Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sony DSC-RX1 Review


lux·u·ry:

 noun \ˈlək-sh(ə-)rē, -zh(ə-)rē\

3a : something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary 

3b : an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease 

                                                                          - Merriam-Webster 

When it comes to premium products, the accepted wisdom is that "you get what you pay for" and that "you remember the quality after you forget the price." However, expense is not necessarily an indication of improvement, and "better" means different things to different people. Compare if you will the Nikon D800 against it's lesser sibling the D7000: it's certainly a more capable and better built camera, but one would hardly describe it as being more luxurious than it's less expensive stablemate. At best, we would say that the D800 is more professional.

If you line up the Sony RX100 and the RX1 side by each, it immediately becomes apparent that they share the same DNA, and even if they didn't, the marketing department at Sony sure wants you to think that they do. However, having now sampled a RX1, more professional is not how I would describe it.... more luxurious seems to be a more appropriate description. There are of course, many luxuries and in this case, I don't mean frivolous in the way that a diamond encrusted Rolex Day-Date is luxurious. One of the greatest luxuries in life is to set aside practical considerations and to work on something that is good merely for the sake of being good. This is a luxury that Sony product engineers seem to indulge in whenever given half a chance.
Fundamentally, luxury is about conspicuous excess. A Timex watch tells the time as well as any other watch. If you want to do better, a Seiko will give you more style and quality and nobody would raise any eyebrow at your spending habits. However, if you are buying a Rolex, it would be plainly obvious that the money going into your watch could have been put to better use elsewhere; it's just that you chose not to. To be able to do that without detriment to one's financial health is indeed a luxury.

I subscribe to the view that there are three categories of luxury:

  • Conspicuous consumption
  • Conspicuous design
  • Conspicuous heritage

The Sony RX1 fulfills all of these. It's vastly more expensive than most other cameras. It's full frame sensor and Carl Zeiss lens are conspicuously more capable than other cameras. And lastly, it's rangefinder-esque shape echos the classic film era of days gone by. Pull one out at your next photoclub meetup and I don't see how it wouldn't be the topic of conversation.

Do I like it? Of course I do.

Construction


Even by crop-frame camera standards, this is a pleasantly small camera. "Full frame" does not have to mean "big". In fact, most 35mm film cameras were of modest size before the monstrous Nikon F4 and F5. Think FM-2, not F6. The RX1 is roughly the same size as one of the old plebeian compact film cameras that so many people had by the end of the 90's. It's a little larger than your average m4/3 camera, noticeably more svelt than the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and fits comfortably in your hands. The familial link to the RX1 is unmistakable, but the RX1 does feel more solid for its size than even the RX100 does for a compact. The metal body is solid and the rubber grip is just about right. In this regards, the RX1 does the RX100 better; the smaller camera is not awkward, but it isn't  a joy to hold. However, one surprise about the RX1 is the weight... or shall I say, the relative lack of it. For something this expensive, the RX1 is fair from flimsy, but it doesn't feel tank-solid either. It doesn't have the weightiness that a Leica M series camera does either. It feels well made, but it doesn't feel as though somebody went out of their way to engineer an absurd level of sturdiness into it in the way that a Canon 1Ds would feel. As I will get further into, this is one of the many little things about the RX1 that indicate that perhaps Sony knew that the RX1's true customer would not necessarily be a professional one.

The build quality extends to the lens barrel. The control rings have a pleasurable tactile feel; this is especially true of the aperture ring which has the right amount of turning resistance and slides into each f/stop with a satisfying, but not dramatic, "click". Even better, the aperture markings are divided into 1/3 stops; you can see the aperture blades through the front element opening and closing with each incremental step. As a matter of pure cosmetics, Sony's signature orange ring (a very nice metallic orange in this case) looks especially pretty at the base of the lens. The manual focus ring has a similar resistance to the fluid dampened rings found on old SLR lenses, but there is one thing that is jarringly modern about it: the focus throw is very short. In fact, I would say that the focus throw is absurdly short: there's maybe an inch's worth of travel between minimum focus distance and infinity. This is another hint that Sony had a less than professional customer in mind: a longer focus throw means that you have better precision with manual focusing. You would think that this would be a priority for the type of photographer attracted to this camera. A shorter focus throw means that the autofocus operates quicker.... which has a broader appeal to a more consumer oriented audience.

 

The vintage design continues with the shutter button, which is threaded to accept old-style cable releases. However, move to the back of the camera,. and the interface becomes more modern. Like the RX100, the controls are detailed, but don't clutter up the back of the camera. Physically, button placement works well, but as is usual, my umbrage is with the way Sony menu's are laid out. The menu structure isn't terrible, but it does have a wiff of bloatware to it if you ask me. The flash is a manually deployable unit like that in the RX100. However, it is not tiltable as in the smaller camera, which is a real shame. Like the RX100, I'm not a fan of the pop-up mechanism, it just looks too complicated for its own good. Overall, the basic act of photography with the RX1 refreshingly does not require much menu diving, as the majority of your necessary controls... focus, aperture, EV compensation... are laid out on easy to use physical controls.


