Sony RX1 Review

 
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Sony RX1 Video Recording

If you've even skimmed our Sony RX1 review, you'll know that we're wild about its abilities as a camera for still photography. Given that Sony has been in the video business for a long time, and has delivered great video performance on many of their recent still camera models, though, it came as an unpleasant surprise to us that the RX1 wasn't similarly capable in the video area. Its DSLR brother the A99 got high marks from us in the video department, as did its little brother, the much lower priced RX100, but despite all that, the plain fact is that the RX1 is nearly unusable as a good video camera, because its autofocus tracks painfully slowly, if at all. So unless you're planning on using manual focus exclusively (which would be difficult at best with a camera this size and using the LCD as your guide), we just don't think the RX1 makes the grade for video in most instances.

We aim to be thorough, however, so for anyone interested in learning more about the RX1's video capabilities, below are the basic specs as well as our usual battery of tests.

Sony RX1 Basic Video Specs

  • 1,920 x 1,080 (Full HD), 1,440 x 1,080 (Anamorphic HD) and 640 x 480 (VGA) recording
  • MPEG-4 AVC/ H.264 compression, either High Profile (AVCHD) for Full HD, or Main Profile for lower-res video
  • AVCHD recorded at 60p, 60i or 24p on NTSC models; 50p, 50i or 25p on PAL models
  • MPEG-4 1,440 x 1,080 recorded at 30p on NTSC models, 25p on PAL models; VGA is 30p regardless of region.
  • Full-time autofocus during video recording, with continuous AF tracking, although in our test this performed very poorly. Manual focus is also available, although there's no option for a magnified MF-assist view.
  • Dedicated Movie Mode
    • Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Full Manual exposure modes in Movie Mode.
  • Stereo audio recording via built-in microphones, with available external microphone jack
  • Optional digital image stabilization only
  • Up to 4x digital zoom is available, which can be adjusted before and during recording
  • Adjustable White Balance
  • Creative Styles tone presets and Picture Effect image styles available in video recording

Sony RX1 Video: Image Size, Frame Rate, and Encoding

The Sony RX1 records at three different video resolutions, and can record high-definition movies in either AVCHD (2.0) or MPEG-4 formats. Stereo audio is recorded during movie capture, encoded as Dolby Digital (AC-3) for AVCHD and AAC-LC for MPEG-4.

The table below shows the specs for various video recording options:

Sony RX1 Video Options
AVCHD Format (.MTS files)
Menu Designation
Resolution
Frame Rate
Approx. Bitrate
60i / 50i 24M (FX)
1,920 x 1,080
(16:9 aspect ratio)
59.94i / 50i
24 Mbps
60i / 50i 17M (FH)
59.94i / 50i
17 Mbps
60p / 50p 28M (PS)
59.94p / 50p
28 Mbps
24p / 25p 24M (FX)
23.97p / 25p
24 Mbps
24p / 25p 17M (FH)
23.97p / 25p
17 Mbps
MPEG-4 Format (.MP4 files)
Menu Designation
Resolution
Frame Rate
Approx. Bitrate
1440x1080 12M
1,440 x 1,080
(16:9 aspect ratio, 1.33:1 aspect rectangular pixels)
29.97p
12 Mbps
VGA 3M
640 x 480
(4:3 aspect ratio)
29.97p
3 Mbps

As stated above, the RX1 offers the choice of three video recording formats, although the choice of format is made for you, depending on whether you're shooting at Full HD or a lower resolution. The RX1's Full HD video is recorded using the newer AVCHD 2.0 format, which is based upon MPEG-4 AVC / H.264 High Profile compression. At 1,440 x 1,080 pixels or below, the RX1 still uses MPEG-4 AVC / H.264 compression, but abiding by the Main Profile type. The High Profile compression scheme produces better video quality than Main Profile. Note that 1,440 x 1,080 mode uses rectangular pixels (1.33:1), so movies are 16:9 aspect ratio, despite pixel dimensions that would suggest a 4:3 ratio. Compared to AVCHD, the regular MPEG-4 files are a bit less efficient in their use of memory card space for a given image quality level, but are more widely supported, and are often a bit easier for older computers to play. Continuous movie recording is limited to approximately 29 minutes regardless of file format, and the maximum movie file size is 2GB. Sony recommends use of at least a Class 4 Secure Digital card, or a Memory Stick Pro Duo Mark 2 / Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo card to avoid issues with write speeds during video capture.

Sony RX1: Video Samples
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 60 frames per second, (PS) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Interlaced, 60 fields per second, (FX) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 24 frames per second, (FX) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 60 frames per second, (PS) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 24 frames per second, (FX) mode, ISO 2000
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 30 frames per second, ISO 2000, normal shutter mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 30 frames per second, ISO 2000, auto slow shutter mode
Download Original


Sony RX1 Continuous Autofocus Tracking

As we stated in our overview of the RX1, continuous AF (which is only available in video mode) is virtually useless. In our testing, it rarely tracked moving objects, even very slow-moving ones, and when it did manage to acquire focus it did so painfully slowly. This was a little hard to believe; perhaps our human features and clothing were just too subtle for the camera to lock focus on -- would higher contrast and sharp detail help?

