Monday, January 6, 2014

Sony RX1 Review (Part 1)


I've been shooting with the Sony RX1 for a little less two weeks.  Following up on my first impressions, here is my review from the point of an amateur user who shoots primarily candid and family photos (as opposed to professional event shooter or an equipment tester).  I will be discussing the following:

PART 1 (About the Camera)
  • Introduction.
  • Body.  Size, construction, etc.
  • Handling.  
    • Shooting. The controls and how well they work.
    • Menus.
  • Shooting Experience and Performance.  LCD vs. viewfinder, metering, autofocus, manual focus, lag, battery life.
  • Lens Image Quality.  Sharpness, distortion, vignetting, aberration, etc.
  • Sensor Image Quality.  Noise, color, postprocessing.
  • Candid Photography.  How well the RX1 performs for street and candid photos.
  • Lighting and Special Features.
  • Accessories.
As a preliminary note, I have been shooting mostly with Nikon DSLRs and my compact camera has been the LX5, so most of my observations will be made from that perspective, though I will try to be as objective as possible.  Along those lines, I'm not committed to any particular brand.  Except as otherwise noted, my observations will be based on the camera as-is, and not take into account the cost of the camera, and I'll be as frank as possible.


All sample images here are by me, and are from raw, converted in Lightroom 5.3, with what I consider simple adjustments, unless otherwise noted.  The product shots are from either the LX5 or iPhone 4.  I upload the shots to Picasa.  Unfortunately the shots become slightly bluish and less saturated when published.

1/10/14 edit: revised the section on Autofocus speed.  Sometimes the RX1 focuses fast.  I'm still investigating this.



INTRODUCTION
The Sony DSC-RX1 is the first compact camera with a full frame sensor and a fixed lens.  Before the RX1 was released late in 2012, the only full frame sensor digital camera that could be called compact was the Leica M series, which is beyond what most photographers could afford.  Arguably, the next best alternative was probably the Fuji X100 which had a fixed 23mm lens (~35mm in ff terms) that was pretty wide at f/2, with an APS-C sensor that was much larger than most other compacts.  When the RX1 was announced, it astonished everyone because it had a full frame sensor and a wide aperture 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens but was significantly smaller than the Leica M cameras and narrower (though deeper) than the X100.  The RX1 was quite expensive at $2,800 but it was still much more affordable than Leica M9.  The RX1 was well received, so much so that Sony created a variant of the RX1, the RX1R which is the same except it doesn't have an AA filter, and is selling the two versions concurrently.

That was then.  These days, there are several competitors in the category of compacts with APS-C or larger sensors.  Most recently, Sony has released the A7 and A7R which are not only compact full frame cameras, but which also have interchangeable lenses and built-in viewfinders.  On top of that, they are priced competitively with other full frame cameras.

The toughest competitor for the RX1 at this time is probably Sony's own A7, which also has a 24mp full frame sensor, and when paired with a Zeiss 35 f/2.8 lens, costs less than an RX1 and is only slightly larger (due to the EVF).  Plus you get a tilting LCD, an excellent built-in viewfinder, and a grip with front command dial.  And in the case of the A7, also adds phase detection autofocus.  Next to the A7, there is also the reputedly excellent Fuji X100S which fixed the autofocus and other issues of the X100, and costs substantially less.

In this environment, is the RX1 still relevant?

Actually, I believe the release of the A7 and A7R has made the RX1 more relevant because many RX1 / RX1R owners are selling their cameras in order to switch to the A7 or A7R, and as a result prices for used RX1's have come down significantly.  That's how I ended up with one.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I have become very comfortable shooting with the 35mm focal length and saw the RX1 as a possible compact replacement for my D600 + Sigma 35 1.4 combination.  Although I had looked around for one before, I had never thought of actually buying one though, due to the cost.  I never would have guessed that I would end up with one so soon.

But of course price alone is not a reason to buy a camera.  That's what this review is for, and I hope helps you decide for yourself whether the RX1 is worth it.



BODY


The RX1 has a modern, minimalist design, similar to the RX100.  It's elegant and understated (except for the very prominent logo).  There is a copper ring at the lens mount, like the Sony a99, A7 and A7R to indicate that it has a full frame sensor.

As befits its premium market, its body is metal and the RX1 feels hefty for its size.  One benefit of it being smooth and made of metal is that it is less susceptible to wear, unlike the polycarbonate bodies of many cameras. Even the lens cap has a metal plate in the middle, which contributes to the feeling of very high quality, but I'm always afraid of losing it. :)  (But see Accessories below for a clever replacement.)


