2015 Gear of the Year

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

If 2014 was an incredible year for gear porn (it was!), 2015 has been an incredible year for one company: Sony. Oh — and at the very bottom, I shamelessly promote the best gear giveaway of the year (mine), but you only have a couple of days left to enter. We have a pile of photos and videos in this piece, so stick with it!

It was obvious as far back as June that Sony’s a7r II  [B&H|Amazon] had first dibs on 2015 camera of the year. Sure enough, it has garnered precisely that accolade from Luminous Landscape, DPReview, TheCameraStoreTV, and many others.

Add us to the list.

Still, 2015 has been less about unadulterated gear porn than the company that brought us the a7r II and a whole lot more, Sony – and the company that didn’t.

You know who I’m talking about.

But in the spirit of holiday cheer, let’s focus on the good stuff – and let’s do it with a little more flair and range.

How We Chose Our Favorites

What makes a camera or other piece of kit a standout?

A lot, actually.

We thought about the following things:

  • Function – How well does a product do what it is supposed to do?
  • Technology – What (and how well) has new technology been incorporate into a product?
  • Reliability – How much do we have to worry about a product going off-spec or stopping altogether?
  • Value – How well is a product priced against its competitors?
  • Ergonomics – How easy is a product to use on a regular basis? How quickly can someone new to a product get comfortable with it?
  • Design – To what extent is a product a thing of beauty or a paragon industrial design in and of itself?
  • Application – How many different ways can a product be used?
  • Motivation – Does a product (by virtue of all of the above) encourage us to go out and capture images?
  • Engagement – Is there something unique about a product which leads us to engage with the world differently than usual?
  • Impact – Is there something about a product which has a societal level impact?

On to our favorite gear of 2015.

Camera of The Year (Three-Way Tie): Sony a7r II; iPhone 6s Plus; DJI Phantom 3 Professional

“Whaat? You’re giving a smartphone and a quadcopter equal billing to the Sony?”

Absolutely.

The Sony a7r II takes top honors as a hybrid stills/video camera and overall winner for its combination of technical innovation, performance, function, price, and ergonomics. You don’t need me to list the individual components of goodness in this camera, nor the one glitch (overheating, which appears to have been mitigated with the latest firmware release). If I could have only one camera, the a7r II would be it.

But I didn’t buy one.

I spent my money instead on this year’s co-winners, which also happen to be 4K-shooting, image stabilized hybrid stills/video cameras: Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus and DJI’s Phantom 3 Professional  [B&H|Amazon] quadcopter.

Because yes, it’s about the gear, and no, it’s not about the gear; yes, it’s about the specs, and no, it’s not about the specs.

In the case of the iPhone and the Phantom, sure it’s about how much tech has been packed into such small form factors. But it’s about so much more.

On a personal level, both encouraged me to see things in ways I hadn’t or couldn’t at higher image quality levels than I’d anticipated. With the Phantom, it actually motivated me to get out of the house – heck, out of the country – early in the morning and late in the evening to capture stunning footage.

In the case of the iPhone, it motivated me to capture spontaneous, authentic moments that I otherwise would have missed.

But both (more broadly, smartphones and drones) have wrought significant societal changes in 2015. Drones have been at the forefront of questions of privacy and government regulation (e.g., drone registration). Smartphones have been the driver of citizen journalism and piercing the veil of governmental authority (e.g., documenting improper use of lethal force by police).

That's INCREDIBLE engagement and impact.

And Apple has created an annual financing program that some smart camera manufacturer will emulate before too long.

Honorable Mentions: Sony a7s II, Sony RX 100 Mk IV, Sony a6000, Sony RX1R II

Next question: “Are you a Sony hack?”

Nope.

You may recall I got my hands on a Sony a7s II [B&H|Amazon] for 12 hours at Sony’s New York City press event.

It was a revelation. Stellar low light performance coupled with 5-axis in-body image stabilization and 4K allowed me to see things on camera that I couldn’t see with my naked eye.

Still, the a7s Mk II’s low-light focusing didn’t blow me away; HDMI output is limited to 8-bit; and 12 megapixels don’t float my boat for those times when I want only one camera for video and stills.

