Camera Equipment of The Year – 2014
By Michael Reichmann and Kevin Raber
Another year is now behind us, and a number of interesting cameras have crossed our desks. Some have come and gone in just a week or two, while others have taken up semi-permanent residence. What cameras stuck, and which ones failed to make a lasting impression?
One word before we start – whenever a discussion of cameras comes up a cliche proclaimed among some self-appointed web forum thought police is – "It's not the camera, it's the photographer." Right. We get it. You've now impressed us with how insightful you are. But in the world of music, there are few serious musicians, let alone performing pros, who wouldn't prefer working with a Strad or a Steinway. Good artists are made better though the use of the best tools. Enough said.
So without further ado we bring you this highly biased report on the best and the worst (and the most boring) photographic equipment of 2014.
Michael Reichmann's Choices
The Pentax 645z is an evolution of the Pentax 645D of the past several years. But its new Sony-sourced 50MP sensor is so remarkable that it elevates the camera to a whole new level. Yes, this same sensor is also used in MF backs from Phase One and Hasselblad, but Pentax has added some "secret sauce" that makes their implementation quite a bit better than the other two, certainly in terms of high ISO image quality.
At about $8,500 the "Z" has created a price point that joins the top of the DSLR world to the bottom of the medium format world. Indeed it has already put pressure on Hasselblad, at least, who in the 4th Quarter of the year lowered the price of the Hasselblad H5D-40 camera and back by some $8,000 to reach down to the Pentax's price point. The H5D-40 does not have live view, and has a 40MP CCD sensor rather than a 50MP CMOS, but an almost 50% price reduction speaks to the changing medium format marketplace and the effect that Pentax appears to be having.
Market competition aside, many photographers will find the 645z to offer a combination of features, image quality, straightforward user interface and handling ease that puts it almost in a class of its own. Icing on the cake is the fact that it takes virtually all Pentax 645 lenses ever made, many of which are available on the used market at exceptional prices.
Sony A7 MKII
Qualifying as a 2014 camera by only a few weeks, as it started to ship in December, with the Sony a7 MKII version of the successful A7 series Sony has finally gotten the feature / interface equation right. The in-body 5-axis image stabilization (a first in a full-frame camera) means that any lens attached can available itself of up to 3 stops of stabilisation. The Sony A7 MKII looks poised to be one of the most popular cameras of 2015.
Certainly Fuji with the X-T1 and its ever-expanding family of superb lenses deserves to be singled out. In fact whether the new Sony A7 MKII or the Fuji XT-1 gets top billing is a matter for some debate. Sony certainly merits recognition for "most improved" while the Fuji stands out for "most usable".
The X-T1 is an example of how a camera should be designed. For photographers tired of on-screen menus and mode dials, the X-T1's controls will be a revelation and a joy to use. Also, Fuji's constant release of firmware upgrades is an example to the industry in how to support your existing customer base. Fuji also deserves kudos for an aggressive program of X series lens introductions, many of them primes, and with many of the zooms being among "best of breed".
Honourable Mentions and Runners Up
The growth of the so-called mirrorless segment is no longer news, though in a camera marketplace that sees contraction in almost every segment, the compact system camera segment is at least growing rather than contracting.
In addition to Sony and Fuji the companies that are making noise (and sales) include Samsung, Olympus and Panasonic, all if whom introduced innovative new cameras this year. Samsung's NX1 certainly shows that they intend on being a major new player in the pro and prosumer markets, and Panasonic's GH4 certainly re-wrote the book on 4K capable video. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 was a late 2013 entry, but continues to attract many fans because of its small size and high image quality.
Kevin Raber's Choices
I have been a fan of Fuji X camera since the introduction of the Pro X-1 a few years ago. Then I sort of lost interest in the Fuji line until this year when Fuji released to X-T1. One look and a few hours shooting with this camera and I was totally hooked. The X-T1 has got to be one of the most fun cameras to shoot with that I have owned. It offers a combination of design nostalgia along with a lot of modern day technology. This is a camera that I think is almost as intuitive as the iPhone. You can take it out of the box and immediately feel comfortable with it. The menu system is very easy to grasp and doesn’t hide a lot in sub menus. The dials and F-stop rings on the lenses feel intuitive, just the way you’d expect. You're up and shooting pretty quickly.
