Sony DSC-R1 digital camera

Sony DSC-R1 Review – A Surprisingly Usable Vintage Digital Camera – By Matthew Bigwood

The Sony DSC-R1 is one of many cameras on a list of ‘I would have liked this when it was new, but I couldn’t justify or afford it’, but I did manage to track down one on eBay last year at a reasonable price. It seems like a ‘low mileage’ example and in very nice condition.

It is solidly made, with excellent ergonomics – nice weight and balance. In some ways the size and weight reminds me of using the Bronica ETRS medium format camera I owned in the 80s, equipped with the Speed Grip. With the rechargeable battery and Compact Flash card on board it tips the scales at 1,038 grams, so not a lightweight. I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who started photography on film in the 1980s and bought a 2.7-megapixel Nikon D1 DSLR in 2001.

This impressive Sony ‘prosumer’ bridge camera was announced in 2005 with a fixed Zeiss Vario-Sonnar f/2.8-4.8, 24-120mm equivalent lens (actual focal length is 14.3-71.5mm) and a relatively large 10.3-megapixel APS-C (21.5 x 14.4mm) CMOS sensor at a time when many DSLRs sported six- or eight-megapixel sensors. At the camera’s launch one reviewer said the lens alone was worth the asking price. It was the first camera with an APS-C sensor to offer Live View, too.

Sony DSC-R1 digital camera
The DSC-R1 was the first APS-C camera to have Live View.

The Sony DSC-R1 comes from a long line of high-end Sony digital cameras with impressive zoom ranges, including the DSC-F707, with a 10x zoom, and the R1’s predecessor the DSC-F828 which had an 8x zoom, 28-200mm equivalent, but with a much smaller sensor, measuring 8.8 x 6.6mm.

The R1’s zoom range makes it suitable for most subjects and is a great performer even at wide apertures. The relatively large sensor and f/2.8 aperture at the wide end means it is possible to successfully defocus backgrounds. It even has a very useful macro setting. Its leaf shutter operates from 30-seconds to 1/2000 plus time setting and can be used silently or with a synthesised shutter sound.

The camera features an electronic viewfinder as well as a hinged two-inch 134,000 dot LCD screen, mounted on top of the viewfinder, which rotates and can be used flat for low angle shots, though it doesn’t tilt backwards far enough for shots with the camera held high above your head. There is no optical viewfinder or reflex mirror as in a DSLR, so no mirror slap.

The cloisters at Lacock Abbey have appeared in a number of movies, including the Harry Potter films.

Autofocus is contrast detect but works well enough in good light but struggles as light levels fall. By today’s standards the viewfinder is low resolution and reminds me of that of a Sony DCR-VX2000 MiniDV camcorder I owned at the time. The camera is from the pre-image stabilisation era, and neither is it able to record video despite its predecessor, the DSC-F828, being able to record 640 x 480 videos at 30 fps.

Recording media is either Compact Flash (Type I or II) or Sony’s Memory Stick Pro. You need to choose one or the other as it isn’t able to write simultaneously to the cards. The Sony DSC-R1 does, however, offer the choice of JPEG, RAW, or JPEG and RAW simultaneously. For this test I have only used the R1 set to RAW mode, so cannot comment on the quality of the jpegs, auto white balance or noise reduction as I haven’t tested them.

cat walks across courtyard

RAWs are recorded as .SR2 files (unlike the current Sony .ARW files) and work perfectly in the latest version of Adobe Lightroom Classic. I found that the dynamic rage of the files is (not unexpectedly) significantly less than the current generation of Sony’s mirrorless cameras, including my A6600 which also features an APSC sensor. Similarly, low light performance can’t match today’s standards.

Lacock Bakery building and blue sky

In the autumn I spent a day with the Sony DSC-R1 at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, owned by the National Trust and former home of William Henry Fox Talbot, photographic pioneer and inventor of the negative/positive photographic process in the nineteenth century. I took pictures indoors and out, around the village and Abbey, used in many movies including the Harry Potter films. Noise becomes apparent in the shadow areas at 800 ISO but has the appearance of film grain. I took a picture inside a camera obscura in the grounds of the Abbey and needed to set 1600 ISO – at this level colour noise is more apparent and becomes even more apparent if the shadows are lightened in post processing.

Taken at ISO 1600 in a camera obscura in the grounds of the abbey and noise is visible in the shadows.

At the base 160 ISO noise is well controlled and images have pleasing colours and range of tones. In high contrast areas there is some evidence of chromatic aberration, with a green fringe on some edges, though this can be corrected in Lightroom when using RAW files.

The Sony DSC-R1 and it’s useful lens proved ideal for a day out, the focal range covering pretty much every situation and the macro setting letting me take a photo of a backlit cobweb in the Abbey Cloisters. The dynamic range was pushed to its limit when I took a photo of the famous Oriel Window, but the lens produced a fashionable ‘starburst’ from the point source of the sun in the upper right.

window and sunburst
The Oriel Window in the South Gallery at Lacock Abbey which appeared in one of Fox Talbot’s early photographs.

It takes around one second to be able to operate the camera after turning the on/off switch around the shutter release, not an issue in real world operation. Similarly, the shutter lag that plagued early consumer digital cameras is negligible (I have memories of trying to photograph my young daughter with a Canon Powershot G5 and she had moved out of the frame before the shutter had fired).

grey cat

However, the big downside for me is the length of time it takes to write RAW files as the camera has a fairly small buffer compared with modern cameras. I’ve been using a Kingston 8GB card rated at 133x (though I’m not sure if this is read or write speed). After taking one photo the tally lamp on the back of the camera remains on for nine seconds. Taking a second photo in RAW in quick succession makes the camera display an ‘Access’ graphic and bar graph on the LCD, accompanied by a pause of nine seconds until you can take another photo. On the plus side this concentrates one’s mind on being more selective about what you shoot, but if something happens in front of you that you want to photograph it is intensely irritating.

