The season for the commercialization of spirituality (or, SFTCOS) is upon us and following suit, we have been absolutely bombarded with new offerings in the digital photography department. Taking the holidays out of it, and looking at it purely from a gear point of view, it is truly an exciting time to be shopping around for the best bang for your (or a loved one’s) buck.
Over the last 4 years that I’ve written this blog, I’ve been asked quite a few questions about which cameras, lenses, systems, et al, are the best. While I’ve chosen the gear I’ve chosen for my own personal reasons, there are so many others out there that offer their own set of pros and cons, and to put it plainly, there is no universal truth, nor answer to that question.
Come on in and I’ll give my take on which of the newly announced cameras over the last year or so are the most intriguing, interesting, best value or just plain confusing…
Alright, full disclosure here, I’m a fan of the micro 4/3 system and as many of you who’ve read my blog know, I have been shooting micro 4/3 as my personal system for as long as I’ve been writing this blog. It has become my full time travel system as well, even replacing my larger sensor cameras this year for a mountain trekking trip (see the mirrorless diet articles here) where I spent the trip accumulating large, stitched landscape panoramas. I also shoot a Canon full frame setup for many work projects as well as an old Hasselblad 501cm for fun and other family based projects. I have also been enjoying shooting with my phone. Long story short, I see value in a variety of formats and enjoy shooting with many different types of cameras, each having their own upside.
Full capitalist disclosure: Below, I’ve outlined which of the most recent cameras in my opinion offer the most value, or most compelling package in the current crop. All links are connected to my affiliate account at B&H Photo. If purchased through these links, it gives me a small commission in kick back, and doesn’t cost any more than shopping through B&H directly, so if you are planning on buying one of these machines, I’d greatly appreciate it if you clicked one of these links to do so, thanks 🙂 (Prices can change daily, so the posted prices may not be the same as the pricing on the day at B&H, so if B&H is offering a sale, that price will show up via the links.)
There has been much ballyhooing of late in defense of the micro 4/3 system in regards to its quality versus full frame cameras with many article authors trying to say that the benefits to a larger sensor have all but disappeared. This to me just smacks of compensatory self justification in personal opinion and choice, and while I do feel the quality has made substantial leaps and bounds (I certainly wouldn’t have heavily invested in the micro 4/3 system otherwise), there are always going to be inherent benefits to shooting with a full frame sensor over an APS-C, or micro 4/3 sensor just as there are inherent benefits to shooting medium format over a full frame, or differing benefits if going the other way. With those benefits come drawbacks as well and simply put, there is no universally perfect system while any system in the right hands is fully capable of high end results. The trade offs between formats will always come down to situational quality, features, size, weight and cost. Budget seems to be the first deciding factor for most anyone not making a good amount of money with photography. Then, to me it seems that “image quality” is what people look for once a budget has been established, and now with some of the newer full frame offerings sporting some of the highest performing sensors across all formats coming in near the price of cameras sporting sensors half or a quarter their size, those lines are starting to blur, and overall system cost, size and weight become more important to take into consideration.
Here are my opinions on the newest full frame offerings.
The budget friendly (and perhaps not so budget friendly) Full Framers:
Canon 6D – ($1799 body only NOW DOWN TO $1499 at B&H!) I see this as a modern version of the original 5D which was a ground breaking camera bringing full frame into a reasonably affordable platform, albeit at about a grand more in the case of the 5D when released. I still own an old 5D classic as I absolutely love the rendering of the image files. They’re very film like to me, but the sensor is very old by modern standards and here is where the 6D has taken over its budget full frame mantle. The high ISO performance is amazing, and dollar for dollar might be one of the best cameras available for still shooters who are not worried about overall system size and weight, keeping in mind that you’ll have to shell out a good amount of money for the best lenses to truly realize the full frame benefits.
Nikon D610 – ($1997 body only) The D600 was a great camera whose reputation was absolutely smeared by the sensor spot and color temp issues that plagued it upon its release. Going head to head with the 6D in a battle for absolute full frame value, it seemed to stumble because of these issues. Enter the D610, bye bye sensor spot and temp issues. If you own or like Nikon glass, you’d be hard pressed to find a better value in full frame land.
Nikon DF – ($2747 body only, $2997 kit) To me, this is the WFT camera of the year (taking all of the weird, rebranded Sony Hasselblad monstrosities out of the equation). I get what they’re doing here, and I like the idea, but the Nikon DF needs to either add the features it has intentionally removed at its price point, OR drop the price substantially taking into consideration that it is severely hindered operationally compared to other cameras in its price range. I like that it has the D4 sensor in it, but that isn’t enough to justify the price when we all know that the R&D for that sensor has already been recouped and this is just an attempt to try to justify the price with a good sensor, and play to the “retro” desires that seem so prevalent nowadays. If this camera were under $2000, I’d like it, a lot. As is, to me, it is just silly when you can get so much more for your money elsewhere, and arguably aside from the noise performance in the highest of ISO’s, you’re not really gaining much of any kind of advantage over other (again arguably) better sensors (look at the D800’s, or see the new Sonys below for instance). If you don’t want video in your DSLR, just don’t use the video. That’s what I do and it’s really, really easy, plus if I NEED to fire off a quick video capture for whatever reason, it’s there for me. When most every current camera has been able to add high quality, full HD video while keeping the platform prices level from pervious, non video laden models, it seems odd to increase the price in a model because of it’s exclusion. Bizarre to me.
