Camera Review: Sony Cyber-shot RX1

July 25, 2013

By Theano Nikitas

It’s easy to fall in love with the Sony Cyber-shot RX1, despite its $2,800 price tag and fixed, 35mm lens. Although it is oddly branded as a Cyber-shot—a name that often brings to mind pedestrian point-and-shoot models—this full-frame compact camera is anything but ordinary. Given that it’s the first full-frame compact camera on the market is reason enough to be impressed, but the RX1’s appeal goes beyond its sensor size. Amazing image quality, great low-light performance and lovely bokeh are only some of the reasons that it may be worth shelling out for this classy little camera.

Sony seems to have a penchant for 24-megapixel sensors so it’s no surprise that the RX1 is built around a 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. The camera is equipped with a sharp, fast Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2 lens. That’s the 35mm equivalent, so it’s moderately wide but I found that it was useful for a range of shooting situations and I rarely missed not having a zoom.

Body and Design

From the moment I picked up the camera, there was no doubt that Sony paid close attention to its construction. Although its magnesium-alloy body is not weatherproofed, the RX1 is built like a tank. Even the lens cap has a quality feel that you’ll rarely find in other cameras.

At a little over a pound, the RX1 is heavier than its compact body implies. At 4 1/2 x 2 5/8 x 2 3/4 inches, it’s not quite pocketable but it can be comfortably stashed in a camera bag or purse, dangled from your shoulder or hung around your neck.

I was a little cautious when I first started shooting with the RX1 because it’s so expensive (and it was on loan) but soon realized that it doesn’t have to be treated with kid gloves. While I didn’t put the camera through any serious stress tests, I shot with it in the rain, in the Rain Room installation at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and carriedit around in my bag as I would a much less-expensive camera, with no problems whatsoever.

Besides its excellent build, the RX1 is a nice-looking camera and, for the most part, is a pleasure to work with. Following a retro trend, the RX1 offers several features reminiscent of 35mm and rangefinder cameras. A trio of lens rings manually controls aperture, macro and focus, while an exposure compensation dial sits atop the right shoulder, opposite the mode dial. For an extra bit of practical nostalgia, the shutter release is threaded for a good old-fashioned manual cable release.

Of the three lens rings, the aperture control is the most effective and intuitive. The ring turns easily but isn’t so fluid that you’ll accidentally go beyond the desired f-stop. The macro ring switches between 0.2 meter to 0.35 meter and 0.3 meter to infinity, and works fine but the manual focus ring has a little too much play in it for quick manual focus. However, focus peaking helps compensate for that shortcoming. The focus dial for swtiching between AF, DMF and MF (autofocus, direct manual focus and manual focus) on the front of the camera is difficult to turn, though.

Other than the focus dial and the way-too-stiff on/off switch, I really enjoyed shooting with the camera. Its design and control layout are clearly well thought out. Convenient placement of external controls and a high level of customization make it easy to quickly change settings and set up the camera to fit your individual shooting style. The menu system is equally convenient.

One of my biggest gripes, though, is how quickly that $2,800 price tag can rise. You’d think that for $2,800, Sony would throw in an accessory or two but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. While the 3-inch, 1,229K-dot, fixed LCD offers auto, five-step manual brightness control and a Sunny Weather mode, it wassometimes difficult to use outdoors for anything other than reading the menu or general composition. Fortunately, my review unit came with the optional $450 2,359K-dot, XGA OLED electronic viewfinder (a $600 Carl Zeiss optical viewfinder is also available). Using the electronic viewfinder, which plugs into the multi-interface port, is almost a necessity so be sure to add that to your budget. Other options include a lens hood, thumb grip and shotgun microphone.

Battery life is rated at about 270 shots, so you may also want to get a second battery. However, since the battery is charged in-camera, it’s best to pick up a wall charger so you can power up the spare at the same time.

Features, Performance and Image Quality

As expected, the RX1’s feature set is solid. In addition to manual and semimanual exposure modes, scene modes, an auto setting and Sony’s sweep panorama, the camera offers three user-customizable settings that can be initiated with a turn of the mode dial. HDR/Dynamic Range Optimization, noise reduction, RAW and a number of creative options help round out the camera’s practical features, which are more than enough for just about all professionals.

Performance is good, with relatively fast start-up and shot-to-shot times. Continuous shooting can reach speeds of up to 5 frames per second (fps) but is limited to about 2.5 fps with autofocus (AF) enabled. As expected, AF works best in bright light. It’s not a camera I’d choose for sports but the RX1’s AF can pretty much handle moderately fast-moving subjects.

Unfortunately, video quality doesn’t match the RX1’s stellar still image quality, particularly because the AF isn’t as responsive as it should be. I also noticed some moiré. However, clips are certainly good enough for casual video capture.

But the RX1’s still images will probably take your breath away. The sharp lens, which delivers crisp details from edge to edge, is the perfect match for the rest of the camera’s photographic capabilities. Low-light performance is quite good and colors are rendered naturally but nicely saturated. Given the plethora of adjustments and default settings (I shot mostly on Natural or Standard), you can easily tweak images to your esthetics.

The Bottom Line

The target market for this camera is not clear-cut. So far, I’ve only met one person who actually owns the RX1 and, after a brief chat, it’s clear that he’s not a professional photographer. On the other hand, the RX1’s image quality exceeds that of other advanced compact cameras, especially thanks to its superior glass, and it’s perfect for the pro who wants a small but highly capable compact model to complement his or her DSLRs.

Without the $2,800-plus cost of this camera, the RX1 would certainly be flying off the shelves. At this point, the Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR—both less than half the price of the RX1—offer good alternatives to the RX1, albeit with “only” APS-C-sized sensors. But even with less expensive options, it is surprisingly easy to fall in love with the RX1 given its superior build, fantastic lens, custom options and amazing image quality.

If you’re seriously considering the RX1, please check for some news that Sony has been hinting at.

Pros: Full-frame sensor; stellar image quality; excellent lens; customization; solid feature set

Cons: Expensive, expensive and even more expensive with optional accessories like an electronic viewfinder; good but not exceptional video quality

Price: $2,800;

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