All images in this review are clickable for larger versions, via the flickr host. The EXIF data is also intact. Apologies in advance for the lack of variety of sample images; the weather over the last few days just hasn’t been cooperative. No matter, I’ll continue to use this camera regularly as my pocket camera, and will be posting images both here and to my flickr page.
After receiving a number of emails asking if I’d review the Sony RX100, I decided to check one out for myself. Up to this point, I admit I hadn’t paid much attention to the latest round of compact camera offerings – I’ve got several excellent compacts, CSCs, SLRs – basically, all my bases are covered. Could I use something that might perhaps bring the next image quality notch closer to being pocketable? Sure.
Note: throughout this review, the product shots have had the logo taped over to prevent them being lifted and used without permission (which has happened before, often for dodgy internet merchants or ebay sellers). It seems image theft is a reality of the internet. Making a dime comes before any kind of ethics, which is rather sad.
My first encounter with the camera was in Hong Kong, oddly enough at a little store catering to second hand gear – yep, even before most of the world gets to have a camera in stock, there are people here already deciding that it’s time for the next best thing. I played with it for a bit, was hugely impressed by the focusing speed, and equally impressed by the low light capabilities of the camera. But I left to sleep on it overnight, and by the time I’d realized a few days later that the camera was constantly on the back of my mind, it was too late because it’d been sold.
No matter. I figured I could get one locally – wrong! In any case, a fellow photography friend in Hong Kong and Fedex came to the rescue; a day after asking him to hunt for one, it arrived on my doorstep.
Proper first impressions, in the cold light of day: it’s small. Very small. Especially considering it’s packing a 1″, 20.2MP sensor and 28-100mm lens; sure, it’s f4.9 on the long end, but that’s better than almost all kit zooms (I’m looking at you, Nikon 1, with your bulky 28-80/3.5-5.6 equivalent) and an extremely impressive f1.8 on the wide end. In effect, this camera makes the Nikon J1 look utterly pointless – it’s cheaper, has a better lens than both the kit zoom and the ‘fast’ pancake prime, and both better specified and more controllable. It’s actually nearly 1cm narrower and several mm shorter than the Ricoh GR-Digital III; and only 2mm thicker. The Leica D-Lux 5* I’ve got looks positively chubby by comparison. Of the three, only the Sony doesn’t have a hotshoe (and the Leica’s also doubles as an EVF port). Design-wise, it feels very much like Sony just duplicated the Canon S90/95/100 series of cameras, adding a prominent seam around the middle of the camera almost as an afterthought. Lineage-wise, however, it’s clearly a descendant of the V1 from 2003 and later the V3 from late 2004; both enthusiast compacts with bright Carl Zeiss lenses and plenty of manual controls. There’s also a bit of R1 DNA in there too, with its large sensor and fixed lens. However, the RX100 loses the various eye level finders of its predecessors. I don’t miss it too much; those little optical tunnel finders are nearly useless for precise composition anyway, and there’s no way to know what the camera has focused on, either.
*Comments also apply to the Panasonic LX5. The LX7 is going to be even larger; even though the lens gains a stop in speed, the sensor remains approximately the same size (1/1.7″ instead of 1/1.63″).
The body may be tiny, but the lens is by far the largest of the lot.
Of course, that isn’t the whole story; both Ricoh and Leica will focus down to 1cm at wideangle, where the Sony is limited to 5cm, and something much further at telephoto – nearly two feet. The Leica will go wider, and faster at f3.3 at the long end; the Ricoh of course has no long end, but it’s party piece is the excellent fast fixed 28/1.9. If this is starting to feel a bit like a comparison, it is; realistically, I’ve got these three serious compacts in my arsenal as options for when I need something truly pocketable. And taking two along would be utterly stupid (and defeat the point of a compact at all) – so there can only be one choice.
