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2009: Best. Year. Ever.

2009: Best. Year. Ever.

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For photography gearheads, this trip around the Sun was awesome

December 30, 2009

From palm-sized cameras with interchangeable lenses and DSLR-sized sensors to pro cameras that could practically see in the dark, '09 will be remembered as a year of historic firsts in photography.

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Let's look at some of the many highlights of the year 2009 in the world of photography.

1. Leica's big comeback

A year ago, it seemed as if Leica was on the verge of oblivion. The M8's shortcomings left many potential digital rangefinder users frustrated—and on the sidelines. Rumors of doomsday-type layoffs were circulating, and some industry watchers feared the company's demise was imminent. But all that was before September 9—9/9/09—the day Leica introduced the M9, set a delivery date for the S2, and surprised everyone with the X1. On that day, Leica rediscovered its roots, introducing three elegant, high-priced cameras that, despite the cost, garnered more interest than Leica has gotten in  a very long time. Despite a tanking economy, pre-orders were coming in at an impressive rate.

Immediately, the M9 was recognized by M-camera enthusiasts as the digital rangefinder they've been waiting for. Now, orders for the M9 exceed Leica's ability to produce them, and the waiting list is growing. The S2 is a triumph for the studio photographer, offering a medium-format sensor in a camera that's a bit smaller and lighter than a high-end 35mm sensor DSLR—although with its water-resistant body, it can be taken out into the field to produce stunning work (and 72mb RAW images). The X1 promises big-camera results in a pocket-sized package and may recapture a segment of the enthusiast market. Read more.

2. Bring on the night!

Within days of each other, Nikon and Canon introduced high-end full-frame cameras with the ability to capture images at ISO 108,000, which is practically night vision and is prompting many photographers to re-think low-light photography. The Nikon D3s and Canon EOS 1Ds Mark IV offer many other interesting features but the one that has opened eyes and minds to new possibilities is their high-ISO performance. While the top speeds produce very noisy images as one would expect, at ISO 6,400 and 12,800 both cameras are capable of capturing publication-quality images. Yes there's grain, but not it's well controlled even at these speeds, making them practical solutions for handheld photography without flash in very low light situations.

With the technology that allowed for higher light sensitivity trickle down to lower-cost cameras? I am certain it will. I wouldn't be surprised if we see APS sensor cameras that can capture good quality images at ISO 3200 or even 6400 hit the market next year. Read more.

3. Incredible shrinking cameras

2009 will also be remembered as the year that Micro Four Thirds hit its stride with three palm-sized cameras and accompanying lenses introduced, the Olympus E-P1, E-P2, and Panasonic GF-1. These three cameras formed the nucleus of a new category, the interchangeable-lens compact. The buzz surrounding the release of the E-P1 was amazing, right down to the viral YouTube “Will It Blend?” video,  a brilliant cross-marketing effort. The E-P1 itself got mixed reviews, mainly due to its pokey autofocus system and sluggish lag time but if you had patience it delivered gorgeous shots, and the creative “art” modes helped shooters create masterpieces with ease. Not bad for a first generation camera, and both Panasonic and Olympus learned quickly from the E-P1's negatives and came out with cameras that improved performance and added the oft-requested eye-level EVF viewfinder.

But there was more. The small category of palm-sized cameras with DSLR-sized sensors grew with the addition of the Sigma DP2, and Pentax managed to shrink a full-featured, HD Video capable DSLR into a surprisingly small package with the K-7 and its even smaller sibling, the K-x. And remember that the aforementioned Leica M9 is the smallest camera to house a full-frame 35mm-sized digital sensor. There of course was controversy: Some photographers said they simply cannot accept the idea of using a camera that lacks an optical viewfinder. Thankfully for them, the bigger rigs are still here. Read more.

4. Let's go to the video

2009 was the year HD video became the “it” feature for digital cameras, both DSLRs an more compact models. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II, introduced late last year, has been flying off the shelves, while HD has started to show up on lower-cost digital cameras such as the Canon T1 and the Nikon D5000, as well as the winner of the Adorama Learning Center Reader's Choice Camera of 2009, the Pentax K-7. HD has also become a prominent feature on smaller cameras such as the Casio EX-FS10, the Olympus E-P1, and the Panasonic GF-1. In the world of camcorders, HD is rapidly becoming the standard, and two low-end cameras, the Kodak TK and the Flip, have made HD very affordable.

