With the holiday turkey resting comfortably in my belly with cranberry sauce and some Belgian ale, I can’t think of anything better to talk about than electronic gadgets! 2012 has been quite a year of digital camera advancement. The DSLR improvements have marched forward in their more-or-less predictable fashion, but what’s been really fun to watch is the way that the other form factors have progressed. I can say with certainty that 2012 marks the year that made the DSLR an obsolete piece of gear backpackers. Let’s take a look at why that is…
Dead Camera Formats
It’s always fun to read forums and listen to people spout off about dead formats. Digital killed film. Film is dead. Full Frame killed medium format. Medium Format is dead. APS-C and Four Thirds killed Full Frame. Full Frame is dead. Smart phones are cannibalizing the market, digital cameras are dead.
(photo credit: QuantumBiologist)
These are also usually the type of people who will tell you exactly what you need and don’t need. They’ll put’cha in a box. They’ve got’cha number. Fast lenses? Video? Shallow depth of field? Gobs of dynamic range? All gimmicks only to be used by a small fraction of the camera owning population.
Yup. They’ve got it all figured out.
The truth is, these ideologies couldn’t be more wrong. So let’s get it straight. Different formats exist for different creative expression. Naturally, people who are not so creative don’t understand this. It comes down to ‘horses for courses’. Go with what works for you. I mention all this having just said that DSLR’s are obsolete for backpackers but I do so because I don’t want to be lumped into that group of angsty fuddie duddies. There are still plenty of reasons why you might want to use an SLR on the trail, but I think more and more photo-shooting-hikers are going to be moving in other directions and that’s what this is all about.
Enter… Compact Camera Systems
Notice the operative word here is “Systems”. We’re talking about cameras with interchangeable lenses. My friend Adam came up with this breakdown which I asked if I could loosely quote from as I thought it was pretty much spot on. So here’s the market in a nutshell…
- Olympus OM-D (4/3): If you can’t decide, go this route. Any of the 16MP bodies has excellent IQ and the system has the best lens lineup. The OM-D is the current flagship.
- Panasonic (4/3): Same as Olympus, but if you’re video oriented rather than stills. Oly is the way to go for stills. The GH-3 / GF-3 are the current flagships.
- Sony NEX: The best for adaptation, the lens lineup is a lot better than people make out but right now it’s better for the Alt shooter than a serious native lens shooter. Bodies are outstanding and offers the best IQ overall, albeit by a small margin. The NEX-7 is the current flagship.
- Fuji X: If you shoot JPEG and like traditional ergonomics, optical finders and fast primes here’s your system. Problematic if you shoot tele, want a good EVF or really need good IQ from RAW. Also kinda pricey as the cheapest body is comparable in cost to the higher-end bodies from everybody else. High ISO monsters, but at the expense of artifacting and color issues at lower ISO’s. The X-Pro1 and X100 are the current flagships.
- Samsung NX: Solid bodies with no real defining features, great lens lineup, limited adaptability (as mirrorless systems go). Pretty much the pick if you want the a native lens selection with quality of 4/3 but with a larger sensor. The NX20 is the current flagship.
- Canon EOS-M: If it just has to say Canon, or you need to adapt EF lenses with AF and aren’t willing to trust a Chinese-made adapter. Otherwise overpriced and underperforming. IQ is at best comparable to the other Olympus micro 4/3 bodies.
- Nikon 1/Pentax Q: Compact systems. Great for casual shooters, not ideal for shooters who look for excellent IQ.
- Pentax K-01: If you own K mount lenses and don’t want an adapter. Great IQ, but it’s huge and brick-like due to the SLR mount.
What about the Fixed Lens Cameras?
Less we forget, there are still a ton of P&S cameras around plus a few interesting fixed lens cameras of other variations. It is true that the smart phone is making it tough to justify purchasing many P&S cameras, but even as good as smart phones cameras are, they can’t compete with the upper end P&S models.