I didn’t buy one.

Sony’s RX100 Mk IV is another stellar camera. Not only is it a 4K-shooting pocket camera with wonderfully sharp built-in zoom lens, but it has a lovely pop-up EVF which to my way of thinking makes it an even smaller, more capable spiritual heir to the Leica IIIa. I bought one because I thought it could be the one hybrid camera for all my travel needs — and could double as a B-cam for my a6000  [B&H|Amazon].

I bought one.

But the modest zoom, sharp as it is, felt constraining; the brilliant pop-up EVF (which requires you to pull the viewfinder into place when it pops up up and push it in before closing) annoying; and the too-easily scratched rear LCD dismaying.

I ended up returning it, wistfully.

Even though it was introduced before 2015, I have to include Sony’s a6000.

As many of you know, it’s the camera that convinced me to switch to Sony from Canon. It has been my go-to shooter over the last year – and for the moment still is — for everything from gear reviews to corporate videos and passion projects. With prices now at an all-time low, the a6000 is an even more an incredible value, untouchable at double the price.

But I’ve found a limitation I never knew it had because I never had the need until very recently: the camera is so light and so thin that it isn’t a robust enough platform for true, geared cine lenses: it flexes when turning the focus ring. I don’t see this as a flaw but instead a considered design compromise to bring exceptional performance to consumers.

I just used it in non-consumer ways.

I’m not getting rid of the a6000 because it remains an amazing stills camera and 1080p video camera when I don’t used cine lenses. But it is time to add a more appropriate camera to my equipment package.

Finally, I only had the opportunity to play with Sony’s RX1R II at the New York City press event in September, but wow – the RX1R II is a little jewel of a camera, a mashup of the Sony a7r II’s 42 megapixel back-side illuminated sensor, a revised version of the RX100 Mk IV’s pop-up EVF, and Leica’s Q (Typ 116) single fixed focal length design philosophy.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 7.10.04 PM

RX1R II

Video Camera of the Year (Two-Way Tie): Sony FS5 and Sony FS7

Let’s take these two cameras in reverse order, but first let’s tackle the two questions most likely to be asked.

“Are you a paid Sony hack?”

Nu-uh.

“Wasn’t the Sony FS7 introduced last year anyway?”

Yes and no, and it doesn't matter.

It may have been announced in the fall of 2014, but the FS7 wasn’t widely available until the beginning of 2015.

And I didn’t get my hands on one for a full evaluation until a couple of months ago.

The FS7 is a highly customizable and accessorizable (I don’t think that’s a real word, but you get the idea) no-excuses, 4K recording, dedicated interchangeable lens video camera at an incredible price ($7,995 body only). It’s the only camera I know of anywhere near the $8,000 mark that will record 4K internally at 10-bit 4:2:2 or record externally in ProRes or RAW and has a built-in neutral density filter.

Is it perfect?

Of course not.

While it offers 180 fps, that’s only at 1080p. It’s big and heavy (to a DSLR/ILC shooter). To someone unfamiliar with Sony XD cams, the menu system is inscrutable. Last time I looked, there was an issue with 12-bit RAW.

And I don’t love the grip.

Still, if I could have only one video camera for ultimate image quality, flexibility and robustness for the next 10 years, the FS7 would be it.

I got my hands on the Sony FS5 for a few minutes back in October under less than ideal circumstances (a crowded bar), but even then I knew that this might be the move-up camera for many planet5D readers (and myself).

It’s light where the FS7 is heavy, small where the FS7 is large. It uses the same sensor as the FS7, offers a revised grip, and has a continuously variable electronic internal neutral density filter (this is a big deal).

Even though it records 4K, however, it’s probably best to think of the FS5 as less the FS7’s little brother than an updated FS7 (including that electronic ND and updated grip, built-in N WiFi, an expanded color space and gamma options, and better-thought out EVF and LCD) shrunk to a 1080p version of itself. While the FS5 records 4K, it doesn’t do it as well as one might like, recording only 8-bit 4:2:0 internally.

And the FS5 has more limited output and expansion options than the FS7, though at least a partial fix is in with the latest firmware upgrade .

