Gear Talk: Sony RX1
Beware: if gear talk is not your cup of tea, pass your way…
When, for whatever reason, I look for a replacement camera, I want it to do at least the same and preferably more in approximately the same way as the camera I want to replace. My standards are high: having been a faithfull user of Leica camera’s for the last 40 years I am setting the bar at a pretty high level for a replacement. Why on earth would I want to replace my Leica if its qualities are that high? I am not yet doing that but am getting ever more close. Since my switch from analog to digital a few years back, first with Canon (1D, 5D I and II because I still had a few lenses and there was nothing else available at the time), and then with the M8, the M8-2 and finally the M9-P, I have never been totally satisfied, and never found myself in the same situation of unconditional reliance as when using an M4. Even my M6, a first introduction of electronics in a Leica viewfinder camera, had issues with the exposure meter not functioning 100% of the time (the clunky M5 I had once was sold very quickly). As if Leica M’s and electronics don’t really get along with each other.
Right: but I am a viewfinder guy. The Canon’s are extraordinary cameras with unbeatable responsiveness (except for the AF in low light) and ergonomics. They are BIG though. When I use one, I keep bumping into people’s faces with my lens. And if it is nice to carry an imposing camera when it is necessary to impress a moody security guard, it of course also lacks the discretion of a Leica.
I need a viewfinder camera to see what happens at the exact moment when I push that shutter. A reflex camera doesn’t give me that. I need a viewfinder camera which will continue shooting once I locked telemetric focus on what I am about to photograph, no matter what, even if the subject moves a bit closer or a bit further. An AF camera mostly refocuses, and wastes time, for each frame.
The main problem I have with my M9-P is twofold: dust on the sensor and a buffer issue. All the other flaws, some inherited from the M lineage I can live with (like needing three hands to change a battery or a card). Just a matter of adaptation. But I am not a dentist, and I do use my cameras in dusty environments. I really don’t understand why I have to send the camera to after sales service to either have the sensor cleaned (Leica recommends NOT to clean the sensor yourself) or replaced every six months because of the dust reaching the camera obscura through the focusing rings of the lens (I NEVER take the lens off the body). Unless of course Leica wants me to spend another sizeable amount of $ to have a replacement camera during the 4 to 6 weeks it takes to send the ‘dirty’ camera back and forth to the AS service. And who can guarantee me that that sensor will still be available 4 or even 2 years from now? Buying a Leica today is NOT the same investment as 10 years ago…
As for the buffer on the M9-P: how often has it happened that in a quickly evolving situation I shot 5 or six frames one after the other to see the camera freeze? Well… several times too many for sure. I then have to stop, take out the battery while the camera is switched on, switch off the camera, reinsert the battery, reboot the camera before it is ready to shoot again.
Right… So I stand in line for a camera that will replace my M9-P. Along comes the Fuji X100. Viewfinder, 35mm lens equivalent, compact. But slow AF (the X100S is supposed to be better). And not a full-frame (I need full frame for perspective and low light response issues). Along comes the Sony RX1. Full frame, 35mm lens (and a Zeiss at that!), compact, optional viewfinder. Sure worth a thorough try.
Setup and environment
This is a disclaimer: the camera was used in very specific circumstances and with one specific setting. A vast majority of the possibilities of the camera were not used.
I used the Sony RX1 exclusively for the second part of the ceremonies related to the passing away of King Norodom Sihanouk, decided to shoot in B&W (wich I do 90% of the time anyhow), and determined a setup that would match the way I am using a Leica M9-P as much as possible.
