Sony RX100 III Review – If it’s not broken, make it better

by | Sep 12, 2014

It always bothers me when photo news outlets use words like “unleash” to announce the arrival of a new camera. It is especially annoying when this is for a new point-and-shoot: Canon unleashes new PowerShot Elph models! Are you ready for this? You’re not ready! You can’t possibly be ready for new $200 point-and-shoots! This paints an image of a camera about to bust through its restraints, unable to contain its own excitement about how utterly boring it is. However, I have to admit that in the case of Sony’s original RX100, the term was more-or-less accurate. That was the camera that changed the definition of point-and-shoot, and two years later, the RX100 III is set to do it again.

Sony has always taken an approach to making things that is like no other camera company. They simply don’t stop innovating, even after creating a product with near-absolute market dominance and little competition. The original RX100 would still be a best-in-class camera if it weren’t for its younger siblings. Sony could have stopped right there—there is even precedent for it: Panasonic has yet to replace the aging FZ200 superzoom because no one else has bothered to create a directly-competing model. Same for their LX7. But instead of resting on their laurels with the RX100, sending the entire photo division to sip mai tais on a tropical island somewhere, Sony got right back to work on a mark II, and now the mark III version of that camera. I didn’t shoot the mark II, because the modifications weren’t anything to do with the photographic capability of the camera, but the mark III offers a built-in electronic viewfinder and an entirely new lens, which changes things up quite a bit.

Sony RX100 size comparison

Firstly, the viewfinder. It’s easy to not even realize it’s there, and requires a two-step process to activate it: flip a switch on the side of the camera, then pull the viewfinder back to extend it. (Make sure you push it in again before trying to close it.) At first, I thought the idea of a small pop-up viewfinder was a little chintzy, but I ended up using it frequently. I spent a weekend in Seattle when it happened be sunny and 90°F, and the main LCD screen was simply too washed out by the bright light to be of much use. At 1.4 million dots, it’s not the highest resolution EVF out there, but given its small size, I found it to be more than adequate. The camera will also power up and power down with the opening and closing of the EVF, which sometimes was rather annoying, but at other times felt like a nice touch. There is likely a setting to control this behavior, but I didn’t bother to search for it. It’s easy enough to get used to.

The lens, of course, is what everyone wants to talk about. The mark I and II RX100s shared the same 20MP, 1-inch-type sensor and 28-100mm (full-frame equivalent) lens, with an aperture rating of f/1.8-4.9. While a decent lens, the slow telephoto aperture limited the camera somewhat for indoor and low-light shooting. The 1” sensor performed admirably at high ISO, but many still felt it was being held back by the lens. To remedy this, the mark III version keeps the same sensor but offers a completely new, 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens, which doesn’t reach as far as the previous models, but is about 1 and 2/3 stops faster at the telephoto end. The new 24mm wide-angle is also very welcome, as this was one of my primary complaints about the original RX100 when I reviewed it back in 2012. Sony has also added a 3-stop ND filter, which helps keep that aperture open when in bright light, or allows for longer exposures.

Sony RX100 with viewfinder up

So how does the lens change the camera’s usability? For one, the fast aperture and relatively large sensor offer decent control over depth of field at all focal lengths. You won’t get the paper-thin DoF of a DSLR and a fast prime lens, but for a pocket-size camera, the RX100 III performs very well in this regard. I also found myself much more confident being able to zoom in low-light situations. The general rule of thumb for low-light photography with point-and-shoots is to keep the lens as close to its wide-angle end possible, and just zoom with your feet. The RX100 III more-or-less removes this restriction. The wide end is still roughly one stop faster than the telephoto end, but that is a minimal difference compared to many compact cameras. And, once again, the relatively large sensor means high ISO shots are significantly cleaner than on many of its rivals.

