Editor Paul Burrows writes:
If we thought 2015 was a year of “consolidating trends” – as we described it in the pre-amble to our last Camera Magazine Imaging Awards – that’s only because it was pausing for breath before the onslaught that has been 2016.
What a year!
Of course, it always makes for exciting times when both Canon and Nikon launch their next generations of flagship professional D-SLRs – upholding a 45-year-old rivalry – but there’s been a long rollcall of brilliant cameras and was even before we got to this year’s Photokina. Here, in no particular order, are the highlights – Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T2; Nikon D5 and D500; Canon EOS-1D X II, EOS 5D IV and EOS M5; Olympus PEN F, Panasonic GX85 and G85, Hasselblad X1D, Leica SL, Sony A7S II and A6300, Pentax K-1 and Phase One XF 100MP.
And that’s just the interchangeable lens cameras too. There were some notable fixed-lens arrivals – we’ll just highlight the Canon PowerShot G5X, Panasonic Lumix TZ110 and Sony RX1R II here – and the video actioncam market continues to boom.
Not all the cameras just listed are eligible for this year’s awards, but all were announced prior to our closing date, so if we thought 2015 was a big year for interchangeable lenses, it was also just a warm-up for 2016. Lenses appear to be the new weapon for winning over buyers, especially in the mirrorless sector. They’ve always been important, of course, but now they’re as critical to buying decisions as the vital statistics of camera bodies. You’re just as likely now, for example, to opt for the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system on the strength of its ever-growing choice of very capable lenses, as the many and varied attractions of the Olympus or Panasonic bodies. Lens designs continue to become more adventurous in terms of optical design, focal length/range, maximum aperture and even styling.
Did somebody mention mirrorless cameras? The category continues to gather strength, adding both Leica and Hasselblad to the ranks which already comprise Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony. These four have all their interchangeable lens camera eggs in the mirrorless basket, but there’s huge significance in prestigious marques the likes of Leica and Hasselblad opting to take this route for their new-generation professional systems.
Also significant is the appearance of Canon’s EOS M5 – which is eligible for next year’s awards – the company’s first serious mirrorless camera and the first indication that it too, recognises the market is changing. The M5 is essentially the EOS 80D sans mirror box and pentaprism so it’s a very capable camera, but significantly more compact and lightweight than its D-SLR cousin. As we’ve noted before, the desire for smaller – but still highly capable – cameras isn’t just a fad, but is being driven by significant external forces. Firstly, traditional D-SLR users are getting older and no longer can – or want to – carry around a bulky and heavy camera kit. Secondly, low-cost airlines – increasingly the way we all fly these days – are charging you to travel with that bulky and heavy camera kit, as carry-on baggage limits are being more rigorously enforced. And finally, there are more issues with ostentatious displays of camera gear than ever before… it’s now wiser to be more low-key, no matter where you are in the world. With the technical issues mostly all sorted – particularly those relating to electronic viewfinders – mirrorless will continue to increase its share of the interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market, especially in the entry-level and enthusiast categories.
While 2016 was actually a pretty big year for D-SLRs – and big D-SLRs for that matter too – the majority of this activity was at the upper end of the market where camera size and other considerations such as the high cost of long telephoto lenses aren’t necessarily issues. These are the sectors now being specifically targeted by the likes of Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony with pro-orientated mirrorless cameras and lenses. Again it’s not hard to see the unique combination of capability, portability and affordability ultimately being very appealing.
And still on the subject of size – those of sensors and pixels – the market seems to be comfortably settling into an acceptance that bigger isn’t always necessarily better. The extra challenges which arise when 50 megapixels is packed onto a full-35mm sensor or 100 MP onto a ‘645’ chip have perhaps convinced many that there is a ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to pixel counts and, besides, the way the data is processed is equally – if not more – important in terms of image quality (IQ). With both Panasonic and Olympus delivering ever better performance from their Micro Four Thirds sensors – between 16 and 20 MP resolution – the concept of ‘sufficient IQ’ is starting to sink in. In other words, it’s not so much about how many pixels you’ve got, but what you do with them. This is shifting the emphasis back to the designs of sensors and microprocessors, and away from mere pixel counts which are actually pretty meaningless anyway. The technicalities can be pretty interesting, but in the end, it’s the actual performance that counts most.
