Sony RX1 £2599

21st Dec 2012 | 16:10

Sony RX1

Small but mighty full-frame compact put to the test

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Like:

Large, full-frame sensor; Beautiful craftsmanship; Excellent lens;

Dislike:

No touchscreen; Terrible battery life; Very high price;

Introduction

The Sony RX100, with its larger than average (one-inch) sensor for a compact camera, has made fantastic waves with critics and the public. Now on the Sony RX1, the manufacturer has stashed a 35mm format full-frame sensor inside a body that is roughly the same size.

As a trade-off, you get a fixed length, 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss T* coated lens, and it will cost you £2,599/ AU$2,999/ US$2,799.99.

Clearly taking on the likes of the Fuji X100 and potentially even the Leica M9, the Sony is an exciting new proposition in the ultra-premium compact camera market.

Sony RX1

Sony hasn't long been in the camera industry, and still faces a tough time convincing Nikon and Canon die-hards that it's a company that should be taken seriously when it comes to its photographic output.

Here in the Sony DSC-RX1, the company is showing off exactly what it can do. It's stuck a full-frame sensor inside the body of something that is smaller than some of its NEX series of compact system cameras (CSCs), just because it can.

It's got the same 24.3 million pixel Xmor CMOS full-frame sensor as found in the Sony Alpha a99, so it's fair to say that people will be expecting big things in terms of image quality from the Sony RX1.

Sony RX1

Also on board is a new Bionz processor, which helps facilitate Full HD video recording and sensitivity capabilities ranging all the way up to ISO 102,400 (and starting at 50).

As Sony develops the three main components of cameras in-house (processor, lens and sensor), it believes this gives it an advantage over competitors in the market.

That said, this camera pretty much occupies its own space in the market, with nothing currently available quite matching it in terms of sensor size, body size or even price.

Sony RX1 review

Other interesting features include a 3-inch LCD screen that incorporates White Magic technology for a brighter screen with better contrast.

There's no viewfinder available here, but a whole range of accessories are available that can extend the system beyond its small body, including filters, an external thumb grip, external optical viewfinders and more.

With a full retail price of £2,599/AU$2,999/US$2,799.99, the Sony RX1 certainly isn't a cheap proposition, but it's being pitched at high-end professionals who may even want to use this as their main or only camera.

Sony RX1

Build quality and handling

The high quality build of this premium compact camera is easy to feel as soon as you pick it up. Despite the Sony RX1's relatively small size, it's sturdily heavy enough to give you reassurance, but light enough to give that wow factor when considering the tech inside its diminutive frame.

Despite its fairly chunky size, the lens is a fixed, 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss optic. It feels like it should be an interchangeable optic, but it isn't. Sony says this enables the camera to offer the best possible optical quality, because it can maximise all of the features of the camera to get the best from the lens.

When holding the camera, even one-handed, it feels pretty secure, which is mostly down to the leather-like coating on the grip on the right of the camera.

Sony RX1 review

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An additional thumb grip can be attached via the camera's hotshoe, which some may appreciate because it gives that bit of extra purchase. The good thing about the optional grip is that other accessories, such as the optical viewfinder, can slot on top of it.

It's worth pointing out that an electronic viewfinder can't be used with the grip, because it removes the contact with the electronic points in the hotshoe, turning it into a coldshoe.

Sony is obviously aiming the RX1 at advanced users, and as such, the number of dials and buttons on the camera is likely to appeal to this kind of photographer.

Sony RX1

At the top of the camera is a dial for switching between the various modes, such as fully manual, aperture priority and automatic modes. On this dial you'll also find space for up to three different groups of custom settings.

This is very useful if you want quick access to something you use often, such as high contrast, high sensitivity monochrome.

Just next to the mode dial is an exposure compensation dial. This is placed pretty handily for using with your thumb when holding the camera one handed, and is a nice touch.

Sony RX1

The aperture is changed via a ring around the base of the lens. This is positioned a little awkwardly, and can be a little tricky to reach, because you need to use your right hand to twist it.