Sony DSC-R1 digital camera
The Access graphic is displayed when the camera is writing files to the card and prevents the camera being used.

The rechargeable NP-FM55H battery in my camera isn’t the original Sony, but a third party DTSE 2300 mAh replacement, so the original may not have made it through the 16 or 17 years since the Sony DSC-R1 was launched. However, it has impressive longevity and I’ve only charged it a couple of times since I bought the camera – the downside being that the charger has to be plugged into the camera, meaning you can’t take pictures until it has charged – though there may be aftermarket external chargers available as the battery was also used in Sony camcorders of the time.

The Sony DSC-R1 is an impressive piece of kit and seems to have spawned the subsequent range of Sony bridge cameras right up to today’s 20-megapixel Cyber Shot RX10 IV which sports a Vario-Sonnar 24-600mm (equivalent) lens and has the ability to shoot 4K video, albeit with a smaller 1”-type sensor measuring just 13.2 x 8.8mm but with a host of modern features including wi-fi connectivity which is lacking on the R1.

backlit cobweb on stonework

I haven’t had call to use the built-in flash in anger, but test shots around the room show the exposure to be very accurate, plus there is a hot shoe on the handgrip with pins for a dedicated flash – the contemporary Sony HVL-FX32X has a tilting head to allow for bounced flash and can be set to front or rear curtain sync via the camera menu.

There was also a supplementary lens attachment, the Sony VCL-DEH17R, which offered a 1.7x increase in focal length, taking the longest end of the lens to around 200mm. Contemporary reviews couldn’t avoid the fact that the R1 was limited to one fixed lens whilst a similarly priced DSLR had the option of using anything from extreme wide angles through to super telephoto lenses, but to me this is missing the point – the R1 is a camera with a custom-made, high quality Zeiss lens, and as mentioned at the time, doesn’t suffer from dust spots on the sensor from lens changes as would a DSLR.

bee on a red flower
The macro setting lets you get close to nature.

Image quality out of the Sony DSC-R1 is comparable or better than its contemporaries and seems to still hold something of a cult following. The lens delivers fantastically detailed results and has a great zoom range. Aside from the slow write speed for RAW files the camera’s performance and 10-megapixel files make it eminently usable, almost two decades since its launch.

Thanks for reading, you can find me on Flickr and Instagram

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15 thoughts on “Sony DSC-R1 Review – A Surprisingly Usable Vintage Digital Camera – By Matthew Bigwood”

  1. An ergonomic lesson in how to make a camera and a genetic blueprint for so many bridge and mirrorless cameras that followed. I loved my R1 until it’s sad demise – I must get another.

  2. Ibraar Hussain

    Thanks for the review!
    Enjoyed it! Nice photos with good tone and colour. I remember when it was released and was very impressed! I know it was a purely Sony camera and continued its relationship with zeiss and before the acquisition of Konica Minolta. These go for about £100 on eBay

  3. You can shoot continuous if you shoot jpg only, but even then it is only a burst of three.
    The same battery was used in Sony’s A100 (a KM5d with a 10 mp sensor) and the camera is compatible with the batteries Sony used in later Alpha models – I can confirm that the chargers from those later cameras will take the battery.

  4. Glad Nicolae Parau

    Lovely article, had 2 of them, about 10 years ago, still love them and have a flickr album with pictures taken with both, the first one had to sell it to a friend that saw how capable it is. 🙂
    Yes it was slow, above iso 400 it was grainy as hell, slow to focus in bad light, but those colours where very uncommon for Sony, the red’s are not blown out like they’re whole lineup of cameras did untill the mirrorless era.
    Regarding the charging, i remember you could use the camera while it was pluged into the mains adapter, being a favourite for studio work. But i believe it cannot charge the battery at the same time.

  5. I learned a lot with that camera but it was too much camera for my skills I only got serious about learning after my own a6000, I really would love to own one again, I haven’t had any luck in my area

  6. I used one of these R1s back when they were new. The jpeg files were superb and I rarely needed to process the RAW files. This was an amazing camera in a dark room or cellar. Put it on a tripod, trigger it, and let it calculate the exposure – seconds, maybe > a minute. The exposure and color would be perfect. I always left it at the lowest ISO and never saw any issues with dynamic range. Impressive for 2005.

  7. I bought one last year in like-new condition for $130 on eBay. The Zeiss lens produces great images and the EVF and LCD, despite their dated specs, are very usable. It has excellent build quality and handles well. I had wanted one at the time, but was put off by the price; roughly the same as the very “plasticky” early Canon and Nikon DSLR’s. But, one gets what one pays for. I have been a “camera guy” since the early 1960’s and the R1 is one of my all time favorites.

  8. I bought my R1 in 2005 having got fed-up with my DSLR. At that time I think Sony did not make a DSLR so I imagine the R1 was a (superb) stop-gap. Luckily I did not read Mr Apsley’s review at that time!
    I may be wrong but I think it differs from DSLRs in that the viewfinder and the screen display what the processor is going to send to the memory card, not just what is seen through the lens. This means that I can ‘live’ adjust the aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder image without going through the review rigmarole. OK it is rather slow but not a problem in my case.
    Another nice feature for me who does not use it very often is that it holds its battery charge for weeks.
    I remember being so impressed that when it was discontinued in 2006 and the price plummeted I bought a spare which I have never used.

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