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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Goodbye Canon S95, Hello Sony RX100

You might be surprised to read that title if you've read my Canon S95 post. The fact is that I even surprised myself by switching camera vendors after having bought nothing but Canon for the past eight years. About a month or so ago, I sold my beloved Canon S95 and purchased the highly praised Sony RX100. This was not a decision I made lightly, and I spent months deciding what camera I could buy that would give me as close to the DSLR performance of my T2i as possible, without sacrificing the extreme portability of a point-and-shoot. At least for the time being, the RX100 is the best camera I could find in my price range that met that goal.

In addition to being surprised, you might recall how wowed I was by the Sony RX1. In that same post, I referenced the also impressive Sony NEX-6, and lamented the RX100’s high megapixel count (relative to its sensor size). Ultimately, it was budget that won out over all other considerations. If I wasn't spending the equivalent monthly salary of 37 Thai rice farmers each and every month on daycare, this post might have been all about the RX1 instead. The thought of putting my kids through college pushed me to reconsider my aversion to the RX100’s megapixel count, and I’m glad I did.

The RX100 is a VERY impressive camera. That said, at $648 it’s still FAR from cheap. However it's cheaper than the alternatives I considered. There may come a day when a mirrorless NEX-style camera might come back into consideration, but for now that style of camera isn't quite ready to replace my DSLR (with its arsenal of lens options), and not quite small enough to function as a point-and-shoot alternative.

Okay, enough background. If you're reading this, you probably have some interest in photography and/or gadgets. So why the RX100? Is it really worth the equivalent of THREE garden-variety point-and-shoots (or 11 months as a Thai rice farmer)? Read on to find out what’s so cool about this camera and why I was drawn to it.

The Sensor:

Holy cow, what a HUGE sensor for such a small camera body!

Check out the difference in sensor sizes below courtesy of The RX100’s sensor isn't anywhere close to the APS-C sensor in a consumer-grade DSLR like the Canon T4i, but it blows away the sensor in your average point and shoot like the Canon Elph 530HS, as well as the sensor in the S95’s successor, the S110:

Sensor Size Comparison:

Also, check out this comparison from Digital Camera Database, showing how the sensor is 308% larger than a typical point-and-shoot, but in a body that is very similar in size and weight:

308% Larger Sensor:

Size Comparison To Elph 530HS and S110:

What does that relatively huge sensor size give you? Well, for starters, better low-light performance. More importantly for my own needs though, is when combined with a wide aperture and close proximity to the subject, it can allow for very shallow depth of field shots like the one below. Your average point and shoot would never produce bokeh like that even at the same aperture value (sorry I would have provided comparison shots with the S95 if I hadn't been so eager to sell it and recoup some of my money):

Creamy Bokeh Even at f/2.2

Read more about why sensor size matters here.

Wide Maximum Aperture:
A wide aperture such as f/1.8 or f/2.0 go hand in hand with a large sensor size for producing great low-light shots as well as shallow depth of field shots. The RX100 offers a maximum aperture range from f/1.8 at the wide end to f/4.9 at the telephoto end. I usually prefer to shoot wide when I am indoors, so f/4.9 at the tele end doesn't bother me much. The low-light capability that f/1.8 brings is very useful indoors as well.

Read more about why understanding aperture is important here.

Awesome High ISO Performance:
Ahhh, the final piece of the trifecta needed when you’re in search of low-light performance. For a camera in this class, the high ISO performance of the RX100 is awesome. I had my fears that the relatively high megapixel count would be an issue, but I really haven’t had many problems with noise. Further boosting the RX100’s ISO performance is a great multi-frame noise reduction feature that can rapidly take a series of photos and blend them together to eliminate noise.

Check out the examples below taken at ISO 400, ISO 800, ISO 1600, ISO 3200, and ISO 6400. All were taken with multi-frame noise reduction turned on, a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, and an aperture of f/2.8. The room here was very dark and the first shot is very indicative of what it really looked like. Notice how good things still are at ISO 1600 and how ISO 6400 ends up being way too much (even though the aperture isn't wide open). 

