Sony RX1R Review
Shooter's Report by William Brawley
With the introduction of the new Sony RX1R full-frame compact camera -- a "Special Edition" of the award-winning Sony RX1 full-frame compact camera -- the company has attempted what not long ago seemed impossible. After all, the combination of the Cyber-shot RX1's exquisite 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens and powerful full-frame sensor captured images that appeared virtually unbeatable in its class.
However, by removing the optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter to maximize per-pixel sharpness and by tweaking the image processing accordingly, Sony has indeed improved the camera's imaging capabilities (see our Image Quality Analysis below). The added red capital "R" in RX1R emblazoned on the front of the camera definitively heralds the new model's purpose: Resolution, Resolution, Resolution.
In all other aspects -- save for the RX1R's upgraded HDMI connection that now supports Sony's Triluminos Color TV technology -- the two cameras are identical. Like its near-twin, the RX1R boasts a 24-megapixel, full-frame sensor and a bright, sharp 35mm f/2 lens that are housed in a lightweight and compact, almost-pocketable body. Even the price is the same: a whopping, but well-worth-it $2,800.
The user interface and features of the RX1R are identical to those on the Sony RX1. Read our full Sony RX1 review to see why we named it our 2012 Camera of the Year!
Shooting with the Sony RX1R
by William Brawley
There's nothing much new to say about the Sony RX1R enthusiast, fixed-focal-length-lens compact camera in terms of its usability. If you've shot with an RX1, then for all intents and purposes you've shot with an RX1R. This is good news, given how much we liked the flexibility of the RX1's user interface and its various features. (Read our RX1 review to learn why.) The only difference between these two models is that Sony removed the optical low-pass filter on the new model and improved the JPEG processing. The RX1R features the same compact, high-quality metal body and the sharp Zeiss 35mm f/2 fixed lens as its filtered fraternal twin. Operationally, these two cameras are identical and cosmetically as well, except for that painted red "R" on the front of the RX1R in addition to the model name change on the back.
Doing away with the optical low-pass filter (OLPF) on the RX1R does produce sharper, more detailed images, although the difference is less evident in its RAW files than most people will perhaps be expecting. We've seen other manufacturers offer two versions of the same camera, with and without the OLPF, and charge more for the filterless version. Sony is allowing customers to choose the best camera for their needs by offering the RX1R at the same price as the RX1, which we think is a smart move.
The Sony RX1R's full-frame sensor and 35mm Carl Zeiss f/2 lens make a great combo for sharp and vibrantly colored photos.
Design. In the hand, the RX1R is a very solid camera with excellent build quality. Like the RX1, it's very impressive that Sony managed to cram a 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor into such a small body, and it makes the RX1 and RX1R a pair of very unique cameras. These two Sony models produce stunningly high quality images in a very portable form factor, all for a fraction of the cost of a Leica M. While the RX1/RX1R isn't exactly pocketable in the truest sense of the word, you can still stash it away safely in a jacket.
Lens and operation. The fast f/2 Zeiss lens is impressive optically, and thanks to the large sensor and wide f/2 aperture, the RX1R performs phenomenally well in low-light scenarios, as well as creates fantastic shallow depth-of-field imagery. As we saw in the RX1, the (semi-)manual aperture ring is a cool touch that gives the RX1R a bit of a retro edge. I say semi-manual because the aperture can also be electronically controlled by the camera when in other exposure modes such as Program Auto or Shutter Priority (in those modes, the aperture ring does not change the aperture).
Performance. The autofocusing performance of the RX1R is overall excellent. In good lighting or with higher contrast subjects, the RX1R can lock focus very quickly -- even when racking from near to far subjects. Also, when focusing and re-focusing on similar subjects at similar distances, the RX1R proved to be lightning quick. I did find, however, that it can be a bit on the sluggish side and prone to hunting when autofocusing on lower-contrast subjects.
Use. Given its small size, sturdy build quality and excellent image quality and large print sizes, the RX1R is an ideal travel and hiking camera for fans of street and travel photography, as well as for landscapes. If you can live with the single focal length (forcing you to "zoom with your feet"), I definitely see the RX1R as a worthy DSLR alternative -- and easily as a second camera (albeit an expensive one!) for everyday shooting.
