Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Review

4.5
February 7, 2013 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is the first ever compact camera with a 35mm full-frame sensor. Promising to combine high-end DSLR image quality with compact portability, the Sony RX1 also features a 35mm Carl Zeiss prime lens with a fast maximum aperture of f/2, full 1080p high-definition video, high-resolution 3-inch screen, manual shooting modes, 5fps continuous shooting, ISO range of 50-25,600, and 14-bit raw support. Read our expert Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 review to find out if it's the best compact camera ever made...

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 is a premium compact camera aimed at the discerning photographer, offering a 24.3 megapixel 35mm full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor, a Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm F2 prime lens, and Full HD movies at 50p/60p or 25p/24p. The RX1 also boasts a high resolution 3 inch LCD screen, ISO range from ISO 50-25,600, continuous shooting at up to 5fps at full resolution, a built-in pop-up flash, support for the 14-bit RAW format, and full manual controls. The Sony DSC-RX1 is available now for around £2600 / $2800.

Ease of Use

Full-frame 35mm image sensors have always been associated with complicated, bulky DSLRs, but that has completely changed with the arrival of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1. As its familiar branding suggests, the RX1 is technically a humble compact camera, but it's certainly a compact camera like no other. On paper at least it offers almost everything that the experienced photographer could want - a 35mm CMOS sensor, which is the same physical size as that used in DSLRs like the Nikon D800, D600 and Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 6D, a fast 35mm f/2 leaf-shutter lens from renowned manufacturer Carl Zeiss, a large and high-resolution LCD screen, full control over exposure via a variety of external controls, built-in pop-up flash, and 14-bit Raw file format support, all housed inside a compact and lightweight body that you can just about squeeze into a jacket pocket. Compared to a DSLR, the only notable thing that's really missing is an eye-level viewfinder, either optical or electronic, both of which are (very expensive) optional extras.

The aluminium bodied Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 has a fixed 35mm prime lens with a fast maximum aperture of f/2. Te combination of this very fast lens with a nine-bladed circular aperture and the massive sensor is a real joy to use, allowing you to easily create defocused depth-of-field effects that you simply can't achieve with any other pocket camera. If you've been searching for a compact camera that will give you DSLR-like bokeh, then look no further than the RX1 - check out our Sample Images page to see just want you can achieve. The combination of the f/2 aperture and maximum ISO speed of 25600 also makes this camera well suited to hand-held low-light photography (although there's no built-in image stabilizer).

Surrounding the lens are three innovative control rings which allow you to manually focus, set the focusing distance range (0.2-0.35m or 0.3m-infinity), and set the aperture. Yes, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 has a wonderfully traditional aperture ring that offers precise adjustment in 1/3rd stops from f/2 to f/22. You can also use the rear control dial to set the aperture in the Program shooting mode, but we found it more intuitive and quicker to use the large, smooth front ring.

Despite its large image sensor and correspondingly physically big lens that dominates the front of the camera, the Sony RX1 is still quite small and slender, measuring just over 6.9cms in depth, 6.5cms in height and 11cms in width, and weighing 482g with the battery and memory card fitted. On the back there's a large 3-inch, 1228k-dot resolution LCD screen. As you'd expect with a screen of that size on such a small camera, the RX1 has no optical viewfinder to fall back on in brighter lighting conditions, although in practice the very high contrast screen can be comfortably used outdoors even in harsh sunlight.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Front Rear

There's a generously sized but very shallow textured area for gripping the camera on the front with three fingers, and a small thumb-shaped lozenge on the rear, which makes the DSC-RX1 a little difficult to get to grips with, especially since the rest of its aluminum body is very smooth. The optional TGA-1 external thumb grip can also be fitted to enhance the camera's handling, but it's expensive and also ties-up the Multi Interface Shoe on top of the camera.

Also located on the front of the RX1 is the lens and a porthole on the left for the self-timer/AF illuminator, plus a handy switch for setting the focus mode. There's a clever fold-out pop-up flash unit on top of the camera which is automatically raised when you select a flash mode - it can also be manually raised and lowered if desired via a switch on the rear.The RX1 also has an external hotshoe, dubbed the Multi Interface Shoe, for attaching one of a range of accessories, including a more powerful flash, an electronic viewfinder (FDA-EV1MK), an optical viewfinder (FDA-V1K), or the aforementioned thumb grip (TGA-1).

