Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 20.2 MP Digital Camera - Black Reviews
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 20.2 MP Digital Camera - Black

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A DSLR camera that fits in your pocket

Jan 27, 2013 (Updated Apr 16, 2013)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Ease of Use:
  • Durability:
  • Battery Life:
  • Photo Quality:
  • Shutter Lag

Pros:Small form factor houses big sensor for good high-ISO and bokeh

Cons:Expensive, lacks EVF/hotshoe and easy long-exposure support

The Bottom Line: No other compact camera will gives you as high image quality even in low light


I've owned and operated this camera for 3-4 months now and feel comfortable writing a review on it.

The technical specs of this camera are all over the net. f/1.8-4.9 (28mm-100mm full frame equivalent field of view) lens. 1" CMOS sensor. Slightly larger than a Canon S110 and thus about the maximum size that will still fit your jeans (or even shirt) pocket.

My user experiences:

PROS:

- The RX100 is like a pocket DSLR at lower ISOs. At low ISO (ISO 125 or lower on the RX100), it's really hard to tell whether photos from this camera came from my D5100 DSLR or my RX100. I can use depth of field to try to cheat when guessing, but assuming equal depths of field, it's not easy to figure out which is which.  At higher ISOs (800+) it's easier to tell, because the big sensor of the D5100 can cope with the higher ISOs better than the RX100 can... they both get smudgier and lose dynamic range as you crank up the ISO, but the RX100 loses image quality more quickly.

Specifically, about sensor size: bigger sensors cost a lot more to manufacture but also gather more light and thus can tolerate high ISO and thus do a better job in any kind of photography that requires high ISO, such as taking photos in low-lit rooms.  The RX100's low and high ISO performance are slightly better than Nikon 1-series cameras, on par with the older micro-four-thirds cameras, and not far behind older crop-body DSLR sensors from several years ago. 

If you crunch the numbers, the RX100's sensor is roughly a quarter of the size of a APS-C/DX sensor (about a 2 stop difference), but the RX100's lens starts at f/1.8, which is two stops faster than the f/3.5 that most DSLR kit lenses start at. Those 2 stops cancel each other out, so in the end the RX100 gives you roughly the same image quality as a APS-C/DX format DSLR with kit lens--but with more lens zoom range and in a much smaller and lighter package. You do lose some properties of the DSLR like optical viewfinder and faster autofocus tracking, but it's still remarkable that the RX100 is basically a pocket DSLR + kit lens combo.

The RX100 looks even better when compared to other compact cameras. For instance the RX100 sensor is 116 mm^2 vs the Canon S110/LX-5/XZ-1's 41mm^2 ... making the RX110 about 2.8 times bigger than competing high-end cameras.  That's about 1.67 stops difference!  Even if you consider cameras like the LX-7 which has a f/1.4 lens, that only barely makes up for the sensor size deficiency, and the cameras with slower lenses like the Canon S110 are obviously worse in low light.

But back to the RX100: You can get good results without much post processing up to ISO 1600. Beyond that and you lose some sharpness and have to work harder in post-processing but it's still okay up to ISO 3200 for smaller prints (11x14 inches or smaller... I speak from experience having printed ISO 3200 at 11x14 before with this camera). I would not want to shoot beyond ISO 3200 unless I were using the photos for web-publishing or small prints (5x7" or smaller... maybe 8x10" depending on how much time I want to spend cleaning up the noise in software).  The good news is that even at ISO 3200, I've found that color remains decently accurate.

Thankfully the auto-ISO function is pretty good and I have found it very reliable in getting me sharp-enough shots. Basically it looks at ambient light and calculates what kind of ISO is high enough to raise the shutter speed to the point where your handshaking is counteracted.  The built-in image stabilization hardware is also taken into consideration for still shots.  There is also a special auto-ISO mode where the camera takes multiple shots in a row and assembles a composite, to further enhance camera performance in low light; in practice I have found that the special auto-ISO mode is like gaining a stop of performance for free--e.g., what would have taken ISO 1600 takes more like ISO 800, so you get the performance of ISO 800 but at ISO 1600 speeds.

- Size size size! Will fit in your jeans or even a shirt pocket. It's like a fat Canon S110 but much better in most ways, headlined by the fast lens and huge sensor (by compact camera standards). The aluminum frame is sleek and not bumpy.

- Autofocus speed is very good for a compact camera, but still not as fast as a a DSLR or even a higher-end mirrorless camera like the Olympus E-M5. You can get most photos quite easily, though, just not the most difficult sports shots (person running full speed towards camera or away from it and you are shooting a burst of photos), unless you were already pre-focused or pretty close to it. But side-to-side motion is okay and autofocus can cope with that a lot better.  I think as long as you aren't trying to shoot nighttime football games from the end zone, you will be fine with the RX100.

- Auto white balance is very good and does not require much tweaking in post. The camera is intelligent enough to detect what kind of lighting (e.g., fluorescent indoor lighting, daytime, cloudy) conditions exist... most of the time.

