Wednesday, October 21, 2015

I'm Replacing My DSLR With A Sony RX100 II

In my post last week Using Cheap Gear On A Road Trip I said that I was completely rethinking my camera choices. You see, I took a much anticipated drive up scenic U.S. Highway 395 to see the eastern Sierra Nevada range clothed in fall colors, and on this road trip I used my wife's Canon PowerShot N instead of my DSLR.

Her camera was small and lightweight--it was so much better than carrying around a bulky DSLR. Her camera easily fit into a pocket and didn't hardly take up any space in the packed car. The difference was night and day.

And her camera was fun!

I like creating images. I like photography. But sometimes I feel the process is drudgery, or at least parts of it. If photography isn't fun, then why am I doing it? It should be fun, and if something makes it more fun, then I should be doing that. And if something makes it less fun, then I shouldn't be doing that. If something makes photography more fun I'll be more likely to go out and create images, and if something makes it less fun I'll be less likely to go out and create images.
Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point - Yosemite National Park, California
Captured using a cheap Canon PowerShot N.
But what about the images? Didn't image quality suffer by using cheap gear? Yes and no. I can tell the difference between photographs captured with the point-and-shoot and those that were not. But I've had very positive responses to the images that I captured using the PowerShot N by casual viewers. In other words, my critical eyes that are used to spotting insignificant details pick up on the differences, while most people don't notice and don't care. They care about how the image strikes them, and those details that I worry about don't bother them in the slightest.

Last year a well-known photographer did an experiment. He set up a tripod and captured four identical images using four different digital cameras: a couple high-megapixel brand new cameras and a couple lower-megapixel older cameras. He then made large prints from each and displayed them side-by-side. He asked viewers to pick which was their favorite. Interestingly enough, the viewers consistently picked as their favorite the one that the photographer thought was the "worst" of the bunch.

Anyway, I set out to find a small camera that could replace my bulky DSLR. I had two simple requirements: good image quality and versatility--after all, that's why people have DSLRs. Fixed focal length cameras were immediately eliminated from the search. I used to have one--a Sigma DP2 Merrill--and while it was capable of fantastic image quality, its lack of versatility was one of the reasons why I replaced it with a Nikon D3300.

I used the method that I described in my post last month How To Research Digital Cameras to find a bunch of potential cameras, narrow down the search, and make a selection. It involves going to DxOMark and DPReview to closely examine the small differences in image quality between different cameras, and then finding some independent blogs (similar to this one) to read reviews. I skip over the bigger photography blogs and websites because they often get paid to write their reviews, and so they are biased from the beginning.
Three Tree Reflection - Yosemite National Park, California
Captured using a cheap Canon PowerShot N.
After all of that I decided on the Sony RX100 high-end pocket camera. It seems like it will meet most of my wants and needs and is overall quite impressive. But there are four different versions of the camera, one released each year since 2012, and each one costs more than the previous model. Which one should I get?

The original RX100 includes a 20 megapixel 1" sensor and a 28mm-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 Zeiss lens. The second version (RX100 II) is exactly the same as the first, except for Sony changed out the sensor for a back-illuminated 20 megapixel 1" sensor, which improves high-ISO performance, put a tilting screen on the back and added a hot shoe. Otherwise the first two versions are identical.

For the third version (RX100 III) Sony changed the lens to a 24mm-70mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8, still designed by Zeiss. Some say that this lens is better, some say that the other lens is better--it seems to depend on what's important to you in lens performance. The sensor is the same, but Sony updated the processor, which makes this version slightly quicker than the prior two. The hot shoe has been removed, a built-in neutral density filter included, and a pop-up electronic viewfinder added. The viewfinder seems like a nice addition, but I wonder if it would be awkward pressing such a small camera against your face.

The latest version (RX100 IV), which came out just a few months ago, is almost identical to the previous model. The biggest difference is that the sensor has been replaced by a layered 20 megapixel 1" sensor, which allows the camera to capture 4k video and makes it operate faster. Also, the pop-up electronic viewfinder has been improved. Otherwise, version three and four are identical.
Erick Schat's Bakery Reflection - Bishop, California
Captured using a cheap Canon PowerShot N.
I took inventory of the focal lengths that I commonly used to capture photographs over the last year. I discovered that about 75% of my images had an (equivalent) focal length between 60mm and 90mm. Roughly 15% had a focal length longer than 90mm. And about 10% had a focal length shorter than 60mm (with more than half of those images captured using my Nokia Lumia 1020 cell phone). It was obvious to me that the first two versions of the RX100 were the two that I needed to look at, simply because of the focal length of the lens.

