Sony, not being one of the heritage photography brands, tends to do things a little differently, just because it can. And the new Sony RX1-R is indeed different.
Last year the company introduced the Sony RX1, which is the world’s smallest 35mm format digital camera. It’s basically a compact camera, because you can’t change the lens. Instead, it features a fixed length 35mm optic, making it a good choice for street photography.
Of course that huge sensor and fine engineering doesn’t come cheap, and many have baulked at the Sony RX1’s £2,500 / US$2,800 / AU$3,000 asking price. For something that doesn’t offer the flexibility of interchangeable optics, it’s an incredibly niche market that Sony is tapping into.
The suspicion is that Sony is less bothered about actual sales, and more about showing the world what it’s capable of. By producing something unique like the Sony RX1, it shows that it is a credible photography brand, as well as the producer of mass consumer electronics such as televisions and PCs.
Now however, Sony has decided that one version of the RX1 isn’t enough. With the RX1-R, Sony is tapping further into a niche market by producing a version of the RX1 without an anti-aliasing filter.
This seems to be a pretty popular move right now, with Nikon producing a variant of the D800 – the D800E– and the D7100 with the optical low pass filter removed. Several other companies, including Pentax Ricoh with the Ricoh GR, have also introduced new cameras with non-low pass filters.
The benefits of removing the optical low pass filter from a camera is that detail is clearer without the need for post-capture sharpening, since light doesn’t have to travel through a softening filter to reach the sensor. The downside is that if you’re photographing something with a repeating pattern (mainly man-made structures and objects) you may get moiré patterning appearing in the image.
This can usually be corrected in post-production, which Sony expects users of this type of camera to be familiar with.
Build quality and handling
The Sony RX1-R has exactly the same body as the original Sony RX1, so the build quality and basic operation of the camera is exactly the same.
The camera’s premium quality is easy to feel as soon as you pick it up. Despite its small size, it’s reasonably weighty, to give reassurance of the quality inside this miniature marvel.
Although the Sony RX1-R’s fairly chunky fixed 35mm lens feels like it should be interchangeable, it’s not. Sony says that this is because the lens has been specifically engineered to work well in conjunction with the large sensor, to get the best possible image quality. That’s unlikely to stop people from wishing that Sony would produce a full-frame NEX camera in future – maybe that’s in the pipeline though.
The leather-like coating on the right-hand side of the camera helps to make it feel pretty secure in the hand, while an additional thumb grip is available if you want to give it even more purchase.
At this price point and build quality, Sony is obviously aiming the RX1-R at very advanced photographers, and as such, the number of dials and buttons on the camera should make this very appealing to that kind of audience.
On top of the camera is a dial for switching between the various different modes on offer, while another is available for quickly changing the exposure compensation. This is positioned very well for reaching with your thumb, which is handy when shooting one-handed.
A ring around the base of the lens is used to alter aperture, although when the camera is in fully automatic mode, the ring has no use. A small dial on the back of the camera is used for altering shutter speed (when in shutter priority mode or fully manual mode).
On the Sony RX1-R’s lens, you can find further dials. One for switching between standard focusing (0.3 metres to infinity) and another for enabling the camera’s macro mode, which allows the camera to focus as close as 20cm. At the end of the lens is a manual focusing ring.
One of the best things about the camera is that most of the buttons, just like the Sony RX100‘s, can be customised to how you prefer to use the camera.
Like on the original RX1, Sony has decided not to include a touchscreen on the RX1-R. This makes changing the autofocus point a little more fiddly than the near-instant benefits of a touchscreen. First you’ll need to press the button at the centre of the navigation pad, then use the arrow keys to scroll around the screen.
Since Sony hasn’t changed the body or menu system of the RX1-R from its predecessor, for a more in depth look at the quirks of using the camera, you can read our original Sony RX1 review.
