It's that time again!
The time has once again come to select the best and worst of all the gear Chris and I have looked at this year while shooting DPReview TV. Due to circumstances involving a Spelling Bee and a bunch of Moscow Mules, we may not have been as eloquent as usual in our video, so here we will use carefully chosen words to let you know why we think these products deserve the respective honors and shame.
Best M4/3 Lens Runner Up - Panasonic/Leica 25-50mm F1.7
Most of the time when I’m using a Micro 4/3 camera, the Panasonic/Leica 10-25mm F1.7 is attached. I love the image quality, video functionality and handling of that lens, but I often find myself wishing for a longer focal length.
Panasonic clearly heard my cries, and responded with this ‘sister lens’ for the 10-25mm, sharing the same great ergonomics and capabilities, but now covering a normal to short-telephoto focal range. This is ideal for portraiture and head-and-shoulders interviews, and the constant aperture means you never have to worry about changing exposure when re-framing a shot.
You certainly pay a premium for the video functionality which may scare photographers away, but hybrid shooters will be able to tackle nearly any project with the 10-25mm & 25-50mm combination. That makes this lens worthy of being our runner up.
Best M43 Lens - Olympus 8-25mm F4 Pro
One recent trend I’ve really been loving is ultra-wide zoom lenses that extend into 'normal' focal lengths. This makes, for instance, both the Pana/Leica 10-25mm F1.7 (20-50mm equiv.) and full-frame Panasonic 20-60mm F3.5-5.6 L-Mount lenses extremely flexible for travel. With one of the final Olympus-branded lens designs (subsequent lenses are to be known as OM System), we now have a lens that goes even wider, yet still reaches 50mm equivalent at the long end.
While very small and light, the 8-25mm F4 Pro still manages to include weather sealing, a fast focus motor and a favorite feature of mine, a manual focus clutch. Image quality is still very consistent, with even sharpness across the frame and minimal aberrations. We didn’t love the look of out-of-focus specular highlights, but that was our only complaint. Breathing is well controlled, so this would be a great video lens as well, especially on a gimbal.
When going on a short hike or even out with the family, this lens keeps finding its way into my bag and I can offer no higher praise for a lens than that. This will be remembered as one of the last lenses to be stamped with the Olympus brand, and it’s a hell of a great note to end on.
Best APS-C Lens Runner Up - Fujifilm 33mm F1.4 LM WR
There is no discussing APS-C lenses without mentioning Fujifilm. Every year we praise Fujifilm for having an extensive line of excellent APS-C lenses, and this year in particular, for bringing out some new versions of old favorites. Both the new XF 23mm 1.4 and XF 18mm 1.4 (the older XF 18mm was an F2 lens) performed well, and outperformed the older versions.
Our favorite, however – and the runner-up for best APS-C lens of 2021 – is the newly designed XF 33mm 1.4. It is somewhat larger and heavier than the existing 35mm 1.4 lens – which it does not replace, by the way – but that added bulk does bring some excellent improvements to the table. These include weather sealing, faster autofocus, and improved bokeh while maintaining the beautiful character of the original XF 35mm 1.4. All of that puts this lens at the top of the pack of our runners-up for APS-C lens of the year.
Best APS-C Lens - Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 DC DN
Sigma gave us a near-perfect standard zoom with a bright constant aperture and impressive sharpness throughout its zoom range, even wide open. Video shooters will love the smooth focusing, and almost complete lack of lens breathing. The Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 is so compact, and therefore so handy on a Sony APS-C body, especially ones that incorporate IBIS. Add to all that an affordable price tag, and the 18-50mm 2.8 DC DN is a no-brainer for best APS-C Lens of 2021.
Best Full Frame Lens Runner Up - Sony 14mm F1.8 GM
The Sony 14mm 1.8 G Master proves that a very bright ultra wide angle lens can be compact, and still deliver top quality results. In one of our most enjoyable videos to date, Jordan and I ventured to Writing-On-Stone Park for some night photography. Astrophotography taxes lenses at their widest aperture, but the 14mm did not disappoint – excellent sharpness combined with minimal coma produced excellent star shots. In addition to the Sony's excellent low light performance, it's also a fantastic lens for architecture and landscapes.
Its compact nature makes it a joy to carry around in the camera bag for when you really need the look of an ultra wide.
Best Full Frame Lens - Tamron 35-150mm F2-2.8 VXD
Our winner for best full frame lens of 2021 goes to the Tamron 35-150mm F2-2.8 Di VXD III. The instant you pick up this lens, you know you have something rare in your hands. The 35-150mm focal range is a unique one, yet proves itself to be very versatile. Couple this lens with an ultra-wide zoom, and Jordan and I both felt that we could cover with two lenses what would normally require three. I loved how sharp it is, Jordan loved the lack of lens breathing, and we both loved the way it renders bokeh. And what about the awful way that it handles flare? Well as we stated in the video, it's so bad that it's almost good. If you get a chance, do yourself a favor and try this one out.