If it were easier to use it with your left hand, it would leave your right hand free to grip the camera. Still, it's a nice touch to alter the aperture in this way. When using the camera in fully automatic mode, this ring has no effect on the aperture.

To alter shutter speed, when using shutter priority mode, or fully manual, a small dial on the back of the camera is used.

Sony RX1

A further two dials can be found on the lens. A ring for switching between standard focusing (0.3 metres to infinity) and the camera's macro focusing mode is just past the aperture mode. This enables the camera to focus as close as 20cm, but it's not a true macro mode, since it's not 1:1 reproduction.

Finally, at the end of the lens is a manual focusing ring. If the camera is switched to manual focusing mode, via a switch at the front of the camera, then the scene is magnified on the LCD screen to ensure sharp critical focusing.

One of the best things about the Sony RX1, like the RX100 before it, is that the majority of the buttons on the camera are customisable, meaning you can change them to best suit your needs. This shows that Sony has really thought about how advanced photographers use their kit.

Sony RX1

At the top of the camera is a small C button that you can assign to one of your most often used settings, perhaps something like ISO sensitivity. Meanwhile, on the back of the camera, the AEL button and each of the four directional buttons can be assigned to a specific function.

The menu system is very similar to that on the Sony Alpha a99 and the Sony RX100, and is relatively easy to navigate around, with most of the options under sensible headers.

To access most of the commonly used settings you can press the Function button on the back of the camera, which will bring up parameters such as white balance, metering and Creative Style.

Sony RX1 review

Like on other Sony cameras, one of the most annoying things about using the camera is the amount of options that can't be activated when shooting in raw format.

Picture Effects, Smart Portrait Framing and Clear Zoom are three examples of options that require JPEG-only shooting. If you try to activate any of these while you have raw (or raw and JPEG) shooting is activated, a warning message will pop up to say that you can't shoot, meaning you need to go back into the menu to switch to JPEG, then come back to what you were doing.

It would be better if the pop-up window said: "Do you want to switch off raw?" and gave you a yes/no option. On the plus side, you can assign one of the customisable buttons to Image Quality, which speeds up the process.

Sony RX1

Unfortunately, Sony has once again chosen not to incorporate a touchscreen device on the RX1. This means that to change autofocus point, you need to first press the button at the centre of the navigation pad, then use the arrows to scroll to the point you want.

Because this isn't the quickest mechanism by which to do this, it might be better to leave the focus point in the centre of the frame and focus and recompose for quicker shots.

A small dedicated movie button is sunk into the thumb grip on the back of the Sony RX1. Although it's not particularly easy to accidentally knock on, Sony has helpfully included the option to have this button only activate when you're in movie mode if you do find you're prone to accidental film recording.

Performance

Seeing as the Sony RX1 features the same full-frame sensor as the Sony Alpha a99, not to mention the sizable asking price, we had very high hopes for this camera. Happily, we have not been disappointed with image quality.

The camera is capable of producing images with a fantastic amount of detail, with beautiful punchy colours and low noise in high sensitivity situations.

Although it has a 35mm fixed lens, it's worth pointing out that it's a Carl Zeiss optic with T* coatings and an f/2.0 maximum aperture, so what you're getting here is an extremely high quality lens, to match that fantastic sensor. You really do get something that can deliver great results.

Sony RX1

Autofocusing speeds are generally quite good - in good light the camera is able to accurately and quickly lock onto a subject. If the light falls, the camera is prone to hunting around for a little longer, but in both good and poor light, it's rare for the camera to confirm focus when it has missed it.

The ring around the lens enables it to focus as close as 20cm when the macro mode is activated. This is a handy addition and does enable you to capture some closer shots, but don't expect to get too close as 1:1 macro isn't possible.

Although the Sony RX1 isn't really a camera designed to be used in fully automatic mode, it nevertheless does a good job of selecting the most appropriate settings if you do choose to put it in this mode.

