Mid-year report card: Who’s acing smart cameras and who’s flunking out?

Mid Year Camera Report

This year hasn’t been kind to camera companies. Industry analysts recently stated compact camera sales have already dropped 30 percent in 2013. The reason? Smartphones continue to shave off their profit margins at the low-end. Smartphone cameras, which once lagged behind traditional cameras in picture quality, are getting stronger and giving people fewer reasons to carry two devices.

Yet, amid this fierce challenge, some camera companies are thriving with advanced models that smartphones can’t touch. You see, smartphone cameras are fine for casual, every-day photos, but if you’re looking for the ultimate in picture quality, you’d still want to use a dedicated camera with a strong lens and sensor – where camera companies excel in, naturally. And there are some awesome shooting options out there.

What follows is a six-month report card that looks at which camera company is offering the most compelling products, and it isn’t judged on a company’s financial performance or numbers. While there’s a bit of subjectivity, our grading is based on recently reviewed products and hands-on time with newly announced models (as well as the many years of experience this author has had tracking the companies mentioned below). Let’s take a look at who’s making the grade, and who needs to pack their rucksack for remedial summer school.

Samsung (A)

Mid year report card Samsung NX300Any company that gives Apple a run for the money in the smartphone arena should be expected to blow away its camera competitors – this year Samsung is currently the one to beat.

We love the recently introduced NX300. Not only does it deliver fine images and videos but it has the best implementation of Wi-Fi of any camera available. Samsung also just announced the Samsung Galaxy NX, a 20-megapixel, Android-powered compact system camera (CSC) that offers an always-on cellular connection. The company also unveiled the first smartphone with an optical zoom lens. Between its latest NX models (like the  NX2000) and smartphone breakthroughs, Samsung is now leading the digital imaging pack.

Sony (A-)

Mid year report card Sony Cyber Shot RX1The company made such huge strides last year it’s still basking in the glow of the full-frame Cyber-shot RX1, a camera we dubbed the best point-and-shoot ever. Recently Sony tweaked that model by removing the low-pass filter with the new RX1R ($2,800, due this month). Sony claims this will deliver more detail and resolution, but after reviewing the original RX1, it’s hard to imagine it getting better. Sony recently unveiled the $750 RX100 II with a new 20-megapixel chip, a vari-angle LCD, and a dollop of Wi-Fi and NFC technology added for good measure. Sony looks to be a major player in the years ahead – especially since they are one of the leaders in the growing mirrorless CSC category.

Fujifilm (B+)

Fujifilm X-E1Unlike Kodak, the other film company, Fujifilm successfully made the transition through the digital minefield. It’s carved out a really nice niche for itself with the X-series CSCs and some point-and-shoots. In fact, the company has been surging ever since the X Pro1 CSC hit the shelves. Oh, you’ll find the cheapo Fujifilm camera at Wal-Mart (although Fujifilm is planning to vacate this low-end space) but the real story is the X-series, which has entranced many enthusiasts. The newest edition is the more affordable X-M1 ($799). 

Nikon (B+)

Mid year report card Nikon D7100 DSLRWe recently raved about the D7100 DSLR and wholeheartedly recommended it for serious shutterbugs. Yet Nikon offers a lot more than bulky DSLR cameras. We’re in the middle of testing the Coolpix A, a compact model you can easily put in your pocket and has the same-size sensor as a DSLR. Stay tuned for the official review but so far it’s a major winner. Add to the fact Nikon is also getting big in the CSC category and it’s easy to see why the company gets higher marks. 

Olympus (B)

Mid year report card Olympus PEN E P5We give Olympus props for being the first major manufacturer to realize smartphones are killing the low-end of the camera business and to do something about it: abandoning the category (the V series) this past spring and focusing on higher-end offerings. That leaves them with their highly regarded Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) cameras such as the new PEN E-P5 and enthusiast point-and-shoots like rugged cams and mega-zooms. If Olympus can continue to harness its success with its PEN and OM-D MFT cameras, and collaborate more with major shareholder/partner Sony, things could be on the upswing.

Canon (B-)

Mid year report card Canon EOS MThink of Canon as the class geek who’s not only been usurped by a smarter kid in class but one who happens to be loved by every girl in school. There’s no question Canon makes some of the best cameras, but first-half announcements have been somewhat lackluster. Other companies (see Samsung and Sony) seem to be running circles around this venerable firm.

That said, we’re sure Canon’s grade will improve in the second-half with the new 20.2-megapixel EOS 70D DSLR (due September), which should be a hit with enthusiasts – especially with a new Dual Pixel CMOS AF that’s supposed to improve focusing during Live View and video capture. Canon continues to bank on its DSLRs – where it’s dominant – while others are churning out CSCs (Canon’s only CSC to date is the EOS M, which has been a bit of a disappointment), but the new compact EOS Rebel SL1 – “world’s smallest DSLR” – could help attract users looking to step up to a small interchangeable lens model. But without a strong mirrorless offering, Canon could miss out on the growing CSC market.

Panasonic (B-)

Mid year report card Panasonic Lumix G6We never expect fireworks from Panasonic yet it continues to crank out some solid CSCs and point-and-shoots. The company recently added two affordable MFT interchangeable lens cameras with Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity (Lumix G6/GF6). Panasonic also has a new enthusiast point-and-shoot – the LF1 – that captures RAW files. Again, the products are not fireworks spectacular but definitely beyond kids waving a sparkler.

Pentax/Ricoh (Incomplete)

Mid year report card Pentax K30Pentax has been through so many ownership changes throughout its history, it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. Things are settling down – Ricoh owns them – and Pentax is still turning out solid DSLRs. And like the kid in class who wants the teacher’s attention, they’ve introduced a bunch of camera bodies in multicolor options. Whether you find them repulsive or attractive is your call but the DSLRs are decent and affordable. We can’t say as much for Pentax Q-series CSCs – choose another brand, please. Under the Ricoh name, however, the new GR ($799) is generating a lot of positive buzz. Similar to the Nikon Coolpix A in many ways, but it costs $300 less. Until we get our hands on one, the grade for Pentax and Ricoh remains incomplete.