The Sony RX100

King of the Compacts?

I’m not one to ebb and flow with the waves of new camera technology; I still clutch my NEX 5N lovingly even though it’s now several generations old. I did however see the need to fill a gap in my photo-taking capabilities recently. Enter the Sony RX100, Sony’s flagship point-and-shoot model. The role it fills is that between my old P&S camera and my new(ish) Android phone camera. The P&S is just too outdated, and although the phone is better, it’s still lackluster despite the portability factor. What I wanted was something as convenient to carry as a phone, yet be able to deliver images that wouldn’t make me feel I sacrificed too much by leaving my NEX at home. I’ve found the RX100 to be the perfect solution to this dilemma and on the surface it appears to be a dream come true for backpackers and hikers who want to return home with high quality images, yet travel light.

The Sony RX100

The Sony RX100

Features at a Glance

It’s been almost 2 years since Sony released the (then groundbreaking) RX100. It is now superseded by the RX100 mark II, which arrived with anticipation, but not quite to the same hype/elation that original generated. So what makes these cameras so special? For the most part, it’s the sensor. Sony puts what’s called a “1-inch sensor” into that tiny little body. The sensor size is sort of a convoluted naming convention which we’ll not delve into… because nobody cares. To give some perspective on it though, this sensor has just over half the surface area of a micro 4/3 sensor – which is a lot more than a typical compact camera or cell phone camera. The sensor is 20 mega pixels and sits behind a Zeiss 28mm – 100mm zoom lens, which includes a manual focus ring, another feature not often seen in a compact camera. The controls of the camera are very NEX-like and allow for everything from full auto to full manual. As a NEX user I found I was able to quickly dive in and find the features that matter to me.

The RX100 Family

Right now this consists of the original RX100 and the newly released RX100 mark II. The mark II gets a few notable enhancements… (1) an enhanced version of the original sensor which reportedly focuses faster in low light and has better ISO performance, (2) a hotshoe for mounting a flash or electronic viewfinder to, (3) a tilting rear LCD, (4) built in wifi for transfering and sharing files. Have a look at the quick comparison below in which I’ll also toss in the NEX 5N for fun.

Side by Side Comparison
- RX100 RX100 mk II NEX 5N
MSRP (04/2014): $550 $700 $520
Size: 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.41 in 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.51 in 4.37 x 2.32 x 1.50 in
Weight (no batt): 6.4 oz 7.8 oz 9.9 oz
Sensor: 20mp 1-in 2.7x crop 20mp 1-in 2.7x crop 16mp APS-C 1.5x crop
Video: 1080p 60/24 1080p 60/24 1080p 60/24
Video Mic: Internal Internal Internal
Viewfinder: Not Available Optional EVF Optional EVF
Controls: Minimalist Minimalist Minimalist
Flash: Built in Built in Accessory
Hot Shoe: No Yes No
LCD Screen: 3″ 1.2m screen 3″ 1.2m tilting screen 3″ 920k tilting touchscreen
Battery Weight: 0.8 oz 0.8 oz 2.0 oz
Battery Life: 300+ photo 300+ photo 400+ photo

 

Yes, as you probably noticed Sony is proud of the RX100 and it shows in their pricing. $550-$750 (msrp) for a point and shoot?!? I hear you friend. This seems nuts considering you can buy an entry level DSLR with a kit zoom lens for the same. So what gives? Here’s the thing, try sticking that DSLR in your pocket, in fact, try sticking the kit lens in your pocket (is that a kit lens in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?)… it doesn’t exactly fit. The RX100 on the other hand, is truly pocketable. It’s not as small as some of the other P&S cameras out there, but none the less, it will fit in the typical pants pocket. I ran half of my Zion run with it up front in my running shorts and it never bothered me in the least. Sony recognizes this. Essentially you’re paying for the privilege of having the best performance you can find, in a pocket camera. The NEX on the other hand is not pocketable. Even with a pancake lens the grip makes it an awkward fit, and any lenses larger than the pancakes will prevent pocket carry.

Handling

The controls and menus are very much like the NEX cameras. For those not familiar with NEX you can read until you fall asleep about my NEX 5N setup here. In a nutshell, the 4-way control pad on the back offers direct access to several commonly used features such as drive mode, exposure compensation, flash, and rear display mode. A programmable function button provides access to a small but useful menu of user-defined functions. Menu diving is generally not needed, other than maybe to format a memory card or adjust the rear display brightness (just a couple of things that come to mind from my own experience). Although Sony missed the ball with their lack of good bracketing implementation and remote shutter options on both the NEX and RX100, they’ve done a good job at keeping other important functions at our fingertips.

RX100 vs. NEX 5N - Rear View

RX100 vs. NEX 5N – Rear View

RX100 vs. NEX 5N - Top View

RX100 vs. NEX 5N – Top View

A tilt screen would have been soooo nice to have… I really miss it (my NEX 5N has a tilting rear LCD) when composing those shots low to the ground; instead of just flipping it up and looking down from crouching position, I have to literally lie down on the ground to see what I’m doing. I haven’t made much use of the manual focus ring, but I’ve found it handy at times when the camera insists on focusing in front of or behind the thing I want it to focus on (mostly only a problem up very close with small subjects like flowers or bugs).

All in all the RX100 handles just like a point and shoot with the exception of offering full manual control for those who want it and customization over features typically only found in the “large sensor” bodies. Because of that I know quite a few photographers who now carry a RX100 in their pocket, even when they take their bigger, more expensive gear out for the day.

Image Quality

Win/Win is what comes to mind. Folks who are used to their $200 P&S camera from the big box store will frankly be blown away. Folks who already own m4/3, APS-C, and full frame bodies will be pleasantly surprised. Sony hasn’t worked any miracles that defy the laws of physics with the RX100 sensor, but the images do give the impression that they’ve squeezed every bit of performance possible out of it (along with the Zeiss lens pairing). The colors and clarity are very good, and noise is kept to a minimum; even ISO 800 and 1600 are very useable for making printed images, which is not normally true of many pocket cameras.

Zion

Zion

Snapshot while Running

Snapshot while Running

Highlight Detail Lost

Highlight Detail Lost

Exposed for Highlights

Exposed for Highlights, Shadows lifted by Lightroom

Random Interior

Random Interior

The out of camera JPEGs look pretty good; good enough for the crowd who chooses to shoot JPEG and not spend much, if any, time processing their photos. The RAW files do need quite a bit of processing, but they take it well and can be pushed around more than I expected. Using a program such as Adobe Lightroom is recommended for anyone wanting to shoot RAW. Compared to larger sensor cameras, the RX100 doesn’t hold highlight detail nearly as well (shadow detail retention is not great either) but the fact that it can even be compared to m4/3 or APS-C performance is sort of crazy. To make the most of each exposure, I’ve found it best to use the histogram and ensure I expose to the right, but do not clip the highlights. With manual exposure this is easily controlled, with the autoexposure modes (“A”, “S”, “auto”) I’ve found that setting the exposure compensation to -2/3 is about right most of the time. Later in post processing I’ll lift the shadows (if necessary). This produces good results and the camera is able to capture enough detail to make images pop and feel convincing.

For a series of photos I recently shot with the RX100 please visit this Zion Traverse post.

In Summary…

The RX100 goes beyond the capabilities of 99% of the other point and shoot cameras on the market. As a companion for a light-minded hiker it seems an obvious choice but pulling the trigger when it comes time to purchase might not be so easy. For the crowd who are using typical P&S cameras, the price will likely have them debating cost vs. reward. For the crowd using large sensor compacts such as the Sony NEX, Olympus OM-D, or Fuji X lines of cameras the decision will come be whether to sacrifice a noticeable amount of image quality in return for weight/size reduction and convenience. Because the RX100 boasts performance that’s somewhere between above-average yet less than excellent, along with it’s tiny size, relatively light carry weight, and its relatively high cost it’s not exactly a no-brainer afterall, but in the end I don’t think anyone could be unhappy with this camera once they’ve taken it on a trip. I’m very pleased with mine and will continue to keep it as a backup to my interchangeable lens system. Hike It. Like It.


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