Getting to grips with my Sony RX1

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

Stage door of the Apollo Theatre, London. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

A week ago I was shocked when the lovely folks at Castle Cameras here in Bournemouth got in touch to let me know that I’d won a new camera in a Sony competition that they were running on their Flickr site. I had completely forgotten that I had entered and when they told me to come and collect my shiny new Sony Cybershot RX1 I popped up later that afternoon. I spent most of the rest of that day playing with the camera and (shock horror) reading the instruction manual. I checked out what “the internet” had to say about the camera and stuck it in my bag determined to give it a proper outing at the first opportunity. You can see the winning picture here.

The weather hasn’t been great and I have been a bit busy with the day job and so it took a full six days before I got a proper chance to take some pictures. I happened to be in London with about three hours to kill yesterday and even though the weather was poor I was determined to have a wander and see whether I could get to grips with the RX1. I don’t really write full-on product reviews because there are other people that do it so much better than I can and this particular model Sony has been around for quite a while. It is, however, a very close contemporary of my beloved Fujifilm X100S and I was keen to find out whether the Sony could do two things:

  1. Outperform the the X100S for image quality, handling, battery life etc
  2. Be as much fun to use and be as nice to use as the Fuji has been

My first worry was that the Sony doesn’t come with a viewfinder of any description other than the large and very clear LCD on the back of the camera. The cheapest viewfinder that Sony sell is just over £300 which would make the RX1 more than twice the retail price of the Fujifilm X100S. I was excited by the fact that the Sony has a full-frame sensor and the write-ups for the fixed Zeiss 35mm lens meant that I was actually looking forward to some low-light photography. So I headed out with a fully charged battery and a 16Gb SD card to see what I could see. Walking from Mayfair through China Town and Soho to Covent Garden and back I was looking for pictures that might once day grace my personal work folio and/or my Flickr stream. As is often the case on these days with no particular brief a theme started to suggest itself and for the first hour or two I found myself snatching pictures of people texting and I started to build a gallery in my mind.

As it got darker the texting pictures started to dry up and it was then that my favourite pictures of the day started to happen. Dusk, as I have written before, is just about my favourite time of day to take pictures and yesterday was no exception. Here below is probably my favourite picture from the day:

31 January 2016. London, Greater London. London on a cold and wet January Sunday afternoon.. Soho Neil Turner

Soho, London on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. ©Neil Turner, January 2016

There’s only one problem with this picture. It wasn’t taken on the Sony RX1. Why? Because the battery had given up twenty minutes previously and I didn’t have a spare. I had taken my Fujifilm X100S “just in case” and I’m glad that I did because this picture wouldn’t have worked on my iPhone! The X100S has poor battery life and because of that I carry three spares when I go out for the day. There are lots of things that you can do in the set-up menu to restrict the battery-drain including using the optical viewfinder. The Sony RX1, on this evidence, has a bigger problem than the Fujifilm with power and I would bet that the big bright LCD screen is the biggest part of that problem. It doesn’t end there either because Sony don’t even bundle a battery charger with these cameras – they expect you to charge the battery in-camera which means that you have to switch the thing off when you might want to keep shooting. I know that there are plenty of after-market chargers available for these common batteries but really? At that price? I understand that batteries get a bit better after a few charge cycles but less than two hours from brand new one is unacceptable. On the day I had my external battery which I use to recharge my iPhone with me and I spent the final hour walking around shooting with the X100S and with the Sony RX1 plugged into that external battery in my bag. I would bet that adding a viewfinder and refining the power settings on the Sony would be a big help but this camera needs to wow me if I’m going to spend £300 to find out.

What about the low-light performance? There’s no arguing that here the Sony is very, very good. At 3200 ISO it is a match for any of the Canons that I use in the day job and so I’d say that it is as much as two stops better than the Fuji when shooting RAW based on the evidence of the few pictures that I’ve taken.

Which brings me to the Carl Zeiss 35mm f2 lens on the Sony RX1. I’d rate it at somewhere between very good and excellent and, again, a fair bit better than the 23mm f2 on the crop sensor Fujifilm X100S. Surprisingly, the Zeiss lens suffers from some barrel distortion but the lens correction algorithm in Adobe Photoshop’s Camera RAW sorts that out with ease. I will do a direct comparison between the Sony and a Canon 6D with a Canon 35mm f2 lens at some point and I would expect it to be far too close to call.

