Introduction and features
Sony likes to prove a point with its cameras; namely that Sony can do things that other manufacturers can’t. Although this may not necessarily translate into extraordinary sales figures, it paints the picture that Sony is at the forefront of technological innovation.
The original Sony RX1 was announced back in 2012 and was unique in offering of a full-frame sensor in a compact body with a fixed, non-zooming lens. Not too long after, the RX1R was announced, which had much the same specs but with the sensor’s anti-aliasing filter removed for increased detail resolution.
Now here we are even further down the line and we have the RX1R II, with yet another Sony innovation. The world’s first variable optical low-pass filter (OLPF) is coupled with the same full-frame 42.4 million pixel sensor which can be found in the A7R II compact system camera. In short, this means that you can switch the effects of an OLPF off or on. If you’re photographing something which is likely to be prone to moire patterning, like fine patterns or textures, you can use it, but for anything else, such as landscapes or portraits, where detail is key, you can switch it off.
This variable OLPF is a liquid crystal filter which sits in front of the sensor. Different voltages are applied to it depending on the setting you’ve chosen to use (Hi, Standard or Off). Not only can you choose between these three options, you can also bracket to shoot with all three in quick succession, choosing the best result afterwards. This technology only has an impact on still image shots. It can’t be used when recording video – but, knowing Sony, its engineers may think of a way to implement it for moving images before long.
Another new feature is a hybrid autofocusing system comprising 399 phase detection autofocus points and 25 contrast detect points. As the A7R II also has a 399-point hybrid AF system, we can probably assume it’s the same system. Sony claims that this AF system brings with it a 30% speed improvement when compared to the RX1R, and slow focusing was something of an issue with the original camera. Another interesting new feature is the ability to record uncompressed 14-bit raw files.
The fixed 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens remains from the original RX1. As the sensor is full frame, that translates directly into 35mm, making it an ideal "walkaround" sort of focal length, and useful for street photograpahy and ‘environmental’ portrait work. You can use the digital zoom feature to recreate the effect of other focal lengths, but since this essentially cropping the image, you could also do the same thing on your computer at the editing stage.
Outwardly, the RX1R II has a very similar design to its predecessors, but, as with the RX100 III and IV, Sony’s engineers have managed to add an electronic viewfinder which retracts into the body when not in use to keep the camera’s clean design. Similarly, the rear screen now tilts upwards and downwards to assist when shooting from some awkward angles – and less than 2.5mm has been added to the camera’s dimensions to facilitate this. Sony remains reticent to include touch sensitive screens on its higher end products, however.
Although many of the other cameras in Sony’s current line-up can do this, the RX1R II is missing the ability to shoot 4K video. While 4K is starting to become the norm, it’s likely that the small size of the camera makes it prone to overheating when shooting ultra high resolution videos, so it’s understandable that it’s been left out. You can record full HD (1080p) videos, though, and it’s probably fair to say that the RX1R II is unlikely to be a camera considered by videographers in the first place.
Sadder news is that there’s no optical image stabilisation available for stills shooting, although there is digital stabilisation for video. It seems like an unusual decision to leave out OIS considering a 42 million pixel sensor is likely to be very unforgiving of any slight movements (and cause image blur), so we’ll examine how this affects handheld shooting speeds.
The closest competitor for the Sony RX1R II is the Leica Q, announced in 2015. The Leica also has a full-frame sensor, a fixed length lens (28mm rather than 35mm) and a compact type body. The RX1 was a very niche product, and the RX1R II continues that tradition, especially at its high price point.
Build and Handling
The RX1R II, like the cameras which preceded it, has a very high quality look and feel, with a solid weightiness that adds to that impression.
On the front, the chunky lens looks and feels a little like it should be detachable, but of course it’s not. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to fit this camera in a tight pocket, but you may have a little more luck with a looser jacket pocket – that is, if you feel comfortable with putting a high cost item like this into your pocket at all.
Although there’s no protruding grip on the front of the camera, there is a leather coating which helps to make it feel quite secure, with a rest on the back for your thumb to sit.
Traditional photographers who appreciate an array of dials and buttons will like the RX1R II. As the screen is not touch sensitive, each control must be adjusted physically. There are three rings around the camera’s lens. At the base of the lens there’s an aperture ring, with another ring for switching to macro focusing mode, and a final ring for focusing manually. Each of the lens rings is ridged, but only the aperture ring physically clicks when making adjustments. Sony’s RX10 II bridge camera allows you to switch the aperture ring to a smooth movement. That’s not available here with the RX1R II, but the RX10 II is geared more towards videographers who have more need for a silent aperture ring.
While it’s great to have a traditional style aperture ring, it’s perhaps a little awkwardly placed being so close to the body of the camera – certainly if you have larger hands you may find it a little clumsy to use.
