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.