Announcing the Ricoh GR (Digital V)

It seems that 28mm large sensor compacts are like buses. You wait ages and ages and ages…and suddenly we now have no less than three APS-C options: The Nikon Coolpix A, The Fuji X100s with wide converter, and (drumroll please): the brand-spanking-new Ricoh GR.

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POTD: Seeing stars

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The Milky Way Galaxy

I posted this image on the site’s Facebook page yesterday and received both a record number of likes, shares and responses/ questions – some doubting the authenticity of the image – so I thought it’d be a good candidate for reviving POTD.

Here’s the backstory: the image was shot out of an airplane window at 32,000 feet while returning from the USA tour; my wife was in the window seat and idly wondered if she could see stars, after the crew turned off the cabin lights for the night to encourage passengers to sleep (I suppose to theoretically help them get over jetlag). She stared for a while, acclimatising her night vision, and said there were quite a surprising number. I finished editing the batch I was working on, and joined her at the window. I could actually make out a very faint band of something running through the middle; I thought it might make an interesting photography experiment.

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Quick first thoughts – Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20

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I recently picked up review units of the Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20 at B&H – the store itself is an incredible experience for any photographer, by the way – after a few days of intense shooting during my Making Outstanding Images workshops, I’ve had a chance to put together a few quick thoughts on the two cameras. I will be doing more complete reviews once I get a chance to shoot further with them and pore through the hundreds of images. Until then, this should tide over the curious.

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Review: The Leica D-Lux 6/ Panasonic LX7

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There aren’t that many choices for fully-featured, pocketable compacts at the moment; in my ongoing quest to find the ideal take-everywhere companion, I’ve probably tried most of them. Current top of the heap is the Sony RX100; I’ve also used the GR-Digital series, Fuji XF1 and Panasonic LX/ Leica D-Lux series. For whatever reason, I’ve never really bonded with the Canon S-series, so that’s never made it into my pocket; same with any of the Nikon Coolpixes, though I’m really hoping the A will change that. Whilst I loved the RX100 for its fantastic sensor, the lens arguably lets the package down: it may be fast one the wide end, but for it to keep up with the sensor in the corners, you have to stop down a bit (thereby negating this advantage) and the tele end is just plain slow.

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Less is more

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Too many options can be a confusing thing. Leica M8, 21/1.4

This article started out as an exploration of the liberating experience when shooting with the compact point-and-shoot camera. It then morphed into a small dissertation upon the use of the Sony RX100 is a street and travel camera; in the end I landed up rewriting the whole thing because I think there is a larger topic at hand here which is probably of more use to the photographer at large.

In previous articles, I have dealt with subjects such as using just one lens for a trip and shooting with compact cameras professionally. The August competition was the compact challenge which required participants to shoot solely with a fixed-lens, small-sensor point-and-shoot camera. I have also talked about points of sufficiency, and knowing precisely how much resolution or how much told you need for the job at hand. What I want to cover in today’s article, is something a concept spanning all of these subjects, and perhaps a little bit more.

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Ninja coffee. Leica M8, 21/1.4

Let’s throw the entire photographic rulebook and all of its associated dogma out of the window for moment. What really matters when you’re making an image? (I recently dealt with this too in a two-part article here, and here on what makes an outstanding image.) What is it that you audience sees when they look at your photograph? It certainly isn’t the camera, in so far as in that it created the image and the lens and format used enforce both perspective and depth of field properties; going beyond that, the View of a photograph sees light first. In fact, that’s pre-much all they see because without light of some sort, it is impossible to make a any photograph. Thus, the sole function of the camera is reduced to a light capturing, measuring and visualization device. Beyond this, it is all fluff and gravy.

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Color coordinated car. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.8/21

Suppose for a minute that a photographer has no preference for any particular focal length, is able to see compositions everywhere they go, and utilize perspectives correctly. In short, they could use any camera and any lens/ field of view combination and still produce strong compositions. Let us continue to assume, that the same photographer also has the ability to recognize interesting light. He or she should also have some modicum of technical capability – perhaps the minimum required to understand the basics of exposure and mechanics of taking a photograph. Last, but not least, they should also be able to recognize interesting subjects. In short: we want a photographer who knows how to see, aim the camera, and press a button.