I chose the Sony RX100 II. I purchased it on sale for $500 (it has an MSRP of $650, but can be found for less) and it should arrive in the mail later this week.

So why did I choose the RX100 II? Why do I think that it could replace my DSLR?

The first thing that struck me was image quality from the sensor. Initially I looked at micro four thirds cameras, which is where I thought I'd need to be for something smaller and lighter than a APS-C DSLR but in the same image quality ballpark. But when the RX100 II came out in 2013, the 1" sensor performed identical to the micro four thirds cameras available at that time, despite the sensor being smaller and with higher resolution. Amazing! Even now, two years later, the top performing micro four thirds camera is only slightly better (about a half stop) at high-ISO, and otherwise identical.
Mt Whitney Behind Mobius Arch - Lone Pine, California
Captured using a cheap Canon PowerShot N.
Comparing the DxOMark stats of the RX100 II and the D3300 revealed the differences in image quality to be small. Dynamic range is the same, and (to me) that's most important. The D3300 has a one-and-a-half stop high-ISO advantage (which, according to DxOMark, the D3300 is the second best APS-C camera at high-ISO, just barely behind the D5500). Color depth (the least important aspect tested by DxOMark in my opinion) has the RX100 II trailing the D3300, but it still received an "excellent" score by their standards.

Interestingly enough, cameras with similar image quality (according to DxOMark) to the RX100 II include the Leica M9, Leica M-E Typ 220, Samsung NX200, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 750D, Nikon D3100, Pentax Kr, and many others. You might notice that some of the cameras listed have an APS-C sized sensor and some have a full-frame sensor. I bring this up only to point out that Sony has squeezed out of this 1" sensor what you would expect to get from a larger sensor.

The sensor is great, but what about the lens? After all, you can't change the lens on the RX100 II, since it is permanently attached to the camera. As I mentioned earlier, the lens is a Zeiss 28mm-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9. From what I've read, it's better than a lot of zoom lenses, but lacks the tack sharpness of a good prime. That is to be expected because it's not a fixed focal length lens. My biggest concern is that I may find the telephoto end to be too short because occasionally I use a 300mm (equivalent) lens, which is a good deal longer than 100mm.

What makes me think that I could replace my DSLR with a pocket camera? I discovered that some other photographers have done some wonderful work with this camera. For example, Dennis Low uses the Sony RX100 II for wedding photography. Mike Randolph used the original RX100 for a Men's Fashion magazine assignment of Riga, Latvia. Ian Norman used the RX100 III to do some astrophotography. And the winner of National Geographic's Traveler Photo Contest this year, Anuar Patjane, used the RX100 to make a stunning image--in fact, many stunning images!

I know that the Sony RX100 II has some limitations. It's not a perfect camera, because the perfect camera doesn't exist. But one thing that I've learned is that limitations improve art. I need to embrace the limitations of the camera. And, mostly, just have fun.


  1. I haven't used my D80 for about two years. It started when I had back problems and could no longer hold it (as well as lift the bag). I first used a Coolpix L810 and later a P7800. So far, I have not missed the D80. The smaller sensor means being more careful about underexposure, but it's been fine otherwise.

    1. Compact cameras have really improved. Even cell phones are surprisingly capable.

      It's been awhile since we've talked cameras. I remember probably 15 years ago having a conversation about medium-format slide film (was it Kodachrome?).

      Hope you are doing well. Thanks for commenting, Tim!

  2. Check out the new Ricoh GR. It's APS-C and has a very sharp 28mm lens. It's fixed though. The Sony you're looking at is great too for the zoom on it.

    1. A couple years ago I almost bought a Ricoh GR, but decided instead on a Sigma DP2 Merrill. I also once had a Pentax K30, which has the same sensor as the GR. I would certainly be happy with that camera except for the fixed focal length, which just doesn't offer the versatility that I want. But it was a good suggestion anyway.

      Thank you for commenting, Elaine!

  3. Oh, don't forget the Sony A6000 as well. APS-C sensor, tilt screen and viewfinder. The kit lens kind of sucks but you can add other lenses, even add adapters for Leica lenses. Just saying.