Best Camera For Video Runner Up - Nikon Z9
This was a surprise! While Nikon has been improving its video game in recent years, I tended to consider them great stills cameras that could record solid video in a pinch. Then the Z9 was released and, suddenly, the video features are no longer just competitive, but class leading! There's 8K capture, oversampled 4K and internal ProRes – all features that caught me by surprise.
Not only are the Z9’s specs good, but using one while filming our review episode was an absolute joy. The autofocus was consistently reliable, the interface is well thought out and the IBIS worked great for static shots. The Z9 is also one of the only hybrid cameras that doesn’t rely exclusively on the touchscreen for autofocus selection. On a bright day, I could comfortably stick to the EVF, and not lose any functionality. My only gripe is that I would have loved a fully articulating screen, but the two-axis tilt display is still a big step up from the previous vertical tilt-only displays.
The Z9 is already incredibly impressive today, but the upcoming firmware shows that Nikon is really listening to video shooters. In 2022, the Z9 will be able to record internal 8K/60P Raw (RIP storage space), and we’ll hopefully see even more functionality added through software. The appeal of a hybrid camera for me is the ability to do professional stills and video with one device, and for right now, the Z9 is the most flexible camera on the market.
Best Camera For Video - DJI Ronin 4D
It’s been years since I’ve smiled so much when learning to use a new camera (smiles admittedly not pictured). The Ronin 4D is basically a full-frame camera built into a gimbal (or a gimbal attached to a full-frame camera), but under the hood, there are so many clever innovations included here that it had to be my video camera of the year.
Let’s start with my favorite feature, the manual focus wheel. This small wheel is attached to the handle and operates like most electronic 'follow focus' controllers. It’s comfortable and responsive when changing focus. However, I then popped the camera into ‘Automated Manual Focus’ and was delighted to feel the wheel moving under my thumb as the camera’s LiDAR-based autofocus did its thing. At any moment you can spin the wheel to override the autofocus. Cool, intuitive and very useful. Then, when changing my ISO or ND strength, another huge grin jumped across my face as the focus wheel switched to strongly defined ‘clicky’ steps for those adjustments.
The focus waveform is another example of DJI’s ingenuity. It uses the LiDAR unit to build an 'overhead' map of your scene, and can clearly see where the camera is currently focused. Again, intuitive and useful. Once I had used the Ronin 4D for a few weeks, I missed this feature on every other camera I used.
These are just two examples, but they point to DJI not only making a compelling product if you need a stabilized camera, but also thinking carefully about the features that can improve your experience on a professional set. I’m very excited to test the 8K version of the Ronin 4D, but I’m also incredibly excited about their next steps into the camera world.
Best DSLR - Pentax K-3 III
Let me first state that Jordan and I have loved, and always will love the Pentax brand of cameras. Ricoh creates utterly reliable, rugged cameras, under the Pentax name. Ricoh/Pentax DSLRs handle well and take beautiful photographs. As a brand, they innovate, and incorporate helpful features into their designs, and as such, we always endeavor to review their products on DPReviewTV. Will those statements shield us from the impending vitriol? ...I doubt it.
Let's be honest. Do Pentax DSLRs hold only a tiny share of the market? Has there been a failure to transition Pentax into effective mirrorless designs? Have they become a boutique brand, largely held together by a passionate fan base? Can those fans be over-zealous crusaders for the faith? Do we make jokes at Pentax's expense?
Yes to all of the above.
Clearly the 'Best DSLR of 2021' category, and us naming the Z9 as a runner up due to its size and appearance in our full YouTube video, are Jordan and I making light of the situation. The formal retirement of the Olympus name shook a lot of people up. Change is scary. Despite occasionally finding myself on the receiving end of the Pentaxians' criticisms, I get it. I understand. I even in some ways appreciate it. Someone has to fight the good fight to keep the fire burning. No one wants to see the Pentax name retired any time soon.
All joking aside, we feel it's right to celebrate the Pentax K-3 III as a powerful new DSLR. The DSLR will never be at the forefront of camera design again, but no one can call them ineffective photographic tools. The K-3 III proves this with a contemporary sensor, improved auto focus and a more effective IBIS unit, in an already excellent SLR body design. It's clear that Ricoh put a lot of thought into the K-3 III and it represents a significant upgrade, if only to current Pentax camera users. I consider myself very lucky to shoot with Pentax DSLRs every time a new one comes onto the market, and I hope to be evaluating them for many years to come.
Best Camera For Stills Runner Up - Fujifilm GFX 100S
I loved the images produced by the double-grip Fujifilm GFX 100, so much so that I would put up with the bulk and poor ergonomics of that camera. Imagine my delight when the GFX 100S was announced, packing the same unbelievable picture quality into a smaller, cheaper, more comfortable body. Not since the Pentax 645Z have I enjoyed the experience of shooting medium format this much, and the Fujifilm is a much more capable camera.
Sure, the GFX 100S is at home shooting landscapes and lit portraits, but it's equally adept at capturing family candids and street photography. The accurate, responsive autofocus and IBIS make this the most versatile medium format camera on the market. Surprisingly, it’s also a capable 4K hybrid camera as well. If both the GFX 100 and the newer GFX 100S were the same price, I’d pick the latter, but as an added bonus, the newer camera also happens to be thousands of dollars less expensive.
