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Sony Cybershot R1 Hands On Report
Review by WSLam

Sony Cybershot R1First Posted 13 November 2005
Revised 16 November 2005 (Night Photo using R1)
Revised 18 November 2005 (R1 compares to Canon DSLRs)

My First Sony

This is my first Sony camera. While I have played with many Sony Digicam before, this is the first one I intend to actually use. Sony has long been an electronics giant, but when it comes to cameras, my old-fashioned mind still prefers to stick with names such as Canon, Leica, Nikon or Olympus (etc). However, I must admit, companies such as Sony and Panasonic are pulling off some wonderfully innovative designs that is worth a good hard look. (another innovative design is the Panasonic LX1, which I also have)

Since the digital camera revolution, Sony has secured themselves as one of the main sensor suppliers. They not only supply sensors to consumer-grade digital cameras, but also to Nikon's well regarded profesisonal DSLRs.

The Sony R1 features the following that made it stand out:

  • APS-Sized, 10.3 MP CMOS Sensor
  • 24 - 120 mm (equiv. 135) (14.3 - 71.5 mm F2.8 - F4.8) Carl Zeiss T* (12 elements in 10 groups (4 aspherical) design)

This is not a review. It is more of a report on the R1 after spending a few days with the camera.

Design, Ergonomics & Operations

The R1 design is very innovative, but does take a little getting used to.

The overall shape of the R1 resembles the previous Sony flagship F828, but without the swivel body design and the LCD is now on top. I find this combination ((lack of swivel and top-placed LCD) a little bit of an enigma! The swivel design seems to be perfect for the top placed LCD. I would think the point of the top placed LCD is to allow more waist-level shots. But without the swivel design, your hand will not be able to hold the camera lower while holding the grip in its proper position. You end up with a very odd combination. Whereas the top placed LCD encourages to lower your camera, the grip does not allow you to hold it comfortably when it's lowered. What is Sony thinking?! It's strange, but not without a solution.

When you want to take a photo from a low angle, you can hold the camera in a way that you press the shutter with your thumb. It works, and is less akward then it sounds.

The R1 is different. It is different from your normal point n' shoot, and it is also different from your DSLRs. The top positioned LCD is a first on digital cameras. When you first handle the camera, you are bound to feel unfamiliar. Not only is the LCD located in a 'new' location, the buttons are also all over the place. Ergonomics is usually very subjective, but I think it is safe to say that the R1 will require some learning before one can feel comfortable with it.

A few days with the R1 makes me feel pretty much right at home with the operation of the camera. It is still not the easiest camera to operate, but I believe it will improve with time as I become even more familiar with it.

The top placed LCD is actually one of the main reasons why I bought the R1 (of course, the sensor being the MAIN reason). I have gone through enough DSLRs in the past years. All DSLRs make me shoot in ONE way. Look through the optical viewfinder and shoot. The placement of the LCD on the R1 actually encourages you to shoot differently. From different levels, different angles. I have not yet taken enough photos to see if this is indeed true, but it gives me hope to take shots differently.

The lens feels VERY good. Mechanical zoom is very smooth. There is very little 'play'. If you use the built in flash and shoot at 24mm (eq), the lens shade gets in the way and cast a big shadow. And btw, the lens is shortest at 28mm. At 24mm, the lens is slightly longer.

Note that the lens varies its maximum aperture as you zoom:

  • At 24mm (eq), max aperture = f2.8
  • At 28mm (eq), max aperture = f2.8
  • At 35mm (eq), max aperture = f3.2
  • At 50mm (eq), max aperture = f3.5
  • From 92mm (eq) onwards all the way to 120mm (eq), max aperture = f4.8

No gimmicks

Sony digital cameras are usually packed with gimmicks... Night Shot, Hologram AF etc. The R1 is a much simpler camera. It's a camera! No movie mode either! A lot of people will be disappointed, but to me, a camera only needs to do one thing, as long as it does that one thing well - take good quality images. Whether it turns out to be a worthy photo, that's really up to the eye behind the camera.

AutoFocus

Days after the R1 started shipping, complaints started to show up on various forums about the AutoFocus capability of the R1. Here are some of my observations:

  • Do not even compare the AF speed to ANY DSLR, it will not be a match
  • I have no difficulty in locking focus even in a dimly lit room
  • It does take time to lock focus (even in bright daylight), and you have to aim the focusing point on a contrasty subject. (this is how I expect all AF to work)
  • Flexible Spot AF is what I find myself using the most at the end out of the three AF modes

RAW mode

With my DSLRs, I shoot in 100% RAW mode. There's no point to shoot in any other mode. I am not only saying this because this website sells Capture One, but because I am a control freak. Back in film days, you shoot a roll, you hand the roll to your one-hour photo lab, and an hour later, you get beautiful prints (hopefully). And you think the photos look great purely because of what YOU did. Most people are not aware of the post processing that went in during that one hour. This is one of the main reasons why man get disappointed when their digital photos do not look as good as film. Well, digital brings much convenience, but to get good photos, you cannot expect to use digital as polaroids! Instant gratification is good to have, but I personally prefer to take my time and process the photos to get the best results.

The R1 does allow you to shoot in RAW mode (RAW mode always includes a JPG, so it's really RAW+JPG). However, the RAW mode on the R1 is far from ideal. The biggest problem is the resulting file size. Being a 10MP camera, the file size is large. RAW files are about 20MB each on average! So 2MB/MP. That is insane! I have no idea why Sony does not deploy some sort of lossless compression. They really should. On my Canon 5D, a 12.8MP DSLR, the RAW files are around 10MB each. 20MB files eat up your memory cards fast! But if you want the best quality possible, there's no choice at this point.

