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Sony RX1 just the ticket
January 2, 2013, 6:42 pm
Filed under: Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Some opening thoughts…

Fujifilm mastered the “sigh-factor” with retro inspired designs that truly look the part – the Fuji X100 debuted a couple of years ago with a fresh (ironically “old”) look that dropped jaws. In due course this was followed by the similarly styled XPro1 and soon after that, the X-E1.  Despite quirks with the cameras, they delivered in spades when it comes to visual appeal.  Sony by contrast, has marched on with a visual style that looks dated next to these Fuji cameras (somewhat ironic given the Fuji design is retro inspired, but it somehow looks “more contemporary”).

On the one hand, none of this matters as frankly I’m more interested in your photos than what your camera looks like.  But, on the other hand, when you slap down some serious cash, it puts an extra spring in your step when the gear looks as delicious as the Fuji X-series does. It makes you want to touch it – and that’s no bad thing. More enjoyment = more shooting. Simple.

There’s a flip side argument though –  using the Fuji’s can attract the attention of the curious, but the Sony RX1 looks so much like a standard little point-and-shoot that it draws zero attention. It’s about as unobtrusive (and quiet) as you can get.

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The APS-C sized sensor on the Fugi X-series cameras is a size that has been admired for the increase in sensor real-estate and all the benefits that brings over smaller sensors such as 4/3 and so on (these benefits include reduced noise, shallower DOF for artistic purposes, and better capabilities at higher ISO’s – amongst other things).  However, these benefits are even better with the larger full-frame sensor of the Sony RX1.  It should be noted that Fuji claim their 16 megapixel non-Bayer sensor in the XPro1 is as good as a mid 20’s megapixel bayer sensor in other cameras.  They have a point, the XPro 1’s sensor is remarkable – and the engineers at Fuji deserve accolades for the innovative design they have come up with for this camera.  But Sony know a thing or two about sensors – not only supplying sensors for their own cameras, but pretty much every Nikon DSLR of recent years too.  There’s been a lot of excitement abound the IQ of Sony’s new a99 and RX1 cameras, and pixel peepers will no doubt get their jollies diving into this, but the clear message is that these latest Sony Sensors are stunning.

So, it was with some excitement that I took delivery of an RX1.  While the visual appeal is not as good as the Fuji’s, the sensor and lens promised an awful lot.

Prime vs. future interchangeable.

The RX1 is expensive for a non-interchangeable lens camera, but it’s highly likely that 40 to 50% of the cost is in the lens – and what a remarkable lens it is.  This Zeiss glass is fast, sharp, and incredibly well designed. It extends well inside the body (in fact the internal elements extend very close to the sensor).

Pros

  • No dust or dirty sensor issues as the lens does not come off
  • Clever zoom-like function seems to work quite well
  • Close focusing option via lens ring adjustment (sadly a little too close to the manual focus ring however)
  • Aperture ring on the lens – third-stop detents that are beautiful to use
  • Manual focus capability
  • Fast f2
  • Sharp

Cons

  • No DOF markings on the lens.  (Come on Sony, that would have been simple)
  • Since you can’t change lenses, it pays to protect it with a clear or UV filter
  • Strangely distortion correction is not turned on by default, easily fixed but easily overlooked too

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Focus Focus Focus

Like the Sony RX100, and for that matter most every compact, the RX1’s auto-focus is based on Contrast Detection (as opposed to the faster phase detection method found in most DSLR’s).  I’ve been critical of the AF speed of the XPro1 before, so when I recently played with an RX100 in-store I was kind of shocked at how much faster the AF was on this camera.  I actually wondered if it was somehow phase-based as it was so quick.  Checking the specs, it’s using a Contrast Detection approach – and this just underlined to me how very average the focusing speed of the Fuji line is.  Granted I only used the XPro1 under first and second firmware, not the more recent upgrade which I’m told has “improved things somewhat.”  Into this battleground, Olympus boast that their OM-D has “the world’s fastest AF-Speed” (Source: OM-D web site), and right now they probably do.  So in this context I was very keen to see how AF on the RX1 would perform – speed and accuracy matters a great deal to me. And my verdict?  The RX1 is definitely better than the XPro1, focus lock is reasonably quick, but it will hunt if the ambient gets too dim. Overall, I’m getting many more in-focus images than I did with the XPro1.  I find moving the focus point all a bit tedious though – perhaps spoilt by my Nikon gear where I’m doing this all the time without moving the camera from my eye.

