Camera, Lens, Accessory and Image Awards 2012

December 29, 2012  •  4 Comments

As the old man of time is chased out by the new-born babe of destiny, the time has come for this blog to give its inaugural awards for all that was best in the photographic firmament of 2012.

Camera of the Year

I can remember the first Sony Walkman as if it had been released yesterday. But despite the hype at the time, the innovation wasn't so much size as use-case. Sure it was portable - but I'd had a portable cassette player for quite a while before that. What was original was that it came with stereo headphones and was designed to be listened to anywhere, even on the move. Trouble was, though smaller than anything that had gone before, it was still kinda chunky. Like most revolutionary ideas it seems so obvious now that it's hard to imagine a time when it simply wasn't there but for me, the moment when the idea really came good was when Sony introduced a model that was only a tiny fraction larger than a cassette case itself. At that point, it simply slipped into a jeans or shirt pocket and could remain unnoticed, often even when in use. I still recall, almost viscerally, the wonder of seeing that perfect gadget for the first time: how could they possibly make anything as small and perfect and jewel like as this little marvel?

Cameras, having started off at literally the size of a room, have taken a long time to shrink. From the first recorded observation of the principles behind the camera obscura over two thousand years ago, it took until the early 20th Century for a model to be designed that could even remotely be called 'pocket sized'. Then again, with the introduction of digital photography to the wider market in the 1990s, things had to be 'big to be good'. The first digital camera I used was a VGA Casio, sometime in 1997, and though compact it was terrible. The professional market really started to expand with the first Canon 1D in 2001 (I was lucky enough to use one of the first models) but the pocket market has taken a lot longer to develop. We've had the venerable Canon G series, some Coolpix models, brave efforts too from the likes of Fuji, Ricoh, Leica, Sony and Panasonic, but the search for the holy grail - a truly pocket sized camera with exhibition quality output, feature rich but fully controllable and professionally configurable and with a very good, fast mid-range zoom, did not bear fruit until this year.

Consequently I award my personal Camera of the Year Award 2012 to the Sony RX100. It's not perfect (the lens could be even better and the high ISO performance leaves it lagging larger-sensored rivals) but it is damn, damn good and I truly believe that up to about a 22" print and given sufficiently good light to keep ISO to 200 or below, it's output is good enough for exhibition purposes. And whilst I have certainly used other small sensor cameras for exhibition prints this size, even larger, they have all been, for me, technically compromised even if most viewers would not have known or cared. The pocket camera has come of age and for that reason, I consider this tiny Sony to be not only my personal favourite new kit of the year, but also the most significant in the market as a whole.

Second prize goes to the Sony RX-1 for packing amazing IQ into a tiny package with a wonderful, well-behaved lens. Damn the cost, this thing rocks. I am currently using it a lot more than anything else. I wish it had a 24-70 zoom but if it did, it would lose the killer IQ that the fab Zeiss lens gives it and it would lose the amazingly nice form-factor.

Third prize goes to the Nikon D800/E, a camera that has had medium format digital users selling their heavy, expensive kit in droves because the Nikon does 85% of the job (plus a lot of other jobs) at a fraction of the price and weight. I would have placed this camera first had it not been for the inadequate system infrastructure (not a single first-rate wide perspective control lens is available) and for the annoying issues surrounding its focus problems.

I am sure this will all get ironed out in time but for now we are still in situation whereby the market for semi-to-pro full frame 35mm system cameras is wide open: IMHO, Canon has the focus and the wider systems about right but I don't like their sensors - and Nikon has a wonderful sensor (and the balls to put it in a well-specced body) but I am unconvinced by the finished product and the wider system. I believe that mirrors will soon be all-but-obsolete and that pro-grade gear will move towards more advanced EVF-based systems with 'oversampling' sensors in the 80-100mp range. Sony is currently best placed to win and defend that niche, if it thinks clearly about what the most demanding image makers need.

Lens of the Year

One of the frustrating things about a sensor as good as that in the D800/E is that it shows every fault in the lenses you mount on it. It has made the Nikkor 24mm PC-E lens look dated, shown up focus problems with a host of other glass and demonstrated the design compromises in some of the finest 35mm format lenses ever made. In particular, finding wide angled lenses that focus well on the body and that are sharp to the edges without odd field effects, has been my biggest trial of 2012. So I award my Lens of the Year Prize 2012 to the Samyang 14mm F2.8 ED IF UMC in Nikon fit, a lens which is worth several multiples of its price. At under $400 it is about one eighth the price of the Zeiss 15mm F2.8 and from what I have seen is so nearly as good as to make little difference in most cases. If this were the one focal length that I depended on to make a living more than any other then I'd maybe get the Zeiss. For pretty much all my uses, there's nothing in it. I love this lens.

