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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 30, 2005
Last Updated: May 17, 2012

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The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 ($999) is arguably one of the biggest revolutions in consumer digital photography in recent years. While most companies continue to pile more and more pixels into small sensors (Sony has been guilty of this too), the DSC-R1 uses a new CMOS sensor that is dramatically larger than what most cameras offer. How much larger? Have a look at this:

The chip on the left is a 2/3" CCD that's used on cameras like the Canon PowerShot Pro1, Konica Minolta DiMAGE A200, and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828 (to name just a few). Many cameras use even smaller 1/1.8" CCDs, some of which are 8 Megapixel. In general, the more pixels there are on a sensor, the higher the pixel density. The higher the pixel density, the noisier images will be, especially at higher ISOs (quite often purple fringing is worse, as well).

The 10.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor used by the DSC-R1 attempts to change all that. Instead of using a 1/1.8" or even a 2/3" sensor, Sony is using a brand new APS-class sensor that's about the same size as the sensors used by digital SLRs. That means images that look like they came from a D-SLR instead of a fixed-lens camera -- in theory, at least.

The DSC-R1 also does something that no other large sensor camera can do: a live preview on the LCD (yes, the Fuji S3 can do it, but only for a few seconds). The R1's CMOS sensor produces less heat than other sensors on there, so Sony was able to implement this feature.

Other features on the DSC-R1 include a 5X Carl Zeiss T* lens (equivalent to 24 - 120 mm), a top-mounted 2-inch LCD display, full manual controls, an AF-assist lamp, and manual zoom and focus rings. One thing missing from the camera: a movie mode (just like D-SLRs).

If you're ready to learn more about the DSC-R1 then read on -- our review starts now!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-R1 has an average bundle. Inside the box you'll find the following:

  • The 10.3 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-R1 digital camera
  • NP-FM50 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger / AC adapter
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • Lens hood
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package, Image Data Converter SRF, ImageMixer VCD2, USB drivers, and Cyber-shot Life tutorial
  • Fold-out "Read This First" guide + 134 page camera manual (printed)

As is the case with most high-end digital cameras and SLRs, no memory card is included with the DSC-R1. With that in mind, you'll need to factor in the cost of a memory card into the total price of the camera. The R1 can use both CompactFlash (Type I or II) and Memory Stick Pro cards. Much to my surprise, Memory Stick Pro cards have come down in price, selling for even less than their CF equivalent, so either one is a good choice at this point. Whichever format you choose, I'd recommend a 1GB card as a good starter size.

The DSC-R1 uses the familiar NP-FM50 InfoLithium rechargeable battery. One thing I really like about these is that the camera knows exactly how many minutes you have left before the battery dies. With 8.5 Wh of energy, the FM50 battery packs a powerful punch. How does it compare to some other cameras? Have a look:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery Used
Canon Digital Rebel XT 600 shots BP-511A
Canon PowerShot Pro1 420 shots* BP-511A
Fuji FinePix S9000 340 shots 2500 mAh NiMH AA
Kodak EasyShare P880 320 shots KLIC-5001
Konica Minolta DiMAGE A200 250 shots NP-800
Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D 550 shots NP-400
Nikon Coolpix 8800 240 shots EN-EL7
Nikon D50 400 shots* EN-EL3
Olympus EVOLT E-500 500 shots BLM-1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 280 shots CGA-S006
Samsung Digimax Pro815 500 shots SLB-1974
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 500 shots NP-FM50
* Number not obtained using the CIPA battery life standard

With one exception, all of the above cameras use proprietary lithium-ion batteries. Do note that these tend to be on the expensive side, with a spare NP-FM50 costing $45. In addition, when that battery runs out you can't just drop in a set of "off the shelf" batteries like you could on a camera that uses AAs.

It's also worth mentioning that Microdrives reduce battery life by about 10%.

The DSC-R1's battery is charged inside the camera. Simply attach the included AC adapter and the battery charges in about three hours. This same AC adapter can also be used to power the camera without running down your battery.

The DSC-R1 includes a rather large lens cap which you'll use to protect that nice big lens.

Also included is a lens hood, which comes in handy when you're taking photos outdoors.

