Introduction: In acknowledgment of the old adage "different strokes for different folks," I invited a number of our 2009 contributors to make their own picks for the Camera of the Year. Several of our regulars demurred (Ctein and Carl say they don't keep up with the camera market, and Eamon's been sick—get well soon, EH), but the following people responded. I didn't tell anyone what to pick or what to write; I just let the chips fall where they may. What follows is what we came up with. —Mike the Ed.
Vlatko Juric-Kokic (a.k.a. Erlik): The Olympus E-P2
During the last couple of years or so I have become more and more interested in...well, not in street photography as such, but in having a camera with me as often as possible. I started by carrying my DSLR with me. That was fun for the first several times. Afterwards, it became cumbersome. I was delighted when Olympus introduced what was then the smallest DSLR, the E-400, but, somehow, it didn't click. The successors were nice but the same thing happened. The Olympus E-620 was much more to my liking and I was sorry to return it after playing with it for a while.
And then, Micro 4/3 appeared. But the first time I saw and handled the Panasonic G1, I immediately bounced off it—I didn't like its DSLR styling a bit. Furthermore, it's a small camera and I cannot hold it properly with its DSLR-like grip. Okay, not for me—let's move on. The Olympus E-P1 was a different matter. I like the styling a lot and, as a longtime Olympus user, I am familiar with the logic behind the menus and adjustments. My initial dislike for its lack of a viewfinder turned into acceptance. The E-P1 was enough of a camera for me to carry around. Still, E-P1 is not the camera of the year for me. No.
Habit is a curious thing. Ever since my (brief) film days long ago, I have been in love with viewfinders, with an ability to see what you'll get without the distractions from which the LCD on the back of a camera suffers. E-P1, however useful and usable as a carry-around camera, doesn't have a viewfinder. But its successor, the Olympus E-P2, does, and a very good viewfinder at that.
The viewfinder wouldn't be enough for me to like the E-P2. I like the fact I can carry it around without problems. I also like the fact that it doesn't become the center of attention and even less a cause for consternation in people in the street like big black DSLRs often are. On the other hand, I also like the fact that you can put almost any lens ever produced on the E-P2, should the occasion need it: from the big 4/3 tele-lenses to tiny cine primes. While the way it behaves is closer to compacts than to fast DSLRs, with proper adjustments and camera handling it becomes almost transparent in your hands. That's why the Olympus E-P2 is the Camera of the Year for me.
John Camp: The Panasonic GH1
My candidate for camera of the year 2009 is the Panasonic GH1, introduced in March 2009, the second camera of the Panasonic Micro 4/3 system. The GH1 is more expensive than the G1, introduced in 2008, and is essentially identical physically—the only changes are those necessary to implement video.
The GH1 is my candidate for two reasons: the quality of the camera itself and its functionality, and the uses to which I put cameras.
My photographic background has been in photojournalism, and some scholarly work in archaeology. I value ruggedness, light weight, emulsion or sensor speed, flexibility, and a final product that produces slightly better quality than newspapers, scholarly magazines, or mass-market magazines really need. I don't need super-quality prints or files. An emphasis on getting something, rather than on perfection, involves trade-offs. If the quality level I need, on a scale of 1 to 10, is a 6, and a Nikon D3x is a 9+, and the Panasonic is a 7, I take the Panasonic—because it's half the weight and has all the quality I can use.
Cost is also an issue: I have more faith in a good camera with several backups than a superb camera with no backups.
In Iraq, two years ago, I took a Nikon D3 with four lenses, a laptop, and a satellite phone. I also carried a helmet, thirty pounds of body armor, water and munchies. I was only there for a month, but by the time I left I would have killed for a GH1 system.
The GH1 actually has more functionality than the D3, though the high-ISO quality is not as good. It has what I find to be an extremely useful flexible LCD; a decent built-in viewfinder; decent lenses; and very light weight. It has video, with continuous autofocus with its kit lens.
Full-frame DSLRs are now literally as big and heavy as some of the Speed Graphic cameras that were displaced by Leicas in the forties and fifties, and I think the DSLRs will be displaced by Micro 4/3-like systems for the same reasons, having to do with "good enough" quality and ease of use.
Thom Hogan, on his website, has recently listed sale volumes for cameras last year. In the interchangeable-lens category, Panasonic had suddenly jumped to third place, behind Canon and Nikon, taking 8.5% of the interchangeable lens market in the year and a half since its first model appeared.
I think they are the cameras of the future for many working photographers.
Ken Tanaka: The Leica M9
Casting an indisputable nomination for "Camera of the Year" is a fool’s errand. We’re being drenched in a monsoon of fabulous cameras.
That caveat aside, however, I must nominate the Leica M9 as Camera of the Year for 2009.
