Saturday, December 22, 2012

REVIEW: Sony DSC-RX1 Full Frame Compact Camera

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 has generated quite a bit a buzz for offering a full-frame sensor and an outstanding 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss lens in a camera that’s about the same size as your average point and shoot. This is the technological breakthrough that many have been anxiously waiting for – true full frame performance in a compact package. However, the real question is is it worth its staggering $2,798 USD price (at the time this article was published)?

Image Quality

Click for original
Bokehlicious – yes, this is what a great f/2 lens on a full frame camera should look like!
f/2 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 320, No Flash, AWB, In-Camera JPEG – NO Post processing
Click for in-camera original file

Let’s just cut to the chance so I can answer the question that everyone wants to know about – is this camera really as good as a full frame DSLR? From an image quality perspective, the answer is without question – YES! The sensor on the RX1 is fantastic and the lens is on par with my best L lenses on my Canon gear. It’s got gorgeous color, dreamy bokeh at f/2.0, and creates sharp images even when examined in RAW. It’s high ISO performance is on par with most of today’s DSLR’s as shown below:

Click for original in-camera JPEG - ISO 25600
f/4 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 25600, AWB, In-Camera JPEG
Click for original

Dynamic Range

f/4 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 1250, No Flash, AWB, RAW+JPEG

Based on what I’m seeing I’d call the dynamic range of this camera as average with today’s DSLR’s. I don’t think it blows any away, but it’s very good – and way better than anything in its class. The above shot was a normal exposure and the shot below was an in-camera HDR. On a wide gamut display the orange feels more vibrant on the shot below, but on a sRGB display they are about the same.  Both shots were hand held.

f/2 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 320, In-Camera HDR Auto

The 1/80 sec issue

This camera has a love affair with 1/80 sec. It seems that the only speed it wants to shoot at when in creative, program mode or aperture priority is 1/80 sec. 99% of my shots in those modes when auto ISO was engaged were at 1/80 second which is odd given the fact that with a full-frame 35mm lens on a DSLR would typically drop down to 1/40 sec under these same conditions. Now, I can understand Sony’s desire to keep the shutter speed a little higher to avoid blurry subjects, but I’d prefer that to be a camera setting for minimum shutter speed.

Living at 35mm on a full frame

f/2 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 100
f/2 isn’t that shallow when shooting at 35mm

It amazes me when I talk to students who seem to think that smaller f-stop numbers only mean lower ISO’s and more light. They are often quick to run out and buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens thinking that they can shoot f/1.8 all day indoors and avoid having to use a flash. Sure, that might be true if you are only doing very shallow DOF shots, but the reality is that you’ll probably miss a lot more shots doing that due to the challenges of shooting at f/1.8.

The RX1 can go to f/2.0 which typically on a camera this small means nothing due to its small sensor, but this is a real full-frame sensor so f/2 means you do get dreamy bokeh AND shallow depth of field. Given the back focusing issue and this reality, it means it’s easy to foul up shots if you go to a shallow depth of field.

Of course distance from the subject and focal length also come into play when it comes to creating dreamy bokeh, so f/2 isn’t going to give you that if you take in larger scenes (as shown above). With 35mm you have to physically get close to your subject to get the dreamy bokeh like shown below and the top of this article, but if you can you’ll be rewarded.

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
f/2 creates dream bokeh, but shallow depth of field makes it tough to use.
Observe the giraffe's nose at f/2 (mouse out or click here) and f/4 (mouse in or click here)

This camera convinced me that I will never again own a fixed length lens camera again – especially a measly 35mm. I’ll make sacrifices for the ability to optically zoom and longer focal lengths are a must to me.

At 4000x6000 pixels, I can crop to get just Rudolph but I’d rather just zoom
Despite being about 3 meters away from Rudolph, I got a lot more in the frame than I wanted

f/2 can be fun under the right circumstances
f/2 @ 35 mm,1/160, ISO 100, No Flash, AWB

That said there are occasions where 35mm is the right focal length and having f/2 available can be just the ticket to blur out ugly backgrounds and make lights dazzle.

Back focusing Problems

f/4 @ 35 mm,1/500, ISO 2000, No Flash, AWB
At first glance (and through the LCD) this shot seems okay

One serious issue present in my test RX1 was major back focusing issues. Through the LCD you are fooled into thinking that you have the shot like above, but at actual full zoom you really see the problem:

Despite the flexible focus spot being on the eye,
the camera back focused on the shirt

Now before the Sony fan boys pull out the pitchforks, this issue isn’t limited to squirming toddlers. Here’s one of 20+ shots where the AF failed with every possible thing in its favor:

Center focus on the center tree snowflake with a camera on support
still failed to focus on the tree

Even with support and 1/250 sec shutter speed it couldn’t focus properly on this big stationary Christmas tree. It seemed that if given a light and dark subject in the scene, it will always focus on the light subject no matter what you tell the camera you want it to do with the flexible focus point. This can work to your advantage sometimes, but many times it can frustrate.