There are quite a few accessories available for the R1, which I've put into this handy chart:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens VCL-DEH08R $400 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.8X to just 19.2 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Telephoto lens VCL-DEH17R $400 Boosts focal distance by 1.7X to 204 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Close-up lens VCL-M3367 $130 Lets you get closer to your subject while in tele macro mode; attaches directly to camera
Conversion lens adapter VAD-RA $80 Required for wide and telephoto conversion lenses
MC protector filter VF-67MP $50 Protect your fancy lens from dust and scratches
Polarizing filter VF-67CP $100 Reduces glare and reflection
Neutral density filter VF-67ND $70 Decreases the amount of light hitting the lens
Wired remote control RM-VD1 $34 Control your camera from up to 5 feet away; note that the remote cannot operate the zoom
External flash HVL-F1000
HVL-F32X
$100
$150
More flash power, less redeye. The F32X is the more advanced of the two flashes.
Ring light HVL-RLA $300 White LED light for macro photography
Carrying cases LCS-RA
LCJ-RA
$40
$60
Fancy cases to protect your camera. The expensive one is leather.

That's a pretty impressive (not to mention expensive) list. Hopefully those lenses will come down in price once they actually start shipping.


Picture Package viewer (Windows only)

Sony includes Picture Package v1.6 for Windows as the main image viewing application. It's a pretty basic image viewer and doesn't compare to things like ACDSee, Photoshop Elements, or even the software designed by other camera manufacturers.


Picture Package Editing

This latest version of Picture Package adds basic editing capabilities. You can remove redeye, adjusting brightness and contrast, and crop/resize your photos. You can also e-mail them at the click of your mouse.


ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac only)

Also included are Mac and Windows versions of ImageMixer VCD2, which is used to make Video CDs of images and movie clips. Video CDs are a "poor man's DVD" format -- the quality isn't as good -- though many DVD players can read the discs.


Image Data Converter SR

Neither Picture Package nor ImageMixer can open the RAW files created by the DSC-R1. For that you'll need to use the included Image Data Converter SR software. This software is much better than the original IDC software, with full RAW editing options and good performance.

I'm going to tell you why RAW is cool and how the software takes advantage of it at the same time. RAW images contain the raw image data from the camera. Because the data is still in its original condition, you can change things like white balance, sharpness, and color as if you were taking the photo all over again. So if you screwed up the white balance, RAW will bail you out. The catch is that RAW files must be converted into other formats on your computer before you can do anything with them.

The IDC SR software lets you change virtually all RAW properties, including white balance, exposure, noise reduction, hue/saturation, and more. There are also histograms and tone curves available. For further editing power you can send your RAW image to Photoshop with a single click. Speaking of Photoshop, the latest Camera Raw plug-in allows you to open the R1's RAW files directly in Photoshop, without needing to use IDC SR.

The DSC-R1's manual comes in two parts. First there's a fold-out "Read This First" guide which will get you up and running. For detailed information about the camera you'll want to crack open the User's Guide, which covers every facet of the R1. While the full manual isn't the best in terms of layout, you will find answers to all your questions inside it.

Look and Feel

The Cyber-shot DSC-R1 is a full-size camera with a metal frame and a high grade plastic body. It feels very solid in the hand and is at least as good as the various entry-level digital SLRs on the market. The large right hand grip makes the camera easy to hold, and the hefty lens is a good resting place for your left hand.

Ergonomics are a mixed bag. Personally I'm not a fan of the top-mounted LCD -- it just seems awkward. The viewfinder sticks out too much, and the buttons on the back are a bit cluttered. In addition, the command dial on the back of the camera needs a "lock", as I found it to be very easy to accidentally change the exposure of a photo.

Since I had them around, I took the above photo of the DSC-R1 alongside the Canon EOS-20D and Fuji FinePix S9000. As you can see, they're all about the same size.

Speaking of size, here's how the R1 compares to some other fixed-lens cameras in terms of size and weight. I left D-SLRs off of this list since the size will depend on what lens is attached.

