Two of the most interesting cameras in recent memory – the 645Z and RX100III, at completely opposite ends of the imaging spectrum but both pushing image quality – are arriving this week and I have a fundamental problem: a lack of light. Kuala Lumpur is blanketed in a horrible 100+API haze again that’s eating light and turning the sky into a giant drybox; right after two weeks of fantastic crystal-clear weather during which we had stars every night. I’ve made the most of the windows of opportunity, but in an ideal world I’d have liked to push the dynamic range of the thing a bit more.
First, some background. Those of you who followed this site in the early days will remember I was a big fan of the original RX100 for it’s flexibility and image quality. You’ll also know that I simply don’t have the time these days to review something that isn’t interesting; if the RX100 series isn’t sufficiency with a capital S in something barely larger than a couple of packs of playing cards, I’m not sure what is. I was constantly thinking it’s files were from a sensor one size larger. Combine that with very high responsiveness, good color and dynamic range, and you’ve got a spectacular pocket instrument. You’ll probably also recall I thought the IS was rather anemic and the wide end of the lens left a lot to be desired – f1.8 it might have been, but not very useful til f4 or thereabouts. The upshot of all of this is it was primarily deployed as a good light camera – you had to hit ISO3200 pretty quickly, which makes it a good thing that sensitivity was just about usable with some work. And ergonomically, those with smaller hands were left challenged by the tint controls. An accessory grip was almost a must if you didn’t want an expensive accident – the beautiful aluminium ones made by Richard Franiec are solid and ergonomically superb – much nicer than the rubbery stick on piece that Sony tries to sell but should have really been built into the camera.
We gained several things with the Mark II version: a flipping screen, hotshoe with accessory port compatible with EVF and a revised sensor and a few other features. I skipped it and in fact sold my original RX100 after the Ricoh GR release. Not enough difference for most people to upgrade, but still a solid camera in its own right. Interestingly, in this part of the world at least – all three versions remain on sale, but at vastly different price points. The Mark III is 50% more expensive than the Mark I.
The Mark III loses the hotshoe, but adds a pop-up 1.3m dot EVF and a much faster 24-70/1.8-2.8 equivalent lens, a bit wider and faster than the 28-100/1.8-4.9 from the previous camera. It’s also a little thicker and heavier. The flip screen now rotates through 180° for the selfie crowd. It retains the slightly upgraded sensor (still 20.1MP) from the update in the previous RX100II. The fundamental form factor of the camera remains the same – few and very small external controls, mostly programmable, stepless lens ring, a slippery candybar shape and a bit more thickness than can be reasonably pocketed. This means you still really need an add-on grip for the front of the camera for optimum handling; at very least, use the wrist lanyard. Build quality remains excellent, and the moving parts feel solid though the screen could use a bit more resistance or a detent to keep it in the shut/ locked position. The lens barrel is substantial in both size and mass, and has almost no play even when fully extended.
Whilst I was impressed by the build quality and configurability of the menus and controls with the first version, I wasn’t so impressed with the menu system itself: it’s a bit of a mess. The tabs scroll horizontally so you’re never quite sure when a right press is going to give you the next tab, an enter is going to take you back to the shooting screen, or back to the menu. Fortunately once the camera is set up to your liking – in my case RAW, program mode and spot metering with exposure zebras** – you can pretty much leave it and not have to enter it again. And I really wish they’d add detents to the lens ring to make it easier to set things that have discreet values, like aperture or exposure compensation. I can appreciate that the smooth ring is there for manual focus and the video crowd, but this really isn’t the camera for it – firstly, you have very little to no depth of field control in the real world despite the largeish sensor*, and manual focus is pointless when the AF is so good.
*The longest real focal length is 25.7mm at f2.8 with a 2.7x crop factor to full frame – which means in reality you’re really looking at something closer to f6.7-f8 depth of field. At anything other than the closest subject distances, that’s effectively hyperfocal anyway. This is not necessarily a bad thing: there are a lot of situations in which I want more depth of field than I can have without perspective control lenses.
**Flashing/ scrolling diagonal overexposure warning. Though the clipping level is customizable in the menus, it seems that even with the level set to the maximum of 100+ the raw files come out somewhat underexposed. This tells me three things: a low contrast JPEG really isn’t that low contrast, and the sensor has a decent amount of highlight recovery. Finally, the histogram is still necessary, it seems.
