The RX100iv, is not a casual user’s camera – it is a serious photographer’s tool. That’s not to say a number of P&Sers won’t buy, and effectively use it. But if you are going to set it on the “auto,” or “scene” setting and shoot away, and/or posting images only online, you will be wasting 90% of the camera’s potential; and leaving a lot of money on the table.
My “path” to the RX100
Some of you may have read about my “saga” of equipment during the past couple years. For those who haven’t, I’ll briefly recap, as I believe it puts this review in perspective. I started photography, shooting slide film with an all-manual, SLR back in 1976. I have since, advanced through a number of iterations of SLR and eventually DSLR cameras (“upgrades”?), have studied photography, and made a pretty serious run at it as a hobby. For most of my shooting time, I have been a Nikon owner (which is not a black vs. white commentary, but perhaps shows a level of seriousness), shooting their very good cameras and lenses, including a number of “pro” designated lenses and bodies.
The RX100iv is not a casual user’s camera
Sometime during late 2012 and early 2013, I decided to trade my “backup” Nikon D7000 for one of Sony’s “MILS” (mirrorless interchangeable lens) cameras. The series was the “NEX” line (now re-badged as the “Alpha” x000 series), and was often found in stores like Best Buy and Staples, in the lowered-numbered iterations. The higher numbered NEX-6 and 7, though, were formidable cameras, with viewfinders and all of the “bells and whistles” you find on the modern higher-end DSLR cameras.
The NEX-6 incorporated the identical APS sensor to the one in the D7000 and was a very compact form factor. I thought it would work nicely for a carry-around camera. It did – and more. In fact, it became my primary travel camera. It was light, small, inconspicuous, and easy to use (reminiscent of the Nikon-1 that was marketed for Nikon by Ashton Kutcher for a few years). I fell in love with smaller and lighter, but still felt “married” to the concept of carrying a “full-frame” sensor camera for my landscape imagery.”
I thought the NEX6 would work nicely for a carry-around camera — It did that, and more
Other than the limitation of the APS sensor size, the one “knock” on these cameras was the lack of “good” lenses. That was not my own experience. Not only did some of the Sony lenses perform very well, but Sigma made a pair of very cheap lenses that were extremely small, sharp and affordable. But the real draw was Carl Zeiss. Sony and Zeiss have developed a partnership and lenses are now manufactured for by Sony with Zeiss specs (and badged Sony/Zeiss). Zeiss also has manufactured lenses for the Sony line of camera, on its own. The best of these lenses were prime, very fast (f1.8 – 2.8 range) and rendered some wonderful, contrasty images with great bokeh.
Then, Sony announced its Full Frame a7 series and for me the rest was history. A chunky body which reminds of a very small SLR, and still relatively large lenses, this combo is still smaller and lighter than my older Nikon SLR, and the advances in technology are pretty great. My primary camera is the a7. My “backup” and walk-around was the NEX-6.
But I am always looking at “new and improved.” And small is good. My a7 default rig is the a7 plus a Carl Zeiss f4 24-70 zoom lens. The quality I get from this out fit is certainly second to none. But it is still big and heavy compared to some of the more “portable” choices out there. I am not sure where or how it captured my attention, but sometime during this past winter, I “noticed” the fourth generation of this little camera, the RX100iv. At the time, I didn’t know about the prior generations (i and ii did not have the same lens and earlier-design sensors and less features, and iii had the same lens, but still not the advanced sensor of the iv).
What first grabbed my attention was the built-in Carl Zeiss f1.8-2.8 zoom lens. I wondered how it might compare to other Zeiss offerings for Sony. DPreview, and other resources, said: “favorably.” Then I began to look at the other features of the camera. Sony is (in my mind) a developing camera company (as compared with, for example, Canon and Nikon). In that sense, as their mirrorless offerings began to take hold, they changed and “fiddled” with their menu system. For a while, each new offering had a different or changed system, which was annoying. When moving from camera to camera, being familiar with the consistent approach of a system is very useful. The NEX system was very different from the a7 (I believe the newer generation alpha 6000 – of the NEX series incorporates Sony’s newer, current, menu system). The RX100 has an almost identical menu interface to the a7.
Small is good
Note that the lens, a Carl Zeiss f1.8 24-70 zoom was first installed on the iii version of this camera. From what I can see, the primary differences between version iii and iv are the “stacked sensor” (more later), an electronic shutter, more resolution (3840 x 2160 vs. the iii’s 1920 x 1080), faster continuous drive (essentially, a non-issue for this type of camera in my opinion), and a negative, shorter battery life. Many of the improvements seem to favor videographers. I haven’t gone there at all, so I cannot comment on this camera as a video tool. But the RX100iii is about $150 less than the iv. This might be a factor for some with a budget in mind. I would think you would get a pretty good camera in the RX100iii.
