Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sony Cyber-shot full frame DSC-RX1camera
a hands on review

Many of my friends in the photo industry have been telling me I would love this camera ever since it was announced. Although it is not a camera type I would normally use, I decided to give it a test drive to see what all the excitement is about.

This is a very unusual camera. It is a very small -- in fact, the smallest -- full frame camera coupled with a single superb Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens. A package such as this is aimed at producing extremely high image quality, but the scale and limitations of the design raise questions of practicality of use. For this reason, there are two aspects of this review. The first part looks at the camera and lens combo in terms of its ability to deliver a quality image. The second part examines the camera-lens combo in practical terms of usage. In other words, does it work well as a system, and how would it fit into a typical workflow.

The Sony RX1 is shown in the foreground, while its smaller sibling, the RX100, is tucked in a jeans pocket behind it. By its very nature as a full frame camera, the RX1 requires a large lens and, even though it has a small body, is not going to fit easily into a pocket for carrying.
First, in terms of image results the camera is superb, ranking just below the current best of breed full frame cameras, the Nikon D800 and D600 series. Considering Sony's past relationship of supplying sensors to high end Nikon cameras, this is to be expected. When you couple such excellent sensor technology with one of the most legendary optical systems in the world, a Zeiss Sonnar lens, good things are bound to happen, and in this case they do. 

My brick-wall tests show an over all sharpness that extends even into the corners at wide open apertures. Full open at f/2 there is only a slight trace of corner softness, which rapidly dissipates as the lens is stopped down, and practically disappears at f/2.8 and beyond. I doubt anyone would find this degree of corner softness objectionable. In addition, there is practically no vignetting and only slight barrel distortion present at any aperture.
The following images illustrate the resolution capabilities of this camera and lens. You can download the full res version of these brick wall tests below to check the results for yourself.

Brick wall test. While no one runs around shooting brick walls as a matter of course, a test such as this does illustrate the relationship of center to corner resolution in a way that can relate to more practical uses.

Chromatic aberration was another matter. I found excessive amounts of color fringing along the edges of  typical shots of outdoor tree settings, such as the one below. Fortunately, this involved a simple lens correction in Photoshop, but this assumes you shoot in RAW and post-process images. With a high end camera such as this, I suspect most photographers would include post-processing as part of their workflow.

Color fringing is quite apparent in this type of image with high contrast and an overly bright background. To be fair, most cameras would have trouble with a situation such as this. I did, however, find the RX1 fringing to be more excessive. Click here to download a hi res version of this photo.

Noise levels at high ISO's were very good, as is the case with most of the high end, large sensor cameras coming onto the market now. What I term the noise threshold, that level after which noise becomes unacceptably excessive unless dealt with in post processing, peaks around ISO 2000. Below are some high ISO sample images to download.

ISO 800. Click here to download hi res version.

ISO 1600. Click here to download hi res version.

ISO 3200. Click here to download hi res version.

ISO 6400. Click here to download hi res version.

 Camera overview:

After selling off my Fuji X100 I pretty much swore off one lens cameras. I just don't see the need for them anymore with so many other quality options becoming available. As you might expect, with that attitude I have a prejudice coming into this review. 

The RX1 is something of a tour de force, almost as if Sony set out to create the smallest full frame camera just so it could make the claim and garner the press play from it. At $2800 this is a very expensive camera, as you might expect from something containing such a large high end sensor and quality optics. Plus, if you are a serious user, you would probably want to add either the electronic or optical viewfinder to it for an additional $450-600, putting the entire combo around $3300.  And don't forget to add several spare batteries to the package. You are going to need them. Battery drain on the RX1 is very high, probably due to its constant reliance on large live view.

All this begs the question: Is it worth the price. If it's quality you want, for that price you could buy a Nikon D600 and a great lens or two and be better off. If its small size and convenience you want, a Fuji X series with interchangeable lenses comes in at half the price.

Optional electronic and optical finders are an available accessory. I think most users would want one or the other, although they do tend to bulk up the overall package.
A camera of this caliber and sophistication is going to make an external viewfinder more than an optional accessory. I preferred the optical finder. It is much faster to use, and with only one fixed lens is all you really need. Electronic finders are inherently slow, although I found the Sony version to be much more responsive than most.  A hybrid finder, such as that on the Fuji X-Pro1 represents the best of both worlds.

The menu system looks similar to the Sony DSC-RX100. It is convenient and easy to use.

Full menu

Quick change menu
I personally found the camera body to be smaller than it needs to be, especially relative to its lens. It has what I call pregnant guppy syndrome, where the over-sized belly lens is too big for the tiny body, something that typically occurs when you try to downsize a full frame camera but cannot downsize the optics proportionately. Small as it is, the overall camera-lens-finder package is much too large to fit comfortably in a pocket. So you are going to have to wear it like a regular sized model. That being the case, adding an extra inch to the body, and incorporating a built-in viewfinder would have made this a much more practical package. In fact, adding interchangeable lenses into the mix would even have given the full frame Leica M some stiff competition.

