USER REPORT: The Sony RX1 : Small, Simple, Satisfying
By Alwyn Loh
Hello! My name is Alwyn and I love to take photographs. You may remember me from a previous review on the Leica 21mm f3.4 Super-Elmar lens I wrote, also published on this site. I’ve been shooting digitally for just under a decade now and it was with great pleasure, anticipation and excitement that I managed to acquire one of the earliest sets of the Sony RX1 up for sale in Singapore. Here are my thoughts after extensively shooting with it for the past month.
Over the years, I have longed for a small camera with a full frame sensor and a singular fixed prime lens – either a 28 or a 35. I feel that it is generally easier to compose and shoot with a wide or slightly wide-angle lens over a standard 50mm focal length. My favourite focal length and lens on the Leica M9 has been the 35mm f/1.4 lens. Looking through my Lightroom directory across 2012, it accounted for a good 40% of the images I shot in total.
With the Sony RX1, my wish has finally come true – with the exception of the price. There is no easy way to justify the high price tag at a rational level. For me, I made this purchase more as an end of year gift to myself and also as you will see, the simple joy that I receive when using it in varying settings. The only way I can rationalise its cost is that for the price, you are paying for (1) a full frame sensor, (2) an amazing 35mm focal length lens, (3) small-sized dimensions and (4) excellent build quality.
As I prefer to take pictures over recording video, I have no comments on the video functionality of the RX1 at the moment, save that the record movie button is in a place that does not interfere with the normal stills mode capture function of the camera..
The RX1 is a very simple camera to operate. You flick a switch on the shutter to turn it on and it is ready to shoot within 1 to 2 seconds. Usually it takes longer to remove the front lens cap, so I simply cover the lens with a 49mm UV filter and don’t bother with the cap itself. On a random side note, the cap is of extremely good build quality – I dropped it on my wooden floor twice and both times it left a dent on the floor.
For the moment, I’ve savoured the pleasure of using this exclusively as a point and shoot camera, so without either the OVF or the EVF. The rear screen is crisp, clear, refreshes at a fast rate and is reasonably visible in the bright sunshine outdoors of Singapore. The leaf shutter lends to its very quiet operation – so this can be used in very discreet settings – though I figure in darker environments the use of the EVF or OVF would be ideal vis-a-vis composing on the LCD itself.
Autofocus speed is reasonably fast. It is about the same as the Fuji X100, definitely faster than the Leica X1 and X2, slower than the Nikon 1 series and the Olympus OMD-EM5. Granted that it is running with a full frame sensor, so the depth of field for a given distance and focal length will necessarily be shallower – hence the AF system needs to be much more precise and hence sacrifice some measure of speed to ensure accuracy of focus. I am able to get reasonably good focusing performance indoors under dim conditions, so for myself, nothing that irks me in this area. I usually have the AF assist light disabled because it is distracting and at times, elicits an unwanted reaction when photographing people at closer distances.
with a small twist of a ring on the barrel, one can set the lens into a macro mode. Normally it focuses down to 30cm, but with this mode engaged, it can focus down to 20cm. From what I see, this manual twist basically imparts a 2mm extension tube like shift of the front lens elements away from the sensor. I have forgotten on several occasions to twist out of this mode, and wondered why later on the camera “couldn’t” focus on regular subjects at normal shooting distances. There is also a manual focus dial seems to work as a focus by wire setting when the manual focus switch is engaged, it is reasonably accurate and useful, though I haven’t had any real reason to use it, as the autofocus is so convenient.
While the massive lens occupies the build of its dimensions, making this a camera more unsuitable for the average sized pocket. It is small and light enough to carry around all day with a wrist strap. Likewise its diminutive size lends itself to avoid drawing attention and I find that it does not elicit the same reactions in my subjects as would a big digital SLR. Most of my non-photography inclined friends thought that I had downgraded to a “crappy point and shoot” when I met them carrying the RX1 around. Of course, they were later wowed by how such a small “crappy point and shoot” could produce images with such beautiful background blur, sharpness and vibrant colours later on.