About the same time I was looking, my mentor from NOLA e-mailed me that he had acquired one of these cameras and he was duly impressed. I decided it was time to make another “leap of faith.” I boxed up the NEX-6, some lenses, etc., and made an essentially even “trade” for the RX100iv. My thinking was that if I was disappointed, I could still get back to the a6000 without a 2nd mortgage. I did do a “preliminary” review on this camera shortly after I acquired it, promising a more in depth review.
This is a “serious” camera, with all the controls resident in a “serious” DSLR camera; a Carl Zeiss lens; and the ability to capture images in raw format. At $950.00 it is a high price point for the P&S world, but it is not really a P&S camera under the hood. It certainly can serve as a backup (and maybe even a primary camera) for general photography at a “professional” quality level. I have now carried it (nearly exclusively) on two out-of-country trips (Japan and the Mediterranean), and shot over 2,000 images with it. I think I can make some “hands-on” observations now:
Size. There is no getting around it; this is a P&S sized camera. The body on this diminutive camera is a mere 4” long x 2 ¼ high by 1” deep. The “lens bump” on the front adds an addition 5/8 inch, being the only thing keeping it from being a true miniature pocket camera. But pocketable it is! I have carried it in my shirt pocket, my front pants pocket, or in the cargo pocket when available. It would be a tight fit in jeans, but in looser fitting pants (I wear Columbia pants in the field), it fits well.
One thing that clearly distinguishes it from the field is its weight. Mine weighs 10.7 ounces, which equals a fair amount of “heft” — but not uncomfortably so, in my view. It appears to be all or mostly metal construction and built for durability. It feels good in the hand (though I did purchase Sony’s additional stick-on hand grip for the lower right part of the body). My hands are medium-large and it gives me a feeling of added security when carrying the camera in my right hand. It is a matter of preference. I think you could do fine with out).
The RX100iv is a P&S camera in physical form only!
It’s Inconspicous. To me this is very exciting and important. Here is a camera that is tiny enough to pack anywhere and carry and has the potential to make near-DSLR quality images. In addition to the fact that it is very small and light (maybe even the difference between an extra carry-on or not for airline travel); it is also very inconspicuous. When shooting with a group of photographers in a National Park, that is probably not much of a factor. But in travel situations, cities, and faster moving groups, it becomes a pretty big deal. I am generally able to move around and shoot as I wish, and I am just “another tourist.” People do not instinctively “freeze up” when they see it (if they see it). This is a phenomenon I never appreciated until my pro friend and mentor suggested that it would be an advantage (in fact, he has a funny story where a shooter with all the “big dog” gear, kind of disdainfully tried to “shoe” him away so she could get her shot – having no idea that this guy is a life-long pro, trained photojournalist, who has shot international music acts, books, and sells substantial stock photos, and likely could have taught her a thing or two about phography).
In the final analysis, any serious photographer (at least in my own view) should be choosing her or his tools based on one primary feature: image quality. Perhaps said another way, a camera with all the bells and whistles which produces poor image quality, is a non-starter. While my remarks below may read to some as at least mildly critical, I want to emphasize that overall, I find this to be a fine camera, worthy of carry, and I plan to keep and use it as a “workhorse” for a long time to come.
“Image Quality” is a Relative Term
I believe “image quality” is a relative term. If I am making poster sized, fine art, landscape prints, my “need” for IQ might be different than if I am going to post online. I don’t have unrealistic expectations (at least not currently) of using the RX100 for this kind of image (edit: I drafted this before actually making some prints. I have made a couple 13″ x 19″ prints now on my Epson Printer that rival anything I have made from larger sensor cameras). But I do want to be able to make a large print if I make an image I like well enough. When I first got the camera, I made some closeup flower images and printed one on my Epson printer at 13” x 19” and was impressed with the print – IQ. Enough so, that I opted to carry only this body on my trip to Japan.
