Sony RX1: The EVF
The forgettably-named FDA-EV1MK is a make-or-break piece of kit for Sony's RX1: without it, the camera is a (very) glorified Point & Shoot. So when the EVF arrived I knew that within a short period of time it would become clear whether or not the RX1 would be a 'keeper'.
This sounds harsh. But for me - and I suspect a large number of other RX1 users - a proper eye-level finder is vital. Why?
So the task of the FDA-EV1MK is to fulfil the above requirements well, as well as to be well designed, clear and easy to use and correctly integrated into the system.
It does not fully succeed on all these counts.
In the Box
The box contains the EVF itself, with a contact blanking plate attached. The EVF is fitted with a soft eyepiece cup but also included is a 'regular' eyepiece cup. There's a small grey microfibre cloth, instructions in an array of languages, and a nicely made leather case for the EVF itself. This case has a velcro flap on the rear, by which it can be attached to the camera strap but few people will use it that way since it would be too bulky in relation to the size of the camera. Nor is there any way of securing the contact blanking plate inside the case: it rattles loose and will therefore soon get lost. This is poorly thought-out.
The EVF has a small sliding diopter adjustment lever on the right hand side. Nestled inside the eyecup on the rear of the eyepiece itself is a sensor which detects when the camera is raised to the eye and, if set up to do so in the camera's Settings Menu, will perform an automatic switch between LCD and EVF display. If that feature is set to Manual rather than Auto, the small EVF/LCD button on the left of the finder will allow the function to be selected by the user.
Also in the camera's menu (under Cog>2) are two relevant settings called 'DISP Button (Monitor)' and 'DISP Button (Finder)' which allow the user to select which of the standard sets of screen information appear as you cycle through the 'DISP' button on the back of the camera. The options are the same for each but thoughtfully, different choices can be set for each. There is one exception: under the options called up in 'DISP Button (Monitor)' you will see that there is one information screen on the right hand side, topped with a check box labelled 'For viewfinder', which gives an information screen which contains all shooting data but no image preview. This is a very useful screen: it has a long-based histogram that is far more accurate than the smaller, standard histogram. It also shows the level. For tripod use, I suggest selecting this screen for monitor display and the 'No display info' option for the finder - so you have the best of both worlds.
I personally find the EVF bright and clear with a sharp view and a perfectly adequate refresh rate, though haters of EVFs will no doubt remain unconvinced: there is still a bit of flicker and a tiny bit of smear and lag.
The main irritations are two-fold: firstly, the diopter lever is too easily moved accidentally. This is is daft, poor design, and the fact that it happens at all IMHO compromises the entire project, not entirely but somewhat. Secondly, both eyecups limit the full view of the image for spectacle wearers. This is very slightly more so with the soft eyecup. It is possible to use the finder without either but there is no thin rubber surround such as you will find on, for example, the D800. This means that if you want easy access to a full view of the scene, you risk scratching your spectacles. Again, poorly thought-out.
Otherwise the EVF is very good. I find it pretty easy to judge focus both with and without peaking turned on but I would note that peaking, whilst very useful, is not foolproof, though it is better when used at the 'extra magnified' degree of zoom. Which brings me to two further irritations with the system: firstly, in order to switch from magnified view to 'extra magnified' view, you need to press the centre button of the control wheel. This is fiddly even when using the monitor - especially given the fact that I generally select 2 Sec as the Focus Magnify time in the camera menu, so there isn't much time to 'find' the button. It is more annoying when using the EVF because it must be done purely by feel. The second irritation is that, when focussing manually using DMF mode, one often wants to switch quickly between having peaking on and having peaking off. The menu item that allows this has the options High, Mid, Low and Off but it would be very handy if one of the customisable rear buttons could be set to toggle peaking merely between On and Off. This can't be done, but it could be merely a firmware update away.
I have found a clear tendency towards less camera shake when using the EVF, as expected, and I would put the improvement at up to two stops: very useful.
I have also found that the ability to judge DOF is GREATLY improved using the EVF but you need great familiarity with the way peaking works AND with the way that the lens focusses if you are to get the best out of it. Why?
Firstly, peaking is a guide but is not definitive, and is much more useful when combined with the 'extra magnified' mode (hard to select, as described above) and some experience. Being fundamentally contrast-based, it can be fooled but knowledge, based on shooting experience, of when that is likely to be a problem can greatly ameliorate the problem. Secondly, you need to know that the preview of DOF that you get of the scene, whether through the viewfinder or on the LCD, depends on aperture: the camera focusses at the set aperture for all apertures from F2 thru F8 but at smaller apertures, it will briefly open up to F8 in order to focus. So if you are using the preview through either the LCD or the EVF, be aware that if you half-press the shutter in either AF or DMF mode, the DOF you are seeing will be accurate for apertures of F2 thru F8 but not thereafter. In MF mode, it is always accurate and in all modes it is accurate as long as you have not engaged AF.
