Chillout TGIF: Dear Santa: 3 Camera Recommendations for Christmas

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Followup to our Dear Santa letters, we received a number of emails requesting that we do a Chillout TGIF for cameras. We thought this is a brilliant idea, and moved the Phase One photo sample post to next week to bring you this special episode. Here are our Camera Recommendations at three price points.

I know, I know, it is almost Christmas. But still not too late for you to go out this weekend and buy that camera.

Since we started reviewing high end cameras, I have been quite frequently asked for camera recommendations. This is a quintessential question which plague almost every endeavour. Watches, cars, video games, knives, computers and of course, cameras. To make sense of this list, I carve out the following criteria:

  • Primary use for shooting watch macros (afterall we are a watch site), but also for general photography like portraits, travel photographs.
  • A system with two lenses to start and a third as an addition for later. This would typically mean a (1:1) 90mm macro lens which will double up for portrait, and a wider lens from 35-50mm for general photography. These focal lengths are full frame equivalents, and depending on crop factors of the sensor size, may be longer or shorter.
  • Three price points: S$4500, S$10000 and S$15000 for the body plus two lenses. Note prices notated as $ in this article is SINGAPORE Dollars and not US$.
  • Out of this budget but highly recommended is a good tripod and head. Next step up in upgrade would be a flash system.

So let’s get started with the camera recommendations:

S$4500: Panasonic G9 with Panasonic Leica 45/2.8 Macro and Panasonic Leica 25/1,4

We begin with the starter setup. For this, I select the small, light and handy micro four thirds (MFT) system. The MFT sensor is exactly half the diagonal dimension of the full frame, so the sensor is said to have a 0.5x crop. Some may say that the MFT is dead as only two vendors – Panasonic and Olympus are still making cameras in this format. The sensor size is also smaller than APC-C which is offered by Canon, Nikon, Leica but not Panasonic and Olympus. But the MFT system is usually smaller and lighter. Panasonic and Olympus also claim that because of the smaller sensor size, lens design is easier to optimize, resulting in better optics in a smaller package.

For the body of this package, I select the Panasonic Lumix G9 ($2499). I have been a fan of the Panasonic Lumix GH2 system since it came out in 2010. The GH2 has been my prime camera for web work ever since, and it is a hardy workhorse. The latest iteration in the series is the G9, released in December 2017 and recently got a firmware update bringing it to the latest specifications.

Panasonic Lumix G9. Image source: Panasonic.

The G9 is larger than its predecessors (body with battery weighs 650g), but now sports a 20Mp sensor, and a fairly fast autofocus system with 6.5 stops In Body Stabilization (IBIS). Image quality is excellent, and loses out to larger sensor cameras only in high ISO performance due to the smaller sensor size. But for web images and smaller prints, up to A4, it is sufficient, especially if you keep the ISO below 1600, though 3200 is usable. ISO noise is multicolour pixelation with loss of detail and colour.

For this system, I pick the Leica DG Macro Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 Mega O.I.S. ($799) as the first lens. This is this very same lens with my GH2 system, and 80% of the photographs of watches on this site are shot with this lens. The lens is small, very light, and very sharp. It renders contrast and tonal details very well. And with the 45mm focal length, which with the crop factor will have an equivalent field of view of 90mm in full frame, doubles up very well as a portrait lens. Minimum working distance with the 45mm is also quite small, and wrist shots are easy to achieve without having to contort the arm.

To complete the startup system, I would add the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH ($820). This is also a Leica lens design, and will serve as a general use normal lens. The lens is very small and light, but is also very sharp. The 25mm lens will work like a normal 50mm full frame equivalent and can serve this purpose well.

To extend the usability of this system, the next upgrade would be to add the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 ASPH H-X015 (S$870) for wide angle shots of interiors, architecture and landscape.

Total spend: $2499 + $799 + $820 = $4168.

S$10000: Sony A7R IV with G FE 90/2.8 Macro and G FE 35/1,8

Next up, a full frame camera. There are many to choose from in this category from the traditional Canon, Nikon offerings, to Leica and even Panasonic. But my choice is the new Sony A7R IV, with the class leading 61Mp BSI sensor (see the review of the Phase One XF for an explaination of the BSI sensor) in full frame (36mmx24mm).

