2011 Photo Gear of the Year


DECEMBER 06, 2011

By Dan Havlik

This was a hell of a year for the photo industry. First, there was the rotten global economy, which has shown few signs of improving any time soon. Then there was the devastating earthquake and tsunami, which killed over 10,000 people in Japan last March and brought camera production to a standstill in some regions. And finally, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, massive flooding in Thailand from monsoon rains nearly sunk imaging factories for Nikon, Canon and Sony, halting production and crippling transportation and product delivery.

Considering the string of bad luck in 2011, it’s a wonder there were as many noteworthy photography product releases as there were. Despite the setbacks, the business of camera gear marched on even while photographers tightened their belts and looked for ways to maximize profits amidst increasing competition.

As usual, we’ve looked back at our field notes, fed the year’s product test results through the old computer, crunched the numbers and come up with our picks for the best professional products of the year in PDN’s Photo Gear of the Year Awards. Without further ado, here are the outstanding products that caught our eye in 2011.

Camera (System) of the Year: Phase One IQ180
In a tough year where the idea of “doing more with less” dominated most conventional thinking, it might seem peculiar that a big, 80-megapixel medium-format back that retails for $44,000 (for the back alone) would take home our top honors. But the Phase One IQ180 was just that good. We tested it paired with the Phase One 645DF camera and our results were off the charts. Here’s what we like about the IQ180: It has perhaps the best image quality of any camera system we’ve ever tested; its massive amounts of resolution bring out exquisite detail, making it great for shooting billboard-size campaigns; it boasts a gorgeous 3.2-inch touchscreen; there’s barely any shooting buffer delay despite the huge file sizes; and the USB 3.0 and Firewire 800 ports make tethering a snap. Yes, it costs about as much as an Audi but if image quality is what’s important to you, grab an IQ180 instead of a new car and save your money by taking public transportation. Click here to read the full review.

Digital SLR of the Year: Sony SLT-A77
The Sony SLT-A77 – reviewed in this issue on page 100 – just made it under the wire for this roundup and we’re glad it did. The year was an unusually weak one for digital SLRs and had the 24.3-megapixel A77 not come along we would’ve been hard pressed to name a favorite in 2011. We’re happy to say that even if there had been stiffer DSLR competition, the impressive A77 ($1,399, body only) likely would have come out on top. This camera, the long awaited follow-up to the A77, has more bells and whistles than an amusement park. For starters, there’s the sheer speed: It can shoot 12 frames per second thanks to Sony’s second generation Translucent Mirror Technology, which simultaneously directs light to both the image sensor and the Phase Detection AF sensor. The A77 is powered by Sony’s BIONZ processor, which helps it capture full 1080p HD videos at smooth 60p, standard 60i or the cinema-like 24p. Best of all for movie buffs, you have full manual control over your video clips and, because of the translucent mirror, you can employ full-time Phase Detection autofocusing to make fast action look sharp. Another perk is the 3-inch, three-way tilting LCD display, which lets you frame shots from unusual angles. Click here to read the full review.

Lens of the Year: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G
If there ever were love at first sight for us, it would have to be when we laid eyes on images shot with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G. The replacement for the legendary Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D AF that launched back in 1995, the new 85mm f/1.4G doesn’t break any significant new ground and that’s a good thing. Here’s what we love about it: the fast f/1.4 aperture, which produces an extremely shallow depth of field and gorgeous background blur to make your subject pop; the addition of Nano Crystal Coating, which helps cut down on ghosting and flare, making it easier to shoot back-lit images; the Super Integrated Coating that improves the way it receives light to render color more consistently with less flare. Focus is also smoother and quieter thanks to the addition of Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor. And because the new Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G has internal focus, the barrel length doesn’t change when you lock in. But the real reason you’ll want this lens is because of the stunning portraits it can create, particularly when shot wide open. Swoon. Click here to read the full review.