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot Pro1 4.6 x 2.8 x 3.6 in. 46.4 cu in. 545 g
Fuji FinePix S9000 5.0 x 3.7 x 5.1 in. 94.4 cu in. 646 g
Kodak EasyShare P880 4.5 x 3.1 x 2.4 in. 33.5 cu in. 500 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE A200 4.5 x 3.2 x 4.5 in. 64.8 cu in. 505 g
Nikon Coolpix 8800 4.6 x 3.3 x 4.8 in. 72.9 cu in. 600 g
Olympus C-8080WZ 4.9 x 3.3 x 3.9 in. 63.1 cu in. 660 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.4 in. 100.1 cu in. 674 g
Samsung Digimax Pro815 5.2 x 3.4 x 2.1 in. 37.1 cu in. 850 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 5.5 x 3.9 x 6.3 in. 135.1 cu in. 926 g

As you can see, the R1 is one BIG camera, especially considering the fact that the lens is "only" 5X, while some of those smaller cameras have 10X lenses (since their smaller sensors allow more compact lenses).

Okay, enough about that boring stuff, let's start our tour of the DSC-R1 now, beginning with the front of the camera.

The DSC-R1 uses a newly designed F2.8-4.8, 5X Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens. The focal range of this lens is 14.3 - 71.5 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 120 mm. That's right, 24 mm -- which is great if you take a lot of interior shots where wide-angle lenses are necessary. The lens has manual zoom and focus rings, and I'll show you those in a moment. The lens is threaded for 67 mm accessories, which includes conversion lenses and filters. Filters and the close-up lens attach directly to the lens, while the wide and tele adapters require a conversion lens adapter.

Directly above the lens is the R1's very powerful pop-up flash. The flash, which is released electronically, has a working range of 0.5 - 8.5 m at wide-angle and 0.4 - 5.0 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO). If you want even more flash power, there's a hot shoe on the top of the camera that can hold an external flash.

Just to the lower-left of the flash is the R1's AF-assist lamp, which doubles as the self-timer lamp. I was disappointed to see that the R1 lacks the Hologram AF laser focusing system that has been on Sony's previous flagship cameras, as it worked very well. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations.

The DSC-R1 has a unique top-mounted 2" LCD display. The screen has about 100 degrees of upward motion, and it can rotate 270 degrees around. It can also be closed entirely if you so desire. To be honest I'm not a huge fan of having the screen on top of the camera -- it's just awkward to me, especially when you're shooting in the vertical orientation. Maybe that's just because I'm not used to it. Since it's a bit unusual I'd recommend trying one out in person to see how you like it.

The screen itself is pretty standard. There are 134,000 pixels on the display, which is average. Outdoor visibility was also average, and the frame rate didn't seem as smooth as it should be (and I wasn't the only one who noticed this). Low light visibility is very good, as the LCD "gains up" nicely so you can still see your subject.

Here's the LCD in a more traditional position. Below that is the R1's electronic viewfinder (EVF), which sticks out considerably from the back of the camera. The viewfinder (0.44") has double the resolution of the LCD -- there are 235,200 pixels. The EVF is nice and sharp, though motion can be sluggish when the shutter speed is slower. In low light the EVF performed just as well as its LCD counterpart. Electronic viewfinders, by the way, are small LCDs that you view as if they were a real optical viewfinder. Unfortunately the "real thing" works a lot better than the electronic version.

The camera has an eye sensor that detects when you're using the viewfinder, which is pretty handy. You may want to turn off that feature (using the switch you'll see in a moment) when you're shooting "top down" using the LCD, as the eye sensor is pretty sensitive (and will turn off the LCD when the camera is close to your body).

Now I'm going to talk about all of the buttons, switches, and dials on the back of the camera. I do think that the back of the camera is too cluttered and confusing. I'll start with the mode dial on the left and work my way to the right.