Playback is reasonably fast, you can either press the wheel like button itself to scroll back and forth, or spin it to scroll through quicker, or bring up other details about the picture with the up key. All these buttons can be personalised and customised in the settings manual, but I am happy to leave them at the defaults. The RX1 for me, is a minimalist shooting device. Only thing is that sometimes, even with a high-speed card, playback can take a few more seconds longer – unlike on the DSLR where one could fire off a shot and have the review show up instantly, this is not possible when attempted if the camera is still writing the picture to the card.
After carefully shooting thousands of frames and evaluating it on-screen and in prints. I believe that this is an outstanding lens. Granted that the only negative thing about is that it has a good degree of visible barrel distortion which can be easily corrected in post (or in camera if shooting JPEG), at the expense of some micro contrast and detail in the corners. Please allow me to set the record straight. The lens is very sharp wide open at f/2. Given that this is the only lens that you get from this expensive purchase, it performs splendidly across the board and I am very satisfied with it. In fact I am so satisfied that I’ve done 98% of my photography on this camera at maximum aperture.
The classic sonnar design also lens itself to some very beautiful background blur – reminiscent of the “3D” look that Zeiss lenses are known for. I feel that there is a small measure and degree of “swirly bokeh” towards the edges of the frame and this lens design is basically a synthesis of using a very classic lens design from the past and having it corrected and optimised as far as possible with modern glass and coatings. You can see that the central part of the image retains the pure circular bokeh, while it gets somewhat elongated and stretched out as it nears towards the edge.
There is some chromatic aberration visible in the bright highlight to shadow transitions, as well as at the edges of the out of focus bokeh. But nothing too serious that cannot be corrected in post. Contrast at maximum aperture is also high, contrast does increase slightly when stopping down the lens but I have been rather pleased with its performance wide open that for my needs and purposes in general, no stopping down is necessary, unless it is for depth of field reasons.
At f/2.0, vignetting is present and visible even on the LCD screen. Lightroom at the moment does not correct for the light fall off automatically, it has to be dialled in manually. I appreciate and enjoy this natural light fall off because at times in situations where a wider dynamic range is required – typically pictures that encompass the sky and the land, this vignetting acts like a sort of natural ND filter that helps retain some degree of highlights within the fall off zone. I use this for creative purposes and in doing so does not detract from my use of the camera or my photographic vision.
The lens stops at one-third stop interviews, and generally holds the selected aperture quite well. I’ve come across a few times whereby I’ve shifted the aperture ring down to f/2.2 on occasion, but that is like a physical shift of 2mm on the ring itself – so it could happen to anyone. I feel that the click stops are firm enough to hold onto the desired setting, but easy enough to shift rapidly in a heartbeat. The combination of a fast lens and a good sensor, as far as I can tell, yields images with surprisingly high level of fidelity, detail and flexibility in post production. Overall, I think it’s a very capable lens – capable of excellent sharpness and very beautiful bokeh.
Real World Observations:
As the leaf shutter only goes up to 1/2000s in shutter speed, I have discovered that the RX1 possesses an exceptional dynamic range. While not as wide as the D800/E cameras, it is sufficient across the board for most shooting circumstance. This applies only if you shoot in raw, and for a camera like this, it would be a pity to not optimise the resolution and detail offered by this combination of sensor and lens. For my own real world shooting, with ISO 100 and a 1/2000s shutter speed, I have been content to take pictures wide open outdoors here in sunny Singapore.
For many years, I have subscribed to the photographic philosophy of “expose to the right” and with the RX1, this is no different. Unless the background of my subject is a very dark, I typically have +1 EV of exposure compensation dialled into the camera permanently. This is made easy with the exposure compensation dial. The dials click firmly and so far I’ve not experienced any accidental adjustments whilst in use or in storage. What really surprised me is that usually in these situations, it is easy to clip the highlights, but as far as I can see off my calibrated screen, sometimes at first glance what appears to be overexposure is indicated by the Lightroom histogram to be just short of clipping the highlights.
For the most part, I am content to let the camera default to auto ISO, set my aperture at f/2.0 and then the RX1 automates its shutter speed. It usually picks 1/80s to use when the lighting conditions go dim. While this is not fast enough to freeze all action at times, the smaller size of the RX1 means that it is much more susceptible to camera shake, especially when not composing with the camera closer to one’s centre of gravity. Without image stabilisation, I find that 1/80s is about the minimum to ensure that reasonable sharpness is maintained across the frame in low light conditions. Of course, this means the difference between using ISO 5000 at 1/80s or else ISO 2000 at 1/30s. These days, I would rather a sharp picture with noise than a blur one with less noise.
