getting long in the tooth and the Sony-ites were screaming for a new full frame body. It came in the form of the a99 which was both loved and hated. Loved because it used a state of the art sensor and put Sony shooters in range of the Canon and Nikon faithful for high ISO performance. And it was optimized for best color. But it was also hated because Sony pulled a "Sony" and gave us yet another flash shoe standard. One that is anything but standard. Just ask anyone who tries to put a radio trigger on the new flash....
But at the very bottom of the list of things to hate about the a99, if you are into hating the a99, is the almost religious prejudice against the fixed, pellicle mirror that gives the a99 full time live view and full time feed to a gorgeous electronic viewfinder. That the fixed mirror engendered and empowered the EVF is a source of rage for all the shooters who still think the earth is flat, at the center of the solar system and less than five thousand years old.
So, with a slight of hand, the Sony engineers removed the object of trepidation (the mirror), moved the lens flange in a lot closer to the sensor and invented the A7 and A7r. Slow to focus, louder than a jackhammer and dependent (at least initially) on a host of lens adapters for optical inventory the A7r has become a surprise darling. Why? Because it does the same trick the micro four thirds cameras and Nex cameras have done for the last four years..... It let's you use all manner of DSLR lenses from across the brand zoo on the camera and let's you take advantage of a masterful sensor if you are currently using wonderful tilt shift lenses from a brand of camera that can't seem to make great sensors anymore....(hello Canon. No cameras on the list this year).
Who is buying the A7r (the model with 36 megapixels and no AA filter)? A legion of architectural photographers who've invested in a grocery bag full of Canon tilt/shirt lenses who've been looking with green envy at the Nikon D800e users. (But it goes both ways since D800e users covet the Canon tilt/shift lenses....). The A7r deftly solves the problem for about 2/3rds the price of the Canons and with a much better implementation of live view because it comes right through a state of the art electronic viewfinder.
According to my industry sources this camera is making it's mark in that particular sector of the business. And it's a bigger segment than you might believe. No, it's not every day consumers that are rushing to ruin the pre-holiday inventory of this camera for everyone else it's the Sony pro shooters who think they see the almost posted eulogy for the Alpha mount models and the hordes of Canon shooters begging for a stop or two more of dynamic range and high ISO performance along with a 50% increase in resolution. Can you blame them?
That makes the A7r one of my "cameras of the year" even though I don't own one and don't have one on my own list. Me? I'm waiting for the next Alpha mount cameras. Time will tell.
The next camera on my list is the OM-D EM-1. I'm just going to call it the EM1. I first played with one at a dinner with the president of Olympus Imaging USA when I was in NYC for the PP show. The standout feature for me and the single feature that makes it a must upgrade for rabid Olympus users has to be the EVF. It is the most beautiful one I've seen so far and it's a vast improvement, operationally, over the typical optical viewfinder. It's so well done and so well incorporated into the camera.
But let me back up and set the stage for why the EM1 deserves to be one of the cameras of the year.
Olympus really gelled most of the performance, handling, visual design and imaging parameters in the EM5 camera introduced the year before. Sony delivered a beautiful sensor, Olympus delivered a beautiful image stabilization engine, the body designers got their jobs mostly right and they iced their cake with a mature and adored Jpeg engine. The camera moved a big segment of long time users away from their traditional DSLRs and into the mirror less space. It doesn't take a brain scientist or a rocket surgeon to see where the market is headed and, for the most part it's not aimed at making big prints or printing double truck spreads in magazines anymore. When you consider the target (screens and web) you can understand that this camera hit the sweet spot of price, handling and happiness.
But Olympus had a skeleton in the closet: A big, angry, embedded group of people who'd answered Olympus siren call of the original four thirds, mirrored, DSLR cameras and tucked away some wonderful (and expensive) lenses only to be abandoned for the mirror less tarts. They had gotten people to invest in great glass that, with adapters, focuses like molasses, if at all, with their new line of smaller cameras. And after the 2009 introduction of the E5 Olympus essentially pulled up the ladder and stopped discussing the crazy aunt camera line they had locked up in the attic.