The Sony A7R IV body is still rather small for a full frame mirrorless body, and is packed with the latest technical advances. Autofocus is super fast, almost instant. ISO performance is excellent, with files excellent up to 6400, and very good at 12800, only becoming visible higher than that. High speed continuous shooting is a fast 10fps, good even for sports.

The Sony A7R IV. Image source: Sony.

For this system, I have selected the FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS ($1599) as the first lens. It has a maximum magnification of 1X, and with a focal length of 90mm it doubles up very well as a portrait lens, especially with the wide f/2.8 maximum aperture. When used for macro, I will stop it down to f/11 or f/16. But for portraits, this lens is sharp wide open, with a nice bokeh.

As a second lens (and doubles up as the third), I choose a zoom: the Sony Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-35mm F2.8 ZA SSM II. This zoom is a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture and a nine-bladed circular diaphragm for smoother bokeh blur. This is a good all round lens, with a good focal length zoom, starting with a very wide 16mm, so the next upgrade need not be a wide angle lens.

Total spend: $4999 + $1599 + $3299 = $9897

S$15,000: Fujifilm GFX 50R with Fujinon GF 120/4 Macro, 18mm and 45mm extension tubes and Fujinon GF 50/3.5

This is almost the exact system I reviewed earlier, with the exception of the substitution of the 50mm lens for the 45 in the review. Please refer to the review and the accompanying sample images article for the full details.

In summary, the GFX 50R ($6399) is an excellent camera and is the new entry level into the medium format world. The camera is ultimately competent, well designed and produces excellent images. With the GF50mm F3.5 R LM WR ($1499) lens, the the GFX 50R remains light and rather compact, and will be useful for general photography work. I used the larger GF45mm in this manner throughout the weeks when I had the review system. The lens is very small for a medium format lens, much smaller than the GF45mm I tested, or the GF63mm, and very light. Autofocus performance is also excellent for medium format. The lens is sharp and usable wide open.

Fujifilm GFX 50R with GF 120mm F4 OIS WR Macro.

We require both extension tubes because the GF120mm F4 R LM OIS WR Macro ($4199) has a maximum magnification of 0.5X. Using both tubes (MCEX-18G WR and MCEX-45G WR, each $499) stacked will bring the magnification to 1X. And using the shorter MCEX-18G WR tube on its own extends the lens by 18mm which will allow the GF50mm to focus nearer for a more relaxed wrist shot routine than the GF120mm’s longer minimum focus will allow.

The GF120mm is also at a good focal length for portraits. Both lenses are very sharp, with excellent contrast and tonal fidelity. As an add-on upgrade, the wide angle duties will be met with the GF23mm F4 R LM WR.

Total investment: $6399 + $4199 + $499 + $499 + $1499 = $13,095

Concluding thoughts

There you have it. My camera recommendations for three systems at 3 price points. This is the route I would go if I were to invest in a camera at these budgets, so perhaps personal decisions. I guess you could substitute the Panasonic G9 with an APS-C camera like the Fujifilm XT-3 for about similar spend. In the full frame arena, the Sony A7R IV can be substituted with the Canon EOS R or Nikon Z7 or Panasonic S1 for similar investment. The Canon 5D IV or the Nikon D850 will also be in the same landscape. Competition at this level is very high, and thus the prices tend to bunch and track closely to each other. But the story is different at the high end enthusiast and professional level medium format systems. At the $15,000 level, the Fujifilm GFX 50R offers the lowest cost of entry into medium format, beating even its own 50S sibling, so I am hard pressed to suggest an alternative. Perhaps the full frame DSLR might be an option, and one can look into the likes of the Canon 1Dxmkii or the Nikon D5.

Also, as an exercise in grial chasing, I might perhaps add that for a system where money is no object, I will recommend the Phase One XF IQ4 150 with the Schneider Kreuznach LS 45mm f/3.5 Blue Ring and the Schneider Kreuznach LS 120mm f/4 Blue Ring Macro lens that I reviewed for a cool $82,000. Add the Schneider Kreuznach 28mm f/4.5 Aspherical for wide angle duties.

Final note: Deployant nor the author have no commercial affiliations to any of the companies recommended in this article.


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