Sony RX1 Review
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Sony RX1 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Slightly higher than average default saturation, with about average hue accuracy.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links to compare ISOs.|
Skin tones. The Sony RX1 produces fairly natural Caucasian skin tones that are slightly oversaturated when white balance is adjusted for the lighting. Lighter skin tones are pinkish, though darker areas are nudged toward yellow and orange. Still, pretty good results. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. Like many cameras, the Sony RX1 pushes cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts are minor to moderate. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an average "delta-C" color error of 5.66 after correction for saturation, the RX1's JPEG hue accuracy is about average at base ISO, falling slightly as ISO increases. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony RX1 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels. Saturation also had little effect on contrast, which is how it should work.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with five of the seven saturation settings, including the default and the two extremes. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm cast with Auto, slightly warm with Incandescent, good with Manual, and a touch cool with Kelvin white balance settings. Average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance is overly warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting and a little disappointing given the camera's price point. Results with the Incandescent setting are better but still a touch warm and orange/yellow. The Manual setting is fairly accurate, though it has a slightly green bias. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which should match the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool, bluish image. The Sony RX1 required +0.3 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is about average for this shot. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Very good performance in harsh daylight lighting.
|Manual White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony RX1 performed very well in our tests. +0.7 EV exposure compensation was required to keep the mannequins's face bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV, so the RX1's performance here is typical. Contrast is a little high as it usually is under such harsh lighting, but the RX1 did a great job of holding onto detail in both the shadows and bright highlights, even without the help of Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO). Color balance is good with Manual white balance, though Auto WB resulted in skin tones that were a little too orange.
Default exposure is fair in our Far-field shot, just a touch underexposed but with almost no highlights blown, again with DRO disabled. The RX1 produced some very dark shadows in the foliage and branches, but the camera kept the main subject well exposed. (With DRO enabled by default, overall exposure is quite good.) The Far-field shot with Auto white balance produced very good, vibrant color, just a touch on the cool side. Overall, a very good performance in harsh lighting, especially considering DRO was off for these shots.
Very high resolution, ~2,700 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, up to about 2,800 lines from raw files.
|Strong detail to
~2,700 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
~2,700 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
~2,750 lines horizontal
ACR converted RAW
|Strong detail to
~2,800 lines vertical
ACR converted RAW
In-camera Extra Fine JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart reveal sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,700 lines per picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions. Some may argue for higher numbers, but aliasing artifacts start to interfere at this resolution. Complete extinction of the pattern doesn't occur until about 3,400 to 3,600 lines, though. Adobe Camera Raw was able to extract perhaps 100 lines more of resolution here from matching raw files, but produced more obvious color moiré making it difficult to judge. (The Sony RX1 seems to have a fairly weak anti-alias filter, so it appears to be a little more susceptible to color moiré than the average camera.)
Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Excellent detail, with only minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Very good detail in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
|Excellent definition of high-contrast
elements with only minor
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony RX1 captures sharp, crisp images with phenomenal detail. There are only minor edge enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects such as small sharpening halos around larger tree branches and pine cones in the image above left. Fine detail in the smaller branches and pine needles show very little edge enhancement, and excellent definition. Really great results here. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows fairly mild noise suppression in the darker areas of the mannequin's hair. While a number of low-contrast strands are smudged together especially in the shadows, results here are very good, especially given the conservative levels of sharpening. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
Aliasing Artifacts. As mentioned previously, the Sony RX1 captures sharp images with excellent detail, but is a little more susceptible to moiré and other aliasing artifacts than most cameras, thanks to its sharp lens and what appears to be a weak optical low-pass filter.
As you can see in the crop on the right, false colors and moiré are quite visible in the window shade and even in the brick wall of our Far Field shots. (Click on the crop to access the full resolution image.) We've also seen aliasing artifacts in some of our studio shots, and in some of our gallery shots. We don't think it's a deal-breaker, but it is something to be aware of especially if you shoot a lot of man-made subjects with repeating patterns, such as buildings, fabrics, etc. Techniques than can be used to reduce or avoid false colors and moiré patterns include shooting at a smaller aperture so that lens diffraction acts as an anti-alias filter, defocusing slightly, shooting at higher ISOs, and post-processing particularly with raw files.
Raw vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony RX1 offers fantastic detail straight out of the camera. As is often the case, though, a bit more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing raw files with a good converter, as can be seen below.
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include (from left to right): an in-camera Extra Fine JPEG, the similar raw file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter version 4.2 software at default settings, and the same raw file converted with Adobe Camera Raw, then sharpened in Photoshop using unsharp mask at 300% with radius 0.3.
