The Stand Out Cameras of The Year from My Point of View. And why I didn't buy most of them.

I've been looking back over 2014 and trying to remember all of the great camera launches and I'm coming up with a tiny handful that I think were exciting, interesting or even sensible. There was a lot of rehashing this year with massive doses of marketing spin on re-does of already workable product.

The big news at the high end was the introduction of the Nikon D810 and for people who feel that they need this kind of camera it must have been tremendous news because the used shelves at camera dealers across the country are creaking under the sheer quantity of lightly used D800s that have been traded in. There are also pages of them in the used listings on Amazon. I guess we never realized just how mediocre the D800 was until it was replaced by the significantly improved D810. I think the new camera has a slightly faster frame rate... New spinning rims don't really qualify as a huge paradigm shift so...

We could turn our focus to the other widely touted Nikon product, the D750. Kudos to Nikon for finally cleaning up the D600-610 train wreck. Apparently the new camera doesn't deposit slime on the sensor and has ........ some.......other new features. Like a new price. Which is more. It's interesting to me that their DX flagship, the aging (and price falling) D7100 has little touches like 1/8000th of a second shutter while the new camera only gets to 1/4000th. I know, I know, it's the holy full frame and no evil cam be spoken about full frame. But really, a slower shutter mechanism? Well, at least the video codec got a little better. And as a holiday gift to Nikonians everywhere Nikon kept the same battery they've been using in most of their better cameras since the introduction of the D7000 in 2010. It's an EN-EL 15 and it's an workhorse battery made even more attractive by the sheer number of third party aftermarket batteries that can be had. Don't get me wrong, I've played with the D750 and we would have killed for this camera back in 2004, 2008 or thereabouts. But it's an evolutionary step, just one generation out of the primordial sensor muck goo, and while a great and useful tool it's no big news for 2014.

But I don't want to just pick on Nikon. They are struggling like every other camera maker to deal with an issue Sony recently identified: That there will be half the market for interchangeable lens cameras in the next few years than there is now. Wow! A fifty percent decline in overall product shipped and purchased. I don't care how big your market share is, when the whole market takes a 50% haircut everyone is going to get hurt. Big time. Thom Hogan is postulating that we'll return to a market that looks like the 1990's pre-digital camera market with wider spacing between fewer new products, less ongoing R&D and longer product life cycles. That and a big drop in the total number of camera makers....

But since I've mentioned Sony let's talk for a second about their contributions to the pot in 2014. The best thing they did this year was the introduction of the A7s. That's the new A series camera with the full frame, 12 megapixel sensor that can shoot in the dark. It's the darling of videographers who like to shoot New York Production style (DP walks into any room, looks at available light, any light fluorescents, etc. and says, "We're lit.").

While the body style is the same as the A7 and A7R the guts are great and the sensor is a move in the right direction for many styles of photography because the camera can basically see in the dark. Nice. But very much a niche product and not one that entry level pros can buy as an "all around solution."

So, one more camera and not a lot of cool lenses. Not too exciting (unless you are a documentary filmmaker) in terms of product announcements. Oh, I almost forgot, they did introduce an upgrade to the A77 but they haven't made enough noise about keeping that "A" mount system alive and that makes it too scary for most people to buy in...even if they want to make a change to their equipment status quo.

You could make a case for the delightful RX100iii as a wonderful new camera but it's really just another upgrade to a camera that should have had an EVF on it since model year one. Say what you will about composing on a rear screen but I think if you've stooped to that level for all of your camera interactions you might as well just get a smartphone and a little porkpie hat to wear while you are shooting with it. The RX100iii was an easy camera to recommend until the Panasonic LX100 came along. The difference has little to do with spec sheet image quality and everything to do with handling. The Sony is just a bit too small and feels weird to hold. Not so the LX100 which is much more a "shooter's camera." But the same basic principles unite them both: Fast zoom, great imaging sensor, nice EVFs. The downside with all these cameras is that so much lens correction is done "under the hood" in software and the pickier among us can see the issues in corners and other odd places. While both these products are really good and well worth it for people who like the point and shoots they don't strike me as a stand out camera.

