The Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II is a 42MP full-frame compact camera, with one of the best AF systems of any non-DSLR camera on the market. And I want one. 

Photo: Sam Spencer.

I'm a sucker for 35mm. I reckon that 90% of the pictures I like to take could be (or are) taken at this focal length. That's why I have a Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art almost permanently attached to my DSLR, and why when I'm not shooting with that, I can probably be seen out and about using my old Fujifilm X100S. In fact it was the X100S that I wrote about for my last 'Gear of the Year' article, way back in 2013 (no offense, noble cameras of 2014. I guess I was just really busy this time last year. I'll call you). 

It's because I love 35mm that I really wanted to love the original Sony Cyber-shot RX1 and R. On paper they were perfect: a high-quality 24MP full-frame sensor (without an AA filter, in the case of the RX1R), 35mm F2 lens, with full manual control and the option to add a high resolution external EVF, in a compact body. What's not to like?

I had a love / hate relationship when shooting with the original RX1R. In low-ish light, the camera's AF system would routinely fail to accurately acquire focus. Both this image (and the one below) were shot in manual focus mode.  

Sony RX1R, ISO 640, F2.5, 1/80sec 

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Despite high hopes (and to be fair - after taking some pictures that I quite liked) I just didn't get on with those cameras at all. The external viewfinder was almost essential, but clunky, and made a compact camera into a not-at-all-compact camera the minute it was attached. Battery life was fairly pitiful, and autofocus - dear God the autofocus... Fussy in bright light, unreliable in moderate light and downright unavailable in low light.

Until I tried to take nighttime shots with the RX1R I didn't believe it was possible for an inanimate object to shrug, but I swear that's what the damned thing did whenever I half-pressed the shutter button.

Taken by the light of a campfire, this image shows the strength of the original RX1R's 24MP sensor, but like the previous image I had to resort to manual focus to get a sharp result (focused on the little girl's face). 

Sony RX1R, ISO 6400, F2, 1/80sec

The original RX1 and RX1R were on the market for a long time, and just when I was beginning to give up hope of ever seeing an improved replacement, along came the RX1R II. 

Compared to the original RX1R, the Mark II version is a breath of fresh air. Inheriting the same 42MP BSI-CMOS full frame sensor (but with an all-new switchable anti-aliasing filter) and 399 phase-detection AF system from the Sony a7R II, the RX1R II is a significant step up.

What I love

  • Excellent resolution
  • High-resolution built-in EVF
  • Very accurate, flexible AF system
  • Compact, relatively lightweight form-factor
  • Large manual controls

Gone is the clumsy add-on FDA-EVM1K, replaced by a built-in, retractable 2.3 million dot OLED finder. I shoot with my eye to the viewfinder almost exclusively, so when Sony representatives first showed us the camera, I nabbed one of the new lockable rubber viewfinder hoods they brought along. The hood prevents the finder from being retracted, but after resorting - twice - to using needle-nosed pliers to loosen the locking screw* I decided just to leave it permanently attached.

With 42MP and a new BSI design, the sensor in the RX1R II is significantly more advanced than the already very good 24MP sensor in the older RX1R. Like all current Sony full-frame sensors it offers extraordinary dynamic range, allowing me to expose just shy of highlight clipping for this ISO 100 shot, and pull up the shadows very significantly in Photoshop. The final result shows a very wide dynamic range from bright to dark without feeling too 'HDR'. 

Sony RX1R II, ISO 100, F6.3, 1/400sec

Just aesthetically, I really like the RX1R II, and it's a camera that tends to attract admiring glances when I'm out shooting. Like the Fujifilm X100S, more than a few people have commented to me that it looks like a film camera, but the semi-retro styling doesn't come at the expense of usability (keep walking, Nikon Df...). 

Cosmetics aside, the RX1R II also produces great images, exactly as we'd expect from a camera using such a high-quality sensor. Like recent a7-series cameras, Sony has included an uncompressed Raw option in the RX1R II.This gives maximum quality but at the expense of very large file sizes - roughly 80MB each, to be precise, compared to JPEGs which are typically less than ten. This slows the camera down, and eats through memory cards with frightening rapidity. 