The M9 finally delivers the "digital M" that enthusiasts have dreamt of for many years. While Leica’s first digital rangefinder, the M8, satisfied part of that dream in 2006, it always seemed like more of a proof-of-concept than a final product. It was a good prototype but was obviously rushed to market and suffered from design and manufacturing deficiencies. Leica eventually remedied many of these issues when it introduced the M8.2 two years later. But as good as the M8.2 was, it was still version 0.9 of the digital M.
On September 9, 2009 (09/09/09), amidst great fanfare, Leica introduced the the M9, definitely the 1.0 version of the digital M. The M9 is an excellent embodiment of the product concept featuring meaningful advancements beyond the M8.2, he most significant of which is the camera's new full-frame sensor. Finally all those glorious M lenses can produce their designed focal length coverages on a digital camera!
But the quality of the M9 is only part of the motivation behind my choice. Every M9 actually represents a trophy won by Leica's engineers after many battles against the "can’t" mentality of it managements. It wasn't long ago that Leica's management (du jour) proclaimed that a digital rangefinder couldn't be made. After Epson's R-D1 proved that false (2004) and Leica introduced the M8 in 2006, the next management team moaned that they couldn't make a full-frame rangefinder, and that such cameras would always require external infrared filters. Having since jettisoned that management, the Leica engineers persevered to ultimately overcome both of those final "can't" barriers to deliver today's excellent M9.
Certainly the M9's limited functional range and high price will always restrict its appeal. But it's truly a marvelous picture-taking machine that represents tremendous long-odds accomplishments by the devoted core of a small German camera company shouldering a heavy heritage. If that doesn't merit recognition today I don't know what does.
Gordon Lewis: The Pentax K-x
I was fortunate enough to attend the press reception in New York where Pentax announced the launch of the K-x. To be honest, I was only moderately impressed. I doubted that the idea of red, white or blue camera bodies would catch on. The specs looked nice, but what about image quality? It felt pretty good in my hands, but it was no K-7. To my mind the only people who would be interested would be folks stepping up from a point-and-shoot or an older film camera. For this audience the price was right: around $650 with a darned good 18–55mm kit zoom.
Apparently the product managers at Pentax were smarter than I thought. The K-x has been selling like hotcakes—red, white, blue or black hotcakes at that. If you combine all four variations you discover that the K-x has become one of Amazon's top sellers in the DSLR category. And why not? Camera reviewers have been uniformly positive about its image quality and low-light abilities. Some Pentax owners have even gone so far as to suggest that Pentax should introduce a revised K-7 with a K-x sensor. Combine all this with the fact that Pentax K-x kits with a body, 18–55mm zoom, and 50–200mm zoom are now selling for $639 at B&H Photo, and you understand why the K-x is a solid contender for Camera of the Year. It put Pentax back in the game and gave it name recognition among the people where it matters most: the young and the uninitiated; the photographers who could not care less about Pentax's history, but who may very well help Pentax make history.
Jenna B., age 13. An excellent student athlete, her school's colors are red and black
Geoff Wittig: The Panasonic GF1
Camera of the year? To me it seems fairly obvious. Sure, the Nikon D3x pushed the envelope with best-yet resolution and image quality. The Canon 7D brought pro-caliber frame rates and build quality to the enthusiast D-SLR. The Nikon D3S goes further than ever into high ISO "available darkness." But these cameras merely offer a little more of what we already had.
The Panasonic GF1 is a different kind of camera altogether, one that changes the game. It provides 95% of what most DSLR users will ever need, in a far smaller and more compact package.
Smart commentators and writers have been opining for several years now that digital technology offers the possibility of starting from a clean sheet of paper, escaping the design staightjacket imposed by the traditional pentaprism/ pentamirror layout. This appears to be the first camera to fully exploit the opportunity.
I shoot almost exclusively with a Canon "1" series DSLR and a bunch of L lenses; but I'm sorely tempted to pick up a GF1 and a couple of tiny lenses to have with me all the time. "The best camera is the one you have with you"; and for most things, this tiny interchangeable-lens model is good enough.
Mike Johnston: The Sony A850
I know some people will find my choice curious, given that I recently bought a Panasonic GF1. So first let me say that no, I'm not disappointed with my GF1!
I've been using a Sony A850 for about a month now, courtesy of B&H Photo. When B&H approached me and asked if I'd like to test any camera they had in stock—which effectively means just about any new camera that exists—I didn't need any time to decide.
