All year, we put photo gear through its paces: we test it, use it, manhandle it. When we’re through, we make a list of the top items we’ve tried and tested. Then we cross off most of the list. The remaining items receive top honors: The POP Award for Photography’s Outstanding Products. Here’s what made the cut in 2012.
Olympus OM-D EM-5 The OM-D nicely reprises the jewel-like looks of Olympus’s legendary OM-series of compact 35mm SLRS. We’re pleased to report that the OM-D’s performance in lab and field tests was also evocative of the OM film cameras. It tested with Excellent overall image quality in the Pop Photo lab and earned kudos from every tester for its rugged, weather-sealed body and fine handling. While it may look very much like a little pro DSLR, the OM-D is actually an interchangeable-lens compact with an electronic viewfinder in place of a prism finder. It accepts lenses from the growing Micro Four Thirds optical catalog, plus a neat accessory vertical grip.
$999, street, body only.
Canon 40mm f/2.8 EF STM
While Canon's 40mm may be the smallest full-frame AF lens, its real claim to glory is that it is one of the first two Canon lenses with a stepping AF motor, allowing truly silent autofocus during video. It enables smooth Movie Servo AF with the newest Canon DSLRs. Optically strong, too, with excellent SQF numbers combined with negligible distortion and light falloff. And the price is right.
iKan IB500 Dual Color LED Studio Light
Blown fuses from hot lights causing you to blow a fuse? It may be time to try an LED light panel, and this 500-watt iKan unit is one of the most flexible around. Continuously dimmable output and adjustable color temps (3200–5600K) can be set via the rear touch screen or remote control. It can be powered by optional batteries and stand-mounted horizontally or vertically, and its barn doors are built-in. It’s also heavy (nearly 6 lbs.), but the all-metal unit is durably made.
iPhoto for iPad
A neat little app, iPhoto for iPad allows your fingers do the edits on your photos. Drag a digit up or down on your iPad’s screen to increase or decrease, say, exposure or saturation, or use your finger to brush on fixes such as sharpening. You can also apply a bunch of effects, share directly to Facebook or Twitter, and flag your favorites.
Lensbaby Edge 80 Optic
Call it the poor man’s (or woman’s) tilt lens. An 80mm f/2.8 with apertures to f/22, the Edge 80 can be fitted to any of the the Lensbaby bendable bodies (Composer, Muse, etc.) for use on any film or digital SLR. As a flat-field lens, it behaves normally when aimed straight ahead, but depending on tilt, it can dramatically decrease or increase apparent depth of field.
Canon EOS Rebel T4i
That’s right—it’s The Best Rebel Ever! We keep trying to retire that headline, but Canon just won’t let us. This latest Best Ever, the T4i, wowed us with Excellent overall Image Quality, noise kept to acceptable levels through ISO 12,800—quite a feat—and fast, sensitive AF. For moviemakers, this Reb gives you virtually the same video capabilities as Canon's EOS 5D Mark III, including stereo mic input with audio levels adjustable in the camera. Plus a trick the 5D doesn’t have: Hybrid AF, using phase-detection points on the sensor, that provides smooth continuous AF during video shooting. We wonder what they’ll do with the T5i.
$842, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 EF-S IS II lens/
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4
The latest Lightroom may put your copy of Photoshop in cold storage. It adds Curves adjustments—in RAW—and more targeted fixes, such as one for selective white balance. New RAW processing recovers more shadow and highlight detail than ever before. For printing, it allows soft proofing.
Nikon 24–85mm F/3.5–4.5 AF-S VR
An affordable alternative to the pricey, fast 24–70mm f/2.8G, this full-framer proved a sharp shooter in our lab tests (see page 100 for the full report), although distortion was a little higher than we’d like. Nikon’s stalwart Vibration Reduction II has automatic tripod detection, and, in this lens, can provide VR optimized specifically for video.
This superfast portable RAID drive is for serious shooters who can’t risk losing their images while on the road. It uses both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connectors, and even comes with its own Thunderbolt cable. It can hold four hot-swappable 2.5-inch drives, plus an SSD (in its own slot on the bottom)to help speed up your data.
$649, street, drives not included.
Litepanels Croma Shoe-Mount LED light
Let’s face it: Most LED panels are utilitarian-looking, if not outright ugly. The Croma bucks the trend with its Jetsons styling. This shoe-mounter (via built-in ballhead) provides light with continuously variable color temps of 3200–5600K, and can be powered by 6 AA batteries or AC current. It’s relatively dim, though, so stay close to your subject.
_ $584, street.
Bugged by that edge distortion (anamorphosis) at the sides of your wide-angle photos? DxO’s new software uses its lens know-how to fix that, as well as keystoning and tilted horizons, recropping as needed and showing you side-by-side before and after versions. Works as a standalone or a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
When we named the first-generation 5D our Camera of the Year in 2005, we had more than an inkling that this first “affordable” full-frame DSLR would prove a workhorse for both pros and amateur enthusiasts. With the Mark III, the 5D becomes the workhorse that acts like a thoroughbred. The newest version speeds up to 6 fps bursts (from the 3.9 fps of the Mark II), quadruples ISO sensitivity to 102,400 (from 25,600), and speeds up autofocus considerably from that of its predecessor. Its noise control is awesome: It was rated Low in our lab tests at ISO 12,800, and was still acceptable at ISO 25,600. Video capture is exceptional, and the fit, finish, and sealing of the solid body cannot be faulted.
