The Sony RX1 is as expensive as a full-frame SLR, yet small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or a smallish bag or purse with ease. It pairs one of the best full-frame sensors made to date with an amazing lens that has few peers, yet carries a commodity Cyber-shot label. From more than a few feet away, it looks fairly ordinary. Maybe even quaint. Close-up and in hand, however, the fit and finish is exquisite. It’s a study in juxtapositions.
Packing so much into such a small package means that Sony had to make some significant decisions and tradeoffs, some of which won’t appeal to everyone. For example, to save space the camera doesn’t have a built in viewfinder—either electronic or optical—other than the screen on the back. If you want a viewfinder, you can mount an optional finder on top of the camera if you wish. Or, not.
It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s a wonderful tool for those that it appeals to—including myself. I was lucky enough to pick one up the first day it was available in the United States and I’ve been putting it through its paces in the months since, including taking it with me to Europe twice and once to New Zealand. Based on the time I’ve spent so far with it, I can safely say the following:
Wielded by a competent photographer, the RX1 produces results arguably as good as any other camera fitted with a 35mm prime f/2.0 lens available at any price, and it does so with remarkable aplomb and unobtrusiveness. It’s the best lightweight digital camera I’ve ever put my hands on, and has become one of my favorite cameras ever. Period.
Ok, so that’s a strong statement and gives away my conclusion right up front, but there is a lot more to say. In this review, I’ll give you the full range of my thoughts about this camera and won’t pull any punches about the few things I don’t like about it and which you should know about if you’re interested in buying one.
Along the way, I’ve included some thoughts from my friend and fellow photographer Rick LePage who was kind enough to review drafts of this article and sent along a few of his experiences with his RX1.
Back to the Future
Like most of the current crop of mirrorless cameras—most notably the Fuji X-series—the RX1 eschews the modern plastic SLR aesthetic. Instead, it takes its design cues from classic rangefinder cameras. Holding it in hand, I can’t help but think of the Leica CL compact rangefinder that my grandmother used in the 1970s. Now, charges of sentimentality are probably fair as she was the person who fueled my passion for photography. On the other hand, maybe it’s not as tenuous a connection as it sounds at first. Forty years ago the CL was made by Minolta in Japan—the same company that was bought by Sony in 2006 when they decided to get really serious about photography. In the history of photography, that’s a pretty straight line of influence.
Beyond retro qualities, the rangefinder aesthetic makes a lot of sense for a compact mirrorless camera. Without a huge mirror box and pentaprism to work around, a simple slab body with round lens aesthetic works fairly well. I’m not really sure that anybody has a better take on what the UI of one of these cameras should be, especially if you’re going to have manual controls. Certainly the similarity in design path to that taken by Fuji and Olympus—and to a lesser degree Panasonic—with their mirrorless cameras says something.
Of course, the challenge with adopting the classic rangefinder style is merging the design cues from the middle part of last century with the high-tech twenty-first century aspects of a modern digital camera. The RX1 walks this line better than most of its contemporaries. The only control that seems like it wasn’t picked up from a Teutonic parts bin is the control wheel. That one part seems like it came straight from a much less expensive camera. Unless you have the screen on, however, there’s little to give away the fact that the RX1 isn’t as a classic that doesn’t date from the era of chemical emulsions.
Now, when the display fires up, you know you’re definitely using something from the twenty-first century. It’s big, bright, beautiful, and easy to use. By default it’s covered with enough status icons to make your eyes cross, but thankfully a quick push of the DISP button makes the clutter go away, replacing it with your choice of more minimalistic displays including one that features a fantastic paired pitch and roll levels. For use on the brightest of days, you’ll want to check out the bright sunlight setting. With it, I’ve been able to use the camera without taking off my super-dark sunglasses in direct sunlight and without shading the display with my hand.
