Camera, Lens, Accessory and Image Awards 2013

December 16, 2013  •  22 Comments

As the shutter curtain of time snaps shut on the sensor of destiny, the time has come for this blog to give its second annual awards - for all that was finest in the photographic firmament of 2013.

Camera of the Year

First prize goes to… 

...the Sony A7R*. What a fascinating and infuriating beast this is. Capable of wonderful image quality, often close to Medium Format but in a tiny package, this camera is the first to break through what I considered the most significant barrier facing the industry: a full frame, high resolution sensor in a compact body with an excellent built-in EVF and a versatile interchangeable lens mount. It has not only broken that barrier: it has smashed it, and left the debris of other manufacturers' aspirations spinning in its wake.

There is a lot not to like of course:

  • colour casts across the frame with some lenses
  • a shutter that sounds quite loud and in the opinion of many people vibrates too much
  • an apparently compromised image processing pipeline that hides what it is doing from the user and produces results slightly less good than the same (or at least very similar) sensor in the Nikon D800E ("orange peel" and "jaggie" effect in RAW files when developed in Lightroom, less clean shadows, less impressive higher ISO performance) 
  • a piece of proprietary software to develop RAW files in (Image Data Converter) which I, and many people it seems, find infuriating and opaque
  • poor (but not disastrous) implementation of Auto ISO - no setting for focal length or desired focal length "multiplier"
  • no IBIS (a shame on a camera so well-suited to third party lenses via adaptors)
  • a menu system that has utterly confounded some users and confused and irritated a lot more
  • a manual that reads as if written by a fourteen year old for a ten year old

But this camera breaks serious ground, however much of the larger construction project remains incomplete.

Critically, the way in which it focusses is a huge step forward: in manual focus mode, magnified live view, it gives a clear, clean and precise ability to see where focus is best achieved in a way that D800/E users can only dream of. Combining this with a 36mp sensor is the 'killer app' for the camera. It lets those who want to use it with extreme precision, do so in a way that wrings the last drop from their lenses. In AF mode, it may be slower and less good at tracking than some of its DSLR peers but I, for one, find that for the first time ever, I can use peripheral AF points on a hi-res sensor with a very good chance of success. Nikon has remained silent on the subject of D800 peripheral focus (especially the infamous 'left side' issue) but in the final analysis I trust my eyes: and my eyes say, trust the A7R more.

So here we have a camera which seems to have a less satisfactory imaging pipeline than the D800/E but which I and many other users seem able to make better initial captures with - with the net result of, dare I say it, an average end-result win for the Sony. On top of that, it'll take a huge variety of lenses. I duly award it my much-coveted Camera of the Year Award, however much it also deserves a Could Do Better.

Oh, and a lot of people are having tremendous, creative juice stimulating FUN with it and seem very largely un-bothered by the bullet point list of woe above. They know an IQ bargain when they see one, and they love, love, love the form factor and accuracy of manual focus.

Second prize goes to 

The Leica M240. It is damned good, and whatever they did to the rangefinder makes a huge difference. In fact the RF focusses as well as does the A7R using magnified live view (with wide to moderate telephoto lenses at least) and it does a better job (as you might expect) of dealing with colour shading issues with M glass. But after shooting the A7R, the 240 feels portly, vulnerably expensive, and makes one think that its ticket price is an awful lot to sink into a fast-moving market. And its EVF comes close to sucking in comparison.

Third prize goes to 

The Olympus E-M1. What a lovely camera. What absolutely stunning IBIS. What a wonderful extraction of IQ from a too-small sensor. Ignoring (I can't forgive) it's pathetic Auto ISO system, which undermines the achievement of the IBIS at every turn, I'd say that this piece of kit will be all the camera most people will ever need, most of the time. But for me, a landscape-obsessed big print guy, MFT doesn't cut quite cut it well enough - especially when the full-frame A7R is about the same size and weight and has more than twice the pixels - and larger pixels at that.

However, if, as I think will eventually happen, an MFT sensor can one day deliver IQ similar to that currently obtainable from an A7R or D800E, even at higher ISO, then a camera like the E-M1 will trump an A7R because it is easier to make great lenses for smaller sensors. This is where I think the action will be in the long run and so, though I might sell my E-M1, I will be keeping the better lenses.

