1. Pentax K10D (APS-C sensor DSLR). Pretty much the camera with the mostest at the moment for the serious amateur and artist. Solid performance in the 10-megapixel DSLR class, a viewfinder to rival the D80/D200's, in-the-body Shake Reduction (I've almost lost track of what everyone calls theirs—image stabilization, essentially), not too terribly big or small, weatherproof, and very favorably priced—and it's got peerless lens compatibility, which is just plain fun. You can get modern AF zooms, a decent selection of independent-maker optics, tiny pancake AF primes, or you can mount manual-focus lenses going all the way back (with the proper adapter) to M42 screwmount, for heaven's sake. And the functionality means that, unlike the case so often is, these now-ancient lenses are actually easy to use. For real pictures. Overall, a package you can't beat with a stick.
2. Nikon D80 (APS-C DSLR). Nikon has been on a roll with human engineering for a number of years now. Phil Askey's words about the D2h stick in my mind—"perfectly sorted." Just so. The D80 really feels right—a sort of baby-bear camera—the size, weight, shape, shutter feel, control placement, gripping surface—everything—is perfectly sorted. Not a perfect camera, of course—what is?—but it gets the gestalt right. Plus, kudos for excellent operating speed and responsiveness, and a great viewfinder. We really like the Nikon D200 as well (and are looking forward to the D300).
3. Canon 5D ("full-frame" [24x36mm] DSLR). In the race to produce the pro camera with the mostest that does things the fastest, cameramakers seem to have forgotten—or at least shunted off to one side, for the present—the fact that a great many photographers just want the best possible results for their money, state-of-the-art speed not required. For many photographers, the 5D comes the closest to filling this bill. Size- and handling-wise it is solidly in the "x0D"-series camp, but it sports a junior version of the 1Ds's full-frame sensor, with a very generous number of pixels (the better for making large prints with, m'dear), for a price that can be stretched to for many, if they're dedicated enough. Although not the best or the most in any single category, the 5D provides exactly what many art and landscape photographers most need. Canon's bread-and-butter mid-level DSLR, the Canon 40D, is a solid buy too.
4. Zeiss Ikon ZI (35mm film rangefinder). A brilliant new camera that is in essence an improved Leica. Although missing the Leica's redoubtable Teutonic solidity and the panache of Leica's continuous heritage, the Zeiss Ikon is based on the Leica rangefinder and great care and thought was put into its design by people who were intimately familiar with the experience of shooting with Leicas. The improvements are several and logical, and, when considered alongside the advantageous price and weight, make the ZI the rangefinder of choice for users not already wedded to Leica—although, since it has the same lensmount and takes the same lenses, it could well appeal to those folks as well. The result is a camera that's ideal in terms of all of its various balancing acts, that has just the right feel, and that comes out being much more than the sum of its parts. It's just a pleasure to shoot with. (We remain fans of the Leica M7 too.)
5. Canon SD870 IS Digital ELPH (digital point-and-shoot). To be honest, we're not big fans of little cameras, but many other people are. If you want a genuine carry-anywhere shirt-pocket camera the image quality of which will best most any camera phone, you face a formidable shopping challenge: not only is it tough to choose one overall, it's tough to choose one within each brand, there are so many. Our current pick is the newest Canon ELPH, the SD870, which bests the Fuji FinePix F31fd—just—because it has real image stabilization. (The Fuji's a little better at high ISOs for low light, but it has fake IS.) The SD870 is 8 MP (plenty), has a 3.8X zoom (a bit too much, but the lens is decently fast at the short end of the focal-length range) and costs $365. (Who wants to spend more on a shirt-pocket p&s?) By the bye, If you're eager to have the best image quality out of a p&s, follow these five tips: 1. Choose one ISO speed higher than the camera's lowest; 2. Set the focal-length of the lens to a setting that's a little longer than its widest; 3. Set an aperture that's one or two smaller than its largest; 4. Set the Image Quality to the highest setting (Superfine for this Canon); and 5. Shoot when and where there's plenty of light but avoiding high-contrast situations.
