So how is the Sony R1 at 1600 ISO? Not bad if you are willing to shoot raw...
One of my professional photographer friends was doing some last minute holiday shopping and he came upon the new Sony RX-1 at the local camera shop, figured he needed to get himself a nice stocking stuffer, and snapped one up. He likes it pretty well. We met for coffee a few days ago and I spent an hour or so playing with the camera and looking through the menu. I love 90% of the idea of the camera and, if I had about $3500 laying around I'd snap one up. Oh, you thought it was priced at $2800 US$? Well, only if you want a partial product. If you want a usable camera you'll need to spend six hundred dollars more to get the (vital) electronic viewfinder. Can you imagine buying a camera like this and having to use stinky-baby-diaper hold in order to operate it? Absolute madness.
Short review? The images are pretty amazing. Perfect color with lots of depth and sharp, sharp, sharp. The body is very nicely designed and the aperture ring around the lens is like addictive candy. Will I buy one? Not hardly. I'm not a 35mm focal length only fan and I'm not rushing out to buy a multi-thousand dollar camera that I have to use like a cellphone.
So what are we talking about today instead? Well, it dawned on me that all these mirrorless cameras had their predecessors and as unlikely as it seems I think one of the progenitors of the RX-1, with its fixed lens, was the Sony R1. A camera I've owned since it came out in late 2004, early 2005 and have loved using it. But even though I've had the camera for nearly eight years now it has become a new camera for me in the last two weeks. And I'm going to explain why.
R1. Juicy Files at ISO 160.
First I guess I should bring readers up to speed about the R1. It is an antiquity now. In 2004, when the camera was announced, there were no bridge cameras with APS-C sized sensors. Electronic viewfinders had just hit the market a few years earlier but had never been used on a high end camera. Sony engineers must have been sitting around goofing and doing what if???? over too many rounds of drinks, but they finally came up with a strange idea. What if we take basically the same incredibly detailed sensor we sell to Nikon for the D2X and put it in an "all in one" camera? Yes, yes, the best low ISO sensor on the market today....sounds good!!! But why stop there? Let's get Carl Zeiss to design the world's best 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens and have them optimize it exactly for that wonderful sensor! Yes, and let's include an electronic viewfinder and give some lucky photographers a preview of the future of photography. Just to be totally wild let's price the whole shebang under $1,000. What the heck? IQ performance that rivals the $6000 D2X at one sixth the price....and then we throw in one of the world's best zooms just for free? Let's do it. And then the bars closed and they all went to work and created an incredibly interesting camera---
The Sony R1.
So what did they end up with? It's an all-in-one camera with a 10.2 megapixel APS-C sized sensor, an LCD panel and EVF which both offer full time live view, flash sync to 1/2000th of a second. Almost entirely silent shutter operation, a brilliant (and widely praised) lens, of which the reviewers at DPReview said, "the lens alone is worth the price of the whole camera.."
The downsides? Tiny buffer. Shoot two frames of raw and then wait 9 seconds for the buffer to clear. Low res screens (typical of 2004). The lens is slower at the long end: 4.8 versus 2.8 wide open. An odd body design. Noise above 400 ISO. That's about it.
The good stuff: Great battery life, great optics, a very good low ISO sensor. The first decent EVF on the market. All in one design means no choices to make; just grab it and go.
You're probably wondering why I moved on to other cameras for my work and why I'm just reassessing the camera at the end of 2012 but stuff changes all the time and some of the stars that would have made this camera tremendous on its initial release have lined up now.
When I used the R1 back in the "old days" of 2005-2006 storage was more expensive, both for the cameras and in computers. The R1 created uncompressed raw files that clocked in a 25 megabytes apiece. Not only did the camera write those files slowly but the "big" cards of the day filled up quickly. At the time I was doing nothing but portraits and events and the write time for raws was a killer. The camera was also tough to use with studio flash because the "framing mode" was so noisy. While the raw files out of the camera were really good it was never a perfect jpeg camera and, well, I moved on to more flexible solutions.
But tellingly, I could never bring myself to sell the R1.
What changed between then and now? Let me count the ways: Raw converters have improved by leaps and bounds. The conversion magic juice for the R1 in the latest rev of Lightroom (4.3) is astoundingly better. There's even a wonderful lens profile that makes the Zeiss lens not only perfectly rectilinear but also eliminates any sort of CA or vignetting. The files are night and day better than what we were getting out of the Sony raw conversion software. Now you can see just how good the lens and sensor are.
