(Pocket-lint) - When it first launched at the end of 2012, the Sony Cyber-shot RX1 was a camera like no other. Its full-frame sensor and fixed 35mm lens made it a distinctive shooter for the high-end market. Sure, it had its imperfections, but that large sensor gave it inevitable qualities that helped it stand out compared to, say, the Fujifilm X100.
Since, there have been launches such as the Leica Q to give Sony more than a little to think about. Having already put out an "R" model - an RX1 minus an optical low-pass filter (OLPF) - the Japanese company's supposed comeback king, the RX1R II, relies heavily on a bump in resolution. Some 42-megapixels of it. Add a built-in pop-up viewfinder and the Mark II is a camera with few comparisons.
But does a bigger resolution mean it's best in class? Or has the RX1R Mark II held onto some of the bad habits of the earlier models? We've been using one for a week to get a taste of just what it can do.
Sony RX1R II review: Design
There's a growing trend for fixed-lens cameras, the RX1R II joining the "no zoom" fray with, well, the very same lens as its predecessors: a 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss optic. That's a mid-wide focal length, a classic choice for street photographers, complete with aperture control ring and manual focus ring that are great to use.
It's a fairly chunky wedge of a camera too, that all-metal build bringing its weight to just over half a kilo. That might sound heavy, but in camera talk that's code for quality and reassurance: it's built to last. Except, perhaps, for the rear screen coating which we somehow managed to put some marks on during a drive (it was in a bag with another camera - but no Gorilla Glass like coating on cameras, as there is on phones, is a modern day oddity).
The screen is one of the major talking points of the RX1R II, as this 3-inch panel is mounted on a tilt-angle bracket so it can be used 45-degrees downward for overhead work or to as much as 109-degrees upwards for waist-level shooting. And we've so often used it for waist-level snapping, for low-lying subjects without losing the background and skyline. Still no touchscreen controls, or even the option for them, seems a bit in the past though.
From one screen to another, one that you probably can't spot: a major feature of the RX1R II is that there's now a pop-up 2.56m-dot, 0.39-inch electronic viewfinder included in the build, hidden from view until you crank down on the "Finder" switch to the left side of the LCD screen. It pops up into position, although - in a similar fashion to the RX100 III and IV models - you'll need to push that screen inward and downwards to stow it. It's a little miracle that such a panel is hidden, giving you the choice to use it as and when. Our only gripe with it is the diopter adjustment to the left side, which is fiddly to use and poorly placed because it gets "reset" if you need to utilise it in any adjustment format.
Otherwise the RX1R II is fundamentally similar to its predecessor models, including mode and exposure compensation dials up top, thumbwheel and rotational d-pad to the rear, and generally compact-like controls. Still no dial lock or "zeroed" light on the exposure compensation dial, though, which is a shame. The more apparent difference in the Mark II model is the addition of a fully continuous autofocus ("C") option to the front selection dial, which is positioned to the lower corner of the camera.
Sony RX1R II review: A lens to love?
The Cyber-shot RX1R II's lens has all the hallmarks of top glass, that blue Zeiss logo to the side being one giveaway. This is the kind of stock reserved for the most capable of Sony pro lenses.
As we've mentioned there's an aperture control ring, which reassuringly clicks between third-stops, from f/2.0 all the way down to f/22.
Beyond this ring there are two additional ones: a macro ring which switches the lens' focus range from the 24cm-from-lens starting range down to a 14cm (at closest) "macro" focus; and a manual focus ring that's positioned perfectly towards the front of the lens and rotates in a buttery smooth fashion.
It's great to have such a wide aperture for depth of field control, especially with a full-frame sensor to match, but it's not always ideal to use it wide-open. At f/2.0 the blurred background bokeh is wonderful, but the in-focus area is slight, which can be great but can also be limiting.
Additionally there's no built-in neutral density (ND) filter, which would be really useful when shooting in bright conditions with the aperture open. Sure, you can add a physical one onto the 49mm threat at the front of the lens, but that's an additional cost and a slower process to realise.
So there's heaps of good about the Sony lens and the images it can aid in rendering, but there's also an outsider to consider here: the Leica Q, with its 28mm f/1.7 lens. The German-made competitor handles flare exceptionally well, while distortion is minimal. That's one thing about even the Sony's 35mm: it is prone to a touch of barrel distortion.
Sony RX1R II review: Performance
When we looked at the original RX1 camera its autofocus speed was reasonable but not ground-breaking. The RX1R II is faster than that but, again, in the context of the wider world of cameras it's still not lightning fast. And given its £2,599 price tag it should be.
But that's not to gloss over the changes on board. The Mark II model introduces a phase-detection autofocus system, something the previous two RX1 models lacked (using contrast-detection only). That's where the added bump in speed comes from, and while it's not at DSLR levels, it's certainly fast enough.
Perhaps most importantly it's a reliable focus system. We used the camera exclusively to shoot at the CES Asia show, snapping the latest gadgets and cars, where it proved itself admirably. The ability to focus with accuracy - whether using the macro or normal lens position - was key in such scenarios; even some compact system cameras (we've been using the Olympus Pen-F) can get confused with light reflections that the Sony didn't struggle with.
