Cameras of the Year: Best Compact, Fixed-lens and Unique Cameras of 2015
posted Friday, December 11, 2015 at 2:59 PM EDT
The Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards
Best Compact, Fixed-lens and Unique Cameras of 2015
The compact camera market might not be what it once was thanks to the rise of the camera phone, but 2015 nevertheless brought us some very capable new fixed-lens models. It also brought with it some very interesting, specialized cameras, and today we look at both of these in the second installment of our annual Camera of the Year awards. (If you've not seen the first installment, you'll find our awards for the Best Lenses of 2015 here.)
Starting off with the fixed-lens cameras, we have awards in a few different segments. Long-zoom and rugged cameras continue to offer significant advantages over your smartphone, and so these niches continue to receive a good bit of love from the manufacturers. This year, we singled out the Nikon P900 long-zoom and Olympus TG-4 rugged cameras for particular praise.
And of course, sensor size is another tool with which the compact camera can continue to offer a compelling advantage over the smartphone, so our Best Premium Compact Camera award returns with the excellent Sony RX100 IV taking top honors. But while we couldn't bring ourselves to call it "compact" -- this is a coat-pocket model rather than a pants-pocket one -- perhaps the most exciting for our money was the Sony RX1R II, a full-frame enthusiast fixed-lens model pairing superb image quality and cutting-edge tech. What a combination!
And that just leaves the niche models: We're also offering an award for the most unique camera of 2015. Here, there was some debate amongst the team. Some of us argued for the interesting Olympus AIR, a camera whose open philosophy makes it well suited to hackers and creators, but whose design philosophy shows some similarities to Sony's QX1 lens-style camera from last year. In the end, though, Ricoh prevailed with its amazingly fun Ricoh Theta S, a one-click spherical panorama shooter that can now capture high-definition spherical panoramic video. Again, it's not unique per se compared to its predecessors from past years, but a far-reaching redesign and the fact that it creates images which put you right back in the moment like no other camera from 2015 can saw it take the top prize in this category.
Without any further ado, let's get to the awards themselves!
In 2014, the Nikon P600 won our Best Superzoom 2014 in a major shootout we performed of the eight best cameras in the class at that time. The P600, and subsequent P610, were already the farthest zooming fixed lens cameras made, reaching out to an impressive 1440mm reach in 35mm equivalent terms. In March of 2015 we were therefore astonished to hear that our friends at Nikon had produced the P900, which leapfrogged the whole field and went to a whopping 2000mm equivalent reach!
Our lab test and field test results from this camera confirmed that the quality within matches the quantity of impressive zoom range: outstanding for the price. The P900's lens is quite sharp, and the onboard vibration reduction system works very well, which is a must for shooting at such long reaches. And while there were a few trade-offs like not being able to record RAW files, we’ve yet to meet a camera that doesn’t have at least a few drawbacks. In fact, the only major issue with the Nikon P900 has been Nikon’s inability to meet demand this year!
For anyone needing stellar zoom reach in a fixed lens camera that can deliver quality images for wildlife shooting and other similar subjects, the Nikon P900 is in a class by itself. All told, this camera is simply a tremendous value.
The rugged camera is a favorite of adventurous vacationers and Olympus' TG-4 is perhaps the best option out there. While the TG-4 has a largely similar body to the TG-3, Olympus saw fit to add some genuinely useful features. Our favorites were the focus stacking mode, live compose feature and in-camera panorama stitching. The capabilities each of these features provides add up to a genuinely unique photographic tool with no match in the rugged camera market.
Here are a few examples for how the TG-4 helps create new photographic opportunities from a rugged camera: See a neat flower petal on a hike? Use the extremely close minimum focus distance of the 'microscope' mode, the light guide accessory and focus stacking features to take a perfectly focused and beautifully lit macro shot. Take a panorama at the top of your hike. Then wait for the stars to come out so you can use the focus-stacking mode to capture the star trails.
