We’ve travelled around the world with bags bursting full of camera gear. We lugged our DSLRs up the Andes and through the Amazon, and toted a full size tripod across India. So when we headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to take in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, what did we pack?
Only a tiny little point and shoot. The brand new Sony RX100 III to be exact.
And we were freakin’ nervous about it. We knew that we were giving up image quality, ease of use, and options in exchange for a smaller camera. We wondered if we would regret not bringing our main gear on this trip of a lifetime. I mean, we are photographers after all. We’d have to be idiots to take a tiny little camera instead of our big fancy ones. Right?
We’ve been back for a couple weeks now, and have had time to scrutinize the results. So were we fools, or forward thinkers?
The breathtaking Ipanema, one of the most photogenic beaches in the world.
Well, thanks to this brand new innovative little camera from Sony, we have avoided shame and disappointment, and have a library full of great images to remember our adventure with! Huzzah!
Yep, we can say that our little point and shoot experiment was a success, and we’re very happy with how the RX100 III performed. From the shooting experience, to the final files, this little camera exceeded our expectations, and I’d venture that it even helped us get more enjoyment out of our trip. That’s a big statement, but read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Now the RX100 III has some real limitations. It is not the perfect camera. We’re still searching for that unicorn (if you’re searching too, check out our guide to buying a camera which might help). But this one was a step in the right direction, and we’re excited for the future of this line.
So let’s break it down, and see just what it was like shooting with this little guy in Rio. Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:
- Shooting Experience: What was it like capturing Rio with the tiny RX100 III in our hands?
- Image Quality: How did we feel about the results? Would they measure up to our professional standards?
- Customizations: What did we do to make the RX100 III easier to use?
- What We Would Change: If we controlled the universe, what would we change to make this a better camera?
(Note: We will talk about using the RX100 III for video in another post. This one is already huge!)
A glimpse of one of the favelas of Rio in the rear view mirror of our cab.
We initially chose this camera because it was discreet, and we would feel more comfortable using it on the (sometimes sketchy) streets of Rio. But the small size did more than just keep us from being a target for street theft…
It saved Rob’s back (and probably his sanity).
When we travel Rob gets the glamorous job of sherpa. In the past he only had to carry around equipment for the two of us. Now, with our baby Max coming along for the adventure, we’ve easily tripled the amount of stuff we have to bring. Babies require disproportionately more gear than their size would suggest!
So with his backpack filled with diapers and toy cars, and a stroller over his shoulder, Rob really (really) enjoyed carrying the tiny RX100 III, weighing in at only 10.23 oz, instead of a bag filled with DSLRs and lenses, often weighing upwards of 20 lbs.
In addition to the light weight, the small size of the RX100 III was also really enjoyable. Rob could easily slip it into his pocket (my pockets required more “jamming in to” than was comfortable). This was particularly useful when we had to put it away quickly to run after Max as he explored the city with bold abandon.
A camera in your pocket is also much more likely to be used than a camera zipped up in your backpack, so we found ourselves pulling the camera out frequently to capture lots of details and moments in the trip.
Every traveling parent’s dream: a sleeping baby on an airplane.
For the most part, the autofocus on the RX100 III was surprisingly good for a point and shoot. The auto-face detect was quick and accurate, and the vast majority of shots were in focus. I’d definitely recommending turning that function on and using it!
It did slightly miss focus on occasion (and sometimes completely missed), and it would hunt for focus in low light. But overall we were pleased-to-impressed with the results.
The RX100 III has a 24-70 equivalent lens, with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end, and f/2.8 at the long end. (Which means when you’re shooting at 24mm you can use f/1.8, but if you’re shooting at 70mm it will only go down to f/2.8).
For the most part, this lens was great. The wide apertures gave us great depth of field, and the ability to shoot in low light.
Orchids growing out of a tree, shot at f/2.0.
The range was pretty good too. I didn’t usually wish it could go wider, and I did use it at it’s widest a fair bit. But there were quite a few times where I wished that the lens was longer. When traveling you’re often further away from what you’re trying to shoot, and so something like a 24-105 would have been great.
One of the things that really caught our attention with the Sony RX100 III was the flippable LCD. Many cameras have a rotating LCD screen, and once you shoot with one you really don’t want to go back to the fixed screen present on most DSLRs. Being able to get interesting angles without having to lie on the street is a big bonus.