Sometimes, little quirks of handling can make or break a camera. The Ricoh excels here – it’s probably the best handling compact ever; two fully programmable control dials, a rocker switch, locking mode dial, and a wonderfully large pill-shaped shutter button that has both a well-defined half press, as well as a clean, soft break. Combine that with sticky rubber and rough magnesium, and it’s a handling dream. The Leica is a bit smooth for my liking; it’s slippery and easy to drop, and the rear control dial is stiff and difficult to press. But it does have an aspect ratio and focus mode switch, which gains it points in my book. However, the physical lens cap is definitely not a good thing – the Sony’s lens is much, much larger, and they’ve still managed to fit a retractable shutter in there.
That said, I find the Sony’s controls both small and fiddly; ‘delicate’ is perhaps the best word to describe them. Firstly, the shutter button’s travel is far too shallow; the half press is stiff without much feedback or travel, and full press feels somewhat like half press on most compacts. Still, it’s very soft, which means it should be easy to activate without exciting too much camera shake. The camera does overall feel very responsive when shooting, and I suspect that shutter button feel has something to do with it. The rest of the buttons are small and similarly lack tactile feedback; the Ricoh meanwhile is exemplary in this regard. The RX100 actually has two control dials – one around the lens, which lacks any physical detents, and one around the four-way controller, which is used to control exposure parameters. I personally think the missing detents on the lens ring are a mistake; it makes it difficult to set exposure parameters (or any setting that has discrete increments) accurately. This limits its usefulness to only two things – zoom control and manual focus, which is a shame, really.
There are a few other things I don’t like about this camera – let’s get these out of the way first, because they’re all relatively minor.
1. Charging in-camera – this makes it impossible to maintain two batteries; the camera needs it, because you’re definitely not going to make it through a whole day of shooting with only one. Battery life is about 300-400 shots per charge depending on how much chimping you do. Sony, at the price you’re charging for this thing, how difficult would it be to include a charger, or a battery-cap if you insist on just supplying a USB cable?
2. No shutter speed limits to auto ISO – I suppose it’s using 1/focal length, but there’s no way to be sure.
3. It’s slippery as hell and far too easy to drop. It would have been nice if the bottom portion (after the central groove) was wrapped in sticky rubber or something.
4. No raw support* (not really a Sony flaw, and I suppose it’s coming soon from Adobe)
5. No hotshoe – not really a big deal actually – I don’t think I’ve ever used the hotshoe on a camera like this, other than to hold an external optical finder – and if used at 28mm, this camera is just crying out for one. Sadly, there’s absolutely nowhere to put it.
6. The ‘?’ button isn’t reprogrammable – that makes it basically useless for advanced users when shooting, because it brings up a kind of ‘how to’ for beginners. That and it deletes images – which is bound to be supremely confusing for the novice, because instead of having his or her questions answered – their image will disappear!
7. While the camera is pretty fast to start up, it’s inexplicably very slow to turn off – and sometimes, won’t turn off at all if you suddenly move it. (Apparently this is the ‘drop sensor’ feature designed to freeze everything and prevent damage in case you do happen to drop it. It seems that somebody on the engineering team thought the design was too slippery…)
8. No manual included, print or CD – some settings are just not obvious (like manual WB for instance), and having to use the online HTML manual is a royal pain.
9. The meter tends to underexpose; I understand why this is useful to protect highlights especially for a sensor with small pixel pitch, but according to the histogram it’s by as much as two stops in cases.
*If you’re wondering why I didn’t use the supplied software, I did – but I stopped soon after starting, because frankly, like every other manufacturer-produced converter, it’s crap. Excruciatingly slow, doesn’t give you as much flexibility as ACR, and just doesn’t integrate into the rest of my workflow. It takes me less time to compensate for JPEG limitations than work around the raw converter, and in the end, the results are still better.
