Second impressions: Sony RX100 Camera

· review · technology · geek ·

Low sun and St Martins

I wrote about my brief first impressions of this camera back in August, not long after I had bought it. I thought it was probably time to do a second review, now that I’m about 5 months into using it.

First, you need to know a bit about what I want out of a camera, and what sort of photographs I enjoy taking. I would say that I’m an intermediate photographer in terms of expertise. I know a bit about the technical aspects of photography and I understand the role of shutter speed and aperture on the characteristics of an image. I can interpret image histograms, and I like to have some manual control over the camera so that I can record the scene more or less in the way that I want. However, I am in no way an expert, and I prefer to capture an image quickly rather than obsessing over whether my subject is in pin sharp focus. I do a little bit of processing in Adobe Lightroom (and occasionally the Nik Collection plugins, particularly if I am creating a black and white image), but I prefer the activity of taking photographs rather than processing them. I’m not really interested in whether an image is technically perfect, free from noise, distortion and so on. I just want to produce an interesting image that makes me want to keep looking at it, flaws and all. Of course, I don’t want to see distracting flaws, but if the image looks right to me (in some way that I find hard to define), it is right, as far as I’m concerned.

As for subjects, I tend to take landscapes, architecture, animals (though not ‘wildlife’ shots, so I don’t need a very long lens), portraits or abstract images of interesting textures or geometric shapes. I love skies and shafts of light and shadows, and I have a distressing propensity to shoot directly into the light. I tend not to go in for action shots or sports photography, and in fact I haven’t even tried out the continuous shooting mode. Obviously I take photos when travelling, on holiday, or out for a walk, but I like to have a camera I can carry all the time, because you never know when you will see something beautiful or striking, and I want to take more photographs.

The ’every day carry’ requirement was one of the main things that attracted me to the Sony RX100, because of its tiny size, low weight and compact form. It lives in a small padded pouch in the rucksack I carry every day. That means I can get it out quite quickly if I see something I would like to capture. If I’m in a promising environment, I get it out and carry it in the palm of my hand, with the strap around my wrist, or put it in a coat pocket. In my original review, I thought that I might get a third-party grip to give a more secure feel when holding it, but I now find it perfectly comfortable in its natural form: your experience may vary if you have large hands. Anyway, the compact form of this camera, coupled with the excellent image quality is what makes it such a marvel, and so useful if you are interested in grabbing opportunities to take photographs whenever they arise.

For example, I was doing a bit of Christmas shopping in Birmingham city centre one morning before Christmas. It was quite early, and there weren’t many people around. As I got to the top of the Bullring shopping centre, I noticed the way that the sun was shining directly between the two halves of the shopping centre, making the pavement look like dull bronze, and throwing the spire of St Martins and the other buildings into silhouette. I stopped for a moment, grabbed my camera out of the bag, took two shots (of which the one at the top of this post was the best), and then continued with my shopping. That, in a nutshell, is why I love this camera so much. I don’t think that I could have captured that shot with my iPhone camera. I needed to adjust the exposure and focus point to pick up the texture and colour of the pavement, without blowing out the detail from the sky, and I don’t think that the phone could have coped with the dynamic range. The Sony enabled me to catch all that1 and produced an image that I love of a very fleeting moment that I’ll probably never experience again.

The image below is another that captured a striking pattern that I found beautiful. I knew when I framed it up that I wanted it to be a black and white shot, so I tried to capture the tones and the texture of the grass with the shadows across it. There are all kinds of things wrong with it technically2, but I find myself loading that image up on my screen frequently, because I enjoy looking at it so much.

Low light and tree protectors

I always shoot in RAW format, with automatic white balance turned on. I also set ISO automatically, but the Sony lets you specify a minimum and maximum ISO, which helps to constrain it to usable values while allowing flexibility in the kinds of conditions in which you can shoot. I have it set to remain between ISO 125 and 1600. Since the camera has a very mild tendency to over-expose, and because it’s easier to recover detail from shadows rather than highlights, I have the camera permanently set at -0.3EV. I mostly use the Aperture Priority mode (as I always did with my film SLR camera), but I’ll occasionally put it in ‘Easy Shooting’ mode if the subject is not going to hang around, or I’m finding it difficult to get the right balance of settings. This mode actually does an extremely impressive job of getting it right a lot of the time, so it’s good to have in reserve for emergencies. I also shoot with automatic (single shot) focus, as I’ve found the manual focus very hard to use. If you rely on manual focus a lot, it would be worth trying it out for yourself before buying the camera. However, in practice, the automatic focus is excellent, and I haven’t missed manual focus at all.

A dedicated function button on the back of the camera allows you to access frequently-used settings of your choice: you press the function button to get a horizontal list of the settings. You move between the settings in the list with the left and right navigation buttons, then press enter and use the scroll wheel to alter that value. I have EV, white balance, ISO, metering mode, focus mode and image format set up for the function button, so I never need to dive into menus. In aperture priority mode, you can alter the aperture directly (without pressing the function button) by rotating the click wheel, or by rotating the knurled ring around the lens. I prefer the former method, as the knurled ring has a bit of lag on it, and the camera is so small that you can easily shift your thumb down slightly to use the click wheel.

You can judge for yourself from my photo site, but I find the images the camera produces to be of excellent quality. They have great detail but still look smooth (if that makes sense), the colours are very natural, and there is a wonderful look about them that I find hard to pin down but very attractive. As I said at the start, I’m not obsessed with noise or distortion, but I find remarkably few problems of that kind, and generally only when I’ve been severely pushing my luck in terms of lighting conditions. I rarely have to do much in terms of processing: usually I might tweak local contrast a touch to bring out texture, and I sometimes adjust the colour temperature to warm the images up a bit. Remember, I’m not an expert photographer, but the camera does a lot of the work for you in producing a well-exposed, nicely balanced and detailed image in the first place.

I tend to shoot in short bursts, rather than taking hundreds of photos a day, but I’ve found the battery to be quite capable. Third party compatible batteries are very cheap, so I got one and keep it in the camera pouch for emergencies. So far, however, I haven’t had to use it. It also holds its charge very well when switched off, so even if I haven’t used it for many days, when I pull it out, it still has a full charge. That’s very convenient if you don’t use the camera every day.

I realise that I haven’t given many technical details, or an extensive run-down of the features, but you can read about those elsewhere. Instead, I wanted to give you an impression of how I use it, and how it fits with my style of photography. I hope that it’s clear from this review that I absolutely love this camera and the images that it produces. I’m still excited every time I pull it out, and I keep looking at the images that I have produced with it. As far as I am concerned, that is the main point: to capture moments that I’ve found beautiful in some way, and to produce images that I continue to find delightful.

Provided that you are a similar kind of photographer to me, I would heartily recommend this camera. My advice is to find the programme mode that suits you best, set up the function button to access the settings you actually use, turn off all the sounds, and keep the camera with you all the time. Constant practice is what helps you to improve as a photographer, so enjoy seeing things, and then pulling out your tiny, quiet camera to capture the moment you see before it disappears. That lovely, restrained snick of the shutter has become one of my favourite sounds.

Ridge and clouds

  1. I did only minor tweaking of the image, mostly to straighten it, because apparently I can’t shoot a level horizon to save my life. ↩︎

  2. Yes, I’m shooting into the light once again. I know that it’s wrong, but I love the results. ↩︎