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

Bounce Flash:
This is a truly awesome feature that I have never seen on a point-and-shoot before. It takes a bit of hand contortions, but the pop-up flash is actually designed to be pulled back with your finger so that it can be bounced off the ceiling. This will have a dramatic effect on your photos. Take a look at the examples below:

Direct Flash

Flash Bounced Off Ceiling

Here’s a hit list of some of the other great features on the camera:

Fantastic Build Quality: This doesn't feel cheap at all (and it shouldn't for $648).

Carl Zeiss Lens: I can't say for certain if this really makes a difference with this type of lens, but Carl Zeiss lenses have long been known for their quality.

Drop Sensor: If you manage to drop it, it can actually close the lens rapidly to protect it.

Very Compact Size: Not quite pants pocketable, but I've never cared much about that as I usually carry it in a case with a spare battery and memory card.

Blazingly Fast Focus: Wow this thing is lightning fast! It is perfect for taking pictures of my kids that don’t sit still even for a fraction of a second.

Rapid-fire 10fps Burst Mode: I don’t have a need for this much on a point-and-shoot camera, but it’s really nice to have from time to time.

Face Registration: Once the camera sees a face, it will learn it and know to start tracking it when it comes into the frame again.

Numerous Advanced Features: The RX100 has many features desired by pros such as RAW image capture, bracketing, and PASM modes for manual control.

High Res Screen: This has a beautiful 1,229,000 dot display. That’s more than twice the resolution of the average point-and-shoot, and great for reviewing your shots.

Optical Image Stabilization: Not much to say here. It seems to work well and is a requisite feature of any camera I buy.

Highly Customizable Buttons and Control Ring: Many of the buttons on the rear of the camera as well as the control ring can be customized to enable rapid access to your favorite settings. 

Digital Leveler: You can easily flip to an onscreen mode that will show you if the camera is level or not.

Cons. There are always cons right?

Price: At $648, this is a serious investment, and a potential source of major tears if you break it. In my opinion, the sensor, high ISO performance, and f/1.8 aperture in a body this small, are reason enough to give this camera serious thought. The price still stings though. Don’t buy this if you aren't clear on how the major features can help you. This camera alone won’t make you a better photographer. In fact, you may end up with even more blurry pictures if you don’t understand depth of field.

No Included External Charger: Say what? Come on Sony. Pretty soon cameras won’t even come with a battery. It’s not all bad; the battery can be charged in-camera by means of a USB cable and an AC adapter, or directly off a USB port on a PC or Mac. In some situations that might even be considered a feature. I still prefer external chargers though. If you want one, that’s an additional $50 here.

No Included Full Manual: Only a very limited quick-start guide is included with the camera. Download the full manual here.

Tendency to Choose Low ISO on Auto: This is the exact opposite of my old S95. I suppose this could be seen as a pro in some situations and a con in others. The effect of this indoors is that when the camera chooses a low ISO, it also forces a slow shutter to let in more available light. The camera is likely trying to produce pictures with as little noise as possible, but the result is blurry shots if I’m not careful. I tend to shoot in shutter priority to avoid this.

Can’t Access Battery Door During Tripod Use: This is bound to happen with a camera this small, but on my old S95, I could leave the Joby GorillaPod Micro 250 permanently attached. Now I can’t. Not a big deal, but keep this in mind.

Odd White Balance: This could just be the CFL lighting in my house, but the camera seems to have a hard time choosing the correct white balance indoors. I find myself having to manually override it much more often than I did with the S95. This is can be avoided when shooting in RAW, but then requires post processing to correct. 

Need to Heavily Tweak Settings on First Use: It took quite a bit of tweaking to set the camera up how I like it, as well as to get rid of the dizzying array of icons on the screen. This is a minor niggle, but be prepared to do this when you first get it. This is a complex device, so don’t expect to be off and running the minute you open the box. Drop me a note if you need any suggestions on settings to use.

Accessory Recommendations:

Choosing a case is very subjective, but this case fit perfectly and allowed me to fit an extra battery, this blazingly fast memory card, as well as a very short micro USB cable for charging emergencies.

If all of this sounds good and you decide to buy the RX100, please let me know what you think! Also, check out my photography work at: