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 The P&S is just too outdated, and although the phone is better, it’s still lackluster despite the portability factor.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 It is now superseded by the RX100 mark II, which arrived with anticipation, but not quite to the same hype/elation that original generated.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.

*see “updates” at bottom of this post

Side by Side Comparison
- RX100 RX100 mk II RX100 mk III NEX 5N
MSRP (04/2014): $550 $700 $900 $520
Size: 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.41 in 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.51 in 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.60 in 4.37 x 2.32 x 1.50 in
Weight (no batt): 6.4 oz 7.8 oz 9.4 oz 9.9 oz
Sensor: 20mp 1-in 2.7x crop 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 1080p 60/24
Video Mic: Internal Internal Internal Internal
Viewfinder: Not Available Optional EVF Pop-Up EVF Optional EVF
Controls: Minimalist Minimalist Minimalist Minimalist
Flash: Built in Built in Built in Accessory
Hot Shoe: No Yes No No
LCD Screen: 3″ 1.2m screen 3″ 1.2m tilting screen 3″ 1.2m tilting screen 3″ 920k tilting touchscreen
Battery Weight: 0.8 oz 0.8 oz 0.8 oz 2.0 oz
Battery Life: 300+ photo 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.

Update

The comparison table above was updated on 5/16/2014 to include the RX100 mark III which is now in the pre-order stage and should be shipping by fall of 2014. Sony has upped the ante again by including a pop-up electronic viewfinder as well as an overall faster lens (max aperture is f/2.8 at the long end of the zoom now) which has less telephoto capability but is also slightly wider at the wide end. The price is getting steep now, and the weight has crept up several ounces from the original version despite the size being nearly identical!


6 comments to The Sony RX100

  • Dave

    Have been reading your great reviews of the RX100 and was almost ready to hit the button and buy one. But then found LOTS of online discussions in numerous places about battery drain when the camera is supposedly off. Even cases of it turning on with the camera just sitting on a table. Obviously a horrible thing when backpacking. Seen any sign of this?

    • Hi Dave. The battery drain issue… I’d heard about it but never realized the extent that it became a problem until researching more after your post here.

      I think there is one real problem, and one or more separated isolated incidences which also resulted in battery drain. Batteries should not drain with the camera sitting on the table, that seems like an isolated incident to me. On to the real issue…

      It seems like the problem is, the playback function can be inadvertently activated by pressing the “play” button while the camera is turned off. This, coupled with a second issue – the auto-power off function is overridden by the sensor that detects physical movement of the camera… so if you’re walking along and the camera happens to get powered on while in its case, it will probably remain on. This has NOT been an issue for me – so far – but it is concerning.

      I can see how it would be possible. Apparently the Mark II, and Mark III models don’t suffer from this problem.

      I think it can be avoided with the RX100 by using a case that doesn’t allow the camera to wiggle around much, and/or modding a case with a piece of foam (or something similar) that would essentially cover the screen area of the camera, but nothing more. This would (in theory) prevent accidental press of the playback button.

  • Tony

    Good write up on this amazing pocket camera.

    I have the 1st generation of the RX100.

    I really wanted to get the NEX5n with it’s large sensor, but the fact that it was not pocket-able was a deal breaker for my style of hiking.

    I only get about 5-10 seconds to compose my shots or I get left behind by the others.

    Two things that I have been thrilled about is the low light performance and the HD video capability.

    There is no comparison to my old P&S camera and I can never go back.

    One thing that I would say is given the weight of the camera, carrying it in my cargo pockets of my pants will rub my leg raw after about 80-100 miles of hiking.

    Hip belt pocket maybe the way to go.

    There is a lot of manual capability in this little camera, but I find that shooting in jpeg in the idiot modes has worked fine for me.

    All about the big sensor.

    Tony

    • Hi Tony. I missed your comment until this morning.

      Glad to hear you’ve been happy with the RX100. The NEX cameras are nice too, but the pocket size of the RX100 is a big plus for backpacking trips, especially for those who are generally “casual photo enthusiasts”. I ran quite a way with my RX100 in a pants pocket, but it was a pretty snug fit, so no rubbing or bouncing. My usual preference would be a hip belt pocket on a backpack… perfect camera for stashing that way.

  • Nice article & good comparison. I was looking at getting the RX100 as a “backup camera” and have seen it for as low as 350€ – which is a very good price for the camera. I will need to see if Sony is bringing out an Mk III any time soon, as the Mk II looks slightly better (I like tiltable screens).

    As for the 5N, I use mine on every trip. It’s my bread & butter camera, and I have shoot hundreds of photos with it that have made it into printed magazines. That said, after I had the chance to try the A7R last month I’m blown away by it, and am saving for one. Love the crisp, sharp detail, small package and great handling.

    btw, nice to see you also use “old” lenses on your 5N!

    • Hi Hendrik.

      I picked my RX100 up on the used market, intending to sell it a couple of months later (following my trip to Zion), but, well… I’m sure you know how that can go sometimes :) It’s here to stay now. It cost me less than $350 (~480€) which I can live with. The mark II has the tilt screen and that’s the only feature I really miss. At some point I’ll probably trade up. I have not heard about plans for a newer model (yet).

      Regarding the 5N… I had no idea you were (are) using a NEX 5N also! For some reason I thought you were shooting with a micro 4/3 system. It’s a great camera, and coupled with the small rangefinder lenses I think it makes for a great backpacking kit. The RX100 is soo convenient though it’s crossed my mind that I could start leaving the 5N at home when I go hiking – no – blasphemy!!!

      Regarding the A7R… yes, one hell of a camera. Personally, I find that the 16mp sensor of the 5N is all I need for “serious” photography & prints though. I would undoubtedly benefit from having a larger, more modern sensor I can’t find a reason to go back to full frame at this point. One thing I know about FF systems is they tend to attract heavy, expensive lenses to me!

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