Much in the way the Canon 7Dii isn't any reason to throw a parade or break out Champagne. I'm sure it's a solid body and, though Nikonians and small sensor fans are quick to point out the antiquated provenance of the sensor I am sure that it's actually a very good sensor and in the hands of a fine photographer the images from this camera will look great. But the camera really just checks the upgrade boxes and in a way that's unsatisfying for Canon diehards who are looking over the fence at that juicy 28 megapixel BSI sensor in the Samsung NX1.

And since I've brought it up I'm going to say that, on paper, the Samsung NX1 looks like my first Stand Out camera of the year. It's fun to write this because I have left the Samsung Imagelogger program, given away most of my Samsung inventory and am in no way connected with the company or their public relations firm. The cord has been cut! No free NX1's are in transit (although I intend to review one in late December).  And this is important because what I'm going to say is going to cause some debate. I think the Samsung NX1 is a very disruptive entry into a market at a time when the biggest players are like ocean liners adrift in a storm with limited power to the screws. This is the next shot across the bow in the same way I called mirror less a shot across the bow two years ago.

The big problem for Samsung is the general malaise of the industry. The prevalent talking points this year tended to be about the industry's eminent demise (misstated) and that's a hard emotional space into which one company can successfully sell to people who already have some kind of loyalty to an existing vendor. If you are convinced that the markets are shrinking why trade up (or laterally)?

I haven't handled one yet but I'm not sure the camera itself is such a breakthrough as much as that the individual components of the camera are scary for their competitors. That starts with the high density BSI chip which effectively challenges the Sony quasi-monopoly and probably has rational Canon DX users drooling.  While 24 to 28 megapixels is probably meaningless when combined with the optical prowess of most lenses it does show a different way forward. It would be interesting (to say the least) if Canon were to start sourcing sensors from Samsung while waiting for the rumored Canon semi-conductor fab to come on-line and a small, cynical part of me assumes that Samsung really doesn't care too much about making a profit in cameras but see cameras like the NX1 as a great "proof of concept" and confirmation of completion for their semi-conductor line. "See the copper technology lower heat and increase efficiency in our new sensor! Imagine the same technology hard at work in---your robotic manufacturing equipment!!!" 

The second part of the mix that's related and cool in a geeky way is their imaging processor which is a leap forward (as far as manufacturing geometries and throughput) in speed and information processing from Nikon's Expeed4 and whatever Canon has cobbled together. According to my savants in the industry the Samsung chip is a generation ahead (at least) of the tech in competitor's cameras. Not that it matters for much other than frame rate and lots of video information crunching.

If this were all Samsung brought to the table and I were Canon/Nikon/Sony I wouldn't necessarily worry but the kids at Samsung also brought good optical stuff along for the ride. The two pro zooms, the 16-50 mm and the 50-150 mm f2.8 are by all accounts very, very good. These are exactly the kinds of lenses missing from Nikon's DX line (fast and useful) and more to the point it is exactly lenses like these that Sony should have had at the launch of the better Nex cameras and the launch of the A7 series. While Samsung will undoubtably flesh out the line these two lenses are exactly what APS-C users have been screaming for from Nikon and Canon. Sony should have known better in their product launches. You can't deliver the bread and no meat if you call yourself a sandwich shop.

Will Samsung's NX1 succeed? Maybe. There's such a reticence for photographers to change horses. Even when a product line is demonstrably better. I am sure of one thing, Samsung will have the dominant market share in Korea!

But if we move on to other cameras that Stand Out we have to include the XT-1 from Fuji. In my estimation it's the high point of Fuji's current camera line and checks the two important boxes I see as vital in the mirror less space: it has a really, really good EVF and it's backed up with a line of great lenses. People love the Fuji sensors and rave about the Jpegs but I've got to say that good sensors have been around making waves since the introduction of the 16 megapixel APS-C Sony sensor delivered in the Nikon D7000, Pentax K cameras and a host of other cropped sensor offerings. No, for me it's all about the EVF, the lenses and the body design = the physical interface. That's what Fuji got right. It gets my Stand Out classification not on technical merit or even image quality (which, as a system, is marvelous), it's disruptive feature is beautiful design. Wonderfully executed design. And I am firmly convinced that as technology becomes more and more transparent homogenous all product makers will eventually turn to good design as vital differentiators between brands. You can see it already in Apple's products. You might hate them because you like to build your own systems your garage but a huge number of people are drawn to their computers in no small part because of the physical designs.

