Initially released in the spring of 2012, Sony’s RX100 is the premium flagship that sits at the top of CyberShot lineup. And the first camera to initiate the popularity of the RX100 lineup today. In 2012, it was among the most expensive compact cameras released that year.
Justifiably so, as it promises significant advantages over traditional point & shoot cameras in this class. Most notably, with its large 1-inch sensor and Carl Zeiss lens, making it quite powerful despite its minimal size. Sony aims this camera as a premium alternative at enthusiasts and pros looking for a capable traveling companion.
And at those wanting to travel light, without a compromise on image quality. And it’s a camera they aim to compete with Fujifilm’s X10 and Canon’s G12. Touted as the best compact camera ever made, does it live up to the original hype? And considering the camera’s age, is it still relevant today, even as seven generations have passed? Let’s find out.
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Sony RX100?
It features a 1-inch 20.2MP Exmor R CMOS sensor and the Bionz X image processor. Seeing such a large sensor packed into a camera of this size is impressive, even more so considering most rivals in this class employ 1/2.3-inch sensors. Comparatively, this sensor is 4x larger than what’s typically in compact cameras in this class. And at the time of release, it was the only camera to provide this configuration, making it class-leading.
From a quality standpoint, the images this camera produces are excellent, and, in the proper light, rival cameras with larger APS-C sensors. It’s photos offer plenty of fine details, good dynamic range, and pleasing colors, closely approaching DSLR quality. And it’s a significant upgrade in quality over a smartphone.
It features a Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 3.6x optical zoom lens, which produces a 35mm equivalent of 28-100mm. And this lens has a variable aperture from f/1.8-4.9, from wide to telephoto. The lens also includes Optical Stabilization, which Sony calls SteadyShot, with two settings of intensity. Though, it crops into the frame and slightly changes the angle of view when enabled. Nevertheless, it’s sufficient at compensating for a mild handshake. New for this camera is Sony’s Clear Image Zoom, which doubles its zoom to 7.2x (a 200mm equivalent). And this effectively extends its reach during stills without any reductions to image quality.
From a quality standpoint here, the lens is excellent and performs admirably. It has a minimal barrel distortion throughout the range and defocuses beautifully with soft and pleasing bokeh. It also gives users 3 inches of working distance for close up macro photography. And with an aperture of f/1.8, enthusiasts will appreciate the shallow depth of field possible at the wide end of the lens.
The camera also offers continuous shooting speeds of 10 fps without AF or 3 fps with AF, directly matching similarly priced entry-level DSLRs in this regard. And the buffer depth is also quite good at 33 JPEG and 16 RAW images. Overall, it’s capable enough for moderate sports and action, when needed.
Despite its age, it’s reasonably suited for use as a video camera. It shoots 1080p full HD video up to 60 fps in the MP4 and AVCHD formats, with a respectable data rate of 28 Mbps. And the footage it delivers is reasonably sharp with accurate color rendering.
It can output a 1080p signal for use with external monitors and recorders.
It obtains Sony’s Dual Recording function, which lets you take 17MP still images during movie recordings. Though this doesn’t work at 60 fps and the in-camera microphone picks up the shutter’s operation.
Like most cameras in this class, video recordings limit at 29 minutes.
Low Light Performance
It features a native ISO range from 125-6,400, which is further expandable to 25,600. You’d expect low light performance to suffer considering the camera’s resolution and smaller sensor. However, its performance is surprisingly good. Users can expect usable images up to ISO 3,200, and even 6,400 is usable with minor post-processing. Its entire range is free from color noise, shifts, and banding. And, overall, low light performance is excellent for the class.
It uses a contrast-detection based autofocusing system. And, overall, the focusing performance is excellent and much faster than the competitors in this class. Focusing is reliable, quick, and rarely hunts before locking during still shooting. And it’s quite competitive with an entry-level SLR in this regard.
For those who prefer manually focusing, the camera offers both focus magnification and peaking.
It uses the Sony NP-BX1 battery, which Sony rates for 330 shots per charge and 165 minutes of video recording. These figures are average for a mirrorless camera but good for this class.
Display & Viewfinder
It features a 2.95-inch Xtra Fine TFT LCD with a resolution of 1.23M dots. And the display is excellent for the class. It’s sharp with good viewing angles, color rendering, and contrast. And it’s also bright enough for use outdoors in direct sunlight.
The camera obtains standard Sony user interfaces and menus, though much older. Nevertheless, they’re similar to their current Alpha mirrorless lineup with the same categorical hierarchy of shooting, video, playback, and camera settings. Thus, existing Sony users will find them quickly mastered, and new users will find them reasonably straightforward. And the camera also provides access to a wide array of shooting settings that aren’t typically available in this class.
The camera’s automatic modes also provide advanced functionality, not typical for this class. In this case, the Superior Auto mode shoots multiple images based on the recognized scenes, usually landscapes or low light. And it creates in-camera composites to maintain detail and image quality.
It obtains Sony’s Memory Recall (MR) function, which allows you to register three often-used preset shooting modes for quick access.
It obtains the customizable Function (FN) button, which recalls up to seven commonly used settings. And you can choose between 17 total settings for each of the seven functions.
