A Tale of Falling in Love with a CameraOctober 10, 2019
Sony’s RX1 camera came out almost 7 years ago. At the time, it was the world’s first and smallest full frame mirrorless camera. It’s a point and shoot with a pro sensor and a wonderfully designed (fixed focal length) Zeiss lens. In 2012, I was barely making ends meet in Alaska, getting ready to join the Peace Corps. While it was a COOL announcement and it caught my interest, I wrote it off. I knew I couldn’t afford the nearly $3,000 price tag for a fixed lens camera. A year later Sony released the first a7 camera, a full frame interchangeable lens mirrorless camera that changed the game for me. I got one and began my journey using vintage, manually focused lenses via lens adapters. I bought a total of three of their various a7 models over the years. Most venues for performing arts of all kinds don’t allow “professional cameras” inside their walls. On almost every FAQ for all venues, a professional camera is one that is defined as being able to remove or having interchangeable lenses. After being denied entry to a venue with my camera because the lens was interchangeable my thoughts wandered back to Sony’s old point and shoot, the RX1.
The RX1 has a full frame 24mp sensor and a wonderful 35mm f/2 lens in front of that. It creates stunning files that are high-quality and professional grade in a small package that looks, to most people, like a regular boring old point and shoot. So, I started looking for used models on Ebay, just to see what they were going for. Quickly, I found one that came with 5 extra batteries (more on that later) and the electronic viewfinder that was sold separately and cost $450 on top of the pricey camera…all for $800. I placed a bid, just one, thinking surely someone would outbid me. Sure enough, I won. I paid the seller immediately and less than a week later I was the owner of a used RX1. Initially I thought I’d use the camera just for taking it places I wasn’t supposed to take pro quality gear, using it sparingly. I was wrong, I’ve taken to this camera like an illicit affair. Enough so that I am writing a gear review on a 7 year old camera that mostly no one cares about. It is such a joy to use, and it produces amazing images. However, it’s a Sony and there are some quirks.
First off, the battery life sucks, which is why the used one I got came with 5 batteries. I’ve heard that holding the shutter button down, say in a tight bag, while the camera is off drains the battery. The auto focus (contrast detection only) is a bit slow and it can’t track a moving object. If you want to use the electronic viewfinder, you can’t use the hot shoe, say for off camera flash controllers. Now, if you’re like me and you’ve fallen in love with this camera, you can overlook these things. I always have a spare battery or two with me, they are light and tiny. I’ve shot with manual focus only lenses so long that even the RX1’s weak AF system is a novelty to me. It has contrast detection, so you’ll want to put it near something that has a lot of contrast and then recompose your shot if the camera is struggling to lock in focus. The good thing about it is that once it locks it is very accurate. I don’t have an excuse for the lack of focus tracking…it’s never a feature I’ve used much so I can overlook it. I don’t use off camera flash much these days but when I did a portrait session with the RX1, I was able to use the rear screen just fine and produce great results. It’s not ideal, but works (remember this thing is tiny). Ultimately, I’ve fallen in love with this little camera- love is irrational, and I can forget about these shortcomings to have a nearly pocketable camera with a great lens that produces amazing images.
I don’t want to waste too many words on specs, since there a tons of old write-ups on this camera. I want to take a look back at it 7 years after its release…ancient for a modern digital camera. However, the RX1 is a modern cult classic. It was released with great features when it came out (as you would imagine for the original price tag). The 24mp sensor still holds up to modern cameras. Sony still has brand new cameras that are spec’d out at 24mp. Don’t get me started on how megapixels and camera resolution really doesn’t matter at a certain point. I can tell you I much prefer the 24mp files to the 42mp on my hard drives.
The camera itself is made out of a solid chunk of metal, and there are few plastic pieces on it. The shutter button feels nice and if you use the flexible focus spot you can move the focus around and nail your focus pretty fast. I use the optional viewfinder most of the time. It does make the body larger, but being able to bring the camera up to your face is a must for me most of the time. The finder also rotates 90 degrees so you can angle it up so you’re looking down into the camera. It’s a great feature for getting low-angled shots since the camera does not have an articulating screen. The only time I’ve had trouble using the viewfinder is at concerts. I am not too tall, so the camera needs to go up over the crowd.
The AF struggles in the low light so I make sure to use the back screen and manually focus the camera. It’s a focus by wire, but it doesn’t feel like you’re too disconnected from the lens. One of the reasons I have adapted to this camera so well is its modern lens has manual-like controls, most importantly the aperture ring. You select the aperture by manually turning the ring. It has click at each third stop. I usually shoot this camera in aperture priority mode and then use the exposure compensation wheel to dial in control of the exposure.
Another interesting feature is the leaf shutter. The sound of the shutter is nearly silent, making your shooting much less noticeable by others. It’s great to have in venues, but also if you want to photograph and not be noticed by other people. Loud shutters and big cameras draw attention. This little body and nearly silent operation lets you fly under the radar. A leaf shutter also allows for fast flash sync speeds. With an off-camera flash, you can illuminate your subject and then use a fast shutter speed to make your background as dark as you’d like. The ability to control your background exposure is a very nice tool to have if you are shooting portraits.
I’ve listed reasons why the RX1 might suck for you, and its positives. As always with gear and toys, YMMV. There is something about this camera that is just fun for me. I get excited when I pick it up to shoot. I get excited talking to people about it. “Yes, it’s tiny!” “It’s a Sony, yeah an RX1.” “Yes, this tiny thing has a full frame sensor!” It’s kind of like a mythical creature. Many people have never heard of it and those that have, have never seen one before. It’s just a lot of fun, and if that wasn’t enough, the photos are just great. Also, I am a 35mm focal length man. It’s my favorite focal length, not too wide and not too tele. If you’re not into 35mm, this might not be the camera for you since you can’t change the focal length (that’s what your 3 other Sony a7 bodies and 15 lenses, 4 being 35mms are there to handle).
I can talk talk talk about this camera all day and why I love it- just ask my girlfriend how tired she is of hearing about it. The reason I enjoy shooting with it is that it sparks joy. I get excited picking it up. Even being ancient in digital years, it’s amazing that Sony crammed such a large sensor in a body that’s so small it’s a real technical marvel. It’s been a pleasure documenting my life with this fun thing for the past 4 months. Now, I’ve selected a few photos that show off how handy it is as a “take everywhere” point and shoot, in addition to producing high quality images:
I loved RX1 so much I upgraded to a used RX1RII. I thought about writing another post gushing about the camera. I decided just to put a quick update on this one. The new version has the larger 42.2 megapixel sensor. Cropping photos is nice becasue you can still have large files even when being extreme in your cropping. The camera has a built in viewfinder which I’ve come to love. It was a little annoying to have to attach and detach the one on the RX1’s hot shoe. Lastly, and I know I talked about how the autofocus sucks but you learn to live with it…well the RX1RII has wonderful, fast zippy autofocus. It makes it camera and form factor even more enjoyable. Get the version II if you’re reading this and on the fence about one or the other.