So far the Sony wins on image quality and lens quality and the Fujifilm wins on battery life. Their respective pluses and minuses on the handling tests mean that they are pretty much even when shooting with the LCD but that the Fuji is streets ahead because it has the electronic and optical options when you don’t want to use the LCD. I’d rate the Sony as the marginal winner on exposure accuracy and a clear winner when it comes to auto focus speed and accuracy – although this was only a fair fight when using the LCD screen to focus.

For build quality the honours have to go to Sony (given their respective pricing that should be a given) but the difference isn’t as wide as you’d expect. The two cameras have OK menus but neither wows me with them. I suspect that is largely due to the fact that I find Canon’s menu systems to be both easy and familiar.

The kinds of pictures that I like to shoot with these kinds of cameras aren’t paid work. They come under the categories of food for the photographic soul and fun. This is where the Sony loses out badly. I don’t like shooting with the LCD very much and that means that I would have to pay out a lot of money to find out if the Sony can catch up. They offer two different viewfinders and that’s expensive if you want the choice. The newer RX1R MkII has a small electric viewfinder – which would be most welcome.

At the end of day one with the Sony I have some choices to make if I want to continue to take advantage of the superior image quality on offer. Do I:

  • Spend £300+ on an electronic viewfinder?
  • Spend £50+ on spare batteries and chargers?
  • Hope that after spending the money, the camera becomes more fun to use?

I’m off to Norway for a two week job next week and I’m going to take the Sony RX1 with me. One afternoon in poor light with a failing battery isn’t enough time to make my mind up about such an interesting camera. That means that the spare battery purchases will happen anyway. If I find that by the end of February the fun quotient of the Fujifilm outstrips the quality one of the Sony then I may just end up selling my prize camera on.

Don’t panic…

I use Apple products. In fact, I use a lot of Apple products and some of my less generous colleagues might even label me a “fanboy”. I’d call that unfair because I’m not blind to their faults and I know that, like all technology, it will fail at some point.

I have tried my best to develop ways of avoiding failures, making sure that they cause as little damage or disruption as possible and generally covering my back wherever and whenever possible. The other day, whilst doing routine updates to one of the Macs in my office, I experienced something that would probably have completely freaked most computer users out and necessitated a lot of aggravation or even a visit to a service centre or Genius Bar.

dock_error

Simply put, all of the applications went AWOL. The dock, of which you can see a screenshot above just showed a whole row of question marks indicating that the applications were missing and a quick visit to the applications folder showed that the Mac clearly thought so too. The error message said that I didn’t have permissions to use the folder which made me believe and/or hope that nothing was actually missing. The “missing” applications included Time Machine and all of the repair and diagnostic tools that I would normally go straight to. I looked in the bin and I tried to search for items that I know should have in my applications folder but found nothing.

This has never happened to me before and I have never heard it described so I tried solution number one – to use a different device, get onto the internet and search the collected knowledge of the world’s computer users. The general consensus appeared to be that I had a major issue and that I needed to reinstall the Mac operating system. Easier said than done given that, despite trying every kind of reboot and diagnostic test I could, the App Store, all web browsers and Time Machine were amongst the locked/blocked/missing applications.

I could have done it all from one of the other Macs but I have, for many years, had a back-up drive from which I can boot my computers. These days it is a USB3 SSD drive with OSX Yosemite loaded on it and I used that to reboot my computer and install a fresh copy of OSX. Twenty-five minutes later with a mildly raised heart rate and some cramp in my fingers from keeping them crossed my computer was back as if nothing had happened. No screwdrivers were involved and nobody had to drive anywhere. No data was lost and I could get on with work.

Just in case you are wondering, panicking wasn’t even in the top ten ways to sort this out – about five places below a stiff drink or three!

A case that proves the old military phrase that I was taught at school in the 1970s and 1980s – “precise and proper planning prevents poor performance”.

Welcome to 2016

© Neil Turner, December 2015. Ullswater, Cumbria.

© Neil Turner, December 2015. Ullswater, Cumbria.

So here we are entering 2016 trying desperately to work out what’s going to happen during the year. Like every year since I returned to freelancing I have a pretty blank diary facing me. As always that leaves me simultaneously excited and petrified.

My new year has started as the old one ended with some back pain and so I’ve spent more time with a Chiropractor than I have with my cameras recently. I’m slowly getting better and over the next few days I will be getting in touch with some of my current and lapsed clients to have a chat about what I can offer them. This is probably the part of being freelance that I enjoy the least – looking for work.

