Sony DSC-R1 Review
It is rare in this business to come across a product that defines a new class of camera. While the individual components of the Sony CyberShot DSC-R1 have similar counterparts in other cameras, this is the first to integrate components that have until now distinguished different classes of cameras. The uniqueness of the R1 is the integration of an APS-sized CMOS image sensor, formerly reserved for digital SLR cameras (dSLRs,) into an enthusiast digicam having only electronic through the lens viewfinders. This hybrid design promises many of the benefits of dSLRs, but without their gotchas; to a large extent, those promises have been kept.
The first thing you'll notice about the R1 is its massive (for a consumer digicam) size. Weighing in at nearly 2.5 pounds including battery, memory, lens hood and camera strap, it is not only is the heaviest digicam we've tested, it outweighs many amateur dSLRs as well. Contributing to that weight is the R1's 24-120mm (in 35mm equivalence) lens, its large diameter matched to the camera's APS-C sized image sensor. While the camera is bulky, it is well balanced. It's also comfortable to hold due to its deep handgrip.
The R1's Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonar lens is an impressive piece of glass, having an appearance more like a dSLR's interchangeable lenses than the fixed lens of a consumer digicam. It is also versatile, offering a wider field of view than most prosumer digicams at 24mm and a useful telephoto focal length of 120mm; this lens fits what most dSLR users describe as their "walk-around" lens. Its variable aperture is a relatively fast f/2.8 at its 24mm wide angle extreme, but slows to f/4.8 at its 120mm telephoto focal length. The lens produces very sharp results throughout its zoom and aperture ranges, but with a slight amount of edge softness at wide angle with small aperture settings, and at moderate to telephoto focal lengths with moderate to large aperture settings. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled, with only a slight amount of purple fringing present in very high contrast areas. The lens exhibits slight amounts of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at moderate focal lengths, but no noticeable distortion at full telephoto. If your needs exceed the 24-120mm focal length range, Sony offers the VCL-DEH17R 1.7X Tele and VCL-DEH08R Wide End Conversion Lenses, extending the R1's range to 19-204mm; neither conversion lens was tested.
I enjoyed using the lens' mechanical zoom ring, a great improvement over the motor-driven zooms of most consumer digicams. Like the zoom controls of dSLR lenses, the R1's enables you to move quickly and directly to the focal length needed for your shot composition. The lens is also equipped with a fly-by-wire manual focus ring. Manual focus is a breeze thanks to the R1's Expanded Focus function, which enlarges the viewfinder image as you turn the focus ring. The quality of the R1's viewfinder image, enlargement of the focus area and intensification of the viewfinder image in dim lighting contribute to a manual focus arrangement which betters that of many dSLRs.
The R1's Electronic (EVF) and LCD viewfinders won't be mistaken for their optical counterparts on dSLRs, but they come closer than any we've tested before. The articulating LCD is very useful, allowing you to shoot from waist level, overhead, from the side and straight-on. Although its surface will reflect direct sunlight, the LCD can be slightly articulated to eliminate that glare; that said, it is quite usable in bright outdoor sun. The eye-level EVF is large, bright and resolute. It also has a deep rubber eyecup, blocking ambient light and making it very comfortable to use.
I prefer using the EVF for shooting, and the LCD for menu operation and image review. The R1's eye sensor makes changing viewfinders easy - just raise the camera to your eye to activate the EVF, or move the camera away from your eye to switch to the LCD. Both viewfinders are equally functional, able to be used as a live image viewfinder, for image review and for menu operation. Both are more functional than the optical viewfinders found on dSLR's in several ways; a histogram can be displayed on the live image, the menu system can be operated on the eye level viewfinder, a zebra pattern can highlight overexposed areas on the live image, and the live image is intensified in conditions of low ambient light.
But electronic viewfinders, the R1's included, have their shortcomings. The live image smears or blurs when panning with a moving subject. Both viewfinders go blank between shots in continuous capture mode, only briefly displaying the last captured image. The viewfinders also blank during the pre-flash in red eye reduction flash mode, a critical period of nearly one second just before the shot is taken. Although the R1's viewfinders introduce a delay in the live image, adding to the camera's apparent shutter lag, that delay is among the shortest we've observed - measuring less than 1/10 second.
