Shooting Experience

By Richard Butler

If you've ever read any of our reviews about the RX100 models, you'll know we've been a little more ambivalent about them than some other sites: we've been incredibly impressed with the engineering and the intent of the cameras but somewhat let down by the finer details of the implementation. We understand the temptation to say they're the best thing ever (and in many respects, they are), but if it's immediately apparent how they could be better - something reinforced if you've spent a lot of time shooting their would-be rivals - it's hard to be quite so effusive.

At a time when many people are deciding their phone's camera is 'good enough,' the RX100 series do a great job of offering image quality that no phone (and very few compact cameras) can get close to. Having this capability in what is still a genuinely compact camera makes the strongest possible case for the continued relevance of the compact and the carry-everywhere convenience it brings.

Wide-angle and fairly wide-open: Although I didn't expect to find myself using the wide end of the lens that much, there were situations in which I found it really useful.

The camera's built-in ND filter gave me complete freedom to use whichever aperture setting I wanted.

24mm Equiv.
ISO 125
F2.5, 1/640th sec

I won't spend too long dwelling on my biggest gripe about the cameras so far, beyond saying that I continue to find the shooting experience to be rather distancing. The lack of feedback from the clickless dial and its slightly inconsistent behaviour (clamp your fingers around the dial, turn it for a bit and return it to your starting position - the settings won't necessarily be the ones you started with), leave me feeling divorced from the shooting experience. I understand why Sony has done it (smooth focus or aperture control while shooting movies), but I just don't enjoy shooting with the RX100s as much as some of its rivals. You may not notice, or care, but having shot with the likes of the Olympus XZ-2, which puts every setting at your fingertips and offers the tactile feedback of a clicking wheel to make you feel that you're controlling every aspect of the resulting photos, I find the RX100s less fun to shoot with to the point that I'm less likely to take it with me.

It could, perhaps, be improved by allowing you to leave the camera's artificial click noise on, while turning all the other sounds off. This isn't an option, however. The RX100 III does offer more control over sounds than its predecessors - you get more choice than just: 'Sounds On/Off,' unfortunately the extra option that's been added is one to leave just the fake shutter noise on, a decision I find near-impossible to comprehend.

The RX100 III is not the same camera as is predecessors, though - some interface improvements have been made. The biggest of these is the two-deck customizable Fn menu has arrived from the recent Alphas and, after a little use, I was able to configure it so that associated functions were clustered together. This is extremely valuable, given the menu opens with the last-changed setting selected.

My preferred Fn menu settings:

JPEG/Raw settings next to DRO/HDR options (since HDR is a JPEG-only mode), along with WB and ISO.

Next along are the focus mode options.

On the lower row are the Movie settings I might want to change, including exposure mode, ND Filter, peaking and zebra.

The viewfinder also adds immeasurably to the camera - in the bright sunshine of Eastern Washington, being able to pop the viewfinder up was extremely valuable. As a glasses wearer, I had to makes sure I aligned the viewfinder very carefully in order to see all the corners of the frame simultaneously, but I was able to do so, such that I could align shots comfortably. The finder is pretty small, but this has the advantage that its 800 x 600 pixel view is nice and dense, so that I didn't particularly notice any pixelation. Contrast is also good, with the finder giving a good impression of what my final image was going to look like.

This was more successful than my attempts to shot over-head, by flipping the rear LCD down - even set to the battery-sapping 'Bright Daylight' mode, I wasn't able to see the level gauge as I shot. Obviously the viewfinder can't help in this situation, but it does underline the value of having the finder in the majority of bright-light shooting situations.

The RX100 M3 is much more consistently sharp across its lens range, as this 70mm equiv. shot demonstrates.

I'm just not a fan of head-and-shoulder portraits at this focal length (and consequent working distance). And using the RX100 III confirmed my initial reaction that I'd prefer a slightly longer lens.

70mm Equiv.
ISO 125
F2.8, 1/500th sec
ND Off

The biggest single difference between the M3 and its predecessors is the lens. I wasn't sure I'd appreciate the wider, 24mm equivalent, extension to the range, but found myself using it more than I expected. Conversely, I was disappointed by the reduction at the telephoto end of the zoom; the camera seems much sharper at full zoom than its predecessors but I personally don't like the look of head-and-shoulder portraits shot at 70mm equivalent.

The real revelation is the inclusion of an ND filter in the new lens. It means you can use the camera's wider apertures even in bright light, opening up the camera's full potential in a wider range of circumstances. It's also immensely useful for shooting video, making it easier to achieve the relatively long shutter speeds that video demands, without having to stop the aperture down to a ridiculous degree, but even when I was concentrating on stills I found it considerably extended what I could do with the camera.

This is essentially the same 'see it, shoot it' grab shot that most people would use their smartphone for. Using the RX100 III meant I had the zoom, exposure controls and ability to shoot Raw that most phones don't offer, though.

