RX1 User Report with RAW Samples / by Bjorn Utpott

Introduction

I never thought I'd own a full frame camera. While I was attracted by the image quality, the bulk of the cameras was a deal-breaker. The announcement of the RX1 last September came as quite a surprise because I didn't think it was possible to make a full frame camera that was so compact, never mind one which sported an F2 lens. Even the latest Leica M with a 35mm Summicron is twice as heavy as the RX1. Really this is a new class of camera: the full frame compact.

I wanted one, but first I had to decide whether a fixed, 35mm camera would make sense for my style of photography. I decided that I could not only live with that limitation, but would welcome it. 35mm is about as versatile as a lens can be; not too wide and not too tight. I also realized that I would need to take the vast majority of my photos with the RX1 in order to be able to justify the high price. This was going to have to be my main camera.

After selling some equipment and scraping some additional funds together, I took possession of my brand new RX1 on New Year's Eve. Out with the old, in with the new...

Sample Images: I've provided links to the corresponding RAW files underneath most of the photos in this user report. On the left is the full image, on the right is a 100% crop (click to open). I've post processed the ones appearing here, but you can do whatever you want to them. I you want to use them elsewhere on the web, please link back to this site.

User Report

In this user report, I'll be taking the camera out for a spin; quite literally since I almost always shoot photos while out with my bicycle. That's one of the reasons why I insist on my gear being compact and light.

Let's start off with my lovely new RX1 sitting beside my computer. I've had a lot of different cameras sitting there, not all of them a pleasure to (be)hold. Some took good photos, but picking them up was often underwhelming to say the least. Bulbous, ponderous, hollow, plastic are some of the adjectives that come to mind.

The RX1 is very different. It's beautifully crafted, solid body just begs to be picked up. I want to caress it, to feel the cold, precise edges, or to turn the aperture ring for no other reason than to hear the music of its clicks. Perverse, I know...

But cameras are for taking photographs. With all the gear talk on the Internet, it's sometimes easy to forget that fact. So what happens when I finally get out to take some photos? Usually there's a brief moment of panic that I think I've forgotten the camera at home. That's how small and light the RX1 is.

But usually I do have the camera with me. It's become sort of a leaving the home ritual; clip camera pouch onto belt, put on boots and coat as necessary, lock the apartment, unlock the apartment to check whether I've turned the living room lights off and then repeat until I'm satisfied. Eventually; I end up somewhere between here and there when something catches my attention.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F5.6 1/1250s ISO100

That's when I reach into my pouch to take out the RX1. There's no grip to grab it securely (forgive me for worrying about dropping 3000 Euros worth of precision equipment), so I have to resort to picking the camera up by the lens or by tugging on the strap. I realize there isn't much real estate beside the lens, but even a minimal grip would have helped to hold the camera more securely. Hopefully an entrepreneurial chap somewhere in the Far East will make an add-on grip that screws into the tripod socket.

Let's hope it's not one that obstructs the battery compartment. With the RX1's below average battery life, I need need to change the battery more frequently. Battery life is not terrible, it's just exhausted sooner than what I was used to from my Panasonic MFT or Sony NEX cameras. Fortunately the batteries are small & light so carrying a few spares isn't an issue.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F2.0 1/640s ISO100

With the camera safely around my neck and a subject in mind, I'm ready to take a photo. The RX1 powers up quickly and the beautiful screen comes to life. It's the best screen I've ever used: images on it are very detailed and bright. Having a high quality screen is essential both for framing and reviewing photos. I want to see exactly what's in my photo.

I compose the majority of my photos on the rear screen even if that technique is often chastised by various Internet experts. Composing images on the screen feels looser, more fluid and less restrictive than having my face glued to a viewfinder. That doesn't mean that I don't use the viewfinder when necessary, only that I prefer using the rear screen. I'd prefer using a tilting screen even more. In fact, if I could only change one aspect of the camera's design, I would add a hinged screen. They make it so much easier to frame photos from unusual angles or to shoot unobtrusively from the hip. It seems I can't have everything.