An interesting detail is that every single mark and lettering on the RX1 is engraved not printed/silkscreened, with the exception of the markings on the copper ring and the "Zeiss" on the Zeiss logo.  The "Zeiss" is instead embossed (though the stamp around the Zeiss word is engraved).  When I say all marks, I mean it -- even the tiniest lines like the 1/3 stop increments on the exposure dial are engraved, as are the words "Auto" within the engraved green stamp.  The engraving doesn't just ooze quality -- it's functional because the engraved marks are far less susceptible to wear (unlike the printed marks on my Nikon DSLRs which eventually get rubbed off).

The mode dial and exposure compensation dial have very fine concentric rings, like the faces of some watches (sorry, I meant "chronometer" 9_9 ).  It adds a certain sheen to them and adds to the impression of quality.

With respect to size, the camera body is only slightly larger than the Lumix LX5 but the lens is much thicker than the 2-stage zoom lens of many enthusiast compact cameras.  Despite the size of its lens, the RX1 can fit -- barely -- in a large coat pocket or possibly a handbag.  When I'm using a coat that has a pocket too small to fit the RX1 and I want to disguise the fact that I'm carrying the camera, I wear the RX1 over my shoulder then I wear my coat over it. :)

RX1 in my left coat pocket.  Note that the weight is pulling down my coat. 
The RX1 doesn't seem so compact until you consider that it is similar in capability to a Nikon D600 (also a full frame 24mp) and Sigma 35 1.4, next to which it looks amazingly compact.

vs Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4 (without lens hood)
vs Nikon D600 + Sigma 35 1.4 (with lens hood on both)
Compared to the Sony A7 or A7R, the RX1 is actually noticeably smaller, as to height, width, and length, even without taking into account the A7's viewfinder.  Note: the A7 in the shots below was on a short pedestal that exaggerated the difference in size from the bird's eye view.


Rather, the RX1 is about the same size as the Sony NEX-5T or NEX-6 (5T shown below) with 16-50 lens, at least before the lens is activated.



The RX1 is definitely larger than the RX100, though when the RX100's lens activated, the RX1 is about as deep as the RX100. (RX100 Mk II shown in the pics below)


Going back to discussing the body of the camera, the RX1 thankfully has a standard hot shoe not the Sony/Minolta hot shoe.


The popup flash is built-in to the RX1's compact body, and is released with a mechanical switch above the LCD.  The flash pops up and a little forward, enough to illuminate without a shadow from the large lens.  However if the RX1 lens hood accessory is used, there will be a shadow on the lower right corner of the frame.  Note that the popup flash cannot be tilted up to bounce.



The side of the camera has a spring-loaded door (instead of a rubber flap).  It has just three ports: a USB port (for charging as well as for connecting to a computer), a micro HDMI port, and a microphone input port that can power a microphone that requires plug-in power.


The bottom of the camera has a spring loaded battery door which houses both the SD card and the battery.  The battery is secured with a spring loaded clip to prevent it from popping out by accident.  Strangely, the speaker for the sound effects and playback is also located at the bottom of the camera, near the plate.

HANDLING
Note: I'll discuss autofocus controls in the Performance section because of overlap between the performance and the handling.



Shooting
The RX1 is small and can be used with one hand, but has no sculpted grip and only has a texturized rubber surface and a small thumb grip.  To its credit, the rubber is somewhat grippy though not sticky-grippy (unlike a pro Nikon DSLR). Because the RX1 also somewhat heavy for its size, it is not easy to shoot with it with one hand.


Psychologically, I'm also conscious about the cost of the camera (even though it cost me much less than my D600 and Sigma 35 combo) and am afraid of dropping it by accident, partly because I can be a klutz sometimes.  When I'm shooting without the strap around my neck, I usually wrap the strap a couple of times around my hand.  Fortunately, there are some accessories that would help improve the handling (see Accessories below) but I haven't tried them yet myself.

The RX1 has fewer buttons and controls compared to a DSLR.  It took some time to get used to, but in my opinion they do cover most tasks adequately.

- The on/off lever is quite short, which I think helps prevent it from being accidentally turned on or off.  It takes a little more than a second for the camera to get ready, not including the time to remove the lens cap.

- The shutter release has a threaded hole for a shutter release cable or a soft release button.  There is more than average amount of travel to half-press, and a full press requires a little more pressure than the shutter release on Nikon DSLRs or the LX5.

- The mode dial is pretty self-explanatory with the usual PASM, automatic mode, and scene mode.  In addition it has 3 custom modes which are easy to set, a movie mode, and a panorama mode (discussed in Special Features).  Note that you can take a video even without being in movie mode by simply pressing the record button on the edge of the camera, though you can specify whether the record button is disabled in non-movie modes.


- I don't expect any buyer of this camera to use the Auto mode, but just FYI there are two Auto modes: the regular Intelligent Auto mode and the so-called Superior Auto mode.  According to the manual, the Superior Auto mode overlays images, but I don't hear the shutter clicking more than once.  Anyway, I don't plan to investigate this any further.