Sony A7 (24mp $1698 body only, $1998 kit) and A7r (36mp, no AA filter $2298 body only)- I like where this is going and will certainly be keeping a close eye as this progresses. Sony has been developing the most advanced sensors of late (see the Alpha/NEX and most of the Nikon and Olympus sensors), and they have done well to minimize the size and bulk surrounding these most recent full frame sensors. Why the hybrid Phase/Contrast detection included in the A7 was omitted in the A7r, I don’t really know, but feel if they spent the time and money, why not include it in both models. Where the E mount system has always fallen short in my opinion is in the lens offerings. Not to say that there aren’t good lenses available, there just aren’t enough, and enough of a range in both price and speed. It has started with the APS-C NEX line, and seemingly continued with these new full framers, but here’s to hoping we see a big year in proprietary lenses (hopefully fast, decently priced options) that steer away from the somewhat uninspiring, relatively slow zooms that seem so popular in the Sony lineup. For those who don’t need auto focusing though, with an adapter, you can gain access to arguably the best full frame sensors available right now to use with glass from most any manufacturer, and they’re even figuring out the auto focusing issue with some more advanced adapters. These cameras aren’t going to be the go to for anything that requires more than a couple frames per second, but really, aside from birding or sports, who needs many more than that? The downside to me though is while the bodies have gotten substantially smaller, the lenses will still need to cover a full frame to truly exploit the benefits, and most all full frame lenses aren’t small, nor light.
On to the Non Full Frame cameras:
…which brings me to the smaller mirrorless offerings. To me, and again here comes my personal bias, I feel that the micro 4/3 system is far and away the most mature and diverse mirrorless system, regardless of sensor size. The benefit to the smaller sensor is size and weight of lenses first and foremost. As we’ve seen over the last year or two, there is value to a slightly larger camera body in regards to ergonomics. What I like about this, is that with this format, you can always make a bigger camera (like the GH3) for those who don’t need to shave every last millimeter off the body, instead opting for better handling and balance. That the system has the ability to diversify like this is pretty cool, but where I really feel the system offers the best value is in quality optical choices. Because of the sensor size, which I feel is the sweet spot if wanting to go smaller than full frame, it allows for substantial size reduction while maintaining decent balance in weight. The optical quality is also there with players like Leica, Zeiss, Sigma, Olympus and Panasonic designing and building lenses for the system. Take a look at the lens size for systems like the Nikon 1 or Pentax mirrorless systems, they’re not much smaller, yet the sensors are substantially smaller by comparison and the price of these systems isn’t much, if any lower. Conversely, look to the APS-C sensor MILC system cameras with larger, heavier (and in many cases much slower) optics. Hence, to me, m4/3 is the small sensor sweet spot. There is no other mirror less system, and few DSLR systems that offer as many quality lenses natively that Olympus and Panasonic do for the micro 4/3 system, let alone the third party manufacturers, and as we all know, lenses are where our money is best spent a large majority of the time 🙂
Panasonic GH3 – ($1069 body only) A monster by mirrorless standards, the body size rivals many APS-C DSLR’s, even full frame when you look at the Sony A7’s. A good still shooter that really and truly excels at video. I’m not much of a video guy granted, but the GH series has made many a wave in the budget video realm and seemingly for good reason. It also has all the external control you could wish for with customizability to boot. As long as you don’t need the smallest camera around but still want to decrease overall weight and system size while maintaining that DSLR feel, this is a great machine.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – ($1399 body only) I will stop short of calling the E-M1 the best micro 4/3 camera to date only because I personally can’t stand the Olympus approach regarding interface, menus and customization. Admittedly, this is entirely a personal opinion. That said, it’s hard to argue against it’s features and performance. As long as you don’t mind having to program your camera’s interface, and can remember which settings are assigned to which buttons, in whichever mode you’re shooting in, it is a stellar camera, like the E-M5 before it. Plus, the OM-D E-M1 is the first Olympus camera (or any micro 4/3 camera) to fully support the 4/3 standard lenses via an adapter through a hybrid Phase/Contrast Auto Focus which the system has really been needing in my opinion. Seen as not only the newest micro 4/3 offering from Oly, but somewhat of an answer to the now discontinued line of 4/3 DSLR’s which have one hell of a quiver of high quality lenses, so for those waiting for a 4/3 Oly E-7, this is your answer.
Panasonic GM1 – ($749 w/12-32mm lens) The new, cute kid on the block. I really wish that they’d have included the GX7’s in body image stabilization (as I feel is going to be necessary from here on out for all Panasonic cams) but otherwise, it shares just about every other feature introduced and included in the GX7 with a couple cool features of its own (1/16,000 second shutter speed anyone?), while occupying less space than almost any serious compact fixed lens camera. It is tiny. When combined with one of the various pancake prime lenses, or with the newly designed (and much hyped) 12-32mm (24-64mm equivalent field of view) zoom lens, it can literally fit in many pockets. They didn’t skimp on the chassis either with a solid and rugged magnesium alloy frame, it is well built and fully capable, assuming you can keep it in your hands.
