Sharp Shooter

Sony's R1 Combines Near Pro-Quality Images With Live Preview

Digital cameras come in two basic flavors. Most people are familiar with the convenient point-and-shoot--the electronic descendant of the cheap, compact and once ubiquitous Kodak Brownie. These cameras let shutterbugs preview shots on a tiny screen and cost a couple of hundred dollars each. Less common are digital single-lens reflex (D-SLR) units--the computerized versions of the classic through-the-lens, 35-millimeter-film cameras, which offer far higher image resolution, along with much loftier prices. (They can exceed several thousand dollars.)

Now comes Sony's Cybershot DSC R1 digital still camera, the first of a new category of reasonably affordable ($999), all-in-one electronic picture-takers that combines some of the best features of existing high- and low-end digital designs. I have been interested in purchasing a D-SLR for some time but have been waiting for prices to fall before dropping a bundle on one. Could the R1 be a useful alternative? I tried it to find out.

The first thing you notice about the R1 is its considerable bulk and heft. At around two pounds, it is clearly a two-hander. But the zoom lens, which extends all the way from an effective 24mm (wide angle) to 120mm (short telephoto), makes left-hand adjustments pretty much standard procedure anyway--especially if you often shoot entire rooms, big-group photographs or expansive landscapes. So when this slick package of high-tech optical design slips readily into your grip and handles smoothly enough thereafter, you don't complain too much about the weight.

The second thing you notice is the R1's stalk-mounted, live-view screen sitting topside. Like a point-and-shoot's monitor, the R1's two-inch-wide, high-brightness liquid-crystal display (LCD) presents the photograph before you snap it. But it also raises up, tilts and swivels to accommodate the photographer's vantage point, whichever way the lens points. Once I realized the implications of this unique feature, the next step was obvious: a series of arm's-length self-portraits.

The procedure goes something like this: (a) Face the screen fully front so il maestro can compose the frame. (b) Trust the automatic settings and adjust the mug in the forward-rotated, live display, stare at the lens, depress the shutter button to focus and then punch it. A barely audible "click" sound follows immediately. (c) Repeat steps a and b as necessary. (d) Enter a less well-lit room, assume the arms-extended position and mash the button; a red laser probe abruptly ranges across your cheekbone, a pop-up flashlamp blinks open, and blinding strobes flare. Minor shutter lag ... then muted click. (e) Repeat step d as desired.

As your vision slowly recovers, you can see that the unique all-angle, real-time display could finally enable photographers to appear properly positioned and posed in timed shots of small groups, for example. And for less common camera perspectives, such as the low-angle, pet-level scan I later took of my neighbor's new puppy, the flexible monitor can be invaluable. In the latter case, the R1 became a view camera.

But what is truly surprising about the R1 is the outstanding quality of those initial impromptu head shots (all vanity aside, of course). When scrolled across the LCD screen (and later printed out on paper), the images are all fine detail and nicely rendered color and contrast. Sans insidious red eye, as well. Automatic imaging mode notwithstanding, the results are considerably better than those from any pocket digicam. In fact, the photographs look to be nearly on a par with those produced by professional-grade D-SLRs.

At this point, the reason for the R1's almost inaudible click finally hits home. The new camera is not an SLR; it lacks a shutter altogether. The SLR's clicking shutter mechanism--the moving mirror and prism device that momentarily redirects the light passing through the lens from the viewfinder and into your eye to the 35mm film (in nondigital models) or the large-scale silicon imaging array sensor (in their digital counterparts)--seems absent. A glance into the R1's viewfinder confirms this suspicion; rather than showing a bright optical field, the camera has a miniature electronic screen that displays what the lens sees.

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