Thursday, January 9, 2014

Review: Sony RX100 II (it's great, but has some significant faults)


Just to state this up front.....This review is based on my real world shooting experiences with the Sony RX100 II.  I'm not a camera technician nor do I have a testing setup, so I can't write about the camera's detailed technical capabilities even if I wanted to.   There are websites that do that much better than I could, like this link to the RX100 II review on

Instead, I do what I can...which is to write about my impressions of how this camera handles for its intended use, my perception of the picture quality, how easy/hard the features are to use, its general user interface, what I like about it, and what I dislike about it.

The last part of that sentence is key.  There are definitely things that I love about this camera, but there are also some things about it that are quite silly and hopefully they'll be corrected with firmware updates from Sony that will allow the user to turn certain key features (like high ISO noise reduction) on/off and set limits to others.

And therefore...I have a like/dislike relationship with the Sony RX100 II.  I love the compact size, photo quality, and configurability....but I dislike the way some of the features have been implemented and some of the decisions the camera makes while shooting.

To put this camera in perspective and understand where it fits into the camera market and how it came to life, you might be interested in this link to a great interview on the with the Sony executives responsible for their latest spree of outstanding and ground breaking cameras....of which the RX100 II is one.  The interview offers many interesting insights.

The main point of the article is that Sony is hell-bent on designing and producing cameras that fill the niches in the camera market that photographers want filled that other manufactures are not satisfying.  Paraphrased another way, the two camera kingpins (Nikon and Canon) have largely been producing the same cameras for many years with minor iterations each few years.  There has been (generally speaking) a lack of true innovation from Nikon and Canon.  In my opinion, they haven't kept up with what people want and are just following each other.  Others might feel differently....


I'm a long time Canon shooter.  I own multiple Canon compacts, DSLR's, lenses, accessories, I have a big investment in that brand.  So for me to take the leap and switch to a new camera brand and a whole new pile of accessories, batteries, etc....something had to change with not only my photography needs, but perhaps with Canon as well.

So what changed with Canon?  After many years in the early 2000's of releasing powerful innovative cameras with features that their users really wanted, Canon stagnated.  Since the mid 2000's, they've been putting out minor iterations of basically the same cameras over and over again.  When they did make advancements in things like the movie capabilities on their DSLR cameras, you needed to buy new lenses (with stepping motors) to truly take advantage of it.  Come on....give me a break....please.

My general opinion is that there was a major opportunity in the camera market for another manufacturer other than the big two to swoop in and capitalize on the stagnation.  That company is Sony.  Others like Panasonic and FujiFilm have also stepped in to share the glory...

Sony has released a long string of innovative camera devices in the last few years including (quoted from the above article) "...the RX1, RX1R, RX100 and RX100 II compacts, the smartphone-extending QX series (which are wildly successful, just not so much among the dedicated photo community), the full-frame A7 and A7R mirror less cameras".  So Sony has been hard at work!

That's enough about Canon and what I think their problems are...

So what changed with my photography needs?  First and foremost, I don't want to haul around DSLR cameras and lenses anymore for my general photography needs.  When I got back into photography ten years ago, DSLR's and their lenses offered the primary route to the highest quality photos, which is one of my main goals.  If I'm going to seriously pursue photography as a hobby then I want to take the highest quality photos on the best equipment that I can afford.  That's just the way I am.  The best quality photos, taken with fast and flexible cameras, with fast accurate auto focus, etc.  That's how I ended up firmly in the DSLR world.

But then things changed....After many years of going on every family event, weekend outing and vacation with a backpack full of camera gear, I suddenly just got tired of doing it.  I still wanted the best quality but I didn't want to carry it around anymore.  That led me to purchase the Canon S95, which is a really good compact camera and I used that for years.  I've taken tons of gorgeous high quality photos with it but I still wanted something more.  But the "something more" wasn't available yet.

My main criteria for this latest camera purchase: pocketable compact, excellent photo quality, reasonable zoom range for a compact, highly configurable, fast and accurate auto focus, manual modes when I want them, clean high ISO capabilities, good movie capability, and a few other smaller things...

The answer came recently in the Sony RX100 II.  I bought one.  No other pocketable compact on the market can match it.


OK, you've got my Intro and Background.  Let's get to the review...

One thing that might help put my comments here into context for you is to review the full RX100 II manual.  It will help you to understand what this camera is capable of and the myriad of features it has on board.  You can find the full manual on the Sony website at this link.

The camera has a deep menu system, but fortunately there are enough external buttons and different ways to configure them so that once you get the camera set up the way you want it and configure the three available custom modes, two control rings, and four control buttons on the might not find yourself needing to dive into the menu system very often (which is good!).  I strongly suggest spending some time with this camera and the manual to set it up accordingly for your most typical shooting needs.  Once done, it will get out of your way during shooting...

The camera operates quickly during shooting.  Auto focus is fast to lock, there is no noticeable amount of shutter lag, photos are quick to display and scroll in review mode, zoom is responsive, etc. The camera clearly has some nice processing power behind it.

