Friday, January 17, 2014

Sony RX1 Review Part 2: Application and Usage

In Part 1 of our Sony RX1 Review, I discussed the camera and its operation.  In this Part 2 of our review, I will discuss how the RX1 performs in the real world, particularly for candid photography.  I will also discuss the RX1's special features, including its suitability for flash photography.  I will also discuss some accessories.

Before we discuss the camera itself, let's talk about photography with the 35mm focal length.  If I wanted a subject to look good, I would use an 85mm or some other short telephoto.  But making the subject look good is not the point of 35mm, in my view.

The 35mm focal length is just a little wider than normal.  That extra field of view can provide more information about the context of the photo, and increase its storytelling potential.  Like the viewer is in the middle of the action rather than an observer.  If used for a tight shot, you'll need to be pretty close, which will add a little perspective distortion on the subject but will make the viewer feel close to the subject.  In other words, when I use the 35mm focal length, I'm looking for authenticity and candor.

Either way, the RX1 is well-suited to capture candid moments.  It is elegant but unassuming.  To anyone but cognoscenti it looks like a regular point-and-shoot.

Some people bemoan the lack of a viewfinder, but to me that is a good thing.  Subconsciously, even non-photographers are aware that when a camera has a hump on top, it looks more "serious" (even though they may not know what the hump is for).  Moreover, the act of bringing the camera to your eye (if it has a viewfinder) tips off other people that you're taking a photo, and seems more "aggressive," in the sense that your intent to take their photo is very clear.  If you take a photo while just looking at the LCD screen, it is stealthier, and even if people see you, you look like you're just using any other point and shoot, so it's easier for your subject to relax.

Fortunately the RX1's LCD is so bright, you can easily see it in bright sunlight, and I've never wished for a viewfinder on the RX1.

From the subject's point of view, there is very little to indicate that you are taking a shot with the RX1.  With other cameras (especially compact ones), when you turn the camera on, the lens barrel extends from the body, making it obvious that the camera is activated.  By contrast, when the RX1 is activated, the lens barrel doesn't move. There is almost no way for a subject to tell that you've turned on the camera.

When the camera focuses, the lens barrel doesn't move either (the lens focuses internally), and the focus ring doesn't rotate.  In terms of sound, the autofocus is unfortunately quite audible but in street conditions you wouldn't hear it.

When you release the shutter, the RX1 is almost silent.  In a very quiet room you might hear a soft click. However, in real world conditions you cannot hear it.  Visually, because the RX1 uses a leaf shutter in the lens and the lens is relatively large, the subject might see the shutter close.  However, if you're using a neutral density filter or CPL it is difficult for the subject to see the shutter.

The difficulty with the RX1 for street photography is the focus.  Its autofocus is not really fast enough for moving subjects.  Except in ideal circumstances, it's about as fast as a point-and-shoot like the LX5.  Whereas a point-and-shoot at least has a deep depth of field that can work within a decent margin of error, the RX1 doesn't have this luxury because of its shallow depth of field.  You can of course stop down to get a deeper depth of field, but if you have to do that, I wonder whether the RX1 with its f/2 lens is overkill.

Traditional zone focus is difficult because the focus ring is electronic and speed variable, and there's no distance scale on the lens (there is one displayed on the screen).  With a manual focus ring, you could get used to estimating the distance where the subject would be within the depth of field.  With the RX1, you couldn't memorize any particular position of the focus ring.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of the review, a workaround for this is to focus on a target that is equidistant to the subject's intended position, then recompose and wait for the subject.

But there's another issue with the RX1's focus, an arguably bigger one imho.  Whenever the camera is turned off or its power saving mode kicks in, the focus resets to infinity, regardless of which focus setting you're in (even manual focus).  WTH.  I think this is proof that the designers of the RX1 were not street photographers.  Many RX1 users are hoping for a firmware update that fixes at least this problem.  Sony did update the firmware for some of its cameras such as the a99 and NEX-5R so we'll see.

Another issue some have complained about is the absence of a depth of field indicator.  I don't think that's an issue because the actual depth of field is visible on the LCD screen as you change the aperture.

I believe it is still possible to use the RX1 for street photography.  From lurking in RX1 forum discussions, most RX1 street photographers turn off the power saving and leave the camera on.  This requires several backup batteries and heats up the sensor.  Personally, I just use the above method (focus on an equidistant target) and I just factor in additional time for the camera to start up (takes a couple of seconds) and pre-focus, in anticipating the subject's movement.

