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Review: Shooting the Sony RX1R II From Manila to India

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If you want to see camera tests with pictures of walls, bokeh balls, resolving power lens charts or photos of cats and dogs, please leave now, you will be disappointed, I will only be sharing a working photographers perspective of my personal feelings towards the system with real photographs out on the streets.

All the photos in this post were taken on the RX1R II by me, Gary Tyson of F8 Photography, on a morning walk in Manila and during a workshop ran by myself in Rajasthan, India.

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First quick test: Manila

My first chance to use the camera was after a weeks commercial filming in the Philippines, when my colleague and I decided to have a quick 2 day stopover in Manila on the way back to Hong Kong to wander around and do a little bit of photography on the streets.

The following images show what I captured from a mornings walkabout round the back streets of Guadalupe, near Makati in Manila.

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What I gathered from this mornings shooting were the following things:

I love having a small camera with me, with only one focal length (I normally shoot 28mm for my street stuff, but am trying to push myself more to 35mm as a nice ‘in between’ lens for street scenes as well as environmental portraiture.)

As expected, it has minimal intrusiveness factor as its so small. My Fuji Instax wide camera that I take ‘giveaway’ prints with is 3 times the size of this thing! Everyone thinks the Sony is a toy, which is something I love. That gives me easier access than the DSLR crowd with their large zoom lenses — I keep that gear reserved for sports photography only these days.

I had to customise the camera buttons quite a bit so that I wasn’t accidentally changing settings with the back dial as by default there are way too many options and button presets that just cause confusion or accidental switching of modes, etc.

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My settings for the camera are now pretty much fixed as follows:

– Auto ISO ON (one less thing to think about. I can use exposure compensation dial if I need to under/over expose for a specific scene)
– Drive mode set to multiple shots (handy on street to capture several images to ensure I get the shot)
– Focus mode set to wide (so I can shoot reactively to street scenes)
– I programmed the AE button to ‘eye’ focus, so if I take a portrait, I don’t have to change the focus mode from wide, I simply use the back button to focus on the eyes perfectly every time, this is a genius feature that I have come to love on Sony cameras.

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– Center back button set to ISO, so if I do shoot flash photography (I only use off camera manual flash for some environmental portraits), then I can take the Auto ISO off quickly and set a manual ISO (where flash is concerned, everything is manual for me, that’s just the way I prefer it – so I know what the flash and camera are doing at all times).
– The other setting I change when using flash is I turn off the ‘live preview’ as sometimes I underexposed the ambient light, so I don’t want to be looking at a dark image when composing (I use the EV meter in the viewfinder to monitor my exposure, whilst still retaining a clean bright image for composing and looking for the right expression on my subjects face.

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In summary this effectively leaves me with the following things set that I can change quickly:

– Aperture – change by lens
– Shutter – change by rear dial
– ISO (Auto unless required to change by using the center button to access)
– Focus wide using all points with shutter, or single point eye focus with back button
– Exposure compensation dial for under/over as required.
– If I am shooting street style, I also found that putting the focus mode to continuous was faster and more accurate than single mode, the camera can be a tad slow to lock focus in single mode, but continuous is very fast and gave me no issues on the streets.

Now that gives me basically all I need, all the other settings I don’t need to access (I don’t change white balance or picture profiles as I shoot RAW, so they are irrelevant).

So many people say to me “the Sony has too many buttons, modes, menus, and yes, I agree, but by using the above settings, it minimizes it down to exactly the same setup as I had on my Leica M with the advantage of having wide area autofocus and precision single point eye focus available instantaneously without having to change anything.

That is very cool, think of it as super customization, rather than seeing the many options as a hindrance. You can dumb it down as much as you like.

Longer test: India

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The purpose of this 10 day test was just to see if I would be happy with just one 35mm camera body to do everything from street photography to environmental portraits (with and without lights) and how the camera performed in quite arduous environments from the dusty back streets of Old Delhi, to the dust and liquid filled adventures of the Holi festival in the blue city of Jodhpur (granted it spent most of the day in a waterproof bag for this part!) and out into the hot, sand filled Thar Desert in Western Rajasthan which can test any cameras durability.

With flash

Sync speed 1/1000 was no problem at all with leaf shutter and my lights. I use super lightweight Godox Wistro 360. I can actually get faster sync with my a7R II — up to 1/4000th of a second high speed sync with the same lights. Many people don’t believe this is possible with Sony cameras but I can assure all that it works perfect with the right setup of triggers. I regularly shoot outdoor, f/1.8 aperture portraits with off camera flash at 1/4000th sync speed.