I’m not a video guy so there’s not much for me to report here beyond the fact that the video looks great for basic work. The auto focus was a little slow, but that’s common for DSLR’s and the steady shot is no substitute for an external stabilization solution – just like with a DSLR. It’s still no camcorder, so your cheaper point and shoot or cell phone will be much more mom/user friendly, but this will give the real videographer much better results.

In-Camera HDR

The sad thing about the in-camera HDR is that you can’t use it if you are in RAW mode, so you have to switch to JPEG only for this feature to work. They do have a dynamic range expansion feature that will work on your JPEG’s when you are in RAW+JPEG, but I still prefer Fujifilm’s single exposure EXR mode found on the X10. Here’s a quick example with just its dynamic range expansion and with its HDR Auto mode engaged (both handheld in very low light):

Camera defaults with RAW+JPEG Enabled
f/4 @ 35 mm, 1/50,ISO 6400, No Flash, AWB

Now with HDR mode:

JPEG Only In-Camera HDR is very good
f/4 @ 35 mm, 1/25,ISO 6400, No Flash, AWB

It did a decent job of aligning the images and getting the shot. Naturally a tripod would be best for the sharpest result, but with no light in this room directly (only spill from outside and an adjacent room) I thought the results were very good – especially for hand held.

Sadly it doesn’t keep each of the exposures it takes either, so you only get the final output. This means a decision to go in-camera HDR is a final one.

Bookshelf Test

f/8 @ 35 mm, 13s,ISO 100, No Flash, AWB

My bookshelf test clearly demonstrated what a great sensor this camera has. The colors are excellent, the detail is very good and the performance across the full spectrum of ISO’s from 100 to 25,600 is on par with the best DSLR’s on the market.

Here’s some galleries of popular DSLR’s where you can see bookshelf test images to compare this camera:

Here some other cameras you may wish to compare:

More Sample Images

Visit for more in-camera JPEG images that have only been renamed with zero modifications. All shots except the bookshelf shots and where mentioned are hand held.

f/2 @ 35 mm, 1/80,ISO 3200

f/4 @ 35 mm,1/500, ISO 2000

f/2.8 @ 35 mm,1/80, ISO 160

f/2.8 @ 35 mm,1/80, ISO 1000

f/2.8 @ 35 mm,1/80, ISO 320

f/4.5 @ 35 mm,1/80, ISO 800


Overall I’d have to say this is a great beginning, but not something I’m interested in at this time. I loved the image quality and I commend Sony for using such a great lens. However, I need a zoom lens on a form factor like this and this is one camera that I’d actually consider buying if it had interchangeable lenses.

It’s just lame being stuck at 35mm only at this day and age, so at this price point it’s more of a proof of concept camera than something I desire to own. Hopefully Sony will respond to feedback like this and come up with an interchangeable lens version or one that has a decent 24-100mm zoom. Current lens physics dictate that a 24-100mm on any full frame camera at a decent aperture (like f/4) would be roughly the same size as Canon or Nikons 24-70 2.8mm lenses, so it’s no wonder Sony chose to go with a 35mm prime, but that just doesn’t fly with me.

If you are someone who only uses 35mm and think that the only thing that matters is a combination of size and image quality, then this is the perfect camera for you. The RX1 has a brilliant sensor and a fantastic lens in a compact package so you won’t be disappointed.

Keep trying Sony – this was a great start!

Where to buy

Click here to visit B&H and get the RX1 today. Your purchase helps support this blog, so if you are going to get this camera we’d appreciate if you cleared your cart and used this link. It doesn’t cost you a penny extra and it helps support this blog – thanks!

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B&H loaned me the camera used for this review.

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Anonymous said...

Fine honest review, and I agree - great start, great to make a FF camera in such a small packet, but come on Sony for this price there should not be:

- A lot of evidence about CA from this camera

Now also evidence of back focus

- The photographer can not decide for himself - have to go for 1/80 sec.

- at some forum evidense of problems with the color

and the insane price for all necessary accessories

Sell it for half the price and build a new camera from this platform, you have showed the way, well done for a start, now make a perfect for this price.

Tilda Johns said...

Well, I'm far from being a professional photographer so I really don't know anything much about the specs but I just got a Sony DSC-RX100 as a gift and it is absolutely amazing! It produces great picture and it's compact so what more can I ask for? said...

Tilda - I prefer the RX100 over the RX1 for everyday real world use too!


Eli Mergel said...

Can this camera take auto bracketed raw shots?