Each year, when we take on the task of selecting the best photographic gear of the year, we always become rather reflective, thinking about what’s been introduced in a given year, how those products have affected photographers, videographers and content creators, and if they’ve offered something unique and interesting.
For most of the process of making our picks, we generally try to determine what cameras, lenses, accessories, software, computer hardware, mobile apps and other services caught our attention and, we hope, might actually last.
But we also have another, more hidden agenda. In some cases, we’re looking to see if the technology on some of these products might result in a paradigm shift or a distinct change in how photographers capture images.
This year, the job of choosing the best gear is particularly meaningful for us since the issue you hold in your hands is the final issue of Digital Photo magazine, which has made some of us think about many of the ingenious, powerful and miraculous photography products we’ve encountered over the years. Ironically, it also made us remember some of the more forgettable products, or at least ones we’d like to forget.
But there’s a third category that’s worth mentioning—and there are various names for this type of camera, product or service. Some might call them game-changers. In today’s enterprise parlance, they might be referred to as disruptive innovations. In the past 20 years, the iPhone, or smartphone, with its included digital camera, would be the most conspicuous example of a technology that completely changed how most consumers took photographs. And it moved markets—which was a challenge for the camera industry!
However, many noteworthy game-changing technologies have taken place in the camera world. And some of them happened at the start of the digital photo age.
For example, when thinking about the history of digital photography products, I decided to explore the website of Digital Photo magazine’s first iteration—PCPhoto magazine. (Although to do so, I had to log onto archive.org and search for “pcphotomag.com” there, since the website is no longer technically live.)
One of the first articles that caught my attention was an article titled “New Storage Media Means More Digital Photos From Your Camera.” In the story, published in the late 1990s, the writer notes that “removable storage is the key to staying out and taking pictures with a digital camera.” I simply found it fascinating to discover that it was around this time, in the late 1990s, that camera companies and product designers realized that photographers would need to be untethered from a computer in order to really get the most of the photographic experience. The solution was the still-very-popular flash memory card format.
But I wondered why I didn’t recall this shift. Then, I remembered. I was still shooting film until I bought a Nikon COOLPIX 995, which stored images on CompactFlash Memory cards (which is now, more or less, a relic, in terms of memory-card formats)!
Not every innovation will have the staying power of memory cards. And many products, features, services and accessories will flop. But it’s these kinds of changes that many of us in the camera industry and photography world are continually on the lookout for.
Now, for your viewing and reading pleasure, our 2019 Editors’ Choice awards.
Best New Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera
Sony a7R IV
There was a palpable buzz when this new Sony camera hit the market. Why all the excitement? For starters, it was the first 35mm full-frame camera that had a 61-megapixel image sensor, which makes you second-guess if they meant it to be a medium format camera. However, what tipped the scales is its Real-time Eye AF, which in this camera worked for both still photos and video—and gave the camera an artificial intelligence-like quality. But there were other impressive specs, too: burst modes of 10 frames per second, including autofocus and autoexposure tracking, 567 phase-detection F points, the ability to shoot 4K video recording, a 5.76 million-dot viewfinder and its five-axis in-body images stabilization (IBIS).
Best New Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera System
Panasonic Lumix S
In early February, Panasonic announced that a new full-frame mirrorless camera system that would be based on Leica’s L-mount lenses. It was a robust announcement: Panasonic debuted two new digital cameras—the 25-megapixel Lumix S1 and the 47-megapixel Lumix S1R—as well as three compatible S-series lenses: the Lumix S PRO 50mm F1.4, Lumix S PRO 70-200mm F4 O.I.S. and Lumix S 24-105mm F4 MACRO O.I.S. By and large, the system has gotten excellent reviews. But Panasonic didn’t stop there: During this year’s Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles, Panasonic announced the third full-frame mirrorless camera in its LUMIX line, the new Panasonic LUMIX S1H full-frame mirrorless camera. Like the LUMIX S1 and S1R, its brand siblings, the new LUMIX S1H is equipped with a full-frame image sensor. But Panasonic also noted that the new model would be the world’s first camera “capable of video recording at 6K/24p (3:2 aspect ratio), 5.9K/30p (16:9 aspect ratio), and 10-bit 60p 4K/C4K.” Taken as a group, the LUMIX S-series full-frame system covers a broad spectrum—from pro photography to pro cinema.
Best New DSLR
Canon EOS 90D
Although in the full-frame camera system market, mirrorless camera bodies dominate, for interchangeable-lens cameras with smaller-sized sensors, such as APS-C-sized sensors, the models that dominate are still DSLRs. In fact, according to data quoted by Canon from the NPD Group (from January 2018 to June 2019), DSLRs make up 71 percent of this market. Which is one of the reasons Canon decided to make the EOS 90D DSLR—there’s still a need for a powerful workhorse like this camera: It shares many tech specs in common with the Canon EOS M6 Mark II compact mirrorless camera, which came out at the same time: a 32.5-megapixel CMOS (APS-C-sized) image sensor, the ability to record 4K UHD (up to 30p) and 1080p FHD (up to 120p) video with no crop, Dual-Pixel CMOS AF in Live View, with 5,481 manually selectable AF positions and an electronic shutter that can capture 1/16,000 sec. It also has a very nice 3.0-inch vari-angle touchscreen LCD and does a great job firing off 10 frames per second, in burst mode.
