Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1R II

The high-end compact digital camera has always lived an uneasy existence. Nestled awkwardly between affordable, entry-level point-and-shoots and expensive “pro” cameras, the high-end compact camera has tried to be a little bit of both—light enough to go anywhere, good enough image quality not to regret leaving the SLR gear at home.

In the triad of attributes for the high-end digital compact—small size, high quality, low price—it’s possible to pick only two. Different companies have tried different mixes with different variations, but in the end, high-end compact cameras are generally pricey, with professional-esque features, and slightly bulky.

This whole market was upended by the mirrorless revolution. Most compact digital cameras are based around a teeny 1-inch sensor while the pioneering mirrorless system, Micro Four Thirds, uses a sensor that’s a good deal larger. Olympus and Panasonic managed to make bodies with interchangeable lenses that weren’t much bigger than the largest compact digital cameras and which offered better image quality.

Still, the compact camera has its allure, and every company has their version of them. Sony has a few compact cameras, the venerable and well-regarded RX100 line (based around a 1-inch sensor) and the RX1R camera line, which uses a full-frame (aka 35mm) sensor.

Photographically speaking, that is a pretty big deal, as a full-frame sensor provides image quality on par with professional imaging gear, because it’s the same thing found in professional imaging gear.

Sony’s new Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R II, in fact, uses the same 42.4-megapixel sensor and BIONZ X processor as their new flagship a7R II, an amazing feat considering the body is considerably smaller than the a7R II (and even smaller than the original a7R). It doesn’t have the five-axis image stabilization of the a7R II, however, and there’s no 4K video recording.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t review a $3,000-plus compact camera in Digital Photo, as the price puts it out of the range of the average user, even in a way that the same price on the top-end interchangeable-lens system does not. Since the announcement of the RX1R II, I’ve received a stream of emails from people asking me if this is “the camera.” Enthusiasts and pros are always looking for the one camera to satisfy all needs—light enough to go anywhere, powerful enough to take any photo. Could the RX1R II rule them all?

As with all professional-focused compact digital cameras, I’m both smitten and frustrated with the Sony RX1R II. I love this camera and I hate it at the same time. When I take a portrait that’s buttery smooth and sharp at the same time, I love it. When the autofocus fails to track a moving subject with the same level of skill as the Sony a7R II I’ve come to know and love, I’m angered.

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Make no mistake about it, though, the Sony RX1R II is capable of taking pictures with the same incredible quality as the Sony a7R II, albeit without the flexibility the interchangeable lenses provide to users of the a7R II.

In fact, there are some ways that the RX1R II takes better pictures than the a7R II, though it will take some practice to get right. This camera features a variable low-pass filter—an optical filter designed to reduce the chance of moiré in high-resolution sensors, but which does so at the cost of reduced sharpness.

The photos in this review showcase the incredible low-light performance of the Sony RX1R II thanks to the same Sony sensor found in the new flagship a7R II and a fast Zeiss lens.

Without getting too deep into the details, moiré is a pattern of banding that happens in digital imaging when repeating lines run together in things like fabrics or buildings where the lines seem to converge. Low-pass filters remove this, but blur everything in the process. The RX1R II has a variable filter for moiré control, so if you’re shooting something that has no risk of moiré and could use more sharpness (landscapes or headshots, for instance), just turn it off.

In order to get the processor and imaging sensor of the bigger, wider and heavier a7R II into the smaller, lighter and thinner RX1R body, Sony had to make some compromises. In fact, Sony had to make a lot of them. What they didn’t compromise on is the price. As of press time, the RX1R II carries a price tag of about $3,300.

That’s understandable—there is a lot of technology here in a very small package. The question isn’t whether the RX1R II is worth the price. Simply from an engineering standpoint, it clearly is, in the same way that Apple’s price for laptops and tablets is justified by the magic they perform in order to squeeze so much into such a small package.

The question is, do the compromises in the Sony RX1R II make sense for the travel and/or daily go-anywhere photographer, or do other choices make more sense?

FORM-FITTING

For the record, I’m incredibly impressed that Sony managed to put the processor and sensor from the a7R II in this camera and not end up with an overheating, sluggish beast. I have tremendous admiration for Sony’s engineers, and I appreciate that this camera is, if nothing else, Sony’s statement that they can pull off something so impressive.

To put this into context, Canon’s PowerShot G5 X, which is their top-end compact digital, has a 1-inch sensor—a sensor that’s a fraction of the size of a full-frame sensor—in a body that weighs only 154 grams less and is about an inch and a half smaller in height and width.

If you think of a camera’s sensor and processor being like a car’s engine and drivetrain (and please don’t, this is just to make a point), it’s like BMW putting the innards from their top-end M5 into the body of the MINI Cooper, while everyone else is driving a Ford Fiesta.

The small size of the RX1R II allows it to go anywhere, so it was on hand to capture the moment when coffee shop regular Vinnie showed off his new holiday sweater.

The larger point, though, is that putting such a large “engine” into such a small “chassis” means that something, or some things, has to give. In the Canon G5 X, for instance, there’s a 24-100mm lens with an aperture of ƒ/1.8-2.8, a built-in flash, a fully articulated LCD screen and an always-available electronic viewfinder.

