Cameras of the Year Finale: New Technologies and Best Overall of 2015
posted Monday, December 21, 2015 at 3:00 PM EDT
The Imaging Resource Camera of the Year Awards
Printers, New Technologies and Best Overall of 2015
If you’ve been following our Camera of the Year awards for the past few weeks you will have witnessed the recognition of an array of cameras and lenses that rose above the crowd. Now, we're ready to crown our "Best Overall" champion for 2015, as well as recognize a few more cameras that rose above their respective categories this year.
In addition you'll find our choices for Best Technologies of 2015. And for the first time, we're adding a category for "Best Printer": These are great tools to transform your digital work to printed art. Be sure to follow our links below for more information on each of the products and take a look at the previous 4 articles in our camera of the year series!
Back in late 2013, Sony reinvented what a full-frame camera could be with the A7R, winner of our Camera of the Year award thanks to razor-sharp medium-format resolution in the smallest full-frame camera body on the market. This year, it followed up with the Sony A7R II, and once again it's a triumph: The successor model also takes home our coveted Overall Achievement award retaining the best of its predecessor while bringing some very significant achievements in other areas.
Like its predecessor, the Sony A7R II is a groundbreaking camera, and redefines what is possible in a full-frame mirrorless camera body. For the first time in an "R"-series A7 body, there's phase-detection autofocus. Jam-packed with no less than 399 focus points covering most of the image frame, the A7R II provides swift, accurate autofocus lock and capable tracking, even with adapted Alpha-mount or third-party lenses. And courtesy of backside-illumination technology, the A7R II provides sufficiently good noise characteristics to allow handheld shooting under typical city street lighting, even with its higher resolution of 42.4 megapixels.
But perhaps most impressive of all, the A7R II is also now capable of 4K video capture completely in-camera, using the entire width of the image frame. And all of this comes wrapped in an impressively compact yet configurable body, which now sports noticeably better ergonomics than its predecessor. In a nutshell, the Sony A7R II is a truly spectacular camera that gives demanding photographers incredible capabilities while significantly lightening the load in their camera bags.
The E-M5 II sports an improved exterior design as well as a beefed-up AF system, faster performance and better image stabilization. Perhaps the highlight feature of the Mark II is the impressive High Res Shot mode, which combines a multi-shot burst that precisely shifts the sensor to create massive 40 megapixel JPEG or 64 megapixel RAW images. The feature sounded too good to be true, but the results were simply amazing, with a shocking amount of fine detail for a 16-megapixel sensor. There are limitations, sure, but it's pretty darn cool.
Taking the top award as our Best Enthusiast Mirrorless Camera of 2015, it's no surprise -- given how thoroughly impressed we were -- that the Olympus E-M5 Mark II gets a big nod of distinction for Overall Achievement as one of the best cameras of 2015. The E-M5 II is a deserving follow-up to the E-M5 that first put the OM-D family on the map.
Overall, the Olympus E-M5 II takes what we loved about the E-M5 and polishes it to perfection. Combined with the ever-growing lineup of fantastic Olympus lenses, the E-M5 Mark II is a top-notch system camera for the enthusiast photographer.
Already the winner of our Best Intermediate DSLR award for 2015, the Nikon D5500 takes a victory lap here with a coveted Camera of Distinction award in our "Best Overall" category. The D5500 offers an exceptional combination of excellent image quality, terrific high ISO performance, quick-footed shooting and great ergonomics. Mix in a gorgeous touch-screen display and host of amenities, and the D5500 is a fantastic bargain at the body-only street price of $699. The D5500's affordability and approachability make it a great way to get "serious" if stepping up from the limits of smartphone or digicam photography, but its excellent image quality and rich feature set make it a great choice as a second body for owners of higher-end Nikon models.
The D5500 is also positively tiny for a DSLR! The D5500 is even smaller than Nikon’s entry-level D3300, yet it packs significantly more features into its slight frame.
Bottom line, we give our wholehearted seal of approval to the Nikon D5500!
Buy the Nikon D5500 body only in red: Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Buy the Nikon D5500 with the 18-55mm lens in black: Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Buy the Nikon D5500 with the 18-140mm lens in black: Amazon | Adorama | B&H Photo
Our technology of the year winner for 2015 is Sony's innovative electronically-variable low-pass filter, as implemented in the Sony RX1R Mark II.
The trade-off between sharpness and aliasing artifacts has been a bugaboo for digital cameras from the beginning. It's an inescapable, mathematical fact that you will get aliasing artifacts (the dreaded moiré patterns) in a digital image, unless you somehow limit the frequency content of the image before it reaches the sensor. The problem, of course, is that "properly" filtered images look soft and lack crispness.
Camera makers have for years gradually weakened low-pass filters, with many eliminating them completely in recent models. The resulting images are indeed sharper-looking, but some subjects will produce horrible moiré patterns that are nearly impossible to get rid of in post-processing.
Ricoh/Pentax won Technology of Distinction in 2013 for their selectable anti-aliasing technology, using microscopic sensor movements to simulate the effect of a low-pass filter. It’s a truly innovative approach, but imposes a limit on maximum shutter speed.
This year, Sony Corporation introduced true electronically-variable optical low-pass filtering, as implemented in their new RX1R Mark II compact fixed-lens full-frame camera.