But as with all things photography it's the image quality that counts. Fuji broke away from the traditional Bayer pattern sensor and developed their X-Trans sensor for the X line of cameras. The image quality coming off this sensor rivals that of the 20 plus Megapixel DSLR cameras. Combine this with an incredible line of beautiful lenses and you have a great lightweight mirrorless system.
This year Fuji introduced a few new lenses to the X line, and my favorites have been the 10-24mm wide angle zoom, the 56mm 1.2 and the just released 50-140mm 2.8 zoom lens. These lens are beautiful, and except for the new zoom surprisingly small in size.
Fuji also introduced a new X-T1 model - the X-T1 Graphite. This is a beautifully finished camera that has to be seen to be appreciated. It’s just a handsome camera, and it was released with new features too. Completely silent operation and an electronic shutter with speed up to 1/32,000 of a second. One thing Fuji has a strong reputation for is improving their cameras with frequent firmware updates. A major firmware update is due before year's end, enhancing the existing X-T1 line of cameras with a whole new set of features. Almost like getting a new camera.
I could go on about this camera but suffice to say it makes the top of my favorite list. Fuji has been very busy innovating and if the rumors are true 2015 will see a number of new additions to the X line.
Olympus OMD E-M1
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera was released in late 2013 but became generally available in 2014 when we received our system. This is another revolutionary mirrorless camera. Small and packed with features. Olympus has also released a road map of lenses specifically designed for micro 4/3 cameras (MFT), and two of these were introduced this year with more coming next year. The 12-40 2.8 Pro zoom was introduced in the early part of the year. Just recently the 40-150mm Pro lens was released, and it’s simply a stunning lens. Also released is a 1.4 tele-extender for the lens. Innovative design and build with amazing image quality. See our report on this lens HERE. Olympus has at least two new lenses slated for delivery in 2015, and these will round out the Pro line very nicely. There are a lot of features in this camera system that you should look at. The touch screen for focus and shooting, some very cool art effects and HDR done right. Here’s hoping for more megapixels in 2015.
The Samsung NX1
By now you must think we are mirrorless fanboys. You are correct in some ways, but we are more fans of cameras done right with the latest technology. Out of the clear blue at Photokina came the Samsung NX1 to shake up the market. This camera boasts an impressive spec list and actually delivers on these specs. The shooting speed is super fast; the 4K video is beautiful, and the images look great. Plus it ups the ante on sensor size to 28.2 MP. The downside is that it is from Samsung, known primarily for appliances and consumer electronics. Can they make this camera a mainstream product? I when remember we were saying the same thing about Sony a few years ago. I wonder what everyone would be saying is this camera had been released by Nikon or Canon?
I have been a loyal Nikon user all the way to the 70’s. I was brought up on Nikon FTN, Nikkorrmat, and FM cameras. I own a couple of Nikon bodies and a full compliment of lenses. I have come to love my Nikon D800e but have been leaving it behind lately in favor of the smaller systems mentioned above. Nikon released some incremental upgrades this year. The new D810 looks really nice, with some new features, but the same image quality as the D800e. I did tests and came very close to purchasing the Nikon D750. I put it on this list because I would have bought it if I needed another full frame DSLR system. Performance and quality and overall value for the money would have made it a no-brainer. If you are looking for a full frame traditional DSLR then check this camera out.
Sony A7 II
I just took delivery of the Sony A 7 II camera and with it purchased the 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. In my short time with this camera I have seriously fallen in like with it. Not, love but like and like any good love affair I’ll give it attention and care and see if the like can turn into love. All the ingredients are there though. This camera is another good example of how fast camera systems are evolving. Sony seems to be listening. I am hedging my bets that Sony will be releasing a version II of the higher megapixel camera with in-body stabilization next year. As it is, I am taking this new system to Antarctica in a few weeks and will give it a run for its money there.
iPhone 6 Plus
I’ll probably be drawn and quartered for putting this on my list of favorite cameras for this year. The iPhone 6 plus is a real game-changer though. Its 8 megapixel camera has image stabilization, true HD video, a ton of apps to enhance and share your photography, and it just works. Even in light that would be impossible for other cameras this little guy gets the shot. When shooting landscapes, I use it like a Polaroid. I can take a shot and do a few quick adjustments to see what the image may look like once a RAW image is processed. The images I shoot automatically load into iCloud and then are available on all my Apple devices. I like it most because I am never without a camera. It has extended my joy of photography to a new level. There are some photographers that I know that have made art out of iPhone photography. Say what you may, about this camera, but I use it every day; it makes my list for 2014.