While I didn't much care for the original RX1/R overall but I did enjoy that 35mm F2 Zeiss lens. And although it was designed for a 24MP resolution it successfully keeps up with the much higher pixel density of the new sensor in the RX1R II. Sadly though, neither the sensor nor the lens is stabilized so with 42MP in play, even though sometimes I've gotten away with 1/30sec, I'm in the habit of treating 1/125sec as my safe 'slowest' shutter speed when hand-holding.

After dark, the RX1R II's focus system is far superior to that of its predecessor. This shot was hand-held after dark, and shot wide open at F2.

Sony RX1R II, ISO 400, F2, 1/50sec, with VSCO filter (and simulated film grain) applied.

Alright, so the sensor is great, the AF system is transformed, and the built-in viewfinder is lovely. What about my one remaining major criticism of the original RX1R? - Battery life. 

Sadly, the RX1R II’s battery is the same NP-BX1 found in the first generation RX1R and all of Sony’s RX100 series compacts. Even just physically, the BX1 is comically small. Like, lose-it-in-your-pocket small. And while it's rated for a modest 200 shots, in cold weather I've come to expect far less. 

In temperatures around freezing, I quickly fell into the habit of holding the battery slipped into a glove, and placing it in the camera only when needed. You know - like we had to do in the 1990s. Fortunately, Sony is shipping the RX1R II with a handy USB-powered charger, which means you don’t need to plug the camera in to charge the battery, as with other RX-series Sony compacts. So that's one step forward, at least. 

Face detection worked well for this shot in one sense - it resulted in a nicely-balanced exposure, in a situation where my subject could easily be backlit. I should have activated Eye-AF though, because focus has fallen slightly short of my subject's eyes.

Sony RX1R II, ISO 100, F4, 1/125sec

I've been using the RX1R II for a while now and I keep on having to remind myself that despite its high price-tag it is still a Cyber-shot camera, with a lot of the same quirks of much cheaper compact cameras in Sony’s lineup. In fact, it's impossible to ignore. There’s the same lengthy startup time, the same lag - before - you - can - zoom - in to the images you’ve captured, the same confusing, rather passive aggressive error messages when you try to do something before the camera is ready or when it's in the wrong mode, and the same somewhat confusingly-named array of AF modes.

Exposed to retain the very delicate warmth in the sky just above the horizon, this ISO 320 shot was converted from a Raw file, and the shadows lifted in Adobe Camera Raw. I performed some very slight noise reduction, but could still smooth out the midtones a lot more if I wanted to. 

Sony RX1R II, ISO 320, F2, 1/60sec

There are a couple of outright bugs, too. For example, despite not offering any form of SteadyShot image stabilization in still capture, the RX1R II will still blink a reminder at slow shutter speeds that this non-existent feature is turned off.

After shooting thousands of frames with the RX1R II, I've learned to live with these minor annoyances but I do wish Sony had sprung for a couple of extra components. A more powerful processor would make a huge difference to the overall handling experience (especially in uncompressed Raw mode) and I wish it had a touchscreen. I've come to really value touch-sensitive screens over the past couple of years, mostly for AF placement when shooting from low angles.

This grabshot was taken on a tabletop, using live view. The RX1R II's flip-out screen is very handy for pictures like this, but even handier would be a touch-sensitive screen, which would have allowed me to position the autofocus point precisely, by touch. 

Sony RX1R II, ISO 12800, F2, 1/60

All this being said, after a lot of thought, I picked the RX1R II as my personal choice for gear of the year. And I did that because it's one of those cameras - like my Fujifilm X100S - that is capable of such good results that I am prepared to work around its quirks and largely forgive its faults. I should give an honorary mention to the Leica Q, though. In some ways the Q is a more pleasant camera to use but its sensor isn't as advanced, I don't love 28mm as much as 35mm, and my Christmas bonus** wasn't generous enough to justify its higher cost.

Not that the RX1R II is cheap, of course. But if I have to move into a tent for a couple of months to save up enough to buy one, I'm willing to consider it. Once it's stopped raining.

Video overview: Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II

* Pliers were resorted to only after I broke a nail trying to do it with my fingers. Yeah, I know. Shut up.  
** Ha ha ha ha ha.