Its lens has a front control ring, without steps and doubles as a customizable button. And it offers the same level of customization and functionality as the dedicated FN button, which is perfect for controlling ISO or manual focusing. It can also control exposure compensation, white balance, zoom, shutter, and aperture.
The camera provides excellent customization over its physical layout. The full d-pad (left, center, and right), the FN, and the control ring combine to deliver enormous versatility. Advanced shooters will have no issues tailoring the camera to their shooting style.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
The camera is incredibly compact, particularly when the lens retracts into the body, making it ideal for travel or street photography. Yet, even though it looks like a typical point & shoot, it provides a far superior construction and build quality. The build offers a sleek and classy feel, giving the camera quite a premium feeling in hand. And it doubles to provide a sense of robustness to the camera. Sony’s also installed a comfortable rear thumb grip, for added purchase. Weighing only 240g, it’s one of the smallest cameras in this category. So small, it can easily fit in cargo and jacket pockets.
Given its size, it provides an excellent physical layout. The buttons, while minimal, are logically placed and allow for quick adjustments to crucial shooting settings. It’s very much a minimalist design, but one that gives photographers access to functions they need most.
It has a zoom rocker that surrounds the shutter, for quick access to zoom controls.
It has a dedicated video record button that starts or stops video recordings from any Mode Dial position.
It has built-in panorama.
It has a built-in flash that you can bounce if needed.
It supports USB charging.
Like all cameras that employ 1-inch sensors, it also doesn’t provide much depth of field compared to APS-C or full-frame cameras. And its images will have less depth, where everything looks closer together without much separation and compression.
The control ring that surrounds the lens isn’t ideal for manual focusing. It requires several rotations to go from close to infinity focus, making it challenging for smooth rack focusing during video recording.
Due to age, the camera lacks 4K video or any high-frame rates at 1080p, in this case, 120 fps. And its 1080p footage lacks sharpness and proper detail compared to more recent cameras.
The camera also suffers from overheating when recording prolonged clips over 10-15 minutes in length. Thus, it isn’t ideal for long-form video capture.
And it also segments video recordings in AVCHD after 2 GB, which requires post-processing merging for seamless videos.
Since the camera uses contrast-detection only, continuous AF during video shooting is slow, and far from reliable. And the performance slows even more so when the lens is set wide open. Thus, for video, manual focusing is best.
The rear screen is fixed and isn’t a touchscreen.
It lacks a built-in electronic viewfinder.
Reviewing videos on this camera is quite tedious. To review videos, you have to first go into the menus, go into Still/Movie Select, change the file format to AVCHD or MP4 view, then enter the playback menu. Strange. Typically, Sony defaults the playback to the folder view, which shows all file types.
The camera’s excellent portability comes at a price, in this case, that’s ergonomics. The front face is smooth bare metal and gripless, which is horrifying as it dramatically increases the chances of accidental drops. Not only that, without a front grip, the camera is also quite uncomfortable during one-handed use. Thus their AGR2 attachment grip is a recommended accessory to avoid dropping this camera and to increase comfort.
The front control ring is a bit laggy, particular when mapped to change aperture or shutter speed. And its delay makes changing either of those settings tedious and inconsistent. The back control ring by the d-pad works better for these settings.
Sony placed the HDMI port directly underneath the camera adjacent to the tripod socket, rather than on the side. Incredibly strange. This position limits its use, and essentially means you cannot use an external device while the camera’s on a tripod.
Like most compact cameras, the battery and SD are in the same compartment underneath the camera, which makes quickly changing either tedious when using a tripod or grip.
The camera lacks a built-in neutral density. And considering the lens size, there’s no way to add external filters either.
It lacks a microphone input.
It lacks a headphone input.
It lacks built-in Wi-Fi.
It lacks a hot shoe, which means you cannot attach external flashes and other accessories to this camera.
Is this a good beginner camera?
Considering its simple physical control set and straightforward layout, it’s an excellent beginner’s camera. And it won’t overwhelm new shooters with a dense and advanced feature set. This camera also provides Sony’s Intelligent and Superior Auto modes as well as a good selection of scene modes. Overall, as a beginner’s camera, it provides the necessary features, performance, and price to make it a compelling option.
Is this a good camera for you?
For those looking for the ultimate pocket movie camera, know it’s capable. However, it is missing a few features that make it the ideal choice. The main drawbacks here are the rather lackluster 1080p quality, which mostly matches today’s smartphones, plus the missing microphone input and hot shoe. But otherwise, it’s an excellent starting point considering what’s offered. And it’s a strong b-camera to an existing setup.
For those looking to shoot street, journalism, or travel photography, this camera is an excellent choice. And it’s the perfect option for those who want variety without having to purchase a cache of lenses to do so. It also makes an excellent option as a travel companion for those wanting a second angle without the bulk.
In the end, Sony’s RX100 was touted as the world’s most powerful pocket camera during its release. And considering its feature set, the rumors were true. This was the camera that initiated Sony’s subsequent legacy in the premium compact segment. And it redefined the concept of compact cameras altogether, with its surprising high-end feature set and image quality. Sure, it looks like a typical consumer camera, but it delivers the versatility and quality that pros demand. And it combines a host of pro features and customization in a truly compact form factor. Compared to rivals, it’s simply unmatched in portability and quality. And, despite its age, it remains a very real and relevant contender today.