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The Gear that I Use: The Sony RX 100

Ice Castle under construction (Sony RX 100)

I have finally found a pocket camera to love really like again.

Back in the 1980s I had in my bag an Olympus XA-2 a classic little 35 mm film camera with a fixed 35 mm lens. It was easily pocketable. Its small size and discrete shutter sound enabled me to shoot thousands of images (some perhaps incriminating) during my college and med school years.

RX 100, XA2 (Fujifilm X 100s)

It was my first “pocket camera” and I loved it. I have boxes of Ektachomes shot with it. It had very sharp optics and could produce excellent image quality.

In the early to mid 2000’s, in the digital era, I used a number of  cameras, such as Nikon and Fuji DSLRs, and compacts again  made by Olympus such as the still beguiling C-5050.

Affordable DSLR imagers were around 6-8 MP in those days, and were much noisier than there modern high-resolution replacements. The gap between the raw file quality of say, my Nikon D70, and the Olympus C-5050 was not that great.  I never felt cheated if a photo opportunity presented itself, and all that I had on hand was the Olympus. I have written more about this in the past.

The Woodpile (Sony RX 100)

In 2005, Fujifilm introduced what became a line of pocket cameras, all sporting a unique “super CCD imager” which endowed them with high resolution than there 6mp would suggest, and for compact cameras, very tolerable high ISO capability. The F 10 was the first of these; I still own one of these along with a later version, the F31 fd. They were fun to shoot and under ideal circumstances could produce gallery quality 11×14 prints. Compared to contemporary DSLRs the gap between qualities of the files was tolerable.

Panasonic LX-5, Sony RX 100, Fujifilm F 31fd Fujifilm X 100s)

Skip forward 9 years. Compact camera sales are down due to the popularity of smart phone imaging. Generally, people who take casual images don’t bother to print them, but share by viewing on their devices, or posting online. Compact camera producers have responded to this threat in part by offering impossibly long zooms (which most smartphones lack) and by stuffing too many megapixels onto tiny imagers which is bad for image quality.

Meanwhile the gap in capability between modern serious cameras, and “sweet spot” compacts like the Fuji has widened to a point that the latter have become to me, obsolete, at least for anything but casual photography).

I have tried to incorporate several more modern compacts into my workflow before, but with mixed results.

The final blow to the concept for me was the Fuji X100/s which had DSLR image quality in a compact form, but was honestly, hardly pocketable. For the last several years this was the smallest camera that I felt was worth carrying.

But now I think that the pocket camera is back…maybe.

Gears (Sony RX 100)

I, know that I’m a little late. I’m writing a review of a camera that is “old news”. The Sony RX 100 was introduced in 2012. It was designed to be a very small “serious compact” to compete with the Canon S series, the Fuji X 10, and the Panasonic LX series, and the Olympus XZ1. The Sony sported a major advantage over those cameras, a 20 MP 1”Exmor imager, much larger than those of its competition though much smaller than APS-C or even “4/3rds” sensors.  20 MP still represents a lot of photo sites on a small chip, but certainly the physics should be better than for the tiny chips typical of “pocket cams”.

The camera has received glowing reviews from multiple websites. But at US$650 when it was introduced, it seemed an extravagance.  As is my habit, I lurked around eBay and Amazon waiting for the price to fall. Recently I found an “open box” unit with a US$420 and clicked “purchase”. It arrived just in time for a trip to the Adirondacks.

The RX 100 is small. But it is very well-built, with a stout metal body, and feels very dense, which it must be, given the large sensor and tiny body. It is a “pants pocket” camera in size, though it’s a bit heavy for this duty. It slipped perfectly into my ski coat pocket where it remained for most of the trip.

Paul’s New Helmet (Sony RX 100@ ISO 320 f1.8)

The RX 100 has an image-stabilized Zeiss-branded 28-100mm (equivalent) f1.8 to 4.9 lens which retracts into the body when not in use. It has a small pop up flash which I have yet to try (I hate that it’s controlled through the cameras menus, rather than a switch).

It has a logical user interface which is easy to figure out, particularly if you’re a camera person. It better be easy… there’s no printed manual for this camera.

In fact it became the only camera I shot for the week. Here were several reasons for this:

First and foremost, it has pretty solid image quality.

Number two, it’s intuitive to shoot.

Three, it was so bloody cold last week, I couldn’t get enthusiastic about standing out in the elements with camera and tripod doing so-called “serious” imaging. In fact, where I was in Lake Placid, it didn’t get much above 2 degrees(f) the entire week, with lows around -25 to-30.

When I first arrived in town I went for some exercise to a favorite destination: The Cascade Cross Country Ski Center. This is a gorgeous place with a variety of diverse biomes and beautiful vistas. As a test, I shot a number of favorite scenes which by experience I know are complex enough to test the lens/ imager interaction of this tiny camera.

Empty Ski Rack (Sony RX 100)

The camera has a good user interface, and happily for my circumstances, could be operated with gloved fingers. The rear LCD was fairly bright, still I will always prefer a viewfinder which is not available for this model (an updated version, the RX 100 II, has a hotshoe and port for an add-on EVF). The autofocus is snappy. And, in a move some have criticized, but I rather like, the camera has no battery charger, but charges internally with a USB cable and power adapter. In other words, it charges like your smart-phone, and likely from the same chargers. Though I would not want this charging method for more heavy use equipment, for a casual camera with good battery life, it’s fine.

Back at the lodge, I reviewed the resulting raw files:

Artie’s Hut (Sony RX 100)

I was initially thrilled with the image quality. Viewed at the lodge on my laptop, the files seemed quite detailed. Dynamic range, highlight and shadow recovery were excellent for a small camera.

I shot for the rest of the week with it. It is nice to again have a camera in one’s pocket that you can feel good about.

Upon arriving home, and viewing the files on my home monitor, and particularly as prints, it became evident that there was no miracle here.  First, there is sensor noise, even at the base ISO, which can be muted in Photoshop, but with a loss of apparent resolution. Second, fine detail is depicted, but in a “barely there” way, without the 3-dimensional appearance seen with better sensor-lens combinations.

It is what it is.

This is another imager that seems to benefit from converting its RAW files with Capture One, rather than Photoshop (CC).Though detail in the conversions was the same, I believe I can achieve a better “signal-to-noise ratio” with Capture One.

100% image, Photoshop CC Camera RAW

100% View, Capture One

High ISO work is doable, but there will be both luminance and color noise to clean up (think black and white).  Still and all, this is a huge leap in capability from my previous compacts.

My Car at 15 below zero ( Sony RX 100@ ISO 400 F1.8)

I think I will keep this camera. It won’t replace my Fuji/ Nikon gear for my typical work. It will be a nice camera to slip in a pocket for a walk after work or in my Camelback for a mountain bike ride. It’ll be wonderful for snaps and candids, particularly outdoors.

You can even produce art with RX 100. You just have to know its limitations.

Time to start incriminating again.



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