My biggest quibble with the camera’s exterior design sounds fairly picky, but the presence of the proclamation on the orange ring around the lens that a “35mm full-frame CMOS image sensor” (in all caps, no less) resides inside stands out because the rest of the design is so considered. It reminds me too much of the worst design meme of the ’70s and ’80s when cars proclaimed that they had sequential timed port injection, jam boxes were emblazoned with the different types of cassette tapes they could play (“oooh look, it plays metal!”), and that CDs were sampled at 44.1KHz. If you’re too young to remember those design fails, consider yourself lucky. To be sure, the text is small. But, it bugs me enough that I may take a bit of gaffer tape at some point and black out the ring.
In any case, enough already with what the camera looks like on the outside. These things aren’t meant to just sit on a shelf to be admired. They’re meant to be used to make images, so let’s move onto how it works.
The RX1 In Hand
I spent my first few weeks with the RX1 without cracking open the manual. After all, a camera that sports all the right classic controls should be fairly straightforward to operate for anyone who has been pursuing photography for a while, right? Sure enough, all went fairly smoothly and I was up and running in very short order. Thankfully, unlike some other compact cameras of late—Fuji, I’m looking your way—the menus are easy to navigate and I found configuring the customizable controls, such as the C button on top and the left/right/down buttons of the control wheel quite straightforward.
When I’m out in the world making photographs and not in control of the light, I almost always use aperture priority (A) mode, a natural for this camera. The aperture ring on the RX1 is a thing of beauty and is very much a delight to use. When I see a shot I want, my index finger pulls the power switch on—thankfully, it’s the same general motion as I use with my big Nikon cameras and the X100—and my left hand sets the aperture to where I want it to be. Most of the time I choose something around f/2.8 to f/4, though drop down to f/2 at when the light levels demand it or I want the look it provides. Ranging up to f/8 or more is reserved for brighter light conditions. Click, click, click. The feel of the ring is precise enough that I don’t need to confirm a setting change if I know what aperture I started with.
If I think the metering will be fooled, I switch display modes to bring up the live histogram and dial in the appropriate amount of exposure compensation. Kudos to Sony’s metering software, I rarely need to dial in much compensation in normal day-to-day shooting even when I’ve been paranoid enough to check levels. If the light is really tricky, I tend to take my time and go into full manual mode to get the exposure I want. But for the vast majority of situations, I’m pretty happy with the decisions the camera makes for me in response to my aperture input.
In daylight and brighter artificial light conditions, the camera focuses quite confidently. It’s neither the fastest focus system I’ve ever used, nor the slowest. I put it just on the good side of acceptable. The standard multi-spot focus mode works well enough, but I almost always use the flexible spot mode. If I want to shift the focus point when using this mode, a quick tap of the center of the control wheel, then a tap-tap-tap in the right direction lets me put the focus point where I want it. Like most contrast-detection autofocus systems, the RX1 is less confident in dimmer light, especially when focusing on a low-contrast surface. In such cases, finding the right bit of contrast to focus on is critical skill to have. Sometimes, I’ll even take over and focus manually. Focus peaking is a welcome addition in many situations, however it’s only of moderate help when the going gets dark.
The camera’s default focus range is 30cm to infinity. For those of us that grew up with the haphazard measurements still used in the United States, that works out to be about a foot, which is a pretty reasonable working distance most of the time. To focus on subjects that are a bit closer—which you’ll want to do because the lens really sings when you get up close—the close-focusing ring adjusts the lens elements for use in the 20-35cm range. It’s not true macro, but it does come in handy in loads of situations. The only flaw with having this controlled by a ring on the camera instead of a macro button is that the camera can’t reset back to the normal focus range when you power cycle the camera. Instead, I’ve learned to recognize the subtlety of the close-focus hunt-and-fail dance as a cue to check the ring.
My biggest day-to-day issue with the RX1’s is that it’s not at all intuitive to set up its focusing system and switch easily between its various modes. For example, there’s a pretty decent focus tracking mode that seems to be only accessible when using the multi autofocus area mode and can’t be engaged when using the flexible spot mode. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the ability to directly drive the focus points of the almost magical 51-point 3D focus tracking on my Nikon SLRs, but I find it to be a quite cumbersome to do the multi-button dance to change between the focus modes I use most often on the RX1.