Best New Medium Format Camera
Fujifilm’s introduction of the GFX100 medium format mirrorless digital camera was one of this year’s biggest camera stories. Most of the news coverage focused on the large image sensor, and rightly so: The new model included a newly developed 102-megapixel sensor that’s quite large (55mm diagonal). According to the company, the new camera is “designed to deliver image clarity and capability previously unheard of.” It’s pricey—with a list price of $9,999 for just the camera body. But you truly get a lot for the money with this model, including the newly developed back-illuminated 102MP imaging sensor, which gives you the ability to produce 16-bit images that the company says have “amazing color fidelity, rich shadow detail and incredible dynamic range.” It also omitted a low-pass filter, to enhance sharpness and minimize moiré and false colors. And it includes a powerful in-body image stabilization system (IBIS) to compensate for the increased resolution and detail: Fujifilm says it gives you five stops of compensation. And it also has some unique video properties, since the sensor size is very large at 43.9mm x 32.9mm. But there’s more—a swiveling LCD as well as an adjusting, tilting electronic viewfinder (which is an extra accessory), weather seals throughout the camera body and two SDXC-memory card slots.
Best New Fixed-Lens Camera
Ricoh GR III
There’s always been a holy grail of sorts that camera manufacturers have been desperately seeking for the last few decades of the digital era: They’re looking to produce a digital version of the type of camera Henri Cartier-Bresson picked up in the early 1930s and then traveled with everywhere. And while, to date, no one company has really built a successor to that camera, it is what Ricoh seemed to be striving for in coming out with its long-awaited update to its GR series camera: The new 24.2-megapixel Ricoh GR III is a compact, lightweight, advanced point-and-shoot that has some very promising qualities, including its three-axis in-body image stabilizer, which helps ensure the camera maintains sharp details in your images, and its macro mode, which did a wonderful job in keeping details sharp and distortion low.
Best 360-Degree Camera
This 360-degree camera allowed content creators to produce a new level of quality video since it’s the first standalone 360-degree camera that can capture 11K-resolution, 10-bit VR video at 30 frames per second. There are other lower-res formats to choose from as well, plus 11K 360-degree photos in 3D and monoscopic formats. Insta360 also includes eight optimized f/3.2 fisheye lenses and pairs them with quality Micro Four Thirds sensors in order to achieve cinematic image quality. The Titan comes with a powerful FlowState image stabilizer, a robust color and dynamic range and wireless accessories.
Best New Camera Update
Hasselblad X1D II 50C
When Hasselblad updated its X1D II 50C medium format camera, one of the things it changed was performance. But it also improved the menu structure and graphical user interface, which were already impressive—after all, the first iteration of this camera was really the first to truly break ground in offering a new, innovative design that didn’t mimic the analog film camera bodies of the past. But Hasselblad updated the new version with some additional tweaks that really stood out, like the new rear display—43 percent larger than its predecessor—and a higher-resolution OLED electronic viewfinder. Combine those improvements with a quicker start-up time, less shutter lag, less blackout time and a slightly faster burst mode, and you have a winning combination.
Best New Rugged Camera
Olympus Tough TG-6 point-and-shoot
Olympus didn’t change a lot in updating the previous model, the Tough TG-5, to this new model: The new Tough TG-6 digital camera has the same 12-megapixel sensor, can capture RAW files and has the same 4x optical zoom range (25mm-100mm equivalent zoom range). It also has the same wide aperture range, f/2.0 (wide)-f/4.9 (tele), and is waterproof to a depth of 50 feet and can survive a drop from 7 feet. It is also dustproof, freezeproof and crushproof. Plus, it shoots 4K-resolution video. But Olympus also included some nice extras on this camera, such as anti-fog dual pane—which means the dual-pane protective glass will reduce fogging, even in locations with severe temperature differences. Olympus has also expanded the accessories for this camera, which help make this a waterproof point-and-shoot that lets you capture photos and video in places you’d never take your other cameras or phones.
Best New APS-C Size Mirrorless Camera
Canon EOS M6 Mark II
Like its DSLR sibling, this new EOS M6 Mark II compact mirrorless camera has some powerful features (some of which you can read about in the paragraph on the EOS 90D since they have a lot in common). What makes this small, compact mirrorless camera distinct from the EOS 90D is that it’s capable of shooting “up to 14fps with AF and AE tracking as well as capturing a remarkable 30fps when using RAW Burst Mode with pre-shooting capabilities. The camera also features touch-and-drag AF when using the optional EVF-DC2 electronic viewfinder.” Canon says it also has Dual Pixel AF with Eye AF Servo “to help ensure images are in sharp focus and a 3.0-inch, touch-panel LCD screen with tilt-option to help ensure a user’s portrait or selfie game is and stays on point.”