The Best Gear Of The Year

In the course of a year, we look at a lot of gear. Cameras, lenses, strobes, bags, tripods—you name it, at some point we have our hands on it.

It’s incredible how great photographic equipment is these days—there are very few subpar products on the market. Partially, this is due to the maturity of the camera market—a lot of the dominant players have been building gear and honing it since at least the 1960s. They, and the many companies that have sprung up to fill needs in the digital era, have really paid attention to customers more than any other time in the history of photography.

Every year, we like to look back at the products we’ve evaluated and shine a spotlight on a few that got our attention for our “Best Of” list. These products hit the mark, delivering great features and great performance.

CAMERAS


Sony a7S II

Built around a 35mm full-frame, 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor and housed in a strong, but lightweight magnesium-alloy body, the Sony a7S II, the latest iteration in the Alpha line, features 5-axis image stabilization, 1200-zone evaluative metering, speedy hybrid AF and 5 fps shooting with predictive autofocus and accurate follow-along auto exposure. The short flange-back distance of the E-mount enables a broad assortment of compatible lenses directly or via adapters. It features a high-contrast, high-resolution XGA OLED viewfinder and a tilting LCD screen that rotates upward 107º and downward 41º to facilitate flexible composition angles. It’s also WiFi-compatible. Videographers take note: The a7S II can record in the high-bit-rate XAVC S format based on the professional XAVC 4K/HD format in Full HD (1920×1080) 60p and offers enhanced linear PCM sound recording. It also records in MP4 and AVCHD. For still image capture, the camera offers 14-bit RAW and a useful Extra Fine JPEG output at reduced compression. Price: $2,999. store.sony.com


Nikon D810

Featuring a 36.3-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor with no low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter, the D810 uses a 51-point auto-focus system with the Group Area AF mode found on the more expensive D4S. A magnesium-alloy frame provides weather and dust protection, and the shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles. Built-in stereo mics record broadcast-quality audio, with 1080p capture uncompressed to an external device, compressed to an internal CF/SD card or both simultaneously. Add an EXPEED 4 image processor, a 1.2M-dot LCD monitor, ISO to 12,800 (51,200 expanded), 5 fps shooting at full resolution and 14-bit RAW files with optional space-saving 12-bit RAW Small format. The D810A has an optical IR cut filter optimized for astro-photography. Price: $2,799 (D810); $3,799 (D810A). nikonusa.com


Canon EOS 5DS

The EOS 5DS is a category-disruptive, breakthrough camera due to its 50.6-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor. Working in combination with twin DIGIC 6 image signal processors and a new Picture Style called Fine Detail mode, it renders fine edges and patterns or textures more sharply than conventional cameras. The 5DS features a 61-point high-density reticular AF system (41 cross-type AF points), low-pass filter-effect cancelation mode, 3.2-inch LCD monitor, near-100% viewfinder precision, Full HD 1080p video recording at 30 fps, 5 fps continuous shooting, user-selectable shutter release time-lag option and 150K-pixel RGB plus IR metering sensor. The powerful DPP (Digital Photo Professional) software is included. The EOS 5DS R has the low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter disabled for maximum resolution. Price: $3,699 (5DS); $3,899 (5DS R). usa.canon.com


Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GX8

Styled in the image of a high-end rangefinder, the LUMIX DMC-GX8 reigns supreme in the mirrorless MFT category, with a waterproof, dustproof body constructed from magnesium alloy. The big story is video: 4K UHD (3840×2160) with a 30 or 24 fps frame rate at 100 Mbps in MP4, plus Full HD 1080p. Capture 100+ consecutive full-res JPEGs (30 consecutive RAW files) in a single burst, while the high-speed tracking AF system with Depth From Defocus technology calculates the distance between foreground and background, responding in as little as 0.7 seconds. Star Light AF functions accurately in low-light levels down to -4 EV. A 20.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor, large OLED EVF, 3-inch free-angle OLED monitor, image stabilization and WiFi round out the features. Price: $1,199. shop.panasonic.com


Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II

Sony may have created the perfect travel camera. The RX1R II is essentially the a7R II shoehorned into a compact digital body. It features a fixed Carl Zeiss ƒ/2 Sonnar T* lens, which provides a nice field of view, and can be switched into close-focusing mode for details and macros. Inside, the 42.2-megapixel, full-frame BSI sensor gives the RX1R II potent low-light capabilities. Additional features include a 399-point phase-detect AF system, image capture up to 5 fps and a pop-up 2.4M-dot OLED EVF, which complements the 3-inch tiltable LCD. Price: $3,299. store.sony.com

LENSES


Fujifilm Fujinon XF16mm F/1.4 R WR

Fujifilm X-series cameras have legions of loyal fans, and one of the reasons is the assortment of fast primes and high-performance zooms. Joining the prime category this year is the XF16mm ƒ/1.4 R WR. Equivalent to a 24mm in conventional film camera terms, the lens features a water- and dust-resistant design (hence, the WR designation) and a working range down to 15cm (less than 6 inches). The optical formula includes two aspherical and two ED (extra low-dispersion) components in its 13-element, 11-group design. The fast ƒ/1.4 aperture enables creative depth-of-field control and produces magnificent bokeh, especially when used wide open. It’s the perfect match for the Fujifilm X-T1, which is also weather-resistant. Combined, they tip the scales at about 28.5 ounces, much lighter than full-sized DSLR plus 24mm ƒ/1.4 outfits. Price: $999. fujifilmusa.com


Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F/2.8E ED VR

Billed as the successor to the legendary Nikon 24-70mm workhorse, the latest version of this FX (full-frame) zoom adds 4 stops of VR (Vibration Reduction) image stabilization and an electromagnetic diaphragm that’s integrated into the lens design to provide greater exposure control. The fast ƒ/2.8 constant aperture expands creative versatility and the 84º angle of view misses nothing. The optical design features one aspherical extra-low dispersion element, three aspherical, two extra-low dispersion and one high refractive index elements. Fast, quiet autofocus with full manual override is provided by the Silent Wave Motor autofocus mechanism, which is optimized for photographing fast-moving subjects. While compatible with most modern Nikon bodies D
5000 and newer, the electromagnetic diaphragm precludes use with older models, so check Nikon’s website before you buy. Price: $2,399. nikonusa.com


Canon EF 11-24mm F/4L USM

In late spring of 2015, Canon announced a remarkable milestone: production of its 110-millionth EF-series lens for EOS cameras, the EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM. This is symbolic and significant on many levels. It’s the widest zoom lens Canon has ever made, and it’s one of the widest currently available for any full-frame DSLR. The EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM joins the world-renowned stable of Canon L-series lenses as one of the finest members. It boasts a new optical design that features Super UD and UD lenses to correct chromatic aberration, four aspheric lens elements that help minimize distortion, an integrated lens hood and fluorine coating to defeat fingerprints and smudges. Plus, it has a minimum focusing distance of 11 inches (at the 24mm position) for enhanced creative applications. Price: $2,999. usa.canon.com


Lensbaby Velvet 56

Once considered special-effects lenses used for fun only, Lensbaby products have become serious creative tools for professional and enthusiasts everywhere, largely due to their ability to deliver consistent, predictable results. The Lensbaby family continues to grow and now includes everything from circular fisheye optics to single-element, high-flare soft-focus lenses. The manual-focus Velvet 56 performs as the optical equivalent to a 112mm ƒ/1.6 when used on a Micro Four Thirds camera and as a 90mm on a Nikon with an APS-C-sized sensor, for example. Both configurations are ideal for creative portraits. It focuses down to 5 inches and delivers a 1:2 reproduction ratio as a true macro lens. Price: $499. lensbaby.com


