Review of the Sony RX1R II

SONY RX1R II - Stock Image

ARTICLE Contents

Introducing the Sony RX1R Mark II. OK, I have been more or less dishonest with you the last week or so on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Well, not dishonest, just not forthcoming with the complete details on what I was doing here. The latest series of images posted to social media were not film at all, rather, the 42MP full-frame camera, the Sony RX1R II.

You see, I performed a (very misleading) survey asking to guess the body / film stock / Color PAC used. The intent wasn't to annoy anyone, but to show how far digital has come - especially with the help of the smallest amount of post processing. I wanted to see if anyone was going to pick up on the "deception" of these small files and call shenanigans on me. None did, but here are some select guesses of what I was shooting: Hasselblad / Portra 400 NC, Rolleiflex FujiPro 400H, Pentax 67 Portra 160 and so on. Most guessed my Color PAC and one guessed it was Johnny's. One person went as far as stating, "as long as it was taken on film, I'll be happy." I feel like a dirty politician for being misleading, but I wanted the images I posted to be looked at for what they were, with no knowledge of the medium that captured them.

GASP!! - Ray with digital again?! Hell yes! Swearing off digital 2 years ago was extremely short-sighted on my part, and I admit that. I was so enamored with my sexy film results and the exclusivity of this club that I really didn't want to look back to the digital world of photography and more or less turned my nose to it. (Became a medium and large format film snob - Geesh!) Let's just say, I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture, grew up a tad, and realized we can all be friends.  After all, it's about the process of making pictures that makes you happy and how well the end result satisfies you. Not the medium.

And you know what? With this little dude, the whole shebang is amazingly fun and gives such truly tremendous results and an enjoyable process of getting there. Digital has come a long way since I was last into it. Using this has opened my eyes once again.

I can understand why people call this "medium format in your pocket" even though it's not at all a medium format sensor, but it is quite ginormous and the results are very pleasing to my eye. I find as much joy (be it a different kind of joy) walking around with this little guy as I do wth my medium format Pentax 67 and the drool-worthy large format Chamonix 45n-2. I went shooting this weekend with Mike Pouliot and had the little camera in my pocket and spare batteries in my coat pocket. That was it. Kind of a nice change of pace from the suitcase I take with me with the 4x5.

Oh, and let's get this out of the way. The purpose here isn't to replicate film or really to compare to film - but to compliment the colors in my body of work. It's not a replacement camera. It's an additional tool in my arsenal for a different use. The process is completely different, so it's a refreshingly different level of enjoyment. And those juicy 42MP, 80MB files are just nuts. In a good way.

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

First off though, we have to say hello again Mr. Zeiss 2/35! This was my all time favorite lens from my Nikon D700 and Leica M-E days and was the preferred length for everything I did. More on this in the proper review section. Here's my own quote from 2010 on this blog:

The Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2/35 is easily the favorite lens in my bag right now.  And having a favorite amongst my bag of each and every Carl Zeiss prime made is no easy task, mind you.  This "bokeh machine" has become my everyday walk around lens - mounted like a permanent fixture to my Nikon D700.  I use it for vast nature landscapes, portraits and near macro photography.  This is the king of all Carl Zeiss lenses in my humble opinion. - me, October 2010 on the Zeiss 2/35 Review

When the first Sony RX1 was announced back in 2012, I was so tempted to buy it just for that lens. At that time, I was still on the Nikon D700 and using the Zeiss 2/35 ZF.2 almost exclusively. I basically looked the camera as a Carl Zeiss 2/35 with a great sensor strapped to it. It looked like a pretty solid package at the time, but felt there were some short-comings (lack of EVF for one and low-pass filter) that prevented me from jumping in with it. Also, I was in the market at the time for a Leica M9 (ended up with the M-E in 2013) and couldn't quite justify the buy.

