Sony's RX100 I and II were exceptional cameras when originally released, shaking up the compact camera market and packing astonishing performance into a small package.  Since then, Sony's rivals have upped their game considerably and enthusiasts are spoiled for choice when looking for a capable compact.  The RX100-III is Sony's latest update to it's winning formula but has it got what it takes to continue as King of the Compacts?

Out of the Box

Sony have kept it minimal - you only get the camera, a battery & micro USB cable in the box.  No frills, and no charger or strap either.  This might have been because as a review unit it's been lost along the way.  Some Sony store sites report it comes with a charger, others make no mention of one.  Personally I prefer the ability to charge batteries outside the camera as well as via USB, making it easier to prepare a couple of batteries ahead of a shoot.  

Usage & Handling

That a compact is small & lightweight is hardly surprising.  The typical challenges a compact has are usually around comfort, ease of use, access to functions and above all else performance.  The performance I'll cover later.  The camera looks & feels like a sophisticated piece of kit, definitely a case of function leading form.  It's definitely not beautiful, it feels like a no-nonsense piece of kit to get the job done.

As an enthusiast camera we want to be able to find & access the key manual controls as quickly & easily as possible.  All the standard shooting modes are present with all four PASM modes and various auto, scene & movie options easily selectable on a click wheel.  The front lens wheel can be configured to change any of a range of settings such as shutter speed, ISO or apeture depending on the mode you choose.  Likewise, the small dial on the back can be used to change another setting.  Spending the majority of my time in A-mode I found that configuring the lens wheel for aperture management and using the small wheel on the back to change the ISO setting was pretty flexible. Manual mode did mean diving into the menus to change ISO settings which slowed down shooting - I still think that larger cameras have the edge when shooting full manual and making small, frequent adjustments to settings and compacts definitely struggle to be as responsive. It's even possible to configure the rear dial and front lens wheel to change the same setting if you so wish - I can't fathom why you would but Sony has gone down the route of making it customisable beyond the point of common sense! A personal peeve of mine is that the exposure compensation option is fiddly to find and set.  Though you're unlikely to accidentally change it (a problem all too common on the Fuji X100 series), considering how annoying it is to shoot in full manual mode I found myself wanting to shoot in A-mode and tweak using exposure compensation.  Neither was quite as satisfactory as I'd want.

The button layout is sensible and my well thought out.  Often, with feature packed cameras the desire & need to pack buttons onto the back can lead to accidental button presses and settings changing between shots (I'm looking at you, Olympus).  A small ridged patch is perfectly placed for your thumb with the movie mode being reachable but unlikely to be accidentally pressed.  Though not without its fair share of controls they are all placed out of the way and by-and-large feel fairly intuitive to use - you can control many, though not all, camera functions without diving into the extensive menus.

One drawback worth pointing out here is the menu system - in it's quest to make the camera as feature packed as possible the RX100 has a huge number of options, shooting modes & settings.  It can be overwhelming trying to find the menu item you want at first and although all cameras become easier to use with practice it's certainly one that requires & rewards patient learning of what it can offer.

 

The rear screen is pretty good.  Nice & responsive, even in bad lighting conditions, it's articulated from -45 degrees through to +180 degrees.  In other words, it tilts down so you can hold it over your head in a crowd and fully forwards if you want to snap a selfie.  It's not touch sensitive however and I think touchscreens on cameras are a trend that's going to continue - they can definitely add to flexibility. The built-in face detection focus is quite impressive and in many cases I didn't need feel the need to touch the screen to set the focal point at all but it's undeniable that Sony have missed out on a valuable feature.  The screen itself is 7.5cm corner to corner & 1.2 million pixels resolution. The "feature monster" rears it's head again though and with the detailed display mode enabled it's littered with icons, status indicators and shooting information.  At times this barrage of information was confusing and while you can turn it off I never quite found a happy medium of info vs clutter.

Like all rear screens using it in bright sunlight is often difficult.  It's a good quality screen which does help but a screen is no substitute for a viewfinder.  This is where the RX100-III has a trick up it's sleeve.

