Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sony RX1: Intimacy

In my previous post, I mentioned that I saw a great deal for the Olympus E-PL3.  I had been curious about Micro Four Thirds because of its fast autofocus (at least for still subjects) so I ordered one, and I was looking forward to trying it out.  Instead, my plans took an unexpected detour...


Yup.  I got the Sony RX1, the full frame point-and-shoot.  In this post I'll discuss how I ended up with it, and then I'll talk about my first impressions.



BACKGROUND

During the past couple of months, the only lens I've used on the D600 is the Sigma 35 1.4, and I've really enjoyed it.

Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4
So much so that I felt that if I could have only one lens and one focal length, this would probably be it.  What I like about the 35mm focal length is that it makes the viewer feel closer to the subjects.  Here is a shot of my kids with the 85 1.8G on a D7000 (effectively 127.5mm):

Nikon D7000 + Nikon 85 1.8G

Here is pretty much the same scene, rendered through a 35mm (with my wife).

Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4
In both cases, the magnification of my son's head is about the same.  However, in the shot with 35mm, the viewer feels closer to the subjects.  The perspective is not quite totally normal but not wide either - it's just slightly wider than normal, but enough to create a feeling of being close to the subjects, without being so close that the subjects are obviously distorted (as in the case of an ultrawide).


Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4
My only complaint about the Sigma 35 1.4 is the inconsistent autofocus.  Sometimes it's accurate, sometimes not.  Off the top of my head I would guess a hit rate of 2 out of 3.  The autofocus is compounded by the very small AF area of the D600 (covering only approximately the central 1/9th of the screen, crucially missing the rule of thirds intersections).  The other thing is that the Sigma is quite large.  About the same length as a Nikon 24-70 2.8 (i.e. huge).  With a 35mm focal length I usually have to shoot quite close to the subject.  Having a huge lens in your face is not fun for a subject.

All of these issues are addressed somewhat if I use live view.  With live view's contrast detection (as opposed to phase detection) AF, the Sigma 35 1.4 focus is extremely accurate.  Second, in live view, I can move the AF point anywhere in the frame.  Finally, when using live view it seems that it is less intimidating for the subject compared to peering into the viewfinder.

I used liveview to capture this candid shot.  Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4
Unfortunately the D600, like other older DSLRs, wasn't designed for live view, so its autofocus during live view is slow (slower than a point-and-shoot).  This made me think about mirrorless cameras.

Mirrorless cameras all use contrast detection (at this time, only a few also have phase detection).  So I think shooting with them is a lot like using live view on a DSLR except that they're designed for it, so they have better autofocus performance compared to a DSLR using contrast detection.  Moreover, mirrorless cameras are thinner, and there is an emphasis on trying to make cameras and lenses light and small.  A small camera would be less obtrusive and would be helpful for shooting at close range with a 35mm.

CHOICES

I identified several possible candidates for a mirrorless camera with a 35mm focal length equivalent with wide aperture.  There was the possibility of Micro Four Thirds and the Panasonic 20 1.7.  Fuji had the recently-released 23 1.4 for one of their X-cameras.  Then of course there are the Sony A7 and A7R.  There is a 35mm lens available to them but the maximum aperture is a little narrower at f/2.8.  There was a promise of faster lenses in the future, but the 35 2.8 was already $800, in addition to the cost of the camera.   And even if Sony created a 35 1.4 for the A7 or A7R, I'm sure it would be quite expensive, and probably too large to be pocketable.

There was the Sony RX1 which had a reasonably fast f/2 lens, and was somewhat pocketable even with the lens.  The only problem was the cost.  I did think of getting one, but it was just wishful thinking.

But then, yesterday, I came across a Sony RX1 at an unbelievably good price and snapped it up.  Here are my first impressions and a few samples (with only light edits).

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

RX1 at f/2 (from Raw)
Size: yes it's small.  The body is only slightly larger than that of an LX5.   However, the lens protrudes from the body.  Not so much that it would look like a zoom lens but enough so that it would be hard to fit the RX1 in your pants.  It would be more reasonable to fit it into your coat pocket.  But it is small enough that a layperson would probably assume it is just a point and shoot.

Build quality: yes like everyone says the build quality is impeccable.  It feels substantial for its size, like an expensive watch.

Autofocus speed and accuracy:  Ironically this was my biggest worry even though one of the major reasons I was looking for a mirrorless system was autofocus.  In terms of speed, I would say it is about the same as the LX5.  In very low light, it can take a couple of seconds to focus.  However, in moderate low light, it focuses quickly:

RX1 at f/2 from JPEG


RX1 at f/2 from JPEG

In terms of accuracy it is quite dependable.  The limitation is that the AF point is kind of large.  Sometimes the camera focuses on a high contrast object within that AF point resulting in the wrong focus.

One challenge to autofocus is close subjects.  The closest focusing distance is 0.2 meters   However with any distance less than 0.35 meters, you have to switch to macro mode (limited to 0.2 - 0.35 meters).  Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether I'm simply too close for the RX1 to focus.  You also have to remember to switch back to regular focusing when you're done shooting macros.



Lens Quality: so far, as good as I had hoped.  The lens is very sharp at all apertures.  There is noticeable distortion but it can be corrected in Lightroom (or automatically corrected in the camera if you use JPEG only).  Very low chromatic aberration.


Image quality: AFAIK, the RX1's sensor is related to the sensor used in the D600. The noise is very low even at high ISOs.  One difference from the D600 is that the colors on the RX1 are more pleasant and accurate compared to the orange-ish colors on the D600.

Another characteristic I did not expect is that the JPEG files have a lot of recoverable highlights in them.  Check out this JPEG (SOOC).  The flame looks almost totally blown.


Here is how much was recovered from the JPEG file:

I also found that the RX1 was good at setting the white balance to neutral.

Controls:  I appreciate that there's an aperture ring with 1/3 stop detents, and a dedicated dial for exposure compensation.  There is a ring that not only rotates but also serves as a 4-way control pad, used not only for moving the cursor but also to assign each button/direction to a function for quick access. For a small camera, it has quite a few direct-access buttons and (though nowhere near as convenient as a mid- or pro-level Nikon).

One source of frustration is that I could not move the AF point right away.  Instead, I had to press at least one button before I could start moving the AF point.  Moreover, in the screen for moving the AF point, the overlay for the Rule of Thirds disappears. And I haven't found a way to quickly reset the AF point to the center.

The menus are also kind of cumbersome to navigate through.  Let's just say I'm still getting used to it.


Lighting:  lighting seems to be a strong suit of the RX1.  First of all, the hot shoe is the standard one.  Not the strange Sony/Minolta hotshoe.  Second, it has an unlimited sync speed thanks to its leaf shutter.  Third, like the Nikon D600, it has the option to specify whether exposure compensation affects ambient only or both flash and ambient.

Shooting: on the plus side, it's extremely quiet due to its leaf shutter.  On the other hand, after you take a shot, the screen blacks out for much longer than on a DSLR.  However, the best part about shooting with the RX1 is that due to its low profile, it doesn't attract attention and people seem to forget it.



Anyway, so far those are my first impressions of the RX1.  This weekend we're going on a very short trip.  I'll take the RX1 out for a spin and pair it with the 85 1.8G on the Nikon D600.  Meawhile pay attention to your local ads for the RX1 - prices are coming down, almost to the point where it's economical when you factor in the cost of a fast lens.

UPDATE: Review now posted