I contemplated the RX1 and RX1R/B on and off since then, and with the announcement of the 3rd major rev last December, the RX1R Mark II, I knew it was just a matter of time. It was looking like Sony listened to the market of nearly everything this round, including the EVF which was a stickler for many as well as the low-pass filter that can be disabled at will. The kicker being wicked AF improvements as well as that silly large 42MP sensor.

Like my usual camera reviews, I am not going to dig too deep into the nitty gritty, but more or less talk about the use of the camera and results as I would present them on the web.

This is only a "First Impressions" review as I have only have the body for a week as of the writing of this article. All images in this review (aside from of the camera itself) are either a straight convert from RAW to JPEG (zero edit) in Lightroom CC or a 6x7 crop - you all know I am a huge fan of 6x7 film cameras - plus application of one of the new Rebecca Lily Lightroom Pro Set IV presets as noted. For consistency, I stuck with just one preset throughout this review as it was not my intention to review her new presets at this time, rather, to show the IQ and potential of this camera. No other software, edits, or magic of any kind performed here.

Tech Specs

Let's get the nerd out of the way. Here are a few select stated specs on the camera from Sony. Though I am not a pixel peeper, these are still impressive:

  • Dimensions: 4.46 W x 2.57 H x 2.83 D in
  • Weight: 1 lb 0.9 oz (480 g)
  • Sensor: 35 mm full frame (35.9 x 24.0 mm), Exmor R® CMOS sensor, aspect ratio 3:2
  • Total Pixels: Approx. 43.6 MP (42.4 MP Effective)
  • Lens: ZEISS® Sonnar T*
    • 8 elements in 7 groups
    • 3 aspherical elements including AA lens
    • 9 blades
    • Aperture: f/2-22
    • Focal Length: f=35 mm: [Still image 3:2] f=35 mm, [Still image 16:9] f=37 mm, [Still image 1:1] f=44 mm, [Still image 4:3] f=38 mm,[Movie 16:9] f=44 mm (SteadyShot On), f=37 mm (SteadyShot Off)
    • Focus Range: Approx. 24 cm to infinity (Normal mode), approx. 14 cm to 29 cm (Macro mode)
    • Filter Diameter: 49 mm
  • Optical Variable Low-Pass Filter (can turn off)
  • Screen
    • 2.95" (3.0 type) (4:3) / 1,228,800 dots / Xtra Fine / TFT LCD
    • Adjustable Angle: Up approx. 109 degrees, down approx. 41 degrees, at max.
  • Viewfinder
    • 0.39-type electronic viewfinder (OLED), 2,359,296 dots
    • Field of Coverage: 100%
    • Magnification: Approx. 0.74x (with 50 mm lens equiv. at infinity, -1m-1)
  • Light Meter: Multi Pattern / Center-Weighted / Spot - 1200-zone evaluative metering
  • Exposure Compensation: +/-5.0 EV (in 1/3 EV steps), with exposure compensation dial: +/-3.0 EV (in 1/3 EV steps)
  • ISO Range: ISO 100-25600 (1/3 EV step) or ISO 50-102400 expanded
  • Shutter: 30"-1/4000* s
  • Image Types: 14-bit Uncompressed RAW, Compressed RAW, JPEG (Extra Fine / Fine / Standard)
  • Cost: $3898 on Amazon (November 2016)
Sony RX1R II using "Eye Detection" / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R II using "Eye Detection" / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R II - In the Hand

I have to admit, I was pretty nervous about getting a mind-boggling puny camera. Seriously, a couple boxes of 120 takes up more space in my bag. I mean, look at my current line-up. A Pentax 67 medium format, a monster by any measure that comes with its own gym membership and the Chamonix 45n-2 large format camera that simply dwarfs the Pentax. How would this Sony, which could easily pass as a hot shoe accessory for the Pentax 67, measure up?

I feared a Napoleon complex.