Second prize goes to the Zeiss 35mm F2 T* lens on the Sony RX-1 because, after eight months of messing about trying to get field-wide, sharp, wide-ish angle shots out of a D800 (and I now have 5 wide lenses for it) this lens Zeiss-on-a-Sony lens quite simply does what it promises with no special attention required: it is sharp from edge to edge and corner to corner, has lovely micro contrast, reaches its peak without stopping down much and stays there without losing too much to diffraction when you do need to stop down. It's a peach. Compare it to a Leica 35mm Summicron at around $3,200 and consider that the RX1 is currently about $2,800. Assume that the RX1 camera is therefore effectively free, but that you are being paid $400 for the inconvenience of not being able to put the lens on any other camera. Seems like a good deal to me.

Third prize goes to the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN (for Sony E Mount). I was getting pretty fed up with my Nex-7 on account of the fact that the rather nice sensor and form factor were wasted on the largely pretty indifferent lenses available for it. Should I plump for the 24mm Zeiss at $$$ or just give up and sell the camera? Then at my dealer one day I idly purchased this incredibly cheap Sigma. At $149 this must be the best lens deal going: like the lens on the Sony RX1, it just does 'what it says on the tin'  - sharp images across the frame and no odd behaviours. I sometime carry the Nex and a Tamron 18-200 when I'm not expecting anything 'exhibition worthy' to happen, but this little Sigma is my insurance policy...

Accessory of the Year

First prize goes to the Joby GorillaPod Hybrid GP2B with Ball & Socket Head. It is amazing. I have avoided these things for years, thinking that they must be cruddy and preferring to stick to my Gitzo Carbon Fibre 3 series with Arca Cube head. But at an airport on a recent trip I saw that this version of the gorillpod claimed to be able to support a compact system camera up to 1KG and, since it was stupidly cheap, I thought I'd give it a try. I kid you not, with the RX1 (no shutter swish or mirror slap at all) it can give you 30 second exposures with not even one pixel blur of motion. And the built in ball head is great, levels really easily and stays put. And the tripod plate is tiny and can largely be left on the camera. Sure it won't work during earthquakes or hurricanes but penny for penny it is my star purchase of the year.

Second prize goes to the15"  Macbook Pro Retina. To be honest, I am still not convinced that judging critical IQ of a file is best done on a Retina screen - at 220ppi it is denser than the 180ppi I consider de minimus for printing and over twice as dense as my 30" Eizo monitor, making sharpening decisions hard to get right. But my Lord does it make a good image look incredible. RX1 files (and for no particular reason I can fathom) look especially amazing on it. It's largely a solitary vice but I love it.

Third prize goes to my $6.99 eBay purchase from 'Littierbaby'  of their F121 Metal Lens Hood for the Sony RX-1 including free postage. The original may be bayonet rather than screw, but I have a UV filter screwed behind my knock-off special without vignetting, and the lens cap goes on nicely. The original, for people with absolutely no sense whatsoever, is $178. I wonder if Littierbaby are considering adding an EVF or a thumb-grip to the range?

Best Photo of the Year

I look at a lot of images. I buy them, I make them, I sell them, I go to exhibitions, auctions, galleries and shows - and I know a lot of photographers and people with private collections. But one image has stuck in my mind more than any other this year.

There's only one prize here, a highly personal choice. I can't say what it means on any intellectual level, nor do I feel like deconstructing it in that way. For me it works purely on an emotional level. It is by a dutch photographer called Berndnaut Smilde and I have nothing else to say about it!

Wish-List for 2013

I would like

  • The new Leica M to be amazing  - I own a LOT of M glass and it is currently gathering dust
  • Olympus to release a new version of the OM-D with IQ as good as the RX1 and the same resolution
  • Almost anyone to show Nikon and Canon how it could be done in the high-end SLR market
  • Someone to buy my Phase One IQ180 and lenses from my dealer

A happy and successful 2013 to all

Tim


Comments

Tim Ashley Photography
Hi Scott,
As far as a versatile zoom, the best answer is probably the 24-120 but make sure you fine tune the focus on it and then test it immediately, returning it if it isn't up to snuff - especially if there are any asymmetries. But don't expect miracles. The blog has reviews of it spread over several aspects of its performance.

I will test the Sigma when I can get one, as per the concluding paragraphs of the blog summary on the RX1 and I do have very high hopes for it but I hear that the bokeh is a little harsh. This is the downside of having a lens which is apparently otherwise truly excellent.

Glad to hear you're enjoying the RX1: it is very very good indeed!
Daniel Moore(non-registered)
Beautiful. Take it as you will. : )
John Brewton(non-registered)
Happy New Year, Tim! May we both be amazed by the new M! And keep up the great work. I look forward to your new posts with enthusiasm.
Vlad(non-registered)
Nice write-up. I completely agree on everything you wrote. Even though I only had the opportunity to play with the RX100 and RX1 in the shop, they are very fine cameras (much more refined products than any NEX camera, in any case). Finally, we will have fixed lens cameras with great IQ, a segment that was missing since film.
Btw, the Gorillapod will get loose after time.
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