Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sony DSC-RX100M3 Review

There's an old maxim in business that if you are standing still, you are actually moving backwards. Sony seems to have taken this to heart with the RX100, quickly producing two iterations of their flagship compact model. This is quite an aggressive roadmap considering that the original RX100 would still be the best compact camera on the market in 2014 were it not for its successors. However, the camera market is suffering through a decline in 2014, and the compact segment is being (has been) obliterated by the rise of smartphones. Consequently, all of the manufacturers are paying attention to the premium end of the remaining viable market segments with the hopes of maintaining margins. Ostensibly, 2014 is the year of the 1/1" sensor and the other manufacturers are now finally bringing their advanced compacts to this level. Panasonic is pushing ahead with 4K video with the FZ1000 while Fujifilm is (at the time of this writing) all but sure to enter the market with an X-Trans successor to the X20. Sony has gotten out ahead of this new era with the RX100M3, and Sony being Sony, will want to keep their stamp on this market segment as the premium product leader. Will they be successful?

Usability and Design

Except for the lack of the hotshoe and the second pop-up compartment, it would be easy to mistake the third version of the RX100 with the second. There's no mistaking the design of the camera, both visually and in a tactile sense. As with the transition between first and second generation, the third is slightly thicker than the second, though all three cameras are the exact same in width and height. If you are interested in either camera, it is well worth spending an extra bit of money for Sony's AG-R2 accessory grip. The sleek flat metal fronts of the RX100 cameras make them photogenic for product shots, but difficult to hold on to. That said, once mounted, the AG-R2 grip looks like was meant to part of the original design of the camera. The difference between grip and no grip is like the difference between the Panasonic LX-7 and the Leica D-LUX 6; one looks nice, the other isn't that much of an aesthetic step-down and is easier to hold.

What's new is the pop-up electronic viewfinder. It's manually deployed, and will automatically power-up the camera when raised. However, it's not quite so straightforward, as the EVF has an optical element that has to be pulled back for the image to be viewable; the image is so blurry as to be indistinct if you don't.

Despite the small size (0.59x magnification), the quality of the EVF image is superb for a camera of this size (which is to say that it is in keeping with a camera of this price). The panel is an SVGA OLED unit, which is the equiavelent of 1.44 million dots. However, the two-step deployment requires a modest about of dexterity, and doesn't make it ideal for capturing spur-of-the-moment shots... for that, relying on the main LCD screen is a more workable choice.

Of course, an EVF is many times more usable in outdoor situations, when the rear LCD screen gets washed out by bright sunlight. For many people, this alone will be the killer feature that decides a RX100M3 purchase. Of course, some compromise was necessary for the inclusion of an EVF, and so, the flash moves to the middle of the camera where the hotshoe used to be. It's still manually deployed. You wouldn't ordinarily call pop-up flashes of this type of design "robus." Visually, the Mark3's flash appears less durable than the Mark2's; the same feeling is carried over to the flash deployment switch as well.

In an amusing (haha funny or haha ironic) nod to the times, the Mark3's LCD can now swing 180 degrees for selfies:

If you add up the surprising number of moving parts on such a smaller camera, the sum total is a bit origami-like. With the EVF, flash and tilt-screen folded up, the camera is creak-free and feels solid. Do all of the moving external parts make the Mark3 a less durable camera? Time will tell.

The menu structure and hasn't changed drastically and is harmonized with that seen on the A7/A7r and A6000 cameras. Though better than past Sony efforts, the menu and controls aren't completely suited to the small form factor of the camera. It betrays the propensity of Sony to lean towards the "gadgety" side of consumer electronics, but on the RX100, the overall experience is like having the menu from a larger enthusiast-level cameras stuffed into a much smaller cameras. For some people, that is a good thing, but for most people, the reason why small cameras exist is because they want to take a break from their larger cameras....