6. Phase One P45+ ("medium-format" digital back). All of the major camera review sites save one (The Luminous Landscape) treat "medium-format" digital backs as if they don't exist. They're never mentioned, much less reviewed. Given the constant disputation (and worse) on many forums about the ultimate in digital image quality, this is strange. Let's make no bones about it: the very best image quality is attainable only with dedicated medium format backs. There are several of them, some being proprietary to specific cameramakers and some adaptable to any one of several cameras. I'm not familiar personally with any, because they're priced a wee bit out of my reach. The one under discussion here, for instance, costs as much as two new economy cars—not including the camera and lenses. I've chosen this one because it's the one Michael Reichmann uses, and it's a close cousin to the one Charlie Cramer uses. We can argue about which "full-frame" or smaller DSLR offers the ultimate in digital image quality all day and all night, but the answer is very clear: none of 'em do.
7. Olympus E-510 (4/3rds DSLR). This super-small DSLR is about the opposite of the Pentax where lenses are concerned—it uses the new 4/3rds series lenses, and there are still large gaps in those lines. But this is the smallest, lightest camera that has built-in shake reduction, a feature yr. hmbl. writer completely digs. In fact, it’s the most feature-laden of the amateur DSLRs, with a workable (though not perfect) live-view and a sensor that shakes off dust like the original E-1 did, among other things. Its very small, narrow viewfinder may be forgivable in light of its portability and light weight, and the new sensor solves the longtime Olympus problem of less-than-stellar performance at high ISOs. Photographers who are using E-510s are loving them.
8. Fuji S5 (APS-C sensor DSLR). Not a good general recommendation because of somewhat compromised speed performance in many areas, as well as a high pricetag, where the S5 really scores is with its results. It’s unique Fuji-designed sensor (in a modified Nikon D200 body) allows for high dynamic range and very accurate color, and this makes it the #1 choice for the most numerous type of professionals and semi professionals, namely, wedding and portrait photographers. We also suspect it’s the best choice for black-and-white, because it has the potential to yield the best highlight gradation of any DSLR. Users have to jump through a few hoops to get the best out of it, but when you do you’re rewarded with the best skin tones that you can get out of a DSLR. And the added dynamic range in the highlights is just the thing for those all-important wedding dresses!
9. Nikon F6 (35mm film SLR). In every era of technology there are wonderful products that come along just after shifts in the market push them out of the mainstream. Olympus built some of the best lenses ever made for SLRs in the mid to late '80s, just after autofocus cameras (and autofocus lenses) had all but taken over the market, and, for an example outside of photography, I think of all the great turntables and cartridges that have been introduced since the dawn of the era of the CD—it's quite possible that the all-in-one Clearaudio Performance, a high-value, mid-priced turntable, arm, and cartridge package, surpasses almost everything money could buy in 1982. So it must be said that the era of the professional film SLR is over. Yet if that era is bracketed on the front end by the Nikon F, how fitting that it have as its coda the Nikon F6—a top-market camera that the top manufacturer of SLRs for the entire era put all of its skill and technological know-how into. Hardly surprisingly, it's a really very special camera that feels great in the hand and will do anything asked of it. A few cameras might do film in a different style, but none do it better.
10. Canon EOS 1D Mk. III (APS-H DSLR). Definite overkill for the advanced amateur or artist-photographer and poor value for money for anyone not using it to make a living, the Mk. III is nevertheless the leading statement (for now) by the current leading camera company, and is wowing users with its capability and enthusiasts with its technology. Notable particularly for extending Canon's already outstanding reputation for producing cameras with great low-light, high-ISO capability, and in general as simply a technological wonderment and a superb piece of engineering and design. Its early rollout was plagued by autofocus irregularities, reported mainly by Rob Galbraith. Soon to come: stiff competition in the form of the Nikon D3.
(Note: This list will be revised by midwinter.)
Copyright 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
Support this site
Do you enjoy The Online Photographer? Any time you visit one of the following sites using the links below as a portal, we get a small commission for everything in any product category you might purchase during your visit, no matter how long you stay on their sites or how many pages you visit (and the prices are always the same to you either way). It's a nice and easy way to help enable T.O.P. to prosper while making your online purchases.