A Few Lenses Of Merit
A big change in things is the perception of third party lenses. It wasn’t long ago 3rd party lenses were thought of as a less expensive alternative to buying branded lenses. Well, not anymore. In the past year or so a number of lens manufacturers have upped the ante with some great lens offerings. Sigma, once thought of as cheap brand has come a long way and now manufacturers some excellent glass. The Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art Lens, for example, is a spectacular lens and has been compared in quality to the Zeiss 55mm Otus, but is far cheaper and with auto-focus.
And, speaking of Zeiss, they are everywhere and have developed a number of different lens lines all with outstanding quality. The Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4 lens has been hailed as probably the sharpest lens available. And, Zeiss has been developing lenses for the DSLRs and APS-C cameras. The Otus, Touit and new Loxia lenses need to seen to be appreciated. The images from these lenses are nothing less than amazing. Using these lenses on a mirrorless camera with focus peaking makes manual focus a breeze and accurate. Let’s not forget the manufacturers too. Olympus lenses have always been good, but the new Pro line of MFT lenses knock it out of the park. The same can be said about Fuji and the quality from the new Fuji 50-140mm 2.8 has been receiving all sorts of excellent reviews. Both Michael and I have this lens and the quality of the image at all zoom ranges and f-stops is incredible.
Tamron surprised us with a great 150-600mm lens this year. For about a $1,000 USD, you can purchase a lens that delivers great images in a neat small package. Both Michael and I have this lens too and have been really impressed by the images. The zoom flexibility allows you to shoot distant subjects then pull back for close action.
As we close out the year, we are anxiously awaiting the next version of Lightroom and hopefully we will see it in early 2015. Phase One’s Capture One 8 was released this year, and it has seen a lot of converts. Capture One is known amongst the top pros as the go-to software. In the latest version C1 8 boast a new interface, a robust Cataloging option, sessions, and a brand new processing engine. The Phase One guys are passionate about this software. If you want a RAW processor that delivers excellent image quality, great exposure control, layer and recovery tools and a flexible and customizable interface then take a look. Plus, if you are shooting Fuji X you owe it to yourself to see the way Phase One handles the X files.
There are a number of other stand alone products too. Pixelmator leads the list as an alternative to Photoshop and has gained many users. They just released a new version. MacPhun, OnOne, Topaz released some affordable post production apps and were worthy of a look. The big new one this year is Mylio. Somewhat misunderstood Mylio boasts an amazing capability to index and cross platform share all your images, and then some. I have been using Mylio from the start as an early beta tester and now have a great workflow to use with it. We’ll have an article on it here in the near future.
The Booby Prizes
The year 2014 saw the introduction of quite a few boring cameras. Not bad cameras, just ones that did nothing to fire up our acquisition juices. Among these are everything new from both Canon and Nikon. Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, we should clarify that both of these estimable companies did introduce worthwhile new cameras. Just not very interesting ones, to our eyes at least. As we've joked before – maybe some new chrome and redesigned mag wheels, but nothing to set ones heart a-flutter.
In other words these are the camera world's equivalent of a new Toyota Camry. Decent, workable, good value, but not something likely to appear on the front page of Top Gear or Car and Driver. The same with Nikon and Canon. The year 2014 just saw them produce more of the same, just as in 2013, 2012, 2011 and.....
OK, OK. The 7D and the D810 are really good cameras. But do they engender camera lust? Do you pass hours reading the reviews, eagerly waiting for one to show up at a local store? Do you spend nights pondering how to stretch the credit limit on your Visa card so that you can buy one, let alone convince your spouse that you really need to have it?
