2011-2012 Camera Magazine Imaging Awards
As sports commentators like to say, the last 12 months in the camera industry has been very much a game of two halves. There was the period before 11 March 2011 and the period after. This, of course, is the date on which one of Japan’s major industrial areas was wiped out by the massive tsunami which followed a magnitude 9.0 earthquake 70 kilometres off the country’s north-east coast. Many towns and villages were totally destroyed and, in the end, the loss of life will top 20,000 (many thousands are still missing). The electronics and automotive industries were particularly hard hit with, in particular, interruptions in the supply of components causing problems for Japanese factories across the country and overseas.
The country – and the economy – are still recovering so there have been many delays in the launching of new products... if not because of manufacturing problems, then out of respect for the victims and their families. This has significantly reshaped the ‘camera year’ and there was a fraction of the activity we’d normally expect in the second half. As well as new model introductions being delayed, some existing models ended up in short supply until production could be restarted or moved to another site.
Things are picking up now as manufacturers and distributors rush to fill the supply lines in time for the potentially lucrative Christmas period, but quite a number of new products – which you’re reading about in this issue – didn’t go on sale in time to be considered for this year’s awards. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of competition in many of the categories, including both the consumer and enthusiast-level D-SLRs, consumer compact cameras and video camcorders.
The compact system camera (CSC) segment undoubtedly slowed from April onwards. Panasonic had already launched its third-generation of Micro Four Thirds cameras while Sony’s new NEX-series models and the all-new Nikon 1 system are only arriving in the shops now. Consequently, Olympus’s third-gen Digital PENs were the only CSC arrivals of note in a period expected to be chock-a-block with activity.
Of course, things are going to get very interesting now – especially when Canon eventually gets involved – and the debate about sensor size and target audiences intensifies. Nikon has confounded everybody by opting for a smaller sensor, ostensibly to avoid cannibalisation of its entry-level D-SLRs which are currently doing good business.
This does make sense, but then there seem to be a lot of Nikon D-SLR owners disappointed there isn’t a CSC body fully compatible with their existing lenses. Our contention remains that a big audience for CSCs is indeed existing D-SLR users who want a compact interchangeable lens camera body as an adjunct to their reflex system, not as an alternative.
Here, then, Panasonic appears to have the clearest thinking, having thrown all its eggs into the CSC basket and now offering Lumix G-series cameras to suit a wide variety of potential users from enthusiasts (G3, GH2 and GX1) to snap-shooters (GF2 and GF3).
Importantly, Canon, Nikon, Pentax/Ricoh and Sony remain fully committed to entry-level D-SLRs and any suggestion that this might be a sector about to disappear look very wide of the mark. For starters, it was a very good year for new models – Pentax K-r, Canon’s EOS 1100D and 600D, Nikon D5100 and Sony SLT-A35 – while earlier versions (such as the 550D and D5000) have sold strongly on the back of pricing often undercutting the CSCs.
The enthusiast-level D-SLR is even more firmly entrenched as the camera of choice for the more serious shooter who isn’t overly concerned about size and weight (within reason). Of course, it remains to be seen what impact more enthusiast-orientated CSCs – like Sony’s NEX-7 (eligible for next year’s awards) and whatever Fujifilm is dreaming up – will have here, but it’s still hard to see the D-SLR being usurped from its premier position. Just look at what has been on offer in this category this year – Canon EOS 60D, Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5 and Sony SLT-A77.
Exceptional cameras all and undoubtedly hard-to-counter arguments for the D-SLR as the most accomplished and least-compromised tool for advanced amateurs and professionals.
Despite the upheavals for many of the Japanese camera makers 2011 was still a very good year so selecting winners wasn’t really any easier and, if anything, the competition was more highly concentrated. And, importantly, the bar was definitely raised again. It wasn’t just all about technology this year either, but with digital camera design now into a maturing phase, there was a welcome return to some individuality in the key areas of styling, ergonomics and functionality... chief among these being Fujifilm’s superb FinePix X100.
However, all our winners this year found clever ways of packaging up technologies or new ways of doing things that are better and, as ever, we are the beneficiaries.
Consumer Digital SLR
Canon EOS 600D
Canon has got to the top of the D-SLR market – and actually stayed there for a very long time – by making cameras that people want. It has always competed on features and performance rather than pricing which has also helped keep real value in the D-SLR business. Cleverly, the bargains come with the previous-generation models which Canon tends to keep going, providing buyers with a wider range of options.
