Sony RX1R II Field Test Part I

Big upgrades all around for Sony's super-premium compact

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f/2, 1/1000s, ISO 100

The super-premium compact gets super-upgraded

Ever since the first Sony RX1 debuted, I was curious about this "little" camera. Housing a comparably massive full-frame sensor into its nearly-pocketable compact body made my then-primary camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, look and feel ancient and downright gargantuan. For photography on the go -- traveling, hiking, around town, etc. -- I was drawn to the compactness as well as the full-frame image quality it provided.

On the other hand, the fixed 35mm lens was cause for some thought. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the 35mm focal length. In the right hands, however, images shot at 35mm can be downright stunning; it's just not for me and for what I like to shoot most of the time. The major factor, however, as to why I didn't jump to buy an RX1 right away was the price. It's flat-out expensive.

Now in its second generation -- combining the RX1 and specialized RX1R together -- the new Sony RX1R II maintains its stylist, compact design and 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens. However, on the inside, the camera packs a sizeable array of new features, new technologies and upgrades that should improve both performance and image quality.

With an MSRP of around $3,300, I can tell you right now, it's still way out of my budget. Nevertheless, who doesn't love playing with expensive things, even for just a little while? We were already thoroughly impressed with the original RX1 model, so let's dive in to see if Sony can make a great camera even greater…

f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 100, -0.3EV

Exterior design throws no surprises at first glance

Well, right off the bat, there's not much in the way of changes to the RX1R II's external design, shape or ergonomics, at least from a first glance. The first of two primary external changes is the tilting LCD screen that replaces the fixed screen of the original model. What's become almost a de-facto feature of digital cameras nowadays, the tilting screen will most certainly be helpful for shooting at awkward angles or when using a tripod. It's not a full 180-degree tilting screen, so it's not "selfie-friendly" -- but, in my opinion, that's a-okay.

Lack of a touchscreen is a bummer

Sadly, though, the screen does not have touch capabilities. While that might be a relief or simply of no concern to some, I've become quite fond of a tap-to-focus feature, in particular, seen on many touchscreen-capable cameras. Navigating menus with the touchscreen on cameras can be frustrating, and I usually avoid doing so, but having the ability to instantly adjust your focus point with a simple tap is very handy.

Like many modern LCD screens, the RX1R II's is bright and crisp. The panel also works well in sunny conditions outdoors. The LCD appears to be an air-gapless design, where the LCD panel itself is placed right up next to the glass surface, which helps reduce glare problems.

All hail the glorious pop-up EVF!

The other big change -- and a change that I'm calling an absolutely fantastic improvement (for the most part) -- is the built-in, pop-up electronic viewfinder. Though not as large as the OLED viewfinders on the A7-series cameras, the EVF on the RX1R II shares a similar resolution, making it crisp, clear and easy to use. The Sony RX1R II is certainly small and lightweight enough that it's comfortable and easy to hold out front like a typical point-and-shoot camera. However, the addition of a viewfinder helps not only in bright, sunny conditions*, but also puts you in a more stable, three-points-of-contact shooting position. After years of DSLR-shooting, using an EVF to compose and shoot photos has become second nature to me.

Those familiar with the RX100 III and RX100 IV cameras will see the inspiration for the RX1R II's pop-up EVF right away. What's unique about this one, though, is that it pops up and is ready to use immediately. On the two relevant RX100-series cameras, you must first manually pull out the rear element in order to see the EVF properly (you also need to push it in manually to close the EVF back into the camera). With the RX1R II, Sony's devised a way to not only pop the EVF up and outwards in one fell swoop when you press the button, but you can also close the EVF when you're done by simply pressing it down. Neat!

[*I did notice, however, that in certain bright conditions with lots of overhead light or otherwise directional glare, I still needed to shield my eye from glare. Straight out of the box, the RX1R II's EVF has very little in the way of an eyecup to help block stray light. Thankfully, Sony includes a handy, slide-on eyecup, which helps in this regard. However, with the eyecup attached, the EVF is now fixed and can't be retracted into camera. The eyecup also takes some fiddling to get into place, I found, but once attached it felt firmly in-place.]

f/2.8, 1/320s, ISO 100

Well-behaved EVF eye-sensor avoids frustrations

I've spent a lot of time with a number of Sony A7-series cameras, and while there's lots to love about those cameras, one thing that keeps bugging me is the very sensitive EVF proximity sensor in some of the models. Thankfully, the proximity sensor that automatically switches on the EVF is much less sensitive on the RX1R II. I can easily use the tilting LCD panel for some top down shooting in a comfortable position without worrying that my torso will trigger the EVF sensor. On the A7 II, for instance, the eye sensor triggers at a strangely far 5 or 6 inches, whereas the RX1R II and original A7S both have a more comfortable 3-4 inch range for the EVF proximity sensor.

