Sony RX100 - User Experience - Part 1

"Consequently, with the RX100 Sony has clearly decided to push the envelope in the high-end pocketable camera segment and seems to have even broken a few laws of physics along the way. It's going to leave some of the competition scrambling in the months ahead to catch up."

From (the excellent) Luminous Landscape Review of the RX100 -

What an extraordinary camera. Once again Sony have taken the rule book, torn it up and written a new one. The company that gave us the 24MP APS-C Compact System Camera now turns its attention to the small sensor point and shoot compact and produces a 20MP pocket rocket that is, in terms of image quality, the equal of and arguably better than many of the CSC / Mirrorless / E.V.I.L and DSLR's out there. When I first saw the comments like "The RX100 produces images as good as a DSLR" my skepticism meter starting heading towards the red, but somewhat unbelievably its true. The files I've got out of this camera after just one day are absolutely incredible. I've looked at them again and again with something approaching incredulity. How have they done this? All my preconceptions of what a certain size sensor and indeed a certain size camera can produce have flown out of the window. This camera redefines what is possible and what we can expect from a picture taking device. This is a game-changer, a rule-breaker, an expectation exploder. The RX100 is quite simply the camera that will redefine the relationship between what gear looks like and what it is capable of producing from now on. The revolution hasn't just started, it happened. Welcome to the future of photography.

So the next time you're out taking pictures with your Nikon D*** or Canon ***D and you see someone pull out a little black camera the size of a packet of cigarettes, hold it out in front of them and take some shots, resist the inner sneer and the smug "I've got a better camera than you" feeling. It might just be that the "happy snapper" next to you is going home with better quality images.

Now how Sony have pulled off this magic trick I cannot say but they most certainly have. In future parts of this I'll deal with the handling of the camera, but this is all about the image quality.

As has been well explained this camera has a 1" sensor. Here's a diagram showing its size in comparison to other CSC's.
Now this is the same size as the Nikon 1 system and about half the size of m43. Now both Nikon and Panasonic / Olympus seem to have some problems here. Firstly, Sony have managed  to get 20MP out of the same size sensor (Nikon get 10MP) with no apparent loss of quality (in fact it could be argued that it has better quality) and secondly, Sony have produced a sensor smaller than m4/3 with more pixels and dare I say it, better looking images.

Its been clear for some time that Sony are way ahead of everybody else in terms of sensor design and manufacture. They get more quality pixels per sensor and seem to be able to do that without producing noise blighted results with poor dynamic range. This however is something else. 

Now when I first took some pictures with the camera several things became obvious. The images were very sharp, they had great colour but there were blown highlight areas. So my first task was to see if that was fixable. Fortunately it was. There is a rather nice function that produces an HDR image by combining shots together in camera. So I used this and also reduced the exposure by -0.7 of a stop. This then produced a really good result.

The following is a picture of rain covered leaves with direct sunlight on them, a classic scenario for highlight burnout.

As you can see this produces a pretty decent result. Here's the levels histogram.

The shot below was taken with the sun in the picture.

Now it doesn't really get much harder than this, but thats also a pretty decent result, though there is a lot of flaring.

So, I was somewhat reassured by this. I did a whole series of test shots and was very pleased by what I saw in terms of dynamic range. It has no right to be as good as this, and yes I imagine there is a fair amount of in-camera "jiggery-pokery" going on, but it works.

So why all this effort? Why not just use a larger sensor? The answer to that is that the images look so damn good. These are all jpgs. which are superb. I did shoot some raw files but Sony's Image Data Converter is pretty basic and tends to produce images that look like the jpgs. anyway. Raw Photo Processor 64 also supports it, but I'm waiting for the Adobe ACR update to see what I can really get out of the files. Incidentally the camera comes with no software disk. There is a line in the manual giving the web address for the Sony software which has to be downloaded.

It did strike me that there must be a hell of a lot of internal processing going on to get these results, but the raw files seemed just as good. Took a while but I got some very decent results from RPP. However the camera produces some of the best out of camera jpgs. I've seen. Sony obviously realise that most of the buyers of this camera are going to shoot jpg. only anyway, so they have made every effort to make them as good as possible.

I just love the colour and the images are very sharp. Its a Zeiss badged lens and its a cracker. There is also very little luminance noise / graininess at low ISO's which is good to see. All in all just as impressive as all the previous reviews have indicated.

The reason for all this fuss is the size of the camera. Its VERY small. Nicely made with a metallic feel but small. Now, I've got issues with cameras this small and I'll go into those in future posts, but I'm inclined to give this camera some work. I worked with it yesterday and somewhat perversely I guess I ended up working with it in a very slow measured way. Using the built in spirit level I was able to get images straight and since the auto HDR takes a while to come together anyway it was a picture taking process that wasn't able to be rushed, which in many ways suits what I shoot anyway.

I'm actually quite excited by the possibilities of the RX100 for me. Its so light I won't have any problems carrying it around, the file size is very good for my stock work and the image quality is just top class. Somewhat surprisingly top class, but nonetheless welcome.

The reason I'm getting so hot and bothered about the RX100 is that as someone who shoots outdoors in good light, works hand held, generally aims for the maximum depth of field I can get and walks fair distances, a camera like this is the answer to my prayers. Assuming that is the image quality is good enough for the most demanding of my picture libraries and clients. Up to know that final part has been missing and that is why I've never considered any other camera of this type. They just weren't good enough. However, even after just a day, its clear that the RX100 is indeed good enough, and not only that but actually produces better results for me than a lot of what I'm using already.

I'm actually stunned by this. I never expected it to be this good. 

I'm going to leave it here for today but I'll be going into what it can do, how it does it and what its like to use it in future posts.

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