Why does a camera with built-in lens cost $3000?

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February 28, 2013 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A by  •  3 Comments

I have been reading about a Sony camera, the RX1 with built-in lens, that’s said to sell for about $3000. I thought that was a mistake, but I checked and it does cost $3000. The RX1 is the Compact Camera of the Year on several websites, but it costs more than most digital SLRs. Can you explain why it is so expensive?
-Ken B.

You’re right, Ken, the 24-megapixel Sony DSC-RX1 is pricey, but after testing it recently, I can appreciate why it retails for $3000. First, it’s equipped with a 23.9 x 35.8 mm sensor vs. the more typical 5.58 x 7.44 mm size. This allows for huge pixels for outstanding image quality at up to ISO 1600 and very fine quality even at ISO 3200. In fact, one review indicates that the RX1 “rivals (and sometimes surpasses) full-frame DSLRs.” The very large sensor is expensive to manufacture, and Sony also had to develop special technology to make the camera compact in spite of the oversized CMOS chip.

Sony RX1

Note too that this diminutive camera features very solid build quality, with a rugged (482-g) magnesium-alloy body, not just a few panels made of metal. It’s equipped with a 3-inch LCD with a much higher than average resolution of 1.3 million dots, a built-in flash plus hot shoe for external flash, and DLSR-style controls including an aperture ring and a manual focus ring. The knurled external dials are made of milled metal. There’s no viewfinder, but Sony markets an optional electronic finder ($600) and a very classy optical viewfinder ($450).

The built-in Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35-mm lens—with an incredibly wide maximum aperture of f/2—is better than many others that are made for DSLR cameras. Even at f/2, my images are sharp across the entire frame. This lens employs three aspherical elements, including an “advanced aspheric” element, and a leaf shutter for nearly silent operation. When you consider that a Zeiss 35-mm f/2 Z lens for Canon and Nikon DSLRs sells for $1150, you can understand part of the reason for the high price of the Sony DSC-RX1 with built-in lens.

This Raw capture, made at ISO 3200 using f/2, confirms the high level of quality at high ISO and at maximum aperture. My 13 x 19" print is impressive in all aspects. In terms of image quality, I found the DSC-RX1 to be highly competitive with the Sony a77 with a Carl Zeiss T* 24-mm f/1.8 lens. © 2013 Peter K. Burian

The smallest full-frame camera on the market, it offers DSLR-style features, including 25-point AF and convenient manual focus; 14-bit Raw, HDR and Sweep Panorama modes; wireless off-camera flash support; Full HD Movie mode with stereo sound and overrides; as well as a 5-fps continuous drive mode. Some industry observers have suggested that the price is too high, but the RX1 is clearly a premium-grade product with the best available technology, construction and lens. It should certainly appeal to the most serious photographers who want a jacket-pocket-sized, take-anywhere camera when not carrying a DSLR kit.

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3 Comments

  1. Diane / March 1, 2013 at 9:53 am / Reply

    That’s St. John’s Cathedral in Savannah, Ga. I have a lot of great pictures of the Philharmonic Christmas concert there! This is a great shot. I hope they make this camera with interchangeable lenses. Can they keep the body size as small with interchangeable lenses? Then it would be the perfect pro camera…and a hot shoe for a flash.

    • Peter K Burian / March 1, 2013 at 10:28 am / Reply

      You’re right Diane. St. John the Baptist in Savannah, last week while I was
      testing the Sony RX1. The exterior is under scaffolding now,
      but the interior renovations are finished and it looks spectacular.

      No they won’t make this camera with an interchangeable lens.
      But I hope they do make it with a zoom lens in future, although that will
      increase the size/weight. Cheers! Peter Burian

  2. Sam Carriere / March 2, 2013 at 6:56 am / Reply

    I own this camera, which was admittedly an extravagance, but as Peter Burian notes, the quality of the build and of the photographs justify the price. It’s one of the few cameras I have used in a long time that actually makes me want to go out into the Canadian winter just so I can take pictures.

    The camera is what it is, and please accept that. To wish that it came with a zoom or interchangeable lenses is to wish for something else — a Fuji X-Pro1 maybe. The RX1 has rightly been compared to a Leica. In that context, it is dirt cheap.