It's the end of the year – time to look back, reflect and rediscover the highlights of the last 12 months.
2011 wasn't a good year for camera companies, as production was hammered by the twin disasters of the tsunami in Japan and the floods in Thailand. But even though they were beaten they were not bowed, and a few gems still managed to make their way into our hands. As HardwareZone's resident camera reviewer, I had the good fortune to play with this year's latest models, and these are my favorite cameras of 2011.
(Not the best cameras of 2011, for those you'll have to wait till Tech Awards 2012 when we announce the results, but my personal favorites.)
Fujifilm X100 & X10
If you had told me in 2010 that my two favorite cameras in 2011 wouldn't come from the big two, Canon or Nikon, or Panasonic or Olympus, well, I wouldn't have believed you. Coming out of left field, Fujifilm won my heart with two unique and truly groundbreaking digital cameras.
The Fujifilm X100 and X10 marry looks, performance and usability, combining impeccable form with delightful function. The X100's image quality is stunning, at higher ISO settings it still produces low-noise images which easily rival DSLR cameras with the same APS-C sized sensor.
The 35mm lens with a wide f/2.0 lens produces beautiful images with a shallow depth of field, and image color out of the camera is gorgeous – just like you'd expect from the Fujifilm film of old (if you're old enough to remember picking a film brand based on its color, then you're likely to have a preference for or against Fujifilm).
You can think of the X10 as a compact brother to the X100, similar but different. Its sensor size is smaller, so the images aren't as good, but when compared against its compact camera competitors the X10 is exemplary, with great looking colors and a wide dynamic range. The camera handles smoothly, especially for manual shooters.
Neither camera is perfect of course (let me know if you ever find the mythical beast known as The Perfect Camera). Both cameras have cumbersome auto-focus, and both the cameras' controls for manual focus are slow. The X100's writing speed takes too long. Its fixed 35mm lens has limited use. The X10's not really compact with its jutting lens. And you pay a premium for both, the X100's list price is $1699 while the X10 is $999.
Even though both cameras are really niche cameras for the discerning user (I wouldn't recommend the X10 to casual users looking for a compact camera), they are clear triumphs for Fujifilm. Who else in 2011 has dared to innovate with cameras like the X100 or X10, both in terms of form and function? Kudos to Fujifilm for having the guts and genius, and I look forward to seeing what you have in store when you unveil your mirrorless system camera in January at CES.
One other camera company has produced an innovative groundbreaker this year – Sony with their NEX-7 mirrorless powerhouse. Make no mistake, this thing is a beast and represents the apex of current mirrorless cameras. With the same 24MP sensor as the Sony A77, it's basically a DSLR in a smaller body and the first real DSLR replacement – with some caveats of course.
What makes the NEX-7 so powerful isn't just the fact that it's packing an APS-C sized sensor. It's how Sony has refined the software-defined controls of the NEX cameras before the 7 and made them useful and smooth for the enthusiast on the 7. Essential controls are at your fingertips, and they can be further customized to suit your shooting style.
The one serious fault of the NEX-7 doesn't belong to the camera, but to the NEX system. There just aren't enough native lenses to complement it, akin to having a powerful gaming system with not enough games. At last count there were seven E-mount lenses, while the competing Micro Four Thirds system has twenty five.
You can use the Alpha mount adapter to fit Sony's DSLR lenses, but that adds considerable size and weight to the camera. You can also fit classic manual focus lenses using an adapter but compatibility is spotty.
Still, make no mistake about it, the NEX-7 is one amazing camera and represents innovation at its finest (how Sony managed to squeeze so much into the camera and still find space for an electronic viewfinder still staggers me).
Last year I wrote that my favorite compact camera of the year was my iPhone 4. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my iPhone remains one of my favorite cameras, not just because it's good (it is), but because it's the camera that's always with me. Sure, it's not as good as a good compact, but like the saying goes "the best camera is the one that's with you."
So to add on to what I wrote in 2010, I want to introduce you to my favorite iPhone camera app of 2011, also available on the Android Marketplace. I have a few apps I use and love, like Camera+, Luminance and Microsoft Photosynth, but none have captured my heart like Pro HDR.
While the iPhone's native HDR feature is decent, Pro HDR is much better. If you don't know what a HDR (High Dynamic Range) image is, it's basically a composite of two (or more) images taken at different exposures, so you can see as much detail in a single photo as possible. If you've ever taken a picture where parts of the picture are too bright or dark in comparison with other parts, HDR is one way to solve that problem.
What I love about Pro HDR is that it's helped me get shots I would never have been able to get, even with the iPhone's native HDR feature, and easier than if I were to set up a DSLR and shoot an HDR image manually. If you've ever created a HDR image yourself using desktop apps, you'll know that ghosting, where there is movement in between different exposures, is a real problem. Pro HDR is impressive because it does a good job at correcting camera shake and ghosting, even though it's really best at still landscapes.
Pro HDR's one weakness is that while images look great on your iPhone and at web resolutions, you'll sometimes see more image noise on larger screens as a result of pulling detail from the shadows. Still, at US$1.99 (less than it costs for a cup of cappuccino); you can consider trying out the app.
That's it for 2011. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, dear reader, and here's to a cameralicious 2012.
Alvin Soon / Associate Features Editor
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.