For the last few years, Sony's RX100 point-and-shoot camera line has been king of the compact mountain. With the latest version, the RX100 III, Sony aims to build on the previous little powerhouses by zeroing in on the features people want — and eliminating those they don't.
The third iteration of Sony's fantastic but pricey point-and-shoot line. It's got a 20.1 megapixel 1-inch sensor, and a 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 lens. It lists for $800, the most expensive starting point for the RX100 series yet.
When the first RX100 hit shelves two years ago, the camera proved that a point-and shoot could still be relevant, even in the face of high-quality smartphone cameras that are always on your person. It proved that even though not everyone needs a standalone point-and-shoot, a lot of people could still use them. The prior RX100 and RX100 II cameras have been the best options available for everyone from pros who demand powerful DSLR alternatives to amateurs who want exceptional photos. Whether they opt to shell out for such a camera or pick something cheaper is another issue altogether.
Last year's RX100 II introduced a revolutionary new back-side illuminated image sensor, which drastically improved the camera's image quality. For its third iteration, Sony has switched things up yet again. With the RX100 III, Sony ditches the multi-interface shoe and adds an electronic viewfinder, and an improved video spec, alongside smaller changes. As it has with each successive version of its NEX-line of interchangeable-lens compacts, Sony appears to be quickly evolving the RX100 series with slightly different feature sets to see which permutations stick.
But do these latest changes make the excellent camera more appealing, or has Sony over-salted a nearly perfect recipe?
If you've ever held a Sony RX100 before, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. When the RX100 III is powered off, it's not entirely evident that you're holding a new camera. It looks practically identical to its predecessors, a fist-sized matte black block of aluminum with a large LCD screen in back and a large lens ring up front.
But if you press the right button, the camera's most defining feature will spring to life: The RX100 III's totally recessed, completely hidden 1.44 million-dot electronic viewfinder. It pops right out of the top left panel with the flick of a little lever on the side. Once it's up, you've still got to pull the eye-piece out towards you, but then the camera does the rest: the viewfinder and camera turn on, the powered lens barrel opens up and extends, and you're ready for action. Stow the viewfinder away, and the camera turns off again. The whole process has a delightfully mechanical feel to it, with satisfying clicks and hums of motors churning, screens coming to life, and pieces falling into place.
RX100 III (left) vs RX100 II (right)
While the viewfinder takes the spot where the built-in flash used to live, Sony hasn't gotten rid of it. Instead, it's been moved to the center of the camera's top panel. To accommodate it, Sony ditched the multi-interface shoe for attaching external flashes, microphones and other accessories. That's probably not a dealbreaker, but it's certainly a design risk because it could alienate people who want to add accessories like an external flash or a microphone to the camera. Sony has said that (for now) it intends to continue producing the RX100 II, so if the multi-interface shoe is something you desperately want, you can still have it.
The RX100 III also sports a new 24-70 mm f/1.8-2.8 lens (35 mm equivalent) compared to the old 28-100 mm f/1.8-4.9 lens. That means that it is slightly wider when it's zoomed out, and that it doesn't zoom in quite as far. Whereas the RX100 II had 3.6x zoom, the new Mark III only has a 2.9x zoom. Here's what the difference looks like:
The RX100 II (left) zooms a little further than the RX100 III (right)
In exchange for the slightly lower magnification potential, you get a faster lens. On the RX100 III you'll be able to maintain f/2.8 at 70mm, a full stop wider than the same magnification on the old Mark II. That means you can shoot at a faster shutter speed when it's dark, and it opens the door to some more advanced blur effects.
Selfies are fun! And very easy with the RX100 III's 180 degree tilting LCD.
The 3-inch 1.229 million-dot LCD also now tilts up a full 180 degrees to make it easier to take selfies. The previous screen only tilted about 90 degrees.
The RX100 Mark III's basic handling scheme remains unchanged. Most of the time, you'll have direct control over the most commonly changed settings by rotating the big ring around the lens, and both tapping and spinning the smaller click wheel on the back. If you want to dig deeper, you've got to hit the Fn multi-function button, which reveals a dashboard with other important shooting settings you might want to change.
While full manual operation is possible with Sony's RX100 series, it's more practical to spend a lot of your time in the semi-automatic aperture priority or shutter priority modes, just so you don't have to poke at the small hardware so often. To Sony's credit, it has expanded the menu behind the multi-function Fn button while also making it easier to navigate. Previously, you could only see one setting at a time in a scrolling list. Now, a little grid pops up giving you an at-a-glance picture of all of the most important settings: focus area, flash, exposure compensation, focus mode, ISO, neutral density filter setting, metering mode, white balance, and DRO/HDR setting. (Your aperture and shutter speed are visible on the main screen.)
The camera's OLED viewfinder is the most important and exciting addition to the camera, but to my surprise, I'm ambivalent about it. Viewfinders are really important to a lot of photographers because they help block out distractions and give you the best real-time sense of what your photo is going to look like, so it makes sense that putting an EVF into a compact like the RX100 III could a potentially huge improvement.
Unfortunately, I found the EVF a little more cutesy than useful. It's small enough that putting your eye up to it requires a little technique more like looking into a microscope's eyepiece than the luxurious, padded viewfinders on larger cameras. In fact, you don't really want to press your eye against it at all, but instead hold it a few millimeters away to properly focus on the image inside.
