Sony’s compact RX1R II is a whole lotta camera, but it might not be the camera for you

When you need something a bit more hefty than your iPhone, you'll have to reach for the big guns. Just maybe not this $3,900 camera.

sony cybershot dsc rx1r

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For most people, an iPhone is all the camera you’ll need—it’s in your pocket wherever you roam, ready to capture (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) the special moments of your life. And with the announcement of every new iPhone, its photographic credentials creep a little closer to rendering a lot of compact cameras obsolete.

However, not everyone is content with the photos their smartphone is capable of grabbing, with their wee-image sensors and software trickery. I’m one of them. As much as I rely on my iPhone SE for photos while I blunder through my daily life, I prefer to use Sony’s RX100 Mark III when I need to take my photos to a higher level—like when I’m doing product shots, a review, or I want to capture a spectacular view while I’m on the road. It offers me the opportunity to take more-detailed, life-like photos in a larger, more edit-friendly file format than my iPhone can afford.

As much as I love that my smartphone can do it all, sometimes, when you want a job done right, turning to a mission-specific tool is the best way to ensure your best work. Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC RX1R II camera is one such tool, and even though it costs (gulp) $3,900, I jumped at the chance to take it for a spin.

sony1 Séamus Bellamy

The RX1R II manual controls are a throwback to a time when photography was both an art and a skill.

As the ‘II’ in its name alludes to, the RX1R II is the second iteration of Sony’s flagship compact camera, and at first glance, it appears to be the bigger, beefier sibling of Sony’s RX100 lineup of cameras. Setting lines, size, and heft aside (the RX1R II is noticeably larger and heavier than a RX100 series camera), they look very much the same: Both are compact cameras with fixed lenses, adjustable LCD displays, and a pop-up electronic viewfinder. And, like any good higher-end compact camera, both come with automatic settings which cater to shooters in a hurry and shutterbugs still learning the ropes, as well as manual controls to you can use to fiddle with a wide variety of settings.

This, I’d argue, is where the similarities end. The RX1R II may look like the prosumer-level point-and-shoot compacts that I know and love but, in reality, it’s a serious piece of hardware designed for use by serious professional photographers. Aside from the bits that it shares in common with the RX100 series, the RX1R II’s other notable features include its 42.4 megapixel full-frame 24x36mm CMOS sensor and a 35mm fixed F2 lens. You won’t find interchangeable lenses here, or a built-in zoom. Those wishing to get in close to the action with this camera will have to step closer to their subject or shoot RAW images and edit them later. Is this limiting? Absolutely. But the limitations force you to become intimate with your camera and what it’s capable of—building your photographic skills and knowledge in order to get the shots you want. It also has an ISO of 100-25600, five user-customizable buttons, and a dedicated aperture ring.

As for video, it shoots that, too, at a resolution of 1080p60 HD. That’s nice, but with so many other camera companies ramping up for 4K and higher resolutions these days, it’s a little strange—especially given the high cost of the camera and the crazy-high quality of the still images it’s capable of producing.

sony 2 Séamus Bellamy

The RX1R II’s pop-up RVF is a godsend for framing a shot on a bright day.

During the two weeks I spent with the RX1R II, I grew to love the feeling of it in my hands. It feels solid and well made. I dig the look of its clean lines and subtle nods to classic manual camera design. And while Sony’s tendency to poop the bed on the software end of things has resulted in some very disappointing products over the years, the UI of their digital cameras has always been on point, being both easy and a pleasure to use.

But let me lay it on the line for you here: chances are, this isn’t the camera for you. To be perfectly honest, after spending close to two weeks with it, I was relieved to ship it back to Sony: It was just too damn expensive for me to feel comfortable roaming the streets of Vancouver with. More than this, despite using it for as long as I did, and being familiar with the quirks of Sony’s photographic hardware and software, I never felt comfortable shooting with it. I was always uncovering a new feature that could be tweaked and customized. The hardware was constantly surprising, and at times, frustrating. 

hastings Séamus Bellamy

Images snapped by an RX1R II offer an insane amount of depth and detail.

In short, I think the RX1R II is simply too much camera for me, both financially and from the standpoint of what features I felt like I needed or understood how to make use of. It’s definitely a camera that you could grow into, which for the price is a good thing. But for the casual photographer looking for a piece of hardware that’ll all them to grow their skill set, I’m not sure that it’s the right purchase. Three grand can buy a whole lot of camera. But you know what else it can buy? A less expensive camera and an amazing trip to somewhere you’ve never been to use it on. 

I think that’s where the smart money is—finding a balance between being able to afford new adventures and making smart purchases that will help you to enjoy them all the more.

Next Time: We’ll look at some of my favorite tech-friendly carry-on luggage and packs designed to accommodate your electronics and other travel essentials (for real this time!)

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