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Testing: Sony RX100 MK II Compact Camera

By Norman Chan

Better low light sensitivity than the first generation, but without the improved lens of the latest release.

The search for a pocketable companion camera for my DSLR continues. For the past month, I've been shooting with the Sony RX100 II, the second of their three point and shoot camera with 1" sensors (Correction: while the sensor is called 1-inch, it is actually only 16mm in diameter). This is the same sensor size as that found in Nikon's CX line of interchangeable lens cameras, which is far larger than the sensors you'd find in cheap point and shoots and smartphones. For reference, the iPhone 5S has a 1/3.2" (5.68mm) sensor, while Canon's Powershot G12 has a 1/1.7" (9.5mm) sensor. A 1" sensor is roughly the same size as a Super 16mm film frame, but still considerably smaller than micro 4/3rds and APS-C sensors found in higher-end mirrorless cameras.

While the RX100 II has already been succeeded by the new Mark III model being released this month, that $800 camera is actually considered a step up, and Sony will keep selling the Mark II at its $650 price. I previously tested the first RX100 when it was released in 2012, and the Mark II's upgrades are more feature-based than improvements in image quality. An improved back-illuminated CMOS sensor claims better low-light sensitivity, but it has the same zoom lens as the first release (still available for $500). It also has new features like a tilting LCD, hot shoe, 24p 1080p video recording, and Wi-Fi.

In my testing of this camera, I wanted to figure out whether it could be a sufficient alternative to my DSLR in places where carrying around a large camera would be impractical. So I took along for a trip to my friend's wedding, on a day trip wandering around the Bay Area, and to an evening event at the local science museum. Each of these were places where I could have taken the DSLR, but chose not to in order to 1. try enjoy the event more and not make it a photography trip, and 2. challenge the RX100 II in situations where people would normally take smartphone photos. Here's what I found.

At a Wedding

I've taken the Canon 6D to a few weddings before. In fact, one of the reasons I bought it was for my friend Ryan's wedding last year. But that was an event where friends of the bride and groom were asked to help out and take photos in lieu of a single dedicated photographer. But in two other weddings I attended after that, having my DSLR around and trying to take great pictures occasionally felt like I was getting in the way, both of the official hired photographers whose job it was to document the event, and of my own fun. I think there's definitely a happy middle ground where friends can bring nice gear to weddings and complement the official photographers, but I was more interested in trying to see how well I could document the wedding with a pocketable camera.

Unfortunately, the RX100 II didn't do so well at the wedding. Of the several dozen photos I was able to take, only 10 were what I would consider usable. The problem was autofocus speed and shutter. During the ceremony and Kodak moment opportunities like the first dance, no one is staying still for you. I was shooting in RAW, in full manual mode, setting the aperture to its maximum and shutter to 1/125s. ISO was set to Auto to compensate for the shutter, and my drive mode was set to continuous shooting so capture as many moments as possible. But even at those settings, the bottleneck was the delay in locking focus before shooting. Continuous drive is rated at 10fps, but that's only in high-speed mode, which locks the focus and exposure for the first 10 shots. Normal continuous drive mode is actually at 2.5fps, which was too slow to guarantee one good photo out of every sequence shot.

I also ran into the same problem I had with the RX100, that the aperture closes up really quickly once you zoom in. It's easy to get lured by the f/1.8 rating on the box, but that closes up to f/2.8 when you zoom in just a little, and down to f/4.9 at the full 100mm (equivalent) zoom. At weddings, you're mostly shooting all the way zoomed in for the ceremony, and the camera doesn't automatically open back up to wider apertures as you zoom back out (ie. it stays at f/4.9 when zooming out to 50mm, unless you manually adjust aperture again).

Indoors, during the first dance, I was struggling to find a good compromise between shutter speed and ISO, with aperture just far too low to let in enough light. Even when shooting in shutter priority with EV compensation set down a stop, ISO would need to bump up to 4000 when zoomed in to 100mm, f/4.9. Shooting in RAW and noise reduction in Lightroom helped, but my take is that the 1-inch sensor size is still too small to get good action shots without considerable noise.

