Camera Geek Alert – Sony RX1 Hands-On Review

Small cameras with big sensors are clearly an important part of the future. From the shockingly affordable cinema cameras from Blackmagic Designs to my beloved Olympus E-M5, it’s clear to see that camera manufacturers are responding to a demand for compact camera systems. Sony is up there toward the front of the “big sensor/small camera” charge and seem to be pushing the technology forward, with last years Cybershot RX100, and now this years Cybershot RX1, which packs a full-frame 35mm sensor into a camera body that could almost fit in your pocket.  

All that goodness comes at a price though. When the camera was first announced, my studio geeked out a little since we often get advanced or first run versions. Such was the case with the RX-1. Being camera nerdy we dug into the thing as soon as it arrived via pals at BorrowLenses

My first comment? “Interesting form factor.”

Erik’s first comment? “I just can’t see myself dropping nearly $3,000 for a fixed-lens camera, no matter what kinda guts it has.”

Norton’s first comment? “Gotta give this a chance since its got 24 MegaPixels, ISO 100-25600, dedicated focus, iris and macro rings, and 5 fps burst mode”

Fair ’nuff. We were heading into an intense month of work and travel ahead, so Erik carted this thing around for a few weeks (Thanks E)… Initially it arrived just in time for our Chase Jarvis LIVE broadcast with Julien Smith and the badass band My Goodness.  During our setup/soundcheck day, between directing duties, we snagged a few of our first shots with the RX1.

James Franco (or Norton. I can't remember) standing in for lighting before the band arrived.

My Goodness

Erik’s Notes. The RX1 feels great in use.  It’s much smaller than I expected it to be, but the sizable lens, with it’s manual focus and aperture controls built-in, give it just the right amount of grip.  The layout of the rest of the controls are great too.  Just about every function I care about has a dedicated button, and I love the exposure compensation dial on the top.  My only problem with the build of the camera is the lack of a viewfinder, which can be purchased separately for a billion dollars.  Quick personal note to camera manufacturers… Stop skimping on built-in viewfinders.  I’d MUCH rather have even a POS viewfinder than the nicest pop-up flash you can make.  The Olympus EM-5 got it right by building the viewfinder into the body and including an add-on flash with the kit.  I use that viewfinder every time I shoot with the camera and I have never once used the flash.  Sorry, back to the RX1…

My thoughts: The fixed 35mm Zeiss Sonnar f/2 lens is pretty dope, though for the price of the camera it would have been nice to seen that lens be able to come off the body.  It’s a tasty beast, but the inability to swap lenses is going to be a big turn off for people. Concession: luckily Sony picked a sweet-spot of a focal length to stick us with.  So while the camera has no zoom, I’ve got legs – the best zoom in the business. So shooting both wide shots and closeups isn’t that big of a problem.

My Goodness

Joel from My Goodness

After the Chase Jarvis LIVE broadcast, we tidied up the studio and packed our camera bags for a commercial shoot in Belize.  Since Erik would be shooting video primarily with a main kit consisted of a couple of Canon 5D mkiii’s with a handful of lenses (ie a handful) any other cameras would pretty much only be used for casual snapshots while we weren’t working.  It would be a perfect setting to test the RX1. Erik’s confession: “I still brought my Olympus E-M5 kit.”  Seemed he just couldn’t fully commit to being stuck with one lens in such a beautiful place.  That plain ol’ 35mm lens just couldn’t keep him covered, and here’s a good example:

Blue Hole Belize

Flying over the Great Blue Hole, E had to time my shots just right to get the composition I wanted.  I was focused on hanging out of the helicopter and directing the pilot, so it was catch and catch can for Erik’s personal photos. His gripe: “This shot would have been exactly what I wanted if I could have zoomed out just a little bit.

Back to Erik for some more details: When the days calmed down and the mood was more casual, the RX1 became a delight to shoot with. The camera is really small and unobtrusive, yet still totally sweet looking.  It’s a great conversation starter, and you feel like a Rockefeller when the inevitable “so how much does that cost?” question rolls around.