Time For Change
Every so often we tweak our product categories to reflect changes in the industry and, this year, the big change is splitting the lens category into two – one for primes and one for zooms.
We may have to go further in the future because, as noted earlier, lenses are now very influential, particularly in terms of attracting converts to the mirrorless systems. And particularly in these systems, we’re seeing the emergence of much more innovative and interesting designs, both from the camera manufacturers themselves and the independents (of which, incidentally, there are now many more than just a couple of years ago). Now that the mirrorless systems have all the ‘bread-and-butter’ lens models in place, there’s scope to experiment with more exotic creations which leverage technical factors such as sensor size and the shorter flange back distance. We’re following TIPA’s lead from this year and using the term “mirrorless” on the relevant categories. Back in the early days of mirrorless, TIPA proposed the description of “compact system camera” – or CSC, for short – which was subsequently adopted by its member magazines and a number of the manufacturers. However, “mirrorless” is now much better understood as a distinction from a reflex camera.
Finally, we’ve decided to drop our Innovative Product category because it was really too broad in its scope. These days so many imaging products incorporate one innovation or another which are all commendable in their own way, so it’s hard to make meaningful direct comparisons. However, consider it just stored in the trophy cabinet and if, in the future, something really special comes along that isn’t covered by the other categories, we’ll dust it off again.
Making The Cut
The period of eligibility for the Camera Magazine Imaging Awards runs from 1 October to 30 September. These dates were originally selected to prevent things being skewed in a Photokina year by the rush of new arrivals at the world’s biggest photo show. Commercial imperatives mean that many companies no longer wait to use a major show as the launch pad for a new product, but Photokina is still well-timed for others and generates plenty of activity. Our thoughts are that it’s not exactly fair for a potentially winning product that’s been doing well in previous months to be knocked out at the last minute by something which looks better on paper, but is yet untested. We’ve also kept this period of eligibility because it works in terms of avoiding the same issues with the pre-Christmas rush of new arrivals.
Another essential requirement for eligibility is that a product must be on sale by the time we select the winners – and this means being physically available at a substantial number of retail outlets in the country’s major metropolitan centres – by 30 September. Being available for pre-ordering isn’t sufficient because there could be – and quite often are these days – delays in actual deliveries. Likewise any online seller has to be able to guarantee a delivery by 30 September too. All the eligible products in each category – long lists are compiled throughout the year – are judged on a number of design, operational and performance criteria. The overriding consideration here is just how effectively the design brief has been met and the product delivers what’s promised. Price is also a factor, but isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker because some products would still be winners even if they cost a whole lot more – they’re so comprehensively better than all their rivals. Conversely, some products represent such exceptional value-for-money that they also comprehensively beat the field.
Each of the judging criteria carries a points score. After we’ve arrived a shortlist of the top-scoring products in each category, we then move from the head – i.e. all the objective stuff – to the heart. These subjective elements include the styling and look, the experience and involvement, and the many other – sometimes quite small – things that give a product – particularly cameras – real emotional appeal. Sometimes it’s hard to define why one product has the ‘X factor’ – you just can’t wait to get going with it – and another doesn’t, but there’s often an integrity to the design and execution that’s simply irresistible. These are intangibles, but worthy of recognition because, over the decades, we’ve found that there are dedicated enthusiasts behind these products… product planners, engineers, marketing people and managers. They’re mostly anonymous and often unsung, but photography is a hugely personal thing – with both emotional and psychological dimensions – and so the value of the human input in development and design should never be underestimated. We hope everybody involved in the creation of this year’s crop of winners feels justifiably proud of their achievements. We, at this end, are truly grateful.