Sony RX100 Review

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is the best point & shoot camera ever. It’s better than the Canon S100. It’s better than the Fujifilm X10. It’s better than the Panasonic Lumix LX5. The Sony DSC-RX100 is a point and shoot camera so good that it’s better compared to larger sensor cameras like the Canon G1 X or the Sony NEX-5N. Point and shoot cameras have always been about compromise, and in the past, you always had to compromise one or more of the following: camera size, sensor size, lens speed, zoom range, or feature set when looking for a camera.

Those days are over with the Sony RX100, which is the first point and shoot camera to combine pocket size with a large 1″ sensor, a fast f/1.8 lens, 3.6x optical zoom (28-100mm equivalent), great design and build quality, and a robust set of features. 

Even years after its release in 2014, it still remains the class-leader based on our testing. While the Sony RX100 II and Sony RX100 III both sport some very nice  improvements in terms of features, we rank the original RX100 #1 due to its significantly lower price-point.

For point and shoot users, the two most significant features that are typically mutually exclusive are the 1″ sensor and the compact size. It doesn’t have the largest sensor of any point and shoot camera, but it does have the largest sensor of any truly pocketable point and shoot camera. The significance of this cannot be overstated: you can easily fit the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 in your pocket and carry it with you anywhere. All other point and shoot cameras that come close to the RX100’s image quality are gargantuan in size. The Sony RX100 is almost exactly the size of the Canon S95 or S100, yet packs so much more of a punch. That this camera can do everything that it does in such a small size almost defies the laws of science. It’s one amazing camera in one really, really small package.

So amazing, in fact, that the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 will cannibalize Sony NEX and even DSLR sales. Mark my words on that.

How is it so impressive? Let’s get down to the details. If you clicked on this review expecting a bunch of lab photos of boring color charts, I’m sorry to disappoint. I’m not a pixel peeper, I’m a photographer who uses cameras in the real world, concerned with how they really perform (go to DxOMark if you want “stats”). In the real world, the Sony RX100 performs so well that I found myself having “pinch me because this is too good to be true” moments.

To start, I always ask myself for whom is this camera made when judging it: amateurs, novices, or experts? The answer here is “everyone.” The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 has a lot of different modes for varying skills. Most important of these, to me, is full manual mode, which is something absent from a lot of point and shoot cameras. If you’re not ready for advanced modes, fear not, as there are also Intelligent Auto Modes. These worked very well in my testing, and should make the Sony RX100 a great camera for beginners to “grow into” as they learn photography.

This large, 1″ sensor coupled with the f/1.8 aperture of the lens allows for something I’ve never accomplished with any other point and shoot camera: shallow depth of field! The first time I captured a photo with a nice buttery, out of focus background with the Sony RX100, I was a bit flabergasted. It was as if the Sony RX100 was doing its best DSLR impression. It was a pretty good impression. The discerning eye could certainly tell a difference, but to have that look to a photo taken by a point and shoot camera? Wow.

The Carl Zeiss lens is the brightest of many bright spots on the Sony RX100. The optical quality is stunning, with great color, contrast, and sharpness. Point and shoot veterans may balk at the 3.6x zoom on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, but this smaller focal range ensures greater optical quality. This is an absolutely necessary compromise, and frankly, I find the focal range perfectly adequate. Especially considering that the 20mp files give you plenty of cropping space. Since point and shoot cameras often produce soft images, I’m far more concerned with maximizing sharpness than maximizing zoom. The lens also features optical stabilization, which helps keep images sharp when the shutter speed drops lower than is ideal. Another benefit from my perspective is the gorgeous starbursts and minimal lens flare that the Zeiss lens can produce. These are not the type of results you expect from a point and shoot lens. To say I have been floored by this lens would be an understatement.

Thanks to this lens and that large sensor, the images the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 takes are sweet. They have great color, clarity, contrast, and sharpness. By default, the black levels don’t have quite as much kick as I’d like (this can be adjusted), but no point and shoot camera that I’ve used has ever produced truly dark darks. Overall, image quality is stunning.

Build quality on the lens is impressive, as it is on the camera as a whole. The camera is made in Japan, which is viewed as a sign of quality in the photography world, as that’s where the labs are located that create the technology itself. The quality shows in the build of the Sony RX100, which is rock solid metal alloy solid and has a very sleek design aesthetic (it looks very similar to the Canon S95).

Another huge benefit to the camera, eventually, will be that it can shoot raw in addition to JPG. I say “eventually” because right now the only way to convert these raw files is to use the downloadable Sony software (no CD is included with the camera) and use that. I would hazard a guess that this software was designed by a drunken chimpanzee. It’s atrocious. As soon as Adobe releases an update to its Camera RAW profiles to add support for the Sony RX100, I’ll update this section of the review. For now, the ability to shoot and edit raw is incredibly exciting to me.

Update: After using this camera for about a year and editing raw photos with Adobe Camera RAW, I’m still impressed by it. The dynamic range is incredible for a point and shoot (albeit not on par with a DSLR), making this a very capable camera for anyone who wants to do serious editing to their photos.

