Sony Cyber-shot RX1 review

4 out of 5
£2599

For

Excellent image quality, superb build, manual lens rings feel super-smooth in use, "macro" lens position, f/2.0 aperture produces sublime bokeh, great LCD screen with white dot layer, loads of customisation options, in-camera correction and picture effects/styles

Against

Some chromatic aberrations in images, small degree of barrel noise, autofocus isn't the fastest out there, limited battery life, no lock/light for exposure compensation dial, no built-in ND filter, unavoidable expense, no viewfinder included (expensive to add one), can't focus closer than 20cms from lens

The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 is a compact camera like no other. That may sound like the company's former brand slogan, as this camera - the world's first fixed-lens compact to feature a full-frame 35mm sensor - is no "make.believe". This is the real deal, complete with a fixed Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 Sonnar T* lens to match.

It's a concept that many will have been waiting on for a long time, but that the imaging market's top-selling brands have consistently failed to deliver. Sony's stepped up to the plate, prominently stuck its neck right out there into the unknown and taken the risk to engineer something that's never been done before.

It's a risk because the RX1's traditional style and functionality will largely appeal only to a niche audience. Well, it might appeal to a far larger one conceptually, but as it's a pound shy of £2,600 the asking price isn't exactly back-pocket change.

Is the Sony Cyber-shot RX1 all it's cracked up to be; can it deliver top form in both the performance and image quality stakes and what, if any, are its shortcomings?

Design

Let's get this out of the way first: the RX1 doesn't have a zoom lens and if you want a viewfinder you'll have to fork out extra for a hotshoe-based accessory. But then you probably knew that already. This is "no.nonsense" business and not a mass-appeal consumer camera by any stretch of the imagination.

But that's exactly what a classic street photographers' camera is like, albeit wrapped up into a singular all-in-one body and lens combo.

The RX1's external design is subtle. It's approaching boxy, really, but manages to pull that off with a sense of style. There's little here that's going to attract unwanted attention except from the most camera-aware of fellow photographers.

Get the camera in the hand and it makes the most sense. In the wintry colds plaguing the UK at the time of writing the RX1's full metal body feels cool to the touch; it's also this material that gives a weighty and premium quality. It really does exude class.

Size-wise the RX1 is similar to a compact system camera's dimensions. Although not exactly comparable models, we happened to have an Olympus Pen E-PM2 with 14-42mm lens in the office and the Sony is bigger than one of those.

The size equation is in part on account of the RX1's full-frame sensor and f/2.0 maximum aperture lens. Physical size becomes unavoidable when in full-frame territory, but to put it in perspective this is a lot smaller than a full-frame DSLR and a little more trim than a Leica M9 by a few centimetres.

READ: Leica M9 (2013) hands-on

The Cyber-shot RX1's lens has all the hallmarks of top glass. The blue Zeiss logo on the side of the lens is a nod to what we're dealing with here, but the standout feature of the lens are its manual controls. The metal aperture ring, which is closest to the camera body side, clicks down from f/2 to f/22 in thirds of f-stops with accompanying reassuring clicks.

Beyond this ring there are two additional ones: a macro ring which switches the lens' focal range from the full 30cm-infinity range down to a 20-30cm "macro" focus; and a manual focus ring that's right towards the front of the lens. The latter is positioned perfectly so there's enough to grab at, it's naturally comfortable and the rotation is buttery smooth. Full marks on the quality control front here; this is a class lens to operate.

On the top of the RX1's body is a main mode dial, an exposure compensation dial and a "c" function button all nestled around the shutter. There's even a shutter-based screw thread for using a traditional cable release - another nod to the classics. The only moan here is the exposure compensation dial's lack of a lock or indicator light to show when it's not set to zero. Would have helped to avoid accidental in-bag knocks out of place, for example.

On the back of the camera there's a mini thumbwheel as well as a d-pad that also rotates to act as a second thumbwheel. The d-pad's directional keys are programmable, as are the "Fn" (function) and AEL (auto exposure lock) buttons.

There's a lot of detail in the main menus too. Whether you wish to switch off high ISO NR (noise reduction), or adjust its amount, or switch from centre AF point to multi auto, it's all there.

For quick access to all the major controls a tap of the Fn button will, by default, bring up the 14-strong settings shortlist - arranged on both left and right sides of the LCD screen - which can be navigated through using the d-pad.

