Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is the smallest full-frame camera you can get, and while it pumps out gorgeous images, its price is likely to induce sticker shock.
Photo of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1

Sony’s decision to develop the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 ($2,799.99 direct) is a bold one. It’s a seriously expensive camera that appeals to well-heeled enthusiasts, but is likely to be a constant companion for those who embrace its design. The RX1 packs a 24-megapixel full-frame image sensor and a 35mm f/2 Zeiss Sonnar lens. It can slide into a larger pocket—think jacket or cargo pants—and delivers images that would spur envy in many an SLR. It’s not a perfect camera, and it’s not for everyone, but despite its price, it’s the best prime-lens compact we’ve tested, and earns and Editors’ Choice award for that distinction.

Design and Features
The RX1 is one of two cameras in Sony’s current R series. The other, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is a smaller compact with a 1-inch sensor and a fast, zooming lens. It impressed us enough to earn our Editors’ Choice for compact cameras, but it’s simply not in the same class as the RX1 in terms of image quality. The RX1 sets itself apart from other cameras in its class with its image sensor. Sony was actually the first company to put an APS-C sensor in a digital camera that didn’t have a removable lens. The Cyber-shot DSC-R1 debuted in 2005 and is still the only camera of this type with a zoom lens. When you measure its surface area, the full-frame image sensor is twice as big as an APS-C sensor; as a rule of thumb, a bigger image sensor translates into higher-quality photos.

Despite having a rather compact body, the 17-ounce RX1 has a big lens that adds to its depth. It measures 2.6 by 4.5 by 2.75 inches (HWD). Compare this with the Leica X2, which measures 2.7 by 4.9 by 2 inches. The Leica is noticeably slimmer while still offering the same field of view, but it uses a smaller APS-C image sensor and a slower f/2.8 lens. The camera has a leatherette covering that doubles as a grip, but it’s a bit too shallow for my tastes, given the bulky lens design. Sony doesn’t offer an accessory handgrip for the front of the camera—although it does sell a thumb grip ($249.99) that slides into the hot shoe in order to give you a better handle from the rear.

The lens is a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 2/35. Because there’s no crop factor, the 35mm lens delivers the same field of view as it would if the camera used film rather than a digital sensor. There’s no optical zoom capability, but if you opt to shoot in JPG you can activate Clear Image Zoom, a digital zoom system that works by upscaling a cropped portion of the sensor, to capture a field of view of 50mm or 70mm. Fujifilm’s X100s features a design that delivers the same field of view and f/2 aperture as the RX1, but like other cameras in this class it uses an APS-C sensor. The X100s has a built-in hybrid viewfinder—you can toggle between a fixed optical view or an electronic live view feed—something that is lacking in the RX1. Sony does sell accessory viewfinders. The OLED Electronic Viewfinder is priced at a hefty $450, and the Optical Viewfinder is even more expensive at $600.

The lens has a physical aperture ring that ranges from f/2 to f/22 in third-stop increments. Unlike an SLR lens, which is always wide open when mounted, the RX1 changes its aperture as soon as you adjust the ring. This gives you a real-time preview of your depth of your image, including depth of field, as you compose shots. The display does get dim if you stop the lens down in a dark environment, but you’ll likely be shooting with a wider aperture or on a tripod in those situations.

At its standard setting focus ranges from 0.3 meter to infinity, but you can twist the macro ring, located behind the manual focus ring, to change the range from 0.2 meter to 0.35 meter. It’s an innovative design that allows you to focus closer than you would normally be able to with a camera like this one. The Fujifilm X100s tackles the problem in a similar manner—it can focus from 0.5 meter to infinity in its standard mode, but has a macro setting that adjusts the range from 0.1 meter to 2 meters. The Sigma DP1 Merrill has a wider 28mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens, but its design allows it to focus from 0.2 meter to infinity at all times. Having the ability to get in a little bit closer than usual with the RX1 is a boon, but the adjustment can be a bit tricky to make as it is a very narrow ring, and there were a couple occasions where I accidentally move it away from one of its settings when squeezing the camera into or taking it out of my gear bag. Thankfully, there is a “Macro” overlay that shows up on the rear display and in the EVF to let you know that close focus mode is engaged.

