Sony RX1 - The World’s Smallest Full-Frame Camera (Part 1)

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The world’s smallest full-frame camera comes at a high price, but does its performance justify it?

As an increasing number of compacts and Compact System Cameras have adopted APS-C sensors, focus has shifted on the prospect of full-frame alternatives trickling down in the same way. While Leica has already successfully integrated such sensors inside five of its M-series models, their rangefinder construction, high price and marginal advantage in size over DSLRs has left them niche and unobtainable to all but the most well-heeled enthusiast. It’s welcome, therefore, to see a more accessible full-frame camera finally arrive, and while its four-figure asking price still places it out of the reach of many people, it’s nevertheless another welcome step in the democratization of such models.


The RX1 is the world’s smallest full-frame camera, one that incorporates the same 24.3MP Exmor CMOS sensor that starred in its launch partner, the Alpha 99 (albeit, Sony says, without the A99’s phase-detect AF assist points). The sensor is said to benefit from large photodiodes and redesigned micro lenses to help better its sensitivity, which has allowed an ISO range that runs from ISO 100 to 25,600. The range can be extended down to an ISO 50-equivalent option, and - through the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction option, which captures and combines a number of images to help average out noise - up to a setting equivalent to ISO 102,400.

In front of the sensor sits a newly developed optic, one which expectedly bears the Carl Zeiss branding and a list of impressive specifications. It combines a 35mm focal length with a bright f/2 aperture, with nine diaphragm blades to facilitate circular bokeh and T* coatings to maximize light transmission and reduce aberrations. Three aspherical elements, including a single Advanced Aspherical element, are included to help minimise distortion and help maintain corner sharpness, while three rings around the barrel allow aperture and focus to be manually adjusted (one ring serves as a "macro” focus control, despite maximum magnification being short of true macro at 0.26x).

The camera records full HD video at 24p, although 50i and 50p modes are also provided. Stereo sound is recorded through a pair of on-board microphones, although it’s also possible to connect external microphones should you want to improve the audio quality. Exposure can be changed through the same PASM controls available for stills shooting, while an electronic variant of Sony’s Steadyshot technology is also on hand to help maintain a stability when recording moving footage.

At ISO 6400 with Noise Reduction enabled, the level of detail which remains in JPEGs is incredibly impressive.

The camera’s metering system provides the fairly standard multi, center-weighted and spot triplet of options, while focusing controls include a standard 25-point multi pattern, joined with center and flexible spot pattern, together with object and face tracking. The camera’s manual focus option is augmented by a further direct manual focus setting, which allows autofocus to be overridden with manual adjustment. This can also be used in conjunction with a peaking option to show when subject contrast is at its highest.

The camera includes a small built-in flash which hides in the top-plate, while a hotshoe next to it facilitates the use of external units in addition to other viewfinders and other accessories. The 3in LCD screen on the rear, meanwhile, is yet another to feature Sony’s White Magic technology. This adds an extra white dot for every red, green and blue triplet, to give a total resolution of 1,228 million dots. Sony claims this improves brightness and decreases power consumption, with no apparent detrimental effect on image quality. It’s also possible to overlay an electronic leveling function over the screen to help with accurate framing.

The rest of the camera’s functionality includes many similarities to other Sony models. For example, while the camera’s standard 2.5fps burst rate may be underwhelming, through the previously seen Speed Priority Continuous mode this can be boosted to 5fps. The camera also provides a range of entry-level controls, the kinds of which are found on even the more basic Cyber-shot offerings, such as a Sweep Panorama option, Soft Skin mode, Face Detection and Recognition options, and a range of scene modes.

Although smaller apertures give bokeh a diaphragm shape, at f/2 it’s as pleasingly round as promised.


As may be expected for the most expensive compact currently available (by some margin too), Sony has finished the RX1 to a particularly high standard. The magnesium alloy body feels next to indestructible, although at just 482g (with battery and memory card in place) the camera is perhaps lighter than expected. Devoid of any focus switches or a focused-distance window, the metal lens barrel is relatively streamlined in its design, with each of its metal rings generously ridged for better purchase. The aperture ring clicks positively for every 1/3EV aperture stop marked on its ring, while the front most focusing ring turns smoothly and with enough resistance to facilitate precise manual focusing. Even the lens cap, which Sony could have easily constructed from plastic, sees a mostly-metal build with plastic only used for the rear-most parts, presumably to protect the lens.

The grip is nothing more than a millimeter-thick rubber panel which wraps itself around the side of the camera, but together with a considerably thicker rubber panel on the back-plate the camera can be handled relatively securely. It’s likely, however, that some would have preferred a more sculpted grip for even better purchase, such as that on recent Compact System Cameras such as Panasonic's GX1.

A pair of chunky metal dials on the top plate are separated by a threaded shutter release button, although the exposure compensation dial, which perches on the top plate’s corner, suffers from being knocked out of place too easily, particularly when being taken out of and put back into a pocket. It would help if the exposure compensation values on the LCD were displayed more prominently (perhaps in red, or flashing as with some of the other functions) whenever compensation was applied, but sadly they’re not which means you often realize this is out of position after you’ve taken a handful of images.

Although corners of the frame lack definition at f/2, details in the center of the frame are sharp and clear.

The play button also lacks travel and is awkwardly positioned above the LCD screen, while the movie record button sits at an awkward 45° angle between the back and side plates, but these are not significant issues in themselves.

Although Sony has not assigned functions to the left, down and right sections of the menu pad dial as standard, each can be programmed to bring up a function of the user’s choice. While the lack of engraving here means the user would have to remember which options are assigned to which controls (unless, of course, they are accessed), this is no doubt something which will become second nature after extended use. Indeed, some may prefer this blank-canvas approach rather than permanent engravings of default functions.

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