- Bokeh is decent. I've seen better, and I've seen worse. You can get decent portraits just by zooming all the way out (to 100mm equivalent in 35mm film terms) at f/4.9. This thins depth of field and allows the bokeh (background blur) to become more visible.

- Sharpness is excellent if you stop down a little and is still pretty decent even wide open in wideangle mode, thought he corners are slightly soft. But corners rarely matter in most photos, and corners sharpen up nicely when you stop down.

- You can get serviceable macro by setting things at 28mm equivalent and high f/stop (small aperture) at 2" minimum focus distance.

- Fast glass. Lens at wideangle is f/1.8 which lets in a lot of light and means less need to crank up ISO.  The telephoto end is 100mm f/4.9 equivalent which isn't as good.  A side effect of the fast glass and large sensor is better out-of-focus blur/bokeh, but it's not particularly creamy or anything. A lot better than most compact cameras, though!

- 20 megapixels means plenty of room for cropping or downsampling. Even if you do not need all 20 MP, you can simply squish the pixels together to make a sharper image via resizing the image in software. You can also tell the camera to take smaller-than-20MP jpgs inside of the camera by default.

- Battery life is pretty good as long as you don't review the photos a lot. It's spec'd for a little over 300 shots but in practice you can get closer to 400 shots if you don't review photos much.

- Zooming in and out is super quiet and very smooth, a videographer's dream when it comes to pocket-sized videography. Like butter.

- I almost never used the preset stuff on cameras until I got the RX100. I'm now a believer, at least for Illustration mode which has two settings (medium, high effect) that turns photos into pseudo-illustrations as if from a book. Watercolor mode has a similiar effect where it softens up photos as if they were painted in watercolors. My main complaint is that you have to be shooting in JPG mode, not JPG+RAW or RAW mode, to use these, and it's safer to simply take normal photos and apply the effects AFTER the fact so that you will have backups in the interim.   You can also take Toy Camera and other popular effects in various shooting modes.

- There is a popular mode, Sweep Panorama, that is so popular as to be a mode all by itself on the dial up top. And you can specify which direction you want to sweep in. By default you sweep the camera in a left-to-right arc in front of you and the camera auto-stitches the photos into one big one, but I prefer to hold my camera on its side and sweep from "top" to "bottom" which is the same left-to-right sweep but with more vertical clearance so panoramas have more vertical details.  I have found that sweep panorama fails once in a while, but it is surprisingly effective most of the time and WAY more convenient than stitching photos together after the fact.

- Camera may be used with UHS-1 SDHC cards to clear buffer faster. You can take several shots in a row even with a slow SDHC card, but it's better to use a faster card so you won't wait too long for the data to get moved off the camera buffer onto the card.

- Comes with built-in, bounceable flash. Just hold the flash back with your finger. This may reduce flash power as the ceiling may absorb some light, but it will make subjects more naturally lit and not blast them in the face, which looks horrible most of the time.  If you do need more flash power just dial up flash compensation by an appropriate EV level in the menu.

- Controls are great for a compact camera; not as good as a top of the line DSLR, but a lot more pocketable, too. You get a main control ring around the lens base itself which I usually keep as my main way to switch apertures, and a bunch of controls in the back-right side of the camera including a rocker switch, including a programmable button.  This setups is a lot like the Canon S-series, except that the big ring around the base of the lens does not click.  You have to look at the LCD to see what aperture you're at.

- LCD is bright and high-resolution and well built. It's also the same aspect ratio and size as a Nikon D5100 (3:2, 3" diagonal) so I just bought a D5100 LCD protector and slapped it onto the RX100 without problems. The LCD does better than most others to counter sunglare, when set to the brightest setting, but I'd still rather be using an EVF or OVF than try to read the LCD in bright light.

CONS:

- No external battery charger. Plugging in a microUSB cable acts as a data as well as power conduit. You can buy a third-party or Sony external charger and battery for a modest amount if necessary.  You may want to simply buy the RX100 and try it out for a while to see if you really do need the spare battery or if you are okay without it.

- Slightly slippery if you're sweating. I used some electrical tape to literally tape up the right side of the camera to act as a cheap but effect grip. You can buy aftermarket grips and cases to bettery hold the camera if necessary, but they also take up space and is anathema to the pocket-cam sizing.

- No built-in camera shutter release threads, and non-BULB only goes up to 30 seconds.  30 seconds is more than most people will need, but I sometimes take very long exposure photos stretching into minutes. This is not a camera that lends itself easily to ultra-long-exposure landscape shots on a tripod. In fact the tripod hole is not even centered to the lens, which is a typical problem among pocket and near-pocket cameras. You can buy straps that wrap around the camera to hook up to a cable release, but you really shouldn't have to resort to doing that.

