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Sony RX1 Review
by Theano Nikitas -  5/2/2013

Full-frame cameras are trending lately but Sony took the photographic world by surprise when they introduced the RX1--the first compact camera with a full-frame sensor. The camera's $2800 price tag may be out of reach for many people but even so, it's not so easy to dismiss the RX1 either for price or its fixed 35mm lens.

Overview
While the initial excitement surrounding the 24 megapixel RX1's launch was based mostly on the fact that its compact body is built around a full-frame sensor, enthusiasm and respect, for this camera doesn't stop there. Once you start shooting with the camera, you understand that beyond the sensor size, the RX1 is special from its solid build and design to the camera's consistently amazing image quality. 

Given its specifications, quality build and especially price, the RX1 isn't for everyone. Keep in mind that there are a number of extras you'll want to have (including an EVF) that will bump the price up by hundreds of dollars. But this is, in many ways, a true photographer's camera with its manual aperture ring and fixed lens. That may sound obvious, but not everyone will be excited about some of the RX1's attributes. Although it costs more than some higher end DSLRs, the RX1 makes a great second camera for pros and semi-pros and will probably appeal to photographers who want excellent quality in a convenient, compact body. 

Build and Design
Pick up the RX1 and there's no doubt that this camera was built with quality in mind. Its tank-like magnesium alloy body just feels right in the hand and, although it's not weatherproof (which would have been nice), you get the feeling that it can withstand heavy use. Even the lens cap is offers the same premium feel. 

On the other hand, it's so beautifully designed --and is so expensive--that I often found myself treating it unnecessarily with kid gloves. On the other hand, I don't know that I'd spring for Sony's $250 leather case to protect it; the RX1 is a nice looking camera and you may want to show it off. 

Adding to the sense of the RX1's superior build is the camera's heft. It's heavier than I imagined, weighing a little over a pound but is impressively compact at 4 1/2 x 2 5/8 x 2 3/4 inches. No, it's not quite pocketable--and would you really want to carry a $2800 camera in your pocket?--but the RX1 is small enough to bring with you wherever you go. 

Ergonomics and Controls
Overall, the RX1 is expertly designed and comfortable to hold and use. A textured/rubberized surface wraps around the right side of the camera and helps when holding the camera. There's no real contour or grip and while that might bother some people I have no problems with the current design although slightly deeper thumb rest on the rear of the camera would be welcome. An optional, albeit expensive ($250) thumb grip is available. But, besides costing a bundle, it attaches via the camera's one-accessory-at-a-time multi-interface hotshoe, so you won't be able to utilize any other optional accessories when it's in use and you'll have to flip it out of the way to access the playback button. 

The control layout is, with only a couple of exceptions, well thought out and provides a good level of customization with more options than many DSLRs. Starting on the front panel, slightly below and to the left of the lens, is (much like my Nikon D3s) a focus mode switch. A flip of the switch changes focus from MF (manual focus), DMF (autofocus with manual fine tuning) or AF (autofocus). An aperture ring, manual focus ring and macro switching ring are part of the lens design, which I'll discuss in more detail later in this review. 

Along the top deck, the shutter button, surrounded by the power on/off switch, is perfectly positioned to be within easy reach of your forefinger. A bonus for those of us who still have a cable release from our 35mm camera days, the interior of the RX1's shutter button is threaded so you can easily set the camera on a tripod and fire away without touching the camera.

To the left of the shutter release is a fairly standard mode dial: auto, program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual, three user-custom modes, movie, sweep panorama and scene. Behind and to the right is a good-sized exposure compensation dial and while it's very stiff and a little difficult to turn with your thumb, it's convenient and there's no chance of accidentally changing EV settings. 

A tiny custom ("C") button sits just forward of the EV dial. It's fairly low profile, but is raised just enough that you can easily find by touch. One of more than two-dozen functions can be assigned to this control ranging from drive mode, autofocus area, picture effect, white balance and metering mode. 

A multi-interface/hotshoe is located in the center of the top deck. Fortunately, the interface is no longer proprietary and will now accept ISO standard accessories, along with Sony's long list of accessories such as optical and electronic viewfinders, a lens hood (Seriously? For $2800 Sony couldn't include a lens hood?), external flash, micro-to-HDMI cables and a shotgun microphone. The battery is charged in-camera, which makes it difficult to charge a spare while you're out shooting. But a wall charger is available for about $50. There's also an optional adapter for auto-lock shoe compatible accessories. 

On the top left deck, you'll find the pop-up flash. But most of the action happens on the rear panel, with a control dial, AEL, menu and function buttons, and a control wheel/4-way controller combo with a center set button, sitting to the right of the camera's fixed LCD. In addition to the custom button on the top deck, the AEL and 4-way controller can be customized as well. In fact, the AEL button and the left, right, and down arrow directions on the 4-way controller (the "up" button controls display options, including focus peaking) offer the same custom options as the "C" button, so you can fine-tune the RX1 to suit your shooting style. The function button calls up an on-screen display for changing the camera?s most often used settings. 

