Packing a 20.2-million-pixel, 1in sensor and small enough to fit in a trouser pocket, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 could well be an ideal day-to-day camera
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 at a glance:
- 20.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor
- 3in, 1.229-million-dot LCD screen
- 28-100mm (effective) f/1.8-4.9 Carl Zeiss lens
- ISO 125-6400 (extended to ISO 80-25,600)
- Street price around £550
‘The best camera is the one you have on you’ is a phrase commonly repeated by many photographers. This is why those models that are small and light enough to be kept with you are so useful. Sony’s Cyber-shot RX100 is exactly this type of camera.
The issue with a pocket camera is just how much image quality, and control over exposure and depth of field, is compromised when compared to a larger camera, like a DSLR, because when it comes to sensors, bigger is usually better. Even the most notable compact cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot S100 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, use compact-sized sensors, which are much smaller than – and therefore cannot compete with – those used in compact system cameras and DSLRs.
Those compact cameras that do include larger sensors – Canon’s PowerShot G1X and Fujifilm’s FinePix X100 come to mind – may be smaller than a DSLR, but are not truly pocket-sized. What is particularly impressive about the RX100, then, is that it combines a pocket-sized body and a 1in (13.2×8.8mm) sensor, which is virtually the same size as the sensor in the Nikon 1 CSC and approximately four times larger than the 1/2.3in (6.16×4.55mm) sensor in a standard compact. On paper at least, the RX100 appears to have struck the fine balance between size and quality.
Sony describes the RX100 as an ‘expert compact camera’ and its best Cyber-shot to date. Bold claims indeed, so is the camera worth its place at your side?
Big, crisp images and good performance in low light are not usually possible with a camera the size of the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 but, then again, compacts do not normally have an imaging sensor this big. Sony develops its sensors in-house, and the 13.2×8.8mm (3:2 aspect ratio) Exmor CMOS sensor is a completely new design with 20.2 million pixels. The format of the sensor results in an approximate 2.7x focal length and effective f-stop increase compared to the 35mm full-frame format. Maximum file output is 5472×3648 pixels, enabling 300ppi prints at approximately 18.2×12.2in.
A larger sensor requires a physically larger lens, and the 28-100mm (equivalent) Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar optic is substantially ‘fatter’ than that used on a compact camera such as the Canon PowerShot S100. However, it retracts fully into the body and adds no great size to the camera’s depth. The size of the RX100’s sensor means that the flange depth (the distance between the sensor and the rear of the lens) must be greater, which is likely to be the main factor in the camera’s increased depth when compared to the S100.
One compromise of this larger sensor is that the minimum focus is less impressive, at 5cm at the 28mm setting, and 55cm at the 100mm setting. Like the Canon PowerShot G1X, the RX100 is not really the camera for close-up macro work.
Lens performance is key given that it is fixed to the camera. The lens comprises seven elements in six groups, including four aspherical elements and one ‘advanced’ aspherical element. A fast f/1.8 aperture at the widest focal length is impressive, but it is unfortunately reduced to f/4.9 at the 100mm setting. Use the 50mm setting for a portrait and the maximum aperture is f/3.2 (which is equivalent to approximately f/8 on a 35mm camera). I found f/5.6 to be the sharpest setting offered by the RX100.
There is a vast array of shooting modes catering for most tastes and abilities. Picture effects number 13 in all, many of which have various further options. Partial colour, for instance, offers the choice of red, yellow, blue and green. As well as offering full manual control, the camera has Sony’s iAuto and superior auto modes, both of which detect the scene and adjust the exposure settings accordingly. Such modes are useful when shooting in a hurry. A shooting-tips list is accessed via the ‘?’ button, and provides basic shooting advice. The shooting tips are well detailed, but I suspect most photographers interested in this ‘expert’ camera will not require such information.
Drive mode can be accessed via the control wheel and offers high-speed shooting up to 10fps for a six-frame burst, as well as a self-portrait mode for one or two people. In this mode, the camera’s focus and timer are activated once a face is detected in the scene, which is handy to ensure that the subjects are in the frame, especially given that the LCD screen is fixed and cannot flip over for front viewing like the Sony NEX-F3.
The RX100 has many shooting modes that benefit from the fast Bionz processor, which is also used in the Sony NEX-7. For example, bracketing for exposure or white balance, as well as HDR mode that offers up to ±6EV capture, are taken over multiple exposures, with a tripod rendered largely unnecessary because of the fast frame rate.
Features in use: Lens control ring
A standout feature of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is the lens control ring, giving an authentic feel to the camera’s handling. In manual-focus mode, the lens ring operates focus, in a similar way to the Canon PowerShot S100, with the option for focus magnification up to 20x and ‘peaking’ to confirm the point of focus and highlight areas. In zoom mode, the focal length can be displayed at 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm and 100mm settings, which is handy for precise framing.
