Sony Cyber-shot RX1 full review

Sony has less history in the camera market than most of its competitors — it hasn’t been around as long as Olympus, and it doesn’t have the digital SLR history of Canon or Nikon. Recently, the company has been bravely trying new concepts — and some of them, like the NEX line of super-compact mirrorless interchangeable-lens bodies, have paid off. See also Group test: what's the best compact camera?

The Cyber-shot RX1 is visually similar to the Sony Cyber-shot RX100, but it couldn’t be more different inside. Where the RX100 has a thumbnail-sized sensor and collapsing zoom lens, the RX1 has a full-frame, 36x24mm sensor #&8212; that’s the same size as the one inside the oversized Nikon D3x, D4, and Canon’s 1Dx.

Fixed to that sensor is a custom made, 35mm focal-length, f/2-aperture Carl Zeiss prime lens. This decidedly high-end sensor/lens combination sits inside a camera that’s less wide, and barely taller than the Pentax MX-1 compact — the Sony RX1 has a lot going for it.

Sony Cyber-shot RX1: Design, features and setup

The RX1’s no-nonsense design means it almost perfectly fits the standard cookie-cutter compact camera mould — apart from the comparatively bulky lens sitting on the front, you’d struggle to tell it apart from a Panasonic LUMIX LX7, Olympus Stylus XZ-2, or the aforementioned RX100at a distance.

Sony Cyber-shot RX1 review

When you’ve got the RX1 in your hands, it feels just right — the lens itself measures just 40mm long, but has a smooth manual focus ring, macro toggle ring, and mechanical aperture ring that are all easy to reach and adjust. The front of the camera is basic — apart from Sony and RX1 logos and a right-hand finger grip, the only switch you’ll find is for changing from auto- to manual- or assisted-manual focus.

The camera’s top plate is similarly clean, with a layout that almost mirrors the Pentax MX-1 we recently praised. There’s a left-mounted manual pop-up flash, hot-shoe for a viewfinder or larger flash, shooting mode dial, combination power-switch and shutter button, and dedicated exposure compensation dial.

The back of the RX1 is surprisingly simple for such a powerful camera. With a control scheme that’s very similar to the NEX-7, apart from swapping the two control dials for a single smaller one, the RX1’s controls are laid out in a way that makes the camera easy to operate in both hands-off automatic and hands-on manual modes.

A total of five buttons can be customised within the RX1’s menu system and assigned to different settings. Two — the C and AEL buttons are close to hand, so we assigned them to quick ISO and metering mode overrides, which we use most often when shooting manually. The left, right and down buttons on the camera’s five-way navigation pad-cum-dial can also be customised.

The camera’s non-articulated, non-touch 3-inch LCD screen is, like on most Sony cameras, extremely clear, has a good range of brightness (including automatic adjustment), and is surprisingly vibrant. One consideration that you have to take into account when using the RX1 is that images displayed on the rear screen are generally brighter and more saturated than you’ll see when viewing them afterwards on a calibrated computer monitor.

The Sony RX1’s menu system is reasonably straightforward; the tabbed-folder layout separates shooting, playback and setup functions well and settings are mostly easy-to-understand. The camera’s high-end target market should want granular control over various advanced settings, too, and thankfully there’s user-adjustable settings for lens distortion correction, high-ISO noise reduction, chromatic aberration reduction, and so on. Once you’ve got the RX1’s custom shooting buttons set up how you want them to be, though, you shouldn’t have to visit the menu often.

Sony Cyber-shot RX1: Performance and picture quality

The Cyber-shot RX1 certainly performs like a high-end, premium-targeted compact camera or professional digital SLR should, in almost every aspect of its performance. It doesn’t disappoint at all in its picture quality or ergonomics, although it’s not entirely as easy to shoot as its full-frame digital SLR price competitors.

We should note that when you buy the Cyber-shot RX1, all you’re getting is the camera, lens cap, strap and charger. Sony sells a 35mm-equivalent Zeiss optical viewfinder that sits in the shoe above the camera’s lens mount, but buying it adds another $599 to the camera’s already high price tag.

Similarly, an OLED electronic viewfinder is £313. A thumb grip (which also sits in the shoe) is £209. A lens hood is £144. A leather never-ready case is £197. A circular polariser for the lens’s 49mm mount is $102. To be honest, these prices are just silly — buy a fully-kitted-out RX1 and the price comes to £3,369. Sony has a long track record of pricing its accessories high, but this is a bit much.

Pricy accessories aside, we used the Sony RX1 with no viewfinder for all of our shooting, and found it generally easy to use for everyday walk-about photography. The camera is quick to operate, starting up in around 1.5sec, after which it’s ready to focus and capture images.

The slowest aspect of actually photographing with the RX1 is the autofocus, which tends to ratchet over the entire 0.3m-infinity range at least once before settling on any particular distance. This makes focusing on moving objects a special challenge, as the focus hunting process takes around half a second — a long wait unless you’re trying to get a fix on something that stays still.

Combine this with the camera’s understandably narrow depth of field, and this is not a camera for happy-snaps of kids or pets. This niggle would be easy enough to fix with a firmware update, though, so we’re definitely not writing the camera off for this flaw.

ISO performance from the Sony RX1 is stellar. We’d legitimately use every setting from the native ISO of 100 all the way to the maximum ISO 25600 — there’s still a surprising amount of detail retained, and little disruptive chroma noise, with the biggest impediment being a shift in colour and white balance at these higher ISOs.

ISO 100-1600 shows barely any change in quality, and although increasing graininess enters from 3200 to the cap of 25600, it’s consistently kept under control in a way we haven’t seen from any camera that’s passed through the PC World test centre before.

The built-in flash, reasonably bright prime lens, built-in sensor shift image stabilisation and excellent ISO performance means the RX1 is a camera we’d happily take out for a night of photography. We got usable shots down to a shutter speed of around 1/15sec, but beyond that you’re unlikely to get a clear photo.

The RX1’s 35mm f/2 lens can focus from 0.3m to infinity under normal shooting conditions, but there’s a macro ring that opens up a distance of 0.2 to 0.35m. This means the camera is capable of some reasonable close-ups, although it’s definitely ‘macro’ in a ‘look-at-this-nice-flower’ rather than a ‘look-at-this-nice-ant’ way.

You won’t find many hand-holding, creative-photo modes on the RX1 like you would a compact or entry-level digital SLR. There’s Sony’s trademark sweep panorama and a small selection of Scene modes, but for the most part photographers only have a few Creative Style modes to choose from - the usual Vivid, Natural, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, and Black & White, although various modes have extras for shooting at night and so on.

Sony Cyber-shot RX1: Conclusion

We really enjoyed the process of taking photos with the Sony RX1. It’s an extremely powerful and capable camera, with only one significant flaw — apart from its price tag and the price tags of its accessories, of course.

We’re confident that Sony will take some steps to address the RX1’s imperfect autofocus drive in the near future. If it does, there’s really nothing technically wrong with the RX1. If you can afford it, it’s a great camera.


Sony Cyber-shot RX1: Specs

  • Effective Pixels (Mega Pixels): Approx. 24.3
  • Still Image L size (16:9 mode): 20M (6000 x 3376)
  • Still Image M size (16:9 mode): 8.7M (3936 x 2216)
  • Still Image S size (16:9 mode): 3.9M (2640 x 1488)
  • Size: 113.3 x 65.4 x 69.6
  • Weight: Approx. 453g (16oz)

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