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January 9, 2013

Sony DSC-RX1 Full Frame Cyber-shot User Report: Autofocus – Part 2

RX1 Closeup

I have been reviewing the Sony DSC-RX1 full frame camera and in this User Report I will be sharing my experiences using my Sony DSC-RX1 related to autofocus (AF). Bear in mind, there are multiple ways to focus the Sony RX1 from full AF to manual focus and even a special direct manual focus (DMF). DMF is really just AF with the ability to take the auto-focused scene and manually tweak the focus. I do not address manual focus in this article and I am also not providing a tutorial; though, I would like to write a focusing tutorial once I learn the ropes better myself. And, as always, I will intersperse a few of my photographs from the RX1 – some will be in context and others will just be for fun, like this:

light bulb in black and white

The lighting in my basement is like a dungeon

 

Disclaimer

I may seem overly critical of the Sony RX1 in this review, but I want to stress that the image quality that a photographer can produce from the RX1 is world class. I am sure I do not do the RX1 the kind of justice it deserves. The sensor was just rated by DxOMark as being one of the best sensors they’ve ever reviewed and it seemingly works miracles even in higher ISO situations. Combine the top-notch Sony full frame sensor with the incredible Zeiss glass and the resulting RX1 is capable of capturing pure gorgeous goodness. I absolutely love the image quality coming from the RX1. Love it!

Tennis ball with the RX1

The RX1 can focus very closely and provide delicious bokeh

 

To Focus or Not to Focus, That is the Question

I will cut straight to the chase here . . . the speed that the RX1 acquires initial focus has been probably been my biggest disappointment with this camera. I am coming from a Sony NEX-5N and I ignorantly expected a pleasant jump in the autofocus speed. To be fair, I am not finding much of a difference between my NEX-5N with the Sony Zeiss 24mm Lens and the RX1. I do not think the RX1 is bad; rather, I just do not think it is showing an improvement over my NEX-5N. And, much of the time the RX1 is just fine or even fast at autofocusing. An important asterisk should be inserted here because I tend to shoot wide open, so that means I am shooting often at f/2 on the RX1. Shooting at f/2 with the 35mm lens on a full frame sensor can create a very shallow depth of field (the part of the photograph that is in focus). For example, if the subject I am shooting is 1 meter away (~3.2 feet) then the part of my photo that is most in focus for optimal sharpness is a paltry 9 centimeters (3.6 inches). There is very little room for error in these situations and that can highlight autofocus inaccuracies very quickly. So, if the subject is moving (e.g., a toddler) then that plane of focus can evaporate in a brief moment. Stationary subjects or objects are much easier to photograph than are moving ones and that’s true for any camera.

Self Portrait with the RX1

Held my hand out and snapped this self portrait

 

AF Comparisons: RX1 VS . . .

If I shoot a Nikon D600 at a subject 1 meter away then the Nikon can lock on to focus very quickly, I’ve found. The D600 is faster than the RX1 and that should come as no surprise. But if I want to ensure optimal sharpness combined with the best composition, I set focus in the center and then lock my focus (e.g., on an eye) and recompose my shot. This is as opposed to shooting and then cropping if I do not want the eye right in the center . . . and I often do not. Focusing and recomposing is not fast, per se, when compared to pointing and shooting instantly. I was hoping for more of quick shooting experience since I often do not have time to recompose with kids in closer quarters. Also, recomposing can shift the plane of focus that I discussed in the previous paragraph. When there are only a few inches of meaningful sharpness then recomposing can easily shift the target of the image to being out of focus. Fortunately, the RX1 has a facial recognition feature that I enabled and it often is able to identify a face in the frame (e.g., my son or daughter or wife). I did not try this feature on the D600 because I did not see that it was an option, but it does help on the RX1. Facial recognition helps but it is not perfect.

Additionally, the RX1 does not appear to be limited to a segment of AF points on the sensor like the Nikon and Canon DSLRs or Sony’s SLTs. The D600 I used has 39 AF points clustered in the middle of the frame and that is limiting in my use unless I wanted to focus and recompose on many shots. On my RX1, I can move the AF point I want to use with “Flexible Spot Focus” anywhere on my LCD screen. If I know I want to photograph a person then I can move my flexible spot focus point to specific spot where I am going to want to optimize my sharpness for a better composition. When I go to compose the photo, the focus point should go right on the target (e.g., an eye) and I just snap. Of course, this requires a little planning ahead of time and the time you spend planning might be longer than just focusing and recomposing. When I am shooting my kids around the house, I can take a whole series of photos using this preplanned flexible spot focus point and it’s relatively successful in getting eyes in focus off center. I do wish the flexible spot was smaller as it tends to be a bit large for just targeting an eye, for example. But using the flexible spot focusing point allowed me to walk up and take this photo in an instant.

