12.12.2013

Two cameras that point to the new direction in photographic tools.


As camera imaging sensors get denser and denser with pixels the last remaining frontier in current camera design is the exact marriage of the optical system to the sensor. Sony, beginning with their RX1 and continuing with the RX10 has this just exactly right. With fixed lens cameras (cameras where the non removable lens is an integral part of the design and manufacture) the makers have the ability to precisely match everything in the system. According to interviews with Sony the 35mm Zeiss lens incorporated into the RX1 sits very close to the sensor and every RX1 camera is individually calibrated down to less than a micron of error. 

The usual interchangeable system has tolerances that are ten times or more looser. But even beyond the mechanical linkages a fixed lens camera system let's the design team have precise aim points for everything from lens fall off to pixel well rationalization and correction. Instead of designing a system that is a jack of all trades a fixed system is optimized to a much higher level because all variables are known and can be accounted and compensated for. 

To my mind the RX1 (at the high end) and the RX10 (in the average consumer space) go a long way toward inciting a new revolution in camera design. While these two products may not exactly suit your needs I think we'll see more and more products that have a closed loop design aesthetic because it makes engineering sense. I shy away from the RX1 not because of reviews that reference slow AF and not even because of the high price. My objection is to the 35mm angle of view. I think it's too wide for nice portraits and way too short for dramatic vistas. If they were to come out with a version with a fixed, f4 zoom that spanned 28 to 70mm I'd be first in line.  Another alternative (probably not palatable for most camera buyers) would be to create optimized versions in popular single focal lengths. I'd want to see a classic trinity of (the existing) 35mm, 50mm and 85-90mm lenses. But I don't think that's on the horizon. 

But the camera that really caught my attention this year, and is steadily working its way onto my "want to buy!!!" list is the RX10. In part my desire for the camera is driven by its video capabilities but having owned several Sony R1 cameras I understand just how good a well designed lens, coupled intimately to a good sensor, can be. And how convenient it can be in day to day shooting. 

While the sensor in the RX10 is smaller than m4:3 I have to believe that the tight integration (both in design stages and in manufacturing) of the holistic system will allow the camera to compete on par with its bigger sensor rivals and perhaps exceed them in terms of sharpness, due to tighter tolerances.  

The RX10 is one of those cameras that falls outside the current vogue of being able to "customize" your camera with lenses from hither and yon. It is also out of fashion by dint of having a smaller sensor. I'm sure these things will keep traditional photographers somewhat at bay but I'm equally sure that a small subset of photographers will recognize the camera for what it truly is: A powerful, portable multi-media tool kit with great optics and great output. 

My one gripe is the continued use by Sony of the hobbit-sized Nex battery. I would love to have seen Sony use the same battery that's graced the Alpha camera for many generations. There's a lot of screen real estate to power, including a very good EVF. Oh well. That's what aftermarket batteries are for..... And I'll want a batch of them.

I wouldn't be considering this camera if I weren't trying to straddle both video and traditional photography and, if I were solely a videographer I might not consider it either. But for anyone for whom narrative filmmaking has allure and fast moving photography is daily bread I think we've finally got a digital camera that's nearly the perfect all terrain vehicle. 

Beyond the specs and details of the two Sony products I mention I think the time is ripe for other manufacturers to take a step forward and optimize lenses and sensors into more effective and cohesive packages . For a generation or two the products that result may be pricey or feature-limited but I do think it's a rational path forward in the pursuit of ultimate image quality.

In the same vein I would also point to the Leica Vario X. Samples I've seen point to the same kind of inclusive design philosophy. While that camera's marketing and general acceptance is crippled by the apparent slowness of the lens camera cognoscenti who have embraced them have come to find that the lens/sensor combination can produce breathtaking results. 

Whether you are ready to give up lens interchangeability or not these optimized packages are a very interesting story in the world of camera design. 




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9 comments:

stefano60 said...

