What a year for cameras! Popular Photography’s 2008 finalists for our fifth annual Camera of the Year award not only “refine or redefine” photography — some even revolutionize it. Consider that the nominees include two DSLRs that shoot high-definition video, a high-speed camera that fires at a rate once reserved for expensive scientific cameras, and a pocket-sized wonder that debuts an entirely new camera system.
How will we choose the winner? First, the camera must have been through the full battery of Pop Photo Lab tests in calendar year 2008. Impressive specs and fancy features alone won’t cut it — the camera must be a proven performer, both in objective tests and real-world shooting. Second, our editors will carefully deliberate which model comes closest to the Camera of the Year ideal:
The camera that best refined or redefined photography in 2008.
LEADING THE WAY
Refining and redefining photography? Nobody’s done it better than our first four Cameras of the Year. And in retrospect, they seem even more like pathfinders.
When the NIKON D70 won in 2004, we hailed its 3 fps burst rate; now, one finalist shoots 6MP images at 60 fps. In 2005, the CANON EOS 5D brought full-frame shooting below $3,400 (body only); today, two finalists are full-framers at that price or less with a kit lens. The SONY ALPHA 100 took the 2006 prize for its big performance in a three-figure package; now we expect excellent image quality and stabilization (in the body or a kit lens) for a song. Then there’s last year’s champ, the NIKON D300: Standout photos at high ISOs, blazing bursts, 51-zone autofocus — we’re used to that, too. (Well, maybe not that AF system.)
So whoever takes the 2008 crown, chances are its rivals won’t let it rest easy.
CANON EOS 5D MARK II
That loud noise you heard in September was that of jaws dropping at Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II full-frame DSLR. Its 21.1MP CMOS sensor, ISOs to 25,600, and HD video capture at full 1920×1080 resolution are just starters. Upgrades to autofocus, LCD, shutter durability, burst rate, and controls add up to a true supercamera. ($2,700 street, body only; $3,500 with 24-105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens)
CASIO EXILIM PRO EX-F1
How does a camera with an electronic viewfinder and with no interchangeable lenses get to be a Camera of the Year finalist? By doing something no other consumer model does: Shooting full-res 6MP stills at 60 fps, and high-speed video at an astounding 1200 fps. And as an “ordinary” camera, it’s no slouch — it put up Excellent image quality results in our tests. Plus, it captures 1920×1080 HD video at 60 fps with stereo sound. ($950, street)
Not content to update its D80 with 12.3MP capture, faster burst rates, improved AF, and a high-res LCD, Nikon broke new ground by giving the camera video capability — a first for a DSLR. To be precise, 1280×720 HD video at 24 fps with mono sound. And the price is the same as the D80’s on introduction — that’s a deal. ($1,000, street, body only; $1,300 with 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor DX lens)
You may wonder why we nominated the E-420 over the E-520, which sports sensor-based image stabilization. Answer: size. The E-420, the smallest DSLR you can buy, truly redefines a category that tends toward big clunks. With a cute (and sharp) 25mm pancake lens mounted, the camera routinely gets mistaken for a compact. This little mite, though, provides rock-solid imaging performance. ($440, street, body only; $525 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko Digital AF lens)
PANASONIC LUMIX G1
The petite DMC-G1 isn’t just an all-new camera, it’s an all-new system, called Micro Four Thirds. Basically, it’s an electronic viewfinder camera with interchangeable lenses. But unlike current EVFs, the G1 uses a fine-grain finder that provides nearly as lifelike an image as that of an optical finder, and it has a DSLR-sized 12.1MP sensor. The lenses? Tiny, to fit the body. ($800, estimated street, with 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 G Vario lens)
The K20D ably carries on the Pentax tradition of near-pro-level tanks at modest prices. The thoroughly gasketed, stainless-steel chassis K20D has heavy-duty imaging, too, by way of its 14.6MP CMOS sensor. It put up Excellent image quality results up to ISO 1600 in our tests. Built-in anti-shake? Of course. And you can correct color and convert RAW files in the camera. ($1,000, street, body only; $1,115 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Pentax DA lens)
SONY ALPHA 900
They said it couldn’t be done, so Sony went ahead and did it — built a DSLR with a monster 24.6MP full-frame sensor and sensor-shift image stabilization. The current megapixel champ among DSLRs, the A900 put up stratospheric resolution numbers in our lab tests. Dual processors let you crank out those big pictures at 5 fps; a big, bright prism finder lets you compose them with 100-percent accuracy. ($3,000, street, body only)