Some people search for pots of gold at the end of rainbows – we’ve searched for this wildly expensive digicam almost as long. Why? Because the Sony Cyber-shot RX1 ($2,800) is a powerful 24.3-megapixel compact camera with a full-frame sensor, the same imaging device you’ll find in much larger and equally expensive DSLRs. It’s a camera that makes you think hard about what it is you’re shooting, but rewards you with excellent imagery. The RX1 is our version of a fabled unicorn but finally we tracked one down – and were quite happy we did.
Features and design
The RX1 is rather unassuming, given it costs close to three grand. In fact, it topped that figure since our review sample was supplied with an optional $450 OLED viewfinder, making it a $3,250 package. Whew! Yet even with this nosebleed price, the camera has barely budged from list – major online retailers may give you a buck off but forget about any sort of discount. Yes, it’s a very glorified point-and-shoot, but this camera is a dream come true for many photographers and they’re willing to pay the price.
Again, why all the uproar? Well, the RX1 measures 4.5 x 2.6 x 2.75 inches and tips the scale at 17 ounces – about the size of a point-and-shoot albeit a bit heavier than most. In this body is a full-frame sensor that is about as good as it gets in 2013, other than a DSLR like the Nikon D800 with its 36-megapixel, $2,999 body-only configuration or if you move into medium-format cameras used by pros. You’ll find the same full-frame sensor in Sony’s A99 DSLR ($2,800 body only), an excellent camera but it’s gigantic in comparison to the RX1. Another difference with DSLRs and Compact System Cameras (CSC)? The RX1 has a fixed Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* f/2.0 35mm lens with a nine-blade aperture, so there’s no built-in zoom. This f/stop and design mean you can shoot in low light and get wonderfully blurred bokeh effects.
Besides the fixed focal length 35mm lens, the front is home to an AF assist lamp and a switch to change between AF, Direct Manual Focus (DMF), and Manual Focus. On the right is a raised textured grip. In case we didn’t make this very clear, the lack of any optical zoom or lens interchangeability may be a deal breaker. Whether a non-zooming lens is a good or bad thing will depend on the user. Clearly you have to be satisfied with a 35mm field-of-view. (Of course you can physically zoom in and out with your feet.) Keep reading on more of our thoughts on this lens.
Lamborghinis will always cost more than BMWs, and people will always want the best. If you think of it like that, the RX1 is the best compact camera we’ve ever reviewed.
On the top deck are a manual pop-up flash, hot shoe, mode dial, combo shutter/on-off switch, Custom button, and old-school exposure compensation dial (+/- 3 EV). We used the optional EVF on the hot shoe but there are other accessories available. The mode dial is very straightforward with Auto, PASM, Scene, Movie, Panorama, and three user-set custom options. The separate Custom button lets you assign a specific parameter to it – we chose ISO which ranges from 50-25,600. Since this camera is for tweakers, it has more than the usual ISO settings so you can make adjustments to your heart’s content.
The back is dominated by a 3-inch LCD screen rated a very high 1,229K dots. The display is very robust and we had few wipeout issues even in direct Arizona sunlight. If we were standing over the engineers’ shoulders, we’d suggest the screen be vari-angle and touch sensitive; hopefully those features will appear on the RX2 or whatever successor Sony has in the works. The optional EVF isn’t required for viewability, but it allows for better ergonomics so you can bring the camera close to your face while framing a subject for a more secure grip. It looks kind of cool too, so we’d suggest you go all in for the extra money to complete the outfit.
Other rear panel keys include one for the pop-up flash, Playback, AEL, Function Menu, and Delete. There is a control dial on the top right and a control wheel with center set button. The dial lets you make adjustments while the wheel moves through the menus. Unlike other cameras, there are no set parameters on three points of the wheel (Display is at the North point of the circle). The other three can be set to your favorites such as resolution, speed, and myriad other options. The camera is really geared toward serious shutterbugs even though there are Auto and Scene modes available. On the right edge is a red-dot movie button for quickly shooting videos. This button is poorly positioned, very small, and hard to engage. On a more positive note, the RX1 captures AVCHD movies at a variety of frame rates including 24p/60i/60p – as good as it gets without stepping up to a pro camcorder.
On the left side are Micro USB and Micro HDMI connections; the RX1 charges in-camera. The supplied battery is rated 220 shots with the LCD on high, 270 at the standard setting. These numbers are not great and it would’ve been nice if Sony supplied an in-wall charger so you could have spares at the ready (it’s why it’s a Cyber-shot and not a Sony NEX CSC or DSLR with their much bigger and potent batteries). There are tradeoffs in this world for having a small and compact camera, unfortunately, so forget shooting 400 images on a single charge. We experienced the dreaded “Battery Exhausted” alert during more than one photo shoot. On the bottom is the slot for said battery and memory card slot. In keeping with all Sony cameras, you can use a variety of Memory Stick- and SD-format media.
What’s in the box
The Made in Japan RX1 comes with rechargeable battery, Micro USB cable, AC adapter, strap, lens cap, cleaning cloth, and a 75-page instruction manual. No software CDs are supplied with this $3,000 camera. We imagine Sony thinks anyone buying this baby is already using Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture editing programs – or perhaps they have assistants to do the work! That said, you can go to Sony’s site and download Image Data Converter to handle RAW files. After charging the battery and popping in a Class 10 SDHC card, it was time to give the unicorn a ride.
Performance and use
We used the RX1 for several weeks and admit to enjoying it immensely – even with the small battery and movie-button issues. You’d have to be made of stone if you didn’t like it. The camera feels right, is easy to carry everywhere, and the photo quality is out of this world. We loved the output of the A99 DSLR and since the RX1 has the same sensor, the results held true for this compact.
Now we circle back to a key proposition for this camera – the fixed focal length 35mm lens. We prefer a slightly wider view (28mm) since it gives the perspective we like, especially for buildings and landscapes. Yet our RX1 pictures of the buildings and statuary of Lower Manhattan looked fine, even at 35mm. We definitely did a lot of walking up to zoom into our subjects but that was different and fun. What we liked a great deal is the nature of this beast makes you think about what you’re shooting. You can’t go zoom crazy, toggling in and out until you find what you want. Here you have to consider your options, make a decision, and use the camera as the tool it’s meant to be – a way of capturing the images in your head. Sorry to wax photo-philosophical but devices like the RX1 push you beyond basic snapshooting and, for us, that’s a good thing.
We have our doubts many of you will make 20 x 30 prints of RX1 photos but it’s nice to know you can do just that. More importantly, in our view, is the overall accuracy and richness of color of the images, as well as the crispness of the lens, which is really the foundation of your vision. The RX1 delivers in spades as you can readily enlarge an image 100 percent and crop away, depending on your original exposure, of course.
The RX1 has an aperture ring (f/2.0-22) that makes a nice clicking sound as you make adjustments. We simply love the f/2.0 Zeiss lens as you can make super-sharp images with beautiful, blurred backgrounds. Now you have to really focus with precision to make sure your main subject is on target and we didn’t have any issues doing so. The Direct Manual Focus setting helps out with that, as the camera’s AF system zeroes in and then you turn the lens focus dial to make sure it’s spot on. This is helpful for macro shots as well as portraits so you can get the right point of a face as sharp as possible.
When we did our pixel-peeping it was fun to see how far we could blow them up onscreen before images fell apart. Well-exposed outdoor shots looked good even at more than 100 percent, so feel free to crop away without risking too much quality, folks. The RX1 has an ISO range of 50-25,600. Although the camera reaches these high figures, the quality is nothing like full-frame DSLRs used by pros. Here you can go to 3,200 with few problems, topping off at 6,400 before digital noise and color shifts become too noticeable. Shooting at 3,200 with an f/2.0 aperture means you can take superior photos in dim light even with a fairly slow shutter speed.
On the still front, there’s really nothing to squawk as you make all the adjustments you want, just like a larger DSLR. As for movies, you’ll be pleased with them as well. We’ve been big fans of the AVCHD 1080/60p format since it first arrived. Colors are very accurate with little rolling shutter or jelly effects. The option of 24p is also available, if that suits your cinematic vision.
The more we mull it over, “suiting your vision” is an apt description for the RX1. This Cyber-shot is a wonderful photography tool and if you can imagine the shot, the camera will deliver it – within reason, of course. At this price, the RX1 is clearly for a very affluent shutterbug and perhaps our biggest complaint is the fact it’s so darn expensive. Yet Lamborghinis will always cost more than BMWs, and people will always want the best. If you think of it like that, the RX1 is the best compact camera we’ve ever reviewed – and a DT Editors’ Choice.
- Full-frame, 24.3-megapixel sensor
- Wonderful stills, superior videos
- Terrific f/2.0 35mm lens
- Excellent 3-inch 1,229K LCD
- Battery life somewhat limited; Sony should supply an in-wall charger
- LCD should tilt and be touch-capable
- Poor placement of red-dot movie button