Let’s talk about the leaf shutter, which is built into the lens, thus saving space inside the camera body and aiding the RX1 in retaining its slender girlish figure.  It’s also slightly quieter than a butterfly hiccup, and I hate it.  I’m genuinely curious to know if anyone agrees with me that a quiet shutter is super unsatisfying.  I know this is entirely superficial, but I like my camera to make a little noise when I take the shot.  I wanna feel something mechanical move.  It should be a point of praise for the smooth functionality of the camera, and it must be great for those weirdos who want to discreetly take pictures of strangers, but I can’t get behind it.  I want motor-driving to sound like a motor driving.

My overall reaction (chase):
The image quality is all fine and good.  The above image was shot by Erik at ISO 2500 and still looks pretty clean.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a relatively spendy camera that doesn’t produce a nice image at high ISO’s, so image quality in new cameras isn’t nearly as much of a concern to me – especially since it’s not my “pro” camera.  I’m much more interested these days in the experience of using a camera.  Is the camera fun to shoot with?  The RX1 is pretty cool, but the lack of a built-in viewfinder (ala Erik’s point earlier) made me miss it. Also like E I found myself reaching for my Olympus E-M5 instead of the RX1 on several occasions.  I will say that I am interested to see what the future holds for this camera line and I hope Sony continues to push the compact camera envelope. We all win when that happens, regardless of camera choice.

Erik’s roundup. So is it worth the nearly $3,000 price tag?  For my money, no, but here’s my recommendation; everyone who’s reading this should go buy it.  Create a huge market for compact full-frame cameras and give Sony the motivation to develop an upgraded version of the RX1 with interchangeable lenses.  Now THAT’S something I’d buy.

ISO 1600 - f/2.0 - 1/100 sec

ISO 800 - f/2.8 - 13 second exposure

32 Responses to Camera Geek Alert – Sony RX1 Hands-On Review

  1. Peter June 18, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    How about reviewing its video performance?

  2. Ray Spaddy June 18, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Great post — Love the sample shots. And Norton does look like James Franco.

  3. Brett F. June 18, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    I was having this conversation with a friend the other day who just got his x100s. I know the internet photo rock stars (chase, zack, etc.) love these cameras, but I can’t justify or see spending more than $600-700 on a fixed lens camera like the x100s or $800-900 on the RX1. Not when I can pick up an EOS 6D and a 35mm f/2 IS USM for $110 less based on today’s prices at B&H or Adorama. Then for the price to add on the Zeiss external optical view-finder for the RX1 ($598) I could add a 50mm 1.4 and a decent flash with a bounce head to the 6D.

    Are some of the features on the RX1 the future? I sure hope they are. I would love to find an alternative to Leica since they have become a boutique product instead of a high-end tool. Are they there yet? Not even close… I think I’ll spend that $2600 to fund a project I’ve been wanting to shoot and make it kick ass with the gear I already have, hipster look or not…

    • Mike June 18, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      You don’t get it do you?

      • Brett F. June 19, 2013 at 5:15 am #

        Mike, apparently I don’t and I’m totally content with that.

        • Verdoux June 20, 2013 at 5:20 am #

          The point is you get a big sensor on a small camera that you can take with you everywhere (unlike the 6D with its accessories).

          • Brett F. June 23, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

            Carrying a camera the size of the 6D and 35mm f/2 IS has never bothered me. If you don’t think you’ll need an external flash or other accessories you can leave them at home. Therefore its not obtrusive to me going about my daily life. I carried an F5, D1H, D1X, D2H, 1D II, III, etc… 8-10hrs a day, every day of my career as a PJ so I’m used to it. Sure, something the size of a Leica M series camera would be more convenient and slightly less obtrusive, but convenience isn’t worth the price point these cameras are at (my opinion). The only time I leave my 5D series camera at home is when I’m out and about with friends for a night of bar hopping and at that point I bring along my G12 not only for its size, but lower price point incase something happens to it. Would it be great to have an RX1 in the $800-900 range? Yes, but I cant justify investing $2800 ($3400 w/ an external viewfinder) on a tool that limits me to one focal length. Its the same reason I wouldn’t buy a hammer that limits me to hitting on kind of nail.

