Sony’s new RX1 camera could cause a sensation. It’s a gorgeous camera that could fulfil the dreams of many photographers. Small, full frame and equipped with a high pedigree lens in a configuration that could optimise the match between glass and silicon to provide unprecedented levels of image quality in a compact camera.
So, should you buy it ? There are two ways of looking at this.
First there’s image quality. No, wait, that’s not true.
First, just look at it !
If you’re geekish enough to dream of photo gear and are receptive to the more traditional camera look, this is what the dream should look like. Granted, that’s a purely subjective point of view but, in the eyes of this author, few inanimate things on this planet stir primal lust as strongly as this little gem. The Ford GT40 MkI comes to mind, as do the original Ongaku amp and the Mamiya 7. What else ? Errr … not much.
Then there’s :
It’s not long ago that I implored manufacturers for large sensors and large pixels in portable cameras. And here we have 24 thousand thousands, each about 6 micron wide (almost three times the size of those in my current Olympus OM-D). It doesn’t get much better with current technology.
Then, there’s that lens. Zeiss are very good with 35mm f/2 lenses. I was fortunate to use one on co-author Philippe’s NEX-7 in drab, gloomy light and the results were spectacular. Reviews abound to confirm my claim. And this one comes with a leaf shutter !
Then’s there’s the opportunity of matching the lens design to the sensor and vice versa for optimal use of each other’s qualities. By attaching the lens to the body rather than mount it, you free your design process from several constraints, opening up possibilities for even better quality.
The pictures produced by this combination could (should) be very smooth, very sharp and very robust in post-processing (high signal to noise ratio).
Old farts like me who cling to their old M-mount lenses do so not only because of sharpness and other aspects image quality but also because we have developed allergic reaction to plastic focus by wire, aperture by menu and the cheap feel of (this is not being snobbish or derogatory : some of my Leica lenses were acquired way cheaper on the used market than current plastic horribilia and my favourite brand is cheaper still Voigtlander).
Old fashioned ergonomics simply rule our world. A real manual focus is great. An aperture ring on the lens is great. Camera controls that have matured over decades are great. The RX1 appears to tick all the right boxes. I mean, just look at it. You know instantly that while fast and modern, it should feel natural and never get in your way. It will support your vision rather that hinder it because of a control hidden 4 menu layers down on the rear screen. Best of both world ? It could (and should).
Yes, $2800 is a lot of money. But if this camera holds its promises (it could, and should) it is a camera you could own forever. Unless you have special needs, this (potential) level of image quality is all most photographers would need for all their life. It is also a small fraction of the price a Leica M-9 with 35mm Summicron would command.
In recent months, I’ve been shooting more and more with only one of two lenses. 35mm is a very useful focal length and stitching & cropping really provide a range from 24mm to 70mm. You could spend $2800 on a DSLR and plenty of lenses, or just get this. Both decisions are valid, but I’ll take one lens or two over swapping any day.
Initial images of the A99 look more like 12Mpix resolution, if that. The AA filter seems so strong that 100% viewing is, well … blurry. Of course, 100% viewing is irrelevant and the A99 is still in pre-release mode. Still, a strong AA filter is a possibility and would kill this RX1.
Then, there’s the Sigma DP2M to take into account. This is by far the sharpest camera I have ever tried. It rivals the Nikon D800 at fraction of the cost and size, not only for sharpness but in dynamic range as well. A really wonderful effort by Sigma that deserves far more recognition than it is getting in the media (thank you Luminous Landscape for making things right).
Normally, the whole concept of high ISO imaging leaves me unimpressed and sometimes miffed at the absurdity of commentators requiring ridiculous values over 12800.
But when a camera seems purposely designed to defeat all efforts at steady hand-holding (the Leica suppository shape, only too small / the minute area on each side of the lens for placing fingers, and forget about mittens / the low weight / the absence of a viewfinder) it’s really comforting to know that ISO3200 is readily available to keep the shutter speed fast. Frankly, internal stabilisation and a decent grip in a camera costing this much would have been a nice touch. No, actually, it would have been normal. Hopefully, Sony will learn at lot about this from their tie with Olympus.
How the guys who designed the utterly amazing NEX-6 and NEX-7 came up with this slippery little bugger is beyond me.
If you look at it as a lifelong investment, $2800 really isn’t bad.
But my first Sony NEX-5n lasted 3 months before it died on me (in the middle of a once-of-a-lifetime shoot). Amazon’s customer service was incredibly good, but Sony’s was incredibly bad (in Australia, at least), an experience confirmed by many others on the web. So the lifelong investment could rapidly turn into a warranty-long investment, which doesn’t look anywhere near as good, as this thing is likely to hold value as well as a 1970’s Fiat.
Plus, there’s the price in Europe. $2800 equates to 2150€ and yet pricing in France has been announced at a ridiculous 3200€. If that proves to be true it’s simply outrageous.
Then, you have accessories. Seriously, who is going to buy a camera of this quality and hand-hold it at arm’s length like your teenager’s average point’n’shoot? A viewfinder is a must and a real grip seems rather important as well. Sony, gunning at Leica’s market doesn’t mean you *have* to price your gear as ludicrously. To me, this is a real turn-off.
So, if you allow your mind to reason beyond the initial attraction, there’s no way you can’t find this overpriced. Particularly as Michael Reichmann reports Sony have “very high wafer yields at this size and so the unit costs are going to be very low”.
The RX1 could (and should) be Sony’s Bugatti Veyron. A flawed masterpiece too heavy and too expensive for its own good, yet a statement for the ages. Volkswagen lose millions for every car they sell, but consider this a marketing investment to show the whole world they have the technology, know-how and guts to produce a car faster than any other on the planet.
To succeed, the RX1 needn’t be a 9th symphony. It too can drawn drooling crowds in spite of shortcomings. But it too needs to be really special and the best at at least one thing. Not stupid high ISO ability, not focusing speed, not frame rate. What this camera must achieve is ultimate image quality. This is what the design promises. This is the statement Sony needs to make. If not it will only be an overpriced single trick pony for posers.
My initial comparisons with the current king of the hill are very encouraging. If an AA filter is being used it is very mild. Pictures are incredibly smooth and rich in tone. You will find great sample pictures at Sony Japan. Here is a comparison with the Sigma DP2M (sample loaned by Richard Frances of LaPetiteBoutiquePhoto, a fantastic camera store in France – no affiliation to them :))
The Sigma image was resized to 6000×4000 to match the Sony’s output. To me it looks a tad sharper, but after reviewing a complete set from both cameras, I do think the smoothness and richness from the RX1 wins. At any ISO rating above 400, the RX1 also wins hands down. As for other features, you need to make the decision for yourself.
Of course, you can get much of this quality far cheaper and far more conveniently with Nikon’s new D600, but this is comparing apples to oranges.
While we are still far from the quality of a 6×7 image, the RX1 comes closer than ever before to the spirit of the Mamiya 7, to my mind the best camera ever designed (although the Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 capture it even better, functionally).
All I can tell you is that, right now, I want one so bad! But I also know I need to buy fast as every minute that goes by my mind realises how unjustifiable the price really is and how many more intelligent alternatives exist (DP2M ?) or are on the horizon!
At any rate, well done, and thank you Sony.