No question about it: Since the Sony RX100-series launched back in mid-2012 with the RX100, it has redefined what a pocket-friendly camera can be. The Sony RX100 IV continues that trend, retaining much the same body and lens as its predecessor, but it now sports a noticeably sharper, clearer popup viewfinder. It's also faster than ever, capable of shooting up to 16 frames per second.
Perhaps the coolest new features of the Sony RX100 IV can be found in the video department, though. For one thing, you can now shoot ultra high-definition 4K video clips completely in-camera. Even more impressively, you can now capture extreme slow-motion video at rates up to 40x, letting the RX100 IV go beyond most other compact cameras. Its predecessors are a hard act to follow, but the Sony RX100 IV is without doubt an even more spectacular camera than ever!
If you take your street photography seriously, Sony's RX1 and RX1R cameras have long been the standard-bearers for what was possible in a compact, lightweight body. Pairing exceptional image quality from a full-frame image sensor and a tack-sharp and extremely bright Carl Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 T* lens, the duo provided two excellent options for street shooters, but there was a fly in the ointment: Unless your pockets (and wallet) were very deep indeed, you had to choose between the pair, making a decision at purchase time to opt either for maximum per-pixel resolution or resistance to moiré.
The Sony RX1R II changes all that, consolidating two separate products into a single camera with even more astounding resolution than either of its predecessors. And when it comes time to make the tradeoff between resolution or moiré resistance, you can do so with a couple of button presses thanks to a groundbreaking variable low-pass filter function found in no other camera on the market. Add in a swift Fast Hybrid AF system, an excellent popup viewfinder and a tilting LCD monitor in a body that's still coat-pocket friendly, and there's no question that the reinvented Sony RX1R II is the year's best fixed-lens enthusiast camera!
When the time came to pick the most unique camera of 2015, the Ricoh Theta S very quickly came to the fore. Sure, we've seen superficially-similar designs in past Ricoh Theta cameras, but the Theta S is a major update, and it deserves to be considered in its own right. Just a glance at the Ricoh Theta S is enough to tell you that it's a very unusual camera, with twin fisheye lenses protruding from either side of its slim body, whose minimal user interface elements -- there's not even an LCD display -- hint at a camera designed primarily to be controlled from your phone instead.
The duo of lenses allow the Theta S to capture an almost-complete 360-by-360 degree spherical panorama with a single press of the shutter button. And those photos are much, much better than ever before, thanks to a completely overhauled imaging pipeline. Nor is that all: For the first time the Theta S boasts a truly usable spherical panoramic video mode, too. The camera's unique design does mean you'll have to learn a whole new way to approach your photography, but that turns out to be a surprisingly fun and involving process. And there's a major reward for your efforts waiting in the wings: Those spherical panoramas will put you right back in the moment in a way that a flat still image just can't. We had a whole lot of fun shooting with the Ricoh Theta S, and we're confident that you will, too!
Part ultra-portable interchangeable lens camera and part hacker-friendly DIY camera, the Olympus AIR A01 is one unique device. Similar to the basic concept of other smartphone-connected "lens-style" cameras, such as the Sony QX1, the AIR A01 is basically a camera stripped down to the bare minimum -- it's essentially a fully-functional 16MP Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera minus the display and most physical controls, relying on built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to operate wirelessly. At its core are the guts of the (excellent) Olympus E-M10, packed into a cylinder not much wider than the lens mount, and only 1.7 inches deep.
What makes this camera even more unique compared to anything that’s gone before it is the open platform approach from Olympus. The camera is not fully open-source, but an extensive SDK (Software Development Kit) and 3D design specs are available for free, allowing coders to write smartphone apps and DIY-ers to build mounts, cases, and any number of other accessories to build out a customized "system." Altogether, this is totally new approach to making a camera, and one we had a blast using.
Buy the Air A01 body Only (White): Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Buy the Air A01 body Only (Black): Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Buy the Air A01 kit with 14-42mm Lens (White): Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Buy the Air A01 kit with 14-42mm Lens (Black): Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Follow the rest of the awards!
Best Compact, Fixed-lens and Unique Cameras of 2015 (current page)