Meanwhile, given the difficulty in rapid focusing (manual or auto) with the RX1, why would we put up with it?  Simply because among compact cameras, the RX1 has arguably one of the best combinations of sensor and lens.  The only other combination that would be comparable is the Sony A7 or A7R with Zeiss 35 2.8, and those bodies are noticeably larger (not really a compact) and the lens is a stop narrower in aperture.

One of the strengths of the RX1 is its use for flash photography.

First, unlike older Sony cameras, it has the normal ISO hot shoe instead of the quirky Sony/Minolta hot shoe.  This means it's possible to use many flash accessories without needing an adapter.

Second, the RX1 has a leaf shutter and can sync at any shutter speed.  As a practical matter the limiting factor becomes flash duration.  If we suppose a flash duration of around 1/1000 at full power from a speedlight, and compare it to the typical 1/250 sync speed of many DSLRs, then your flash acts like it has 4 times the power (2 stop advantage) that it would otherwise have.

That makes the speedlight sufficiently powerful that I can use it as bounce flash to balance outdoor light.  For instance, we were at a hotel and it was very sunny outside while our daughter was playing in the balcony.  It was sunny enough that this is the exposure I got at f/2, 1/2000, ISO 100 without flash:

Thanks to the sync speed, I had so much effective power available to me that I was able to bounce flash into our room and still have more than enough power to illuminate our daughter.  I didn't even use full power for this shot (ISO 160, f/2, 1/2000).

Here's another example.  We took a shot in a large room with very high ceilings, during daytime:

By using a very high shutter speed and then increasing the ISO, the speedlight had plenty of power to bounce off the very high ceilings and balance the ambient light.

Shot at f/2.8 (for adequate DOF), 1/1000, ISO 5000.

Here's one more example. This one was at ISO 500, f/2, 1/2000, with bounced flash that was strong enough to balance against the sunny outdoors.  Actually I had to reduce the flash exposure to make the shot look more natural.

As for the popup flash, well there's good news and bad news.  The good news is that there's a very wide range of flash exposure compensation, from -3 FEC to +3 FEC.  Most compact cameras go down only as low as -2 FEC and many don't go above +1 FEC.  The bad news is that there's no pure manual mode (which otherwise would have been useful for optical triggering).  Oh well.  Fortunately many external flashes have a digital slave mode that can ignore TTL pre-flashes.

I also like the fact that you have the option to specify whether exposure compensation affects the flash compensation, a feature which started showing up on Nikons only very recently, beginning with the Nikon D4.


Dust-Free.  Nikon D600 owners are going to love this: there is no dust at all.  None. Zilch.  Not the slightest speck.  DPReview reports that its unit had a dust spot.  I think that's a defect.  My unit has no dust spots at all visible at the narrowest aperture, and I'm supposing it has more actuations than the DPReview unit.

test shot at f/22. portion of street lamp at lower right corner, portion of leaves on upper left corner
Lightroom - Visualize Spots (see how far to the right the slider is)
Smile shutter.  This is a feature on many Sony cameras.  With this feature, the camera will detect smiles and release the shutter when there is a sufficiently big smile.  You can control the threshold for a smile from slight, to normal to a big smile.  This sounds gimmicky but I find it very convenient for group shots.  It's like having a wireless remote.

Panorama sweep.  The RX1 has a very well implemented panorama mode.  You turn the mode dial to panorama, press the shutter, rotate the camera, and you'll get a smooth panorama, and the stitches are practically invisible: 

You can specify wide or standard, horizontal or vertical (think: skyscrapers or tall monuments).  You can also specify the direction of the panorama - up, down, left or right.

Black and white.  This isn't a special feature per se but I wanted to mention it because I really like the way the in-camera black and white conversion looks.  Here is an SOOC JPEG of the black and white mode.  If you use Raw or Raw+JPEG, the black and white conversion will not appear in the raw image (at least when importing to Lightroom).

Rich-tone mono:  Separate from the black and white mode, the RX1 has a mode called "Rich tone mono."  This mode works only in JPEG.  In this mode, the camera takes several shots (around 4 or 5) and combines them, somewhat like an HDR into a black and white shot with more dynamic tonality.  I like the tones, but obviously this is hard to use for moving subjects.  Also, if there is any bokeh in the photo, it looks kind of rough.

Multi-frame noise reduction.  Buried in the ISO menu is a multi-frame noise reduction mode, which I've mistaken for Auto ISO a couple of times.  The camera takes 4 shots and analyzes the shots to remove the noise.  This works only in JPEG mode.  I don't find it useful -- the result looks about the same as aggressive noise reduction.  It only serves to increase your shutter count. :)  See this comparison by Imaging Resource.

