The last 12 months has turned a famine into a feast, and the major camera makers made up for all the delays and disruptions of 2011. Consequently, this year’s awards have been more fiercely contested than ever and the winners really are something a bit specialHow time flies when you’re having fun. It’s exactly 30 years ago since I first participated in my first judging of what we now call the Camera Magazine Imaging Awards. It had been started the year before, and back then it was just the plain old Australian Camera Of The Year Award – because there really was only one award.

For the record, it was won by the Minolta X-700, which heralded a new generation of multi-mode 35mm SLRs, and this class of camera was, indeed, far ahead of anything else in terms of technologies and design innovations. Medium format was still stuck in the Dark Ages, compact cameras were yet to come of age and video was still very much ‘new age’.

However, all of this kicked off over the next few years so, to reflect the changing nature of the camera market, we added new categories, firstly for compacts (which were then starting to get interesting) and for video camcorders (which meant Sherpas were no long needed to carry the gear). We’ve been tweaking the awards ever since – including changing the name to something more all-encompassing – with, not surprisingly, the biggest changes coming with the dawning of the digital era.

We’re doing it again this year because things are still evolving in the camera world, and so it’s necessary to rejig the award categories to ensure they stay applicable and relevant. In double-quick time, for instance, the range of compact system cameras (CSCs) has expanded so that it’s not far off matching D-SLRs for user levels and price points. OK, so we’ve yet to see the top end of the sector become quite as competitive, but at least there now is a top end. Consequently, we’ve introduced a new category for ‘Professional Compact System Cameras’ in anticipation that we’re going to see a lot more activity here in the future. We’ve also abandoned a category – that for ‘Consumer Digital Compact Cameras’ – and the reasoning here is simple. Firstly, these cameras have been becoming less relevant to you, the Camera reader, over the last couple of years as the emphasis has been more and more on lower pricing than anything else. Secondly, the shadow of the camera-equipped smartphone looms large over this sector and, frankly, it’s not an area we want to get into. The annual TIPA Awards – which, of course, we’re involved with – now has a category for ‘Mobile Imaging Devices’, but we don’t think we need to go there locally. Instead, we’re going to concentrate on the higher-end fixed-lens compacts which are targeted at the more experienced or advanced user (and which, after all, is a much more challenging design brief).

More of a challenge has been what to do with our video camcorder category now that every digital still camera has video recording capabilities. Indeed, many D-SLRs are sufficiently capable enough to be used professionally in all manner of video productions… and as the preferred alternative to a camcorder because of their sensor size and comparative affordability. D-SLRs are being used to make TV commercials, feature films and documentaries so, in this regard, they qualify as video cameras too. Likewise, all the CSCs now have extensive video functionality, as do the top-of-the-line fixed lens compacts and even Leica’s latest digital rangefinder camera. To reflect this, we’ve given this category the more generalised title of ‘Digital Video Camera’, which still includes camcorders, but also takes in any still camera with video capabilities, as well as the compact ‘HD action cams’ and Canon’s Cinema EOS models (plus any rival designs should they become directly available in Australia).

Now that’s quite a variety of camera types, so won’t we end up comparing apples with oranges or even apples with cabbages? It’s a risk, but everything is going to be judged on the ability to perform as an effective device for recording video, with whatever technologies and innovations it brings to that particular party…
and this does tend to even out the playing field. That said, if it proves to be problematic in the future, then we may have to be more specific with our categorisation, but for now we’re looking for the camera that best delivers what it promises to video-makers.

Before we open the envelopes, there’s just one more point to be made about this year’s awards, and that concerns the period of eligibility. Being a ‘Photokina year’, a whole lot of new products were announced either at the show or in the week or so prior to it. Read the fine print, however, and the vast majority of them weren’t going to be shipping until October or November 2012 or even later. That rules them out of being considered for this year’s awards because one of the key requirements is that a product must be on sale – and this means being physically available at a substantial number of retail outlets around the country – by 30 September 2012. Being available for pre-ordering doesn’t count, and any online seller had to be able to guarantee a delivery by 30 September too. We picked this close-off date for eligibility many years ago and for a very good reason, namely to avoid the awards being entirely skewed towards the last-minute arrivals after a Photokina, when potentially worthy winners had been serving users well for many months before. Equally compelling was that it was just physically impossible to properly evaluate all these newcomers, especially as production-standard test samples often wouldn’t be ready in time anyway. So, this year in particular, quite a lot of interesting new products will have to be considered in the next awards, among them the Canon EOS 6D and PowerShot G15; Sony’s A99, NEX-6 and Cyber-shot RX1; Panasonic’s GH3, Fujifilm’s X-E1 and the Olympus XZ-2.

Just as well really, as this year’s judging was hard enough as it was. But we did finally reach some decisions, and here they are…