Sony RX1, A User Report

A purpose-built camera.

Update: since the website re-design, I've opted to keep fewer of the images embedded in this post to ease navigation.  You can click here to access the entire set of 90+ images included in this review on Flickr.

I hesitate to write about gear. Tools are tools and the bitter truth is that a great craftsman rises above his tools to create a masterpiece whereas most of us try to improve our abominations by buying better or faster hammers to hit the same nails at the same awkward angles.

The internet is fairly flooded with reviews of this tiny marvel, and it isn’t my intention to compete with those articles. If you’re looking for a full-scale review of every feature or a down-to-Earth accounting of the RX1’s strengths and weaknesses, I recommend starting here.

Instead, I’d like to provide you with a flavor of how I’ve used the camera over the last six months. In short, this is a user report. To save yourself a few thousand words: I love the thing. As we go through this article, you’ll see this is a purpose built camera. The RX1 is not for everyone, but we will get to that and on the way, I’ll share a handful of images that I made with the camera.

It should be obvious to anyone reading this that I write this independently and have absolutely no relationship with Sony (other than having exchanged a large pile of cash for this camera at a retail outlet).

Clearing the air.

Before we get to anything else, I want to clear the air about two things: Price and Features

The Price.

First things first: the price. The $2800+ cost of this camera is the elephant in the room and, given I purchased the thing, you may consider me a poor critic. That in mind, I want to offer you three thoughts:

1) Consumer goods cost what they cost, in the absence of a competitor (the Fuji X100s being the only one worth mention) there is no comparison and you simply have to decide for yourself if you are willing to pay or not.

2) Normalize the price per sensor area for all 35mm f/2 lens and camera alternatives and you’ll find the RX1 is an amazing value.

3) You are paying for the ability to take photographs, plain and simple. Ask yourself, “what are these photographs worth to me?”

In my case, #3 is very important. I have used the RX1 to take hundreds of photographs of my family that are immensely important to me. Moreover, I have made photographs (many appearing on this page) that are moving or beautiful and only happened because I had the RX1 in my bag or my pocket. Yes, of course I could have made these or very similar photographs with another camera, but that is immaterial.

35mm by 24mm by 35mm f/2

The Features.

The killer feature of this camera is simple: it is a wafer of silicon 35mm by 24mm paired to a brilliantly, ridiculously, undeniably sharp, contrasty and bokehlicious 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens.

Image quality is king here and all other things take a back seat. This means the following: image quality is as good or better than your DSLR, but battery life, focus speed, and responsiveness are likely not as good as your DSLR. I say likely because, if you have an entry-level DSLR, the RX1 is comparable on these dimensions.

If you want to change lenses, if you want an integrated viewfinder, if you want blindingly fast phase-detect autofocus then shoot with a DSLR. If you want the absolute best image quality in the smallest size possible, you’ve got it in the RX1.

While we are on the subject of interchangeable lenses and viewfinders...

I have an interchangeable lens DSLR and I love the thing. It’s basically a medium format camera in a 35mm camera body. It’s a powerhouse and it is the first camera I reach for when the goal is photography. For a long time, however, I’ve found myself in situations where photography was not the first goal, but where I nevertheless wanted to have a camera. I’m around the table with friends or at the park with my son and the DSLR is too big, too bulky, too intimidating. It comes between you and life. In this realm, mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras seem to be king, but they have a major flaw: they are, for all intents and purposes, just little DSLRs.

As I mentioned above, I have an interchangeable lens system, why would I want another, smaller one? Clearly, I am not alone in feeling this way, as the market has produced a number of what I would call “professional point and shoots.” Here we are talking about the Fuji X100/X100s, Sigma DPm-series and the RX100 and RX1.

Design is about making choices.

When the Fuji X100 came out, I was intrigued. Here was a cheap(er), baby Leica M. Quiet, small, unobtrusive. Had I waited to buy until the X100s had come out, perhaps this would be a different report.

Perhaps, but probably not. I remember thinking to myself as I was looking at the X100, “I wish there was a digital Rollei 35, something with a full-frame sensor and a fixed 28mm or 35mm lens that would fit in a coat pocket or a small bag.” Now of course, there is.

So, for those of you who said, “I would buy the RX1 if it had interchangeable lenses or an integrated viewfinder or faster autofocus,” I say the following: This is a purpose built camera.

You would not want it as an interchangeable system, it can’t compete with DSLR speed. A viewfinder would make the thing bigger and ruin the magic ratio of body to sensor size—further, there is a 3-inch LCD viewfinder on the back! Autofocus is super fast, you just don’t realize it because the bar has been raised impossibly high by ultra-sonic magnet focusing rings on professional DSLR lenses. There’s a fantastic balance at work here between image quality and size—great tools are about the total experience, not about one or the other specification.

In short, design is about making choices. I think Sony has made some good ones with the RX1.

In use.

So I’ve just written 1,000 words of a user report without, you know, reporting on use. In many ways the images on the page are my user report. These photographs, more than my words, should give you a flavor of what the RX1 is about. But, for the sake of variety, I intend to tell you a bit about the how and the why of shooting with the RX1.

Snapshots.

As a beginning enthusiast, I often sneered at the idea of a snapshot. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate what a pocket camera and a snapshot can offer. The RX1 is the ultimate photographer’s snapshot camera.

I’ll pause here to properly define snapshot as a photograph taken quickly with a handheld camera.

To quote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” So it is with photography. Beautiful photographs happen at the decisive moment—and to paraphrase Henri Cartier-Bresson further—the world is newly made and falling to pieces every instant.

