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.
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.
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.
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 ;-):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 ;-).