All of the other buttons and dials on the RX1R II are grouped towards the right hand side of the camera meaning you can reach them all easily with your thumb. That includes an exposure compensation dial which has just the right amount of stiffness to stop you accidentally pushing it too far.
As with several other Sony cameras, the RX1R II gives you the option to customise its buttons. Not only are there dedicated ‘custom’ buttons (one on the top of the camera, another on the back), it’s also possible to assign various functions to the directional keys, the centre key, the AEL button and the control wheel. Options include White Balance, ISO, OLPF Effect and more. Although you can’t customise the dials on the front of the camera, which seems a bit of a shame, there’s a good degree of customisation elsewhere so you can set up the camera to suit your preferences.
Most experienced enthusiasts will be used to using a viewfinder, with many preferring it to composing using a rear screen. The addition of the retracting 0.39-inch 2,359,296-dot OLED XGA Tru-Finder to the RX1R II is a great new feature, especially when it’s as enjoyable to use as this one. It gives you a great, clear view of the scene, with 0.74x magnification and very little noticeable lag. There’s also an eye sensor which automatically detects when you have lifted the camera to your eye for a fluid transition and, unlike the pop-up viewfinder on the Sony RX100 IV, releasing it from the camera body is a quick, one-step process. For me, the viewfinder elevates the seriousness of the camera. There’s also the added bonus that the camera tends to be better stabilised when it’s held to your face/eye.
Once you’ve used a few cameras which have a touch sensitive screen – particularly mirrorless models which are essentially always shooting in live view – having to use buttons to set the autofocus point seems infuriatingly slow. That’s especially true when you’re trying to react to quickly unfolding action. As with this camera’s predecessor, to set the AF point, first you press the navipad’s central button, then you scroll to the point you need. With 399 to choose from, this can take 2-3 seconds, so generally I found I used the focus-and-recompose technique instead for the majority of shots. Sony seems to believe that high-spending camera enthusiasts don’t want touch sensitive screens. Whether or not that’s true is subject to debate, but the ability to switch off touch sensitivity if you didn’t want it would seem like a sensible way to please everybody.
Opening up the files from the RX1R II on your computer results in a mixture of joy and pain. If you have a top specced computer that can handle the huge file sizes (uncompressed raws are roughly 80MB each), then you’re in luck. If not, be prepared to wait as your processor catches up.
Once you get there though, it’s hard not to be impressed by the stunning level of detail which the sensor is capable of capturing. Real world shots taken throughout the sensitivity range display an incredible amount of detail and look fantastic at printing size. They also hold up well to scrutiny at 100%.
- The amount of detail resolved by the RX1R II’s 42 million pixel sensor is fantastic, backed up by shots from both the real world and our lab testing. Edge to edge sharpness is also maintained well. Click here for a full size version.
- There are a number of Picture Effects you can use, but only if shooting in JPEG – this one is an example of Toy Effect. Click here for a full size version.
- Although 35mm isn’t an especially short focal length, you can still use it for some landscape shots. Click here for a full size version.
- The RXR II has done a good job of producing a well-balanced exposure here when using multi-metering. Click here for a full size version.
- Colours are warm and vibrant, making images pop. Click here for a full size version.
Our labs test for resolution back up these impressions, with the results far outstripping the original RX1R, and also the Leica Q, which impressed us greatly last year. Detail is maintained well throughout the sensitivity range, right as high as ISO 6400 and only starting to dip from ISO 12800 onwards – it’s worth noting at this point that the RX1R II at ISO 12800 is capable of out-resolving the Leica Q at ISO 100. The raw results are marginally less impressive, but it still outperforms the Leica Q at every sensitivity.
The big selling point of the RX1R II is the variable OLPF. At normal printing or viewing sizes, you’d be very hard pushed to spot the difference in detail between images. If you examine at 100%, it’s possible to see some finer detail in images where the OLPF has been set to off, which is useful if you’re photographing something which has a lot of fine detail, or you need to crop an image. I tended to leave the setting to off by default and have found no incidence of moire patterning occurring.
At ISO 3200, image noise in JPEG images is practically non existent, with the camera’s processing doing a good job of reducing it, without too much loss of detail. If we open a corresponding raw file and switch off all forms of noise reduction, you can see that noise is present, but it is fine grained and only noticeable when examining an image at 100% on screen.
Step up to ISO 12800 and noise is a little more apparent in raw files with all noise reduction turned off, but you can still create good prints at A4 size even if you didn’t utilise any noise reduction. At 100% there’s more chroma noise (coloured speckling) than in ISO 3200 shots, but again, you’re unlikely to have much cause for complaint at normal printing or viewing sizes.
The top native sensitivity is ISO 25600, and even images shot at this level can be used to make decent prints at smaller sizes of 10 x 8 inches or smaller. Alternatively, such images are ripe for atmospheric black and white conversions.