The RX1 doesn’t have quite the control layout of a D-SLR, but it offers enough customization to keep demanding shooters happy. Up top there’s the mode dial, a dedicated control dial for Exposure Compensation—three stops in either direction in third-stop increments—and a the C button, which can be customized to perform almost any camera function via the menu system. The On/Off switch sits at the base of the shutter release, which features a threaded design so that it can accept a mechanical release cable or a screw-in soft release button.

On the front of the camera, below and to the right of the lens, is a toggle switch to change between Autofocus, Direct Manual Focus, and Manual Focus. The first and last are self-explanatory in function; Direct Manual Focus allows you to fine tune the focus of a shot after autofocus has locked on. You simply press the shutter halfway down to engage autofocus, and you can turn the focus ring on the lens in order adjust focus manually. It’s a nice option for shooters who want the convenience of autofocus, but don’t want to have to flip a switch in order to benefit from the control that manual focus provides.

The rear panel houses a control dial—it adjust shutter speed in Shutter Priority and Manual shooting modes. There’s also an Auto Exposure Lock button (it can be reprogrammed to perform another function), and a programmable four-way controller that doubles as an additional control dial. You can program three of the four direction presses; the top always changes the amount of information displayed on rear LCD. The wheel action is used to change the selected settings in the overlay menu that opens when you press the Function button; the up, down, left, and right directions are used to navigate through the options contained within.

That menu gives you quick access to common shooting settings—Drive Mode, Flash Mode, Autofocus Area, ISO, Metering Mode, Flash Compensation, White Balance, and others. Most of these can be assigned to one of the camera’s programmable buttons. If you configure the RX1 to match your shooting style, you’ll seldom have to dive into a menu.

The rear display is 3 inches and features a stunning 1,229k-dot resolution. It’s sharper than the 921k-dot displays found on other high-end compacts, which is helpful for confirming critical focus. There’s no focus peaking aid for manual focus like there is with Sony interchangeable lens cameras like the Alpha NEX-7, but you can magnify a portion of the frame to check critical focus when in manual focus or Direct Manual Focus mode.

The flash deploys via a physical catch, located on the rear above the LCD. It’s on a hinge, but you can’t tilt it back like you can with the flash on the NEX-7 and some other Sony cameras. If you want to add a bounce flash, you’ll have to invest in an external one that slides into the camera’s hot shoe. If you already own a Sony D-SLR or NEX model you can use same strobes, but you’ll have to add the Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter ($24.99) if your strobes use the older Minolta hot shoe design.

If you find the prices of the EVF, OVF, and thumb grip shocking, you’re not alone. Many have knocked the RX1 for the price of its accessories, and for not including some very basic ones in the box. Sony opted not to include a battery charger; instead, you have to charge the battery in-camera using an included AC adapter. A dedicated charger adds $50 to the cost, and a spare battery is priced at $50 as well. If you opt to buy both, and you should, they are bundled together for a more reasonable $70. But at the end of the day, a $2,800 camera should ship with a dedicated charger. If you run out of juice at the end of a day shooting, you want to be able to swap in a spare battery while the drained one charges so you can keep taking pictures. The lens hood, which serves to reduce the possibility of flare and to protect the lens from damage, is another accessory you’ll have to buy separately; it’s priced at $180. Similar vented hoods can be found on eBay for less than $10; there’s little chance that they’ll offer the same build quality as the Sony version, but they’ll get the job done.

Performance and Conclusions
The RX1 is a bit slow to start and take its first shot—requiring 2.5 seconds. Shutter lag, which includes the time it takes to confirm focus is rather short at 0.15-second, and the camera can capture a burst of 13 Raw or JPG photos at 5.2 frames per second; if you shoot Raw+JPG, the burst is limited to 10 shots. Recovery time varies based on shooting format—you’ll be able to take another photo after a full JPG or Raw+JPG burst in a little under 14 seconds, with recovery a relatively short 6 seconds when shooting only Raw files. If the lens needs to travel a bit to bring a scene into focus the lag time is a bit longer, averaging 0.6-second in good light and 1.8 seconds in very dim light.

