Camera Review: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II

January 2, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II may not look like much but it could be the best camera Sony has ever produced. On face value, it certainly doesn’t seem as impressive as Sony’s groundbreaking Alpha 7 and 7R, full-frame mirrorless cameras that created a stir at the PhotoPlus Expo in October. The RX100 II also might not be as revolutionary sounding as Sony’s QX10 and QX100 “lens-style cameras,” which clip onto your smartphone, letting you shoot and then wirelessly zap high-res shots to computers, or for sharing on social networks.

Even the bland name of this second-generation, compact camera from Sony probably won’t turn many heads. But it’s the RX100 II’s ability to shoot brilliant photos while still sliding easily in your pocket that makes this 20.2-megapixel Cyber-shot extra-special. Let’s face it: The basic point-and-shoot market is dead, killed off by smartphones and never coming back. (Sorry kids, get used it.) But that doesn’t mean that cameras are dead—far from it—or even that point-and-shoot-style models are on the way out.

People still love compact cameras that you can take anywhere for snapping candid photos, they just need to be at least 14 times better than smartphones when it comes to image quality. (OK, maybe not 14 times better but at least ten times better and they need to offer five times more features than the mediocre, 8-megapixel imager in your iPhone.)

The RX100 II, which uses a large, 1-inch type, backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor, does all that and more, and is a viable option for professional photographers looking for a high-quality, throw-in-the-bag compact camera to back up their big photo rigs. But does the RX100 II do significantly more than its predecessor, the similarly featured RX100 from 2012, which was such a huge hit and is still selling well? Let’s take a look at this noteworthy “Mark II” (as the RX100 II is sometimes called) from Sony.

As I said in the intro, the RX100 II might not look like much, but there’s a lot going on under the hood. The design of the RX100 II, as with its predecessor, is highly derivative of the Canon PowerShot S90 from 2009, which was the first pocket-size model that boasted image quality and performance good enough to attract serious photographers. The S90 also featured a simple but attractive all-black metal design, which the RX100 and the Mark II version borrow liberally from. But, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

There are some clear upgrades in the build of the RX100 II, which makes it a more fully realized, compact camera. The biggest news about this model is that it now has a tilting, 3-inch LCD screen on back, which will help you compose photos from a variety of angles. The Mark II’s predecessor didn’t have this feature and it didn’t have the new camera’s multi-interface on top for adding strobes or an optional electronic viewfinder. These features make the RX100 II a more versatile camera than the previous model, but at a price, quite literally. At $750, the RX100 II is $100 more than its predecessor, and about on par with what some digital SLRs cost.

The RX100 II is a bit bigger and heavier than the previous model—it has dimensions of 4.0 x 2.3 x 1.5 inches and a weight of around ten ounces, but is still small enough to fit easily into your pocket. The RX100 II’s matte-black body and petite design gives it a discreet feel, and I was able to use it for street photography without drawing too much attention. I wish it was a bit easier to hold; the camera feels heavy and slippery in your hand, and there’s no built-in handgrip, so I’d highly advise you to use a wrist strap with it.

The RX100 II’s Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*, 3.6x, optical zoom lens, which has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, is quite large, even when retracted, covering much of the front of the camera. That won’t leave much room for your fingers, and unless you have small hands, your hand will feel scrunched. Overall though, the RX100 II felt well balanced, with its metal build and big, 3-inch, tilting glass rear display, making it feel high-end. (And considering it’s hefty price tag, that should be expected.)

One of the stand-out upgrades of the Sony RX100 II, as mentioned earlier, is its tilting, articulated, 3-inch LCD screen. It has 1,228,800 dots (307,200 pixels) of resolution, and images and videos look crisp in playback. I love this feature for street photography, not only because it allows you to compose photos over crowds—I used it during a packed medieval festival to photograph the jousting—it also helps with inconspicuous picture taking. Just hold the RX100 II to your chest and slightly tilt the screen so you can see it, and you can compose and photograph candid shots without anyone noticing. Sure beats sticking a DSLR with a long lens in their face!

The Multi Interface Shoe on top of the camera not only lets you use external strobes, it allows you to attach an (optional) electronic viewfinder. Since there’s no optical viewfinder on the RX100 II, this is a plus. The Sony FDA-EV1MK Viewfinder, which offers 2,359K dots of resolution, does not come cheap: it’ll cost you an additional $450. This awkward-looking EVF also ruins the RX100’s symmetry and its compactness.

The RX100 II also adds new wireless functionality, which, in theory, is a big plus. But I didn’t have a lot of success with using the camera’s built-in Wi-Fi. Setting up the Wi-Fi and getting the RX100 II to communicate wirelessly with a computer so you can share photos on a social network is not easy. Unless you don’t mind spending a lot of time with these types of things, I predict you’ll give up on the feature.

