Sony released the Sony RX100 III and our initial impressions are that it will be our New Editors' Choice Winner for best compact digital camera.
Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Small size, great image quality, good video options.
Cons: Expensive, slow lens.
Best Uses: All-around adventures, low-light photography.
Sony stepped up to the plate and knocked a home run with the refined RX 100 II this compact camera packs a big punch in image quality and overall ease of use. Sony's leading compact boasts a Carl Zeiss lens, which stands up to its Hollywood reputation, and is matched with a backlit sensor, which was new technology to us. We were impressed. Its overall image quality matched with small size led this camera to be a favorite on expeditions and adventures.
Update — February 2015
Sony released the Sony RX100 III and our initial impressions are that it will be our New Editors' Choice Winner for best compact digital camera.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Don't let the small package of the RX100 II make you think image quality has been sacrificed. We were stunned with the images this little guy produced. Our first impression made us think, "Aw, what a cute little camera," but we had to check the files a few time to make sure we were looking at the right camera after shooting our first test. During the daylight, the Carl Zeiss lens was all it's cracked up to be. We've used Zeiss primes on Canon EF mounts, and the PL mount, T/stop, cinema primes on RED cameras, and we were psyched. But in the world of small cameras, we figured Sony was probably just throwing some money at Zeiss to use their name on proprietary glass. We were wrong with that.
The lens was really impressive for what it is. It offered low-distortion in the corners, zero vignetting, and great sharpness. The zoom range was totally ample and we didn't notice a huge change in sharpness as we moved through the zoom range. While some people complained of the slow aperture (f/1.8 at the wide end, variable to f/4.9 fully zoomed) in comparison to the rest of the field, we didn't really miss it considering how well the camera handled high ISOs. That said, it is a pretty sharp dropoff in aperture; while it seems like just a few numbers, f/1.8 to f/4.9 is nearly three stops. That's equivalent to the difference between ISO 1600 and ISO 12,800, a nearly suicidal ISO regardless of the RX100's low light capabilities. While the lens didn't blow us away in terms of zoom range, it was totally ample and sharp throughout the range.
Aside from the lens, the backlit sensor works well. Who knows what that thing does but we know whatever Sony did inside that little black box works great. Some folks speculated that the camera might fail during good light, since the backlit sensor increases its low light sensitivity. However, we didn't observe any issues with good light.
Low Light Performance
The low-light performance of the RX100 II is great. While the Fuji X100s beat the RX100 by a little bit, it was negligible and the features of the RX100 II so thoroughly whooped the X100s we see it as a strong winner. The backlit sensor, a new addition to the second version of this camera, was added to help with higher ISOs, and whatever they did worked. Even viewing at 100 percent on images shot at ISO 1600, files appeared sharp with a small grain structure and with very little noise both in luminance and in color.
Sony employed a seldom-used technology in larger cameras in the RX 100 II; a back-illuminated sensor, backside illumination. There's tons of information about the hardware of a BI sensor out there on the internet, so we won't go into the nuts and bolts of how it comes together. Previously, BI sensors were used on smaller sensor applications, such as cellphones and low-light security cameras. Sony decided to switch it up. The intent is to make better low-light images, a metric that has almost replaced megapixels in the camera manufacturing battleground. We were impressed with the results, but it was still beat by the X100s, our low-light champion, which is based on a traditional CMOS sensor (but quite larger than the RX 100 sensor).
Ease of Use
We could say that this is where the RX 100 II really shines. But really, it also shines in image quality and low light performance and ease of use. The basic exposure features of the RX100 are quick and easy. Like a few other cameras in the category, the RX100 has an aperture ring on the front. Unlike the X100s, the RX100 does not have the aperture inscribed on the ring, nor does it have actual stops or clicks. Instead, the wheel spins with consistent, smooth resistance. We heard that some people didn't like that, but we didn't mind it at all, and instead preferred it. While cameras with clicks for aperture felt more traditional, we'd prefer to not need a second function to go into 1/3rd stops. With the RX100, it's right there no need for any more buttons or dials.
Additionally, the wheel traditionally set for aperture (and our personal favorite function) can be set to other functions such as zoom. However, we found the standard zoom toggle surrounding the shutter release to be quicker and easier, since spinning the aperture wheel wastes time.
One of our favorite features is incredibly simple when switching between shooting modes such as Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, etc, the camera gives you a little rundown on each mode. For example, for Aperture Priority it lets you know that this is the mode to select your aperture (obvious), which is a control you can use to creatively isolate subjects through depth of field (less obvious). While these are the building blocks of photography that are common knowledge among experienced photographers, less experienced beginners are unaware. This is a great tool to teach newer photographers about these functions, which will eventually lead to greater fundamentals, leading to better, more intentional images.
While on the topic of modes, in addition to Manual (M), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), and Program (P), Sony threw their own proprietary modes on the camera. These are solid, unlike some automated modes. The Intelligent Auto mode is absolutely the most versatile and the definite winner for "plug n' play" shooting that takes the technical decisions out of the equation. Many users will find this mode totally ample for their photography. The scene detection was superior to other cameras tested while in Intelligent Auto. The camera will automatically detect what's happening in the image Is it backlit? How close is the subject? Should it force flash? While these modes are always fallible, we felt like the RX 100 II did it better than any other camera. Sony also included "Superior Auto," which is less similar than we thought to Intelligent Auto. Superior Auto is not well explained in the manual but is in Sony's User Guide). It will take multiple frames or multiple exposures and mix them in camera to help with difficult situations, essentially compositing images together as the camera sees fit. It worked all right, but we never felt confident with it. Here's Sony's definition for you:
In [Superior Auto] mode, the camera shoots burst images based on the recognized scene, then creates a composite of the burst images (Overlay shooting).
