Sony RX100 Field Test

by Shawn Barnett

Bokeh. I made this shot searching for bokeh. I found it, but it was at f/4.9 as I'd zoomed to telephoto.

Nothing's more fun for a reviewer than looking at a camera we would buy for ourselves. Sony has finally refocused on the enthusiast user--something they haven't done with much traction since the unique F828--and the results are quite good.

Form. Sony nailed it in the physical simplicity department, largely by conforming to an already popular, well-thought-out design. Though there's no grip on the front, the Sony RX100 is thick enough to hold easily. The larger lens ring leaves a little less room for your fingers, so I recommend using the wrist strap and both hands whenever possible. At $650, you don't want to drop this little beauty. Sony also included strap lugs for both sides of the RX100, so a solitary neck strap is also likely to be available.

The shirt-pocketable design is a little thick, so it's not going to disappear into a pocket like a Sony T-series camera, but it'll fit in a pinch, and rides well in the looser pockets of slacks or handbags.

The position of the thumbgrip, Mode dial, Zoom toggle and Power button are ideal. The Rear dial, too, is well-positioned for easy access and its detents are clear. The Mode dial, on the other hand, is a little mushy for my taste; rather than snapping into position, it's reluctant to leave its position, then moves slowly to its next setting. Stiff is good, unyielding isn't. That's probably my only complaint about the Sony RX100's physical operation, though, which is good.

Lens. Ranging from 28-100mm equivalents, the Sony RX100's 3.6x lens is a big part of the camera. You can tell what I mean when you power on this solid-feeling camera and the weight shifts toward the front; much of the overall weight is the lens itself. If holding the camera without a strap, it's important to hold it well because the weight shift could cause you to lose your grip. What's amazing is how well it collapses inside the camera body. The lens zooms about as quickly as I'd like, with a slight, low-frequency buzz; not exactly silent, but low enough that it won't attract too much attention.

Picture Effects. I like this surreal Illustration effect. I was disappointed that the level feature left the shot a little off kilter, though.

Optical quality at the center is quite good. Our tests show some noticeable softening in the corners, likely related to the extreme distortion correction the camera has to perform out toward the corners. It also does this correction in video, unlike a few older Sony cameras, though we doubt it'll affect the corners as much given the lower resolution of HD video. The Canon S100's uncorrected RAW images are even more distorted than the RX100's images, which could also cause much of the softening we see in the corners on that camera, in addition to the usual suspects of coma, curvature of field, and chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration is also low overall, probably processed out by the camera.

We also noticed an unusual color shift when zooming from wide to telephoto in Manual White Balance mode, going from a purple cast at wide angle to a green cast at telephoto, primarily around the edges. This is partially due to our use of Manual White Balance on most of these setups, and can be seen in other cameras, including the S100. See our Optics page for more on the Sony RX100's optical performance.

Autofocus is very quick on the Sony RX100, ranging from 0.153 second at wide angle and 0.266 second at telephoto. That's deep into phase-detect SLR territory, and is a major advantage over the Canon S100, whose shutter lag improved over its predecessor, but still hovered around 0.571 second. Prefocused shutter lag on the RX100 is a remarkable 0.013 second.

As a result, the Sony RX100 surprised me with its readiness. I almost always half-press to prefocus, and the Sony RX100's shutter release works on a hair trigger, surprising you when it goes off. That's just what you want for catching the right moment once you get used to the camera, but at first you get surprised by taking a picture before you meant to. That's not a bad problem to have.

The Sony RX100 also focused extremely well in low light, actually working better without the AF assist lamp in our lowest light test. There were a few baubles, however, in our testing, with the lens hunting excessively between shots in Continuous mode with the aperture wide open to f/1.8. Stopping down gradually reduced the issue until it went away at f/4.

Flash. Though it's mechanical and springloaded, the Sony RX100's flash is deployed electronically by the camera. You have to set the Flash mode to Auto or Forced and the camera will pop up the flash when you half-press the shutter if settings/conditions warrant. You have to push it back down manually to lock it back in place. We found it pretty good with the lens set to wide angle, but deficient even at six feet at the camera's 100mm equivalent setting. With a camera like this, I'd superglue it shut and shoot available light, myself.

