For the past few weeks, the entire Fstoppers team has been debating about the best photography gear of 2015. We even reached out to the Fstoppers community for your opinions as well. After hours and hours of debate, our list is finally complete.
Before we begin with this list I would like to explain how we came up with our categories and winners. From the beginning we had many more categories than we do in this list today. Some categories like "best tripod" or "best camera backpack" have been removed because we couldn't agree on a clear winner. I actually flew up to NYC to visit B&H to see all of the gear in person and ask the opinions of B&H staff who work with this equipment on a daily basis. There was so much debate in some categories (like best tripod head) that we had to rework our categories to only include categories with relatively clear winners. We also had some other categories like "best budget constant lighting system" that we decided to remove simply because nobody on our team (or in B&H) had enough experience with a product in that category. Obviously there will always be a debate, but the Fstoppers staff can stand behind this list as a whole.
We also discussed which products should win each category. Should the "best" product win regardless or price, or should the "best product for the money" win? We tried to have a balanced view of quality vs value and we also built this list with the serious amateur/professional in mind.
We also had much debate about how "new" these products had to be. We decided that since some of the best photography gear doesn't require a yearly update (like lenses) that we would not consider release date in choosing our winners. This decision will allow some products to win year after year but we believe that if they are the leader in that category they should be awarded over and over again even if their product isn't "new."
Now that you know our goals for this list, let's get to it.
Camera Of The Year
The title of "Camera Of The Year" is loaded title and I expect many people will argue that the D750 isn't the "best" camera of the year. I would agree with them. It doesn't have as many megapixels as the Canon 5DSR and it can't shoot 4k like the Sony A7RII. The button layout isn't really built with professionals in mind. The build quality can't stack up to the Nikon D810. Why then do we think that this is camera of the year? We believe it's by far the best value in photography right now.
The D750 is a full frame camera with 24MP, amazing ISO performance, and fantastic 1080p video for less than $1900. This camera consistently appears for sale on eBay for less than $1500 brand new. We filmed our entire Photographing the World series with D750s and each one of them survived hours in the rain, hail, sleet, and snow of Iceland and New Zealand, and the ultra hot, humid, and dusty conditions of Cambodia. I think the Nikon D810 is a great camera, I would even admit that it's a "better camera." But it's an additional $800. I personally can't justify the extra money for my current projects and I must say, I don't ever want to live without an articulating screen again.
Being that we own six D750s I didn't think it was fair for Patrick or I to nominate it for Camera Of The Year. When we asked the Fstoppers community what their favorite camera of the year was, the majority of them chose the D750. We then took the top suggestions to the 50 Fstoppers writers and the majority of them also agreed that the D750 should be crowned as the camera of the year not because it's the "best" camera at any price point but because it has raised the bar for all other camera in this class.
If you have $1900 to spend on a camera, I don't think you can currently find anything better than the Nikon D750.
Best Entry Camera
Fstoppers is currently filming an "intro to photography" tutorial and therefore I have been using a range of "entry level" level cameras on a daily basis. I personally shoot with Nikon gear professionally, but my favorite affordable camera that I've used is the Canon T6i. If you or someone you know is interested in getting seriously into photography, I cannot recommend it enough. I think the button layout is more intuitive than the Nikon competitor, and the image quality and price is actually superior to many point and shoot cameras. If you don't need the latest sensor and built in wifi the Canon T5i is still available.
Mirrorless Camera Of The Year
This category was a tough one because most digital cameras these days are "mirrorless." We decided to consider all interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras. This means that we considered relatively cheap and small Micro 4/3rd cameras all the way up to full frame cameras like the Sony A7RII.
After much debate, we decided to give this title to the Fuji XT-1. We are the first to admit that cameras like the Sony A7RII or A7SII are "superior" cameras overall, but we also feel that they are completely different products. The XT-1 is the current leader of the compact mirrorless while Sony is basically making DSLR replacements (and will win in other categories). For less than $1000 the Fuji XT-1 is hard to beat and has become the favorite camera in this class.
The XT-1 has incredible image quality and ISO performance in a very compact package that caters toward the photography enthusiast. If you used to enjoy shooting film, this camera will bring back that feeling. Instead of digital knobs and LCDs, you are able to set your cameras shutter, ISO with mechanical knobs. The Aperture setting has been moved to a digital ring on the lens which will feel more natural to old-school shooters.