Although, identifying the RX100’s “rivals” is rather difficult. There are many advanced compact cameras of similar size, but few with such a large sensor (or such a large price). The one that most clearly comes to mind is Canon’s G1 X Mark II, which actually offers a larger sensor and longer lens, but is itself a much bulkier camera. When comparing the RX100 III to other models, it may help to look beyond its class and focus solely on the price: what else can you buy with $800? Well, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 comes to mind. (That, or a lot of breakfast burritos.) Of course, nobody thinks to compare an advanced point-and-shoot to an interchangeable lens camera (or a breakfast burrito), but if you plan on spending $800 and you’re looking for a primary camera, you might want to shop a few options. An E-M10 with kit lens really isn’t that much bigger than an RX100, although it won’t fit in a pocket. If you’re looking for the highest quality compact camera and already own a DLSR or mirrorless ILC, though, then the RX100 III is the way to go, and there’s little reason to look elsewhere. What’s more, of the reasons to go elsewhere, two of them (70mm isn’t quite long enough, $800 is too expensive) are solved by going to one of the older RX100s that are still available new.

That’s the RX100 III’s real competition: other RX100s. For as often as I appreciated the fast lens of the mark III, I found myself wanting the greater telephoto zoom of the mark I and II. Even just being able to get to 85mm would help with portraiture, and 100mm or more would be nice as a travel camera. Of course, I rely on the 24mm wide angle that I have grown accustomed to after shooting my Panasonic LX7 for two years, so I can’t really opt for one of the older RX100s which only go as wide as 28mm (and don’t have built-in EVFs). So as much as I praise the RX100 III, it still feels lacking. In an ideal world, I’d take a 24-100mm f/1.8-4 lens, with 70mm still arriving at f/2.8. Are you listening, Sony? Take notes for the RX100 IV. Don’t tell me it’s not possible, you made the Walkman, after all! …Oh well, maybe I’m dreaming.

Sony RX100 III Seattle colored pipes

Realistically, the only true complaint I have about the RX100 III is a complaint I’ve had about the previous models: it’s too dang slippery. A little rubber bumper for my fingers is all it needs, and RX100 owners have been grumbling about this since the original model. While I didn’t actually drop it during my two-day test, I constantly felt like I was going to. Third-party grip manufacturers rejoice, because Sony still hasn’t fixed this problem. Compared to my LX7, the RX100 is simply ergonomically inferior. The interface is as confusing as ever, too, with Sony still trying to be different with how it organizes its menus. And while the controls are laid out simply enough, the multifunction ring has too long of a throw (despite being a fly-by-wire system), taking several turns to stop the aperture down all the way. The rear dial has click stops, but they are far too light, making it easy to inadvertently change a setting. I applaud Sony for continually innovating, but sometimes I wish they’d slow down and take a moment to add some refinement to their products.

Of course, the real reason one buys an RX100, compared to any other small camera, is the image quality. With a measured 12.3 stops of dynamic range and color depth of 22.4 bits, this 1” sensor easily holds its own against many current APS-C cameras. It can’t match the low light capabilities of those larger sensors, but it is leagues ahead of what other compact cameras can do. The only oddity I found was a tendency for the auto white-balance function to misread tungsten and fluorescent light, but this is easily remedied by selecting a manual WB or shooting in raw.

All of this is to say that it’s not a perfect camera, but it still happens to be quite a good one. If I were to buy a compact camera today, it would be the RX100 III. The image quality is simply too good to ignore, easily besting its closest competitor, Canon’s G1 X Mark II, in every metric save high-ISO performance. It may lack the zoom of the G1 X, but its small size is perfect for a camera that you take with you every day, and with one-button-access to quickly send an image to your smartphone, the RX100 III makes it easier than ever to stop using your phone as your primary camera. Moreover, being a Sony, it is loaded with all the functions you could ever ask for: panoramic stitching, HDR with up to 6-stops of range, 10 frames per second burst rate, 24p full-HD video with a new 50mbps XAVC codec, and much, much more. It is a camera priced and specced for professionals, that plays nicely with beginners who just want to leave things in auto mode. It is certainly not without its quirks, but they are all easily overlooked in the face of its performance. Sony has, once again, created the point-and-shoot to beat, and I fully expect them to do the same again next year.

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