The mode dial has the following items:

Option Function
Auto recording mode Point-and-shoot, most menu items locked up
Program mode Still automatic, but with full menu access; A Program Shift mode lets you use the jog dial for choosing between several aperture/shutter speed combinations.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the appropriate aperture; Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/2000 sec. When the ISO is 1600 or 3200 the maximum shutter speed is 8 seconds.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed. Aperture ranges from F2.8 - F16 (much higher than your typical fixed-lens camera)
Full Manual mode You pick both the aperture and shutter speed. Same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available (Sony calls it "time mode"), allowing for exposures as long as three minutes.
Twilight These are all scene modes
Twilight portrait
Landscape
Portrait

As you can see, the DSC-R1 has full manual control over exposure. Also notice the much wider range of apertures available on the camera. Where most fixed lens cameras top out at F8, the DSC-R1 goes all the way to F16, which is similar to what you'll find on an SLR.

To the right of the mode dial are two switches:

  • Monitor (Framing, preview) - Use framing mode if you're getting "flicker" from fluorescent lights, otherwise keep it on preview
  • Screen switch (Viewfinder, auto, LCD) - choose which screen to use or if you want the eye sensor to decide

Below those switches are four buttons:

  • Metering (Multi-pattern, center-weighted, spot)
  • Drive (Normal, burst, auto bracketing) - see below
  • Self-timer (on/off) + Thumbnail View
  • Digital Zoom + Playback Zoom

The most disappointing feature on the DSC-R1 has to be its continuous shooting mode. The camera can take just three JPEG images in a row (at three frames/second) before the buffer fills up. You cannot use burst mode with RAW images, either. Digital SLRs really crush the R1 in this area.

The auto bracketing feature will take three photos in a row, each with a different exposure. You can select the interval between shots in the recording menu, with choices of ±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, and ±1.0EV.

The button just to the right of the viewfinder enters playback mode. It's a strange place for this button, for sure. Next to that is the AE Lock + Delete photo button. Underneath that is the main command dial, which you'll use for adjusting manual settings as well as exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments). Most digital SLRs have a "lock" that disables this dial so you don't accidentally change something. The DSC-R1 one needs one too. On more than one occasion I accidentally changed the exposure without noticing until I was reviewing the pictures on my PC and noticed "wow, these are underexposed!".

Inside that command dial is a four-way controller (more like a joystick, actually), which you'll use for navigating the menu system. Press the controller inward and you can choose from three different focus modes: multi-point, center, and flexible spot. That last mode lets you use the controller to select one of 540 (!) areas in the frame on which to focus.

Below that is the Menu button, with the switch for selecting a memory card slot (CompactFlash or Memory Stick) to the right of that.

At the top right of the photo you'll find the Display button (toggles what's on the LCD/EVF) and the secondary command dial.

Here's a look at the top of the DSC-R1 with the LCD closed. The only things to see up here are the hot shoe, shutter release button (with power switch around it), and the ISO button.

The ISO button works just like many of the other buttons on the camera. Hold it down and use the command dial to select your option. The available ISO sensitivities on the R1 are 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200. An Auto ISO setting is also available.

The hot shoe is where you'll attach an optional external flash. Its placement over on the right side is a little awkward, and depending on your flash, it may make holding the camera a little less comfortable. The R1 works best with the Sony HVL-F32X and HVL-F1000 flashes, but it will work with third-party flashes as well. Do note that if you use a non-Sony flash that you may need to operate both the camera and the flash manually.

There's plenty to see on this side of the DSC-R1. First I want to point out the focus and zoom rings around the lens. The zoom ring is mechanically linked, so when you turn it you're actually moving the lens elements. The focus ring, on the other hand, is electronic: you're telling the camera's brain to move the lens elements for you. The manual focus ring works beautifully -- it has just the right amount of sensitivity.

Toward the right side of the photo you'll find more buttons. The top two are for:

  • Flash setting (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, flash on, flash on w/redeye reduction, slow synchro, slow synchro w/redeye reduction, flash off)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent, flash, one-push)

The one-push white balance option lets you use a white or gray card to get perfect color in any lighting. If you want to fine-tune things even more, you can hold down the WB button and use the main command dial to shift the WB from -3 to +3 in 1-step increments (one step is equal to 10 mired).

Below those buttons is the focus dial, which has the following options: autofocus, macro, and manual focus. When in manual focus mode you can press the button inside the focus dial for a little help from the autofocus system.


Manual focus

Speaking of manual focus, in this mode you'll use the LCD or EVF plus the focus ring to select the focus distance. The center of the frame is enlarged, and the current focus distance is shown on the LCD/EVF (at the lower left).

