This has been a phenomenal year for photography, with a seeming end to a global recession and a wave of new photographers entering the market, thanks to the popularity of social media. There are more energized, passionate photographers now than there ever have been. While we haven’t seen the statistics validated, the Internet often cites a statistic that there are more photos taken every two minutes than were captured in the entire 19th century. And the gear is better than it ever was. Even an entry-level camera performs better in speed, image quality and capture rate than the top-end cameras in the early days of digital. Here’s some of our favorite gear of 2015. This doesn’t mean that gear not on this list isn’t great, but these items stood out to us in the course of the year.
Sony a7R II
Sony released three new models of their a7 series in 2015, but the a7R II is the one we think is the most groundbreaking. Sony went back to the drawing board and created a brand-new sensor for this camera, one with a base ISO sensitivity that’s vastly better than any other high-resolution camera. Built-in five-axis stabilization reduces shake with every shot, eye-detect focus locks onto an eyeball with remarkable precision, and WiFi transfer allows the a7R II to be part of a fast, wire-free workflow. (See “Travel Light To Shoot Smarter,” page 44.) Price: $3,200. Contact: Sony, store.sony.com.
The Nikon D7200 replaced the well-regarded D7100, using the same design as its predecessor, but with a much improved engine. We like to think of it as the Nikon D750 but with an APS-C sensor. This DX-sensor camera now captures 24-megapixel images at up to 6 fps, and the buffer now clears much more quickly than the D7100. The camera keeps the same focus points, but they can all focus down to -3 EV now—that’s quite low light. By eliminating the anti-alias filter, Nikon has created the D7200 to produce sharper images than other APS-C cameras. Price: $1,100. Contact: Nikon, nikonusa.com.
When Leica announced their full-frame mirrorless Leica SL, no one had seen it coming. Sure, the mirrorless market has been heating up, but Leica already produces the M-series rangefinder digital cameras and S-Series medium-format system. The SL is a beast, with a body carved out of a single block of metal, a 24-megapixel sensor and the ability to capture up to 11 frames per second, making it not only the fastest full-frame mirrorless, but one of the fastest cameras, period. Price: $7,000. Contact: Leica, us.leica-camera.com.
Sony Cyber-Shot RX1R II
The Cyber-shot RX1R II has the same high-sensitivity, 42.4-megapixel, backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor found in the a7R II, as well as the 399-point phase-detect autofocus system, which Sony says provides a 30% improvement in focus performance. The camera also offers 5 fps shooting, though no word on how many shots until the buffer fills at that rate. It’s also capable of shooting 14-bit uncompressed RAW. The camera has a fixed 35mm ƒ/2 Zeiss Sonnar T* lens, which should provide incredible image quality. Macro shooters will rejoice over a close-focus mode, which focuses the lens down to 14cm. The built-in, 2.4M-dot OLED viewfinder pops up from the body when it’s needed, and a tilting 3-inch display can be adjusted to face upward or downward. Also like the a7R II, there are WiFi and NFC connections built in. Price: $3,299. Contact: Sony, store.sony.com.
You wouldn’t think that a palm-sized camera could take billboard-sized images, but the X-T10 is one of those rare cameras that manages to combine image quality and performance while squeezing it down into a small package. Even shooters of other platforms should consider the X-T10 as a choice for a go-anywhere camera. Images are sharp and vibrant, and Fujifilm’s excellent Fujinon lenses really round out this package. Price: $700. Contact: Fujifilm, fujifilmusa.com.
Canon PowerShot G3X
This unassuming integrated-lens compact digital camera doesn’t seem like a lot, but it had us smitten after just a few moments playing with it. The 24-600mm equivalent zoom lens looks like overkill, and it doesn’t seem like image quality can stay high enough quality across the range. But it can, and it does, and the result is a travel camera that’s hard to beat. Canon’s legendary focus speed and image quality make this camera an excellent choice for a photographer looking for a backup camera or a system that can handle anything you throw at it. Low-light performance is especially good, and image stabilization helps keep images sharp even at the long end. Price: $1,000. Contact: Canon, usa.canon.com.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 MARK II
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II took the excellent Micro Four Thirds OM-D E-M5 and cranked it up to eleven. This “dustproof and splashproof” sealed body can tackle the elements, and the design can appease even the most retro photographer among us. The excellent touch-screen makes focusing and choosing settings easier, and the five-axis stabilization, built-in WiFi and excellent EVF make the camera a joy to use, setting a very high bar for other MFT cameras. Price: $1,000. Contact: Olympus, getolympus.com.