For all intents and purposes I find that the ISO range afforded by the RX1 to produce pictures with good detail and the advantages of a full frame sensor when it comes to signal to noise ratio is clearly evident. I find that the colour palette to be very beautiful, and close to what I saw with my eyes. Skin tones look good to me and the white balance performance is remarkably accurate for the most part. As far as I can tell, there is no AF tracking in stills mode, only in video, likewise no stabilisation in stills mode, and only in video. The autofocus, is sufficiently fast to get some moments with movement in it, and I wager to be much faster than what I could manually focus with my Leica M9 and the 35/1.4 lens.
Experienced photographers should be able to grab it and start using it with ease, I myself bought it on a Friday evening and was shooting a wedding with it (for fun) the following Saturday morning. There was no need to read the menu, and all it took was to set up the various settings, charging the battery and it was good to go. I was surprised as to how sharp the pictures it yielded was. For this one of the bride’s hands, in the original, it was so sharp you could see the individual strands of hairs on her fingers. It was taken hand-held indoors with the typical point and shoot one-handed technique that is not ideal for sharp images.
and a 100% crop
Sony RX1 vs Leica M9
As silly as this sounds, I got the RX1 because I enjoy taking pictures of food. We love our food here in Singapore and eating is a national pastime. One thing I couldn’t really get whilst seated at a table enjoying food was a shot of the said food up close, since the M prime glass usually only focused down to 0.7m. Some third-party glass focuses down to 0.5m, but that was not enough in my opinion on a full frame sensor, and the 0.3m afford, with the option to go up to 0.2m was a real plus for me. As I have observed with the Fuji X100, the lens on the RX1 does soften somewhat at closer focusing distances, but it remains sharp enough wide open to produce acceptable performance. Only thing is that sometimes, the food is so steamy it fogs up the lens!
Another strange perk of the RX1 has been that it is easy to pass the camera to someone else to take a picture of you. That would have pretty much been impossible with the M9 with a random stranger on the street. The RX1 has facial recognition built into its firmware, so one can opt to utilise it if desired. I understand that across the web, battery life with the small battery has been reported to be low. But strangely I have managed to achieve more than 500+ shots when shooting this in between charges on several occasions. I did buy an extra battery just in case, but so far haven’t seen the need to use it yet except on the heaviest days of photography. Perhaps this is due to the warmer climate here, battery drain from the cold is not as big a factor, and also it is easier to hit 500+ images if you shoot photographs in quick succession, rather than on a “one by one” basis whilst letting the LCD drain the battery.
Resolution wise, I will still give the edge to my M9 at base ISO and the use of 35/1.4 FLE over the RX1. There is a level of crispness and sharpness and clarity and saturation and detail that the M9 manages to yield with its AA free CCD sensor when the light is right and the user is good at his craft. Yet from the perspective of sheer convenience, and the ability to ramp up the ISO to 6400 or higher at a whim, having autofocus and a general ease of use plus the ability to focus up to 20cm; the RX1 will take the cake when it comes to all around flexibility and practicality. This applies if you are a person that shoots the 35mm focal length extensively, of course.
Granted that the M9 only had a centre rangefinder patch, so one usually needed to hope that focusing and recomposition would still yield a sharp picture at wider apertures. With the RX1, if there be enough time, one can set the focus point to an off centre position on the screen. There are two one point only focusing modes – one is a default “central” only option that does not allow you to shift its position, but comes with bigger brackets. And then the one that allows you to shoot and fine tune the area to focus upon, at the expense of giving you a much smaller Autofocus zone bracket. I find that this is especially helpful because it seems easier to make focusing mistakes wide open when focusing and recomposing with the camera held out in front of my face, instead of when the camera leans onto my face.
