ON TRIAL SONY CYBER-SHOT RX1R II
The Mark II model of Sony’s fixed-lens full-35mm compact heads into Leica Q territory as far as pricing is concerned, but it delivers twice the resolution and is close to half the size, so who’s quibbling?
If you have a spare five-and-a-half grand to play with, Sony would like to tempt you with its Mark II version of its fixed-lens full-35mm compact. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but Sony packs a lot of camera into the RX1R II.
Right, let’s talk money. If you like the idea of Sony’s Cyber-shot RX1R II then you’re up for the best part of five-and-a-half grand. Your change will be precisely a dollar. If you spent another $500 – possibly even less – you could have Leica’s fabulous Q… which is a Leica. A proper one, made in Germany and all that. So what’s a ‘new world’ camera doing locking horns with one from photography’s ‘old world’ aristocracy? It should be no contest, right? Well, er… no.
The Q is sheer Leica brilliance. Beautiful to look at in that classic Leica rangefinder camera way. Even nicer to handle and a superb performer, especially the 28mm f1.7 Summilux lens. Alongside it, the RX1R II looks like it was designed in crayon by a three-year-old and, somewhere along the line, it got a lens intended for a bigger camera body so the proportions are all a bit awkward. You wouldn’t call it pretty, but then beauty is really only ever skin deep and there’s much more to the Sony than its slightly gawky appearance. For starters, it is really small… the Q looks massive in comparison. And to put the RX1R II’s compact size into some context, it’s worth remembering that it matches a full-35mm format sensor with a 35mm f2.0 fast prime lens, a built-in EVF, and a tilt-adjustable monitor screen.
Here’s where the heavy hitting commences. This sensor is Sony’s 43.6 megapixels ‘Exmor’ BSI CMOS – as is used in the pro-level A7R II mirrorless camera and A99 II D-SLR – and the lens is a Zeiss Sonnar allglass design. So suddenly the RX1R II doesn’t look out of its league at all… it’s dancing all around the Q, saying “C’mon, c’mon, give us your best shot then”.The Leica has the wider angle 28mm lens – arguably
the perfect prime focal length on 35mm – but the Sony hits back with all the cropping potential that’s available when you’ve got 42.4 megapixels of effective resolution on tap… not far off twice the Q’s 24.2 MP. What the Sony really needs is a wide-angle converter – such as Fujifilm offers for its X100 Series models – to at least give 28mm or perhaps even 24mm.
A really clever feature on the RX1R II is called ‘Clear Image Zoom’ which operates up to 2.0x – to give the equivalent of a 70mm focal length – but with no loss of resolution. After the image is cropped, in-camera processing using analysis and interpolation returns it to 42 MP. A ‘Digital Zoom’ function then allows you to go up to 140mm, but with a cropped image at a lower resolution (still 18 MP though). Alternatively, there’s a ‘Smart Zoom’ which operates when you shoot at the medium and small JPEG sizes (effectively 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverter settings), and uses the extra pixels to give the magnified view while retaining the same image size. However, there’s no image stabilisation when shooting stills with the Sony (only an electronic shift for movies) whereas the Q’s lens incorporates an optical image stabiliser. Presumably the ultra-compact body precludes fitting the sensor-shift ‘SteadyShot’ IS Sony uses in its A7 mirrorless models.
It’s worth noting at this point that Sony further optimises the RX1R II’s ultra-high resolution via a variable optical low-pass filter which can be switched off altogether, set to ‘Hi’ to deliver the maximum correction for moiré patterns or set to ‘Standard’ which works like a conventional OLPF, balancing resolution and correction.
Not surprisingly given Sony’s heritage, the RX1R II is also a fairly handy video camera (see the Making Movies panel for the full story here), and while the Q is also actually quite capable here, it lacks some pretty important features such as a stereo audio input for external microphones.
While the Sony is a marvel of miniaturisation, there are some inevitable compromises. While the Mark I model had a builtin pop-up flash, but no EVF, the Mark II has it the other way around. The lack of a flash isn’t so much of a problem (the Leica Q doesn’t have one either), but the EVF suffers because of the lack of space even though Sony has come up with an ingenious arrangement for its design. The 0.39-inch OLED panel and the multi-lens eyepiece are located in a pop-up module which is released via a sprung-loaded lever and retracted by simply pushing it down. The design allows the eyepiece to move into place by itself (i.e. it doesn’t need to be manually pulled or pushed) and there’s still a strength adjustment. It all works really well mechanically. However, while the panel’s resolution is still a crispy 2.359 megadots, it’s truly tiny and the rubber eyecup has to be attached and detached every time you use the EVF. The cup was missing from our test camera which is probably an indication of what will happen to lots of them along the way. The Leica Q’s EVF is, of course, a triumph… it’s a LCOS-type display (Liquid Crystal On Silicon) with a resolution of 3.68 million dots and it’s big, bright and a lot more comfortable to use. Even more unexpectedly, the Q’s monitor screen has touch controls – including for autofocusing and shutter release – while the RX1R II’s panel doesn’t, but it is adjustable for tilt which, in particular, is very useful for low-level shooting.
On the subject of autofocusing, the RX1R II has the same hybrid system as its big brother A7R II which uses a total of 399 points for phase-difference detection measurements and 25 points for contrast-detection measurements.
It’s fast – Sony claims a 30 percent speed increase over the previous model – and the scene coverage is extensive enough to snare objects virtually right at the edges of the frame. These two attributes also contribute to excellent subject tracking and face (or even eye) detection capabilities, with continuous shooting at up to 5.0 fps. The Q’s AF is impressively fast too, and it can do up to 10 fps with continuous adjustment, but then it’s only handling around half the amount of data per frame.
