Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Sony RX1 changes everything (not an Apple iPhone 5 post)

Screw the iPhone 5! THIS is what I'm most excited about right now: the Sony RX1. I'm not even going to make an iPhone 5 post. After staying up late for the Apple announcement, I told my wife at 2 AM, "The iPhone 5 looks like a nice phone, but it's not a game-changer. Not like Sony's new camera."

So here's a shot of the RX1. What the hell is it? Why are photographers wetting their pants when they find out about this little camera? And why is it cheap for $3,000?

So it's a full frame camera. What the hell does that mean?
One of the most important factors that determines image quality is the size of your camera's sensor. This can come in various sizes, from Honking Large (Hubble Space Telescope), to Super Large (Hasselblad Medium Format), to Large (Full Frame), to Medium (APS-C DSLR), to Small (compact camera), to Tiny (cell phone camera). 

Bigger sensor means better image quality. This is the reason why your cell phone takes crappy photos. They're a blurry, smudgy mess full of image noise. For the same reason (the sensor size), your average SLR is tack-sharp with low levels of digital noise. Full Frame SLRs are the bomb when it comes to image quality. And not just image quality. You get less noise, better low light performance, dynamic range, and better control of depth of field.

The Holy Grail
Full Frame gets its name for achieving the same optical goodness as a full frame of 35mm film. In fact, you can view the entire history of digital cameras as trying to catch up with film. The RX1 promises a return to the good old days, when a Pentax SLR fit in a small bag, when a 24mm lens was 24mm, not 36mm or 48mm equivalent, when every frame you took was just made of better stuff (if you knew what you were doing).

Size matters
The RX1 is small, and this is important. The larger your sensor, the larger your camera and lenses.(The optics just need some space. That's how the physics works.) Other Full Frame cameras include such obese fatties as the Nikon D800, Nikon D4, and Canon 5D Mark III. That makes the RX1 the Thumbelina of Full Frame cameras.

$3,000 cheap
A (Full Frame) Leica M9 is $10,000 for the body only. Expect to spend another $3,000 on a good Leica lens. In DSLR land, a Full Frame camera like the Nikon D800 can set you back by PHP150,000 (or around $3,500). Or, as is the case with the Nikon D4, PHP250,000 (or $6,000). The closest price competitor is Nikon's just-announced D600, which sells for $2,600 with the kit lens. That D600 is another game-changer by the way.

The full frame Nikon D600 is another game-changer. Just $2,100 (body only) for what is basically a baby D800. 

Of course, the RX1 is a fixed lens camera unlike interchangeable lens cameras like DSLRs and Rangefinders, so you need to take that into consideration when making comparisons. Even then, the lens that is stuck to the RX1 body is an amazing one, a 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss Sonnar. It doesn't get better than this.

How does this change the game?
Digital photography has always been about compromises. You can get a Full Frame SLR, but you have to pay through the nose, plus the camera will be pretty big. Or you can get a compact camera that fits in your pocket but mostly takes lousy photos and can't shoot worth shit in the dark. Even the middle ground "mirrorless" cameras are full of compromises, despite being an interesting balance of good-enough image quality, small size, and reasonable price.

With the RX1 (as well as the Nikon D600), there are NO COMPROMISES. You get the best, largest sensor available today. You get a relatively small package. You get a fantastic lens in the most useful focal length. Photography doesn't get better than this. If you're even mildly interested in photography, if you're a pro, if you're a hobbyist, the RX1 is simply great news: compact Full Frame cameras just became attainable – not cheap, not by any means – but you can get one for the price of a high-end laptop. Hallelujah.

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