My top gear of the year. The stuff I bought that made my photographs more fun and some of my images better.

I know a lot of writer/photographers end the year with columns on their favorite gear but it's almost irresistable.  I narrowed my list radically and came up with a top camera based on the following criteria:  The camera had to bring a smile to my face when I put it in my hand to shoot.  The images had to be wonderful and outrageously beautiful within the context of their class and price.  The camera had to do more than just be a really nice camera with good feel; it had to bring something extra to the table.  And because I tend to use my cameras a lot and spend time with them, it had to be well designed, visually.

I thought I'd narrowed everything down to one camera.  For me that would be the Olympus PEN E-P3
.  And my reasons are weighted to both the way I like to shoot as well as the collection of legacy lenses I have sitting in the "Olympus" drawer in my studio.  The "extra" thing that the Olympus EP3 brings to the table is the ability to use my beloved, manual focus Pen lenses with few limitations (I know that the Panasonics have the same capability, and that's good because if Olympus goes away as a result of their board's financial chicanery I won't be left high and dry.  It's just that I haven't liked the look and feel of the Panasonic line as much as I do the jet age styling and wonderful VF2 finder of the Oly camp...).

Here's my quick summary of why I like the EP3 so much.  1.  Absolutely wonderful to hold in my small to average sized hands.  (If you are a massive bruin of a photographer your mileage will definitely vary... by miles.  If you are a smaller person you will adore the Pens.  I think.  I know my wife does.  It's the only camera line she currently shoots with).  2.  Unlike all you old, crank, curmudgeon guys who will "give up their optical viewfinders when they pry your cold dead fingers off the shutter button..." I have to admit that, for most stuff, I like the working methodology of using a good EVF better than using an OVF.  When I'm working with one of my Pen FT (older) lenses I can see the effects of the changing aperture in the finder as well as changes made by changing color balance, filters and other settings.  It's wonderful to see exactly what effect I'll get when I commit and push the shutter button.  It's also wonderful to be able to do a quick review with the camera at my eye.

I worked with a Leica M9 recently and loved the optical finder in that rangefinder camera but I've come to the conclusion that I can no longer afford to be a digital Leica shooter.  I'd rather adapt the M lenses that I still have to the mirrorless cameras, going forward.  If the professional market changes I might reconsider but...for most of the uses now I'll take the convenience and customization of the Pens, coupled with whatever esoteric lens I might need hooked onto the front with one of the ubiquitous adapters.

The Pen EP3 is good with batteries and also let's me shoot in whatever format (aspect ratio) I want.  And if you've read my stuff for any length of time you know I have a deep and abiding love for shooting portraits within the formalist constructs of the square.  While most of my use of the EP3 is with my older manual focus Pen FT lenses I have played around with the AF lenses (both single focal length and zooms) and am happy enough with the quick, crisp autofocus.  Finally, the camera is customizable to the extreme.  I am happy to be the kind of photographer that uses the camera with 90 % of the settings in the same place all the time.  The only things I routinely change are ISO, metering patterns, aspect ratios and color temperatures and all of those can be accessed by the Super Control Panel on the main LCD.  

The camera is agile, beautiful, well made and puts out wonderful images.  While it gets noisy at 1600 and beyond the files at 800 and under are great.  Added benefits are all the new single focal length lenses coming into the system space.  Of special note are the 12mm and the 45mm Oly lenses and the 25mm Leica/Panasonic.  This is the way a system should be and this is all the camera most people would need for tons of different tasks.  Olympic sports or NFL shooter?  You already know what you need and don't need my two cents worth.  The targets for this camera are experienced photographer who shoot art, landscapes, portraits, street work, etc. with a measured pace and deep concentration.  Or with a light hand and a quick eye.  Don't start your studio portrait business with this camera but when you become successful in it then reward yourself with one of these for the sheer pleasure of shooting.

But don't dismiss ergonomics.  Make sure you have the same fit as I do for maximum enjoyment.  Try one in your hands before you buy it.  I love the smaller systems and have ever since I took the EP2 and some lenses to West Texas back in 2009.  (It's somewhere in the blog.  Search for "Marfa" to see more images.)

So, if I were starting from scratch with a Pen, how would I configure my system?  Easy enough, I'd do the "holy trinity" of primes.  The 12mm is easy since there's no competition in the focal length.  I'd choose the new Leica 25 1.4 over the Panasonic 20mm 1.7 because I like a longer focal length, love the Leica optics and might use the 1.4 aperture from time to time.  I round out the system with the 45mm 1.8 Oly and then backfill with longer lenses as needed.  All done.  Nice system.