Tamron SP 35mm F/1.8 Di VC USD

Tamron set out to redefine its Superior Performance lens line and introduced a fast 35mm ƒ/1.8 fixed-focal-length lens for full-frame DSLRs and the SP 45mm ƒ/1.8 Di VC USD. Touting exceptional performance edge to edge and at all distances, the lenses are tuned for close focus thanks to a Floating System that adjusts the optical configuration to match the focusing distance. The 35mm focuses as close as 7.9 inches. Each is perfect as an everyday lens and is well suited to street shooting thanks to Vibration Compensation image stabilization, fast apertures and quick focusing capability. Lenses purchased in the U.S. have a 6-year limited warranty. SILKYPIX Developer Studio 4.0 software for RAW conversion and post-exposure editing is included. Price: $599 (each). tamron-usa.com

TRIPODS


Gitzo Mountaineer Series Tripods

The Mountaineer series is Gitzo’s most popular line of tripods, and now they have been improved and are stronger than ever. Featuring newly developed Carbon eXact tubes and a refined top spider design, they’re also faster and easier to use. The GK3532-80QD combination weighs a scant 6 pounds, but hoists a payload of 46.3 pounds and extends to a max height of 69 inches. Closed length is 30.5 inches for easy transport. The kit consists of a GT3532 Mountaineer Tripod and a GH3780QD Centre ballhead, and is suitable for professional DSLRs with up to 400mm lenses. The tripod is matched with this center ballhead to assure a high maximum load and is brimming with Gitzo’s unique, proprietary features, including a hollow Bubble Ball, Spring-Assisted Double Lock (SADL) and the new hybrid quick-release system. It comes supplied with a standard Arca-Swiss-style plate and accepts Gitzo C Profile plates. Price: $585 to $1,289. gitzo.us


Manfrotto Befree Carbon Black Tripod

The new Befree carbon-fiber tripod with ballhead, model MKBFRC4-BHZ, is ideal for spontaneous or on-location photo sessions. Its light weight (just 2.4 pounds) and folding length of less than 16 inches make it one of the most compact and portable full-featured tripods around. It features a load capacity of 8.8 pounds and a maximum extended height of 56.7 inches. It comes complete with a quick-release ballhead and QR plate, padded carrying bag and very attractive styling. The Befree Carbon Black is made in Italy by Manfrotto. Price: $349. manfrotto.us

LIGHTING


Fotodiox Pro FlapJack LED Edge Light C-300R Kit

You’re not going to use these to light up St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but for intimate portraits, tabletop and product photography, and small group photos, the cordless portable Pro FlapJack LEDs are a great choice. They operate on long-lasting rechargeable NP-F-style Li-ion cells and are fully adjustable for brightness and color temperature (white balance ranges from a 3200K traditional indoor house light to 5500K daylight, and anything in between). They provide softer illumination because the individual LEDs are located around the outer edge, aimed inward toward diffusion material. They’re also thin (less than a half-inch at the thinnest point), light in weight and easy to manage. The Pro FlapJack LEDs come packed in a functional semi-hard, form-fitted carrying case and are ready to be attached to your light stands. Price: $299. fotodiox.com

Sekonic 478-Series LiteMaster Pro For Elinchrom And Phottix

The story here is good news—the adoption of a common operating standard. Recently, three of the leaders in the lighting category agreed to work in unison to make life easier for photographers everywhere. Included in their joint announcement was the pledge from Sekonic to develop two new 478-series LiteMaster Pro flash meters. One will include in-meter power control for Elinchrom units. The other is for Phottix, and it enables triggering of groups from the meter. Studio photographers are excited by the fact that all three members alluded to exciting collaborative projects that are in the works and on the drawing boards. sekonic.com; elinchrom.com; phottix.com


Flashpoint 9-Foot Auto Stand

The Flashpoint Auto Stand is almost magic. Hold the closed stand vertically and set the bottom on the ground. Presto! The legs open automatically. When it’s time to move, simply lift the stand and the legs automatically retract. This heavy-duty light support is fast—and easier on the back muscles. It even can be set up one-handed. Adjustable from about 3.5 to slightly over 9 feet, the Auto Stand collapses to a 40-inch length for transportation or storage. Equipped with a reversible 5/3-inch stud (1/4-20 over 3/8), the Auto Stand is sturdy
and durable. Price: $79. adorama.com/FPLS9AS.html?kbid=10011