The second thing about RAW mode is that it slows down the continuous shooting speed of the camera. I think the slow down is largely due to the writing time needed for such large files.

Having said all that, I do intend to keep shooting RAW with the R1. If you are used to using Adobe Photoshop CS2 as your photo editing software, then you can use Adobe DNG Converter to convert the R1's RAW into DNG after you download them to your computer. The advantage is that file size gets cut by 50%! Downside is you can only use Adobe Camera RAW (ACR 3.2 and 3.3 beta work with R1 RAW files) at this point to edit the R1 RAW files.

Casual Timing: RAW (+ 10M Fine JPG) to Sony Memory Stick PRO DUO 2GB takes 8.5secs (duration of red light stays on). But you do not have to wait until it finishes writing before taking another photo.

High ISO

This may perhaps be the most interesting aspect of the R1. Users have come to expect that the larger the photosites, the better the high ISO performance will be. Not to mentiont that Canon has done an excellent job with their CMOS sensors for ultra low noise. So when I saw that the R1 has a APS sized CMOS sensor, I expect the noise performance to be on par with a Canon DSLR with an APS sized sensor. I did some tests and here are my findings:

  • R1 deploys pretty heavy noise reduction with its JPG
  • R1 NR is quite effective, but may smudge out details quite a bit, especially at High ISO
  • Working with RAW files give me a much better idea of how noisy the sensor really is. My comments below only refer to the results from RAW files:
    • ISO 160, 200, and 400 are all very good.
    • ISO 800 is totally usable, but grain will be slightly visible. Must sharpen carefully. Details are retained. DR is pretty good. Color is good.
    • ISO 1600 is pushing it. But noise is uniform and I did not notice any 'blotching'. If you find the noise offensive, try B&W. It will make a nice high speed B&W Film like image
    • ISO 3200 in my opinion should be dropped from this camera. It is not usable without some serious post processing. But color starts to shift, and noise is a little blotch
R1 JPG
- 10MP JPG FINE
- Standard Color
- Custom WB (Grey Card)
- Normal Saturation
- Contrast - A.G.C.S ON
- Sharpness set to "-"
R1 RAW, processed with ACR 3.3 Beta
ACR Parameters:
- CWB at 2700, +5 (clicked on speakers to set WB)
- Exposure: 0
- Shadows: 5
- Brightness: 50
- Contrast: 60
- Saturation: 0
- Curve set to Linear
- No Sharpening

For ISO 160 to 400: Luminance Smoothing = 0; Color Noise Reduction = 25
For ISO 800 to 3200: Luminance Smoothing = 0; Color Noise Reduction = 100
No further noise reduction was applied.
Please note that these samples were taken at night in a tungsten lit room. The camera was mounted on a tripod. The exposures were long. So this is not only an ISO test, it's also a long exposure test for the slower ISO exposures.

Image Quality

Doing a little pixel peeping reveals something rather interesting about the R1. Even though it has a Zeiss lens and a 10.3MP CMOS Sensor, the resolving power of the R1 seems to be lowered then what I recalled with my 8MP 20D. Unsharpened images are soft, and some details that I expect the camera to resolve do not seem to get resolved. However, the R1 files respond to sharpening VERY well. The right amount of sharpening can bring out great (but not exceptional) details from the R1. If you like to pixel peep, the R1 may not deliver results matching your expectations. However, from a 'photographic tool' standpoint, I can't fault the images the R1 captures.

The original image. You can see how small the crop is.

The original image. You can see how small the crop is.

Conclusion

It is so fun to pixel peep that we sometimes forget these little 'new toys' we have are actually cameras! The R1 is a fine camera. In fact, this may be the finest fixed-lens digital camera to date. However, I have the following comments.

  • Nothing can substitute for a good OPTICAL viewfinder. While the top LCD is innovative and functional in many ways, the fact that it has a 'refresh rate' to speak of already automatically alienates the photographer from 'reality'.
  • The camera response is pretty good. Power on time is very fast. Focus speed is above average (faster then say the Canon PRO1). RAW write speed is slow (8.5secs) (large file size). Mechancial zoom ring feels great. Wakes up from 'suspend' is also very fast.
  • Built is good. So what if it is plastic. This is a prosumer camera, not a professional camera. Plastic can be very durable.
  • I never owned a Swivel body Sony, and I still wish it has one! I can imagine 828 owners complaining about it.
  • Ergonomics is so-so. Why did they put the WB button on the left side when there's more then enough room on the back panel?
  • ISO comes in full step (except fro 160 to 200). Hopefully a firmware upgrade will allow users to select ISO in 1/3 steps

The R1 may appeal most to people deciding between an entry level DSLR or a top prosumer. This is a tough one. For example, you cannot directly compare the 350D with the R1 because any similar lens on the 350D will make the 350D more expensive. A EF-S 17-85IS on the 350D will cost slightly more then the R1. If you are okay with an all-in-one solution, the R1 is a great choice.

Sony came up with a very interesting camera. This camera should serve me well to accompany my Canon 5D.

--- --- Ongoing Comments and Updates --- ---

Night Photography

ISO 160. RAW Converted using ACR 3.3. Edited in PS CS2. View 1024px version here.
ISO 160. 5 seconds @ f5.6 @ 24mm
100% Crop. Left is the unsharpened conversion from RAW. Right is the sharpened version. Again, R1 RAW files sharpened very well. But I think with this kind of citiscape shot, we are clearly pushing the R1 resolving capability. Also, do note that the lights on the building are extremely high contrast! I do not see any major purple fringing, but I did notice some serious Moire effect. I believe the Moire could be a result of ACR 3.3 as they do not show up in the in camera JPG (not as bad anyway). There's really no noise to speak of at ISO 160, even after sharpening.

Go to Page 2 of the Report - R1 vs Canon DSLRs

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