On the other hand, the camera also offers NFC (Near Field Communication), which lets you zap images and video to an Android or Windows mobile device just by touching the Sony RX100 II to it. The only problem is that NFC doesn’t work with Apple devices yet, so I couldn’t use it to send images and video to an iPhone or iPad. If you have an NFC-compatible device, such as some recent Android or Windows phones and tablets, the process seems simple: just turn on NFC on your smart device, then hold the Sony RX100 II next to the NFC device, and the images and video are transferred over through the air.

The Sony RX100 II was surprisingly quick at autofocusing, which is another reason this camera is good for candids and street photography. Sony has said that the RX100 II’s AF speed has improved by ten percent from the previous model, and while there was no way for us to test that since I wasn’t working with the two cameras side by side, the Mark II was very quick on the draw.

The RX100 II’s shot-to-shot speed is blazingly fast but you have to be careful. It’s so quick, in fact, it can outpace the autofocus and you’ll end up with a bunch of blurry pictures. Unless you’re in a hurry to fire off a bunch of photos of an action sequence—such as sports or for a fashion runway shoot—wait the extra split second for the camera to achieve focus lock before you take your next shot. I was able to use this method to capture sharp shots of characters at the medieval festival. Technically speaking, the Sony RX100 II uses a 25-point, autofocus system, and offers center spot, flexible spot and tracking modes, including face tracking, which came in handy for on-the-fly portraits of medieval fair participants.

Overall, the RX100 II is a zippy performer. Just touch the shutter button and the RX100 II will capture shot after shot, with barely a pause between. Many compact cameras, even the expensive ones, have some kind of shutter lag between shots, but in our real-world testing, the RX100 II did not.

The Sony RX100 II also has a powerful burst function, called Speed Priority Advance mode, which, in our testing, let us shoot off nine to ten images per second. In this mode, focus and exposure are locked from the first frame. The only areas where the RX100 II was sluggish was in its start-up and shutdown speeds, mostly because it took extra time to unfurl and close down its 28-100mm (35mm equivalent) Zeiss-branded lens.

Image Quality
The RX100 II produced some of the best image quality I’ve ever seen from a compact camera. Sony’s decision to put a new BSI sensor in the RX100 II while keeping the same 20.2 pixels of resolution and the same 1-inch type size as the previous camera, was a smart move. In decent lighting at low ISOs, the RX100 II performs as well as its predecessor, which is to say, it captures fantastic, DSLR-quality photos.

I shot with the RX100 II as part of an ongoing photography project on Chincoteague Island in Virginia, and the camera did a great job rendering the azure-blue skies, green marsh grass and soft light of the island. The RX100 II was also a pro at capturing detail in the lower shadow areas of beach houses I photographed while not blowing out the brighter sunlight hitting the rooftops. Meanwhile, the surrounding skies were filled with a glorious pale-blue color with wispy, white finger trails of clouds in the distance. Detail throughout these images was excellent, with the RX100 II’s 20.2-megapixel sensor providing rich resolution with clean results, thanks to its larger-than-average, 1-inch size.

Where the camera really sets itself apart is in its ability to capture, sharp, detailed images in low light at high ISOs. The RX100 II is the first model on the market with a 1-inch BSI sensor, which is designed to increase the amount of light the chip can capture. I found the RX100 II to be a very good low-light performer and felt comfortable shooting with the camera at up to ISO 6400, which is a rare thing for a compact camera.

The RX100 II performed similarly well for video, which is also probably because of the new sensor. During the medieval festival, I captured clean footage of Irish dancers performing on a shadowy stage. When I panned out to the bright daylight, it transitioned smoothly, creating a high-quality video clip.

The Bottom Line

While you probably wouldn’t want to use the Sony RX100 II for your serious professional work, during our testing, it proved to be more than adept at capturing high-quality still images and video that rival some DSLRs. And that’s saying a lot. With point-and-shoot-style cameras continuing to get crushed under the smartphone bulldozer, the fast-focusing RX100 II makes a strong case for the relevancy of the pocket camera. The only major downside is that at $750, you’ll have to empty your pocketbook for this little guy. But if you’re sick of lousy smartphone image quality and want a great second camera you can take with you anywhere, the Sony RX100 II is worth its premium price tag.

Pros: Excellent still and video quality for a pocket camera; very fast autofocus and shot-to-shot speeds; surprisingly good at high ISOs in low light; small form factor lets you take it anywhere; handy, tilting, 3-inch rear display

Pricey; slow start-up and shutdown speeds; slightly bigger and heavier than previous model; Wi-Fi features difficult to set up

Price: $750;

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