Image Stabilization.  I've read a couple of reviews that claim that the RX1 has image stabilization.  It doesn't.  In video mode, there is a digital stabilization (where the image is cropped), but otherwise the RX1 does not have image stabilization.


Viewfinder: the RX1 does have two options, both of which are expensive.  The first is a Zeiss optical viewfinder (FDA-V1K).  The advantage is that there is never a blackout and you'll always see your subject.  But it's $600.  Or you can buy some other 35mm optical viewfinder, like the Voigtlander.

image courtesy Sony Store
The second option is an electronic viewfinder (FDA-EVM1K), which also works on the RX100 II.  One feature useful is that it can flip up to a 45 degree or 90 degree position as a right-angle finder.   Shooting with a right angle finder is great because it's less obvious you're shooting.  The cost: around $450.  I prefer simply to hold the camera at a lower level and hold it a few inches from me.  The LCD has a wide viewing angle that allows me to frame shots that way.

image courtesy Sony Store
Lens hood: Sony sells a dedicated metal lens hood for the RX1.  It's a bayonet-type hood that fits around the lens filter, allowing you to remove it without having to remove your filter.  The cost: $180.  That's because the surface has a special electrochemical coating that can adjust its reflectivity in response to the amount of ambient light.  Just kidding.  There is now a Chinese-made clone of the Sony lens hood which also has a bayonet type attachment but it's not cheap either, at around $60 on eBay.  Then of course there are inexpensive screw-in hoods that fit on the lens filter.

image courtesy Sony Store

An interesting aftermarket lens hood is the Hoocap, which is a combination lens hood and lens cap.  It screws on to the RX1's lens like a filter.  When not in use, it covers your lens like a lens cap.  When you're ready to shoot, you simply slide it forward and it instantly converts to a lens hood.  It is clever and very convenient.  I was tempted to get one but ultimately decided not because it adds around 1.5cm to the length of the lens, and more importantly, it becomes obvious when you're taking a shot.

Grip:  Sony has a thumb grip (TGA-1) that fits on the RX1's hot shoe.  The cost: $250.  No, that's not a typo.  (I wonder how many of these Sony sells?)  You can buy inexpensive clones for much less than that, and at least one such clone has a pass-through hot shoe.

image courtesy Sony Store

Sony also has a stick-on grip, the AGR1.  However, I'm afraid of using it in case the adhesive fails and the camera drops.

If you want an actual grip, Really Right Stuff sells a combination grip and plate.  It looks great, is awesome for tripods, and offers a little protection for the camera as well.  Fotodiox also sells what looks like a clone of the RRS grip.  There are also clones on eBay.  The RRS grip (and clones) have slots that allow you to open the battery compartment or to charge the RX1 without removing the grip.

LCD protector:  Sony has an LCD protector for the RX1 (PCKLM15), the same one for the RX100.  It's made of stiff plastic.  Surprisingly, it doesn't cost as much as a car payment (probably only because it was intended for the RX100).

Anyway, I prefer the GGS protector which is made of optical glass which has a coating that will keep it in one piece in case it shatters.  I am also supposing it will have less glare and will be less prone to scratches than Sony's plastic protector.

Bag.  There are several bags that could fit the RX1 but the one I like is the BlackRapid Snapr 35.  It combines the function of a BlackRapid strap (which allows you to quickly slide the camera from your hip to your eye), a wrist strap, and a compact camera bag.  The Snapr comes in three sizes, and the 35 will fit the RX1 (L: 4.45 inches x H: 2.5 inches x W:2.7 inches).


Our Sony RX1 coverage is not yet done.  I will be working on a comparison between three four 35mm equivalents: the Sony RX1, Sigma 35 1.4 (with the Nikon D600), the Panasonic 20 1.7 and Olympus 17 1.8.  The Micro Four Thirds lenses will be paired with the camera that put Micro Four Thirds on the map: the Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Yes, an obvious contender would be the Fuji X100 or X100S but sorry I don't have one to test!  And I was interested in the Sony NEX-5R or 5T but they don't have any fast pancakes with around 35mm focal length, other than the 20 2.8 (which is not fast enough for me).

Steve Huff's Review of the RX1 and the RX1R
RX1 used for fashion photography
RX1 vs. Nikon 35 1.4G bokeh comparison by Neil van Neikerk