Operation


Camera operation is fairly snappy. Focus speed, though not the absolute fastest I've ever seen, is quick nonetheless. The focus travel itself is short and quick, but the speed of acquiring focus seems variable; fast in good light, maybe a bit more hesitant in dimmer light. The amount of travel and resistance on the shutter release is about right, making the shooting experience fairly transparent and straight forward. As mentioned before, the autofocus speed comes down to the very short focus throw of the lens; conversely, manual focus  isn't much of a joy. One downer about focus operation, though: there is no AF-C continuous autofocus mode for stills. This was eliminated between the time of announcement and when the camera started shipping. I can only surmise that this was a concession to limited development resources, with the final decision being made once it was determined that continuous autofocus performance in the pre-production units was not up to standard. However, there is a focus override mode, DMF (direct manual focus) which allows the user to manually adjust focus after the camera autofocuses first; in operation, it's like how AF-S lenses work on Nikons.

A welcome change from using Nikon dSLR's is how silent and smooth the shutter operates... no harsh mirror slap, just a muted "snick!". This was , of course, one of the original selling points about rangefinders, that the shutter operation was quite and unobtrusive. The rear LCD displays exactly what the lens is looking at, so  you can see the depth of field change depending on which f/stop you chose. This is unlike Nikon's non-intuitive live view, where the depth of field displayed depends on what aperture the camera was set at before entering live view mode. On the Nikon, changing the aperture while in live view does nothing; if it worked the way that it does on the RX1 (i.e., the way that you would think that it should work), then I would probably use live view more often.



Image quality is what you would expect: very good. Very extremely good, in fact. The lens does not have many visible flaws, if at all. Resolution seems fairly high across the whole frame, and from what I can tell, f/2.0 is already fairly good. With in-camera processing, distortion and lateral chromatic aberration are minimal. Actually, with this type of lens construction, you would expect sharp and contrasty images. dSLR's are disadvantaged compared to rangefinders because of the distance between the mount and the sensor that the mirrorbox necessitates. You might have heard many tall tales about Leica lens quality, but part of that is simply because the lens mount layout allows for a sharper optical image. You don't hear as much noise about Leica R lenses do you? Don't expect Leica Summarit levels of quality for this price... as lofty as $2,800-3,000 is, if you want better, you have to pay more.  Many working pros would describe the RX1 as a "bargain" in that you are getting a full frame sensor paired with a high quality lens. The bokeh is better than what you would get with either a Nikon D600 or Canon 5DmII paired with the respective 35mm f/1.4 lens. On top of that, the RX1 would be cheaper than either Canon or Nikon rig... assuming that you only wanted to shoot at the 35mm focal length. This alone is a worthwhile accomplishment, and is what truly makes the price tag for this camera a "bargain." Compare: wide-angle lenses aren't known for their close focusing capabilities. Minimum focus distance on the RX1 is 0.2m. By comparison the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G goes to 0.3m. Compare that to the various version of the Leica Summicron f/2.0 35mm lenses, which had minimum focus distances of around 1m.

Because this is a Sony, my guess is that that the files at the pixel level in JPEG aren't going to be good as that from the Nikon D600, which uses the exact same sensor. I don't think this will matter too much. I love the output that a D600 gives, and under equivalent circumstances, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Movie mode is functional, and well spec'd; after all, this is a Sony product. There is electronic image stabilization available for movie mode, but it crops into the picture. In that regard, it's like how the image stabilization works on the iPhone video mode.

Conclusion


Do I like it? Yes, of course! What kind of question is that?

However, would I buy it? Let me put it this way: the earliest posts on this blog centered around how to buy used camera equipment on Craigslist...

For the capability of this device, it's a remarkably easy camera to shoot with... especially if you are coming from compacts. There's none of the aloofness of Nikon's high-end cameras; if you've used any compact Sony digital camera, you won't feel out of place using the RX1. That's not a coincidence. First of all, it's good industrial design, as redefining your user interface and control surface with each new product launch is wasteful and inefficient. That aside, it is not too hard to figure out that the Sony was designed to appeal to wealthy clients, although it would be unfair to generalize; "wealth" does not indicate "professional". In fact, wealth is probably a strong indication of not being a photo professional, a this industry isn't exactly known for making people rich.