Somehow, Sony have managed to pack in a tiny EVF into a small, pop-up recess on the top of the camera.  I must admit I hadn't done any homework on the camera before receiving the review unit and hadn't realised there was an EVF so it was quite the surprise when I was familiarising myself with it and out pops a viewfinder!  Naturally the quality of the viewfinder image isn't as good as the rear display but it's still effective enough and, most importantly, is a huge benefit shooting in bright conditions.  Though I wouldn't want to use it for prolonged periods of time for fear of turning myopic, it's an awesome feature to include - other manufacturer's take note, more of this please!

Focusing is a mixed bag.  During the day it's superb and the AF is fast & accurate.  As it gets darker the camera noticeably struggles in terms of speed but still retains accuracy.  It may take longer but when it gets there, I found it had nailed it each time.  Manual focusing was a big let-down though.  Whether I was using the EVF or rear screen, getting accurate manual focus was very tricky indeed and even with focus peaking enabled it was still hit and miss, not helped with the fiddly control ring. Sometimes, in low-light, the entire scene was merrily flashing away suggesting the whole frame was in focus!  Eventually I came to the conclusion that I just didn't want to waste time with MF and from that point switched over to AF permanently.  Fuji still has the edge in the manual focusing department.

The camera comes equipped with wifi, NFC and even downloadable apps though I only found the first of these of any practical use.  Kudos again for Sony ramming in functionality though I found the wifi feature of limited use - in contrast to the options available on SLRs the remote shooting features were perfunctory and it was only the transfer to smartphone option I found useful.  The iOS app for doing this is again pretty limited but for getting your images off the camera and onto your phone it's perfectly capable. 

All in all, shooting with the RX100-III felt good.  With most compacts, I always feel like the capabilities of the camera will at some stage limit me but in my time with the RX100-III I never reached that point. The EVF and ergonomics are lovely but the sheer volume of features & bewildering array of controls & info thrown at the user felt like overkill at times and I found myself annoyed having to hunt through menus.  Perserverence & patience will pay dividends with this camera.  Battery life was surprisingly good too, easily lasting an entire day's shooting, no doubt due to the benefits of the smaller EVF using less power.  I estimated at least 250 shots per battery.

 Image Quality

One of the criticisms of the earlier RX100 models was that although the camera had a good reach out to 100mm (35mm equiv.), this came at the expense of a maximum aperture of f4.9 at the long end.  This time Sony have opted for a 24-70mm (equivalent) range, preserving the maximum aperture of f1.8 but with a minimum of f2.8 - a straight up tradeoff of reach vs aperture.  Whether this is what you'll want comes down to personal preference.  My own thoughts are that it's an acceptable trade-off; I'd probably prefer the extra reach in an ideal world to make the camera even more flexible but not at the expense of aperture.  

Optically the lens is superb, even more so considering the size, and this is due to a brand new development in the design of the glass.  Bokeh isn't usually a luxury you can expect on compacts but with the 1" sensor and f1.8 aperture it was definitely surpising what can be achieved.  As with it's predecessors, shooting JPG, RAW and RAW+JPG are all options.  The lens isn't threaded, as with most compacts, but does have a built in 3 stop ND filter.

A sample JPG straight out of camera, 1/160th sec @ f1.8 and ISO 2500.  The MRT isn't particuarly well lit but the camera nailed focus and for a relatively high ISO value the shadows are clean.

Lovely tones & good bokeh.

Shot using the flip-up selfie function.  Extremely bright sunlight but still no burnt out highlights and detail in the sky.  The only tweak is cropping out my ugly face - squinting badly trying to see the screen in direct sunshine, this shot is more luck than skill :)

Tweaked in Snapseed to add drama to the clouds!  The original image is below to show just how much detail you can tease out of even the JPG file on an iPhone.

Handheld on Orchard Road in the early evening.  Even with deliberate underexposure, he camera has clearly struggled to get a fast enough shutter and some camera shake has crept in.  A good effort though and again you can see that most shadows are rendered well.

