In 2015 we watched pixel counts skyrocket. Camera sensor technology began to provide even better low-light shooting than we thought possible. And the way that we use cameras evolved as we become ever more connected by social media. Right now is a high point for imaging: The tools we use for capture are getting more powerful at the exact same moment that the ability to share and use those images has exploded.
When we look back across the cameras that we have assessed in the Popular Photography Test Lab and in the field in the past 12 months, we can see how each of these picture-making machines have contributed to imaging’s evolution—and it becomes clear which stand out from the rest. But we won’t be crowning 2015’s Camera of the Year—the model that best refined or redefined photography—in these pages yet. Here’s a look at the finalists, along with the ways they played a part in some of the big ideas we’ve seen this year. Which camera do you think deserves to win?
Every time a camera maker significantly raises the number of pixels its cameras can shoot, we hear people scream: “They’ve gone too far!” With its EOS 5Ds and EOS 5Ds R, for example, Canon has pushed the limit of the full-frame 35mm format to a whopping 50.6MP. And that’s only the beginning: At Canon Expo this year, the company showed off a prototype of a 120MP DSLR and a demo of the capabilities of a 250MP APS-H-sized sensor. But with the bump in megapixels we also continue to see increased real-world resolving power in our lab tests, and more detail in the images shot in our field tests. With so much progress clearly being made, it’s hard for us to cry foul.
All these pixels produce very large image files. That means longer processing times and fewer images on your hard drive. Computers keep becoming more powerful, but how many of us want to replace our computer every time we get a new camera? And do we really need that many pixels if we’re not going to make huge prints?
At Pop Photo, we still tend to say: Yes. Bring on the pixels. If you’re printing an image file from the EOS 5Ds that is set to 240dpi, you’ll get a print that’s just over 36x24 inches. Granted, you can make large prints at a lower dpi count assuming that the viewing distance will be greater. But if you want to be able to have people approach the print relatively closely, 240dpi is nice. Now consider that cropping is something that many photographers tend to do before considering an image finished. If you were to crop 25 percent away from both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of one of the 5Ds’s images, you’d end up with a 240dpi print size of just over 27x18 inches. While that’s still a big print, it’s not, by any stretch, absurdly large.
And that’s just thinking in terms of current print technology. Televisions in the U.S. are starting the transition over to 4K from the current standard of HD—and 8K is on its way. If you want to fill an 8K display, you’ll need more pixels than that aforementioned 25 percent crop would leave behind. The future of imaging will involve more and more pixels.
Canon isn’t the only company pushing pixels. Sony’s Alpha 7R II comes in at close second with its full-frame 42.4MP sensor. That’s the most you’ll find in any ILC. And, the 20.3MP Panasonic GX8 broke the 16MP barrier for the Micro Four Thirds system. Meanwhile, Samsung’s NX1 remains the pixel count ruler of the APS-C world with its 28MP sensor.
The Rise of Backside Illumination
When it was introduced in late 2014, the NX1 was the first APS-C-sized backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor in a consumer camera, and it was the largest BSI sensor you could get in a camera. That, along with plenty of processing power, UHS-3 memory card compatibility, and some changes in the materials used for the circuitry, helps Samsung’s flagship camera deliver dazzling image quality at up to 15 frames per second with full autofocus and metering between frames.
What’s so special about a BSI sensor? In this type of chip, circuitry is placed on the back side of the sensor so that the front side can be used for larger—or more—photodiodes to capture more light. The freed-up space also allows for “gapless” pixels where microlenses atop the pixel wells direct the light that would have otherwise landed between pixels into a photodiode. The result? Less light is lost. Making these is a complicated and delicate process that involves shaving down silicon chips so that they can be sandwiched together. The larger the sensor, the more delicate the process becomes.
Samsung didn’t hold the title of largest BSI sensor for long. Not even a year later, Sony announced the A7R II. That camera boasts the world’s first full-frame 35mm BSI chip. The advantages that come along with that imager helped Sony’s pixel-laden ILC achieve impressive low-light performance and cement its place among the best cameras we’ve seen this year.
The DxO One also uses a BSI sensor—in this case a 20.2MP 1-inch version. Small enough to carry with you anywhere, the One attaches to an iPhone and provides better low-light performance and more control over exposure than Apple’s smartphone camera alone allows. By using a BSI sensor, DxO was able to maximize image quality and offer a compelling case for adding a camera to a phone that already has one built in.
While it may sound trite to talk about the fact that images are becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, it’s undeniably true. The DxO One highlights this quite clearly. Just the fact that a company felt compelled to create a camera like the One shows that picture making has become so ingrained in our lives that iPhone shooters want to find ways to stand out from the rest of the smartphone-shooting pack. The drive to be the person with the best image, posted first, has become a badge of honor—and not just among those who consider themselves photographers. For others, being the only one to get a decent picture at a party, and being able to share it immediately, means everything.
That last part is really where the DxO One shines. Since it attaches to your iPhone’s Lightning port, the images can be pushed to your camera roll just as fast as an image shot with the phone itself. Plus, you can use the images as you would if you were shooting with the built-in camera. The experience is seamless and smooth, and its controls are intuitive and flexible. Better still, the DxO One will continue to evolve as firmware updates and updates to the iPhone app roll out.
You can’t say that the experience of connecting your phone to your camera through Wi-Fi is as simple and seamless as the DxO One experience, but it remains an excellent way to share your images shortly after they’ve been captured. All of the 2015 Camera of the Year contenders, except for the Canon 5Ds, have built-in Wi-Fi. The Canon lets you add it, along with high-speed Ethernet, through its WFT-E7A ($770, street) wireless file transmitter or add wireless alone through an EyeFi card ($67, street,16GB). More and more we’ve seen SLR bodies, outside of high-end pro models, with Wi-Fi built-in. Even die hard RAW shooters like me have been known to share JPEGs before going home to perfect the image later. I was able to send the image in the LCD of the Sony A7S II of my friend running the New York City Marathon to her smartphone before she even crossed the finish line.
This is the new normal. And we’re sharing images that have more detail than ever before and can be captured in situations that used to be impossible to capture photographically. These are developments that not only impact photography but also the ways that we interact with each other—and the world.
To be the first to know which of these cameras is Popular Photography’s Camera of the Year for 2015, go to PopPhoto.com/CoTY2015 or follow us on Twitter @PopPhoto on January 5.