Same with the XT-1. If I were shooting the way we shot in the 1970's I'd snap up a couple and three lenses and never look back. But our reality is more complicated and the requests of the clients a bit deeper.

Which brings me to either the stand out product of the year or the white flag of surrender of part of the industry. Which part? Medium format digital.

Which product? That would be the 645 Pentax camera. In the past few years I've had three different medium format camera companies send me their MF digital cameras and back to evaluate and use. If you have a specific use for them and have clients who can pay to help amortize the investment they can be very, very good. But---outside of studio still life shooters, high end architectural photographers and people who shoot high end fashion these cameras tend to be more of a theoretical rather than a practical need. So as long as prices were stratospheric there were few takers world wide. Imagine that with eight billion or so people in the world the global market for these cameras is probably less than 1,000 per year. Add in various collectors and hedge fund managers and maybe the number goes, in a good year, to something close to 2,000.  There must be a sustainable market though since three companies seem to be hanging in there. Well, make it four if you consider Pentax.

Without a doubt the Pentax 645Z is disrupting the MF marketing with a vengeance. Consider that all the players used to use different imagers and most of the imagers were CCD based with attendant high ISO noise issues and short battery lives. Most systems, fully configured but without lenses started somewhere near $20,000 and went up from there. Early on I test a Leaf AFi7 with 40 megapixel back and an esoteric 180mm Schneider lens and at the time the insured value of the package was a bit over $40,000. If you are billing in the $5-10K day rate range and your rep is negotiating good usage fees from international ad clients then I guess it's just another drop in the bucket of production costs. But for the rest of us that represents real money. I could use that forty thousand bucks to do a really nice postcard marketing campaign and still have enough left over to buy myself a nice car.

So it seems pretty obvious that, pre-Pentax 645Z, only a tiny percentage of users troubled themselves with MF. But then the pervasive disrupter called Sony stepped in (again and again) and dropped a 50+ megapixel, CMOS sensor onto the big camera landscape and it was a like a bomb landed. Why? Because they dropped a fully operation and ready to shoot camera system into the mix for about $8,000. And sadly for all the competitors everyone needed  to move to the same sensor. Why? Because it was all around better and also cheaper than the various options then in use. No one could compete if the bottom of the market camera had the best noise handling characteristics, better battery life and all the other benefits that drove CCD sensors out of our interchangeable lens consumer cameras. Why buy a Phase One system for say $25,000 if you could have the same on sensor performance for $8,000. After all, it is the same processor.

So, in league with Sony we should have seen Pentax's 645Z as the major disruptor of both the medium format market but also the high end 35mm based market as well. But from what I can see the explosion never happened. And most experts thinks it's for two reasons. First, the high end market wants backs that can be changed out. The way the MF market has worked is by allowing generous upgrades of backs as newer, better ones became available. Can't do that with the Pentax. It's a closed system. And then the second barrier is that the reason to use a camera with a bigger sensor is to gain the advantage of a different look caused by a much stepper focus fall off as the result of the big sensor. But the rub is that the MF sensor in all these cameras really isn't that much bigger than the full frame 35mm sensors. Yes, they are about 50% bigger but in the days of film the difference was much more obvious. The difference between 35mm and a square Hasselblad frame was more like 400%.

Photographers sense that they are loosing flexibility and paying a premium for a sensor that, while super high in resolution, is not different enough from the optical performance of something like a Nikon D810 or even a Canon 5D3 or Sony A7r. As the MF cameras got cheaper the rank and file cameras got that much better and narrowed the margin in a number of areas. I think the sole impact of the Pentax will be to drive down prices in the MF market and, with shrinking margins, will drive weaker players (Hasselblad?) all the way out of business.