I think it is no coincidence that each revolution in the steady march of photography from the tortuously slow chemistry of tin-type and daguerreotype through 120 and 35mm formats to the hyper-sensitive CMOS of today has engendered new categories and concepts of photography.

Photography is a reflexive, reactionary activity. I see beautiful light or the unusual in an every day event and my reaction is a desire to make a photograph. It’s a bit like breathing and has been since I was a kid.

Rather than sneer at snapshots, nowadays I seek them out; and when I seek them out, I do so with the Sony RX1 in my hand.

How I shoot with the RX1.

Despite much bluster from commenters on other reviews as to the price point and the purpose-built nature of this camera (see above), the RX1 is incredibly flexible. Have a peek at some of the linked reviews and you’ll see handheld portraits, long exposures, images taken with off-camera flash, etc.

Yet, I mentioned earlier that I reach for the D800 when photography is the primary goal and so the RX1 has become for me a handheld camera—something I use almost exclusively at f/2 (people, objects, shallow DoF) or f/8 (landscapes in abundant light, abstracts). The Auto-ISO setting allows the camera to choose in the range from ISO 50 and 6400 to reach a proper exposure at a given aperture with a 1/80 s shutter speed.

I have found this shutter speed ensures a sharp image every time (although photographers with more jittery grips may wish there was the ability to select a different default shutter speed). This strategy works because the RX1 has a delightfully clicky exposure compensation dial just under your right thumb—allowing for fine adjustment to the camera’s metering decision.

So then, if you find me out with the RX1, you’re likely to see me on aperture priority, f/2 and auto ISO. Indeed, many of the photographs on this page were taken in that mode (including lots of the landscape shots!).

Working within constraints.

The RX1 is a wonderful camera to have when you have to work within constraints. When I say this, I mean it is great for photography within two different classes of constraints: 1) physical constraints of time and space and 2) intellectual/artistic constraints.

To speak to the first, as I said earlier, many of the photographs on this page were made possible by having a camera with me at a time that I otherwise would not have been lugging around a camera. For example, some of the images from the Grand Canyon you see were made in a pinch on my way to a Christmas dinner with my family. I didn’t have the larger camera with me and I just had a minute to make the image. Truth be told, these images could have been made with my cell phone, but that I could wring such great image quality out of something not much larger than my cell phone is just gravy. Be it jacket pocket, small bag, bike bag, saddle bag, even fannie pack—you have space for this camera anywhere you go.

Earlier I alluded to the obtrusiveness of a large camera. If you want to travel lightly and make photographs without announcing your presence, it’s easier to use a smaller camera. Here the RX1 excels. Moreover, the camera’s leaf shutter is virtually silent, so you can snap away without announcing your intention. In every sense, this camera is meant to work within physical constraints.

I cut my photographic teeth on film and I will always have an affection for it. There is a sense that one is playing within the rules when he uses film. That same feeling is here in the RX1. I never thought I’d say this about a camera, but I often like the JPEG images this thing produces more than I like what I can push with a RAW. Don’t get me wrong, for a landscape or a cityscape, the RAW processed carefully is FAR, FAR better than a JPEG.

But when I am taking snapshots or photos of friends and family, I find the JPEGs the camera produces (I’m shooting in RAW + JPEG) so beautiful. The camera’s computer corrects for the lens distortion and provides the perfect balance of contrast and saturation. The JPEG engine can be further tweaked to increase the amount of contrast, saturation or dynamic range optimization (shadow boost) used in writing those files. Add in the ability to rapidly compensate exposure or activate various creative modes and you’ve got this feeling you’re shooting film again. Instant, ultra-sensitive and customizable film.

Pro Tip: Focusing.

Almost all cameras come shipped with what I consider to be the worst of the worst focus configurations. Even the Nikon D800 came to my hands set to focus when the shutter button was halfway depressed. This mode will ruin almost any photograph. Why? Because it requires you to perform legerdemain to place the autofocus point, depress the shutter halfway, recompose and press the shutter fully. In addition to the chance of accidentally refocusing after composing or missing the shot—this method absolutely ensures that one must focus before every single photograph. Absolutely impossible for action or portraiture.

Sensibly, most professional or prosumer cameras come with an AF-ON button near where the shooter’s right thumb rests. This separates the task of focusing and exposing, allowing the photographer to quickly focus and to capture the image even if focus is slightly off at the focus point. For portraits, kids, action, etc the camera has to have a hair-trigger. It has to be responsive. Manufacturer’s: stop shipping your cameras with this ham-fisted autofocus arrangement.

Now, the RX1 does not have an AF-ON button, but it does have an AEL button whose function can be changed to “MF/AF Control Hold” in the menu. Further, other buttons on the rear of the camera can also be programmed to toggle between AF and MF modes. What this all means is that you can work around the RX1’s buttons to make it’s focus work like a DSLR’s. (For those of you who are RX1 shooters, set the front switch to MF, the right control wheel button to MF/AF Toggle and the AEL button to MF/AF Control Hold and voila!)

The end result is that, when powered on the camera is in manual focus mode, but the autofocus can be activated by pressing AEL, no matter what, however, the shutter is tripped by the shutter release. Want to switch to AF mode? Just push a button and you’re back to the standard modality.

Carrying.

I keep mine in a small, neoprene pouch with a semi-hard LCD cover and a circular polarizing filter on the front—perfect for buttoning up and throwing into a bag on my way out of the house. I have a soft release screwed into the threaded shutter release and a custom, red twill strap to replace the horrible plastic strap Sony provided. I plan to gaffer tape the top and the orange ring around the lens. Who knows, I may find an old Voigtlander optical viewfinder in future as well.