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It's big and heavy, but Sony's impressive 10.3MP flagship EVF may be a sign of great things to come
"How am I supposed to lug this monster through Southern Florida?" was my first thought upon unpacking the Sony DSC-R1, which, at 35 ounces, is the heaviest EVF camera around; in fact, it's in the same weight class as some DSLRs. But as I sat with the camera, studied its myriad functions and controls, took a few test images, I realized the tradeoff of extra weight might well be worth it.
Before we get to the specifics, let's step back a moment and take a look at this camera in the context of recent events in the photo industry. In January, Konica Minolta announced it would stop making cameras and lenses, and concentrate on its money-making business machines. As part of this bombshell announcement, it was also revealed that Sony would get the rights to the Minolta lens mount and manufacturing facilities where Konica Minolta made DSLRs. Within a week, Sony announced its intention of producing its own Digital SLR by mid-year.
Given that the RD-1 sports a 21.5x14.4mm sensor, which is the same size as most DSLRs, it is not much of a leap in logic to assume that at least some of the innovations we see on the RD-1 will make their way onto future Sony SLRs.
Now, with that subtext in mind, let's look at the camera.
Look and feel
First, there's the lens--a big, heavy hunk of glass; most of the camera's weight seems to come from the lens. It starts out at a nice 24mm, which is wider than most EVFs, and a big maximum aperture of f/2.8. An interchangeable zoom lens with equivalent specs would probably be at least as big, and would add quite a bit of weight to any SLR. The lens zooms out to "only" 120mm, a modest 5X range.
Then there's the LCD screen. When my 10-year-old daughter saw it, she exclaimed "this camera rocks!" The reason for her enthusiasm? The screen (which is located atop the eye-level viewfinder housing) flips up and rotates into a myriad of positions (they call it a "free-angle" LCD). I could hold the camera at waist level and be eye-to-eye with children, low-lying flora, etc. without having to do the limbo or some other contortion to view the live image.
But the R1's most significant feature is its 21.5x14.4mm 10.3MP CMOS sensor, the first SLR-sized senor to appear in an EVF camera. As more and more pixels are squeezed onto tiny sensors (a typical non-SLR digital camera sensor is approximately 8.8x6.6mm), each individual pixel shrinks, and the septum that keeps light from spilling over onto neighboring sensors gets thinner and less effective. This is why high-MP digital compacts and ZLRs suffer from more digital noise (sometimes called "grain") when using high ISO settings or in low light than lower-MP digital cameras. Since DSLRs use larger sensors, grain is much less of a problem. And so, while it adds to the camera's bulk, the R1's larger sensor produces much less grainy pictures. Other benefits of using a larger sensor include improved dynamic range and less power consumption.
The camera offers an adjustable-area autofocus system, manual focus is accomplished by turning a focus collar on the lens. However, the protruding flash housing blocks the fingers from turning the focus collar all the way, a minor nuisance.
The viewfinder is a typical EVF affair: in low light, slow shutter speed causes the image to lag or jump when the camera is moved; in daylight, eyeglass wearers are at a disadvantage because ambient light that inevitably leaks in and hits the LCD screen in the viewfinder make it harder to see the image. However, at the touch of a button viewfinder information can include four histograms (RGB and full image) simultaneously, so image quality can be quickly assessed.
There are some 20 buttons, dials or switches that control the camera's functions, and this can increase the learning curve. The pop-up flash is activated via the flash mode button on the side, and the choice of flash mode in the LCD menu.
The left side of the camera features flash, white balance and focus control buttons and switches. To operate the flash, press the flash button, then use the switch in the back of the camera to toggle through the different modes (auto, auto with red-eye reduction, flash on, flash with redeye, second-curtain sync, second-curtain sync with red-eye reduction, and flash-off). Next to that button is the white balance (WB) button, which gives you auto, sunny day, cloudy day, flash, fluorescent, incandescent and other color balance settings.
Focus modes include auto, close-up, and manual focus override. To focus manually, turn the focus ring on the lens. As you focus manually, the center of the LCD image gets bigger.
On the back of the camera (working from left to right), in an unfamiliar place is the familiar mode dial, with manual, aperture, shutter and program modes, as well as the simple "green" mode and the requisite night portrait, scenic and group portrait modes. Usually this dial is on the top of a camera. Hidden under the viewfinder is a sliding diopter control; an image preview button is to the immediate right of the finder.
Below the viewfinder are two switches. One is a "Monitor" switch, which offers a Framing and Preview option. The Framing option brightens the viewfinder--something that might give a misleading impression of the exposure, but will help you compose the photo in difficult light. The Preview choice displays an image that more accurately reflects the current exposure, but in some circumstances the image may be hard to see, hence the Framing option. Preview is like a depth-of-field preview, but it also lets you view the effect of shutter speed, WB, and other settings on your image.
The second switch lets you choose to view the image only in the viewfinder, only on the LCD, or lets the camera automatically choose. In this setting, when you take your eye away from the viewfinder, the image shows up on the flip-up LCD screen (assuming it's flipped up).
Buttons across the bottom control autofocus and metering patters, burst mode, self-timer, and preview image enlargement.
A largish dial surrounding a toggle switch controls modes and setup when the Menu button is pressed. The menu is divided into picture-taking and set-up modes, and each set is presented in different, distinctive ways.
Picture taking modes appear across the bottom of the image. You navigate them by moving the toggle switch left or right, then up or down to choose the settings. In this menu you can control image size, picture quality, RAW or JPEG, flash output, picture effects (black and white, sepia, or color), Adobe RGB, vivid or standard color space, saturation, contrast and sharpness.