  4. Tom deBruyn June 18, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    I’m curios if you got to test the high speed sync due to the leaf shutter? One of the most attractive features to me is using on location lighting and dampening the sun’s effects during the peak hours.

  5. Ben June 18, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    It seems like the real advantage Sony has is autofocus Zeiss lenses. It seems like they are also limiting their market by not allowing you to buy MORE lenses. I couldn’t live without the viewfinder. Looking at the back of the camera gives a false sense of perspective.

  6. Rabi June 18, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Props to Erik for saying something that I’ve thought for ages: If the choice is between flash and VF, the latter should win. I’d rather have a finder built in and an optional flash than vice versa.

  7. Bill Marson June 18, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    Erik/Chase — I would be very interested in hearing your comparison opinions on the Sony RX1 versus the FujiFilm x100s; both having fixed, non interchangeable lenses. If I’m going to go out and spend the money on one of these ‘travel’ camera’s, which one wins head-to-head?

    • pixbyeric June 18, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

      I was very intrested in x100s but for months of researching and playing around, x100s is a great camera but it’s not on the same level as RX1. the biggest problem with x100s is the soft image at f2. and you think RX1 autofocus is slow and not accurate time to time? x100s is little worse than that… RX1 is expensive but it does give you amazing IQ with that excellent lens. I bought for lens alone, FF sensor is also nice for boken lover like me too.

      • Verdoux June 20, 2013 at 5:15 am #

        It was the x100 that had the sloooow auto focus, not the x100s.

  8. Davor Pavlic June 18, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I’m not sure if I would call this a review, rather tughts on the camera. Rather surprised you did this after the last one.
    And regarding the silent shutter… I can agree with you to a point, I also love the mechanical sound of the shutter, but it could do with a little less of a machine gun sound for those shots in the streets, theatre and anywhere you have to be quiet.

  9. pixbyeric June 18, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    love the silent shutter and its amazing lens. It’s worth $2800 for lens alone! oh and FF sensor is also nice.

  10. Bill Marson June 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Thanks for the reply. One more question — did you try using the pop-up flash? How did it perform? Are you able to hotshoe mount a pocket wizard?

    • eric June 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

      popup flash on RX1 is not great. maybe okay to barely good.

  11. hemuda June 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Lets see. Nkion d600 + 35mm = $3500+
    Canon 6d + 35mm = $3100+

    The lens on RX1 is not a joke it would alone cost $1500+. It is among the best lenses!

  12. Wes June 18, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    This is the type of content thats been missing. Loved it.

  13. Scott Reither June 18, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    I’ve been researching small mirror less cameras as a carry-around so I don’t have to lug around the D800 all the time. I looked at this camera. The price is a bit unsettling, but I’d still buy it if it were “right”. I don’t think that i would mind the fixed lens – i get SO sick of dust on sensors! The lack of a a viewfinder ends up being the deal breaker for me (and an extra LOT of money for the EVF becomes insulting). I wanna compose photographs with the camera-to-eye. So, still not sure… I too like to be ale to hear a shutter.

  14. Bill Marson June 18, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    Zeiss also has the Touit line for Sony/Fuji. Wondering how that Touit glass compares to the Sonnar glass on this smaller cameras.

  15. Lee Hammond June 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm #

    You can rent it here:

    I love the Fuji x100s. You get used to the fixed lens, shooting with one hand, awesome dynamic range, ultrashort shutter lag, rangefinder look. Compared with the price of the RX1, the x100s seems pretty good.

  16. Jim Cutler June 19, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    Totally like the camera reviews/impressions. Thanks.

  17. Joe July 3, 2013 at 9:14 am #

    Hi Erik, could you take us through your black and white process, how you tune it etc would be great

  18. palinode July 4, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    I’m with you on the shutter sound. My current camera has an electronic shutter option, which initially pleased me to no end – I liked the idea of taking unobtrusive street shots or super-sharp images. But the artificial shutter noise supplied by the camera sounds like someone eating crackers under a heavy blanket. After a few days I went back to the mechanical shutter.

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