#130 Sony’s brand new (and exciting) RX-1

By philberphoto | Review

Dec 01

OK, people, bad news first. Yes, I played with one the very first Sony RX-1 to ship in Europe. To wit, I haven’t seen any pictures from European cameras yet. Wait, how can that be bad news. Is it not after all probably the most daring product to appear on the camera scene since, probably the Canon 5D II? Why 5D II? Because it was the first DSLR that could do video. Even though it was a very competitive camera indeed for still photography, the video capability set it apart from anything else, and it went off to be a roaring sucess for Canon.

So what is so original with the Sony RX-1? Simply put, it is the first camera in the digital age that claims to combine truly top-notch image quality with a truly minimal-size format, and no-compromise ease-of-use. Basically, the RX-1 seeks to define a new product segment: very small, almost pocket-sized, yet with an IQ that rivals not only DSLRs, but the best full-frame DSLRs. And for a price which is also squarely in top-level DSLR territory.

So, how is that bad news? Because I only had it for about 5 minutes, at night with no time to do more than just a few handheld JPEGs at speeds that were too slow. Now, maybe it hasn’t sold yet, and, if that is the case, I should get my hands on it tomorrow morning again, and will organize a shoot-out against the present sheriff of small-camera-land, the NEX 7 with Leica Elmar 24mm.

Still, what did I learn tonight? Does the RX-1 delivers on size? Yes. It feels one size smaller than, say a NEX 6 with the new 16-50 pancake. Say, the same size as a NEX 5. But, and it is significant, it is heavy. Much heavier than a 5, or a 6, or even a 7. It feels like the same weight as a 7 with a really heavy Leica Summilux lens.

Does it deliver on feel? Does it feel like the luxo object that its 3099€ price tag claims to command? Well, yes and no. Yes, because everything feels rock solid. All the knobs fit very tightly and operate a bit stiffly. Nothing loose, or lightweight about this camera. No, because, let’s say it clearly, I did not feel that there was any “soul” to this assembly of electronic components. The sort of soul that a fine watch embodies, or a fine pen, or.. a Leica. With one exception, the shutter button. You press it, and it is a dream. Perfectly weighted, no drama as you press it, no shake, almost no noise. That is class incarnate. The rest of the camera is confidence inspiring, and nothing but.

Useability? In the few minutes I had it with me, it felt a bit awkward. Sort of too heavy for the size, and not offering a good grip at all. The lack of a tilt screen a la NEX is a deep regret. The user interface is new to me. Sony have been bitterly criticized for the early NEX UI, being too menu-driven, so the RX-1 (part of the point and shoot Cybershot range, not the NEX or Alpha) And yet it kinda grew on me. Point and shoot. AF that works well enough (not state-of-the-art, mind, but competent, sort of fast enough, and not hunting too much in total darkness), point and shoot. That is a transforming experience, or will be for some. This is when you realise that there was never anything like it. Any camera this small that one could use in true -point-and-shoot mode was ridiculously compromised image-quality-wise, and this one should not be, must not be, if it is to succeed in the market. Point and shoot. It is ridiculously easy, you feel exactly like on of these idiots you see taking pictures that you already know have no chance at all of being more than just conduits to fond memories. Except that at the heart of this one lies not a miniscule sensor but an awesome full-frame 24 Mp Sony Exmor looking at the world through a 35mm Zeiss Sonnar f:2.0 custom-designed lens. This is the sort of camera Q could have designed for James Bond. And not for any James Bond, pulllleeeeze. Sean or Daniel definitely. Pierce maybe. All other 007 wannabees wait in line for further deliveries.

Finally, IQ. How good is it? Well, I have only 5 lousy JPEGS to tell, and they are not even high res. But what I can tell you is, it is mightily promising. The lens is obviously excellent. Buttery bokeh with silky-smooth transition from in-focus to out-of-focus. Very sharp even wide open (though with traces of CA, which is not a great surprise). And, as I had already sensed in samples already on line, probably world-beating 3D. Especially when you have a close-up foreground, it is almost spooky when you think it is a low-res JPEG.

One example, left strictly-out-of-camera. No sharpening, nothing.


Now I don’t know how good that looks to you for a 1/5s shot handheld wide open , but, to me, that is almost scary. Clearly better, in terms of 3D, than a Canon 5D III with Zeiss 35mm f:1.4

In summary, this, to me is a killer camera if I ever saw one. It goes where no-one has ever gone, and breaks new ground. It truly creates a new market segment. Now, all we need to find out is: how many clients populate that segment. And, more importantly, will RX-1 still be there tomorrow morning so that I can give you more shots?

