- Excellent still image quality
- Good autofocus and shutter lag performance
- Good ISO performance given resolution
- Full manual controls along with fully automatic and RAW shooting format
- No external battery charger
- Below average printed user's manual
- RAW converter must be downloaded
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100, at first sight, might look like just another point and shoot. But with a newly designed sensor that boasts a robust 20.2 million pixels the RX100 is out to prove it can makes its way to the top of the charts. Add to those stats a Carl Zeiss lens with superior auto focus capabilities, the only thing standing in the way is the $650 price tag. Will the avid point and shoot photographer be able to look past the MSRP and see the RX100’s full potential?
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (henceforth the RX100) becomes the company’s first entry into the burgeoning “small compact digital camera with a physically larger than usual sensor” market niche. The camera packages a newly designed 1.0 inch Exmor CMOS sensor into a 3.6x optical zoom compact digital weighing about 8.5 ounces and with dimensions that make it easily shirt pocket portable. This sensor has approximately four times more area than the 1/2.3 inch sensor found in many compact digitals and almost three times more area than the larger 1/1.7 and 1/1.63 inch models in other big sensor compacts such as the Canon S100 and Olympus XZ-1. The RX100 sensor measures out at 13.2 x 8.8 mm, the same size as the sensor in the Nikon 1 series cameras. But while Nikon stopped at 10 megapixels (MP) on their cameras, Sony has punched the resolution of the RX100 all the way up to 20.2 MP. One aspect of a high resolution sensor is the ability to crop frames fairly aggressively to change an image’s perspective while still retaining enough data to produce good quality large prints.
The sensor is partnered with Sony’s latest generation BIONZ processing technology and features a native ISO range of 80 to 6400; ISO sensitivity to 25600 is available using multi frame noise reduction technology.
That 3.6x zoom lens is a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonar T with a focal range of approximately 28 to 100 mm and boasting a fast f/1.8 maximum aperture at wide-angle – maximum aperture drops down to f/4.9 at the telephoto end of the zoom. That focal range is approximate because the RX100 allows the user to capture still and video images in a variety of aspect ratios, and you can experience a slightly longer focal range (30 to 108 mm) for still image capture by going to 4:3.
The camera is stabilized, offers typical compact digital automatic and scene shooting modes (as well as smile and face detection) along with full manual controls and JPEG, RAW and RAW/JPEG image capture formats. Video is full 1080 HD in AVCHD progressive format and video capture is available via a one touch dedicated video button. The camera also offers 7.2x “clear image zoom” and 14x digital zoom shooting options.
There’s a high-resolution 3 inch LCD monitor, continuous shooting rates of up to 10 frames per second (fps) at full resolution and the camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC, microSD/SDHC and Sony Memory Stick Duo/Pro Duo/Pro Duo (high speed)/Pro HG-Duo memory media. Sony includes an AC adapter, rechargeable battery pack, micro USB cable, wrist strap, shoulder strap adapter and printed user’s manual with each camera.
Sony’s press release describes the RX100 as “.. ideal for travel, portraits or street photography..” and “..a perfect step-up model for point and shoot users not interested in larger DSLR or compact system cameras, and also an outstanding choice for enthusiasts who may already own a large DSLR and are looking for a high-quality, pocket-sized ‘all-in-one’ second camera.” Turns out the RX100 will be accompanying me and a large DSLR to Ireland on August 26, but before then let’s get some local shooting done and see how the RX100 fares.
Build and Design
The RX100 fits the classic compact digital camera template, a rectangular body about the size of a deck of cards with slightly rounded edges – overall dimensions of about 4 x 2.375 x 1.43 inches make it a simple matter to slip it into a shirt or jacket pocket for easy transport when not in use. Powered up, the 3.6x zoom lens extends to its normal shooting position and that 1.43 inch depth becomes about 2.75 inches. Body construction is aluminum and the camera is made in Japan.
Ergonomics and Controls
The RX100 is easy to hold primarily by virtue of its small size — there is really no design feature intended to promote a better grip with the exception of a small patch of rubberized material serving as a thumb rest on the camera back. The matte black paint finish is smooth, so use of the wrist strap or a camera strap would be a prudent decision to ensure against an accidental drop. The shooting finger of my right hand fell naturally onto the shutter button, but my right thumb gravitated to about one inch left of the thumb rest as a means to promote a firmer grip, and this ended up putting a large fingerprint in the upper right portion of the monitor.
Controls are largely what we’ve come to expect from a compact digital camera — the pop-up flash, power button, shutter button/lens zoom lever and mode dial sit atop the camera body while the three inch monitor takes up most of the back. The dedicated video capture button sits at the top right rear of the body where it becomes a bit awkward to activate with the right thumb in one-handed shooting. Further down the right side are function and menu buttons, the control wheel/OK button in addition to playback and in camera guide/delete buttons. The function button allows you to register up to seven functions and recall those functions when shooting. A control ring at the base of the lens may be customized by the user to permit rapid changes to ISO, white balance, creative style, picture effect, zoom, shutter speed or aperture.