- For exposure controls, there is a dedicated exposure compensation dial from -3EV to +3EV in 1/3 stops.  I'm not accustomed to cameras with dedicated exposure compensation dials, and initially I sometimes rotated it by accident, mistaking it for the rear control dial.

- Aperture is controlled by an aperture ring with 1/3 stop detents.  The aperture ring is electronic, not mechanical, and has no effect in program mode or manual mode.  Its function also cannot be changed, unlike the function ring of some cameras.   Many reviewers have complimented the RX1 for its aperture ring, and I have to agree -- it turns with little effort (less effort than the aperture rings of lenses I've had), while at the same time the detents help make it feel like you're very much in control.  I like this method of selecting the aperture much better than a front command dial because I can very quickly choose the aperture I want.


- To change the shutter speed, there is a rear control dial next to the play button.  Spinning the dial works not only in shutter priority and manual mode, but also for program shift.  It has no effect in aperture priority.  The dial spins with less resistance than the rear command dial on Nikon DSLRs or the LX5.


- The maximum shutter speed varies with the aperture.  At f/2 to f/3.5, the maximum shutter speed is 1/2000.  At f/4, the maximum shutter speed is 1/3200, and at f/5.6 and narrower apertures, the maximum shutter speed is 1/4000.  1/2000 is not fast enough when it's very sunny, even though the base ISO of the RX1 is 100. In outdoor daylight, I use a circular polarizer, the Marumi DHG Super Circular PLD, which, besides acting as a polarizer, cuts light by 1.7EV.  It just about allows f/2 to be used in sunny 16 conditions with only a 0.3 (or 0.7EV) overexposure (likely recoverable in post).



Other Shooting Controls
- Fn button: this is above the directional pad, and works like the quick menu of some other cameras.  Pressing it displays 11 commonly used functions, including ISO, metering mode, drive mode, flash mode, AF mode, white balance. The functions appear on the sides of the screen while the LCD continues to show what you're shooting.  In Auto or Scene modes, the Fn menu is much simpler and in the case of Scene mode, allows the user to choose scenes.
- Note that the drive mode accesses not just single vs. continuous but also the self-timer and bracketing (exposure, white balance, or Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO) setting).
- Display button: the ring both rotates and functions as a 4-way directional pad.  Pressing up on the ring/pad cycles through the display of the LCD: from a simple view, to one with a graphic overlay of the aperture and shutter, to a detailed one showing the current settings for the Fn menu options, to a rule of thirds grid, to a level (pitch + roll), to a histogram.  You can omit any of these displays in the menu.  I use the simple one, the grid, the level and the histogram.
- There are 5 customizable buttons for shooting.  The left, down and right buttons of the ring/pad, the AEL button, and a small C button on the top plate, next to the shutter release.  Each of these buttons can be changed to any of 26 functions or simply be inactive.  The 26 options consist of the functions in the Fn menu, and in addition, AF lock options, AEL variants, image quality (raw/jpeg, size, aspect ratio) and canned special effects like soft skin, changing the picture style, digital zoom, etc.
- For users who prefer using an AF-ON button, one of the customizable functions is AF/MF Control, which enables quickly switching between AF or MF.  At the same time, switching to MF functions like AF lock.
- For users who use like to spot meter, there is a function called Spot AEL Hold or Toggle.  Note that  the spot metering is always taken from the middle spot of the screen (which is not displayed when in matrix metering mode), regardless of where the AF spot is located.  For example, if I wanted to spot meter a bright relevant highlight and place it in Zone VII, I would position the middle of the frame on the highlight, dial +2EV on the exposure compensation dial and press the Spot AEL button.  Then I could recompose and shoot.  Note that the exposure comp dial can change the Spot AEL metering even after the Spot AEL button is pressed.

- My current settings are:
  • C - autofocus area (auto or center or flexible spot).
  • AEL - AEL Toggle
  • Left button - Creative Style (to switch to black and white.  I shoot raw but it makes it easier to visualize.)
  • Down button - Drive mode 
  • Right button - AF/MF Toggle
I used to put ISO as one of the buttons, but now I just leave ISO on Auto, and if I want to change it, I use the Fn menu.  Likewise, I originally had used flash exposure compensation as one of the buttons but I don't use the popup flash (except as optical trigger) and I don't have a Sony external TTL flash, so I just set FEC at -3 and if I need to change it, I use the Fn menu.