This is one camera that is all about the performance. For £2,500 / US$2,800 / AU$3,000, you’re expecting to get a lot of bang for your buck, and of course, like its predecessor/sibling, the Sony RX1-R gives you a heck of a lot.
Much of what we can say about the image quality from the Sony RX1-R is the same as we can say about the original Sony RX1. Colours produced by it are fantastic, being bright and punchy without being overly saturated.
If you want to boost those colours even more, there’s a variety of options under Creative Styles to get you started. You could use Vivid, for instance, while shooting particularly bright flowers. Or you might want to be more faithful to actual skin tones and use Neutral.
The headline feature of the Sony RX1-R, though, is of course its capability for resolving detail. The original Sony RX1 wasn’t exactly a slouch when it came to fine detail, but Sony’s engineers have removed the anti-aliasing filter from the R variant, which should make it capable of producing extremely detail-rich images.
For the most part we have been extremely impressed with what the Sony RX1-R is capable of. Examining images at 100% does indeed reveal an incredible amount of detail, especially when compared to the same scene shot with the Sony RX1.
We have taken quite a few images of the same scene with both cameras, which you can compare for yourself in the Sample Images section of this review. By reviewing images at actual pixel size, we can see much finer detail is resolved, with less incidence of image smoothing.
However, on the downside, this does mean that the incidence of noise is also increased, so it will depend on your preference as to which you prefer to live with. If you’re more concerned about detail than noise, then this is a good option. If you’re worried about noise, then perhaps the Sony RX1 is more suited to you.
That’s not to say that the Sony RX1-R’s low light performance is bad. Images remain free of noise at the lower end of the sensitivity scale, up to around ISO 1600. From here onwards, noise does begin to creep in, but results remain impressive up to around ISO 3200.
We can see a fair amount of noise at images shot at ISO 5000 and 6000, but only when examining images at 100%, and in comparison to the Sony RX1. If we were looking at these images in isolation, we’d be more than happy with the noise performance even at high sensitivities.
Removing the anti-aliasing filter increases the risk of moiré patterning appearing in images. This is generally only a problem if you photograph subjects with repeating patterns, such as window blinds, (some) fabrics and materials or intricate brickwork and architectural detail.
We’ve not really found moiré patterning to be a problem, even when shooting subjects with fine detail. However, if you do find it appearing in your images, it’s relatively easy to remove in post-production using programs such as Photoshop Lightroom. This might be a little annoying if you’re having to apply it to every image you shoot, but for the average user this seems unlikely.
Still, it’s worth thinking about the subjects you’re likely to be shooting when choosing between the Sony RX1 and Sony RX1-R variants, especially since they are both equally priced.
Aside from removing the anti-aliasing filter, Sony has not made any other improvements to the Sony RX1-R. One of the biggest let downs of the original, and remaining here, is battery life.
For a camera which should be an ideal street photography tool, it’s a little disappointing that you have to invest in a second battery if you want to make it through a full day of shooting.
As with the camera’s build quality and handling, you may find it beneficial to read our original Sony RX1 review for more in-depth analysis of the Sony RX1-R’s image performance.
The Sony RX1-R’s 35mm fixed length lens isn’t the obvious choice for portrait photography, but you can get some great environmental type shots and interesting angles.
Here we can see just how much detail the Sony RX1-R is capable of resolving. Have a look at the full resolution image and examine at 100% to see the clarity. You can also compare the noise performance of the Sony RX1-R compared with the original Sony RX1, by comparing it with the image below.
This comparison image was shot on the original Sony RX1. If you zoom in to 100%, you can see that there is more evidence of image smoothing, making for an image which appears to have less noise than the Sony RX1-R. It’s also worth noting that this image was shot at a higher sensitivity than the Sony RX1-R image.
Here we can see that the Sony RX1-R has coped well with a mixed lighting scene, with general purpose metering doing well to produce an image that has a well-balanced exposure.
