It was a huge milestone. Ten years of being married to my beautiful wife, Cecilia, and naturally, we planned something big. Months before our anniversary, we started planning an important trip to her parents’ homeland in Central America. The destination was a tiny area between North and South America, but the vacation was going to be of epic proportions. You see, her grandmother (or Abuelita as we affectionately caller her) lived there all her life. She wasn’t able to come to our wedding because of her advanced age and aversion to flying. A decade had passed after that and our desire to visit her had only grown stronger.
May 2, 2013 was highlighted brightly on our calendar and as the day to leave the country came closer, all the details of our trip were starting to fall into place — who would watch our four children, who would pick us up at the airport, and which parts of Central America we would visit in our limited time there. But, one little detail was not yet decided upon — which camera would I bring to document this important trip (I am a photographer after all). We quickly decided that I would not bring one of my workhorse cameras, a Canon 5D Mark II. We needed something small and inconspicuous. We also knew that we did not want to sacrifice quality for size. Because of Abuelita’s age, the photos from this trip may be the last ones we get of her — it was a sad but realistic possibility.
Just weeks before we had to decide on the camera of choice, I happened to stumble upon a few detailed reviews of the Sony RX1 and a couple of days before our trip, I shared the online material to my wife. “This is the one,” I told her. “It’s so small, it can fit in my pocket.” I didn’t mention that I meant my jacket pocket, but a pocket nonetheless. I continued to sell it to her, “It’s got a 35mm Zeiss lens, and it’s FULL-FRAME!” I explained to her that it was a mirrorless camera, unlike any of my Canon gear. It doesn’t depend on a mirror, but used the full-frame sensor to directly send the live view image to the electronic viewfinder. I was beaming, “It’s the future, and the future is here!” She had that look on her face, I might as well have been speaking in Latin. Then I mumbled incomprehensibly, “It’s only $2,700.” I braced myself to be righteously shot down, but despite the hefty price tag, she said those magic words that photography nerds all over the world hear wishfully in their head, but rarely get to hear from their significant other: “Go and get it. It’s my present to you.” I didn’t even hesitate. I took a second to squeal like a little boy on Christmas morning, jumped into our minivan, and drove to my local camera store. I walked through the front door of the store (there must have been music playing in my head, because I strutted my way to the camera counter) to talk to Ryan, one of my photographer friends who worked there. I contemplated about savoring the moment of purchasing the camera, but it was useless; Ryan had just shown me the RX1 a couple of days earlier (and by the look on his face, I think he had a hunch that I would come back for it). It was agreed upon with a nod between us that only a quick transaction was necessary so I can head back home and get to unboxing.
The one and only, Sony RX1 outfitted with a leather half-camera case and vented lens hood.
Immediately after opening the box and handling the RX1, I knew I was holding something special. It was legitimately as small as a point-and-shoot camera, but you can feel the level of attention that was put into its design (even the lens cap looks like a piece of art). The fixed 35mm lens bulging out of the camera body was the only thing that kept it from being a true compact, mostly because it does not retract when the camera is off, like your normal point-and-shoot. But knowing that it was a Zeiss lens with a wide f/2.0 aperture, I considered it more of a badge of honor than an embarrassing blemish. Other than the standard shutter button and mode dial, there were two physical controls on the camera body that you don’t normally see in modern cameras. The first such dial is for exposure compensation, perfect for quickly adjusting the lightness or darkness of the image while using one of the automatic modes (Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Speed Priority). The other feature is a manual aperture ring on base the lens itself, which lets you control your aperture setting with a quick turn. These two seemingly small features of the RX1 design are actually major details that enhanced my enjoyment of using this camera in the ensuing two years. There is more to be said about the camera’s design and features (which I will save for another blog post) but I want to address more important matters. I was already sold on the RX1’s compact stature after first handling, and all that needs to be explored was the quality of images that it produced. The following is a collection of photographs from our vacation along with some of my observations and comments on how the camera performed during the trip.
The Departure & Arrival
My wife and I packed four large rolling cases with clothes and bare necessities, but ironically, my camera gear was the lightest thing we brought (which is a big deal coming from a photographer). We departed from Los Angeles International Airport on a red eye flight. This was a perfect scenario to test the RX1’s low-light abilities. I shot this photo on our bus trip to the airport in the middle of the night.