It gets a bit more complicated than that. Don’t let those three settings on the front focus control switch fool you into thinking those are your only options. You can customize a great deal how the focus modes set up in the menus, but you’ve got to experiment a lot to sort out what combinations of things work in which mode. For example, I set my AEL button on the back of the camera to AF/MF Control Hold which allows an autofocus cycle to be performed even when the camera is in manual focus mode. This works just like the AF-ON button on Nikon SLRs—or similar setups on some other cameras. If you like deciding when to autofocus and not having the camera do an autofocus cycle every time you take a shot, this is just your ticket.
When it comes to ISO sensitivity, there’s no room for complaint. I treat the RX1 much like my big Nikons. In bright daylight, I’ll use ISO 100 or 200. In less light, I don’t hesitate to crank the ISO up to 1600, 2500, or even 3200. I’m just old-school enough that I prefer to set ISO myself and not let the camera use it’s Auto ISO routines. Besides, it’s quick and painless to use the C button on top of the camera get into the ISO selection menu. What’s the ceiling for ISO? Well, I’ve pushed past ISO 3200 a few times and I’m pleased with the results. Naturally enough, dynamic range goes down and noise increases but the luminance noise is quite filmic and chroma noise is very well controlled. But really, with an f/2 lens, it has to be pretty dark to need to push past ISO 3200 and the trade-offs in doing so are perfectly reasonable.
Given that the camera is small yet contains a full-frame sensor, it’s not much of a surprise that battery life is middling at best. I’d gripe a lot more about it, but I’m sure that any increase in battery life would mean a bigger camera. Instead, I just take advantage of the fact that the battery can be charged using camera’s USB connection. Every camera should be able to pull this hat trick as far as I’m concerned. If you do heavy shooting, you’ll definitely want a second or third battery. I’ve also charged batteries up while on the run by plugging the camera into my Mophie power brick when it’s in my bag.
When it’s time to pull in the files, they go easily enough into Lightroom, the latest version of which can decode Sony’s ARW format without a problem and even has a lens profile for the camera. Apple just updated its RAW processing software as well with RX1 support, so Aperture and iPhoto will be able to read the RX1’s files as well.
I can’t say enough good things about the RAW data that the RX1 generates. I’ve processed a lot of files from a lot of cameras and up until now, using a small camera always came with the compromise that things would be quite a bit more limited in RAW processing in terms of exposure latitude, shadow and highlight detail, and dynamic range. Not so with the RX1. There hasn’t been a single file that I’ve looked at that I really wish I’d had one of my bigger cameras around at the time in terms of processing the RAW file. In fact, I continue to be surprised with just how much dynamic range this camera exhibits, a feeling that I’ve had confirmed by others who have processed the files.
The RX1 is one of the most unobtrusive cameras available today. Turn off the fake shutter sound—I really don’t know why camera makers insist on including that—and the focus assist light and you can use it anywhere with minimal impact. Nobody but you will hear the softest of sounds from the leaf shutter in the lens when you make a photograph. Furthermore, the diminutive size of the camera is simply disarming. Of course, people will still know you’re there and are making photographs. No camera can make you invisible. But the size of a camera and how much noise it generates can make a lot of difference to how those people perceive and accept you into their world. Sometimes, all the difference in the world.
To be sure, several previous small digital cameras have fit this bill nicely. The first I personally owned was the Panasonic GF-1, a landmark camera in its own right at the time. Paired with a 20mm lens (40mm equivalent), it was a pleasure to use. Its big problem was that the sensor started to run out of gas at ISO 400. That drastically limited its usefulness compared to my other cameras. Still, the GF-1 was a trusty companion for a while.
Then came the Fuji X100. Despite the fact that its lens isn’t interchangeable, it is perfectly paired with the sensor and produced stunning results for an APS-C sized camera. The Fuji’s big problem was that it could be quite the temperamental camera to use. If you put up with its quirks, you could make nice images. However, I know many people who sold theirs off in frustration after a short time with it. For me, it wasn’t until both the latest firmware emerged and I replaced the lens to fix the sticky aperture blade problem that the X100 really came into its own.