I mentioned the Fuji XT-1 and the Samsung NX1 as "stand out" products for this year, and I'll give a nod to the Sony A7 for its delectable sensor but I'm going to nominate the Panasonic GH4 as my top choice for cameras that made a difference. I know it was introduced in 2013 but for real people in real markets it was only possible to get our hands on a copy in the first quarter of 2014. This camera totally legitimizes the m4:3 format/family with thoroughly professional handling, battery life and image quality while blowing by all the competitors with a first class implementation of 4K video. But the biggest difference from the other player is that they are actively using firmware to add big, substantial features to the camera right now, almost a year after first availability. Not fixes for stuff they rushed out the door (hello Samsung with a new firmware update the week the camera launched).

The GH4 represents a mature m4:3 product with benefits to a huge segment of users who want to or must be able to produce good, clean video well and still have a camera that comes within a gnat's eyelash of competing the the better APS-C cameras on the market. That no one has come along to challenge them toe to toe (No, the A7s doesn't count if you have to add a couple thousand bucks of aftermarket accessories to make it fully functional) speaks volumes for just how far ahead of the pack the Panasonic product was on debut. While it's hardly the sexiest of the gear circulating around the market this year it's the one that innovated where we could use it best.

So, why didn't I make any big camera purchases this year? Why haven't I rushed out to buy the Sony A7s to shoot in the dark? Why no Fuji XT-1 or Samsung NX1? It's an interesting question. I spent most of the year learning to love the m4:3 cameras all over again and other than the GH4 nothing new came along in that category. I did spend some time and very little money amassing a fun collection of Olympus OMD em-5s in a variety of configurations. But the biggest reason I'm a bit reticent right now to jump on any ballparks is my recent investigation into the aesthetic differences between different generations of sensors. Read my next post to learn more.

Of course this is all based on the way I use stuff and you may have a different take on the industry, line-by-line. That's what the comment section is for.

A reminder: The Lisbon Portfolio, my action/adventure story of intrepid photographer, Henry White, is currently on sale for the meager and insubstantial sum of $3.99. It will be available at that price as a Kindle book on Amazon until the beginning of 2015. Get your copy before they run out. When you get to the book's page you'll see that you can also get a printed copy (not on sale). It's your choice...

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Ash said...

As a hobby/family shooter the XT1 was irresistible, and I purchased one back in May.

The key to me is simplicity - Aperture ring, Shutter speed dial and ISO dial, all right there on a camera that feels great to shoot with.

Three top-notch lenses in the bag and I am a happy guy. How many non-retired, non-professional photographers even have the time to shoot with more than three lenses?

We live in the golden age of digital cameras. Hopefully Fujifilm can survive the coming doom. They have a good handle on what photographers want.

Peter F. said...

Just finished the Lisbon Portfolio, Kirk. I was completely shocked at how good it was. I was thrilled. Stayed up late at night to read. Had goose bumps from time to time. Felt my heart race a few times. It really had me. One of the best spy novels I've read.

Kirk Tuck said...

Peter, thank you very much! You made my afternoon. Would you consider writing that review on Amazon? :-)

Mike Mundy said...

"You can't deliver the bread and no meat if you call yourself a sandwich shop."

Nice line! I might have to steal it some day.

Daniel said...

I am one who has major problems with the video screens on the back of the cameras and electronic viewfinders.
The small screen and electronic finders trigger vertigo. That in addition to totally screwing up my night vision.
Still love the optical finders. Have tried the Fuji and Olympus both and can't use them.
Hope Canon keeps with an optical finder for me. I can always tape over the light on the back of the camera that blinks until the image is on the card - that blinking light highlights me in dimly lit jazz club and the like when I am photographing. Not as bad as the rear screen and electronic viewfinder - but it is aggravating.

Ray said...

Oh well, I just use an E-M1 and really old 4/3 lenses. I guess the 7-14mm, 14-35mm, 35-100mm and 90-250mm; while big, cumbersome and of reasonably good quality, will have to do me for some time to come.

Thankfully I gave up gear lust quite some time ago, when I realised that I'm not going to get any better with something new and different.

Patrick Dodds said...

Do Fuji cameras focus now?

Rufus said...

I think Kirks musings will be even more interesting retrospectively, after he tries the Samsung NX1.

I have this inkling that he is going to love the Sammy. It seems to be able to do anything the GH4 can do, but do it a bit better. Granted, the improvements are at the fringes with things like high ISO advantages over m4/3 etc, but the NX1 could be a game changer for those people who take the plunge with it.