We’re working to get an FS5 in for an extended test, but for the moment the FS5 is, along with the Sony a7r II and Sony a7s II, one of the best move-up cameras for DSLR/ILC shooters.

Lens of the Year (Four-Way Tie): Sony FE 28mm f/2.0; Sony FE PZ 28-135 f/4.0; Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8; Veydra Mini-Primes

Like the first two categories, there was too much goodness this year to name just one winner.

Let me tackle the question most likely to be asked first.

“Are you absolutely sure you’re not a paid Sony hack?”

Yup.

The price/performance nod for autofocus lenses goes to Sony’s FE 28mm f/2.0 lens. While I prefer a 24mm’s field of view on full frame (73.7° vs the 65.5° which this Sony lens covers), this little guy matches or beats the optical and autofocus performance of Canon’s 24mm f/1.4L II at a fraction of the price. The 28mm f/2.0 is so good that I didn’t wait for the lovely Batis 25mm f/2.0mm nor the Loxia 21mm f/2.8 – I happily traded off field of view for dollars.

No, I don’t like manually focusing with this or any other fly-by-wire lens. But that brings us to our next winner.

Veydra’s Mini-Primes are wonderfully compact and true, geared cinematic lenses at an incredible price point. They're the cine lens price/performance champs for micro 4/3 and Sony APS-C or full-frame super35 mode cameras. No, they don’t have electrical contacts so they can’t transmit aperture data to camera bodies. But for under $3,000 for a set of 25mm, 35mm and 50mm T/2.2 lenses, I couldn’t care less.

I fell in love with Sony’s FE PZ 28-135mm f/4 lens within minutes of attaching it to the FS7. Color me surprised. I hadn’t expected it would be so good optically; the constant maximum aperture of f/4.0 allowed for shallow depth of field and lovely bokeh when used appropriately; it was about as big as I’d want to carry on an FS7; the autofocus worked well; and the zoom range (at least on full frame) covered most shooting situations.

But what rocked my world was the auto/manual focus. This lens is the bogey for every autofocus lens in terms of smooth, weighted and precise manual focus.

Nits? I wish it went down to 24mm; and I wish there was a version of this lens with equivalent field of view for APS-C or Super35 cameras. I don’t mean equivalent focal length. I mean THIS particular lens.

Finally, Zeiss is on a roll this year with new Canon EF mount and Sony E-mount lenses including the Batis 85mm f/1.8. I was surprised by how much I liked this lens, too. Of course it’s sharp. But what I love about it is how small and light it is. I was also surprised that I found myself liking and appreciating the OLED depth of field and distance scale. It isn’t cheap at $1,199, but it isn’t egregious, either. It’s on my short list for 2016 purchases.

Audio Gear of the Year: RØDElink Wireless Filmmaker Kit

The RØDElink Wireless Filmmaker Kit is so good and so well-priced that I sold the legendary Sennheiser EW 100 kit to buy two pair. You just plug them in, turn them on, and they work. There’s no hunting for frequencies because they do that for you automatically. No squelch control, either. They’ve become an integral part of my interview kit.

Accessory of the Year: Atomos Ninja Assassin

This is another surprising pick.

I already knew that Atomos makes well-designed monitor/recorders (having tested the Ninja Star and Ninja 2 previously), but the Ninja Assassin is the first Atomos product that I can actually see buying for myself.

It’s a brilliant 7” monitor in its own right with all the bells and whistles including 1920 x 1200 resolution IPS display and full set of exposure and focus assists, but by being a combo recorder which stores 1080p and especially 4K on inexpensive media along with HDMI out, it breathes new life into and smashes recording limits of everything from cameras like the a6000 all the way up to and including the FS7 (and I don’t mean just Sony products). It’s an especially interesting partner to the FS5. At $1,295, the Assassin is essentially a $700 less expensive, de-contented Shogun (no RAW, no SDI) – which makes it a bargain in the category for people who want what it has and who don’t want what it doesn’t.