My comments on the external EVF can be found HERE

The RX1 lets you choose which displays the camera cycles through, so I've permanently turned off the preview which is obstructed with countless, irrelevant icons. What's left is a clear, uncluttered view of the subject, with the basic exposure information in a black strip below. Bravo! If want, I can add a composition grid and a histogram or electronic level.

During the day, I'm usually shooting in Aperture priority mode. As hoped, the RX1 never gets in the way of taking a photo. All the settings I need are right at my fingertips with no need to delve into the menus.

Cradling the camera in two hands, I turn the aperture ring with my left hand. I don't even need to take my eye off the subject, since the chosen aperture is updated on the screen or in the viewfinder. Exposure compensation has its own dial under my right thumb and the exposure lock is within easy reach of the same thumb. The control wheels and aperture ring all have distinct, 1/3 stop clicks. I've assigned all the other settings I use regularly to camera's 4 customizable buttons: spot metering, autofocus area, sensitivity and drive mode. The rest, should I need to change them, are readily accessible via the Function (Fn) button.

Face Detection AF │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F2.0 1/250s ISO100

Things continue to look good when I press the shutter half way. The autofocus is generally quick and very accurate. While my former DSLR was certainly quicker, that's beside the point since I'm no longer willing to lug a beast like that around. If anything, the RX1's autofocus speed feels similar to what I experienced with the NEX cameras: good enough for most of my subject matter. Face detection AF is very capable and even able to pick out faces from the side. It'll usually lock onto the closest eye.

While I'm shooting, I don't have to have worry too much exposure. The RX1 meters scenes accurately and consistently, even if on average photos are exposed a little too conservatively. If I need to meter a specific subject, I toggle spot metering on and off with the custom (c) button. Again, there's no digging around in menus.

Once I press the shutter, there's blissful silence...the leaf shutter only makes makes the faintest of sounds. Certainly those around me won't hear the shutter opening and closing. Taking a photo is unobtrusive, increasing the chance of me capturing subjects in a natural pose.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F4.0 1/160s ISO100

I usually review photos immediately after taking them. Who knows, fate or a lack of skill may force me to take another one. Reviewing photos on the superb screen of the RX1 is a joy. There's virtually no lag after pressing the shutter before the photos appear on the screen. Sony even lets me scroll through zoomed-in photos using the thumb dial. That lets me check which photo of a series is sharpest without laboriously having to zoom into each photo individually. One thing I've noticed: There's a considerable lag as you scroll from one zoomed-in photo to another if you're shooting RAW only. The lag is negligible when shooting RAW + JPEG.

In low light, as with every camera, things become more complicated. This is where getting to know the camera intimately pays off. First of all, you don't want to be fiddling around in the dark looking for controls. You also need to understand a particular camera's weaknesses so you can work around them. Any weaknesses will surely raise their ugly head when the going gets tough.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F2.0 1/80s ISO2000

The RX1's sensor, lens and user interface are exceptionally well suited for use in low light. At night I switch from Aperture Priority to Manual Mode in order to gain control over the shutter speed. The sensor's output is good enough that it gives me more freedom to use faster speeds when necessary. Changing the shutter speed is easy with the thumb dial under my right thumb. I don't change the aperture much at night, usually preferring to shoot wide open. All the other parameters I change frequently are readily accessible. I can locate each control by feel alone; no need strain my eyes to decipher tiny inscriptions in the dark. Overall, I've never gotten used to a camera's  user interface as quickly as that of the RX1. It doesn't get in the way of taking the kind of photos I'm after.

Don't expect to be able to change settings with gloves on though: the controls are too small for that. If you value warm hands, use the idiot mode or be prepared to suffer a touch of frostbite. I choose the latter; one must suffer for one's art.