Sony combined liquid crystal technology with conventional low-pass filter elements to permit low-pass filtration to be turned on or off or set somewhere in between at will. The RX1R II employs a seven-layer stack of birefringent material, LCDs and wave plates to accomplish the feat. While this complexity brings a cost premium, there’s no reason why this tech can't spread across Sony's Alpha-series lineup over time.
The RX1R II’s variable low-pass feature worked flawlessly in both lab-based and real-world tests, producing true variable optical low-pass filtering, with no limitations. This is finally the solution to the low-pass filter dilemma. Now you can switch between low-pass filtering or maximum sharpness as your subject demands. Even better, the RX1R II can automatically bracket shots with the low-pass filter on and off. Bottom line, with the RX1R II, you never need to worry about moiré spoiling a shot again.
Recognizing their truly out of the box thinking and innovation, Sony's electronically variable low-pass filtration system wins our prize for Technology of the Year, 2015.
Technologies of Distinction: Enhanced Resolution through Pixel-Shifting
The idea of using multiple exposures and microscopic image sensor shifts to increase resolution has been around forever; we recall a system using the technique, marketed by Kontron back in 1993. And the feature is included in microscopes from Jenoptik and Leica, though these have little relevance to most photographers. Meanwhile the Hasselblad H5D-50c MS and H5D-200c MS introduced in 2014 include this feature, but at astronomically high prices: $36,000 and $45,000, respectively.
Now, though, two companies are bringing the technology down to realistic budget levels. While they've applied the technology in slightly different ways, both produced dramatic increases in resolution and reduced color artifacts.
The potential for this technology has existed since the introduction of in-body sensor-shift image stabilization systems several years ago, but it wasn't until 2015 that sensor stabilization systems became sufficiently precise to permit this application. Here's how Olympus and Ricoh-Pentax have employed the technology to bring affordable ultra-resolution to the enthusiast camera market:
In their OM-D E-M5 Mark II, Olympus refined their sensor-shift IS technology to provide rapid, precise, sub-pixel movements, and used that ability to quickly capture 8 successive images, with the sensor shifted in half-pixel increments between them. These shots can be combined into a single 40-megapixel JPEG file inside the camera, or saved as a 64-megapixel RAW file, all from a 16 megapixel sensor.
We’ve tested the E-M5 II’s 40-megapixel mode, and the results are very impressive. While medium-format cameras with high resolution sensors will still win on the resolution front, the level of detail the E-M5 II can deliver in its 40 megapixel mode with a good lens (and Olympus makes many such) is truly impressive. When you consider the price point, it’s a tough act to follow.
Ricoh-Pentax took a slightly different tack in their K-3 Mark II SLR, using four successive 1-pixel shifted images to stack up complete RGB data for each sensor pixel. The resulting image is the same 24.3 megapixel resolution as the camera's sensor, but the increase in effective resolution is very apparent, and color moiré and other color-striping artifacts are completely eliminated.
Straight from the camera, the K-3 II's pixel-shift resolution mode shots are stunning in their detail, completely surpassing what you'd expect from a 24-megapixel image. When you consider that this level of image quality is available in a camera selling for $729, body-only, it’s flat-out amazing.
Canon's new 17"-wide desktop inkjet printer, the imagePROGRAF PRO-1000, impressed us greatly. With new features such as a two-way vacuum feeder to ensure flat media and accurate ink placement, an 11-color LUCIA PRO pigment-based ink set, and a 50% larger print head than previous Canon printers, the PRO-1000 efficiently delivers excellent print quality. For photographers who are "equally obsessed" with their prints and their digital files, the PRO-1000 represents a very good value. It also marks the beginning of a new series of imagePROGRAF printers for Canon, which are adorned with Canon's signature red line across the front.
In our time with the PRO-1000, we found it to print images on both photo and matte papers with very deep blacks and vibrant colors. The two-way vacuum feeder and newly formulated inks work together to produce prints with a color gamut 19% wider than prints from the PIXMA PRO-1 printer. Ink is distributed evenly and fine details are rendered very well. The new Photo Black ink and the Matte Black inks each have their own dedicated nozzles, so you can freely print on any media without the need to switch inks.
We can't wait to see what Canon has up their sleeve next, although the PRO-1000 is a tough act to follow. The Canon PRO-1000 is an excellent step in a new direction for Canon printers and its numerous features and very good print quality make it this year's best new printer.
Buy the Canon PRO-1000: B&H Photo
It's never easy to replace a beloved and popular printer such as the Epson Stylus Pro 3800-series, but Epson took the challenge head on with their follow-up, the Epson SureColor P800 desktop printer. The world's most compact 17"-desktop photo printer packs a lot of features into its small footprint.
And for the first time in Epson's history, they created an entirely new ink set and these new inks deliver great results. We found the P800 to produce sharp, vibrant prints with improved black levels compared to the 3800-series. In addition to better print quality, the P800 comes packed with new features and options, such as improved connectivity and more versatile media handling (with the optional roll media adapter, you can make massive panoramic prints). It may be an evolutionary step for Epson, but when you're building on what was already a great printer, the numerous improvements make the P800 deserving of our printer of distinction award.
Buy the Epson SureColor P800: B&H Photo
Follow the rest of the awards!
Printers, New Technologies and Best Overall of 2015 (current page)