Sony's official DSC-R1 press release
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Sony is not afraid to innovate and its new R1 is certainly innovative, but does it all add up and what does it mean for the future of the DSLR?
The Sony DSC-R1 is the first big-sensor mainstream camera that isn't a DSLR
Sony has certainly made another mark in digital camera history with the launch of the DSC-R1, a prosumer camera like no other. With Sony's recent declaration of intent to enter the Digital SLR race, in partnership with Konica Minolta, today's launch of the Sony DSC-R1 was a bit of a surprise as it's a camera to woo potential DSLR buyers away from a DSLR.
In a nut shell, the R1 represents a genuine attempt at combining some of the best aspects of electronic advances with some of the core strengths of a digital SLR. Something like this has been a long time coming and I have repeatedly expressed the belief that the basic configuration of today's SLR cameras, digital or otherwise, has in certain aspects been stuck in the 1970s.
It's not a DSLR
First of all, let's make it clear: the R1 is not a DSLR; you can't swap lenses, there is no reflex mirror and through the lens (TTL) optical viewfinder, instead it has an electronic viewfinder. So far we could be describing any number of prosumer 'bridge' cameras, but what makes the R1 stand out is its use of a large, high resolution, image sensor, previously exclusive to DSLRs and one or two niche cameras, like Epson's R-D1.
Sony practically invented the so-called 'bridge' (between compact digital camera and digital SLR) camera two years ago with the DSC-F828, the world's first consumer eight megapixel digital camera. The F-828 proved to be a flawed beast, but it did herald a clutch of interesting bridge cameras from Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Konica Minolta, all using the same Sony-made eight megapixel 2/3rds inch CCD sensor chip. With the new DSC-R1, Sony is reinventing the bridge camera.
The R1 has a built in flash but it doesn't rise up far when deployed
Large CMOS sensor
The logic goes; take key strengths of a digital SLR and the existing bridge camera concept and mix vigorously. So what are those ingredients? Top of the list is a DSLR size sensor. Sony has developed a new CMOS sensor with 10.3 million pixels and it's designed to provide live viewing, which DSLR sensors aren't. What's more, this sensor is five times the area of the largest compact digital camera sensor, meaning it has bigger and more sensitive photosites that should deliver better tonal range and less noise. It's not quite as large as an APS sensor like those found in Nikon, Pentax, Konica Minolta and cheaper Canon DSLRs, but it's slightly larger than the 4/3rds inch sensor used in Olympus E-System DSLRs.
Practically everything else is borrowed from the bridge camera idea; a non-interchangeable lens that is sealed so dust can't pepper the sensor, an electronic viewfinder that has advanced information overlays, including an animated clipped highlights area indicator, which Sony amusingly refers to as 'zebra' because it creates a striped effect and a tilting display monitor. We're reminded that the lack of a mirror means the camera is very quiet, while optics design can be optimised for wide angle lenses because of the short back focus afforded by a mirror-less body design.
But there are some clear compromises. The cost of the sensor is considerably greater, forcing economies elsewhere in order to bring the price in line with some of the cheaper kit lens DSLRs - we believe Sony is aiming for a retail price in the UK of around £699, or around 899 or $999, though these are our guestimates, not official Sony figures. Features in the old F-828 you won't find in the R1 include a twisting body/lens, the R1's chassis is primarily plastic instead of cast alloy, the Sony trademark laser holographic AF assist has been left off and there is no movie clip mode.
The Sony DSC-R1 is big and its styling accentuates this
With a much large sensor, the lens gets considerably bigger and bulkier, unless you reduce its aperture size. The Sony R1 gets a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end of the zoom, falling to f/4.8 at the telephoto end. The zooming range is a modest 5x, though starting at the unusually wide view equivalent to a 24mm optic on a 135 camera. At the telephoto end, 120mm equivalence is not impressive and conversion lenses to squeeze extra width and reach to the view are massive and likely to be very expensive. Another notable Sony R1 shortcoming is continuous shooting capability - it's a reasonable, if not outstanding, 3 frames per second, but the buffer maxes out after just those three frames.
Large and bulky
When you see an R1 first hand, it looks large and bulky. The meaty Carl Zeiss glass accounts for a big share of the weight. It has to be a large lens because of the large sensor. The f/2.8-4.8 maximum aperture through the zoom range endows the R1 with a more exotic specification lens than most DSLR kit lenses and f/3.5-5.6 apertures wide open.