The 600D is its “top-of-the-line entry-level D-SLR” so it straddles the line between being a very well-featured beginner’s camera and an affordably-priced enthusiast’s camera. It works equally well in either role.
It’s compact and lightweight, but boasts Canon’s 18.7 megapixels ‘APS-C’ size CMOS sensor which is also used in the 60D and the 7D. There are higher-end features such as a tilt/swing monitor screen with a resolution of 1.04 million dots, 63-zone metering, Full HD video recording and manual flash output control, but also features for the point-and-shooter such as auto scene selection.
This is a D-SLR that beginners can grow with, developing their skills as they graduate from the auto controls to making more manual inputs.
But it’s also a D-SLR that the more experienced shooter can drive to achieve their creative objectives as well as ensuring technical challenges can be met through capabilities such as Highlight Tone Priority’ (dynamic range expansion), the ‘Auto Lighting Optimiser’ settings and ‘Peripheral Illumination Correction’.
Beyond all this, Canon’s deep understanding of D-SLR design mean the 600D works effortlessly and efficiently. It’s a camera that immediately feels part of you; an extension of your ideas and imagination which then, almost seamlessly, turns them into images.
A winner indeed.
Enthusiast Digital SLR
Sony Alpha SLT-A77
It might be a bit early to suggest that Sony is going through a D-SLR renaissance, but after a few years of not really doing anything to attract very much attention – beyond the remarkable A900 – suddenly it has emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
This is partially due to making its translucent mirror technology the cornerstone of its D-SLR range, but it’s mostly due to a new generation of cameras that are interesting, innovative and exciting.
The most exciting of them is undoubtedly the SLT-A77 which we think is the best Alpha-series D-SLR Sony has built so far because it’s now very distinctively a Sony product – rather than a Konica Minolta derivative – but it’s been designed with a seemingly intuitive feel for what users at this level really want and need.
In this regard, Sony has finally acquired the same philosophical mindset as Canon and Nikon which, with no tradition in still cameras of this calibre, is something we once doubted it might be able to.
There’s a mighty chasm between designing a D-SLR by simply throwing a bunch of technologies into the pot, and creating one that has the essential elements to make these technologies effortlessly accessible and applicable.
With the A77 Sony has leapt this chasm in one bound... this is a camera that’s Nikon-like in its ergonomics and the sheer efficiency with which it goes about its business, and is Canon-esque in the way it pushes the performance boundaries, but in a thoroughly practical way.
To be frank, we remain slightly stunned at just how well everything has come together in the A77 and how it feels just like Sony has been designing and building SLR cameras since the 1960s.
It has the same completeness and confidence – the secret ingredients that make a camera more than just enjoyable to use; you fall in love with it.
It’s the first Sony D-SLR to have this special ‘something’ and it can be elusive even for Canon and Nikon... although the D7000 definitely has it so it’s a mark of just how good the A77 really is that it still triumphed in this category.
Beyond the philosophical, the A77 is a technological tour- de-force; the 24.7 megapixels sensor, the fantastic OLED electronic viewfinder, and the pellicle mirror which allows up to 12 fps shooting and super-fast AF with both live view and video shooting.
There’s a lot more to it, of course, but with the A77 Sony has achieved D-SLR greatness and, after just five years in the business, that’s akin to conquering Mount Everest after previously having only climbed just a few flights of stairs.
Professional Digital SLR
If ever a camera sums up the Pentax philosophy it’s the 645D. This is the company that popularised the 35mm SLR by making it more affordable without compromising its capabilities... and then went on doing it with every subsequent technological advancement.
In the digital era, Pentax’s ‘APS-C’ format D-SLRs not only represent exceptional affordability, but have often offered more features and performance than their pricier rivals. It’s not so surprising then that, Ricoh, looking for a way into the D-SLR market, should decide that Pentax was the best-looking doggie in the window.
There was much excitement when Pentax intimated it was considering building a medium format D-SLR and while it was a long time coming – more to do with upheavals in this sector than anything else – it was much better than anybody had expected.
Nearly 12 month after the Pentax 645D was launched, nobody has got close to it on pricing and certainly nobody has come within miles of offering comparable levels of features, useability and operational efficiencies.
Even alongside the ‘small format’ pro-level D-SLRs, the 645D still looks like A Good Thing, only let down to some extent by the small number of lenses available that are optimised for digital capture.