Menus and Modes
Menus in the RX100 are fairly simple and intuitive, but also somewhat lengthy, as you might expect from a camera offering a full range of manual controls and a fairly diverse feature set. There’s a five page still shooting menu, single page movie shooting menu, three page custom menu, two page playback menu, single page memory card tool menu, single page clock setup menu and three page setup menu. You can scroll from page to page in the various menus without having to scroll through the individual functions on each page, or scrolling through all the functions will take you to each succeeding page of that particular menu and then on to the next menu after completion of the current menu. You can also scroll forward or backwards, and with the format command being found in the memory card tool menu it’s actually quicker to scroll backwards to this menu rather than going forward to reach it — eleven clicks to get there going forward but only five going backwards. Depending on your shooting mode, some individual functions in any of the menus may or may not be available.
The instruction manual provided with the RX100 is fairly basic, and the manual found on Sony’s website is identical. For example, the manual says that your favorite functions can be assigned to the control ring when shooting, and established settings can be changed by just turning the control ring. However, the manual says nothing about how to assign the functions to the control ring. Here’s where that fairly simple and intuitive menu format comes into play. On page 2 of the custom menu there is a “control ring” function and clicking on that item gives you the choices of camera functions you can assign to the control ring. There is an in camera guide that can display explanations for menu items and setting values as well as shooting tips, but there’s really no excuse for $650 MSRP camera not to have a more complete user’s manual. With its automatic shooting modes the RX100 is bound to attract an audience of at least some novice shooters, and requiring them to burn precious battery power wading through an in camera guide to find out something that could be easily put into print doesn’t seem to be the way to go.
Here’s the rundown on the RX100 shooting modes:
- Superior Auto – a fully automatic mode with the camera handling virtually all image capture settings. User has a limited number of inputs including image size, aspect ratio and quality; drive, flash and focus modes, stabilization and color space. In practice, this mode can set ISO up to 25600 and may take multiple images for in camera processing to produce a single image – in my experience the camera took as few as one image at ISO 125 and up to six images at 25600.
- Intelligent Auto – fully automatic mode with the camera handling virtually all image capture settings and offering user inputs the same as with superior auto. This mode establishes an ISO range of up to 6400 and takes a single image.
- Scene – automatic shooting modes optimized for specific subjects including portrait, anti-motion blur, sports action, pet, gourmet, macro, landscape, sunset, night scene, handheld twilight, night portrait, fireworks and high sensitivity. User inputs are similar to the two fully automatic modes and ISO sensitivity can vary up to 25600 depending on the individual scenes chosen. For example, portrait maxes out at 3200 ISO while high sensitivity, logically, can go up to 25600.
- Sweep shooting – an automatic panorama shooting mode with limited user inputs, primarily standard or wide panorama as well as panning direction (right, left, up, down).
- Memory recall – allows the user to save up to three separate sets of shooting settings to be recalled quickly.
- Program auto – camera handles aperture and shutter speed while the user retains a wide variety of inputs.
- Aperture priority – user sets the aperture, camera sets the shutter speed and the user retains a wide variety of inputs.
- Shutter priority – user sets the shutter speed, camera sets the aperture and the user retains a wide variety of inputs.
- Manual – user sets aperture and shutter speed and has a wide variety of inputs.
- Movie – allows the user to select from program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual exposure for movie capture; in actual operation movie capture can be initiated with a single push of the dedicated video capture button from any shooting mode. Movie format may be AVCHD or MP4 and clip length is limited to 29 minutes. Movie capture options include: AVCHD: 28MP PS (1920×1080, 60p) / 24MP FX (1920×1080, 60i ) / 17MP FH (1920×1080, 60i). MP4: 12MP (1440×1080, 30 fps) / 3MP VGA (640×480 30 fps).
AVCHD audio is Dolby digital two channel; MP4 is AAC-LC two channel.
The 3 inch LCD monitor on the RX100 boasts a 1,229,000 dot resolution but this figure is a bit misleading as the monitor employs Sony’s White Magic technology, which uses additional white pixels to boost screen brightness, reportedly allowing users to see subtle details and tones on the screen in all types of shooting environments, including outdoors in bright sunlight. This monitor measured 467 nits peak brightness in our studio measurement, along with a 530:1 contrast ratio. The former figure is a bit under, and the latter over, the 500 nit/500:1 thresholds we like to see for these values, as they tend to identify monitors with better performance in outdoor lighting conditions. I found the monitor on the RX100 fairly average in outdoor performance, during which the monitor could be difficult to use in conditions involving bright sunlight for both image composition and viewing.