New York, Lower East Side 2016. Sony RX1RII colors in beatiful vening light are quite all right.

Street photography camera: Sony RX1R II in New York

Using the Sony RX1R II for some months now has the first presentable pictures as an outcome. I put it to the test if it is a street photography camera or not. And I may have decided whether it is a replacement for my Leica M9 or not. That camera I have a mixed love-hate relationship with, using mostly its superb Summicron 35mm lens which I have felt nothing but pure love for so far. Enough crazy chat about my feelings for my tools, let’s have a look at what happened in New York City while I dropped by for two weeks.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Sony RX1RII colors in beatiful vening light are quite all right.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Sony RX1R II colors in beautiful evening light are quite all right.

While the scene above might be one of my more successful shots, it’s not very challenging regarding one of the pain points of the first version of this camera: the original Sony RX1R autofocus issues. We will come to this a little later. Let’s check the colors first.

New York, Manhatten 2016. Sony RX1R II dealing with warm evening iight again.

New York, Manhatten 2016. Sony RX1R II dealing with warm evening light again (Processing: Capture One 9).

The colors are important to me because I am lazy & spoiled coming from the Leica M9. With that camera, you only adjust the color temperature & add a little contrast to the tonal curve. Done. With the old Sony RX1R it was more difficult, since the colors came out a little too clinically. This is still true in most lighting situations for the RX1R II. What happens in warm evening or morning light, you can see above and below. Above’s image is processed with a ‘proper’ raw rendering software, the next one comes directly from the camera – transferred wirelessly to my mobile phone. Interestingly enough, the frame I saw through the viewfinder is the image above. Mind the cab’s grill and the fire exit stairs on the top right.

New York, Manhatten 2016. Sony RX1R II dealing with warm evening light again (Processing: Camera to Smartphone export, Adjusted exposure in Lightroom mobile).

New York, Manhatten 2016. Sony RX1R II dealing with warm evening light again (Processing: Camera to Smartphone export, Adjusted exposure in Lightroom mobile).

You can see that the image exported to the phone lacks a little in terms of microcontrast & maybe vibrance, but is totally usable. Except for the corner of the frames which seem to fall a victim to automated lens distortion correction. May be adjustable via some setting, can’t tell. Still, the tight control of the frame’s corner is something I sometimes miss using the Leica M9. Through a real optical viewfinder, you don’t have a 1:1 representation of the final frame in all (read: most) cases. Clear plus of the Sony Rx1R II as a street photography camera. The following image is possible with a rangefinder, but not without cropping or shooting half a dozen frames of that moment. Or let’s relativate this: not possible for me ;-):

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Tight control of your frame without the need to press your face against the back of an SLR.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Tight control of your frame without the need to press your face against the back of an SLR is one of the magical things the Sony RX1R II offers you as a street photography camera.

In the first impression’s review I stated that I did not use any of the more gimmicky  functions, like tilt screen and built in wireless to transfer your images directly to a smartphone. Meanwhile I find the tilt screen handy since I’m a little bigger that most of the people I take pictures of & can have the camera on their eye or chest level without crouching down a little. I use it seldom, but it is handy. And I have to confess I really like to transfer the ‘not so serious’ pictures directly to my phone, for example the birthday squirrel that was sent to pay me homage that day. Shared it directly to Facebook & enjoyed a discussion about the lovely little fellows.

Birthday squirrel's delegation. Transferred directly to the mobile phone & processed on the device.

Birthday squirrel’s delegation. Pigeons weren’t too interested. Transferred directly from the Sony RX1R II to the mobile phone.

The squirrels might have been attracted by my filled jacket’s pockets. They might have mistakenly assumed they are filled with delicious nuts since they were close to bursting. But it were actually the massive amount of spare batteries I stuffed in my jacket.

Leica M9 vs Sony RX1RII. Small body with tiny lens vs micro small body with small lens. One of them is really hungry for batteries.

Leica M9 vs Sony RX1R II. Small body with tiny lens vs tiny body with small lens. One of them is really hungry for batteries.