Kid in barbershop

Flexible Spot AF made this shot a snap

 

I do not want to get too technical with CDAF versus PDAF, but the RX1 can stumble in lower light and I’ve experienced these stumbles enough to bring it up in this review. I was testing the RX1 (f/2) against the Nikon D600 (f/2) and took a picture from 1 meter of my son and the D600 locked in focus almost instantly. To be fair, I was not pleased with the point the D600 selected in my quick snapshot (back eye with my son’s head turned slightly). However, the RX1 refused to focus when I tried the same shot in medium light and a window behind my son. The whole image just remained blurry on my LCD. My head quickly told me that I probably had the lens shifted into the macro focusing mode, so I checked . . . nope, the focus ring was shifted to normal photos and should have worked. Hmmmm. I tried the shot again and it focused almost instantly and gave me perfect focus and a gorgeous image. But it wasn’t on my first try and I do not always have time to wait like I did during this test.

Another comparison I did was against my NEX 5N and Zeiss 24 lens. The NEX 5N test resulted in 2 quick, perfectly focused images of a snowman decoration (focus on the face). And this was in extremely low light to not be using a flash (ISO 3200 and shutter speed of 1/20 on the NEX 5N at f/1.8). The RX1 used a shutter speed of 1/80 and ISO 6400, which doesn’t bother me since it can handle 6400 very well. However, the RX1 again balked at focusing when pointed at the face of the snowman. And, I checked to make sure I was not using macro focus; I wasn’t. The RX1 just refused to focus on the snowman’s face, so I shifted my focus point up to the brim of the top hat and the little Batman and it worked quickly with this tweak.

Snowman in low light

RX1 AF failed at first on this very low light (and mundane) shot

To be fair, I did many other tests between these combos and the RX1 was fine in the other testing, but the two times it failed against competition troubled me.

 

Street Photography

I can use the Sony RX1 camera for street shooting, but it does not perform any better at AF than does my NEX 5N with the Zeiss lens. I would not call this optimal, either. But I realize decent success in my street photography if I take a moment to plan my shooting, which is true of just about any camera and is much better practice. I cannot recommend the RX1 for someone who walks around and quickly raises the RX1 and fires a shot of an interesting person hoping not to even be seen – in a sniper like manner – and quickly lowers the camera back down. The camera fails far too often for me in this situation. I also recognize that part of my failure is user error. I am pushing the limits and likely not even steadying the camera in the process and a moving camera will result in a blurry image. Below is a photo I captured in Chicago on the busy Michigan Avenue recently. I tried to capture the older couple because I liked the gentleman’s hat. But as I saw them approaching, I quickly raised the RX1 camera and fired. The camera balked at my initial press of the shutter because I did not give the camera time to “see” the moving scene before I was expecting results. Well, I ended up switching my focus to the guy behind the couple because I missed the first shot. I think it still turned out okay, but I would have been better off having seen the couple coming and positioning myself and steadying the camera for the shot (read: being more obvious, which is harder for me to do because I lack some confidence). The camera can do street photography just fine in the right hands. My hands will get there.

street scene people walking

Not quite the shot I wanted out on the streets of Chicago

 

Conclusion

The Sony DSC-RX1 full frame camera is not a camera for a person who needs to have fast autofocus. This would include a parent of a toddler or a parent with a child in sports. The 35mm lens is not ideal for sports, anyway. But the RX1 gets focus right more often than not once the focusing nuances are figured out. And when it does focus, the images that it can produce are as good as you find on any any autofocusing system at 35mm, I think.

Martini / Saketini

Saketini (a Japanese take on the Martini)

Chicago Street scene statue

Flexible spot focus to get the “umbrella man” in focus

 

Sean’s favorite photos from this past year (a few RX1 images and many more from my 5N with the Zeiss 24 lens). Also, I write my contributions here as part of my hobby. So, if you are planning on buying some photography equipment then you might consider using this link: Shop Amazon Cameras – Get 2 Back in Rewards on Select Cameras – it might save you money and potentially help me earn a few dollars for my efforts.

 

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About the Author

Sean Lancaster
I have had cameras stretching back to my first SLR in 1992 that my dad bought me when I graduated from College. I have owned a Nikon D70 and a few decent lenses. I started doing a photo a day project in 2011 (Jan. 1) and haven't missed a day since. But I didn't really start to learn photography until the summer of 2011 when I bought an NEX 5N. And even then I didn't have the lightbulb go on until later summer of 2012. I recently bought a Sony RX1 full frame 35mm beautiful camera and I continue to grow in my photography skills . . . always learning.