The EVF does have its limited moments of utility. Despite the colors being a little more saturated than the image the camera will actually produce, the viewfinder is an accurate—if extremely tiny—version of the photo you're going to see in the end. It wasn't enough for me to care about using it very much. The only really great use is for situations like a dark rock concert where you don't necessarily want the glow of the LCD annoying everybody in the room. (In the menus you'll find a setting that turns the screen off when the viewfinder is popped up.)
ISO 6400 gets a little too grainy in some situations— But look how wide the new 24mm lens looks!
As for losing the multi-interface shoe, I don't think it's a big deal. In all likelihood, anybody using this camera will choose it because it's small and everything is integrated into a single package. An external flash or microphone isn't likely to be an appealing addition. That said, losing an option is always a bummer, and it would've been especially unfortunate if the camera didn't perform so well in low-light (see below for image quality notes). The built-in pop-up flash performs admirably, and is more flexible than your usual pop-up because you can bend it back and bounce it off ceilings for a fill effect if you'd rather not point it straight at your grandma's eyes.
The flash isn't too harsh, illuminating Biddle's face nicely.
The RX100 III is small, but it's not teensy. Technically, you can stuff it in your pants pocket, but I much prefer to carry it around in my backpack. It's lightweight enough that there's no reason to ever take it out. In your pants, it's a pain.
The new selfie-friendly LCD might sound a little silly, but it's actually a nice addition. More LCD angles means more photo possibilities. It's quite impressive that they've been able to add so much mobility to the screen without adding any bulk to the camera.
The RX100 III sports Sony's latest Bionz X image processor, which gives the camera a speed boost in a few situations. It's most noticeable when you're using the camera's built-in HDR. The RX100 III saves you nearly three seconds off the previous shooter. On startup, the camera is only a smidgen faster, and when it comes to shutter lag and autofocus, you simply can't tell the RX100 II and III apart. In other words, you've got the same snappy performer.
Though the camera's image sensor is the same 1-inch, 20-megapixel chip as before, the video spec for the camera has actually been upgraded so that it can now use the brand new XAVC S codec instead of the older AVCHD, which means the camera can record at a much higher rate of up to 50 Mb/s instead of just 28 Mb/s. In theory, all that extra information should make video recorded at the new rate much higher quality. In our tests, it's a noticeable but very subtle difference. In several of the identical shots taken with both cameras at 1920 x 1080 resolution at 24 frames per second, the RX100 III has a clearer picture with less noise and distortion. The RX100 II is over-sharpened by comparison. (Bear in mind that the embedded video below adds its own layer of compression from hosting service Vimeo.) The difference is a little easier to see on the raw video. In other words, unless you're projecting your film onto a giant screen, you probably won't notice the difference.
Of course, the real reason we fell in love with the RX100 and later with the RX100 II is that they take really lovely pictures, and that hasn't changed. Besides the tweaks to the lens' focal lengths (discussed above) you're going to get essentially the same photo quality you had before. The camera outputs lovely, sharp balanced photos in good daylight, and has great high-ISO performance that makes shooting quality photos in low light surprisingly easy. At ISO 3200 or below images are eminently usable, but at ISO 6400 and above, the photos didn't stand up to close scrutiny. When you really zoom in on the pixels in Lightroom at ISO 6400, the images start to break up. You probably wouldn't want to use them unless you really need to.
The following images are 100 percent crops from larger samples.
ISO 3200 is stil admirably clean.
ISO 6400 starts to fall apart
ISO 12800 is a grainy mess.
The one big addition to the camera's general shooting powers is a new built-in neutral density filter that can be turned on and off. ND filters are generally only used by pros when they need to make their exposure darker but have maxed out their built in settings for doing so. But on a camera like the RX100 which has a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000, it's actually something that comes in handy on bright sunny days. And lo, it works quite well, affording you three stops of light flexibility. So, for example, if you want to shoot at a shutter speed of about 1/3000 (impossible 0n the RX100 III), the ND filter lets you chop that down to a very manageable 1/400. It's definitely a nice touch.
One final note on connectivity. For a couple of years Sony has been ahead of the curve by building Wi-Fi into their cameras. The PlayMemories Mobile app for iOS and Android is very well designed. The speed and performance of the Wi-Fi transfers hasn't changed from the old model to the new one, but the user interface is streamlined. You can now send a photo to your phone with only two button pushes instead of four.
The RX100 III is the the best point-and-shoot with a zoom lens. The photos and video are beautiful. The camera's even easier to use now.
The viewfinder is a tad clumsy and very small. The Mark III is pricey: A point-and-shoot isn't for pros, and $800 is lot to ask of the casual photographer, or even the more serious photog looking for a secondary camera.
If you've got the scratch, go for it, but the reality is that you might be just as well served by the now discounted RX100 II. Whereas that camera brought a suite of significant changes that made it a pretty obvious choice over the original, you can probably live without the RX100 III's new offerings.
Sure, the video quality is ever so slightly better, and the ability to shoot at a wider aperture when you're zoomed in will make that late-night zoom shot a little easier. The selfie-friendly LCD is nice, but maybe not worth the splurge. Depending on how much you think you'll use that tiny, awkward viewfinder, you might consider the extra $150 expenditure. But in terms of image quality, you've got essentially the same camera.
Product photos by Nick Stango. Video test by Michael Hession.