- Detail is kept well throughout the camera’s sensitivity range. Our labs tests show it can out resolve the Leica Q at every sensitivity, which is good news for those who like to shoot in low light. This image was shot at ISO 6400. Click here for a full size version.
- Although 35mm is not often considered a traditional focal length for portraiture, you can get some nice ‘environmental’ type shots. Click here for a full size version.
- Skin tones are reproduced beautifully well, while the amount of detail present is fantastic if you examine at 100%. Click here for a full size version.
- Couple a wide aperture (the maximum available is f/2.0, this has been shot at f/2.8) with a full-frame sensor and you have a recipe for beautiful shallow depth of field effects. Click here for a full size version.
Using Multi (all-purpose) metering mode generally results in well-exposed and balanced images. In fact, I rarely had to touch the exposure compensation dial at all during testing, with the exception of scenes which had an area of particularly high contrast or backlighting. This is not out of the ordinary for the majority of cameras, and it certainly copes well in average conditions.
The automatic white balance system presents accurate colours in daylight scenarios, so using it is a good option, as is both the Daylight and Cloudy options (depending on what conditions you’re shooting in). Under artificial lighting, colours are ever so slightly on the warm side, so if you prefer a more accurate look, switching to Incandescent produces a more neutral effect.
Speaking of colours, they are beautifully and warmly saturated throughout the sensitivity range from ISO 100 to around ISO 12800. Vibrant colours pop and when combined with the superb amount of detail give a gorgeous richness to shots, without going overboard and reducing accuracy.
Despite the increase in resolution, the Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 T* lens continues to perform well on the RX1R II. I couldn’t find any distortion, while vignetting is very well controlled even when shooting wide open (f/2.0).
Sony’s claims that AF speed has been considerably improved for the RX1R II also seem to be justified – it could hardly be too much worse than the original, especially when talking about low light autofocus. Now it can be relied upon in a variety of different shooting conditions, quickly snapping into focus in good light, taking just a little longer as the light dips. It’s very rare for a false positive confirmation of focus to be displayed, which is also good news. Switching to macro focus mode can get you closer to the subject, which is useful in some cases – you’ll probably need a bit of practice before you instinctively know how close too close is, though.
Sadly we do have to talk about some of the not-so-positive aspects of the RX1R II’s performance. Battery life, which has long been a bugbear for owners of RX cameras, continues to be poor. Naturally, a small camera only has room for a small battery, so when the camera is as resource hungry as this, unfortunately that translates into a poor battery life.
The quoted life is 200 shots, but, during testing, I found that the battery would start to drain after roughly half a day of moderate usage, or closer to 100 shots. At this point I started to worry about it dying when I really wanted to take a shot, so I stopped using it as much as I would have liked to – it would be nice if that worry wasn’t present at all. If you’re going to want to take shots throughout an entire day, you’ll probably want to invest in a second battery.
Those huge files also seem to have an impact on processing speed. Despite being fitted with Sony’s Bionz X processor, start-up time is longer than we’d like, shot-to-shot times can be a little frustrating, and if you want to look at an image, or make a settings change in the one, two (or sometimes three) seconds after you’ve taken a shot, you can forget it. Zooming into an image to check critical focus is also frustratingly slow at times, too.
- This image has been shot at 1/60, which, with no optical image stabilisation available is pushing it in terms of keeping it sharp. I braced myself and used the electronic viewfinder to keep the camera as steady as possible – if you don’t want to worry about that for every shot, you’ll need to stick to speeds of 1/100, 1/125 or quicker. Click here for a full size version.
That’s where another problem with the camera makes itself apparent. A 42 megapixel sensor is never going to be particularly forgiving when it comes to camera shake, so it’s a shame not to see any form of optical image stabilisation built-in. If you want to shoot slower than around 1/125 or 1/100, it’s highly likely you’ll need to use a tripod if you want your shots to be sharp at 100% magnification. It is possible to go a little slower than that if you only intend to view your shots at print sizes of A4 or below (which is likely to be most of them), or if you can steady yourself and/or the camera particularly well.
If you’re at all concerned with sharpness then you’re going to want to shoot fast by default. In this respect, the Sony RX1R II doesn’t compare too favourably with the Leica Q, which has image stabilisation and we found happily lets you get away with shutter speeds of 1/10 second, or even slower in some cases.
Lab tests: Resolution
We test resolution in laboratory conditions using an industry standard test chart. Resolution is quoted in line widths/picture height, a standard comparison method for digital cameras. We tested the RX1R II across a wide ISO range and shooting both JPEG and RAW files. Our charts also show the results from three of its rivals:
- Sony RX1R: This is the RX1R II’s predecessor and it uses the same lens and body shape, though the sensor is an older 24-megapixel design.