Of course, Pentax has been here before, turning the rollfilm SLR market on its head with the original 645 which made stepping up to medium format photography both affordable and accessible.
The pros of the day were a bit miffed that suddenly ‘everybody could do it’, but then many also quickly realised that using a medium format SLR didn’t have to be such a trial or be so expensive.
Some of that sort of snobbery is still around, but use the 645D and the same realisations are unavoidable. It’s comfortable, it’s quick and it has 40 megapixels of resolution on tap from a sensor which delivers all the imaging performance benefits of bigger pixels. Being built from the ground up as medium format D-SLR with the complete integration of camera body and capture back, it has none of the drawbacks of the systems that have evolved from the film days... such as separate power supplies for each of these components.
That the 645D also offers all the features and functions found on the better-equipped 35mm-based D-SLRs makes it even more of a remarkable camera, but the workflow benefits for professionals are undeniable given sitting at a computer isn’t actually earning any income.
Pentax is to be highly commended for taking up the challenge of building a camera like the 645D, but what makes it a really worthy winner is that it did such an outstanding job, exceeding all expectations.
Compact System Camera
Panasonic Lumix G3
The compact system camera sector has really hotted up in the last few months with the arrival of yet more different interpretations of the brief... notably from Pentax and Nikon. There’s undoubtedly more to come, but Panasonic stands alone as having the most cohesive and well-rounded approach, embodied in a line-up of camera bodies and lenses that are precisely targeted, but also cover a wide spectrum of potential users.
Panasonic has felt its way carefully and thoughtfully through the first few years of the CSC, perhaps helped by the fact that it doesn’t have a D-SLR program to consider, but perhaps more because of an awareness of what’s required to establish a whole new category of digital camera.
Early on, it was criticised for perhaps being too conservative, especially with the original G1, but now this looks like good planning as it fleshes out its CSC range with models designed to appeal to the ‘smartphone’ generation.
The G1 was also criticised for not being small enough – yes, we were among those making that observation – but as Panasonic’s ‘SLR-shaped’ CSC has evolved into the current G3, this too has come to make a lot of sense.
While the G3 has become smaller than its predecessors, it isn’t so small as to be compromised in its handling and useability. And while Panasonic is providing touch-screen control for those comfortable with such things, the G3 can still be driven is the conventional manner via hard keys and menus.
And the built-in EVF is such an important feature in terms of this camera’s acceptability to D-SLR users... eyelevel shooting is second nature and they don’t expect to have to pay extra for it either.
Of course, that the G3 looks like a D-SLR is helpful too, giving it the necessary ‘serious camera’ kudos which also appeals to the ‘step-up’ customer (i.e. one ready to move on from a fixed-lens compact).
Here, then, is the irony of the CSC market at present – the serious shooters want something compact for the times when they leave the D-SLR at home, while those aspiring to a better camera want something that looks this way... which means it doesn’t necessarily have to be compact.
Panasonic’s slight repositioning of the Lumix G3 covers this latter option without diminishing its capabilities as far as the enthusiast-level shooter is concerned. Consequently, its remains very much a realistic alternative to buying an entry-level D-SLR, now with size very much on its side.
Consumer Digital Compact Camera
Panasonic Lumix FT3
Our emphasis with this category is always to look for a compact camera with enthusiast-level capabilities. Panasonic has won here before with its excellent TZ-series ‘travel zoom’ models which, incidentally, have lead to many imitators. Yet these cameras aren’t quite as capable as the intrepid traveller might like because they’ll still be stopped by rain, snow, low temperatures or, worse, being dropped. Which is why, this year, the Lumix FT3 attracted our attention.
Panasonic wasn’t first with a ‘tough’ compact, but it’s since taken the idea further than anybody else. The FT3 is waterproofed down to 12 metres (there’s an optional marine housing for going down to 40 metres), shock-proofed to withstand a drop of two metres and insulated to going on shooting until the mercury falls beyond -10 degrees Celsius. This starts to make it a real ‘go anywhere’ proposition, but the FT3 can also tell you exactly where you are as it has a built-in GPS receiver, electronic compass, altimeter and barometer. The GPS is linked to a database of over one million locations around the globe and it’s surprisingly precise about where it is too.
The lack of manual exposure control options is a drawback, but we’ve found that Panasonic’s suite of ‘Intelligent Auto’ corrections is just so reliable, you really don’t miss them.
