The Sony RX1 is world's smallest full-frame camera. Such technology come at an eye-watering price, but is it worth the money. Read our full Sony RX1 review to find out...
As an increasing number of compacts and compact system cameras have adopted APS-C sensors, focus has shifted on the prospect of full-frame alternatives trickling down in the same way. While Leica has already successfully integrated such sensors inside five of its M-series models, their rangefinder construction, high price and marginal advantage in size over DSLRs has left them niche and unobtainable to all but the most well-healed enthusiast.
It’s welcome, therefore, to see a more accessible full-frame camera finally arrive. The Sony RX1 is the world’s smallest camera to be equipped with a full-frame sensor, and while its four-figure asking price still places it out of the reach of many, it’s nevertheless another welcome step in the democratisation of such models.
Sony RX1 review – Features
The Sony RX1 is the world’s smallest full-frame camera, one that incorporates the same 24.3MP Exmor CMOS sensor that starred in its launch partner, the Sony Alpha 99 (albeit, Sony says, without the A99’s phase-detect AF assist points). The sensor is said to benefit from large photodiodes and redesigned microlenses to help better its sensitivity, which has allowed an ISO range that runs from ISO 100 to 25,600. The range can be extended down to an ISO 50-equivalent option, and through the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction option, which captures and combines a number of images to help average out noise, up to a setting equivalent to ISO 102,400.
In front of the Sony RX1’s sensor sits a newly developed optic, one which expectedly bears the Carl Zeiss branding and a list of impressive specifications. It combines a 35mm focal length with a bright f/2 aperture, with nine diaphragm blades to facilitate circular bokeh and T* coatings to maximize light transmission and reduce aberrations. Three aspherical elements, including a single Advanced Aspherical element, are included to help minimise distortion and help maintain corner sharpness, while three rings around the barrel allow aperture and focus to be manually adjusted (one ring serves as a ‘macro’ focus control, despite maximum magnification being short of true macro at 0.26x).
The Sony RX1 records full HD video at 24p, although 50i and 50p modes are also provided. Stereo sound is recorded through a pair of on-board microphones, although it’s also possible to connect external microphones should you want to improve the audio quality. Exposure can be changed through the same PASM controls available for stills shooting, while an electronic variant of Sony’s Steadyshot technology is also on hand to help maintain a stability when recording moving footage.
The Sony RX1’s metering system provides the fairly standard multi, centre-weighted and spot triplet of options, while focusing controls include a standard 25-point multi pattern, joined with centre and flexible spot pattern, together with object and face tracking. The camera’s manual focus option is augmented by a further direct manual focus setting, which allows autofocus to be overridden with manual adjustment. This can also be used in conjunction with a peaking option to show when subject contrast is at its highest.
The Sony RX1 includes a small built-in flash which hides in the top-plate, while a hotshoe next to it facilitates the use of external units in addition to other viewfinders and other accessories. The 3in LCD screen on the rear, meanwhile, is yet another to feature Sony’s WhiteMagic technology. This adds an extra white dot for every red, green and blue triplet, to give a total resolution of 1,228million dots. Sony claims this improves brightness and decreases power consumption, with no apparent detrimental effect on image quality. It’s also possible to overlay an electronic levelling function over the screen to help with accurate framing.
The rest of the Sony RX1’s functionality includes many similarities to other Sony models, such as the Sony RX100. For example, while the camera’s standard 2.5fps burst rate may be underwhelming, through the previously seen Speed Priority Continuous mode this can be boosted to 5fps. The camera also provides a range of entry-level controls, the kinds of which are found on even the more basic Cyber-shot offerings, such as a Sweep Panorama option, Soft Skin mode, Face Detection and Recognition options, and a range of scene modes.
Sony RX1 Review – Design
As may be expected for the most expensive compact currently available (by some margin too), Sony has finished the RX1 to a particularly high standard. The magnesium alloy body feels next to indestructible, although at just 482g (with battery and memory card in place) the camera is perhaps lighter than expected.
Devoid of any focus switches or a focused-distance window, the Sony RX1’s metal lens barrel is relatively streamlined in its design, with each of its metal rings generously ridged for better purchase. The aperture ring clicks positively for every 1/3EV aperture stop marked on its ring, while the frontmost focusing ring turns smoothly and with enough resistance to facilitate precise manual focusing. Even the lens cap, which Sony could have easily constructed from plastic, sees a mostly-metal build with plastic only used for the rear-most parts, presumably to protect the lens.