I started by using the 35mm Voigtländer viewfinder I still had and the AF set to the central area. It turned out that didn’t work well as the central AF area is a little too big, and as it was difficult to always determine in the optical viewfinder where that area was located, I ended up with the AF often locking at the wrong place. I then switched the AF position to ‘Flexible spot’, keeping the AF area in the central position. That ‘Flexible spot’ AF area being smaller than the ‘Center’ AF area, and by using the camera in point and shoot mode, I was able to be much more precise with my focusing. On the other hand the framing was less precise. The hardest part was getting over the fact that I looked like a tourist with my arms stretched out. Hopefully, using the electronic viewfinder should help resolve some of those problems: precision of the framing combined with precision of the focusing, and regaining some professional composure by having the camera close to the eye. Another issue I had is the speed of the AF. It is OK, but just OK, when there is contrast. When you focus you hear the lens going to and beyond the focusing point, come back a bit and then only lock in. It is wasting precious time…
The camera was set in ‘A’ mode. Exposure was flawless most of the time, but the use of the ‘AEL’ button to lock the exposure was difficult because it has to be kept depressed while reframing and focusing. I am not very familiar with using exposure compensation systems and therefore never touched the + – dial.
By no means do I pretend that the following pros and cons will all apply in other circumstances. There are two more areas I have to explore still with the Sony RX1: shooting in colour and using the electronic viewfinder.
I believe that using the electronic viewfinder to somehow compensate the lack of snappiness of the AF by being 100% sure of the AF area will be a determining factor in deciding if I switch. But then how comfortable is it to look through an EVF? I’ll tell you when I tried it out…
- Lens. Yeah well… Zeiss… Definition seems to be really close to a 35mm Summicron.
- Files. 24Mpixel is a lot. Do I really need all that? I could do with 14 or 18. But they look really good (haven’t worked in colour yet).
- Contrast is nice. By using the same B&W conversion settings I use for the M9-P in Lightroom I get similar results.
- Noise in low-light. Shooting at 1600ISO is a no-brainer. I noticed no banding in underexposed parts of high ISO files.
- Build quality: save for a plastic cover to the battery and card compartment it is all metal. Looks sturdy enough to me…
- Screen readable in bright sunlight. Brighter than on a Canon 5DII.
- Compactness. Easily fits in a little pouch, making it nearly as much available as an iPhone. But this camera is a crowded place. There is not much real estate to put all those buttons. In fact the camera could be a little bit bigger. I wouldn’t mind.
- The silence of this machine is amazing. There is no curtain to cock. Beats the Leica by miles…
- The ‘c’ button to change the ISO on the fly is neat. I used it quite a bit.
- The possibility to focus down to 30cm (and even 20cm in macro mode). Now that opens another world to those restricted to the 0,75 cm of Leica lenses.
- Wake-up speed could be better.
- Autofocus is workable in 70% of the situations but should be faster to get those remaining 30%.
- Battery life is so-so. Basically 1 battery to fill a little less than 1 8Gb card.
- Autofocus in low light needs focusing beam (why have exceptional low-light files when you can’t focus properly when there is low light?)
- Camera size is a little too small.
- A snappier AF.
- A B&W view mode on the screen.
- The AEL button should lock the exposure until the next photograph. Having to keep pushing on it to keep the selected exposure is difficult because the camera is very small.
- When using the optical viewfinder it should be possible to have the possibility to toggle the screen on and off with one of the buttons, allowing for a better battery life.
- I don’t know about this, but does the Zeiss viewfinder have an (obviously permanent) AF area indication in the frame? That might help to focus if you can’t afford the EVF.
- Tropicalisation of the camera? Not sure how it will behave in the rain. Of course the good thing is that, being so small, it is easy to protect under the raincoat or even the peak of a baseball cap.
- Have the possibility to shoot smaller files but still in RAW. A 12 or 14 megapixel RAW file instead of a 24 megapixel one would cover most of my needs and allow to spare disk space.
- Overall size of the camera could be 0,5cm wider to the right.
- The place where the thumb is positioned could stick out a bit more to improve grip when not using the additional thumbgrip. That thumbgrip is really great but cannot be used with the electronic viewfinder.
- The hotshoe could be placed 0,5cm more to the left, allowing the big caucasian noses to be positioned next to the left side of the camera and not behind the camera. This of course increases the parallax issue x the optical viewfinder.
- The rotating button to switch the camera in ‘on’ is more difficult to activate than to switch it to ‘off’