Hefty, high-quality build welcomes a two-hand hold

As for handling, the build quality feels amazing, and for $3,300, I would hope so. The camera feels rock-solid, and there's a nice bit of "heft" to it. Despite its small size overall, I did feel more comfortable holding it with two hands -- either resting mostly in my left hand while using the rear LCD or in a traditional "stance" with the EVF up to my eye and left hand under the lens. There's not much in the way of a front grip, nor is there much of a protrusion for a thumb rest on the rear, so I found it a little awkward to operate and shoot with one-handed -- there's enough heft to the camera to warrant a two-hand grip, in my opinion.

f/2.5, 1/1000s, ISO 100

The control scheme on the "Mark II" here is basically identical to the original RX1-series camera, so no real surprises there if you're familiar with the predecessor. So far, in my experience with the RX1R II, I haven't had any qualms about the controls or button layout. In fact, the Sony RX1R II provides a lot of customization to assign or re-assign the various controls to fit your style. With the lack of touchscreen, I still want the quickest, most streamlined way to adjust my focus point. I use "Flexible Spot" autofocus mode almost exclusively, and by default, the central button inside the rear control dial will instantly bring you to the interface for moving the focus point, which is nice and very convenient.

f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 100

Big sensor with bigger resolution captures fantastic images

I had high hopes for impressive image quality from the Sony RX1R II, and sure enough, the camera delivered. With its 42-megapixel CMOS sensor and on-demand low-pass filter, the camera captures stunningly sharp, highly detailed images. We were very impressed by the fixed 35mm f/2.0 Zeiss lens on the original RX1-series cameras, and so far, I've been similarly impressed here with "Mark II," even with wide-open shots. And while the RX1R II has impressive resolving power, I did notice some chromatic aberration and purple fringing at times, particularly in bright scenes along high-contrast edges towards the corners of the frame. Thankfully, these artifacts are not severe, and if you're not afraid to adjust a few sliders in Lightroom, it's easily work to clear this up in post.

So far, I've only shot images with default settings regarding the camera's new adjustable-strength optical low-pass filter, which is to say "off." With the filter disabled, the RX1R II -- like other cameras without a low-pass filter -- is capable of capturing sharper, finer detail, but at the risk of more moiré and false color artifacts. For the most part, if you're shooting natural scenes without much in the way of fine, repeating patterns, the risk of moiré is low. However, on certain fabric patterns or other objects like brick walls -- as in the example crop on the right from the above photo -- moiré patterns and false colors can be quite visible with the LPF completely disabled. Be sure to stay tuned for the second part of my RX1R II Field Test, where I'll examine the adjustable LPF in more detail, include real-world side-by-side comparisons with the different filter modes.

On a related note about the RX1R II's high-resolution sensor, we continue to see a number of new cameras pack in more and more pixels and with that, file sizes are steadily increasing as well. The Sony RX1R II is no different. RAW files from this camera, in particular thanks to its new uncompressed option, are absolutely massive! Weighing in around the 80MB+ range, I was quickly filling up memory cards in no time. Thankfully, memory cards are growing in capacity, while decreasing in price, so stock up on a bunch if you plan to head out shooting for extended periods of time.

f/4, 1/160s, ISO 100, +0.7EV

Excellent low-light, high-ISO performance from the new sensor

While the RX1R II is currently the only Sony camera with the adjustable optical low-pass filter technology, it otherwise shares a similar imaging pipeline to the Sony A7R II, including the same 42.4-megapixel backside-illuminated Exmor R CMOS full-frame image sensor paired with the BIONZ X-branded image processor. Not only is this a massive increase in image resolution from the original 24.3-megapixel RX1, but also provides a much larger range of ISOs than the predecessor. While the RX1 topped-out at ISO 25,600 (its native maximum ISO with no higher expansion beyond that), the new RX1R II can go beyond the native ISO 25,600 to a whopping ISO 102,400.

f/2, 1/100s, ISO 51,200, -0.3EV
Straight-from-camera JPEG
RAW (Adobe Camera Raw defaults)
*Note: The default ACR chroma noise reduction removed the faint yellow painted leaf spots from the hat's decoration, but the Sony in-camera JPEG NR processing left them visible.
Capture One RAW conversion (Defaults)
Capture One RAW conversion (Luminance NR off)
Thanks to a note from reader "cas," I tried Capture One as well to convert the RAW file of this high ISO shot. Phase One actually offers a free version of Capture One "Express" just for Sony cameras! As you can see in the two crops directly above, the Capture One conversions handle these faint colors much better than ACR. In fact, it even brought out (or left in, rather) faint pink-colored paint spots, which were part of the hat's decoration (it even did it better than the in-camera JPEG). At default settings, fine detail is not as a crisp as the ACR conversion, but reducing the luminance NR preserves sharper detail, at the obvious expense of more visible grain.
(Click on the crops above for the full-resolution Capture One RAW convesion images.)

