My pick for the Innovation of the Year in 2016 goes to Panasonic, for the GX8's viewfinder.
The quality of a car's steering (bear with me here) is the major determinant of the character of any particular car. (Best steering in my limited experience, going only by memory: 1975–85 Peugeot 604. Second best, my former 2001 NB Mazda Miata.) In a similar way, one of the biggest influences on a camera's character—its gestalt, the feel of the experience of using it—is its viewfinder.
I love camera viewfinders. There's not a big explanation or a tortured rationale following this; I just love camera viewfinders. They have always made a big difference to my buying decisions and always been a major determinant of how much I enjoy using various cameras.
I love to see, you see, and the VF is how you see with a camera. A VF can be anything from a crude and approximate pointing device to a beautiful way of engaging more intimately with the visual world.
I've used all sorts of viewfinders over many years, from a fine fresnel intensifier on a view camera groundglass, to the Albada viewfinder on various Pentax 645's, to a simple wire frame on a Graflex Crown Graphic press camera and various unadorned tunnel finders, to tiny simple prisms attached to antique folders, to the laterally reversed groundglass images on TLRs, to some lovely Leica and Zeiss clip-on OVFs for rangefinders (and rangefinder camera VFs too, naturally), to, of course, many different SLR finders on cameras big and small. So much so that I became something of a savant of various viewfinder properties for a while. Some of my favorites over the years include the Contax RTSIII, the Olympus OM-4T, and the original Sony A900...not to mention the neat swiveling viewing screens on the early Nikon Coolpix 950 and Sony F-707.
A few abbreviations:
VF = viewfinder
OVF = optical viewfinder
EVF = electronic viewfinder
Those refer to the eye-level or eyepiece finders. The little monitor on the back of your camera (as I once got in trouble for pointing out to David Pogue) is called the viewing screen.
It wasn't until the Fuji X-T1 that my allegiances finally tilted over to the eye-level EVF. Not that I think EVFs are better at everything in all cases, just that the balance of advantages and drawbacks finally shifted subtly in the EVF's direction. I decided that, with the X-T1, I appreciated the EVF's strengths more than I missed the OVF's strengths.
And of course I've used a variety of cameras that had hinged or tilting viewfinders like the GX8's too, including the clip-on EVF of the quirky Ricoh GXR (which led to my discovery that I like tilting VFs), to the one on the Panasonic GX7, which I owned.
Of everything I've ever owned or seen, though, the GX8's viewfinder is among the best implementations ever. The team that worked on it did an outstanding job. It's not as flat-out amazing and wonderfully different as the dual OVF/EVF on the Fuji X100[x] and X-Pro1 and X-Pro2 (I've used the X-Pro1 and X100S, thanks to Art E. and Ken T.), but I enjoy using it even more than those.
Visually and in terms of optical size, the GX8 VF is even a little bit better than the X-T1's, and the X-T1's is outstanding too. The tilting GX8 EVF is well masked so that you can block out extraneous light, has good eye relief, is adjustable, and the tilting feature is wonderful, allowing for great flexibility and, with the finder at about 45°, a camera-holding position that I find very comfortable.
Of course, the GX8 is marred by having a flip-out viewing screen, which is more of a video feature, rather than the easier-to-use flip-up screen such as the X-T1 has.
Can't have everything.
Okay, okay...TOP doesn't actually give out an "innovation of the year" award. But the GX8 eye-level finder is the coolest camera feature I experienced in 2016, anyway, and it deserves all the praise I can heap on it. I truly hope this feature survives to make its way into future Panasonic cameras.
Kudos to Panasonic, and keep it up.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
D Evans6: "I completely agree. I love my GX8, and keep the viewing screen closed most of the time. Otherwise, being left-eyed, I would be continually smudging it with my nose."
Dave_lumb: "Flip-up screens are fine when using the camera horizontally, but hopeless when using it vertically. In that instance flip-out screens definitely have the edge."
Henry Richardson: "The Minolta Dimage 7i I bought in 2002 had a tilting EVF too. I sure liked that feature. You can see a photo of it here."
s.wolters (partial comment): "I did not try it yet, but the best innovation of 2016 seems to me the improvement of the stabilization on the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Five seconds handheld exposures!"