Some professionals today have completely switched over to the XT-1 as their main camera, but many more of them are buying one as a travel camera. They keep a DSLR for work but then shoot with the XT-1 for fun. If you feel like your DSLR is pulling the passion out of your photography, you may really enjoy the XT-1. Who knows, it might just become your main camera.
Most Innovative Camera
There wasn't much debate that the most innovative camera of 2015 had to be a Sony camera. The question was, should it be the A7RII or the A7SII. Patrick argued that ISO performance is more "innovative" than megapixels and therefore the A7SII should win. Although I agree with his logic, the A7RII has become one of the most popular cameras of the year and has a much customer broader base than the A7SII. For that reason, we are crowning the A7R II as the most innovative camera of the year.
Sony has basically done the unthinkable; they have created a camera market (full frame mirrorless digital) while at the same time disrupting the professional DSLR market. While some mirrorless cameras like the XT-1 have seen impressive success, most professional shooters still held on to their DSLRs for professional work. The A7RII has huge groups of photographers selling their Nikon and Canon gear to jump on Sony's new system. Although many photographers will argue that the A7R II is superior to DSLRs in every way, I personally can't go that far. I will say that the A7RII is comparable to DSLR (which is a feat in itself) and some features, like 4k video recording and silent shooting, are without question better than current DSLRs.
With it's improved auto focusing, image quality, 4k video, silent shooting, digital viewfinder, and compact size, the A7RII has made the jump to mirrorless for many photographers effortless. At this point Sony appears to be releasing a new pro level camera almost every single year with incredible improvements. If Sony can continue this trend, and companies like Nikon and Canon continue to release the same, marginally improved products every 3 or 4 years, Sony mirrorless cameras will completely out perform in every category in the near future.
Best Camera Shoulder Bag
The Every Day messenger isn't officially out yet and it is already the most famous camera bag of all time. Peak Design teamed up with Trey Ratcliff to produce a stylish looking messenger bag and ended up raising 4.8 million dollars in presales during a Kickstarter campaign. I'm personally not a fan of shoulder bags in general but I was excited to hear if this bag would receive positive reviews once photographers actually started using it.
Luckily, The Every Day Messenger was able to stand up to the hype and photographers everywhere are loving it. This is a product that I personally don't need but it has received so much positive feedback from the photography community, it deserved to win as the best camera shoulder bag of 2015.
Best Camera Roller Bag
The Every Day Messenger is a brand new fashionable camera bag but our choice for best camera roller is the opposite. The Think Tank Photo Airport Security V2 isn't new or very fashionable. In fact, you might say it looks a little boring. This bag has been out for years and may be overlooked by photographers simply for it's looks, but I have to say, it's the best camera bag (in any category) that I have ever used. I'm not going to say generic statements like "It can hold so much stuff," but I will say that it built with the best materials of any bag I've ever used. The zippers are industrial grade, the fabric is tough, stain and weather resistant, the wheels are inline skate wheels, and they can take a beating and keep rolling with incredibly smoothness. I got one years ago and I have flown with it all around the world and it still looks new. While my other bags have ripped, the zippers have broken, the pull out handles have jammed, and the wheels have gummed up, my Airport Security is going strong.
Best Prime Wide
Finding a great, fast wide angle prime lens used to be a difficult task. Wide angle lenses with fast apertures are extremely difficult to engineer, and it has been only recently that manufacturers have been able to offer lenses with apertures faster than 1.8 at a reasonable price. These fast wide angle lenses allow you to capture a large field of view while maintaining a shallow depth of field. This makes them perfect tools for photo journalists who want to tell a complex story while still giving isolation to their main subject. Astrophotographers have also found these lenses extremely useful because they allow them to lower their ISO to capture the night sky with much less noise than before.
The winner of this category was actually fairly easy to pick because there are only a handful of lenses that are both wide with fast apertures. The Sigma 20mm 1.4 ART lens is the best overall wide angle lens available in 2015. This lens is an update to the older Sigma 20mm 1.8 EX DG which many found to be quite lacking when shot wide open. The new Sigma 20mm 1.4 is not only sharper than its predecessor but it is also ⅓ of a stop faster which is great for astrophotographers who are looking to squeeze as much light out of the night sky, without extending their exposure times. Canon does not offer a lens equal to this Sigma ART lens and the closest ultra fast wide angle lens by Nikon is the Nikkor 20mm 1.8 which lacks quite a bit of sharpness overall. Even though the Sigma lens costs $899, it is still relatively inexpensive for this focal length and aperture. In the future we hope to see more ultra fast wide angle primes released by Canon, Nikon, and Sony but for the time being the Sigma 20mm 1.8 ART lens easily wins best of class in this category.