No? We thought not.
But maybe, just maybe in 2015 the big two will wake up, smell the coffee, and discover that while in 2013 and 2014 they were afraid of eating their own lunch by introducing competitive mirrorless systems, while they weren't looking someone else came along and ate it for them... namely Sony, Fuji, Olympus and Panasonic.
The hands-down winner of the award for the dumbest camera of 2014 undoubtedly goes to the DP2 Quattro from Sigma. A truly awful design that's uncomfortable to hold and which requires raw software that's hellishly slow and difficult to use are just two of the camera's failings. Our review says it all.
We almost hesitate to give it any ink, but the pimped-out Hasselblad rebrands of last year's Sony cameras are in the news again. The Stellar is currently on sale at B&H for $999. What's that you say? Only twice what a Sony RX 100 MKI – which its based on – costs? True, but remember that until last month they sold for $3,300 or more. What was it that P.T. Barnham said? Oh, never mind.
Maybe we all have great expectations and need to learn patience. I for one though was disappointed in several areas, and I suppose I (Kevin) have to wait until the new year to see if any of these disappointments are alleviated.
While the Pentax 645 has been gaining all sorts of attention, one has to wonder where the new long-promised camera from Phase One is. One can only hope that the long wait will result in a super medium format camera. Phase One has the glass and has the backs but what is between them has reached the end of its life cycle. I am anticipating big things.
We have mentioned it a number of times throughout the year, and our readers certainly have too. Where are the new Canon and Nikon cameras? Yes, they did come out with some new cameras this year, but they were just small incremental upgrades to existing systems. Maybe 2015 will be the year the 46MP rumored sensor debuts on the Canon. Maybe Nikon will get a 50mp chip. Maybe, Nikon and Canon will surprise us all with an incredible mirrorless game-changing system. Let’s hope they get their marketing in better shape too. Let’s not forget the much-anticipated news from Canon with a count-down clock a few months ago. What came of that?
Where are our new printers? Epson and Canon have been quiet on the printing front. While it is hard to imagine printing getting better than it is, today one can only wonder why we haven’t seen some movement. While my Epson 9900, 4900 and 3880 keep delivering great prints, it would be nice to think that there may be a new printer that won’t clog as much.
This is always the fun part. 2015 will be another exciting year. We will see a new camera from Phase One. Canon and Nikon will surprise us with new higher Megapixel cameras. Hopefully full frame mirrorless. Fuji will step it up a notch to 24mp sensors in their X line and will introduce a new X-Pro 2 and X-T2. Samsung will find traction and become noticed as some Pros start to adopt their NX1. Sony and Mamiya may partner to introduce a new medium format system like the old Mamiya 7. Wouldn't that be fun to have a medium format rangefinder camera? New non-bayer pattern chips will be introduced and make their debut in some cameras. Sony will introduce several A series cameras with more megapixels, better low light capability and 5 Axis In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). Leica will continue making great cameras and will ship the new S2 with 4K video capability. Where does this leave Hasselblad? Anyone's guess. The buzz is – wait long enough and the Hasselblad camera you want will go on sale for extraordinary pricing.
As we have said before we will see more and better mirrorless options coming. A number of people we talk to in the industry really believe that the DSLR as we know it will be dwindling away in coming years. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) are getting better all the time and the advantages that an EVF offers are many.
Time will tell.
It’s a fun time right now to be a photographer. A photographer can find solutions for their style of shooting from a number of different vendors. The trick is picking one. There are more choices than ever before and just about every camera has its good points. The way I look at it is that cameras are going to be evolving pretty quickly. Some said the megapixel war is over. I am not quite so sure about that. I am pretty confident that any camera you purchase will do the job. The lenses you buy will work on the next generation of camera body. Your old camera body will still take good images. It can always be used as a second body. The year 2014 brought some great new cameras and lenses. This will continue in 2015. If you are an enthusiast it's like picking a horse to bet on, but at least here the odds are a bit better in your favor.
If your camera is not on the list don’t worry. As long as you are taking photos, enjoying taking the photos, and are having fun doing it then you have found your own camera of the year.