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Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] I Want one.
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A Camera That Has It All?Well, Almost
By DAVID POGUE
AT a recent technology conference,an executive from an electronicscompany was waxing snarky abouther rivals. "And then there's Sony,"she said in a conversation clusterbetween seminars. "Their approach isto bring to market every productthey dream up and see what sticks."That's supposed to be an insult?Some people might call Sony'sapproach a key to innovation - and astrategy far more likely to advancethe industry than Ms. Snarky's.This month, for example, Sony hasbegun shipping a $1,000 digitalcamera, the R1, that shatters alongstanding law of digitalphotography. Understanding itssignificance requires reading four ofthe techiest paragraphs you'll readall day, but it's worth the slog.Until the R1 came along, digitalcameras fell into two categories:compacts and digital S.L.R.(single-lens-reflex) models.Compacts are wonderful becausethey're cheap, convenient andpocketable. But digital S.L.R.'s, likethe Canon Digital Rebel and the NikonD50, take far superior pictures. Thelight sensor inside these bulkiermodels is gigantic - 10 times the sizeof a typical compact's sensors, for 10times the light sensitivity. You getsharper detail, more accurate colorand less grainy shots in low light.Unfortunately, that design alsodeprives you of a great joy andadvantage of digital photography:framing your shots using thecamera's screen. On a compactcamera, this screen essentiallydisplays the photo before you snapit. But on a digital S.L.R., you musthoist the camera up to your eye andpeep through the little opticalviewfinder. The screen remains darkwhile you're taking pictures. (In fact,you don't even use the screen exceptwhen playing back photos.)NOW, before the letter-writingcampaign begins, it's important toacknowledge that manyphotographers actually prefercomposing shots using the opticalviewfinder. After all, pure glassoffers a clearer view of the subjectthan any L.C.D. screen alive.But there are certain digitalshutterbugs who have wonderedabout this law of digital photography.Why can't a camera with a big sensoralso offer !
a live p
review screen?That mammoth sensor is to blame.To supply a live video preview to thescreen, the sensor would have to beturned on full time, wolfing downbattery power, heating the camerainterior and demandinghigh-horsepower circuitry."But we're the world's largestelectronics company - heck, wedesign sensors for some of ourrivals," Sony must have said. "Surelywe can find a solution to thisproblem."And Sony did. It redesigned thesensor from scratch, with power andheat considerations at the top of thepriority list. This new component canremain powered up full time withoutruining your day, because itconsumes only one-tenth theelectricity that would be required bya standard sensor at that size.The resulting camera, the R1, is ahybrid. Like a compact, its screenremains live while you're shooting.But like an S.L.R., it has a huge sensorinside, 21.5 x 14.4 mm. (For thosescoring at home, a typicalcompact-camera sensor measures5.7 by 4.2 mm.) The R1 captures10.3-megapixel photos, easily goodenough for poster-size prints at highresolution.The photos are spectacular. As youcan see from the samples, the detailand color are breathtaking. You caneasily pull off that professionals'trick of blurring the background (orforeground) while keeping thesubject in sharp focus, somethingthat's difficult to do with compactcameras. And except in low light, thiscamera is free of shutter lag, theannoying delay between the press ofthe shutter button and the snap ofthe picture.Now that you've practically earned aPh.D. in camera design, you're readyto read about the nextbreakthrough: on a true S.L.R.,peering through the viewfinderactually lets you see out through thelens, thanks to a mirror-and-prismcontraption inside. When you takethe photo, the mirror flips out of theway momentarily so that the lighthits the sensor instead of your eye.But R1's screen always shows youwhat the lens is seeing - in fact, itsdisplay even incorporates theexposure, white balance and othercharacteristics of the finished photo -so none of that apparatus isnecess!
eliminating the mirrorand prism, Sony was able to slide thelens barrel inward to within twomillimeters of the light sensor.Why do you care? Because thispositioning grants you a wider-angleslice of the horizon when you'rezoomed out. The R1 offers somethingthat's never before been possible ona large-sensor camera: a wide-angle(24-mm) equivalent on the basiclens, capable of recording biggerfamily groupings, wider roominteriors or more of the GrandCanyon. Yet without switching lenses,the R1 also zooms in 5X (a 120-mmequivalent). Unlike the focal-lengthmeasurements of other digitals,these are true 35-mm cameraequivalents that don't have to bemultiplied by, say, 1.5.True to its S.L.R. heritage, the R1 isbig, black and very heavy (two and aquarter pounds); makers of cameracases are already licking their chops.But it doesn't look much like its rivals.Instead, the hand grip is unusuallywidely separated from the body - asupremely comfortablearrangement, though weird looking.The screen is mounted on the top,not the back. To open it, you have toflip it upward and rotate it to faceyou, which is a drag. But the payoff isthat you can fold or rotate thescreen to almost any angle - evenflat against the camera's top -making it easy to shoot over crowds(for parades) or at ground level(pets and babies). The huge bodypermits easy access to the buttonsand controls, and provides room for abig battery (500 shots, completewith "minutes remaining" display)and memory cards of two differentformats: Memory Stick and CompactFlash.If that were the whole story, the R1would be an important candidate foranyone considering a digital S.L.R. Butas the saying goes, you can't makean omelet without breaking a feweggs - and you can't whip up a newhigh-end camera design withoutsacrificing a few perks.Lost Perk No. 1 has to do with thelens: the R1's is permanentlyattached. It's a heck of a good lens,but you can't remove it and swap in atelephoto, macro or evenwider-angle lens, as you can with atrue S.L.R..Lost Perk No. 2 has to do with thatrotati!
n; it's not Sony's bestwork. In this era of 2.5- and 3-inchdigital camera screens, it somehowfeels dinky (2 inches diagonal). Itsclarity and motion smoothness aredisappointing, too.And don't try to get smart by lookingthrough the eyepiece viewfinderinstead; on this camera, you'll seeonly a second electronic display, nota clear glass window to the front.Besides, you feel guilty peeringthrough the viewfinder; isn't the livepreview screen one of the mainreasons you bought the R1 in thefirst place?You also sacrifice a movie-capturemode, which Sony omitted for nogood reason, and a good close-upmode; the closest this camera canget to its subject is 13 inches. You'llalso be crestfallen to learn that theR1's burst mode - where it keepscapturing shots at high speed for aslong as you press the shutter, auseful trick for sports oruncooperative children - snaps ameasly maximum of three shots in aburst.Finally, Sony was awfully miserly withits mode dial. It offers settings foradvanced controls (aperture andshutter priority, for example), butfew presets for common scenes likesports, landscape and macro.Yes, you could argue that anyonewho'd spend $1,000 on a cameraprobably knows how to use thecamera's beautifully designedmanual controls, without requiringsuch presets. But then again, anyonewho'd spend $1,000 probablyexpects a better burst mode andinterchangeable lenses. In thisregard, the R1 sends out mixedsignals, as though it's not just ahybrid camera, but one designed fora hybrid photographer.But never mind that. Even if youdon't buy the R1, you may well buyits grandchild in 2008 or 2010. Forthat reason, even Sony's snipingrivals should be grateful for Sony's"see what sticks" philosophy. Thecore breakthrough of the R1 is aradically rethought, low-power chipthat brings you truly brilliantphotographs. And you know what?That'll stick.