We tried carrying the large black and white focus target we use in our AF-tracking car tests with us, to give the AF system something really easy to focus on, and found that it helped in some shots but not others. The videos below show examples of both conditions. In the test with the subject -- senior tech Luke Smith, in all his sartorial splendor ;-) -- walking without the focus target, the camera never came close to tracking his motion. (Note how sharp the background detail remains as he approaches the camera and passes in front of it.) We even tried having him stop in front of the camera and waiting for the AF to finally catch up, but it did so only very occasionally. In the clip with the focus target, the RX1 did manage to track the subject sometimes, but it still wasn't 100%.

In earlier attempts at this test, the RX1 never locked onto the special focus target at all. (The conditions where it failed completely were a little different than those seen below, in that surrounding trees cast shadows on the subject as he moved through the scene. Changing shadows could confuse a contrast-detect AF system, but again, the subject was moving very slowly.) Some have remarked that Sony AF systems seem to have a fairly large focus area, and so sometimes focus on the background rather than the subject. In these walking tests, though, the camera never focused at all, even when the subject filled a large portion of the frame.

Do all RX1's show the same behavior? We strongly suspect this is the case; we checked two samples, the one Sony sent us to test, and one that senior tech Luke purchased for himself at retail. Neither passed the walking-subject test.

As noted in the feature list earlier, manual focus is also available in movie mode, but there's no magnified focus-assist view available to help you focus. It makes sense that such a mode wouldn't be available during video recording itself, but why not offer it before recording begins? With no magnified MF-assist view available in movie mode, manual focusing is a very hit-or-miss proposition. We hope Sony will provide a firmware update at some point that will enable a zoomed view (and focus peaking?) in movie mode, prior to the start of recording.

Sony RX1: Continuous Autofocus Tracking
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 30 frames per second, without test target
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 30 frames per second, with test target
Download Original


Sony RX1 Moiré Test & Rolling Shutter Artifacts ("Jello Effect")

As you can see from the test video below, moiré is also a significant issue with the RX1. It is quite evident throughout the test in many areas of the house, and while you may not always be shooting architectural objects, the issue is prominent enough to affect a lot of potential shooting situations, where any geometric patterns are present in the shot. To really get a feel for how prominent the issue is here, download the original, and you'll be able to see the effects in much greater clarity. Even on the compressed YouTube version, though, the moiré is obvious. In the first part of the clip, notice the roof at the top left, which takes on a shimmering effect, then observe the long portion of the gutter, which almost appears to ripple. In the full resolution original you can see additional examples in the brick patterns as well.

Sony RX1: Moiré Test
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD
, Progressive, 60 frames per second
Download Original

Almost all video-capable still cameras on the market distort moving objects, or the entire scene, if the camera is being panned quickly to some extent. The technical term for this is "rolling shutter artifacts," but many users simply call it the "Jello effect," because the image can jiggle and sway like Jello as the camera is moved. This occurs because the image is captured and read out line by line, so the bottom of an object may no longer be underneath the top of it by the time the camera gets around to capturing that part of the frame.

In the case of the RX1, rolling shutter artifacts are clearly present, but nowhere near as bad as we've seen with some cameras. The 30p MP4 and 24p AVCHD test videos showed more rolling shutter artifacts than the 60p AVCHD video, which is similar to what we've observed in other cameras. The higher frame rate helps reduce the rolling shutter effect.

There are plug-ins out there to fix rolling shutter when editing your footage on the computer, but software correction is not a surefire solution. It's simply something that you must keep in mind when moving the camera while recording video. If you just pan slowly while filming, you're not likely to notice it much at all.

Sony RX1: Rolling Shutter Artifacts
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 60 frames per second, (PS) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
AVCHD, Progressive, 24 frames per second, (FX) mode
Download Original
1,920 x 1,080
MP4, Progressive, 30 frames per second
Download Original


Sony RX1 Exposure Control

Recording screen

For more advanced shooters, the RX1 does offer full manual exposure adjustments, as well as the standard Program Auto, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes. While the RX1 lets you start recording video in any still image shooting mode, using the standard P, A, S and M modes for video is not as straight forward as simply turning the top control dial to the corresponding mode. There are video-specific Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual Exposure modes that must be activated from the "Fn" menu, and can only be activated if the top dial is set to Movie mode, as indicated below.

Movie Mode

Movie Mode. Be sure to rotate dial to this mode in order to use the full range of exposure modes for video recording.

For example, if you are using the regular Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual mode for still images, once video recording has begun, the shutter speed and aperture cannot be changed. Even if the aperture or shutter speed values are pre-selected prior to video recording, once recording has begun, the camera ignores those values and automatically adjusts them for a proper exposure. Casual video shooters will welcome this behavior, as it makes getting the proper exposure in video much easier, just point and record. More advanced users may be frustrated unless they read the manual (or this review), and rely upon the video-specific PASM options available only in movie mode.

