Everybody loves a bargain, but photographers in particular thrill at the prospect of great gear for less. In our annual roundup, we present equipment that we deem top value, whether you’re shopping for travel shooting, everyday use, or studio work.
Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
This latest addition to the class of pro-grade, weather-sealed, f/2.8 constant-aperture telezooms wowed us in our March 2013 lab test. With excellent sharpness, low distortion, and Vibration Compensation that gave us an edge of 3.5 stops on average, it was a winner. And at a price of $1,499, this full-frame optic comes in $900-$1,000 less than the equivalent Canon or Nikon zooms. Also available in Sony Alpha mount, with no VC—most Alpha DSLRs have sensor-shift IS.
AR PARROT DRONE 2.0
This quad copter may be toy like, but at $300, it can be a fun intro to drone photography. Controlled by FreeFlight 2.0, an Android Wi-Fi app (no iOS), it has two onboard cameras, one for 720p HD video, the other for lores stills. Stream images to your phone or tablet, or send them to social media sites.
SAMSUNG NX300 WITH 20-50MM F/3.5-5.6 LENS
This nifty retro-look ILC is jam-packed with quality and capabilities. Its 20.3MP APS-C- size sensor put up Excellent image quality in our lab tests. You get a 3.31-inch tilting touchscreen, 1920x1080p60 video, speedy hybrid contrast/ phase-detection autofocus, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity to smartphones and social media—plus Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5. That’s plenty for $750 with the kit lens.
PENTAX Q WITH 5-15MM F/2.8-4.5 LENS
It’s a fun, really tiny camera with a full set of controls, and at $250 with a 27.5-83mm equivalent lens, it costs less than many compacts—and more than $500 less than when it was first introduced. And you can swap the lens for the Q line’s «toy» optics or even K-mount lenses with an adapter.
SIGMA 18-35MM F/1.8 DC HSM ART
With an approximate 28-56mm equivalent range, this APS-C optic is perhaps the perfect travel lens—and as the first and only f/1.8 zoom, it’s unique. That alone makes the $799 price sound worth it, but you also get five SLD elements. Internal focusing and zooming, and super-quiet HSM focusing. Now, if only it were stabilized.
TOKINA AT-X 12-28MM
F/4 PRO DX This new APS-C zoom, favorably priced at $599, made our all-star team of f/4 constant-aperture zooms last month.
DOMKE F-10 RUGGEDWEAR MEDIUM
Easy to carry and easy to access, this $70 lightweight shoulder bag can hold a DSLR with standard zoom, plus a second small lens and flash.
ADORAMA FLASHPOINT DG600
Lightweight but durable, this 300-Ws strobe has an LED modeling light and internal cooling fan, and for $310 you can get it with a portable battery pack for location shoots.
TREK-TECH TREKPOD XL
Great for shooters on the go, this $270 carbon-fiber unit functions as a monopod, tripod and hiking stick. Weighing just 1.5 pounds (with the included ballhead), it can support up to 13.5 pounds.
The year’s biggest deals (everyday)
A $797 price seem steep for a fixed-lens compact? It’s a positive bargain compared with others in the APS-C sensor class. The GR put up very strong numbers in our lab tests, and in the field, its controls are just plain cool.
NIK COLLECTION BY GOOGLE
A massively discounted plug-in pack: For $149, you get all five NIK apps (including Silver Efex Pro 2), a savings of $150-$350 off the original. The downside: Apps are no longer available a la carte.
SIGMA 19MM F/2.8 DNA
An Art series lens for ILCs in Micro Four Thirds or Sony E-mount, this elegant, tiny lens scales up to 38mm or 28.5mm equivalents, respectively. Linear AF motor is designed to be quiet enough for video shooting, and price is nice at $199.
SPINLIGHT 360 SYSTEM
These modular modifiers use a circular mount that fastens onto most shoe-mount flashes and accepts numerous accessories: gels, half domes, etc. Kits start at $73.
CANON EOS 60D
It may be long in the tooth, but it’s still a very good tooth. As Canon’s EOS 70D, the replacement for the 60D, has been announced, the venerable 60D is going for $899, street, and is sometimes rebated as much as $200 below that. Run, now: that’s a larcenously good deal for a stoutly made, 18MP DSLR that aced an Excellent image quality rating from ISO 100 through 800 in our lab tests—still an exemplary performance nearly three years later. You may be able to nab a good deal in a kit with a lens, like the one with the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 EF-S IS lens for $1,099, street.