Still, at least we’re not restricted to only Memory Stick media, I suppose. There are a lot of things to like about the RX100. I’m going to ignore the trick multishot, face detect and scene modes (panorama, low light stacking etc) and just focus on the things that might be of interest to photographers. From a usability point of view, focus is both fast and accurate – even at the long end of the zoom, in lower light. I think it might be because there’s some form of continuous pre-AF always going on in the background; this definitely can’t be good for battery life. There is an AF assist lamp, but as with all ‘conveniences’ of this sort, it’s obnoxious. I turned it off. I keep being fooled into thinking it’s a small sensor compact because of its size; it isn’t, and you do have to watch your focus point – especially at nearer focusing distances, and with the lens wide open. As with all contrast detect AF cameras, continuous autofocus is best avoided, though the tracking mode works pretty well in static scenes – hit the center button to activate it, put the box over the thing you want to track, then hit it again to lock on. I can see this being useful for posed portraits, but little else. There’s also manual focus with peaking and magnification, though AF is so fast and flexible that I can’t see why you’d want to use it.
It’s worth saying something about the LCD, too – the ‘Whitemagic’ LCD has 1.2 million dots, but VGA resolution; there’s an extra white pixel in there to boost the brightness of the panel under daylight. The upshot is that this is one of the best LCDs in the business – it’s sharp and fluid, and you almost can’t see the pixels. It should be a little brighter, but it seems that you can’t gain up the auto-brightness setting – either manual or nothing. Sony deserves some praise for including a shooting mode where there aren’t any icons cluttering the framing portion of the display; instead, critical exposure settings are displayed in a black bar at the bottom of the screen, very reminiscent of an SLR finder. Without this, it would be impossible to compose – there are just too many darned icons littering the screen, taking up almost the entire left third of the display.
I do have one complaint about the LCD and metering system, though – it’s not consistent, or representative. Firstly, you can’t accurately judge exposure from the LCD like you can with some other cameras (the Nikon DSLRs and Olympus OM-D come to mind); secondly, matrix metering is rather unpredictable. Though it mostly tends to underexpose (presumably to protect highlights) – sometimes it does so hugely, by as much as two stops; yet there are other times when it does the exact opposite. I think this is Sony’s attempt at trying to replicate the actual scene as closely as possible, but it instead limits your dynamic range and increases noise – not to mention being a colossal pain given we have no proper RAW support at the moment, so post-capture adjustment latitude is limited. I’ve reverted to the centerweighted meter for any tricky lighting situations, because I simply have no certainty over how this camera’s matrix meter is going to respond.
This type of camera would probably benefit from a well-implemented touch panel to change settings or at very least select focus point; the economy of buttons doesn’t help when it comes to changing settings quickly. Having said that, the lens ring and Fn button functions are programmable; the latter holding seven customizable items. It also has three memory banks that remember all camera settings, and occupy the MR position on the mode dial. The one thing that really needs to be changeable isn’t – that’s the rear dial rotation. Somehow it just feels back to front to me, which results in a few fumbles before reaching the desired setting. Still, it lets you jump between zoomed-in images when in play mode, which is handy for comparing shots. (You can also power up the camera in playback mode without extending the lens by holding down the play button.) For the most part, camera functions – menus, navigation – are all snappy and occur without lag. The overall impression is of a very responsive camera indeed.
Adding to the feeling of speed is the 10fps continuous shooting mode, which works even in RAW+JPEG; there’s a small amount of lag between bursts as the files are written to the card (I’m using a 32GB UHS-1 Sandisk Extreme HD SDHC card), but there’s a seriously impressive amount of data being shunted around here. Somehow, the Sony engineers also found space to stuff in a couple of gyros too – there’s a level display, plus optical image stabilization. To be honest, the stabilizer feels a bit less effective than that in the Panasonics, and much less effective than the Olympus OM-D – surprising, because I believe it’s a lens-based system. It’s probably good for 1-1.5 stops.
B&W portrait. I’m pleased with the tonality, despite being a) shot at ISO 3200 and 1/30s, so it was dark; b) being a JPEG; c) having most of the bottom halftones seemingly crushed into the shadows, and the highlight detail ‘stretched out’.
Image quality breaks down into two parts – the lens, and the sensor. Let’s talk abut the lens first.
