8 Cameras That Rock
MAY 10, 2012
By Dan Havlik
After a year marked by disaster in Japan, flooding in Thailand and a still ailing economy, the photography industry rebounded in 2012 with the release of several significant new cameras including four professional full-frame digital SLRs. Though we usually wait until the end of the year to pick our favorites in our annual “Gear of the Year” roundup, here’s a midseason report on eight cameras we’ve really enjoyed shooting with so far.
Editor’s note: For this story, we stuck with models we actually had a chance to shoot with at press time, which is why the Nikon D800 and Canon 1D X did not make the cut.
Portrait Power: Canon EOS 5D Mark III
We’re still working on our full review of the 22.3-megapxiel Canon 5D Mark III—look for it in the July issue of PDN—but from what we’ve seen of this much anticipated successor to the 5D Mark II so far, we’re impressed. Not necessarily the game changer its predecessor was, the Mark III improves and refines an already excellent portrait and HD video shooter. The 6 frames-per-second (fps) shooting 5D Mark III excels in both natural and studio light, and is more durable and weatherized to offer added protection in dicey outdoor conditions. In low light, it’s an absolute killer. We got attractive color and lush but realistic skin tones even while shooting at ISO 12800. As a 1080p video camera, the 5D III’s Digic 5+ processor helped make our clips crisp and nearly artifact free.
Sports Shooter: Nikon D4
Talk about a gunslinger. The 16.2-megapixel Nikon D4 (read the full review here) offers blazing 11 fps bursts and a heavy-duty, fully gasketed and sealed camera body that’s tough enough to withstand dust, moisture and competing photographers on the sidelines of the big game. With a full-frame CMOS sensor, the D4 is another great high ISO/low noise shooter that offers excellent versatility whether you’re photographing a winning touchdown in dodgy stadium light or a bride and groom’s first dance under a disco ball at a wedding reception. We found the D4’s 51-point autofocus system to be tack sharp while photographing dancers in the shadowy depths of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. It’s 1080p HD video capability is a bonus for photographers who want to try their hand at cinematography.
Small Wonder: Sony Alpha NEX-7
Without an interchangeable lens attached, the 24.3-megapixel Sony Alpha NEX-7 is as small as some smartphones. Inside this mirrorless compact system camera is the heart of a much bigger model: an APS-C size image sensor that’s as large as those in most DSLRs. Even better, the NEX-7 shoots high-quality images as good as what you’d get from prosumer DSLRs, with gorgeous detail and surprisingly low amounts of noise even at high ISOs. The camera is also very fast, both in single shot mode, where there’s hardly any shutter lag, and in burst mode, with the NEX-7 capable of shooting at 10 fps. Oh, and the camera shoots pretty superb 1080p HD video and stereo sounds from a built-in mic. So what’s not to like?
Happy Medium: Pentax 645D
We reviewed the 40-megapixel Pentax 645D in April but this medium-format camera actually went on sale in the U.S. two years before. The problem was that the 645D was so popular and supplies so limited, it was nearly impossible to get our hands on one. That’s recently changed for the better. The 645D produced excellent image quality for our studio and outdoor portraits with good results at up to ISO 800. It’s also very reasonably priced for a medium-format camera and has a surprisingly light and ergonomic but tough build, along with plenty of easy-to-access external control. Though we wish there were more new lenses for the 645D, it accepts legacy lenses from the old film version of the camera, letting Pentax 645 users get on board with a full arsenal of glass.
4K King: Red Scarlet-X
We got to shoot with the Red Scarlet-X for only a short time at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) but loved the potential of its ultra-high-def video skills almost as much as we liked its kick-ass, DSLR-from-the-future design. The Scarlet-X uses the same 14-megapixel Mysterium-X image sensor as Red’s top-of-the-line Epic and can shoot 4K video (approximately 4x the resolution of HD) at up to 30 fps. So yes, if you’re just now getting into capturing high-def, you’re already behind the times. No reason to be intimidated though; we found the Red Scarlet-X to be remarkably easy to use during our brief encounter with it at CES. Photographers will also appreciate that it can capture 5K (5120 x 2700 resolution) still image bursts at up to 12 fps. The Scarlet-X has a unique modular design, letting you purchase the body (aka the “brain”) in either a Canon or PL lens mount and add accessories as you’d like.
Price: $9,750 (“brain” only)
Tough Nut: Pentax Optio WG-2
While there are a lot of durable, waterproof compact cameras on the market, our favorites have always been Pentax’s WG series models. The latest is the 16-megapixel Pentax Optio WG-2 and it’s a great little camera if you’re scouting a location and might need to get wet or dirty doing it. The WG-2 is the thirteenth generation of Pentax’s Optio cameras and this little sucker is tough. It’s waterproof to up to 40 feet, dustproof, coldproof, crushproof and shock-resistant. Though image quality has never been great for any tough/waterproof camera—there’s too much tradeoff between durable bodies and sensor performance—the WG-2 is a good little snap-shooter that can go where your pricey cameras can’t. Here’s what we also like: The WG-2 has six LED lights around the lens for macro photography in difficult lighting and there’s an optional SportsMount Chest Harness that lets you shoot 1080p HD video hands-free.
Pocket Rocket: Canon PowerShot G1 X
We reviewed the Canon PowerShot G1 X last month and have been pretty much smitten with it ever since. This 14.2-megapixel compact camera with its non-interchangeable, 4x optical (28mm to 112mm equivalent) lens may be small enough to fit in a coat pocket—OK, a big coat pocket—but it uses a 1.5-inch (18.7 x 14mm) CMOS imaging chip that’s nearly as large as the big sensors in many DSLRs and some compact system cameras. This translates to excellent image quality in both regular light and dim conditions at high ISOs up to 6400. Though it’s a hefty camera for a “compact” model, we liked the solid, professional build with its comfortable handgrip, plethora of external controls and very nice 3-inch swiveling LCD screen. And like the Sony Alpha NEX-7—the one other compact model we’ve shot with that makes us want to leave our DSLR at home—the G1 X has a great 1080p HD video mode with stereo sound.
Retro Cool: Fujifilm X-Pro1
As far as new cameras were concerned, the Fujifilm X-Pro1 pretty much stole the show at CES last January and it’s easy to see why. This 16.3-megapixel compact system camera uses interchangeable lenses and sports a classic and classy design that recalls Leica’s famous rangefinder cameras. The X-Pro1 is not a rangefinder though, and costs a whole heck of a lot less than Leica’s digital M-series models. Along with using an APS-C size, CMOS sensor, the X-Pro1 has a hybrid viewfinder that can switch between an optical and an electronic set-up at the touch of button. Interestingly, in an effort to increase detail and improve resolution, the X-Pro1 has no low pass filter, an approach used by most medium-format cameras. At the time of this round-up, we’d only shot with a prototype of the X-Pro1 but expect big things from this camera once we get a final model to test.
Camera Review: Nikon D4
Camera Review: Pentax 645D
Camera Review: Canon PowerShot G1 X
The Hottest Cameras of CES 2012