In September, I packed both cameras, and carried the a7 on one shore excursion. Learning that I essentially had all the same focal length and exposure solution ability, I decided to leave the a7 aboard the ship and carry the RX100 for the balance of the trip. Nearly all my Mediterranean images were made with the RX100. While in Vermont in October, on a photo-specific trip, I carried the RX100iv into the field and made a few side-by-side comparison images. I have posted a couple of them here, for comparison (and whatever else you may want to do with them – subject, of course, to copyright 🙂 )
Overall Quality. I will leave the technical stuff to DPreview, Wilhelm Imaging Research, and the pixel peepers on line. My reviews are always intended to be more empirical, hands-on, “will this work for you,” kind of judgments. In that respect, the answer is a qualified “yes.” On a scale of Poor to Excellent, I would judge the IQ rendered by this sensor as good, leaning toward the “excellent” range on the scale. It is not as good as, for example, the Zeiss 24mm f1.8 prime lens on my NEX-6 was. But it is close enough for the intended use. Most of the imagery made by me with this type of body does not call for closeups, bokeh, etc. I am shooting cityscapes, buildings, etc., and when conditions warrant, shooting around f8 at low (100 – 125) ISO ranges.
I should note that I capture raw images 99.99% of the time. I set my in-camera settings to be totally neutral on every digital body I own. When I first purchased the RX100iv, Adobe had not yet released an ACR version that would render the raw capture files from this camera. So in the beginning, I set it to shoot both raw and Jpeg images, so I could see and work with them in Photoshop. I did briefly use Capture One to render the raw images, but the new workflow was more than I wanted to learn, so I was glad that Adobe shortly upgraded ACR to include the newest Sony raw file format.
Anyway, I cannot really comment on any of the settings for jpegs in the camera. The jpegs I used seemed clean, sharp, contrasty, had good dynamic range, and seemed true to exposure settings I made.
Sharpness. I will give this camera an A- / – B+ for critical sharpness. As most readers probably already know, with digital capture, sharpness can be affected by a combination of factors. Aside from the human factors (shake, shutter speed, etc.), the two that primarily affect sharpness in digital capture are the lens and the anti-aliasing filter on the sensor. I don’t know which combination here affects the imagery the most, but I have been mildly disappointed here. It is rarely an issue, but occasionally I have seen a lack of sharpness in some images. I use AF almost exclusively and I am aware that it could be my specific copy of the camera. It is also a zoom lens. I may just have too high expectations after shooting with the a7 and the NEX-6/Zeiss prime combination, but it is a Sony-Zeiss designed lens and I expected more. I am not saying it is unacceptable by any stretch. It is, to me, comparable to the results I used to get with my Nikon D200 and the 28-200 f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. I can (and will) certainly live with it (and as you see, my “grade” is really not that bad).
Sensor. Sensor size will always influence IQ, in my view. The larger the sensor (with other technical factors being correctly done – and nobody does it better than Sony) — the better the potential IQ. Larger sensors tend to have less noise issues and capture more detail and dynamic range. Lots of reasons for this – I’ll let the experts explain it. Sony has done something interesting with this camera. At one inch, the sensor is significantly larger than most P&S camera sensors, but still small than APS. On the iv generation, they have introduced their “stacked sensor” technology. This has moved some of the essential “computing” technology off of the primary capture sensor to another stacked chip. I cannot begin to explain this, but they do a pretty clear job in the DPreview piece on this camera.
Bokeh. One of the challenges to small camera construction is that sensors are smaller, physical lens apertures are smaller, and this affects bokeh. It is much easier to get smooth, creamy, out of focus backgrounds with a wide-open (f1.8 or 2.8) on a full frame or larger sensor with a big lens. I had hoped that the ultra-small lens at f1.8 would get close to the larger a7 – f4 Zeiss 24-70 combo. Not quite. For those really impressive closeup shots, I am probably going to stay with my full frame camera. But for most purposes, this isn’t an issue. The general shooting I have done has rendered very nice imagery. The daffodil shot below is exemplary of what the RX100iv is capable of.
IQ Conclusion. These comments aren’t meant to discourage a potential acquisition of this camera. For several years, I shot with a Nikon DSLR APS sensor camera and their “consumer” 80-200 zoom lens. I have many very good images from that combination. The IQ from the Sony RX100iv easily matches that IQ. Don’t let any comment above stop you from acquiring this camera. The numerous images I have put on my website should convince you that there is huge “bang for the buck” in this camera. One other thing I didn’t mention – the quality and sharpness appears to be very consistently good throughout the entire range of the zoom lens.
Usability and Controls
Have I mentioned that this camera is Small? For some, this might be a factor. But in this day of cell phone cameras, I doubt it will be anything but an advantage for most of us. I love the portability. This camera fits in a pocket, a purse (or “man bag”), a small backpack pocket, or a briefcase. This means you will carry it and if you carry it, you will use it.
This camera fits in a pocket, a purse, or a “man bag”
Viewfinder. I grew up in a viewfinder world. Starting with waist-level finders and quickly graduating to wysiwyg, pentaprism finders, my first 30 years of photography involved seeing through the viewfinder. Though I occasionally find the LCD screen useful, I “see” photographically when I have a view finder. So for me, a viewfinder is a must have option.