Like an ankle-biting Jack Russel Terrier, it acts like it's the size of a respect-demanding Irish Wolfhound. Sure, it's a small package, even by compact camera standards. But not unmanageably so. It's pretty comfortable in my hands, though I may add the ThumbsUp grip like I had on the Leica M-E to make it even more so; as of this writing, $138 is tough to swallow. The build is solid - metal all around.  Pick up any Zeiss lens and you get the idea - this is basically that with a small grip.

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Zeiss Sonnar T*

Now, I need to spend some time on this lens as really, it's why I wanted this camera in the first place. Aside from the published stats (above) I am unable to find a great deal of information on this specific build.  I reached out to my friends at Zeiss and they told me Sony handles all the data and PR propaganda on this lens, so they have very little on it in regards to promo material, cut aways, etc. Hey, I tried.

The lens has three rings on it. First is the aperture ring which has a nice threaded grooves. Stops from 2-22 are clearly marked with 1/3 stops ticked. Second on this lens is a macro-ring. This adjusts from standard use of 0.3m-∞ to the macro setting of 0.2m-0.35m.  When in macro mode, the lens extends a smidgen (technical term) and is noted on the display.  You can see an image of the battery a few paragraphs below taken with the macro-mode of the lens. Nice thin depth at 0.2m away.

The rings both have nice satisfying clicks to lock in your stops.

Third is the manual focus ring at the end of the barrel. Enabled in full manual or DMF mode (Dynamic Manual Focus - which I use) this ring feels very nice and smooth. There are no stops on the focus ring.

One thing to note is there's barrel distortion that can be seen in the edges of your photos, especially with close-up focusing if you frame up some straight lines next to an edge. You can see this detail below where I posted some RAWs - especially the portrait of Mike as well as the photo with the signs indoors. Look to the left edge in both of these.  Pretty easy to fix in post, but be aware it is there.

DxOMArk of the two titans of FF Compact

SONY RX1R II - Sensor

I can't review this camera without at least talking about the sensor. As the other camera I was considering at the time was the Leica Q, I added (for what it's worth) the DxOMark score on the two. You can see a detailed breakdown on the DxOMark website if that floats your boat. Honestly, these stats weren't what swayed me either way - but as these are the two titans right now, I thought I would include this for shits and grins.

The RX1R II has a 42.4-megapixel back-illuminated 35mm full-frame Exmor R CMOS sensor powered by the BIONZ X image processing engine to support 14-bit uncompressed RAW images. Technically, getting an ISO range of 50-102,400 but realistically using ISO 100-25,600. Even more realistically for my style is ISO 100-6400.

Also to mention here is the variable low-pass filter. From Sony: You can choose from three optical variable low-pass filter effect settings: Off (to prioritize image resolution), Hi (to reduce moiré and color artifacts) and Standard (to balance those priorities). In my testing, I have left the LPF off and have not noticed any issue with moiré nor color artifacts.

Sony RX1R II with lens in Macro mode

Battery

Battery life here is about as long as the attention span of a toddler at the zoo. It's really the only major complaint I've read over the past year of reading reviews of this camera online, and have to say it's justified. Three hours is really about all you'll get from a charge. Maybe a couple hundred photos depending on your setting and how disciplined you are at switching off the camera between locations. I took the advice of other reviewers and grabbed a couple spare batteries as well as a spare wall & car charger. This setup alone can extend you to 9 hours of just battery and longer if you can get them in rotation charging.

When I first got the camera, I charged up the batteries and with the first one, used it to set up my menus (about 40 minutes of playing around) then headed out to take a dozen or so photos.  When I got home, the battery was reading just the smallest slice of juice left. Obviously I needed a real-world test rather than one that involved playing with menus, a lot. So, this weekend, when I took it down to Plum Island with Mike, I put in a fresh battery and shot about 100 images during about 2+ hours of walking around the beach and in town. Near the end of the 2.5 hour mark, it was drained - but I at least had spares to keep it going if I wanted to.

