Sony RX1R — Visions of Cameras Future?

SonyRX1R

I’ve been shooting with the Sony RX1R for the past week as research for the next episode of All About the Gear. It’s certainly not perfect, but there are aspects of this camera that make it quite extraordinary. And now the word on the street is that the RX1R will be the basis for a full-frame Sony NEX body (ie, interchangeable e-mount) within the next month or two. If so, it will likely be the best (overall) interchangeable-lens full-frame-camera. Sorry Leica users, but it could be true.

Here’s an example. This 24MP image was shot at ISO 8000 (not 800!), f/5.6, 1/320 second. It’s pretty much straight out of the camera. (It has a permanently affixed Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens.) This image is scaled in your browser to 600×400 from a 1920×1280 JPEG, which in turn was made from the original 6000×4000 pixel RAW file. In other words, what you see below is 0.24MP or a 1/10 (linear) scale of the full-size image. There are 100x more pixels in the RAW file than what you see here. Click (maybe twice) to see the 1920×1280 version.

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Now take a look at three full-scale 100% crops from the above image.

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The image above shows the detail of an area with a lot of specular highlights. Much of it is beyond the depth-of-field limits, so don’t judge it for sharpness.

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This one, above, shows the level of detail in a non-highlight area. Two things of note: First, there aren’t any moire problems due to the lack of an anti-aliasing filter on the RX1R’s sensor. I haven’t been able to create any moire patterns except when I worked very hard to do so.

Second, check out the noise in the shadows. Yes, it’s ISO 8000 so there’s some noise, but notice how natural it appears. It almost looks like film grain, and there’s certainly none of that annoying colorful “confetti” grain.

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Finally, the image above is from a very dark area of the original. Again, look how unobjectionable the noise is.

I plan to shoot at even higher ISOs, but so far I’d say that this sensor/lens combination looks as good to me as any lens on my Nikon D800E.

Sony NEX: The Lenses

In the first part of my review I compared the bodies of the Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7. As I mentioned then, my motivation for these reviews is to find the best way to “travel light” for a non-photographer’s trip to Turkey in June. I already own an NEX-7 with two lenses, but I wanted to (a) check out the NEX-6, and (b) find the best suite of lenses for this non-assignment. This post is all about the lenses.

Here are the six lenses I’ve used for the past four days and my comments on each:

  • 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s a good-enough general-purpose lens, which I purchased as the kit lens for my NEX-7. Not particularly sharp and certainly slow, but it’s helped me get some decent shots over the past year.
  • 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6. This is the newer kit lens for the less-expensive NEX bodies, and it’s weird. I wasn’t impressed. It’s a pancake-style zoom and takes about two seconds to expand after the camera is switched on. Seems like forever. It also has a fly-by-wire “power” zoom control, which is great for smooth zooms in video but it has an annoying lag for still images. If you’re buying an NEX camera, I suggest you not buy this lens with it unless you try it out first.
  • 50mm f/1.8. I’ve owned this lens for the better part of a year. Even though it overlaps the 18-55mm in focal length, it’s sharper and faster than the kit lens. I pop it on when I need to grab more light (3 stops faster than the zoom), want the shallower depth of field or have time to take a more-careful shot that would benefit from a sharper lens.
  • 16mm f/2.8. An inexpensive prime, but disappointing, particularly when compared to the alternatives. The interesting thing about this lens is that you can buy two adaptors for it. One converts it into an even wider-angle lens (about a 12mm) and the other gives you a fisheye. I didn’t test with either of these adaptors, but I may do so in the next month or so.
  • 24mm f/2.8 (Zeiss). By all others’ accounts this is the killer lens for the NEX E-mount cameras. Now that I’ve tried it, I agree. Expensive ($1,100) but gorgeous. Sharp, high-contrast, minimal chromatic aberration. At a 36mm full-frame equivalency, this is a terrific lens for both general and high-res use.
  • 10-18mm f/4. This one is my new discovery. I’ve started shooting more with wide and ultra-wide lenses and this really fits that niche. At a full-frame equivalence of 15mm-27mm, it’s reminiscent of my Nikon 14-24mm f.2.8. Well, not nearly as spectacular, but the 10-18mm does a pretty good job considering its size. Still, it’s a bit larger and more expensive ($850) than most other lenses listed here. But I do like it.

Two lenses (the 16-50mm and the 16mm) didn’t make the cut. Here’s the plan for what I’ll be taking to Turkey, at least as of now:

  • 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
  • 10-18mm f/4 (rented)
  • 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss (rented)
  • 50mm f/1.8

Here’s my logic. The 18-55mm is fine as a walkaround casual lens when I’m outdoors in the daytime and not in my serious-photographer role.  The wide-angle 10-18mm zoom is a perfect compliment to the kit lens with the crossover between them at 18mm (27mm full-frame equivalent). But when I move indoors, need more light and don’t want to crank up the ISO, or when I simply want to spend more time on a subject, I find I switch to the 50mm or the Zeiss 24mm primes.

The only lens I’m missing in this set is something telephoto. The 18-200mm superzooms (11x) are just too large to meet my “travel light” criterion. But with a 24MP sensor on the NEX-7 I always have the option of cropping. If I shoot at 55mm and crop 2:1, it’s the same as though I had used a 110mm lens, which is the equivalent of 165mm on a full-frame camera. And I still end up with a 6MP image, which is fine for posting online and prints up to 8×10.

If you’re thinking of buying one of these bodies or lenses (or any others for that matter) I strongly recommend renting first. Personally, I use BorrowLenses.com, but LensRentals.com and even your local camera shop are good, too. For example, the two lenses I’m taking to Turkey that I don’t already own would cost me about $2,000 total to purchase. To rent the pair for four weeks will cost me only about $225.

There are always surprises with gear. There’s always something the reviews didn’t tell you or you just missed. Rent for a 3-day weekend and it won’t cost you much. I think you’ll be glad you did.