The speed performance is not out of line with other big-sensor compacts. The Sigma DP1 Merrill requires a bit more time to start and shoot, 2.9 seconds, records a 0.3-second shutter lag, and can fire off a 7-shot burst of photos at 3.8 frames per second, albeit with much longer recovery time when tested with the same SanDisk 95MBps memory card. The DP1′s focus also takes about 0.6 second to hunt and lock onto a subject in good light, and 1.8 seconds in dim light.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the camera’s 35mm f/2 lens. Even at its widest aperture it scored an impressive 2,275 lines per picture height—much better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo. Edge performance is excellent, even wide open, with mean scores just under 2,000 lines. Overall sharpness hits 2,400 lines at f/2.8, and hovers around that figure through f/8. The only flaw with the lens is some barrel distortion, about 2.5 percent. If you shoot Raw this can be corrected in Lightroom, and the camera has built-in correction if you opt to use it for JPG shooting. The Leica X2′s Elmarit lens is nearly as sharp, hitting 2,089 lines at f/2.8 and peaking at 2,318 lines at f/5.6—but it’s a full f-stop slower. The RX1 makes it possible to blur the background of a photo to a greater extent than you would be able to with the Leica thanks to the wider aperture and larger image sensor.

Imatest also measures noise, which can sap detail and give photos a grainy look as sensitivity to light is increased. The RX1 shoots JPG photos with less than 1.5 percent noise through ISO 12800, but detail suffers greatly at this setting. Raw files shot at 12800 are sharper, but are extremely grainy. JPG detail is better at ISO 6400, and is really good at ISO 3200. The RX1 is by far the best big-lens compact performer when it comes to high ISO performance, although its images lag behind our Editors’ Choice full-frame D-SLR, the Canon EOS 6D, which also keeps noise under control through ISO 12800, but manages to eke a bit more detail out of shots at that setting; the 6D is about a stop better in terms of JPG quality from ISO 3200 onward.

The RX1 captures video at 1080p60, 1080i60, or 1080p24 in the AVCHD format. The quality is excellent, and the lens can refocus during recording. Video autofocus seems to be about the same speed as for stills. There’s no manual aperture control available when rolling footage—in decent light, the lens stops down to f/5.6 to increase depth of field, but the iris does open to let more light in when rolling footage in a dim environment. There is a microphone input port, so you can add an external mic if you want to use the camera for serious video work. Other ports include a micro USB interface that doubles as connection for the included AC adapter for in-camera battery charging and a micro HDMI port. In addition to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, the RX1 supports Sony’s Memory Stick Duo format.

If the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 has a flaw, it’s the price. At $2,800, before you add any accessories, it exceeds the cost of most D-SLRs, even full-frame models like the Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600. Of course, the price includes an outstanding Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens that supports autofocus; the Zeiss 35mm Distagon T* available for Nikon and Canon SLRs sells for more than $1,100 on its own, and is a pure manual focus lens. The lack of a built-in viewfinder is a sticking point, if you want to add an electronic viewfinder the price of the package climbs to a staggering $3,250. If you want a similar camera with a built-in viewfinder, consider the Fujifilm X100s. It offers an identical field of view and an f/2 lens, but its APS-C sensor won’t produce as shallow a depth of field at comparable apertures.

The RX1 isn’t a camera for everyone—casual shooters wouldn’t even consider spending this much on a digital camera, and wildlife and sports photographers can’t live without a 100-400mm zoom lens. Some may be offput by the size of the lens in relation to the body—without taking the lens into account, the RX1 is impressively compact. Sony could have chosen to reduce the size of the camera with a different lens design—a 40mm f/2.8 is a traditional pancake design for SLRs and rangefinders alike—but opted for a faster lens that, amazingly, is sharp from edge to edge. If you cut your teeth on a 35mm lens and couldn’t imagine needing another focal length for your photographic work, the RX1 is likely a dream camera, as it delivers image quality you’d expect from a top-end D-SLR into comparatively compact form factor. It’s for that reason that, in spite of its high asking price, that we award our Editors’ Choice award to the RX1.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.6 x 4.5 x 2.75 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, micro HDMI, Mic
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 24 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.2 seconds
LCD dots 1229000
LCD size 3 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Memory Stick Duo, Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact
GPS No
Boot time 2.5 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 35 mm
Weight 1.06 lb
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Video Resolution 1080p
Lines Per Picture Height 2278
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization Optical
Shutter Lag 0.15 seconds
Sensor Size 23.9 x 35.8mm (Full-Frame) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is the smallest full-frame camera you can find right now, and while it pumps out gorgeous images, its price is likely to induce sticker shock.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc