Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 at a glance:

  • 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame, CMOS sensor
  • Fixed 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens
  • ISO 100-25,600, extendable to ISO 50
  • 3in, 1.22-million-dot LCD screen
  • 1920×1080-pixel HD video capture
  • Street price £2,599

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Introduction

When Sony released its Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 in June 2012, it caused a stir in the compact camera market. Here was a truly compact camera with an impressive 20.2-million-pixel, 1in (13.2×8.8mm) CMOS imaging sensor. The RX100’s compact size, high resolution and larger-than-average image sensor were aimed directly at enthusiast photographers who would usually opt for a Canon PowerShot G or Panasonic Lumix LX-series camera. It certainly impressed the AP technical team, with the RX100 coming top in our comparison of advanced compact cameras (AP 24 November 2012).

Then, just a few months later, Sony surprised us once again when it announced the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. Costing around £2,600, the RX1 isn’t cheap, but what you get is a compact-sized camera with a 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame, CMOS sensor, combined with a fixed 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens. The RX range is an exciting new direction for Sony, and one that could help redefine how photographers view Sony as a camera company. In fact, a comparison can be drawn between Sony’s RX range and Fujifilm’s X series. The Fujifilm X100 rangefinder-style compact camera, with its large 12.3-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor, is probably the closest competitor to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1.

In the eyes of many photographers, the X100 and its more compact sibling, the X10, helped to reinvent Fuji as a premium camera manufacturer, producing cameras that many enthusiast and professional photographers would be more than happy to have in their camera bags. The fact that it is Sony, and not Nikon, Canon, Leica or Fujifilm, that has produced the first compact camera with a full-frame sensor, is undoubtedly a boon for the company, and one that will raise the profile of its cameras among enthusiast photographers.

Some photographers will view the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 as having the potential to become their primary camera because, after all, many will happily shoot with a Leica rangefinder with just a single 35mm focal length lens. The only question is whether the performance of the world’s first full-frame compact digital camera will meet the expectations that come with its price tag.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Features

Image: Even at the corners of the image, the RX1 and its lens produce very sharp detail

There are three key features of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 that will ignite the interest of many enthusiast photographers: the full-frame sensor; the compact-style body; and the 35mm Carl Zeiss lens. As already stated, the sensor is a 24.3-million-pixel, 35mm, full-frame, CMOS unit that is the same as that found in the Sony Alpha 99 single lens translucent (SLT) camera.

Compared with the competition, the RX1 has a larger sensor, as both the Leica X2 and Fujifilm X100 have APS-C-sized units. The advantage of using a full-frame sensor is that the larger surface area allows for either more photosites and therefore a higher resolution, or for larger photosites and improved image quality and dynamic range. Full-frame sensors of 20 million pixels or more have been around for a number of years, so the 24.3 million pixels in the RX1 should provide a good balance between resolution and image quality.

Powering the sensor is a Bionz processor that is no doubt similar in specification to that found in Sony’s Alpha range of cameras. The combination of sensor and processor allows for both raw and JPEG images to be captured, with a sensitivity range of ISO 100-25,600. This can be extended to as low as ISO 50, plus there is an additional multi-shot mode that blends multiple exposures, reducing noise levels and thus enabling sensitivity to be increased  to ISO 102,400.

The 35mm focal length of the f/2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens should prove popular with enthusiast photographers. The focal length is slightly less than the standard 50mm, and it doesn’t offer quite as wide a view as a 28mm lens, but as a general-purpose optic it should prove useful for landscape, travel, documentary, social and even some portrait photography. When combined with the camera’s compact body, the RX1 has the potential to be the ideal travelling companion.

While you wouldn’t expect to use the RX1 and its 35mm lens for sports or action photography, this doesn’t mean that you can’t capture movement. With a shooting rate of up to 5fps, it is possible to hold down the shutter button and capture a sequence of shots for candid or documentary images.

The RX1 has the full complement of manual-exposure controls that would be expected of a DSLR, as well as many of the advanced shooting modes found on Sony’s other Cyber-shot and Alpha models. One of the most useful for those who shoot just JPEG images will be auto HDR, which combines three images to capture a greater dynamic range, and to reveal more highlight and shadow detail. There are also a number of scene and automatic exposure modes, as well as picture effects, including toy camera and miniature modes.

Image: The size and quality of the RX1 make it very discreet in use, and ideal for street-photography images

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens

Like its predecessors that also bear the Sonnar designation, the RX1’s 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens has a large f/2 aperture, allowing good performance in low light. However, this new lens comprises eight elements in seven groups, whereas the classic Sonnar lenses have seven elements in three groups, or slight variations on this. The aperture has an impressive nine blades that should produce an almost circular shape and therefore smooth, circular bokeh.