Most of the automatic settings within the semi-automatic and full manual modes do a good job. For instance, auto white balance does a great job of accurately reproducing colours.

Under indoor artificial light, it has a tendency to err ever so slightly on the warm side, so if this proves a problem, changing to Incandescent mode is recommended.

Similarly, general metering performs pretty well in the majority of conditions. During our testing it had some slight trouble with a very high contrast scene, so switching to spot metering was necessary to gain the correct exposure.

Sony RX1

Since images shot at high ISOs are very good - there's a minimal amount of image noise while still retaining a good amount of detail - it makes sense to let the camera decide which ISO setting to use in everyday scenarios, especially since you can set both the maximum and minimum upper limits.

When shooting areas that contain a lot of shadow, you can choose to activate the Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) to help pull back detail from these shadowed areas without overexposing the brighter areas.

Sony RX1 review

There are five levels of DRO available, ranging from 1-5, while an Automatic option is available. This does a good job and is a great option if the camera is struggling with a high contrast subject.

Bringing over one of the technologies from its other compact cameras, the Sony RX1 includes Sweep Panorama. This involves moving the camera across a scene to capture an ultra-wide panorama, which the camera then stitches together automatically.

The results from this are pretty good, with very little evidence of the stitching. And while they're probably not high quality enough to make large prints from, they are fine for sharing them online.

Sony RX1 review

Sony, like several other camera manufacturers, is keen to appeal to the Instagram generation, and as such includes a wide variety of digital filters on its cameras. The Sony RX1 has several of these, including Toy Camera, Miniature and Pop Colour.

Sadly, because these can't be shot in raw format, you're stuck with the filter should you change your mind at a later date.

If you want to get creative, but keep the option of having a "clean" file to work with, you can choose one of the Creative Styles, which includes Vivid, Black and White and Landscape. These can also be customised, for instance to increase the contrast, and are a good option for experimenting with.

Sony RX1 review

By far the worst thing about the Sony RX1 is its very poor battery life.

That 35mm fixed focal length should make this an ideal camera to carry around every day, but sadly you won't get very far, with a single charge of the battery barely lasting two hours with moderate use.

For a camera with such a high asking price, it would be nice if Sony included a spare battery in the box as standard, since it's pretty much an essential purchase otherwise.

Sony RX1 review

The screen, which is a 1.2 million dot TFT Xtra Fine device, boasts Sony's "White Magic" technology, which means that it includes an extra white pixel for every RGB pixel.

This is designed to boast contrast, and certainly helps with reducing glare and reflections in all but the very brightest of sunlight.

There's no viewfinder included on the Sony RX1, so unless you choose to purchase the additional extra, you need to rely on the screen to compose your shots.

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Sony RX1 with the Sony Alpha a99, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Sony RX1 review

These results show that the Sony RX1's JPEG files have a similar signal to noise ratio to those from the Sony Alpha a99, Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800 at the lowest sensitivities, but that after ISO 200 its results drop off sharply, so that it is the weakest performer by far.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Sony RX1 review

The signal to noise ratios of the TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony RX1 are stronger than those from the JPEG images, indicating that there's some heavy JPEG processing at work. The RX1 sits below the Sony Alpha a99 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III at most sensitivities, only beating the a99 at ISO 6400 and 12800 by a fraction. It starts off with a stronger ratio than the Nikon D800 at ISO 50, then is weaker at ISO 100, alternating like that at each setting until ISO 1600, after which point it holds its lead for the rest of the settings.

JPEG dynamic range

Sony RX1 review

JPEG results for dynamic range show that the Sony RX1 is weaker than the other cameras, starting off below the Sony Alpha a99 and Nikon D800 but slightly above the Canon EOS 5D Mark III at ISO 50, before falling into last place at ISO 100 and above. The gap is only slight in the low to mid-range, but plummets sharply at ISO 3200 and above.