As far as camera modes, features, and gimmicks, there’s a bit of each here. Although intriguing, the HDR modes seem a bit gimmicky to me (although who can’t do this type of thing in post processing may love them), and there’s also a far less gimmicky self portrait feature, and a great panorama mode. As mentioned above, the range of modes (from Intelligent Auto to full manual) makes this the perfect camera for beginners to pick up as they learn photography and become experts. It’s not a camera that will quickly be outgrown.

Thanks to its lightning fast burst mode (up to 13(!!!) frames per second), the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 won’t suffer from one of the most common complaints about point and shoot cameras: lag before and between photos. It can beat most DSLRs in terms of burst rate.

The pop-up flash is another great feature, and the ability to angle this flash up to bounce it off the ceiling (to diffuse the light) is awesome.

External buttons are sparse on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which definitely takes a “less is more” approach to design that might scare away DSLR users, but thanks to programmable function buttons, this is not a big deal. I love external buttons on my DSLRs, and at first this was a big concern for me, but I have gotten used to it. Having fewer buttons definitely makes the camera more approachable and less intimidating for beginners.

Video is impressive on the Sony RX100, which can shoot in 1080p HD. The video quality seems great for a point and shoot on its own, but when combined with that lens, you have class-leading video quality that will be more than adequate for most users.

For a point and shoot camera, high ISO performance is pretty impressive. I took it up to ISO 800 without noticing much loss in detail or noise, and although noise increases and clarity decreases above that, I will be using images up to ISO 3200. In fact, the image below was shot at ISO 3200, without any noise reduction applied in post processing. Anything above ISO 3200 is pretty unusable, except for small use on the web or in a serious pinch. Still, usable ISO 3200 from a point and shoot? That’s amazing! Just check out the photos below from Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris (a dark ride) to see how well it performs at high ISOs.

Sony RX100 Review - High ISO Test

The Sony RX100 is not without its faults. Namely, the price tag. There are generally two categories of people in the market for point and shoot cameras: 1) those who don’t want to shell out the money for an expensive DSLR, and 2) those who want something easy and portable. This will effectively price out a lot of people in the former category who are market for a point and shoot camera, and to be sure, it is very expensive for a point and shoot camera. However, is it really fair to compare it to the prices of point and shoots? Given my statements about performance, it should be clear that this is no ordinary point and shoot camera.

Sony RX100 Review - High ISO Test

After seeing it backordered at a couple retailers, I immediately preordered the Sony RX100 because I saw it as a camera that (hopefully) would replace my “third string” camera, my Nikon D3100. I normally try to wait for deals on anything I purchase, but I know this camera isn’t going down in price anytime soon, and I think it’s worth every penny of the $650 price point (it now sells for $425 refurbished, which I think is an absolute steal), which just so happens to be the exact retail price of the Nikon D3100 kit. To be sure, the image quality of the Sony RX100 is not on par with the Nikon D3100.

I would never trade in my Nikon D600 for this camera, but I will trade in my D3100, because I’m willing to sacrifice a minor loss of quality in exchange for substantially improved portability. Over the weekend while I was testing the camera out, I carried it with me in my shorts pockets everywhere we went, just like I carry my cell phone. I can’t do this with the D3100, and as they say, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” I can carry this camera with me anywhere, and there’s a lot of value in that. So I guess all of this isn’t really a “con” from my perspective–I’d rather the camera cost a bit more and offer better overall quality (being made in Japan and having a metal body certainly increases the price, but I am glad that it’s metal and made in Japan)–but it could be a con for some.

Sony RX100 Review - High ISO Test

There are some real cons, though. First, is battery life and charging. In my tests, I’m getting around 300-400 photos per full battery charge, which is pretty low by any standard, but especially by the DSLR standards I’m used to. Even worse is that presently, the only way you can charge the battery is to insert it into the camera and charge it by USB. Here’s hoping Sony (or third parties) release a wall charger so you can charge spare batteries.

Another criticism is that the highly touted f/1.8 lens isn’t a constant f/1.8. This is pretty common for point and shoot cameras, and perhaps I’m hoping for the impossible, but I wish it were a little faster at the telephoto end. In practice, though, this hasn’t been a big deal. I shoot mostly wide in low light situations (honestly, who wants a telephoto shot of a sunset?!), and for these “real world” photos, the aperture is just fine.

With the exception of the battery issues, all of these complaints are fairly insignificant.

Overall, I highly, highly recommend the Sony RX100. This is a truly revolutionary camera. That I’m comparing its performance to my DSLRs in areas of this review should speak volumes, given that it’s a pocket-sized, point and shoot camera. To be sure, quality is not DSLR quality in most regards, but it can be very close. Close enough that I’m betting the Sony RX100 would be a suitable replacement for a DSLR for a lot of you reading this. A point and shoot that is a suitable replacement for a DSLR for many people and is pocket sized?! I honestly never thought I would see the day. It may seem like a lot of money, but given what this camera can do, it’s really not. In fact, it’s a downright bargain. The Sony RX100 will have other manufacturers playing catch-up for years, and even though the Sony RX100 III is now available (the third generation of this camera), the Sony RX100 still remains my #1 overall point and shoot camera pick because of its robust feature set and lower price than its successors.

If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Photography Buying Guide: Way More Than You Ever Needed to Know…
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Neutral Density Filter Buying Guide
Travel Tripod Buying Guide

Your Thoughts…

Do you own the Sony RX100? What do you think of it? Are you considering buying it? Share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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