How I Learned to Stop Loving the DSLR: Review of the Sony RX1

How I Learned to Stop Loving the DSLR: Review of the Sony RX1

Ever since I purchased my first DSLR in 2001, it’s been difficult to go back to a point-and-shoot camera because of the poor image quality. In the film days, there wasn’t as drastic a difference between SLR and point-and-shoot because all the cameras used 35mm film. The only gating factor was the lens. But sensor size in digital cameras has a profound effect on quality, and until recently, most digital point and shoots have had sensors the size of your thumbnail. And although the Fuji X100 of a few years ago had an APS-C sized sensor (a ginormous leap over the tiny point and shoots that preceded it), it still lacked the clarity of a DSLR.

So I was intrigued by the rumors, and then the formal announcement, of a full frame point-and-shoot camera known as the Sony RX1. Sony has been in the digital camera game for well over a decade, and even though they fabricate the chips for many Nikon cameras, they simply don’t have the market share with pros that the Big Two share. But having seen the quality of the Sony DSLRs, I wasn’t dissuaded. In late fall, I plunked down my pre-order for the RX1 in hopes that it would be the camera that released me from the chains of my DSLR.

I should preface this review by telling you how I use my cameras. I do take “professional” photos by the way of portraits, travel, and event photography. But the bulk of my photography is more casual in nature – photos of friends and my personal travel. Often these images occur in low light. Unlike an idealized condition where one could shoot at ISO100, I more likely find myself in a dimly lit bar trying to capture the interaction of friends. When I was younger, it was almost a badge of legitimacy to try to haul as much camera gear as possible in the largest and heaviest backpack I could find. But as I’ve gotten older, my back has protested, and I’ve honestly gotten tired of the 5 lbs of camera bulk that I’ve normally associated with taking a high fidelity image.

The RX1 is a 24MP fixed focal length 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss lens camera. You cannot remove the lens, and as such the optics are fantastic. Buttery bokeh and very little distortion/vignetting. It has a built-in flash which is surprisingly effective. It doesn’t come with a viewfinder, but does have an accessory shoe onto which you can attach an expensive optical or electronic viewfinder. The accessories, by the way, are ridiculously priced. But I suppose that’s par for the course for a first generation $2799 camera.

On December 16, 2012, I opened the RX1 box, and started shooting in earnest. And after shooting 3,500 frames, all the fears I had about a fixed focal length lens evaporated. I used my feet to “zoom”, and since I was never trying to take a traditional portrait (where a longer focal length would be appropriate), I never felt the lens was inadequate. Instead, I felt a sense of liberation that I had a single focal length – it was just one less parameter to worry about.

The image quality was no different than an DSLR, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the fact that the same sensor is featured in Sony’s top-of-the-line A99. Whether in bright light or dim light, the camera performed. Sure, the focus in dim light wasn’t the same as my D4, but it didn’t really matter. Let’s take a look (all images straight out of camera with auto white balance).

ISO 4000 f/2.0 at 1/80th

ISO 2500 f/2.2 at 1/80th

ISO 6400 f/2.2 at 1/80th

ISO 1000 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 6400 f/2 at 1/20th

ISO 100 f/2.5 at 1/125th

ISO 1600 f/2.5 at 1/80th

ISO 200 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 100 f/8 at 1/100th

ISO 6400 f/2 at 1/20th

ISO 6400 f/3.5 at 1/1.7th

ISO 400 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 6400 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 100 f/4 at 1/3200th

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/2000th

ISO 4000 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/1250th (face is dodged)

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/1250th

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/500th

ISO 100 f/5.6 at 1/1000th

ISO 100 f/2 at 1/125th

ISO 800 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 3200 f/2 at 1/80th

ISO 12800 f/2 at 1/20th

Here’s a full crop of the last image at ISO 12,800. There’s noise, but it’s pretty film-like.

And as a point of comparison, here’s a full crop from a Nikon D1X at ISO 3200. In other words, 16 times MORE light.

Chroma noise is much worse, and there’s a boatload more light. In other words, the sensor on the Sony RX1 is insane. Sure, if you’re gonna scrutinize an image at 12,800, you’re gonna have noise. But when you’re viewing images on the web, which is the predominant medium of image consumption, you can’t tell. Oh, and here’s a full crop at ISO100.

Yeah, clean as a whistle.

I’m not suggesting that the RX1 will replace my DSLR in the studio or for portraiture. Sometimes you need more resolution and more glass. But given that many photographers carried around 35mm primes on their cameras for years and made many iconic images, I feel more than comfortable using this as my everyday and travel camera. The best thing about this camera is that it’s simply of harbinger of great technology that’s coming our way in the next few years. So even if it’s not on your list for Santa now, its offspring could well be in your hands in the future. The future is f/2.0 bright.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Kate Smith (Retamoso) at 5:26 am

    Really excellent review! I shoot with a Sony a77 and I stand by my decision. As a photographer, I’ve had many the eyeroll towards my choice to go with a Sony DSLT over a Nikon or Canon equivalent, but now that everyone is starting to board the Sony ship, Im already there saying “See! I told you!” I believe Sony will become a very big player in the game, very soon.

  2. Allen Murabayashi Author at 9:32 am

    @vincent: focusing is decent in good light, and pretty slow in low light. the Fuji X100s looks much quicker for focusing, but i wouldn’t say that i’ve necessarily “lost” shots because of it. however, this is not a camera built for action unless you’re prefocusing.

    @aaron: i ordered the EVF viewfinder, but ended up canceling it. i’m kind of enjoying not “looking like a pro” by using the back display — even though i still pull the camera up to my face by habit.

  3. Bob at 5:04 am

    Hi Allen, I love your blog and your review of the RX1. I have one as well and I think it is amazing. The sharpness, bokeh-aji, and control scheme are top notch. The camera feels incredibly solid and just “works” to make beautiful photos. I’ve always been a prime shooter, so I love the fixed focal length. I’d love to see a RX2 with a 50mm lens next. AF isn’t lightning quick, but it’s definitely more than adequate. Picture quality in low light is incredible–agreed.

    Just a suggestion to you–all of your pics here have some significant barrel distortion. If you’re shooting JPEG out of the camera, you should turn your lens distortion correction on in the menu settings. It fixes most (but not all) of the distortion. If you shoot RAW, you can do this in post with Lightroom.

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