Review: Sony RX1 — The Pro’s Full-Frame Compact

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The Sony RX1 strikes a bold statement: a full-frame camera with a fast, fixed prime lens that promises the quality of a DSLR with a fraction of the size and weight. In essence, a pro's compact camera that seems to promise no expense spared in its design or quality.

Does the Sony RX1 live up to the size of its sensor — or, more importantly, its price? Let's find out.

Key Features

  • 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor
  • 35mm f/2 lens
  • ISO 100-25600
  • Minimum focus down to 0.2m
  • Dedicated aperture ring 
  • Five user-customizable buttons
  • Standard hotshoe (no more proprietary connector!)
  • 1080p60 HD movies in AVCHD (50p on PAL region models)
  • Bulb mode and threaded cable release socket in shutter button

In the time I was reviewing the RX1, Sony introduced the RX1R, what is basically an identical camera that features the removal of the optical low-pass filter from the sensor. This change is the same as the option between the Nikon D800 and D800E.

I've written about what the removal of a low-pass filter means for most people in my article about the D800 vs D800E.

You can also read about moiré patterns that may result from the lack of a low pass filter, and what they may mean for your photography, in my article “Understanding Moiré Patterns in Digital Photography.”

Support These Reviews

The Sony RX1 tested in this review was provided by B&H, where I personally buy all my camera gear. If you find this review helpful, please consider buying your next photo gear purchase from B&H or any of my other my affiliate links.

To learn how you can help support www.ishootshows.com, visit the page Buy Yourself Something Nice. Now with that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

Where to Buy:

Sony RX1 at BHPhotoVideo.com

Body & Design

The Sony Rx1 is extremely compact, especially considering it's packing a full-frame sensor. It's actually a little astonishing. The RX1 offers a petite body and a relatively massive lens, with a proportionally large 3″ LCD on the back.

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Overall, the Sony RX1 offers a well-thought out design for a camera of this size, with lots of small, winning details. While the RX1 isn't bad to look at as a compact camera, the real victory of the design is in its interface.

Controls & Ergonomics

For compact “point and shoot,” the Sony RX1 offers excellent controls. Sony has packed in a fair amount of customizability into this small package, something that Fuji would do well to crib for their X-series of cameras (Fuji X-Pro1, I'm looking at you).

The Sony RX1 features the standard mode dial along with a +/3EV exposure compensation dial, as well as a jog wheel on the back for fast scrolling. The real gems of the RX1's controls are the custom function bottom on the top right of the camera and a job dial on the back. Between these two controls, it's possible to very easily customize the Sony RX1 to one's preferred input.

On the lens, the RX1 features a manual aperture dial. While it's not mechanically linked, this dedicated control over aperture makes shooting in aperture priority or manual mode a breeze. Between the aperture ring, the custom jog dial on the back, and custom button on top (which I set to ISO), one basically has control over all essential settings with these three inputs.

Thankfully, the Sony RX1 keeps basically all controls on the right side of the camera (unlike the Fuji X series cameras), which streamlines the user interface immensely. Almost all important functions on the back and top of the camera can be access by one's right thumb and forefinger. Overall, the Sony RX1 really aces control input and makes it extremely fast use in the field.

The only real misstep I see with the Sony RX1 is with the exposure compensation dial, which is the same minor gripe I had with the Fuji X-Pro1. Throw in a second customizable job dial here and I think that the camera input would be much better served. Personally, I feel like the exposure compensation dial is an unnecessary anachronism — if you disagree, let me know in the comments.

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Size Comparison vs a DSLR

Here's the Sony RX1 next to the Nikon D800. Not that these two models are direct competitors, but as the RX1 is capable of delivering image quality as good as any full-frame DSLR, the comparison stands.

The Sony is about half the thickness of the Nikon body, and feels about 1/3 less in height and width. All this adds up the Sony Rx1 being incredibly small in the hand. While it's not quite pocketable due to the squat, integral lens, the Sony RX1 is amazingly small considering the image quality it promises — and delivers.

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Shooting & Handling Impressions

Thanks to the highly customizable controls, the Sony RX1 handles extremely well for such a small camera. The dedicated controls for aperture, shutter speed, and the ability to set ISO via the custom button all make the RX1 a very fast camera. While on paper the Fuji X100/Fuji X100s offer these same features, the Sony RX1 offers a superior experience.