- Canon Powershot SX: The SX are the super zooms of Canon’s lineup. Larger bodies with SLR-like controls and good IQ. The SX50 HS is the current model.
- Canon Powershot G: The G series has been a staple of Canon’s P&S lineup. Middle of the road in terms of size and control style. They sport good image and a rugged build. The G15 is the current model.
- Canon Powershot S: The S line has been a popular choice among backpackers due to its compact size and good image quality. The S110 is the current model.
- Nikon Coolpix P: Similar in most aspects to Canon’s S series focused on compact size and good IQ. The current model is the P310.
- Panasonic DMC FZ: Similar form factor as Canon’s SX series. Features larger body with superzoom lens. Good IQ and sports a fixed aperture Leica lens. Current model is the FZ-200
- Sony RX-100: With a larger sensor, Sony’s industry leading sensor tech and a fast maximum aperture Zeiss lens, the RX-100 has set the bar for image quality in the P&S world and does so with a compact size. The price also sits at the top of the range.
- Sony RX-1: Sony has gone where no other manufacturer has – putting a full frame sensor into a compact P&S style body. With a 35mm f2 Zeiss lens designed specifically around the sensor the RX-1 is both a niche enthusiast camera, and a camera that can produce IQ rivaling and surpassing many “pro” SLR’s. The price tag will be too much for most folks to swallow.
- Sigma DP2M: Sigma returns with a medium sized body and fixed lens which house it’s unique Foveon sensor. The image quality is top notch but unlike the Sony RX-1, will take some serious know-how to process the resulting image files. Battery life is also abysmal at about 50 shots per battery! At least the price is much easier to deal with.
Standouts of 2012
Today is Black Friday so I couldn’t help but write this today. There will no doubt be tons of electronics sold, and I’m sure quite a few cameras. If you’re not quite sure which camera is right for you, let me remind you of this little gizmo we made.
So, what to buy? Well, let me say this: I’m not a brand-loyal guy. I happen to shoot mostly Canon because I own a 5D and have not found a reason to change that for years. One tends to acquire Canon lenses and other related gear to use with said camera. So when I say that I’m overwhelmingly in favor of Sony you will know that I have good reason.
Having given my thoughts on the NEX 5N earlier this year, I still believe that the NEX represents the best of all worlds. By compromising a little bit everywhere else it delivers IQ that edges out the closest competition (Olympus OM-D) and leaves many others far behind it. I especially like that I can use M-Mount lenses on my 5N (and just about any other SLR lens I want to) which make it very compact for backpacking and travel. Sony, Sigma, and Zeiss are now all making autofocus lenses for the NEX. In addition to the many manual-focus legacy lenses out there, Samyang is making a line of lenses for NEX. Earlier this year the NEX native-mount lens lineup was sub par, right now it’s adequate, next year at this time it’s going to be getting a lot closer to awesome.
For best all around backpacking camera the Sony NEX 5N has my vote. These are a good buy right now since the 5R and 6 have been released recently which are the newest models in that line all based on the 16MP sensor.
For best P&S camera it’s a no-brainer that the Sony RX-100 gets the vote. After getting past the initial sticker shock it should sink in that this isn’t a P&S that you use for a year or two and throw away. The image quality is far enough ahead of the competition that it will remain a relevant camera for years to come.
For money-is-no-object choice, the Sony RX-1 should get the nod. Sony has thrown down the gauntlet and shown what big-budget R&D can deliver. The RX-1 is quite an amazing camera, though a very niche deign to be sure. This is the sort of camera that will fit with the minimalist personality very well and its small size and simplicity make it well suited for the right individual to take on the trail.
Had the Leica M actually been released this year I would probably have to give it honors in the ultra expensive slot, I’m sure it will be a performer and with the legendary red-dot glass there’s really no other choice when your wallet is deep.
It’s been a helluva year for digital cameras. I can’t wait to see what next year brings. Hike It. Like It.