If you ballpark the component costs, even with it's Carl Zeiss lens, Sony has priced in an extra bit of profit margin into the RX1 compared to their other cameras. List price in Canada is $2999 CDN; taxes are 12% more. At least in Vancouver, with it's native contingent of well-heeled consumers, the RX1 will sell well. However, this is an absurd amount of money to spend on a camera with a limited repertoire. That won't stop many people with the means, but the simple fact is that there are many alternatives for the 35mm focal length:

  • Fujifilm X100s - $1,299 (Same idea as RX1, cheaper)

  • Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55 kit lens - $1,400 (Like X100s, but more versatile)

  • Leica X2 - $1,995 (Like X100s, but has a red dot on the body)

  • Nikon D600 with 35mm f/1.4 - $3,615 (Same sensor as RX1, much more versatile)


Though none of the above are the equivalent of the RX1 in terms of optical capability and image quality, they nonetheless won't disappoint you if you want to shoot within the classic "street photographer's" field of view. However, as much as the RX1 is genius in product design and execution, it's a miss for me in terms of marketing. It's very much a halo product, something good for the sake of being good... you'd be hard pressed to build a sustainable business plan solely off of that. Sony is known for this type of product development, and to be honest, I think the world is a better place because there are people willing to see how far they can run with the ball. However, it's not a good world economy right now and Sony isn't in great financial shape either. One wonders if we might ever see a Sony RX2 in the future.

The RX1's high price serves a deeper purpose. This camera gets many professionals excited because of its superb image quality packaged into a small form factor. However, I find it hard to believe that anybody would buy the RX1 was their first or primary camera. This is something that you acquire after you've gotten the more practical basics out of the way. First you buy the Camry; only then, if you have money left over, do you add the Miata. You can do it the other way around but there's a reason why most people don't. However, "professional" is a ruse; most cameras aren't used professionally, but many people would like to think their particular model is. The trick is to maintain that aura of professional precision while actually keeping the camera friendly enough for consumer use.

Even if Sony doesn't sell enough of these to be commercially meaningful, the RX1 will have served it's purpose so long as it's displayed beside the RX100. Recall again hat the familial resemblance is not by accident; neither is the price. $783 CDN for the RX100 is steep, but it looks like an absolute bargain next to the $2999 list price for the RX1. Those of you in the restaurant business will know this as "menu" pricing. The owner's don't expect that you will likely order the most expensive item on the menu, but it's presence makes the next item down look like a bargain. This is because the human brain is actually poor at making a value judgment in a vacuum; instead, we tend to take lots of subconscious mental shortcuts, like deciding value on a comparative terms against something else.

The other problem is time. No matter how great this camera is, it will become obsolete eventually, and Ken Rockwell will name something else as the "greatest camera ever". The RX1 drums up the the romance of timelessness by calling upon the zeitgeist of the classic rangefinder form factor, but the reality is that no digital camera, no matter how timeless its design, is immune to obsolescence. As beautiful as the early digital rangefinders like the Leica M8 and Epson RD-1 were, they are now hopeless antiques compared to what modern machinery is capable of. The Leica M8 is pretty much the Leica M5 of our times, and the Leica M9, which looked so lofty against the Nikon D700 is no match for the D800. So if Leica can't achieve timelessness in the digital age, Sony has no hope. However, pontificating aside, the RX1 is well made enough to last for a good many years. It's a great camera now, and it will remain a good camera for many years to come despite what comes next. Even though they are nothing a like, I see many similarities between this camera and the Sony DSC-R1: both are technically ambitious products for their respective times, and have no direct competition. The R1 is remembered fondly by Sony enthusiasts and I can't imagine why the RX1 wouldn't garner the same appreciation.

Sensor-wise, we are now entering a period of diminishing returns, but each new generation is like the rising tide... the technology lifts all the boats in the harbor, be they crop or full frame. Three years from now, you will likely get the same performance out of a crop sensor as you do now with the 24mp full frame sensor. Or, you will get the same full frame performance, but at a much reduced price. Witness the state of the Nikon D3x in the wake of the D600. Buying a state of the art full frame camera is a lot like how buying the highest performing processor used to work for desktop computers... very expensive and obsoleted quickly. Consider this: if you believe that full frame is the future for the high-end camera market, then the logical implication is that you also believe that full frame cameras will become more commonplace and less expensive, as the economies of scale will reduce the cost of manufacturing.

So getting back to the idea of luxury. Is the RX1 luxurious? Yes, but it's more of a Lexus/Infinity type of luxury than the Rolls-Royce sort. The user experience is greater than what you would get with something that was purely practical, yet, unlike the Rolls, it isn't exotic in the way that the loftiest uber sedans can be. In fact, for all of it's premium positioning, the RX1 is a surprisingly democratized interpretation of what luxury can be in the camera world.

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