Given the incredibly small pixel pitch, best working apertures are at below f5.6, and ideally around f4; this however is a bit of a problem as the lens only reaches f4.9 on the long end. Still, I don’t see much evidence of diffraction softening. For the most part, this is a reasonably good lens despite its ambitious specifications – the only place where it’s let down is close focusing distance (say under 20cm or so) and maximum aperture at the wide end. You’re going to have to be at f2.8 or preferably f4 to get critically sharp images when shooting close; before that point, there’s a lot of flare and coma going on that robs sharpness. At normal distances, it’s an decent performer. Mine’s does better in the corners at telephoto than wide; in fact, the corners are pretty soft at f1.8, which leads me to suspect a degree of field curvature. The top edge is also softer than the bottom edge of the frame – it’s difficult to build a retractable lens with consistently high resolving power cross-frame due to the required tolerances; not that this is any excuse. The lens also remembers your last used focal length when the camera was turned off – there doesn’t seem to be any way of disabling this though. There is a bit of bokeh available, though not much – but what you do see is relatively smooth an inoffensive (though I haven’t had any extremely harsh lighting conditions under which to shoot the camera yet).
Distortion and vignetting are minimal, and I didn’t see any evidence of CA, but since there’s no way to open the RAW files without the effects of Sony processing (I don’t count the supplied raw converter), it’s impossible to say how much of these optical limitations are being removed by the in-camera processing. I suppose we’ll just have to wait for an ACR update to find out. In the meantime, I’m making a ‘raw’ jpeg by turning off NR, reducing saturation and contrast to the minimum levels, and upping sharpening one notch (to preserve detail).
Does it have the Zeiss magic? Honestly, I’m not seeing it in the JPEGs – raw files might be a different story. It’s definitely a notch above the compact camera lenses I’ve used up to this point (with the exception of the GRDIII’s lens) but don’t expect it to have the same 3D pop as the ZF/ZE/ZM glass. It’s not a depth of field related thing either; the larger format glass pops even at hyper focal. (It could very well be a sensor limitation though).
The sensor is another story. Ostensibly, it’s a relative of the 10MP 1″ unit found in the Nikon 1 cameras; it’s a CMOS sensor with RGB filter array (curiously, not one of Sony’s four-color arrays). Pixel pitch is 2.4 microns compared to around 2 for the 10MP 1/1.7″ types, sub-2 for most normal compacts, 3.38 for the Nikon 1, 4.2 for the OM-D, and 4.88 for the D800E. Thus we’d expect slightly better performance than the current crop of prosumer compacts – perhaps a little more, given the generation gap. Not quite – it seems that this sensor is another generation ahead of the sensor in the Nikon 1, because it delivers similar noise levels, dynamic range and color accuracy despite having twice the number of photosites crammed in. In fact, from a noise point of view, it’s probably a bit better than the 12MP M4/3 sensor used in the E-P3 generation. Not quite what you expected huh? And all this from JPEG output. It seems Sony has upped their game there, too – unlike the oversaturated, over-contrasty, strange-hued JPEGs of the NEX-5, the RX100 generates remarkably natural looking files. Noise reduction – it cannot be completely turned off – when turned down, does a decent job of balancing texture/ detail and noise. My one complaint is that auto white balance is all over the place, and the camera doesn’t seem to like doing manual WB from a gray card – either it fails entirely, or delivers a very strange hue shift.
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I feel there are only two areas in which the sensor’s smaller pixel pitch starts to show – that’s dynamic range, and edge acuity at higher ISOs. While dynamic range is a bit better than the prosumer compacts – perhaps 9.5-10 stops useable JPEG (and hopefully 11-11.5 in RAW) – the highlights and especially shadows clip quite abruptly (a lot of the tonal range seems bunched up in the bottom third of the histogram), so one must take care with exposure – not something easy to do when you have to contend with the camera’s erratic metering*. If you push the shadows too far in post, you start to get splotchy, low frequency (but random) yellow-blue pattern noise depending on the ambient lighting. There are also a few hot pixels thrown in for good measure, too. Edge acuity is another thing altogether – there’s visible erosion of fine detail structures beginning at ISO 1600, and getting more obvious as you go higher. Dynamic range doesn’t suffer quite as much as you’d expect, though. Overall, I’d put the high-ISO limit of this camera at 3200 – this is about the same as the Pen Mini, and a 1-1.5 stops more than the LX5, GRDIII et al. It’s going to be very interesting to see how this camera performs once we have a way to put the raw files on a level playing field…
*It’s also possible that I’ve been spoiled by the nice, linear RAW files from today’s CMOS-based DSLRs and CSCs. But then again, that’s unlikely, because the tonal response of the M-Monochrom’s CCD is quite similarly biased towards shadows and highlights and I didn’t have any problems processing those.
