Sony’s pocket travel zoom is a technological marvel, says Andy Westlake, but its flawed handling is disappointing given the price
Sony RX100 VI – Autofocus
Sony has re-used the same AF system that we’ve previously seen on both the short-zoom RX100 V and the RX10 IV bridge camera. I was extremely impressed by it on the latter, and it continues to work in much the same vein on the RX100 VI. It acquires focus on static subjects in the blink of an eye; indeed it’s noticeably quicker than the Panasonic TZ200, which itself is absolutely no slouch.
However it’s when you point the camera at a moving subject that the system really comes into its own. It can keep track of a moving subject, and more importantly keep it in focus, while shooting faster than any interchangeable-lens camera on the planet. Like the RX10 IV it will occasionally drift away from perfect focus for a frame or two, but it’ll quickly snap back. This kind of continuous-AF performance is remarkable for a pocket camera.
Out of the box, the RX100 VI is set up to automatically select the focus point and decide whether or not the subject is moving. Sometimes it gets this right, but just as often it doesn’t, and at this point you’ll need to override its decisions. When you’re composing with the screen, you can at least tell the camera where to focus by tapping the subject, but bizarrely Sony provides no sensible way of selecting a focus point when using the viewfinder.
To rectify this, you’ll need to either enable the Touch Pad function, which allows you to set the focus point using the touchscreen while you’re looking through the viewfinder. If this doesn’t work well for you, you can reconfigure the button in the centre of the rear dial to Focus Standard and set the focus area mode to Flexible Spot. But if you choose the latter, you can’t activate Eye AF for shooting portraits. The rear dial function is also reassigned to changing the focus area size, rather than exposure settings, whenever you enter focus area selection mode.
Sony RX100 VI – Performance
With all the processing power it has on board, you’d expect the RX100 VI to be an exceptionally snappy performer, and in most respects it delivers. It powers up in about a second, and from then on responds pretty snappily to all of the controls. In particular its high-speed focusing and shooting means that you should very rarely miss a shot.
While the usual array of metering modes are available, I found the autoexposure to be sufficiently reliable in the multi-pattern mode that I didn’t need to use any of the others. Naturally you’re aided here by the electronic viewfinder giving a reliable preview of how the image is going to look, so you can apply exposure compensation if necessary. If anything, I saw a tendency towards underexposure, which means the camera generally won’t clip highlight detail. Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimiser function does a great job of bringing out shadow detail in high-contrast scenes.
I’ve often found auto white balance to be unreliable on Sony cameras, but I had better luck with the RX100 VI, which generally gave more pleasing results. It even did well under conditions that some other cameras find confusing, for instance neutralising the green colour cast that’s found in the shade of foliage on sunny summer days. There’s still a slight bias towards the cool side on sunny days, though, and some users may also prefer to boost the JPEG colour saturation beyond Sony’s distinctly restrained standard setting. But in general, most of my JPEG files showed quite attractive colour rendition, but benefited from minor corrections in post-processing.
Like all compact cameras, the lens-shutter design is extremely quiet in operation. In fact if you turn off the various operational beeps and fake shutter sounds and engage the electronic shutter, the camera is completely silent. But then you get no feedback from the camera that it’s actually shooting, so it could really do with the same kind of visual cues Sony has used in its high-speed Alpha 9 mirrorless camera.
The camera’s slim frame means that there’s only space for a conventional SD slot rather than the faster UHS-II type, meaning it can take a long time to record a burst of images to card, especially if you shoot 24fps raw for a few seconds. This doesn’t have too much impact on the camera’s operation, as you can still shoot more still images or change most settings while the camera is writing. However you can’t initiate video recording until it’s finished, or strangely, change the continuous shooting speed.
The lens is an excellent performer considering its relatively long range. Like most extended-range zooms it’s very sharp in the centre wide open, but less good in the corners, and you’ll want to stop it down to f4 or f/5.6 when shooting scenes such as landscapes where there’s detail right across the scene. In the middle of the zoom range the lens is simply stunning, giving excellent sharpness from corner to corner. Likewise at the telephoto end, the centre is still very sharp, although the corners are a touch soft at maximum aperture.
Indeed in my side-by-side comparisons, the RX100 VI’s lens is so much sharper at 200mm and f/4.5 than the TZ200’s at 360mm and f/6.3 that in good light, you can get almost the same level of detail from both cameras when shooting distant subjects. One word of warning though; I’d avoid the minimum aperture of f/11, as it gives very soft images due to diffraction.
One real weakness of the RX100, though, is battery life. The small NB-BX1 battery is rated for 220 to 240 shots per charge, depending on whether you use the LCD or viewfinder. But to get anything close to this in real-world use you’ll probably need to configure much more aggressive power-management settings than Sony’s defaults, and obsessively power the camera off after shooting. Even then, I’d certainly recommend buying a spare battery and an external charger to make sure you can get through the day.