Again we can see here the amount of fine detail that the Sony RX1-R is capable of resolving. Compare it with the same scene shot with the Sony RX1 below.
Zooming in to this image taken with the Sony RX1 shows that the camera isn’t capable of resolving as much fine detail as its sibling.
The Sony RX1’s 35mm fixed focal length can be a little limiting if you can’t physically get close to a subject. However, with a large resolution of 20.1 million pixels, you can effectively crop into an image without too much worry.
As with its predecessor, the Sony RX1-R is capable of producing panoramic images simply by sweeping the camera across the scene. It stitches the image together in-camera so you don’t need to worry about post-production work.
Colours from the Sony RX1-R are bright and punchy straight from the camera. You can increase the vibrance by shooting in Vivid mode if the subject suits.
Sony is very keen to prove itself as a serious player in the imaging market. It doesn’t have the decades of heritage that the likes of Canon and Nikon have in the cameras world, and so it tends to pioneer technologies that show off what it’s capable of.
We’ve seen a lot of innovation from the company in the past few years, ranging from its translucent mirror technology for DSLTs and its improvements in electronic viewfinders.
It’s also true that many other imaging companies use Sony sensors to power their own cameras, so we know what the company is capable of. One of Sony’s proud claims is that it makes the three main components of its cameras in-house: that is, the lens, the sensor and the processor.
What we have in the Sony RX1-R, and the Sony RX1 before it, is the culmination of all of Sony’s engineering and innovation prowess in one miniature package.
True, it’s aimed at a very niche market, but then we’re not entirely sure Sony’s bothered about the sales figures of the Sony RX1-R – it’s more a case of ‘look what we can do’.
Images are top class, as you would expect from a full-frame sensor paired with a very high quality Carl Zeiss lens. You’d also be forgiven for expecting it from a camera at this price point.
Removing the anti-aliasing filter is a move that seems to be very zeitgeisty – we’ve already seen the same thing from Nikon, producing a variant of the D800 – the Nikon D800E – as well as not including a filter on its own premium compact camera, the Nikon Coolpix A. Pentax Ricoh also made the same move with its Ricoh GR.
Where the Sony RX1-R trumps both of these cameras is with its sensor size, which is still unique in the market, offering the world’s smallest 35mm option. Then again, it’s also more than twice the price of both the Nikon and Ricoh cameras.
The removal of the AA filter means that images are even more detailed and crisp than on the not too shabby Sony RX1. If you’re someone who is looking for maximum detail, it’s definitely worthy of consideration. It’s also nice to see Sony making the camera available at the same price as the original Sony RX1 – although of course that may make the purchasing decision a little bit more tricky.
Image quality is pretty much the best you’re going to get in a package of this size, and if you’re one of the very few people looking for a camera exactly like this, it’s hard to believe you’ll be disappointed.
Those looking for the maximum amount of detail, such as landscape and nature photographers, may find this camera more appealing than architecture and portrait photographers, though.
It’s a shame that Sony still hasn’t sorted out its battery life issue for the Sony RX1-R. We understand the difficulties of powering something with this kind of technology, but at this price point we’d at the very least like to see a spare battery included in the price as standard.
You’re pretty much going to have to buy a back-up if you want to use the camera for more than a couple of hours at a time. It’s also a little annoying that it doesn’t come with an external battery charger, meaning if you do buy a back-up battery, you can’t be charging the other while using the camera.
We continue to be impressed with what Sony is doing in its imaging department at the moment, showing that it’s a real leader in terms of both innovation and final image quality.
While it’s true that this is hardly going to be a mass market seller for consumers, for somebody who wants exactly what the Sony RX1-R is offering, they won’t be disappointed.
It’s worth considering the type of photographer you are, though, before parting with any cash. Predominantly landscape, street and nature photographers will be fine with this, but those who favour portraits and architecture scenes may want to consider the risk of moiré patterning and increased post-production work that may be necessary.
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