Sony RX100 – Pro Compact

In recent years the market for compact cameras has nearly died at the hands of the Smart Phone. There is a however a breed of compact cameras that have been designed for photographers who value both image quality and portability.

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Image quality that is indistinguishable from an entry level DSLR

The RX100 is a 20 Megapixel premium compact camera with a 1.0 inch type sensor. Although the sensor is not as large as most ILC cameras, it is much much larger than the traditional ‘compact’ camera (more than 250% larger than similar looking Sony Cybershot compacts). The Sony Sensor also punches above it’s size, and can capture images that are barely indistinguishable from some DSLR or Mirrorless cameras. For many photographers who don’t want to compromise on image quality it is one of only a few compact cameras now worth considering. Sony’s 1.0 inch sensor has proved so popular that it has won constant accolades from the media over the years for the image quality it can capture and the sensor has been purchased by Sony’s competitors who want a slice of the ‘compact’ action. Weighing in at 299 g or 0.66 lb this camera feels very solid and reassuringly heavy (Sony is packing in a lot of technology into its diminutive size (102 x 58 x 41 mm or 4.02 x 2.28 x 1.61). This camera will fit into the pocket of your jeans or into a clutch bag. Alternatively purchase a small bag with a belt loop and you will possibly forget you are even wearing it. I use a wrist strap attached to my RX100 as hanging such a small camera around my neck feels a bit silly.

If you already own a recent model Sony Alpha camera (models released after the NEX branding was retired) you will be up and running in just a few minutes. The camera features the same menu structure as the A7 and A6K series cameras. It has the same options to program the Fn menu that gives you quick access to frequently used camera settings. The Wi-Fi function of the RX100 means that you can quickly transfer images to your phone and then share to social media in a flash (I would typically edit them using Lightroom Mobile, however, before posting).

With a generous 20 Megapixels it is possible to crop aggressively and still end up with a 2048 pixel image suitable for Facebook (maximum supported size)
With a generous 20 Megapixels it is possible to crop aggressively and still end up with a 2048 pixel image suitable for Facebook (maximum supported size by Facebook)
ISO 2,000 - a land where things get ugly for mobile phones
ISO 2,000 – a land where things get very ugly for images captured on mobile phones
Good image quality for times when a mobile phone will never do
Good image quality for times when a mobile phone will never do (low light)
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The RX100 is a pocket camera that can grab those fleeting moments when travelling

The RX100 uses a Zeiss wide aperture (f/1.8-f/2.8) 3 x zoom lens and is cable of shooting in locations where the ambient lighting is low without having to use flash. Even when travelling with my full-frame Sony Alpha camera it is often easier to pull the RX100 from my pocket and grab that decisive moment.

Captured at 1/4000 second in AF-C while using lock-on AF
Captured with an RX100V at 1/4000 second in AF-C while using lock-on AF
The large sensor and wide aperture lens of the RX100 makes shallow depth of field possible.
The large sensor and wide aperture lens of the RX100 makes shallow depth of field possible.

Version Five

The fifth version of the RX100 (RX100V) was released in the second half of 2016 and distinguishes itself from the mark IV version with its superior AF (Phase Detect Autofocus Performance). The RX100V can now lock-on and track moving subjects with its upgraded on-sensor phase detect autofocus system. Sony also increased the burst rate of stills shooting from 16 to 24 frames per second in Continuous Shooting mode. Just to help that sink in – that’s the same frame rate as Hollywood uses to shoot its movies! No other camera (including professional sports cameras) can match the stills burst rate of the RX100. The improved autofocus is the result of a cutting-edge AF system that combines super-fast 0.05-second speed and the wide, dense AF coverage employing 315 phase-detection AF points.

The movie above demonstrates the power of combining Phase Detect AF points with Lock-On AF capability and 24 frames per second stills shooting.

Movie shooters will also benefit from the improved AF tracking. 4K video is now oversampled from 5K footage leading to sharper and more detailed movie clips while rolling shutter has been virtually eliminated with the Mark V.

High Frame Rate (Aperture Priority) – 250 frames per second (Quality Priority). End Trigger REC Timing.

For photographers looking to record maximum image quality from the HFR capability of this camera, I recommend limiting the frame rate to 240 or 250 frames per second and then choosing a playback speed of 24 or 25 frames per second. This will be 10 times slower than ‘real-time’ and produce sharp 1080p video clips.

High Frame Rate (Aperture Priority) – 500 frames per second (Quality Priority). End Trigger REC Timing.

Previous Versions

Previous versions of the RX100  are still sold by many camera outlets and can be picked up at a reduced cost compared to the latest version. I have outlined the major changes below. Although all models are excellent I personally think the camera ‘came of age’ with the release of the Mark III.