PRINTERS AND PAPER


Epson SureColor P600

A brilliant wide-format photographic printer, the SureColor P600 from Epson delivers exhibition-quality prints. The new SureColor line uses UltraChrome HD inks with three levels of black for smooth gradation and killer black-and-white prints. The SureColor P600 can do borderless 13×19-inch prints with edge-to-edge coverage and can print panoramas up to 10 feet long, with a variety of fine-art and roll papers. Price: $800. epson.com


Moab Juniper Baryta Rag 305

Moab by Legion’s Juniper Baryta Rag 305 is a heavyweight, 100% cotton double-weight paper that gets its brightness from barium sulfate instead of optical brightening agents—which have been thought to lead to image fading. The surface of this rag paper was designed to absorb ink without it bleeding or pooling, resulting in smooth transitions and constant tonal areas across each sheet. Price varies depending on paper size. moabpaper.com


Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 Professional

Canon’s newest printer combines two different product lines (PIXMA and PROGRAF) into a printer that’s the most capable and most advanced the company makes. The 17-inch-wide imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 Professional has a brand-new print head, new inkset and a suction-driven paper-loading system that can be adjusted for different paper thicknesses. The 11-ink printer uses large 80ml cartridges at a low price (around $55 a cartridge) and uses more than two dozen temperature sensors in the print head to reduce the likelihood of clogging. The color gamut and black densities are wide enough to provide brilliant color. Price: $1,299. usa.canon.com


ACCESSORIES


LaCie Rugged RAID Drive

LaCie’s travel drives are known as the go-to choice for portable durability. Added to the line is the Rugged RAID, which provides separate dual internal drives that can be configured in RAID 0 or RAID 1 for reliability or increased storage. Price: $400. lacie.com


Domke Next Generation Journalist Series

Years ago, as the story goes, Jim Domke, a professional newspaper photographer in Philadelphia, created the now famous Domke F2 bag out of necessity. They’re still available—and still in demand—each crafted in the USA from cotton canvas fabric, with YKK zippers and steel snap hooks. Enter the Next Generation Journalist Series. Building on the original’s tradition of quality and commitment to enduring functionality, the new models leverage more modern materials and offer a wider range of colors and styles. The Journalist Series includes the Chronicle, the Herald and the Ledger, and were extensively field-reviewed by professional photographers before introduction. If you’re waiting for your original Domke F2 bag to wear out before ordering a Next Generation bag, forget about it. It may never wear out. Price: $269-$349. tiffen.com/domke


Able Archer Rucksack

Able Archer bags are designed to withstand the constant harsh conditions experienced by photojournalists, yet not broadcast that the bags contain valuable camera gear. The exteriors are a subtle variation on military design, while the insides are packed with high-end features to keep equipment safe. Interior flaps, pouches and a hidden memory card section are optimized to securely store gear, and the military-grade cotton exterior has been treated to keep moisture out. MOLLE connector compatibility allows packs to be added to the exterior and interior of the bags. In addition to the rucksack, this small U.S. startup makes a messenger bag, duffel and more. Price: $350. ablearcher.co


Delkin Black Memory Cards

The Black series of memory cards from Delkin Devices is made in the U.S., and available in SD, microSD and CF formats. All Black cards are ruggedized and virtually unbreakable; the outer cases are made as one solid piece and can survive extreme torture tests. All Black cards are serialized; register them with Delkin, and your name will be on file if you contact Delkin for support. Delkin provides a 48-hour replacement guarantee and replaces damaged cards—no questions asked. In addition to replacing damaged cards quickly, Delkin attempts to recover all data free of charge. Price varies depending on capacity. delkin.com

COMPUTING


Apple iPad Pro

Apple had photographers in mind when they designed the iPad Pro, it seems. At just 6.9mm thin and 1.57 pounds, it’s the ultimate in portability, and offers a huge 12.9-inch Retina display and Multi-Touch technology. Built around the new A9X processor, the iPad has evolved into a serious image-editing tool. Its capabilities are further enhanced when used with the Apple Pencil. It also features improved front- and rear-facing cameras, connects quickly to WiFi and cellular networks, and supports a wide range of LTE bands. Price: Starts at $799. apple.com