But just as soon as I had my mind made up to make the Olympus Pen EP3 my personal best camera of the year I started playing in earnest with the new Nikon Series One.  This threw everything up into the air like a three year old with Pick-Up-Sticks.  
So I'm declaring a tie.  If I could only have one the nod would go to the Olympus if only because if the ability to hang just about any lens made off the front of the camera.  With the right combination of adapters I could even use my Hasselblad lenses on it.  But the Nikon 1 V1 seems to be more of a closed loop system to me.  And that lack of having to make decisions beyond which of the three (four, if you count the zany video lens) lenses to put on the front when you head out the door is part of the system's charm to me.

Yes.  The Nikon sensor is tiny compared to the m4:3rds sensor size.  Double yes.  It's miniscule compared to a full frame sensor.  Many dedicated buttons and knobs are missing.  This camera won't win the "knobs-per-square-inch" contest (KPSI) against anything but a tyro cam.  But, I love the 1950's Soviet inspired industrial design of the V1 body.  I love the bright and accurate EVF and so far, the files that come barreling out of this thing are as good as what I get from the EP3.  Here's what it does better:
1. Total silence mode. (courtrooms, theater, under cover work, spy cam, and wedding ceremony friendly).  2.  Faster than anything in the universe frame rate. (Not really faster than anything in the universe but you'd be hard pressed to beat 10, 30 or 60 FPS in just about any other camera).  You will never miss the decisive sequence again.  Shooting your kid's soccer match? 10 fps and be there.  3.  The VR or IS or whatever we're calling Nikon's implementation of image stabilization is profoundly good.  And I'll admit that I like it better when it's in the lens because you can actually see the effect in the finder.  I've shot at 1/2 second and gotten good results.  It's just important to understand that it can't freeze subject motion, only the coffee induced tremors of your own hands.  And it does that very, very well.

The lenses are well done and sharp and, suprise! The camera does ISO 1600 as well as the m4:3rd's cameras.  Maybe a tiny bit better.  The high ISO performance so blows away that from big SLR's of just a generation or two earlier that it seems yet another proof of Moore's Law.  I know, I know, all you old, cranky and grumpy curmudgeons will jump in and denounce the fact that, even in raw, the Nikon is applying noise reduction.  Well we modern and courageous cutting edge photographers don't care because the files look better than most of the stuff I try to run through noise reduction on my own.  You'll just have to get with the times or shoot with a more "traditional" camera.

But the bottom line of why I like the Nikon V1 is this,  the combination of high speed, fast AF, intergalactically incomparable IS and natty good looks just makes the combination more fun to shoot than almost anything else out there.  In good light the files are superb.  In bad light the files are still in the hunt.  And with recent price drops you can just about cobble together a system for around $1,000.
Not meant to compete directly with entry level DSLRs it's a camera for someone who wants sure, fast performance in a smaller, simpler package.  And it does this well.

Now, here's the disclaimer.  These systems are designed and implemented at this point in their evolution to serve only one market well.  (This is my opinion and may not reflect what the manufacturers had in mind).  This market is nerdy/cool experienced photographers who already own a full bore DSLR system like a Canon 5Dmk2 or a Nikon D3 or something of that ilk, and a bag of hyper sharp, pixel peeper glass, who want to keep buying new stuff to keep the adrenaline hit going.  The smaller system is purely an adjunct for those frequent times when the raw cubic inches of the big gear is either socially, physically or temprementally untenable.  Heading out to the pool to race and to snap some fun images.  That's perfect for this type of gear.  Or, invited wedding guest, NOT the official photographer, but can't bear to be without a decent picture taking machine.  Under your Armani sports coat, just in case you see something cool on your way to a nice dinner.  Any time your spouse looks at you and says, "You're not planning on bringing that giant camera bag filled with crap to the recital, are you?" And you realize that, maybe less is more.  Or just for those days, after a week of shooting professionally with eight pounds of lens and pro camera body in your hands, when you wake up and think: "minimalism.  that sounds good."

Honesty:  While I often fantasize about giving up all the Canon 1D series cameras, and the Hasselblads and the L lenses and the 5Dmk2's and just getting a small system for my work, like: 2 Pen EP3's, the "holy trinity" and a few bits and pieces like a longer zoom and an M mount adapter for a few other choice optics, I'm dragged back by the kind of job I did last week where high resolution and very narrow DOF were the main creative technical parameters in the service of our creative approach to a good paying advertising job.  As I've said, if you are a professional or a traditional and committed amateur you need to think of all these smaller systems as adjuncts, for now.  Their time will come.  For many it might already be here.  For me?  Some higher speed lenses and a few better interfaces for studio flash triggering need to come first.  

Acknowledging craziness:  The crazy thing is that I can't decide (with any regularity) between the Swiss Army Knife flexibility of the beautifully designed EP3 and the stoic high speed performance of the "collective" camera (Nikon).  So I bought both.  Why not?  They're both incredible video production cameras as well.  More on that in the new year.

