Sony RX100 III Field Test Part I

Up, up and away!

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 06/18/2014

For the second review in a row, I'm going airborne. This time, I'm taking the Sony RX100 III on a rare photo opp in a vintage Ford Tri-Motor!

Back in 2012, Sony turned the compact camera market on its head, launching the Sony RX100. Prior to its arrival on the scene, you had two choices if you wanted a reasonably large sensor and a zoom lens: go with an interchangeable-lens camera, or go with the Canon PowerShot G1 X, a relatively chunky, coat pocket camera. And then along came Sony with a camera sporting twice the sensor area of typical enthusiast compacts, yet in a body that easily slipped in a pants pocket.

I was among the many photographers who immediately saw the Sony RX100's possibilities, and no sooner had we completed our review than I bought one of my very own. Two years is a long time in the camera market, though. At this point in the RX100's life cycle, Sony is likely hoping that its follow-up RX100 III earns some upgrades from photographers like me, not just purchases from brand-new customers.

But is it time for me to upgrade, or am I better staying with my RX100? That's something I'm hoping to answer during my time with the camera. I'm lucky to have all three cameras -- the RX100, RX100 II, and RX100 III -- on my desk as we speak, so I can make a completely valid side-by-side comparison.

Upon taking the Sony RX100 III out of the box, my first reaction was that it wasn't quite as comfortable in-hand as my original RX100. The body is about the same thickness as that of the RX100 II, which is to say that it's a fair bit thicker than my first-generation camera. It's also a little heavier than the 'II, and quite a bit heavier than the RX100.

(Weight increased 17% between first and second generations, and has gone up another 3% for the third generation. That makes the RX100 III about 21% heavier than my camera.)

Constructed in Dearborn, Michigan in 1929, the Tri-Motor is a beauty despite her many years. You might recognize her from an appearance in the 2009 Hollywood movie Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. I was amazed to find that her control cables run external to the fuselage!

Part of the problem is that, save for a tiny leatherette pad on the thumb grip, the RX100 III is very smooth, just like its predecessors. The lens barrel is also a little longer and wider, and sits just slightly higher and further left on the camera body than in either earlier model, and that's moved the center of gravity further left. The larger, relocated lens is also likely why Sony has issued a new leather jacket case for the RX100 III.

The RX100 III's tilting LCD monitor makes it easy to get shots from unusual angles, like this low-to-the-ground shot of the Tri-Motor's tail. It also flips up for selfies, but you don't want to see my ugly mug!

Of course, I'm nitpicking here in comparison to the incredibly-compact RX100. Compared to other large-sensor, fixed-zoom cameras, the RX100 III is still extremely small. It also feels extremely solid, and evokes a sense of quality. It's just a shame that it no longer feels like a pants pocket camera -- at least, not unless your pants pockets are much looser than mine.

The control cables I mentioned earlier, shown up close. For nearby subjects like this, the RX100 III can isolate your subject from the background without any fake depth-of-field blur trickery, unlike most pocket-friendly cameras.

(Admittedly, although my RX100 fits in my pocket, I seldom put it there anyway, because I like to baby expensive gadgets like these. But then, that's more true than ever of RX100 III, which is a little pricier than the original model.)

And there's a simple solution to correct its handling compared to the earlier models, too. Until now, I never really felt the need for third-party grip on my RX100. If I owned the RX100 III, though, I'd definitely look to Richard Franiec and pick up one of his excellent grips. We have one on our RX100 II, and it's an extremely nice accessory. It feels completely stock, and noticeably improves the handling. Where I consider it optional on the earlier models, I'd say it's almost a required purchase on the RX100 III, at least if you have large hands, as I do.

The Sony RX100 III's user interface is similar to that of the earlier cameras, but it has been refined a little. Where previously there were seven main tabs, each of which had a list of pages shown alongside its icon when selected, now there are two levels of tabs. At top are six main tabs -- Camera, Settings, Wi-Fi, PlayMemories Apps, Playback, and Setup -- with the various page numbers arrayed beneath.