Carl Zeiss Lenses
It’s hard to pick a specific Carl Zeiss lens to highlight this year, because the company released so many. Two Batis lenses for the Sony platform, six manual-focus Milvus lenses for Nikon and Canon, and full-scale shipping of late 2014’s Otus lenses make for an incredible year. The lenses all feature the company’s legendary image quality, making them some of the best in the class. Contact: Zeiss, zeiss.com/camera-lenses.
Sigma 24mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art
Sigma’s newest 24mm is a great addition to the company’s Art series of high-end lenses. The 24mm has 15 elements in 11 groups to reduce chromatic aberration and
improve edge-to-edge image quality. The design of the aperture blades creates beautiful soft “bokeh” focus. Price: $850. Contact: Sigma, sigmaphoto.com.
Tamron SP 35mm And SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD
Tamron’s new high-quality lenses—the SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD and SP 45mm F/1.8 Di VC USD—came out of left field. The new SP lenses feature the best image quality in the Tamron range and provide Nikon, Canon, MFT and Sony A-mount cameras with incredible quality and versatility at a budget price. The lenses go from macro focus to distance quickly and create beautiful and accurate images, especially for the price. Price: $600 (each). Contact: Tamron, tamron-usa.com.
Lensbaby Velvet 56
When you think of desirable traits for a lens, you don’t always think “out of focus,” but the Lensbaby Velvet 56 provides the company’s legendary soft-focus look in a lens that’s built around high-end optical characteristics. You can go from tack-sharp to completely soft with the adjustment of the aperture dial. Price: $500. Contact: Lensbaby, lensbaby.com.
Pixelmator For Mac, iPhone And iPad Pro
The latest update to the excellent Mac photo-editing tool Pixelmator came out in 2014, but the company’s stream of updates and new apps for iPad and iPhone pull the tools together. We’ve often joked that Pixelmator is 80% of what you need from Photoshop at 10% of the price. The iPad version combined with the iPad Pro and the new Apple Pencil make for an incredibly precise editing tool. Price: $30 (for Mac); $10 (for iPad). Contact: Pixelmator, pixelmator.com.
Adobe Lightroom 6/Creative Cloud 2015
We’re partial to Adobe’s subscription service for its creative apps because it reduces the sticker shock of new versions and allows photographers to get updates when the company comes up with them, not on a calendar cycle. For example, a June update to Lightroom added haze reduction tools on the fly to Lightroom 6, the most recent version of Adobe’s photo management software. Subscription price varies depending on apps. Contact: Adobe, adobe.com.
The connected camera market came out of nowhere this year. You can read all about them in our comparison article on page 59, but we’d be remiss to include a “best of” without mentioning this burgeoning field that includes the DxO ONE, the Olympus AIR and several Sony QX models.
Apple MacBook Pro
Apple’s 2015 Retina MacBook Pro is a performance powerhouse, featuring a range of processors, from a 2.2 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 up to a 2.8 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7. The Retina display provides 2880×1800 ppi resolution. With USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and an SD card reader, this is a very connected computer and can store images and documents on hard drives up to 2 TB. This laptop is fast enough to be your desktop. Price: $1,999 (base model). Contact: Apple, apple.com.
Apple iPad Pro
Apple’s new iPad Pro represents a new era in mobile computing. The 12.9-inch screen of the iPad Pro has a resolution of 2732×2048, and the Apple-designed A9X processor gives this tablet the speed of most laptops. Price: Starting at $799. Contact: Apple, apple.com.
Sony Xperia Z5
The top-end Sony smartphone features a 23-megapixel still camera that captures images up to 5520×4120 pixels and is aimed at photo enthusiasts. The device has 32 GB of memory built in and a microSD slot. On-chip phase detection provides reliable autofocus, and the Snapdragon 810 processor has enough oomph for high-end editing. Price: Varies by carrier. Contact: Sony, store.sony.com.
LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt 2 TB External Hard Drive
Whether used for routine backups, transferring images from home to studio or as expanded primary storage, the Thunderbolt version of LaCie’s external hard drive is a must-have for image makers. Offering universal connectivity via Mac-friendly Thunderbolt or USB 3.0, this tough little hard drive is MIL-compliant (data is protected even during accidental drops of up to two meters). Its removable orange cover makes it easier to locate in the event of an emergency grab-and-go situation, too. It comes with LaCie Backup Assistant software, which is easy to set up and provides automatic backup of data for Mac and PC. If you don’t have a backup solution, stop pressing your luck before it’s too late. Price: $269. Contact: LaCie, lacie.com.
