Image Quality

Its use of a much larger sensor than its rivals helped the original RX100 to redefine what you could expect from a compact camera, in terms of image quality. The JPEGs weren't to everybody's taste, with color rendition and white balance being a source of criticism for some users, but Raw shooters had never had it so good, when they got back to their computers. The RX100 M3 promises improvements in both respects - the Bionz X processor sees a fairly radical overhaul of the camera's JPEG engine, while the brighter long end of the lens offers the chance to capture lower ISO images for Raw shooters too.

It's worth noting that we've had mixed experiences with cameras using the Bionz X processor: the Alpha 7 models produced generally very good results but the unusually complex processing (particularly what we suspect is the interplay between the camera's sharpening and its context-sensitive noise reduction) can introduce unfamiliar artefacts into the images if scrutinized too closely.

Obviously we wouldn't demand that the RX100 M3's images to live up to the same expectations as those of Sony's full-frame flagships, but even being a little less critically demanding, the Bionz X processing is something of a mixed blessing.

JPEG image quality

At low ISO, the RX100 M3's images look very good. The 20MP sensor means there's plenty of detail to be had. The lens appears more consistent, both from corner-to-corner and also across its zoom range, than its predecessor (which was considerably less sharp at the long end of its zoom).

As we've previously seen with the a6000, the noise reduction is quite aggressive. Like a couple of recent Sonys, the RX100 III's noise reduction can be enabled in two levels: low and standard, and is context-sensitive, applying more noise suppression in areas it assesses to have no detail and less in detailed regions. We've tended to find this noise reduction can be rather heavy-handed, even in the 'low' setting, sometimes misidentifying low-contrast detail and blurring it away.

69mm equiv, F2.8
ISO 12,800, 1/40th sec
Processed in Adobe Camera Raw 8.5 beta,
Luminance NR 54, Chroma NR 25
100% Crops 100% Crops

As we saw with the Sony a6000, the camera's noise reduction and sharpening can also add a slight 'through textured glass' effect to out-of-focus regions. However, while we'd tend to prefer the noisier Adobe Camera Raw version here, the out-of-camera JPEG is very impressive when you consider this image was taken at ISO 12,800.

64mm equiv, F8
ISO 125, 1/1250th sec
Processed in Adobe Camera Raw 8.5 beta,
Sharpening 82, Radius 1.2, Detail 7
100% Crops 100% Crops

The camera's sharpening is a little crude - sometime meaning the very finest detail is sacrificed to allow bolder representation of slightly larger-scale objects (a problem that suggests the sharpening is working across a large radius). It's pretty easy to pull out more detail, more convincingly, by processing from Raw. However, it's worth noting that, with a 20MP image, it doesn't necessarily make sense to chase the last tiny bit of detail being captured. Instead it makes some sense to emphasis the smallest detail that would sensibly appear at most print or viewing sizes.

Raw advantages

There are several potential advantages to shooting Raw: access to more dynamic range than is included in the JPEG, greater control over color, retrospective control over white balance and the ability to fine-tune noise reduction and sharpening to suit the individual image.

At base ISO particularly, there's reasonable scope for dredging detail out of the shadow regions before you hit too much noise - meaning you can extend the dynamic range of the image if you need to. As always, there may also be some opportunity to recover some detail lost in highlights, but this relates more to your choice of Raw converter and even then, there's little hope for much color accuracy. We'd consider this a small safety margin rather than a something you should expect to be able to make much use of.

68mm equiv, F4
ISO 125, 1/1250th sec
Processed in Adobe Camera Raw 8.5 beta,
Shadows +100, Blacks +53
100% Crops 100% Crops

Here we've pushed this Raw file to Shadows +100 and Blacks +53, to 'open up' the shadow regions. This is quite an extreme pull (equivalent to +3.4EV pull in the deep shadow regions) but, with default noise reduction on, shows that you get a pretty good degree of processing latitude before noise becomes a problem. Chroma noise is intruding into the neutral shadows but isn't really visible in more colorful areas.

Raw Files for Download

We don't expect you to just take our word for it - take a look at the Raw files for yourself, and run them through your preferred software and conversion settings. Here, we provide you with a selection of raw files of 'real world' scenes, and if you want to take a closer look at the studio scene shots you can download original raw files from our 'Compared to (Raw)' page.

Overall image quality

Taken as a whole, the RX100 M3 sets a new bar for the image quality you can expect from a compact camera. The brighter aperture at the long end of the zoom means there's no other enthusiast compact can match it (the more consistently bright lenses on some smaller-sensor cameras meant there were still some areas in which they could compete with the previous RX100 modes).

We find the camera's JPEG engine a touch unsubtle, but these are 20MP images, so pixel level analysis isn't necessarily the most meaningful way of assessing them. So, while at 100% view, the sharpening is a little crude and the noise reduction can blot-out the really fine detail at high ISO settings, the images themselves still look pretty good for most uses.

Anyone really wanting pixel-level perfection will be impressed by the flexibility of the camera's Raw files. There's a good amount of additional dynamic range in the shadows, beyond what's included in the JPEGs and plenty of opportunity to get usable results out of high ISO images. This sensor capability, combined with the RX100 III's bright lens means you're much more likely to get an image you're pleased with, in almost any situation, than you could with any other compact camera.