As I wrote in my last post, the Sony RX1 is the newest camera that I’ve acquired after selling off a bunch of gear that I had. As long-time readers will know, I have shot the Fuji X100 and loved it for two years this month. It is currently off for repairs and should be back in a few weeks, but I was intrigued by this new full-frame, fixed-lens digital camera with a 35mm focal length.
On the surface, in fact, the RX1 and the X100 have a lot in common: they are both fixed-lens cameras, they both have the same effective focal length (the RX1 has a full-frame sensor with a 35mm lens, and the X100’s APS-C sensor gives its 23mm lens an effective field of view of 35mm), they both max out at f/2, and they both have the near-silent leaf shutter that I really loved about the X100.
There are also some important differences: the RX1 lacks a viewfinder, whereas the X100 has both the electronic viewfinder and the optical viewfinder, but the RX1 has a big sensor with double the megapixels (24 vs. 12) of the X100.
Over my two years with the X100, I have loved using it from start to finish. It isn’t the fastest to autofocus, and it can have some quirky moments, but in general usage I loved it. I took it all over the world for the time I had it–it never missed a trip that I went on. The high ISO performance was amazing, and I loved how quiet it was. The optical viewfinder was really a treat too, and I found myself not using the EVF more than a handful of times, as I preferred seeing the world as it really was and not with the lag of an EVF.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can bestow upon the X100 is that over the past two years, it has completely changed the way I view the world. I have always enjoyed using prime lenses, and the 50mm lens was my bread and butter. That is, until I used the X100. It was such a fun camera, and so enjoyable to use, that it made me see things in 35mm. I use the 50mm lens almost never now, preferring the 35mm focal length in almost all situations. If that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.
Having now established the 35mm focal length, the RX1 grabbed my attention after a friend of mine began raving about it. The more I read, the more I was interested. As it happened, this was exactly the time when I had begun to think about radically altering the landscape of my photographic equipment. Ultimately, I decided to make the switch from all the other equipment I had to this little camera, figuring I’d try it out while my beloved X100 was off for repairs to see if it could possibly replace that camera. I have to say…wait, I’ll save that part for the end. Stay with me!
My first impression of the RX1: it is small. Like, really small. It is a technological marvel that they managed to cram this sensor into this body, with this lens. It has a nice heft to it, and feels really solid in my hands. I wish it had a slightly larger grip for my big clumsy hands, but it’s not terrible. It’s certainly more ergonomic than any Leica M (heresy!).
The build quality is really first-rate. The aperture clicks wonderfully, the focus ring has a nice turn to it, and everything is metal and feels precise and well crafted. As one would expect with a camera at this price point, it’s very well made. A small issue might be that it has no dedicated shutter speed dial, foregoing that for the more versatile (and common) soft dial that changes its functionality depending on the mode the camera is set in. I find this quite simple to use, but a dedicated shutter dial is always nice.
In terms of output, the sensor resolves as you’d expect with a sensor of this size. Resolution is very high, and the lens is very, very sharp. The dynamic range is better than any sensor that I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and there is a great deal of detail to be pulled out of the shadows with the files in post-production.
Below is an example of a shot taken indoors, taken straight from the camera, shot in RAW and converted to JPEG. As you can see, it’s pretty dark, but I exposed for the highlights at f/2, 1/100, ISO 125.
And below is the same shot, after adjusting the exposure in Lightroom 4, and converted to JPEG:
I didn’t adjust colors at all, reduce noise, or anything else. For a poorly-lit room, this seems to be pretty good output and gives you an idea of the flexibility that you have with the files from this camera. I found the files out of the X100 had a lot of detail to be recovered from the shadows, but not to this degree–the RX1 can really bail out a poor exposure. However, it’s always best to nail exposure correctly the first time.