Raw dynamic range

Sony RX1 review

This chart indicates that TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Sony RX1 show similar dynamic range to the Nikon D800, producing very similar scores in the low-to mid-range. The RX1's raw images show less dynamic range than the Sony Alpha a99 in the mid-range sensitivities, but it beats the a99 at ISO 50, 100, 6400 and 12800. The RX1 again has a stronger dynamic range than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III at lower and higher settings, just dropping below the Canon at ISO 800 and 1600. The RX1, a99 and Canon all score a similar result at ISO 3200.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Sony RX1, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 50 the Sony RX1 is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

Sony RX1 review

Full ISO 50 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Sony RX1 review

ISO 50, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 200, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 400, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 1600, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 3200, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 6400, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 12800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 25600, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Sony RX1 review

ISO 50, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 100, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 200, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 400, score: 26 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 800, score: 24 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 1600, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 3200, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 6400, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 12800, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sony RX1 review

ISO 25600, score: 22 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Sample images

Sony RX1 sample image

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For a compact camera the sensor in the RX1 is very large (full-frame) and it allows for some creative photography, including shallow depth of field effects.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Out of focus areas are rendered beautifully by the RX1.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Colours are very good straight from the RX1, being punchy without too much vibrance. This was shot in the Landscape Picture Style. It has also been shot with the Dynamic Range optimiser switched on, which helped to bring out detail in the shadow area in the foreground.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Although the RX1's lens is fixed, it has a macro mode which allows for focusing as close as 20cm.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Sony's Sweep Panorama mode, which was first introduced on its other compact cameras, is also included on the RX1 and allows for ultra wide angle shots to be captured.

Sony RX1 sample image

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When not shooting in raw format, you can activate Sony's Clear Zoom technology - a form of digital zoom. This shot is taken at the standard 35mm setting.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Here, the first "step" of the digital zoom has been activated. This basically crops into the centre of the image, and provides an equivalent of 50mm.

Sony RX1 sample image

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This is the full digital zoom capability, an equivalent of 75mm.

Sony RX1 sample image

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Although you can't deploy Picture Effects when shooting in raw format, you can activate Picture Styles, such as this Black and White shot. A "clean" (standard colour) version can be retrieved from the raw file. The contrast has also been pushed to the maximum setting.

Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sony RX1 review

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Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Sony RX1 review

Full ISO 50 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 50

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 100

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 200

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 400

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 800

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 1600

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 3200

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 6400

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 12800

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 25600

Raw

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 50

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 100

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 200

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 400

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 800

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 1600

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 3200

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 6400

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 12800

Sony RX1 review

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ISO 25600

Verdict

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Ultimately, Sony has created a camera to show off what it can do with its latest technology. With its high asking price and fixed-length limitations, it seems unlikely that the Sony RX1 will sell in any great volume - but that's not really the point.

The Sony DSC-RX1 produces superb images, with a fantastic amount of detail, colour and dynamic range. It really is the best image quality you'll get in something of this size.

Of course, you'll have to be prepared to pay a lot for this ultimate combination of quality and portability, not just in terms of asking price, but also in terms of inflexibility.

A 35mm lens makes a good street photography lens, but unfortunately the camera is severely marred by a very poor battery life - if Sony can do something to tackle that particular problem, then it might win more favour.

We liked

It's beautifully constructed and offers fantastic image quality, in a package that is almost pocketable. You can carry this around and be sure to get ultra high quality images, along with a heap of creative modes, without doing your back in as you would with other full-frame cameras.

We disliked

For a camera that costs £2,600/AU$3,000/US$2,800, it's disappointing that you don't get a lot more in the box for your money. The battery life is so poor that you will need to purchase an additional one to make it a reasonable proposition, while a viewfinder would also have been a nice addition.

Final verdict

When this camera was announced it caused a lot of excitement. It's the world's smallest digital full-frame camera, and so it raised a lot of eyebrows.

Image quality is superb, but there are a fair few limitations that mean this camera could never be described as perfect.

It's exciting to see Sony producing a camera like this, because it shows exactly what the electronics giant is capable of. That's a good thing, even if it's not something that will be snapped up by a wide population.

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