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Viewfinder thoughts

The viewfinder is functional, tucks out of the way, and works as it should. No frills, and a nice addition to this model.

Low pass filter

Didn’t turn it on, amazingly sharp images obviously without, didn’t see any moire so can’t comment in favor or against. I guess it’s a good to have if you shoot stuff that shows up with moire from time to time.

Video

I shoot a lot of video for work. I wouldn’t use this camera for video work as I have the a7S II, FS5 and a7R II, which all do a better job. I can’t see videographers buying this camera for that purpose, as there are much better Sonys for that, but its still better than Leica or Fuji by a country mile in terms of codec for video.

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The Pros

Sensor

Not much that hasn’t already been said on the a7R II sensor, as it’s the same. It’s simply amazing, and, paired with the Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens that’s welded to the body, makes for a phenomenal quality image every time you press the shutter.

Size

Having this power in something this small is also amazing in this day and age. To get this kind of quality only 12 months ago I needed to use my Mamiya 645DF+ Medium Format camera which is 8x the size and weight and 3 to 4 times the price, with no where near the same quality actually.

Customization Options

The camera is totally customizable, which makes it easy to ‘dumb it down’ and simplify it. I turn off 80% of the buttons. Sony could learn a lot from Leica in how to shape/design a camera (apart from the monstrous oversized design of their new SL of course). I’m talking M9 style/size with minimal buttons). If they did that, with their far superior sensor technology, I really believe they would completely cancel out all the competition overnight.

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The Cons

Menu System

Same insane menu system as all Sony cameras, I use several Sony cameras every day of the week for work (FS5, a7R II, a7S II and RX1R II), and still I have no clue where anything is in any of the menus. I customize things as best I can so I don’t need to go into the menus most of the time, but when I do, I have to search aimlessly every time, their menu systems are crap, that’s the simplest way I can put it.

Battery Life

Terrible. I need a minimum of 3 to 4 batteries for a full days shooting, with the trade-off being size of course. This is one of the most amazing sensor technologies that exists, so it is inevitable that tiny battery is going to last minutes when the camera has heavy use.

Grip (Or rather complete lack of)

It needs a grip, none exist that are of use, only some hideous half case from Sony, and something from Gariz that is expensive. I’m waiting for some third party manufacturer to make a low profile simple grip/baseplate, similar to what Fuji has for the X-Pro2, this will change the ergonomics completely in its favor, why Sony hasn’t bothered to make this just reinforces their lack of ability to design ‘ergonomic’ cameras. Luckily, their sensors are fantastic and the image quality forces me to forgive other things that I don’t like.

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Thumb grip (additional purchase) price/usability/quality

The thumb grip is essential (especially without any current options for a baseplate/grip) but massively overpriced and not well built. The locking mechanism failed after 3 days of usage, for something that cost hundreds of dollars, this simply leaves a bad taste of having being complete seen off for a tiny piece of metal/plastic.

Weather sealing (lack of)

Sony really should get a grip of the concept of weather sealing. It’s the single biggest downfall of their camera design. It seems like there’s zero weather sealing, and this confines the camera to fair weather photography. I avoid shooting in the rain unless I have a golf umbrella to hand! Fail.

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RX1R II or a7R II?

This is a difficult question, as I own both, and use both extensively. Of course the a7R II is amazing, brilliant for video too, stabilized sensor, etc, etc. If you are looking for an all rounder and change lenses often, go for the a7R II, can’t go wrong. If however you want the smallest, highest quality mirrorless camera available as at March 2016, then this is it. No competition exists currently and I’ve tried all the latest cameras from Leica, Fuji, etc.

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Final Thoughts

Do I recommend this camera? Highly, yes. The price is a tad expensive, but you are getting the best sensor on the market as at March 2016, paired with what I would consider the best 35mm f/2 lens — that in itself makes it worth it. The leaf shutter is a double bonus for quietness and flash sync capabilities (both things I value highly in a small camera). I wanted to prove to myself, especially on the India trip, that I could use this small camera as my go everywhere, do everything’ workhorse, and I can only hope that you agree with me as I let my images do the talking.


About the author: Gary Tyson is a former British Army photographer who currently runs F8 Photography based out of Hong Kong. He regularly holds travel photography workshops in South East Asia and India. You can connect with him through Facebook. This article was also published here.

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