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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Review

February 2013 | By Richard Butler, Lars Rehm
Buy on GearShop$2,798.00


Review based on a production RX1 with firmware v.1.00

We were surprised (and delighted) when Sony decided to create the RX100 - its first compact camera for serious photographers, but that's nothing compared to our surprise when we were told about the RX1. This isn't just Sony's most serious compact camera, but arguably the most serious compact camera we've ever seen. It features a full-frame sensor and a fixed 35mm F2 lens, making it a real heavyweight in terms of lightweight photography. Sony has said it is targeting professional photographers and we see no reason to question that.

The obvious reference point for this camera is the Fujifilm X100 and its recent successor the X100S - $1300, fixed lens 35mm equivalent F2 cameras whose popularity (the X100 at least) has exceeded most expectations. The Sony raises the bar though - this is the first fixed-lens full-frame camera on the market, which means both that it's comfortably the smallest full-frame camera and, consequently, the most expensive compact camera by some margin.

This combination gives the RX1 the chance to become something of a classic, used by photojournalists and other working pros who need a small, flexible camera with excellent image quality. It's no secret that Sony's sensors are currently setting the benchmark for image quality and the RX1's sensor is clearly going to have a lot in common with the one that impressed us so much in the Nikon D600. A 35mm F2 lens also gives the low-light performance and shallow depth-of-field that it's hard to achieve without a fast lens in front of huge sensor. With this in mind, it's clear that the RX1 will stand or fall based on its focus performance, handling and lens quality.

Sony DSC-RX1 specification highlights

  • 24MP full-frame (24x36mm) CMOS sensor
  • 35mm F2 lens
  • ISO 100-25600
  • Focus range switch for focus down to 0.2m (14cm from the front of the lens)
  • Dedicated aperture ring
  • Five user-customizable buttons
  • Multi interface hotshoe (combines ISO 518 standard contacts and proprietary connector)
  • 1.23M dot RGBW 'WhiteMagic' LCD
  • 1080p60 HD movies in AVCHD (50p on PAL region models)
  • Bulb mode and threaded cable release socket in shutter button

The lens, which is designated as a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T*, features a leaf shutter for essentially silent operation (though you can engage a sound effect if you wish). This design means the camera can sync with flashes all the way up to its 1/2000th maximum shutter speed, as well as allowing the lens to reach closer to the front of the sensor.

The lens itself is a complex design including 8 elements in 7 groups, with 3 aspherical elements, including one 'advanced aspheric' element. It can focus down as close as 30cm from the imaging plane (24cm in front of the lens), in its native configuration. If you need to focus closer, a ring around the front of the lens can be rotated into a different position, shifting the focus group, allowing focus down to 20cm from the sensor plane.

The sensor itself is a version of the one used in Sony's SLT A99. It has been designed to maximise the amount of each photosite that is light sensitive and has had the depth of the circuitry reduced to further increase light capture. Unlike the version in the A99, the RX1's sensor doesn't feature on-sensor phase-detection elements. It also misses out on the A99's ability to quickly engage focus tracking using the shutter button and the A99's focus peaking in un-magnified live view - a feature Sony omitted in the name of precision.

A modern Leica?

With a list price of $2800, the RX1 is going to be out of the reach of most photography enthusiasts but, when looked at another way, it costs less than a Leica 35mm F2 Summicron lens, before you even start thinking about buying a body to mount it on. Having a lens matched to the sensor and a more modern sensor at that are real strengths, compared to the digital Leicas and, of course, some people might appreciate a camera that can autofocus.

However, even if it can eclipse the performance of the German legend, the comparison still raises two considerations. The first is one of branding. Whether we like to believe it or not, we are all susceptible to companies' branding efforts and develop a sense for what a company name stands for and where we place it on the price/quality spectrum. Leica, for instance, has a name and reputation that leaves customers willing to pay considerably more than most other companies could charge. And, while Sony isn't asking for Leica money for the RX1, it will be both a test of the Sony brand's strength and a chance to really enhance its photographic reputation if the camera proves to sell well over time. The decision to brand it as a Cyber-shot is particularly brave.

The other issue raised by the Leica comparison is one of future flexibility. Most people will reluctantly accept that a full frame camera will cost a lot more than an APS-C one. Products aren't priced purely on the cost of its raw materials and manufacture, but the lack of truly cheap full-frame cameras suggests there's a limit to how cheaply anyone can currently produce sensors this large. At which point, how many people are willing to make the outlay for that larger sensor in the knowledge they can't later leverage that investment by swapping lenses?

And the competition here is likely to come not from Leica but from mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. There may not yet be a full-frame mirrorless competitor but a bright lens can make up for a small sensor. For instance, Fujifilm has a 23mm F1.4 lens on its roadmap for its X mount, which will come very close to offering the same depth-of-field and low light performance as the RX1. Combined with the recently-announced X-E1, we'd expect it to be larger and perhaps not quite as good as a fixed-lens camera has the potential to be, but we'd also expect to be considerably cheaper and retain the option to take the lens off.

