Posted Friday, November 11, 2005

Hot Digital Camera to Watch: Sony's DSC-R1

I love digital SLR cameras, but I don't own one. For the last couple of years, my "big" camera has been a Sony DSC-F828, a beautifully designed, if imperfect, 8-megapixel, fixed-lens camera. (Pros: Exquisite Zeiss lens with 7x optical zoom; superb industrial design; excellent image quality; full-screen, full-motion movie mode; accepts both Memory Sticks and Compact Flash cards. Cons: Noisy at high ISO speeds; prone to CCD artifacts ["purple fringing"] in tricky lighting scenarios; absurdly slow raw mode.)

"But Jim," you say. "You take hundreds of photos a week and spend 23 hours a day on Flickr. How could you not own a DSLR?"

A few reasons.

The cost of glass. You can spend several California mortgage payments outfitting a DSLR with a good range of lenses. And then you've got to haul those lenses around with you.

The perils of dirt. As frequent visitors to my Flickr photostream know, I take a large percentage of my photos at beaches and on dusty dirt roads. Dirt and sand can enter a DSLR when you change lenses, and a dirty imaging sensor can be very tricky to clean.

No movie modes. No DSLR I'm aware of has a movie mode. (Please enlighten me if there is one.)

Limited LCD usage. Again, no DSLR I'm aware of lets you view the scene you're about to shoot on its built-in LCD. The LCD is for image-review only. (Again, please enlighten if I've fallen behind the times.)

No, for me, the DSC-F828 hits a lovely sweet spot between price, capabilities, and design.

New on the Horizon
Sony is on the verge of releasing what might be a sweeter sweet spot: The $999.95 Cyber-shot DSC-R1, which uses a breakthrough 10-megapixel imaging sensor that's physically much larger than the sensors in most digital cameras, allowing for lower noise and fewer artifacts.

Besides the innovative sensor, there's a lot to like in the R1, including a two-inch, swiveling LCD screen and a zebra stripe mode that superimposes warning indicators on highlight areas that will be overexposed. Alas, in a design decision aimed at breaking my heart, the R1 does not have a movie mode. That isn't a deal-breaker for me, but I would miss having the ability to grab a minute or two of action or audio.

All of the digital camera sites have written previews of this new camera, which ships later this month. Here's DP Review's preview.

But the most interesting comments on the R1 come from photographer Michael Reichmann, who writes, "this new digicam may well provide image quality comparable to that from current DSLRs, and with pixel density exceeding nearly any of the competition, digicam or DSLR." It's an essay worth reading, whether or not you're interested in the R1.

I'm not recommending the R1 here, as I haven't seen or used one. But I'm keeping a close eye on this new camera, and if you're in the market for a high-end camera but a DSLR doesn't make financial or practical sense, you should, too.

Oh, and I should add that I do own an SLR: a Minolta SRT-101 that I bought used in 1975. It still works, or at least it did several years ago, when I last used it.