Review: Sony RX1 – little camera, big picture

The Sony Cybershot RX1 is a small camera that’s all about the big picture. Inside its compact body beats the heart of a full format sensor, giving image quality you won’t see in any other camera this size. However, all good things come with compromises and there were plenty made to create the RX1. With one hand Sony giveth and the other it taketh away.

At a glance:

24 megapixel full frame sensor

Fixed 35mm f2 lens

External audio input

$3980 (cheapest found on PriceMe)

The RX1 isn’t so much manufactured as it is forged. Copious amounts of metal is used on every part of the tiny unit, making it cool to the touch and tough to boot. However, the size and shape of the camera makes it uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time and I found my fingers cramping trying to grip it in all sorts of strange positions.

The RX1’s design harks back to the day of rangefinders. The candy box shaped camera has a mode dial, function dial and dedicated exposure dial. A few other buttons are dotted around, but it’s spartan compared to most modern DSLRs. A recessed flap hides the microUSB charge/sync port and a 3.5mm jack for recording external audio.

What makes the RX1 unique amongst other 35mm sensors is its fixed lens (also 35mm with a maximum aperture of f2). Like the old manual film cameras I have lying around my house as decorations, the RX1’s aperture is controlled with a very slick manual adjustment ring on the lens. 

There’s something almost magical about the images that this
little camera produces. The photos manage to be both creamy and tack
sharp at the same time. Achieving a pleasing blurring effect in the
background is as easy at giving the aperture ring a quick twist. The
low light performance is fantastic and I can hardly remember using a camera which has so little noise in the dark.

the video quality is admirable for such a tiny unit (although not
unexpected for the price tag). Sony built the RX1 with a standard
hotshoe instead of its infuriating propriety one, meaning you can chuck on a
Rode VideoMic and start using it as a run-and-gun video recorder at the
press of a button.

The 35mm focal length is a good middle ground for landscape photography and excellent for capturing street scenes and groups of people. It’s restrictive for close ups, but if you really need to zoom you can always use your feet or crop the image later using the 24 megapixels as a buffer.

The RX1 forgoes a viewfinder and instead makes use of a bright 1.2
million dot LCD screen. This is the primary method of interacting with
the camera and composing photos, which is unfortunate. In bright daylight it’s hard to make out important details on the screen and I found myself very disconnected from the photos without having an eyepiece to look through.

For all its image prowess and large aperture lens,  the RX1 isn’t the speedy camera I thought it would be. With 25 autofocus points I expected much better focus accuracy and far less hunting.  Even in daylight the RX1’s autofocus is a tad (but noticeable) bit slower than my Micro Four Thirds camera and the Canon 6D I reviewed last week. In low light conditions this lag increases even more so making it easy to miss the moment and I found myself having to revert to using manual focus. This is not a sports camera.

The moment I saw the RX1’s petite battery I knew there were going to be problems with its battery life. After using it for a week I found a full charge will usually get me through around half a day, or 400 shots. This might seem like a lot but it’s just one forgotten charge cycle away from being a useless brick on the day you most need it. There’s no separate battery charger out of the box – so even if you do buy a spare, you’ll need the camera body itself in order to charge.

A lot of the RX1’s problems are easily fixed by buying Sony accessories. An optical viewfinder, a separate battery charger and even a thumb grip is available in the Sony store– but these cost several hundred dollars each and puts the sum total for the camera around the $5000 mark.

Verdict: Right out of the gate I have to admit the Sony RX1’s price means I’m unlikely to ever buy it, although I very much want to. For $4000 I need the flexibility of multiple lens which the RX1 just doesn’t offer.

That being said, if I were a street photographer or travel photographer that needed to pack lightly (and could afford the optical viewfinder at least) – this would be the camera for me. I love the photos the RX1 produces, its robust build quality and the potential of carrying a pro-level camera inside my jacket pocket.

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