$3,459, street, body only.
For all those photographers who have pined for an interchangeable-lens digital camera with classic lines and traditional dial-and-ring controls (and who aren’t quite ready to drop $7,000 or so for an M-series Leica), may we please present the X-Pro1? Its classic looks combine with technological showstoppers, such as the hybrid viewfinder that can switch from an EVF to a bright-frame optical finder with full information overlays. The 16.3MP APS-C-size sensor delivered 2400 lines of resolution, just shy of an Excellent rating. (We’re anticipating Fujifilm making refinements to the sensor, which uses a unique pixel array and foregoes a low-pass filter.) Exposure controls are utterly and delightfully logical.
$1,699, street, body only.
With the highest resolution we’ve yet tested in a DSLR (more than 3500 lines), uncompressed HD video out, and a well-designed, customizable control system, the 36.3MP D800 sets the performance bar for prosumer DSLRs several notches higher. And we’re glad Nikon wasn’t embarrassed to put an “amateur” pop-up flash on the D800—it lets you control multiple TTL flash units wirelessly. Big pixel counts, though, make for big file sizes (you’ll need more card and backup storage), and smaller pixels mean images noise up more at high ISOs than in competitive models.
$3,000, street, body only.
Lastolight Brolly grip
Yep, this is exactly what it looks like: an umbrella handle with a flash shoe and a socket for an umbrella shaft. A tad silly, perhaps, but it lets an unassisted photographer handhold an umbrella for on-the-run portrait or product-shot illumination. For the weak of wrist, there’s a standard lightstand socket in its base. The kit includes a 20-inch shoot-through umbrella.
Panasonic Lumix GX1
The sole rangefinder-style Micro Four Thirds ILC to garner an Excellent image quality rating to date, the GX1 also wooed us with its user-friendly personality. Panasonic’s touchscreen and touch controls could convert even confirmed touchscreen haters. The unconverted will happily make do with the GX1’s many-buttoned, logical exterior controls. Images get noisy at ISO 1600 and above, and the body lacks an eye-level finder, although you can opt for a shoe-mount EVF.
$469, body only.
Novoflex VR System Slant Tripod Head
Designed for the most efficient production of 360-degree spherical panoramas with a 180-degree fisheye lens, this head tilts the camera and lens at 60 degrees so that the the sensor’s diagonal length is deployed vertically. This lets you capture a full-field 360-degree virtual-tour view in as few as three overlapping exposures.
_ $427, street.
This year it was Nikon’s turn to stretch the term “entry-level” the length of the continental divide. A whopping 24.2 megapixels produced the highest resolution we’ve seen yet in a sub-$1,000 camera. The D3200 held noise to acceptable levels through ISO 1600, and showed Excellent color accuracy. Video capture is a full 1920x1080p30, and burst shooting is 4 fps—pretty good for this class. Controls are annoyingly menu-centric, and there’s only one command wheel, but at this price, it’s hard to complain.
$697, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6G AF-S Nikkor VR lens.
The K-30 is a worthy heir to the Pentax tradition of tough but user-friendly SLRs. The 16MP camera is loaded with weather seals typical of more expensive bodies, has a glass pentaprism rather than a pentamirror, and an impressive-for-its-class 6 fps burst rate. Not to mention Excellent tested image quality, and compatibility with the literally millions of K-mount lenses sold since 1975.
$847, street, body only.
PocketWizard Plus III
Another product that dominates its market becase it’s the best out there. The Plus III can operate either as a transmitter or receiver, automatically assuming either role depending on how the remote unit is set. The new version mounts sideways for a thinner profile that’s less likely to block your view, and has 32 channels and four zones that let you turn flashes on or off from the camera. The backlit LCD panel is easy to navigate and read, and the antenna is housed internally, so it can’t snag on anything.
Sony 16–55mm f/2.8 DT SSM
While we love 18–55mm kit lenses for the optical quality they provide for the price, they are slow, feel plasticky, and focus noisily. However this beautiful 16-55mm, designed for Sony APS-C bodies (it is a 24–75mm equivalent), has a fast f/2.8 constant aperture, lovely metal construction, and very strong optical performance with the exception of a little more distortion at 16mm than we’d like. Manual focus is smooth and precise, and autofocus on bodies such as the Alpha 77 body is virtually silent.
Really Right Stuff WPF-QR2 Flash Bracket
With DSLR video gaining in popularity, photographers are looking to attach more and more stuff to their cameras. This RRS flat-folding bracket can be tricked out with various accessory extensions to hold a mic, LED light, audio recorder, and off-camera LCD screen—simultaneously. Oh, it can hold a flash, too.
_ $240, direct.