I agree that sony is really showing the way forward to all the other guys nowadays, delivering product after product that shows innovation and no fear to try new things.
i had both the RX100 and then the RX1 for a while, and they were both VERY impressive (i made a conscious decision a short while back to put an end to the insanity of chasing after every new camera under the sun and went back to my Leica rangefinders, one for film and one for digital - but that is another story).

actually, Leica was a precursor of this with their Digilux 2, a phenomenal performer with a small sensor, which delivered superb results thanks to the optimal combination of wonderful glass and made to match sensor.

then of course we should not forget sigma; LONG before it was trendy to put large sensors in small bodies they delivered the DP1 and DP2, which combined a large size Foveon sensor with perfectly matching fixed lenses; regardless of the many flaws they had, nobody can argue with the fact that images produced with those cameras truly stand out on their own and are still unmatched today (I do not even think their later generation Merrills are as good as those early ones).

Craig S said...

You're not the only one coming to this conclusion - designing a lens and sensor combo allows for potentially superior results than a physical mount that must accommodate a variety of designs.

Ricoh took a lot of flak with their GXR concept, but now with the latest APS-C GR, even the old guard are taking notice. The stellar user interface no doubt contributes to that and is one area I feel Sony could really improve upon - they have fantastic technology but seem to rush through the UI phase in order to introduce as much new material to the market as possible.

With the Ricoh GR and Sony RX1, the benefits of integrating a wide-angle lens to the sensor are quite obvious (compared to bulky SLR designs). I'd be curious to read more should you get your hands on an RX10 - although a smaller sensor, it will likely still render images with a bit more character than the ubiquitous small sensor compacts & superzooms with standard issue 6 bladed apertures.

John Krumm said...

Yes, the Sigma Merrills are definitely worthy of note here. Whenever I want to look at nice "files" I browse the Sigma forums. I just haven't seen any camera that compares for pulling out appealing natural detail.

Anonymous said...

I still have an R1 and it continues to blow me away each time I use it. Yes its slow and pokey to use, but ahhhhh ... the pictures. My first D camera was a Minolta A2, best of it's class in it's day and I always wished Sony would update the R1.

I have a bag full of Canon Heavy Metal that collects dust under my desk 99% of the time now. Most of the time its the little Olympus XZ1 and I've become enamoured with the camera in my cellphone - amazing what these two little toys can do ... and they weigh ZIP and take up no space.

The RX10 is definitely in my future. Its not perfect, but it does 98% of what I want in a single package that can produce the quality I want. If its anything like the R1, that sensor lens combination is to drool for. Just wish the made a vertical grip and it had manual zoom ... ah well, something to look forward to.

John W, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Anonymous said...

Kirk, correction please ... change RX1 to RX10.

Many Thanks

John W

Dennis said...

Years ago, Konica Minolta said that they had no intention of making a DSLR - they believed that fixed lens cameras like the excellent A1 (prosumer model with f/2.8 lens and 2/3" sensor) were better solutions. Eventually, they gave in to demand. I'm glad that there's enough demand for fixed lens cameras to warrant the RX series, and large sensor models from Fuji, Nikon, Ricoh, Sigma, but I don't see any evidence of a new direction.

Gato said...

The RX10 specifications remind me of my Sony 828, the only digital camera I really loved -- though it lacks the cool swivel body design.

I sometimes wonder where digital cameras would be today if Sony had stuck with their own ideas like the 828 and R1 -- rather than buying Minolta and going off into DSLRs.

Even back then I thought they were on the right track in using EVFs and avoiding the mirror.

John M Flores said...

The RX10 looks to be a good run-and-gun camera and I might be right behind you in line for one. But we need a name for people that straddle the fuzzy line between stills and video, and for whom the RX10 seems perfectly targeted. And no, I'd rather not have "hybrid" in the name if my vote counts.

Wally said...

Interesting that the only dedicated cameras that fit the requirement are the Sigma Merrell DP series. I just began experimenting with them and they are definitely tilted towards photography with poor High ISO capabilities and 720 video. It will be interesting to see if they can improve the ISO and video capabilities in future models.