This was one of the most anticipated digital cameras of 2005 and it arrived in November for under $999. The just-introduced 12.8MP Canon EOS 5D ($3,299) was the other object de lust since it’s the world’s “smallest and lightest” full frame D-SLR. With full frame cameras there’s no “digital factor” so all lenses including fish-eyes are their true focal lengths. Before the 5D you’d have to spend seven grand to get this convenience. At this price the 5D is targeted to very serious photographers; the DSC-R1 is for mere mortals.
What makes this Sony so unique is its 10.3MP CMOS sensor (3888 x 2592 pixels) that’s far greater than price-competitive D-SLRs with their “puny” 6- and 8-megapixel sensors. Also of tremendous importance is the fact the imaging device is much bigger than those found in typical point-and-shoot cameras. One of the biggest issues in digital camera land today is the fact 8- and 9-megapixel compact digicams have major issues with digital noise once ISO settings increase. Without going into a boring riff on sensor technology, smaller sensors cram pixels onto 2/3-inch or smaller pieces of silicon. With D-SLRs and the Sony DSC-R1, sensor size is referred to as APS class (Advanced Photo System) that is 21.5mm x 14.4mm in the case of the R1. Simply put these larger sensors deliver improved picture quality. Personally I’ve been much more impressed with 6MP D-SLRs such as the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D with their APS-sized sensors than point-and-shoot 8MPs like the Panasonic DMC-FZ30 with a 1/1.8-inch CCD. Nothing against the companies involved; it’s just physics.
Sony has now brought APS-sized sensors to point-and-shoot digicams for a price slightly more than a Maxxum 5D, Canon Rebel XT or Nikon D50 kit. Also of note: with this new technology you can also frame your images on the 2-inch LCD screen, something no D-SLR can offer. There are lots of other improvements as well. Now should you hold off buying a D-SLR until you get your hands on the DSC-R1? Check out our take…
Bigger is definitely better when it comes to the size of digicam imaging devices. At left is the 2/3-inch CCD of the 8MP Sony DSC-F828 while the APS-size 10.3MP CMOS sensor of the DSC-R1 is at right. Sony claims 2.5 times the dynamic range and 5 times the sensitivity for the new imager.
Features and Design
Forget about putting this one in your pocket. Like its D-SLR competitors it’s big and bulky, tipping the scales at 2.3 pounds with battery and memory card. The stealthy, black-bodied DSC-R1 looks like a refugee from the set of Battlestar Galactica rather than a cute silver-bodied Canon Digital ELPH.
The Sony DSC-R1 is a bit of a weird duck since it does not have interchangeable lenses like all D-SLRs even with its hefty price. It does have a built-in 5x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* zoom that equals 24-120mm in 35mm terms. The 24mm option is much wider than other point-and-shoots that typically start at 35mm. This opens the door to more creative options and is most welcome. And just to compare apples-to-apples, most D-SLR kits come with 18-55mm zooms that translate to 29-88mm due to the digital factor. You’d have to buy another lens to get the range of the R1 such as a Canon EF 24-70mm for $1,100–but you won’t get the wide angle option. And as much as I like D-SLR options, there’s something to be said for a single lens that handles most shooting situations and eliminates the need to swap out glass. I learned photography with older Pentax and Nikon film SLRs (including the legendary F2) and loved playing with different lenses. Yet it took one long European trip and I switched to a point-and-shoot with a built-in zoom. Who needs to carry all this stuff? This might be considered sacrilegious by photo aficionados but what the heck it’s the Internet and I’m entitled to my opinions.
Overall ergonomics are good with a pistol grip for your right hand while your left wraps around the lens barrel. It’s very D-SLR-ish something that can be said about the entire camera even though you can’t change lenses. The front of the DSC-R1 is dominated by the lens and an auto pop-up flash. The pistol grip has the power and ISO keys (160-3200) as well as a hot shoe. The grip also holds the proprietary lithium ion battery rated 500 shots and a compartment for the memory card slots. Yes, there are two slots for Memory Stick as well as Compact Flash, a welcome option in this day of fire-sale CF prices. Since this uses Sony’s infoLithium battery, there’s a great readout to the minute of how much power you have left.
Image Courtesy of Sony America
The top of the camera has the flash as well as a moveable 2-inch LCD screen that can used to frame your shots in a nice variety of positions. The LCD turns off once you put your eye to the viewfinder which has a diopter adjustment. As noted in the introduction, one of the things that really sets this apart from D-SLRs is its ability to give you a live preview on the LCD screen, something no digital single lens reflex camera do. If you’re a big fan of using large LCD screens for framing your photos, this is a winning feature. I really enjoyed it, especially shooting over people’s heads. The LCD is rated 134K pixels, a good but not great spec.