The camera automatically corrects the backlight and reduces the noise by overlaying images, so a higher-quality image results than in [Intelligent Auto] mode.
Sony also equipped the RX100 with a sweep panorama feature a feature folks are probably pretty familiar with since its inclusion on iPhones. Just like an iPhone, you'll start to one side or the other (which is selectable, unlike an iPhone) and pan along a scene. Instantly, the camera will composite the images into a single panorama. The camera also sports a mode abbreviated as "SCN", for scene detection. We found it to be slightly redundant to the Intelligent Auto mode, and stuck to that when we weren't doing controlled tests.
Sony equipped the RX100 with a sharp and sizable 3.0 inch LCD screen that pivots outward, which also boasts the highest resolution out of the pack. It's not your typical screen that swivels on a single arm, but instead it tilts out from the bottom, with a great deal of resistance and it doesn't feel that strong. The screen is nicely fixed to the body when not being pivoted; we preferred to leave it there. Not only did the pivoting screen not offer much more usability, it felt kind of sketchy. We could see the use for it when shooting low to the ground and not wanting to lie down in the dirt to get a shot, but we didn't find it to be the most effective feature built into this camera. However, the feature doesn't distract from the rest of the camera's usability, and if you don't like it, it's simple enough to just not use it. Playback is instantaneous and zooming into the image is intuitive and effective.
We've seen plenty of folks lament the lack of touch-screen LCD on the RX100 II, and frankly we don't care. With other outdoor professionals and enthusiasts, we've seen how touch screens work, or don't work, in the field. When high temperatures, low temperatures, sweat, dirt, rain, snow, climbing chalk, whatever other terrible outdoor-oriented contaminates strike touch screens falter. We've all tried to operate our phones on a chair lift and they don't work that well; we don't have a ton of faith in camera screens to do any better. Being stuck with controls based off of a touch screen seems threatening to the outdoor photographer. Think long and hard about whether a touch screen is a useful tool, or just another attempt to beat the "other guys" in a saturated market.
Another impressive feature of the RX100 II is the frame rate, which is advertised at 10 frames per second. For reference, professional, top-of-the-line, $7,000 sports cameras you see on the sidelines shoot 12 frames a second in the newest generation. Back in my days of shooting professional and collegiate sports, we were psyched to shoot 8.5 frames a second.
The RX100 has pretty great video capabilities for its small frame. Similar to the still images, video files look crisp and smooth straight out of the camera. Arguably more important, the RX100 allows for manual controls over video, and also allows for full resolution all the way up to 60 frames a second for slowing down action. While Sony claims shooting at 60p will provide a "smoother, more realistic image," we disagree based on the overall tenets of film history. Before shooting everything in 60p, read up and understand the creative difference that result while shooting in other formats we suggest it only for shooting things you'd like to play back in slow motion.
The Sony shoots in the popular digital video format of 16:9, and shoots in the AVCHD codec, which we've enjoyed working with in post. Some non-linear editors may not natively edit AVCHD (we're looking at you, Final Cut 7), but that's been rectified on newer iterations of software as this codec becomes more popular. Nonetheless, there's no reason to fret worst case scenario you'd have to transcode the footage, which isn't as big of a deal. Folks have been doing it since the beginning of digital video and only recently complaining since software has become more efficient. Bottom line, AVCHD is a pretty good codec that doesn't cause a ton of compression loss like some other codecs, and we're happy that's the chosen one for this camera. Sure, we'd all love to have raw video or uncompressed ProRes 4:2:2, but this codec works just fine in this market.
We've already mentioned that some folks didn't like the click-less aperture wheel, but here's where it shines rather than sudden exposure changes while shooting video, like with a DSLR or other cameras in the category, exposure adjustment is pretty smooth via the aperture wheel. While Sony might not claim it as a smooth iris, it's better than most in a pinch.
In addition to still image stabilization, the RX100 II has a dedicated stabilization method for video that's separate from still image stabilization, and we found it to be effective, but don't forgo decent form for shooting handheld.
In the on-camera flash realm, the best thing you can say about it usually is that you don't need it too often, and with the ISO 12,800 capable sensor, we weren't forced into a flash situation often. The flash will infrequently pop up automatically when the camera sees fit, but it usually finds another way around the situation. The flash is very unobtrusive and well hidden on the top left of the body, and extends on a pretty nifty little structure that's reminiscent of a man-lift on a micro scale. Unlike most of the cameras we tested, we did have more control over the flash. Not only can you enable or disable the flash, you can select Auto Flash, Fill Flash (think backlit portrait on a mountain), and even rear curtain sync and slow sync, which can be used creatively for dragging the shutter to create some motion. Similar to the G16, X100s, and a few other cameras in the pack, the RX 100 has a hot shoe capable of accepting external flashes and triggers for off-camera lighting.
This camera is great for carrying around all the time. The versatility of the RX100 was what really won us over. The camera is flawless in most situations, and as an added bonus we could stash it in any pocket.
At nearly $700 ($699 at press time), the RX100 II isn't cheap, but it's a quality little piece of equipment that is really worth it's price if you have the funds. However, that's not to say there are comparable cameras for half the price. If $700 is a bit too much to bite off, take a look at the Canon G16, which offered really similar quality, in a slightly larger package, for $300 less. If image quality and portability are more important than 300 extra dollars in your pocket, go for the RX100 II.
We're applauding Sony for this one while we expected more traditional camera companies to knock it out of the park, Sony stepped up into a flooded market and made an impact. The RX 100 II is well thought out, well executed, and works as expected. The well-engineered camera provides excellent image quality paired with a fantastic lens that leaves you smiling as you glance through your photos from the day. Pick one up if you need a go-everywhere, do-everything camera. You won't regret it.
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Sony RX100 III
— Tommy Penick
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