Monday, December 31, 2012

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 Review



In the weeks leading up to the launch of the Nikon D600, I described it as "a camera that needed no review" because of it's combination of known qualities (essentially D7000 technology and construction) with the addition of an improved sensor. By those virtues, the mere fact that it was a well-regarded camera with a larger sensor pretty much guaranteed that it would be a good camera, with the only thing that could ruin the equation being if Nikon couldn't deliver on the expected "affordable" price point. If you factor in the 2012 year-end bundling with the 24-85VR, everything about the camera pretty much sells itself.

A couple that I know are expecting their first child and are shopping for a camera. I knew the RX100 was big when I started seeing all of the non-camera friends on Facebook recommending this camera because of its "dSLR-like quality." You can only roll your eyes at that. It's good, but it's not that good. But the hype around this camera... yes, there's been that much hype. So they were interested, until the inevitable topic of price came around...

It's been a while since the Sony DSC-RX100 has been out, which was launched just around the same time. Similar situation, on paper, stuffing a 1/1" sized sensor into a small compact body ought to make the it clear that the RX100 would out-perform every other camera in this class, and it certainly does... but is being the best in class an "automatic marketing" virtue? That depends, as the equation isn't so simple. The D600 (and now the Canon 6D) are by virtue, value-oriented products, as every other full-frame alternative is much more expensive, but the RX100 runs into the problem of being more expensive than even some dSLR's. Does that matter? It likely depends on the buyer's situation.

 Since other sites do objective testing well, here are the links if you must pixel peep:

The controls are fairly basic, albeit with multi-function control ring on lens barrel.

Although most people have made mention of it, it bears repeating... this is not a camera that is a joy to use. It's great as a point and shoot camera, but for its intended audience of more advanced shooters, its not as intuitive as the competition. The metal body and curved sides give it a pleasing tactile feel when held in your hand, but the control layout resembles the consumer-oriented matchbox cameras that Sony and Canon made in spades only a few years ago. If you only shoot in AUTO mode, this won't matter. There are two control dials, one in the back, and a multi-purpose ring around the lens barrel. The front ring's function changes depending on what mode you are in. If you are in shutter or aperture priority, the the ring will control the respective exposure parameter. If you are manual exposure mode, the ring will control aperture and the rear dial will control shutter speed. If you leave it auto, the ring will control lens zooming. This is a fairly intelligent use of the ring... each function makes sense relative to the mode that the camera is being operated in. The only quibble I have with this aspect of the handling is that in some cases there is a lag between the movement of the ring and the changing of the parameter; in other words, it doesn't feel like the two are tied together. The best analogy I can use is the difference between swiping back and forth on a smartphone between the iPhone and early Android handsets: Apple always made the swiping smooth so that the performance of this seemingly inconsequential aesthetic touch didn't take the user our of the user experience. With the early versions of Android, that little hiccup between screen swipes was just enough to make the experience not appear seamless.

Again on the back, a fairly basic, but clean control layout.

However, that's it as far as controls go. Other than the requisite zoom lever, there are no dedicated buttons for exposure compensation, ISO or white balance control. I can do without the last one, but the lack of the first two really sticks out on what should be a serious photo tool. However, the dearth of buttons does make for a clean and easy to grip camera, something the Canon G-series could learn a thing or two about. Diving into the menus is unfortunately, what you would expect from Sony. There's a lot going on under the hood... this is what makes the camera great and what makes it a pain to use. It's not a particularly badly organized, it's just daunting, which is pretty much a product design sin in this post Steve jobs era.

Another annoyance is the electronically deployed flash.... I much prefer the mechanically deployed flash on the Panasonic LX-7 because it's easy to understand, quicker to use, and less prone to breaking. As well, the Panasonic's flash makes a pleasing "snick!" sound when you release it, and has a nice spring-loaded sensation when you push it back into its cradle. In contrast, a few of the Sony demonstration models that I have seen seem to have suspect flash mounts due to wear from people playing around with it. It doesn't help that once deployed, the RX100 flash is a little finicky to push back in place. However, given how dainty the pop-up flash mechanism looks, I can say that the flash output is surprisingly strong given the smallish size of the flash unit, and unlike every other camera in this segment, the flash is tilt-able so that you can bounce it off of the ceiling.

The lens is quite remarkable considering how much in needs to retract to fit into the slim body when turned-off. Of the various samples that I've seen, the lens makes good use of the resolution of the RX100's sensor, but there's ostensibly a lot of electronic processing going on to make up for the fact that image corners are not going to be particularly strong with this combination of large sensor and shallow body.Just a word of caution, even though the sensor is large by compact standards, the optical system simply is not big enough to throw backgrounds out of focus into a dreamy haze... not even the slightest. If you are shooting portraits at a typical 90mm full-frame equivalent, the minimum lens aperture is f/4.9, so shallow depth of field is off the menu. Though it's difficult to objectively quantify image stabilization systems, I would say that RX100 is good, but still not as good as the LX-7, which I'm of the opinion is class leading.

Much has been said about the ISO quality and dynamic range, which you would expect with the largish sensor. Even though it has twice the photo-sites of the LX-7, those photosites are nonetheless larger than the ones on the Panasonic. Bigger pixels and more of them: if you could sum up the advantage that the RX100 has over the LX-7, that would be it. However, I tend to prefer the tonal rendition of the Panasonic over the Sony... almost all Sony cameras produce an image that is a tad bit too contrasty or heavy handed for my liking. is the detail there? Yes. But... I'll put it too you... if you want to pixel peep, compare the RX100 versus the Canon G15. The Sony has 8 more megapixels, the difference in real-world resolving power is not as a great as the number would suggest. Even though the Sony has 60% morepixels, the real-world difference in linear resolution is only 18-20%, and to be honest, the Canon has better out-of-camera JPEG rendering, meaning that even with less pixels, the G15 is able to render those pixels crisper than the Sony.  Once the ISO levels increase, the Sony pulls away, though. Even more important (to me, anyway) than resolution or even ISO control, is dynamic range, which is a serious limitation on small sensor cameras. Because of the size of the photosites, the RX100 is a noticeable improvement in this regards.

