Ten Tools That Reshaped Photography In 2012

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In a year marked by the arrival of full-frame, top-of-the-line super DSLRs with loads of goodies for professional still and video shooters alike, Sony pulled a September surprise. The new Alpha 99 finally brings Sony’s light-passing mirror technology (the company calls it “translucent”) to a full-frame DSLR, for a smaller and lighter body, blazing bursts of 10 frames per second and true autofocus in video. The latter depends on a pair of AF systems—a fairly standard 19-point phase-detection array and a revolutionary focal-plane array with 102 phase-detection points combined with contrast detection from the CMOS sensor. A range of other video capabilities and accessories, especially for audio, make the A99 especially attractive for motion-picture shooters. And its new 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, the same size as a 35mm frame of film, and latest-generation processor promise improved imaging. Sony, astonishingly, put both of these into two other new cameras at the same time: a Handycam camcorder (NEX-VG900) and a Cyber-shot compact (DSC-RX1), bringing the glories of full frame to photographers who don’t have pro-level budgets. $2,800 for the body only, sonystyle.com
Let us be the first to admit it: On the surface, the Nikon Coolpix S800c is a rather unremarkable camera. But with this unassuming 16-megapixel point-and-shoot, Nikon has made sharing photos easier than it’s ever been. Last year, electronics makers began (seemingly indiscriminately) to add Wi-Fi radios to their devices. Cameras were no exception: “Now you can upload photos to Facebook from your camera!” Except, not really. The interfaces were so unintuitive that they weren’t worth the trouble. Nikon took a different tack, installing the most popular smartphone operating system, Google Android, on the Wi-Fi-enabled S800c, giving photographers access to all the familiar tools—Instagram, Adobe Photoshop Express—in the Google Play app store. Now they can shoot, edit and share right from the camera’s 3.5-inch OLED touchscreen. $350, nikonusa.com
Young cineastes may not remember that Nikon was the first camera maker to offer video capture with a DSLR—the D90, way back in the antediluvian age (OK, 2008). How far Nikon has come since then! A 16.2-megapixel, professional-caliber, full-frame imaging machine, the D4 boasts video capabilities that have put its maker back on the map. It is one of the first DSLRs to output an uncompressed feed, allowing videographers to stream gorgeous live footage directly to an HDTV or, more important, an external recorder. Traditional still photographers have plenty to love, too: Burst shooting up to 11 frames per second, stellar image quality and sensitivity all the way out to ISO 204,800 will have you shooting in near-dark (albeit with enough noise to make you wonder if you should), a weather-sealed camera body and rugged build. The D4 also sports a few innovative features, including an Ethernet port that allows the camera to be tethered easily to a computer or other electronic accessories. And it is the first camera to adopt the fledgling XQD memory card format (see page 50). All together, this Nikon makes one serious and versatile tool for serious and versatile photographers. $6,000 (body only) nikonusa.com
Professional sports shooters, photojournalists, wildlife photographers, studio portraitists, videographers: Is there a DSLR-shooting pro that Canon isn’t gunning for with its top-of-the-line EOS-1D X? And this camera offers something for all of them: astonishingly fast bursts of up to 14 frames per second, an all-weather body and a 400,000-cycle shutter that are built to last, autofocus tracking that locks onto even the most unpredictably moving subjects, easy-on-the-hands ergonomics, outstanding high-definition video footage. Like its rival the Nikon D4, it has an Ethernet port for tethering in a studio. Plus, as results from the test lab of our sister publication, Popular Photography, prove, the quality of its imaging is truly excellent: It matches, almost exactly, the performance of the D4 on just about every point—resolution, color accuracy, noise. The Canon’s RAW images are a little cleaner at ISO 204,800; the Nikon’s autofocus is a little faster in low light. Professional photographers who use either system have never had it so good—at least as far as gear is concerned. $6,800 (body only), usa.canon.com
