Sony Cyber-shot RX1 Digital Camera Review
Sony's RX1 is a $2,800 point-and-shoot. Insane? Perhaps. It's also the best compact digital camera ever made.
The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 (MSRP $2,799.99) is the first digital full-frame compact camera to hit the market. With a 35mm sensor and Sony’s latest Bionz processor, both shared with its flagship A99 DSLR, the RX1’s image quality is without peer in the point-and-shoot realm. The fact that Sony has also paired this impressive internal platform with a fantastic lens—the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2—makes this one of the most compelling cameras we've seen in a long, long time. With superlative image quality and a design that's highly conducive to street photography. the RX1 is sure to be the object of lust for anyone with even a passing interest in photography.
And yet it’s impossible to overlook the RX1's truly staggering price tag. While plenty of photography gear is outside the bounds of mere mortals' bank accounts, asking $2,800 for what amounts to an excellent point-and-shoot surely stretches credulity. Can anyone in their right mind stomach Sony's exorbitant fee, and if so, why would they choose the RX1 over similarly priced or ever far less expensive full-frame DSLRs? As it happens, there's a case to be made for this compact powerhouse, albeit to a very specific audience.
Design & Handling
The RX1 is compact and discreet, with loads of control squeezed into a jacket-friendly size.
From the moment you first pick up the Sony RX1, it’s clear that a superior level of craftsmanship has gone into its construction. It’s heavier than it looks, with a largely metal build that provides a palpable impression of durability. The body is also quite compact, giving the RX1 a confidence-inspiring density. The camera's small size is one of its greatest assets, but also—at times—a hindrance.
With dedicated macro and aperture rings on the lens and an exposure compensation dial on its top plate, the RX1 provides the tools necessary to operate the camera without ever having to make a trip into the main menu. Other exposure controls such as aperture and ISO speed don’t have dedicated dials, but a single rear control wheel and several custom keys provide enough flexibility for even habitual full-manual shooters.
Despite the inclusion of so many dedicated controls, the RX1 still provides enough room for you to get a solid grip without accidentally pressing keys. That isn’t to say the RX1 is particularly comfortable—the strap lugs get in the way when shooting without a neck strap, while the AF dial on the front is practically impossible to operate one-handed. The RX1 provides enough creature comforts to get by, but it’s not nearly as accommodating a design as the Sony NEX-7, for example.
Our biggest ergonomic complaint would have to be the non-existent grip on the front of the camera, though it’s clear Sony designed the body with the optional ($250!) leather case accessory in mind. A larger, contoured grip would’ve been preferable, though we never felt the RX1 was in danger of slipping out of our hand.
We have few complaints about the RX1’s Carl Zeiss–branded lens, however. It’s a real coup, providing a 35mm focal length and f/2 maximum aperture in a more compact package than such a design would normally demand. Without the need for a bayonet mount, Sony has been able to position the RX1’s sensor deeper into the body than would otherwise be possible. This keeps the RX1’s depth to a manageable 2.75 inches. There’s a physical aperture ring that has pleasingly solid click-stops, though the focus ring is (sadly) focus-by-wire. The lens also has the added benefit of a mechanical macro lens ring (similar to the Olympus 12-50mm Micro Four Thirds lens) that changes the minimum focus distance from 24cm to a very useful 14cm.
Still & Video Features
For a camera approaching three grand, the RX1 has a lot of traditional point-and-shoot accoutrements.
The Sony RX1 has an interesting range of features that should appeal to a broad variety of shooters. While the camera’s mind-boggling price will likely exclude all but the richest novices—and to be honest, most potential buyers—there are a few features that seem specifically designed for newbies. For example, while manual controls certainly dominate the body and tmenu system, the RX1 comes loaded with automatic modes, scene modes, and filters. Some of those filters have real artistic merit, though—the high-contrast black and white filter in particular creates a charming film-like aesthetic when shooting at high sensitivities.
And while we can geek out about incredible hardware and photographer-friendly controls until we’re blue in the face, there’s also something to be said for a camera that you can just hand to a stranger on the street and have them take your picture. (Though with the RX1, we advise finding a stranger in uncomfortable shoes, or at least one that you’re reasonably confident you can outrun.)
Despite its fixed-focal lens, Sony has given the RX1 a fair number of video-centric features as well. In video mode you can opt for 1080/60p AVCHD 2.0 video, or go with something lower res (these alternatives include AVCHD and MP4 codecs). The camera does offer some direct control over video exposure, both before and during recording, though you have to go into the dedicated video mode and through a separate menu to access these settings. You can set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, though the options are a little limited. The aperture is controlled strictly by the physical lens ring, shutter speed is limited to faster than the current capture rate, and ISO can only be set between 100-6400 or automatically. You can, however, use the exposure compensation dial to ratchet brightness up or down at will.
You can choose between full-time autofocus or manual focus when shooting video, and tracking focus can also be set, which is pretty nice if you are taking video of a moving subject. Focus mode is still set by the dial on the front of the body, which is rather difficult to move with a single hand. It's perfectly usable, though on-the-fly adjustments will result in shaky video. The RX1 includes a 3.5mm mic jack as well as a built-in stereo microphone, but audio recording amenities are limited. There's no audio level display or control, which makes it difficult for us to recommend the RX1 for any serious video production (assuming you're not using a separate audio capture setup).
With superb image quality in practically every testing category, the RX1 was a winner in our labs.