Now let's see what's behind the plastic door to the right of the focus dial:

The ports here include:

  • Accessory (for wired remote control and HVL-F1000 flash)
  • USB
  • A/V out
  • DC-in (for included AC adapter)

The DSC-R1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for speedy photo transfers to your computer.

On this side of the DSC-R1 you'll find its dual memory card slots, which are kept behind a plastic door of average quality. As I said at the beginning of the review, the R1 supports both CompactFlash and Memory Stick cards. Since this is a CompactFlash Type II slot, the Microdrive is supported.

The lens is at the telephoto end in this shot.

Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the DSC-R1. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The plastic door over the compartment is of decent quality.

The included NP-FM50 battery is shown at right.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1

Record Mode

With no lens to extend, it's not surprising that the camera can start up in about one second.


A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode; an optional "zebra pattern" will highlight overexposed areas, as well

Focus speeds on the DSC-R1 were very good. At wide-angle focus times were usually between 0.1 and 0.3 seconds. At the telephoto end it'll take longer -- sometimes up to one second. The camera focuses well in low light, but it's pretty slow. Too bad that Sony left out the Hologram AF feature on this camera -- it was bulletproof in low light.

Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.

Shot-to-shot times were comparable to those from a digital SLR: you can shoot as fast as you can compose. I kept shooting at the highest JPEG quality setting and never had to wait for the buffer to clear. That's not the case when shooting in RAW mode, though. The first shot went through okay, but after I took the second a progress bar appeared and I had to wait about six seconds before I could take the next shot.

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must enter playback mode.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the R1:

Resolution Quality # images on 1GB card (optional)
10M
3888 x 2592
RAW 37
Fine 192
Standard 384
7M
3264 x 2176
Fine 247
Normal 456
5M
2784 x 1856
Fine 370
Normal 741
3M
2160 x 1440
Fine 617
Normal 1235
1M
1296 x 864
Fine 1743
Normal 3705

As you can see, the DSC-R1 supports the RAW image format (I explained why this is a good thing earlier in the review). When you shoot in RAW mode a JPEG image (at the chosen image size) is automatically saved as well. The TIFF image is not supported.

The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you erase and swap memory cards.

The DSC-R1 has the same menu system as Sony's other Cyber-shot cameras. It's an overlay-style system which puts the menus on top of the photo you'[re composing. Some of these menu options are not available in the auto and scene modes, so keep that in mind when you use the camera. And now, here's the full record menu:

  • Image size (see chart)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
  • Rec Mode (Normal, RAW)
  • Bracket step (±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, ±1.0EV)
  • Flash Level (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Photo Effects (Off, sepia, black & white)
  • Color (Standard, vivid, AdobeRGB)
  • Saturation (Low, normal, high)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high, AGCS) - see below
  • Sharpness (Low, normal, high)
  • Setup - See below

The AGCS (Advanced Gradation Control System) option in the contract menu is a quick and easy way to improve the dynamic range of your photos. You may want to use it when you a photo is either way underexposed or way overexposed. The camera will analyze the histogram of the photo you just took, and it will apply the proper gamma curve to get the best possible exposure. In my brief tinkering with the feature I did not notice any major differences in the photos I took with and without AGCS. The folks at the Imaging Resource Page noted this, as well.

There's also a setup menu (accessible from the record or playback menu), which has the following options:

  • Camera 1
    • AF mode (Single, monitor, continuous) - see below
    • Digital zoom (Smart, precision) - see below
    • Power save (Off, 20 sec, 1, 3, 10 mins)
    • Date/Time (Off, date, day & time) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
    • AF illuminator (on/off) - turns the AF-assist lamp on and off
    • Auto Review (on/off) - shows images on LCD after it is taken
  • Camera 2
    • Expanded focus (on/off) - enlarges the center of the frame in manual focus mode
    • Flash sync (Front, rear)
    • Flash (Internal, external)
    • Pop-up flash (Auto, manual) - whether the flash pops up automatically
    • Flicker reduction (Auto, 50 Hz, 60 Hz) - power supply frequency
    • Grid line (on/off) - for composing photos on the LCD/EVF
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Card format
    • Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
  • CompactFlash Tool
    • Card format
    • Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
  • Setup 1
    • LCD backlight (Dark, normal, bright)
    • EVF backlight (Dark, normal, bright)
    • Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
    • Zebra pattern (on/off) - see below
    • Language (English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian)
  • Setup 2
    • File number (Series, reset)
    • USB connect (Auto, Mass Storage, PTP, PictBridge)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Clock set

A few of those items require further explanation. I'll start with the AF modes.