We tested the RX1 with both the optical viewfinder and the electronic viewfinder, as well as using it at arms length and previewing via the LCD screen. If we had to buy one accessory for the RX1, however extortionately priced, it would be the electronic viewfinder. This greatly enhances the RX1's ease-of-use by allowing you to hold the camera up to your eye, which in turn makes it easier to keep the camera steady and makes using the aperture control ring around the lens a much more natural experience. The EVF also displays key shooting information and can be tilted through 90degress to act as a waist-level viewfinder. On the downside, it obviously adds to the RX1's bulk (although you can always remove it when not in use), and it suffers from two design flaws - the lack of a locking mechanism, and a dioptre control that be accidentally moved far too easily. The Zeiss optical viewfinder is a high-quality accessory but much less useful, showing only a rough approximation of what the RX1 will actually capture - we'd much rather have the EVF, testament to its quality.

Turn the On/Off switch on the top plate and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 readies itself for action in a just over a second. The adequately sized shutter-release button has a definite halfway point, determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation and focus points highlighted as green rectangles on the LCD. Just like any other compact camera, the RX1 uses a contrast-based auto-focusing system rather than the phase-detection systems that DSLRs typically use. Unfortunately the RX1's AF system suffers from a slight lag when shooting in good light or bad. It's certainly not terrible, but its enough to limit the RX1's use to slower moving subjects, and it's also not up there with quicker contrast-based auto-focusing systems from the likes of Olympus and Panasonic on their compact system cameras. In the middle of the shutter button is a screw thread for attaching a manual cable release, which should please traditionalists.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Front Top

When you manually focus via the fly-by-wire ring, a distance scale is displayed along the bottom of the LCD screen, MF Assist can be turned on to magnify the image and help you get sharp results, and there's also the same convenient Peaking function from Sony's DSLRs that highlights sharply-focused areas of the image on the LCD screen. Go on to take the shot and JPEG or Raw images are quickly committed to memory in a single second, the screen momentarily blanking out and then displaying the captured image before the user can go on to take a second shot.

A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action also located on top of the camera. This lets you quickly switch between the various shooting modes that are on offer. Sony has included Intelligent Auto scene recognition, which works in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. Simply point the RX1 at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of a number of pre-optimised settings to best suit.

Adding to the RX1's snapshot simplicity, these features accompany face recognition and smile shutter functionality on board, the former mode biasing human faces in the frame and the latter mode firing the shutter when it detects a smiling subject. The Face Detection system automatically adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance for people in the frame, and can even be set to distinguish between children and adults. Smile Detection offers three self-explanatory options, Big, Normal and Slight. Used in conjunction, the Face and Smile Detection systems do result in more hits than misses, especially in contrasty lighting conditions, although all those smiling faces could ultimately freak you out a little! The self-portrait options in the self-timer menu work by automatically taking the shot with a two second delay after either one or two people have entered the frame.

In addition to the regular Program mode, which provides the full range of camera options and additionally allows you to change settings like the ISO speed and metering, is the welcome inclusion of Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and fully Manual modes which let you independently set the aperture and shutter speed, making the RX1 instantly appeal to the more experienced photographer. The range of apertures on offer is extensive for a compact camera, ranging from F2-F22, and the ability to choose from 30-1/4000th second shutter speeds opens up a lot of creative potential. There's also very welcome support for the RAW file format, which is really the icing on the cake for serious photographers looking for a backup-pocket camera to their DSLR. Three Custom modes on the shooting mode dial allow you quickly access different combinations of settings.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Pop-up Flash Side

The proven Sweep Panorama mode lets you capture a panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom. Then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, but the exposure is fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image. There are two modes, Standard and Wide. Note that if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated.

In the Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur shooting modes, the DSC-RX1 takes six shots in a rapid sequence, typically at a high sensitivity setting and a (relatively) fast shutter speed, and then combines them into a single image that has somewhat less noise than a single shot taken at the same ISO and exposure settings. In our experience, the difference between the two modes is that in Anti Motion Blur mode, the camera is more willing to pick a really high ISO setting like ISO 6400 to maintain a fast shutter speed, whereas in Hand-held Twilight mode, it will only go as high as absolutely necessary to avoid camera shake at the chosen focal length. If light levels are truly low, however, the RX1 will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.

The Sony RX1 can shoot full-resolution 24 megapixel pictures at up to 5fps, quite a fast rate for a 35mm full-frame camera. To achieve the full 5fps you need to set the drive mode to the Speed Priority Continuous option, which locks the focus and the exposure at the first frame. The RX1's regular continuous burst shooting can change the focus and exposure between frames but provides a slower rate of 3fps.