The lens ring is also useful for controlling exposure, doubling up with the control wheel to adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Like the function button, the lens ring can be customised for several exposure controls, such as exposure compensation. In aperture priority mode, I often used the control wheel for aperture and the lens ring for exposure compensation.
Build and Handling
In the hand, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 feels like a well-crafted and quality camera. Its diminutive 101.6×58.1×35.9mm size means that it slides comfortably into a trouser pocket, yet its metal construction gives it a satisfying weightiness with the smooth all-black exterior resistant to scratches. There is a little give in the shutter release, but it still sits flush in the body. This is a camera that should stand the test of time.
With its premium build, full manual control and price tag, the RX100 is aimed at the enthusiast market. However, the camera’s balance of auto and manual modes, and its array of shooting functions, make it suitable for both enthusiasts and novices. Sony Alpha users will immediately be at home with the in-depth menu, which is easily navigated. Many of the buttons can be customised, including the function button, which can hold between one and seven settings from a choice of 17, such as image size, aspect ratio, creative style and ISO. With such key controls available, I found I frequently accessed the function button menu. Likewise, quick access of up to three complete exposure set-ups is possible via the ‘memory’ mode on the shooting-mode dial.
Another area of customisation is the LCD display. Pressing display on the control wheel brings up information such as the electronic level gauge, histogram and exposure settings. To keep the screen clean, the display for controls such as the lens ring and the mode dial guide can be turned off.
A built-in flash sits flush in the body, and has an output that is standard for a camera of this size, and which is suitable for close-range subjects. It offers fill-in and ±2EV exposure compensation. The unit itself pops up on a crane-like mechanism for good clearance from the lens.
The 3.6x zoom range can be extended another 2x up to 200mm, via the Clear Image Zoom control. Like the Sony Alpha 37 and 57 cameras, the extra zoom is achieved by interpolating neighbouring pixels, so image quality is not as crisp as in the native zoom range. Using the electronic zoom, it can be tricky to achieve a precise zoom every time, so selecting the lens-control ring to operate the zoom helps to ensure precise framing.
A new NP-BX1 battery has been created for the RX100, which Sony hints is likely to be used in future Cyber-shot models. It has a claimed 330-shot life, which is approximately 30% longer than most other Cyber-shot cameras. After a day’s use, I found the camera still had a little power left.
A wide f/1.8 aperture lets in plenty of light, but at this setting in bright sunlight the camera’s maximum 1/2000sec shutter speed is not quick enough to provide an accurate exposure, so the aperture needs to be taken down to f/2.8. For slower shutter speeds, the camera includes SteadyShot, which my tests show to add 2EV of blur-free handheld shutter speeds when shooting at the 100mm focal length, and up to 4EV at 50mm (around 1/15sec).
Of the numerous shooting effects, only the watercolour and illustration effects can be applied post-capture. In fact, these are the only in-camera edits that can be made, so any effects must be selected pre-capture or achieved using editing software.
Unfortunately, Sony’s Image Data Converter software for raw file processing is not included in the box, but the compatible 4.1 version is available via a free download on the Sony website. An optional leather case is well suited to the camera’s elegance.
Aspect ratio adjustments include 1:1 (above) 3:2, 4:3 and 16:9
White Balance and Colour
Colour rendition should be another area in which the large sensor and bright lens enhance the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100’s performance. Indeed, in standard colour mode, JPEG images straight out of the camera are bold and punchy without being overly vivid and ‘digital’. The four colour modes, plus black & white, are adjustable ±3 for contrast, saturation and sharpness.
At the time of writing, RX100 raw files are not compatible with the latest version of Lightroom, so I have made raw edits using the company’s Image Data Converter version 4.1. Comparisons with the corresponding raw file show that the alterations made to colour during JPEG compression are subtle, with a pleasing boost to the vibrancy. Furthermore, the accuracy of JPEG colours is excellent. The blues in a sunny sky are spot on, although they do shift to cyan when the scene is overexposed. Greens are bold without looking too ‘unreal’, while skin tones are pleasant.
There are ten white balance presets, five of which are for various types of tungsten light. All settings can be bracketed via the dedicated setting in the drive-mode menu. For certain situations, I found the presets to be more accurate than AWB. For example, in scenes showing lots of green, the camera compensates and produces a slight magenta cast. This behaviour is common to most cameras, however, and in such cases it is worth switching to the dedicated white balance preset instead.