The only things that's apparently missing is a built-in neutral density (ND) filter - although the 49mm diameter front thread can take care of that, if you want to add one.

Performance

With cameras' autofocus systems seemingly reaching sound-barrier-breaking speeds of late, we had anticipated that the Sony Cyber-shot RX1 would be right up there with the best of them. Only it's not. At least, not quite.

That same Olympus E-PM2 we cited as a size comparison has a faster autofocus at an equivalent 35mm focal length setting, even with its basic 14-42mm kit lens. That doesn't mean the Sony is heinously slow, but it's certainly slower. That's almost like a tradition in itself as any of the high-spec street-photographer-style cameras that have hit the market in the past few years haven't been the quickest of the bunch. Think Fujifilm X100, X-Pro1 or Leica X2, for example.

READ: Leica X2 review

No, it may not be the fastest but the RX1 is still very capable, and accuracy is as - if not more - important than speed for a camera like this anyway. Shooting at ISO 6400 in a pub in low light and with the AF assist lamp switched off and the RX1 was more than happy to grab a subject into sharp focus. Note that the AF assist lamp was off to avoid any unnecessary distractions, so that's pretty darn good going.

Playful framing in low light, ISO 6400, f/2.0, Black & White

Any comparison with a full-frame DSLR is ultimately different, as many of those interchangeable lens beasties are equipped with far nippier phase-detection AF systems that can, say, track a bird in flight, adjust for a race car moving towards the shooting position and so on. The RX1 is a different beast; it's not a fast shooter, nor, we suspect, was it really intended to be. The original prototype had a continuous autofocus option included on its front - something that was retracted from the final model. That right there is hint enough.

When the Sony RX1 is finding focus there's a lot of physical mechanism movement from within the lens. This all takes time, hence the less-than-best contrast-detection return focus acquisition time. If you were hoping for a Canon EOS 5D Mark III in a small package then think again, that's not what the RX1 is all about. That's part of the penalty to pay for a contrast-detection AF system.

READ: Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

The aforementioned focus-type selector to the front of the camera can toggle between autofocus (AF), direct manual focus (DMF) and manual focus (MF). It's the middle one of those that we found most useful, as it combines autofocus with a manual focus override, and if there's one thing that Sony does rather well then it's to include plenty of useful manual focus assist features.

It's possible to switch on a MF Assist option from within the menus which magnifies the focus area to 100 per cent size, but, and more integrally, there's a focus peaking option that "paints" the in-focus area with a colour to verify where focus is made. Red is the default colour, but yellow and white are also available. For those critical fine focuses - whether a subject's eyes, that blade of grass or whatever else you happen to be shooting - it's particularly useful because it's quick and easy to see what's going on and even provides aperture-dependent feedback. Oh, and that super-smooth manual focus ring is very precise and adjusts in just the right amounts per rotation. 

We've also been fortunate enough to get a play with both the 35mm Zeiss optical viewfinder - codename "FDA-V1K" - and Sony's electronic OLED TruFinder, otherwise known as the FDA-EV1MK. We're obliged to say that the electronic viewfinder isn't a final shipping sample, but that didn't stop it making an impression. The ability to angle it to a top-down view is excellent, and the 2,359K-dot resolution - as per the Sony NEX-6 compact system camera - is as good as it currently gets.

READ: Sony NEX-6 first review

If anything the Zeiss optical finder, while unquestionably a beautiful thing in itself, is a bit unreliable when paired with the RX1. As it's not possible to witness where the camera has focused and there's no setting-based feedback, it's a bit of a "cross yer fingers and hope" experience. Oh, and one that costs £500 extra for the privilege.

We get that plenty of people love an optical viewfinder - and that's what Leica's cameras are so famed for, although with a rangefinder you're always in control of the focus - but with this particular Sony - which doesn't resemble a rangefinder in any way - that's not so much the case. So it's electronic viewfinder or LCD only from our point of view.

The LCD screen is another little marvel. Three inches in size, and with an extra white pixel, this 1,229k-dot panel may not have any touchscreen or vari-angle options, but it does look great. It's the same as that found in the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 camera, which we found could "output a brighter image [to] stand out more in sunlight." It's exactly the same here and as good as it currently gets.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review

Image Quality

Here's what it all boils down to, just how well does the RX1's image quality hold up? For the most part it's undoubtedly stunning.

