One Year with the Sony RX1

A mini long-term musing on the Sony RX1 from my blog. Hope peeps like :) And take a peek at my blog if you like what you see. Thanks! (p.s. critique always welcome!)

One year with the Sony RX1

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My setup used to be a Canon 350D with various good lenses, then I decided I needed an upgrade and so after many a umm’ing and ahh’ing over which full-frame Canon model to upgrade to I went and bought a Sony RX1 instead.

That single action has brought about a complete change to my outlook on photography and photography equipment needs.

Refreshing

The RX1 concept was different to anything that had existed before it and in my view refreshing; to provide the best photography output in as simple as manner as possible… and make it small.

It’s not for everyone, the fixed 35mm lens and lack of a viewfinder will be sure to put off hardcore gear addicts and the price will put off everyone else but for those that really know what they want out of a camera, out of photography, will never let go of this marvel.

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I shot manual film SLRs from my early days, had a break of 5 years or so and then ventured back into photography with both feet firmly in the digital camp with the 350D. I used it for a while and then I kinda. just. stopped. I had gradually lost interest; digital with all its technological advancements was exciting but something was missing, I loved photography but strangely I didn’t love this.

I picked it up again a few years later and rekindled an interest but it wasn’t until I set my hands on the RX1 that I realised what I was looking for and it was refreshingly simple.

Simplicity

The RX1 is in essence a simple device, it does not have a zoom; it does not have a viewfinder; it has neither the ergonomics nor an AF system that works; and it does not even have a battery charger (!). What it does have however is a wonderful lens mated to a superb sensor and that is all I needed.

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The tactile feedback from the all metal construction, the well dampened focusing ring and the reassuring click of the aperture ring around the lens gives quiet confidence when your AF is failing and the battery is about to die after only 300 shots because you know that when you go home and upload your 300 shots, each one will be as beautifully rendered as the next and just how you intended to capture that scene.

I didn’t care that the AF enjoys the hunt because like a Mountie, he always gets his man (most of the time anyway and don’t even bother trying when anything is on the move). I learnt never to rely on AF in certain circumstances and resorted doing things the old-fashioned way.

The Old-Fashioned Way

One could argue that I’m a little bit backwards; why move from a system which gives perfectly acceptable AF, flexibility of focal lengths and adequate cost for something that offers none of that? I had to focus with my feet, manually twiddle the focus ring and lighten my wallet by a fair few G’s (in HKD that is).

But that was the epiphany, the eureka moment, the realisation that I enjoyed it (well, I would certainly enjoy it more if it hadn’t cost me an arm and a leg but I digress).

What was missing from shooting with digital SLR systems (be it Canon or Nikon) was the process itself, I was no longer enjoying the physical process of taking photographs, it didn’t matter whether the output was good if I didn’t care to take the time and effort to get out there with a camera.

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It is a slower process, I would even say a more considered one but I’m not a professional photographer so I don’t need the ability to snap a gnat doing a reverse somersault in the tuck position off a cat’s back from 200m at a moment’s notice lest my family starve from lack of income; I’m just a guy, standing in front of a camera, asking for an enjoyable experience.

The Review

When I evaluate a camera during the first few weeks of purchase, I focus on the negative aspects of the camera as once I have a handle on what I don’t like I can then decide whether I can live with it. If I can, I will love it and keep it, if I can’t it’s gonna go; you can see this when I reviewed the Sony A7R and my up-coming first impressions of the Fujifilm X-T1.

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However, with this "One year in review" I will focus instead on the positive aspects of the camera, what I have found to be the highlights after owning the RX1 for a year.

35mm

I love the 35mm focal length. You either do or you don’t I suppose and I do. I’m naturally a wide angle shooter and lengths from 50mm upwards are awkward for me; I’m always too close to the subject, perhaps I have no inhibitions about getting in close or feel that I lose the intimacy or interaction when shooting people. Oh, and I love landscapes and the close 20cm focus distance when in macro mode is also a boon for those inevitable food photographs.

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Carl Zeiss

Consider me a convert to the Carl Zeiss clan; before the fixed 35mm f/2.0 attached to the front of the RX1 I hadn’t had a lot of experience with Zeiss glass, only hearing about them and not giving them much thought. Now I am a true convert and have already amassed a collection of 4 (if you include the one on the RX1). I had never seen the Zeiss ‘3D pop’ before now and in good sunlight it is truly evident and a marvel to behold.