Sony has done this very cleverly. There is a pop-up viewfinder. It is a bit cumbersome, but you get used to it quickly. When you pop it up, it turns on the camera, and the default is that when you retract it, it turns the camera back off, though that can be turned off in the menu system (this was a complaint in the iii iteration and I understand that a firmware upgrade has now given iii owners the option to turn it off too). In order to recess back into the housing, Sony has engineered a pull out/pushback part to this finder. In order to retract it back into the camera, you must push it back. I haven’t had any issue with this, but it might be possible to break it by trying to force it down without pushing the optical part back in. This is probably the camera’s weakest point, mechanically. I have always been pretty careful with my gear (when you spend big dollars it makes you more careful 🙂 ). When you pop it up, if you bring it to your eye without pulling it out, you will get a blurry view. This is probably the camera’s weakest mechanical link. For RXiii users (and the default behavior for the RXiv), when you clicked the viewfinder back into the body, it shut the camera down. I read some complaints that Sony didn’t make this a user changeable feature. Apparently, they listened, and the RXiv can be set to either shut down or stay on (and there may be a firmware upgrade that adds this feature for RXiii users).
There is a slider adjustment on the viewfinder to focus the finder. It is one of my “niggles” with the design/construction. This slider moves easily in use, and I find myself having to constantly re-adjust it. I wish there were some kind of click stop for it.
The viewfinder is, like all of the Sony MILS viewfinders, an electronic finder. This used to be a negative feature on digital P&S and mirrorless cameras. They looked like a grainy, B&W video cam screen and weren’t well integrated with the lens. Sony has not only fixed that, but in my opinion, has actually improved on the pentaprism viewfinder found in SLR/DSLR cameras. One really cool feature (when turned on in the menu system), is a kind of “real time” exposure view. As you adjust aperture and/or shutter speed, you can see the image in the viewfinder darken and lighten. Focus integration is instant. This is a very nicely integrated piece of technology by Sony. On my recent trip to the Mediterranean, I picked up my travel companion’s Nikon DSLR to take an image of them as a couple and immediately noticed that the viewfinder wasn’t changing as I made adjustments. I have grown to like this feature on all my Sony cameras.
Controls. The controls are similar to the a7, but a bit less handy for the traditional dial style camera. There is one dial on top which changes the shooting mode. I generally leave it on A mode (occasionally on M). I would like to see that dial dedicated to something more useful, like changing aperture or shutter speed.
Lens Ring. The RX100 has a nice, knurled lens ring. That ring can be set to use as a focusing ring for MF, a zoom ring (I use the electronic zoom on the shutter button) or – depending on which shooting mode you are using, to change aperture (A and M), or shutter speed (S). Another “niggle” I have with Sony is that this knurled ring (while smooth in use) turns too easily at the touch, and I find myself having to re-set my set aperture more often than I would like. I have gotten into the habit of checking that as I bring the camera up to my eye. But to my way of thinking, I shouldn’t need to be worrying about that. Settings should be, well, “set,” until I change them. Maybe more damping, or even a click stop might serve this well.
Rocker Dial. There is the traditional “joy-stick” rocker-dial on the back which makes other settings in those modes. It is generally well placed and damped and I haven’t had any issue with accidentally changing things with it when shooting (it is possible, if you carry the camera at your waist one-handed with your right hand, to move that dial, however).
There are also dedicated and programmable function buttons. The Sony menu system has begun to be more consistent, and it is very similar to the system on my a7 (and on the alpha x000 series). A review of that is beyond the scope of this review and others have done it well already.
LCD Screen. The RX100iv has a very nice, articulating, 3” diagonal LDC screen. It is hi resolution and reasonably useable even in sunny conditions (though I rarely use it). I recommend only 4 accessories for this camera. One of them is a screen protector. This camera is going to get scratched up, particularly if you pocket it. The screen protector is a worthwhile investment (the other two are a small arca swiss plate for tripod use, a remote trigger, and the hand-grip, whose mileage may vary).
Flash. The RX100iv has a popup flash. Like most P&S flashes, it has limited utility and strength, as well as being mounted on the body, causing the probability of red-eye. I have not looked into the use of external flashes, or whether it is even feasible (other than remotely triggered flashes).
Tripod Use. Those who know me know I have preached and preached (and then preached some more) about the virtues of a good tripod. I carry 2; both carbon fiber and both fairly expensive (not to brag, but to point out that for the perceived utility of this accessory, really good ones are just darn expensive). There is a tripod socket on the body. I have a very small arca-swiss type dovetail plate with a small ridge on it that grips the back of the body to resist twisting. I have used the camera on a tripod and obtained results I could not have otherwise. The image of Tokyo Tower, at night, was taken from a tripod, through a hotel window. It would be impossible to do this handheld.