Manual focus is much much better than my experience with Fuji’s X100 and XPro1.  Focus Peaking is great and works well (edges can be highlighted when in focus), and other options such as face-detect work quite well even when the lens is wide open.

(Note the Sony a99 has a dual AF system, its clear to me that Sony are doing some innovative work here – and good on them)

My brand snobbery.

My first professional photos were taken on a Canon. It was a great camera, but for various reasons I switched to Nikon – always had the view that Canon and Nikon are more alike than different, and really doesn’t matter which you use (get’s back to “Show me your photos, not your camera.”).  But, when Sony came into the DSLR market I never cared for them much. I just saw them as a once-great consumer electronics brand that dropped the ball post-walkman era.  Things like their stubborn refusal to move on from their proprietary memory stick didn’t endear them to me either.

So I didn’t give them any head space, wasn’t of a mind to change DSLR brands and simply wasn’t looking.  I was using Hasselblad for some projects, Nikon for others. End of story. But I was looking for a quality compact, something to take with me nearly all the time.  As a result I bought the X100, later sold it as I thought the XPro1  might offer me more. It didn’t stack up for me, so I soon sold it and wondered about returning to the X100.  I hesitated as I wasn’t sure that was the answer, and in the meantime found I was using my iPhone camera every single day – was this the answer? Surely not.  Enter the RX1. This time Sony got my attention. On paper it was showing enormous promise – a full-frame sensor, a potentially beautiful fast prime, small size, and hopefully fast AF as I’d witnessed with their RX100.  Could this be the camera to break my brand snobbery around Sony?  As it turns out – the answer is a big yes.  If I didn’t have my investment in Nikon glass, I’d be looking at the a99 for my larger camera needs.

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Software?

What to say? Except I didn’t install it. Other’s have scored it near-zero so I wasn’t going to waste time on it.  IMO camera manufacturers should not make image processing software. Is there any that is widely accepted and used by the market? Of course not.  The RX1‘s RAW files can be opened in Lightroom and Photoshop, and both edit the RAW files just fine – hopefully Aperture will follow soon.

A few other points

  1. Shutter speed is selected via the rear dial near your right thumb.
  2. Viewfinder options are wallet-taxing (a choice of optical or electronic, both of which mount on the hot-shoe). I’ve found shooting without the viewfinder P&S style off the rear LCD quite good though, so not sure I needed to buy the EVF accessory.
  3. Similarly, the lens shade and thumb grip are over-priced.
  4. Turn-on and shut-down are good. Not the fastest, but by no means bad
  5. Does not ship with a separate battery charger.  You plug the cable into the camera to charge it (in some ways good for travel as less bulk to carry, but totally horrible in terms of charging a spare battery)
  6. Auto-ISO is really well designed. I’ve had great success setting the lower limit at ISO 100 and the upper at 3200 – shooting wide open at f2, the camera doesn’t seem to have dropped below 1/80th second but bumped ISO as required.  This has proved great for candid shots indoors.  The camera is very capable with high ISO’s so I’ll likely raise this to 6400 now.
  7. The files from the Sony seem to convert to beautiful black and whites.
  8. Has the usual PASM options, and matrix, centre and spot metering
  9. Plus/Minus EV knob is well positioned, and a lot more stable than on the X100 where I was always bumping it by mistake
  10. Has movie recording (which I have not tried yet)
  11. There is no built-in image stabilization. Can’t say I’ve missed it.
  12. Shutter delay is minimal, one of the best I have used in a compact camera

Who’s it for?