Panasonic GX7 – (currently only $828 body only! or $1098 kit) – In my personal opinion, this is the quintessential micro 4/3 body. Compact, yet great ergonomics, high quality sensor, intuitive interface, integrated tiltable electronic viewfinder, external controls for quick and easy adjustments, all the bells and whistles (wifi, focus peaking, in body image stabilization for stills with any lens that doesn’t already have optical image stabilization, etc) so on and so forth. I did an extensive comparison between this and the Oly OM-D E-M5 where the GX7 meet or beat the EM5 in just about every category from IBIS to IQ. Currently, my favorite camera to shoot with from any system, hands down.
To me, the size benefits, balanced with the image quality that the micro 4/3 system cameras are capable of, make for the perfect balance of performance and size reduction. Sure, situationally speaking, larger sensors will have areas which better the micro 4/3 sensors just as the m4/3 sensors best the 1″ or smaller sensors utilized in other mirrorless interchangeable lens compact system cameras (like the Nikon 1 or Pentax systems). It all comes down to trade offs and overall feature balancing. For me, having the larger, full frame setup AND the smaller micro 4/3 setup beautifully compliment each other. Neither can fully replace the other for my needs, but each gives me a wonderful upside. That said, while I don’t find a lot of cases where I see the APS-C format to be wholly better than either, as it kind of sits in the middle of the road between these two other formats and for many, satisfy needs while ticking all the boxes. There are some compelling APS-C systems, and none more so to me than the Fuji X series.
Fuji X-E2 – ($999 body, $1399 kit) 2013 was a busy year for Fuji, and while I find the fixed lens X-100s ($1299) to probably be the best, or at least in my opinion best value for performance in a fixed lens camera available when all was said and done, my interest has been peaked with the X-series MILC cameras. While Fuji released 3 or 4 different models in 2013 (I couldn’t be bothered to keep up with all of them) with each new release seemingly a stripped down version of the one that came before to get the system into cheaper and cheaper territory, none was more intriguing to me than the X-E2. The next to top of the line that in most ways out performs even the X-Pro1 (the top of the line X series cam), and really the only benefit to me going with an X-Pro1 over the X-E2 would be the optical/hybrid viewfinder included in the Pro. With a very interesting cache of fast, somewhat reasonably priced prime lenses (compared to other APS-C mirrorless systems), Fuji has done it right in my opinion, and would be the only other mirrorless system I’d really consider outside of the micro 4/3 at this point in time personally, although if Sony can get it’s lenses together and stop charging an arm and a leg for them, the A7(r) platform looks pretty cool.
I know that there are many more cameras and gadgets that were released this year, and while some are very cool, these seem to me to be the cream of the crop, or most confusing (in the case of the Nikon DF) on offer right now. Aside from the DF, (and even including the DF I guess) I could make a very strong argument for each and every one of them. That we have so many high quality choices right now is pretty amazing.
My advice though, to those of us looking to really invest in a system, ignore the current crop of camera bodies. I know this sounds strange, but follow me. Obviously, taking the camera/sensor (or film!) out of the equation renders photography useless, but camera body technology is leapfrogged almost annually. I’d say within 5 years, any current camera will be entirely outdated, if not much sooner. Not that these machines will be incapable of taking just as quality an image then as they do now, but the technology in a few years will have certainly advanced way beyond where we are right now just as it has continued to do since digital photography’s inception. Your investment should be looked at from the whole of the system’s point of view. What lenses does a particular system have to offer? Are there roadmaps for the coming years for lenses in development? What other kind of support does the system garner in third party manufacturers? Do you already own compatible components? What do your friends and family shoot with? Not to say you should simply go with what others shoot, but the ability to share lenses, flashes, accessories, etc can be very handy. Don’t look solely at the camera body when establishing your budget, but lenses. In a few years, if you continue to shoot regularly, a new camera body may be a reality, and no matter which system you choose, I’m sure there will be some very cool cameras available. The lenses are where the real magic happens, and a good lens can last the life of many camera bodies, so don’t ignore that side of it. I’d even argue to focus more on the lenses on offer than the cameras honestly, which I now realize renders this article somewhat moot, but hey, we all like looking at cameras right?! If you’d like to read up a bit more on which lenses to look for, READ THIS.
Happy holidays to all and thank you for the read. You can always find gear posts and reviews via the MyGEAR tab at the top of the page, and as always feel free to contact me if you have any questions and I will get back to you as quickly as I can. With the new year, I am going to try and focus more on tutorial type posts when I can free up the time. I have a few ideas on lighting, shooting and post processing techniques that I’ll share, so feel free to follow through email (at the top right of the page), Facebook or Twitter.
As we wind down the year, I hope everyone has a safe and healthy holiday season. Keep shooting, and when you do, please feel free to join us and share those shots with us on our Flickr group HERE!
All the best and happy shooting,