I recently had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia with my wife, and I decided to leave the big D800E at home and only bring the Sony RX1-R. I did this despite not having the external EVF (which I still don’t have – it’s on backorder from Adorama right now). This was the first test of the camera as a potential DSLR replacement for travel and hiking purposes for me. Could I get results that would satisfy me? Could I make large prints that would look as good as those from the D800E?
The short answer to both questions: yes.
The results from the little RX1-R are professional-grade, even hand held in a wide variety of lighting situations. The Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens is sharp, contrasty, with great colors and that Zeiss “bite” (microcontrast) – it is at least as good as the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 that I’ve used extensively on the D800E, with the added benefit of autofocus. In fact, it’s that specially designed lens – mated to the RX1/R body – that might continue to be the RX1/R’s ace in the hole over the newer Sony A7/R full frame interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras. That and the silent leaf shutter.
I have my little RX1-R set up as follows:
Overall this worked quite well for me in Vancouver. I shot a lot at f/2, only moving to f/5.6 or f/8 when I wanted more depth of field or where f/2 would’ve overexposed (requiring a shutter speed faster than 1/2000 sec; note that an ND filter would help with that, but I don’t have one yet). I used the macro ring a fair amount for close-ups, and – of course – I was pleased with the soft shutter release button (I’m a big fan, as may be obvious).
I want to note that at ISO 6400 the resultant images are usable – especially for the web – but if I was making a large print and didn’t want to have grainy shots I would still want to use ISO 800 or lower. I don’t think this should shock anyone – as good as modern cameras are at high ISOs, if you want a clean image you still need shot discipline, and that means using the lowest ISO you can (and preferably ISO 100 with a tripod and cable release…). The D800E is the same way, and in fact I think the Sony RX1-R does about the same at ISO 6400 as the D800E does at 3200 in terms of noise and detail retention (this makes some sense given the larger pixel pitch of the lower megapixel RX1-R). It seems like sometimes the web is given to hyperbole with regard to high ISO and modern sensors, but we’re still a ways away from a time where ISO 6400 gives me what I would consider a clean, noise-free image even after noise reduction. Maybe in five or ten years (graphene sensors, perhaps)?
What about restricting myself to 35mm? It’s true that there are some inherent limitations to having only one focal length, which can be both a good and a bad thing. On the “good” side this can force you to up your game, so to speak, by encouraging you to be more creative, “zoom with your feet”, turn the camera, see the world in a different way, etc. On the “bad” side I know there are shots I saw in Vancouver that would have worked great at 24mm, or 200mm. I was particularly longing for a telephoto at the aquarium in Stanley Park, for example, and some of the architecture shots I took in the city at sunrise might’ve worked better at 24mm or 21mm. All that said…35mm is a remarkably flexible focal length, at least for me. You can see that just in the variety of shots I’ve included in this article. For some people 50mm is the “Goldilocks” focal length, others 28mm, others maybe 135mm…for me, 35mm is the one I would pick for a fixed focal length camera.
So. All in all, the RX1-R did great as a travel camera and DSLR replacement. It never wore out my back or shoulders, it was easy to carry into restaurants and while hiking all around the city. It took great shots at f/2 ISO 6400 at night or f/8 ISO 100 in bright daylight and everything in between. I wouldn’t recommend it as your only camera on a safari, or if you have lots of fast moving subjects (e.g. little kids), but otherwise, yep, it’s got the goods.
Do I still wish I’d waited on the A7R? Yes…for flexibility of focal length, the integrated viewfinder, and weathersealing. But the RX1-R delivers the image quality I need, and there is no firm evidence that any native Sony lens for the FE format will deliver quite like the Zeiss 35mm f/2 on the RX1/R…at least not for a while.