Like other premium Carl Zeiss lenses, the RX1’s lens has T* optical multi-coating, which should help to reduce flare and ghosting. One of the main advantages of using a fixed lens is that the optical coatings and performance of the lens can be designed to get the best possible performance from the sensor.

In practice, I found the lens to be excellent. There is some slight distortion, which is largely corrected on JPEG files but is visible on raw files. Similarly, there is some chromatic aberration, which is again corrected in JPEG files.

However, the lens is extremely sharp in the centre and there is very little drop-off in quality towards the edges of the frame.

Even when shooting with the lens wide open at f/2 images are sharp, with only a fractional drop in quality from shooting a stop or two down.

Whenever the name Carl Zeiss appears on a lens we have high expectations of it, and thankfully the 35mm f/2 Sonnar T* doesn’t disappoint.

Image: With such a large sensor on the RX1 and its wide-aperture lens, it is possible to create a very shallow depth of field

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Build and handling

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is built to a very high standard. It is obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the design, both in terms of ease of handling and pleasing looks. Despite appearances, the lens is actually offset and not positioned centrally. According to Noriaki Takagi, producer and senior designer in Sony’s Creative Centre, ‘To have the lens look centred, we adjusted the logo position to a millimetre precision, seeking the best balance.’ The attention to detail doesn’t stop there. All the logos and markings on the camera are etched on rather than printed, so the paint won’t simply rub off over time. This is the sort of high-quality finish expected from a company such as Leica, and it is certainly in keeping with the style and price of the RX1.

One concern with smaller cameras is that they can be fiddly to use. However, the RX1’s size is restricted because of its need to house a full-frame sensor. Nevertheless, Sony has made the RX1 as small as possible yet it is still comfortable to hold and handle. While the RX1 is smaller and slimmer than the Fujifilm X100, the RX1’s lens is a lot larger. In fact, the layouts of the RX1 and the Fujifilm X100 are quite similar. On the RX1 top-plate is the shutter button that doubles as an on/off switch, an exposure-compensation dial and a function button, exactly like that on the X100. Both cameras also have an additional dial, but while this selects the shutter speed on the X100, it is a program mode dial on the RX1. An aperture ring on the lens gives the RX1 a traditional feel, and it is adjustable in 1/3EV steps. A secondary ring on the lens barrel switches between standard AF range and a close-focus range. Another nice touch is a proper screw thread in the shutter button for a cable release.

In use the RX1 handles well. All the buttons and dials are conveniently placed and the rubber thumb grip on the rear of the camera protrudes sharply enough to make it comfortable to hold. On the front of the RX1 is a slight rubber grip, which is enough to hold a camera of the RX1’s size.

There is a quite a comprehensive range of accessories for the RX1, including optical and electronic viewfinders, but more on these later.

For a compact camera the RX1 is expensive, but this is reflected in the build quality and finish. It is extremely well made, intuitive to use, and the menus are clear and easy to navigate. However, it is the size of the camera that really steals the show. Due to the lens it is not pocketable, but it is light, small and discreet, and there is an ever-ready-style leather case available, which can offer some protection for the camera.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Autofocus

Although the resolution of the sensor in the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 may be the same as that in the Alpha 99, there are some differences. Unlike the Alpha 99, the RX1 sensor doesn’t have on-sensor phase detection. Instead, and much like a conventional compact camera, it relies solely on contrast-detection autofocus. This is a little surprising, given that so many manufacturers are using on-sensor phase-detection AF in their cameras, and that Sony already has the technology available. However, contrast-detection AF has also improved in the past few years, and as we have seen on compact system cameras in many situations, it can be as fast as a conventional phase-detection system.

Overall, the AF speed of the RX1 is good in bright light. Although not the fastest camera we have seen recently, it is perfectly fine for the types of images that it will be used to take. In low light it tends to slow down, and will occasionally struggle to find focus in dim lighting, but this slight drop in speed doesn’t hinder the overall experience of using the camera. For most general uses, particularly travel and street photography, the AF speed is more than enough.

Manual focusing is also an option and this is achieved via an electronic focusing ring on the lens itself. Using the electronic focus ring to manually focus offers a more tactile experience compared to using a dial on the back of the camera, and it certainly improves the handling. However, the process is still quite slow and really only useful for when focusing closely. If you wish to focus on a particular subject, the focus tracking mode is a quicker option.