On the whole, two things left their mark on me during this review and while using the camera – firstly, I was constantly surprised by just how good the image quality was. I expected compact camera level, I was given constantly CSC-level, though not quite as good as the latest generation of M4/3 bodies like the OM-D. In many ways, it felt like an entry level DSLR crammed into a compact body. It’s incredibly fast and responsive, and shunts around large RAW files at 10fps without a hiccup. The lens is definitely an excellent performer, and a notch above the kit zooms; not to mention being faster at both ends and having a bit more reach. The second, less positive impression felt as though some useability had been sacrificed for size, usually unnecessarily – there’s no reason why we can’t have detents on the lens ring, an external charger, or even a printed manual (especially important given the complexity of the controls). There are ways to adjust things from both menu and shortcuts, but seemingly odd inflexibilities like the useless ‘?’ button and lack of an AF-point reset key (you have to move it back to the center with the D-pad). In some ways, the camera does feel like an experiment; which is surprising given the maturity of compact camera designs these days.
But on the whole, the RX100 gets it right – it is undoubtedly the best compact camera available today, especially from the point of view of image quality. And I still feel as though it hasn’t shown its full potential yet, hampered by the lack of RAW support. I’ll be taking this camera with me on holiday at the end of the month – and only this camera. (It’s a family trip, not a shooting one; I usually bring the GRDIII for occasions like this). It’ll be interesting to see how it performs, and if I feel like anything is missing – look out for an update early next month. Hopefully we’ll get ACR support by then too.
I didn’t think I’d have quite so much to say about quite so small a camera; the overwhelming feeling is that we’re very nearly at the point where there aren’t that many good reasons left for a larger sensor or even interchangeable lenses for most users – but perhaps that’s another generation out. What I do notice is that the improvement in smaller sensors has also had an effect on the way I compose – rather than seeking shallower depth of field, I’m looking for just enough to give the right amount of separation of subject from background; sometimes, a fast wide on a smaller 1″ sensor is enough; other times, you have no choice but to use 300mm on medium format because of the required perspective. One final point worth noting: this isn’t a cheap camera. In fact, it’s a good 50% over a Pen Mini kit, and comparable to a GX1 kit. It seems that you’re paying double taxes for minaturization and Zeiss optics; but the very few compromises mean that if you already have a large, fully-featured CSC or DSLR, then this is the ideal pocket companion for the times when you just don’t want all that weight. The RX100 isn’t a mature replacement for a larger camera, but the number of reasons to have one around definitely just got smaller. The limitations now rest squarely on the photographer; for most people, this is all the camera they’ll ever need. This is the king of the hill when it comes to compacts – I’ve not yet shot with anything else this size that has such great base ISO image quality and can handle ISO3200 with impunity and minimal consequences to image quality, whilst not holding you up with either focusing or continuous shooting speed. Highly recommended. MT
Coda: I’ve taken to putting some cloth tape on the front of my camera’s grip area for a more secure hold, because as handsome as the smooth anodized aluminium looks, it’s a slippery little bugger. Looks hideous, but I’d rather that than drop a very expensive point and shoot.
One reader also made a good comment on video: I’ve left it out. Yes, the camera can do 1080P 50/60, which is astounding considering its size; I tried it briefly and it looks fantastic, however I lack the expertise in this area to make any comments of weight other than to say that a) I don’t see much, if any, visible artefacting; b) you can zoom while recording, and it’s silent; c) the camera records stereo sound.
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