What really caught our attention with the RX100 is that the screen can do a complete backflip, allowing you to point the camera towards you and still see the screen.
The LCD on the RX100 III can do a backflip! Hup hup!
It’s like the ultimate selfie camera, and we ended up getting a lot more shots of all three of us together than we usually do.
Family selfie on Copacabana beach.
It even let us get some neat shots in very tight situations (like in airplane and train seats) where you usually would have to just shoot blind, and guess on your composition. This was a really really handy feature that I wish every camera had.
Our secret to surviving 24 hours of travel with a toddler – cars and movies (and movies about cars).
Another feature of the RX100 III that had us intrigued was the pop-up electronic viewfinder. Knowing that we would be shooting a lot on the beach in the bright sun, we thought this would be really useful.
The RX100 III with the pop-up electronic viewfinder up.
LCD screens can be difficult-to-impossible to see in direct sun, and an electronic viewfinder can be a huge help. We use the one on our Sony A7 all the time, so we were looking forward to having one on this camera as well.
Turns out we didn’t end up using it nearly as much as we thought we would.
For one, the LCD is super high quality, and nice and bright, so most of the time we had no issue using it. In direct midday sun it was a bit tricker to see, but not impossible.
But unfortunately the design of the viewfinder itself actually posed some problems. You need to pop it up and then pull the eyepiece forward to use it. But the eyepiece doesn’t lock in the forward position, so if you apply any pressure on it it will pop back in, making everything look blurry.
We wear our glasses while shooting, which ended up turning this fault into a fatal flaw. To get your eye close enough to the viewfinder to see it with glasses on you need to apply some pressure, and so the viewfinder became nearly unusable for us. By holding our finger against the viewfinder we were usually able to prevent it from collapsing back in, but it wasn’t very comfortable or convenient. If you don’t wear glasses while shooting this may not be as much of an issue!
The viewfinder itself felt a bit small, and it didn’t seem bright enough for use in super intense sun, since there isn’t an eyecup (and you can’t get your eye close enough to block out the light without popping it back in).
So there still seems to be some improvements to be made to make this a more useable feature.
Even when using a point and shoot we still prefer to shoot in Manual mode to get full control over the exposure. The RX100 III has one flywheel on the back, and one control ring around the lens. With three variables to control when in Manual mode (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) it just doesn’t have enough dials. One more would have been really useful!
Further to that, the control ring around the lens was fairly cumbersome to use. A little bit of movement would affect a lot of change to the setting, and a lot of movement would effect little change, and it just generally felt slow and inaccurate.
Other than that the buttons were laid out pretty well, and it was fairly intuitive to use.
I’ll be detailing exactly how we set everything up for the custom key settings shortly, so read on for that!
A shot of the famous Cristo Redentor statue from the Jardim Botanico.
A couple quick notes on other shooting features:
– The built-in neutral density filter was really handy. In fact, it was darn near essential when shooting in the bright sun on the beach, particularly when doing video.
– The Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication (NFC) functions were quite useful, especially when it came to sharing our photos online quickly and easily. The NFC let us just tap the camera to our Android phones and automatically transfer an image. On our iPhones we needed to do a bit more work to manually connect the two, but it was still fairly easy.
Now the shooting experience is important to be sure, but it doesn’t matter much if the image quality isn’t there. So how did the RX100 III stack up?
Pretty darn good.
I’ll be clear that I had really big expectations for this camera, especially because it was meant to replace the high end cameras we normally use. I wasn’t going to settle for “not bad” when these were once in a lifetime shots.
But of course I couldn’t expect the exact same quality as I’d get with a big DSLR. You do have to know what you’re getting in to when using this camera. The sensor is bigger than most point and shoots, but it’s nowhere near as big as full frame. And the lens is Zeiss, but you can’t expect to perform the same as a top rated lens like the Zeiss 55mm or the Canon 24-70 2.8 L that we normally use.
All of that said, the image quality that we got out of this little camera was more than enough for our personal travel photos. I’d wager that most people would never know that the shots were taken with a point and shoot instead of a professional DSLR.
Would you use it for a commercial job? Definitely not. Shooting a wedding professionally? Goodness gracious no.
But for the vast majority of personal shooting? It is surprisingly good.
When this camera nails focus, holy moly is it ever sharp. Check out the image below, of Max tasting his first fresh coconut, shot at f/3.2, 1/125s, ISO 160.
And now the 100% crop.
Even at the maximum apertures of f/1.8 and f/2.8. it was good. Below is the full size image, and then a 100% crop, shot at f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 320, 70mm.
Sometimes it seems a bit soft at f/2.8 when shooting at 70mm, and the corners did have a tendency to be a bit soft as well at the maximum apertures. I haven’t done any hard core sharpness tests (if that isn’t already obvious), so I am just sharing my gut reactions. But for the most part I was satisfied with the sharpness. A little extra sharpening in Lightroom really helped out!
Color & Contrast
Not bad. Not amazing.
Straight out of camera the images seem a bit flat to me, especially if the lighting conditions aren’t absolutely perfect, and I definitely need to do some post-processing to get them where I want them (the RX100 III shoots in the raw format so I am able to edit the images in Lightroom. It also shoots in JPEG if you prefer, although here’s why we prefer shooting in raw).
Here’s a shot straight out of camera (in pretty nice light actually!)
And then after editing in Lightroom:
While on the trip I set aside some time to take some photos of everyone in our group, and I had a blast creating some pretty awesome portraits of my friends. The world’s most beautiful beaches make for a pretty epic backdrop!
I doubt that anyone would look at the shots and be able to tell they were taken with a point and shoot camera, and I’m pleased with the results. The shooting experience was also really fun, acting the photographer with a tiny camera in my hands.
However, these portraits required quite a lot of work in Lightroom to get them to a happy place. Here’s a before/after example:
And then even with post-processing, I find the skin tones aren’t super. They tend towards a greyish-yellow, instead of a nice pinkish-yellow. That’s not a scientific observation, by the way, if you couldn’t tell by my super technical terms.
So overall the color and contrast are decent out of this little guy, but you do really need to do some post-processing to the files to make them sing.
For a small sensor you still get a very usable ISO range, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to new full frame sensors.
At ISO 800 you definitely have noise creeping in.
ISO 1600 has quite a bit of noise, but it’s still useable. It’s starting to lose quality in the details though.
At ISO 2000 the noise is starting to seriously reduce the quality of the details.
But we shot this camera up to ISO 6400, and while it’s super super noisy, the shot is still worth having! It’s our little guy, totally passed out as we strolled along Copacabana with thousands of other fans after Brazil won their game. A great moment worth remembering.
Overall I’m really happy with the quality of the images, and for their purposes (web sharing, and a personal photo book) I think they’re more than sufficient. I’d venture that with a good shot I could easily make enlargements and canvases with great results.
With any camera it usually takes us a while to figure out how to customize it to our liking. The RX100 III was no exception. Here’s what we did.
After a lot of fiddling and experimenting, Rob made some customizations to the controls that worked well for us. With only two dials it’s not ideal, but it was relatively quick to get our exposure right.
Control Ring: ISO The control ring on the front of the camera is kind of clumsy, so we used it to control ISO, which we don’t change super frequently).
Flywheel: Aperture and shutter speed. Pressing down on this wheel toggles between aperture and shutter speed, and then turning it changes the settings. Once you get used to toggling between the two it’s not too difficult to dial in your exposure, but an extra dedicated dial would have been preferable.
Left button on the wheel: AF/MF control. This toggles between Manual Focus and Autofocus, which is really useful when shooting video. When Manual focus is selected the front control ring switches from ISO to controlling focus.
Right button on the wheel: AEF toggle. This is useful for locking exposure while shooting video.
C Button: ND filter. We found the ND filter super useful for shooting on the beach, especially when doing video, so this made it quick to use.
We spent some time getting the RX100 III kitted out with some accessories. Here’s another peek at the camera itself so you can see those accessories.
Here’s what we thought of them after the test run in Rio.
Sony AG-R2 grip: This definitely made holding onto the camera much easier and is highly recommended.
Sony screen protector: When you flip the LCD screen up for a self portrait it hits against the frame of the camera. Uh oh! This makes a screen protector very highly recommended to keep that nice screen safe. The Sony brand protector that we used wasn’t as good as the Sony one we got for the A7. It developed noticeable newton rings in the centre, which required pulling up the protector to get rid of them. Still necessary though!
Mini tripod: We brought along this teeny tiny tripod which we ended up using for some long exposure shots. It didn’t take up too much space, so it was a nice accessory to have.
