Wednesday, September 12, 2012

As The RX1 Marinates

I'm continuing to think about the RX1 and what it represents.

In the world of pros and enthusiasts, as opposed to consumers, people want three things: a large, tank-like camera, a compact camera that provides similar quality, and a selection of lenses from compact primes all the way up to $10,000 zooms. That's why Nikon and Canon came to conquer the entire freaking world; they offered these three things while no one else did.

With the advent of digital, old camera companies seemed hamstrung by their design and implementation philosophies. Thus we have cameras that have no need for a prism hump having prism humps. This meant that the second thing pro-thusiasts want, size, was not met as well as technology allowed it to be met. Cankon released good SLR cameras, but their compact cameras had sensors the size of insects in them. Thus, yes, they were small, but so was their quality. And now, these companies have large legacy markets that they don't want to cannibalize, so expecting innovation from them is like expecting a man to give birth.

On the other side of the coin, we have camera companies that stumbled into making compact cameras with pro features — cameras like the GF1 — which sold well, but those companies revealed that they had no freaking clue why they sold well. They promptly tried to desperately turn their compact cameras into "transition" cameras for a market that doesn't exist.

I don't know why Sony appears to have understood what no other company has yet to. Lord knows, Sony's corpus is not known for being smart. But here we are, with the only camera company that is releasing exciting stuff being Sony.

With all that considered, let us return to the RX1. It is an odd beast, certainly. It is undeniably pro-oriented, yet carries the Cybershot moniker. It will probably be less versatile than the RX100, though costing over four times the price. It seems to be aiming at Leica, but doesn't offer a viewfinder that's found on Sony cameras that cost 1/3 the price. It has HDMI, a mic input, and high-quality video, with a fixed prime lens. This thing is indeed a Frankenstein.

But don't think about that. Think about the core of what it offers. It offers something that I don't think many pros really thought possible: not just similar quality, but identical quality in a compact body. They are making a large number of concessions for the price in comparison to a tank-like SLR, but I have to admit, having a FF camera in my pocket is a prospect that, even before holding it, seems to outweigh the limitations. That is the reason why, so often, I pick up my GF1 and not my other cameras, even though I know the images aren't as good, and I'm limited to the 20mm f/1.7.

Would I have liked to see an interchangeable lens? There's a part of me that says yes, but the more I let it stew, the less I think that. Again, this represents the inevitable FF mirrorless that is in the offing, but in Sony's market, it just doesn't make sense to invest in a completely new system yet. It's easier to make one-off products, and when those products are the RX1, they are a great way to innovate and keep people excited. Sony needs to focus on the current NEX line, because their lenses are seriously lacking and not in line with the people buying the cameras. Every NEX owner I know is a pro-thusiast with a big camera budget. Every "soccer mom" type that I know either relies on their cell phone or has a Cankon SLR.

Similarly, Sony needs to overhaul their FF lens selection, which has always been a bit behind Canon and Nikon, and this problem is becoming more apparent with updates from Cankon and the release of Fuji's X Pro series. Basically, Sony has a lot of work ahead of them to not only bring synergy to their disparate systems, as they have stated they want to do, but to bring their systems up to par with the competition. For example, Fuji started less than six months ago, and already has three APS-C lenses that are better than everything Sony makes. They have three more coming out this year, all of which will be better than everything Sony makes. And to add to this, they have the sub-$1,000 X-E1 coming out to open up new markets to this lens selection.

The more I ponder it, the better I think the RX1 is. This could very well become a pro-thusiasts number-one. With this released, I want to see the NEX system given the lenses it deserves. I'm talking five or six, $1,000+, pro-level primes. What I don't want to see is this 16-50mm nonsense, with image quality that looks like it's straight out of a cell phone.

I mentioned Fuji, and that's because I see Fuji has the only company that is in the same league as Sony. Olympus' E-M5 and 75mm lens are impressive, but not nearly enough to counteract three years of stagnant, overpriced crap. Only Fuji has groundbreaking stuff out, and coming out. The X-E1 and X Pro 1 are the only cameras that comes to mind when I think about competition for the RX1 (Seriously, guys, WTF with all the X's?). Fuji's lenses are an order of magnitude better than Sony's, but their autofocus is truly terrible. If reports from the NEX-6 are any indication, it appears that Sony has caught up to Olympus in the AF department — that is to say, very good.

So which would you rather have? Good AF, or good lenses? I would always choose the former,  though either one has the prospect of being engineered better. It's a profoundly difficult call. I would have said to choose Fuji, since before this time, their perspective alone was definitively pro-thusiast. But with Sony's release of the RX1, it reveals them to have shifted in the same direction as Fuji. Basically, the consumer market is dying. It will eventually be completely subsumed by the cell phone market.

And we always have Micro 4/3 as a genuine option. Its sensor is the smallest (although I hold out dreams for a 1:1 sensor update), but that provides significant advantages in many applications. Olympus has released two world-class lenses that have held up to scrutiny: the 75mm and the 12mm, and Panasonic is going full-bore into the world of video, which is a similar tack to Sony, which has revealed a strong focus on video capability with the RX1.

Three systems. Fuji is all about photography. Micro 4/3 and Sony are about video and photography. For me, it's a choice between the latter two. I'm awaiting the GH3, as I have been for months, before I make a decision. But as it stands, Sony is really impressing me.

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