When I had the idea to write about my favorite new cameras of the year I thought I would also throw in the lens that made me re-think lenses.  Preamble.  I've owned the Canon 85mm 1.2 when it first came out for the EOS film cameras and it was very, very nice and very, very slow.  I also owned the Nikon 85mm 1.4 AF when I owned that system.  But the 85mm that slapped me in the face, kissed me and then demanded I buy it was the Carl Zeiss 85mm 1.4 ZE.  It's amazing and it's sharper than people give it credit for.  It has some focus shift as you stop down so you either have to focus stopped down or focus with your live view camera when you are close up and personal, and wide open.  Used correctly the center 2/3rds, even at 2, 2.5, 2.8 and 3.5 are wickedly sharp.  By f4 it's beyond sharp, if you've focused correctly.  We've got split image rangefinder screens in the 5D2 and the 1D cameras so it's not that hard to nail.  But I'm only describing my experiences with the CZ 85 as a way of introduction into the system of good optics.  I like the warmth and the look of the Carl Zeiss better than the other two brands I mentioned.  It's probably a personal opinion but it just seems to put more depth and weight into the images.  Once I developed an interest in the Zeiss product for Canon I started looking at more and more of the offerings.  I bought the 50mm 1.4 and while it's nowhere as good as the late model Summilux or Summicrons I had when I was shooting R series Leicas it's a hell of a lot better than the Canon 50mm 1.4......if you learn to focus it correctly.  After the 50mm I bought the 35mm f2 after reading Lloyd Chambers comments on that optic and he's right.  It's amazingly sharp. 

This last Summer I was heading out of town to shoot interior architecture in a very high end country club some investors built in the middle of "nowhere" Texas.  I don't shoot architecture very often because I have a friend I usually recommends who does it much better than I ever will.  But the client wanted me to shoot it because we had a track record and an ongoing business relationship and....I could use the cash.  

I was packing up the Canon 20mm and the 28mm and a few other optics when the Zeiss rep called and asked me if I'd like to test out the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE .  I did.  It was good but not great.  Then my architecture specialist friend looked at the front of the lens and immediately found a big nasty, dirty spot right near the center.  As he expertly cleaned the lens he suggested that my first trial was void and that the lens deserved a second sortie.  This time, being careful to keep the lens clean, I was initiated into the circle of people (very small) who've actually used a nearly perfect 21mm lens on a DSLR.  It was breathtaking.  And the clients I was shooting for could see an immediate and profound difference.  When I compared it with the Canon I assumed that the Zeiss would win, hands down, with both lenses wide open but I also assumed that both would even out around f8.  But while the Canon got marginally better in the middle and somewhat better in the corners the Zeiss lens was already better at f4 than the Canon had a prayer of becoming, even at f8.  

The 21mm is amazingly sharp, and, when cleaned, flare is absent.  At f5.6 the corners and the center are as near to perfect as I can imagine.  In fact, the only fault with the lens is the purchase price of around $1800.  But you only need to buy it once.   For all of these reasons I felt that I had to include the 21mm as my "lens of the year."   

The funnest gadget I've gotten in 2011 is the Kindle Fire
.  It's not as productive as an iPad.  You won't be writing a novel on it or doing your taxes with it.  The screen's not as big and the software is a bit primitive when compared to the unsurpassed market leader....but....if you think of it in a different way it's a $200 bargain.  I use it to read books, to check and send e-mail and to casually show people images.  For all these things it works great.  If I lose it all the content (less the photos) exists in Amazon's cloud and will come pre-installed when I order a replacement.  The screen is good and the size is pretty much perfect.  I read an old James Bond book in my dimly lit living room last night and the screen was perfect.  I prefer my original Kindle for bright light reading environments but I amazed at the values of the Fire.  Just amazing how far technology has come.  And it's fun to read that we're buying the product at less than Amazon's cost of parts and construction.  Recommended for those who just can't bring themselves to buy an iPad.  For whatever reason.  (My reason?  The iPad is too close in performance, size and usability to the ever growing stack of small 13 inch MacBook Pros that proliferate around the house and studio.  But the laptops do more, faster and better.)  The Kindle Fire   didn't necessarily make my actual photography better this year but it made showing new images more fun.

Finally, in the category of newly "re-acquired" gear is the ever morphing collection of Hasselblad film cameras that came into the studio in the middle of the Summer.  My favorite is the 501CM and the standard 80mm pictured above.  I don't think I'll shoot tons and tons of film with the camera but it reminds me that there is value in slowing down, thinking about what I'm shooting and tackling it with really focused intention.  I walked through a gray and smoky downtown yesterday on my way to meet a friend for coffee and I carried the Hblad combo above.  I found 8 shots that would work just right on black and white film.  In a square.  I shot a total of 14 frames.  I was stopped by three curious photographers.  It was fun.  I put it in as my film camera of the year.  And really, film is far from "dead" it's just that film and digital are becoming two different disciplines.  More about that in the new year.