Fun aside: battery life is very poor. I claimed this for the Leica M9 too, but there was a workaround. Turn the camera off, and turn it on again while moving it to your eye. Its fast start time made this possible. That’s not an option for the Sony RX1R II since starting the camera, scientifically spoken, takes forever. While using 4 batteries for an 8-10 hours day of shooting, doing a long break during harsh lunch time light, Leica made me buy four batteries. That’s the amount of spare ones I use for a morning stroll with the Sony already. One battery lasts for about an hour, having the electronic viewfinder turned on constantly on a cold but sunny New York City February morning. Switching from back screen to viewfinder would be an workaround, but even that is slower than the M9 startup time from being turned off altogether.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Sony RX1R II shines as a small and unobtrusive street photography camera.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Sony RX1R II shines as a small and unobtrusive street photography camera.

What both cameras have in common is the discreet form factor. Even if spotted, most people take neither of these cameras serious. You can amplify this “tourist effect” by using the Sony’s back screen for framing. Sound wise, the Leica M9 is pretty silent. The Sony RX1R II is pretty much not audible in outdoor usage, making it a great street photography camera.

New York, Koreatown 2016. I love to pull down for deep blacks, and the Sony RX1RII allows me to push lots of details out of them if necessary, like the person in the background's face.

New York, Koreatown 2016. I love to pull down for deep blacks, and the Sony RX1R II allows me to push lots of details out of them if necessary, like the person in the background’s face.

Loving the look of Kodachrome with its deep deep blacks and contrasty colors, especially the reds, I give my raw files a harsh treatment, pulling down most of the shadows into solid black. Once again the M9 produced these images automatically. With the Sony I have to do this manually. More work, but also more details in the shadows. Feels like 2 stops more details at least. The guy on the top right corner in above’s frame would be lost in the shadows forever.

One feature of the Leica M system I really love is the possibility to zone focus and use hyperfocal focus or the Merklinger technique. With the Sony, zone focussing is impossible due to the lack of a physical scale – focus by wire prevents this feature – or a digital one, like the Ricoh GR digital series uses which is an amazing trait for a compact street photography camera. Hyperfocal is difficult since even if you look it up & jot it down, the only marks available digitally are 0.3, 0.5, 1, and eternity. That’s actually worse in comparison to the original RX1R, which offered a 5m mark additionally.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Lacking a zone focus indicator on the Sony RX1RII you have to develop a feeling for where to pre-focus for maximum depth of field.

New York, Lower East Side 2016. Lacking a zone focus indicator on the Sony RX1R II you have to develop a feeling for where to pre-focus for the hyperfocal distance / maximum depth of field.

The Merklinger technique works, since it’s simply focussing to infinity. The hardest part about this technique is arguing with friends, acquaintances and strangers if that makes any sense at all. That’s why Merklinger wrote a little book about itI guess ;-).

So, is the Sony RX1R II a street photography camera? For my approach to it, definitely yes. The focus is not DSLR-fast, but it’s fast enough and the form factor of the small Sony makes up for it. The lens is amazing. It is not a Summicron 35 ASPH by neither level of distortion nor manual focussing ability. Judging the built quality – it does feel solid. Although the replacement RX1RII I received from Sony since the first production numbers might be affected by a light leak came with asymmetrical aperture blades for f11 and above. The same thing happened with the first generation Sony RX1 I bought used. Comparing that even to my first 1976 Summicron, which still had perfect symmetry even totally stopped down, does not exactly make the Zeiss lens shine. It does shine regarding resolution and I’m still not decided which character in extreme backlight I prefer. You can see 1 stop or more dynamic range in the highlights in the Sony’s image, but maybe the organic look of the Leica and the nice flare is something that I would prefer over the “clean but not really” look of the Sony. Maybe you have an opinion here:

New York, Lower Eeast Side looking towards Brooklyn / Williamsburg 2016. Leica M9 & Summicron 35 ASPH (Click for 2048 widest side image)

New York, Lower Eeast Side looking towards Brooklyn / Williamsburg 2016. Leica M9 & Summicron 35 ASPH (Click for 2048 widest side image)

New York, Lower Eeast Side looking towards Brooklyn / Williamsburg 2016. Sony RX1R II (Click for 2048 widest side image)

New York, Lower Eeast Side looking towards Brooklyn / Williamsburg 2016. Sony RX1R II (Click for 2048 widest side image)

So what’s the bottom line? Will it replace my M9? For the 35mm focal length and street photography, it already did. Will I sell my M9? No, still love it’s images character too much to do so. And having a 35mm 2.0 lens on the Sony RX1R II, it finally made sense for me to get the 24mm 2.8 Elmarit that I also love, but changing lenses was too much of a pain to really use it on my photography strolls. Will keep you posted how that works. Closing this post and giving the stage to your questions & remarks, I just add on more fact: was about to buy a digital M 262 in New York if I would feel the Sony couldn’t live up to the legendary street system the M series represents. I did not, since the Sony RX1R II is most of what I need in a smaller form factor. This is not a budget decision, it’s about the ease of use as a street photography camera. And how about the Leica Q, I hear you thinking? We can discuss this in the comments if there is interest in the topic ;-).