Unlike any other compact camera available, the RX1 doesn’t ask you to compromise on image quality. It doesn’t ask you to put up with its growing pains. It simply makes photographs that are every bit as nice as you could want and does so quietly and competently. It’s not just minimalistic and unobtrusive. It’s just amazingly capable.
The Optional EVF
As I mentioned earlier, one of the big decisions Sony made with the RX1 is to not build a viewfinder into the camera body. Instead, you can add either an electronic or optical one that mounts onto the top of the camera. While I know that there are those who will favor the optical viewfinder, as far as I’m concerned electronic is the way go in 2013. I want to be able to confirm focus and see the optional data overlays—especially the pitch and roll levels.
I do have to admit that I was a bit hesitant about plunking down the cash to buy the viewfinder. My experience with other external EVFs—such as the one for the Panasonic GF series—had left me a bit cold. Even the decent ones in my Panasonic GH-1 left me with the feeling that we were still a few generations away from having an EVF that wouldn’t feel like a compromise.
Well, as they say: that was then, this is now. Any worries were unfounded. Despite the fact that it’s a external add-on, Sony’s EVF is by far the best I’ve ever used. It has worked well in every situation I’ve found myself in. In fact, and this is the part that both surprised and pleased me, not once while using the EVF have I wished that I were looking through the lens of one of my SLRs.
Is it better than using the TTL viewfinder on my D800 or D4? No. Is it worse? Not really. It is different, but it gets the job done. Maybe the best way to say it is that it’s no longer a compromise in comparison to most SLR viewfinders. The technology has finally gotten to the point where I’d be just fine if all my future cameras had EVFs and I’ll simply be nostalgic about the good old days when you looked through the lens with a mirror. That’s saying a lot.
I have found a few downsides to having the optional EVF mounted. It alters the shape of the camera enough to change which kinds of pockets in your jacket or bag you can use when it’s attached. I also think way too much about not banging it into things and putting stress on its connection when I’ve got the camera hanging around my neck. I’m not sure how much I should worry about it. I guess time will tell. And finally, the EVF does impact the way other people react when you’re using the camera. They can tell you’re using something a bit more serious than your typical compact camera.
Love it or hate it, shooting video is part of the new normal for cameras that are otherwise made for still photography. And really, why not? After all, once the challenge of pulling bits off the sensor fast enough to make for a good responsive live view display has been met, packing them up and putting them onto a memory card isn’t much harder. While I wouldn’t buy the RX1 solely for its video capabilities, it can record full 1080p high definition video at either 24 or 60 frames per second and I’ve already used it to make a few quick videos.
The quality of the video it shoots is quite nice, really. The full frame sensor and lens really shine through. As a further bonus, the autofocus system works nicely enough that you can get away with shooting yourself or using it unattended as a second-angle camera—though you can’t leave it alone for that long as you will be constrained by the size of the battery.
Ok, so what else don’t I like? No camera is perfect and while this one is pretty amazing, it has several things beyond the disjointed autofocus controls that annoy and which can’t be explained by the design tradeoffs needed to get the RX1 as small as it is.
My first nit is quite minor, but I’m not sure why it was overlooked given the rest of the camera’s design. Unlike the gorgeously marked aperture and exposure compensation controls, the shutter speed is set using an unmarked thumb wheel. Once you find it, it’s straightforward enough, but I very much prefer both the style and function of Fuji’s approach of having well marked and executed controls for both aperture and shutter.
Second, the manuals are a real exercise in illustrating everything that is wrong with bullet-list documentation. Why yes, the button with the right-pointing triangle plays images and, whoa, the format menu actually *formats* the card. But there’s little of substance past that. Some of the documentation points off to a generic Cyber-shot guide that applies to many different camera models and includes features that aren’t active on the RX1, such as capturing stills while recording a movie. It’s all fairly useless really. It’s a good thing that the camera’s controls are as discoverable as they are, though it has taken a while to fully discover many of the settings that I rely on day-in and day-out.
