Throwback IRL Review Sony Cybershot DSC-R1 Digital Camera

SONY DSCR1 in all its clunky glory

IRL Review (in real life) Sony CYBERSHOT DSC-R1 camera- The R1 was released in 2005 when digital cameras were really starting to pick up speed. I was sitting in a classical Greek mythology/literature course wondering if I should drop the course/reading the syllabus that had absolutely nothing I was interested in, and perusing DPreview.com when the announcement came in- I was immediately interested. It was the first time a large sensor (APS class/DSLR sized) had been placed in a fixed lens camera body. At the time, ISO 400 was beyond the reach of even the high end bridge cameras- they could shoot at 400 and 800 but the resulting noise was absolutely awful (noise management in the JPEG engines was pretty terrible too- they went from not suppressing any noise, to suppressing everything and smearing the picture). The sensors simply were not good enough at the time to shoot above ISO 200 (read my review of the Cybershot DSC-F828, one of the 8 megapixel prosumer bridge cameras that pretty much failed to even get near DSLR image quality). So the R1 was pretty impressive right off the bat for having a giant sensor, and presumably the ability to shoot above ISO 200 was exciting. The other part that I didn’t really understand as well, was that it was able to shoot in live view mode despite all APS sensors at that point being unable to do so due to overheating issues. The interesting thing is how long it took for that to fully mature- 4 years later, my Nikon D90 would spout that impressive feat of being one of the first DSLRs to do live view- and it was pretty horrible due to the autofocus speeds. Another interesting thing was the lens- its a 24-120 mm F2.8-4.8 Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar lens- whether you believe the hype over these branded lenses or not (i.e. Leica for Panasonic, Schneider Kreuznach for Kodak, amongst others), there was a belief at the time that it was a Zeiss lens for CHEAP.  I think its still not understood how the partnership works at this point, with Sony having several modern brands for their premium line up including G, G Master, Zeiss-Sony, and Zeiss standalone lenses sold without the Sony branding (in addition to the Zeiss branding on their consumer line up). Given how much a Zeiss lens would cost, it was considered relatively decent to have the big sensor, and Zeiss glass for 999 USD in 2005. That was certainly more than the F828 when it came out, but stil far cheaper than buying a DSLR (like an entry d60 or d70) plus equivalent premium “fast” zoom even if that existed at the time for APS mount (which it didn’t I dont think). The closest lens equivalent to that would have been the Nikon 24-85mm F2.8-4 lens that was full frame anyways and 999 (2017 dollars) on its own. So the main point then was it worth it to get this vs. the tried and true DSLR technology? I dreamed of getting one all these years because of its special uniqueness, but the price always dissuaded me. ? Finally after years of waiting (eBay prices remained relatively stable), I snagged a local deal from a guy moving on with his equipment who actually shot stuff vs. collected stuff. Read on to find out my thoughts on this classic 12 year old camera.

SONY DSCR1 with the LCD folded in as I usually shoot with it- can be folded closed as well for protection for the LCD.

Design- This is a clunker of a camera- it was in line with Sony’s premium line up and showcased the past design language of Sony- primarily a giant barrel of glass and a small handle on the side that was off centered (vs a traditional DSLR with the lens mount in the middle). While it looked like the older models like the F828 and F717, it was definitely bigger in heft and volume. It was also different in that it departed from the swiveling lens barrel design, and instead had a fixed lens barrel, with a swiveling LCD instead. That was too bad, because that was a unique design of Sony, but it also made it mechanically more complicated, and was probably for the better (my F828 was incredibly loose when I got it, right in the swiveling area). The LCD was welcome in swivel, but it was placed bizarely on the top of the camera, and when it hand held mode, it stuck out like  a sore thumb. It was quite an odd design choice, as the camera has lots of space in the back. In use though I actually do like it, because I usually lay it flat up- when I shoot its usually through the eye finder, and I like quickly looking down at the shot review by turning the camera up, or when I need to shoot at waist level, its already in position, so maybe that’s why they have it that way. I find the grip to be ok, but not nearly enough to curb the offset weight of the big Zeiss glass. There are buttons galore which is really really nice. There are two rings (one mechanical for zoom and one for focusing electronically). The focus ring cannot be reassigned which is unfortunate, unlike modern cameras like the RX series. In general the camera is a tank overall and probably larger than many DSLRs entry and enthusiast class. Honestly, overall design wise I love it- its very unique. I remember the one and only time I saw it out in the wild, it grabbed my attention right away. Modern large sensor fixed lens cameras more or less look similar to one another like the RX10 because there’s only so many ways you can design a camera that still lets it be ergonomic. In that sense, its probably with good reason modern cameras don’t look like the R1 because as I explain in handling, its not great.

SONY DSCR1 with the LCD in handheld mode, which makes it really weird and awkward looking- there’s clearly space for the LCD on the back of the camera, so it would be interesting to know what designers were thinking of here, placing it at the top- that’s not been a design that has seen further implementation, so I can’t imagine it was successful.

Build Quality- I found it quite interesting that Sony went with a plastic body on this, vs. magnesium like it did with the F828. It certainly doesn’t lose that premium feel because of that, as it still feels subtantial in feel like it is an expensive camera. I’m not sure how that translates into day to day abuse- after 12 years, it still looks quite new, so I’m guessing its not a big deal being plastic. The zoom rings are still rock solid overall. I am happy the rubber pieces haven’t deteriorated or become unglued too. Overall, its a premium camera in design and its been holding its build up for 12 years no problem. I think it feels far more premium than the NEX-5 body which is metal by design (I think its aluminum).