As expected, the GFX 100S gave me the nicest files of any camera I tested this year. What I didn’t expect is how much the ergonomics and interface helped me enjoy taking those photos. That’s why it’s the runner up for Best Stills Camera.
Best Camera For Stills - Nikon Z9
Back in the DSLR days, whenever Chris and I needed to accurately focus on difficult subjects, we reached for a Nikon. The company's 3D Tracking autofocus was the gold standard, and it was sorely missed on the early Z-series cameras. We both wondered how long it would take before Nikon got its mojo back.
The answer came with the Z9. The headline feature may be the lack of a mechanical shutter, but the revelation was how well everything else performed. While sorting through thousands of images for our video, I was floored by how many demanding subjects were in perfect focus. The 3D Tracking interface combined with machine-learning based tracking algorithms is truly outstanding.
We’ve had a tough time coming up with reasons to recommend Nikon Z series cameras to non-Nikon shooters, but that all changes with the Z9. We think it’s the best flagship mirrorless full frame camera on the market.
Worst Camera For Video - Sigma fp L
If the word ‘baffling’ were to take physical form, it would be the Sigma fp L. While billed as the more photo-centric of the fp models, there are still a huge number of video features which make it look like a compelling video/cinema package. With internal Raw recording, shutter angle, waveforms, a nifty 'Director’s Viewfinder' mode, on paper it didn’t look half bad.
What made it fully bad was the decision to use a very slow scanning 61 megapixel sensor. Sure this means the rolling shutter is quite severe, but also means that every record mode has a serious compromise. Internal Raw? That's 8-bit only with massive file size. External Raw? Now you're at 12 bit, with less rolling shutter, smaller file sizes but far less detail. Internal H.264? No log recording means there’s very little dynamic range. You get the idea.
Richard Butler and I spent hours trying to figure out the endless trade-offs and compromises involved every time you hit the record button on this thing. It’s not an experience we would wish on any of our viewers and readers, and for that reason this is our pick for Worst Camera For Video.
Worst Lens - Laowa Argus 35mm F0.95
So, the worst lens of 2021 has to go to the Laowa Argus 35mm 0.95. The main draw of this lens, at least on a technical level, is the extremely bright 0.95 aperture. Unfortunately, when photos are taken at 0.95 there is no region of the photograph which one could describe as sharp. As you stop down sharpness only improves slightly.
This results in some of the most pleasing portraits we've shot this year.
Furthermore, this lens, although delivering soft and smooth bokeh, has lots of cat's eye around the corners, even stopped down.
This results in some of the most pleasing night portraits we've shot this year.
When shooting towards the sun the Argus suffers from a distinct lack of contrast, and shows strange flare characteristics.
This results in some of the most pleasing sunstars, and interesting characterful images we've shot this year.
This lens also has severe LoCA, with distracting colors being painted over any out of focus areas. These colored fringes are incredibly hard to remove in post.
This results in some of the most pleasing black and white images we've shot this year.
The Argus also has...
I think you get where I'm going with this.
Look. It just doesn't perform that well by any metric we use to test lenses, so this distinction makes sense. I still really dig the look of our sample gallery though...
Worst Camera For Stills - Sigma fp L
It's fair to state that 2021 introduced some powerful and innovative cameras to the field, especially in the realm of full frame bodies. We are seeing a shift towards capable electronic shutters, and Nikon made a big push with their innovative Z9 that does away with a mechanical shutter altogether. But are they the first high-res photo-centric camera to do this? The answer is a definitive no!
In 2021 Sigma beat them to the punch with their fp L. Not hard to believe, as Sigma has a well deserved reputation for forward thinking camera designs. The fp L is firmly aimed at the still based photographer, with a major emphasis on high megapixels. Jordan and I cannot, however, recommend that anyone purchase the fp L.
The fp L is for the most part, the same as the original fp, simply with a 61 megapixel sensor inside it. Now the fp looks, in spite of any of Sigma's intentions, to be a video camera first and foremost. Its compact and simple design lends itself well to specialized uses. Think car cams, crane and drone shots, and gimbal usage. Unfortunately the video-centric control scheme does not translate well to a photo based camera.
The fp L's lack of customizability and a body design that was intended to be mounted in video rigs makes for a poor-handling body in the hand. Nothing about the menu design, or interface, is quick to adjust in an action photo scenario, and rolling shutter rears its ugly head constantly. In fact the only situation where the camera does seem to work well is for landscapes on a tripod. Mounted on a tripod, the lack of IBIS and poor ergonomics are mitigated.
One can slow down and take their time. The stable platform, and the lack of mechanical shutter slap, now allow the 61 megapixels to shine. The glaring lack of versatility, however, ultimately places the fp L way down any prospective holiday shopping list.
Unfortunately for Sigma, there are so many excellent alternatives that offer far more versatility with a control structure intended for photographers. Worst photo camera for 2021 goes to the Sigma fp L.