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the control layout is the position, size and low profile of the "red" movie button. This tiny button is on the curved edge of the camera's right side and falls just under the hand when holding the camera so it's not terribly easy to access with your thumb or forefinger. And while its low profile (it's pretty much flush to the camera body) helps prevent accidental activation, I had to visually locate the button each time I wanted to start/stop video capture so the beginning and end of videos sometimes showed a little camera movement. 

Menus and Modes
Not surprisingly, Sony looked to the A99 for its menu systems. As much as I love the company's NEX cameras, the NEX user interface is frustrating to use and the RX1's menus are more in line with a pro-/semi-pro level camera. 

Fortunately, between the trio of user customizable shooting modes on the main mode dial, the 5 customized buttons, the on-screen function menu and the camera's Quick Navi system, you'll rarely have to go into the main internal menu once you have your custom options in place. But, when you do press the menu button, you'll find a logical, easy-to-navigate set of pages with a long list of options. These include the basic still shooting settings such as image size and quality, along with more specialized functions including the size and direction of panorama images, noise reduction settings, the ability to save (or not save) individual settings and much more. 

Multiple on-screen display options are available and are generally easy to navigate. Press the function button for an on-screen display of parameters of ISO, metering mode, flash compensation, white balance, DRO (dynamic range optimization) and more. Then use the control wheel/four way controller to change any of those settings. 

The other option is the Quick Navi display mode, which provides a slightly different graphical interface and more parameters than the function button on-screen menu. The choice of on-screen menus is, in part, dependent on whether or not you're using the optional EVF (electronic viewfinder) since the function menu utilizes Live View (the menu icons appear over the image), while the Quick Navi does not. Either way, they're both relatively efficient when changing settings on the fly. 

In addition to the standard PASM, automatic and scene modes, the RX1 offers a number of different style and effects options. Within the camera's Creative Styles you'll find more than a dozen options ranging from standard, neutral, vivid, autumn leaves, black and white, sepia and portrait settings, each with saturation, contrast and sharpness adjustments. Since I generally shoot RAW + JPEG, I tend to use the neutral or standard settings for the best results but that's just a personal preference. Experiment to see what fits with your personal preferences and shooting conditions. 

Picture Effects range from soft focus and two monochrome options to toy camera, pop color and partial color. There's an HDR painting effect but you're better off using the camera's HDR mode for a more realistic look. For extending dynamic range, the camera's DRO (dynamic range optimization) function does a better job. 

Manual focus assist and focus peaking, which I'll address in the lens section, are available, as is Sony's easy-to-use and effective sweep panorama mode. Bracketing, face priority tracking and registration, focus peaking, lens compensation modes are among the camera's long list of features. It's a well-rounded feature set with few surprises but should easily meet the needs of most photographers. 

Display and Viewfinder
Out of the box, the RX1 has no viewfinder and unless you purchase an optical OVF (optical viewfinder) or EVF (electronic viewfinder), you're dependent on the camera's 3-inch, high resolution (1.2 million dot), fixed position LCD. Although it offers auto and 5-step manual brightness control adjustments, along with a "Sunny Weather" mode, the LCD was often difficult to use outdoors for anything other than reading the menu or general composition. A vari-angle or even a tiltable screen is always a welcome feature for a number of reasons, including tilting it to get a better view in bright conditions. It works well under low light conditions, though. And the digital level gauge, although only single axis, helps keep horizons and straight edges aligned. 

If you're a DSLR user and find it frustrating to use the LCD for composing or do a lot of shooting outdoors, you should budget for the optional EVF. This high resolution (2.3 million dots) XGA OLED Tru-Finder is bright, clear and offers an almost 100% view. It's comfortable to use, shows all the same information as most display screen options and can be adjusted up to 90-degrees, for flexible shooting angles. At $450, this convenience doesn't come cheap, though. And the optical viewfinder is even more expensive at $600 with its Carl Zeiss optics. 

Frankly, if I were to choose one accessory for the RX1, it would be the EVF. In addition to the practical benefits, this camera, with its manual aperture ring (and, to a lesser extent, focusing ring), just feels more natural when using the EVF. 

 

Shooting Performance
The RX1's performance is, in many ways, a mixed bag. Generally, the camera is pretty speedy with little shutter lag and short shot-to-shot times. Continuous shooting speeds are good at 5 frames per second (with focus locked) but it drops to 2fps when using autofocus. Still that's a lot of data to be pushing through the camera and the RX1 does a good job. 

On the other hand, this is not really a sports or action camera since the autofocus doesn't keep up as well as I had hoped. Although it's responsive in good light, it's a little sluggish under darker conditions. But the camera did a pretty good job when capturing images in a darkened aquarium. Interestingly, though, continuous autofocus is only available in video mode--not when shooting stills. 

