Large sensor compact cameras are suddenly in vogue, and for very good reason; photographers who don't want to carry around an SLR or interchangeable lens camera all the time still demand excellent image quality.
Last year, Sony released the RX100 with a 1-inch sensor to widespread acclaim. The RX1 evolves one giant step forward, with a 35mm full-frame sensor inside a compact body. This feat of engineering comes at a premium price, but for the right photographer, the investment will be worth it.
Design and features
Though the RX1 shares a lot of the same stylistic elements as the earlier RX100, it is definitely the big hitter of the two. Inside is a 24.3-megapixel full-frame sensor, while a 35mm f/2 lens sits in the front, jutting out from the body almost four centimetres. Despite the bulk of the lens, it's an incredibly easy camera to hold. Out front is a textured hand grip that matches the thumb rest area at the back.
At the top of the RX1 is a hotshoe, though it only accepts proprietary accessories because it has connectors at its base. Sony calls it a "Multi Interface Shoe", which gives access to an optical or electronic viewfinder, as well as a flash. Do bear in mind that these accessories will cost you almost an arm and leg in themselves — the electronic viewfinder retails for AU$499, while the optical viewfinder almost reaches the price of the RX100 at AU$599.
The RX1 has enough customisable options to make even the most fervent tweaker excited. On the mode dial are three customisable slots; there's also a prominent exposure compensation dial at the top of the camera; and a custom setting button just next to it for ultimate control. Within the menu system, photographers can also change the settings of pretty much all the buttons at the rear of the camera.
Sony's designers have spent a lot of time getting the look and feel of this camera right. There's the classic shutter button that echoes the era of film SLRs, the power switch nestled just underneath that gives a satisfying click once turned, and the lens element itself, which is a joy to use.
Not only is the entire unit encased in a sturdy metal finish, the focus ring flows smoothly. You even get an aperture ring that clicks neatly into each stop as you ride up and down the range (that's f/2 to f/22). A dedicated ring at the very front of the lens lets you shift the focus plane from its regular configuration for focusing on objects as close as 30cm, down to 20cm for macro work.
No expense has been spared on even the smallest of components, such as the pop-up flash. Other cameras may have a flimsy release mechanism or delicate arm, but not so on this camera. It could have been even better if the flash was able to be tilted for extra bounce reach, but that may have weakened the structural integrity. Even the lens cap feels solid, with a pinch-to-release design.
Despite all these accoutrements, the surprising thing about the RX1 is that it doesn't look particularly expensive or showy from the outside — even though you're paying close to AU$3000 for the privilege of owning one. Unless you knew what you were looking for, the RX1 is as innocuous and discreet as any other black compact camera on the market. There's no telltale red dot or significant markings, apart from brand name and model number on the front plate. Even these could be taped over for more inconspicuous shooting.
The 3-inch 1.22-million dot LCD screen is bright and easy to see outdoors. Like several other Sony cameras, the RX1 supports focus peaking. This lets the photographer see more precisely what areas of the photograph are in focus, thanks to coloured outlines over objects.
At the side of the camera, ports for an external microphone jack (3.5mm), HDMI and USB out are provided. (Credit: CBSi)
At the base of the RX1 is a sturdy door that covers the battery compartment and memory card slot. The RX1 uses standard SD cards or accepts Memory Stick Pro Duo units.
General shooting metrics (in seconds)
- Start-up to first shot
- JPEG shot-to-shot time
- RAW shot-to-shot time
- Shutter lag
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Continuous shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The shutter lag time measured in the chart above is with autofocus switched on. The AF system is somewhat disappointing, given the pedigree of this camera.
Though highly effective, it can take longer than desired to focus on a subject. This may make it difficult for anyone who wishes to shoot sports or fast-moving subjects using autofocus — however unlikely that may seem, given the nature of the camera.
Manual focus does improve shutter lag issues considerably, with little to no noticeable delay. Also, when selecting manual focus using the dial next to the lens, rotating the focus ring automatically activates expanded focus. A nice touch.
In continuous shooting mode, the RX1 can hit 3.2 frames per second using the regular mode, or with speed priority activated, the number jumps to just under 6 frames per second.
Sony rates the battery at 330 shots when fully charged. We didn't quite reach this target during the testing period due to some heavy use of video recording modes.