Lens of the Year

First prize goes to 

The Olympus 12-40mm F2.8 Pro M.Zuiko. I very rarely use a lens that immediately lets me know that it is excellent and doesn't later disappoint in some less obvious manner. This lens is the best mid-range zoom I have ever used on any system, if your criteria is that it should be at least good and often peaking at excellent across the entire frame at all focal lengths and apertures. I wrote in my review of it that it is so good that if my aim were a 20" print, I would prefer to use this lens on an E-M1 than a Nikon 24-70 F2.8 'Trinity' zoom on a D800E. I stand by that judgement. The Oly lens has no focal length at which it fails to satisfy and, on the basis that one should never sell a good lens, I will hold on to this even during periods when I have no MFT camera. Frankly, in my Camera of the Year section, any of the three candidates could have been the winner but in this Lens of the Year section, there is no question in my mind as to which lens most impresses.

Second prize goes to

The Nikkor 70-200 F4 VRIII. This lens is an extremely viable alternative to its F2.8 sibling. Smaller, lighter, with better stabilisation, a much better travel and hiking choice, the F4 gives about the same IQ and at a lower cost too. I switched.

Third prize goes to 

The Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM. Like many manufacturers, Sigma seems to have a bit of a QC problem: I had to go through several to find a copy that wasn't asymmetrically sharp and even now, with the best one I could find, there is some ambiguity. The lens also needs at least F5.6 and preferably F8 to get sharp edges. But it is great value, it feels lovely, and it has the most lovely rendering. If you want to shoot at F1.4 and get something really quite like the Leica Look on a more restricted budget and on a 36mp camera, this lens on a D800/E will tick your boxes. Great, if you're prepared to work at it.

Accessory of the Year

First prize goes to

The CaptureOne Complete Lens Cast Calibration sheet. It costs £49 and is almost indispensible  for owners of any system with colour shading issues  - this includes the Sony A7R and RX-1, the Leica M240 and many Medium Format backs when used with field or technical cameras. I am going to write more in future about how best to use this in conjunction with the Lightroom Flat Field DNG Plugin but in short, for a small outlay and a little extra effort, you can radically improve the fidelity of your colour when shooting any of these systems with certain otherwise wonderful lenses.

Second prize goes to

The Leica Disto D510. This is a recherché choice but fans of medium format backs on technical cameras would love to find that Santa had stuffed their stocking with one of these: with a lens suitably equipped with a High Precision Focussing ring, one can finally get over the fact that Medium Format live view in the field is generally somewhere between hard and impossible as a means of accurate focussing. Just point the Disto, press the button and get the distance readout to enter onto your HPF ring. It works and it has greatly improved the quality of my MF photography.

Third prize goes to 

​… a product that isn't even available yet. The Foldio. I joined the Kickstarter crowd fund for this the second I saw it and I can't wait for it to arrive. A miniature studio (think background AND lighting!) that folds flat and slips into an envelope. How cool is that? So hopefully, next year when I blog I will be able to include product shots that I am normally too lazy to set up and light, and too scrupulous to steal.

Best Photo of the Year

Over the years I have learned that the best way to finally snag an amazing shot is to buy one that someone else made. I have an insatiable appetite for the work of others and most of the stuff that hangs on my wall is either not photography at all, or is by other people. This year, I saw one image that I absolutely had to have. It cost me a small fortune but it was quite certainly worth it. Here it is:

OOBOOB

It is Ilulissat Icefjord 7, 07/2003, 69°11’59’’ N, 51°08’08’’ W  by Olaf Otto Becker and my copy of it is around 117 x 95cm and beautifully printed - those ghostly shades of minty aqua are utterly beguiling. If I make one picture this good in my lifetime, I will be very, very happy.

It is my understanding that Becker takes a wood'n'brass 8x10 sheet film camera off up the coast of Greenland in a Zodiac inflatable, on his own (now that's what I call artistic commitment!) with a GPS device which is used to record the exact co-ordinates of the spot from which the shot was taken. These co-ordinates are part of the work itself: the idea is that in ten or thirty or a hundred years time, the exact same spot could be found and another, comparative record made, to show how much of the ice has melted and by how much the landscape has been changed by the changing climate.