The battery remains the same, type NP-BX1. As is an unfortunate trend with recent Sony cameras, the battery charges in-camera. Some will cite this as a positive feature, as it allows for recharging by any appropriate USB means, but the majority of real-world users don't seem to agree. Anecdotally it seems, there are a lot of new Sony owners out there looking for dedicated chargers for their cameras. If you want a dedicated battery charger, the Sony unit is the BCTRX charger. 


(Go here for a look at how effective aperture compares to other cameras.)

On paper, the 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens is a welcome improvement for the serious shooter. To get the bright aperture, Sony used a new lens design that utilizes a a lens group with two aspherical elements bonded together. For many people, the loss of the extra bit of length at the long end of the lens in exchange for a slightly wider wide end and larger maximum apertures across the board makes what was an already great camera excellent. While that is certainly true, it's not the complete store. This is what the maximum aperture is like as you go through the zoom range:

Disappointing, no? It would be more accurate to call the RX100M3's lens a constant aperture f/2.8 lens with the added bonus of extra speed at the wide end. There is not a lot of "fast aperture" to enjoy: by 30mm it's pretty much f/2.8 throughout. On average, this is still better than the Mark2, but one gets the feeling that Sony really wanted the f/1.8 number to stay in the spec sheet for marketing purposes. Yes it is helpful to open up to f/1.8 at the wide end, especially for indoor group photos, but most other variable aperture lenses have a more gradual drop-off in maximum aperture from widest to longest.

It also bears repeating that even though this is 1" sensor, it's still small ion terms of camera formats. f/2.8 on a 1" sensor is equivalent to f/5.6 on an APS-C camera. So if you open up the lens and zoom out for portraits, the amount of bokeh that is present is visible, but not overwhelming:

70mm, f/2.8, subject at three feet distance. Matrix Metering

Depending on which camera you are used to, Sony's implementation of matrix exposure metering will either be perfectly normal or somewhat frustrating. With the focus point squarely on the figurine, the overall impression will be somewhat on the dark side if you are a Nikon user, but somewhat normal if you are used to how Canon's meter exposure. The Sony is a bit like the Canon's in how wide-area pattern metering ("matrix") tends to be more about evening out the frame rather than trying to guess at the exposure of the subject. In terms of faithfulness, the above exposure is a bit under-exposed from how the scene looked like to the naked eye; in this respects, the RX100M3 is not any different from how the RX100M2 or RX10 behaved.

Here is what the RX100M3 looks like in subjective terms against the A6000 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom kit lens. Both are set to "portrait setting" with the lens fully extended and maximum aperture. The difference in framing is due to the respective height differences of each camera:

Sony RX100M3 - 70mm equiv, f/2.8
Sony A6000 - 75mm equiv (16-50mm kit lens), f/5.6

This is simultaneously impressive and underwhelming. It's impressive for a compact camera to be able to achieve this amount of bokeh... which would be utterly pedestrian for a mirrorless camera or DSLR. How large of an achievement the RXM3 is to you will  depend a lot on expectations. Note that the RX100M3 renders the Pikachu  with just a little bit more sharpness, but that the larger photo sites of the A6000 allow for more dynamic range; blacks and shadows don't drop-off as severely.

Image Noise and Dynamic Range

This is an ad-hoc test of the camera's image noise and dynamic range characteristics through the ISO range, taken with 100% crop of default JPEG's. Watch for noise in the broad colour patches, edge and detail retention in the pop bottles, and well as the harshness of the shadows and reflections and dynamic range tightens at the higher ISO levels.

Overall, there isn't anything unexpected. Images at ISO 80 and 100 show plenty of detail and dynamic range. However, Sony's image processing is aggressive with the noise suppression and sharpening. As seen with previous iterations of this sensor, there is also a marked drop-off in colour saturation after ISO 800. Though the higher ISO images have less texture than what you would expect for a sub-DSLR camera, the noise suppression is quite heavy-handed. ISO 800 is the highest you would want to go for casual JPEG shooting, and even then, the detail lost to noise reduction is apparent. If you shoot RAW, the practical care-free shooting limit rises to ISO 1600.