The Clear Zoom function effectively digitally doubles the zoom range, using Sony's new Pixel Super Resolution Technology to increase the magnification. The Auto Portrait Framing mode uses face detection and the rule of thirds to automatically crop and create tightly framed portrait shots. The same Pixel Super Resolution Technology ensures that the resulting image is still a full 24 megapixels in size, and the original uncropped image is also saved for easy comparison.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Optical Viewfinder Electronic Viewfinder

Sony's long-standing D-Range Optimizer and HDR functions are present to help even out tricky exposures, for example where a bright background would normally throw the foreground into deep shadow. You can see from the examples on the Image Quality page that these features produce a photo with noticeably more dynamic range than one taken using one of the standard shooting modes, but at the same time without replicating the often "false" look of many HDR programs, and both offer a wide degree of customisation that's previously only been seen on Sony's DSLR/SLT range.

Present and correct is the increasingly ubiquitous ability to shoot High Definition video clips, but unlike its main competitors the RX1 does so at full 1080p HD rather than 1080i or 720p, and also with stereo sound rather than mono. The various options are 1920x1280 at 50p/50i or 25p/25i in the AVCHD format, and 1440x1280 or 640x480 pixels at 30fps in the MPEG4 format.

There's the ability to change the EV level, white balance, and metering options and turn on SteadyShot, which provides anti-shake effectiveness with no side-effects. If you set the shooting mode dial to Movie, you can also choose from Program, Aperture or Shutter priority and Manual modes, giving you full control over exposure for both stills and movies.

There's also a direct HDMI output from the camera, useful for playing back your footage on a HDTV set, although sadly there's no HDMI cable supplied in the box. The small dedicated Movie button on the rear of the DSC-RX1 allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button - a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most compacts. You can also activate the movie mode via the Shooting Mode dial.

Completing the top of the RX1 is a second prominent dial for setting Exposure Compensation and a small button marked with a C, which as the name suggests can be customised to access one of the camera's key controls (it's handily set to ISO speed by default).

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

The rear of the DSC-RX1 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen, with the resolution a pleasingly high 1228k dots. Located above the screen are the pop-up flash switch and the Playback button. Users have the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images or the calendar view, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, or delete shots. Press the shutter button halfway and you're helpfully catapulted back into capture mode. And that's basically it. With a press of the Menu button in playback, users have access to a few in-camera retouching effects, including the ability to crop and sharpen an image and apply red-eye correction.

To the right of the screen is the rear control dial and the useful one-touch movie record button embedded within to the rubberised thumb-rest. Underneath is the handy Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) button, and the Function button which accesses up to 14 customisable options that appear on in two vertical columns on either side of the LCD screen. The Function menu proves to be a very handy way to quickly change the RX1's key settings and one of the main ways of setting the camera to suit your shooting style.

The traditional round navigation pad can be used to navigate through menus and options, in conjunction with the small button in the middle which activates whatever it is you've chosen. The four directions on the navigation pad can also be customised to provide a quick way of setting various options. The navigation pad also doubles up as a control ring that's used to navigate through and set menu options. The ring is a little small, but it's not too over-sensitive and the ability to take full control of the RX1 is very welcome.

Underneath the navigation pad is the Menu button - press this and a number of shooting and set up folders appear on screen, with white text on a black background aiding visibility. The three shooting folders allow users to select image size, ratio and quality and - if JPEG (RAW and RAW+JPEG also available) - compression rates too, plus features like long exposure and high ISO noise reduction - all in fact activated as a default. The Movie folder contains the video quality and audio options, while the four Customise folders allow you to tweak the RX1 to your way of working. Playback, Memory Card, Time and four further Setup folders allow the likes of the LCD brightness to be adjusted, the help guide to be turned on or off, plus user languages, folders and file numbering to be specified. Completing the rear of the RX1 is the self-explanatory Delete button.

The bottom of the Sony RX1 features a standard metal screw thread for attaching it to a tripod. A lockable plastic cover protects the lithium-ion battery, officially good for 220 shots or or 110 mins of video. In practice we only got about 150 shots, even less when using the electronic viewfinder which draws on the battery for power. Note that the camera battery is also inconveniently charged via the USB port, rather than a separate charger, so it's a good idea to invest in some extra batteries. The same cover also protects the removable memory card, with the RX1 supporting the SD / SDHC / SDXC format in addition to Sony's own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format. Positioned on both sides of the RX1 are prominent metal eyelets for attaching the supplied shoulder strap. On the right when viewed from the front is a sturdy plastic cover, underneath which can be found the USB port,HDMI port and external microphone connection.

Entry Tags

hd video, hd, 3 inch LCD, review, 1080p, wide-angle, test, sony, RAW, cybershot, 35mm, full-frame, 24 megapixel, panorama, 5fps, f2, carl zeiss, Full Frame, 35mm lens, rx1, dsc-rx1, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Review, dsc rx1

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