Industrial Design of the Year: Leica SL

Yes:

  • the Leica SL is head and shoulders more expensive than its competitors on a specs-only basis;
  • those specs are not state-of-the-art (except for their class-leading, gorgeous viewfinder);
  • it’s bigger and heavier than its traditionally-defined competitors;
  • its native lens selection as this article was being written is non-existent (one lens doesn’t count as a selection, though with adapters most of the Leica lens world is available to it);
  • its implementation of log has issues; and
  • I haven’t worked with the camera yet so I don’t know what it’s like to live with day to day.

But with all of this written, no camera has struck me so viscerally as has the SL in a very, very long time.

It is gorgeous in its look, feel and apparent simplicity.

Still, the SL should record 4K internally at 10-bit 4:2:2 – this would profoundly alter the price/performance equation.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to get one in for an extended review, but we will try.

Company of the Year: Sony

Sony logo2

How could it be anyone else? Sony commands 40+% of the entire global sensor market, and is parlaying that core competence into a breathtaking array of products both under its own name and others. It’s no coincidence that the sensor inside every camera and video camera listed in this article (including Apple’s iPhone and the DJI’s Phantom 3 Professional) is made by Sony.

But it’s much more than the sensors. It’s Sony’s strategy and culture. The company listens to its customers and practices kaizen (i.e., continuous improvement, including rapid firmware fixes as problems become known. Even more, like Apple Sony introduces products that its customers don’t even know they need or want – until they see it.

There was no other imaging company on the planet in 2015 that came close to what Sony achieved.

Back to The Future Gear of the Year (Tie): Braun Nizo S56 Super 8 Film Camera; Leica IIIa 35mm Rangefinder with Leitz Summar 5cm f/2 Collapsible lens

You can argue that most “best of the year” bits – irrespective of industry – are about selling more of whatever they’re supposed to be the best of.

I’d agree.

But I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight two pieces of gear no longer in production which have stood the test of time as paragons of industrial design and personal impact.

IMG_2284

Top: Leica IIIa 35mm rangefinder, circa 1933. Bottom: Braun Nizo S56 Super 8 camera, circa 1973

When I was seven years old, my mother showed me a Kodachrome slide of a piece of driftwood at water’s edge.  She even let me hold the Leica IIIa with which she'd taken it. I was dazzled by its design. I subsequently also took it apart without asking, removed the cracked covering, spray painted the whole thing black, and rubbed a piece of chalk over the engraved top plate because I wanted white lettering. My mother never yelled at me and never got angry with me.

But she did send it out to a Leicaphile friend to restore it, and the camera was lost to the sands of time.

Until this year.

It turns out the restored camera had been sitting in my sister’s attic for decades, and I was reunited with it just a month ago. I was thrilled.

Even more interesting is its backstory: my mother originally bought the camera second-hand in the 1950’s from Bauhaus-trained children’s photographer Hilde Hubbuck.

It no longer works, the cost to fix the rewind lever exceeds the value of the camera, and my iPhone 6s Plus has a sharper lens. But if any camera is the spiritual heir to this early Leica rangefinder, I think something like the iPhone is it: simple, unobtrusive, not nearly as good an image-capture tool as the very best cameras of its day, but capable of creating extraordinary, slice of life images by people who know how to exploit its strengths.

It takes pride of place in my collection, a constant reminder of all that has happened in the last 50+ years not just in photography, but in the world.

The other camera is a Braun-Nizo S56 Super 8 camera I bought several months ago on eBay for $142. It still looks and works as if new, and while I’m not likely to shoot much with it, I was delighted to see what it could still do.

But what is most interesting is that this camera was designed by the legendary Dieter Rams, whose work continues to influence the design of the latest products from Apple.

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Shameless Giveaway of the Year: Mine!

At the beginning of this year we pitted the CAME-TV 7800 3-axis gimbal against the standard bearer MōVI M5 and found the 7800 a credible alternative.

In the spirit of the season and shameless self-promotion (wait, I think that IS in the spirit of the season), we’re now giving it away. All you have to do is click here to enter!

A Happy / Healthy / Merry to All

And with that, a big thanks to those of you who’ve made writing here on planet5D this year such a rewarding experience with your comments, suggestions, help, and encouragement.

See you soon!

(cover photo credit: snap from B&H)


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