Sony RX1R Review- The Ultimate 35mm Compact?

Overview

This is a review of Sony RX1R mark 1, not the newer, more powerful, and much more expensive RX1R mark 2. I know what you are thinking: why review a camera that is more than 3 years old. Well first of all, the brand new units of this camera are still available on the market, which means it is not yet obsolete. Secondly, its 24MP full frame CMOS sensor is still very relevant today. For these reasons, this camera is still worth a look, especially for those looking for ultimate image quality in a very compact package. 

The RX1R is a high end compact camera sporting a fixed 35mm f/2 lens made by Zeiss and a full frame 24MP Exmor CMOS sensor.  Unlike its sibling, the original RX1, RX1R does not have an optical low-pass filter, also known as the anti-aliasing filter.  It does not have a built-in viewfinder, but an external optical viewfinder (OVF) or an electronic viewfinder (EVF) can be purchased separately. The main differences between mark 1 and mark 2 are: The mark 2 has an industry leading 42MP full frame sensor, a variable optical low-pass filter ( you can choose to turn the AA filter on and off), and a built-in pop up EVF. The auto focus speed is also much improved on the mark 2 as it has hybrid AF with 399 phase detect points.  The build quality is very high as it feels very solid in your hand. I would say the build quality is definitely higher than my Fujis, but the Fujis have much better handling and ergonomics. 

The Zeiss OVF helps with the framing, but the EVF will probably make more sense

The Zeiss OVF helps with the framing, but the EVF will probably make more sense

The 35mm Perspective

I see the world in 35mm, it is a focal length I cannot live without. With a wider lens, my world feels distorted, and with a longer lens, my world feels too closed in. I am perfectly fine with a fixed lens camera as long as it is 35mm. That is why I got on so well with the Fuji X100S. The X100S was truly a great camera made by photographers for photographers, but I was always intrigued by the Sony RX1/RX1R's image quality, high dynamic range, and performance under low light.  So I finally picked up a nice second hand unit at a local store, and I wanted to share my thoughts after using it for 3 months. 

Let's start with my favourite part of the camera, that 35/f2 Zeiss Sonnar lens! This is quite possibly the best lens I've ever used, and it is worth the price of admission alone. It is ultra sharp across the frame from corner to corner and it is perfectly mated to the Exmor CMOS full frame sensor.  The image quality that I get from the RAW files absolutely blows me away. 

High ISO Performance and Low Light Shooting

The High ISO performance is simply amazing. There is minimal noise even at ISO 6400, the below images were all taken at ISO ranging from 2000 to 12800 (click to enlarge image size).  At ISO 12800, noise starts to creep in but the files are still usable. This is by far the best high ISO performance I've seen from any camera. It is also great for hand held night photography, the AF will hunt quite a bit in low light, but when you nail it, the result is stunning.

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

ISO 2000

ISO 2000

ISO 12800

ISO 12800

Macro Photography and Bokeh

I rarely use macro mode on most cameras, but the RX1R macro mode is actually quite useful. You can get some nice shallow depth of field shots when you do close-ups. And if you are a food photographer, you will really appreciate this feature. You do not need to press a button to activate the macro mode, you simply turn the distance ring on the lens to 0.2m- 0.35m. The key is to remember to switch back to infinity when you are done with macro shots. The following shots were all taken in macro mode and all of them were either shot wide open at f2 or at f2.8. 

Conclusion

So who exactly is this camera for? While it may appear to be a good camera for street photographers, it would not be my choice for street work.  The AF is slow and there's the difficulty with zone focusing, the camera resets the distance to infinity after restarting from sleep mode, so you are likely to miss the "Decisive Moment".  I'm sure the much improved AF on mark 2 will help in this department, but the zone focusing issue remains. Can you make it work? Yes if you try hard, but I'm not a believer in that. I believe the camera should work for you, not the other way around. This camera clearly was designed without any input from street photographers. 

In my opinion, this camera is a perfect travel companion, you not only get to travel light, but also have a full frame camera capable of unbelievable image quality at your disposal.  If you want to take great pictures of landmarks and cityscape when you are on vacation, this camera is for you.  If you like to do environmental portraits and food photography, this camera is for you. So is this the best 35mm fixed lens camera? That depends on what type of photography you do. Personally speaking, this camera does not offer an organic shooting experience and work flow, the images are a little too clean and too clinical, it's missing something, some soulfulness for the lack of a better word. I applaud Sony's effort for coming up with this engineering marvel, it's just too bad in the end the camera feels more like an electronic gadget than a photographic tool.