I don’t think this is a very difficult set of criteria to fill; I’m sure there are many, many people out there who would have no problems in meeting the brief. Now, notice how much the camera has been decoupled from this entire process; in fact, not just decoupled, but completely relegated to being almost unimportant. Photography is about writing like to create images. If the mind of the author is clear, and his command of the language strong, then the type pen and paper employed simply do not matter.

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Perfect spacing. Leica M8, 50/1.4 ASPH

In practical terms, what does this actually mean for photographers? Once a photographer has mastered the use of light, composition and perspective, identifying subjects, and I suppose the degree of postprocessing, it means that they are able to create magnificent images regardless of the equipment to hand. I remember personally going through this moment of liberation – a kind of ‘eureka!’ – after which I realized the camera really does not matter; any focal length or format is fair game. Light and composition take center stage, and all else is secondary.

Many of you have probably noticed a high level of consistency in the look and feel of the images I present on the site, regardless of whatever camera was used to capture them. I have actually been criticized for this in the past, with the prosecution claiming that I do not allow the natural qualities of the camera/ lens I am using or testing to shine through in the final image. I beg to differ; I believe that the ability to produce exactly what you envisioned in your mind at the time of pressing the shutter button means that your artistic vision is not compromised or tempered by the equipment. This is not to say that you may not choose to use a particular piece of equipment because of its artistic qualities; however, one needs to know exactly what these qualities are, and how their use affects the final pictorial impression of the final image.

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Questions or directives? Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I think this liberation came about for me around the end of 2008, or perhaps early 2009. I was shooting with a Nikon D3 at the time in Japan; I carried lenses providing continuous coverage from 14 to 300 mm. Needless to say, this was an extremely heavy way to travel. By the end of the trip, I was leaving everything except my 24-70 zoom in the hotel room and just walking around with one camera and one lens. After a couple of hours, I realized that rather than seeing compositions which I was unable to execute because I wasn’t carrying the right lenses, I was now seeing only the ones I could; a little while after that, I was seeing potential shots everywhere I went.

The second phase came later in 2009. I spent a couple of weeks with the Leica M8.2 whilst writing a review for the magazine I served as editor of at the time; I was only given one lens – a 35/2 (45mm due to the M8’s crop factor). Being completely unfamiliar with the operation of a rangefinder; I stuck to that one lens just to try to familiarize myself with that way of working and seeing. Guess what: I liked it so much, and found the small size and unintimidating nature the camera so liberating, but I landed up selling my D3, and most of my Nikon lenses in order to fund the exact same combination for my personal use. I was never able to afford more than one or two lenses at any given time, given the price of Leica glass, and my humble occupation at the time.

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Looking for company. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM 2.1/28

This austerity by necessity actually forced me to focus on improving the quality of my images through the strength of the compositions; more importantly, I learned the skill of previsualization of both composition and perspective even before bringing the camera to my eye. The were occasions, for instance social gatherings, where I felt the need for a smaller one nondescript camera. I landed up purchasing the smallest Canon point-and-shoot I could find. That IXUS SD780IS landed up following me everywhere, riding shotgun in a pocket – simply because it was so small and unobtrusive. However, I don’t think it was the camera or its size that did this; rather it was me applying the previsualization techniques learned with the Leica M8 to the smaller format. I was getting images I liked, and which were compositionally strong – regardless of the format or type of camera. For the first time in my work, the camera became transparent.

Now, rather than buying something because the spec sheet looked good, or because it came with bragging rights, I bought equipment because it allowed me to achieve the specific look or feel I desired. Coupled with my postprocessing experience, I now felt completely in control of my images; I could create and share exactly what I saw in my mind’s eye.

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Rushing for the train. Canon IXUS 100 IS

Let’s take a step back and deconstruct my experiences along the road to compositional liberation into something which any photographer might find useful and actionable:

1. You have to begin with a reasonable degree of understanding of the technical skills for both capture and post processing. However, remember that these are merely tools, not an end in themselves.