The lens produces a sumptuous, melty-like bokeh effect when shooting at f/2.0. That's what full-frame can do, and it gives shots that "certain something" that puts it above and beyond what any smaller-sensor models can muster.

The sensor in the RX1 isn't used in any other Sony camera, as confirmed by Sony at a conference in Iceland earlier this year. From discussions with the Japanese engineers, it appears that the RX1's sensor is an adaptation of the sensor found in the Sony Alpha A99, but not one and the same. Whether this means it differs from the sensor found in the Nikon D600 is unknown.

READ: Sony Alpha A99 first review

The ISO 100-25,600 range available can be pushed down to an ISO 50 setting if desired, but at the expense of dynamic range.

The lower ISO shots are crisp, clean and clear - all the "c"s - and look great. Exposure is balanced, as is auto white balance, and we have very few qualms in terms of image processing and noise reduction.

However, perfection isn't quite achieved. While the lens is super-sharp, there's some slight corner softness when wide-open, a little barrel distortion and chromatic aberration can be observed too, particularly soft purple and green fringes in out-of-focus areas.

However there are in-camera methods to help rectify the two last issues for JPEG shots. A trio of lens compensation methods from within the menus help to correct for chromatic aberration, distortion and shading. Which is all well and good, but when the lens should be perfectly matched to the sensor we're a little surprised that such measures should be necessary.

ISO 800 - full shot

ISO 800 - 100 per cent crop displaying chromatic aberrations (purple fringes)

Further up the ISO scale and image noise obviously becomes more of an issue, though even the top setting of ISO 25,600, while certainly grainy, is still usable for black and white shots. It adds to the look, if anything.

As the 24-megapixel resolution is a fairly high count, the appearance of colour noise does affect images from around the ISO 1600 stage, but only very subtly. Even at ISO 6400 and with "high" ISO noise reduction switched off, it's the luminance noise that stands out - colour noise is only a whisper across both bright and dark surfaces.

ISO 3200 image sample

There are plenty of other image-adjusting options within the Sony's quick menu, ranging from a variety of Creative Styles right through to more, er, quirky picture effects. While we don't think that "watercolour" and "illustration" have a place on a camera like this, settings such as "retro photo" and "pop colour" have their uses, as do the more traditional sepia tone, black & white and other settings.

ISO 6400, f/2.0, Black & White

In short the Sony RX1's images are sublime throughout the majority of its ISO sensitivity range but the presence of chromatic aberration is a regrettable thump back down to earth for a fixed-lens compact such as this.

Take a browse through the gallery below to view resized full size images and their cropped-in pixel level equivalents to show off detail, sharpness and image noise at 100 per cent.

Verdict

Rating the world's most expensive fixed-lens compact camera is no easy task. For some it won't ever make it on to so much as a wish list, while for others it'll be what they've been waiting years for. But it's not without some bumps and blips.

The camera's 35mm fixed focal length may be a touch wide for some, though, who knows, perhaps there'll be a future version with a 50mm lens. Still, what the RX1's 35mm Carl Zeiss lens does get right it does so staggeringly well. The build quality is second to none and both the manual aperture ring and focus rings are a joy to use. Pair an f/2.0 aperture with a full-frame sensor and, fill yer boots, that puts plenty of shallow depth of field control right at your fingertips. Although super-close-up focus isn't possible, the inclusion of a 20-30cm "macro" mode is certainly handy and puts this Sony ahead of the likes of the Leica X2 in terms of available focus distance.

Whether the absence of a built-in viewfinder is a problem is arguable. This is no Leica - how could it be, as it's not a rangefinder and doesn't have interchangeable lenses - so an optical finder has limited use due to no true feedback in the finder; instead the electronic viewfinder is our choice of the two - but it will push the overall price to nearer to the £3,000 mark. Ouch.

Sometimes you love things for the great things they do enough to ignore their shortcomings. That's what the Sony RX1 has done to us - while its score is reflective of it as an overall package, shortcomings an' all, to a select group of snappers this chunk of well-thought-out metal and glass will be far closer to a full-marks camera. It definitely feels special, its images are special too and, save for slightly slow autofocus, so-so battery life and some chromatic aberrations in shots, the majority of moans are mere nitpicks. It's a masterpiece with just one or two stray brushstrokes.