I played with the Sony RX-1 but I really played hard with the original Sony R1. A much under appreciated camera!!!!

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. 


Unknown said...

Ebay, here I Come!

Anonymous said...


I, too, own an R1. In 2006, I was shooting mainly industrial jobs, mostly with a Hasselblad, but saw the end of film coming, and I bought it, as a way to get my feet wet in digital. It was at the end of its life, and very affordable, and I hadn't seen anything else that I liked. I continue to own and sometimes use it as a travel camera, despite everything from an M9, a D3 and a GF3 in the camera cabinet.

I was hoping for a R2, but I believe that was a casualty of the Sony buyout of Minolta. Imagine an R1 with faster file processing and writing, quicker AF with the on chip phase detect, and better EVF and chimp screen. Keep the basic form and lens, and replace the storage with dual SD slots, that would give more room inside for electronics. Add the sensor out of the D7000 and you will have a camera that would sell well today.

Bill Pearce

Anonymous said...

My R1 had me hoping for an R2 with a square aspect ratio — via square sensor, square LCD, or even via cropping on the LCD.
Thanks for your your updating the use of the R1, Kirk! And a happy new year.

Joe Dasbach

Dave Jenkins said...

I wish I had bought the R1 back when. Probably won't do it now, but maybe it would make a good companion to my OM-D.

Gerald Brimacombe used one for years to create great travel photography -- maybe still is, for all I know -- and sells very large prints from his files.

I love posts like this, but I wish you would quit writing them -- makes the prices go up!

Happy New Year. I will be very surprised indeed if your prediction about the economy continuing to improve comes true.

Unknown said...

The R1 was also the first camera to use highlight warning in the viewfinder, before taking a picture. It is now still an option in only a very few still camera's. Every video camera has the 'zebra' effect. The most striking example is the GH3, it has the zebra effect when doing video, but nothing like that when taking photo's. I think with the a99, comparable except for the larger sensor, it is the same weirdness. And it works so very simple, highlight warning combined with exposure compensation on a wheel. like the R1 has.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Absolutely love that feature. It's perfect when shooting Jpegs in contrasty light.

Anonymous said...

First off good fortune & prosperity in this new year. Very timely article. I am a fan of the sensor in 2010 Pentax K5,Nikon D7000 and Sony A55. That sensor will out resolve kit or budget lens.As a senior on disability pension my spending is limited. K5 body can now be bought for $750 very reasonable. But lens to match will be costly, maybe I can afford one or two of the more reasonable priced. Nikon D3200,5200 and I imagine replacement for D7000 are 24mp. If you buy camera for $500 does it make sense to have to spend $1000 for lens to equal sensor? As you know most of us only look at picture on monitor. Enjoy your blog, thanx. CIAO-ROD

Anonymous said...

Hello Kirk, and happy New Year. I've recently been fortunate enough to have been given an R1 in mint condition and soon discovered that it is noticeably quicker with an old 80x speed CF card than it was with the 40x card that was in it. I suspect the camera's bus speed is pretty slow anyway, but wonder if you could say specifically what would be the fastest CF card an R1 could actually use (in your experience)? Many thanks. -DL

Dave Jenkins said...

A few questions about the R1, Kirk. How are the out-of-camera jpegs? And, does it have the Sony proprietary hot shoe, or a standard hot shoe?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

The OOC Jpegs are fine for the web but you don't get the same sharpness and depth to the files as you would processing from RAW. The hot shoe is a standard one. Thank goodness.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I'd say 80 to 120 speed cards are the max point of speed improvement. The raw write time is never going to be stellar...

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in hearing more about your experiences with Capture One. There's a lot of information out there about Lightroom -- not nearly so much about Capture One.

Happy New Year.

Andrew Burday

Manish Bansal said...

A couple of more points about R1:

1. It has articulating LCD.
2. The CFA filters are very strict (similar to D2x) which means the colors are more pure but it results in more noise at high ISO settings.
3. I do not know of any other APS-C camera which has 1/2000 sec flash sync.

Chris Malcolm said...

Ah, Kirk, should have realised you'd be an R1 fan!

Like your first Anonymous respondent I bought one cheap (second hand) in 2007 because I saw the inevitable end of film, thought the DSLR as it was then an antiquated kludge of a conversion of ancient clockwork film technology to digital, and wanted a reasonably good digital camera with which to learn the digital ropes while waiting to see how the technology developed.

The R1 was a much better camera than I expected it to be. It also told me that Sony knew that the digital camera future was mirrorless, that they already had a pretty good idea of how to get there, and were very likely going to be the first company to make really good professional mirrorless cameras. Not least because getting into the new virgin mirrorless playing fields ahead of Canon and Nikon was a much better business strategy than trying to challenge their dominance in the DSLR market. The R1 looked like that's what they were planning to do.

I too found to my surprise that the R1's high ISO noise wasn't the monster everyone said. Well before the big boys' expensive editors found out how to do noise reduction intelligently some of the specialised 3rd party noise reduction programs (some with good free and useful demo versions) were doing an amazingly good job of removing chroma noise and leaving plenty of image detail along with some film-reminiscent and not unpleasing fine grained intensity (monochromatic) noise.

So I decided to wait for the R2, which I expected to be an exchangeable lens camera.