The other frankly amazing part of the images from this camera is the high ISO performance. Let me just say that I’m sure technology will improve in terms of high ISO/low light capability, but I have no idea what kind of conditions I would need to have to require more than this sensor provides me. The first night I had the camera I went to an extremely dimly-lit restaurant in Minneapolis for dinner, and shot the RX1 comfortably at ISO 12,800. Here is an example:
I also have to say that this photo above is slightly cropped, and I used a film emulation that added grain to the image. That’s right, in order to mimic an ISO 400 film, I had to add grain to this image (we can talk about one would feel the need to use film emulators and add grain to images another day; I go back and forth on it myself). Here is another example shot at ISO 10,000 and with no post-production other than a JPEG-conversion:
A lot has been made about the two issues that I was most worried about with respect to the RX1. First, the battery life. Many have complained that it is poor, and the fact that the RX1 uses the same battery as the RX100 should tell you something–the larger sensor requires much more power and should impact the battery life significantly. Sony states you should get 250-270 shots per charge. While that doesn’t blow my mind, it doesn’t really alarm me a whole lot either. Get a backup or two and you’ll be covered. A more serious lapse in judgement from Sony, however, came with the exclusion of a battery charger, meaning you have to charge the battery by plugging the camera into the wall, like a phone. That’s obnoxious, and at this price point, inexcusable in my opinion. You can get a 3rd-party charger fairly cheaply but you shouldn’t have to after spending this much on a camera.
The second issue is the autofocus speed. If you’re concerned about this, you’re not alone–I was too. Let me tell you that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. If you shoot day in, day out with the latest and greatest DSLRs and fast-AF lenses, you may be disappointed. After using the X100 and Olympus OMD, I didn’t really notice a huge drop-off. In low light it can hunt once in a while (I never use the AF-assist lamp, since it’s like shining a flashlight in someone’s eyes when it’s already dark) and has missed focus once or twice. But, we’re talking super low light (and contrast). When I shot the ISO 12,800 image above, for example, focus worked fine. If you know how to use contrast-detect AF, like most of us, you’ll be happy with it.
You’ve made it this far, so you’re obviously expressing at least a modicum of interest in this camera, and maybe even my thoughts on it. I’m no professional gear reviewer, but I have read many of them, and written a few of them in my day. I’ve also used a bunch of gear.
Compared to my trusty X100, which I find to be the closest parallel for reasons mentioned early on in this piece, I like the RX1–a lot. The RX1 meets or exceeds the X100 is virtually every significant way I can think of: high ISO, AF speed/accuracy, resolution, software/customization, etc. There are only two things I wish the RX1 did that the X100 does. One of them minor, the other more significant.
First, I love that the X100 has a built-in 3-stop ND filter. Honestly, this is a feature I love about it and not enough people seem to give Fuji tis due for including this. I can’t tell you how many times I used that feature when shooting in bright sunlight, as it allowed me some flexibility on the aperture in bright conditions that I otherwise hadn’t had. Can’t you just screw an ND filter onto the lens of the RX1, I hear you asking? Why yes, you can. But the fact that it’s built-in at the push of a button makes things much easier and smoother to operate. So, this is a minor issue.
A more glaring omission, for me, is the lack of any kind of viewfinder with the RX1. This is hard to justify in my opinion. Couldn’t Sony have scrapped the pop-up flash in favor of an EVF? I sure think so, even if it had added negligible size to the body. An NEX7-style viewfinder would have made this camera a no-brainer replacement for my X100 and would have rendered this argument dead on arrival. Seriously. Everything else about the RX1 is that good. (And yes, Sony makes an external EVF, but it looks stupid, costs a lot of money on top of a body that’s already twice the cost of an X100/s, and seems flimsy if you leave it attached. So no, I don’t consider that a viable option.)
My final verdict is a close call, but I think the RX1 may pull ahead on this one. I think that the RX1 will remain with me, and force the sale of my beloved X100; I’m not sure what the point of two fixed-lens, 35mm focal length cameras is to be honest. So one of them has to move to a new home, and I think that someone is the X100. I reserve judgement for when I get the fixed X100 back, along with the new firmware, which is supposed to improve the function of the camera a good bit. But as of now, the X100 has a bit of catching up to do.