Best Prime Standard
Perhaps there is not a more popular lens than a standard prime lens. Many old film cameras came standard with a 35mm or 50mm lens, and for many photographers, a prime lens is the first lens they add to their DSLR to supplement the standard kit lens. Prime lenses have the advantage of being tack sharp wide open and also have extremely large apertures which allow them to shoot well in low light. When it was time to crown a top prime in the normal range, we considered everything from 35mm to 85mm and ultimately awarded the Sigma 50mm 1.4 lens as the best of class.
For decades, Nikon and Canon have had the best primes available for general photography (Zeiss lenses shouldn’t be excluded either despite their price). Recently however, Sigma has been gaining a massive following with their new ART line of lenses. If you look at any lens comparison sites or ask anyone who has used the Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART lens, you might be shocked at how “bad” every other 50mm lens compares to it. The resolving power of other 50mm lenses isn’t even close; the Sigma completely destroys the competition. The build quality is also really nice on the Sigma lens which shows just how far the 3rd party lens company has come from the days when their lenses were often viewed as second rate to Nikon and Canon. Those days are a thing of the past however, and many fans of this ART lens are eagerly awaiting for Sigma further their lens technology with the release of an 85mm version.
Any product that completely destroys the competition comes with a price, and unfortunately for fans of the 50mm focal length, that price comes in at almost $1000. This art lens is more expensive than the Canon 50mm 1.4 and Nikon 50mm 1.4 lenses combined, and it rivals the prices found on other prime favorites like the Canon 85 1.2 and the Nikon 85 1.4. If owning the absolutely best normal prime lens is important to you, the Sigma 50mm 1.4 is a lens that stands alone at the top.
Best Prime Telephoto
When comparing telephoto options, we chose to keep the competition between lenses that have focal length of 85mm and longer. Most telephoto lenses over 85mm have a great f2.8 aperture option, but we decided to exclude some of the longer f2.8 (400mm or more). Although these longer lenses can produce incredible images, they can also cost over $10,000 and their purposes are usually limited to sports and nature photography. Thus, they are not practical for most photographers.
The telephoto lens that we believe has the most versatility and produces the best image is the Canon 100mm 2.8 macro. It has a solid build quality but isn’t nearly as heavy as prime lenses with longer focal lengths making it easy to pack up and travel with. The lens creates incredibly sharp images when shooting macro images and creates beautiful bokeh. For those who want to back up from their subjects a little more, the focal length also makes for beautiful portrait work.
Best Zoom Wide
There are several great wide zoom lenses but this year Tamron came in with flying colors with their introduction of the Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 VC. I was able to use this lens during a trip to Iceland and personally experienced it’s ability to capture a very wide scene without bringing in much distortion or vignetting. The lens maintains excellent color balance.The ability to stop down to f2.8 allows for low light situations like capturing star trails in the night sky. One of the only downsides to this lens is because the shape of the glass on the front element, there is no way to attach neutral density filters. This problem occurs on man wide zoom lenses but it’s worth noting for the Tamron 15-30 as well.
The focal range on this lens makes it fantastic for almost any landscape scene but the lens is also viable for other uses. I’ve also bought this lens along to weddings for both photos and video and it performs quite well. The low light performance and VC gives the lens an edge for more quirky/wide dance floor shots.
Best Zoom Standard
What defines a standard zoom? For this category we pretty much narrowed all lenses that fall in the 24mm - 105mm range. This allowed us to include some highly praised lenses like the Canon 24-105 f4 which sort of falls in the telephoto category below. All things considered, a standard zoom lens is usually going to be you go to lens that does most of the heavy lifting for a working photographer. It is great for travel, wide landscapes, portraits, weddings, products, families, and just about everything in between.
For years now, the Canon and Nikon 24-70 2.8 lens have been competing to be the leaders of the pack when it comes to fast focusing, stabilization, sharpness, and beautiful craftsmanship and design. There have also been other contenders like the Tamron 24-70 VR and Sony’s new 24-70. However, the 2015 prize for Best Zoom goes to the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM.