One very personal take between the M9 and the RX1 would be in the nature of the shutter buttons themselves. On the M9, I have managed to score sharp pictures wide open at 1/8s because over time I have been able to progressively utilise the camera to its strengths. On the RX1, I find that the shutter button still needs a little bit too much pressure to depress effectively, and when carefully examining my personal release technique, I notice that I impart a slight and small but visible “bump” to the camera as a whole. Granted that its small size does not make this easier, yet I do note this in my observations of real world shooting. The shutter will accept a remote shutter release though if you need to use one.
The RX1 also comes with an inbuilt small pop up flash which can be handy and nifty in situations when required. The LCD is obvious vastly superior to the one on the M9 and it is easier to check the sharpness of your image files as well. Upon review you can opt to zoom in and then use the wheel button to fine tune the level of zoom detail required, and use the direction buttons on the wheel itself to scan through individual files. The RGB channel histograms are also reasonably accurate, and the highlight detail blinkers are also present, if a little bit conservative in their indications, as I’ve been able to recover most highlight detail in my photographs from experience.
I have to say though, that Sony does deserve a kick where it hurts sometimes because for such an expensive camera. It does not come with a proper battery charger! This is annoying to say the least. Why would I want to charge a battery in the camera whilst plugged into a wall socket or a USB port? It simply makes no sense at all! Now, a wall charger adapter is provided that allows you to plug in your CAMERA in order to charge the battery. But no charger? I know that they are trying to cut costs at some point, and so whilst I can ignore the cheap packaging, the lack of a proper charger is a rather regretful omission to me.
While I understand that not all the world is right-handed like me, I think sony should have put some sort of sculpted ergonomic grip on the right hand side of the camera to aid confidence in one-handed operation and stability when shooting. Something like the third-party after market add ons that one can attach on the Sony RX100. While Sony has already put some measure of grippy rubber onto the right hand side of the camera, I think that it is not so much the traction itself that inspires confidence for a camera of this side, than an actual notch that allows a more secure grip with curled fingers.
Apart from this, I would like to also praise Sony for cooperating with Adobe in allowing for camera raw support for the RX1 to come to pass before it was up for sale in the stores. One of my biggest hesitations in adopting a new camera is normally the need for raw support, and by allowing me to continue my normal workflow in Lightroom, with a new camera, the day it was launched, deserves good recognition and praise. While there is no automatic correction for the lens light fall off yet, it is a nice touch to have automatic distortion correction in place already in Lightroom 4.3
I bought this camera because I primarily enjoy the 35mm focal length and for its full frame sensor. That it had a fast, high quality and super sharp lens to go along with it was a major plus for me, likewise autofocus and the small form factor and excellent build quality too were factors that tipped me over the edge into becoming an early adopter. So far, I have no real regrets. I enjoy carrying it around with me wherever I go, I enjoy making snap shots with this on an almost daily basis. In 2013, I will hopefully get to take many great and beautiful pictures with it to share in future with readers of this site and see how things go on from there. One thing I must say is that the ease of capture with this camera has made me somewhat more laid back and lazy as a photographer, who is easily given into short cut compromises now that I no longer have to work as hard as before for the capture of the picture. You will most likely have a different experience, but this has been mine.
While this on paper pose a challenge to the Leica with a 35mm market, I would say that the charm and rationality for shooting with a rangefinder system still would be in the essence of the rangefinder experience – focusing with a rangefinder patch, composing through an optical viewfinder, taking pictures indoors with the ability to capture sharp images at slower shutter speeds and near silent operation, along with a heritage of lenses through the past century. It has been a really fun time with the RX1, if each individual digital frame I took was shot with film, and counted as such, I would have spent enough on film and processing to buy myself an RX1 already. Rather than seeing them as competitors, I see them as complimentary tools in our pursuit of developing an individualised photographic vision mastery.
While some regard the RX1 as an overpriced point and shoot, and it is… It has also provided me with a great deal of fun, and I take pictures on this camera just because I want to see how they turn out. I believe that the RX1 heralds the possibility that someday in the not too distant future, full frame mirror less interchangeable lens systems will become a common reality. For the moment, though, this is the only camera out there in the market that offers what it has, and as a person who appreciate the image “dimensionality” of a full frame sensor, it was the one to go for, despite the costly buy in. I am satisfied, but if you are interested or keen in buying this, you should ideally have the chance to handle it in person first before making that all important decision whether to buy it or not.