Top positive review
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The time is right to add this great camera to your arsenal !
on 16 August 2013
This is quite a long review because this is a serious camera and I imagine now that it has dropped dramatically in price, many potential buyers are considering it. If you want the quick lowdown on it, skip through to the end section entitled "THE LOWDOWN". Thanks !
MARK 1 VERSUS MARK 2:
Well, the price of the RX100 has fallen to under £400 brand new, which is much, much cheaper than it originally sold for. Of course, the reason for this is straightforward enough - Sony has recently (July 2013) released the mark 2 version (which sells for a fair amount more money). Let's get the issue of mark 1 versus mark 2 out of the way right now - the mark 2 has a tilting LCD, a hot shoe on which can be added a rather expensive EVF or flash units, wi-fi, a few other smaller additions, and a new backlit sensor that supposedly has slightly improved high ISO. On the minus side, some early adopters are reporting that out of camera JPEGs are a bit softer on the mark 2 compared to the mark 1. I haven't heard any complaints about raw though. Which should you go for? Well, I went for the RX100 mark 1 due to the massive price drop compared to its original retail price, and the fact that I do not feel the current launch price of the RX100 mark 2 in the UK necessarily makes it a good buy, given the competition from the likes of the Ricoh GR and mirrorless cameras.
WHAT IS THE RX100 ALL ABOUT ?
OK, so I am writing this review from the perspective of a part-time pro photographer and very keen amateur. I shoot Sony DSLRs as well as micro four thirds. For quite a few years my `take anywhere' camera was my trusty Panasonic LX3, which served well but is ready for retirement. What attracted me to the RX100 was its form factor - the holy grail idea of a `take anywhere', pocketable camera that produces `near DSLR' quality, even in low light. This is not a replacement to a DSLR for me, nor does it replace micro four thirds in my arsenal, BUT, there is now no excuse not to have a camera with me at all times, and if I feel like a `travel nice and light' vacation, work trip or weekend away, this camera comes into its own. However, I do know of some users who have indeed sold mirrorless or even DSLR systems and moved to the RX100. I can understand why, but that route is not for me.
STILL IMAGE QUALITY
The 1 inch, 20.2 MP sensor in the RX100 is larger than other compacts, but smaller than that inside most mirrorless cameras or the sensors in DSLRs. What this means is that the RX100 stands head and shoulders above other compacts in terms of IQ, especially in low light, high ISO conditions. It smokes the Canon G15, for example, Canon S110 and from ISO 400+ leaves the Panasonic LX7 in the dust in terms of noise performance. The lens on the RX100, a Carl Zeiss T* branded 28mm-100mm equivalent, is very good indeed, producing sharp, contrasty images throughout its focal length range and often doing justice to the excellent 20.2MP sensor. At the wide end there is some corner softness but this is common on almost every wide angle lens, from those featured on compacts to £1000+ lenses used on DSLRs. As a comparison, the corner softness is no worse than that I experience with my Sony 16-50 2.8 SSM lens (on my a77 SLT) at the wide end. Sony work some magic on the JPEGs to correct severe distortions (as do Panasonic and others in their cameras) at the wide end, and the JPEG engine does a good job here. Similar distortion correction can be done on raws using ACR or Lightroom for example, though I prefer the job DXO Optics Pro does with RX100 raws (more on this later). One big feature of the marketing is the f1.8 at the wide end. This means the lens is `fast' at the wide end, and this facilitates low light shooting (you are less likely to need to bump up the ISO very high), and in theory, differential focus techniques featuring that `sharp target, blurred background' look that many people associate with professional DSLR images. In practice the latter kind of shot is only really possible on fairly close subjects, such as macro shots, though it can be achieved to an extent at the 100mm setting as well given the right conditions, but you have to accept that this is not going to give you portraits with buttery smooth blurred backgrounds like an 85mm 1.4 lens would give you on a DSLR. One of the issues is that as soon as you go just one mm over the 18mm wide end, the fastest aperture drops and you lose the f1.8. Some moan about this but it seems an unavoidable consequence of keeping the form factor so small - to keep the lens 1.8 through its aperture range would have essentially meant quite a larger lens, and hence a larger camera, defeating the purpose of the RX100. Overall image quality is stunning - the sensor and lens working together deliver more IQ than you thought was possible from a compact camera, and in the right hands images from the RX100 are good enough for pro use, no question. The JPEG engine is one of Sony's better ones, and one advantage of using it is that you get to use all the funky picture styles on offer, as well as the very useful HDR and MFNR (multi frame noise reduction) modes which are otherwise not available to raw shooters. If you want the ultimate image quality, shoot raw and process in Capture One or DXO Optics Pro 8 - I use the latter, and the raws can be pulled around to a surprising degree, while the NR and distortion correction are superb. Some moan about the rather neutral colours spat out by the RX100 in JPEG or raw - I think this is a bonus - it means you can tweak away and fine tune the final image, either in post processing if shooting raw, or in camera if shooting JPEG, by dialling in white balance, contrast and saturation boosts to suit.
MOVIE QUALITY - superb ! 1080p 28MPS AVCHD at 60 frames per second anyone?! Stills during video recording? Yep, no problem. The EOSHD web site contains a review - take a look - the owner posted a review stating he felt he could interweave footage from the RX100 with that shot with expensive full frame Canon DSLRs. Once again, the RX100 punches well above its weight - look up RX100 on Vimeo or YouTube and see for yourself the pro quality movies people have put together with this amazing little camera. At its highest AVCHD setting you still retain full manual control if required. OK, it's not a GH3 or a 5DMkIII but it is superb!
This is where the camera becomes a `marmite' camera - you will love, hate or choose to put up with the ergonomics. The camera has an aluminium case (with a plastic bottom so it doesn't get scratched). This means it is quite slippy to hold. Some swear by after market grips by Gariz, Franiec and the like. Others just always use the supplied wrist strap or, like me, use the Sony custom leatherette (i.e. Chinese fake leather) case (Amazon may still have a free offer on this if you buy the RX100), which adds a grip to the RX100 making it feel safer in the hand. Two other issues - it is so small that you have to get used to pressing the shutter button at speeds of around 1/30 very lightly so as not to create camera shake; and, of course, there is no EVF (whereas the new mark 2 RX100 has the option to add one). The lack of an EVF may or may not be an issue for you, but hear me out on this one - I used to be an OVF/EVF devotee - I would, as a matter of principle, not consider a camera without an EVF or OVF. The RX100 changed my attitude on this - I normally hate holding a camera out at arms length and composing and shooting that way. It just doesn't feel like what someone serious about photography should be doing. But then I began to buy into the whole pocket rocket philosophy of the RX100 - for serious sports, action and similar work I would choose my DSLRs with OVFs and EVFs, sure, but on trips, walks, vacation, at work, in the back garden, why be snooty about this? If they had added an EVF it would no longer be a pocket camera. It was a necessary evil, and besides, look at the shoddy OVF on the likes of the Canon G15 - it's tiny and not representative of the final image - what's the point? The LCD on the RX100 is very sharp and viewable in bright sunlight if you turn on the sunlight setting in the menus. Another prejudice I had to overcome was my love of external controls Sure, the Canon G line is nice because of all those external dials, but again, you just can't do this on a pocket camera like the RX100 - Sony's solution is to use small buttons, the rear dial/wheel, and a neat control dial around the diameter of the lens just like Canon do in their S series. The result is that you can set up this camera however you want, within reason, but sure, it takes a little getting used to, though if you already own Sony NEX or DSLRs you will be right at home with the familiar menu layouts. A big plus of the RX100 form factor is that it is not perceived as a pro camera - thus, you should have no trouble getting it into live music events, sports events, shooting on the street, and so on, all the time in the smug knowledge that you can take near pro quality HD video and brilliant DSLR-like stills There are plenty of great concert shots out there in the forums to prove this (check out the Digital Photography Review Sony cybershot forum for examples).
WHY NOT GO MIRRORLESS OR DSLR INSTEAD ?
I am a big fan of mirrorless cameras and DSLRs - Sony's NEX mirrorless line is great (particularly the NEX 7), and I have shot micro four thirds for a few years now, and Sony DSLRs and SLTs. The RX100 is different though - you can't get any mirrorless camera or DSLR as small as the RX100, especially with a 28-100mm equivalent lens attached. Sure, the very best mirrorless cameras (e.g the Olympus E-P5, or OM-D), attached to the best lenses (e.g. Panasonic 12-35, Olympus 75mm 1,8), will give you better resolution, better high ISO, faster focus, but all will be bigger and considerably more expensive - you are buying into a whole world of changing lenses and a bottomless pit of spend, spend, spend with mirrorless (trust me I have been there). The RX100 gives mirrorless cameras a run for their money in terms of IQ - resolution and low light performance, especially when those cameras are just armed with their kit lenses. The RX100 comes close to that of a DSLR with a kit lens, though can't match the versatility of a DSLR or the focus speed and tracking abilities for sports and action shooting. Bottom line - there is room for the RX100 in a DSLR or mirrorless shooters arsenal - because it is the camera you carry everywhere, always - can you honestly say you do that with your NEX or DSLR?
+s of this camera:
As of August 2013 it is under £400 - what competition is there at this price? None!
Full manual control
Shoots raw or JPEG
Superb resolution from a sharp Carl Zeiss T* lens (CZ lenses are renonwned just like Leica ones) and a very competent 20.2 MP sensor - 100% crops are exquisite
The lens is sharp and fast (1.8) at the wide end, especially if you process raws in DXO Optics or Capture One
JPEG engine is good and strikes a decent balance between noise reduction and detail retention at higher ISOs
Lots of scene modes and special effects for JPEG shooters, including some very good ones like Multi Frame Noise Reduction and HDR mode.
