The best products of the year (2020)
(AKA Colin’s Gear Guide)
I reviewed a lot of stuff in 2020. What is the best? Check it out here.
2020 was an amazing year for tech. There were a lot of revolutionary advances in the areas of Photo, Video and Creative tech. I wanted to share all my favorite products of the year. Kind of a Colin Smith’s creative tech roundup kind of thing. There are some that I included last year, that are in here again, Why? Because some are so good (DJI Mavic 2 Pro) that I still think they are the best available.
Now, the criteria for this isn’t just a bunch of things I’ve seen other people use. This is tech so good, I actually own and use everyday. There were some products that didn’t make the grade, which I returned or they are gathering dust somewhere. When I replace a piece of gear, I usually research and test many options before adopting it. Full disclosure, some of these were given to me and others I purchased myself. If it’s not the best of class I’m not including it, even if it was given to me, so this isn’t a sponsored post, its my unbiased opinion. (Ill add a little asterisk * by the products given to me, so that you know). Most of these I have reviewed throughout this year and I’ll link to those reviews.
This is purely my opinion and based on my hands-on experience. Yes, there will be “what about xyz products?” and these might not be included because I haven’t had hands on experience with them, so I won’t make blind recommendations. For example, I’ve never used a Nikon camera, so I can’t tell you how great or terrible they are. I’m mainly a Mac user, so I can’t talk about all the amazing Windows laptops (Although I do use Windows Desktop systems in my workflow as well as Mac). I think you get the idea, so please don’t fill up the comments with “what about” posts 🙂
Alright, let’s go!
2020 13″ MacBook Pro M1 16Gb
The M1 chip has taken the world by storm. This is one of those rare times when a device really is much faster and more efficient. At the time of this, the best machine available with the M1 chipset is the 13″ MacBook pro. Id the 13″ is what you are looking for and 16Gb memory is sufficient, then this is a machine that will get better over time. The reason I say better over time, not too many applications are available as native Apple Silicon (M1) AKA ARM. Most of the apps I use including Adobe CC apps seem to be working under emulation mode (Rosetta 2). If you are needing a larger screen, or prefer something more in the iMac style enclosure, you should hold on a little bit. These different configurations will be coming out in 2021. There is also talk of more cores (up to 32 core according to rumors). Bottom line, you need a new laptop today and these specs are sufficient, go for it! It also has the better scissor keys and the long battery life is shocking, I really mean that. As a bonus, this laptop stays very cool and barely needs to fan. You definitely need to watch my review and PS test to really get the gist. But, its a game-changer, and I don’t use that term lightly.
Mirrorless Camera (Video)
At this point, I am undecided on a stills camera. I am using the Canon 5D mk4 and Sony A7III right now, but considering different high resolution options (I’ll keep you posted).
But for video, the Sony A7sIII is a clear choice, and the camera many have been waiting a long time for. It’s a full frame, low light beast. Shoots H.264 and H.265 and capable of 10-bit video. It can shoot up to 120F/s at 4k and can even output uncompressed RAW through its HDMI. The in body stabilization is amazing, no limit on recording time and has dual slots that can take either SD or CFExpress cards (on both slots). Auto focus is super fast and accurate and it support various log modes. Very importantly for solo shooters, it has a proper articulating flip out screen, which has touch. This is everything we were hoping for and the footage is beautiful at 15 stops of dynamic range. I’m in love with the footage on this camera.
OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock
When you have a computer with limited ports (looking at you Apple) you have the option to live that dongle life, or you can use a dock that has it all. The best part is the dock can stay attached to all your peripherals and connect to your MacBook pro or another Thunderbolt 3 equipped computer through a single TB3 cable. Ahh, now those TB3 slots are looking good. The OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock can SD and micro SD car readers, Audio in and out, 5 USB 3.1, 2 Thunderbolt 3, Optical audio, Gigabit ethernet and mini display ports. This dock support a 4K display.
