Sony RX1R-II

REAL WORLD REVIEW

IntroDUCTION

Sony are back with the sequel to 2012's surprise hits, their RX1 and RX1R. The RX1R-II still packs a full frame sensor into a barely-larger-than-a-compact body but this time it's the same sensor from their spectacular A7RII. The original RX1R impressed people with its performance & stunning image quality but for many its stunningly expensive price tag limited its appeal.

With the RX1R-II Sony have looked to upgrade over their original in every way. Including the price. I've put it through its paces in a wide range of real-world scenarios to see how it stacks up & if it's worth the money. I own a Fuji X100S myself so I'm partial to F/2, 35mm focal length small cameras - I'm sure I'll compare the two from time to time in this review.

SPECIFICATIONS

  • 35mm full-frame 42.4MP sensor - with variable lowpass filter
  • ISO 100-25600, expandable to 50-512,000
  • ZEISS Vario Sonnar T* Lens, 35mm focal length
  • F/2 -F/22 aperture, 49mm filter diameter
  • Focal range 24cm - ∞ in normal mode, 14cm - 29cm in macro mode
  • 7.5cm, 1.2m dot tiltable LCD screen
  • Pop-up, 2.4m dot EVF (0.74x magnification, 100% FOV)
  • 14-bit RAW output, optional compressed or uncompressed
  • Hybrid phase/contrast 399 point AF detection - single, continuous or manual focus
  • PASM mode dial + dedicated movie mode + 3 custom modes
  • AVCHD or MP4 video, upto 1920x1080/60p recording
  • Dedicated exposure compensation dial, ±3 EV
  • Built in WiFi
  • sRGB or Adobe RGB

OUT OF THE BOX

For your money you get the camera, battery, neck strap, various manuals & warranties and - best of all for a camera costing upwards of £2750 - a battery charger! It's a neat little USB-powered plastic case but does the job well enough and a refreshing change from Sony. A sturdy, metal-reinforced plastic lens cap is also provided.

The lens cap is less blurry in real life ;)

The nooks and crannies did easily pick up dust & fluff from my camera bag as you can see too.

USAGE & HANDLING

My first impression when picking up the camera was a sense of deja-vu... it felt an awful lot like Sony's other super-compact, the RX100-IV. It's larger of course, and heavier, but still very much a compact frame. In fact, the gripes I had with the RX100-IV's small buttons and fiddly layout are absent in the RX1R-II; the extra few milimetres in each dimension have definitely made a difference. 

The controls are laid out in a very intuitive manner. Starting at the front and working backwards... the lens itself lets you manually set the aperture in 1/3 stop increments with smooth, distinct clicks between each stop. It's satisfying to use, definitely more tactile & preferable to electronic aperture dials we normally get. The other ring lets you switch between the macro and normal focus modes. Although I agree with certain other people that it's possible to accidentally switch between normal & macro modes it isn't really a problem for grown ups - it's pretty obvious actually, everything goes all blurry and a little "MACRO" icon flashes up in the viewfinder  :)

The top panel controls are mostly spot on. The clicky dials are good, especially the exposure compensation dial which is a lot more resitant to accidental changes than most other top-plate EV dials and DEFINITELY less flakey than the same dial on the X100S. The biggest niggle I have is with the combined power/shutter button and it's the same gripe with the X100S, it's just far too easy for it to get knocked in transit and drain the battery. An old-school screw in cable release port is built into the shutter button.

On the subject of the battery life it's poor. Very poor in fact. Although the included charger offsets this slightly by letting us use one & charge another, this is an everpresent problem with small form factor camera bodies and with a large, power-hungry sensor like this it's a chronic issue. For example, during a two hour model shoot I turned the camera on, full power, at the start, left it powered on in standby for most of the shoot and only took 15 images... and the camera was dead by the end. Not great and you'll need at least one, probably two spare batteries. I averaged fewer than 200 shots before needing to recharge.

Sony continue to smash it with their EVFs. The RX100-IV and now the RX1R-II are light years ahead with their pop-up EVF. It's clear, responsive and doesn't induce squint-migraines unlike the EVFs on some other cameras! I must have used the EVF for at least 95% of the photos I took with the camera. 

The rear screen still isn't touch sensitive. It is tiltable but it's a shame they haven't figured out a way of retaining the "tiltability" while adding in a touchscreen. For a camera that's ideal for street photography work, if they could combine the two it'd be killer. Don't get me wrong, it's not a deal breaker but definitely a missed opportunity. It also wouldn't be a Sony camera if it wasn't possible to literally fill the rear screen with bewildering symbols, statuses and histograms.

The autofocus on the RX1R-I was good but not great in all situations. Thankfully the RX1R-II has improved on this and it performed very well in every situation I could throw at it, even low-light and night shooting. Although it slowed down noticeably once it got darker it was still plenty fast & accurate enough. A definite improvement. Manual focusing still feels clunky and the selector button on the front of the camera was a pain in the backside to use. If I want to focus manually it's because the autofocus is having problems; I want to take over quickly and easily. The little focus dial on the front is not only hard to use instinctively, it's also ugly and looks like a tacked on afterthought. Thankfully the autofocus is good enough that I didn't need to go manual very often but when I did it wasn't a pleasant experience.