For me, I offer a shout out for the Nikon D750. If you shoot low light, or you shoot in high dynamic range situations, the D750 is an absolute revelation. The amount of detail in the shadows the D750 produces is incredible. And Nikon even throw in a flat picture profile to make life even easier. It is in this area where the D750 really, really spanks m4/3 cameras. This is either important or it is not, YMMV.

Grant said...

The 5K Retina screen is 14.7 MP I would like your thoughts on how this might affect your published thoughts on small-MP-count cameras looking better on the internet or on-screen. I assume the 5K is the harbinger of things to come.

Grant said...

Regarding the Rufus comment about NX1 doing 'anything the GH4 can, but a bit better', that takes us right back on the slippery slope to full frame. The Samsung 50-150 lens is 250% the weight of the Lumix equivalent -- an important negative.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hey Grant, I'm sure the screens are moving in that direction. But the difference between the 16 megapixel camera file and the 14 m screen output is still in the camera's favor. It will just require fewer steps to view things at 100%. Better screens doesn't obsolete the value of everything we will have shot up to then we might just be looking at older work in smaller windows.

John Meredith said...

"Do Fuji cameras focus now?"

Some people want EVERYTHING.

Ken A said...

Great post and observations Kirk! When I really sit back and think about it (and the post about the new sensors where you mention the E-1), I've been a Olympus and Fuji shooter since 2006 consistently. Only rarely have I strayed and never for long between the two (I've always had one at a min.).

I've recently struggled (since May no less) about my gear choices. Trying to get it paired down to essentials and what I love to shoot with. I've toyed with Sony (RX10) for the video and flexibility, tried an RX100 (ack, lasted a week with me), considered going back to m4/3 with Oly or Panny (used to shoot GF1/GH1) or just moving to Sony's a7 or a6000.

Well, this week I think I finally found it. When I was shooting Oly E-1's (and later E-3's) it was the organic feel of the images from the sensor/lens combo. The E-3 still had it to a certain degree too. Then I moved to m4/3 and lost that, largely. Personally, I haven't seen it return. Then in Nov 2011 I moved to the Fuji X100 and it came back just like the E-1.

Since the X100 (which I still have and shoot with today), I've tried other things: X-E1, X100s, RX10, RX100, etc. None felt right to me or didn't have the image feel either. Not pixel peeping, but the image as a whole.

This week, I took the dive to the X-T1. The feel in hand is superb, it just fits like an X100. The organic feel to the images from X100 isn't "quite" matched by the X-T1, but it's close, very close. No I can pop on my 35 f/1.4 and other great glass and enjoy. That EVF is a marvel, it's refreshing to use :-)

What would I like to see Olympus do? I know they probably won't, but I'd love to see a mirrorless E-1 with an EVF....even keep the old body if the must. It felt great. I'd still love to use my old 14-54 f/2.8-3.5 as well :-)

Anymore, I don't think it will be megapixels or whizzing features (wifi, 120 fps stills, ISO 1.4 million, etc.). We are at a point where it's so good that what really matters (to me) is the feel of the images. I want companies to work on that. This is something that Fuji and Olympus do understand. Sony, as much as I like their tech, just feels too digital.

Then, like you said, it's the feel in your hand, the operations, the design. The XT1 belongs on display when not in your hands...not in a bag. It would be like being a supermodel when on the job, but at all other times putting a paper bag on your head and wearing a burlap sack.

Eric Rose said...

Great analysis. I have landed on the Panasonic 4/3rds system as my day to day shooting gear. When big files are needed my old trusty D700 does just fine. It's funny that you mention liking the look and feel of some of the older sensors. I pull out my even older D70s for some situations as it's palette is juicier than either the Panasonic or D700.

neopavlik said...

Great post !

Matt Granger had positive thoughts on the GH4 in one of his reviews. If/as projects move to video people will catch on ( recently had a price drop too ).

The Pentax 645z looks awesome and I hope to acquire it or its successor in about 4-5 years. Right now I'm watching those D800 price drops with great interest.

From 35mm focal length analysis; I'm apparently waiting for somebody to provide a AF-S / USM 40mm 1.4 G / L lens.