OWC Thunderbolt 3 PRO Dock
For those who need more of a Professional video village setup, such as on a media cart, the pro model features CFast reader, 15w and 60w Thunderbolt 3, eSATA (for eGPU support) and a display port that supports 2 4K displays or a single 5K. All this is going to generate some heat, so it comes with a switchable fan that can be turned off during those quite on set sound moments. OWC don’t advise turning off the fan for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Portable Hard Drive
SanDisk Extreme Pro, Portable SSD
These tiny drives as ultra fast and small. They use Nvme techology to get their speed. Config goes up to 2 TB. Value for money, the 1TB models are surprisingly in expensive (Like $130 range) and very fast.
Sony MRW-G2 CFExpress (Type A) Card Reader
This card reader can read up to 10 Gb/s and comes with USB C and USB A cables. It works with CF Express (A) and SD cards. It’s fast and a solid build.
If you just need an inexpensive USB-C SD and Micro SD reader, look no further than
DJI Ronin RS2
The newest DJI Ronin gimbal, now called RS2 has so many upgrades over the previous Ronin S. The arms are carbon Fiber, the battery detaches to charge without having to be attached. It can be used in briefcase mode, it has locking axes (makes it easy to balance) carries a heavier payload and breaks down into a very small footprint. The inbuilt screen provides access to enough functionality, that you can use the gimbal without having to attach a smartphone for quick shoots. Everything that I didn’t like about the Ronin S has been fixed or changed. If you get the pro bundle (I highly recommend you do) you get a mechanical focus to work on any lens and the amazing Raven Eye. Raven eye connects to the app wirelessly and provides remote control over the gimbal movement including a responsive mimic and automatic face tracking. This is now my favorite gimbal, hands down. This is how you get cinematic smooth footage while walking or moving the camera around a subject.
Best 360 Camera
Insta360 ONE X2*
The quality of this little 360 camera is amazing, and with the app you can recompose video in post to make it look like the camera is moving around. Miss nothing by capturing the entire scene at once. To boot, it has the best stabilization out of any camera I tested including the goPro.
There are actually 2 winners for this category
Google Pixel 5
5G phones are here! Ultra wide camera has been added and a punch-hole forward facing camera. The computational photography of Pixel is unbeatable. Check out my review to see all the amazing stuff on the Google Pixel 5. But one of the smartest moves google made (apple didn’t make this move) is to drop the face ID and bring back the finger print id. When we are all masked up at stores (when you usually need to use digital ID to pay) the face IDs don’t work. Fingerprint ID is the way to go right now. Stabilization is amazing on this device. Value for money this is a good option for a very high quality camera on a smartphone.
iPhone 12 pro
The camera on the iPhone 12 pro features the triple lens system. The iPhone shoots better video than the pixel with Pro res and more options including higher resolution. The addition of Lidar for the camera is a really nice more as well as the addition of 5G. Now, if you have an iPhone 11 Pro and don’t have G5 towers near you, I don’t think the upgrade is wort it, because the difference in photos quality isn’t that much between the 11 and 12 (for the price tag), even though it sounds a lot on paper. If you are using and older iPhone, then the difference will be huge. This is a very expensive phone, so be warned.
Rode Wireless GO
The wireless go is an amazing mic. It’s a belt pack with the microphone built into the transmitter. Its really fast and easy to set up and the built-in mic is very clear with great signal to noise ratio. You can also plug in a lav mic and use it like a traditional lav set. The range is also very good. These now come in white or black. Rode has added the DCS-1 to mount 2 units on a cold shoe and the SC11 splitter cable allow you to run 2 units at once (into 1 camera), perfect for interviews.
Adobe Photoshop 2021
Do I really need to explain why Photoshop is the best image editing software? It’s the industry standard for a reason. Review
Adobe Lightroom Classic 10 (2021)
Lightroom is the best tool for working with lots of photos. Use it to organize your photos, edit them and deliver in many ways. I have always been a fan of the quality edits I can make to my photos in Lightroom and it handles panoramas and HDR better than just about anything out there. It works with 3rd party plugins so you can extend its functionality. Review
Best Photoshop Plugin
Boris Effects Optics
Optics is the latest plugin for Adobe Photoshop and currently my favorite. The reason I like it so much, is it brings a lot of effects to Photoshop such as light effects, leaks, flares and special effects that are very difficult to create in Photoshop. This Movie inspired plugin comes with hundereds of filters and thousands of presets, many of them a matched to looks from hit movies such as Titanic, saving Private Ryan or the Matrix.
Get it here. and use my special coupon code: PhotoshopCAFE-15 to get 15% off.
Best Music for your Videos
Epidemic Sound, the right songs, the right license at the right price. need I say more? You can download the entire song, or stems.
Wacom Intuos Pro M*
Wacom is head and shoulders above all others when it comes to pressure sensitive input from a stylus. If you have ever used a Wacom tablet, you will realize these is a reason it’s what almost all the pros use. The feel is the closest you will get to pencil on paper, with no lag and lightweight pen that doesn’t need batteries. The latest Intuos Pro now supports 8192 levels of pressure sensitivity, which allows even the lightest touch to register and not turn into a dotted line (as almost everything else does). It has built in Bluetooth or USB-C connectivity, so you can choose how to connect. I find the medium to be the “goldilocks” in sizes. It’s large enough to provide the precision and real-estate for drawing and not too large as to hog your desk space. For retouchers the Wacom tablet is a necessary tool, not an accessory. I sure couldn’t create the imagery I do without one and the latest release is worth the upgrade with the Pro pen2, metal back and high level of sensitivity. review
X-Rite Color checker Passport photo 2*
For perfect color, you need a reliable source with known colors to calibrate your photos. Take a shot with the passport in frame, create a color profile that works in Lightroom or ACR and all your photos are looking good with lifelike color
X-Rite Color checker Passport video*
You need to calibrate your video too and this is the solution.
X-Rite Color checker XL*
If you are serious about color management, you probably already have an X-Rite color checker. This card enables you to have known colors when you shoot. This enables you to dial in correct colors when you are editing the color of your photos or video. There was a problem with the color checker though. If you are flying a drone or using 360 Cameras, the chart was a little small to get a good reading sometimes. Enter the XL (For Extra Large). As an Xrite Coloratti, I was involved in testing the XL and providing real-world feedback. Not only was it amazing for drone work, but I love it in the studio. I use this to calibrate my cameras, Its nice and large, has true blacks, whites and gray tones as well as skin tone and primaries. The larger size enables me to double it up as a take-off pad for my drone, bonus! see it here
BenQ 27″ Photographers IPS Monitor.*
This monitor is very pleasant to look at with extreme care given to color accuracy and color management. It supports 99% Adobe RGB. It comes with a puck to change color modes as needed. I can go between Adobe RGB, sRGB and Rec.709 in an instant. It comes with a hood to protect it from glare and color contamination. The stand allows for adjustment of height and angle, as well as rotation. (Review coming soon)
The Best Drone
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
It’s going to take a lot to beat the Mavic 2 Pro. Why? This little drone is amazing. It’s the drone I’ve always wanted. It’s portable and easy to travel with and has great range and battery life. This in itself isn’t enough though. I really need the sharpest high resolution photos and video and the onboard Hasselblad camera brings this. Review
This 3 in one wireless charger is the way to go if you need to wirelessly charge a phone, watch and air-pods (or pixel buds) at the same time.
Xrite Color Munki Display*
You really need a way to measure the color on your screen, so that you can calibrate the monitor You need to know that what you are seeing is true and accurate, so that your image adjustments are accurate. The Xrite Colormunki Display will do exactly that! I really like the i1 Display Pro, but I’m recommending the colormunki because its easier to use for people that aren’t experienced at color management. If you are more experienced, then you might like the additional controls on the i1 Display pro. see it here
Ok, that’s it for now. If there is a category that I have excluded, drop a comment and I’ll see what I can do to expand this gear guide.
Thanks for checking this out.
Great to see you here at the CAFE!
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