Compact Camera of the Year: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
It was tough to pick a favorite compact camera this year; there were many we liked but nothing we lusted after. So while we’re choosing the speedy little 12-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 as our favorite compact in 2011, it’s really the upcoming Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 that we have our sights on. The 16-megapixel GX1, which was announced late last year, is the more pro-friendly companion model to the GF3, which, it must be said, is aimed at the consumer crowd. The GF3 is still a fun, mirrorless, micro four thirds, compact system camera, especially when attached to the pancake-style, 14mm f/2.5 interchangeable kit lens. The GF3 kit ($700) has lightning fast autofocus, takes nice photos even in mixed lighting and is small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. If the GF3’s buttons are too small, and the design of the camera seems more suited to soccer moms than street photographers, you can always wait for the more robust GX1. In 2011 though, the GF3 was one of the best little sharpshooters around. Click here to read the full review.

Gear Trend of the Year: Photojournalists Shooting with Compact Cameras and Smart Phones
In the November issue of PDN, we interviewed photographers about going small with their gear in a story titled “Compact Cameras: Keep It Discreet.” And while shooting with quiet and less conspicuous cameras such as Leica M-series rangefinders is nothing new, in 2011 it became a worldwide trend with many photojournalists even turning to the cameras in their smart phones to cover scenes of conflict. As two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Larry Price put it: “Whenever you have a much less intimidating instrument to put to your face, it’s more disarming than a massive piece of glass. The smaller the instrument, the closer you can get.” Click here to read the full article.

Printer of the Year: Epson Stylus Photo R3000
The 13-inch photo printer is dead? Long live the 13-inch photo printer! That’s what we were thinking while testing the Epson Stylus Photo R3000, an 8-ink, 13-inch pigment printer that professionals should take a serious look at. The R3000 offers excellent print quality for both color and black-and-white images; Ethernet and WiFi connectivity; it automatically swaps Photo Black and Matte black inks; and has an easy-to-use front-in and -out art paper path. Lest you thought the 13-inch printer category had been usurped by bigger 17-inch models, Canon also announced a new 13-incher in 2011, the PIXMA Pro-1, which we’re looking forward to putting head-to-head against the R3000. Game on. Click here to read the full review.

 

Bag of the Year: Think Tank Photo Speed Freak V2.0
Think Tank Photo’s bags and packs are designed by pros for pros and they never fail to impress with their understated designs and supreme usability. The Speed Freak V2.0 is the middle-size bag in a trio of “Speed Convertibles,” which easily convert from a shoulder bag to a belt pack, depending on your needs or shooting situation. The Speed Freak has a soft, kidney-shaped design so it comfortably hugs your body and the bag’s flip-top lid opens away from you so you can easily get at your gear. Though it’s a small bag, it can fit two standard-size DSLRs with two to three large zoom lenses. Smart thinking. Click here to read the full review.

iPad App of the Year: Adobe Companion Apps
Apple’s iPad changed the way photographers did business in 2011. There were tons of photo portfolio apps available and we picked our top ten back in September (http://bit.ly/reIHln). But for image editing, we choose the Adobe Companion Apps as our favorites. As we went to press, they include Adobe Eazel, Adobe Nav and Adobe Color Lava, all of which do a good job matching the intuitiveness and fun of the iPad with the deep editing skills of Photoshop. We can’t wait to see what else Adobe has in the pipeline for tablet computing. Click here to read the full review.

 

Software of the Year: Nik Silver Efex Pro 2

Like black-and-white photos? Then you’ve got to get your hands on Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, the best black-and-white conversion tool we’ve tried. Though it hasn’t changed massively from the previous version, Silver Efex Pro 2 features a revamped interface that’s easier to use with more control; has faster performance overall; improved image quality thanks to a new black-and-white conversion algorithm; and features new image borders with edge randomization that are a blast to use. Click here to read the full review.

Lighting System of the Year: Adorama Flashpoint II 620M Portrait Wedding Monolight Kit
Our favorite lighting system of 2011 wasn’t big, expensive or particularly fast as in years past. But for just $729, the Adorama Flashpoint II 620M Portrait Wedding Monolight Kit gets the job done. In tough economic times, the Flashpoint II offers a lot of bang for your buck with attractive light output with good color value. This all-in-one monolight system is easy to carry and has lightweight battery packs that let you take it on location. Flashy, no. Useful and affordable, yes. Click here to read the full review.

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