The lens of the RX1 can focus as close as 20cm, so it is close-focusing rather than macro focusing. A ring on the lens switches the AF between close (20-30cm focusing) and a general 30cm-infinity focus, which helps to improve the speed and accuracy of the AF, particularly in the former mode.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

We have tested a number of cameras with full-frame, 24-million-pixel sensors in the past, including the Nikon D3X, the Sony Alpha 850 and 900, and more recently the Sony Alpha 99 and Nikon D600. The sensor in the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 matches the impressive resolutions of these camera, resolving to around 30 in our resolution test.

Even more impressive is that, excluding medium-format digital cameras, there is only one model that has a significantly higher-resolution sensor than the RX1, and that is the Nikon D800.

Although the RX1’s sensor is full frame, and the photosites are larger than you would find on a camera with a 24-million-pixel APS-C sensor, they still aren’t as large as those found on the Nikon D3S. So while the RX1’s performance in low light is good, don’t expect results that look like full-frame DSLR cameras with lower resolutions. With this in mind, though, noise is well controlled.

If images are correctly exposed and not adjusted, there is only the merest hint of luminance noise at low sensitivities and colour noise is kept under control as the sensitivity increases. If you look hard enough you will see noise, particularly at sensitivities above ISO 1600, although unless you are looking at images at 100% this shouldn’t be a concern. I would suggest that the ISO 50-6400 range is perfectly usable in most situations.

My advice would be to avoid the settings higher than this if you are really particular about the fine details of your images.

Having seen just how impressive the Carl Zeiss lens is in terms of sharpness, it makes me wonder just how detailed images would be were Sony to introduce an RX1 without an anti-aliasing filter.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Dynamic range

With a full-frame DSLR sensor, you would expect an impressive dynamic range from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 and it doesn’t disappoint. While perhaps not the best performance we have seen, it is certainly on a par with most DSLRs. Although we were unable to compare the two cameras, I would also suspect that the RX1 performs slightly better than the Alpha 99 because it does not have a translucent mirror in front of the sensor. We have previously seen this when the same Sony sensors have been used in the company’s Alpha single lens translucent and NEX compact system camera models.

In real terms, the RX1 does a good job in overcast scenes, exposing the foreground nicely while still leaving detail in the sky. Conversely, there is an impressive amount of shadow detail, even in JPEG images. Using Photoshop to brighten an image can reveal detail that previously looked like a black void, although obviously this does introduce noise. It really does deliver DSLR performance in a compact camera.

Image: Taken at ISO 6400, there appears to be a lot of blown-out detail in the JPEG file that can actually be fully recovered in the raw images, thanks to the fairly good dynamic range of the RX1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Metering

As many photographers will generally shoot with their cameras set to evaluative metering, it is important that this mode works well, and thankfully, in the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 it does. On the whole, the evaluative metering system produces bright, well-exposed images. On occasions, I found the exposures to be a little too bright for my taste, forcing me to reduce the exposure by 0.7EV for a series of images. However, this is easy to do thanks to the dedicated exposure compensation dial on the camera’s top-plate.

When shooting landscape scenes, the evaluative metering strikes a good balance between foreground exposure and including some detail in overcast skies. The dynamic range of the larger sensor means that the metering can expose images brightly and still retain highlight detail, particularly for those who are shooting raw files.

When shooting cityscapes at night, the very high-contrast scenes forced the evaluative metering to create a brighter image than I wanted, and there was some blown-out highlight details on brightly illuminated buildings. It was very easy to switch the RX1 to spot metering mode, and then expose for the highlights in the scene. In fact, using the small, metal-bodied camera in spot metering mode felt good. It adds more to the experience of using the RX1, which will be great for those who want a high-quality digital camera that has an air of using something far more traditional.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – White balance and colour

Images produced by the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 resemble those taken by Sony Alpha and NEX cameras. The AWB setting works well, particularly when shooting in both overcast and sunny daylight conditions. Colours are reproduced very well, with a fairly rich level of saturation in the default colour mode. Due to the level of contrast, I found that the default colour settings were perfect for nearly all circumstances. Occasionally I switched to the vivid settings for scenes with slightly duller colours, but it tended to be a little too much when used on bright landscapes.

The default black & white setting is also good, with a nice level of contrast. However, each colour setting can be adjusted to personal taste, and a user setting saved.