But fate in the form of a huge clumsy American backpacker stepped in, swung round, and sent my tripod mounted R1 on a fatal nosedive. I took the opportunity to upgrade to a Sony A350 DSLR, which already to my eyes had more useful advanced technology in it than the Canonikon competition, and might be able to make good use of my handful of ancient Minolta lenses. I loved returning again to the extra range of focal lengths and aperture of an exchangeable lens camera, but compared to the R1 the A350 was still a clockwork dinosaur.

I recently acquired a second hand A77. It's the first camera I've had since the R1 which felt as comfortable in my hands as that beautifully crafted old pioneer. It had again a three axis swivellable LCD panel and an EVF, both awesomely upgraded from the R1's early efforts. It's removed the noise and camera shake of the clacking mirror. The electronic first curtain shutter has removed the shutter shake which spoils high resolution long lens shots over a wider shutter speed range than the clacking mirror. In fact I've often wondered whether some of the miraculous sharpness of the R1's lens wasn't just the lens, it was the lens plus the complete absence of the clattering mechanicals of (D)SLR mirror and shutter. What you might call a still camera properly deserving the title :-)

The A77 is almost an R2! Not many understand what an accolade and achievement that is!

Anonymous said...

Yes, since you are mostly a low ISO shooter that cares for detail, I think that Capture One 7 is really a great option there. I've been playing around with it too and the detail is noticeably better than what you can get from Lightroom. I still prefer LR's noise reduction by a bit, but for detail and quality at low ISO I think that C1 is a winner.

Richard Alan Fox said...

For better or not I converted all my R1 raws to DNG, back in the days when I had that camera in heavy usage. I wonder when you say that LR 4.3 converts the raw files "astoundingly better" do you suppose that it would improve the conversion of DNG files as well?
I will shoot some files later in the day and give it the eyeball but your insight and opinion is valuable to all of us.

Richard Alan Fox said...

Opened a drawer pulled out the R1 still a charge in the battery, changed the time, looked up from my desk saw a deer in the backyard out the door took some shots, (made image files not killed an animal). I will resist loading these files into LR until the sun goes down.

Rose Anne Featherston said...

Kirk, Thank you for ALL your posts. I'm a new fan.

I'm still using the R1. I've "wanted" to purchase the Nex7 but, on a limited budget, can't seem to find the len(s) that would give me the same range and flexibility that the R1 does. Low light (NW WA) is a major concern. Any recommendations?

Anonymous said...

I found two Sony CF card compatibility charts on-line.

Sony lists 2, 4, and 8 GB capacity CF cards as tested and compatible at 66x and 133x with the R1 and its contemporaries, the V3 and F828.

Test results for all three cameras are listed as 'Not Available' in the 300x columns for all three capacities, as of 7 July 2008, meaning no 300x testing had been done. -DL

Anonymous said...

On the hot shoe - it is a proprietary one sadly. Needs the likes of HVL-F32.

Great article btw. This camera is a pure classic.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Nex 7 with a 16-50mm 2.8 sony lens and adapter?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

It is only proprietary in the sense that it does TTL flash only with Sony flashes. The shoe itself is in the ISO configuration and accepts regular flashes.

Andre NYC said...

+1 on the R1 - thanks for the update on LR4 processing - I had given up on DxO, but glad to hear the news - an incentive to upgrade from LR3, altho I hear LR4 is more cpu intensive. I still use the R1 for stills and bench photography, so much easier to use than my D700 (weight, no clack so no need to get the remote etc) and with great results.
Coincidentally shot my first series of the year with it just because..(on my flickr stream as nycandre)

I even bought a second one a few years ago to give to a friend. They were going for about $375 used at the time, an amazing bargain.

Andre NYC said...

NEX 5N or NEX 6 might be more in line with the budget limits. But having to add an adapter isn't so hot. I think the Olympus E PL5 with its kit zoom ($600 in the US!) is an even better alternative. I has the same famed Oly M5 sensor and fast A/F, and its high ISO performance is right up there in the APS/C league*. As bonus, when you'll want to, the top notch lenses 12mm and 45mm from Oly are there.

(*) for iso performance confirmation, see DxOmark measurements
For lens evaluations check photozone.de - tho granted you can't easily compare across different systems.
Also for confirmation, see mingthein's blog re the Oly M5.

azul said...

Refreshing review! I heard of the R1 a few years ago, but never got one. It is one of those really special cameras and that lens! Thanks so much for doing this review and getting us to THINK!

Anonymous said...

I am currently on my 4th. R1...don't ask, short attention span generation. I too am hoping for the R2 to turn up some some day. One not too different from this. I have been wondering if the Frankencam came by in a drukken frenzy, and became the unwanted love chield of engenies and opticians. It must have been a gruesome sight at the office the next day...Someone had been playing around with the Xerox machine and made the ugly but scifi looking f828 even larger. To fix the dent, some one came up with throwing in the firmware from a video camera, there never was a marriage and a happy end. Sony got busy loosing money on their Konica/Minolta takeover, and slached some of the best R&D departments, but kept producing lines that was out of tune with the times, like a ghetto blaster with a cassette deck in the year 2013(?)

Just maybe..... wishing will make it so.....Oh please oh please I wish for a R2

Anonymous said...

I am in love with that camera. I bought a Sony R1 in january and haven't desire to use or bought or "upgrade" another camera. The design is perfect.