2. Force yourself to shoot for an extended period of time with what you would perceive to be a limited set of equipment. This may be one zoom, or one prime; the point is that it conditions your mind into recognizing what you can capture and ignoring all of the things that you can’t.

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The ladder. Canon IXUS 100 IS

3. The ultimate distillation of this is using prime lenses, shooting a good number of frames with each. By using nothing except a single perspective on extended basis, your mind is trained to pre-visualize the angle of view before you look through the viewfinder. You know when you have mastered a particular focal length or field of view when you start seeing compositions everywhere, and you can execute these with the proper perspective and relative prominence of foreground and background. It’s even better if you can do this with the lens stopped down; by eliminating shallow depth of field as a compositional crutch, you are forced to fully think about and utilize all of the space in your frame. You cannot simply fill it with a merely pleasant-looking but non-contextual wall of blur. This of course leads to developing full control of composition, even in the out of focus areas of your frame.

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Canterbury Cathedral. Canon IXUS 100 IS

If you are able to shoot with a compact camera or perhaps a camera phone, and achieve the exact composition you intended, you have come full circle. Image quality, is of course the subject of a completely different discussion. Although many photographers believe that they could manage with much less equipment, or much simpler equipment than they currently have, almost none of them put it into practice. Even I find it difficult to select which get bring on a trip; I am sometimes drawn into the trap of bringing something ‘just in case’ rather than picking a practical selection and concentrating on working with it. It requires a strong and conscious effort to avoid this. (Once again, if I am on assignment then I have the opposite philosophy; this is because you have to be prepared for contingencies, and failure to plan and deliver because of oversight is simply unprofessional.)

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A little urban abstract. Sony RX100

Unfortunately, the fastest – and perhaps only – way to truly experience this liberation, is to go through the process. (If any of you have managed by other means, I would love to hear from you in the comments.) But I think it is important to at least try it if you’re serious about taking a photography to the next level; in my article on the stages of evolution of a photographer, you’ll remember that the most difficult thing to achieve is the ability to visualize your image first, and then execute it as intended. Strength of the idea and how obvious it is to your audience is paramount. MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Service. Sony RX100

Review: The Fuji FinePix XF1

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One of the more interesting compacts in recent memory is the Fuji Finepix XF1. Announced at Photokina 2012, it’s a pocketable metal-bodied camera with a moderately sized sensor – not the 1″ of the Sony RX100, but not the usual 1/1.7″ type either. It shares a sensor with the Fuji X10 – the 12MP 2.3″ EXR-CMOS, presumably it’s the updated version without the white orb issue; I certainly didn’t see any during my testing. The camera is definitely retro-styled, with a faux-leather skin covering the middle portion of the body, with warm silver metal covers top and bottom – presumably anodized aluminum. It’s certainly a pleasingly tactile object to handle. For the style conscious, the camera is available with black, tan or red pleather; I opted for red since the camera was ostensibly a present for my wife.

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The camera’s biggest party trick is its lens: a 25-100/1.8-4.9 equivalent that both sports a mechanical zoom ring – slowly becoming a rarity even for M4/3 cameras – and a collapsing mechanism that lets it drop back into the camera body to keep things pocketable. Presumably it’s an evolution of the design used on the X10, though obviously not as fast due to size constraints. Again, like the X10, it also powers on the camera. One twist into standby mode puts the camera either into ‘ready’ position (if enabled, eats battery); another twist to the wide end of the zoom turns the camera on. I would love to have a separate power switch, too – this would make it a fantastically responsive camera as you could have the desired focal length preset before powering on; something I wish the otherwise very fast Sony RX100 could do.

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Lens in a range of positions from fully retracted to fully extended.

Needless to say, zooming is quick and easy. The mechanism itself is reasonably smooth, but it could use a bit more damping to give a higher quality feel; you have the impression of a lot of light pieces of plastic or thin metal moving around inside the lens barrel as you turn it. In fact, the camera is quite light – generally a desirable quality – personally, I’d prefer a bit more heft. Finally, stiffer detents between the 25mm position, STANDBY and OFF would help avoid accidental power ups/ shut downs. The only other notable mechanical gubbin is the release lever for the dinky pop-up flash hidden in the top plate.

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It would seem that the feature race hasn’t ended for the enthusiast-level compacts; the XF1 is packed with all sorts of modes and customisability; the only three that are of any real note are the dynamic range optimiser, built in level and customizable buttons. The former does some strange things with the sensor and ISO range to extend highlight and shadow dynamic range in JPEG files only; it seems to work. I’ll say more on this in the image quality section. The built in level is an unobtrusive horizon line through the middle of the frame that works for roll only, but shows a single green line when the camera is level. It’s actually quite handy on a camera of this size, because it isn’t always easy to hold it stable with one hand – not that you’re going to be shooting the XF1 singlehanded with the mechanical zoom.

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Traffic. Fuji XF1

Finally, there are effectively no less than seven programmable buttons: pressing E-Fn brings up a virtual overlay where the user’s choice of shortcuts are assigned to the four directions of the D-pad, playback and record buttons on the back; there’s also another function button on the top plate behind the shutter. Annoyingly – perhaps out of muscle memory – it’s in exactly the same place as the power button on just about every other compact, and I find myself repeatedly hitting it and wondering why the camera won’t turn on or off, but instead bring up a menu. The only function which I’d want to assign to this direct-access key (you don’t have to press E-Fn first) would be AF area – and guess what, this also happens to be the only one of the customizable functions that’s missing from the list of possibles for this button. Grr.

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Yard abstract. Fuji XF1

It’s worth noting that there is no way to separate AE lock and AF lock from the shutter button – so the half-press-and-dance routine may result in some undesirable metering. The XF1 also has a lens-shift based image stabilization system that moves a group of four elements. The best word to describe it is ‘aggressive’; it reminds me of the early days of IS where the image would sway a bit as the stabilizer locked down. I’m estimating it’s probably good for 2-2.5 stops. It certainly isn’t as effective as the Panasonic OIS system, which I think is probably still the class leader for compacts.

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Camouflage. Fuji XF1

Overall, there are a lot of things I like about the UI, and a number I don’t. Playback is done well, for a change on a compact – you can power on the camera straight into playback mode by holding down the play key; there’s no need to extend the lens. Then, press in the top command dial in to go to maximum magnification, and then you can compare images at the same zoom level and position by moving the rear dial. But this is where another issue raises its head: the camera has two command dials, which is the same number as any camera of this size and most pro DSLRs. Yet by default they seem to be dormant or redundant most of the time – only in M do the two dials do anything independently. It would be sensible to have one serve as direct acesss to exposure compensation and the other as program shift/ aperture/ shutter speed in the other modes, but no. You have to press up on the D-pad to enter exposure compensation, then use either dial to change it. And then press up again to go back to changing the main exposure setting. Still, at least it’s a shooting priority camera. It just seems that there are a lot of wasted opportunities here that would have let Fuji knock one out of the park with this little camera’s handling. There’s still hope for a firmware update, I suppose – Ricoh’s GRD series is very much the leader when it comes to compact camera handling; and it’s done with no more buttons than the XF1 has.

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Trash alley. Fuji XF1

Other little things – the LCD isn’t the highest resolution out there, with about 460,000 pixels; you can just about make out the pixel mask if you look closely, but most of the time it’s a non-issue. The screen gets pretty bright for daylight use, but of course that comes at the expense of battery drain. I’d like to see something a bit less contrasty, though; it doesn’t give that good an indication of overexposure – but there’s a blinking highlights warning in playback mode to get around this. Fortunately, the XF1 seems to be fairly miserly with power consumption, yielding about 300 frames on a charge of it’s quite physically small battery. The lens-based on-off switch makes it quite easy to power the camera off between frames, which of course helps with battery life. The camera also shoots full HD video at 1080p30, which is nice but not something I use – so I’ll leave it to others to test.

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Urban geometry around dawn. Fuji XF1

I was not impressed with its predecessor’s focusing speed – despite having ostensibly the same sensor and a faster lens, the X10 is not a fast-focusing camera. This isn’t the main problem, though – it freezes between half-press and achieving focus, which means that a) if you move slightly, and you will because it’s a compact, then you won’t see it until you get a sudden jump when the camera focuses; b) the delay is annoying. In fact, this was the main reason why I didn’t buy one. I’m pleased to report the XF1 fixes this. Whilst there’s still a very tiny perceptible freeze, it’s almost negligible. I certainly don’t notice it in practical use.

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Untitled. Fuji XF1

Overall; the XF1 is a fast camera and doesn’t keep you waiting. It shuttles around RAW or JPEG files with equal indifference, except perhaps write time is noticeably longer. That said, I wouldn’t recommend using this camera to shoot RAW even though it can; and this has a lot to do with the quality of the in-camera processing, and the absolutely crappy results obtained via ACR. This is a bit of a shame, as the lens quality is very impressive – better than the Zeiss-branded lens on the Sony RX100. It doesn’t suffer from the same flare or low contrast at wide angle and f1.8; the corners are also much sharper. More impressively, this level of optical quality is maintained through the telephoto end of the range, too. (It could also be because the lens has to cover a much smaller image circle than the RX100’s.) There is some CA in the corners, but flare is impressively low, microcontrast high, and color rendition pleasing.

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Spot the dent. Fuji XF1

Despite Fuji’s claims about the camera’s bokeh-generating ability (and 7-bladed diaphragm) – the reality is that you’re only going to get a tiny bit of background separation if your subject is close, you’re shooting at 25mm and f1.8 equivalent, and the background is very far away. The RX100 has more potential for subject isolation through shallow(er) depth of field, and I still treat that as a program mode-hyperfocal camera. As with every small-sensored camera, don’t bother with aperture priority: you have no control over depth of field anyway. I only use program and manual – either when the built in flash triggers speedlights, or in the case of the XF1, you need exposure times longer than a second – and remember to disengage auto ISO first, otherwise you can’t go any slower.

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Nature outgrows us all. Fuji XF1

I find the image quality of this camera paradoxical. On one hand, the JPEG output is amongst the best I’ve ever seen from a compact – especially when using the trick DR400 mode, which supposedly extends the camera’s tonal range by two stops – on the other hand, the RAW files are amongst the worst I’ve ever seen from any camera, and far below even its own JPEGs. The RAW files are far noisier, have poorer dynamic range, less detail and acuity, and just seem very dull by comparison; it’s akin to the difference between RAW and JPEG on other cameras, except in reverse. The only conclusionS I can come to are that Fuji has some extremely sophisticated processing algorithms inside this camera, the ACR converter algorithm just doesn’t work for this sensor, or both. It is widely known that ACR doesn’t really do a good job with Fuji files, but this difference almost defies belief. Needless to say, I’m not going to be using RAW mode on the XF1 it will be set to JPEG DR400 mode for my wife to use. For the purposes of this article, I shot JPEGs and did some minor tweaking to them with Photoshop.

Fuji XF1 RAW vs JPEG
What on earth is going on here? That’s not a mistake: the DNG (converted via ACR 7.2 from the original Fuji Raw file) is on the right.   Full size file here.

All that said, the image quality of the JPEGs is superb. Noise is low, detail is high (though oddly blocky in places, somewhat reminiscent of the older SuperCCD designs) and the tonal rolloff in the highlights is outstandingly well handled. Note that you really do have to use the DR400 mode to achieve this; otherwise the highlights blow just as fast as with any other compact. The files just look natural. The files actually remind me strongly of the 6MP SuperCCD FinePix F10, F11 and F30/31fd cameras; perhaps this is their spiritual successor. Of course, if you want there are also the usual super-saturated, B&W and toned modes; Fuji labels them with the names of its film – Provia, Velvia, Astia – though I doubt any of the XF1’s buyers even know what those things are, let alone what they should look like.

Fuji XF1 noise crops-JPEG NR STD
JPEG noise crops. Full size here.

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RAW (via ACR) noise crops. They just simply look worse than the JPEGs. Full size here.

On the noise front, I would have no qualms in using this camera up to ISO 800 in JPEG mode; 1600 and 3200 are noticeably softer, but surprisingly close in terms of both noise and detail retention. Thus, 3200 is probably a viable option in emergencies. Fuji does a pretty good job balancing noise reduction and detail here. Dynamic range noticeably decreases when you increase ISO, note that in order to expand dynamic range, the camera increases the ISO. This is presumably to allow additional sensitivity in the shadows. Yet the camera is smart enough to only increase the ISO past the sensor’s base of 100 if it detects that the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the sensor’s native capabilities – neat. This is why you might see EXIF data for a photo in good light with ISO 400 – it’s a wide dynamic range scene – or ISO 100, if the contrast levels are manageable. Note that you do see a bit of noise in the shadows at DR400 mode, but at least they’re not blocked up to black.

Fuji XF1 DRO JPEG
DR modes do make a noticeable difference. Note the garlic at the bottom; the leftmost image is DR100 (i.e. standard) mode; the right, DR400. Full size crop here.

Confusingly, Fuji makes the DR AUTO, DR100, DR200 and DR400 modes available both in the full-resolution 12MP mode, as well as on a separate EXR position on the mode dial. Here you can choose for dynamic range, resolution or low light priority; I don’t see the point unless you’re not going to do any processing afterwards at all. I suppose it must be a kind of smart auto mode, though there’s also the camera position, ADV(anced) and scene modes on the dial – how on earth does this many options make things less confusing to the camera’s intended audience, or more useful to the advanced user who just wants a good compact? Personally, I’m leaving it in P mode and DR400. If I want lower noise by pixel binning, I can do that myself afterwards in Photoshop – the results between the 6MP SNR (EXR Low Noise) mode and a downsized 12MP file in P mode look pretty much the same to my eyes. What Fuji should have done is made an auto mode that maintains best perceptual image quality: in good light, shoot at 12MP, say up to ISO 800; in high contrast situations, automatically use DR400; finally, when the required ISO goes to say 1600 or above, then start binning pixels down to 6MP.

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Bigger onions. Fuji XF1

So where does the XF1 stand against the other competition in this segment? In the same price and size bracket, we have the Panasonic LX7/ Leica D-Lux6; the Canon S110, and the Sony RX100 – though the latter is a bit more expensive. All are moderately pocketable. I’ve excluded the Nikon P7700, Canon G15 and Olympus XZ2 because I don’t think these are pocket cameras anymore. I’ve not used the Canon extensively, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that; it and the LX7 both use a smaller sensor than the XF1, and it shows. The Canon is perhaps at the greatest disadvantage because it has the slowest lens and the smallest sensor; the XF1’s image quality – certainly the JPEGs – are noticeably better. The LX7 has a lens that’s fast at both ends and optically excellent, which claws back some of the Fuji’s sensor advantage; it also has more isolation potential as the long end of the lens isn’t f4.9. I’ve always liked the LX series as macro cameras too; they focus very close throughout the entire zoom range, not just wideangle. This leaves us with the RX100: it on the other hand isn’t a very good macro camera at all because the lens performs poorly at close distances until f4 or so; and doesn’t focus close throughout the rest of the range. However, it does have the best sensor of the lot; clearly a notch above the Fuji, and challenging Micro Four Thirds. I wouldn’t use the Fuji at ISO 1600 and very low light; I’ve done higher ISOs with the Sony and still gotten pretty impressive results.

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Not a lot in it, size-wise.

In my mind, the final scoring stacks up this way:

Fuji XF1 if you are a JPEG shooter and don’t plan to do much, or any, postprocessing.
Panasonic LX7/ Leica D-Lux6 if you shoot macro, or want to try and get some depth of field control.
Sony RX100 if you want the best image quality in any compact camera available, period.
Canon S110…I actually can’t think of any good reason to buy this – if you need GPS, perhaps.

