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.

5 comments

  1. Great photo with the puddle. Were you crouched down?

    About the Sony, what’s the colour like? How much tweaking did you have to do? I have thought about Sony and always backed off because of not knowing what the colour would be like. I know colour can be tweaked and profiled etc. but i had a Panasonic GF1 once and it was not to my taste. Olympus and Fuji on the other hand have lovely colours.

    Could you tell me what a drop sensor is? You mention the Sony lens being better than the “23mm f2 on the drop sensor Fujifilm X100S”

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    1. The ‘drop sensor” was poor proof reading. Should have been ‘crop sensor’. To get the puddle picture I was kneeling down and bending too. The camera was less than 18″ from the water and the picture was shot using the LCD and a bit of guesswork.

      The Sony colours are very nice indeed but I always shoot RAW and always optimise stuff. For the Fuji I never have to add contrast but always a bit of black and often reduce the highlights too. With the Sony it was a bit more black and a tiny amount of contrast whilst the highlights were pretty good with no adjustment.

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