Do you remember the Canonet Rangefinder cameras from the 1970's? Gorgeous little metal machines with just enough control to make you feel like you were in charge. Small and unassuming but fitted with a great, single focal length lens that had some speed to it. I loved my Canonet III QL 17 as much as some of my friends loved their Olympus RD's. The cameras uniformly had leaf shutters which meant we could sync flash up to their highest speeds. They had real, live hot shoes and they were rugged enough to bang around in the basket of a bike or in the pockets of an old, faded, green army field jacket.
You'd whip the camera to your eye, fast focus the bright line rangefinder and fire away knowing that your Tri-X film would look good and sharp and that it would take care of you if your exposure was just a bit off.
In the same time frame we also had those little jewels from Rollei called the Rollei 35S. No rangefinder but wonderfully small (but full frame) bodies coupled with "guess focus" Zeiss designed 40mm Sonnar lenses of extremely high sharpness. Full out quality in a shirt pocket (the lenses were collapsible).
The two attributes that most of these cameras shared were these: 1. They were beautifully designed for quick and intimate shooting. 2. They had permanently attached lenses that were a great complement to the bodies. Really sharp, well designed lenses.
I wasn't paying attention when Sony announced the RX1. I was too busy waiting to see what was going to finally be introduced in the DSLT space (the a99) and the Nex space (the Nex 6 and some lenses). I finally took a deep breath and stood up and looked around.
My first glance at the RX1 made me think that Sony had dropped the ball on this camera. I liked the look of the basic body configuration and I really liked the lens choice but I was kinda bummed because I didn't see any mention of an EVF and I refuse to part with more money than I paid for my first car to have a camera that I'd be restricted to using in the "stinky-baby-diaper-clueless-hipster" hold. "Minus one for Sony and plus one for my aching checking account." I mused.
Today I saw three things that changed my mind and made me nostalgic for the kind of camera I started out with (the Canonet G III QL-17). The first was an image of the RX1 made with a dedicated 35mm bright line finder in the hot shoe. I'd relegated bright line finders to yesteryear rangefinder cameras even though I'd always loved them. Then I saw that the RX1 could be used with the EVF that was originally introduced for the Nex 5R. And that the EVF (an outstanding EVF to boot) was available in matching black. Finally, I started researching the sensor which, according to early appraisals by people who've talked extensively with Sony, is shaping up to be one of, or perhaps even the best full frame sensor made for the consumer market to date. And the same one that will be delivered in the Sony a99. Now Sony has my attention.
I'm anxious to play with one. Not sure I'll buy one since I'm committed to the a99 in the short term but it certainly captured my mindshare.
After seeing the Sony a99 introduction specs, the new full frame interchangeable lens camcorder with the same a99 full frame sensor (for around $3K=amazing), having shot extensively with the a77 and really, really enjoying the Nex 7 camera I think I'm starting to see a fun pattern. Sony has finally stopped floundering and started making products that aren't just good, they are products that photographers are starting to crave and lust after. And I haven't even starting looking at the RX100 yet.
If I were competing in the same spaces as Sony's cameras I think I'd start getting a little nervous. It's almost like the PC world a few years back where the market was dominated by Dell and HP. And now......
Things change. Transformation happens. Markets evolve. Everything is starting to get interesting.
Here's a great video about the camera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjEwsnwbwbs
A while back I wrote a "wish list" of things I wanted to see incorporated into the new flagship camera from Sony. They did everything I wanted except for the carbon fiber construction. But I wasn't 100% serious about the carbon fiber anyway so let's let that drop.
What Sony has done with the a99 camera is to effectively and decisively leapfrog over Nikon and Canon and deliver a next generation imaging solution for photographers who are not mired in place by concepts of what constitutes a camera based on old traditions and metrics. While the curmudgeons may not want video or an electronic viewfinder or some of the bells and whistles you'll find on this and other Sony cameras (a77?) that contingent of photographers is not necessarily the future of professional, commercial photography. They represent the past. And the past is already gone. All around me I am keenly aware that the generation of image makers who are in ascendency are more and more comfortable slipping back and forth between video and stills. They are looking for cameras that create movies fluidly, unhampered by antiquated live view adaptations and legacy viewing solutions.