 

SONY DSCR1 with buttons galore- the macro mode is somewhat a tease- the minimum focus distance on this lens is huge, and its clearly not a macro lens at all- its a big tease for a bridge camera, as most bridge cameras before this had smaller sensors and minimum focus distances that were like 1CM.
SONY DSCR1- just a big brute overall.

Image Quality- wow I have to hold myself back here- after being used to modern IQ from newer technology like the A6000 or D90, the R1 is honestly a bit disappointing. Its hard to consistently get keepers from this camera. I’m not sure what it is, but it just doesn’t wow- images are usually soft in focus, and lack that critical sharpness that a big sensor camera and decent glass usually have (I’d venture that my kit 16-50 outperforms this when put with the a6000). That’s a shame really! But it must be compared to cameras that were 12 years old at the time to be fair. And it definitely smokes them hard. Comparing it to the premium segment and consumer segment cams like the F828, V1, V3, F88, and F77, it is able to get shots that are useable if you are patient and calculating with the body. I rarely get that with those aforementioned cameras. I think that’s pretty sweet. I think a problem is that modern large sensor cameras are so good that ISO 2000, 3200 and 6400 are really really useable, whereas ISO 800 is about whereI stop the line on the R1. That means that camera shake is going to be a big factor here, and it does NOT have image stabilization ( a real shame!). To be fair, IS was incredibly rare at the time, and when it started to come out on consumer bodies and not just L glass telephotos, it was mind blowing cool tech (vs now where its on like everything, even kit lenses and wide angle lenses). I still find myself stuggling to find the right color/sharpness balance on this camera. It certainly makes it funner to shoot because of how difficult it is to shoot with. The important difference between this and those other cameras is that it has the potential to get a good shot, so you can be patient with it. The other ones, not really. While it really does not hold a candle to cameras 12 years modern to it, that’s really not unexpected. What is unexpected is that it would be able to provide maybe a 40% keeper rate with 2017 expectations. That is pretty decent. I bet the keeper rate would go up should I be able to master its handling and understand its nuances better. Compared to 2005 cameras, it was an absolute beast. That large sensor just made all the difference. I’m not sure how it compared to large sensor cams like the D70 personally, but I recall them being able to hold ISO 800 and 1600 in a cleaner fashion in DPreview and dcresource’s testing. While 800 is usually quite useable, it is not without noise, and you can find it easily. 400 is likely the absolute safest setting. I remember being a bit surprised by this, but also remembering that Sony was relatively new to the large sensor game and hadn’t quite nailed it as well as Canon and Nikon. This was just prior to Sony taking over Konica Minolta and inheriting their DSLR intellectual property. As well, I haven’t really noticed any critical sharpness open up when stepping down the lens so far, so I usually shoot wide open. Really important considering that I need all the light I can get, given the ISO 800 ceiling. DCresource found the camera to rapidly go downhill after 400 and I would tend to agree with Jeff Keller.

SONY DSCR1 showcasing that Zeiss lens that is relatively fast (just not as fast as say the G1XII that has an f1.8-3.9 lens and an APSC sensor but also is far more modern, and also doesn’t perform well at f1.8 wide open).

Handling- It handles quite ….ok. Its like handling a large DSLR, but without the balance of a DSLR- the weight shifting to the left makes it a little unwieldy in the hand. I like the manual controls in general. In particular, I like that I can map the circle ring for exposure (incredibly useful, and what I have done to my control ring on my a6000), and the top ring control is for aperture. I stated before that I do wish the focus ring could be mapped to something else, but alas it is stuck on focus only. I find that the LCD is mostly useable, despite being rather tiny at 1.8 inches by 2017 standards, and the refresh rate for botht eh viewfinder and the LCD to be mostly poor. Its nowhere near the fluidity of the a6000. I quite like the auto switch between eyefinder and LCD- its not quite as fluid and intuitive as the a6000, but its miles better than manually switching between the two, which annoys me about the F828. I also don’t find too many issues with button placement. I really like the dedicated ISO button, which is missing on the F828 (I think its because they finally gave a wider usable range of ISO levels compared to the F828, and wanted to encourage users to make use of that). I find the AF speed, and shot to shot speed good for its time, but absolutely clunkers compared to the a6000 and D90 (clearly unfair but being honest). When I was mostly shooting still objects and landscapes, that wasn’t a problem. It is now a problem because I have a child as a primary subject and AF acquisition speed is a make or break issue. Hilariously enough, the vari angle LCD also means I can do selfies with this camera, which is possible and great for modern trendy photos, but hilariously awful for handling because its so freaking big.

SONY DSCR1, a thing of 2005’s hottest hypes.

Conclusion- did the camera live up to its hype? Yeah I think it did. It did good enough that given the right control, it can still hold its own for modern cameras. It just needs some tender care. Relative to other fixed lens cameras, it absolutely smoked them. I’m not sure how it does against 2005 DSLRS with their kit lenses at the time, but I do recall early kit lenses being quite awful, and so getting a quality lens and a body would quickly run the price up well past the R1’s MSRP. Honestly I freaking love this camera- even 12 years later, its still really really fun to shoot with. Knowing its limitations, but knowing it has a lot of potential to do right if set up properly makes it just so fun to shoot.  Pros- much better IQ than its peers, good controls in general, unique design; Cons- poor weight distribution, poor AF speed, poor shot to shot time and IQ that didn’t quite match up with DSLRs.

SONY DSC F828 the R1’s predecessor in the bridge camera segment back in the early 2000s, the more modern a6000 mirrorless camera body with the 18-105F4G lens, and the star of the show, the DSC-R1.

fun fact- I wrote this entire review on the VAIO X subnotebook- it wasn’t a bad experience despite running Windows 10 on a single core Atom CPU and keyboard keys tinier than my hopes of getting out of graduate school. 

 

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