The FOURTH (IV) version of the RX100 acquired 4K movie shooting, 16 frames per second stills shooting, 100 frames per second movies (120 for the US market) at 1080p (up from 720p) and HFR Mode for super-slow-motion movies (courtesy of a new and improved stacked CMOS sensor). HFR or High Frame Rate shooting allows the user to create super slow-motion movies by shooting up to 1,000 frames per second and playing the movies back at either 25 or 50 frames per second (USA users get slightly different frame rates – 240, 480 and 960 fps). The built in ND filter + Sony’s Picture Profiles (including S-Log2) and the ability to capture 17 megapixel stills while recording movies made this an excellent upgrade for video shooters.

The most notable improvement of the THIRD (III) version of the RX100 (released in 2014) was it’s pop-up Electronic Viewfinder or ‘EVF’. This allows the user to carry on shooting when the ambient lighting conditions make it difficult to see the subject on the LCD screen of the camera. The pop-up viewfinder meant that the hotshoe had to be sacrificed (not a terrible loss in my opinion for a compact). The RX100 III switched from the Zeiss 28-100 equivalent zoom lens to a brighter Zeiss 24-70 variable aperture lens (f/1.8-f/2.8) and this has now been used on the last three models. In my daughter’s eyes, perhaps the most notable new feature for the third version was the ability for the screen to flip 180 degrees for shooting selfies (the camera automatically does an on-screen count-down for the perfect pout).

The SECOND version of the RX100 (II) released in 2013 acquired the BSI CMOS sensor (for speed and improved low light performance – Sony claimed 40% better performance in low light) and an articulating screen. It also acquired Wi-Fi making it easy to shoot and share.

The FIRST version of the camera was a landmark release. TIME Magazine included the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 in its list of the 50 ‘best inventions’ of 2012. They called the RX100 a ‘huge leap’ in the trend towards smaller and more capable digital cameras, thanks to its ‘innovative design and 1-in sensor’. The camera also featured a 28-100mm (equiv), f/1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens.

So what can’t this little pocket-rocket do?

We are dealing with a very small camera here, so obviously when push comes to shove, some things are not going to make the feature list.

Things you will NOT find on the RX100 cameras

  • No Audio-In Jack (you can get around this by recording audio to a seperate device – “HOW TO GET AUDIO WITH THE SONY RX100 V” – https://youtu.be/YSabaxy9-Vg)
  • No Headphone Jack (see above)
  • No Hotshoe on Models III, IV and V
  • Only one custom button (although the Control Ring around the lens can be programmed to adjust things like Exposure Compensation, etc.)
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The RX100 makes an ideal camera for ‘street photography’. You will not find a Silent Shooting mode in the menus of the RX100 but the Shutter sound can be rendered nearly inaudible by going to Setup (toolbox icon) > Audio Signals > Off

What are the limitations if this is the only camera you were travelling with?

  • The 70mm zoom is not going to get you very close to the action, but with 20 megapixels at your disposal you do have generous room to crop if you just want to post to social media. Cropping aggressively and throwing away 3/4 of the pixels will still leave you with a HD image and that equates to using 280mm zoom (see image below).
Throwing away 15 megapixels of water gets you close to the action while still having enough pixels to post HD images to social media.
Throwing away 15 megapixels of water gets you close to the action while still having enough pixels to post HD images to social media.
  • It’s a small battery so you will need to purchase a second battery (or two) if you intend to shoot all day (especially if you shoot and HFR and 4K movies). I am charging the batteries in-camera and due to the speed of the recharging (approximately 2 hours) I haven’t felt the need to purchase a battery charger.
  • 4K movie recording is limited to 5-Minutes. Most users will not find this a limitation to what they want if they are recording short ultra HD clips to piece together a narrative sequence in post. If you see this as a serious issue, either record in 1080 HD or check out video cameras instead. Remember this camera has no option to add an external microphone so don’t assume this camera is good for recording dialogue. If you want good audio quality consider recording the audio on a seperate device and sync in post.
  • Although shallow depth-of-field is possible with the RX100, it is not going to be able to come anywhere close to rivalling the ‘Bokeh’ that is possible by using a full-frame A7 camera with a wide aperture prime. At the 70 mm focal length on the RX100, maximum aperture will drop from f/1.8 to f/2.8. Depth of field increases with cameras using smaller sensors so you may achieve figure and ground separation at maximum aperture at close range with the RX100 but don’t expect to win any ‘Bokeh’ awards at your local camera club.
  • If you are going to start shoving the RX100 in your pocket I would purchase a screen protector at your earliest opportunity. Note > The LCD screen is not a touch-screen
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The RX100 doesn’t look like a Pro camera but its image quality would say otherwise.

The Final Word

Although this is not the only compact that now features a large sensor it is, I believe, still the camera that offers the most comprehensive list of features. At the time of writing it is the only large sensor compact that has added Phase Detect AF and creates 4K video from oversampled 5K footage. I personally could not consider a large sensor compact that did not have an EVF or Wi-Fi. Would I give up my A7RII for this camera? – No. Would I travel with this as an additional camera to my A7RII? That is exactly what I am doing as I write this review 🙂

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