Regardless of what mode the camera is in, users do have the ability to adjust the ISO sensitivity and the exposure compensation during video recording, although exposure compensation is reduced to +/-2 EV steps rather than the +/- 3 EV steps shown on the dial. Users are given the ability to change the white balance settings for video recording, metering mode (although there doesn't seem to be any effect on video exposure) and the Creative Styles color tones, such as Sepia, Black & White and Vivid. The various Picture Effects presets are also available in video mode.

Sony RX1 Image Stabilization

Sony's SteadyShot image stabilization technology is available during video recording with a simple On/Off toggle in the video menu. Note that stabilization is digital only, as the RX1 lacks any form of optical or mechanical image stabilization. It also induces a focal length crop of almost 1.2x for 16:9 video.

Sony RX1 Audio Recording

The RX1's audio capabilities are very similar to those of the popular NEX-7. The RX1 can record audio via an internal stereo microphone system comprised of two small mics on top of the camera on either side of the hot shoe mount. While we are not able to objectively test this, the theory behind the larger-than-normal separation of the left and right microphones is to provide a better stereo effect.

For the more advanced shooter wishing to use an external microphone, the RX1 has a 3.5mm microphone jack located on the left side of the camera. While these users might cheer at the inclusion of a mic jack, they'll soon grumble at the fact that there is no manual audio level control in the camera. The only audio options available are to disable audio recording altogether or to switch on a Wind Noise Reduction filter. It's also worth noting that there is no headphone jack for monitoring audio, either. This is a feature that is just starting to appear on higher-end video-capable still cameras, but video is clearly not the focus of the RX1. For more advanced audio recording features, the only choice for advanced shooters will be to use an external audio recorder and sync the audio track in post production.

Sony RX1 Recording/Playback User Interface

Video Menu

The RX1 makes quick, point-and-shoot video recording from any exposure mode very simple, by having a record button next to the thumb rest. As noted earlier, though, many of the exposure settings and adjustments are chosen for you automatically by the camera unless you're in the dedicated Movie Mode. In Movie Mode, there are video-specific Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes, that give users the ability to really fine-tune the look and feel of their videos. As in the still shooting modes, users can toggle through a wide variety of information overlays for the LCD screen both before and during video recording.

We were all set to praise the inclusion of the Manual Focus Assist (MF Assist) screen magnification and Focus Peaking features that appeared on the NEX-7 and NEX-6 models, but as noted earlier, these features ONLY work in still image modes on the RX1. When manually focusing in still image modes, simply rotate the focus ring on the lens, and the screen instantly magnifies for a nice, close up view allowing you to easily and accurately check your focus. The RX1 also features Focus Peaking. This option, which can be turned on and off in the menu system, displays a colored overlay on the surfaces and edges of the parts of your shot that are in focus. This feature makes it much easier to manually focus quickly and more accurately, since you can easily what part of your shot is in focus.

These would be very nice features for users wanting to manually focus when shooting video, but they are not available in RX1's Movie mode. Users are left to make a trade-off: A) access full exposure controls such as full Manual exposure by using Movie Mode, but forgo manual focusing, or B) have easier manual focusing capabilities prior to recording by using still image modes, but give up the flexibility of true PASM exposure options. (It should be noted here that both the NEX-6 and NEX-7 offer live focus peaking both before and during video recording. Why not on a camera selling for several times the price?) Even in still-image modes, while focus peaking is available prior to the start of video recording, it's turned off once recording begins.

Play Menu

Note that Sony's Direct Manual Focus (DMF) mode also does not work during video recording.

Image and video playback on the RX1 is the same, odd setup as on most of Sony's Alpha and NEX lineup. You can't view images and video in sequential order; you can either view photos or video, but not both. For example, suppose you shot some photos, then a couple videos, followed by a few more photos. Since a photo was the last file recorded, when you press the playback button, you'll be presented with just still images. When scrolling back through the files, it will appear to have skipped right over the video files you just captured. In order to see the video, you have to select the appropriate media format in the menu system of playback mode. Even the two video formats are in separate folders/categories that must be selected individually in order to review and playback.

Computer Requirements for Viewing HD Video

A typical computer these days has little trouble dealing with still images, but high-definition video can be another matter. Depending on the file format involved, it can take a pretty beefy computer to handle HD-resolution video playback without stuttering or dropping frames. The AVCHD image compression used by the Sony RX1 is one of the more compute-intensive formats, and its high maximum resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels resolution means there's a lot of data in each frame to deal with. The net result is that you'll need a reasonably recent computer to play the RX1's Full HD video files smoothly, and will want a pretty powerful machine for Full HD video editing.

You can of course view your movies on a high definition TV via the Micro HDMI (Type-D) output. If a standard-def TV is your only choice, though, you're out of luck, as the RX1 doesn't offer any form of standard-def video output connectivity.

 

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