Menus
The RX1 menus are the usual 2-level menus, arranged Canon style with tabs at the top and options below it.  As a Nikon user, I don't like the RX1 menus because they feel disorganized.  On Nikons, the 1st level only has 5 or so tabs (on the LX5 there are only 3 tabs).  On the RX1, there are 16 tabs to choose from, with somewhat ambiguous categories.  For example, one tab has a wrench icon and one tab has a gear icon.  On the plus side, it is possible to see all the menu options by cycling through the tabs.  On a Nikon DSLR or the LX5, cycling through each tab will only show the first page of options for that tab - you may miss some options unless you're familiar with Nikon and know which tab will contain the option you're looking for.  So on the RX1, when I'm looking for an option I just cycle through the tabs while scanning for the option I want.

(Note that this menu issue has been addressed in the A7, where there are just 6 menu tabs (with less ambiguous icons).  Moreover, you can either scroll between tabs or select the page of the tab or directly scroll through the options.  It is the ideal compromise between the current menu and the Nikon style menu.)

Menu navigation is via the directional pad, with the option to rotate the ring (generally, rotating the ring is similar to pressing up or down on the pad).  The middle button on the directional pad is like the Enter button.

Unusual and useful menu options:
  • Can change whether exposure compensation affects only ambient exposure (Canon style) or both ambient and flash exposure (Nikon style).
  • You can specify whether the live view will reflect the current exposure settings (D800 style) or not (D600 style).  Usually it's useful to see the current settings.  However, if you're using flash and deleting the ambient, then the current settings will be too dark.  That's when using this option comes in handy.
  • Grid: can be changed from rule of thirds to a 4x4 grid to a 4x4 grid with diagonals.
Common menu options that I didn't find:
  • No multiexposure mode.
  • You can't specify the minimum shutter speed for Auto ISO.  Argh!!!
  • You can't specify the minimum shutter speed for flash.
  • No volume setting for the sound (when the sound is activated).  When sound is activated, the chirp/beep for AF is loud and the shutter sound effect sounds cheap.  No sense turning sound on anyway -- the silence of the shutter is one of the features of the RX1 with its leaf shutter.
  • Power saving.  When the Standard LCD view is engaged (around 30 fps instead of 60 fps), the power saving timeout is grayed out.  The timeout can only be adjusted if the High Quality mode is selected.
You can probably guess around when this picture was taken :)
PERFORMANCE
In this section I'll discuss the LCD, metering, autofocus, manual focus, lag, and battery life.

LCD vs. Viewfinder
Shooting with the RX1's LCD is awesome.  It fulfills the promise of LCD shooting by accurately giving a WYSIWYG view.  On pretty much all other compacts I've tried, including the LX5, what you see on the screen is not necessarily what you get.  On the RX1, the LCD has consistently given me an accurate preview of the actual shot.

The live histogram on the RX1 is particularly accurate.  On other compacts I've had the so-called live histogram seems to be more of a histogram of the live view rather than the image to be taken.  The histogram on the actual shot usually ends up being quite different from the live histogram, especially when I shoot in raw.  On the RX1, the live histogram is representative of the histogram of the shot.  I can trust it when I want to expose to the right, for example.

I also like the LCD for its color accuracy.  On the D600, the color accuracy depends on whether you're viewing in bright or dark conditions.  On the RX1, I've found that the colors are representative of the colors of the actual shot, both during the preview and during playback.

I also like the fact that I can see the exposure changes in real time, especially with respect to aperture.  And unlike the DoF preview button on a DSLR the brightness of the view stays constant.

Speaking of brightness, the LCD on the RX1 is easily the best LCD I've ever tried because of its brightness.  The RX1 doesn't have a built-in viewfinder so a DSLR shooter would justifiably be worried about being able to see the LCD when it's sunny, but on the RX1, I've never needed a viewfinder, even in very sunny conditions.  I haven't had much trouble with glare or reflections on the LCD either, even with the GGS LCD protector on it (which adds a little glare).

I had no problems using the LCD while taking this sunny and strongly backlit shot.
Exposure and Metering
One issue with the RX1 in terms of exposure is that the Aperture priority selects a minimum shutter speed of only 1/80, which is too slow not only for camera shake, but also for subject movement, especially kids.  When it's bright enough, the camera does choose up to the maximum shutter speed, so there's no issue. When it gets darker, what I do is switch to Manual mode, select the shutter speed I want (generally 1/160 or faster, unless it's really dark, when I might go to 1/125), and enable Auto ISO.  This functions like Pentax's TAv (Shutter and Aperture Priority mode) where you can specify both aperture and shutter speed, and allow the Auto ISO to adjust as needed.  Even though this is "Manual" mode, the exposure can still be adjusted via Exposure Compensation.  It's not as good as having an aperture priority with high enough shutter speed because specifying the shutter at 1/160 can result in overexposure but I guess it's ok.

