I have used a lot of gear this year. Thanks to various vendors, my own trips to camera shops, and site members who have been generous with their gear, in 2012, I had exposure to many different products – camera bodies, lenses, lighting, and more.

If you watch my videos, you know that I’m a bit of a geek. In fact, I even spent some quality time with a dedicated Ubuntu laptop this year, courtesy of System 76. My intern, Raymond has been trying out various gadgets and software products, as well. I’m hoping to get something entirely different into the lab in the next few weeks, too – keep your fingers crossed!

I view camera bodies in 2012 as somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary. Nikon has raised the bar significantly in overall resolution for both full frame and cropped-sensor cameras. Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are everywhere, along with mirrorless fixed-lens cameras with very high quality fixed lenses.

Although my aging Nikon D300s sits dutifully by my side, there are three new camera bodies in 2012 that have distinguished themselves from the competition.

Although the Nikon D4 came to the stage in 2012, raising the bar for video in the professional DSLR category, I personally view this as a distraction. I am writing from the perspective of the still photographer. Video is great… and it is the foundation of how I communicate with all of you. However, I am putting video aside (mostly) for this article. So, from my perspective, the D4 is an incremental upgrade from the D3s. Don’t get me wrong, incremental upgrades are a necessary part of the industry, but the D4 does not make my list for 2012.

The Nikon D800 followed the D4’s introduction. In fact, there are two offerings… the D800 and the current sultan of sharpness, the D800E, absent an AA filter. 36 million pixels. The introduction of this camera woke everyone up. Criticism grew before the camera was released… Is it too many pixels? How will the high ISO performance be with so many pixels? When is the REAL successor to the D700 coming?

When I received my D800, I was able, at least in my mind, to silence the critics. It is a phenomenal camera body… at home, in the studio, in the desert, in the snow, and everywhere in between. It is not the frames-per-second monster that defines the D4, but it can reach a respectable 6fps with grip in DX crop mode. The DX crop mode, to its own credit, brings 15 mp. It’s sort of like buying a D800 and getting a D7000 on board for free.

Those familiar with Nikon’s top tier bodies can immediately control the basic settings on the D800. There are certainly some subtle changes to the layout and new accommodations for video. Some of the changes did receive criticism, but I appreciate Nikon’s perspective of wanting to move forward.

Overall, the D800 brings the durability and image quality that you would expect from a new-generation top of the line camera. Critics are holding on to hope that a spiritual successor to the D700 will arrive. In my opinion, it is already here.

The Nikon D600 is either the big brother to the D7000 or the little brother to the D800. It can certainly be viewed either way. Bringing an FX sensor to the lowest price point yet, the D600 gets many things right. And if it is the little brother to the D800, it’s the little brother that kicks at its heels and tries to “get the D800 in trouble with mom.”

While the D800 resolved a bit more detail, the difference in overall quality between the D600 and D800 is ‘splitting hairs.’ Each deliver fantastic image quality in a variety of situations. The D600 can do some things that the big brother can’t – 5.5fps with full FX resolution.

Each offers the convenience and security of dual memory card slots (the D800 with CF/SD while the D600 is SD/SD), and enough shooting and quality settings to keep everyone happy. Taking snapshots of the kids playing in the snow… either delivers rich, high-quality images at even the lowest quality and size settings. Camped out on the beach for a beautiful, dynamic pacific sunset? Both offer 14 bit RAW capability.

To me, the D600 brings a spirit of “I’m quick, fun, and I deliver the quality that you expect.” The D800 is a bit more ominous in its operation, bringing storage-busting 14 bit RAW files which will push your lenses to the limit.

Those moving up from the D3100/D90/D7000 will immediately be comfortable operating the D600. Those moving across from the D300s, D700, or D3 series will instantly feel at home with the operation of the D800.

At 2/3rds the price of the D800, the D600 deserves a serious look from all levels of photographers. The D800 places a premium on the ultimate level of image quality for DSLRs, while the D600 gets high marks (often the same marks as the D800) in many areas while available for a lower price.

The Canon Rebel T4i is my top entrant for entry level body in 2012. It cannot be mentioned without immediately discussing the flip-out touch screen. I like buttons. Many of us like buttons. The touch screen is handy. I thought I would hate it. I don’t. It’s quick to use and offers instant visual feedback. I like buttons on my DSLRs… I now like touch screens in addition to buttons. I want both on my cameras… all of my cameras.

The leading DSLR manufacturers are all bringing stellar image quality up and down their camera lines. Ease, speed, and comfort of use are the new differentiating factors. We are past the days of noisy images at ISO 400 and above. Colors pop, there is resolution to spare, and dynamic range is amazing. The difficulty has become differentiation within a manufacturer’s product line.

The ‘easy way out’ of differentiation is to cripple the entry level cameras while progressively adding features to the higher end models. This will be a fact of life for a long time… perhaps forever.

With the T4i, Canon has chosen a different route. Rather than simply relegate an entry level body to a subset of features, they have added a feature unique to this camera. Many will argue that the ‘Nikon equivalent’ of the T4i is the D5200. Personally, I do not endorse this belief. The D5200 is built from the D5100, offers less than the D7000 and a bit more than the D3100/D3200. At this moment, the T4i has the added advantage of U.S. availability, which the D5200 lacks.

The T4i brings extensive capability and uniqueness. Rather than burying critical features in the menus or requiring button and 4-way controller navigation, you can simply touch the screen to adjust a number of parameters. The entry level user does not need to memorize button location or change menu settings from shot to shot. Many functions simply require two touches of the screen. Is this optimal for professional users who need to change settings from shot to shot without their eye leaving the viewfinder? No. This camera is for parents, vacationers, seniors and students… folks who do not use their camera daily, nor do they get paid for their shots – but they expect to pick up their camera, make a few adjustments periodically, and come home with quality images. They sometimes need help from the camera… and they need a camera that is forgiving when the settings aren’t perfect for the situation. They need a quick burst for the breakaway in a soccer game… and they need compatibility with Canon speedlites when they decide to get more serious with their holiday photos.

For these users, the T4i is the top choice.

These are good times for the camera buyer. Whether you want image quality that rivals medium format film or a do-it-all-easily entry level camera, there a options for you – and typically more than one.

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