Plugged In: Rest of the best — photo gear mostly worth its hype

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Time to toss out a few more hot coals as we conclude last week’s report of the Technical Image Press Association’s choices of 2013’s (allegedly) best photographic equipment.

As always, we’ll not restrain our comments about highly debatable selections apparently intended to mollify “major advertisers.”

Best of TIPA

  • Entry-level digital SLR camera: TIPA chose Nikon’s D3300 and I have to agree. The D3300 includes most of the critical imaging hardware found in Nikon’s more expensive APS-C cameras, such as 24-megapixel sensor, faster image processing chip and removal of the anti-alias filter. Nikon cameras tend to use better, more modern sensors than equivalent Canon cameras, and that shows in the better imaging benchmarks, such as higher dynamic range and better tonal quality. Nikon cameras benefit from an extensive series of company and third-party lenses.

  • Professional dSLR camera: TIPA again chose Nikon, in this case, the new D4S. However, this one’s not quite as clear. The D4S costs twice as much as the older D800E, which has both higher resolution at 36 megapixels, as well as better sensor performance in areas like dynamic range and tonal quality. Unless I needed the D4S’s 40 percent faster shooting speed, very slightly better low-light capability and better autofocus, I’d buy an older D800E and save $3,200. The D4S is bigger, heavier and basically intended for professional sports photographers and others that need a faster shooting speed and improved continuous autofocus. The D4S makes little sense for amateurs of any sort. As a practical matter, digital cameras are becoming good enough that most professional work can be handled in an entirely competent manner by a prograde APS-C camera like Nikon’s D7100, Pentax’s K-3, or a top-tier Micro Four-Thirds camera like the Olympus E-M1 or Panasonic GH4, none of which cost more than about a quarter of the D4S’s body-only cost. Five or six years ago, there were solid technical reasons for buying an expensive “pro” full-frame camera like the D4S, but they’re not nearly as compelling in 2014.

  • Premium camera: TIPA again chose Nikon, in this case the Nikon Df, whose major claims are that it looks like an older Nikon film camera, with lots of dials that mimic old-fashioned manual controls but are actually electronic analogues, and, get this, Nikon claims that the Df’s lack of any video mode at all is actually a major “feature.” If anyone other than Nikon (or maybe Leica) tried to sell a camera like this for $2,750 body-only, they’d be laughed out of the marketplace. I actually like Nikon and its products but the Df is basically ridiculous. For nearly the price of a D800E, you get a lower-resolution, lower-dynamic range sensor, and without the D800E’s feature set, including excellent video capability. Oh, and the Df’s body is a mix of plastic and metal, unlike the prograde magnesium construction found in Pentax, Nikon and Fujifilm cameras costing half as much. Nikon touts the Df as a low-light camera, but virtually all current, top-tier cameras do quite well in the ISO 3,200 to ISO 6,400 low-light range, and that’s pretty dark. Sony’s new A7S does even better than the Df in low light, for a lot less money.
  • Entry-level compact-system camera lens: Olympus 14- to 42-mm EZ zoom lens. Although I do like Olympus and its optics, I’ve got to disagree with TIPA on this one. Panasonic’s 12- to 32-mm kit zoom lens, which also fits Olympus M 4/3 CSC cameras, is both sharper and has a wider view. It’s less expensive, too.
  • Entry-level CSC camera: TIPA chose Olympus’ E-M10 camera, which includes most of the features and capabilities of Olympus’ prograde E-M1 camera in a smaller, much less-expensive body. The E-M10 is similar to the older E-M5 (which I own and really like) except that the E-M5 uses a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body and more advanced, five-axis image-stabilization hardware. I certainly agree with this choice but you might also consider Panasonic’s tiny but highly competent GM1 M 4/3 camera.
  • Hybrid photo/video camera: TIPA chose Panasonic’s GH4, an M 4/3 camera whose video quality and features exceed much more expensive dedicated video cameras and full-frame cameras, like Canon’s 5D series. No question, Panasonic really knows how to do video right. The GH4 even shoots 4k video and its still photo modes are also top-notch. The GH4 was the clearly correct choice here.
  • Superzoom camera: Panasonic TZ-60/ZS40. Panasonic’s travel zoom cameras have been top choices for years, with good lenses in a convenient small body.
  • Medium-format pro camera: Phase One IQ250. No doubt, this is a very good professional-studio camera, as it should be for over $40,000. If you’d rather spend about 80 percent less while still getting the same excellent, 50-megapixel, supersized sensor in a smaller camera that handles like a regular prograde dSLR, with a wider range of good optics, then get Pentax’s new 645Z, although you won’t be able to flaunt your conspicuous consumption.
  • Expert-level dSLR camera: Pentax K-3. I agree. I even bought one for my own use. This relatively compact but stoutly constructed camera is so full-featured and capable that I’m still learning how to use its more advanced functions. The K-3 uses a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor inside an ergonomically excellent, weather-sealed magnesium body. Pentax’s “Limited” series of single-magnification prime lenses is top-notch, but I prefer Sigma and Tamron zoom lenses to Pentax-branded zooms due to lower cost and better quality control.
  • Professional CSC camera: Sony’s 36-megapixel A7R is certainly a plausible choice. It’s a full-frame camera hardly any larger than top-tier M 4/3 cameras using smaller sensors. However, the A7R is the first model of an entirely new camera line, with a brand-new lens mount and a fair number of rough edges that complicate serious photography. At the moment, there are a total of two decent lenses that natively fit this camera without large, awkward adapters. I’ve read several reviews where professional photographers entered a camera store intending to buy the shiny new A7R but left with an Olympus E-M1. I’d check again when the A7R Mark II ships in a year or two.
  • Expert dSLR lens: Tamron SP 150- to 600-mm VC supertelephoto. This zoom lens is a beast, in both heft (about 4 pounds) and extreme magnification. The reviews I’ve seen indicate that it’s sharper than expected for such an extreme-magnification zoom lens when used in the f/8 aperture range, though single-magnification telephoto prime lenses will likely be sharper. With a list price of $1,069, it’s actually a very good buy and a versatile lens for people who need such extreme magnification. Don’t forget to add the cost of a sturdy tripod, though.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s