With respect to metering, I have found that the RX1's meter is very good at distinguishing relevant highlights and preserving them.  Here is a sample shot SOOC (i.e. straight out of the camera) in manual mode with Auto ISO activated, 0 exposure compensation:


If we're looking only at the skin tone, it looks a little underexposed.  However, if we are judging based on the highlights, the chosen exposure is spot on:


The lost highlights are shown in red.  You can see in the window that the sky is lost.  That's ok.  It wasn't relevant.  Some of the brighter parts of the sheer curtain have also been lost.  However, the majority of the curtain, plus the highlights on the skin of my mother in law have all been preserved.  In post, I just had to normalize the exposure while retaining all the delicate highlight details:


This is similar to turning on Active D-Lighting on my Nikon DSLRs, though not quite as conservative as when ADL is on Extra High, when the Nikon camera will do everything to avoid any overexposure.

Autofocus
In this part I'll discuss the autofocus controls and how they work in real life.  Then I'll discuss the AF speed and accuracy.

There are several controls for focus:
- There is a dial on one corner of the face of the camera to switch between autofocus (AF), autofocus with manual override (DMF), or manual focus (MF).  Strangely, I've seen at least one picture of the RX1 (on the Amazon sales page) where the dial has four settings: S (single), C (continuous), DMF and MF but the picture may have been a pre-release model.  Even the newer RX1R uses only 3 settings.
- To move the AF point, you have to first press the middle (Enter) button in the d-pad.  This is a similar approach to some compacts such as the LX5 (where you first press a Focus button to move the AF point).  However, as a DSLR user this is somewhat annoying.  I'm used to being able to move the AF point with the control pad immediately.  Instead I have to press the middle button first.  It took a while to get used to, because I would accidentally press one of the direction buttons and launch a custom button.  After about a week shooting exclusively with the RX1 I got used to it.
- When moving the AF point, there is no way to quickly reset the AF point to the middle.  Argh.  (On the A7 you can press the delete button to reset the point to the middle.)
- Some might say, just leave the AF point in the middle, then use focus-and-recompose.  I find that unreliable when the DOF is shallow, which is why I don't like to use that method.
- Speaking of AF point, it's smaller than the AF point on most point and shoots, but it's larger than the AF point on a DSLR viewfinder.  The size cannot be changed (whereas on the A7, the size can be changed from small to medium to large).
- There is a focus ring at the front end of the lens.  The focus ring is smoothly damped.  It is electronic and speed variable, i.e., unlike a mechanical focus ring, the speed with which the focus distance is adjusted varies with the speed of the rotation.  When the focus ring is rotated very quickly, it can be adjusted from infinity to 0.3m with just a 1/4 rotation.  When the focus ring is rotated slowly it can make very minute adjustments to the focal distance, taking as many as 2 or more full turns to go between infinity and 0.3m.  But it seems that if you rotate the ring too slowly, no change will be registered.  Nonetheless, I have been able to adjust the focus as minutely as I want.
- Because the focus ring is speed variable, there is no distance scale on the lens.  Instead, a distance scale appears on the screen when you use turn the focus ring.  There is sadly no depth of field indicator (a feature that I find useful on the LX5).


- There is a switch between normal distances (0.3m to infinity) and macro distances (0.2m to 0.35m).  The switch is next to the focus ring, and some have complained about confusing it with the focus ring but personally I'v never got them confused.  First, they feel different -- the focus ring has fine grooves while the macro switch has larger grooves.  Second, there is a round bump on the bottom of the lens that can be used as a tactile "home" for your index or middle finger, because the bump is between the macro switch and the aperture ring.  Third, the focus ring turns much more easily than the macro switch.  So if you grab the macro switch by mistake to turn the focus, you would probably notice from the effort required to turn it that you're trying to turn the wrong ring.