AVCHD HD video has been lauded by video experts (see EOSHD.com) as unbelievably good
No fiddly lens cap, and lens collapses into camera body for compactness
It's very customisable and uses a variant of Sony's existing DSLR menus.
Fast AF (not as fast as micro four thirds, but almost) and there is focus peaking
It's a zoom ! The focal length range of 28mm to 100mm equivalent goes from wide angle to short telephoto. Many competitors are fixed focal length.
The 1 inch sensor (+ f1.8 at the wide end) means it is better in low light than pretty much any other compact, pocketable camera. You CAN get good results at ISO 3200 !
-s of this camera
Missing features: GPS, wi-fi, EVF or OVF, hot shoe
Macro capability slightly limited by need to use 28mm wide end
No filter thread on lens (but after market solutions available from Lensmate, Magfilter and others)
No built in ND filter (offered by some of the competition)
Lens has some corner softness at wide end
The paint scratches easily (my first scratch came on day 1 of ownership)
Some owners report dust spots trapped inside lens or on sensor - this is relatively common in compacts with telescoping lenses (like the Canon G series) but an annoyance. The only way to avoid it is to buy a camera with a fixed focal length lens like the Fuji X100(s).
It costs as much as a low-end mirrorless camera or a low end DSLR with kit lens (but it can compete with them in terms of IQ)
No manual supplied, not even on a CD !! You should buy Gary Friedman's e-book if you buy this camera !
YOU SHOULD ALSO CONSIDER
Sony RX100 mark II (but it costs a lot more)- adds Wi-Fi, tilt LCD, optional EVF via new hot shoe, better sensor (? yet to be reviewed)
Ricoh GR digital - good but less versatile
Sigma DP Merril series - amazing IQ from the Foveon sensor but fixed focal length lenses and slow AF
Canon G1X (an APS-C semi-compact with better high ISO performance but a lot bigger)
Sony RX1 (if money is no object - a full frame, fixed focal length marvel)
Panasonic LX7 - you've got to like a zoom that starts at 24mm and the fact that the excellent LVF-2 clip-on EVF can be used with the LX7, but the sensor is a lot smaller than that of the RX100 and ultimately it can not compete with the IQ of the RX100. It's also larger and less pocketable. It's a good camera but I believe it's trumped by the RX100.
1 The camera tends to set a shutter speed of 1/30s in P mode in low light when auto ISO is selected, and in A mode under the same conditions. This can be too slow if people are going to be in the image. There are two workarounds - manually change the lower ISO limit of the AUTO ISO so it is higher than it is currently set at; or else use S mode instead (or M of course, but there's no auto ISO in M mode)
2 Buy a spare battery and a wall charger - I suggest a genuine Sony battery but third party chargers seem OK - Amazon sell a cheap charger called a Lemix and it has good reviews. The official Sony wall charger is over £50 and hard to find in the UK.
3. Not mentioned in the manual, but you can hold the built-in flash upwards to get bounce flash - works very nicely if indoors and rhere is a white ceiling.
4. If you are buying this close to going on a vacation where you plan to use it, spend some time practicing with it - there are LOTS of features and you won't get the best out of it unless you practice with it. This is especially true of the Panorama mode (see the forums and you will find out why !)
5. Use a fast SD card if you plan on shooting max quality HD video a lot.
6. Watch out regarding the Amazon UK pricing on this - from one day to the next it is changing - it varied between about £356 one day and £385 the next - no idea why ! (updated Dec 2013)
7. When shooting in low light try to keep the lens at its widest focal length setting (28mm) and just move closer to your subject if needed - that way you will retain the widest aperture of f1.8 which will mean that the camera may not need to use very high ISO settings.
8. if you are a raw shooter, try DXO Labs' raw developer called DXO Optics Pro version 9 (a free trial is available) with the RX100 - this raw developer automatically corrects for noise, chromatic abberation and lens distortion and does a GREAT job with raw files from the RX100 - I like it better than ACR or Lightroom for RX100 raws.
9. If you put this in your Amazon basket, do check who the supplier is listed as - if it is "Amazon EU SARL" then you know you are getting one direct from Amazon, and this will be a UK model - the charger will have a UK wall plug and you will get a full UK warranty. If, on the other hand, supplier is not Amazon, you have no guarantee you are getting UK stock and you could, further down the line, have issues getting Sony to honour any in-warranty repairs.
10. UPDATE - The RX100 Mark 3 has been announced (May 2014) - Sony have addressed many concerns and it sounds like a superb upgrade - the lens will start at 24mm, it will be f1.8 -f2.8 throughout the range and there is a pop-up EVF built in. The downside is it will stop at 70mm. Sounds great but there are no reviews yet. Of course the price will be, most likely, double what the original RX100 is selling for - I imagine at least £600. Still, if you have money to burn you should perhaps wait until the Mk3 is reviewed before choosing the Mk1 or Mk2.