This is because the built-in noise reduction algorithm evaluates each region of the photograph to determine how aggressive it should process noise.  For uniform areas lacking fine detail it's great but it can sometimes lose finer detail.  Shooting in RAW avoids this problem entirely.  I found that shooting upto ISO1600 produced clean files, 3200 was tolerable but 6400 was pushing it.  Still, considering the sensor size these are impressive standards.

While on the subject of shooting in RAW, some users have observed peculiar white balance issues and occasional banding in JPG files, usually in the sky.  In my time with the camera I never noticed any of these issues at all.  Occasionally the metering would lag (usually in spot mode) but colour rendering was accurate and for most uses the out-of-camera JPGs are great.  My advice would be to shoot RAW+JPG to give the most flexibility.

Unfortunately, many of my sample images I shot were lost when the SD card I was using failed.  Not the fault of the RX100 but definitely a black mark in SanDisk's book.  I've rounded off the image quality section with some of the sample images provided by Sony, they have done a cracking job.  Samples can often be an unrealistic representation of quality but in this case I definitely think the samples match up to my real world usage.

As I mentioned earlier in the review the RX100 I & II set the bar for compact camera performance. The RX100-III has done it again.  Image quality is superb and the few flaws I can find with out of camera JPGs are entirely mitigated by shooting RAW and fixing them in Photoshop.

Specifications

  • 1" CMOS sensor
  • 20.1 megapixels
  • ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T* Lens
  • Focal Length 8.8 - 25.7mm (24-70mm)
  • Maximum aperture f/1.8 (W) - 2.8 (T)
  • Min aperture f/11
  • 10.1 x 5.8 x 4.1 cm
  • 290g
  • 7.5cm TFT LCD screen, 1.2m dots
  • -45 to +180 degree articulation
  • OLED Electronic Viewfinder
  • 1.4m dots
  • 100% FOV coverage, 0.59x magnification
  • ISO 125 - 12800
  • Shutter 1/2000th sec - 30 sec + BULB
  • Built in noise reduction (JPG)
  • Dynamic Range Optimiser
  • Exposure bracketing (3 shots)
  • 10fps continuous shooting (speed priority)
  • 2.9fps (other modes)
  • On-board flash, 0.4m to 10.2m
  • Memory Stick Duo
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC
  • Still - JPEG & RAW
  • Video - XAVC S, AVCHD, MP4
  • sRGB, Adobe RGB
  • 5472x3648 resolution
  • 1080p @ 60fps
  • Built-in WIFI, NFC
  • Eye-Fi card support
  • Approx 700 shots per 16GB card, RAW+JPEG

For full specifications, check the Sony site here

Conclusion

Sony has produced a solid camera yet again.  The RX100M3 is fun to use, can produce absolutley cracking images once you've learned how to get the best out of it and is small & light to boot.  It has problems but as an enthusiast compact camera it's extremely capable.

The compact market isn't as ripe for the taking as it was back when the RX100 was released.  Sony has much more competition now!  However, if you're an enthusiast looking for a strong compact camera and have the patience & time to dedicate in getting the best out of it I was definitely impressed by the RX100-III.

Priced at approximately £600 in the UK, S$1200 in Singapore.

Pros

  • Superb image quality from both RAW & JPG
  • Packed with features & utility
  • Sensor & optics are absolute top-notch

Cons

  • Manual focusing isn't great, fiddly exposure compensation controls
  • No touch screen
  • High ISO, low-light JPGs can be hit-or-miss in terms of quality
  • No charger suppplied

 

How I Review

Although looking at MTF charts and DxO statistics is an important measure in judging quality, I like seeing real-world, hands-on reviews of a kit in an environment I could imagine myself using it. Technical & theoretical attributes are definitely important but I prefer to try to expose equipment to a range of different usage situations and see how it holds up.

* Reviewed Feb-March 2015 in Singapore, review unit kindly supplied by Sony Singapore