Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent image quality in both JPEG and Raw
- Full frame in a compact, well-built body
- Dedicated aperture and exposure compensation controls
- Exceptional build-quality - solid feeling without being too heavy
- Superb high ISO output in both JPEG and Raw images
- Essentially silent operation
- Wide dynamic range Raw files
- Pleasing metering and white balance results
- Good level of customization to tune camera to your needs
- Auto ISO and exposure comp. available in manual mode
- 1080p60 video with mic input
- Clever Auto modes and processing features if you want them
- USB charging is convenient
Conclusion - Cons
- Autofocus speed not fast enough for moving subjects
- Autofocus struggles in low light
- Significant vignetting (as with similar lenses), corrections 'baked into' Raw files
- Multiple button presses required to move AF point
- No built-in viewfinder (and accessory options rather expensive)
- No focus guides for video shooters
- Disappointing video quality even when in focus
- Focus peaking in un-magnified live view would have been a major benefit
- Rear shoulder dial makes it less engaging to shoot in shutter-priority mode
- Can't shoot X.Fine JPEG and Raw
- No option to re-process Raw in camera
- Lack of included charger makes it harder to keep a spare battery charged
- The standard Sony Alpha function screen seems simplistic and inappropriate for this camera
- Laggy to engage magnified image review
- Awkward separation of movie and stills in playback
We said the RX1 was a brave step for Sony - a truly top-end product from a brand still establishing its photographic reputation at that level. And it's a gamble that pays-off to a great degree. The RX1 is much more than a brand-enhancing flagship that few people will ever get to use - it's also truly effective as a camera.
The market it's aiming for is supremely niche - the market for fixed-lens, full frame cameras is not likely to be a big one - but we believe many of the would-be buyers who make it up will be well served by this camera. Which isn't to say it's perfect, nor to underplay how narrow its capabilities are. But, it's a camera designed to be the quintessential tool for a certain kind of photographer, and there are very few things that detract from that ambition.
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. Many of these photographers will be able to use the camera's manual focus, though there's no way of previewing the image and confirming focus at the same time. The autofocus performance in low light also gets in the way of capitalizing on the camera's excellent low-light performance.
In practice, the Sony RX1 is a pleasure to use - the aperture ring and exposure compensation dial give a sense of connection to the photographic experience that is missing in many modern cameras and is essential in a camera costing this much. The five customizable buttons give direct access to most of the other settings you might want to change, making it a pretty quick camera to use and adding to the sense of involvement. It's also as close to silent as any full-frame camera is likely to get - its lens-shutter giving off the slightest of swishes as it operates.
The image quality is exactly what you'd expect from the sister camera of the SLT-A99 - it's excellent, giving the low noise and subject/background separation that you'd expect from a full frame camera. Its relatively short focal length means you'll rarely get truly defocused backgrounds but, as you open the aperture, you can get a degree of subject/background separation.
The 35mm lens is certainly sharp and the effects of chromatic aberration and distortion are minor. They're also easily removed if you're shooting JPEG. The lens does exhibit significant amounts of vignetting and any corrections are baked into the Raw files if you choose to engage them, which we're disappointed to see. In a sense it's positive that Sony allows you to disengage the correction (it could easily have applied the corrections in the background), but by irrevocably changing the 'raw' data, it complicates the decision of whether you should apply the corrections.
Noise performance is good - both in JPEG and Raw shooting. The camera's context sensitive noise reduction seems fairly effective - it's only at the highest ISO settings that noise or excessive noise reduction start to become major problems. However, you can still often get better results by processing the Raw files and manually tuning the noise reduction to match the subject.
The RX1 does a pretty good job of balancing its role as a classic photographic tool and its reality as a complex electronic device. To this end, it offers direct, mechanically-solid feeling aperture and exposure compensation dials, along with the beautifully-damped ring at the front of the lens to engage close-focus. From these you get the sort of 'real camera' feedback you really should from a camera costing this much money. However, its mass-market underpinnings mean it also offers a fairly coherent and well-considered menu structure and user interface.
The level of customization offered by the RX1 is nicely judged - five customizable buttons mean that you can put your most frequently-used settings right at your fingertips. Two of these buttons (C and AEL) are well placed so that they can be reached without having to shift your grip on the camera. This means, even if you decide you want the AEL button to perform a focus acquisition in manual focus mode, you can still have AEL on another button.
The small unmarked dial at the top right of the camera is used for shutter speed control and doesn't give the same engaged sensation as using that lovely metal aperture control. We're also a bit disappointed that the RX1 gets the same Fn menu as the cheapest Sony SLTs - its point-and-shoot appearance and inclusion of features of processing gimmicks such as 'Soft Skin Effect' undermine the high-end shooting experience. We would have liked to see the Quick Navi interactive status panel as the main Fn menu.
The Final Word
The RX1 has no direct competition. The closest comes in the form of Fujifilm's X100S, which can't offer full frame image quality but is half the price and has a hybrid viewfinder, fast focus and digital split image focus system in its favor. However, if image quality is paramount for you, there's nothing that comes close in such a small package this side of a Leica and its small-car price tag. As a bonus, the RX1 is an engaging photographic tool.
We've seen several more famously photographically focused brands attempt to build dedicated high-end photographer's compacts but few have resulted in such a well-polished product. Its faltering autofocus in low light hampers the ability to exploit its full after-dark potential, and 'decisive moment' street shooters may find themselves wanting to shoot in manual focus. Ultimately, though, the RX1 is still a better, more capable and more satisfying camera than niche cameras usually are, which is what earns it our Gold award, despite the niggles.
At the start of this review we asked if the RX1 was a good enough camera to play in the same league as Leica. The answer is yes. The lens is excellent, as is the sensor (something that's not been true of digital Leicas so far), meaning it'll more than hold its own against the M-series cameras in image quality terms, even if it's not quite as engaging as a true rangefinder. Or, put another way, it's arguably the camera the Leica X-series aspires to be.
There are plenty of photographers who are likely to appreciate a camera with a fixed prime lens, precisely because it offers something that interchangeable lens cameras don't - in terms of size and dedication of purpose. So, if what you want or need is a fixed 35mm full frame camera, then the RX1 not only offers you that - it also offers a camera you can really love. And its combination of image quality and size make it one that will allow you to get photos you wouldn't get with any other camera.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Category: Enthusiast Large Sensor Compact Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The RX1 is a small camera capable of astonishing image quality. Its handling marries classic camera ergonomics with a couple of cyber-shot quirks but it's still a lovely camera to shoot with. If a fixed 35mm lens will fulfill any of your shooting requirements, there's nothing to touch the RX1.
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