The overall impression one gets of the XF1 is a positive one. It has some endearing quirks – the mechanical zoom, for the most part – some less endearing ones (control idiocy and mode confusion) – but what really impresses are the quality of the JPEGs. And if you need something pocketable that delivers great results without too much effort – albeit without as high ultimate image quality potential as something that has a malleable raw file – then this is probably the camera for you. In fact, I think it’s the perfect camera for my wife – she likes to have something responsive, compact and (sigh) stylish, can process RAW files but never bothers, yet is frustrated at the limitations of the JPEG output of most compacts. Just think of it as a tax to appease the other half before you tell them you’re buying a Hasselblad. MT

The Fuji Finepix XF1 is available here in several colors from B&H and Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 – a somewhat comparative review

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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.

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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.

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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″).

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The body may be tiny, but the lens is by far the largest of the lot.

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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.

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Urban painting in progress. Sony RX100

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.

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Available light portrait – ISO 2500. Sony RX100

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.

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How the other half live. Sony RX100

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.

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While waiting for the wife. Sony RX100

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.

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Construction break. Sony RX100

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.

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Iron horse without a rider. Sony RX100

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.

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Hood reflections. Sony RX100. This shot turned out VERY overexposed – far more than you’d expect for a scene of this type. Beware the meter.

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.

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Man, chair and door. The extremely low prefocus shutter lag allowed me to position this man perfectly. It’s so fast the camera almost feels wired into your brain.

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.

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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).

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Still life I. Sony RX100, uncorrected for vignetting.

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).

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Still life II. Maybe there is a little of that Zeiss ‘pop’ and tonal richness after all – but it did require some post processing. Sony RX100.

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.

Sony RX100 noisetest
For a 100% version, click here

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.

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Taxi drivers. Note the mark of JPEG: irretrievable highlight clipping. It was either this or lose the deep shadows. I suspect the image would have been saveable in RAW.

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.

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Untitled workers. Sony RX100

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.

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Still life III. Sony RX100

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.

The Sony RX100 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Still life IV. Sony RX100

Photoessay: Around the temple at Tanah Lot, Bali

Tanah Lot is a rock formation on one of the Balinese beaches on the western side of the southern tip of the island, facing the Indian ocean. It’s also home to a famous temple to the Balinese sea gods, purportedly set up by the 15th century priest Nimrata. During the 1980s, subsidence and erosion threatened the temple’s survival; a comprehensive restoration and stabilization program saw about a third of the ‘rock’ replaced with artificial rock and concrete – courtesy of the Japanese Government. Today, it’s a popular site for both tourists and pilgrims. MT

This set was shot in 2006 with a Panasonic TZ3.

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Photoessay: Workers, in the style of Sebastiao Salgado

This is a continuation from an earlier post with one image. The back story is not quite what you’d expect: I was killing time at a culinary academy in Singapore while waiting for one of my classes to start (I was teaching food photography, not cooking, though at some point I’d love to attend a proper cooking course, however, I digress) and happened to notice a building site out of the window. The 6th floor was a great vantage point to get far enough away to see the entire scene, but not so far that you’d miss out the details. Add in that wonderful directional light that comes immediately after rain when clouds just clear and the sun starts poking out (plus the textures and wet reflections) and the light was utterly gorgeous. Colors were still muted, and this was one of those occasions that just screamed ‘B&W’. Just another example of one of those times when you don’t plan to shoot, but somehow an opportunity presents itself – enjoy the results for yourself. On an unrelated note, I’m really loving the square format, too. Or maybe I’m just lazy to turn the little camera sideways. MT

This series shot with a Leica D-Lux 5 Titanium.

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Photoessay: A study of wave action

Some experiments into how the same subject can be simultaneously not the same. A bit of contemplative photography while on vacation. Or perhaps I just like water and waves for the same reasons I like clouds. Sometimes, we don’t need to think too much about it – just shoot. I need to go on holiday more often; but then again, don’t we all? MT

This series shot with an Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini at Tanjung Jara, on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.

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