Burtynksy, Lyon, Gursky and Becker are all concerned with the impact of human activity on natural landscapes. It's a genre I love and I have purchased work from all but Gursky (might have missed the boat on that one, price-wise!) but this one image above transcends any genre. It has the sensibility of a painter (Becker moved from painting to photography) and the romantic aesthetic of one of those gorgeous Edwardian explorer watercolours that showed people parts of the world which they could never hope to visit, and which they stood in wonder of. I stand in wonder of this image. It really is the best of the best.

Wish-List for 2014

The annual excuse for a grumble thinly disguised as a wish-list:

  • A MFT sensor that shoots a lot further above the format's weight, so I can use that gorgeous Oly 12-40mm zoom more often
  • Canon to show us that they can do a world class >40mp full frame sensor
  • Sony to do a version of the A7R with an electronic first curtain shutter, a true RAW file format with adjustment profiles in metadata, and a Pro menu mode that excises JPEG completely, along with all the modes and functions associated with it. And a proper Auto ISO system. And IBIS. Really, if they do this, I will perform unnatural acts for them.
  • Someone to make an excellent, expensive range of amazing primes in Sony FE mount
  • The upcoming Sony Zeiss FE 24-70mm F4 OSS to be really good

Hmmm, most of those seem Sony based. Don't tell Canikon: they might actually DO something.

A happy and successful 2014 to all

Tim

This site is not for profit but I do support the charity Photovoice.  I wrote about it in depth a while back and that article is here. If you have found this article useful and are feeling generous, I would hugely appreciate a donation to the charity, even just a pound or a dollar: every little helps. You can donate here and the Virgin Giving site is secure and takes cards and PayPal. The Gods of Great Photography will smile on you if you donate. I promise.

*It might seen odd to put in contention a camera that I have yet to review in depth, so I want to say a word on that subject first: the Sony A7R has been in my hands for the best part of a month so far and I have already published an article on how various Leica M lenses perform on it with adaptors, and a review of the Sony Zeiss T* 35mm F2.8 native FE mount lens. I had planned to publish a review of the camera itself before the end of the year but I am now going to wait. This is for several reasons. 

Firstly, I am trying to get an interview with a Sony engineer to ask various questions about what is going on 'under the hood': 

  • is it truly a 14 bit pipeline for RAW images - and if so, why are the files sizes so small?
  • what processing is applied to RAW files and when? (shading corrections, 'diffraction reduction', compression, and a few more…)
  • are there any significant bugs due to be ironed out in firmware updates and if not, are the things I suspect might be bugs actually 'features'?

Secondly, the first copy of the 35mm F2.8 lens I had was imperfect and I have yet to get hold of an FE 55mm F1.8 - and until such time as I have tried more 'native' glass, most importantly the upcoming 24-70mm F4 OSS, I don't feel ready to have a final view  A camera is part of a system, and until I can write it up as such, I'd rather not write it up.

Thirdly, my first attempt at finding a Nikon lens adaptor was a mild mis-fire. I have just received a good one, and want to shoot some more with it before I have an opinion on this important facet of the camera's potential.

My full review, therefore, will have to wait until January or indeed February of 2014. 

Nonetheless the camera has made quite a stir and so I have placed it on my shortlist.


Comments

22.Tim Ashley Photography
Hi Scott, no I haven't had that problem - but I very rarely do long exposures.
Watch this space later today - there's a biggie about to land!
21.Scott(non-registered)
Hi Tim: have you found the light leak issue to be at all a burden to your work? Had you found it yourself prior the whistle blowers? How's that 24-70 coming? Three months without a blog...I must protest! :)
20.Tim Ashley Photography
Scott, I have a good copy now. The OSS isn't as good as the IBIS on the E-M1 IMHO, what that's a subjective opinion. It is 'good enough' at least, and I use it quite a lot. The lens is really pretty good too - pending some further tests, I think the Oly kit is going...
19.Scott(non-registered)
Tim: I know you're waiting on a better copy of the 24-70/a7R before blogging but can you comment on its OSS vs EM-1 in body? Is it allowing for lower ISO handhelds like the Oly? Thx!
-scott
18.Scott(non-registered)
Thanks. That signals to me that they are going ahead with the FEs 24mm f2 and 21mm f2.8 primes then as indicated on the latest lens map. Hope they are as good as the 55mm f1.8. Looking forward to your 24-70 review.

Best!
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