Battery life is disappointing at less than 300 shots per charge. Sony estimates 270 shots when the LCD quality is set to standard. That drops to about 220 images with the monitor at high quality. I didn't measure the effect of the electronic viewfinder on battery life but, regardless, you may want to budget for an extra battery and a wall charger. The latter is important since the bundled USB charger works by refreshing the battery in-camera. The little flash is fine for general use but it's too small to light up a room. However, image stabilization is effective and with the f/2.0 lens, you can generally achieve a holdable shutter speed in all but the darkest situations.

Lens Performance
Shooting with a fixed lens camera is generally a love it or hate it proposition. But, if you cut your photographic teeth with a 35mm camera and a small budget, it's likely you started out with a prime 50/55mm lens. At 35mm, the RX1's Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is a little wider but, like much of this camera, calls upon the user to approach subjects more closely and "zoom with your feet." Yes, it's a bit cliched by this time, but I think we've all become too dependent on zoom lenses.

At f/2.0-f/22, the lens provides a broad aperture range for low light shooting, good bokeh and, at f/22, great depth of field. Overall, the lens delivers on its Carl Zeiss name and delivers crisp, well-detailed images. A little distortion is not unexpected and there is some vignetting at the farthest stopped down settings but those are minor drawbacks in comparison to its outstanding quality. 

I especially loved the manual aperture ring. It feels photographically natural (at least to me) and turns with just the right amount of tension to lock in an aperture without struggle. Funny, though, I was out shooting with a friend and although he had read all about the camera and knew about the aperture ring, his first question was, "How do I change the aperture?" I think we've all become so used to changing the aperture with on-camera controls that it's probably a fairly common mistake. 

The lens also comes with a macro switch, which works okay--once you remember it's there. Less pleasing, though, is the manual focusing ring which just doesn't respond as quickly as a 35mm lens. Magnification of the image and focus peaking does help with manual focus, and are important features, but I found the whole experience frustrating. Autofocus, as you'll see in the next section, had its own issues, as well.  

Video Quality
The Sony RX1 offers a good range of video options including full HD (1920 x 1080) at 60p/60i as well as space saving lower resolution settings. 

Video quality is good--not exceptional, but good with clear footage and surprisingly clear audio (depending on the situation). If you plan to shoot a lot of video, be sure to get an external microphone for the best quality sound. Manual exposure is available but I found that, when outdoors, footage looked too dark on the LCD and it was easy to overcompensate based on that alone. The RX1 generally did a good job exposing video footage on its own. 

Although continuous autofocus is available in video, it was difficult to keep up with a cyclist doing jumps. On the other hand, autofocus generally kept up with a slowly moving jellyfish. 

Shooting video with the RX1 is much less exciting than capturing stills with the camera for any serious movie work. But it's more than sufficient for more casual movie capture. 

 

Image Quality
If there's one thing that stands out above the rest of the RX1's many attributes, its image quality. In a word: stunning. Colors are rendered beautifully (again, I prefer natural or standard Creative Style settings) and exposures were generally well-balanced. I did notice a very slight tendency to overexpose highlights but that's easily adjusted. Shadows retained good detail with and without DRO enabled. And, thanks to the gorgeous lens, resolution is superb. Images are sharp and well-detailed. 

Other than slightly sluggish AF in low light, the RX1's image quality holds up under some tough conditions like a darkened aquarium. As mentioned earlier, the f/2.0 lens and image stabilization help deliver hand-holdable shutter speeds, but when that's not enough (or want to stop down the lens) working through the ISO range of 50-25600 can also deliver great results. Personally, I prefer shooting RAW + JPEG, especially at high ISOs but I found that even when hard-pressed, the RX1 handles noise quite well in JPEGs. I'd try to stay away from anything above ISO 6400 whenever possible but images shot at under 6400 looked pretty good, especially at lower light sensitivities. Below are three examples of high ISO sensitivities.

ISO 10000                              ISO 12800                              ISO 25600

Additional Sample Images


Conclusion
All technical and pricing issues aside, one of the things I love about the RX1 is that, in this digital world, it brings me back to thinking before I shoot, much like the Leica M9 does. Sure, there are faster and more clever digital cameras than the RX1 but I love being able to physically adjust the aperture with the lens ring rather than in a menu or small dial. 

Other than slight issues with autofocus, the lens is superb. And the fixed lens again brings back memories of working the angles of a shot and getting physically closer to subjects when necessary. Sure, you can do that with a prime lens on a DSLR, but somehow the camera's 35mm lens almost forces you to slow down and consider what you're doing. 

Obviously the RX1's image quality is the unequivocal star and rightly so. While techies (including me) are impressed that Sony fit a full-frame sensor in such a small body, the image is what photography is all about. 

The bottom line for many of us, of course, will be the price. Obviously, pros, semi-pros and enthusiasts with a passion for photography are more likely to dig deep in their pockets for the RX1 than those with a lesser interest in image making. And while there's no lack of advanced compact cameras, the RX1 definitely stands out in this ever-growing category. Even if you don't have (or aren't willing to shell out) $2800 for this camera, stop by a local camera store and put it in your hands. That may not change your mind but you'll have a better understanding about why the RX1 will likely have photographers reaching for their checkbooks and credit cards. 

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