Let's cut right to the chase: The RX1’s 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is as sharp as just about any lens we’ve seen in our labs. To make a completely unfair comparison, it’s certainly far sharper than what we normally see from point-and-shoot cameras, and produces bokeh that no other compact camera can match.
In our testing we found resolution was practically unchanged in the center from f/2 to f/8 (approximately 1600 line widths per picture height at MTF50), though stopping down improved midway and corner sharpness by as much as 25%. We also tested the lens at its minimum aperture of f/22, which is diffraction-limited but still acceptable for some shots with 1134 lw/ph in the center. The Sonnar T* does have a few quirks, however. There’s obviously some vignetting in the corners, particularly shooting at or near wide open, and distortion is worse than we’d like to see from a fixed-focal lens.
Of course, the lens is only half the story. The sensor and image processing pipeline make an impressive combination, producing low noise levels and expansive dynamic range. Analyzing RAW images, we found that the sensor was capable of almost 14 stops of dynamic range at ISO 100, using the industry standard metrics. Even JPEGs straight from the camera preserved 12.6 stops of dynamic range, thanks to the very low noise levels at base ISO. Looking at the raw noise percentages, we found that even with noise reduction turned to Off, the RX1 kept noise levels under 2% through ISO 3200. With noise reduction activated—either at the Low or Normal setting—it doesn’t even reach 1.7% at any sensitivity setting.
The performance figures we’ve seen from the RX1 unquestionably crown it the best compact digital camera ever made. Its lab numbers put it right in the image quality ballpark of new full-frame DSLRs such as the Nikon D800 and Canon 5D Mark III, with the obvious caveat that the lens isn’t interchangeable. That’s certainly a ding in the RX1's value proposition, but it'll be up to individual shoppers to determine how much it's offset by the camera's advantages in portability and weight.
Sony's RX1 is a halo product par excellence—a thing that never needed to be made, but that enriches the photographic world simply by existing.
Having shot with the RX1 for several weeks, I find myself wondering just how the first digital full-frame compact came to be. Did a hapless Sony engineer knock a boiling vat of full-frame sensors onto a batch of RX100s? "Hey, you got your full-frame sensor in my point-and-shoot!" Did the 2018 version of Sony president Kazuo Hirai—white-robed, with slicked back silver hair—time-travel back to the present, walk into his younger self's office, and drop an RX1 on his own desk? “You’re welcome. Eat more fish and don’t take the train next Tuesday.”
Okay, it probably wasn’t anything quite so fantastic, but we have to admit that we didn’t see the RX1 coming. While Sony was justly praised for putting a large 1-inch sensor in the Cyber-shot RX100 last year, the RX1 takes this concept to an entirely new level. The price is on its own new level, too; the RX100's justifiable $650 MSRP has ballooned to nearly $3,000 for the RX1. It’s a massive leap, though all of our lab tests indicate that the image quality has taken a similar step forward.
That isn’t to say the RX1 is perfect. While it’s far more expensive than every other compact on the market, it would be naïve to think that Sony's sky-high asking price means they've managed to sidestep all the compromises that other point-and-shoots make in the name of pocketability. Most glaring is the camera's pitiful battery life, since you can easily exhaust a full charge in less than a day of serious shooting. While in-camera USB charging is nice, for $2,800 Sony should’ve at least included an external charger—and probably a backup battery. Focus performance was also a nagging issue. The RX1's contrast-detection AF system often hunts in low light and the multi-zone focus mode will randomly lock onto parts of the scene with no discernible subject. Our advice? Keep the AF on the center point and recompose, otherwise you risk giving the RX1 just enough rope to hang itself.
Image quality hasn’t been compromised, though—not one bit. The Sony RX1 easily performs as well as similar full-frame DSLRs, and even comes close to equalling my favorite 2012 camera, the monstrously powerful Nikon D800. The fixed focal length is obviously going to be an issue for some, but the RX1's sharpness and bokeh compare well with virtually any 35mm f/1.4 lens on the market. We're still keen to test the Fujifilm X100S, but the RX1's full-frame sensor outperforms every other fixed-lens camera we've seen by a comfortable margin.
Whether out of idle curiosity or genuine buying interest, at this point you’re likely doing the math in your head. For most, a $2,800 price tag for a fixed-lens camera probably seems like a bridge too far. A Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens and a Nikon D600 or Canon 6D, for instance, might sound like a tempting alternative. Really, whether or not the RX1 is the camera for you will come down to how much you value what's not here: Is shedding the bulk and weight of a DSLR worth giving up the flexibility a system camera offers? The real question is, does anybody need this thing?
Realistically? Probably not. The RX1 is likely to appeal chiefly to buyers who already own a full-frame system camera but want something small for travel—users for whom sacrificing on image quality is like sacrificing a limb. Yes, complaining that your incredibly expensive camera and lens collection is too cumbersome to bring on your Mediterranean vacation is the ultimate first-world problem, but the RX1 solves it nonetheless.
So no, there’s probably nobody who needs the RX1, but you’re not an idiot if you buy one. It’s not the Hasselblad Lunar. It’s a genuinely great camera with a few flaws. The real issue is that it lacks the flexibility most advanced shooters would want from their primary setup, but is priced far beyond what most people would be willing to pay. Regardless of how it sells, the RX1’s a gem in Sony’s camera lineup, exploding the idea that a 1-inch sensor should be considered “big” for a compact camera.
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