The new camera, the EM1 was Olympus shot at doing two things: First, with a new focusing system and a new series of adapters they are trying to throw a lifeline to the owners of the older, larger format Olympus cameras by allowing them to re-imagine their legacy lenses as a newly re-invigorated line of pro lenses for the mirror less system. Sure, it belies the size and weight advantage that drives the system marketing but it does toss up a big tent for loyal, past users of the brand. And secondly, the new camera attempts to build a bridge between the ideas of "consumer" cameras and "professional system" cameras. The EM1 is the F series for micro four thirds.
Even though I like the video of the Panasonic GH3 much better I'm quick to admit that as an "all arounder" the EM1 is the best of the small format mirror less cameras so far.
In addition to the EVF I gushed over above the entire camera feels quicker and more solid that it's recent predecessor, which also stays in the line up. For now.
What a small camera system like the one built around the OMD cameras buys users is a wonderful shooting experience that's truly portable. Especially if one is open to cherry picked the lens lines of all the signatories to the format. Foremost in my mind would be the two f2.8 zooms from Panasonic which will work with total transparency between the two brands. Add the little (but powerful) Panasonic 7-14mm lens and you have a wonderful shooting system that mimics (and mostly delivers) everything that professionals have wanted in systems since the introduction of the fast, standard zoom and the ubiquitous and pricey 70-200mm f2.8 zooms. Only now you don't have to be a weight lifter with marathoner endurance in order to enjoy the same style of shooting experience. That, in a lens cap, is the reason why the EM1 is on my list. But again, not on my personal list....
Finally, let's talk about the geezer pleaser. That would be the Nikon Df. I've been hard on this camera model because I'm insulted by it's affectation. The dials are all nice and retro but it's all fly by wire underneath. But that's hardly fair since I guess controls have really been done that way since the time of the Nikon F3 and F4 cameras.
But let me back up. What exactly is a Nikon Df? It's a full frame (that's nice) camera from Nikon that is styled like the FM and FE cameras that many, many older photographers cut their teeth on a few decades ago. It uses traditional, dedicated dials for many of the controls (although you can still drive the cameras through the LCD represented menus as well.....perhaps a nod toward people born after the Talking Heads and Devo). There are exposure compensation dials and mode dials and a shutter speed dial. Just like a real camera. Or at least that's the presentation. The love or hate of this camera comes in two places: The universal "hate" is that Nikon priced this camera at nearly $3000. It seems like a huge premium for a camera whose main differentiator seems to be the styling and user interface. You can buy a great full frame Nikon for around $2,000 in the form of a D610 (and it appears that Nikon has sorted out the "feature" found on the D600 which randomly threw trash and gunk all over the sensor for a cool, spattered image overlay look).
So, if you are paying an extra thousand bucks for the interface and that's a hate point then what is the "love" point? Well, beside the awesome, mid-1980's styling Nikon did one thing to tip the scales for the people who are actually interested in owning technically superior gear.....they took the sensor from the D4 (resisted the temptation to increase the megapixel count from 16 million up to some more impressive number), tweaked it and delivered the ultimate low light, high performance black cat in a coal mine shooter's camera. The current badge of top of the ISO heap was just conferred on the Df by none other than the wizards at DXO, the website that we love when our cameras win and hate when out cameras don't do as well....).
Why did the Df make my list as one of the three cameras of the year? Well, for some users the interface is a source of nostalgic warmth and comfort in the cold, cruel world of digital imaging, but the bottom line is that the body is easy in the hands, set up to shoot well and possessed of a pretty awesome sensor that answers the high end imaging needs of all us hand held shooters who want just a little better imaging performance when the light rachets down. It's the camera for people who never want to have to use a flash. And I'd like to think that they put it together pretty well.
It's gets the nod for performance. But one of the other cameras on the list "out-ranks" it on the DXO scorecard. The A7r beats the Df in every category of measurement except high ISO performance. You get to decide which parameters make you smile.
So, those are the cameras that I think made the biggest impact in the industry this year. They are three totally different ideas and implementations, and I think that each, in their own way, will move the camera makers to think in new ways and to flesh out new markets. The Sony is the most revolutionary while the other two are ongoing distillations and improvements. They are evolutionary.
My take on everything? We hit the sweet spot sometime near the middle of last year. Everything on the market at 16 megapixels and above is pretty darn good now. I'm loving the m4:3 stuff but I keep some full frame camera on hand for a different look. It's all good.