This image is a JPEG file straight out of the camera. Colours are pleasant and there is crisp detail in the blades of grass
Using Adobe Lightroom to add a little fill light and to push the exposure by +2EV shows there is plenty of detail in shadow areas, but push beyond 2EV and detail is noisy
Like most cameras in this price range, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 has multi-pattern, centreweighted and spot metering modes. From a standard test of the multi-pattern metering (achieved by tilting the camera up while shooting a landscape, from land to a sunny sky), the system performs as expected. The biggest shift in the metering comes when the percentage of land and sky in a scene is between 50/50 and then 40/60, at which point the exposure is reduced most noticeably.
I would like to see the metering reduce the exposure for more detail in the sky a little sooner. Spot metering is quick and simple to achieve. Like spot AF, any of 176 areas in the central portion of the frame can be selected.
As well as the usual single and continuous focus modes, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 offers manual focus and ‘direct’ manual focus (DMF). Manual focus is achieved using the lens control ring. Like many other controls, the autofocus area can be assigned to the function menu for quick access to the multi (25 points), centreweighted and flexible spot focus options.
In the flexible spot area mode, pressing the OK button brings up the spot area, which can be selected across the majority of the frame. In single AF mode, focusing is rapid enough in good light, and Sony’s claims of 0.13sec in good light and 0.23sec in low light seem justified.
It is easy to forget how big the RX100’s imaging sensor is, given that the camera body is so small, until it comes to close focusing, as this is compromised due to the sensor size. While most compact cameras can focus as close as 1cm, at 28mm the closest the RX100 can get is 5cm, while at 100mm it is 55cm.
Other focusing features include smile detection, which activates the shutter when the subject smiles, and face detection, which is especially effective when used to focus in self-portrait, before activating the timer for the shutter. Pressing the OK button in the centre of the control wheel activates tracking AF and sets it to the subject closest to the centre of the frame. While the camera cannot match the performance of an expensive DSLR, but for general use it is fine.
The self-portrait drive mode activates focus and a self-timer once a face is detected. The focusing in this portrait is spot on, shot using the rich tone monochrome picture effect
Noise, Resolution and Sensitivity
With a large, high-resolution sensor and bright lens, we would expect the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 to do very well against its competition. Despite its high resolution, the size of the sensor means that the photosites are a claimed 3.6x larger than those in the company’s own Cyber-shot HX20V. For resolved detail, the RX100 does not disappoint, and raises the bar for other pocket cameras to follow. Impressively, detail is largely uncompromised throughout the ISO sensitivities for well-exposed images.
Image: This image at a train station is shot at ISO 800. The unedited raw file shows more luminance noise than the JPEG, but there is more detail in the shadow areas and it is not as ‘mushy’
Our resolution charts indicate centre sharpness, and JPEG files reach the 26 marker at ISO 100, dropping only to the 24 marker at ISO 3200. To get the most out of the camera, however, it is necessary to use raw format, because the camera resolves up to the 28 marker on our charts, which is the most detail we have seen from any pocket camera. There is a fall-off in sharpness of edge detail, certainly at the widest focal length, but not to any unacceptable levels.
In general, JPEG compression is much more aggressive in compact cameras than in DSLRs. The RX100’s noise reduction and sharpening adjustments are more obvious than the colour adjustments in JPEG compression, especially at ISO 1600 and higher where detail is much more ‘mushy’.
Therefore, in low light it is worthwhile shooting in raw format. I was particularly keen to see the quality of detail in real-world images, such as landscapes, and I was impressed by the crispness of detail, such as blades of grass, when an ISO setting of 400 or below is used. The selected aperture also makes a difference to sharpness, with f/4-5.6 the optimum setting.
The native ISO range can be extended from ISO 125-6400 to 80-25,600, the high setting available only in multi-frame NR mode. Handling of noise is good if not spectacular, with luminance and chroma noise faintly noticeable in real-world images at ISO 400 and more obvious at ISO 800.
Images all the way to ISO 1600 are perfectly usable, however, even up to ISO 6400, especially given that the large file size of full-resolution images means that noise is less noticeable when viewing an RX100 image at the same size as a one taken from a lower-resolution camera. Having taken a few images in the multi-frame NR mode at ISO 25,600, I opted not to use it again as the smoothing of detail is particularly unpleasant.
Resolution charts: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured with the lens set to approx 50mm and f/5.6. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
In this backlit scene, the detail in the building and in shadow areas is given a boost by using the HDR shooting mode
Thanks to the 13.2×8.8mm sensor, the photosites in the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 are larger than those in most other compacts. Combined with the bright f/1.8 lens, the dynamic range of the RX100 stands out from most of the competition, particularly when shooting in raw format. Where a smaller sensor has a more significant drop off in dynamic range as the ISO setting increases, the RX100 holds its performance for longer, producing images with punch in low light conditions.
