Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Large sensor undoubtedly the best in its class
- Bright maximum apertures across zoom range gives huge flexibility
- High quality, responsive viewfinder
- Built-in ND filter helps both video and stills shooting in bright light
- Excellent level of control over video (including manual exposure)
- Pleasant JPEGs, though processing rather heavy-handed
- Many tools for shooting video: focus peaking, zebra pattern, stepless aperture ring
- Responsive AF in good light
- Fast continuous shooting mode
- D-Range Optimizer feature helps give well-balanced JPEGs even in high contrast scenes
- Generally well-implemented Wi-Fi feature
- Classic Sony features (Sweep Panorama, HDR) work well
- Convenient USB charging
Conclusion - Cons
- Clickless, slightly laggy control dial can make shooting experience feel disconnected
- Focus peaking rather prone to indicating everything as in-focus
- JPEG sharpening a little clumsy and interacts oddly with heavy noise reduction
- Autofocus can be hesitant, especially in low light; AF improves when assist lamp is turned off
- Camera 'locks up' while buffer is clearing after continuous shooting
- Manual focus can be challenging due to variable speed focus ring
- Limited remote control from smartphone
- No external charger included for rapid charging or keeping a spare battery topped-up
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III looks a lot like the existing RX100 models but it's a considerably more capable camera. There have been a host of small changes to what was already a capable camera, but it's three changes in particular that position the latest version head-and-shoulders above both its rivals and its predecessors.
The biggest improvement is the lens - the faster apertures at the long end of the zoom help ensure the RX100 III can out-perform its smaller sensor rivals, such as the Olympus XZ-2 and Panasonic LX7 in all situations. Only Canon's G1 X II can trump the Sony in terms of low-light and depth-of-field terms, and that's a much larger camera, and one whose advantages aren't always as great as the specifications imply. Its closest interchangeable lens rival: Panasonic's GM1, is also a larger camera, less orientated towards the enthusiast, but one that offers more flexibility overall, if you're willing to pay for additional lenses.
The second big step forward is the inclusion of an electronic viewfinder. We marveled at Sony's ability to fit so much camera into such as small space when it released the original RX100, so finding room for a pop-up viewfinder without adding too much bulk is genuinely incredible. It feels a little bit flimsy, but adds tremendously to the usability of the camera - especially in bright conditions. The OLED panel is clear, detailed and, in good light, has a fast-enough refresh to be a pleasure to use. Our only major gripe is that stowing the finder shuts the camera down, whether you want it to or not.
The final noteworthy improvement in the M3 is the inclusion of a built-in ND filter. It's an easily overlooked addition but it makes a big difference both for stills shooters and videographers, when you start using it. As well as long-exposure, flowing water effects, it allows the use of the camera's widest apertures, even in bright light, while also allowing the use outdoors of the slow shutter speeds needed for video.
If you just want the 'executive summary': the RX100 III offers the best image quality of any pocketable camera we've ever seen. It's not just that its 1"-type sensor is at least twice as large as most of its rivals, it's also a very good sensor, whose low read noise means it offers excellent dynamic range and the kind of malleable Raw files you'd usually only expect from a much larger camera.
The JPEG processing is a little heavy-handed - you can turn down the noise reduction but you can't make the sharpening any more subtle, and even the 'low' NR setting is quite aggressive. However, the color response of the JPEGs seems more pleasant than the first-generation RX100 and, when considered as a whole image, rather than at 1:1 level, the camera's images aren't bad at all. And, as we say, the Raw files are excellent.
The 20MP resolution means you get to see every imperfection in the camera's lens. It's quite normal for compact cameras to have soft edges or inconsistent corners, and entirely expected that the lens's performance will vary across its zoom range. The RX100 III's pixel count lets you examine this phenomenon in great detail. Yet, overall, our impression is of one of the most consistently sharp built-in zooms, both across the frame and through the zoom range. Our copy is a bit soft down the right-hand-side at some focal lengths, but we can find similar defects in the examples of any of its rivals.
In terms of pocketability, the RX100 III is tremendous - it's considerably smaller than anything else that comes close to it in terms of image quality. It doesn't fit perfectly in either the hand or a pocket, but never to the point that you can't work 'round this. The handling is certainly improved through the addition of an accessory grip and there are 3rd party, as well as OEM options in that regard.
Taking control of the M3 is another matter - it's almost as if Sony couldn't decide whether the RX100s are meant to be point-and-shoots, video cameras or stills cameras. The user interface is closer than ever to Sony's Alpha range, which means the M3 gains a very useful 12-option customizable Fn menu, making it seem like less of a battle to change secondary camera settings. A well-implemented touchscreen would help still further, in this respect, and doesn't seem like an unreasonable expectation on a camera at this price.
Sadly, though, our biggest bugbear about the RX100s - the inconsistently-responsive, clickless front dial for controling primary exposure settings - remains. We know it works well for video shooting, and that many users are able to work around, or simply not notice the problem. However, having spent time using all its major competitors, we maintain it's the biggest single factor in making the RX100s the least satisfying to use cameras in their class.
Minor issues, such as the camera shutting down every time you retract the viewfinder, and having to remember to re-engage ND Auto mode every time you move back from movie shooting could be fixed in firmware, and neither is a likely to amount to much more than a minor frustration.
The Final Word
In some respects it's easy to draw a conclusion about the RX100 III: it provides better image quality than any camera its size ever has. Add to this an impressive and comprehensive feature set and it looks like the very definition of a stand-out camera. And yet... While Sony has made great strides beyond what was already a hugely capable camera, it has done very little to make it fun to shoot with. In terms of shooting experience, the RX100 III continues to feel more like a camera that will somewhat grudgingly let you take control, rather than an enthusiast camera designed for the committed photographer from the ground up.
However, the breadth of the M3's capabilities, from its bright, flexible lens and handy viewfinder, through to its class-defining image quality and well-supported, high-quality video capture mean there's nothing to really match it. And if you mainly shoot in P or Auto mode, you may never experience our frustrations about the handing. The RX100 series has always been technically impressive, but the addition of the brighter lens, viewfinder and ND filter extend its utility to a huge degree. Owners of its predecessors should seriously consider upgrading unless they need more zoom reach.
Our concerns about the handling leave us concluding that, if it had a credible rival, there's every chance the RX100 M3 wouldn't get a Gold award - we'd like a more enjoyable shooting experience from an $800 camera. Ultimately, though, the additions to what were already the strongest cameras in their class leave the RX100 III literally peerless. At which point it has to go one better than its predecessors, and receive our highest award.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III
Category: Enthusiast Large Sensor Compact Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The RX100 III is the most capable compact camera we've ever seen. With its built-in viewfinder and consistently fast lens, there's nothing that can provide better image quality in such a small package. It's not the perfect camera to take shot-to-shot control over, but its capability means it justifies its high price tag.
- Canon PowerShot G1 X II Review
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II Review
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 Review
- High-end pocketable compacts 2013 roundup
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