Rings and complexity. The front ring is both a blessing and a curse; it's great once you decide how you want to use it, but once you switch modes its function can change. Indeed, so many changes affect other operating factors, that the Sony RX100's many options become something of a burden. After shooting with the Sony RX100, in some ways I'm drawn back to my S95 and its more limited, better-focused options. Sony poured a lot of very cool features into the RX100, and once you get used to them, you'll see what a powerful camera it is; the flip side is that even with lots of experience using Sony cameras, it's easy to get lost and lose track of how one setting affects the availability of another. We found that true of Sony NEX cameras as well. Working with a team on one camera, I too often found that the camera's abilities and behaviors changed each time it was returned to me, which is a more unique problem reserved to teams of reviewers.

HDR mode. A little HDR brought out the interior of this yogurt shop, and also cut some of the glare from the front of the building. Zoomed in you can see the face of a patron inside apparently thinking I could see him better than I could (without the magic of HDR, that is). This was the same exposure, even though his expression differs.

With that tangle of explanation out of the way, the front ring works very well in its default mode. I don't think I've ever seen a better expression of Program shift mode than what the RX100 offers. Just leave the camera in Program, and turn the front ring. A graphic appears as an arc onscreen, with numerical aperture values turning in one direction while shutter speeds turn in the opposite direction. Oddly, this option is not offered on the S95 or its brothers without having to press multiple buttons. Since this is a lens that offers a little more bokeh, it's an absolutely natural way to shoot, giving you access to two critical exposure factors with a turn of the ring.

In Manual mode, the front ring controls aperture while the rear adjusts shutter speed, as it should be. You also get a real-time exposure preview on the screen. Bravo. When in Aperture or Shutter priority, both dials control the same parameter: either both control aperture or both control shutter speed. Makes sense. Switch to Superior or Intelligent Auto, on the other hand, and the front ring switches to controlling zoom. Press the down arrow (the one with the sparkly camera) in either of these Auto modes, and the dials change again. This time the front dial does nothing, but the rear controls simplified features like background defocus, Brightness, Color (tone), Vividness, and the rather deep well of Picture effects. Again, I'm surprised these modes are on a relatively intermediate-focused camera like this, but they can be avoided.

Ring menu. Pressing the Function button brought up the Ring menu. By default, the ring menu was set to adjust ISO, but if you use the arrow keys to scroll left and right, you can select EV, White Balance, DRO/HDR options, Picture effects, and Focus mode. I landed on Picture Effects, and started turning the ring to shoot a series. 20 shots later, I was getting tired, sure the "Off" option would swing around any moment. But all 33 options are available for the 13 types of Picture effects. You can access Picture effects in at least three different ways I found, speaking to the complexity I mentioned.

In general, though, I think this Function button method works well. It leaves the Ring free to do a single task that you set with just a turn, then it serves to adjust other settings after you press the Function button. Not bad. Just don't expect it to always do the same thing, depending on what other settings you've made, because it can surprise you.

LCD. Sony's not just boasting about the LCD with its high-res WhiteMagic display, it really is vibrant and detailed, even in sunlight; so long as it's clean, that is. Speaking of which, I'd like to say how pleased I am that it's not a touchscreen. I'm getting more accustomed to touchscreens, but I really don't want them on premium cameras like this without the ability to completely disable them. Physical controls are more important to the enthusiast shooter; and most don't like the unpredictability of touchscreens along with that.

Leveling. One of the four Display options includes a two-axis level, measuring pitch (aiming up or down) and roll (tilting left and right). I used this a lot while shooting. It's helpful particularly trying to capture from an odd angle while keeping things aligned with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, some of the shots I took on a tripod showed as level, but clearly were not. Even one degree off looks like a lot, though, so I'm sure the level is designed more to get you in the ballpark. Since we haven't a manual yet, we can't be sure whether the leveling feature can be calibrated.

Lab concerns. In addition to the strange seeking behavior in Continuous mode at wide apertures, the lab also found a peculiar difficulty setting Manual white balance in low light conditions. The camera just declares a Custom White Balance error if the light is too low, the ISO is set too low, the aperture is too small, the lens is zoomed in, etc.; ultimately, whatever circumstance is causing the camera to not capture enough light to determine a white balance setting. If it doubt, open up the aperture and zoom to wide angle. The Set Custom White Balance screen draws its reading from a small circle in the center of the image area when you press the shutter button, so focal length is less important.

Panorama. Shooting a panorama is about as easy as it's ever been with the Sony cameras, and the results are great. From what I can tell, the Sony RX100 uses intelligent sweep panorama, omitting elements of frames where someone's obviously moved.