As I mentioned in my preview, the autofocus is of course accurate (more so than on a Nikon DSLR with phase detection), but there are several caveats.  Whoever designed the RX1 was shooting only stationary or posed subjects.
- The AF is accurate but it sometimes selects the highest contrast object within an AF point, resulting in missed focus.
- In low light, the RX1 may have trouble locking on.  It depends on how much contrast the subject has and how dark it is.  If there is good contrast, then the RX1 is able to focus even in somewhat low light (like at a typical restaurant at night).  Usually I'm able to focus in most conditions, and when I can't I'm able to find an alternative focus target that is equidistant to the subject.
- Speaking of low light, the RX1 has an AF Assist Lamp.  Somehow, Sony managed to fit the lamp of a freight train into the RX1's body.  I'm only exaggerating slightly.  The AF Assist Lamp can light a target perhaps as far as 30 feet away.  It is that bright.  It's like shining a flashlight on your subject.  I would recommend either turning it off or perhaps putting a neutral density gel or dark red gel to make it less bright.
- The RX1 seems to have a harder time focusing on close targets.  When a target is near the close focusing limit, the RX1 might need several attempts before being able to lock focus, even if the target has average contrast.  I encounter far more problems with close subjects than with low light.  And if the subject is less than 0.3m away you have to remember that you need to use the macro switch, and to switch it back when you're done.  Fortunately, if it is unable to focus, you at least won't get a false AF confirmation.
- The autofocus also has trouble in strongly backlit shots.  It may or may not lock focus.  Worse, if it "confirms" focus, the shot may or may not actually be in focus.  Other than close targets, this is the probably the next most common AF issue for me, more so than low light.  If you can spare the time, what I suggest is to use DMF (AF with manual override), then when the AF locks, turn the focus ring slightly to activate the magnified view to double-check if the shot is actually in focus.
Total misfocus on this backlit shot, even though I got AF confirmation
- There is no continuous AF, period.  Once the AF locks, that's it, even when subject tracking or face priority is engaged.  This increases the risk of losing focus when the subject is moving a lot.  One possibility would be to press the shutter all the way, with the hope that when the camera autofocuses, the shutter is also released.  The problem is...
- ... there is no option for focus priority.  The RX1 will release the shutter whether or not it is able to autofocus.  To be fair, if you press the shutter all the way without prefocusing, the RX1 will make one attempt to lock AF before releasing the shutter.  If it is able to lock focus then you're good.  But if it is completely unable to lock on, the RX1 will release the shutter anyway after just one attempt to lock focus.
- Yes it does have subject tracking and face detection, both of which are decent at keeping track of the target.  However, the implementation is very quirky and impractical.  Subject tracking doesn't work in Flexible Spot AF mode (where the user can move the AF point), and it only works in AF mode (not AF w/ override, i.e. DMF mode).  To use subject tracking, you should not half-press the shutter.  Press the Enter button (the middle button on the directional pad), then a white box appears in the middle of the screen.  You move the camera to position it over the target then press the Enter button.  The camera will commence tracking the target.  Pressing the Enter button again releases the tracking.
- As I mentioned, there is no continuous AF, so even if the RX1 knows where the subject is, it won't keep it in focus.  Instead you have to half-press again to refocus each time you need it to refocus.  I think subject tracking can work decently if you like to focus-and-recompose.  Instead of half-pressing the shutter to focus, you press the center button, position the target over the subject, then press the center button again.  This focuses on the subject and registers the subject.  Then as you recompose, the camera keeps track of the subject so that when you half-press and press the shutter it refocuses on the subject.
- Face Priority is quite strange.  When activated, the RX1 will recognize faces and surround them with a gray box, following them as they move around the frame.  However, it won't necessarily autofocus on them.  Rather, the camera will autofocus wherever the AF point is.  If the AF point is over one of the gray boxes, then the gray box will turn white and the RX1 will AF on that face.  Otherwise, the RX1 will lock on the AF point and ignore the gray boxes.  If I have to make sure that the AF point is close to the face, then what was the point of having Face Priority?  smh...  If I truly want face priority, I have to switch to Multi autofocus mode (i.e. let the camera choose the AF point).



One of the chief complaints against the RX1 is autofocus speed.  Compared to a Nikon DSLR it is slow. Even the A7 is noticeably faster. I would say the RX1 is about the same as a typical compact (like the LX5), taking more than a second to focus at its fastest.  (EDIT: I found that the RX1 sometimes focuses fast and doesn't go through the full autofocus cycle, in which case it focuses fast.  I'm trying to find out the conditions when it focuses quickly.)  Capturing a moving subject is practically impossible for the RX1's autofocus.  Instead I use zone focus, which means I prefocus on where the subject will be, then press the shutter all the way when the subject gets there.


One question is, how feasible is it to zone focus if there is no distance scale on the lens?  Well, I don't rely on the distance scale.  Instead I visualize the shot in my head, including where the subject will be, then I lock autofocus on where the subject will be or a spot that is equidistant.  In the shot above, I had focused on the line on the floor over which the girls walked.  I composed the scene beforehand, focused on that line then just waited for an appropriate subject to walk over that line at which point I fully pressed to release the shutter.  Note: the shot above was at f/4 to get a little more DoF (to increase the chance of the subject being in focus).  At wider apertures I would probably use a continuous burst.

Reading about these AF issues makes the RX1 sound terrible but the reality is that I get more shots in focus compared to the Nikon D600 and Sigma 35 1.4 (unless I use live view with the D600 + Sigma 35, in which case it's 100% accurate, though slow).

My method is as follows:  I almost always use DMF, with Flexible Spot.  I visualize the shot in my head.  Then even before raising the camera, I move the AF point to where the subject would be in the frame.  I raise the camera to frame the shot as I visualized it, moving the camera to position the AF point over the subject, or else I frame the background then wait for the subject to move to AF point.  When the AF point is on the subject, I half-press then press all the way (or if the subject won't stay still, I press all the way and hope that the AF lock works on its first and only attempt).  If I half-press and the RX1 is not able to focus or misfocuses, I turn the focus ring slightly, to bring up the magnified view then use manual focus as needed with the help of Focus Peaking, as described in the next section on manual focus.