Speaking of shutter lag, the R1's compares favorably with high performance dSLRs. Lag measured less than 1/10 second when pre-focused using either viewfinder. If you are able time your shot without using a viewfinder, pre-focused shutter lag is essentially non-existent. Autofocus performance is also competitive with dSLR's, the lag including viewfinder delay measuring only 3/10 second for a high-contrast subject. The R1 powers-up quickly, capturing an image within 1.8 seconds of being turned on. Flash recycle time is good, with the R1 able to capture images at intervals of between 1.2 and 6 seconds depending on subject distance.
Rapid shooting in single JPEG image capture mode with CF media produced 11 images at 1.1 second intervals, with subsequent images coming at 1.5 second intervals as the R1's buffer remained full. Performance slowed when shooting in RAW mode, which records both a RAW and a JPEG image; two images could be captured in 1.6 seconds, with subsequent images coming every 7.5 seconds. The R1's single image capture performance suffered when using Memory Stick Duo media; the buffer filled after only 6 JPEG images and the subsequent capture interval slowed to three seconds. RAW mode produced even slower results, with a capture interval nearly 20 seconds when the buffer was full.
The R1's continuous capture mode is fast, but with limited depth. Shooting JPEG images with CF media, the R1 captured 3 images at 1/3 second intervals and took 6 seconds to clear its full buffer. Memory Stick Duo media was slower, taking 11 seconds to clear a buffer full of JPEG images, but capturing the first 3 shots at the same 1/3 second intervals. It is not possible to capture RAW images in continuous mode.
The R1's performance was measured with 4BG Lexar Professional 80x CF and 128MB Sony Memory Stick Duo media, 10M/Fine size/quality, flash off (unless otherwise noted), and all other settings at default. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc. The R1's results shooting JPEG images fall into the dSLR-class of performance, but its RAW performance does not. RAW mode suffers to a large extent due to the size of the image files; the R1's SR2 RAW file exceeds 20MB and its JPEG files averaged about 4.5MB, for a total of about 25MB per shutter release!
The R1's image quality is outstanding. It's sharp lens, accurate AF and White balance systems, and APS-C-sized image sensor combined to produce consistently pleasing results both indoors and out. At high sensitivity settings, the R1's images are superior to prosumer digicams and rival many consumer dSLRs. Image noise is essentially absent at ISO settings up to 400, but can be detected in shadow areas at ISO 800. Although noise becomes noticeable throughout the image at settings of 1600 and 3200 along with some loss of detail, the R1's image quality at these settings is superior to prosumer digicams and competitive with entry-level dSLRs.
The R1's indoor results benefit from the wide field of view afforded by the 24mm end of the lens zoom range, good low light AF performance and adequate flash power. If you need more flash range than the 13 feet provided by the internal flash, an external flash can be attached to the R1's hot shoe. The R1's AF works well in dim lighting, but its AF assist lamp has limited range in complete darkness and it does not properly illuminate subjects in macro range. The R1 effectively squelches its flash at close range and its lens produces high quality macro results, making it a useful tool for capturing images for your online auction listings.
I found two of the R1's advanced features of little to no use. Its Advanced Gradation Control System (AGCS) feature is claimed to enhance dynamic range, but I could find no difference in exposures made with and without it. The R1 also has a "bulb" exposure mode, enabling exposures of up to 3 minutes. Dark frame subtraction is used to eliminate noise from bulb shots, doubling the camera's processing time - your 3 minute bulb shots freeze the camera for 6 minutes!
The R1's battery life was good, capturing more than 300 images while still indicating 10 minutes of remaining capacity. The R1's NP-FM50 Li-ion battery is charged in-camera, making it difficult to keep a spare battery fully charged. If you are going to spend nearly $1,000 on this high-quality camera, spend an extra few dollars on a spare battery and either the BCT-RM Portable AC Charger or ACV-Q50 AC Power Adapter/Charger so you can charge the spare while using the camera.
With its APC-C sized image sensor, the Sony DSC-R1 defines a new category in the prosumer digital camera market and offers a compelling alternative to enthusiasts who might otherwise consider a dSLR. Thanks to its high quality lens and large image sensor, the R1 sets a new standard for image quality among prosumer cameras, especially at high ISO settings. As an alternative to dSLRs, the R1 offers enthusiasts terrific image quality, good shooting performance and 10-megapixels of resolution without the complexities of interchangeable lenses and the inevitable presence of dust on a dSLRs image sensor. If the R1's fixed 24-120mm lens meets your image composition needs, you may have found the 2006 version of digicam nirvana.
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