- The tripod hole is too close to the battery compartment, so if you attach an Arca-Swiss plate or similar plate, it means you can't swap out the battery without also detaching the plate, unless i'ts one of the smaller mini-plates you can occasionally find in the market. This is something that affects only those who use such plates, typically landscape photographers who use tripods, but it bears mentioning because I happen to photograph landscapes with tripods and quick release plates!

- No built-in hotshoe or filter thread. You can buy aftermarket filter threads like the Mag Filter (which I have) to fit 49 or 52mm filters on the lens, but the bigger problem is the lack of hotshoe which severely limits flash choice. The built-in flash is okay for short-range stuff and is even tiltable with your finger to bounce of ceilings for more pleasing flash effects, but without a hotshoe you are limited to flashes in optical slave mode. I happen to have one, a Metz cs28 manual optical slave flash, and it works well, but I know there are people out there who prefer using TTL flashes, and you're out of luck in that case.  So this is definitely not the kind of camera you want to use in a studio setting if possible.

Also, lack of hotshoe means lack of EVF option. You can get aftermarket hoods for an LCD but that's not the same as it doesn't allow you to brace the camera against your head as easily.

OTHER:

- The Olympus XZ and Panasonic LX series have options that may make them more attractive than the RX100, like slightly faster/wider lenses and hotshoes, but note that DXOmark did a study where they found that most lenses faster than f/2 on digital cameras "cheat" in that they aren't as fast as their ratings would suggest.  It turns out that cameramakers know this and jack up ISO to compensate for the not-as-fast performance of those lenses. Therefore I would take the LX7's f/1.4 lens spec with a big grain of salt.... it's likely not as fast a f/1.4 in real life and thus the LX7 can't rely on the supposedly faster lens to make up all of the difference in sensor sizes between the LX7 and RX100, at least not at wideangle. At telephoto the LX7 lens is obviously significantly faster and can close the light-gathering gap between itself and the RX100.

Also, the Canon S-series is now overpriced at the retail asking price of around $430. The RX100 is almost as small as the S110, but with a sensor nearly triple the size, and the Canon doesn't even have faster glass to make up for it.  The RX100 crushes the S110 in high-ISO performance, bokeh, etc.  as a result. The S-series is still good, mind you, just not worth the incredible ~$430 that Canon is asking for, not when you get so much more camera with the LX7 or RX100 for not much more in price.

CONCLUSION:

The price is steep, but you are basically getting a pocket DSLR for the price.  I've crunched the numbers and compared photos and it's clear that this camera can actually go toe-to-toe with a 2007-era DSLR + kit lens and have more zoom range to boot. Obviously a newer DSLR or one with better (and probably heavier) lens will edge out the RX100, but that DSLR setup will likely cost more money, and you STILL can't pocket the DSLR.  Same thing with mirrorless, which is not often any cheaper than DSLRs.

Also, the RX100 has something that no mirrorless or DSLR system can claim: true pocketability. Oh sure, you can to get by with a single pancake lens on a system camera, but even that will be too big for many pockets and significantly heavier as well--and you'd give up either zoom range or else settle for a slow pancake zoom that is worse than the RX100's large-aperture, 28-100mm full-frame equivalent zoom lens.  I can't overstress the importance of size in many situations; it's something you can't fully appreciate at the store, but fully appreciate when you drag the camera up the side of a mountain on a backpacking trip. As someone who got sick of lugging around his bulky, heavy, attention-making DSLR with him (who wants to be "that guy" at social events with the big honkin' DSLR?), this RX100 was a godsend.

Update 3/22/2013: The strength of the 20 megapixels proved itself when I took a photo of a rattlesnake during a hike. I zoomed in all the way but had to keep my distance, so the snake took up only a small spot in the photo.  Thankfully the daylight paired with the good lens on the RX100 and massive 20 megapixels on the sensor meant that I took the shot at ISO 125 (on auto-ISO), which preserved a lot of detail.  Then I cropped the shot down and wound up with a 2-megapixel snake photo, which is suitable for photos up to 8x10 inches.

You can't do that nearly as well with any other pocket camera, not even the closest competitor (LX7, only 10 megapixels on the sensor, so you would have only about 0.9 megapixel crop of the snake under similar circumstances due to the lower number of megapixels and shorter maximum focal length of the LX7, which is 90mm vs the RX100's 100mm full-frame equivalent; and the LX7's sensor is smaller, so you will accumulate noise in the image faster than with the RX100).

What this means is that when light is good and you can shoot at lower ISOs, you get 20 good megapixels to play with, and you can even artifically zoom in by cropping.  At higher ISOs, the density of megapixels means each pixel loses quality faster than if the RX100 had fewer pixels, but that isn't a problem if you resize the photo.  If you take 20 megapixels and resize it down to, say, 10 megapixels, you will suppress noise and thus improve image quality.

So ultimately the higher number of megapixels on the RX100 gives you flexibility when you need it (low ISOs), and doesn't really hurt you when you don't need that many pixels (high ISO photos that you can resize to help suppress noise).


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 649
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Solid Enough for a Professional

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