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  1. Carlos

    Hello Sven.

    I love your street photographs. I recently sold my M9 system and bought a rxr1r ii due to my one and only focal length for street is the 35mm. I am quite happy with this change in spite of not having zone focus. I see you expose to the lights and afterwards you push details of the black zones out. I suppose you shoot totally in manual mode. I would like to know which parameters do you usually set for your shootings in the streets and basic configuration of the camera in conjunction. Any issue with minimum speed setting to not having defocusing problems?. Your above shoots were made in mid-day light or just very early in the morning or late at noon?.
    Many thanks in advance and keep doing so cool pics with your Sony!
    Greetings from Spain and best regards!

    • Sven Kräuter

      Hi Carlos, thanks for the kind words, glad you like my pictures. Switching from the M9, zone focussing is amongst the top things I miss, too. Missing the Summicron 35 more that the M9 maybe ;-). Regarding the question how I expose the images: in extreme light-shadow situations I simply expose for the highlights & use full manual settings. The rule of the ‘Sunny 16’ is your friend, so it’s not an art tech wise. I usually use f8 / 1/500 and above/faster, prefocus on the sidewalk & anticipate where people will be to fit the composition best. The challenge with these light spots is: there is nobody standing in these bright patches, so you rely on luck concerning who will walk by. I will write about a technique to increase your chances soon. Speaking of the light: the new York
      pictures are taken in February, during that time you have warm light all day, which is pretty fantastic. Normally you only have these conditions in the morning after sunrise or in the evening before sunset. That’s the sweet golden light I am chasing. Trying to move my focus to moments & interactions and see the light secondary, maybe I’ll write about that next, too :-).

  2. Ivano

    Hi, i am italian so i can’t speak very well….i would like to know diffrence between Rx1 R2 and Leica Q in quality images, contrast, color…what is your preference?

    • Sven Kräuter

      Hi Ivano, can’t really tell since I never tried the Leica Q. I am a 24mm & 35mm person, 28mm does not really work for me personally. That’s why I never tried the Q, apart from holding it inm my hand. The mechanical focussing is a great plus for the Q, the size and weight are a plus for the RX1RII. Ironically, Leica became the brand with the bulky havy cameras. Even an Canon 6D is lighter than the M9 for example, was quite shocked when I realized that. These are the only characetrisitcs I can compare I’m affraid… It may be safe to say that both cameras are amazing :-).

  3. Jeff P.

    Sven,
    I enjoyed this article, as well as its predecessor, “Sony RX1R II review: unscientific first impression.” I have an M9 (and the 35mm cron ASPH is one of my lenses) and an RXIR, so it was as if I was reading an article written just for me!

    I am considering upgrading to the RX1RII. I use hyperfocal focusing on the street, I am wondering if the RX1RII model, in manual focus mode, retains the last used focus distance. The reason is obvious to you, I’m sure. My RX1R resets the focus distance to infinity each time, and it’s a real pain. Thank you much for your help.

    • Sven Kräuter

      Hi Jeff,

      that’s the same setup I had: I was intrigued by the RX1’s size & image quality. I missed a descent focussing ability, be it zone focussing or autofocus. The digital Ricoh GR has a nice depth of field preview that replaces the scale on the lens, sth like that. Or a mechanical lens. I was willing to invest the time to learn how to manually focus, which is also somehow painful with the RX1 for the reasons you just described. When I tested the RX1RII at a local shop, I bought it right away after checking the retractable viewfinder & the autofocus.

      To answer your question: you still can’t to proper zone focussing, except for the Merklinger technique (http://blog.svenkraeuterphotography.com/2014/hyperfocal-merklinger-full-frame-m9-rangefinder-focus/). The focussing scale in the display has gotten even worse, it’s less accurate. But I actually started using autofocus to pre-focus. I just autofocus on the pavement or where I expect the main subject to be in the composition. This is less accurate than zone focussing, but I can use f13 & up all day thanks to the massive iso invariance of the Sony RX1RII – ISO 6400 is still a bliss, compared to the M9s lack of contrast starting at 1250 and above.