  • Those with ready cash 🙂
  • Those wanting high IQ in a discrete camera (small/silent/vanilla appearance)
  • Pros wanting high IQ in a fall-back emergency shooter, or where a larger DSLR just isn’t suitable
  • Street shooters.  Did I mention the leaf shutter is super quiet?
  • Travelers. Unbelievably the Sony RX1 is smaller than the Fuji X100 (body, but not lens)
  • Those wanting a compact with the added appeal a lager sensor (noise benefits, shallower DOF in certain configurations, etc)

Summary

After a good work-out over Christmas I’m confidently saying that  the RX1 is an extraordinary little camera, absolutely worth the many awards it will surely be awarded.  It’s an absolute credit to Sony. There are only two full-frame cameras in this space, the RX1 and the Leica M series. I’ve long coveted the Leica, but am more than pleased with the Sony RX1 as a more sensible choice.  More sensible because it’s cheaper, and because I’m not faffing around with the manual focus of the Leica rangefinder (but yes they get bonus points for an exotic lens collection).  Image quality from the RX1 is incredibly good, when all the specs are put aside – this is what really matters to me, and I am very impressed.

Thank you Sony, I can see a long and enjoyable time with this wonderful camera!

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Update: Jan 2013 – Fuji have just announced the X100s, with a few features to improve auto-focus and they now claim they have the fastest autofocus.  Will have to take them at their word, suffice to say it sounds like the S version of the X100 addresses the weak focusing capabilities of the original model. A good move by Fuji.

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Fujifilm XPro1 – did they release a Beta?
July 28, 2012, 3:32 pm
Filed under: Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Fujifilm XPro 1 is an impressive camera, but it’s also a very frustrating camera. It seems to have a split personality.

There are plenty of sites with detailed specs on the camera, so I’ll skip the hardware and get straight to my impressions.  Let me start by saying I’m a former owner of the XPro1 – former because this camera just isn’t for me.  Previously I owned the X100 too – so some of my comments will reference that camera as well.

Here are some of the good points for the XPro1

  1. Seems to be well constructed, solid/quality feel to the camera
  2. Remarkable hybrid viewfinder – a credit to their engineers and designers
  3. Simple Aperture and Shutter speed controls via “traditional” lens ring and rotating knob respectively (and with simple “A” feature for Auto)
  4. A menu system that is so improved over the X100 that it would be good if they could port it back to the X100 via a firmware update
  5. Clever Q-Menu (Quick menu) for rapid access to key settings – this is great
  6. Clean files, the innovative sensor design works beautifully.  Image quality is superb from this well sized sensor (and being a bigger sensor than many small cameras. the signal to noise ratio is better – so you can shoot at higher ISO’s and still get clean files)
  7. Although I don’t tend to use Auto White Balance on any camera very much, my impression was that AWB on the XPro1 comfortably out-performs AWB on my pro Nikon gear, that’s impressive
  8. I had the 35 lens during my spell of ownership with this camera, and it proved a good choice. Nice fast glass, good weight/size.
  9. Much improved battery charger over the X100 (which had a ridiculous piece of plastic to insert to lock the battery in place. Something I lost in a few days)
  10. It’s a good looking camera, no argument it looks the part

And the bad points.

  1. Focus is frustratingly slow, and it’s hit and miss sometimes. In fact it’s unacceptable. More on this shortly.
  2. Forget the Fujifilm software, it’s pretty ordinary – and it’s Windows only (Fortunately Lightroom can open the XPro1’s RAW files)
  3. Manual focus is electronic “by wire” – it’s not all bad, but it’s not pure manual
  4. It’s awkward to get the memory card in and out

I’ve taken hundreds of thousands over photos over the years, and one of my all time faves was taken with the X100, so I have a soft-spot for Fujifilm – and I really like that they’ve taken bigger risks than Canon and Nikon in this space (and been rewarded for it). I guess I wanted the XPro1 to pick up on all that’s good about the X100 and build on some of it’s shortcomings (a camera which is also slow to focus, although firmware updates helped somewhat).  At this price point I wanted snappier focus response from the XPro1, and yes I know Contrast based AF will always be less speedy than Phase Detection AF as found in my DSLR’s, so it will never be as fast – but I can’t be bothered with it while it ambles along like this.

