Vintage Digital: Sony DSC-R1

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Here in Vintage Digital we celebrate digital cameras that were once innovative and outstanding, but somehow didn’t get the popularity they deserved, were ignored by the big crowd and long forgotten ever since.

Vintage Digital is my tribute to these true heroes from days past and, this time around, I’m going to talk about an intruder named Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1.

Intro

If I tell you I’m currently using a camera with the following specs:

  • Carl Zeiss 24 – 120 mm, f/2.8 – 4.8 lens with mechanical zoom ring.
  • APS-C size CMOS sensor.
  • Full manual exposure control with twin dials.
  • Silent leaf shutter.
  • Joystick for quick AF point selection.
  • Dedicated buttons for ISO, White Balance, AE Lock, Metering, Drive Mode, AF Mode, Macro.
  • Fully articulated LCD screen.
  • EVF with eye-proximity sensor.
  • Dual card slots.

You’d probably think I’m using a recent high-end mirrorless camera.

Only that I’m not.

The specs above come from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 introduced in 2005, 14 years ago. Surprised? You should be, because I’m surprised too. These specs are objectively competitive for a 2019 mirrorless camera.

So how did this happen and why was this super camera a market failure?

To fully understand the story of the Sony R1 and its unsuccessful ending, one needs to go back to the early years of the millennium.

Early 2000s: the unaffordable DSLRs

At the start of the new millennium, photo enthusiasts were dealing with the dilemma of migrating from film to digital.

Most enthusiasts used film SLRs with a collection of lenses from a specific system, mostly Canon or Nikon. Migrating to a DSLR from the same brand was a no-brainer.

Problem was, the few available DSLRs were expensive beasts that only professionals or hobbyists with a deep pocket could afford.

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Canon D30 (2000): 3.1 MP sensor, USD$ 3000 body only!

The Canon D30 introduced in year 2000 would set you back USD$ 3000, while the Nikon D1 from 1999 retailed at an insane USD$ 5000. To put things in perspective, high-end film SLRs were nowhere near these figures. My Canon EOS 3 – a pro-level film body with eye control AF – cost me around USD$ 1000 in year 2000.

To make things worst, in 2001 Canon announced the EOS 1-D with a retail price of USD$ 4899, whereas Nikon upped the game with the D1X / D1H selling for something like USD$ 6000… If anything, it appeared to us enthusiasts that manufacturers were sending a message: DSLRs are for pros only, period.

The other cameras

So what was left for us enthusiasts? Well, in a market flooded by low performing point & shoots, there were indeed some serious non-DSLR cameras as well.

Canon had the famous G series, while Nikon had several Coolpix models that were similarly in-line. These cameras offered a decent amount of control to the photographer, thus slowly becoming the alternative for enthusiasts migrating to digital.

The Sony DSC-F series

For the serious photographer, Sony had the DSC-F series that were well known for their trademark oversized-lens-on-small-body look. There was the F505 (1999), F505V (2000) and the F707 (2001).

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The Sony DSC-F828 from 2003.

But the real eye-opener was the DSC-F828 (2003). With its professional looking all-black finishing (as opposed to silver from its predecessors) 8 megapixel sensor and a Carl Zeiss 28-200mm f/2.0-2.8 lens with mechanical zoom ring, Sony was sending a clear message: this was a flagship camera representing their determination to get into the prosumer photography market.

The Sony DSC-R1

It was under this scenario that Sony launched the Cyber-shot DSC-R1 in 2005 that many saw as the sucessor of the F828.

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While there is no denying the R1 had physical similarities to the F828, in reality the R1 was a completely different beast: it had an APS-C size sensor.

So forget the Canon Gs and the likes.

The R1 was the real deal because it was the first non-DSLR camera with a large size sensor that, by then, were only used in DSLRs.

The first…

The R1 was not only the first fixed lens camera with a large size sensor. It was also the first large format camera to provide full-time live preview with its CMOS sensor. Yes, the R1 had a CMOS sensor and this was also a first in a non-DSLR camera.

Want another first? It was also the first to provide live histogram. There are many firsts for the R1, but I’m gonna stop here – you got the point.

What’s amazing is that this was all happening in 2005. If you look at the specs shown on top of this post, Sony actually put together a formula for the mirrorless camera.