ISO 80
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

Though this is easily the best compact camera output on the market, the overall image quality is not comparable to the APS-C class. What makes the RX100M3 competitive is that its brighter lens lets you stay lower in the ISO range, where the camera does produce output that comes close to larger sensor offerings.

Not depicted: The video output of the RX100M3 receives some of the video specs of the RX10. The video throughout is up 50MB/s from 28MB/s in the RX100M2, and the data is now read off of the full sensor, rather than pixel skipping in less expensive designs. This reduces aliasing artifacts and produces crisper output. The camera can also now stream clean HDMI output. As an added bonus for videographers, the RX100M3 now includes a built-in selectable ND filter, like the RX10.

Concluding Thoughts

If it was only about the inclusion of the EVF, the RX100M3 would be already be a winner. Precious few compact cameras have EVF's for use in bright sun (Nikon P7800 and Panasonic LF-1 come to mind) and it's certainly a feature that people are looking for. However, the headline feature is the lens; although it's really a f/2.8 lens with a bit of bonus aperture at the wide end, it does meaningfully improve the shooting experience of the camera over its predecessor.

Where to go next? Considering all of the parts crammed inside the RX100M3, there seems to be precious little room for additional features in the Mark 4, but there are two cutting edge features that ostensibly missing. The first is 4K video, which is forgivable as it is still an emerging technology in 2014, but one that isn't is phase detection autofocus. The RX100M3 is the closest any compact camera has come to in producing image quality like a DSLR; the next step will be to make it focus like one.

Sony has undoubtedly once again produced the best compact camera on the market. The real question will be if the market can bear its $800 USD price tag ($899.99 CDN!) The original Mark1 version tested the limits of how much money people would be willing to pay for the best quality in the smallest package. The answer to that question seems to be "just enough." The pool of people who would be willing to pay higher still will be smaller once again, but if the RX100M3 draws enough people into the store to have them settle for the less expensive RX100M2, then perhaps the Mark3 will have done its job.

Nikon D3300, Sony A6000 and Sony RX100M3

However, there is a significant opportunity cost with a camera of this price; it's more expensive than a mid-range mirrorless camera or a DSLR. All of these cameras are different form factors and appeal to different people, but the point that can't be lost is that the total pool of consumer money is limited. When advanced compact cameras used to cost $500-600, that was something that photographers could buy in addition to their primary cameras. To be perfectly honest, if being able to pocket your camera is not the highest priority, the Sony's A6000 is a less expensive, better performing and more versatile choice. When you move the price of the advanced compact cameras up to $800, that's no longer discretionary second camera money for most people; if you are going to be spending that much money, there's a good chance that it's going to be your primary camera. Given the amount of features that are stuffed into this camera, the RX100M3 certainly is good enough for many people to be their only camera.

With thanks to Broadway Camera


  1. Just read this and your piece on the Fuji X30 and wanted to say I enjoy your thoughtful perspectives.

  2. I have one of these, your review is very well done, I would say one point, the camera does take exceptionally punchy photos. There is something about the combo, of lens, ccd, processor & features that work so well together. I carry mine sling shot in a full case and swung to my back under my jacket when out and I nearly forget it's there.....

    1. My impression is the same; the Mark II was and is a great camera, but limiting factor was mostly the lens.

    2. "...............swung to my back under my jacket when out and I nearly forget it's there......."

      Except you fall on your bottom :-)

  3. This has been my new favorite camera and have stopped using my DSLR . The video quality is better than my video camera.. Just bought a bag that fits perfect like this one an now I'm happy.

  4. i use the rx100m3 in raw mode shooting underwater (in a housing of course).It takes great pics and great videos. Sometimes I push the ISO but you can clean it up sufficiently in post.

    1. Same experience with our locals; the diving community seems to have taken to it.