One of the least appreciated cameras of A.D. 2000+

Near the end of 2005 Sony announced and camera that spoke to me in a way most digital cameras had not.  It was called the Sony R-1 and it was the ultimate bridge camera (the step between "point and shoots" and DSLR's).  Around the same time I needed to buy a couple of Nikon D2x's so I didn't pry open the wallet and buy the R-1's when they first appeared.

By the time they circled back to my "radar" they were not selling well and were being discontinued so I bought two of them for around $500 each.  If you don't know about the Sony R1 let me fill you in.  Sony started with a variant of the same chip used in the Nikon D2x.  Not a stellar high ISO performer but a critically reviewed champ of the lower ISO's in terms of both sharpness and tonal nuance. So, if you are a low ISO shooter it's your kind of camera.  The chip was 10.2 megapixels and was sized just slightly smaller than a standard APS-C format chip.

The Sony R1, in some ways is just a big point and shoot in that it's lens is fixed on the camera and it has a feature that I've come to understand the value of-----an EVF.  Counterintuitive? Read on.  The Sony has a swiveling monitor that attaches to the top of the camera and can be used in many positions, including the "waist level" position.  But when shooting in bright sun or under stage lights, as in the photo above from the dress rehearsal of the play, "Love Janis" the EVF (electronic viewfinder) that mimics the traditional SLR viewfinder only with a little screen instead of an optical pipeline this camera really comes into its own.

Here's why, the finder image is a preview of what the final image will look like because it is being imaged through the lens and through the taking electronics.  For all intents and purposes it will look exactly the way you see it before you push the shutter button as after!  You could say that you are "pre-chimping" instead of post chimping which takes out one whole production step.

Now you bring the camera to your eye, check focus, see a perfect preview and then capture it. On the SLR you see an image, not stopped down, not in the final color, not with the final noise aspect, then you click the shutter, evaluate what you got, change some parameters and then try again until you either get what you wanted or you give up.  Hardly an optimal way of working.

The R1 is not as fast to shoot frame to frame as the traditional SLR's but it has a fast three shot burst rate that really works.  I use the side mounted focusing button rather than coupling focusing to the shutter button.  It works like this:  Bring the camera up to your eye, push the button on the left side of the camera and hold it there until you achieve focus lock.  Release the button and the focus stays right there until you change it.  If your subject isn't moving around and you're not moving you'll never have the kind of "shoot and hunt" experience that you get with even the latest high end cameras when the place you want to focus on falls between AF sensors.  I shot around 1200 shots at the dress rehearsal and post rehearsal set up shots and the marketing director who had to wade through and edit the take told me I missed about ten shots to focus or exposure errors.

So many people dismissed this camera because they didn't take the time to master the focus. Metering is just as good as a D300 or a D700.  The one glaring fault of this camera is the speed at which it processes raw files.  If you are a still life photographer it might just be bearable to shoot in raw but if you are a people shooter then Jpeg will be a standard.  Which is find because of the reasons I gave in one of the paragraphs above:  There really isn't any guess work or need for post processing if you can get accurate previews before you even punch the button.  The camera is a bit harder to master in some senses than rival DLSR's but there is a secret weapon that makes this camera stellar:

Planted right on the front is a big wonkin Carl Zeiss 24mm to 120mm zoom lens that reviewers from Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape and the folks at DPreview have described as fantastic and well worth the price of the entire camera.  How can this lens be so much better than the same kind of optics from Nikon and Canon?  Well, I'll admit that I don't understand the details of lens design but apparently lenses that don't have to be designed to ride far forward of an SLR's flipping mirror can be designed to a much higher level of correction.  And the results can and have been easily measured.  The lens is better.  It is the "L Glass Plus" of optics.

I've photographed architecture with these cameras and have had to use minimal correction even at f4 at 24mms.  At middle focal lengths it's on par with my recent model 5omm Leica Summicron.  It just plain works.  Add to this the things Sony excels at, like great batteries and battery life indicators and you've got a remarkable camera.  I've got two and I use them a lot. When the last one dies I'll be very sad.  True, something fun will take it's place but I'll be sad because if people had taken the time to use correctly the market would be full of them and good used copies would be rampant.

As with most great cameras discovered too late the R1's are on their way to cult status and the prices are rising every day.  If you want to play with an interactive EVF for not a lot of money you might want to look into the Canon SX10.  Same EVF set up along with the addition of Image Stabilization.

Reminds me of the Kodak SLRn.  That camera was capable of superb studio portrait files.  Too bad most people judged it on its high speed surveillance skills.  If they'd taken the time to get to know the strengths of that camera then Nikon enthusiasts would have been shooting full frame images years earlier.  I guess ease of use trumps quality.......