I have already chatted with two or three clients about projects for this year and there’s a few things already pencilled-in on my calendar application. If this year is much different from the last couple of years I’ll be quite surprised and that’s fine by me because the mix of different types of work has settled down to ‘interesting’.

My skills with the crystal ball that I don’t own are pretty rudimentary but I expect some wonderful new equipment to break cover this year and for my rational self to get into a battle with my “I want it now” self. Back in the first half of 2012 I blogged about Canon’s announcement of the EOS5D MkIII and whether I could justify buying one. Almost four years on it is odds-on that a MkIV will surface and depending on which rumour site you watch it will have just enough new features to make it tempting. I don’t imagine that they’ll produce any ‘must-have’ lenses and so I’m really hoping that 2016 leaves me with money in the bank rather than having to spend money that will be hard-earned on equipment updates.

Of course our friends at Apple will come up with some better/faster/prettier technology but that comes into the category of needing to be justified if I am going to invest and my four and a half year old 11″ MacBook Air shows no signs of needing to be replaced just yet.

The whole subscription based system by which I get my Adobe products means that there’s no need to worry about new software from them which leaves me with one very specific wish from all of the manufacturers whose products I use. Camera Bits have been talking about a cataloguing application to accompany the wonderful and evergreen Photo Mechanic for a long time now and I’m hoping that this will finally be the year that sees it hitting the market place.

© Neil Turner, December 2015. Cumbria

© Neil Turner, December 2015. Dry stone wall, Cumbria

So that leaves accessories and camera bags to be obsessed about. 2016 is going to be the year where I get to grips with carrying kit in a backpack. The combination of having a bad back and a desire to use the train more means that the search for the ‘perfect’ camera bag goes on and even moves up a gear from now on. Think Tank are making a number of great bags and on their social media they are talking about a v2.0 of their highly rated Shapeshifter so that may well be a route to go down.

There’s always a wish list when you are a photographer and 2015 saw me shooting more personal pictures than ever before. Most of it was done with the charming Fujifilm X100S and top of my wish list for 2016 is the very handsome looking and fun to use Leica Q. I don’t have £3,000.00 to spare and so it will remain an object of desire rather than part of my kit for a while longer.

Here’s to an interesting and successful new year.

Brian Harris’s Book

Brian was there when I got started and his stories have always been entertaining. I’d strongly recommend anyone interested in photography or just life itself to follow Brian and read his book when it comes out.

The aim of this blog site is to introduce my soon to be published book to a wider audience. I will write on a regular basis about the process, the ups and downs, of self publishing a high end beautifully designed and tightly edited book about my work as an editorial photographer for the past 45 years. Please enjoy and feel free to make comments in the box at the foot of this page.

‘…and then the Prime Minister hit me…’

Brian Harris blog pics-Jan 2016_20166182

My partner Nikki is partly to blame, for it was she who has pushed me to write down all my stories, my lectures, my history from over 45 years working as an editorial news photographer for the national press in the UK and turn them into an enjoyable illustrated read.

Writing an autobiographical book about ones life is like cleaning out the hard drive on a computer…and best done before my hard drive of a brain starts to fail and all that history, all those wonderful stories and self deprecating anecdotes disappear for ever.

The 75,000 plus words have taken over 5 years to write. It has been a full time job and even now I am finding more stories to add.

At the beginning I really had no idea where to start…a blank page, even on a computer screen, is quite frightening, and so, I…

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Another Merry Christmas

Lights from the Old Vic Theatre reflecting on wet roads near London's Waterloo station.

Bringing home the panettone. London. 17th December 2015.  ©Neil Turner

Another year is drawing to its end and I hope that you have enjoyed reading some (or all) of my blog posts through 2015. I just wanted to post a sort of a Christmas themed street photo to round the year off.

I have entitled it ‘bringing home the panettone’ which makes it a bit festive but it was taken as I was on my way to meet up with some friends and colleagues for a Christmas drink and meal and that adds to its seasonal feeling. Being an independent and freelance photographer I don’t get to spend enough time working with a team and it is lovely to get to be part of an office party like this one was.

2015 has been a good year for me and for my work but it has been tinged by the sadness of losing too many fellow photographers, most of whom were far too young.

Thanks for reading my blog, thanks for contributing and I wish you a very merry Christmas and successful new year.

Technical stuff: Fujifilm X100S 1/80th of a second at f2 on 2000 ISO.