The Movie, Card and Date/Time menus from the earlier cameras have been subsumed into other menus, and the result feels more logical. (It also wastes less screen real-estate, given that the Date/Time menu of the earlier cameras had only two items.) The slight price to pay for this change is that there are now only six items per menu page, instead of seven, leading to a slight increase in the number of pages spanned by each menu. I do think that exposure bracketing -- hidden under the Drive Mode option -- feels a bit hidden, just as it did in earlier models, but otherwise I'm happy with this updated user interface.

The hills in the distance were an unexpected capture in this cockpit shot, and emphasize how low we were flying. The cockpit is raised quite a bit higher than the passenger cabin, and with seatbelts fastened throughout the flight, I couldn't see out its windows myself. I shot this with my arms outstretched and the RX100 III's LCD tilted down towards me, which helped get the framing I wanted.

I had quite the event planned for my first shooting experience with the Sony RX100. The Experimental Aircraft Association's beautiful 1929 Ford Tri-Motor, one of the earliest all-metal passenger aircraft with an enclosed cabin, was in town for the weekend -- and the EAA was offering flight experiences. As if that wasn't enough, a local car club provided some more period feel with some vintage autos. Several exhibits also accompanied the event, including one showing reconstructions of Henry Ford's first engines. All very cool!

It wasn't cheap, but I told myself that this was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, got my reservation in, and with my wife, headed over to Knoxville's Downtown Island Airport, just minutes from the heart of the city. As it happened, it became a twice-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I enjoyed it so much I went back the following day with my five year old son, and did it all over again.

The weather sadly didn't cooperate on the first day's shooting, with storms and a low overcast right as my flight time arrived. Still, I got some cool shots nonetheless, and with visibility so low, our pilot kept us incredibly low throughout the flight. It made for quite an experience! Note the prop spindle peeking in at frame right -- my seat directly behind the cockpit rather limited my framing opportunities, between the propeller, engine, wing, undercarriage and control cables directly outside!

Each flight experience has just 15 minutes of airtime, so for the most part, I kept my shooting confined to the ground so I could soak in the experience while I was in the air. The EAA staff and volunteers pretty much gave us free reign to roam around the aircraft between flights, shooting photos inside and out, and just generally lusting over a piece of aviation history.

Ford isn't really a name you associate with flying, having left the industry after the depression and the arrival of Douglas' faster, longer-ranging and yet more economical DC-3. Still, they sure knew how to build them, because this old lady looked as stunning approaching her 85th birthday as the day she rolled out of the factory in Dearborn, Michigan.

The RX100 has a wider lens than its predecessors, but even a 24mm-equivalent wide angle wasn't enough for the Tri-Motor's unbelievably cramped cockpit. It's hard to believe two people can fit in here. I ended up shooting two HDR image series, then merging and stitching them on my PC. I'm not normally a big fan of crunchy, oversaturated and overprocessed HDR, but I think it adds to the mood here.

Although we had a little rainstorm on that first day's shooting, I was mostly shooting in good (or at least, bright) light throughout the event, so didn't yet see the benefit of the RX100 III's wider aperture at telephoto. Nor have I yet done much high ISO shooting, for the same reason. Almost all of my shots so far have been at ISO 800 or below.

Another detail shot of the Tri-Motor. The tail wheel is a freewheeling castor, and the bungee cords on either side help it return to the center position after a turn! Low tech, but clever.

I definitely noticed the shortened zoom range though, and found myself wishing for more telephoto quite often. There's definitely a sense of compromise in the achievement of that brighter aperture. But with that said, thanks to the RX100 III's 20.1-megapixel sensor, there's a lot of resolution. That makes cropping post-capture a realistic possibility when the zoom isn't sufficient, so long as you don't need a huge print.

Sadly, that doesn't work when you need a greater wide-angle, as I did in the Ford Tri-Motor's amazingly cramped cockpit. Although I'm not a pilot myself, I'm a bit of a plane nut who feels right at home in a busy cockpit full of dials, switches and gauges, but even I was a little taken aback by how little space there was for pilot and co-pilot on a flight that could be up to four hours in length. It's something I wanted to capture in an HDR shot shortly after the rainstorm ended, but I simply couldn't fit more than half the cockpit in the frame even at extreme wide-angle.