Manual focus

On my other cameras, I'm not accustomed to manual focus (whenever I try the results are almost never as good as autofocus unless I use live view to magnify the image and have all the time in the world).  That said, on the RX1, I've been able to use manual focus to fine tune the autofocus.

The RX1 has two focusing aids: a magnifier and focus peaking.
  • As soon as you turn the focus ring, the RX1 brings up a magnified view.  If there had been a focus look and you're overriding it (DMF), then the magnified view will be wherever the AF point achieved a lock.  Otherwise the RX1 will magnify the center of the frame.  The magnified area can be moved with the D-pad. In magnified view, you can increase the magnification from 5.9x to 11.7x.  There is an option to turn off the magnified view.
  • I found Focus Peaking to be accurate and useful.  You can select the color of the Focus Peaking and can select its prominence.  Unfortunately Focus Peaking only works when there is magnification.
One issue I have with manual focus is that it resets to infinity whenever the camera enters power saving mode.

Playback
There is a noticeable pause before an image is ready to be reviewed if your memory card is not fast.  There is even more of a delay if you take several shots.  There is also a delay when you magnify a viewed image.  In all of these cases, the SD card speed makes a significant difference.  I got noticeably faster results from a Sony SDHC 32GB rated at 40 mbps than a Transcend 64GB SDXC rated at 25 mbps.

Battery life
The RX1 battery life is poor compared to a DSLR.  I was able to get 340 shots with some chimping, auto image review turned off, standard LCD view (as opposed to high quality).



IMAGE QUALITY - LENS

DOF and Blur. In my view, the most significant benefit of a wide aperture lens on a full frame is the background blur.  With the RX1 at f/2, you can get noticeable background separation even with a subject far enough to be at standing full height in landscape mode, without the background being far behind the subject, at least when viewing an image on a full screen laptop.

Click to view 1600-pix size
Bokeh
Bokeh is the quality of the out of focus areas (whether it's soft or hard, etc.).  I really like the bokeh of the RX1.  It is very smooth and in real world shots, I haven't seen any distracting bokeh, even with thin tree branches.





Sharpness.
The RX1 looks sharp enough at f/2, though it benefits from sharpening in Lightroom as shown below (although in typical laptop screen sizes, I don't sharpen even at f/2, and the shots here aren't sharpened).  By comparison, with the Sigma 35 1.4, I never sharpened the shot even at f/1.4.  In the upcoming shootout I'll present test shots of a brick wall to compare the RX1 and Sigma 35.

f/2 (with sharpening)

100% crop.  Comparison before and after sharpening
I should also note that because the RX1 uses a leaf shutter, it is not susceptible to mirror slap (as in a DSLR) or shutter shock (as in a camera with a physical shutter), and this feature can contribute to sharpness.

Distortion.
The RX1's lens has noticeable barrel distortion.  With JPEGs, the distortion can be corrected by the camera.  Fortunately, there is a Lightroom lens correction profile that corrects the distortion automatically.  The Lightroom correction is just as good as Sony's JPEG correction.  Note that barrel distortion isn't necessarily bad for human subjects.  I even sometimes add it, when there are subjects at the edge of the frame.

Vignetting
The RX1 lens has significant amount of vignetting. However, for my style of shooting and my kind of subjects, I don't mind the vignetting, and it can be easily corrected in Lightroom.  If anything I usually add vignetting.



Flare
The RX1 has very good resistance to flare.  In typical backlit shots, I don't see any lens flare although there is a little bit of reduction in contrast.  It is also not immune to flare blobs when the sun is in the frame.

One of the few real world shots I have where I saw lens flare (lower right corner). Note that I had a Marumi CPL for this shot, which may have contributed to the flare.
Chromatic aberration
The RX1's lens has no purple fringing.  As with other wide aperture lenses there is a little bit of spherochromatism but that doesn't bother me.

IMAGE QUALITY - SENSOR

Noise
According to DXO, the RX1's sensor has one of the lowest noise.  Indeed, it does perform well at very high ISOs, retaining color and detail all the way to 25,600 ISO.  However, as a D600 user (itself one of the best at high ISO performance), I do notice that the RX1 seems to require a little bit more noise reduction compared to the D600.  Whether this is due to the slightly better (~1/6th of a stop) high ISO performance of the D600 or due to how the RX1 processes its raw images, I'm not quite sure.

ISO 25,600 with zero noise reduction.
In the shot above at ISO 25,600 and no noise reduction, you can see the noise even at laptop viewing size, but the colors and detail are preserved.  The noise is easy to clean up with a little noise reduction in post.