That said, people do still buy Leicas despite their fabulous price and, for a working photographer, the RX1's cost can easily be justified if it allows them to do something they currently can't. Any pro who has considered a Fujifilm X100/S as a second camera, whether for its portability or discretion should seriously consider the RX1.


If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

Images which can be viewed at a larger size have a small magnifying glass icon in the bottom right corner of the image, clicking on the image will display a larger (typically VGA) image in a new window.

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DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks below. We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.

This article is Copyright 2013 and may NOT in part or in whole be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author.

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Comments

Total comments: 29
Max Bancroft
By Max Bancroft (2 months ago)

The RX1 does not is in my opinion noticeably suffer from moire. In over 7000 exposures I have come across significant moire once - a product of the scene rather than the camera.
This camera has exceptional dynamic range. Blown highlights are not an issue.

0 upvotes
jim seekers
By jim seekers (2 months ago)

I am about to buy a Sony RX1 as it is £500 cheaper than the Sony RX1R.
but can anyone tell me the following about the Sony RX1 Please.
1. Does The Sony RX1 Suffer from Moire.
2. Does it Suffer From Overblown Highlights as the Sony RX100 Does.
and Remember this is info I need for the RX1 and not the RX1R

0 upvotes
moji
By moji (9 months ago)

With my budget I can only buy the EVF for this camera! Shall I invest in this system by buying the EVF and stop smoking and save money to get the camera later on? God, some people have money!

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
LegacyGT
By LegacyGT (9 months ago)

It is certainly pricey... but then I remember a story passed on by a friend who worked in Africa.

He helps a local village build its first deep well to provided reliably clean drinking water. Stream water is bad because if it is contaminated by animals or human excrement it can cause illnesses that are deadly in those parts of the world. Afterwards a village asked what was on the cover my friend's book (postcard? I can't remember exactly) and he said it was a public fountain, something similar to the well they had just built in a village. The village asked what it as for... and my friend said "well basically it is pretty to look at" and the villager was just against that someone would use water... which is one of precious things in the world to that village (either for irrigation of crops or for drinking) merely for decoration.

Moral of the story... much of the world is aghast at how much money we Americans have. Yet we are always aghast when someone else might have even more money.

3 upvotes
jburrows500
By jburrows500 (7 months ago)

Have patience grass hopper... In 3-5 years you will see full frame compacts going for $1200.. Today you can go to Walmart and buy a 55" flat screen for less than $500. Five years ago that same TV was $2200.

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 1 minute after posting
4 upvotes
jrlosangeles
By jrlosangeles (10 months ago)

"The main drawbacks stem from the camera's autofocus performance. While not at all bad, it's not fast enough for 'decisive moment' street shooting."

Kind of a strange comment, given that the man who coined that phrase and mastered that style (Henri Cartier-Bresson) shot with a manual focus camera ...

4 upvotes
RodluvanII
By RodluvanII (10 months ago)

Word, difference is though, he had a great viewfinder, zone focused and didn't care about this new fandangled thing called bokeh. If this had a great MF lens and viewfinder to match, I'd be all over it.

2 upvotes
mtsporty
By mtsporty (8 months ago)

Rod you are dead on but unfortunately many shooters don't understand depth of focus. Leica lenses have almost always had markings for virtually Every aperture. When I first moved to auto-focus I complained to the owner of the professional shop about the lack of markings and he laughed and told me very few even knew what they were for. At least my Nikkor lenses had 4 or 5 . Point being, unquestionably HCB was not walking the streets stressing about focus. But today we are stuck with the autofocus speed of a particular piece, fast or slow. I think this camera has strong appeal, I'm wrestling over the cost for a fixed 35mm lens. Zeiss lenses combined with Sony software offer a camera that can compete very strongly with other major brands.

2 upvotes
1486CF0C80AA47A4AB757729847DF085

Thanks. I always wondered who started the decisive moment street scene – Henri Cartier Bresson

0 upvotes
Paul Richman
By Paul Richman (11 months ago)

The Leica comparison in the Introduction is dated. Leica now offers the X Vario at basically the same price point, but with a zoom. I prefer it, from the little testing and comparing I've done.

0 upvotes
mcshan
By mcshan (10 months ago)

Is "it" the Sony or the Leica?

1 upvote
avronaut
By avronaut (10 months ago)

@ mcshan:

It is a Leica with APS-C sensor and slow lens (F 3.5 - 6.4).

0 upvotes
Rooru S
By Rooru S (10 months ago)

mmmmm Leica with APS-C, slow lens, yes a zoom, but proturdes more than the Sony-Zeiss 35mm F2 Fullframe lens. And let remember again...Fullframe.

0 upvotes
mtsporty
By mtsporty (8 months ago)

f 3.5 to 6.4 ? SLOW isn't even the word :(

0 upvotes
Marksphoto
By Marksphoto (11 months ago)

why would a working pro consider this camera when they can get a nikon D3100 + a 35mm 1.8 lens for about $500, which will practically do the same thing for a fraction of the cost and still have the option of taking the lens off. And no, Sony is not a better brand than Nikon as far as cameras go and hopefully never will be in my lifetime because most photographers own Canon or Nikon lenses which makes Sony practically on the island of their own. I can't even put my canon flash on this thing so why would I even consider this as my 2nd camera?