Indeed, this was de facto a mirrorless camera as we know of today, only that it happened 4 years before we started coining this term when the first Micro 4/3 mirrorless camera was introduced in 2009.

A killer?

It could have been a killer, especially because the APS-C CMOS sensor was coupled to a superb Carl Zeiss 24 – 120 mm, f/2.8 – 4.8 lens with mechanical zoom ring.

Every reviewer praised the sharpness and overall performance of this lens, not to mention the fact it came from Zeiss, it was fast and offered a 24mm focal at the wide end.

Furthermore, Sony beefed-up the specs of the R1: it had 10MP resolution and an 2 inch screen, whereas most DSLRs at the time were still dealing with 4 to 6MP sensors and 1.5 inch screens.

The killer punch? Sony was selling this camera for USD$ 1000 only. I say only because that lens alone was worth the money.

In short, the R1 was technically capable of competing with DSLRs because it had the sensor, the lens and all the direct controls you could ask for.

But the R1 failed. Why?

The R1 failed because it came too late. Or too early, depending on how you want to see it.

It came too late because by 2005, both Canon and Nikon were already selling entry level DSLRs at affordable prices.

The Canon 300D, an all-plastic body DSLR, sold for USD$ 999 with a kit-zoom, while Nikon had the D70 which was similarly priced. Owning a DSLR was no longer members only and many enthusiasts took the obvious path.

On the other hand, the R1 came too early because it was ahead of its time.

While not being a compact camera, a DSLR with a similar lens would be bigger and heavier for sure. Without a mirror box, Sony engineers were able to place the R1’s lens as close as 2 mm from the sensor. Just like what’s happening now with the latest mirrorless cameras.

So the recipe was there – a fixed lens (relatively) compact camera without compromising image quality – but the market was probably not ready to accept such an innovative camera.

In 2005 the technology was not mature enough as well. The EVF, with its 235K pixel resolution, was a far cry from the current standards and clearly unable to compete with the optical finders from the DSLRs.

No successor

The R1 did not trigger the expected interest, did not sell well and was quickly forgotten by the mass market and by Sony itself: the attention was focused on entry-level DSLRs now, which seemed to be the market trend.

By this time, Sony was probably busy working on their first DSLR: the Alpha A-100 which was introduced a year later in 2006 following the acquisition of Konica Minolta. Perhaps Sony saw the risk of the R1 or a successor becoming a competitor to their own DSLRs?

In any case, the R1 ended up with no successor. It’s a one-off product from Sony – that’s why it’s a classic.

Using an R1 in 2019

Ok, so the fun part starts now. With all the build-up above, I just couldn’t resist myself searching for an R1 in the used market.

And things became even more interesting when I realized nowadays you can buy an R1 in Japan for as low as USD$ 130!..

So I bought a cheap one for myself and was really excited because, heck, whatever the year and irrespective of the fact this camera is 14 years old. The specs are still solid to me and for this price it really is a bargain!

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Now let’s find out what it feels to use this camera in 2019!

First impressions

I was expecting something with a solid feel of a DSLR body, but actually the R1 feels a bit plasticky. I mean, overall quality is good, but the buttons and haptics feel plastic to me which I was not expecting.

Remember, this was a USD$ 1000 camera. The lens it’s the exception though. It feels solid and dense, both zoom and focus rings are excellent.

Having a mechanical zoom ring, of course, is a luxury these days for a non-interchangeable lens camera. And the zoom ring works extremely well.

You know this is an old camera

Yes, the small and low resolution LCD and EVF screens. But, mind me, they are quite usable. I’d say the LCD is better than the EVF, because being small kinda mitigates the fact it is low-res. And the colours from the LCD are quite accurate. In fact, the LCD is pleasant to look at.

Unfortunately, I can’t keep the same comment to the EVF. It’s perfectly usable for framing, but the small size and the poor colour and brightness gradations will make your life difficult. Especially under sunlight. Shadows are just deep black, there are no mid-tones.

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The pixelated EVF…

Besides the LCD and the EVF, you have to deal with the slow writing speed of the R1. Press the shutter button and the screen will go black for 1-2 seconds. And if you are shooting RAW, at the back of the body a red light will turn on to indicate the file is being written to the CF card or Memory Stick (yes, CF card and Memory Stick…). It takes another 2-3 seconds.