Single AF is just like you're used to: press the shutter release halfway and the camera locks focus. Monitor AF lets the camera focus constantly, even without the shutter release pressed. Continuous AF focuses before and after the shutter release is halfway pressed. Those last two modes help reduce focusing delays but they'll put an extra strain on your battery.

The camera has two types of digital zoom. Precision digital zoom is the same old "enlarge the center" system that you should avoid. Smart Zoom lets you enlarge the image without a loss in quality, with the catch being that you can't use much of it unless you're at a low resolution. The lower the resolution, the more smart zoom you can use (you can't use it at the 10M setting). This is similar to the "extra optical zoom" feature on Panasonic's newest cameras.

The zebra pattern option is something you rarely see on a digital camera. This puts diagonal lines over the overexposed portions of your photo (before you take it).

Let's move onto our photo tests now.

The DSC-R1 did a nice job with our usual macro test subject. As you can see, the colors are very vibrant, especially the red cloak. The subject has a "smooth" quality to it, which may look a bit soft to some people.

If you want to get right up against your subject the DSC-R1 may not be your best choice. At wide-angle the minimum focus distance is a lengthy 35 cm, while that number rises to 40 cm at the telephoto end of the lens. To get a little closer you can pick up the optional close-up lens, which reduces the focus distance to 33 cm.

The R1 turned in one of the best night shot performances of the year. Everything is nice and "clean", with plenty of detail captured and low noise levels. The camera took in plenty of light thanks to its full manual control over shutter speed. Purple fringing levels were low.

Using that same scene, let's see how the R1 performs at the various ISO sensitivities that it supports:


ISO 160

ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

Not surprisingly, the ISO 200 shot looks a whole lot like the one at ISO 160. Details start getting a little blurry at ISO 400, and at ISO 800 the sky really starts showing the noise. ISO 1600 has even more noise, and ISO 3200 is pretty awful. However, I was able to clean up both of those high ISO shots and print them at 4 x 6 inches, and they were acceptable (barely in the case of the ISO 3200 shot). I also have a daylight ISO 1600 photo that printed nicely at 4 x 6.

In conclusion, the high ISO noise levels are way better than on other fixed-lens cameras and competitive with most digital SLRs. Where most fixed-lens cameras stop at ISO 400 and 800, you can still get usable prints from the DSC-R1 at much higher sensitivities.

I have another ISO comparison later in this section.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the R1's lens. I did not see any blurriness or darkness (vignetting) in the corners of my real world photos, which is a testament to the quality of the lens.

There's no real redeye to be seen here -- just a bit of flash reflection.

Now it's time for the second ISO test in the review.

Above is the test scene that I occasionally pull out for comparison tests. I originally used this photos in my Olympus EVOLT E-500 review, and they're still relevant here, as they show how well the R1 keeps up with the digital SLR crowd. The cameras used here are the Canon EOS-20D (filling in for the Rebel XT) with the 17-85 lens, the Olympus E-500 (with the 14-45 lens), and of course the DSC-R1. Here's how each camera performed at high ISO sensitivities:


ISO 400

 

Canon EOS-20D
View Full Size Image

Olympus E-500
View Full Size Image

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
View Full Size Image

ISO 800
 

Canon EOS-20D
View Full Size Image

Olympus E-500
View Full Size Image

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
View Full Size Image

ISO 1600
 

Canon EOS-20D
View Full Size Image

Olympus E-500
View Full Size Image

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1
View Full Size Image

Let me preface my comments by saying that you should really view the full-size images when comparing these, as the crops don't always show the differences between the three cameras. Printing the full-size photos may not be a bad idea -- this will allow you to see just how large a print you can get out of the R1.