The Sony RX1’s grip is nothing more than a millimetre-thick rubber panel which wraps itself around the side of the camera, but together with a considerably thicker rubber panel on the back-plate the camera can be handled relatively securely. It’s likely, however, that some would have preferred a more sculpted grip for even better purchase, such as that on recent compact system cameras such as Panasonic’s GX1.
A pair of chunky metal dials on the Sony RX1’s top plate ares separated by a threaded shutter release button, although the exposure compensation dial, which perches on the top plate’s corner, suffers from being knocked out of place too easily, particularly when being taken out of and put back into a pocket. It would help if the exposure compensation values on the LCD were displayed more prominently (perhaps in red, or flashing as with some of the other functions) whenever compensation was applied, but sadly they’re not which means you often realise this is out of position after you’ve taken a handful of images.
The play button also lacks travel and is also awkwardly positioned above the LCD screen, while the movie record button sits at an awkward 45 degree angle between the back and side plates, but these are not significant issues in themselves.
Although Sony has not assigned functions to the left, down and right sections of the RX1’s menu pad dial as standard, each can be programmed to bring up a function of the user’s choice. While the lack of engraving here means the user would have to remember which options are assigned to which controls (unless, of course, they are accessed), this is no doubt something which will become second nature after extended use. Indeed, some may prefer this blank-canvas approach rather than permanent engravings of default functions.
Sony RX1 review – Performance
The Sony RX1’s focusing system is a fast performer overall, but it lacks the promptness we’ve seen on the most recent crop of compact system cameras (this may well be thanks to the size and weight of the lens’s elements). In many conditions it’s performance is likely to be deemed more than good, although it does often hunt when light levels fall, even when the AF assist light is activated.
At times the Sony RX1 misfocuses (confirming incorrect focus) and sometimes fails to find focus at all. The system does have a certain manic quality, so even if it does need to travel through its range, and when it hunts, it does so quickly. There is a little noise from the lens as the camera focuses although it’s relatively muted, and when the RX1’s audio signals are disabled, only a faint click can be heard at the point of exposure; this suits it to capturing images in quieter environments.
Aside from the Sony RX1’s start-up time, which is good rather than excellent, practically all other tasks are performed briskly. Shutter lag is virtually non-existent, with images captured once the shutter release is depressed, and write times are similarly prompt. On a formatted UHS-1 SDHC card the camera had a burst depth at a consistent speed of 11 Raw+JPEG frames, which wrote to the card in just over 20 seconds. A high-quality JPEG depth of notched up 16 frames and a Raw-only depth recorded 14, both of which wrote to the card in a similar 19 seconds or so. Helpfully the camera did not lock up as images were being written, and images could still be captured; only handful of menu options could not be accessed.
The positioning of the indicator lamp next to the memory card slot on the RX1 (something which Sony has now done on a few models) is a nice touch and means the card or battery are unlikely to be removed while information is being written, although some would no doubt prefer to have a lamp where it can be permanently seen to know how ready the camera is should they want to fire off a burst of images. Additionally, there is another small lamp next to the USB charging port, which shows the charging status. Curiously, although the camera uses an InfoLithium battery, there appears to be no way of actually displaying remaining charge in percentage – it’s possible a future firmware update will rectify this.
The performance of the Sony RX1’s LCD is also commendable. It’s bright enough on default settings (when left to its ‘Auto’ mode, where it adjusts to the scene conditions), while its superb contrast and higher-than-usual resolution also does much to present images with a brilliant clarity. Looking at the screen from a range of positions shows it to have an impressive viewing angle too, while the feed is smoothly maintained when light levels fall. Although the orange/black menu system is fairly basic in terms of its design, and not quite as intuitive to use as the menu system on other manufacturer’s cameras, the screen’s high contrast and the clarity with which all options are listed also makes navigating the menu a joy.
It’s perhaps just as well that the LCD’s WhiteMagic technology is said to cut down on power consumption, though, as the camera is only rated to 220 shots by CIPA testing standards, which was noticed during testing. This is lower than expected, although it’s useful that the camera is charged through its micro USB port as this renders external chargers unnecessary and means it can be quickly plugged into a computer.
As with the A99, it’s strange that Sony should include the same options in the Fn menu here as it does on its more entry-level cameras. The only logical argument for this is for the sake of consistency; nevertheless, the professional user at which the camera is targeted is unlikely to require fast access to many option here such as the Soft Skin setting or Auto Portrait Framing option. Hopefully Sony will tailor the graphic user interfaces of future models more towards the typical user’s requirements.
Sony RX1 review – Image Quality
This is just a small selection of sample images shot on the Sony RX1, for the full collection please visit our Sony RX1 Sample Image Gallery.
