Camera Review: Sony RX100 III


SEPTEMBER 01, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

It’s only been two years since Sony introduced the RX100, changing the compact-camera game by incorporating a 1-inch sensor into a pocket camera. Now in its third generation, the RX100 III carries a lot of its predecessors’ DNA—including the same 1-inch, 20-megapixel back-illuminated sensor of the RX100 II—but moves a few steps up the ladder with several important updates including a cleverly designed built-in EVF. A faster, wider lens, a new processor and markedly improved video functionality add up to an interesting and enticing mix of updates. 
   
Build and Design 
Overall, the RX100 III doesn’t look or feel much different than its predecessors, although at 4 x 2 3/8 x 1 5/8 inches and 10.2 ounces, its aluminum body is a bit larger and heavier. There’s no grip to speak of, but a small, textured thumb pad on the rear of the camera helps provide a non-slip handhold.

Compromises in design are part and parcel of creating small cameras. The latest version sacrifices the RX100 II’s multi-interface shoe, which was used to mount the optional viewfinder, an external flash or other accessories. It’s a small sacrifice, though, since Sony adds a cleverly designed EVF and retains the small flash. Moving the tiny flash to the center of the top panel (over the lens) opened up space for a pop-up EVF. This high resolution, bright and clear 0.39” SVGA OLED EVF is a pleasure to use and a welcome addition. Pop up the finder via a switch on the side of the camera, pull out the EVF, and you’re good to go. The diopter has a good range of adjustment, but there’s a catch. Opening and closing the EVF powers the camera on and off, which can be annoying if you want to tuck the EVF away and use the LCD for viewing and composing. You’ll need to re-start the camera using the standard power button, and it’s just enough of a delay to miss a shot or two. 

New for the RX100 III is the 24-70mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens. It’s a little shorter and wider than before, but at f/1.8-2.8, it’s faster throughout the zoom range. 

The camera’s multi-angle, 3-inch, 1.229-million dot LCD now swings up to about 180 degrees (Sony calls it “selfie-ready”) and down to about 45 degrees. Overhead and low-angle shooting is a breeze and the tiltable monitor proved invaluable when Sony invited us to photograph a performance of Fuerza Bruta—a highly energetic show that features multiple acts performing overhead and to the sides of the standing audience. 
   
Features
A solid feature set includes manual exposure controls as well as some Sony standards such as sweep panorama and dynamic range optimizer (DRO). One new addition is a three-stop NDA filter, which comes in handy for creating bokeh when shooting at a wide aperture in bright sunlight. 

The RX100 III offers several customizable options including the on-screen function (Fn) menu and a lens control ring. And while it doesn’t have as many user-selectable buttons and dials as the Sony a6000, there’s enough to have a pretty smooth and fast workflow. 

Wi-Fi is typical Sony, and unless you have an NFC-enabled phone, it’s a bit of a hassle to set up using a virtual keyboard for passwords. But Sony offers some interesting paid and free apps via its Play Memories store, including different remotes and more specialized options for shooting star trails, motion shots and time-lapse, to name just a few. Overall, however, Wi-Fi works well.

Sony has put considerable thought into improving the RX100 III’s video options, including the addition of the XAVC S format, which adds 50Mbps full HD (1920 x 1080) 60p video capture in an MP4 wrapper. It’s now also possible to output uncompressed video from the camera to an external recorder via HDMI. 

Although audio controls are minimal, the camera offers full manual controls and image stabilization when shooting video. Manual focus just became a lot easier for video and stills with the addition of focus peaking. Highlight management is also more effective thanks to the incorporation of Zebra patterning. 
   
Performance
Thanks in part to the incorporation of the BIONZ X processor, the small camera’s performance is more than respectable. The lens extends quickly during start-up, so the camera is ready to shoot in less than two seconds; once it’s up and running, there’s no noticeable shutter lag in single shot mode.

Two continuous shooting modes are available: 2.9fps (according to Sony) and 10fps. The former felt a little slower than 2.9fps when I was trying to follow the chaotic action at Fuerza Bruta, but it was a more logical choice (or so I thought) than the 10fps speed priority option that sets focus and exposure at the first frame. When shooting in either continuous mode, the buffer doesn’t clear as quickly as we’d like. We tested the camera using several different cards including SanDisk Extreme Pro and UHS-II SDXC cards, and although the camera is capable of capturing additional images while data is being recorded (albeit one or two at a clip), all other functions are disabled. Press a menu option or try to playback and a message stating “Writing to memory card; unable to operate” appears on the LCD. 

Under the flashing lights of many colors that alternated with complete darkness, fast-moving action and various smoke devices and special effects, the continuous autofocus was—not surprisingly—unable to keep up with all the movement. Under more static low light conditions, AF performed better but was most responsive in good light, where it quickly locked onto subjects. 

The battery is rated for 320 shots (CIPA) but drops when you use the EVF. And if you use the camera’s Wi-Fi, you’ll get even fewer shots out of a single charge. The RX100 III comes with a USB cable and AC adapter for internal charging via a wall plug or your computer. An optional external wall charger is available if you want to be able to charge one battery while shooting with another or simply want a faster charging process. 
   
Image Quality
Excellent image quality is the norm for this pocket camera in good light and at lower ISOs. Colors are rendered naturally but with just enough saturation for a pleasing look. Exposures were generally on target although the multi-pattern metering mode sometimes clipped bright skies in high contrast conditions. But, more often than not, the RX100 III delivered good dynamic range even with the DRO feature disabled.

The new lens is beautifully sharp throughout the focal range and, generally, from edge to edge. Images were crisp and finely detailed, although on closer inspection some may find that the sharpening algorithms were just a bit excessive (although not by much). 

Perhaps my biggest disappointment is with image noise. The ISO range of 80-12800 gives the user a wide latitude when choosing light sensitivity but, upon close inspection, noise starts creeping in at around ISO 800 and gets more intense from there. Depending on the final output size, it’s probably best to keep the ISO at 3200 or less. I’m not a huge fan of Sony’s in-camera noise reduction since it seems a bit overdone, smudging details. In-camera NR can be turned off and RAW files can easily be improved in post-processing. But with the camera’s fast lens and solid implementation of image stabilization, high ISOs and the resultant image noise are less of an issue. 
   
Bottom Line
The RX100 III is notably the best iteration of this series of pocket cameras. What started out as an innovative compact camera with a large 1-inch sensor has evolved to address the needs of pros and advanced amateurs who don’t want to trade control or image quality for a carry-anywhere body. The addition of the pop-up EVF, the new, fast wide-angle lens and various video features really solidify the RX100 III’s position as a top-notch addition to the growing category of advanced compact cameras. 

The RX100 III adds a 24-70mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens and a pop-up EVF. 

PROS: Excellent image quality; built-in EVF; solid feature set for both stills and video; sharp/fast/wide-angle lens; vari-angle LCD; Wi-Fi. 
CONS: Relatively slow continuous shooting with AF; AF less responsive in low light; EVF position powers camera on/off with no option to disable; higher noise levels than we’d like. 

PRICE: $800  

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