Personal preference will dictate whether you think the camera looks attractive or not. Although its small size does help you shoot discreetly and it doesn't scream "pro camera", to me it's not particularly attractive. It's function over form, a design ethos to get the job done first and looks come second. The RX1R-II reminds me of a supercar, covered in brash spoilers & day-glo orange body stickers!

One final gripe was with the neck strap supplied with the camera. Although I hate the standard straps I always try them out and in this case the strap is a total failure - quite literally. The camera simply fell off the strap, luckily onto something soft, but I found the design of the neck strap was very poor. I always recommend using a 3rd party, sturdy strap and that advice is something I definitely reiterate here! The camera itself is sturdier than the RX100-IV, if you remember I went through two of those because of dubious resilience/build quality issues, but the RX1R-II was more than capable of taking a knock or two inside a camera bag with no ill effects.

Sony still continue to produce needlessly complicated menus. I'm getting a little bored saying this but they are pointlessly detailed and the overwhelming majority of functions were left unused. I did try hunting around for a built-in timelapse mode to shoot the recent eclipse but sadly this feature was missing.

Shooting with the RX1R-II is very enjoyable. It has a couple of flaws but when you are out there shooting it's great. Very satisfying indeed. I would say the X100S still *feels* nicer to shoot with which is a fairly subjective opinion I know! The camera definitely passes unnoticed in a crowd and even when I bumped into other serious photographers out shooting no-one passed comment. This will be nice for some whereas others may prefer the styling & head-turning effect other similar cameras have. 

So far so good, but what about the real acid test... what are the photos like!

Image Quality

I've looked at a number of the different image quality settings on the camera and how them impact the final image. The first of these is the dynamic Low Pass Filter. Although the original RX1 had an LPF built in by default, a feature removed in the RX1R, this new model gives you the option to apply or remove the filter as you so choose. Unsurprising really since this is the exact same sensor as the A7RII.

This was a test baseline I used to evaluate the different Low Pass Filter settings - I tried to find a moire-susceptible subject but no luck! This looks at the effect on sharpness with the LPF in each setting - Off, Standard and High

This was a test baseline I used to evaluate the different Low Pass Filter settings - I tried to find a moire-susceptible subject but no luck! This looks at the effect on sharpness with the LPF in each setting - Off, Standard and High

Low pass filter off, 100% crop

Low pass filter standard, 100% crop

Low pass filter High, 100% crop

To my eye, there are subtle differences but it's still pretty sharp across all images. None of the test images I shot exhibited moire at all - I suspect you could find it if you pushed for it but in the real world it was never an issue.

As you can see below, the F/2 lens natively exhibits moderate pincushion distortion, easily corrected in the latest version of Lightroom. On the subject of Lightroom, you WILL need the latest version of ACR to read the RAW files so if like me you've been sitting on an older version of Lightroom avoiding the bugs & import issues well... it's time to upgrade :)

Animation showing the standard image straight out of camera then the distortion-corrected version. You can see vignetting is present but only subtly.

The effect of high ISO noise on images is nothing short of fantastic. The image below shows a dark frame of each ISO setting from 100 on the left to 51,200 on the right, increasing a stop with each vertical slice. It's possible to tell the difference on the right hand side but honestly the noise-handling capability of the camera is fantastic.

I shot images with the in-camera noise reduction on and off. To be honest, I can't really see much difference.

Each vertical slice is an ISO stop, from L-R starting at 100 and ending at 51,200.  Definitely needs viewing large. I've exaggerated the effect below.

I shot a dark frame scene at 1/100th second, f/8 with the lens cap on - changing only the ISO throughout. This is with the in camera noise reduction set to Normal.

This is the same image but with a massive curve tweak to significantly exaggerate the difference in ISO settings. As you can see everything is virtually indistinguishable upto 1600, barely different at 6400 and still extremely useful at 25,600 - even 51,200 has potential in my opinion!

This is an example of a 5 second, f/2 exposure at ISO 6400 - the kind of settings you might use for astrophotography for example.

With the "technical" images covered above, here are some example photos to show what the camera is capable of! As usual, unless otherwise stated, images have been tweaked in LR & PS to show how you might process them in the real world! I will included unedited RAW files as a download link at the end of the review as soon as I can get them uploded.

Word of warning, there's a portrait of a girl at the end of the sample images which some may consider NSFW. She's covered up, but you have been warned.

The first image was shot using the Dynamic Range Optimiser option turned on. This isn't HDR, although that feature is present provided you turn off RAW and only shoot JPG. DRO does a very good job of balancing bright skies and darker foregrounds at the cost of half-a-second or so extra processing time, depending on the scene. Though I shot images with it on and off, generally the effect was so useful I left it turned on permanently.

This was quite a bright scene but the Dynamic Range Optimiser function handled it really well.

Shot using the macro mode, straight out of camera

100% crop of the image above, straight out of camera

Contrast adjusted, sharpened.