While noise levels aren't quite as low as on the EOS-20D (and thus the Rebel XT), the DSC-R1 performs as well (and some may say even better than) the Olympus E-500 at ISO 1600. This is where the R1's large CMOS sensor really shines -- no other fixed-lens camera can come close to this kind of performance.

Overall I was thrilled with the DSC-R1's photo quality. Photos were well-exposed with accurate color, very low noise levels, and minimal purple fringing. Sony has taken the digital SLR approach to sharpening here, applying a relatively low amount of sharpening to each photo. If you're coming from a consumer camera, you may think the photos are on the soft side. Those of us who are used to digital SLRs will feel more comfortable with them. If photos are too soft for you there are two options: crank up the in-camera sharpening or sharpen later in an image editor.

Don't just take my word for this, though -- have a look at our photo gallery first. View the photos, print them if you can, and then decide if they meet your expectations!

Movie Mode

I was very surprised to see that there is no movie mode on the DSC-R1. Sony says that it's technically possible with the camera, but they chose not to include one. Whether this hurts them in the long run, I'm not sure. I do know that a lot of people with fixed-lens cameras like their movie mode, though!

Playback Mode

The DSC-R1 has the standard-issue Sony playback mode . Basic features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll". The camera is PictBridge-enabled, allowing for direct printing to compatible photo printers.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo (in 0.3X increments), and then scroll around in it. This is handy for checking the focus in a photograph.

You can also rotate, resize, or trim (crop) photos right in playback mode.

By default, the R1 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press the Display button and you'll see a bit more, including a very fancy histogram (see above).

The camera moves between images very quickly in playback mode. If you go one image at a time, the next one appears instantly, without any low resolution placeholder. If you really start flipping through them, you'll see a low res placeholder followed by the high res image a half second later.

How Does it Compare

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 finds itself in a difficult position: not only is it more expensive than most fixed-lens cameras, but it also costs more than most digital SLR kits. While the R1 has the best photo quality of any fixed-lens camera (by far), the tough competition from digital SLRs makes deciding between the R1 and a D-SLR difficult.

One needs a bit of perspective when comparing the two, though. While a standard D-SLR kit is cheaper than the DSC-R1, there's a very important difference: the lenses. No kit lens (or reasonably priced add-on lens) comes close to the R1's F2.8-4.8, 24 - 120 mm lens. You can get close with some D-SLR lenses but unless you spend a fortune the R1's lens will be superior.

I compiled a few different D-SLR kits plus the R1 into this comparison table to detail what I'm talking about:

Camera Lens used Lens focal range* Lens max aperture range Total Price**
Canon Digital Rebel XT 18-55 28.8 - 88 mm F3.5 - F5.6 $805
17-85 IS 27.2 - 136 mm F4.0 - F5.6 $1254
Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D 18-70 27 - 105 mm F3.5 - F5.6 $764
Nikon D50 18-55 27 - 82.5 mm F3.5 - F5.6 $699
18-70 27 - 105 mm F3.5 - F4.5 $938
18-55
55-200
27 - 82.5 mm
82.5 - 300 mm
F3.5 - F5.6
F4.0 - F5.6
$899
Olympus E-500 14-45 28 - 90 mm F3.5 - F5.6 $799
14-54 28 - 108 mm F2.8 - F3.5 $1128
14-45
40-150
28 - 90 mm
80 - 300 mm
F3.5 - F5.6
F3.5 - F4.5
$899
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 14.3-71.5 24 - 120 mm F2.8 - F4.8 $999
* 35 mm equivalent
** Price includes rebates; B&H Photo-Video used for pricing

While the R1 looks expensive in the chart, you need to look at the lenses being used. None of the lenses are as "fast" as the R1's lens, nor do they cover the same range (though the 14-54 on the E-500 comes close). A comparable lens on the SLR side will be very expensive.