But in any event I quickly found that the EVF lets me refine DOF much more accurately, even hand-held, than does the LCD. I generally shoot at F8 or wider so I am nearly always getting an accurate DOF preview. My 'semi-fast' method with the EVF is to shoot in DMF mode with the aperture set to F2 initially. I tweak the lens so as to trigger zoom and peaking, focus on the nearest thing I want in focus, and then stop down to my estimated shooting aperture and see if the furthest thing I want in focus is shimmering convincingly. If it isn't, I stop down further until it is. This works pretty well, but even better is to slow it down and to use MF and a bit of iteration to find a point of focus somewhere a little further away than the nearest object whereby, at shooting aperture, everything need to be is in focus. Using this method, I can get very accurate results - and very satisfyingly, that accuracy has as much to do with what I exclude as what I include in the field of focus. Given that the lens on the RX1 is very mild-mannered and has few field curvature effects, one can really get selective focus down to a very fine art in this way. Better, I would tentatively suggest, that with pretty much any other system unless shot tethered.
In terms of power consumption, beware: I have not done a scientific test but power consumption seems higher to me when it 'auto switch' mode than with the LCD alone. When I configure it so the LCD is displaying the long-base histogram info screen and the EVF is simultaneously displaying the preview image, battery life seems to take a harder hit still. More testing is required but for now, if it's your first outing with the EVF, take a spare or two.
A word on the vexed issue of whether the EVF should have a locking plate to secure it more confidently to the camera: yes it should. I personally have had no problems so far but if I assume that one day it will catch on the strap, or an item of clothing, or something in a bag as the camera is taken out for use, then it seems an obvious oversight not to have included a lock. People are already talking about using gaffer tape. This is another example of 'not enough thought and care' on Sony's part.
Another problem is that the auto switch from LCD to EVF is a fraction too slow. This, taken in conjunction with the too slow start up time of the camera, adds to the overall feel of a 'not quite professional' product: the point'n'shoot gene has not been fully selected out.
Finally, a comment on the articulation of the finder. Tilting it up a tiny bit allows me a more comfortable angle to work at. Using it at more extreme angles of tilt, up to 90 degrees, has very quickly given me access to a much wider range of ways of framing a scene and this is a genuinely useful addition to the abilities of the system - and something which SLRs simply cannot do. Used correctly, it can also help 'anonymise' the shooter.
The EVF both could and should have been better. Not enough thought has gone into the way in which it or its case have been designed, nor into the way that it works as part of the system: the firmware tweak I suggest above is one example of this but another is the fact that neither the thumb-grip nor an external flash can be used in conjunction with the finder.
Those gripes aside, the finder does its job very well. It fulfils all of the major requirements a user will have of it and it unlocks the true potential of the RX1. Together, as a system, they might suffer from some compromises but overall, they work very well indeed and I would go as far as to way that I would actually prefer to have the finder as an external: the abilities to tilt it or to leave it at home or in the bag making the camera as small as possible when required, taken together, make it a winner.
It's shorthand for 'held away from your body with your arms rather than to your eye and braced against your face.' Sometimes one has to make material readable by not adding every caveat. In any event, holding any camera away from the face, however lengthened the arms, IMHO impairs stability.
I do not understand this idea that you have to shoot at "arm's length" without a viewfinder. I never shoot that way and I always use the LCD. I hold it close a few inches away, not necessarily right in front of me but so I can see the screen, even at an angle. I use my arms to brace the camera and do not have problems. But arm's length? Never. And I am an old geezer who grew up with film SLR's.
Tim: Good review as usual. A couple of points on the EVF:
1) I agree with you on the floppy diopter slider. It is a bad design. But once it is adjusted it can be held in place reliably with a bit of black gaffer tape. This doesn't absolve from responsibility Sony but...
2) I am a glasses wearer and have dispensed with the rubber eye pieces because both restrict the view. I find the naked plastic surround ok with glasses--it is no more likely to scratch than, say, the rangefinder eyepiece on Leica Ms. Without the rubber eye cups the camera actually looks better and I find I can easily see the entire screen without difficulty.
3) My version does click into place and needs quite a firm tug to release it. But I have found it detached inside my bag on one occasion and this is worrying. The EVF2 for the M240 is worse in this respect, however. The best and most secure design I have found is the Panasonic finder for the D-Lux 6. A button has to be pressed to release it from the camera and the diopter control is UNDER the finder out of harm's way. It is a model others should follow.
What's needed now is for someone to come up with a case specially designed to fit the RX1 with the viewfinder attachedl.
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