The camera was still very good at taking portraits of friends sitting down at the reception, when they held still. It's a good camera for posed shots, not spontaneous ones.

On a Day Trip

Taking the RX100 II on a weekend trip around the bay area--basically using it instead of my Nexus 5's camera--was much more sensible and productive. The RX100 II took great-looking shots of food (if you're the kind of person that does that--as well as landscape photos of San Francisco and its neighboring cities across the water.

With the camera stowed in my jacket pocket, the amount of time it took to take it out, turn it on, and snap a photo was only slightly longer than reaching for a smartphone in my jeans pocket. I eventually took to just holding the camera in my hand. It's obviously far lighter than a full DSLR with lens, and even other compact cameras I've tested like the Sony A7 and Fuji X100s, but the lack of any real grip for my fingers made using the strap a necessity.

For day to day shooting, the RX100 II really excels at taking portraits of subjects at a medium distance, at around the 50mm focal length. It's definitely not a macro shooter--the minimum focal distance on this camera is tragic unless you're shooting zoomed all the way out at 24mm. At the full 100mm zoom, objects have to be at least 20-inches from the front of the lens to be in focus. That means no dramatic bokeh-rich photos of objects up close.

At an Evening Event

Finally, I took the RX100 II to an evening party at the California Academy of Sciences, with the goal of testing its low-light capabilities. The Mark II's backlit sensor is supposed to be "40%" improved from the first gen, and my test photos showed that the image quality to be good under relatively low light. Through ISO 1600, the image grain is very acceptable and not glaring, especially with the camera's built-in noise reduction enabled. But once you bump up to 3200 and 6400, it's very apparent with any bit of cropping in.

The good news is that the grain distribution isn't that bad--there's no noise banding in the shadows or discoloration (though chromatic aberration is still noticeable). Edge detail is pretty good, and noise reduction in post does wonders. That's the power of shooting in RAW. The photo below was shot at f/3.2 and ISO 4000, and looks really good when resized for web--clearly better than what you'd get with a smartphone shot.

Where the RX100 II Succeeds

Outdoors and under natural light, the RX100 II takes amazing photos for a camera of its size. Its optimal conditions are when ISO is under 1600, focal length is between 35-50mm, and aperture is under f/4. With those settings, you can capture great stills of posed subjects or moving ones. Always shoot in RAW with this camera, otherwise you're wasting its potential. In low light, your best shots are going to be the ones of still subjects and when shooting wide open to keep the aperture at f/1.8. Once a subject starts moving and shutter has to be set to higher than 1/60s, high ISO may become a problem. But overall, its low light and high ISO performance is admirable if you know how to use it. I also really liked using the built-in Wi-Fi on the camera, sending photos to my Nexus 5 to post on Instagram or share with friends on the spot. Even though that takes a few steps, it's fun to do during downtime and really makes this camera a viable alternative to a smartphone--you don't lose the versatility of having photos on a connected device.

Where the RX100 II Fails

I'm still really disappointed the lens on this camera, specifically how the aperture closes up the moment you zoom in, and the the long minimum focus distance. Those two deficiencies limit the effect use cases for the camera--it's not going to able to shoot tight macro shots or grain-free action shots. In most cases, you're going to need to shoot in continuous drive mode and snap a dozen photos to find the one good one. I've seen great photos of concerts taken with this camera, but that's with photos resized down for web. (As a tangent: the secret to concert photography is that stage lighting is actually really great for dramatic photos; cameras get hung up on light metering because of the difference in the areas under spotlighting and those in the dark.)

The RX100 II can take great photos, I just hate feeling like I'm constantly fighting against the limits of the autofocus speed and lens. These are things that are supposedly addressed in the new Mark III, which I hope to be able to start testing in the coming weeks. The perfect pocket camera quest continues.

I've included a few more of my favorite shots taken with this camera below. You can find full-res versions on my Flickr.

Thanks again to BorrowLenses for providing the camera rental for my testing.