The main things that makes the Cannon stick out in front of the competition is really the sharpness and the design. We own several Nikkor 24 -70 lenses here at Fstoppers, and as much as we like those lenses, over time the zoom ring seems to get sticky and the rubber almost always expands to the point where it needs to be replaced. In contrast, the Canon 24-70 seems to maintain its sturdy build. When put up in side by side comparisons with the Tamron or Sony, the Canon also takes the cake for capturing the sharpest image and thus is the clear winner.
Best Zoom Telephoto
Coming up with the best lens for the telephoto zoom category was one of the hardest decisions of this year’s awards. The office and staff of Fstoppers debated over and over which lens would get this coveted top zoom lens accolade. In the end, it was the Nikon 70 - 200 2.8 VR II lens that wound up getting mentioned the most.
There are a ton of awesome lenses in this category (including one of the most interesting lenses of the year, the Sigma 120 - 300 2.8), and picking just one wasn’t easy. We wanted to pick a respectable lens that many photographers use day in and day out but we also didn’t want to exclude the longer lenses used for wildlife and sports. After a lot of deliberations, we decided to go with a lens everyone should own: the 70 - 200mm 2.8 lens. This lens range is great for indoor portraits, outdoor sports, beautiful compression for landscapes, and awesome bokeh when focused close.
The Nikkor version of this lens wound up being this year’s winner in this category. What made the Nikkor 70 - 200mm lens rise above the rest was the overall sharpness it is able to obtain when shot wide open. The inner office staff at Fstoppers owns both the Nikon and Canon versions of this lens and we have also used other 70 - 200mm 2.8 lenses made by other manufacturers, and the Nikon lens always seems to come out the sharpest. This lens used to be over $2500 just a few years ago, but luckily the prices on most lenses in this range have come down just just under $2000. If you shoot with Nikon I’m sure you will be excited to hear that Fstoppers has awarded this lens the top spot in the telephoto category, but to be fair, almost all of the 70 - 200 2.8 lenses on the market are high quality pieces of glass. This is definitely a lens every photographer should have their camera bag.
Most Innovative Lens
Best Strobe Lighting System (High End)
Profoto changed the game back in 2009 when they released the D1 monolight. In a very small package they managed to pack a 1000 watt strobe with 1/10th stop shifting, proportional modeling lights, and a best in business wireless syncing system.
In 2014 Profoto released the B1, basically a battery powered D1. This strobe has 500 watts of power, the same proportional modeling lamps and world class air remote system. I've been using B1s for over a year now and I can't imaging going to a shoot without them. Instead of looking for power outlets and running extension cables I can finally put my lights anywhere and have far more power than my bag of speedlights can produce. My favorite aspect of both the D1 and B1 is the air remote system. Why? Because it works. Every. Single. Time. I love my Pocket Wizards but 5% of the time they will not fire. In the years that I have been using both D1s and B1s I don't think I have had a single misfire. That's pretty incredible. You can also easily change the power of the flash from the remote. Take a shot, check the image, if it's too dark or too bright, change the power output on the air remote that on top of your camera and your done.
Best Strobe Lighting System (Budget)
The Einstein flash by Paul C. Buff certainly isn't new. It was actually released back in 2010. Even after 5 years, it is by far the best value in strobe lighting currently on the market. Yes the AlienBee unit is cheaper but we think the extra $140/unit is worth it. Why? The Einstein unit has one of the fastest flash duration in the game at 1/13,500 of a second. It has 9 stops of power variability in 1/10th stop increments and color consistency throughout the range. The back has a color screen (an amazing addition for a product in this class) and a fantastic wireless syncing system that allows you to change power output wirelessly.
Even though this product is old it completely dominates the studio strobe market because no other light can match these features and still remain less than $500. Unless something drastically changes in this market, we don't imagine the Einstein will have to worry about any competitors for a very long time.
Best Speedlite System (High End)
Although it’s been out for almost three years, Canon is still leading the field with their 600EX-RT speedlite system. The flash system has a heftier price tag than most speedlite’s at around $475 per unit but it’s definitely worth the cost.
Each speedlite comes equipped with a built in radio trigger that can communicate with any other 600EX-RT on the same channel and ID number. Flashes can be activated, deactivated, changed to manual, ETTL, or adjusted in power all from a single unit. The ability to remove pocketwizards or any other third party trigger from the equation simplifies off camera flash so well. There are no more headaches of faulty cords, bad trigger batteries, or regular misfires. Using the system, I’ve almost never encountered a misfires of any kind. I get dependable shots at power settings set from my camera’s flash. If you are going to keep all your flashes off camera, Canon also offers a cheaper ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter for on camera control.