The compact size and fast, wide-angle lens makes the Sony RX1R perfect camera for street shooters and those simply looking to carry a high-quality camera with them at all times.
More moiré. While shooting with the RX1R should allow you to produce some strikingly sharp photos, there is one major downside to the lack of an OLPF: moiré. As expected, the RX1R shows an obvious increase in moiré and aliasing artifacts over the RX1. Users of cameras like the RX1R should be careful shooting certain subjects such as finely-patterned fabrics, metal mesh grates and tables, or windows screens.
Interestingly, the effect of moiré is much more noticeable in RAW images compared to in-camera JPEGs. We were rather impressed by the JPEG processing of the RX1R and its ability to almost completely remove moiré in many situations, although you're absolutely going to encounter it sooner or later. In the table below, we compare the moiré effects of the RX1R against the RX1, as well as point out the differences between RAW (processed through Adobe Camera Raw, with no sharpening or noise reduction applied) and in-camera JPEG files.
Stellar JPEGs. As you may know, we loved the Sony RX1 so much we named it our 2012 Camera of the Year. (In fact, it's one of our all-time favorite cameras, out of all we've reviewed.) And any claims of improvement to such an awesome photographic tool commanded our full attention.
|Sony RX1R - Image quality comparisons vs. Sony RX1 at base ISO|
|Sony RX1 at ISO 100 (JPEG)|
|Sony RX1R at ISO 100 (JPEG)|
While there seems to be a bigger sharpness increase from the removal of the RX1's low-pass filter than we've seen in other cameras, the difference is at times more subtle.
|Sony RX1 (above)|
|Sony RX1R (above)|
In this shot, the differences are probably most readily apparent in the grain of the large knot above the person's left foot, and in the texture of their shoes and shoelaces.
The following comparison shots prove that landscape photographers may want to consider choosing the RX1R over the RX1 -- especially if they prefer shooting JPEGs. In fact, Sony told us that landscape photographers were likely to be the No. 1 audience for the RX1R.
Here are a pair of 1:1 detailed crops of the above images that showcase the astonishing difference between the two cameras' JPEG images.
|Sony RX1 1:1 crop (above)|
|Sony RX1R 1:1 crop (above)|
Now this is dramatic. Not only is the RX1R image very noticeably sharper, but there's radically more definition in the foliage, from highlights through shadows.
The increased sharpness and definition in these shots can be attributed to improved JPEG production, but we think some of it is also the result of how the increased detail in the RX1R's images interacts with its noise-reduction algorithms.
We've seen this sort of thing very often in digicams that are limited by poor lenses: With lower amounts of fine subject detail in areas of subtle contrast, the noise reduction algorithms tend to assume that the remaining local tonal variations are probably noise, and further smudge what detail remains. There's no question of the lens limiting the RX1's performance here, but the effect of the low-pass filter could be much the same. With more fine detail arriving from the sensor, the RX1R's image processing trusts that what it's seeing is actual subject detail, and so refrains from flattening the foliage into impressionistic blobs.
A sharper camera is always nice, but conversely, the pair of shots below actually illustrate why it may not make as much difference as you'd think to many shooters. As noted earlier, the sharper the camera the shallower the effective depth of field for any given aperture. This means that for three-dimensional objects relatively close to the camera and at reasonable apertures, only a relatively small slice of your subject is going to be in focus enough to take advantage of all that resolution.
The RAW deal. Given the obvious superiority of the RX1R's JPEG images, we were surprised that differences in the two cameras' RAW images were much more subtle. In fact, unless you're pixel-peeping to the extreme, it can be very difficult to see any appreciable increase in detail and sharpness in the RX1R images. In the table below, we examined the RAW versions of one of our still test shots from both cameras, running them through Adobe Camera Raw 8.2, and did not apply any sharpening or noise reduction.
In the second pass, we then applied an equal amount of sharpening in Photoshop using Unsharp Mask, with a radius of 0.3 and a strength of 350. In these comparisons, there is still a subtle yet noticeable increase in fine detail in the RX1R images, but nothing approaching what we saw in the JPEGs.