This is why I predict that Nikon and Canon will come stumbling after Sony in a year or two with cameras that have electronic viewfinders. The movie creation aspect may seem meaningless to someone who does photography as a hobby but for someone who earns their living mixing stills and motion (and that will constitute, more and more, what successful photographers do to make a good living) the video capabilities of a camera are as important as how quickly it focuses and how nice the still image files look. I guess you just have to separate the markets when you look at new products.
So, from the press releases and the intro on DPReview we can make a list of all the things Sony got right:
-full frame sensor with the promise of great dynamic range and good high ISO noise performance.
-innovative and state of the art autofocus. With both PD on a chip and above mirror PD sensor.
-the use of a proven and easy to master body style and control interface.
-electronic first curtain shutter for fast response and lower noise.
-focus range control. Let's you set a min and max focus range for faster lock on.
-dynamite video !!!
-a headphone out jack for monitoring video sound.
-manual level controls in 32 steps for video sound levels.
-an interface that allows for the connection of XLR microphone connectors (another industry first).
-high level, unprocessed video out for highest quality.
-dual card slots that are configurable in the ways I suggested.
-true 14 bit raw files.
-the promise of performance, performance, performance from the new sensor.
-weatherproofing and long life shutter.
AND THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF ALL.......they're using the same battery as in the a77.
When I get one in my hands I'll write a long review but for right now I want to discuss why the Sony camera is a superior video production tool. The a99 can shoot at 1080 at 60 fps with 28mps throughput and that's very cool but not nearly as cool as the three major things that are, right now, Sony exclusives in the full frame, high end DSLR camera/video market: The electronic viewfinder, the phase detection auto focus (full time) and focus peaking.
I was outdoors shooting video footage yesterday of a very famous athlete swimming a fast workout in our pool. It was bright, direct sun light coming from straight overhead. In the days of shooting with a Canon 5Dmk2 the ambient light would have rendered the rear screen useless for shooting video without the addition of a cumbersome finder attachment like the expensive and heavy Zacuto finders. The optical finder, in the video mode, is locked off and vacant. The camera's slow contrast detect AF would be useless in tracking a fast moving swimmer. We'd need a focus puller holding on to the front of the lens while I followed the action in the aforementioned expensive and kludgy finder strapped to the back of the camera like a goiter.
Not so with the a77 (and soon with the a99). I was shooting yesterday with the a77 and the Sony 70-200 2.8 G lens. Since the ambient light was too bright to use the rear screen I did all the set up stuff using the menu in the EVF finder. When I was ready to shoot the image in the EVF was perfectly isolated from the ambient light and worked well. I was able to judge both exposure and color temperature while I was shooting, both on the screen, and in the case of exposure, with an on screen histogram. Shooting at 60 fps gave me a smooth set of video clips of the fast action and the higher frame rate allowed me to work at 1/125th of a second without getting a jittery look that can come from raising the shutter speed beyond 2x of the fps.
If I switched to program or aperture priority I would lose control of the shutter speeds but I would gain full, DSLR speed AF with my video footage. Even through a variable ND filter the camera locked on to my athlete at 200mm and wouldn't let go. It was better AF performance than I've gotten with any video camera or hybrid, ever. If I wanted exacting control over shutter and aperture I had to go to manual mode which, with the Sony, means I lose AF. No sweat. The inclusion of focus peaking makes manually tracking focus easy as pie. And the entire time you're seeing the exact results, via the EVF, that you'll see when you head in to edit.
Since the a99 uses nearly the same video system it will crush Nikon and Canon's current DSLR video production capabilities as expressed in the D800 and 5Dmk3.
There's a lot more to the a99 but when people (fellow photographers) ask me why I switched systems to the Sony I can truthfully say it's because this is where the future of professional photography is heading. I didn't want to be left behind. And my experiences shooting video between the Sony and the Canon 5D2 is night and day. The gap has just widened. And since Canon and Nikon did their prosumer refresh and pro camera refreshes this year it will be quite a while until they even have a chance to rebut.
If the high ISO performance and the touted 1.5 stop increase in dynamic range over the Sony a900 is accurate then this camera will be the hottest pro tool in the market for at least the next year. And in the current state of the commercial photography field that's almost a lifetime.