Everyone who saw it went gaga over last year’s Fujifilm X100, whose viewfinder switches seamlessly from an optical bright-frame finder to a full-coverage electronic viewfinder. But this year’s X-Pro1 tops it by combining a similarly luscious finder with interchangeable lenses and a 16.3-megapixel APS-C-size sensor. Unabashedly mimicking the look and feel of Leica M rangefinders, the X-Pro1 enhances the optical viewfinder experience with full information readouts (including histogram) superimposed on the frame. Flip to the EVF and you might not miss the direct optical view, given the clarity and fine grain of this LCD. Fujifilm’s major innovation in the X-Pro1, though, is its X-Trans imaging sensor, which eliminates a low-pass filter and forgoes the traditional Bayer pattern for a more randomized sensor array. While imaging proves sharp, we think there is room for improvement in this technology. But the shooting experience with the X-Pro1 (dials! knobs! rings!) is, in a word, sweet. $1,700 (body only), fujifilmusa.com
No one expects to get really good images out of a mobile phone. Shots decent enough to post quickly online, sure, but that’s about it. So we’re not about to tell anyone to toss your point-and-shoot for a phone—especially in low light. But the Nokia 808 PureView signals a change to that rule. Using a technique known as pixel oversampling, the PureView optics engine—which includes a mechanical shutter and Carl Ziess lens—combines pixel data from its 41-megapixel sensor into some of the clearest 3-, 5- or 8-megapixel cameraphone images we’ve seen. Frustratingly, those powerful optics are strapped to a subpar phone, running Nokia’s now-defunct Symbian operating system. It’s our hope that the PureView engine will turn up on other phones in the future. $700 ($580 without memory card), nokia.com
If ever there were a perfect flavor of zoom lens, the 24–70mm f/2.8 would be it. Wide enough to accommodate a crowd at one end and long enough to frame a classically composed portrait at the other, with a bright maximum aperture for low light and shallow depth of field, it’s no wonder that the fast 24–70 has long enjoyed most-favored-zoom status among professional photographers (especially wedding shooters) and serious amateurs alike. Now Tamron has improved on the classic by adding its Vibration Compensation system to its full-frame 24–70mm f/2.8 lens in mounts for Canon and Nikon DSLRs. (This updated lens also comes in a Sony Alpha mount, but without the VC, since Sony bodies sport sensor-based image stabilization systems.) No other full-frame lens of this focal range and speed offers this incredibly useful feature, which lets photographers shoot without a tripod or other support in lower light. Under strict standardized conditions in the Popular Photography Test Lab, the Tamron repeatedly gave a three-stop advantage in handholding with VC engaged. In practical terms, this means that if a typical photographer could shoot an ordinary zoom handheld at a shutter speed no slower than 1/60 second to get a sharp image, with this lens the same photographer could forgo a tripod down to 1/8 sec. That’s a big advantage for anyone shooting in available light. Another advantage? The Tamron costs about $1,000 less than pro-quality optics without stabilization from other makers. $1,300, tamron-usa.com
It’s not every day that we have to explain what a picture is. Ever since Lytro debuted its Light-Field Camera late last year, however, we find ourselves doing so rather often. With each shutter click, the Lytro, an oddly shaped spyglass of a camera, captures every focal distance from 3.5 inches to infinity. Then you—or your friends, if you upload the entire 12 megabytes of so-called “light-field” data to the Web—can select the focus point. Behind the Lytro’s primary 8X zoom lens sits an array of micro-lenses that fracture each shot into thousands of discrete light paths, which software then recombines to compose the final image. It’s an awesome trick, for certain, but like so many wildly new ideas, it’ll take some getting used to. From $400, lytro.com
At this point, only one camera, the Nikon D4, carries a slot formatted for XQD memory cards. And although Lexar has announced that it will release them before 2012 is out, for now Sony is the only company to make memory cards in this new format. Despite its distinct lack of ubiquity, the smaller, speedier XQD seems poised to succeed CompactFlash as a memory format for professional-level DSLRs. Sony’s H-series, the first XQD card available, boasts a top data-transfer speed of 125 megabytes per second; the company rates its new S-series at a mindblowing 168MB/sec. That may be faster than even the speediest camera can keep up with, but for photographers with more images than patience, the thought of spending less time transfering files from card to computer seems mighty appealing. As more competitors enter the market, you can expect to see still better performance, higher card capacity and lower prices. We can’t wait. From $130, sonystyle.com

All photos by Sam Kaplan.