So yeah, it bleeds like an open wound. Be mindful of what you have enabled, screen brightness, etc. Right now, I switched to have the screen disabled while shooting. If I need to chimp, I can do it in the EVF.

Battery is the Sony Lithium NP-BX1 (or equivalent knock off). Cheap, so pick up a handful. I also picked up a small pocket Pelican 0915 case to put the spare batteries as well as SD cards in.  This way, I do not need to carry any kind of bag with me.

Finder / screen

Sony RX1R / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

There are a couple ways to compose images with this.  Either the screen on the back of the camera with LiveView or via the new Electronic View Finder (EVF) that's really a godsend. The camera has the intelligence to automatically only power the view you are using.  If LiveView, the pop-up EVF is powered off. If you put your eye to the EVF, it fires up in an instant and the back screen powers down.  Very good for a camera that's a battery whore, as mentioned above. 

With either of these views, you can increase the resolution, though they both look really good at standard.  Very bright and oh so responsive. Not like the LiveView of the past (where my last experience was with a laggy Sony NEX-3). At times, I forgot I was looking at a TV screen instead of an old school TTL finder.

Both screens offer a slew of data from shutter speed, ISO, f-stop to digital levels, histograms and so on. I won't bore you with all the goodies, but there is a plethora of stuff that can be added to or removed from either screen.

Did I mention the rear screen tilts up and down?  Not enough for selfie whores, but nice to hold over your head or at your feet to still frame a decent shot.

Autofocus 

Leaps and bounds above the previous RX1 and RX1R/B, autofocus on the Mark II is accurate and zippy fast. I was pleasantly surprised by this. When I tried an older RX1, the autofocus seemed slow and did quite a bit of hunting. Haven't experienced that with this iteration. 

The Sony RX1R II offers up to 399 phase-detection AF points covering about half the sensor. AF-C can burst at 5fps with continual AF tracking on your moving subject. I experimented with my sprinting chocolate lab pup, and seems to be right on. When I was taking the above photo of the battery, it did seem to hunt a bit as I was at the limit of the macro distance. But when firmly between the ranges, it does seem to lock on pretty quick.

Time for everyones favorite, a cat pic!

Sony RX1R II / RAW / ISO 6400

Sony RX1R II / RAW / ISO 6400

100% crop of above - zero edits (click for large)

High ISO

I am not really a high ISO shooter, but wanted to show you a RAW file at ISO 6400 (above). I did not turn on noise reduction or any other features that are available to make higher quality low light images. I took it and just dumped it to the blog, but you can see these are very useable here. You can go much higher, but it isn't something I do, so this is what you get.  

You can also see a quick 100% crop from Lightroom on the right, so you get a up-close and personal idea of the grain and detail at this speed. With high ISO enabled and a little noice reduction in post, you can have a really high-quality image. But damn, I dare say this is useable as is.

Below are a few more high ISO low light shots. Sorry they are mind-numbingly boring. ISO on left is 125 (spot metered the bulb) and far right is 1600. 800 and 1000 respectively in the middle two. As you can see, grain-free at these low speeds. Also, notice the barrel distortion on image #3 with the signs. I was about 2-3 feet away from them. Again, all SOOC.

You can click above to see them larger.

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

Sony RX1R II / Rebecca Lily Pro Set IV

The SONY RX1R II Files

The files are simply massive and look pretty nice right out of the camera. For these images, 80MB was seeming a bit much, so I switched from uncompressed RAW to compressed.  This brought them down to a more hard drive friendly 43MB file size average. The difference, once again, between the 43 and 80MB files is negligible for my purposes. 

The images below (left and center) are the RAWs with just a Lightroom export to JPEG. No nadda done to it - so just my digital negative. Like with film, you don't show off just the negative, you scan it to correct it.  For me, it's using Rebecca's tools.  The result was the image above (simple one-click, crop, and export) as well as the one below on the far right at 100%. If you compare to my Color PAC for film I use at Richard Photo Lab, the colors are pretty spot on - but still retains that digital edge.  