- Leica Q: Expensive but beautiful fixed-lens high-end compact from Leica, also with a full frame sensor.
- Fuji X100T: The X100T has a smaller 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, but it’s pitched at the same quality-conscious audience and it’s considerably cheaper.
JPEG resolution analysis: The combination of the Sony’s Zeiss lens and non-anti aliased 42Mp sensor have proved too much for our test chart, and the RX1R II’s resolution is off the scale right up until ISO 6400. It beats all of its rivals by some margin.
Raw (converted to TIFF) resolution analysis: The Sony’s raw files don’t show quite the same resolution advantage as its JPEGs, but it’s still visibly better than its nearest rival, the Leica Q, with the old Sony RX1R and Fuji X100T trailing in third place.
Lab tests: Dynamic range
Dynamic range is a measure of the camera’s ability to record detail across a wide brightness range. Dynamic range is measured in EV (exposure values), and the higher the figure the better. We test dynamic range using DxO Analyzer in laboratory conditions.
JPEG dynamic range analysis: The extra megapixels of the RX1R’s sensor don’t seem to have hurt its dynamic range performance – it comes out on top in this group, with the old RX1R a close second.
Raw (converted to TIFF) dynamic range analysis: The results for raw files are much closer, though even here the RX1R has the edge, and the gap grows wide as the ISO increases to 1600 and beyond.
Lab tests: Signal to noise ratio
The signal to noise ratio figure shows the proportion of random image noise there is in the camera’s images. The higher the figure the better.
JPEG signal to noise ratio analysis: Again, the Sony RX1R II’s high resolution appears to have no impact on its noise levels. Only the Fuji X100T can match its JPEG signal to noise ratio across the full ISO range.
Raw (converted to TIFF) signal to noise ratio analysis: The raw results tell a slightly different story, and here the RX1R II is closer to the rest – if anything, the Leica Q has a slight advantage in the medium ISO range, though loses out slightly past ISO 6400.
Sony’s technological prowess continues to impress with the RX1R II. When Leica brought out its Q last year, the full-frame fixed lens compact market finally had another player. Sony, to its credit, has come back with something which also has an excellent viewfinder, but can out resolve the Leica.
The images are undeniably beautiful – they’re a joy to look at. It’s the detail which really makes them pop, and you can’t help but be impressed when you look back at them on your computer screen. That said, you’ll need to have a fast computer if you don’t want to be frustrated by the huge file sizes the camera produces.
You’ll also need to invest in some fast, high capacity SD cards too, unless you want to be changing them very frequently (or you don’t want to shoot in raw format).
Using the RX1R II is also a great experience. It’s one of those cameras that you can’t wait to get out and shoot with. It has an almost film camera like look about it, while its light weight and small size mean you don’t mind carrying it around with you all day. The addition of the fantastic electronic viewfinder really elevates this camera for me – and anybody who appreciates composing with a viewfinder will really enjoy this addition. The fact that it collapses into the body is pretty marvellous too.
There are some quirks of using the camera, some of which you’ll learn to get over, or adjust to, such as the aperture ring being just a bit too close to the camera body for maximum comfort. Others, such as the lack of a touch sensitive screen, are more consistently annoying if you often like to change the focus point.
Without doubt, the best thing about the RX1R II is its ability to create stunning, detailed and beautifully saturated images. Although you only have one focal length to work with (35mm), it’s quite a flexible focal length for lots of different subjects, including environmental portraits, architecture, some landscapes, and it is a favorite focal length for street photographers.
The addition of the world’s first variable optical low pass filter means that you have ultimate control over the amount of detail the camera is capable of producing, but if you do find yourself photographing something which produces moire, you’ve got a solution for that too.
Sony still hasn’t created the perfect camera here, sadly. Battery life is poor, and presumably because of the massive file sizes created by the camera, processing and operational speeds are slower than we’d like.
It’s also a shame not to see any kind of optical image stabilisation. While it’s true that the type of subjects which are great for this kind of focal length are often characterised by quick shutter speeds, having to stick to 1/125 or 1/100 or faster to be on the safe side is a little disappointing when you consider how slow the Leica Q will let you shoot.
Pretty much every year Sony comes up with some technological innovation which is designed to keep the company at the forefront of photographers’ minds, helping it to draw their attention away from the giants of the industry, Nikon and Canon.
With the RX1R II, Sony has produced something fantastic and makes for excellent competition for the Leica Q, its nearest rival. The high resolution sensor, the addition of the viewfinder and the variable optical low pass filter are great new features, but there are enough reasonably small niggles to add up to a less than perfect offering.
It’s a camera you undeniably want to use, but, at such a high asking price, it continues to be a niche product for a niche audience. Those who have got the money though, count yourself lucky, because the image quality is gorgeous.