The third thing is actually quite puzzling. The RX1 doesn’t have an electronic remote shutter release. Instead, it has an old-school screw-in shutter release. While I appreciate the historical nod, this means that you can’t use a radio trigger like a PocketWizard for remote shots nor can you use external intervalometer to shoot time lapses.
Fourth, on the subject of intervalometers, why isn’t there a built-in one in the camera or the ability to set a time to wake up and make a photograph? Nikon has a pretty awesome implementation of these features, including stitching together still frames in-camera to make a time-lapse video file and I’d love to see an implementation of this in all of my cameras. It’s certainly no more silly than the built-in smile detection or the creative image styles that the RX1 has and which I’ll almost certainly never use.
Finally, the one thing I really miss about the Fuji X100 compared to this camera is its built-in neutral density filter. Fast lenses like the Zeiss f/2 lens on the RX1 just beg to be used wide open even in bright light and an ND filter is needed to do that. Having one built-in and available via a button press or a twist of a ring would be quite nice indeed.
Sony’s To Do List
Every product iteration comes with the opportunity to improve. If I had a chance to help define the roadmap for the next version of this camera which built on the strengths of the current version, here’s what I’d look at:
- Manuals that don’t suck
- Sorting out the focus mode controls and unifying their operation in some way
- An electronic shutter release, I’d even go for one that plugged into the USB port if space for another jack couldn’t be found
- Built in intervalometer, timers, and time-lapse generation
- Either built in GPS or ability to interface with a GPS unit via Bluetooth or other wireless connection
- Wireless remote control interface and API to allow the camera to be put anywhere and driven from a laptop, iPhone, or anything in between
- Phase-detect autofocus sensors built into the chip to bump up autofocus speed and precision like Canon and Fuji have started doing
- A touch screen user interface, including the ability to set focus points
The last point would require quite a bit of care to make sure that you could control everything necessary when using an EVF. In particular, driving focus points would still need to be settable via physical controls. But, touch screens are a way of life now and the control area they afford shouldn’t be ignored.
Now we come to the thing that everyone has to talk about with regard to this camera. It’s not an inexpensive camera by any means and many are perplexed by its cost. I think that there’s some cognitive dissonance that comes from the fact that it’s a compact camera and the idea that it costs as much as a regular full-frame SLR just doesn’t make sense to some. It’s smaller! And the lens doesn’t come off! Both true. But, it’s just as capable as a Nikon D600 with a Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens—the sum of which adds up to around the same cost and which won’t fit in your jacket pocket nor be nearly as discreet.
Let me put it this way: If the idea of an unobtrusive full-frame camera with an amazing 35mm lens appeals to you, it’s worth every cent. No other camera available today packs so much capability into so little space. Even the nits I’ve listed above don’t change that equation.
That said, what Sony did overprice—and it does feel like price gouging—are the accessories for the RX1. The $180 lens hood and $250 thumb grip are insanely priced. The $250 leather case that doesn’t play well with either of the viewfinders, the thumb grip, or the lens hood... well, no thanks. Even the lack of an external battery charger in the box is annoying. Despite the fact that it’s a win that the camera can charge itself using a USB cable, you’re going to want to have an external charger if you have more than one battery.
Compared to the Fuji X100S
Based on its specs as a full-frame compact camera with a fixed 35mm f/2 lens, the Sony RX1 occupies a rather unique niche. The closest comparable cameras to it are the Fuji X100 and the soon-to-be-released Fuji X100S which are priced at roughly half the cost and have smaller APS-C sized image sensors. I own the Fuji X100 and while I’ve love what that camera does, the RX1 has totally superseded it in my day-to-day use. The improvements in the new Fuji X100S, however, will likely make for a much more nuanced comparison.