Colour and White Balance
In the hundreds of images captured for this test, only a small handful showed any errors in judgement on the part of the Sony RX1’s Auto White Balance system. In addition to a couple of slightly purple casts captured under natural light, the only time the camera’s Auto White Balance system produced slightly inconsistent results was under a combination of daylight and halogen spotlights, conditions which would tax any camera’s AWB system.
In balanced conditions, and when the Sony RX1 is set to its evaluative metering pattern, images are well-exposed with no obvious bias towards shadows or highlights. The camera does tend to behave fairly predictably when faced with areas of darker and brighter details, such as when capturing trees against skies, in that it (quite significantly) underexposes the main subject. Fortunately, the DRO Auto option brings such underexposed areas back up for a more balanced result.
Image Noise and Resolution
Noise at ISO 6400 is lower than expected, with a significant level of detail prevailing, and the Sony RX1’s noise reduction system does a very good job to remove to chroma noise without affecting details too greatly. At ISO 100 it’s difficult to find noise in shadow areas, although from ISO 200 onwards a patterning begins to emerge. Resolution is superb up to ISO 1600, and reasonably consistent too. At higher sensitivities it remains remarkably strong.
There is a moderate amount of corner softness at the widest few apertures, but central performance is impressive, and once stopped down the former disappears. Out of focus areas are often affected by chromatic aberration, even when the Lens Comp. Chromatic Aberration feature is enabled. Some distortion can also be observed, but the Lens Comp. Distortion feature works well to rectify this in JPEGs.
Raw and JPEG
The Sony RX1’s image processing system gently boosts contrast and sharpness in JPEGs, with details showing noticeably more definition. Sharpness is just right – any more and details begin to look unnatural. The noise reduction system is effective at reducing most chroma noise in images, while the Lens Compensation Distortion Correction option also has a noticeable effect to straighten out the slight unevenness from the optic.
Video footage from the Sony RX1 is high in quality, with smooth and fluid subject movement and details clearly rendered (some noise is present in all but the finest conditions). The OSS function is effective at stabilising the footage, and is particularly useful to keep on when stationary (it’s best deactivated when panning as it can make the scene stagger somewhat). As with the camera’s stills recording, very fine details do show some aliasing artefacts, but sound is recorded with good clarity.
Sony RX1 review – Verdict
The Sony RX1 is, for many reasons, a remarkable camera, and one which has been very difficult to score on account of it not having any obvious immediate rivals. While it’s certainly true that it’s expensive, it’d be difficult to find a full-frame DSLR and optic of equivalent performance for less. Its compact size and reasonably discrete styling means it also presents a very real advantage over full-frame DSLRs with similar lenses; for the reportage photographer in particular, there are many reasons why it should be the most desirable option currently available.
With correct technique employed the details picked up by the lens are nothing short of magnificent, and while some may lament the lack of a zoom lens, others will appreciate the Sony RX1’s high image quality that can no doubt be largely attributed to its prime optic (in any case, trying to negotiate a zoom into such a small body, while maintaining high image quality across the focal range, would no doubt be difficult, not to mention costly).
While the Sony RX1 does bear a handful of minor issues, such as its underwhelming battery life and the ease with which the exposure compensation dial may be accidentally turned, it’s perhaps the issues with the autofocusing system in sub-optimum conditions which stand as the only significant problem (especially for those shooting under low-light with some frequency).
Otherwise the Sony RX1 works tirelessly to impress. With a superb build, excellent detail retention at low and high sensitivities and competent metering and auto white balance systems on hand, it’s unquestionably one of the finest digital cameras we’ve seen yet.
The Sony RX1 is the world’s smallest camera to be equipped with a
full-frame sensor, and while its four-figure asking price still places
it out of the reach of many, it’s nevertheless another welcome step in
the democratisation of such models. Watch our video review to find out more.
Sony RX1 review full sample image gallery
Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent warm white, fluorescent cool white, fluorescent day white, fluorescent daylight, flash
1920×1080 (50p, 50i, 24p)
SD, SDHC, SDXC, MS
3in TFT LCD, 1,228million dots
24.3MP Exmor CMOS full-frame type
USB 2.0, HDMI
Auto, Scene, PASM
Multi, centre-weighted, evaluative
Raw (ARW),JPEG, Raw+JPEG
113.3 x 65.4 x 69.6mm
Calr Zeiss 35mm f/2
ISO 100-25,600 (exp. to ISO 50 equivalent, Multi-Frame NR option provides ISO 102,400 equivalent)
Auto, fill-flash, slow sync, rear sync, flash off, wireless
482g (inc. battery and card)
Rechargeable lithium-ion battery