The Sony has a fixed 35mm lens at ƒ/2.0, no flash, an on-lens aperture dial and a pop-up viewfinder. That means that the Sony, compared solely to this Canon competitor, has a much more limited set of features. There’s no zoom, there’s no way to light a scene without a hot-shoe strobe, and the viewfinder isn’t always available unless you leave it popped up—thereby extending the overall size of the unit.

Instead of veering into a Sony RX1R II versus Canon G5 X comparison, let me state that I think a direct comparison would be unfair to both systems. While both are compact digital cameras, and both are aimed at a photographer who’s looking for portability over flexibility, that’s where the similarities end. Canon is targeting the advanced amateur who wants to take a functional camera with them, but can sacrifice some image quality for the ultimate in portability. Sony is targeting the photographer for whom the ultimate image quality is paramount and who’s willing to shed features to get that image.

What I want to point out is that Sony has done what Sony has always done—figured out how to take some large technology and put it into an unimaginably small package.

A BIRD IN THE HAND

There are few portable camer
as that feel as good as the RX1R II does in the hand. Aside from my wish for a slightly larger grip on the right edge (which I’m certain will be fulfilled with aftermarket accessories), the RX1R II is one of the most svelte, comfortable, portable cameras I’ve ever used. If you’ve used any Sony camera for the last few years, especially the a7 series, you’re already familiar with the layout.

The camera inherits the same control layout and menu system of the a7 cameras, for better and for worse. Many people deride Sony for their menu layout. I agree it could be better, but it could be a lot worse, as well.

There are two unique features to the RX1R II relative to the a7 series cameras—three, if you count the fact that the lens is fixed. First is the glaring absence of a full-time viewfinder. The RX1R II viewfinder is housed inside the camera in the same way that most systems (including the RX1R) house a pop-up flash, and it’s released and activated by depressing a “Finder” button on the side of the camera. There’s an attachment eyecup for the pop-up viewfinder, which is nice, but I’ll certainly lose it in my camera bag in a day or two.

If I had any advice for product managers of this camera, it would be to make the camera a bit taller with a full-time viewfinder and give the RX line a pop-up flash. But, of course, the goal of the RX series is to make a very, very small camera for a customer who wants a petite powerhouse, so, again, there are compromises.

The bottles (top) and these taps were photographed by the dim light of a bar’s window in the early morning before opening. The BSI sensor in the RX1R II performs especially well in low light.

The other oft-derided feature on the RX1R camera has carried over to the RX1R II, and that’s the on-lens aperture control dial. Like in the days of manual lenses, the aperture for the RX1R II (when shooting in A or M mode) is adjusted via a ring on the lens with ƒ-stop numbers printed on the collar. That’s a great feature in two-handed shooting situations, but there’s no option to allow the rear control dial to control aperture settings, which means that the camera can’t be used in one-handed shooting and still change the aperture.

Aside from those issues, the RX1R II is so small and light that it’s easy to forget there’s a top-end 42-megapixel BSI sensor in there. And that’s the point. The small size and unassuming nature of the camera makes it theoretically one of the best street cameras ever made. There’s nothing about this camera that looks like it can take an image that’s capable of running on a billboard, and someone wielding it on the streets of Times Square looks for all the world like a tourist.

I know photographers who have been kicked out of stadiums and national parks for shooting with cameras that have much smaller sensors and lower resolving power than this, because they seemed to be “commercial” photographers.

CHOICE LENS

The Sony RX1R II lens is the exact same model as found on the RX1R; Sony states that absolutely no changes have been made. That’s mostly good, as the Carl Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 is a good lens. It’s better than just about anything else on the market on a fixed-lens system. It’s not a perfect lens—we found some barrel distortion at the edges that’s rather noticeable, but is correctable in software.

Personally, I wish it had a bit softer of a background “bokeh” smoothness and was a bit wider. When doing street photography, I like to get more of a scene in the background for context, and when doing portraits, I don’t mind getting closer to my subjects.

I also personally wish the lens was a bit wider—28mm is my go-to lens for travel and street photography, as it’s wide enough for landscapes, but still close enough for a good portrait without too much distortion. Still, that’s a personal choice.

OPTICAL QUALITY

Aside from the issues introduced by the lens (slight barrel distortion and focus blur that’s not as dreamy as a bigger, more complex lens), the optical quality on the RX1R II is excellent, and I’d go so far as to say it’s incredible. It’s on par with that from the a7R II in all regards, which isn’t surprising, with the same sensor and processor.

That means this camera is the go-to travel camera for portraits and the best camera on the market right now for low-light photography. It’s possible to handhold landscape or night city shots at ISO 6400 or 12800 with levels of noise several stops lower. Couple the RX1R II with a tripod, and the results are breathtaking at night.

And that makes the camera very versatile in a number of situations where other travel cameras typically fall flat.

THE CHOSEN

Is the Sony RX1R II the one perfect camera? The answer is probably not, but it depends. It certainly produces the best-looking images in a body this small, especially in low light, and it’s the best choice in a full-frame camera that’s innocuous enough to get past the scrutiny of a local concert security guard or an international pickpocket.

There are absolutely better values for the money, but that’s not the point. Sony has created a technological marvel that’s a proof-of-concept come to life. It’s a display of the company’s industrial design prowess that also happens to be available to the general public.

If you’re taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a foreign land and you want the best possible image quality and want to sacrifice lens selection for compact discretion, this is the perfect camera.

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.

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