As soon as I get my hands on an X100S, I’ll have much more to say and will update this section. Until then, anything I write is speculative. But from what I understand, many of the improvements that Fuji is touting with the new camera—including autofocus performance—are indeed there. If that is true, then the new Fuji will certainly be something that should be looked at by anybody considering a RX1.
The questions I’m most interested in answering with the X100S in comparison to the RX1 is how autofocus performance stacks up and what the ultimate image quality of the RAW files are. I won’t be suprised at all if the X100S beats the RX1 in autofocus performance, but I will be very suprised if the smaller Fuji sensor can match what the Sony one can do in terms of image quality, especially at higher ISOs. The open questions are: How close will it come? Where do the limits lay? And, what are the tradeoffs? When I know more, I’ll update this section. Until then, check out the following reviews:
Compared to the Leica M
Think the RX1 is expensive? Priced at over twice the cost of the RX1 for just a body, the Leica M (Type 240) is in a totally different league. Yet, the use cases for the two are very similar and it’s more than fair to paint the RX1 as a more afforable version of the Leica concept. Many the Lecia owners I know that have seen my RX1 get what’s going on and are extremely interested in it despite the fact that the Sony has a fixed lens. As of the last update to this article, the latest Leica hadn’t started shipping and I certainly haven’t had a chance to use one, so I can’t speculate much.
What I can say is that I’d rather have the RX1 in my hand than either of Leica’s previous digital M efforts: the M8 and M9. Neither of these cameras lived up to the real potential of Lecia’s lenses in my opinion. Compared to those two cameras, I’d say that Sony out-did Leica. The latest Type 240, on the other hand, may change that equation and totally unlock the potential of Leica lenses in the kinds of environments where Leica has historically been a perfect camera.
On the other hand, DxOMark numbers aren’t looking too great for the Leica M (Type 240) compared to the RX1 or the Nikon D800. While detailed measurements like DxOMark can often miss the point or create too fine a point of comparison between cameras, the news so far isn’t all that great—especially for the price point.
Despite any quibbles, the outrageous prices of the accessories, and the rival cameras that are just being released, I have no qualms about purchasing the RX1 and the optional EVF. The RX1 gives me no-compromise images in a package that comfortably goes with me anywhere. I’ll go so far as to say that if anything happened to it, I’d replace it with another one without so much as a second thought. Of course, it doesn’t replace my Nikon D800 or my D4 and my collection of Nikkor lenses for lots of uses, but it has replaced my Fuji X100 as my everyday carry about camera.
Put another way, there has not been a single time that I’ve been out and about with only my RX1 and regretted not having my big SLR with me. That’s pretty much a first for me. Even though the X100 came close—and I’ve certainly been pleased with so many photos I made with it—it never quite met that standard. I can certainly tell you that my RX1 going to spend a lot of time in my bag while I travel around the world in 2013.
As of February 2013, this camera sets the bar for all compact digital cameras to meet. Finally, after thousands of words, only two more are needed: Highly recommended.
Sponsor This Review
Oh, one last thing. If you found this review helpful and do decide to buy yourself an RX1, please consider using one of these affiliate links. The small kickback I get from them goes directly into supporting this site:
On the other hand, if you go to a local store to check one out in person, please do buy it from them instead of buying online. My own copy came from The Shutterbug in Portland, Oregon.
- Peter Adams Sony RX1 Review, complete with nifty loupe tool for viewing photos.
- Michael Reichmann’s review at Luminous Landscape
About the Reviewer
James Duncan Davidson is a software developer, photographer, and author who traded in job security and any semblance of a normal home life to travel the world with laptop and camera in hand. He’s the lead stage photographer for the TED and TEDGlobal conferences. Once upon a time, he created the initial versions of Apache Tomcat and Apache Ant. These days when a text editor window is open on his laptop, you’re likely to find him hacking away in Ruby or writing on a blog post in either HTML or simple plain text .
Read more about Duncan.
Edit and Update History
This is a living review and I’ll be updating it over time as I learn more about the camera. Here’s a list of when non-minor changes were made:
- 2013/03/03: Added comparison sections to the Fuji X100S and the Leica M.