Of course, there are in-camera modes to enhance the dynamic range, which can be selected for quick access through the function button. HDR mode can be set to auto or controlled manually up to ±6EV. Likewise, D-Range Optimiser has auto control, or manual up to Level 5 strength. Like the rich-tone monochrome picture effect, HDR makes use of the high-speed shooting ability to record multiple images and combine them into one, so it is not entirely necessary to use a tripod in this setting.
Images taken with the HDR mode and D-Range Optimiser set to strong are not to my taste, but the auto mode of each is intuitive, adding a little tonal detail without overdoing the effect.
LCD, Viewfinder and Video
Like most compact cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 does not include a viewfinder, nor is there a hotshoe or option for one. Instead, the camera relies solely on its 3in, TFT LCD screen for viewing and composing images and navigating the camera menus. Like the company’s current crop of Alpha cameras, the screen uses TruBlack technology for strong contrast, but has an extra trick up its sleeve that Sony calls WhiteMagic.
For every red, green and blue (RGB) dot there is also a white one, designed to provide greater brightness, which the company claims gives 2.4x brightness compared to its other Cyber-shot cameras. Not only does this mean the camera has a whopping 1.229-million-dot resolution, but the power consumption of the screen is also reduced by 35%.
The camera offers a five-step brightness control for the screen, although it is set by default to auto. Most importantly, a sunny weather setting has been included that maximises the screen’s output, and makes it perfectly possible to view the screen even in bright, direct sunlight.
It is still easier to see details when the screen is shaded from the sun, but I am very impressed by its brightness and contrast. As I have discovered in past tests of Sony cameras that use this type of screen, it does pick up smudges very easily and it requires a regular wipe.
A slight shift away from the thumb pad is the movie record button, which directly accesses the function and allows capture in full HD (1080p) AVCHD files at 50fps or MP4 files at 30fps and 25fps.
There is much to like about the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, not least the premium build quality and excellent handling, including the lens ring control, extensive menu and customisation options.
The camera is intuitive to use, and will please both those accustomed to a camera and those new to photography. The lack of a viewfinder need not be feared because the LCD screen is very bright and contrasty. What I like most about the body is that it fits easily into my pocket, which increases the camera’s chances of accompanying me every day.
Not only does the camera handle very well, but its image quality in the areas of resolved detail, dynamic range and colour rendition is class-leading. The RX100 may be a little camera, but it packs a good punch, and it has made its way onto my Christmas list
With no hotshoe, the RX100 relies on its built-in flash, which pops up a good distance from the body on its crane-like mechanism. Its output is sufficient for close-range subjects.
On the underside of the camera is its HDMI port, to which the charge cable is connected. There is no battery charger unit supplied with the camera.
Up to seven settings from a choice of 17 can be stored in the function menu. Controls include ISO, white balance, AF, metering mode and image size.
Auto modes menu
With either of the auto modes selected, adjustments can be made by accessing the menu. As well as picture effects, the focus, brightness, colour and vividness can be tweaked using the on-screen slider via the control wheel.
As well as numerous picture effects, colour effects and the HDR mode, the RX100 has a 180º sweep panorama mode and a scene modes shooting menu, which includes macro, gourmet, sunset, night portrait and handheld twilight.
Manual focusing is possible, and achieved ‘authentically’ by turning the lens control ring. In manual control mode, peaking confirms which areas are in focus – very handy when the depth of field is shallow. Peaking highlights edge details in a choice of red, yellow or white.
iAuto and superior iAuto+
On the shooting mode dial is the option for iAuto and superior iAuto+. These modes take the hard work out of getting the correct exposures, selecting the appropriate settings according to the scene, indicated on the LCD screen.
Shooting tip list
The shooting tip list is accessed via the ‘?’ button and is a very detailed guide to photography basics, separated into menus for portraits and animals, landscapes, night scenes, shooting close-up with macro and, finally, shooting a subject in motion.
The sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 brings together many key elements of different class-leading compact cameras, so it faces competition from a number of models. With a slim and simple pocket-sized body, lens ring, and raw and JPEG capture, its design clearly draws influence from Canon’s PowerShot S100. However, the S100’s 12-million-pixel sensor is significantly smaller, and it just cannot compete for large prints and performance in low light. It is almost half the price, though.
On release, Fujifilm’s FinePix X10 was a similar price to the RX100, and the size of its sensor falls between that of the S100 and the RX100. The X10 has more of a classic styling, and its manually controlled zoom lens handles much better than an electronic type like that in the RX100. Furthermore, it has an optical viewfinder linked to the zoom. Thankfully, though, the RX100’s LCD screen is excellent and users are unlikely to rue the exclusion of a viewfinder.