Memory is now dirt cheap. Fast eight gig CF cards run circles around the cards I was using in 2004-2005. Hard drive space seems infinite in comparison. And I've become a more patient shooter..... All that adds up to a new willingness to shoot the Raw files. Especially for the wondering around downtown snapping unrelated stuff that I like to do.
The biggest bonus is the way the raw converter in Lightroom now handles noise. When I shot the camera in Jpeg in 2005 the files became too noisy for me at 800 and too noisy for most people at anything over 400 ISO. Now I'm happy to shoot raw at 1600 ISO because the noise is no longer the color speckle sort. It's sharp and demure monochromatic graininess that looks very photographic.
How good is the sensor when shooting in optimal conditions? It's great. Especially with raw processing. And that's not surprising given that I know professional shooters who are still doing great studio and landscape work with Nikon D2X's which share the same sensor basics. (Thank you Sony...). But if it were just a question of good sensors the camera would be interesting but not particularly relevant today. What makes the camera important (at least to me) is the combination of the sensor with a really good lens.
As I was walking around the new Federal Courthouse the other day I spotted this one million dollar bill on the ground. This is the full frame shot, handheld, of the bill.
When you've worked with lots of different cameras, and when you have a short camera attention span, you sometimes forget about the good stuff you were able to accomplish with older gear. I'm just now remembering shooting a brochure for very high end office park here in Austin. I pulled a printed sample out of the filing cabinet and I'm still impressed by the 24mm (equivalent) focal length and how well it rendered architecture (both interior and exterior).
Anyway, I snapped the bill on the ground and left it there for someone else to find. When I got back to the studio I pulled up that file and took a peek. It was nice enough. Then I pixel peeped at 100% and I was impressed. That file is right below....
100% crop of million dollar bill.
And the lens is sharp across the range of focal lengths. I'm not sure I've really ever owned a better zoom lens but it's pretty impossible to compare across systems since we can't remove this one from its body. One lens I remember that was in the same ballpark was the Olympus 4:3, 14-35mm f2 but it was hobbled by a much poorer sensor implementation when I was shooting it....
The new Federal Courthouse building. Austin.
Why am I re-hashing all of this when there's not a ready supply of the cameras around and there's so much other great stuff in the marketplace? I guess it's because we (as a photo culture) tend to be so focused on what's next that we never really stop to appreciate what we already have in our hands. Many sites on the web (Thom Hogan & DPReview, for example) have proclaimed the Olympus OMD EM-5 to be the camera of the year but so many people are already anxious for the next upgrade. Waiting for the "professional" version to come out. Kind of crazy considering that they have an incredible tool in their hands already.
I think we've hit interesting times as image makers. Digital imaging tools are now hitting the point where the potential of the cameras and (to some extent) the lenses far exceed the patience for good technique that most people are willing to spend. At this point any improvements in technology, for most users, are just theoretical. If many of the people who begged for higher megapixel counts just stuck their cameras on a tripod they would (right now) probably see a doubling of "real" resolution. Really.
I like what the Sony R1 does. It's not magic, it was just a well designed and pretty well implemented camera for its time. I think it was my exposure to the Sony RX1 that got me thinking about it again. That, and the RX100. While both of those cameras do interesting things and yield good image quality there are so many compromises that the original R1 stepped right over. All cameras that aim for diligent and detail oriented users should have eye level finders. Yes, you can add one to the RX1 but at a economic and ergonomic cost. The RX100 works well for shooters with perfect close vision but for anyone who needs reading glasses (a lot of my readers) the operation of the camera is fraught with compromise.
The R1 was on the right track. I wonder how well Sony would do if they were able to put the same sensor they use in the a99 and RX1 into an "all-in-one" camera like an R1. A camera with a state of the art zoom lens specifically designed to work optimally with the sensor. No mirror anywhere but a great LCD and an even better EVF. Put the whole shebang on the market for less than $2,000 and you might just end up with the ultimate DLSR market killer.
And you'd never have to make a choice about cameras and lenses as you headed out the door to do art.
Finally, I guess the message I take away from my latest user experiments is that a camera is now only part of the equation. Even older tech is boosted tremendously by the continuous improvement of processing software. Converting files in Lightroom 4.3 is a tremendous step forward for an already good camera. Now maybe I'll look a bit harder at the software side of the equation next time I have the urge to upgrade. I've been testing the latest Capture One software with my Sony a99 lately and it's an instant step up as well. It's a lot more complex these days than just choosing a body and a lens. Our physical gear lust sometimes blinds us to that reality.
Hope you are having a fun New Year's Day.