The result of all of this video? Creative types—both still photographers and videographers—are quickly adapting, experimenting, and developing a new, more sophisticated visual language. Stop action, citizen journalism, and much more sharing of videos on social sites such as YouTube and Vimeo grew exponentially.

5. There's an app for that

Even its most ardent fans will grudgingly admit that the iPhone's on-board camera isn't capable of delivering the kind of quality you can get from even a decent point-and-shoot digital camera. But that's not where the iPod's strength lies. It's all about the software—apps—that put a mind-blowingly wide array of calculations, picture-taking ideas, and even photographers' portfolios, at their fingertips. It seems that almost every camera company has developed an app for the iPod Touch or iPhone. In fact, a search of the Apple App Store reveals literally hundreds of low-cost apps that help you calculate depth of field, view collections of images, apply image editing effects, and even view live camera images remotely.

It seems like almost every few days there's a new app, and many of them are free or cost very little. For photographers, the iPhone/iPod Touch is becoming more and more useful.

6. HDR becomes a trend, then a cliché (hopefully not for long)

In 2009, High Dynamic Range became a trend as more photographers embraced the idea of capturing a wider range of highlights to shadows in one image. Problem was, some image mapping transformed scenes into pop-art, and this exaggerated “HDR Look” produced a backlash. That's a shame, because when properly done, HDR images simply provide greater shadow and highlight detail. But as with any new technology, the temptation is to push the limits and in this case the result has been gaudy.

But I have hope. We saw the world's first DSLR with built-in HDR—the Pentax K-7—and found it to be extremely capable without producing the over-the-top look. As photographers become more comfortable with HDR technology, and as the technology evolves, it will eventually be used more subtly and effectively. (© Greg Waddell) Read more.

7. Scene modes go meta

Ai (or iA) or some variation that indicates that the computer controlling your camera is “smart”,  took  the whole shooting scenes mode thing to a different level this year. Scene modes, which first showed up nearly ten years ago, represent specific sets of camera settings optimized for specific types of scenes. “Beach” means the camera would automatically overexpose the scene to get a proper exposure. “Action” biases the camera towards faster shutter speeds (actually, so does “pet” mode). “Museum” mode turns off the flash and compensates for incandescent lighting. And so on. Well, “smart Auto” (or whatever the camera of the moment calls it) compares the scene in front of the camera to a database of images and/or calculations, somehow figures out what kind of scene is being captured, and automatically chooses the scene mode that best fits the scene.

And based on my experience with these cameras, this meta approach to scene modes is surprisingly accurate for snapshots and even more serious work. Scary.

8. New Year's Resolution

Canon was brave enough to raise the white flag and end the resolution war with the G11, a 10MP advanced compact camera that replaced the G10, a 14MP model. The tradeoff for fewer pixels is noticeably better overall image quality, which was confirmed by both my street test results and by DxOMark's lab RAW resolution test reslts.

And not a moment too soon: With over 95% of all images being printed at 4x6 inches, very few shooters really need 12 and 14MP cameras. In fact, 6MP has been shown to be plenty for a compact digital camera with a small sensor. Here's hoping that a shift in focus away from more megapixels to better image quality will catch on in 2010.
 

9. Instant Karma

This time last year, Polaroid photographers were in despair over the demise of their beloved instant film. Indeed, while the market for such products may have diminished, it hasn't disappeared altogether. Fortunately, Fujifilm was waiting in the wings. No sooner had the last pack of 660 rolled off the line than did Fujifilm announce the availability of its Instax instant film system in the United States after years of being available in Europe. While that includes film packs that are incompatible with the SX-70 format, there are several peel-apart emulsions that will work in Polaroid backs. My review of the Instax camera and film drew much traffic and interest, proving that the market for instant film is still there.

Then, in October, more good news: A group of former Polaroid employees, representing themselves as The Impossible Project, convinced The Summit Global Group, which owns the Polaroid license, to commission a limited run of Polaroid instant film towards the middle of next year—a good start. Zink has partnered with Polaroid to create a digital instant camera, and Zink has just announced an inkless printing paper in larger, more photographer-friendly formats. And so, as we enter 2010, hope for instant photography springs anew.

 

Yeah, there were disappointments this year. From the overpriced Red large format digital camera to street photographers facing antagonistic police to difficulties facing traditional stock photographers due to competition from microstock, there are plenty of negatives. The market for film continues to contract (some will view that as a positive). And then there was that niggling recession. But from where I sit, the good news vastly outnumbered the bad. It was a great year for photography. I can't wait to see what happens next year!

What was your photographic highlight of 2009? Leave a comment.

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