Compact cameras have been struggling recently, many people choose to use a smartphone for their picture-taking requirements, while more demanding photographers opt for a mirrorless or DSLR camera. But packing a large 1-inch-type sensor into its otherwise compact body, the Sony RX100 could offer enough of a boost to image quality to justify a spot in your pocket. I spent a bit of time with the compact powerhouse to find out if it does.
After carrying the RX100 around with me for a few days, I realized I was enjoying using it, and the images it produces, more than I expected. My phone hadn't come out of my pocket on camera duty, and neither had I felt the need to take my DSLR out with me on occasions I might normally have.
But that's not to say the camera is a perfect compact, the shooting experience has a couple of notable quirks and limitations, but there's no disputing the quality of the images that the RX100 produces, they are quite simply stunning for a camera of this size.
For a more detailed run-through of the specs, check out our news article about the release of the RX100.
From the moment you pick up the RX100, you know it means business, its sufficiently weighty metal construction feels sturdy in your hands, but not so much that you'll want to leave it at home rather than lug it around.
Size-wise, it's slightly bigger than many other compact cameras, but again not enough to put you off using it, and it's still much smaller than any DSLR and most mirrorless cameras.
While turned off, the camera is surprisingly svelte considering it houses a 1-inch-type CMOS sensor and a folding F1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss lens (with a 35mm effective focal length of 28-100mm). Then, when powered on, the lens extends to a length that makes you wonder how it ever fitted inside.
One issue I have with the RX100 is the lack of electronic viewfinder, or the option to add one via a hot-shoe (which the RX100 also lacks). Yes, the LCD screen on the rear is sharp and bright enough that I didn't have any issues using it in a variety of lighting conditions, but I prefer the shooting experience of using a viewfinder or EVF.
This probably seems like a strange complaint to have with a compact camera (why would anyone want an external flash or EVF on a compact?) but it's actually a credit to the RX100 that I wanted them – you only feel like the camera is lacking these features because it is otherwise so capable.
The overall experience of shooting with the RX100 is similar to that of using any number of point and shoot cameras, you're using the LCD to compose photographs, and there are not too many physical buttons, with most of the controls being set within menus.
Despite my personal preference for manual dials, like those on the Fuji X100, the Sony RX100 does make up for its lack of physical controls with an intuitive menu system (I'd say it was better than that of the NEX series) and no settings are ever too many button presses away.
One advantage the RX100 has over many other similarly compact cameras, is that a Fn button on the rear can be set to allow easy access to a number of camera settings including ISO, shutter speed, aperture and shooting mode, with a control wheel then used to change the setting,
A control ring around the lens barrel also allows users to experience a more manual and DSLR-esque feel to taking images, as it can be set to control settings such as focus and shutter-speed. For me, I liked leaving the lens ring on aperture control, but it also works particularly well for manual focus as the RX100 has focus peaking with selectable color and sensitivity.
For photographers moving up to the RX100 from a less able point-and-shoot – rather than regular DSLR users who want a smaller carry-everywhere camera – the scene mode on the Sony does a good job of ensuring users have the right settings for most situations, while also explaining what is being changed.
One of the biggest problems with compact cameras is that autofocus can often be very slow, to the point that the thing you are trying to take a photo of has gone before it's in focus. Not so with the RX100, its 25-point contrast detection autofocus does a very good job of nailing focus quickly, even in low light conditions, with minimal hunting.
Even in AF-C (continuous tracking) the RX100 performs admirably and is capable of keeping up with a hyperactive toddler, if not a speeding car, and has a relatively high hit rate in a burst of shots. Face recognition can also be especially handy when shooting active children.
For macro photographers, the minimum focus distance is 5 cm (2 inches) at the wide end of the lens, and 55 cm (22 inches) at the telephoto side of things.
While the overall feel and use of the RX100 is a positive experience, it's when you import your shots onto your computer that you really have the "Wow!" moment and fully appreciate what this little camera can do.