Sony knows that they have a winner here, so there hasn't been much discounting price-wise of the RX100 over the 2012 Christmas period. At $650-700, this is a pricey camera, and whether or not it's worth it depends on a number of factors.

  • If you don't have a camera (i.e., relying on your cell phone) and don't want to carry large devices around, the the RX100 is good enough to function as the only camera that you will ever need. This is assuming, of course, that you are not looking for dSLR levels of quality.
  • If you have a dSLR, then the calculus becomes more tricky. The chances are that you are fairly discriminating about image quality and features, which would be the drawing points of the RX100, but  the cost of the Sony would also divert funds from buying a new lens or flash. 

Notice which group isn't in that list...m4/3 and Sony NEX shooters. The size advantage relative to these cameras isn't great enough to offset the cost of the RX100, and you can also get a lower end mirror-less interchangeable camera for the same price. So essentially, the distribution of likely buyers is spread between three groups of people:

  • Those who will buy the best of anything regardless of price (aka, the sterotypical Sony consumer of yore, aka your tech-obsessed early adopter.)
  • Those who are looking for quality but who don't want to get too deep into photography (Parents and non-enthusiasts who just want to have well preserved memories) The small size and simple exterior design does make it more female friendly than other serious-enthusiast cameras.
  • These who are deep into photography and who don't want to give up quality that they are used to with their larger format cameras.

At the time of writing , the RX100 is listing around $650 USD, with the Panasonic LX-7 around $500 and the Fuji X10 around $490. The extra $150 difference between the Sony and the other two serious compacts is small change in the camera world, but not insignificant for many people. The Panasonic has a better lens and is more of a photographer's tool. The Fuji has faster autofocus, not as good image stabilization, but probably the best body and build quality. What one you choose really depends on where you are starting from. Another camera to consider is the Canon G15, which sells for roughly the same amount as the LX-7, but has noticeably better JPEG output, but a less ambitious lens. Inexpensive, great lens, small size, great image quality, good control layout: of all these features, none of these cameras have them all, and at best, each can be said to possess at most three.

The dSLR buyer group is an interesting case in another regard: $650 buys a lot of camera equipment... heck that will probably be eating into your budget for other consumer electronics as well. If you are a Nikon shooter and had this amount of money to spend for a vacation, which would you spend it on, a RX100 or an 18-200VR for a little bit more? Tough choice; it comes down to how much you value size over image quality. There's also the matter of obsolescence: the 18-200VR, being a lens, will continue having a useful life and decent resale value long after the RX100 becomes superseded by whatever comes next. But... if video matters to you on a vacation, I'd much rather take it with the RX100 than a Nikon D7000. dSLR video is about quality, setting up shots and shooting around the limitations of the contrast-detect autofocus... for casual shooting, there's none of the joy-of-use of just picking up a small camera and shooting.

However, the success of the RX100 is also a reason not to jump into the 1/1" bandwagon yet if you are not dead-set on getting one. Being the first of its kind and something of a halo product, the RX100 commands a price premium. Now that the other manufacturers have seen what can be done in this segment of the market, others are sure to follow, and probably at a lesser price. Another reason not to jump immediately is because of the ergonomic kinks that need to be ironed out. Assuming that there will be an RX200 in the future, I'm sure that a lot of the menu and control issues will be further refined. My recommendation is to wait for better discounts than what's been available so far. 2013 is not shaping up to be a strong year for the camera industry, so prices will soften up over time.

Lastly, there is one more choice to consider if you don't care about  camera size or megapixels, and that's the Canon G1-X. This overlooked monstrosity is going for $650 CDN in my neighbourhood. Early reviews were tepid for this camera, mostly because it has a sensor that is very close in size to a crop-frame dSLR, but the slowish variable-aperture lens limits the depth of field control that you would also want to have with a larger camera. Autofocus performance is slow as well, and the video performance is middling. The larger size of the Canon sensor is also mitigated somewhat by it's slower lens. If you only care about still photos, for the same price or cheaper, the Canon G1-X bests the Sony RX100, but you also won't get features like in-camera HDR and panoramic modes as well. And the RX100 being a Sony, it will spank the Canon when it comes to video.

As you might have guessed, the utility and usefulness of the camera revolves around the price (what doesn't?).  The specs basically sell themselves, but the price is hard to get around if you are on a budget. However, based on specs and real world performance, there is no arguing that this is the best compact camera of late 2012 and early 2013.

Pros


  • The best image quality that you can get in a compact camera
  • Surprisingly strong flash output. 
  • Metal body, simple and elegant design
  • Remarkably small size
  • Lots of features
  • Simple button layouts
 

Cons

  • Expensive. You can buy a dSLR for this price
  • Overwhelming menu options
  • Flimsy-ish flash mechanism
  • Image stabilization is good but not the best in class
  • Variable aperture lens limits some photographic situations
  • Feels like a great camera bound in a straitjacket...great imaging engine stuck in non-enthusiast body


1 comment:

  1. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is a really fast camera having bright, fast lens. They provide videos were looking saturated, bright, and good with reasonable sharpness, Shooting JPEG+raw along with fast SD memory card.

    ReplyDelete