You can click above to see them larger.

Sony RX1R / RAW File

Sony RX1R / RAW File

Above, a clean untouched RAW taken as the sun rose above my frosty lawn. I pointed this straight into the rising sun to see if it would blow-out (no) and if I'd get any details in the shadows (yes). This is what you can 100% expect to get SOOC. The tilt screen comes in real handy here, as I didn't need to lay in the frosty grass to get the focus.  

Below, another SOOC, though a little underexposed on my part.

Sony RX1R II / RAW file

Sony RX1R II / RAW file

Here's a 200% crop of the RAW (below left) as well as a 100% crop (center) with Rebecca's preset applied from the header at the top of the page. Original included on far right so you don't have to scroll.  Click to embiggen.

Below, RAW on the left, then the Rebecca Lily Preset on the right. Click to see the details as well as the barrel distortion from the lens on the RAW. Though I used Eye-AF, it seemed to lock onto his frames rather than the eyeball.  Without glasses, it does seem to hit right on, each time.

My Defaults

Here is how I set up the camera for this test. Aside from the general settings, the first thing I did was disable the sound for focus confirmation.  Drives me nuts.  OK, here's the list of things I adjusted - not every menu/setting noted:

  • Camera Menu
    • Quality - RAW
    • RAW File Type  - Compressed
    • Drive Mode - Single Shooting
    • Focus Area - Center
    • AF Illuminator - Off
    • Exposure Comp - 0.0
    • ISO - ISO Auto (set range allowed 100-6400)
    • Metering Mode - Spot
    • WB - Auto
    • Long Exposure NR - Off
    • High ISO NR - Off
    • Low Pass Filter - Off
    • Color Space - sRGB
  • Settings Menu
    • Zebra - Off
    • MF Assist - On
    • Grid Line - Rule of 3rds
    • Auto Review - Off
    • Peaking Level - Off
    • Exposure Set Guide - On
    • DIsp Cont AF Area - Off
    • Phase Detect Area - Off
    • Pre-AF - Off
    • FINDER/MONITOR - Viewfinder Only
    • Custom Key - C1 - set to Eye AF (didn't set anything else yet)
  • Toolbox Menu
    • Monitor / Viewfinder Brightness - Auto
    • Audio Signals - Shutter
    • Display Quality - Standard
    • Pwr Save Start Time - 1 Min

Sample Images - SOOC

Here are a some SOOC (aside from convert from RAW to JPEG of course) files to check out. No crop, no straighten.

Sample Images - One Click Edits

And here are a few samples that were one-click edited with Rebecca's preset and cropped / straightened.

Conclusions

So far, this has been a real joy to use. It's completely different than anything I've used in the past, which is part of the fun.  I love the idea of using this as a travel or family camera. It is not intended to replace any film cameras I have and not to replace the purpose of those.  I still want to use medium format film whenever on assignment as I enjoy the look of those files much more.

For some, 35mm lens as the only option may be restricting. For street shooters, it's a dream - but for portrait shooters, maybe not so much. I am biased though, as the Zeiss 35mm f/2 is my favorite of all time. It covers street, ship, landscape and seascape - about all I shoot - quite well. And it's so well married to the sensor that I am getting unparalleled results (noting the issue with barrel distortion).

Perhaps this is more "umph" than anyone needs for a pocket camera, but if you even take your digital images from travel and what not very serious, then this is an amazing tool to have. No reason any image in here can't be used for professional reasons for web or print. The IQ is easily there. You are not going to find many full frame digital cameras this compact nor powerful.

So yes, this little guy is here to stay. The next few months will really be about digging in to see what it can do.

A couple test runs were taken in the mountains and along the seacoast this week as well, see these posts for more samples:

Before / After

Before / After

PS - if you are interested in my review from a few years ago on Rebecca Lily's Pro Set III, you can find them here. I did not offer a review of the Pro Set IV which I used here - and fell in love with.