And that's despite the especially-wide lens of the RX100 III -- it would have been even more challenging with my RX100 or the RX100 II. In the end, I took two handheld HDR series, which I then merged in Unified Color's HDR Expose, and stitched using Hugin. The result, given that it was largely automatic, wasn't too shabby. There were a few little stitching errors at top and bottom of the stitch that I cropped out, and a couple more can be seen in my final shot if you look closely enough, but it gets the sense of claustrophobia across, I think. And the crunchy, HDR look fits quite nicely with the subject, windows covered in raindrops. (A little rain even makes it through the cracks, dripping onto the pilots' seats and into the passenger cabin.)

Thru the looking glass: Even up close like this, the RX100 III's 1.0-inch type image sensor means it won't rival an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensor for depth-of-field blur. Still, it definitely does better than most compacts in this regard.

So far, image quality seems pretty good. There's lots of detail in the RX100 III's images, enough that in my shots of the cockpit in flight, you can just pick out a little very subtle moiré in the pilot's shirt. (I do mean subtle, though -- you have to look fairly closely to notice it, and I'm not seeing moiré as an issue at this point.)

The few high ISO shots I've taken have had reasonably noise / detail levels, but I'm aware that this is an area in which the RX100 II (which shares the same sensor) lagged its predecessor a little, so I'll be taking a closer look at it in low light in a later Field Test. In most respects, so far, image quality seems to be quite similar to that I've gotten used to with my RX100 -- and that's a good thing, because for a pocketable camera, it does a pretty great job, all things considered.

As if the Tri-Motor wasn't enough, a local car club showed up to add some more vintage color.

Startup time is just slightly faster than that of my RX100 or the RX100 II. It's not a night and day difference, but it's nevertheless noticeable and worthwhile. The lens actually extends in an identical time, but once extended the live view image appears (and the first shot can be fired) perhaps a quarter-second earlier. That might be the difference between getting or missing an unexpected shot, so it was a pleasant surprise.

With the engine outside my window, I tried shots with the prop blurred out, and with a fast shutter speed to freeze it. With a bit more time to experiment and get the right shutter speed, a half-turn or so would probably have looked best.

In other respects, performance seemed near-identical, although I've yet to try burst-shooting. (And I understand the burst depth has been improved.) All three cameras seem to focus and shoot single images in near-identical time, as far as I can tell.

Since these were introduced on the RX100 II, a camera I didn't personally review, the built-in Wi-Fi and tilting screen are also new to me. The tilting mechanism has actually been improved since the RX100 II, as well, and now allows the screen to be flipped up 180 degrees, perfect for selfies.

In other respects, though, the screen seems similar to that of the earlier cameras. It's a Sony WhiteMagic type with red, green, blue and white subpixels, and is brighter than most for better outdoor visibility.

Almost immediately, I had the Wi-Fi up and running, and I found this quite handy for getting my images onto Facebook. This was something I did with my RX100 as well, but there I had to rely on a third-party, Wi-Fi equipped Eye-Fi Mobi SD card. It's much nicer to have an integrated solution, and feels more seamless.

(My Eye-Fi card sometimes wouldn't transfer images, or would take a long time to start the transfer, and since the process was entirely automatic, that could get a bit frustrating as there was no way to intervene except to power-cycle the camera and tablet, then try taking more photos. No such trouble here.)

And that about wraps things up for my first Field Test with the Sony RX100 III. If you have any questions about the camera or features you want to see tested, I'll be shooting with it for a while more yet (and can make side-by-side comparisons with the earlier models where applicable), so don't be shy about making requests in the comments at the end of the review.

For my next Field Test, I take the Sony RX100 III to the Virginia coast for some low-light / high ISO shooting, and make some side-by-side, real-world image quality comparisons with the RX100 and RX100 II. Click here for Part II of my Sony RX100 II Field Test!

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