9 Comments


  1. Nice write up, Sean. The RX1 still interests me, but is just such an upfront cost, for one focal length, that I won’t be buying it. Even the Zeiss lens, though tempting, is still rather expensive.
    However, the images look stellar. I’m not surprised that the AF is lacking in the speed department, but I know some people will be put off by this. My personal view, is that this camera would make an ideal companion to any existing setup. Money no (or little) object, I would definitely have one.


    • Yeah Martin, I think the typical RX1 owner isn’t making this the sole camera. These owners probably have a DSLR or even something like the NEX system for other focal lengths. The RX1 can easily be a walk-around and everyday camera for people who can afford it. I was concerned about money as well, but I thought the RX1 was the cheapest way for me to go full frame at my most used focal length (I suspect the D600 and a 35 could be cheaper but not at the same quality . . . and then there’s the size and lesser lens quality).


  2. Jay

    Excellent continued review Sean :) I’m really not that surprised at the focus performance. As you said, the depth of field being so shallow does make it harder.

    The image quality is absolutely incredible though as you have clearly shown us again!! That self portrait and the one of your Son getting a haircut are my favorites ;)

    Really nice job Sean, and thanks again for sharing your photography and hands on experience with the Sony DSC-RX1 Full Frame Camera.

    You think your going to sell it? A Full Frame Nex is going to be a must have after using this camera I’m guessing??

    Jay


    • Thanks Jay! I am not sure what I am going to do. The RX1 I have has a small defect so I am sending it back. I am debating with myself over staying with the RX1 or getting an A99. If I stay with the RX1 then I have my NEX-5N for other focal lengths. If I get the A99 then I can be full frame at all focal lengths. I know people think the RX1 is expensive, but it’s much cheaper for me to go full frame with the RX1 at my most used focal length than trying to go full frame at all focal lengths. ;~)


  3. Dale

    Nice writeup. I have been shooting the RX1 for 5 weeks now and am finding that the AF is giving me the same issues. There are some strange tendencies I’m finding, like how A-priority always picks 1/80, or if something brighter is in the focus box area, it gets prioritized. IF I trust AF, I get about 50% of my shots — not a great score. But, like you, I LOVE the quality of files coming out of this camera. So I suck it up and manual focus. Slow, but it gets results.
    I normally shoot Olympus’ OMD E-M5, so that gives you some kind of picture of my frustration with the RX1 autofocus.


    • Thank you Dale. 1/80 does seem to be the default in A mode. I’ve discovered that this is a very easy camera to bump up to M mode (manual). Try it out. Aperture is still on the lens, the shutter speed is the dial on back near your right thumb. The camera will complete the ISO automatically. So really, it’s like what you’re doing now except that you can set the shutter speed to 1/125 (that’s what I prefer) and then tweak it as needed in a split second. Let me know if you try it and like it.


  4. Filip

    Nice review, very helpful but I still didnt make my mind to go for it or wait for some new arrival.
    Did you make your mind and decide to keep RX1 or did you upgrade for A99?
    I am just worry that within year Sony will release similar camera with 50 mm focal length or with zoom .


    • Thanks Filip. I am now back to my NEX 5N and Zeiss 24 only. My next article will compare the RX1 to the Zeiss 24 lens. I’ll be showing some surprising results for the Zeiss 24 even though the RX1 wins this contest overall in the end. The RX1 I had had a small defect that caused me to return it.

      I am still contemplating whether to get another RX1 or an A99. Like you, I also really like the 50mm focal length and the new Zeiss 50/1.4 should come out this spring and make the A99 that much more desirable. Bulk of the A99 and a 35 and 50 lens (all I want) versus the super small size of the RX1 and nearly perfect 35mm lens. Hmmm. hmmmm.


      • Filip

        I am waiting than for this article coz I was planning actually to ask you for such compare and opinion if its such big difference in terms of image quality. ( I check your gallery from last year and I just love some of the pictures which was done by NEX% + 24mmm Zeiss , and I didn’t notice huge difference )
        I agree that for street photography RX1 have perfect size (small & light ) and its just amazing for handling and play with manual controls .
        My only concern is focal length which is not my favorite one and all this info around that Sony planning to release small (NEX range) FF camera with interchangeable lenses probably within year – hold me with purchase. Instead I am considering to stay with my NEX5 and spend money on one off FF Zeiss lens and just wait another 12-15 months for perfect FF camera



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