Plugged In: Best gear, or best to keep looking?

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

What’s best? Those two apparently innocent words too often result in a torrent of emotion about seemingly logical and dispassionate technical issues.

Although I don’t have a fire-resistant Nomex suit handy to deal with the inevitable fanboy flamings, I thought that I’d tackle the question in any event. But, rather than merely pontificate on my own, I first checked on what the real experts had to say.

Technical Image Press Association is an international group of technology and photo editors and reviewers drawn from 28 major publications in 15 technically advanced countries. Each year, TIPA chooses the “best” new product in every major photo category. Rather than be flamed myself, as inevitably happens whenever people become emotionally charged about their favorite technology, I’ll just report, although comment upon, TIPA’s choices in each category.

Best new ….

  • Mobile photo app: Photosmith 3, but check out Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, introduced since TIPA. Personally, I don’t think any mobile device other than a really fast multicore CPU, SSD solid-state-disk notebook computer has enough horsepower to do any serious photo post-processing. However, if you’re simply uploading “selfie No. 1597” to Facebook from a smartphone, then Photosmith 3 is your app.
  • Imaging innovation: TIPA chose Canon’s new CMOS sensor with dual-pixel autofocus points. Personally, I think that’s a yawner. The on-demand mechanical anti-aliasing found in Pentax’s K-3 digital SLR is technically more interesting, potentially useful and unique. Sony’s A7 series full-frame cameras are also more indicative of future trends, fitting extremely high image-quality hardware into a very small and relatively affordable body. Lytro’s “light-field” cameras allow later selective refocusing in computer post-processing, bringing critical but out-of-focus subjects back into focus. Lytro’s innovations are still immature as marketable products, but they’re an exciting harbinger of the future.
  • Professional SLR lens: I do agree with TIPA’s choice of the Canon EF 200-400 f4L telephoto zoom with a built-in “1.4x tele-converter” as a professional lens. Often, pro photographers need a great deal of telephoto reach and this lens provides a lot of options in a single package.

  • Digital SLR advanced camera: This category is something of a misnomer — it’s really an intermediate-range camera, not a truly advanced model, which TIPA terms “Expert.” That said, the Canon 70D is a decent camera that’s a genuine improvement over earlier models. But Canon’s continued use of its own lower-performance sensors, in my opinion, ranks the image quality of virtually all Canon nonprofessional dSLR cameras well below comparable Nikon and Pentax models, both of which brands use distinctly better sensors. I’d choose Nikon’s D7100 in this category or, if the budget’s tight, Nikon’s similarly performing D5300, whose primary difference is an adequate but lower-quality plastic construction, rather than the D7100’s metal body.
  • Expert compact camera: TIPA’s chosen Canon’s G1 X Mark II, which packages a large APS-C sensor and good-quality fixed zoom lens into a neat package. These are high-end specifications for a fixed-lens compact camera. One could argue that Sony’s new RX100 Mark III, scheduled to be formally announced May 1, might be a good alternative, but either compact camera is pocketable, given a large-enough pocket, and will provide excellent photos.
  • Compact-system camera prime lens: TIPA chose the ZEISS Touit series, which are certainly decent, though expensive, and limited to a grand total of two different lenses. I suppose I need to disagree again. Sigma’s DN “Art” series prime lenses include wide-angle, normal and telephoto optics for both Sony and Micro Four-Thirds cameras and are compact, very sharp and less than one-fourth the price.
  • Imaging software: DXO ViewPoint 2, which corrects faulty perspective of straight objects, such as buildings. No question, this is an innovative and excellent photo program out of France. I would have included the newest DXO Optics Pro and made the award to the entire software suite. I first run my really difficult images and exposures through DXO Pro 9 and ViewPoint before doing more prosaic correction in Lightroom or Photoshop. If you’re serious, then you need both DXO’s software for those really tough situations as well as the Adobe products for their more efficient routine workflow and printing.
  • Expert-level compact-system camera: Fujifilm X-T1, a newly designed camera line that uses Fujifilm’s innovative and highly respected Trans-X sensor. One could argue for the Olympus E-M1 for its effortless, yet highly reliable, still photography.
  • CSC expert lens: Fujifilm XF10- to 24-mm R series lens. Undoubtedly a difficult-to-construct yet excellent superwide-angle zoom lens. I’d argue, though, for Olympus’ new 12- to 40-mm Pro zoom lens. I found that the sharpness of this Olympus lens is unbelievably good for a zoom lens in that range, better than most prime lenses.
  • Inkjet paper: Hahnemuhle Photo Silk Baryta 310. Perhaps. I haven’t had a chance to try the Hahnemuhle paper but Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Baryta is fabulous. Since changing to that Epson paper and an Epson 7900 printer I’m finding that new prints made with this combination look great, far better than before from the same image files.
  • Photo monitor: LG 21:9 UltraWide 34UM95. I haven’t used this 34-inch monster monitor, but nowhere in the published specs is there any reference to inherently supporting wider-range color spaces, like AdobeRGB, something that’s necessary to produce the truest and best possible prints. I’ll stick with Dell’s less-expensive U271x series, which does support AdobeRGB color space straight from the factory, while staying less expensive.
  • Tripod: Manfrotto New 190. Manfrotto, an Italian company, bought traditional favorite Gitzo, and really does make the best tripods in the world. I have a relatively inexpensive one and I think that it’s excellent.
  • Rugged compact camera: Nikon 1 AW1. This is another choice that’s clearly right. The AW1 is waterproof and dustproof, yet uses interchangeable lenses and a fairly large, 1-inch sensor. It’s the closest digital equivalent to the much-beloved Nikonos underwater camera of the film era.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of controversy. Just wait until we move along to TIPA’s choices in the remaining best camera categories. Stay tuned.

Correction: Our reference last week to Sigma’s new full-frame zoom lens should have listed that lens as a 24- to 105-mm f/4 zoom lens, not as a 24- to 70-mm f/2.8 lens, which was the Tamron comparison lens. We regret the error.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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