One aspect of shooting with the Sony RX1 is that it does not feature a built-in viewfinder, though one is available as an accessory. In practice, I didn't find the lack of a VF a hinderance with this camera. If anything, I felt myself actually wishing that the RX1 had an articulating LCD. Regardless, I found that the RX1 handled extremely well despite its small size, in part thanks to its excellent controls and customization options.

Camera Speed

One thing that surprised me about the Sony RX1 was the continuous speed. At 5fps, the burst mode of this Sony can be amazingly useful, especially in low light when one might be shooting a sequence to overcompensate for low shutter speeds.

AF Performance: Speed & Precision

Going into this field testing, the AF speed of the Sony RX1 was one of the big questions. After all, there's no point in having a big, badass full-frame sensor if the images aren't in focus.

I'm happy to report that the AF speed of the Sony RX1 is quite good. Not DSLR good, but I rarely found myself wanting for speed in the walk-around shooting and backstage reportage for which I used the RX1. AF is fast and accurate.

Overall Image Quality

Image quality with the Sony RX1 is excellent. The big 24-megapixel sensor offers plenty of resolution, and Sony's Exmor sensor produces very smooth and detailed files across the board.

Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2

The secret weapon of the Sony RX1 may just be its Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2. Honestly, unless you're shooting flat field subjects requiring edge to edge sharpness, this is a lens you can basically use wide open all day and all night (especially at night).

At f/2, it's fast enough that the RX1 can tackle all but the very dimmest lighting, especially with a proper use of the camera's wide ISO range.

Stopping down, the Sony RX1's lens is excellent at basically any aperture, and offers edge to edge sharpness easily by f/5.6, and I suspect even earlier.

However, more than technical performance, the 35mm f/2 Zeiss offers something far more interesting: character. Chalk it up to Zeiss voodoo or whatever you like, but this 35mm f/2 offers what I'd consider exceptionally nice character, with a very round, dimensional quality.

The defocusing quality of the Zeiss is very smooth for a lens of this focal length, and the full-frame format creates ample opportunity to put take advantage of this character.

High ISO Performance

The Sony RX1 features a native ISO range of 100-25600. ISO performance is easily as good as any other full-frame camera of comparable resolution. I had no hesitation shooting the Sony RX1 at whatever sensitivity needed, but up to ISO 6400 is quite good with this full-frame camera.

The real irony of high ISO performance is that when you truly need the most sensitive settings, image quality very rarely matters compared to just being able to make images. This especially true for B&W photography

Image Samples

First off, I should say that I would love to post more samples from this camera, but that what follows is a limited selection. The RX1 proved so awesome right out of the box that I had no hesitation using it for client work, including behind-the-scenes reportage and other candid shooting. While I'm not sharing those images at this time, I hope you'll trust me in saying that the image quality didn't leave me wanting for anything.

That said, I hope these images are enough to give you a sense of the character of the Zeiss 35mm f/2 lens, which really is quite remarkable. $2,800 remarkable? Well, that's a discussion for a later section.

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

 (Todd Owyoung)

Jason Aldean and Lenny Kravitz rehearsing at soundcheck at the CMA Music Festival at LP Field in Nashville, TN on June 8, 2013 prior to their performance at the CMA Music Festival 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Jason Aldean and Lenny Kravitz rehearsing at soundcheck at the CMA Music Festival at LP Field in Nashville, TN on June 8, 2013 prior to their performance at the CMA Music Festival 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Patti Smith performing at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on May 5, 2013. (Todd Owyoung)

Who Should Buy This Camera?

Were it not for the price tag, the Sony RX1 would be a camera that would an extremely recommendation. However, with a street price of $2,800, the RX1 is a camera that charges a premium for what could arguably be achieved with cameras like the Fuji X100s, Fuji X-Pro1, or other high-end mirrorless systems.

What the RX1 promises is superior controls, customization, full-frame goodness, and, arguably, a little je ne sais quoi magic from the Carl Zeiss lens.

The Sony RX1 seems truly for the photographer who already has a complete DSLR system, but who wants a compact that delivers all the same image quality without compromise. In this regard, the RX1 delivers absolutely — it just comes with a price: $2,800.

Summary and End Notes

The Sony RX1 is a fantastic camera. It promises — and delivers — the quality of a DSLR without the hassle or weight or bulk. The price of admission is steep, but this is one compact camera that is basically a no-compromise option if image quality is one's prime concern.

Where to Buy:

Sony RX1 at BHPhotoVideo.com

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D850:
I use two Nikon D850 for my live music photography. A true do-it-all DSLR with amazing AF, fast response, and no shortage of resolution.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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