I want to mention one side note about this camera that's neither good nor bad, it's just a fact....And that fact is that it's a 20 megapixel camera.  Inherent with high megapixel count cameras is the fact that you might notice more motion blur in your photos than you do in cameras with lower megapixel counts.  I explain the reason for this in another blog article that I wrote at this link.

If you read that article, the moral of the story is that under certain shooting situations with high megapixel count cameras (like the Sony RX100 II and many others), you might want to use significantly higher shutter speeds than you normally would to help eliminate motion blur in your photos.  Just something to be aware of...

Since I mentioned above that I like and dislike certain things about this camera, that's how I'm going to organize this review....into two sections with my comments next to each item.  Here we go...

What I like:
  1. Photo quality:  The quality of the JPEG output from the RX100 II is fantastic.  Outdoors in bright light or indoors in dim light, the camera (when it's set up right) churns out great looking photos.  I have not experimented with its Raw output yet, but judging from the quality of the JPEG's I would assume the Raw quality is also quite high.
  2. Lens quality:  From what I see in my photos, the lens is very high quality....which I would expect from Zeiss.  It's sharp and distortion at the edges and corners seems reasonable for a camera in this class.
  3. LCD quality:  It's bright and super sharp.  No more to say here...
  4. Auto focus:  It's fast and accurate, and the tracking function works quite well when needed.
  5. Low light photo quality:  When set up and used properly, the camera produces excellent low light results with the standard shooting modes.  It also has some unique solutions (like Multi Shot Noise Reduction) that can push that quality level even higher if the shooting situation is appropriate for their use.
  6. Configurability:  The camera is highly configurable by the user.  Both control rings and the Function button can all be configured with different commands so they do what you want them to do.  There are also three user programmable Custom modes for your unique shooting needs.  It's great to see this level of configurability in a compact camera.
  7. Small size:  This is a pocketable camera, which makes what it can do even more astounding.
  8. Build quality:  It's built tough.  The metal body feels significant in your hands.  The controls and dials all feel well designed and built.  The tilt screen is well implemented.
  9. Tilting flash:  This is an incredibly useful feature.  Direct flash on your subject is the harshest kind of flash lighting that you can use and it's the main flash lighting source for all compact cameras.  It creates shadows, it looks harsh, etc.  On the RX100 II, you can tilt the pop-up flash back slightly with your finger so that it can bounce off a nearby ceiling or wall and provide nice bounce light on your subject.  It's certainly not going to have the distance or power of a dedicated external flash unit, but in a pinch it can really help with producing better flash photos. Excellent innovative feature.  (are you listening Canon and Nikon...this is the kind of thing you're missing the boat on)
  10. DRO/Auto HDR:  This is Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization and Auto HDR function, and they both work well....expanding the dynamic range of an image through various techniques when you would otherwise not be able to capture it with one photo.  DRO processes a single photo to achieve its results (applying what I guess is something similar to Photoshop's Shadows/Highlights function in-camera) and Auto HDR processes multiple images taken at different exposures to achieve its results.  You would use one or the other depending on the specific shooting situation (i.e., you would not to use Auto HDR in a motion situation since it's taking multiple photos to achieve its results and any motion will ruin the photo).
  11. Clear Image Zoom:  I can't really explain this one completely, but it works.  The RX100 II comes with two types of digital zoom technology in addition to its optical zoom.  One is a standard digital zoom that all compact cameras have and which I never use because it ruins the photo quality.  Then the RX100 II also has this Clear Image Zoom capability that crops into the photo you're taking and somehow enlarges it with very little noticeable (if any) quality loss.  It's amazing, actually.  Works nicely when the optical zoom just doesn't have the reach that you need...
  12. Manual Focus Peaking:  When you're in a situation that warrants manual focusing, this is a handy feature that highlights the part of the image that's in focus on the LCD screen in a color of your choice (for those of us with so-so eyesight).  :)
  13. Wifi and Smartphone integration:  This is not a game changer feature and many cameras have it nowadays, but it's nice to be able to shoot a photo and then send the image off to my smartphone to upload it (this works nicely), or download photos wirelessly to my computer over wifi (this does not...I've worked with Sony and haven't been able to get this to work on my computer running Apple Mac OSX 10.9.1 and Sony Wireless Auto Import 1.2).  You can also use Sony's app on your smartphone for remote control of the camera.
  14. Video:  The video capabilities of the RX100 II are right on the mark.  Video is sharp, clear, you can zoom while shooting and maintain auto focus, there are multiple formats, frame rates and sizes.  The audio pickup from the top mounted internal stereo microphones is surprisingly good.  It's all here and works nicely.