Manfrotto Compact Xtreme Black 2-in-1
This clever support is both a monopod for cameras and a pole for action cameras. The design allows photographers to capture a sport from the sidelines and then reach out for a unique perspective without getting in the way by simply flipping the parts around. Price: $45. Contact: Manfrotto, manfrotto.us.
Think Tank Photo Flair Kit
If you have a Think Tank Photo roller bag, you’re not alone. In fact, if you’re in a press room, it’s often hard to identify which one is yours, thanks to all the similar black bags. Think Tank Photo’s Flair kit makes your bag stand out from the crowd. Price: $35. Contact: Think Tank Photo, thinktankphoto.com.
SanDisk 128 GB Ultra Fit™ USB 3.0 Flash Drive
This teeny storage drive (its length is shorter than a quarter) fits in a USB 3.0 slot and provides 128 GB of storage, at a size that’s the smallest in the class. These little “pinkie drives” (our term for a drive that’s smaller than a thumb drive) is big enough to give a client the entire results of a full-day shoot. Price: $120. Contact: SanDisk, sandisk.com.
Flashpoint Ring Li-On 400ws Ringflash
This diminutive ringlight is powered by a battery pack, instead of a cable, which gives it enormous flexibility. The 400ws flash system provides more than enough power for beautiful portraits with a ringlight’s trademark catchlight. The price is low enough to make it affordable for even the beginner beauty or wedding photographer. Price: $500. Contact: Flashpoint (Adorama), adorama.com.
Palette Tactile Photo-Editing Tools
These dials and sliders are designed to simplify photographic editing, and each unit can be set to control anything from exposure to highlights to levels. Set each control to modify a setting, and extended photo-editing sessions get shorter and easier. The tools work with Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator and a number of video-editing programs. Price: $199 to $899 (depending on configuration). Contact: Palette Gear, palettegear.com.
We’ve tried a lot of systems that mount a camera to your belt or pack, but most of them have the drawback that they let the camera swing around and bump into your body. The B-Grip UNO is the first one we’ve tried that keeps a camera fully in place, yet fully accessible. Price: $55. Contact: B-Grip, bgrip.com.
Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bags
The most successful Kickstarter campaign for a bag is now a reality, with the Everyday Messenger Bags. The bags feature magnetic closures, flexible internal separators, adjustable straps, camera clips and a design that expands or compresses, depending on what’s inside. Price: $249. Contact: Peak Design, peakdesign.com.
Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 Professional
Canon’s new imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 printer is not only the newest member of Canon’s Professional printer line, it’s the most advanced. Bearing the distinctive Canon red stripe to mark it as a pro device, the 17-inch-wide printer uses the company’s newest print head, newest ink technology and newest paper management technology. The PRO-1000 employs suction to hold paper in place and can eject two million more dots of ink per second than their existing printer heads from the 11 80ML ink cartridges. The printer also has one of the best black densities and color gamuts in its class. Price $1,300. Contact: Canon, usa.canon.com.
Epson SureColor P800
Epson’s SureColor line offers performance and output that are better than their renowned Stylus line, in more streamlined packages. The P800 is a 17-inch-wide printer that can fit on a desktop (albeit, a very wide desk) and uses the company’s UltraChrome HD inkset and high-capacity ink cartridges. It also features built-in WiFi Direct and Apple AirPrint support, which means that pros can finally output to a high-end printer without stringing Ethernet or USB cables all over the office. Price: $1,200. Contact: Epson, epson.com.
Moab Juniper Baryta Rag 305
Moab’s excellent Juniper Baryta Rag 305 uses barium sulfate in the creation of this great 100% cotton double-weight paper for brightness without having to use optical brightening agents—chemicals thought to make images fade over time. This paper is particularly well suited to printing monochrome images, though it’s excellent at colors and especially delicate tones other rag papers can’t reproduce. Price varies depending on paper size. Contact: Moab by Legion Paper, moabpaper.com.
Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta Satin
In addition to using barium sulfate for improved brightness, this Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta Satin includes a “microporous ink-receiving layer”—small pits in the paper that absorb the right amount of ink with reduced bleeding. This 100% cellulose paper is nicely warm without adding a color cast. Price varies depending on paper size. Contact: Hahnemühle, hahnemuehle.com.
Red River UltraPro Satin 4.0
Another of our go-to papers, the Red River UltraPro Satin 4.0 was designed to look like a photo lab print. The pitted surface provides enough light reflection to make photos look great. This latest (4.0) revision of the paper’s composition and coating results in more saturated colors and neutral monochrome prints. Price varies depending on paper size. Contact: Red River Paper, redriverpaper.com.