Forget continuous shooting and fps while using the R1. The screen going black cuts your rhythm big time. Welcome to 2005.

Old school, good school

The thing is, you are not supposed to judge this camera by the current 2019 standards. So all above aside, this is a pleasant camera to shoot with.

I enjoy all the direct controls the R1 offers. Basically there is a button for everything you need. You can have a look at the back of the camera, the buttons and respective icons are self-explanatory.

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Everything at the touch of a button. At the center of the circle dial there is a joystick, a highlight feature in recent cameras that have it in lieu of the D-Pad. The R1 already had this back in 2005.

 

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The LCD’s unintuitive position when flipped-out. You can actually turn it 180º for selfies.
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Put down the LCD and it becomes perfectly integrated with the camera body. In this position you can also turn the LCD face down, hiding it from the exterior.

Now that LCD… The screen’s position is a bit weird when flipped-out, but when laid flat on top of the body it encourages shooting from the hip like a medium format camera.

I know you can do the same with cameras nowadays that offer a flip-out screen, but the R1’s layout feels a lot better and well integrated, plus it looks really cool. I’d love to see current cameras with a similar layout. You need some time to get used to it, because your muscle memory will tell you to look at the back of the camera’s body, but otherwise it’s a very good design feature.

The only caveat to this is the flash hotshoe’s position that had to be moved all the way to the camera’s grip. Kudos to Sony for building something so different and weird!

One thing that really surprised me was the focus system. You have a rocker switch which falls directly under your left thumb and you can quickly turn it to AF, Macro or Manual.

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More direct controls from the side of the camera. The focus mode rocker switch with the focus button in the middle. It works perfectly in combination with the joystick.

In Manual mode, if you press the button in the middle of the rocker switch, the camera will focus on point shown in the screen. Now the killer feature: you can actually freely move the focusing point with the joystick which falls directly under your right thumb.

This works extremely well, better than in my Fuji X-E3 that has the focus switch at the front of the body. Really, again, the R1 is a camera from 2005 and it works perfectly.

Image quality?

The images coming out of the R1 are pleasant, the Carl Zeiss lens is very good indeed, and the 10 megapixel APS-C size CMOS sensor is pretty solid. You can check by yourself, just click the images below for full resolution and EXIF data. All straight out of camera RAWs with no post-processing done.

I’ve been comparing the straight out-of-camera JPEGs and RAWs. Basically, the JPEGs add some contrast and sharpness to the images, making it look punchier. I still prefer to shoot RAW because I like to have full control and, as always, by adding contrast you will lose details in the JPEGs, especially on the shadows.

Surprisingly, I realized the RAW files are very workable. Take a look at the images below and see how I was able to pull out the details from the shadows.

 Pulling up the shadows from a RAW file: out-of-camera (left) and post-processed (right).

Apart from this, I feel the R1’s lens is superb. It’s very sharp, although not at the pixel level. But then again, this is a zoom lens, not a fixed length prime. Plus, the R1’s CMOS sensor has an AA filter that blurs the image to some extent.

So… Is the R1 a good camera for 2019?

Obviously, the LCD and EVF screens, together with the slow writing speed, makes it obsolete. But if you can go over it, then the R1 is still a perfectly usable camera capable of excellent results.

The package is relatively small if you consider the lens and the size of the APS-C sensor. After all, this is a fixed-lens mirrorless, although an old one.

But the bottom line is, back in 2005 this was a camera designed to compete with DSLRs. Yet by current standards, the R1 falls into the bridge camera category and it’s obviously outdated compared to the likes of the Leica V-Lux Typ 114 or the latest Sony RX10 IV.

These recent bridge cameras will beat the R1 in every front hands-down, notwithstanding the fact the R1 has a larger APS-C sensor: the back-illuminated 1 inch sensors of the latest cameras, combined with the recent image processors, will no doubt generate better images.

But better is a subjective criteria… And if, like me, you are willing to have some fun and try something different – something vintage – then the R1 is a good choice. It’s definitely a collector’s item.

I truly see it as a digital classic and a very courageous attempt from Sony to innovate and rock the boat – an attitude that deserves my utmost respect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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