A suitcase icon at the far right of the picture-taking modes menu opens up the camera's setup mode menu. This menu fills the entire screen and lets you control AF modes, digital zoom, auto camera turn-off, autofocus illuminator, focus modes, flash sync, flicker reduction, grid lines, Compact Flash and Memory Stick folders, as well as numerous other settings that you will likely set once if at all.
Controls placed in the thumb-reachable part of the large grip include a "screen" button that displays histograms, as well as expanded or minimized image information in the live screen. A thumb dial controls shutter and aperture, and a switch chooses between CF and Memory Stick cards. There's a hot shoe atop the grip that will accommodate an external flash, as well as an ISO button (press it and move the thumb dial to change sensitivity) and the on/off switch ring around the shutter release button.
In the field
I took the DSC-R1 on a 1-week trip to Florida, and while it was indeed bulky, its heft helped reduce camera shake; since most of its weight is in the lens, I felt compelled to hole the camera with both hands to avoid straining my right hand. This promotes more stable handholding.
The LCD screen was surprisingly bright and usable (with minor eye strain) in bright sunlight. This was good, because I spent some time photographing flora and often set the LCD flat against the top of the finder housing facing up so I could shoot low angles. The macro mode goes close, but the 7-8 inches closest focus is not enough magnification for true macro shots. Likewise, there were times when I wished the lens zoomed more than 120mm, but this would have added an unacceptable bulk to an already big outfit. Besides, since the camera produces 10MP images, image quality wouldn't suffer from judicious cropping.
Manual focus was a tricky affair: while the center of the image is enlarged while moving the focus ring, a second after I stopped focusing that enlarged area disappeared. This did not give me enough time to study the image and confirm focus. In addition, due to the graininess of the LCD or viewfinder image, it was hard to tell if focus was pinpoint-accurate or not. For critical focus situations, I suggest shooting in autofocus mode, then enlarging the image in preview mode to confirm accurate focus, rather than to use the manual focus mode. For general shooting, I'd simply rely on autofocus and use the wide-area or spot center AF as needed.
Lag time was minimal unless the AF system had trouble locking on. But if focus was locked, time from pressing the shutter release to click was almost instantaneous. In general, I found the camera fast and responsive, once I figured out the controls (newbiews beware: the sheer number of buttons and dials can make operation a bit intimidating) I was able to easily take control of the camera's many features.
One nifty feature: Press the display button and in the upper left corner you will see how many minutes of battery life you have left. A typical charge gives you around 350 minutes in shooting mode, and over 400 minutes of image review time. However, each time power was turned off, if you were previewing an image, the preview mode went back to the first image on the card, and you had to scroll through to get back to your last image viewed--an inconvenience when you are scrolling through hundreds of files.
Also beware that if you have the LCD/Viewfinder switch set to auto, the LCD screen may wink off momentarily without notice. After several days of experiencing this, I realized the cause: somehow, the camera senses when any object gets close to the viewfinder, and automatically switches the image into the viewfinder. Once I started setting the LCD/Viewfinder switch manually, this problem disappeared.
Thanks to its modest zoom range, the lens showed little optical distortion. Even at 24mm I saw very little barrel distortion, and there was almost no pincussion distortion at 120mm. Thanks to the larger sensor, I found grain to be acceptable through ISO 800, minimal at 1600, and bigger (but not unacceptable) at ISO 3200--an SLR-like performance!
Focusing accuracy was better in autofocus than in manual, although the distance is duly shown at the bottom of the screen so you can physically measure camera-to-subject distance for the most accurate reading. There was virtually no lens flare, even when shooting directly into the sun. Close-up subjects were very sharp.
In general, metering and exposure were accurate; backlit subjects were dark, so do not assume the camera will automatically compensate for backlighting. Skin tones were accurate.
The camera excelled in low light, where the fast lens and high sensitivity combined for excellent results without flash. The on-board flash is adequate for small group shots in tight quarters, and covers corner to corner with minimal light falloff, but you really need an additional flash to get good illumination beyond 10 feet. Red-eye was a problem when using the on-board flash. While red-eye was reduced when using the anti-red-eye settings, it did not completely disappear in dim lighting.
I was somewhat bothered by slight blooming in spectral highlights (translation: some bright spots, like pinpoint reflections of sunlight, spilled over into neighboring areas, ever so slightly.) I saw this only when enlarging 10MP to 100 percent on screen; the effect wasn't apparent in 8x10 prints but if you make poster-sized blow-ups you may notice it in contrasty scenes.
The burst rate was a sluggish 2-3 photos per second, and the buffer was full after around 18-20 photos shot in rapid succession when using a 2GB SanDisk Ultra II CF card.
This camera has the resolution and controls to do well in studio settings, so it's too bad it lacks a PC connection. However, a slave unit could be mounted in the hot shoe to control a multiflash set-up. TV connections, and computer cables, are standard issue. The camera uses High-Speed USB 2.0 as well as PictBridge to transfer images.
The bottom line?
If you're looking for a lightweight, compact camera, the R1 is not for you. It's bulky and heavy. But if size and weight are less important than image quality and control, it's worth considering--especially since it offers more megapixels for under $1,000 than any DSLR/starter lens combo, and DSLR quality to boot. While the controls may seem daunting, anyone who can master them will have a LOT of control over their images; and at 10MP, those images will look great as enlargements.
The LCD is nifty, and there are many clever innovations and a nice clean shooting mode menu. Sony needs to come up with better ergonomics (fewer knobs and buttons on the camera body) if it wants to be a contender in the DSLR field, especially in the low-end range. But this camera has so many things going for it when it comes to features and image quality, and with a few tweaks here and there, there is a good chance Sony will be a very strong player in the DSLR field when it starts producing DSLRs.© 2006 Adorama