As you can see, the Sony IDC conversion at default settings is oversharpened compared to the in-camera JPEG, however fine detail is a little more distinct. (Color rendering is also slightly different.) The Adobe Camera Raw conversion shows the most detail while keeping sharpening artifacts to a minimum, but it also reveals a bit of noise in flat areas such as the sky. Noise levels at base ISO are however so low that it's not in the least objectionable. Bottom line, the Sony RX1 can produce images that compete with the best full-frame DSLRs when working from raw files, in a form factor that's not much larger than a pocket camera. Truly remarkable!
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good noise versus detail performance up to ISO 3,200.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 50||ISO 100||ISO 200|
|ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1,600|
|ISO 3,200||ISO 6,400||ISO 12,800|
ISOs 50 through 400 are very clean and almost identical in terms of noise. At ISO 400, we do see a touch of softening due to noise reduction, but images still have excellent detail. ISOs 800 and 1,600 show progressively less detail along with incremental levels of noise, however fine detail remains very good. ISO 3,200 shows a slightly larger decline in image quality with more visible luma noise and noise reduction artifacts, though detail is still quite good and chroma noise well controlled. ISO 6,400 starts to look a little grainy on screen, with stronger luma noise and more obvious sharpening artifacts, though there's a moderate amount of fine detail left intact. ISO 12,800 and especially 25,600 images contain quite a bit of luma noise and much stronger noise reduction obliterating fine detail. There's also a lot of chroma noise in the form of purple and yellowish blotches, particularly in shadows. Saturation and exposure also drop at ISO 6,400 and above, though a drop in saturation is quite common at high ISOs.
Overall, though, you won't find better high ISO performance at such a high resolution in such a small package. As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.
|Multi-frame Noise Reduction|
|Default NR, 1/2,000s, ISO 12,800||Multi-frame NR, 1/2,000s, ISO 12,800|
Multi-frame Noise Reduction. This feature is similar to Sony's Hand-held Twilight mode which shoots a burst of six images with a single press of the shutter button and combines all six images into one composite image with reduced noise. But unlike Hand-held Twilight, Multi-frame NR gives you control over the ISO, aperture and shutter speed used, so you may still need to use a tripod depending on the exposure parameters you select. As you can see above, the image captured with Multi-frame Noise Reduction (right) is cleaner than the standard image (left) despite both being shot at ISO 12,800, but it's also a bit softer. Multi-frame NR images do look better with some extra sharpening applied, though, and an added bonus is that up to ISO 102,400 equivalent is available for JPEGs (raw files are not supported).
High ISO NR = "Off"
High ISO NR = "Normal"
Noise Reduction Oddity. The Sony RX1's "Off" High ISO NR setting smudges the red leaf pattern in our Still Life target much more than the "Normal" or "Low" settings at higher ISOs. The Normal setting does reduce both chroma and luma noise compared to the Off setting, though, as can be seen in the lower crops. We've seen similar behavior with older Sony models such as the A55/A35/A33 and NEX-5/3, as well as with the new Sony A99, unfortunately.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony RX1 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the +0.7 EV exposure here, as the +0.3 EV exposure is a touch dim in the face and the +1.0 EV is a bit too bright. Contrast is a little high as it usually is in this shot, but both highlight and shadow detail are very good. Despite the bright appearance, very few highlights were blown in the mannequin's shirt and face at +0.7 EV, though the red channel is clipped in some of the flowers as is often the case, and specular highlights were lost where you'd expect clipping. There are virtually no lost shadows which is also very good, though very deep shadows are posterized. However, that's not really an issue except perhaps for those trying to recover a severely underexposed image.
For best results, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible. See below for results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
Dynamic Range Analysis
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Sony RX1 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At the base ISO of 100 (the optimal ISO) with DRO and HDR settings turned off, the graph shows 11 f-stops of total dynamic range, with 8.48 f-stops at the "High" Quality level. Roll-off of the tone curve at the highlight end is gradual meaning clipping won't be abrupt, but the shadow end of the curve ends quite abruptly and the steps get rather spread out, indicative of a tendency of the deepest shadows to break up into discrete levels (posterization) if you try to brighten them too much. Overall, though, these are are very good results for a camera JPEG, though not quite as good as the best performing full-frame models to date. (The Nikon D600 for example managed 9.12 f-stops at the highest quality level, while yielding the same total dynamic range score.) Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
Raw. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a raw (.ARW) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting, then manually tweaking from there. As can be seen, the score at the highest quality only increased an insignificant amount, from 8.48 to 8.56 f-stops compared to the in-camera JPEG, though total dynamic range increased significantly by almost two f-stops from 11 to 12.8. These results are excellent, though not quite as good as the best performers these days at the highest quality level. (The Nikon D600 managed 10.5 f-stops at the highest quality level, though total dynamic range was similar at 13.1 f-stops which is essentially identical given the margin of error in this test.) Overall, though, excellent dynamic range scores from the Sony RX1's raw files.