Samsung 85mm F/1.4
With its Excellent SQF scores, virtually nonexistent distortion, and no—repeat, no—light falloff at any aperture, this superfast tele ranks as the most awesome optic Samsung has yet produced for its NX series of ILCs, and may help draw serious shooters to the marque. It’s big, heavy, and expensive, but that comes with the territory for super optics like this.
Sigma 180mm f/2.8 apo Macro EX DG OS HSM
When we wrote up the test report for this massive 180mm macro lens, we griped that it was big, heavy, and expensive. We also said it was well worth the bulk, weight, and cost. Its excellent optical performance across all criteria—it actually performs even better when focusing in the macro range—and superb weather-sealed construction should have serious nature shooters lining up to buy this lens.
Sony Alpha 99
It’s getting to be almost de rigueur for Sony to change the technology landscape. This time, it created the first full-frame DSLR using a fixed transmissive mirror. And that’s not the 24MP Alpha 99’s only innovation: Its Dual Hybrid AF system uses phase detection and contrast detection on the image sensor for almost scary-fast AF and tracking during video and live view. A range-limiter system lets you restrict AF to a settable fore-and-aft depth. And an array of fancy video accessories—including a hot-shoe mount mic with symmetrical stereo inputs—boosts the 1920x1080p60 video capability to near-pro levels.
$2,798, street, body only.
No wall to bounce your flash off of? Or the wall that’s there is some weird color? Bring your own wall with you with this lightweight bracket arm that mounts to your camera’s tripod socket and holds bounce reflectors of various colors and spectral qualities. Only one reflector is included, though. Boo! Still, this is a neat gadget.
_ $134, street.
Tamron 24 –70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD
This a lens that “couldn’t be done,” a 24–70mm f/2.8 constant-aperture zoom with image stabilization. But Tamron did it, and so, despite some optical flaws, it well deserves a POP Award. The not-so-hots: Visible barrel distortion at 24mm, and persistent light falloff at every aperture at 24mm. But the lens proved sharp throughout the focal length range in our SQF tests, and the VC proved very effective.
Sony XQD Card and Reader
This new standard in memory card format has a spec allowing for much higher throughput than with a standard CF or SD card—which will be beneficial as DSLR video capabilities advance. So far, only the new Nikon D4 supports it, and SanDisk is backing another standard. We shall see.
Reader, $45, street; cards from $130.
Timbuk2 Sleuth backpack
Pop Photo editors are fans of the Timbuk2 Sleuth because it has room for a camera body, a flash, a lens (or two), and a real laptop, not just a tablet. Daypack styling doesn’t advertise that you’re carrying camera gear. Back padding has effective venting, straps are comfortable, zippers are sturdy, and the nylon is splash-resistant. A big camera with a battery grip will be a really tight squeeze, though.
Tokina 17-35mm f/4 AT-X Pro FX
Tokina’s version of the constant-aperture wide-angle zoom carries a price about $150 to $500 less than comparable zooms from camera makers. But that’s not the only reason to commend this full-framer: It put up very solid numbers across all our lab tests—in fact, beating the more expensive optics in several criteria. Fit and finish are excellent, and it has good weather sealing, too.
Carl Zeiss 25mm f/2 Distagon T* ZE
Still photographers owe a great debt to video enthusiasts, for whom companies like the venerable Carl Zeiss make super-quality manual-focus lenses. While videographers will appreciate the silent, smooth, precise focusing action, still shooters will dig the fine optical quality our lab found across all criteria. Both will love the creamy defocus at f/2.
Vanguard Xcenior series shoulder bag
Available in three sizes, even the smallest Xcenior has a laptop sleeve and tripod harness. Plus shock--absorbing feet, a reverse-opening lid for easy access to contents, and a trolley sleeve that zips both top and bottom to become an additional pocket.
_$220–300, street, depending on size.
Wacom Intuos5 tablet
Wacom’s top-of-the-line pro model works with both pen and fingers, so you can alternate between using the pen and multi-finger touch gestures. Available in small, medium, and large sizes, its 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity make it practically essential for fine retouching. You can configure ExpressKeys to minimize use of your computer keyboard for retouching, and a $39 kit will convert it to wireless.
$210 to $434, street, according to size.
LowePro Photo Hatchback 22L AW
With an understated style that won’t scream “camera bag!”, and the security of being able to access your camera gear only from the body-side rear hatch, the superlight LowePro Photo Hatchback 22L AW has a lot of appeal. A zippered pocket on the outside of the bag can hold a magazine, tablet, or plane tickets. You can also remove the padded modular gear carrier from the bottom of the bag to use the Hatchback as a standard daypack. The back and shoulder straps are padded with a light, cushiony foam—separating your body from the bag and allowing air to flow.
Westcott Ice Light
No, it’s not a light saber, but an LED light wand powered by rechargeable battery. At 20 inches long and 1.3 lb., it’s easily handheld for quick localized fill lighting, and can be stand-mounted. It’s daylight-balanced (5300–5400K), fully dimmable, and includes gel clips for color balancing acetate filters. It can work continuously at high power for 60 minutes on one charge. Keep in mind, though, that even at max output, the Ice Light is dim (equivalent to a 150-watt tungsten source), so in most cases, it won’t be suitable as a main light.