The camera can indeed do a better job and, besides, if you are in the process of being frozen, shaken, splashed or just hanging on grimly you probably don’t want to be fiddling with camera controls. However, Panasonic has taken into account the needs of the more adventurous user so the FT3 has continuous shooting at 3.7 fps, a 12.5 megapixels sensor, 28-128mm-equivalent zoom, Full HD video recording and a version of its optical image stabilisation that works even when you and the camera are moving (which, of course, is a likely scenario).
The Lumix FT3 really is a remarkable camera, not just in terms of where it can be used, but the results that can be achieved when you get there. It’s not just a ‘go anywhere’ camera, but a ‘carry everywhere’ camera.
Enthusiast Digital Compact Camera
Fujifilm FinePix X100
What can we say? The FinePix X100 was the camera story of 2011, making a profound impact on the market far beyond what even Fujifilm could have envisaged. And this impact will be ongoing because, make no mistake, every other camera maker has sat up and taken notice of the X100... meticulously dissecting it to find out exactly what has made it such a hit.
We can give them one clue... it looks, feels and works like a real camera. In other words, it’s innately intuitive at every level and, consequently, triggers instinctive responses in photographers.
While the technology embodied in the X100 – most notably the inspired hybrid viewfinder – is undoubtedly clever, there’s also a psychological aspect to this camera.
Of course, the retro styling is a big part of this, but the appeal goes well beyond merely the visual impression and on to the functionality aspect of a camera which has dials and an optical viewfinder.
It’s about the interaction with the user that this configuration demands. It’s more direct, more involved, more intimate.
When you hold a camera away from you in order to use the external monitor screen for viewfinding, the separation happens on more levels than just the physical.
When the camera is held to your eye there’s a connection that very clearly transcends the physical and moves into the realms of seeing (rather than just looking) and all the thought processes that eventually coalesce into creativity.
However, being physically in such close contact with the camera is undoubtedly important because here the eye – the photographer’s most important tool – and the camera – the photographer’s other most important tool – are at one.
And the eyelevel viewfinder eliminates distractions and determines, quite literally, a picture’s frame of reference. In any of the pictorial arts, the frame is the foundation upon which the skills of composition are anchored.
Turning this vision into an image is where camera controls can help or hinder.
So a dial which allows you to see all the available settings at a glance and is set by the single action of a turn trumps cycling through menus. It’s done and you can see it’s done, move on.
Now, of course, the X100 has menus and it has auto modes, but it also has dials, switches and an aperture collar so, drive it in manual, and it works like any camera has since the compact rigid body design was introduced, getting close to 100 years ago now.
See, set and shoot. Simple. And this is why the X100 is appealing to so many photographers on an emotional level.
It’s a camera before it’s a computer, and it’s putting the picture before the processes.
It’s not about getting back to basics – because the X100 is still very advanced under the skin with some very 21st century features – but about getting back to the essence of the relationship between the camera, the photographer and the picture.
Digital Video Camcorder
JVC Everio GS-TD1
Today’s camcorder market is a challenging one now that D-SLRs offer ever-improving video recording capabilities, but for serious movie-makers there’s no beating the real thing which is why this category is still immensely important.
Last year we recognised the first move into 3D camcorders by Panasonic, but just 12 months later we’re looking for more complete solutions to 3D video-making because content generation is what can really drive 3D now.
JVC’s GS-TD1 is the complete package here; Full HD 3D recording via stereo zoom lenses – quite a technological feat in itself – 64 GB of internal memory supplemented with an SDXC memory card slot and exceptional 3D sound using a pair of microphones with the ideal separation of 85 mm.
Remarkably too, the JVC’s 8.9 cm monitor screen is 3D – without needing special glasses to be viewed – and has touch controls.
There’s a long list of enthusiast level features and a very user-friendly price tag of under $1650... which makes the JVC GS-TD1 a winner in every department.
For 3D shooting you can choose between the Full HD resolution of 1820x1080 pixels using the left/right Independent Format – for maximum image quality – or the Side-By-Side format which is used by TV broadcasters (for maximum compatibility).
The stereoscopic zooms have a maximum aperture of f1.2 while the TD1’s CMOS sensors are the ‘back-illuminated’ types (now common in still cameras), giving exceptional low-light recording capabilities.
Incidentally, with 3D shooting the zoom’s focal range is equivalent to 42-210mm and with 2D shooting it becomes 37.3-373mm (or 10x). A 200x digital zoom function is also available for 2D shooting.
