PDN Gear Guide's 2009 Photo Gear of the Year

Dec 22, 2009
By Dan Havlik, PDN's Technology Specialist

Gear of the Year logo

Despite being hammered by a paralyzing recession, 2009 turned out to be a surprisingly exciting year for photography gear. And as Technology Specialist for PDN magazine and Editor of the PDN Gear Guide, I had the lucky job of being able to test much of it.

Though year-end lists are always a very subjective matter, the following is my rundown of the stand-out professional "Gear of the Year" for 2009.

First, a couple of caveats. While this list includes pro equipment I looked at this year, it doesn't necessarily contain gear that may have been announced in late 2009 and will be reviewed in next year's issues of PDN – i.e. the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and Leica X1.

Also, I didn't include a gear favorite selection in categories where there was no clear winner for me, such as camera bags or software, which were simply "too close to call."

And finally, rather than rehash every review I did in the pages of PDN for my annual Gear of the Year list, I've tried to summarize the conclusion on each product and provided a link to the full review in PDN's Gear Guide.com if you'd like to read more.

Happy holidays and enjoy!

(Though the review for the Leica S2 will appear in the January 2010 issue of PDN, we tested the S2 in December 2009 and liked it so much, it became the runaway winner for "Camera of the Year." A summary of the conclusion for the January review is below.)

While tough to categorize, the Leica S2 DSLR/Medium Format hybrid is so beautifully crafted and highly functional it's almost like a niche for it existed all along. As a studio camera, the S2 is a swift and agile performer, able to pirouette and parry with even fast-moving dancer/models. As a field camera, it won't keep up with a DSLR though image quality in good lighting is astounding. The sharpness and depth of color we got while photographing models in the studio with the S2 was among the best we've ever seen. The S2 could be the warning shot across the bow that medium format needs.

The full review will appear in the January 2010 issue of PDN but check out our early hands-on look at the Leica S2 with sample images here.

If you have $42,000 to spend and your most important needs are image quality and massive amounts of resolution, the Phase One P65+ 645 medium-format camera system is not just best in class, it's created a new class all its own—the fantasy camera for pixel peepers. The P65+ offers some of the best image quality and dynamic range we've ever seen, particularly for landscape photos where the full extent of that 60.5-megapixel resolution can be appreciated. If it's surprisingly lacking in some premium extras, such as a better LCD screen, it does have one very interesting imaging feature – Sensor + technology which increases the chip's light sensitivity while decreasing noise. Pricey yes but also pioneering.

Read the full review of the Phase One P65+ camera system here.

(The Nikon D3s also just made it under the wire for 2009. A review of the D3s will also appear in the January 2010 issue of PDN. A summary of the conclusion is below.)

On paper, the Nikon D3s may seem like nothing more than a minor upgrade to the previous model. In our testing though, we found that the better high ISO performance of the D3s all the way to ISO 12,800, and the excellent low-light performance of the camera's HD (720p) video function offered important, real world benefits. The D3s' only major caveat is its substandard 12.1MP of resolution. For most photographers, 12.1MP will be more than enough but if you get in a situation where you need an extreme crop of an image, the D3s falls short. Otherwise though, the D3s is a great tool for a variety of uses: sports, photojournalism, weddings, celebrity photography, concerts, and circuses (!), just to name a few.

The full review will appear in the January 2010 issue of PDN but check out our early hands-on look at the Nikon D3s with sample images here.

The HD video capabilities of the 7D are the best we've ever seen for a digital SLR. Furthermore, as a still capture device, Canon has loaded the 7D with so much useful technology from its revamped and comprehensive 19-point focusing system to its fast overall speed and its new 63-zone metering, it's hard to think of anything it left out in features. If the 18-megapixel CMOS sensor disappoints when shooting at high ISOs, that doesn't change our recommendation of the 7D as the best HD-DSLR on the market right now.

Read the full review of the Canon EOS 7D here.

The Pentax K-7 is one of most pleasant surprises of the year, offering impressive functionality with over half a dozen stand-out features including HDR recording; an electronic level function; a decent HD movie mode; copyright image embedding; and a tough, rugged but lightweight build. The mid-level professional camera category has suddenly gotten a whole lot more interesting.

Read the full review of the Pentax K-7 here.

We'd recommend the Canon PowerShot G11 to any pro who's looking for a quality compact camera to throw in their bag or for a day of casual shooting. While Canon's rivals have made great strides in putting bigger sensors in small cameras, it's still new territory for them and all those much buzzed-about compact cameras come with some caveats. Meanwhile, Canon keeps chugging along with its well-designed G-series cameras. If the company doesn't make a major leap forward with the G11, Canon's improved it enough by lowering the pixel count and adding a vari-angle screen to warrant a thumbs up.

Read the full review of the Canon Powershot G11 here.

TECHNOLOGY OF THE YEAR – Small Cameras with Big Sensors
Little cameras with jumbo sensors – such as the Olympus EP-1, Sigma DP2, Panasonic GF-1 etc. – were all the rage in the 2009. We took a look at this phenomenon in an online story entitled "Small Cameras, Big Sensors, Serious Challenges" and discovered that putting a DLSR-worthy chip in a compact camera is a lot harder than it seems. Though the concept still needs some tinkering, it was definitely the most exciting technology to emerge this year.

Read the story "Small Cameras, Big Sensors, Serious Challenges" here.

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