Of course how good a camera's controls are becomes irrelevant if you can't bring your subject into focus. Initially, I was a little concerned after some of the first photographers to get an RX1 reported sluggish low light autofocus.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F2.0 1/50s ISO12,800

A few weeks later, I was photographing in a dark Amsterdam with my very own RX1. In front of me was a girl sitting on a bicycle texting. I pressed the shutter and the camera's autofocus started hunting before eventually locking onto the girl's head (flexible AF spot). Aha, I thought, the RX1 does have difficulty focusing in low light. Later I noticed I was shooting with the lens wide open at ISO 12,800 and only 1/50s. In other words, it was so dark that I consider it a miracle that the camera focused at all.

As long as there's a little more light under the AF point than that, the RX1's autofocus system locks on reasonably effectively. Again, in low light the RX1's autofocus speed feels similar to what I experienced with my NEX cameras. As with those cameras, I have to anticipate situations when the focusing system will have trouble and change my strategy. Problem situations include trying to focus on a subject with very low contrast (from lack of light and/or movement) and silhouetted subjects (background is brighter than subject). As with any camera, there are things you can do to help the autofocus. Of course you can also resort to turning it off. I'd recommend that only for static scenes though, as the RX1's focus peaking doesn't work without zooming in.

ISO Series links to RAW Files: 100, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 and 12800

notes: the suspended net was moving in the wind; taken from a tripod with self-timer

I'm no longer worried about using the RX1 at night. Most of the time autofocus works well. Occasionally, when it's very dark it hunts a little before locking on. But we're talking so dark that any images I might have taken with my NEX or MFT cameras would've been overwhelmed with noise. The way I see it, anything I get in those situations is a bonus.

I'd expected Sony's latest full frame sensor to perform well at higher sensitivities. Still, I was a little surprised when I was getting usable images at ISO 12,800. Sure, there's a lot of grain, but I don't find the very fine pattern at all objectionable. Colors look nice and saturated at high sensitivities as well. Overall the RX1 produces superb images at high ISOs.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F4.0 1/80s ISO100

While I'm pleased that the RX1 extends my options for shooting in near darkness, how the camera performs at high sensitivities isn't my main concern; I simply don't don’t take that many photos in low light. The vast majority of my photos are taken in relatively good light near the camera's base ISO. That's where I was hoping to see an improvement in image quality over the cropped sensor cameras I've been using to date. It turns out the improvement is more significant than I had expected.

The images coming out of this little camera have a wonderful richness and depth. There's great dynamic range and the colors remain vibrant right into the shadows. The RX1's RAW files are very malleable and offer me a lot of choices in post processing. I've even had to reign myself in a few times when I ended up with something looking like one of those “high dynamic range” images I despise. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F2.8 1/320s ISO100

The sensor is undoubtedly very good, but I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of the credit for the RX1's superb image quality is due to its Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens. It has great contrast and is bitingly sharp right into the corners of the frame. Given how small the Zeiss lens is compared to the full frame sensor, I was expecting to have to stop down for acceptable corners. But that's hardly necessary as the edges of the frame are already quite sharp at F2. Certainly, they're softer than the centre but the falloff in resolution is gradual and so not apparent. I have absolutely no reservations about using the lens wide open.

At large apertures, images have a wonderful depth as the crisp subject pops out against the sumptuous Zeiss bokeh. Out of focus backgrounds are not just a monotonous smear, but swirl and sparkle like those from the classic Sonnar 50/1.5 ZM that I love so much. Bokeh from the RX1's Zeiss lens is a little more tamed than its ZM cousin, but the character is still there. It's all very subjective, but the Zeiss is not only a technically capable lens but also one that renders images in a pleasing way.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F5.6 1/100s ISO100

Conclusion

So it looks like both the RX1's lens and the sensor are very capable. What's more, the built-in Zeiss lens seems to be so perfectly matched to the sensor that it doesn't exhibit any significant weaknesses.

I suppose there are other cameras out there that offer this level of image quality. The only thing is, none of them will come close to being as compact and light as the RX1. That's what the RX1 is all about, putting full frame image quality at the disposal of photographers like me that insist on having compact gear.