Best Speedlite System (Budget)
If you’re trying to stick to a tighter budget but still want an incredible speedlite system, Yonguo created an almost exact replica of the Canon 600EX-RT system. In fact, the system can work hand in hand with the Canon 600EX-RT flashes. The Yongnuo system comes with the same perks of built in wireless control. You can control the power settings and activity of any flash nearby from either a single on camera flash or the Yongnuo Wireless Speedlite Transmitter. Make a note that the interaction between the two systems is not always flawless. I’ve heard of reports from several photographers that the Canon system has trouble when an additional Yongnuo user tries to tap into the same system at the same time.
Another major downside to the Yongnuo system is their quality control. The Yongnuo YN600EX-RT have a much worse build quality than the Canon system with cheaper plastic and parts that fall apart more easily. If you opt for the cheaper version, performance of the flashes may be similar straight out of the box, but the Yonguo speedlites are much more likely to break or malfunction before their Canon counterparts. That said, if you take good care of your Yongnuo YN600EX-RT’s, they could prove to be a better investment than the Canon system.
Best Constant Lighting System
We film a lot of videos at Fstoppers and we have used every type of light imaginable for our videos. Some incandescent bulbs are extremely bright but they also can get dangerously hot. So hot that they have started fires in our studio. Florescent lights are much cooler but can't be dimmed. LED panels are either too small, too cumbersome, or too expensive.
Wescott's new Flex lighting system has completely changed the constant lighting market. They have placed LED lights on flexible mats that can be folded up for travel or very specific lighting needs and stretched out into panels with a simple frame system. The lights have 4.5 stops of dimming and are shockingly bright. So bright, that they can be used in some outdoor situations.
If you want an even softer light source you can simply fold it up into a larger softbox. If you need to fit it into a tight place, simply remove the frame and shape it to fit.
"Peter Hurley's Flex kit" is a kit consisting of 4 lights, two 1x3 and tow 1x2 foot mats. I like this kit in particular because it has the larger 1x3 foot mats than can be combined to make one giant 2x3 foot panel.
Obviously Peter uses these lights for shooting stills but we plan to use these 100% for video production. At this point there doesn't seem to be any competition for the Flex lights. If you are looking for some modular, ultra bright, constant lights for stills or video, look no further.
Best Video Accessory
Although I am shooting more video than stills these days, Fstoppers.com is still basically a "photography" website. In the professional video world there have been some amazing products by Red, FreeFly, and Arri in the last year, and sometimes we cover those news stories but most of the video shooters who work at Fstoppers don't work with gear like that. We are the new type of video shooter, the "run and gunner." Many of us are shooting on DSLRs and GoPros and cell phones. We are the ones setting up the shot, crafting the light, and editing the final product.
If I were filming the next Star Wars movie I would probably choose a different product for "video accessory of the year" but I'm not. For me and the type of video that I shoot, the best video product accessory of the year is the Rhino Slider Evo.
The Rhino Slider Evo basically takes a standard, very well made slider, and adds the most intuitive motion control in the industry today. The Motion controller is a unit with a scroll wheel, 2 buttons, and a color screen. Within seconds of picking up the controller anyone at any level can instantly understand how to manually controller the sliders movements in real time, or setting up repeating moves or time-lapses.
The best part of this entire package is that the controller itself has a battery built in. It also has a magnet that allows you to snap the controller to the side of the slider. This means that the unit is completely portable. I bring it to every video shoot I have and it's a pleasure to use each time. After using this slider I never want to do manual slides again.
Best Photography Accessory Under $200
Many photographers today have no interest in buying expensive studio strobes. Speedlights have become so powerful, so versatile, and so cheap that they have become the most convenient lighting option available. For years we have been trying to figure out ways to shape the light from our speedlights. Softening speedlights was overcome years ago by speedlight speedrings for softboxes and umbrella brackets. Directing hard light and gelling these flashes usually involved tape or velcro; it worked but it certainly wasn't elegant. Mag Mod came around in 2014 and simplified this process. The MagGrip simply slides over the top of your speedlight and remains securely under the elastic pressure. A range of adapters then snap on to the MagGrip with embeded Magnets. Nothing could be faster or easier to use. If you are consistently shooting with speedlights, The MagMod system is a must have accessory.
Best Photography Accessory Over $200
Best Drone/Aerial System