Image: Both the colour rendition and auto white balance of the RX1 produce pleasing results

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Viewfinder, LCD, live view and video

Like the current Sony Alpha cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 has a 3in, 1.22-million-dot LCD screen. Unlike the Fujifilm X100, the RX1 doesn’t have a built-in electronic viewfinder, but it does have an optional FDA-V1K Carl Zeiss optical viewfinder. This slides into the RX1’s hotshoe, and the sturdy aluminium viewfinder is bright and clear, but there is some obvious parallax error. If a 100% accurate view is required, there is an optional FDA-EV1MK XGA OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder. This digital display has a 2.359-million-dot resolution and is based on the same unit that is used in the Sony Alpha 99 and NEX-7. Again, it slides into the hotshoe, but also takes advantage of the electronic interface tucked away in the shoe.

Although a sample of the EVF was available when I reviewed the camera, it wasn’t a final model. I found it to be excellent, though, and if the final version is as good as that found in the Sony NEX-7 and Alpha 99, it will be about the best electronic viewfinder currently available, and it is easy to forget that it is not an optical display.

With a choice of two viewfinders and the rear screen, there should be something to suit all photographers. However, both items are expensive. The EVF is £379, while the optical unit is a staggering £499. Of the two, and if you can afford it, I would advise purchasing the EVF, as I naturally found myself raising the camera up to my eye, forgetting that I didn’t have the EVF attached. With the EVF it really does start to feel like using a traditional-style compact camera.

One feature that may be overlooked at first is the RX1’s video capabilities. The camera can record full 50p HD, 1920×1080-pixel-resolution footage, with a high 28MB/s rate. Footage is saved as an MP4 file using the AVCHD codec. When this high-performance quality is combined with the low-light capabilities of the sensor, as well as the shallow depth of field created by the large maximum aperture, the RX1 becomes a very powerful, small and discreet camera for aspiring filmmakers.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – The competition

Image: Fujifilm X100

The two cameras that will really form the competition for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 are the Fujifilm X100 and the Leica X2. Both have 12.1-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensors, with the X100 having a 23mm f/2 lens and the X2 a 24mm f/2.8 optic.

These combinations offer the same field of view as the 35mm lens of the RX1, and with the X2 costing around £1,500 this is £1,000 less than the RX1.

The X100 is even better value at around £600, although the Sony RX1 has twice the resolution.

It is also worth considering a Nikon D600, which, with a Nikkor 35mm f/2 D lens, will cost around
£1,800 and will offer the same resolution but in a larger DSLR camera.

Image: Leica X2

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review – Our verdict

Taking price out of the equation, one cannot fail to be impressed with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. Fitting a full-frame sensor in such a small camera is an achievement, but making it easy to handle and giving it such a high-quality finish is even more of a feat. Image quality is as we would expect from a full-frame, 24-million-pixel sensor, although it doesn’t quite match the quality of the Nikon D600. Perhaps the best endorsement I can give is that within 15 minutes of using the camera, I had mentally added it to my list of cameras I would like to own.

The catch is that the RX1 is a compact camera that costs around £2,600. However, in comparison with a Leica M and Summicron 35mm f/2 lens, the RX1 is smaller, lighter and a lot less expensive. In fact, the Leica lens alone costs nearly as much as the Sony camera.

For anyone in the market for an extremely high-quality compact camera, then the RX1 is an excellent choice. However, if high resolution is less of a concern, then the Fujifilm X100 is a far more affordable option.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 – Key features

Hotshoe and accessory socket
Like other new Sony cameras, the RX1 uses a standard hotshoe, although an adapter is available to convert it to the Minolta hotshoe. The shoe also houses the slim accessory port.

Cable release
In the centre of the RX1’s shutter-release button is the cable-release screw thread.

Sliding the flash button reveals the small pop-up flash that is mounted inside the RX1’s top-plate.

Direct record
The direct video record button sits just on the side of the thumb rest, which is just out of the way but easy enough to press.

Unfortunately, the Sony RX1 doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi compatibility. However, it is compatible with Eye-Fi SD cards, which will give the camera the ability to transfer images via a wireless connection to a computer, smart device or Wi-Fi hotspot.

Flash sync
As the Sony RX1 has a shutter in its lens, it has a high flash sync speed of up to 1/4000sec, or 1/2000sec when used at the maximum f/2 aperture.

Thumb rest
A thumb-rest accessory is available for the RX1. This simple metal rest slides into the hotshoe and looks a little like a film wind-on lever. It provides a comfortable place to rest the thumb and hold the camera more securely. However, at £199 it is extremely expensive for what it is.

Panoramic sweep
Another popular mode found on the RX1 that is also in Sony Cyber-shot and NEX cameras is sweep panorama. This makes it simple to create a panoramic image by simply moving the camera in a pivoted circular sweep.