      Writing this, I think the little Sony actually changed my way of shooting. If you’re interested in the details, I might write a new article. Also need to write about my recent trip to Tokyo where I used the RX1RII for 35mm & the M9 for 24mm. And an M6 to still have a reason to bring the Summicron 35 ASPH, but that may be just of interest / understandable at all for the two of us ;-).

  4. Jeff Phillips

    Thank you for the quick reply, Sven. I’d be very interested in reading about how the Sony inspired a new way of making photographs. I am sure that the other followers of your blog would appreciate it, too.

    I position the focus distance indicator (the white “block” under the distance scale) underneath the 3m mark to achieve excellent sharpness from about 1m to 20m or more, which is acceptable for the scenes I am capturing. If I power off the camera, the default focus distance returns to infinity.

    On my Leica lenses, I tape the focus ring at 3m; no worries.

    Does the RX1R II return to infinity after it’s powered off?

    Jeff

    • Sven Kräuter

      Hi Jeff,

      the little Sony made me use new features like live view & the flip screen that reduce the need to crouch or stretch tremendously ;-). The hyperfocal / zone focussing on the mark II got worse I’m afraid – still the focus is lost when turning the camera off, and even worse: the 3m mark disappeared, leaving you with the “too close” and 1m / 5m marks. Can’t check now, I lend the camera to a friend who is a pro documentary photographer. Curious how he sees the little gem perform side by side with his 5DIII already ;-).

      With my M-lenses I pre-focus most of the time, especially with the 24. It’s beyond my understanding why Sony did not add a Ricoh GR like system for pre-focussing. But there are more baffling choices like the small batteries to worry about I guess. All in all: still my main camera, although doing lots of film lately. Just started writing about this in the new post, maybe interesting for you?

  5. JG

    If you first focus the lens at infinity, then focus on your subject using the macro ring and leave it wherever it ends up, the camera will be fooled into thinking the subject distance is “infinity” when it resets after powering up again.

    By focusing this way, one can reliably zone-focus an RX1/RX1R/RX1RII and/or also use the macro ring to limit the range of distance over which the autofocus mechanism will focus … try it!

  6. Sven

    Hi there,

    that sounds amazing indeed. I don’t get what exactly to do with the macro ring, can you elaborate? The solution you describe could lead to a life with less battery changing ;-), so I am super curious to learn how it works.

    Cheers

    Sven

    • JG

      Sure, no problem. Here’s the procedure:

      Step One: Set the macro ring in the “0.3m – infinity” position.

      Step Two: Focus the lens at infinity using either manual focus or autofocus.

      Step Three: Focus on the desired subject by slowly turning the macro ring from the “0.3m – infinity” position toward the “0.2m – 0.35m” position.

      Step Four: Stop turning the macro ring whenever the desired subject is in focus. (Note: You can also use focus peaking and/or image magnification to help you focus the lens, as they both work exactly the same as they do when focusing otherwise. I typically brush my fingers lightly against the manual focus ring when I start turning the macro ring in order to activate the image magnification function.)

      The lens is now focused at some distance shorter than infinity … let’s say, eight feet / three meters. So far as the camera’s electronics know, however, it’s still focused at infinity, because that’s where the manual focus ring is set, so that’s the point where it resets to whenever the camera is powered off then on. This shorter “infinity” distance can also serve effectively as a focus-limiter for the autofocus mechanism, because the lens will still autofocus at shorter distances, but not at longer ones.

      The reason this works is because the macro ring repositions the floating element group inside the lens to shorten its focusing distance for macro work. Because the macro ring’s actually a mechanical helicoid instead of a switch or focus-by-wire focus mechanism, it can also be used at settings in between the two end points, hence the lens will focus at a shorter distance.

      In theory, focusing this way potentially can result in a minor loss of image quality, but I’ve yet to experience this with my pair of RX1s and I’ve been using this trick for more than 18 months now.

      Try it! IMO, it really does make the RX1 much more useful and useable for street-type photography.

  7. Sven

    Thanks for explaining again, now I get it: actually using the macro ring to focus. Worked! I’m using back button focus for speed – I’ll use this technique to be even speedier & potentially use less batteries, great advice!

    • JG

      You’re welcome! One other trick to using the macro ring for focusing is to wrap a zip-tie around it, because this provides a handy tab that you can use to rotate it with one finger. I found the ring to be quite narrow and adding the zip-tie makes it much easier to use, IMO.


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