Comparisons aside, there's a whole lot to like about the Cyber-shot DSC-R1. It's got a sturdy, well constructed body, though I'm not entirely thrilled with some of the design choices on it. While I like having a rotating LCD, the top-mounted screen on the R1 is awkward, and even after several weeks of using it I still don't like it. The electronic viewfinder is decent, though the optical viewfinder on D-SLRs are much brighter and sharper (for obvious reasons). The controls on the R1 are a mixed bag: I like the ISO button right near the shutter release and I love the zoom and focus rings, but the buttons on the back of the camera seem cluttered, and the hot shoe placement is unusual. The main command dial needs a "lock" as well, since it's too easy to accidentally change the exposure compensation. The R1 offers dual memory card slots, supporting both CompactFlash (including Type II) and Memory Stick media and the familiar NP-FM50 lithium-ion battery.

The R1 features full manual controls, as you'd expect. These controls include focus, shutter speed (with exposures as long as 8 minutes), and white balance (including WB fine-tuning). The RAW image format is fully supported, and the included software does a nice job of working with the files. There's an auto mode as well as four scene modes for those who want point-and-shoot operation. One thing missing here is a movie mode: the R1 is the only high end fixed-lens camera without one.

Camera performance is better than average in almost all areas. Just like most D-SLRs, the R1 starts up almost instantly, and focus and shutter lag times are comparable as well. Shot-to-shot times are good, though the R1 isn't as fast as D-SLR when shooting several RAW images back-to-back. Speaking of which, one of the biggest weak spots on the R1 is its burst mode: it takes just three shots in a row -- JPEGs only -- before it stops to write to the memory card. The R1 fairs better in the battery life area, with a CIPA battery life rating of 500 shots per charge. The R1 also supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast photo transfers to your computer.

The photo quality, as I've said, is stellar. I have a lot of cameras here in my office, and the R1 was what I always grabbed when I had a challenging shot to take. The camera's high ISO performance approaches that of the best consumer-level D-SLRs, and it blows away fixed-lens cameras. At low ISO sensitivities photos are clear as glass, and purple fringing levels are low. The camera doesn't apply too much sharpening to photos at the default settings, so you may want to bump that up if it bothers you.

Recommending the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 is a no-brainer: it's a great camera. Recommending it over a digital SLR is more difficult, and it's a decision that ultimately comes down to what trade-offs you're willing to make. When comparing the R1 to other fixed-lens cameras, you're gaining excellent photo quality and a super lens and only (really) giving up a movie mode. When compared to digital SLRs you're giving up the optical viewfinder and continuous shooting performance and expandability of an SLR, but gaining a live LCD preview (on a rotating LCD no less). Photo quality is very similar between the R1 and D-SLRs, so in the end you must decide which features you want to gain and which features you're willing to give up. You should also try the various cameras so you can see how they fit in your hands, as the R1's unusual design is not for everyone. The DSC-R1 is a revolutionary fixed-lens camera, and we can only hope that more large sensor cameras appear soon.

What I liked:

  • Stunning image quality; high ISO performance rivals D-SLRs
  • High quality 24 - 120 mm lens
  • Very good performance (though see issues below)
  • Large, rotating LCD (though see issues below)
  • Full manual controls; shutter speeds as slow as 8 minutes
  • Manual zoom and focus rings
  • RAW image format supported; good RAW software included
  • Low redeye levels
  • Dual memory card slots
  • Support for conversion lenses, external flash, and wired remote
  • Very good battery life
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Pricey (though getting an equivalent lens on the SLR side will cost thousands)
  • Unusual design: top-mounted LCD is awkward, button layout is cluttered, command dial needs a lock
  • Disappointing burst mode (only three shots in a row, RAW not usable)
  • Buffer fills quickly when shooting in RAW mode
  • Hologram AF system from F828 is missed
  • No movie mode
  • Weak software bundle, aside from RAW software
  • An optical viewfinder would've been really nice

Some other cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot Pro1 and Rebel XT (D-SLR), Fuji FinePix S9000, Kodak EasyShare P880, Nikon Coolpix 8400 and D50 (D-SLR), Olympus C-7070WZ and EVOLT E-500 (D-SLR), Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30, and the Samsung Digimax Pro815.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-R1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the R1's photos turned out in our photo gallery!

Want another opinion?

Read other reviews at Digital Photography Review, Luminous Landscape, Steve's Digicams, and Imaging Resource.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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