JVC’s ‘Advanced Imager Stabilisation’ is designed to provide compensation even when the camera is being moved such as when panning. In the ‘Intelligent Auto’ the camcorder takes care of exposure, focusing, chroma and gamma values, and colour to suit the subject or scene.
Additionally, the TD1 has face recognition, a ‘smile meter’ which can be set to trigger recording at a certain level (honest), ultra slow-motion recording, time-lapse recording and a motordrive function which records at 12 fps for effect.
Looking at JVC’s GS-TD1 it’s hard to believe so much video recording capability is packed into such a compact machine that’s so affordable. Not so long ago, this would have been the stuff of fantasy, today it’s a reality.
Digital Photo Printer
Epson Stylus Pro R3000
While the pace of development in inkjet printing has definitely slowed down of late, Epson isn’t resting on its laurels and continues to find ways to improve its products.
The Stylus Pro R3000 is its latest offering in the all-important A3+ format category which is a great favourite with photographers who don’t have the commercial requirement for anything bigger.
Mind you, the R3000 inherits some of the ‘big printer’ capabilities from the larger A2+ Stylus Pro 3880 – the winner here for 2009-2010 – so it accepts a roll paper holder, has bigger ink cartridges and both Pictbridge and wireless connections.
Both the roll paper holder and the 25.9 millilitre cartridges enable the higher volume printer to work towards much greater economies, but you aren’t penalised if you prefer to work with cut sheets and aren’t quite so prolific in your output.
Epson’s nine-colour UltraChrome K3 With Vivid Magenta pigmented inkset delivers a superb print quality – our reviewer described it as “exquisite” – with both colour and B&W images.
In essence this is a pro-level printer at an enthusiast-level price which, importantly, delivers pro-level results and the potential for more economical running. Consequently, the Stylus Pro R3000 really ticks all the boxes.
AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0G ED VR
We don’t generally consider branded lenses in this category because they’re only available in the one mount which means not everybody has the chance to enjoy a winning design.
However, Nikon’s latest version of its 24-120mm zoom is such an accomplished lens we just couldn’t go past it this year. The Nikkor 24-120mm has always been interesting, spanning ultra-wide to short telephoto in the one very handy lens, but in the early days it flirted with the edge of the envelope in terms of what was possible with the optical performance.
It’s telling that there’s nothing else like it in any other system – branded or independent – and Nikon has worked hard to improve both the performance and the capabilities.
So now we have this exceptionally flexible focal range, mated with a constant aperture throughout, Nikon’s latest version of its ‘Vibration Reduction’ optical image stabilisation (VR II), and an advanced optical construction with the ‘Nano Crystal Coat’ to minimise ghosting and flare.
The optical construction now employs three aspherical elements and two made from extra-low (ED) glass to deliver an exceptionally high degree of correction, not to mention much improved sharpness throughout both the zooming and aperture ranges.
The new 24-120mm does really make the most of its focal range, looking pretty much as good at 24mm and f4.0 as it does at 120mm and f22.
Every D-SLR owner yearns for a genuine all-purpose zoom with uncompromised performance; if you own a Nikon D-SLR with a 35mm-sized sensor now you’ve got it.
Innovative Imaging Product
Sirui TX-Series Tripods
You might think that it would be hard to improve on any aspect of the tripod’s design and operation given they’re pretty much set in concrete. Well, every so often somebody comes up with something surprising.
When we were first shown Sirui’s range of tripods, we pretty much had the same reaction as most people – What? Another brand of tripod? Then we starting trying one or two out and found that this Chinese manufacturer has indeed come up with something pretty clever indeed.
The TX-series of models are primarily aimed at the travelling photographer so compactness is a prerequisite, but with this has usually come compromise.
Sirui has dreamt up the idea of tripod legs which fold through 180 degrees so a folded tripod is exceptionally short indeed... yet the possible height extension isn’t significantly reduced.
For example, the T-1004X model is just 40 cm when folded, but extends to 140 cm.
It weighs 1.1 kilograms, but can support up to 10 kilograms of weight which is substantial.
This is because these tripods have carbon fibre leg tubes, but not just any old composite – Sirui is a rarity in that it makes it own leg tubes and these comprise eight cross-patterned layers so they are much, much stronger in return for a very minimal increase in weight.
Like most of the great ideas, Sirui’s 180-degree folding tripod leg is a simple one (it’s just really an extension of the variable-angle settings), but the benefits are real and tangible. So... Sirui, not just another tripod brand.