Like many photographers my camera cabinet seems to have a revolving door. I fall in love with the specs of a new camera, or the idea of the photos it will “enable” me to take but before long there’s a new contender for my heart and dollars. Eventually I have realized, with time and experience, that the expensive “dream” camera is often not really what I wanted at all.
A few years ago my heart was set on the Sony RX1RII (as in Mark 2, the Lord only knows who controls Sony’s brand nomenclature but it’s always been broken). Released in 2016 it is an amazing compact camera: fixed 35/f2 Carl Zeiss lens, full frame sensor in a relatively small package with an inversely proportional price tag. Here’s a review if you want to geek out on the specs.
Having previously owned the original Fujifilm X100, I knew how valuable a small, portable street camera can be. Yet the RX1 was full frame! All those pixels and a Zeiss lens! How could I possibly take anything but a masterpiece with a camera that good?
By 2018 I found a used RX1RII in great shape at Glazers, my local camera wonderland. I was overjoyed to finally have the camera I’d wanted for so long. Immediately it became, over my other film and digital cameras, the first one to go into my bag. Living downtown and walking to or from work surely the RX1 would be a perfect street photography camera.
In the end it wasn’t perfect for me. I just couldn’t see that at the time as much as I tried loving it.
First off let’s talk about the fixed lens. The RX1’s Carl Zeiss T* 35/2 lens is amazing. The quality of the images is great, but they still didn’t always look right to me. While 35mm is a “classic” street photography focal length, it’s not my favorite perspective. That’s not something I knew about myself when I bought the camera.
Ten thousand photos in the last few years made me realize I’m a 50mm lens guy. Shooting at 50mm feels more flexible, more natural than 35mm. With a fixed lens camera you don’t have the option to swap focal lengths, making the 35mm field of the first RX1R limitation I couldn’t overcome no matter how much I tried to “zoom with my feet”.
Additionally the fixed lens sticks out from the body so the RX1 is not pocketable like a collapsible lens camera such as the Sony RX100. It’s not really a compact camera. That made it often awkward to store in a bag or backpack. Over time it seemed easier to carry a smaller camera or a interchangeable lens model that could be broken down in my pack. Carrying the RX1R along with a film camera like the Nikon FM2 or the Leica R series compounded the problem. You don’t get the feel of that until you’ve walked a couple of miles across Seattle.
The final straw was the viewfinder. The view itself was ok, I don’t mind a high resolution EVF. It just wasn’t easy to actually use. Unlike compact and mirrorless cameras that have both a large back screen and a EVF that are always accessible, the RX1 uses an EVF that collapses into the body. It’s released and pops up with a small switch. That’s a great design for making portability, already difficult because of the fixed lens, slightly better but is still awkward. It adds steps shooting on the street where the RX1 should shine.
I like being able to bring the camera up to my eye, frame the shot and press the shutter. Shooting from the hip is fun and sometimes necessary but I almost never use the large rear screen to frame the shot. Perhaps that generational. Those whose first camera was a smartphone might prefer the big screen. It’s just not how I like to work.
Using the RX1R became an exercise in turning on the camera, popping up the viewfinder, framing the shot, shooting, repeating. I never left the viewfinder in the extended position for fear, perhaps irrationally, of damaging it. Over time that just became too tedious. I like to be able to shoot as soon see the image. The Sony RX100 series uses a similar pop-up design but makes up for it in a much more compact, pocketable form factor with a collapsible zoom lens. I can forgive the cheaper RX100, but couldn’t with the RX1.
At the time I felt the frustration more than I knew it. The RX1R is a amazing camera. I was lucky to have it. I’d gotten some great shots with it. Why didn’t I use it more? Wasn’t I supposed to enjoy it?
Before long the first digital camera I’d reach for was my Sony a7Riii. I could put a Zeiss 35/2.8 lens and have the same full frame sensor, a really good lens, a fixed EVF viewfinder, bigger battery for longer life and the ability to swap lenses if I needed to all in a package not much bigger than the RX1R.
When I was deciding which camera to take on the Camino I considered the RX1R. Film became the sole format for the trip and so I left the added weight and complexity of the Sony at home. Had I taken it I might have pressured myself to use this “great” camera, bouncing between film and digital, distracting myself with equipment instead of concentrating on the images in front of me.
Not making the “Camino cut” into my backpack was the final straw for my RX1R love affair. It was time for it to go. I only want cameras I use and like to have in my hand and bring to my eye. Certainly cameras are just tools and you can use any tool available to get the job done. Photography isn’t supposed to be work for me. It’s not a job. It’s something I do to find joy and engage with the world. While the Sony RX1RII is right for many photographers, it wasn’t right for me.