As for the EVF: I admit to having very mixed feelings here. Initially, I thought it would be a very useful addition that I’d use all the time; most of you will know I’m a fan of eye level finders for both stability (one additional contact point to brace yourself against) and for how they force you to focus on what’s in the finder – i.e. the subject – and ignore what’s going on outside. I’ll always use the EVF or OVF if possible. However, the finder has two problems: the biggest one is that it simply isn’t bright enough to use outdoors in the tropics, even with brightness set to maximum. Combined with the fact that it’s fairly low in magnification (yes, I know, we forgive it some things because it’s physically small) actually makes it difficult to see. It doesn’t look small or grainy though; the pixel mask is clearly very fine and the high density of the dots means that the image remains crisp. I found myself reverting to using the LCD a lot of the time, partially out of habit, partially because I just couldn’t adequately see the EVF to compose to my satisfaction. Note that the refresh rate of both remains high and fluid even as the light falls. It also acts as a secondary power switch and both powers on the camera when deployed, and powers it off when retracted – this is a clever bit of thinking as it saves you one additional step to getting the camera ready to shoot (but also adds one since you have to pull out the eyepiece).
However, I’d definitely rather have it than not have it: the EVF comes into its own at night, where it’s much stealthier than using the LCD, it definitely aids stability, and it’s plenty visible. You can even turn off the back LCD completely, or have it set to display shooting info. I suspect the former setting – coupled with the eye sensor (no idea where they hid that) that switches the EVF on and off – will be both a fast and power-saving way to photograph. Leave the camera on and set that way to be always ready. The camera also powers on automatically when the EVF is popped up, but note that you’ll have to pull it away from the front of the camera to get the optics in the right position otherwise the image will be blurry. The mechanism itself is quite impressive – it’s pretty solid and has very little play; I wouldn’t be at all worried about damaging it. And they even crammed in a tiny diopter adjustment lever in there.
Overall usability remains good in general, and excellent for a compact – though I’d still consider the Ricoh GR’s UI, physical controls and ergonomics to be the class leader. It’s fast, but not as fast as the GR in deployment, either; the lens is faster to extend than previous versions, but the zoom moves slowly and surprisingly, the screen (or EVF) takes a surprising amount of time to register exposure changes; almost as though the diaphragm is physically slow-moving. Focusing is fast enough that you don’t really notice it. It just does, and does accurately. It slows down a little in low light, but it never really hunted and is much faster than the GR – even after its last firmware update. I suppose it’s because the lens doesn’t need as much helicoid since the real focal length is shorter most of the time. As with all CDAF cameras, you’re not going to be tracking moving objects with it.
Bottom line, if you liked the earlier iterations, you’re going to get on just fine with the RX100III. Not having shot with the Mark II, I found the tilting screen very useful; you can shoot it very stealthily indeed, almost like a tiny Hasselblad (if you set it to square). The folding mechanism could be a bit tighter, though – it’s very easy to accidentally pull away from the back of the camera.
The new lens is a significant improvement on the previous one at the wide end. Even though it goes 4mm wider, resolving power at f1.8 is really quite good, almost out to the corners. The old lens required f4 to match it. Things aren’t quite as good at the tele end, however: despite f2.8 being pretty decent in the centre, microcontrast and ‘bite’ is lacking. The corners aren’t as good, however some of that may be due to sample variation as I’m seeing some obvious decentering or astigmatism – the top left corner is softer than the others. Though resolving power improves through f5.6, anything smaller sees diffraction start to kick in: the pixels on this sensor are really very very small. Curiously though, stopping down to f5.6 doesn’t seem to improve the corners at the wide end of the zoom; they always still stay just a little bit short of crisp. Perhaps there’s some extreme field curvature going on. Close up performance is also greatly improved: whilst the old lens showed its weakness here with extremely hazy, soft images until you backed off to about 30cm or so and stopped down a little, the new lens is plenty sharp at the focal point and has decent contrast, too. There’s some chromatic aberration on highlight edges, but nothing that isn’t fixable in ACR; the lens is also remarkably flare-resistant – as expected for something bearing the T* coating label. All in all, this lens is a far more worthy bearer of the Zeiss badge than the previous version, which had a great long end but was frankly always somewhat disappointing below about 40mm equivalent.
I don’t know if the camera uses the same stabilizer mechanism as the previous version, but I’d presume not since the lens design is different – and likely necessitates some different hardware. The problem with assessing any sort of stabilization system is that it’s largely subjective; I found this one to be noticeably more effective than the Mark I’s stabilizer, but nowhere near as good as Nikon’s VRII or Olympus’ 5-axis IBIS. This is a good thing, because the lower shutter speed threshold for AUTO ISO cannot be set. Fortunately, Sony have made sensible minimum speed choices; it appears to be around 1/1.5x the focal length. I think this is a good tradeoff between the effectiveness of the IS system, the pixel density of the sensor, the effort required to release the (almost silent and zero-vibration) leaf shutter, and the size/ mass of the camera.
