From the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, here are the 20 cameras that did something new, different, smart, or stupid. Plus one bonus contender.
I never do year-end wrap-ups; by nature, I'm not one to look back and analyze when there's something new just over the horizon. But this year, it struck me that for an industry everyone likes to pronounce as dead, there's been tons of activity. I've seen lots of product categories rise, fall, and reinvent themselves (or not), and it looks like cameras aren't going without a fight.
Of course, there's been an equal amount of ridiculous and sublime in the various attempts to reinvent cameras and photography, but no one can say that manufacturers aren't trying.
So, I present for your amusement, in no particular order, my picks for the 20 most interesting cameras I've seen in 2013, plus one bonus model which I'll probably never see, because it's not meant to cross the US border. These are neither the best nor the worst products I've encountered, nor have I gotten to test some of them yet. They're simply all notable for their contributions, for good or ill, to making cameras fun to cover in 2013. Have I forgotten any? Note them in the comments.
Ah, Polaroid. How far the mighty have fallen. Once a powerful and innovative camera company, it now resorts to licensing cheap products, slapping the brand on them, and making splashy announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show. But the iM386, an embarrassingly bad knockoff of the Nikon 1 series of interchangeable-lens cameras, got a legal slapdown from Nikon. All that aside, though, it did take an interesting approach, putting the sensor inside the lens housing rather than in the body of the camera.
I'm not one of those folks who thinks all cameras should be black, black, or black, but Pentax has taken color choice to the extreme. The option to choose from among 120 different eye-bleeding color combinations works a little better on the tiny, toylike Q7 than on the more serious K-50.
Although it comes with a 2-page PDF of caveats, the AW1 is the first interchangeable-lens camera that you can take underwater, sans housing, and it's not priced out of reach for people who just want something to take on vacation. Shown here with its silicone skin.
Sony Alpha ILCE-A7R: Small, sharp, and cheaper than expected
Sony hit the sublime note this year with its A7R, an interchangeable-lens camera design that manages to be small and flexible, delivers great images and is surprisingly affordable for its class. It ain't perfect, though, with performance that's bogged down by a slow autofocus system and huge files, and a really loud shutter mechanism. Pictured here it's paired with the not-so-affordable but eminently droolworthy $4,000 Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4 lens.
While Pentax's Q7 miniaturized by jettisoning everything that makes an interchangeable-lens camera an attractive option -- i.e., a good sensor and lens -- Panasonic crammed almost everything from the GX7 into a camera smaller than the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II with a few understandable compromises, and didn't make it prohibitively expensive.
Sony's betting on deep-pocketed consumers willing to fork over $1,300 for a huge version of the RX100 II equipped with a faster, longer lens and a built-in EVF. It might pay off; the company's new Bionz X processor, incoporated into this model, does seem to expand the tonal range noticeably and the improvements in sensor readout it facilitates results in better video quality.
Canon seems to be losing ground to the competition on a lot of fronts -- most notably interchangeable-lens cameras and enthusiast compacts -- but the one bright spot is the new Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus system introduced in the 70D. It delivers fast, accurate and direct autofocus for shooting video. Not the best photo quality we've seen, but hopefully the next version will work out some of those kinks.
Before Sony morphed a couple of traditional point-and-shoots into huge tubes that you strap to your camera, Canon's tiny, square PowerShot N took an unattached approach to wireless tethering to your phone; because it has an LCD it's a lot more usable than Sony's QX models, but it's slow and completely automatic.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX10 and QX100: Nice marketing job
While these are the most novel cameras Sony turned out in 2013, the real brilliance is that Sony managed to convince people they were doing something new, when in fact they shoot tethered via Wi-Fi the same way any camera with a decent mobile app can do (like the Panasonic Lumix ZS30 or Sony's own RX100 II, for example). The only innovation is the clip that attaches the camera to your phone, making your phone look like a camera. But while it looks cool, the design is just awkward to use.
Sony Alpha ILCE-A3000: When marketers design cameras
Interchangeable-lens cameras -- both dSLRs and mirrorless types -- are the fastest (only?) growing segment of the camera market. But makers of mirrorless ILCs are facing a quandry in some regions; namely, that consumers don't seem to understand that mirrorless ILCs can have the same image quality and performance as a dSLR. So Sony produced one that looks like a dSLR, priced the same as the cheapest dSLRs. Unfortunately, it's big and clunky like dSLR, but slow with a mediocre EVF and LCD like the worst of the ILCs, which makes shooting with it a chore; it's enough to drive people back to their phone cameras. Big sigh.
Combining a high-end mirrorless ILC with the Android operating system and a huge, phone-like touchscreen display, the Galaxy NX's strengths are also its weaknesses. All of those features add up to a pretty high price tag, and the power of Android brings along the concomitant problems of a full operating system, such as complexity and stability issues. My internal jury is still out on this one.
Although I never felt like a dSLR was too big for my hands -- aside from behemoths like Canon's EOS-1 D series or Nikon's pro D models -- overall the SL1 is a good idea. A more compact dSLR designed for folks with smaller hands, the biggest problem with the SL1 was its disproportionately large price tag. But that's come down substantially since its launch, making it a nice, if somewhat frill-free option.
Leica X Vario: First zoom lens on an APS-C compact
It's a paltry 2.5x, but the X Vario is the first APS-C compact to incorporate a zoom lens. Of course, the aperture stops down to a painful f6.4 by the time you reach 70mm and the privilege will cost you $2,850 -- but hey, there's a Leica logo on it.
Nokia's engineers had a good idea: take a high-resolution sensor and implement an old technology called pixel binning for better-than-average sensitivity. And give advanced users control over capture settings. But then came the nonsensical hype over the 41-megapixel sensor (because MOAR pixels!) and an pretty but overdesigned interface for the advanced settings that made it more hindrance than help.
Yes, we'd all like a zoom lens on our phone cameras, but grafting a traditional lens onto what we all want to be a slim, elegant device doesn't do it. I'm looking forward to more technologically advanced solutions.
With the exception of making it tilt, on-camera flash technology has remained pretty stagnant as sensors, lenses and processing have all improved significantly. While I think its approach is a little grunt-method -- using two differently colored LEDs to produce flash light that more correctly renders white balance -- kudos to Apple for addressing the problem of hideous LED flash.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS30 and Olympus PEN E-P5: Connectivity firsts
Both of these have a lot to recommend them as cameras, but what's most notable here is they each were the first to try to simplify setting up Wi-Fi connections between the camera and a mobile device. Panasonic was the first to use NFC (Near Field Communication), which passes the necessary Wi-Fi connection setup information between devices when they come into proximity with each other. While NFC has become a popular method for this, the biggest drawback is that Apple has thus far refused to incorporate NFC into its devices, so iOS users are stuck with the clunky "manually select the network" method. In the E-P5, on the other hand, Olympus started using a QR code to pass all the relevant connection information to your phone by snapping a photo of it. While no one else has adopted this technique, it has the benefit of working with iOS devices.
Canon's sole mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera foray, the EOS M, arrived late to the market and to meh reviews. It's thus far only produced one lens in addition to the two that shipped at launch. The company announced the new M2 at the end of 2013, which theoretically rectifies some of the flaws of its predecessor, but said it would only be available in Japan. dSLRs are still very popular, and Canon is still doing well in the consumer segment, but they're not the future. This does not bode well.