That 35mm lens works well for arm's length shooting, while being wide-angle enough to fit in broader scenes, almost irrelevant of lighting situations - the autofocus system is capable of catching subjects even in very low-light conditions. That, in part, is the bonus of a bright lens, which can let loads of light in for the autofocus system to utilise.
As we mentioned there's the addition of a continuous autofocus "C" position to the front of the camera, pushing the camera's improved ability to capture moving subjects. It's an improvement compared to the earlier RX1, as we did successfully shoot cheetahs in Africa moving at a walking pace, but it's not the RX1R II's premier function. If you want to shoot a bird in flight or some such subject then you'll want to look elsewhere really, plus 35mm is fairly wide-angle for such shots.
It's more the manual end of things where the camera works particularly well. 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 integrally, there's a focus peaking option that "paints" the in-focus area with a colour to verify. And that super-smooth manual focus ring is very precise and adjusts in just the right amounts per rotation, something some other analogue-to-digital lenses can't manage.
The biggest problem we've found with the RX1R II in the performance stakes is just how paltry its battery life is. It's poor, but no surprise given the 1,240mAh capacity (some flagship phones are triple that these days). We really don't understand why Sony hasn't opted for a larger and more capacious cell, as there's seemingly room for it in a body of this scale. There's no dedicated charger in the box either, instead the camera plugs in via microUSB - which sounds useful, but it's slow, hard to tell whether the battery has been fully replenished, and makes using multiple batteries a right pain (we were lucky enough to have two - believe us you'll need more than one).
Sony RX1R II review: Image quality
And so on to the big kahuna: image quality. It's the area where the Mark II model steps things up considerably, because it's got the same 42-megapixel full-frame sensor as you'll find in the A7R II SLT (which is like an SLR, only with a translucent mirror, hence the acronym).
In addition to using the RX1R II to shoot a tech show in China, we've also been snapping with it in the deserts of Namibia, and back home in the UK. The primary thing that we've noticed is just how well set for post-shooting crops this camera is. We've had subjects not fill much of the frame brought into perfect positioning with some clever cropping - and without impacting on the perceivable quality. Think about it: 42-megapixels is huge; it's one of the reasons this camera demands its sky-high price tag.
But 42-megapixels isn't particularly well-matched for shaky hands or slow shutter speeds, as it will pronounce softness. Not that we've found this to be a particular issue: frames are sharp, with only some optical fall-off towards the edges. Interestingly there's a low-pass filter that can be toggled on or off to aid with sharpness - but the difference in results is slight to our eyes. How this works is perhaps most interesting of all: there's a liquid crystal layer in the RX1R II's low-pass filter that will only cause light to diffuse when electronically stimulated, otherwise light passes directly through. Clever.
But anyway, back to the actual images. There are a couple of oddities to call out. Colour, for starters, is sometimes off when using auto white balance (AWB), with the odd unexpected cool cast. We've had to spend a fair bit of time warming up some images that were too cyan, presumably as a result of indoor lighting. Distortion is the other point, which, despite an in-camera correction option, can be noticeable - we've had to add lens correction in Photoshop to some images.
If you're expecting a 42-megapixel camera to be a low-light king then you might need to think again too. Saying that, we've been hugely impressed with just how much detail is held higher up the ISO range. We've shot at ISO 1600 and found no hugely adverse image noise to show. Push a stop beyond that, however, and you'll start to spot how gradients aren't nearly as smooth, with a mottled pattern to them. Actual colour noise is largely absent, though, and what is visible is slight and tends to be "hidden" because of the sheer resolution and scale of images. From ISO 6400 and above it's a bit of an issue though, as our shot of the Shanghai TV tower shows.
What really sells the images is the pairing of this sensor with that lens. The potential for sumptuous, melty-like bokeh is great, or stop down for broader depth of field. It puts you in control. It also puts huge, great quality imaging potential in the palm of your hand - quality that's a step beyond the 2012 original camera, in spite of the massive resolution bump, and minus the visible chromatic aberrations that we found present in the original too (must be updated processing at work here).
At first glance the RX1R II might not seem that different to the original model. But there's plenty new here: the ingenious little pop-up electronic viewfinder, the new tilt-angle screen mechanism and, of course, that sensor with huge 42-megapixel resolution. Oh, and the larger price: at £2,599 the Mark II is hugely expensive; although it's cheaper than an RX1R with an added viewfinder accessory, we suppose.
Again, however, the camera isn't quite perfection. The autofocus system, while new and laden with phase-detection points, still can't outsmart a decent (and cheaper) compact system. There's no touchscreen mechanism either, which feels limiting - especially when using the camera for waist-level or video operation. Oh, and the battery life is pretty awful (and no charger in the box is irksome).
Still, the RX1R Mark II gets lots right. Its build quality is second to none, its resulting images are huge and of great quality, that 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss lens offers heaps of control and potential, and it's a camera with few to contest it. Problem is, for £300 more and you could own a Leica Q (if you can stand signing-up to the wait list anyway) or even snap up an A7R II SLT (without the lens).
Just as we felt of the original camera, we have a lot for the RX1R II. It feels special, it's been a blast to use, but it doesn't feel quite at the top of its game - well, not at this considerable price point anyway.