A big portion of my shooting so far with the RX1R II has been in low-light situations, either outside at night with very poor lighting, or indoors with equally low light. The RX1R II's high ISO performance is excellent, especially with RAW files. Images, though certainly noisy and grainy at very high ISOs at close inspection, nevertheless, still show an impressive amount of fine detail.

I shoot with RAW+JPEG* at all times for my Field Tests when possible, and I found that with JPEGs at higher ISOs, the default NR processing was a bit heavy-handed. At very high ISOs, in particular, details can get a bit on the mushy side. If you don't plan on making at very large prints or pixel-peeping these JPEGs, I'd say the RX1R II's JPEGs looks quite usable. For better detail control, the RAW files are the way to go. Even with just the default NR settings for Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop (+25 chroma NR, +/-0 luminance NR), high ISO RAW images show a lot more detail than their JPEG counterparts, and then you're free to adjust the level of noise reduction as you see fit.

[*For some unexplained reason, this Sony camera still can't record an "Extra Fine" quality JPEG paired with a RAW with using RAW+JPEG mode.]

f/2.5, 1/100s, ISO 20,000
RAW (Adobe Camera Raw defaults)

Well thought-out Auto ISO operation

I also really enjoyed the way the Sony RX1R II handles Auto ISO operation. The camera allows you to set both a minimum and maximum ISO and without any limitation to the high ISO, which I've seen in other cameras.  (The minimum ISO is limited however to 100; no expanded low ISOs with Auto ISO.) You can manually set a specific minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO mode, which helps prevent accidental camera shake or subject blur due the camera itself deciding to lower the shutter speed rather than increase the ISO.

In addition, the RX1R II also brings a new feature within Auto ISO (one shared with other recent Sony cameras like the RX10 II and A7 II, for instance), and that's a shutter speed biasing setting. In other words, it gives you the choice of "Standard," in which the camera will automatically choose a shutter speed based on the focal length of the lens, as well as two "faster" and two "slower" adjustment options.

f/2, 1/60s, ISO 10,000

In Standard mode, I would expect the shutter speed to be at least 1/30s to match as close to the 35mm focal length as possible (assuming the camera uses the "1/focal length" rule of thumb for shutter speed), however, the camera most often chose to use 1/100s as the shutter speed -- which is great considering the higher-resolution sensor. If the lighting conditions become so dark that the camera hits the limit of the ISO (at whichever sensitivity you specify in the max. ISO menu), the camera will then use a slower shutter speed in order to get a proper exposure. With the speed biasing preferences, the faster options force the camera to use a faster shutter speed to help prevent blurring (thus increasing ISO), while the slower options bias exposure settings the other direction in order to allow for a lower ISO but at slower shutter speed.

f/4, 1/100s, ISO 6400

Tiny body means tiny batteries = troubling battery life

Lastly, let's talk about the RX1R II's battery life. As I mentioned earlier in my Caffeine Priority article highlighting the matter, I found the Sony camera's battery life to be unexpectedly poor. Though admittedly, I was shooting a lot in colder temperatures -- which is known to decrease battery life -- I was still surprised to find the battery meter on its last "tick-mark" after only an hour or so of sporadic shooting.

I believe it was a combination of factors, in addition to the colder weather: the battery packs themselves are very small and CIPA-rated to only 200 shots using the EVF; I perhaps wrongly assumed leaving the camera on standby would be more power efficient than turning it off and on again between shooting opportunities; and lastly, that I soon realized that by leaving the camera powered-on and the EVF opened, the camera was resting up against my body and thereby activating the less power-efficient EVF with the camera's proximity sensor.

On the plus side, Sony RX1R II's NP-BX1 battery packs are very small and relatively affordable. If you're traveling around or otherwise going to be shooting for an extended period of time, you can easily carry multiple spare batteries without much bulk.

f/4, 1/250s, ISO 100

What's next for Field Test Part II...

I've only just scratched the surface of my shooting experience with the Sony RX1R II. In my next Field Test installment, I aim to do some side-by-side shooting with the camera's variable low-pass filter technology, as well as further test the camera's autofocus performance and its video capabilities. As always, let me know in the comments if there are any particular features or aspects of camera you'd like me to test out or look into further.


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