Befitting a camera worth almost as much as a professional SLR, the RX1 does not disappoint when it comes to image quality.
Photos are vivid, yet true to life when shot on regular settings in JPEG mode, and colours are not oversaturated to any extreme. If you do like playing around with picture effects in-camera, there are plenty to choose from, including retro, high key, HDR, miniature, monochrome and partial colour.
Apart from a regular automatic mode, Sony also includes its superior automatic function that helps reduce blur and remove noise in low-light. Bracketing functionality also lets photographers grab regular exposures in sequence or via white balance.
The native ISO range for the RX1 runs the gamut from 100 to 25,600, which gives plenty of opportunities for low-light shooting. If needed, you can push the ISO down as low as 50. Unfortunately, the RX1 lacks any form of image stabilisation (IS) for still photos, with electronic stabilisation only available for video recording. In practice, the lack of IS doesn't really present too much of a problem given the 35mm focal length and very good high-ISO performance.
Images stay relatively clean and noise-free up to and including ISO 1600, with ISO 3200 showing a touch of noise and ISO 6400 starting to look a little "crunchy" as you increase the magnification.
A 100 per cent crop (inset) of a photo taken at ISO 4000. At reduced magnification, the photo is perfectly usable. For cropping or enlargements, a touch of noise-reduction will clean this up easily. Also note the rich blue and purple hue of the night sky that the RX1 renders beautifully.
Thanks to its fast maximum aperture and full-frame sensor, the RX1 can produce photos with a beautiful, shallow depth-of-field. It's just not possible to achieve this effect on any other compact camera on the market. Should you choose to shoot this wide, you'll be rewarded with SLR-like images.
You like bokeh? At f/2, the bokeh from the RX1 is incredibly smooth.
While the 35mm f/2 lens is very sharp, it does exhibit some barrel distortion, particularly towards the left side of the frame. This can easily be corrected in post-processing if needed. Chromatic aberration is kept to a pleasing minimum; the only time it is noticeable is when shooting wide open and pixel-peeping at 100 per cent magnification across contrasting subjects.
Photographers have the option of shooting in JPEG, 14-bit RAW or both RAW+JPEG simultaneously. The RX1 does perform quite a bit of smoothing on JPEG images processed in-camera, which is most prominent when viewing both output files side-by-side. While noise reduction at high ISO levels is impressive with JPEG shots, we actually prefer the native noise profile of RAW images, which appears more like film grain than the digital version on JPEG images. RAW files also have a slightly warmer and more punchy colour palette too.
100 per cent crops from the same image taken in RAW and JPEG format. Shot at ISO 1600.
Video quality is very good, though the image is generally not as sharp as the equivalent still. Movement is smooth and the image stabilisation works effectively to compensate for any handshake. There are some issues with moire, though it is not particularly noticeable unless filming highly-textured surfaces. Audio quality with the built-in stereo microphone provides surprisingly good definition across both channels. As mentioned earlier, audio can be recorded using an external microphone.
Full manual control is available when recording video, though do be aware that using the record button in any other mode apart from the dedicated movie slot on the mode dial will result in an automatic exposure. Even if you set your aperture on the lens ring accordingly, the RX1 overrides this and chooses an automatic exposure. However, when using the movie selection on the mode dial, you can choose between PASM video exposure modes.
Video recording is in either AVCHD or MP4 in the following configurations: AVCHD at 28M PS (1080/50p), 24M FX (1080/50i), 17M FH (1080/50i), 24M FX (1080/25p), 17M FH (1080/25p) or MP4 at 12M (1440x1080), 3M (VGA).
Exposure: 1/320, f/2, ISO 100
Exposure: 1/80, f/2, ISO 250
Exposure: 1/80, f/2, ISO 400
Exposure: 1/125, f/8, ISO 100
Quite simply, the Sony RX1 is the ultimate compact camera. With a full-frame sensor, excellent image quality and a robust build, it's designed for the discerning photographer with very padded pockets.
This camera is so good that it can be a viable alternative to a similarly-priced SLR, provided you don't need the benefits of interchangeable lenses. However, even though this is a top-of-the-line camera, you do miss out on mod-cons such as GPS and a touchscreen. We'd argue that these are novelties you can live without, because the RX1 is all about a "pure" photographic experience without having to fork out for something like a Leica.