THE SONY RX1 IN INDIA
By Richard Geltman
I ordered the Sony RX1 in September 2012 from Amazon and expected delivery in December. Departure for India was set for the 15th and it seemed likely that the camera would not arrive in time and I would be “forced” to rely upon a NEX-7 and/or the Sigma DP1/2M cameras that I had recently acquired. Happily, the camera came on December 3rd giving me some time to use it before leaving and to become accustomed with its behavior in different situations.
The camera is weighty-feeling and very solid. It feels like a miniature M9. I was unable to obtain the EVF so used, in addition to the LCD, an optical viewfinder. I found after a few experiments that the Voightlander 28 mm finder gave the best match for the 35 mm lens field of view. I’m sure the Zeiss finder made specifically for the RX1 is nice but I think it somewhat over-priced. I fitted the lens with a 49 mm B+W clear filter and purchased a very inexpensive screw-in vented lens hood on Ebay for around $10. These two served to protect the front surface of the lens throughout 3 weeks of travel. The lens cap (solid metal) was never used at all. While a wrist strap would be quite comfortable with this device I prefer the 60 cm Lance loop-type strap which allows the camera to lie diagonally across my chest and rest on my left hip, making it quickly available yet at the same time unobtrusive and fairly safe from being snatched or damaged.
The ergonomics are pretty good. It never slipped or dropped and was never uncomfortable when shooting in any position. The EV adjustment dial lies at the top right of the body and is fairly firm. I did accidentally dislodge it two times in three weeks. The movie button lies laterally and below the EV dial. While not as bad as the NEX-7 I did inadvertently actuate the video mode once or twice as well. Otherwise, I didn’t use video so have little to say about it. This camera is really small, almost too small for my hands. The shutter is nearly silent but for shooting with an OVF, I used the focus confirmation sound (unavoidably linked to an imitation shutter noise.) This noise was not a problem on the street and generally did not draw any unwanted attention. You quickly start to know where the focus point in the OVF is although I experienced plenty of misses as well. I experienced focus misses with the NEX-7 and the RX1 is faster and more accurate. The lens is large but feels solid and substantial. The markings are engraved rather than painted on. The aperture control ring which encircles the lens is also very solid feeling but lies adjacent to the camera body. For me this makes it somewhat hard to adjust. There is a macro mode ring at the far end of the lens which allows close focus (~22 cm.) I never used this and would rather have the aperture ring in this position as with most Leica lenses, making it more accessible and more usable.
Battery life is acceptable for my type of shooting and generally I would get more than 250 exposures when fully charged. I always carry a spare but needed to use it only once or twice. The camera will shoot slightly more than two frames per second so one tends not to shoot many frames at a time. Rather one or two and then moving on. As has been mentioned numerous times, Sony requires that the battery be charged in the camera. I find this inconvenient and so purchased some spare generic batteries as well as an external charger. Several types are available and Steve just posted about a particularly nice one. Parenthetically, the non-Sony batteries worked perfectly well.
The only other feature of the camera I would describe is the fact the when using aperture-priority along with auto-iso, which I do much of the time, the camera always tends to a shutter speed of 1/80; rather than lowing the f/stop it will raise the iso and keep the shutter speed at 1/80. Given the pixel density and, perhaps, personal issues such as age, eyesight, balance and steadiness, I would like to be able to set a minimum shutter speed, perhaps 1/125, but the camera doesn’t allow this. Annoying. While you can use shutter priority instead, you get f/4 almost all the time. Again, pretty annoying. The only way around this is to go fully manual but I’m not too adept at it and I generally find it too slow for rapid street use.
All of the above being said, this is a wonderful camera: lovely in feeling, fast in focus (without the accessory lamp,) quiet in operation, smooth and threaded shutter release (as opposed to the halting Leica,) wonderful high iso performance (out to iso 6400 if not beyond,) great malleable files fully supported by Lightroom (unlike the Sigmas,) and ultimately, very small, compact, unobtrusive and with a huge sensor. As has been said elsewhere, you can set the camera to aperture priority, the auto-iso from 100 to 6400 and go out and shoot anything and everything without any problem.
Travel to India was a goal for me for a number of years. I have experienced tourist travel in western Europe, Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong and China and of course the US as I’m a native New Yorker. I assumed the experience would be challenging but rewarding. In this I underestimated India. It was extremely challenging and rewarding but also revelatory, invigorating, infuriating, spiritually awakening, amazing and wonderful. There is a sense of life and vitality in India that I’ve not felt elsewhere. And this in a place with tremendous poverty, social and legal problems (witness the recent rape/murder,) and dramatic disparities in education, economics and social equality. One sees women in saris using primitive hand tools while working on construction projects. One can walk down a street in Udaipur and see a gleaming, black Audi A6 next to a cart carrying the freshest produce pulled by two water buffaloes and guided by a partially toothless old man looking straight out of the 14th century. Driving is a nerve-wracking, chaotic dance of continuous darting in and out, weaving around animal-powered carts, vehicles traveling the wrong direction (even on the few significant highways,) truly horrible roads and passing and endlessly tooting one’s horn. Frequently I was told that driving in India requires a good horn, good brakes and good luck. It also requires nerves of steel, white knuckles and continuous vigilance.
Mumbai is the city in India that evokes the most usual sense of urban life in me. It has a population of about 21 million and at any given time more than 57% live on the street and are, strictly speaking, homeless. This does not mean that a large percentage of the homeless don’t work and to support them, as well as all the other Mumbai denizens, are vast systems of services such as outdoor laundries, lunch box delivery services and all manner of unbelievably inexpensive goods and services. A vegetarian Indian “burger” sold on the street that costs 5 cents and is wildly popular; shoe shines in the railroad station (that of “Slumdog Millionaire”) for 2.5 cents; street-level haircuts, shaves and dental extractions! India has to be the most entrepreneurial nation on earth. Everybody is selling everything and something. Everything has some value and is recycled and sold by someone who can earn a living from it one rupee at a time. All this, also, from a people who quite generally are curious and friendly with foreign travelers. There is often a sense of over all gentleness that Indians project but, of course, all generalizations such as this are easy to prove false in at least some regard.
Chaos, dirt, clutter, litter and crowd anxiety can be a deterrent to many contemplating travel to India. Also, fear of contagion, e.g., Delhi-belly, dengue fever, malaria or worse. I experienced no illness or inconvenient health problem while there for three weeks of travel from the north of the country to the southern tip although admittedly I was careful in my habits, never ate street food (as India has the world’s highest rate of toxigenic E. Coli enteritis,) avoided raw vegetables and fruit everywhere but in the best hotels and drank only carbonated water, beer, sodas or wine. If you can overcome some of these common anxieties then India offers an unequaled travel, photographic and personal experience and I would encourage all who are intrigued to take the plunge.
The photos that accompany this article were all taken with the RX1 rig described above. I hope they convey some of the emotions and raw beauty of the people and the country.