Like every camera, it has some flaws, but none of them come close to overshadowing the incredible feat of miniaturization that the RX1 represents. If you're happy to shoot at 35mm, then there's no longer any need to sacrifice image quality in order to have a compact kit.

LINK to RAW File │ Sony RX1 │ 35mm F8.0 1/4000s ISO100

Pros & Cons

A list like this doesn't do the camera justice since the items vary vastly in significance; they range from the RX1's unique selling point to minor annoyances. In the interest of completeness, I've included the list anyway, but it really needs to be seen in the context of what I've written above.

Pros

  • Extremely compact and light full frame camera

  • Gorgeous image quality from full frame sensor

  • Superb lens in terms of sharpness, contrast and bokeh with great performance wide open and lovely rendering

  • Lens can focus very close (14cm in front of the lens)

  • Capable face detection autofocus

  • Consistent, slightly conservative exposure metering

  • Silent shutter

  • Solid, beautifully crafted, all-metal body

  • Clean, functional, minimalist design

  • High resolution, state of the art, rear screen

  • Very good control layout with direct access to all major settings

  • highly configurable user interface

  • Automatic ISO allows setting of lower & upper limit within entire range range (except the extended range below ISO 100)

  • Automatic ISO in manual shooting mode

Cons

  • High price

  • Rear screen does not tilt

  • No grip: even a vestigial grip would have allowed the camera to be held more securely

  • Autofocus struggles as light levels drop and/or as subject contrast decreases

  • Camera will occasionally focus behind the intended subject when the background is brighter than the subject.

  • Wide open, the Zeiss lens exhibits mild longitudinal chromatic aberration

  • Purple fringing occasionally visible on high contrast edges

  • Below average battery life

  • No external battery charger

  • Lens hood not included

  • Focus peaking requires zooming in, making it impossible to frame and focus a shot at the same time


Update September 2013

I've been asked to comment on how effective manual focus is as well as options for charging the battery. Since I neglected those topics in my original review, I'll cover them now. Please see the accessories section for the coverage of the battery charger.

 

Manual Focus

First of all, I don't feel the need to use manual focus a lot. Most of the time, the RX1's flexible spot autofocus is sufficiently quick and highly reliable. Very rarely, the AF fooled by a high contrast background and/or a subject with very low contrast. It's only then that I switch to manual focus.

While the RX1 has an AF/MF switch at the front of the camera, I find the switch somewhat awkward to activate. But there's another option: I leave the switch in the AF position and toggle back and forth between AF and MF with the AEL button that I reprogrammed for this task (I moved the AEL function to the custom button beside the shutter release).

Pressing the AEL button once switches the camera into manual focus mode. Then, as soon as I turn the focus ring around the lens barrel, the central area of the live preview is enlarged 5.9x. The magnified window can be moved around the scene using the multi-controller or the control wheels until it's positioned over my subject. Pushing the central button of the multi-controller toggles back and forth between 5.9 and 11.7 times magnification; a half press of the shutter button returns you to 100% coverage.

Although the focus ring has no hard stop at infinity, a rudimentary distance scale pops up when you turn the ring, making it possible to see when you've reached infinity or the minimum focus distance at the other end of the scale. Note that the focus resets itself every time the camera enters power saving mode (user selectable 10s to 30min.) or is switched off.

To make it even easier to discern focus, I've also activated Sony's focus peaking feature. Basically, the feature adds your choice of shimmering red, yellow or white outlines around the areas of maximum contrast. Keep in mind, focus peaking only works with the enlarged preview; it's not available for the normal view showing the full scene.

If that sounds complicated, it's not. Push button, twist focus ring, move enlargement over subject if necessary and fine tune focus. The process quickly becomes intuitive and efficient. I'd also recommend Sony's external EVF. Its higher resolution view not only makes it easier to see what's in focus but the viewfinder also cuts out the kind of glare which makes it difficult to see anything at all.

As to the camera, even after 10,000 photos, I'm still in awe at the spectacular image quality this little camera is able to produce. Highly recommended!

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