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony RX1's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the Sony RX1 did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, while maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. Overall, very good results here.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows five of the seven contrast setting, including the default and two extremes. It's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it doesn't affect color saturation very much. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well.
Outdoor Portrait DRO Comparison
Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony RX1. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of all levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with +0.3 EV exposure compensation. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and associated histograms, the Auto DRO setting boosted shadows and mid-tones a bit without blowing additional highlights, and the five manual levels give you a good bit of control over the effect for tricky lighting like this.
Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field shot. The default Auto setting produced a nicely balanced exposure by opening up the shadows, despite the harsh lighting. Very good job here.
High Dynamic Range. The Sony RX1's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed , one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. For best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures.
Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the Auto setting produced results very similar to the 2 EV manual setting. The higher the manual setting, the more highlights were toned-down and shadows opened up, but higher settings can produce flat and unnatural results with this scene.
Above, you can see the effect of HDR settings on our Far-field shot. Watch out for ghosting from subject movement during the capture sequence, though, as can be seen in some of the shots above.
Low Light. The Sony RX1 performed very well in our low light test, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 3,200, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise and some blotchy chroma noise.
Auto white balance did a very good job here producing a nearly neutral color balance, just slightly on the cool side at most ISOs and light levels, though there's a small shift towards red at lower ISOs and light levels.
We didn't detect any significant issues with hot pixels and only a slight hint of horizontal banding is visible at the highest ISOs, though a small amount of heat blooming is present at the bottom of the frame at the highest ISOs and lowest light levels.
We've included a column showing Sony's Multi-frame Noise Reduction feature at one foot-candle in the above table. ISO 50 isn't supported, but the feature extends ISO equivalents to 102,400. If you compare MFNR images to their standard counterparts in the first column, you will see they contain much lower levels of noise at higher ISOs (multiple images are merged together to average out noise), but they're also just a touch soft from the averaging process, particularly at very high ISOs. Images at ISOs 51,200 and 102,400 are still pretty noisy, though, and they show noticeable banding (pattern noise) as well as heat blooming (reddish tint emanating from the bottom of the frame). Still, a very nice feature when you need to shoot static subjects handheld in low light.
The Sony RX1's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to well below the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted, and in complete darkness with its built-in focus assist lamp enabled. Focusing speed does slow down dramatically below 1/16 fc, but it's nice to know you can still autofocus in extremely low light with the RX1. Excellent results here.
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their larger sensors, compact system cameras like the Sony RX1 tend to do better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
Wow...gorgeous printed images across the ISO spectrum. With the Sony RX1 and a good printer, your walls will run out of room!
ISO 400 looks great at 24 x 36 with only minor softening in our red swatch, and makes an excellent wall display print at 36 x 48.
ISO 800 yields a sharp 20 x 30, with crisp detail and again only minor softening in the red channel. Capable of wall prints up to 30 x 40.
ISO 1,600 prints look very good at 16 x 20, with nice detail and color renditioning for ISO 1600, even slightly out-performing its DSLR brother the A99 here by one print size. Capable of a nice 24 x 36 inch wall display, which really is remarkable at this ISO.
ISO 3,200 makes a nice 13 x 19 inch print, if just slightly grainy in some of the flat, shadowy areas of our target. Excellent prints here at 11 x 14, with a usable wall print at 16 x 20.
ISO 6,400 prints well at 8 x 10, which is yet again excellent for this ISO. 11 x 14s are quite usable with some minor softness in some areas and a mild "film grain" look in others.
ISO 12,800 prints a crisp 5 x 7, with generally nice detail and only minor softness in our red swatch.
ISO 25,600 capable of a nice 4 x 6 print, and a usable 5 x 7, with amazing color for such a high ISO.
Summary: Does it say anything revealing about a camera's printed image quality that when we printed an 8 x 10 at ISO 6,400, looked at it with amazement, and naturally assumed we must have somehow made a mistake and were in reality looking at ISO 400 instead? That's what happened in several cases while printing the RX1's images. Its shots inspire a real "wow" factor, especially for this camera's price range and small size in comparison to cameras with rival image quality. It is in the running for our 2012 Camera Of The Year; by the time this full review goes to print we wouldn't be surprised if we'd already crowned it the victor, and for good reason!
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.