A night view out our window at the busy roads along Copacabana.
LensCoat neoprene case: This case was really helpful in keeping the camera safe in our backpack. It didn’t fit as well as we were expecting, so Rob sewed an extra strip of velcro on in order to close it up tighter.
Lens pen: This was really useful (as it always is) and we used it to clean up our lens, as well as the lenses of the folks we traveled with! Sharing is caring.
What we forgot – Our rocket blower: Shooting on the beach means sand everywhere, and we really should have had this cleaning tool on hand to get the sand out of all the nooks and crannies. We were actually surprised that the camera survived the tough conditions! Sand and cameras are not friends.
What We Would Change
An interior view of the massive Metropolitan Cathedral.
As much as we enjoyed using the RX100 III on our trip, it’s not without some limitations. Here’s what we’d change, if we had magical wizard powers (or if someone at Sony reads this post!).
- Add an additional control wheel! Three should be standard, especially on a fairly expensive camera like this one.
- Make the front control ring more responsive.
- The rotating dial onscreen graphic that shows up when using the control ring is really clunky and unnecessary. There’s no need for anything more than changing the numbers. At the very least make this an option that can be turned off.
- Image file numbers should be shown in camera. It is so weird that they don’t show up. It made it very tough to give files to a friend!
- A built in time-lapse feature would be sweet!
- Longer lens (while maintaining the 1.8-2.8 apertures). A maximum of 70mm often didn’t feel long enough.
- Locking viewfinder: it pops back in way too easily. Needs to lock, or at least be harder to put back in, especially for glasses-wearing shooters.
- Brighter viewfinder: in bright sun the viewfinder was tough to see. Overall the viewing is a great idea, but it feels like it needs a couple tweaks before it’s really practical.
- Putting the viewfinder down currently turns off the camera. Super annoying! Being able to disable this feature would be great.
- Weather proofing would be great. This camera is perfect for travel, and some weather proofing would really solidify that.
- *Better ISO performance, whether through a larger sensor, or the same size with better noise performance, even if it means fewer megapixels.
Were there times, while visiting one of the most beautiful cities in the world, when we wished we had our big DSLRs with us, or our Sony A7 with the 55mm, one of the best lenses you can buy? Sure. I think no matter what gear we bring, we’ll always wonder whether we should have brought something else.
And then we snap back to reality – Rob carrying our bags filled with wooden trains, baby-sized tents, and over 100 diapers (yes, really), and me carrying Max, who often insists that nothing but my arms will suffice as a method of transport. And we are incredibly grateful to be carrying just one small camera.
Life has changed for us with a baby in tow, and along with it our ability to easily manage huge amounts of camera gear. We’re learning to adapt, and are so glad the Sony RX100 III exists to help us do so.
Max gave up waiting for the bus that never showed, and had a nap instead.
For our needs, on this trip, the Sony RX100 III was fantastic. Small and light enough to be a joy to use, with enough image quality to satisfy a pro’s demands. I’ve yet to print any of the images, but when I do I’m quite certain I’ll be pleased.
One of the biggest tests of a new camera is the simple question: Are we going to keep it?
At first we thought we’d sell it when we got home, and go back to using the Sony A7. It’s a better camera overall, and a lot smaller than the average DSLR.
Then something strange happened. On our way out the door to the park, or the grocery store, we found ourselves reaching for the RX100 III. The size is just so enjoyable, and with very respectable image quality, we just can’t stay away. Will it always be our first choice? No. It still has many limitations, and I’m not ready to give up the Sony A7, or the 6D and 24-70 combo for portrait sessions.
But here’s the biggest reason why I’m glad we brought the RX100 III to Rio. I know that if we had brought our DSLRs, our aching arms and backs would have clouded our judgement, and we would have left the camera in the room on our quick trips down to the beach or to the juice shop around the corner. It would have stayed in the backpack, too much hassle to unpack, or too difficult to hold in one hand as the other hand kept our toddler from hurling himself into the crashing waves.
And that would have meant many missed shots. The small size of the RX100 III let us capture so many little moments with comfort and ease. Those details are really what make up the flavour of the trip, and those images are what I’ll treasure in the years to come. That’s what a camera is for: not to get the most amazing depth of field, or to discover how high you can push your ISO, but to capture moments. Any camera can do that. For this trip we used the Sony RX100 III, and it did it well.