Apple MacBook Pro

Available in 13- and 15-inch configurations, the MacBook Pro offers a wide array of options and features that have long characterized Apple’s approach to the portable professional market. Processors range in power up to the 2.8 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.0 GHz) with a 6 MB shared L3 cache. Either size can be outfitted with up to 16 GB of 1600 MHz DDR3L onboard memory and up to 1 TB Flash storage. The 13-inch model weighs less than 3.5 pounds, and the 15-inch is about one pound heavier. Price: Starts at $1,299. apple.com


HP Z840 Minitower Workstation

Those who prefer PCs to Macs will find the HP Z840 workstation both powerful and reliable. Equipped with an 8-core, 2.4 GHz Intel Xeon processor and 16 GB of 2133 MHz DDR4 ECC Registered RAM, this model comes standard with a 1 TB 7200 rpm SATA hard drive, NVIDIA Quadro K4200 graphics card with 4 GB of RAM, SuperMulti DVD burner, dual-gigabit Ethernet ports, eight USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports, keyboard and mouse. Price: $3,499. store.hp.com

SOFTWARE


Adobe Photoshop CC (2015)

Regardless of how you feel about subscription-based software applications, nothing beats Photoshop in the image-editing arena. And the latest version, Photoshop CC (2015), is the best ever and enjoys rich enhancements and new features. For example, Healing Brush results can be observed in real time, and Spot Healing Brush and Patch Tool results are up to 120 times faster than they were in CS6, thanks to Mercury Graphics Engine enhancements. Adobe Camera Raw also has been beefed up. It’s now possible to remove (or add) atmospheric haze, for instance. Creative Cloud subscribers can choose between allowing the automatic update feature to keep them in synch with everything new or applying updates manually. You even can roll back to an earlier version for compatibility reasons—or for any reason at all. Price: $9.99/month (Photography Plan). adobe.com


Alien Skin Exposure 7

Alien Skin software has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence in popularity over the past few years, thanks to powerful applications like Snap Art 4 and especially Exposure 7. Used as a standalone or as a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop, Exposure 7 empowers photographers to apply the look and feel of analog film to their images, as well as other creative effects, with highly detailed and richly accurate precision. More than 470 preset effects, which include the nuances of gone-but-not-forgotten discontinued films like Kodachrome, TRI-X and Fujichrome Velvia, can be explored quickly and easily. Alien Skin engineers carefully analyzed the characteristic tonal ranges and grain structures of these legacy films in order to capture their individual, unique natures faithfully. Additionally, Exposure 7 integrates both color and black-and-white processing without changing applications. Price: $149. alienskin.com


Google Nik Collection Analog Efex Pro 2

The Google Nik Collection continues to improve and make new fans everywhere. Analog Efex Pro, companion to the long popular Color Efex Pro, offers 10 Tool Combinations (Classic Camera, Black and White, Color Cast, Motion, Wet Plate, Subtle Bokeh, Double Exposure, Toy Camera, Vintage Camera and Multilens). Each can be combined, and other dynamics, including Dirt & Scratches, Film Type, Light Leaks and Frames, can be applied, with the end result being a nearly infinite assortment of possible permutations. You can start with a canned modification and then tweak setting after setting to give it just exactly the look you’re after. If you were an earlier registered user of Nik software and the older software is still on your machine, you can upgrade to the new software at no charge. Price: $149. google.com/nikcollection


Adobe Lightroom For iOS

Lightroom on your iPad, part of your subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan, allows you to edit smartphone snaps or perform extensive manipulations to RAW images from DSLRs—it’s that versatile. Similar to the computer version, Lightroom for iOS includes easy-to-apply presets, as well as advanced comprehensive adjustment tools. A virtual portable digital darkroom, you can view and organize images and share them across mobile devices, desktops and the web, and post online via social networks or in Lightroom web galleries. Price: $9.99/month (included with Creative Cloud Photography Plan). adobe.com

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