The reason I find sharpness in the corners to be important is in landscape photos such as this. Focus was placed in the foreground of this image, and both foreground corners contain sharp detail. Click here to download a hi res version.

This close-up shot was taken at f/16 for maximum detail. Click here to download a hi res version.
Click here to download a hi res version of this image.
Even though the sensor sizes are not the same, I found myself constantly comparing this camera to the Fuji X cameras, the X100s, XE1, and X-Pro1, and wishing the RX1 was more like the Fuji in terms of handling . In terms of image quality, the RX1 with its full frame sensor is going to win hands down. But for convenience and professional features the Fuji X models are far more practical, and for most typical image uses the results are going to look the same. It is only when taking the image to super-size that you will notice a difference. And if it's Zeiss lens quality you want, the new Zeiss Touit lenses are available with full auto control on the Fuji XE1 and XPro-1.

The RX1 weighs only 1.06lb (460g), is 4.5"(11.4cm) wide, 2.6"(6.6cm) high, and 2.8"(7.1) deep with the lens.  By comparison a Fuji XE1 with similar lens comes in at only 14.67oz (416g), is 5.1"(129cm) long, 2.9"(74.9cm) high, and 3.1"(78.9cm) deep with an 18mm lens attached. In terms of size that is not too different, especially considering the added features the XE1 adds to the mix.

The Sony RX1, RX100, and Fuji X-Pro1. I like the RX100 for its tiny size and quality. It is a camera I can always have with me. I like the Fuji because of its professional build and quality results. I use it a lot when I want to up my game and don't mind carrying something on my shoulder. The RX1 fits somewhere in between, being neither here not there -- too big for a pocket camera, and too small to have the added convenience of built-in finder and interchangeable lenses.

The specs and price of this camera puts it into the pro leagues. So I expect it to perform up there with the best. This is a situation I was shooting with a Nikon D800 of a model in my studio. I substituted the RX1 to see how it would compare. Focus was quirky and slow because it had to be done in live view. Nonetheless, the resulting image was definitely of professional quality. Of course this comparison could only work where a 35mm lens could be used.
The lens has a ring to move it into close-up mode. This is not really a macro feature. It doesn't get that close, and at 35mm getting too close raises other problems of perspective. What it does do is act as a focus limiter so the camera doesn't hunt for focus when shooting up close.
This is about as close as this lens can go. Because it is a 35mm lens it causes a rounding distortion effect on the subject.
The pop-up flash is similar to that on the RX100, but does not seem to have the same flexibility for bending it to achieve bounce flash lighting.
The red button turns on the video record mode, something I did inadvertently way too many times by hitting it accidentally. The over/under exposure dial is positioned above it, similarly positioned as on the Fuji X-Pro1 but not nearly as susceptible to being turned accidentally.
The RX1 has two crop modes available, 3:2 and 16:9. It does not have the square crop of the RX100. Once I discovered the 16:9 crop mode, the RX1 became more useful for me as a dedicated panorama camera. Of course all this does is crop the image so you do lose megapixels. Nonetheless, 16:9 still gives an acceptable 20mp image -- really nice for large panorama prints.  The photos below were shot in the 16:9 panorama mode.
Once I discovered the 16:9 crop mode, I began seeing differently with the camera and ended up using it almost exclusively for taking panorama photos.


If you are willing to live with a single, fixed lens camera -- something I no longer care to do -- then the Sony RX1 is best of breed in terms of image quality, and ranks right up there with the best full frame cameras available today.

The value of having such a small bodied camera producing such stellar results is negated by the large lens and inclusion of an accessory viewfinder.  That, coupled with the extremely high price tag forces you to compare it to far more practical camera alternatives. For the price, you could buy a high end Nikon D600 or even D800. For half the price you could buy a Fuji Xe1 or X-Pro1. With all these alternatives you have the convenience of interchangeable lenses, and built-in viewfinder -- not to mention, they are far more convenient to use.

Perhaps Sony will expand this model in the future to include interchangeable lenses and built-in finder with an RX2 model. Better yet, I would like to see an intermediary model between the highly successful RX100 and RX1, perhaps an RX10 with APS sensor, smaller lenses, and all the popular built-in accessories. In other words, make it more like a Fuji X camera. There is a reason the Fuji X series is rapidly becoming a cult classic. Sony would do well to take some lessons from that model and produce a slightly larger camera with more practical features instead of going for the smallest sized body just to prove you can do it. The small size works perfectly for the pocketable RX100, but to my mind the small size of the RX1 prevents the camera from reaching its true, useful potential.

This is a "hands on" review and reflects my personal opinion on using the equipment. If you are a user of this item and see it differently, please feel free to post a comment. I would love to compare your opinion and see sample images that support your findings.  - TG

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