What I dislike:
  1. SteadyShot:  The Sony SteadyShot image stabilization system is sadly not very effective.  It's not reliably helpful when shooting stills and it's not effective at all when shooting longer than 1/30 second.  Sony Support confirmed this with me and told me not to expect much from the system when shooting longer than 1/30 second.  It's much less effective than the stabilization technologies in compact cameras from other manufacturers (for example the much older Canon S95, which has excellent image stabilization).  I've noticed that SteadyShot is more effective in Movie mode than it is for stills.  I don't know why...
  2. No Auto-ISO in Manual mode:  Not having Auto-ISO in Manual mode in a camera of this caliber is just pure silliness and should be corrected with a firmware upgrade as soon as possible.  Because of the way that the RX100 II behaves in certain shooting situations (see #3 below), it would be a great solution to those idiosyncrasies for the photographer to be able to put it into Manual mode to set the desired shutter and aperture and let the ISO do what it will.  But Sony offers no Auto-ISO in Manual mode....and therefore from my perspective they've completely crippled the Manual mode for my purposes.
  3. 1/30 and f/1.8 tendencies:  When shooting without flash indoors in the automatic modes, the RX100 II has a tendency to select 1/30 second and f/1.8 as its standard settings instead of boosting the ISO and giving me a more hand-holdable shutter speed and aperture with a little more depth of field.   There aren't a lot of photographers I know who want a camera making this type of shutter/aperture decision, especially when the camera has a weak image stabilization system.  Shooting at 1/30 second leaves no margin for handheld vibration error.  This should be corrected with a firmware upgrade that implements user-configurable min/max settings for all exposure-triangle parameters (shutter, aperture, ISO) so that the camera makes more reasonable and usable shutter/aperture decisions in low light without flash.  I worked around this by using one of the Custom modes to store the parameters that will force the camera to do more of what I want in low light. (i.e., I set up a Custom mode that makes the minimum Auto-ISO 1600 so that the camera is forced to choose higher shutter speeds and something other than f/1.8).
  4. High ISO Noise Reduction:  There is no option to completely turn off High ISO Noise Reduction.  I hate this, especially given that you CAN shut off long exposure noise reduction!  Why give me the ability to turn off one of them but not the other.  I want to decide whether or not I use high ISO noise reduction in certain shooting situations, not Sony.  The reason is because the effects of Sony's heavy handed high ISO noise reduction are clear in the photos.  I would prefer to handle this setting myself...with the option of turning it completely off.  
  5. Front Control Ring:  I like having the feature of a Front Control Ring around the lens, but the number of turns it takes to change settings with it is silly to the point of it being almost useless in some situations.  For example, rotating it to change shutter speed when in Shutter mode takes twist after twist after twist to get from one side of the shutter range to the other.  It needs to be more sensitive and get across the shutter range with one twist of the ring.
  6. No GPS:  There's no on board GPS to tag photos with.  I'm sure this was a space and cost issue so this one I can understand and therefore I wouldn't necessarily classify it in the "Dislike" category.  The camera probably couldn't fit one more circuit into it given its compact size and the price is already quite high for a compact.  So I'll take what I can get and do without GPS...
  7. Splitting of movies and photos in review mode:  Why, why, why?  That's what I have to say about this.  When you press the 'Play' button to enter photo review mode, you have to choose whether you want to review your photos or your videos.  You can't just see all of the photos and videos you've shot in sequence.  I don't know why Sony chose to differentiate between them in playback mode and put them into different folders requiring you to switch back and forth.  It's a bad design that's silly, cumbersome, and should be changed with a firmware update.  
  8. No wifi transfer to Mac computers running latest Mavericks OS:  The current Apple Mac OSX Mavericks operating system has been released for quite a while (10.9.1).  The current version of Sony's Wireless Auto Import software (1.2) seemingly doesn't reliably work with Mavericks.  I've worked with Sony support on this for hours and that's what they finally told me.  I hate when electronics manufacturers do this.  It should be a priority to release cameras, with their related software, that work on the current major operating systems at the time the camera is released.  Don't give me a software update 6 months later....that's useless to me.
  9. No battery wall charger:  For the price of this camera, give me a separate battery wall charger.  Having to charge the battery in the camera is completely ridiculous.

In the past three years Sony has taken the photo industry by storm with innovative, powerful, high quality, useful cameras.  From all directions they're producing unique cameras that fill a void in the camera industry.  Photographers clearly want them because they're selling quite well and generating a lot of positive news for Sony.

If you want a pocketable compact camera with excellent photo quality generated by the largest sensor available in a camera of this class, then the Sony RX100 II is the only game in town.  It should be at the top of your shopping list and it's as good as everyone says.

There's a lot to like about this camera, and many of the items that I don't like that I mentioned above can be fixed with firmware updates, if Sony chooses to do it.  The Sony designers have clearly listened to the needs of photographers in creating this camera, now they need to listen to the reviews and update the firmware in the RX100 II to correct its significant flaws and push it over the edge into the area of hallowed ground for a piece of photography equipment.  Sony, are you listening???

The price is quite high, but when you see the results this camera is capable of generating hopefully those concerns will melt away.  Overall, Sony should be applauded for their very nice work on the RX100 II.  They've got a new customer in me.  Hopefully they keep it up with their next products!

1 comment:

  1. good review thanks for posting. i like your real world comments. i've read all about the good things on this cam but not many people spend time honestly/openly talking about some of the drawbacks like you did. nice writeup.