The unusually positioned monitor screen is not as large as some rivals
Here the screen is parked flush with the top of the camera in 'waist level finder' style
Behind the pop-up flash is the one and only external LCD display. Again, it's a bit of a disappointment to see that this is a two inch display when the trend in DSLRs is towards 2.5 inch screens that are more than half as big in areas. Although the LCD can be swivelled with great versatility, its resting position is on the top of the camera rather than the back plate, which is very odd. Indeed the whole control layout of the R1 is very strange, with mode selectors and control buttons in places you would never find them on other cameras.
When was the last time you saw a quality digital camera without a monitor screen on its back?
This view shows how far the large electronic viewfinder housing protrudes.
The R1's styling is very controversial. Quite a few people commented that its apparent size and the shape of the body reminded them of a medium format camera and I don't think anyone was being complementary. Two conversion lenses (0.8x and 1.7x) are available to widen the view to that of a 19mm wide angle 135 lens and the other to narrow the view to that of a 204mm telephoto.
If you think the camera is large, wait until you see the optional wide and tele conversion lenses
Freelance writer, Gordon Laing, models the R1/tele conversion combo
These conversions lenses are enormous and heavy and need to be attached via a special bracket, but they do retain the native maximum aperture of f/2.8 for the wide angle conversion lens and f/4.8 for the telephoto.
Now here's a trick DSLRs can't yet manage
One of the key attractions that Sony hopes people will latch onto with the R1 is its live preview capability, either through the eye-level electronic viewfinder or via the tilting external monitor. With a live preview you get to see the apparent exposure, both in terms of the brightness of the view as displayed and via a live histogram and a live indicator of areas where highlights are over-exposed. The latter is enhanced by animated stripes to make the areas highlighted stand out better. Of course on a DSLR you will only see this kind of useful information after you have taken the picture.
Unfortunately, the refresh rate of the live display wasn't impressive, being decidedly jerky certainly under the dim indoor light of the launch venue. Apparently it gets better in brighter light, but I can only ask the question why isn't it as good as my Sony camcorder in this respect?
Joystick AF control
A small joystick is provided for navigation purposes and it can also control where you'd like to position the autofocus point on the screen overlaid on the actual scene. That's something else you can't do with a DSLR. A standard sized hot show with dedicated contacts for Sony flash units is provided but it is positioned, unusually, on the right of the camera when viewed from the rear, rather than over the axis of the lens as in most DSLRs.
Perhaps the one redeeming aspect of the camera has to be image quality. We're told that extra Carl Zeiss effort has been put into lens sharpness and suppression of optical aberrations. Some sample prints we were shown were certainly impressive enough, with good noise characteristics and detail retention. With its large sensor, the R1 is no longer restricted to medium ISO rates and you can choose up to ISO 3200, just like on your DSLR, though the minimum ISO is 160.
Here is a summary of my first impressions of the Sony DSC-R1 , good and bad:
- Large, high resolution sensor.
- Prospect of wider dynamic range and lower noise than previous bridge cameras
- Versatile live TTL previewing.
- Multi-angle LCD display.
- Quiet operation no mirror slap.
- 24-120mm equivalent fixed zoom lens is wider in range and brighter than DSLR kit lenses.
- Carl Zeiss design should mean high lens performance.
- Live exposure histogram and over-exposed region highlighter.
- Price if you don't miss interchangeable lenses and an optical reflex viewfinder, its keenly priced.
- Good wide angle coverage.
- Quiet autofocus motor.
- Autofocus immune to back focus errors possible in DSLRs.
- RAW image file support (supplied Photoshop compatibility).
- Joystick-controlled AF point positioning in live preview mode.
- Styling and bulky dimensions.
- Plasticky finish and plastic instead of alloy chassis construction.
- VF refresh rate is too slow.
- Limited telephoto reach.
- Conversion lenses hopelessly huge.
- No interchangeable lens capability.
- 3fps for just three frames continuous shooting inadequate.
- Weird control layout, though users will probably get used to it.
- No movie shooting mode.
- No laser holographic AF assist system found in other Sony cameras.
- Positioning of external LCD screen.
Whether or not the R1 proves to be a success is another matter, but it will go down in history as the first true precursor to a new generation of advanced cameras that could replaced DSLRs as it can't be long before we see an interchangeable lens digital camera along the lines of the Sony DSC-R1.
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Sony's official press release
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