NIKON 24-85MM F/3.5-4.5 AF-S VR
Nikon added Vibration Reduction, exotic glass, weather- sealing, and a super quiet AF motor to the third generation of this full-framer, and they add up to make this $597 lens a fine deal for Nikonians. While it has a slower variable aperture, the faster alternative, the non- stabilized 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S Nikkor, will whack your wallet for nearly $1,300 more.
MANFROTTO MK394-H TRIPOD KIT
A great lightweight ‘pod for all-around use at a great price, $100. The four-section aluminum legs use thumb-operated flip locks—our favorite type. Maximum height is 56.7 inches, and the 7.7-pound load will suit most entry- or mid-level DSLRs with not-too-big lenses. Of the three MK394 models, we like the H, whose quick-release head is suitable for stills or video.
SONY ALPHA NEX-3N WITH 16-50MM F/3.5¬5.6 LENS
The lowest-price entry into the NEX line at $498, the 16.1MP NEX-3N makes a nice family camera, with its tilting 3-inch LCD, full HD video, and clever, useful auto modes. While not a resolution monster, it’s a noise-buster—it hits unacceptable noise only at ISO 16,000.
The year’s biggest deals (studio)
Elinchrom D-Lite RX One
Budding strobists looking for an entry-level flash with a pro-level build should consider this $226 unit from top maker Elinchrom. Its 100-Ws power can be varied over 5 stops in 1/10-stop increments—unusual at this price. The built-in Skyport receiver allows wireless triggering and control to almost 400 feet. (You’ll need to get a transmitter for this.) Optional apps and a Wi-Fi module allow for wireless control from iOS devices. Light and compact (2 pounds; 7 inches deep) the fan-cooled unit accepts most Elinchrom modifiers and softboxes all the way up to the 53-inch Octabox.
ROKINON 24MM F/3.5 TILT/SHIFT LENS
In what is shaping up to be (perhaps) the Decade of the Tilt/Shift Lens, more and more makers are introducing new versions of these optics, including a company we would have never expected in the game: Korean upstart Samyang, which markets under the Rokinon label in the U.S. This full-frame optic has rotation at both tilt and swivel, index scales, and lock knobs galore, just like more expensive makes. Our yet-to-be-published SQF tests indicate excellent sharpness, and at $999, it’s more than $1,000 less than the equivalent Canon or Nikon lenses.
FOTODIOX PRO LED100WA
It looks like a strobe, but the $325 Pro LED100WA is a cool-operating LED light whose Bowens S-type bayonet mount accepts strobe snoots, barn doors, softboxes, and grids. Available in daylight- and tungsten- balanced versions, it’s equally suited to still or video applications, and its brightest power setting is equivalent to a 600-watt incandescent bulb.
OBEN BA-2 BALLHEAD
This beautifully made aluminum BA-2 from the B&H photo store is rated for up to 26.4 pounds, sports four bubble levels, and rotates 360 degrees with index marks. The locking quick-release plate has a rubberized surface, and a slot allows vertical camera placement. Purists might sniff that the head should have a second knob for tension control, but a single knob makes for simplicity in field or studio. Besides, given its price tag of $90, we will keep quibbles to a minimum.
You can’t afford not to have hard-drive backup, and, at $185—less than 50 bucks a terabyte, this Touro model is cheap insurance indeed.
ADOBE PHOTOSHOP ELEMENTS 11
Don’t want to rent the latest Adobe Photoshop via the Creative Cloud service? Elements have many of its retouching features—such as Layer Masks—for $85.
POCKETWIZARD PLUS X TRANSCEIVER
This $99 ticket to enter the PocketWizard radio-wireless system can trigger flashes or cameras, works with all PW units.
ZEIKOS EXTENSION TUBES
Okay, you give up autofocus and autoexposure, but at $24.80 (Nikon) or $13.40 (Canon), these manual extension tubes give you bargain entrée into the macro world. Use them with a normal lens or short tele.