It's not like the rx1 will fit into my pocket, I still have to hang it around my neck which makes this camera irrelevant in my opinion as far as compacts go...

This camera is aimed at a rich audience but then again if you have an RX1 and not a Leica M9 than you are not very rich, are you?

Who is the target market here?

I am off to look at Canon S120, that's my next camera I will be buying for my wife to take great family photos and videos.

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 8 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Mike99999
By Mike99999 (10 months ago)

A D3100 with 35mm f/1.8 does NOT do the same thing. The Nikon is a 50mm f/2.8 equivalent. To get the equivalent from Nikon you would have to buy a D3100 plus the $2000 Nikon 24mm f/1.4. THAT would be the equivalent of 35mm f/2 on full frame.

That Nikon setup might be marginally cheaper, but is ridiculous in size and balance.

And Zeiss makes much better glass than Nikon. The 35mm f/1.8 from Nikon is a joke of a lens.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
3 upvotes
harold1968
By harold1968 (10 months ago)

There is no comparison
Firstly the IQ of this thing is the best there is in the 35mm FF space. That includes dynamic range, ISO performance, colour, etc.
Secondly it is quite small.
Thirdly the shutter is silent, as compared to the DSLR you mention
This really is the best there is. If you don't want, don't need, or can't afford, he best, well that is something else.

2 upvotes
Raonisk
By Raonisk (10 months ago)

Maybe we are not talking about the same camera.. RX1 is a full frame camera....more light enters its sensor, the overall picture quality is far superior in many ways. Nikon D3100 is not even close or comparable to this RX1. Take a look at the image comparisons, it beats out many high end cameras. I'm not going into that thing about which brand is the best, but specifically in this case, Sony has beaten the heck out of any other camera with similar size and class.

1 upvote
mtsporty
By mtsporty (8 months ago)

Thanks Guys :) When I read the post I got a little annoyed until I scrolled down. I know we're supposed to be "polite" here & I respect that, but there's a lot of misinformation floating around too, and some of it comes from lack of depth in understanding. For laughs, ref my post above re "depth of focus". Beyond all the hype, one issue at point here is still the theoretical differences between SLR & rangefinder. Leica of course started the rangefinder market (for all practical purposes @ least) and even Nikon was first a rangefinder. Even as a stringer for Nat Geo, David Allen Harvey used Leicas for years. It's a niche, for sure, but what a sweet corner to duck into occasionally. Unquestionably there will be working pro's who will want this camera. As a non-pro I'm wrestling between emotion and intellect. But you folks are dead on.

0 upvotes
Gabriel Yeo
By Gabriel Yeo (11 months ago)

$4000 for this fixed-lens....This has to be the biggest joke of the year.
At that price, I can buy a real full-frame slr.

1 upvote
shawnfb
By shawnfb (11 months ago)

when you own one you can comment, I have a 5d3, Fuji xpro1, and this Rx1R.. guess which one is most portable, shoots the best Raw images, and is the most fun to use?

2 upvotes
mcshan
By mcshan (10 months ago)

You can also lug around a big camera.

0 upvotes
mtsporty
By mtsporty (8 months ago)

Well, I don't know what the price was when this thread started but it's about $2800 USD today. And of course you can buy a full frame DSLR for $4000, probably just a bit less, but you're talking apples and oranges. The RX1 is essentially a rangefinder style camera, hence the comparisons to the M8 and M9's. Leica now makes an X series, which would actually be a much more accurate comparison to this, & close in price. Granted in today's modern photography the comparison is not 100% accurate, but it's close enough to make a point. This camera is going to have a very strong appeal to shooters-pro or non-who might own or consider a Leica M or X. I think you have to start with an understanding of those products & their history.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
UnitedNations
By UnitedNations (Aug 31, 2013)

The JPEG quality rating is below that of even the Fuji x100, & significantly worse than the Fuji x-E1.
So I am not sure How dpreview can say that the the JPEG is one of RX1's pros?

0 upvotes
Paul Farace
By Paul Farace (Aug 22, 2013)

This is the Erminox of the 21st century! Someday tyros will handle one in a camera show and wonder how a few folks could spend that kind of money for a bauble.

0 upvotes
Under The Sun
By Under The Sun (5 months ago)

I think you are missing the white elephant in the room: Leica

0 upvotes
Rowland Scherman
By Rowland Scherman (4 months ago)

The Ermanox changed the history of photography.

0 upvotes
Greg Gebhardt
By Greg Gebhardt (Aug 5, 2013)

The best of the best for less than the cost of a medium cost Lecia lens!

1 upvote
harold1968
By harold1968 (10 months ago)

Indeed, the same price as a summicron 35mm lens only. Actually I think it is cheaper now

0 upvotes
Total comments: 29