After arriving in El Salvador, our first destination was the home of my wife’s aunt, Tia Angelica. She is a seamstress and had some of her equipment at home. The Zeiss lens produced sharp images even at wide open apertures, perfect for capturing the details on Tia’s old sewing machine.
Tia Angelica was happy to see us and wanted to prepare some lunch for us. She decided to make a quick trip to the mercado, an outdoor market. I jumped at the chance to go with her and possibly get a few quick snapshots of the neighborhood. While at the bustling marketplace, I saw a man carrying a bag over his shoulder quickly approaching our direction. I thought it would be a great chance to use a slower shutter speed and pan as he passed by to capture his haste.
That afternoon, we took a cab to Abuelita’s house, just a few minutes away from where we were staying. Meeting her and seeing my wife’s face upon seeing her was the brightest highlight of our trip, which makes this next group of photos some of the most important ones I’ve ever taken in my life.
Floating In A Volcano
Central America’s landscape is peppered with mountains, but if you look closer, a few of those mountains are actually volcanos. One of the places we got to visit was Lago Coatepeque, a dormant volcano whose crater has turned into a lake. We got there a few hours before sunset which gave us enough time for a boat ride before it got dark. The RX1 was small enough that I could quickly reach out of the boat holding the camera one-handed for a different perspective. The view at the lake was beyond gorgeous and the quality of the image files were conducive for rich, texture-filled black & white photos, and vibrantly colored sunset shots.
When the weekend arrived, we still had the itch to see some sights, so we visited a nearby outdoor marketplace on a mountainside. The site was pretty close by and the drive was a relaxed, slow climb up a mountain until we reached what the locals called “La Puerta del Diablo” or “Devil’s Door”. I photographed various scenes there including local vendors and a group performing a mixture of fire twirling and samba drumming.
A Simple Portrait
One of my photography goals during the trip was to get a simple portrait of Abuelita. A 35mm lens usually is not considered a portrait lens, but it’s definitely a great lens for environmental portraits, and because it has a wide f/2.0 aperture, you can still get head-and-shoulder portraits with nice blurred out backgrounds. Although, I would normally use an 85mm focal length for portraits, I felt confident that I could get a great portrait with the 35mm Zeiss. Here are a few of my favorite portraits from the trip.
Central America In Black & White
We walked a lot on our trip, which gave me an opportunity to shoot a little bit of street photography. Although, the cities in Central America are exploding with vibrant color, Black & white images really bode well for street scenes because there is so much texture and grittiness. The diminutive size of the RX1, as well as it’s tack-sharp 35mm lens, makes it a nice tool for street photography. I also played a little bit with the Panorama Mode, which I have to admit, comes in pretty handy during a vacation, and the results are phenomenal.
Central America In Living Color
Walking through the streets of Central America for the first time reminds me of the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy steps out of her house into the magical land of Oz. It seemed like I was previously living in a world of black & white and the bustling town where I stayed was in Technicolor. There is just so much vibrant color packed into this tiny country, and the RX1’s image quality was able to beautifully reproduce the vivid scenery.
The Last Day
As with all good things, they usually have to come to a conclusion. Our final day in Central America consisted of packing our bags and hand-making pupusas to take back home. The trip proved to be an epic one, and at the end of it all, I was really happy that my wife and I decided to bring the RX1 as our sole camera. Its size allowed me to move around freely without having a sore neck at the end of the day. It made the act of taking a picture a sheer joy. There was never a moment where I wished I had my bigger, heavier DSLR camera. The best part was the quality of the images lived up to the price tag of the Sony camera. I am simply speechless in this regard. I never would have imagined any company, regardless of how innovative they were, could pack a full-frame sensor and a high-quality 35mm lens with awesome image quality into such a compact space. Even the simplification of the camera’s controls, and the decision to use physical dials for some of the necessary controls instead of digital counterparts made the camera fun to handle. It made me seriously wonder, “If Sony can make a compact camera that’s both capable and fun to use like the RX1, can they actually make a mirrorless interchangeable lens system that’s compelling enough to make me switch entirely from my DSLR?”
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