The camera will likely reward users who don’t chase sports or action shots, and if you slow down and think deliberately about your photography there’s no doubt it can deliver wonderful images.  But if you’re like me, and you want your gear to be an extension of your instincts and thinking, then the XPro1 will deliver a lot of out of focus images. For this reason, it felt like it was a camera in Beta to me.  Maybe there will be improvements to focus speed and accuracy down the track, as others like Olympus and Nikon have shown that responsive focus response is possible with non-DSLR bodies.  If you’re looking for a small high-quality camera, the X100 may suit you better – it’s smaller, lighter, and very capable if you take the same deliberate approach with it.

Some reviewers have argued that focus issues are “not that bad”, or “not as bad as some are saying” but sheesh this is not a cheap camera.  At this price point it needs to deliver a much better experience.  The printed brochure has a heading that says, “Without compromise” and this is simply PR spin (otherwise known as “marketing puffery”, which is legit and prevents a legal claim as thought it were a statement of fact)

I know you can learn to work with the camera’s quirks, in fact many users are raving about the XPro1 – but I’m not one of them.  If the above makes you hesitate, then take my advice and don’t buy this camera (yet). On the other hand, if you don’t always shoot wide open, and you are prepared to slow down and work systematically with the camera, then I think you’ll grow to like it.

Fuji, you did something remarkable with the X100, and now the XPro1.  All credit to you, but please please get auto-focus competitive either via firmware upgrades, or an XPro2 down the track.

(Oh, and one more thing.  When you’re researching cameras like this one and others, be sure to look for posts from people who have taken plenty of photos on the camera or lens before they review it.  There are plenty of sites that re-hash the corporate press release – this isn’t a review, it’s a free kick.  Equally, beware the pixel-peeping type who drill deeply into dark areas of a photo looking for noise. My comments are based entirely on everyday usage by an experienced photographer)

UPDATE 1:  Here’s are two additional articles that give insight to this camera

1. The Phoblographer review one

2. The Phoblographer review two

UPDATE 2: September 7th 2012.  Fujifilm have announced the next update to their firmware – with the first two items mentioned in their press release improvements to deliver improvements to the auto-focus. So maybe the camera is moving out of Beta 🙂  But seriously, why don’t they get this right first time – while firmware updates are normal enough for any camera, launching with sub-par focus is not…

From Fujifilm’s notes;

Improvements made after firmware update:

1.Improved performance of auto focus*1
Focussing in challenging lighting conditions, where light is low or bright, will now be much faster in Auto Focus mode. The focusing distance has also been improved, allowing you to get closer to the subject and capture a great shot without switching to macro mode.

2.Manual Focus improved performance
Improved operability
The speed of the image coming into focus when turning the focus ring has been vastly improved. When adjusting the focus ring using the electronic viewfinder or the LCD panel on the back of the camera it is now much easier to focus, always displaying the image closer to full aperture with minimum depth of field.

Update 3 – January 7th 2013 – Fuji have just announced the X100s, with a few features to improve auto-focus and they now claim they have the fastest autofocus.  Will have to take them at their word, suffice to say it sounds like the S version of the X100 addresses the weak focusing capabilities of the original model. A good move by Fuji.

Update 4 – May 2nd 2013 – I had  a play with the X100s the other day.  In the hand it felt instantly familiar, and the focus speed seemed much improved.  While I didn’t get to see the image son a computer there’s no reason to think they’re anything less than the wonderful quality of the original X100, so I’m very pleased to see a good camera has now been updated to become an excellent camera – not just the focus improvements but some other tweaks as well..  X100s owners will be marked by their big smiles.  I wonder if the XPro1 will see any of these improvements head to their model?