Ok, I will not be a total bastard. Here is another shot, which will give some idea of the rendering for street, as well as how the lens handles flare wide open. Again 1/5s, again straight out of camera. A scene I know well, which I have shot with numerous camera bodies and lenses, and on my own Richter scale of 1 to 10, I rate it a 12…


  • pascaljappy says:

    Philippe, thanks so much for posting this. It is making drool and wonder whether my recent change of photographic lifestyle was not a mistake. Having this sort of quality at your fingertips, wherever you go is simply a dream.

    Now, as you say, we cannot judge sharpness from these small jpegs but the control of flare and – most of all – that amazing combination of contrast and smoothess is absolutely lovely. I just cannot wait to lay my hands on one (your presumably 😉 and maybe crack completely.

    As I was discussing privately with you, I’m having difficulties sourcing a 35mm lens that I like. It may not be a stupid idea to grab a RX-1 rather than a 35mm …

    Now if only Sony hadn’t gone for the Guinness book of stupid marketing records of smallness and had been thoughtful enough to consider that people might actually enjoy shooting with one of these in real life rather than look at it on a shelf (read : had included a viewfinder – even a crappy one – and a grip. A GRIP, for goodness’ sake, who shoots without a grip ??) this would have been *the* perfect camera.

    I hope you get a chance to use this puppy again and mayve take it home with you. Have (a lot of) fun and thanks again !!

  • CarstenW says:

    Interesting review. Sounds like a neat camera, but maybe not one you fall in love with. The lens looks great, but the camera seems a bit too small, to be honest, and lacking sufficient grip. How did you find the grip?

    One minor correction: the first DLSR with video was the Nikon D90. The 5D Mark II was the first full-frame DSLR with video though.

  • Boris says:

    Thanks Philippe for posting this. I’m really interested in your comparision with the Nex 7 / 24 Elmar. Wide open in the centre areas the performance of the RX1 looks really promising with lots of 3D, but from the sample images posted on the web I got the impression that stopped down it is not as good as the Nex 7 with a very good lens (for example 24 Elmar). But maybe I’m wrong. Therefore your planned comparision is really interesting.

    Pascal, have you tried the Leica Summilux 35mm Asph FLE? Besides a slightly nervous bokeh (and a hefty price) it is really a great 35mm lens.


  • pascaljappy says:

    Hi Boris, no I haven’t tried this. It is sorely tempting and probably the best 35mm around. But it needs to be an R-mount for me (I sold my M43 equipment for a D800, and still can’t believe it myself). The Summilux-R 35 doesn’t seem anywhere near as good as the M version. An early Summicron-R might be interesting. If all else fails, Zeiss’s Distagon 35/2 is probably a great lens, but it seems a little soulless. For less than the price of a ‘Lux, I’m thinking an RX-1 would actually make a great 35 PLUS a second camera when I need to travel light. It actually makes a lot of sense. Hmmm …

    Sorry I missed you in Paris. Hope we can meet soon.


  • CarstenW says:

    Pascal, have you tried the 35 Lux-R? I have one and use it on my D800, and it is fantastic. It doesn’t have the same characteristics and the 35 Lux-M ASPH I, which I used to own, but it is equally good in different ways. It isn’t sharp to the corners until stopped down a bit, and has more vignetting, but it is extremely sharp in the middle, more of a photojournalist’s lens. Stopped down, it is sharp everywhere. There are some sample shots on my site below.

    The Zeiss ZF.2 35/1.4 is also really great. In fact, I would say that the two are about equally good, but in different ways. The Zeiss is more convenient, with EXIF, auto-aperture, and like many Zeiss lenses compared to Leica lenses, is easier to focus.

  • I am really quite disappointed with your review. I have come to respect your opinions here and bought my CZ25 for the NEX 5n on the back of your thinking. I keep thinking – sell all of the NEX gear and buy a RX1 – great 3D pop, depth isolation, dynamic range, full size sensor versatility in pocket machine. Read the reviews. Swing from desire to sensibility – my lens investment is something I can recoup. An RX1 price will never be recovered……. but my photography is right where the RX1 is delivering. Can I resist………… Then I read a glowing review like this……. from real photographers that I respect………. must resist……………..

  • peterv says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this interesting camera. I’ve had my eye on it since Photokina, but I already have the NEX 7 with the 24 mm Zeiss so I’m really looking forward to your comparison.

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