My iPhone & not taking pictures with it

iphone_grabThere’s no getting away from two facts:

1. I am a fan of almost everything Apple for the work that I do and the way that I do it.

2. I rely on my two and a bit year old iPhone 5S for quite a lot of things when I’m out on assignments.

The speed of the 4G network and the brilliant array of apps available for all smartphones has changed the way that I do some of my jobs quite a lot in the last few years. Recently I wrote about getting pictures away quickly  and I have also written about the workflow that I use with some of the phone apps and you can see from a current grab of one of the app pages on my phone I have quite a few ways to do similar things.

I’d like to talk in this blog about some of many of the ‘un-sung heroes’ of my mobile life – at least one of which is a very new and a very, very welcome addition to the set up.

The backbone of my mobile image acquisition and transmission system is formed of the Eye-Fi and Photogene apps which have been covered at length before but you can also see plenty of other work related apps on this single screen.

The newcomer (bottom right) is ColorTRUE – an app from X-Rite that allows you to colour calibrate your mobile phone or tablet screen if you have a suitable X-Rite monitor calibration device. Sadly, iOS doesn’t have system-wide colour management (yet?) but it is possible to view your images in the ColorTRUE gallery and see very accurate renditions. They have a partner program to allow other app developers to take advantage of this big leap forward and I hope that others will take advantage of this soon – I’ve just written to the makers of Photogene to ask them very nicely if they would get involved in this very useful scheme.

The screen grab below shows what the app looks like in action

colortrue

Also on the home screen is Easy Release which is a brilliant way to get model releases signed on-the-fly that I’ve been using for a few years. Lenstag is a way of recording and verifying ownership of equipment, Transmit is a fully functioning FTP upload app and the mobile version of WeTransfer is incredibly useful for sending big batches to some clients.

My phone has a couple of dozen apps that are photography and business related apps but last, and by no means least, comes the Dropbox app. I have lost count of the number of times I have been able to send links to clients for images and folders of images that I have stored in the cloud using Dropbox Pro whilst I am literally in the middle of shooting and nowhere near a computer. The Dropbox app is excellent and it really does make having all of my edits stored on Dropbox a great idea. Two minutes or less after opening the app the client has access to their files no matter where I am. So simple and so clever.

I do also use my iPhone for making and receiving phone calls but its use as a portable digital hub for my business has made being out of the office a pleasure.

Canon 16-35 f4 L IS

Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields

London. 08 December 2015 Test shot with Canon 16-35 f4 L IS in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields Photo: Neil Turner

A couple of months ago I cracked and bought the Canon 16-35 f4 L IS lens to replace my very elderly 16-35 f2.8L having borrowed both this one and the f2.8L MkII to see what all the fuss was about. I shoot quite a few pictures of buildings and having a 16mm lens is very useful – especially when the space is really tight.

My old 16-35 and just about every other super-wide lens I have ever used has suffered from barrel distortion, been less than pin sharp in the corners and generally required a bit of work to get great pictures that are as free from distortion as possible.

I was on a job last night in a tight space where the 16-35 f4 L IS was being pressed into service to do shots of an empty venue before an event. I hadn’t brought a tripod because I hadn’t expected to be doing these shots but I did my best with what I had. The photo above was taken hand-held at 1/60th of a second at f4 on 2500 ISO with the IS switched on with a Canon EOS5D MkIII. I have applied no correction to the uprights and the frame is un-cropped at 16mm focal length.

It was dark down there and the white balance did need a subtle tweak but apart from that this frame demonstrates just how little barrel distortion (can you see any?) this lens has even at 16mm and it also demonstrates how good the image stabilisation is.

The 16-35 f4 L IS isn’t a perfect lens. It’s quite large for what it does and whether or not the maximum aperture of f4 is accurate is something I am still thinking about (my gut reaction is that it is actually 1/3rd of a stop slower than it claims). The lens hood seems to jump off a little too often for my liking (maybe that’s the way I carry it) and my brand new lens has quite a stiff zoom action compared to an equally new 70-200 f4 L IS.

Those niggles apart my verdict is that this is a brilliant lens and more than a match for the f2.8 MkII one that I was otherwise looking at buying. It may not be the hard news lens that the faster lens undoubtedly is but for all other uses and for anyone who doesn’t need to shoot at f2.8 I’d say that this is a better option and represents way better value for money.

How rugged it will turn out to be isn’t something that I can answer yet but the signs are good because it feels really solid and there are no exposed moving parts to get filled with dust.

The addition of this lens to my bag means that I now have a set of f4 zooms and I am very happy with all three of them. Anyone want to get me a 200-400 f4 L IS to complete THE set?