Ever since I purchased my first DSLR in 2001, it’s been difficult to go back to a point-and-shoot camera because of the poor image quality. In the film days, there wasn’t as drastic a difference between SLR and point-and-shoot because all the cameras used 35mm film. The only gating factor was the lens. But sensor size in digital cameras has a profound effect on quality, and until recently, most digital point and shoots have had sensors the size of your thumbnail. And although the Fuji X100 of a few years ago had an APS-C sized sensor (a ginormous leap over the tiny point and shoots that preceded it), it still lacked the clarity of a DSLR.
So I was intrigued by the rumors, and then the formal announcement, of a full frame point-and-shoot camera known as the Sony RX1. Sony has been in the digital camera game for well over a decade, and even though they fabricate the chips for many Nikon cameras, they simply don’t have the market share with pros that the Big Two share. But having seen the quality of the Sony DSLRs, I wasn’t dissuaded. In late fall, I plunked down my pre-order for the RX1 in hopes that it would be the camera that released me from the chains of my DSLR.
I should preface this review by telling you how I use my cameras. I do take “professional” photos by the way of portraits, travel, and event photography. But the bulk of my photography is more casual in nature – photos of friends and my personal travel. Often these images occur in low light. Unlike an idealized condition where one could shoot at ISO100, I more likely find myself in a dimly lit bar trying to capture the interaction of friends. When I was younger, it was almost a badge of legitimacy to try to haul as much camera gear as possible in the largest and heaviest backpack I could find. But as I’ve gotten older, my back has protested, and I’ve honestly gotten tired of the 5 lbs of camera bulk that I’ve normally associated with taking a high fidelity image.
The RX1 is a 24MP fixed focal length 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss lens camera. You cannot remove the lens, and as such the optics are fantastic. Buttery bokeh and very little distortion/vignetting. It has a built-in flash which is surprisingly effective. It doesn’t come with a viewfinder, but does have an accessory shoe onto which you can attach an expensive optical or electronic viewfinder. The accessories, by the way, are ridiculously priced. But I suppose that’s par for the course for a first generation $2799 camera.
On December 16, 2012, I opened the RX1 box, and started shooting in earnest. And after shooting 3,500 frames, all the fears I had about a fixed focal length lens evaporated. I used my feet to “zoom”, and since I was never trying to take a traditional portrait (where a longer focal length would be appropriate), I never felt the lens was inadequate. Instead, I felt a sense of liberation that I had a single focal length – it was just one less parameter to worry about.
The image quality was no different than an DSLR, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the fact that the same sensor is featured in Sony’s top-of-the-line A99. Whether in bright light or dim light, the camera performed. Sure, the focus in dim light wasn’t the same as my D4, but it didn’t really matter. Let’s take a look (all images straight out of camera with auto white balance).
Here’s a full crop of the last image at ISO 12,800. There’s noise, but it’s pretty film-like.
And as a point of comparison, here’s a full crop from a Nikon D1X at ISO 3200. In other words, 16 times MORE light.
Chroma noise is much worse, and there’s a boatload more light. In other words, the sensor on the Sony RX1 is insane. Sure, if you’re gonna scrutinize an image at 12,800, you’re gonna have noise. But when you’re viewing images on the web, which is the predominant medium of image consumption, you can’t tell. Oh, and here’s a full crop at ISO100.
Yeah, clean as a whistle.
I’m not suggesting that the RX1 will replace my DSLR in the studio or for portraiture. Sometimes you need more resolution and more glass. But given that many photographers carried around 35mm primes on their cameras for years and made many iconic images, I feel more than comfortable using this as my everyday and travel camera. The best thing about this camera is that it’s simply of harbinger of great technology that’s coming our way in the next few years. So even if it’s not on your list for Santa now, its offspring could well be in your hands in the future. The future is f/2.0 bright.