67mm Equiv.
ISO 125
F2.8, 1/800th sec
-0.3EV, ND On

Low light shooting

The RX100 is generally very fast at focusing - perhaps not quite as fast as the best of the latest mirrorless cameras, especially when refocusing from one extreme to the other, but generally very good. The performance drops off in low light and, despite its wider maximum aperture, the RX100 M3 is sometimes a fraction slower to focus than the M2, when shot side-by-side. This very slight difference is exaggerated if you stop-down the aperture, to shoot landscapes at dusk, for instance: the M3 tends to focus at the specified shooting aperture, so stopping down the lens can starve the sensor of the light it needs to focus.

The other consideration in low light is that the refresh rate on the viewfinder slows considerably. It will sometimes speed up again as the camera focuses, only to slow down again once the process is completed. Only in the lowest light does this become particularly awkward.

Low light with a touch of fill flash. Again, this is the sort of shot that you might otherwise take with a smartphone, but the M3 gave me enough zoom to step back and reduce the perspective distortion, and the level of control to balance the flash and ambient lighting.

41mm Equiv.
ISO 1600
F2.8, 1/40th sec
-1EV exposure comp
-1EV flash comp.

Overall, my experience of shooting with the RX100 is that it's a camera that leaves you very aware of its capabilities, but doesn't leave me with the sense that they'll be easy to access: there's likely to be a feature to let me get the best out of the camera, but it may require a lot of fiddling around in the Fn menu to achieve it.

Three things I hope get changed

The three things that jumped out at me most while shooting with the camera (other than my dislike of the control dial), which I'm hoping can be revised in future firmware:

The RX100 M3 does not retain different settings for movie mode, meaning your stills shooting settings are your starting point when you switch to movie mode. This is experienced most acutely in manual exposure movie mode, where your starting point are the aperture and shutter speeds you last used in the A/S/M stills modes. The problem with this is that the apertures and shutter speeds you use for movies are likely to be very different from the ones you use for stills - 24p video, for instance, encourages the use of 1/50th second shutter speeds, with the aperture and ISO being set accordingly. However, 1/50th is unlikely to be the shutter speed you'd choose for daylight stills shooting, so you need to change a lot of settings every time you switch to or from movie mode. More problematically, movie mode doesn't offer the 'ND Auto' mode offered in stills mode, so you have to re-select it every time you move back to stills shooting from movie mode, or risk taking shots with the ND filter switched on, by mistake.

Getting into really fine detail, it would be nice to gain a little more control over customizing the controls - the buttons and function menu give lots of opportunity to tailor to personal taste but some of the functions are still a bit restrictive. My main gripe would be that you can't customise the function of the rear dial - only the front one. The a6000 at least lets you decide which of its dials you want exposure compensation on, so you get some choice without losing the mode-dependent function of the other control. Equally, the centre button on the back of the camera must be left on 'Standard' if you're not to lose one-press access to focus point positioning. Just a tiny bit more user choice would be nice.

The camera's viewfinder also acts as an On/Off switch. I didn't have a problem with the 'On' aspect, but I regularly found myself wanting to shoot an image without the finder, pushing it down, then cursing myself as the camera shut itself down and had to be restarted and the zoom reset.

It's only a 5-7 second process, depending on what focal length the lens is set to, but when it's the fifth occurrence of the afternoon...

The final frustration is the camera's insistence of shutting down as soon as you push the viewfinder down. This means that if you want to go back to LCD shooting or reviewing the images you've just shot, you have to wait for the camera to shut down, then for it to restart again. It's not a particularly long wait but I spent every moment of every recurrence of this event (essentially each time I'd used the finder) thinking 'there must be a menu setting to change this.' There isn't.

We put these points to Sony and, with regards the viewfinder shutting the camera down, were told: 'We have the ability to adjust this capability with a firmware update if customer feedback continues to follow this trend.'

Keeping things in (compact) proportions

What I don't want is for these criticisms to do is be taken out of proportion: a small annoyance can take a paragraph to explain properly, while a phrase such as: 'this sensor and lens appear to set a new high water mark for what you can expect from a compact camera' are far shorter.

In terms of image quality, it's quite possible to fall into the trap of holding the RX100 III to a higher standard: of expecting large sensor image quality from it, because it gets so much closer than almost any of its peers. Only the Canon G1 X II really challenges the Sony in terms of image quality - and while it doesn't offer the dynamic range advantage its sensor should provide, the Canon still offers a longer lens and more control over depth-of-field. However, the Sony shoots better video, has a viewfinder and, crucially, is pocketable.

The RX100 III is at least as capable as any of its predecessors, and brings better video and a more consistently bright lens. So whether you're thinking in terms of movies or stills, there's something incredibly liberating about knowing that the small camera in your jacket pocket will let you take pictures in a range of situations and, more than ever before, that you'll be happy with the result when you get home.