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The glass is sharp from f/2.0 and right across the frame, the colours are pleasing and at f/2.0 is fast enough and beautiful enough (bokeh!) for me to indulge my creative side. I almost feel like I’m cheating it’s so effortless. It’s not perfect, there exists slight distortions and vignetting which can be corrected in post but for the most part can be considered immaterial.

I have read reviews and musings from the world wide webs which go on to proffer the argument that this could be one of the finest lenses ever produced, I do not doubt them although having the lens mated specifically to a sensor with micrometer precision obviously has its benefits.

Exmor

The Exmor CMOS sensor is amazing and I am not using that term lightly. I have had access and regularly use a number of cameras over time, now own the Sony A7R, Fujifilm X-E1 and X-T1 and I can empirically say the 24MP sensor housed within that tight metallic body is the best I’ve ever used. Its dynamic range (DR) and noise characteristics are exceptional.

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It’s the only file where I can shoot straight into the sun and then pull every slider in post (using Adobe Lightroom) without breaking the image. It’s the only file where I can create HDR images with only one image (instead of the usual 3-plus images). It’s the only file where I never, ever, worry about artifacting in post and lets me really fire up my creative juices. The A7R and Fujifilm files are not even close with this one, like I have already said this camera makes taking pictures easy.

Size

This thing is tiny; it’s an engineering marvel how they have managed to fit a full frame sensor inside that body. It’s by no means pocketable (unless you are a giant or like wearing trench coats) but it is vastly more superior to its other full frame brethren’s. It means that I can carry it anywhere and everywhere I go and I have; during the last year it has been to clubs, bars, restaurants, functions, parks, hikes, events, trips; Hong Kong, England, Japan, Cambodia, India, Korea, China, Italy and so on.

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It’s non-invasive, not attention worthy (especially with black nail polish over the trademarks) and not intimidating. It’s the perfect stealth camera which to many looks like an older 1990’era point and shoot, obviously the fast and silent leaf shutter helps with that too.

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I’ve been people’s houses to shoot photographs where they remarked why I hadn’t brought a ‘proper’ camera like their large Canon or Nikon systems. I merely shrug and say "I make do with what I got", little do they know…

Shutter

It’s a leaf shutter, fast (1/4000s max, although speed limited to 1/2000s when wide open up until f5.6 if I remember correctly) and silent (it really is). It will sync flashes at any speed you would want, especially useful for wide open shots during day light.

Viewfinder

There is one thing that the RX1 doesn’t give you that I know I couldn’t live without and that was a viewfinder. I was so used to optical viewfinders in all my previous cameras that it was a given that I would want the same again. Shooting using the LCD screen just didn’t give that same feel or enjoyment so I immediately started to look at the Sony OVF.

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I tested one and was amazed by how large and bright it was; then I saw the ludicrous price tag and decided that it was ridiculous sum of money to pay for a piece of glass and so I started looking elsewhere at third party designs from Leica and Voigtlander. What I saw underwhelmed me enough for me to consider the electronic viewfinder, I was not willing to spend so much money on what was essentially a dumb piece of glass. Let’s just say that I am now a convert to the EVF world; would I still prefer a large bright digital SLR OVF? Sure. But EVFs do offer some advantages and I can live with the negatives.

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The Sony EVF is a joy to use and only now when I compare it to the EVFs from the A7R, X-E1 (rubbish) and X-T1 that I realised I had started out with a really good one. I’m not sure whether the EVF for the RX1 is the same as that built into the A7R but I swear the RX1 EVF is slightly better and is enjoyable to use even alongside the large and bright EVF of the Fujifilm X-T1.

One Year In

I love the RX1. I already know I will not sell it, exchange it or need to upgrade it. When it comes to 35mm, the RX1 is all I need which is why after one year and three additional bodies I still only have one 35mm focal length in my collection and that is the one attached to this camera.

It has changed my whole outlook and philosophy and my equipment needs.

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I want them to be small and manageable; I want that tactile old school feel of an aperture ring; I want a single focal length to keep things simple; I want to really enjoy using it. What I really want is a collection of RX1 cameras at different focal lengths; an ultra-wide (~18mm), wide (35mm), normal (50mm) and short-telephoto (85mm). One camera for one task, no changing lenses in the field and if I didn’t bring the right camera with me, I’m not going to stress over missing a shot. Simple.

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The end.