I was initially concerned that Sony had opted to cram 20.2 megapixels on a 1-inch-type sensor – the Nikon 1 V2 has 14 megapixels on a sensor of the same size and that feels about right. But I needn't have worried, the RX100 consistently produces exceptional quality images which can be so good you'll question whether you need to take a bigger camera out with you … and you'll never be satisfied with your camera-phone photos again.
Even in low light situations, the high ISO capabilities of the RX100 mean that you can get nice looking images. I had no hesitations about knocking it to ISO 1600, while even ISO 3200 images look good as long as you're not pixel-peeping or printing them out at an excessively large size.
The below image was shot at ISO 6400 and goes to show that you can get usable shots in lighting conditions that would likely be beyond the limits of previous compact cameras. Built-in vibration reduction also does a good job of eliminating camera shake in low light or images taken at a slower shutter speed.
It's notable that Sony opted to put a Carl Zeiss lens in the RX100, rather than one of its own G lenses which are used in most Cyber-shot compacts.
The F1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens is an impressive feat of engineering – not only does the lens covers a 35mm equivalent of 28-100mm on the 1-inch-type sensor, but it folds back into the camera when not in use. The lens is also nicely sharp across the full frame and suffers very little distortion in the corners.
My only criticism of the lens would be that while it is F1.8 at the widest point, it soon slows down as you zoom in, meaning you lose performance in darker situations and are less able to isolate the subject and blur the background.
There's also the ability to use optical zoom, autofocus and exposure adjustment during recording and a nice touch is that adjustments can be made using the control ring around the lens barrel. This reduces the risk of noise which can be made from the clicking of physical buttons.
Unfortunately there's no microphone input, but the stereo microphone on the top of the camera does an okay job and doesn't pick up too much noise from the camera. There's even the ability to control audio levels manually.
Another nice touch is the ability to capture high-res stills at the same time as recording video, without causing any interruption to the video … something that could turn even DSLR users a little green with envy.
In addition to the usual automatic, scene and manual shooting modes, the RX100 also has a number of other photographic features … some of which I found more useful than others.
A Sweep Panorama mode allows you to easily take a series of images by sweeping the camera horizontally or vertically. These photos are then automatically stitched together to create extra-wide panoramic landscapes or cityscapes. While this works better than some other panoramic modes I've used, the results can be a bit hit or miss.
Auto HDR mode on the RX100 takes three shots at different exposure settings to capture a better dynamic range of the scene and then combines them to create one image with more detail in the shadows and highlights. This can work very well in the right conditions and I was pleasantly pleased with results.
Now we get to Illustration and Watercolor features, I don't know why manufacturers include things like this on their cameras, particularly on capable ones like the RX100. But here's an example of how you can ruin your photos if you are so inclined.
The quality of images produced can be outstanding for its size – many look like they could have come from a mid-range DSLR – however as with any camera you will only get out of it what you are willing to put in. Even that large sensor and impressive lens mean nothing if you don't take the time to compose images properly and think about what you are doing.
This compact powerhouse would make a great carry-everywhere camera for a professional or experienced photographer who wants to shed the weight and bulk of their DSLR camera and lenses for everyday use, they get the creative freedom and an image quality which will more often than not be more than they need.
However, I'm not sure it's the ideal upgrade for a point-and-shoot user who wants to get seriously into photography. While all the manual options are there, it's very tempting to leave the RX100 in Auto, and though the lens is great for a compact camera, there's obviously no way of upgrading it, and the speed at the long end could leave you wishing that you'd opted for a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. There's also the little fact that the RX100 doesn't come cheap, at US$650 it costs the same as many entry-level DSLRs.
That said, the RX100 is a great camera – probably the best that you can fit in a jacket pocket–- and that's really why you should be buying one. If you want the best possible image quality in a pocketable camera, there's nothing that presently comes close to the Sony RX100.
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