Image Courtesy of Sony America
The back of the camera has enough dials and buttons to keep photo bugs as happy as a politician at a photo op. There’s a mode dial that simply can be set to Auto as well as aperture- and shutter-priority, full manual and program shift. You make adjustments using the main command dial on the back of the pistol grip and the subcommand dial with a joystick control slightly to the right of the viewfinder. The mode dial also has four common Program AE settings (portrait, landscape, twilight portrait and twilight). You can also adjust the type of metering (multi-pattern, center weighted, spot) and play with an Auto Exposure Lock button, Burst/Exposure Bracketing, self-timer, zoom (for viewing) and menu keys. The camera is rated 3 fps in burst mode at full resolution (JPEG). Although there is a RAW setting, you can’t shoot a burst. By comparison, the 8.2MP Canon EOS 20D D-SLR ($1,300 body only) can shoot 5 fps in JPEG and RAW settings. This lack of speed is one of this camera’s biggest drawbacks. Tucked on the side of the viewfinder is the review key. On the left hand side you’ll find a flash adjustment key as well as white balance. There’s also a focus button for choosing between auto, macro and manual. You also can choose between Multipoint AF, Center AF and Flexible Spot in case you need to focus on a subject that’s not dead center in the viewfinder. All of the connections are safely tucked in one area including DC power, USB Hi-Speed 2.0, video out for your TV and an accessory jack for a flash.
Image Courtesy of Sony America
Once you become familiar with these buttons and bells, it’s time to get into the menus that also have plenty to play with including those RAW and JPEG settings. Surprisingly, the new Sony does not take video clips. Like D-SLRs such as the Nikon D70s, the DSC-R1 lets you choose between three color spaces: Adobe RGB and two sRGB settings. Without going feature crazy, you’ll find almost everything you’ll will on a D-SLR. What you won’t get is a flapping sound since the DSC-R1 does not have a D-SLR’s mirror/prism setup so the camera is fairly quiet. The camera comes with a rechargeable battery rated 500 shots with the LCD on, AC adaptor, USB and video cables, shoulder strap and software CD ROM as well as a program to handle RAW file transfers. The main photo editing software is a variation of the PicturePackage we’ve complained about for years. Why Sony continues with this junk is beyond me. On a much better note is the Image Data Converter SR software that “develops” the RAW files and lets you adjust color parameters; this makes working with RAW files so much fun. The DSC-R1 is also supplied with a thorough 136-page owner’s manual. The camera doesn’t come with a Quick Start guide but I can’t really knock the company because anyone spending a grand on a camera will know most of the basics. The camera also comes with a lens hood; although it looks cool don’t bother using it since it causes vignettes with flash photos.
We were given a pre-production model awhile ago to sample the camera but it was very buggy which is why we held off on a final rating. When I received a “real” unit I loaded a high-speed 1GB SanDisk Ultra II CompactFlash card and 512MB Memory Stick Pro media. A switch on the back lets you choose between the two–I chose CF. Shooting at the top 10MP JPEG resolution and RAW I shot a variety of photos indoors and out, using Auto, scene modes and more detailed manual settings. The camera started up very quickly and in two seconds you’re good to go. As noted, the screen can be twisted into a wide variety positions so you can hold the camera in many positions. This is very useful. The refresh rate on the LCD could be quicker as there was some blurring but nothing that onerous. We found the camera to be very intuitive to use. It was fun moving between the viewfinder and LCD screen.
We know you’re anxious to learn how this camera performed as were we. In a word, wow. The photos were simply spot on–color and detail were as accurate as you could want–non-pro D-SLR levels and beyond. In fact, I’d compare it to a D-SLR. 8.5×11 prints looked gorgeous. For the record, a 10.3MP file can easily make a 13×19 print. Indoor photos with available light showed every detail of fabric with extremely accurate colors. I held the prints next to the subjects and couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. There was very little noise, even at higher ISOs but it did show issues above 800.
The DSC-R1 took great photos–as a $999 10-megapixel camera should. I highly recommend it for anyone who doesn’t want to spend a small fortune on lenses or doesn’t have any to begin with. The camera isn’t perfect but none are–it is heavy and a wider focal length would be a nice bonus. It’s also not as fast as a D-SLR with slower frames-per-second rate and response time. Still it is an excellent camera–and one of the best that arrived in 2005.
Takes simply beautiful photographs
Nice telephoto range (24-120mm)
Good articulating 2-inch LCD screen
Excellent feature list
Big and bulky
Response time not D-SLR levels
Doesn’t take video clips