The Sony A850 should be thought of as a medium-format digital camera in a conventional SLR form-factor body. It's perfectly adequate as an all-around SLR, but there's one area in which it excels. Above, I'm holding a 20 x 30" test print made from one of my A900 test shots by Ctein on his wide-format printer (bigger than I can make at home). I think the quality is about what I might expect from a 35mm color negative enlarged to 6x9". Ctein says he thinks it looks better than a 20x30 print from 6x7 cm film. I just can't see a 30"-wide print needing to look better, for almost any conceivable application. This is where the A900 and its cheaper brother, the A850, really come into their own. If you want or need to make really big prints, even occasionally, and you don't want to spend a fortune for the capability, then this is the axe for you.
I love using this camera, which feels well-sorted, well-balanced, and well set up to me. The body-integral IS and the generous viewfinder are the camera's best physical features; the lack of lenses in the lineup the most serious problem. (Just make sure you can get the lenses you need before buying.) The latter is counterbalanced by the A850's impressive affordability. For $2,000, you can't buy a camera from anyone that will do what this one will. It's the Camera of the Year in my eyes.
Edward Taylor: The Panasonic GF1
My vote for Camera of the Year 2009 goes to the Panasonic GF1. This camera represents a new format that supports small size and interchangeable lenses. Because of its relatively large sensor, it produces high quality images. The GF1 is also a responsive camera with good ergonomics, quick focusing and almost no shutter lag. The combination of decent high ISO performance and a very nice ƒ/1.7 lens allows for low light photography. It also has a built-in flash and an optional viewfinder. The way the camera handles is what sets it apart from the other large-sensor compacts. I have cameras that are quicker and produce better images than the GF1, including a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 1Ds Mark III, but most of my photos are taken with the GF1, which I always have with me. I no longer feel that the small size of my carry-around camera compromises my images to any significant degree. The GF1 could be improved with an articulating viewfinder, in-body image stabilization, 1080P video and a few other things, but it is my favorite camera just the way it is.
Oren Grad: The Fujifilm GF670 / Voigtlaender Bessa III
It feels a little silly to herald the Voigtländer Bessa III as the best new film camera of 2009. Aside from toy cameras or custom-made view cameras based on well-established designs, I can’t think of another. "Best one of one!" sounds more like parody than praise.
And, truth be told, this Cosina-built camera isn’t especially innovative either. Folding roll-film cameras were ubiquitous through the middle of the last century. But there have been modern incarnations as well, in the Fuji GS645 and the Plaubel Makina 6x7 cameras of the 1970s and '80s. Arguably the Mamiya 6 deserves a mention too, because its collapsing lens mount made it handy to stow in small cases designed for 35mm SLRs.
But groundbreaking or not, the GF670 / Bessa III is a really nice camera. Despite the folding design, it has all the modern conveniences you'd expect in a late-model AE rangefinder camera save for a wind lever (it's knob-only) and a self-timer. The camera weighs only 1000g, which is lightweight for the format and less than a mid-range DSLR with a small prime lens. Format can be changed between 6x6 and 6x7 cm, with a film-plane mask and parallax-compensating finder frames that auto-switch to match the format selection. The 80mm focal length of the fixed lens is well chosen, too—it's dead normal for 6x6 and a handy semi-wide for 6x7.
As always with folding cameras, handling may or may not be your cup of tea. The folding mechanism requires a bit of care, and some users will find that there's not quite enough room for the right-hand grip with the sideways-opening bed folded out. As if in compensation, though, early user reports point to three great strengths: the lens is first-rate; the combined viewfinder/rangefinder is wonderfully bright and crisp; and the electronically-controlled leaf shutter is virtually silent. And although the GF670 is not cheap, it's still comparatively a good value—its street price of around $2250 in the US and ¥218,000 in Japan is actually considerably less than that of its only real competitor, the Mamiya 7II with 80mm lens.
Put it all together and you’ve got something worth celebrating—a class-unto-itself Camera of the Year.
Post Clarification by Mike: Seems there might be a little confusion about this post. This is not the "TOP Ten Cameras" list, which last year was a countdown (with #2 left blank) and which this year I've been procrastinating hard on. This is the "Camera of the Year" post, which last year was just one camera. Different species of post, although perhaps those are the kinds of distinctions that matter more to those who put the posts together than to the those who read them. Sorry for any inadvertent mild confusion.
Cat Clarification by Bob the father of Jenna: Seems a few readers are onto the cat photo not being the exact photo as seen in my shot of Jenna in action—which is true. As a clarification, Jenna's cat photo was from the cat photo session. Jenna followed the cat around the house for a long time taking countless shots. Regardless of the exact ear position the shot demonstrates that the K-x is an excellent camera in the hands of a 13-year-old in her first week of shooting with a DSLR. By the way, the cat is not drugged. The cat’s name is Pudgie. He always looks like that and never runs from people. Pudgie can open a bread box and eat a loaf of bread if not properly supervised.