Image quality summary. Compared to the original RX1, the Sony RX1R was supposed to show a dramatic improvement in image sharpness and detail due to the removal of the optical low-pass filter. And the newer model definitely makes some dramatic gains when shooting JPEGs. However, we saw only subtle differences in RAW images. The RAWs from the RX1R only show a tiny bit more detail without any post-processing applied. Even with an equal helping of Unsharp Masking in Photoshop applied to the RAW images from both cameras, the RX1R still didn't demonstrate a significant advantage over the RX1 unless you pixel-peeped very closely.
Sony RX1R Print Quality
Take the gorgeous prints from the RX1's JPEGs and bump them up a full print size at most ISOs and you have the RX1R, which delivers image quality good enough to make most printers blush.
ISO 400 images are terrific at 30 x 40 inches with excellent detail, and wall display prints available up to 40 x 60.
ISO 800 yields a sharp 24 x 36 inch print, amazing detail for this size and ISO, with virtually no apparent noise and only mild softening in the red channel. Wall display prints look good here at 36 x 48 inches.
ISO 1,600 prints look very good at 20 x 30, with only minor noise apparent in some flatter areas from default noise reduction processing. We usually don't mention wall display prints by this ISO, but it is fair to mention that 30 x 40s are quite usable here.
ISO 3,200 makes a good 16 x 20 inch print, which is super large for ISO 3,200, exhibiting only minor noise and some mild softening in reds.
ISO 6,400 prints are quite good at 11 x 14, again with only minor noise in a few areas, and 8 x 10 prints here are excellent.
ISO 12,800 produces an excellent 5 x 7 for this ISO, and even a usable 8 x 10 for less critical applications, still retaining full color spectrum output.
ISO 25,600 is capable of a good 5 x 7, which is rarified air for this ISO.
We used the term "wow factor" in describing the Sony RX1's printed images, so what term do we use now that the RX1R comes in at a full print size higher at almost every ISO -- wowie zowie? We have seen good 5 x 7s at ISO 12,800 with several higher-end cameras that certainly caught our eye, but very few have been excellent at such a high ISO as we see here. If you are considering stepping up from an RX1, or are debating which of the two to buy, you'll have to weigh your own photographic priorities: Do you need even higher print sizes (from JPEGs) or is it more important to keep moiré at bay?
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Sony Cyber-shot RXR1 camera
- Lithium-ion battery NP-BX1
- AC Adapter AC-UD11
- Micro USB cable
- Shoulder strap
- Lens cap
- Shoe cap
- Cleaning cloth
- Instruction manual
- Large capacity SDHC/SDXC memory card. 16GB Class 10 should be a minimum.
- RX1 Leather jacket case (~US$250)
- Extra rechargeable battery pack (~US$50)
- Standalone battery charger (~US$50)
- RX1 Accessory Kit (battery, charger and cable) (~US$70)
- RX1 Optical viewfinder (~US$600)
- RX1 Electronic viewfinder (~US$450)
- RX1 Lens hood (~US$180)
- External flash
Sony RX1R Conclusion
Like its near-twin, the Sony RX1R is a fantastic full-frame, compact camera with a fixed 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens that delivers image quality rivaling what you'd get from most full-frame DSLRs (including pro models!).
So, should you buy the Sony RX1R or the RX1? Let's make it clear -- you really can't go wrong with either camera. They're both exceptional and they cost the same. But if obtaining the highest possible resolution and image quality in a compact is your goal -- especially if you often shoot JPEGs -- and you're willing to risk the chance of additional moiré, then the RX1R is clearly your choice. If you don't want to deal with potentially more moiré, then the RX1 is the safer bet.
For current RX1 owners, much of the improved sharpness of the RX1R's JPEGs could eventually be applied to the earlier model through a firmware upgrade. Sony's shown a good track record of continuing to update firmware in older models, so perhaps there's some hope that the greatly improved JPEG processing of the RX1R could make its way to the RX1. There are no promises on this, of course, but it'd be a smart move for Sony to make, further endearing them to their high-end users.
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