Colors
The RX1 has the best colors of any camera I've used.  My Nikons usually have orange-ish colors (except the D3), especially reds, which look vermilion.  My Fujis have somewhat pink colors that make light-toned skin look better but are not accurate.  The RX1 has accurate colors, has reds with accurate hues, and has skin tones that look good.



Although reds have accurate hues, they are sometimes a little too saturated and clip earlier than other channels, and the red becomes more like magenta:


If you look at the highlights on my wife and son's outfits, you'll see that the red highlights have become magenta.  When this happens, I tweak the magenta hue, saturation and luminance to make them look more like red.




My preferred color profile for the RX1 in Lightroom is the Adobe Standard.  I usually end up decreasing saturation a little bit, but otherwise I like the colors.

Speaking of color, the RX1 is pretty good at find a very neutral white balance, but like many other cameras, has difficulty with mixed lighting.

Exposure Latitude
Sony's sensors have been very good at shadow recovery and the RX1 has remarkable exposure latitude. In this SOOC shot, I was trying to sync the flash optically but the flash didn't trigger:

Here is the recovered shot:

Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). :)

Tonality
This one is harder to quantify, but I like the RX1's tonality.  So much so that it has led me to shoot more in black and white.


The RX1 has a smooth highlight rolloff with a long shoulder (though not quite as long as that of the Fuji S5).  Here is an SOOC shot.  The sun is in the frame, so of course there is no detail in the solar disc.  But can you tell where the detail is lost?


Here is an edited version to make it more obvious:

You can control the adjustment to make the rolloff more subtle as needed.  Note: the reflection in the water obviously shows parts with lost highlights, but they are specular highlights, so in my view they really don't need any detail.

JPEG vs. Raw
I shoot Raw 99% of the time.  Besides the usual advantages of Raw in sharpness and highlight recovery, I like the tonality of the RX1's Raw images better.  The RX1 JPEG shots have shadows that are a little too deep for me even with the Camera Neutral picture style.

Nonetheless, I found that in one kind of situation, the JPEG looks better.  We were having dinner at a dimly-lit restaurant with yellowish lights.  I took a selfie with my son.  Here is the JPEG shot at 25,600 with high ISO noise reduction turned off:

The shot is SOOC except that I straightened the shot and added a little color noise reduction (no luminance noise reduction).

By comparison, here is the Raw, before any adjustments:

Besides the less accurate white balance, note the purplish/magenta tint in the shadows.  From what I can tell, the raw image has a blue channel that somehow has more exposure (perhaps because of the yellow ambient light).  It took a lot of experimentation in order to match the color of the JPEG.  Besides typical adjustments to black clipping, shadows level, and highlights level, I had to adjust purple channel saturation and luminance, magenta luminance, blue luminance, tweak the color temperature and tint, adjust the tone curve as to RGB, blue channel by itself and green channel by itself.  It took a while to figure it out.  This is the best I could get in Lightroom:


Even with these adjustments, I prefer the JPEG (because the raw version has slightly greenish shadows).  Here again is the JPEG for comparison:

So I would say that if you're shooting in colored light, especially in conditions that require high ISOs, you may want to shoot with Raw+JPEG.

PREVIEW OF PART 2
That's all for this part.  In Part 2, I'll discuss how well the camera works in real life applications, particularly for candid photography.  I'll also discuss its special features, including its lighting abilities (think unlimited sync speed).

UPDATE: Part 2 is now posted.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR


I'm an amateur photographer, and I've been shooting since 2007.  I started this blog in 2009 to help me learn photography and to help other photographers.  Most often, I take photos of people and events, though occasionally, I shoot other subjects such as products, architecture and landscapes.  Most of my shots are candid, though I do setup shots from time to time.  I have had a few photos published since 2010. I have had several DSLRs and several lenses, as listed below (* means currently owned).  My Flickr album is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13451101@N05/ .

*Fuji S5 Pro
Nikon D70
Nikon D80
Nikon D90
Nikon D7000
Nikon D7100
Nikon D300
Nikon D300S
*Nikon D600
Nikon D3
Pentax K100D
----
Nikkor 24-70 2.8
Nikkor 28-70 2.8
*Nikkor 28-105 3.5-4.5
Nikkor 50-135 3.5 AIS
Nikkor 70-200 VR I

*Nikkor 85 1.8G
Pentax 50 1.4

Sigma 10-20 f/3.5
Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6
Sigma 35 1.4
Sigma 50 1.4
*Sigma 50-150 HSM II
Tamron 17-50 VC
Tamron 18-250
Tamron 28-75

Tamron 28-75 non-BIM
*Tamron 70-300 VC
*Tokina 10-17 Fisheye
*Tokina 11-16 2.8

----
Fixed lenses:
Nikon P300
*Fuji F31fd
*Fuji W3
*Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
*Sony RX1