Above, there's only one error where a person is half-missing, where it's clear the camera had little choice thanks to a nearby obstacle. Not bad. This is set to Standard, shooting Down with the RX100 oriented vertically.

You can shoot in the four directions, but you have to choose which first. Because I wanted to get this tall building, I switched to "Down" as the option, then swept with the camera rotated left. You don't get quite 180 degrees, but I got all of the building.

This is what you get when panning with the camera in horizontal orientation in Wide mode. The railroad tracks are running in a straight line. Shooting these with the Leveling display selected helped keep the camera level as I panned.

DRO and HDR. We shot DRO images in the lab, which you can see on the Exposure page, but I also shot some HDR samples to show what the Sony RX100 can do with shadows and highlights with its various settings, including Auto, then ranging from 1.0EV to 6.0EV of exposure. All were shot on a tripod to keep it framed accurately. Results don't seem to step up neatly for some reason, with some shadows appearing darker than others, though the reported exposure remains the same, and the last two shots seem the same.

Normal
HDR Auto
HDR 1.0EV
HDR 2.0EV
HDR 3.0EV
HDR 4.0EV
HDR 5.0EV
HDR 6.0EV

Filters. As I mentioned, there's a ridiculous number of filters available, 33 in all with their various permutations. That doesn't even include the Scene modes. Here's a subset of the modes, highlighting some of the more interesting ones. Overall, it's a pretty interesting set of filters. I really liked the Painting and Illustration modes.

Normal
Toy Camera Normal
Toy Magenta
Pop
Posterization Color
Retro
Partial Color: Yellow
High Contrast Mono
Soft Focus: High
HDR Painting: High
Miniature
Illustration: High

 

Lens flare. I found some lens flare while shooting wide open at night. It's not uncommon for such a bright lens, just be aware of your bright highlights when shooting wide open.

Night. As you can see from the samples above, I took quite a few night shots. The camera focused quickly and functioned just fine in very low light, just as we found in the lab, and its exposure preview showed me exactly what I'd get when I pressed the shutter. Wide open, there was some noticeable lens flare, as you can see in the crop at right, taken from the first shot in the series above. You can also see the flare in the night video below. It's pretty common among fast lenses, so be sure to stop down a bit if bright lights will be part of your image.

Multi-Frame Noise Reduction. It took me a little time to find the Multi-Frame NR mode. Just bring up the Ring Function menu, select ISO, and turn the dial past Auto to ISO. I suppose it's good in certain situations, like when the camera will obviously choose a lower ISO, but my test showed that the really high ISO settings, like ISO 25,600, were too soft to use. I shot this scene at 3,200 and 6,400, then switched to Multi-Frame Noise Reduction and shot several takes. The camera chose ISO 16,000, 20,000, and 25,600. 25,600 was overexposed, so I left it out of this series.

ISO 3,200, f/4.9, 0.6 second
ISO 6,400, f/4.9, 0.3 second

Multi-Frame NR
ISO 16,000, f/4.9, 1/8 second

Multi-Frame NR
ISO 20,000, f/4.9, 1/8 second

Above are crops of the deck chairs near a dimly lit gazebo in my neighbor's yard on a dark night. The exposure times don't make much sense, but they're what Adobe Bridge reports. ISO 6,400 looks the best, despite the slower shutter speed, and the two Multi-Frame shots don't look worth the effort, at least not in this light, with less detail and less color. Other scenarios will likely be different.

Full HD night vid. Click to download 34.3MB .MTS file.

Video. Video quality looks pretty good. There's more information on our detailed video page, but my overall experience with the RX100's video was pretty uneventful; it worked pretty well. You can set ISO manually or let it gain up automatically in ISO Auto mode. Dynamic Range Optimization is also available, as are many of the picture effects. The results with all of them are pretty surprising. You can even select among Program, Aperture, Shutter-priority, and Manual shooting modes.

I only had a short time with the Sony RX100, but it's enough to say that I like it a lot. Among the scads of special features and modes, I'd probably keep to Program and Aperture priority, using the Ring in its Standard mode, and I'd probably occasionally play with the HDR mode in special circumstances. I'm sure I'd use Panorama more often. It's cool that it can rip off 10 frames per second, but this isn't the kind of camera I turn to for that kind of photography. Ultimately, I'd use the Sony RX100 for its large, light-sucking lens; its larger, high-res sensor; and its gorgeous LCD, and ignore the rest. I'm just glad a big camera manufacturer finally heard us clearly and gave us a pocket camera with some serious guts.

 



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