Given the physical size of the pixels involved, I was most impressed with the performance of the original RX100; constantly running through the back of my head were expectations of a sensor a size larger – more like M4/3 than 1″. Whilst most of the time those expectations were met, the sensor started showing its size when it came to situations where dynamic range became challenging; highlight recoverability especially tailed off significantly compared to larger pixels. I’m finding the RX100III’s sensor (and by extension, presumably the II also) to be slightly better there – perhaps half a stop – but no less noisy than the original; all of those boost settings might as well be academic. 1600 is the practical limit for decent quality, 3200 is usable in a pinch and requires some post processing NR. There are unquestionably noticeable dynamic range compromises at higher ISOs. Color rendition is not bad with the default (beta) ACR profile, but will require custom profiling to fix some of odd hue shifts in the blues, which tend to cyan especially in skies.
I suspect Sony is also applying some pre-correction to the raw files for CA and distortion, especially with a lens of this size and specification. I didn’t see any of either despite ACR not having profiles for the RX100III yet. I’m also seeing some NR smearing artefacts – especially at high contrast edges – which never seem to go away regardless of the NR setting. Sony should probably have removed the AA filter to compensate for this. Still, it remains an impressive sensor given the size of the camera; combined with the much faster lens, face-braceable EVF and improved IS system, the reality is that the camera’s shooting envelope is much larger than its predecessors even though there have been no sensor improvements. And I’m fairly sure it’s going to be large enough for almost all of the target audience; I seldom found myself in situations wanting more. The sensor appears to have decent monochrome conversion potential, but it isn’t anywhere near as good as the GR. You’ll still need to be prepared do a lot of dodging and burning to get outstanding results.
Battery life is surprisingly good considering the tiny size of the cell; Sony quotes the EVF as being more power hungry than the main LCD, which is surprising and the opposite of my experience with every other camera. With minimal chimping and roughly 50-50 EVF and LCD use, I’ve been averaging around 300 images per charge. There’s probably a bit more in there, but I’ll put it on the charger once I reach the last segment since I’ve only got one battery, and it takes a long, long time to charge. Like the previous versions, an external battery charger is an optional extra; the battery charges over USB in-camera. This is a little surprising given the relative cost of camera and charger and the target audience: without the external charger, there’s no way to continue shooting and charge a battery even if you have a spare. Perhaps somebody should make a USB cable with some terminal ends that clips over a battery – it would be the best of both worlds for size and convenience.
Every photographer needs a compact. The question is, which one: do you prefer to have a scalpel or a Swiss Army Knife? I’d put the fixed-focal, large-sensor compacts like the GR, Coolpix A and to some extent the X100s and X2 in the former category; the RX100 series sits squarely in the latter. You’re only ever going to carry one at a time. Having carried both types as backup pieces in the past, I find they tend to encourage very different kinds of photography; the RX100III isn’t as fast to respond as the GR, which means you plan your shots more and I personally at least tend to gravitate to static subjects – not because of focus speed or shutter lag, but because I can never seem to get the lens into position in time. That said, I’ve produced a lot of images with the original Mark I that I was very, very happy with. And its shooting envelope is somewhat larger than the GR in terms of versatility. Though you give up 1-1.5 stops of high ISO usability on the GR, you gain that back from the lens, EVF and IS system and the faster long end of the zoom definitely opens up new possibilities under darker conditions. And we haven’t even talked about the versatility of the tilting screen yet.
Like all compacts, there are compromises. If you own the first generation RX100, I’d say this makes a very compelling upgrade; it’s a bit tougher from the second generation, and not even worth considering if you actually use the hotshoe. Personally, I think this and the Ricoh GR are at the top of the compact camera tree at the moment – if you own neither, it’s got to be one or the other. At $798 for the Sony, both may be a bit too much: that’s enough to get you an entry-level DSLR and two lenses, though not of the same quality as that in the RX100III. I think your decision should boil down to this: is your current pocket-carry lacking in some area? Does the RX100III outperform it in that area, without giving up anything else you might find important? Do you shoot predominantly wide or long? Granted, 70mm isn’t long long, but it’s a lot longer than 28mm. Finally, does it fit in your pocket? The camera is thicker than you might expect, and the lens’ ring can snag easily. (Sony really needs to produce a slimline belt holster like the GC-6 for the GR, not that fiddly snap on leather jacket thing.)
The thing is, I own a GR already, and these cameras aren’t something I use for paying client work; they’re really what I consider to be ‘off duty’ entertainment devices. If I didn’t, I’d probably buy the Mark III straight away; however, for the way I shoot and the way I use the GR, the tradeoffs the RX100III requires are a toss up against the things I gain. I’m going to have to use it a bit more before deciding if I’ll buy one or not; good thing I’ve got a couple more weeks with the loaner. I’d like to finish with one thought: throughout the time I’ve used the camera, I’ve been subconsciously assessing it for what it’s lacking or where it falls short against much larger and more fully featured cameras. This is an important point to note: it is a compact that really plays in a class above, and puts things into perspective, don’t you think? MT
Additional images from the camera will be uploaded to this flickr set on a continuing basis. Images were shot raw and put through my usual workflow via ACR.
The Sony RX100 III is available to buy here from B&H.
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