Focus mode selection is via a switch on the Sony’s front panel which has the standard single-shot, continuous and manual settings plus one labelled ‘DMF’ which stands for Direct Manual Focus. DMF provides a continuous manual override so you can fine-tune the AF by simply using the focusing collar on the lens. Manual focus assist is via a magnified image and a focus peaking display which can be set to red, yellow or white and at one of three intensity levels. The Leica Q offers the same assists and its focusing mode switching is a little more elegant, especially the nifty sliding scales for the normal and macro distance ranges. On the
NOT ONLY DOES SONY TICK JUST ABOUT EVERY POSSIBLE BOX FOR FEATURES, IT CREATES A FEW OF ITS OWN.
Sony’s lens, the macro mode is selected by switching a control ring, with the close-up range spanning 20 to 35 centimetres.
The third control on the lens is the aperture collar which spans f2.0 to f22 in one-third f-stop increments. There’s a main mode dial and a second for setting exposure compensation between +/-3.0 EV (again in one-third increments). Exposure control is based on the same 1200-point sensor-based evaluative metering Sony uses on all its interchangeable lens cameras, with the options of centre-weighted average and spot measurements. The auto exposure modes are supplemented by an AE lock, the aforementioned compensation and auto bracketing over sequences of three, five or nine frames.
In terms of exposure control, the RX1R II and Q pretty well match each other with some small variations such as the aperture range (i.e. f2.0-22 versus f1.7-16) and another surprise in that the Leica has a sensor-based shutter to supplement its in-lens leaf-type (enabling a top speed of 1/16,000 second versus 1/4000 second) and the Sony doesn’t, but from here on, the two cameras diverge quite dramatically.
ESSENTIALS & EXTRAS
The Q follows Leica’s philosophy of “Dast Wesentliche” which translates as “the essential” and means it’s almost puritanically no-frills… for example, there’s only one JPEG compression setting (but a choice of four image sizes), no picture presets (although the JPEGs can be finetuned for sharpness, contrast and saturation), no dynamic range expansion or HDR capture, and most certainly no special effects.
On the other hand, the RX1R II happily embraces everything that the digital imaging technologies make possible. Not only does Sony tick just about every possible box for features, it creates a few of its own such as the ‘Smile Shutter’, ‘Soft Skin Effect’ retouching and ‘Auto Object Framing’ which uses subject/scene analysis to determine the framing. There’s a choice of 14 ‘Creative Style’ presets (with adjustments for contrast, sharpness and colour saturation from which you can create up to six user-defined ‘Creative Styles), 13 ‘Picture Effects’, adjustable aspect ratios (3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1), automatic subject/scene mode selection (44 in all), in-camera lens corrections (for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and distortion), panorama stitching (with standard and wide modes), multi-frame noise reduction (using four images), a myriad of self-timer configurations, multi-
shot HDR capture with auto or manual exposure adjustment, and auto bracketing not just for exposure, but also white balance, flash, dynamic range expansion processing and low-pass filter settings. In another unexpected turnaround, the Sony has a good old cable release socket in its shutter release… something you’d actually expect on the Leica.
And a coup for RAW shooters is that the 14-bit uncompressed files are handled in Phase One’s Capture One Express available as a free download for owners and arguably the best RAW converter on the planet.
Of course, some photographers may prefer the comparative austerity of the Leica Q – and it actually does have everything that’s really needed – but there’s no denying the creative potential of the Sony’s extensive ‘in-house’ facilities. And how does it stack up against the legendary Leica fit and feel? Well, while it may not look as elegantly classy, there’s no faulting the RX1R II’s build quality and overall solidity. It may be small, but it still weighs in at over 500 grams when operational so it has real prestige camera ‘heft’ and all the dials have very positive actions. You’re not likely to accidentally set any exposure compensation, for example. While it’s definitely more pocket-sized than the Leica Q, we’re still talking a big jacket pocket here and that weight is going to upset any tailored lines should you be at all fashionconscious. If so, splash out a bit more and buy the lovely leather case so you can wear the RX1R II on the outside.
And this is a camera that definitely grows on you the more that you use it and become familiar with where everything is, especially in the menu system. The menu design will be very familiar to anybody who has used a Sony Alpha camera of any flavour and it’s pretty logically arranged, but like on Canon’s D-SLRs, each page is self-continued so there’s
It may be small, but Sony’s RX1R II packs a real punch… starting with its 43.6 megapixels full-35mm sensor.
The pop-up EVF arrangement is very clever indeed, but it’s small and the eyecup needs to be manually attached and detached every time you use it. Monitor screen has tilt adjustments, but a bit surprisingly, no touch controls. Main input wheel is well positioned and performs a myriad of setting and navigation duties.
The top panel is largely traditional, including dials for mode setting and exposure compensation. The pop-up EVF is concealed at left. Yes, that is a cable release socket you see in the shutter release. On a Sony! Main mode dial includes three settings for customised camera set-ups. The aperture collar is graduated in onethird stop increments. Focusing ring is the fly-by-wire type. Exposure comp dial needs a vigorous shove to move… so no accidental settings here.
The replay screens include a full image with basic capture data, and a thumbnail with brightness and RGB histograms.
Menu system is the same design as used on Sony’s D-SLRs and mirrorless cameras. It’s busy, but easy to get around.
The monitor-based info panel is very comprehensive and includes both a real-time histogram and a dual-axis level display.