I photoshopped the crap out of this :) Sharpening, detail extraction preset in colour efex pro to bring out more of the foliage (it's amazing what was recoverable from the shadows), I then applied some colour gradients to emphasise the sky-glow. Cropped out a load of boring sky to make it feel like a pano but in reality it's a single frame.

30 second exposure with only very slight contrast & vibrance tweaks, plus sharpening

Just in case you were wondering if a £3000 camera can take photos of your lunch - here is the proof. Yes... yes it can.

Lean in. Straight out of camera.

Straight out of camera JPG shot with Dynamic Range Optimisation turned on.

The only tweaks here are sharpening and a slight vibrance boost 

Monochrome conversion done in SEP2 & sharpened, otherwise unchanged.

Straight out of camera, mostly. Sharpening and the eyes have been tweaked but other than that it's untouched. **note** - LR exported this as Adobe RGB. It will have strange colours on mobile devices. I'll re-export and fix it soon

A quick word on the video features. Unfortunately I lost the bulk of video for this review in a card failure (the second in 2016!) but to be perfectly frank the video features are a let down. It's bewildering, the sensor is the same as the A7RII which is capable of 4K recording but it's left out of the RX1R-II. I've chased Sony for an explanation but they are yet to reply - my suspicion is that it might be heat-related, with the larger body of the A7RII able to dissipate the heat output from 4K recording safely. Maybe the RX1R-II is just too small to safely do it and Sony disabled the feature in the firmware? If I hear a conclusive answer I'll update this review. As is, the RX1R-II can only record Full HD @ 60p. At these settings the video quality was perfectly usable but unimpressive.

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As I mentioned earlier there is another range of F/2, 35mm focal length cameras out there, the Fuji X100 series. Although I don't have the latest X100T I did spend some time comparing the X100S with the RX1R-II. I shot a test image with each camera and then compared the results side by side, the outcome being visible in the photos below.

Fuji X100S

Sony RX1R-II

A few observations of the above images - 

  • The FOV for what is ostensbily the same focal length is definitely different with the RX1R-II having a slightly larger field of view
  • The barrel distortion on the Sony is much more pronounced.
  • The way both cameras have rendered diffuse detail is similar even at 100%. I couldn't really tell the two cameras apart when it comes to the clouds or noise (the Sony was shot at ISO 100 and the Fuji at it's native lowest ISO 200)
  • Both cameras render greens very well but the Sony unmistakeably has punchier, bluer skies. While both can be changed to suit your preference in Photoshop I personally prefer the more muted, realistic colours of the Fuji.

The next test I did was to take two 100% crops of the scene for some hardcore pixel peeping. I expected the Sony to be better but what I didn't expect was just how much sharper and distinct the image was, check it out below.

Fuji on the left, Sony on the right

As you can see the Sony blows the Fuji out of the water. Also, although both of the above crops are 800x800 pixels in size you can see how much greater the potential is for cropping with the Sony. 

If I had to summarise, the Sony is unambiguously better on a technical and fine-detail image quality level. The Fuji still produces great images but the RX1R-II has a bigger, better sensor and it shows. That said, I *much* prefer shooting with the Fuji and I could buy an X100S and still have money to spare to buy a small car.

The next few images show the two cameras side by side - the Fuji is bigger in all dimensions except the lens, and I've even stuck filters on mine. The Fuji is slightly larger and more comfortable/practical to use as a result. But it's almost splitting hairs.

 

Pros

  • Amazing image quality, even images straight out of camera look lovely
  • Small & light, the ideal size for a go-everywhere camera
  • High ISO capability is awesome
  • EVF performance is best in class
  • Very good optics

Cons

  • HUGELY overpriced for a fixed lens camera, even accounting for the image quality
  • No 4K video on a £3000 camera!
  • Built in strap is an insurance claim waiting to happen
  • Niggling design issues with some of the controls, and the menus are again just crazy complex
  • No weather sealing
  • No touchscreen

Conclusion

Sony have once again produced a technically excellent, very appealing camera. Although it's riding on the innovation of cameras such as the A7RII that's no bad thing and shows that Sony are happy catering to photographers with all sorts of tastes. It shoots lovely images and in almost all situations is a joy to use. I had a lot of fun during my time with the RX1RII!

That said, I would never personally buy it. If it was my cash on the line I'd rather buy the A7R2 and a lens to get me started. For the same money, that setup has more flexibility in terms of lenses, it's a nicer camera to use, produces equally as good images and more importantly includes 4K video. Even the strap on the A7RII didn't give me a heart attack...

I don't know if my feelings are accurate but I get them impression Sony are pitching this as a premium, Leica-challenging product. Considering what else you can get for your money it's unambiguously an extravagent purchase! Sadly, even though it's a clearly better camera than any Leica I've ever seen or used, Sony will lose the marketing war against the Red Dot guys I think. 

I completely understand the appeal of the RX1R-II. I didn't want to give it back! But although I enjoyed my springtime fling with this supermodel of the camera world, it's just too high maintenance to live with. I'll always have a soft spot for it but I'd prefer to settle down with its big sister :)

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* I know some of the product shots are blurry - truth be told, I shot them in a rush while waiting to send the camera back to Sony! I realised at the last minute I hadn't taken any :)