I took off to Basel a couple weeks ago for a large environmental health conference. Before leaving, I rented a Sony DSC-RX1 from borrowlenses.com and picked it up at RayKo in San Francisco. Switching from my normal photography kit — a 5D Mark II, a 17-40 f/4 L, and a 50mm L — to this wee little gadget felt like an impossible stretch. I’ve shot almost exclusively on Canon gear since I borrowed my family’s old Canon T90 in the late 80s. I was a little scared of something new (we fear change) and concerned about how long it would take me to figure out the Sony.
The RX1 turned out to be a delight — the camera produced pictures on par with the Mark II and the fixed focal length forced me to stop and think before shooting. A good exercise for any photographer. Somewhat organized thoughts and notes on the camera follow.
At first glance, the RX1 is underwhelming — it resembles a standard point + shoot. It looks pedestrian. All that goes away, though, once in hand. It’s weighty and substantial, dense and solid. The glass — a spectacular Zeiss 35mm prime f/2.0 — has a satisfying, clicky (and wholly electronic) ring for selecting an aperture. The RX1 borrows styling cues from old school rangefinders (Leicas, the Contax G series). It’s got a full-frame 24 megapixel sensor and shoots 14-bit raw images. The screen is bright — really, really bright — and displays images vividly and accurately in broad daylight (no small feat). The overlays on the screen are nice and completely controllable; you can quickly turn on and off a batrillion status indicators. A nice touch: the ability to enable an on-screen level, helping compose the shot and avoiding rotating/cropping during post-processing. The RX1 - with this combination of fancy and traditional - is an odd gadget, full of ultra-modern, high-end technology, but formed wholly by older platonic ideals of what a camera should be.
The wonderful lens, the beautiful controls, and the insane, huge, magnificent sensor all come with some caveats. The RX-1 has no optical or electronic viewfinder. I spent the better part of my time with the camera lifting it to my face, looking for something to look through — and then remembering that my viewfinder was the screen on the back (now complete with cheek imprints). For me, that was the single most difficult thing to become accustomed to. The cost to play is high — 2800 USD. The fixed lens confused colleagues who handled the camera; once they played with it for a few minutes they wondered about other lens options. Their reaction — that at its cost, a fixed lens seemed inappropriate — wasn’t surprising.
The image quality is astounding. The RX1 performs much like other full-frame cameras — it does a great job up to ISO 3200, and fine beyond that. I shot regularly across the gamut — from 100 to 3200 — and am pleased with all of the results. The focus times weren’t nearly as fast as the Mark II, but weren’t slow enough to be a real concern, except when it was between dim and dark where I was shooting. While the focusing often failed under those conditions, the image quality held up. Battery life wasn’t great — the camera made it through most days of shooting with little power left. This was okay in Basel, where most of my days were spent in a conference center and away from camera-worthy moments. If I had been outdoors more and working less, I’m confident I would have exhausted the batteries regularly. On the upside, the camera can be charged with any portable USB battery; the downside, of course, is the added bulk. Were I to rent the RX1 again, I’d get one or two extra batteries (and an external viewfinder).
Downsides… The menus run deep and require some serious thought to decipher. They’re better than on many cameras, but that’s not saying much. Another nice touch: most of the physical buttons on the camera can be reassigned to custom functions. This helped me get comfortable with the camera much more quickly, putting commonly used controls in easy reach.
I could go on and on about this camera. But others have done that, and far more eloquently and capably than I. This, in my opinion, is the camera to beat. It redefines what a small and light camera can be, and does so without compromising image quality. It’s not perfect, but if I could afford one, it would be my go to daily camera.