Remotes. One disappointment for me has been Sony’s implementation of remote triggering. On the a7, I cannot use a wired remote without removing my L-plate, which essentially defeats the purpose of having an L-plate in the first place. I have had to resort to a wireless remote. They are quirky, and I struggle with getting it not to try to re-focus. But I have figured out the workaround. Now, I find that I cannot use the wireless remote on my RX100. So I carry the wired remote for that and the wireless for the a7. So much for consistency within brand. But these issues are minor, in light of the overall utility of this very small, very estimable camera.
In three words: not very good. But there is good news. The batteries are quite small (much smaller than DSLR batteries), and aftermarket versions seem to be just as good as the OEM battery. So I just carry extras and keep them charged. Won’t quite get a day’s shooting in on one battery (the way I shoot).
Things I would like to see in a newer software version: a battery and card “warning.” I know they are already there visually, but only if you have that screen turned on. If you are in the heat of things, its disconcerting to find the “decisive moment” and get the message “battery exhausted” or “card full,” and have your camera rendered essentially useless.
Another thing that I have found disconcerting is that the battery “meter” on the back screen of the camera is not particularly accurate. Recently, I took my cam to an event and when I checked, the meter told me my battery was at least 75%. When I went to use it, I got barely 2 shots before it was down to nothing and “exhausted.” One think I have learned about these batteries. If you leave them in the camera for an extended period, they will be exhausted, regardless of what the “meter” says. Always start out with a freshly charged battery.
“Bells and Whistles”
My working gestalt when it comes to cameras is that they are a tool. At its heart, this may be as good a small “tool” as I have ever owned. The essential part of the camera is a pretty simple mechanism: it gives us the ability to expose on a sensor, and the ability to control the variables of that exposure. All of the other stuff is “bells and whistles.” We have come to take AF (autofocus) for granted, and as my eyes continue to age, I find it a necessity. I like the ability to set the camera to Aperture Priority or Shutter Speed Priority, but that is really just a convenience from the essential setting — manual. And you really cannot effective use AP or SP unless you understand how to use Manual Exposure.
At its heart, this may be as good a small “tool” as I have ever owned
Like all modern digital cameras (and I really wish we had a choice to exclude much it what comes next), this camera is packed with bells and whistles for the less experienced or less sophisticated user (that’s my own view anyway). And in my opinion, if you come within this latter category, the RX100iv is way too much camera for you! It has the (apparently) requisite “Auto” and “Program Auto” settings, and within the menu, a myriad of “scene” settings. For the life of me, I don’t see what a serious shooter would ever do with those settings and thus – would rather have them gone, have a simpler menu, and more effective use of the dials. :-).
These cameras all seem to have in-body HDR and Panoramic Settings. Interesting, but essentially useless to me (and many other shooters) because they default to — and only work in — jpeg mode. To my way of thinking, all advance cameras are bloated with this stuff in my oh, so humble opinion. 🙂
I was intrigued with the panoramic feature, and during our trips had 3 or 4 opportunities to capture a panoramic shot. Since we never had time for me to set up a tripod and take the series of raw images necessary to stitch together in Photoshop later, I tried the in-camera feature, knowing I would have jpeg captures to work with. It is basically disappointing. First, it is set up only to take the image in “landscape” mode. When stitching panos, most of us take our series in “portrait” format in order to have more top and bottom to crop and work with when perspective correcting. Second, the in-camera perspective correction is almost non-existent. My images have a pronounce curvature, and would take some pretty series surgery to fix. Not anything I am willing to spend a bunch of time on. I have found some very limited usefulness for that here (illustrations in my blog in very small image sizes). If I am going to shoot a panoramic that I really want as a “keeper,” I will be taking a series of portrait-orientation shots and stitching them in PS.
As much of a gadget guy as I am, I have learned that the old saying, “less is more,” is apt here. The less you have to carry, adjust, attach, care for and think about, the more you can focus on your goal of making pictures. On this camera, I have kept it to a minimum of 4 items. I put the extra grip (it is very small, like the camera, and doesn’t interfere in any way with the camera – including pocketability) on mine. That will be largely a matter of personal choice. I have an arca swiss style plate for my tripod head, and a wired remote for tripod shooting. I put a screen saver on the LCD.
There are other accessories (for example, I purchased a kit to install a polarizing filter. It seems pretty “Rube Goldberg” to me and I doubt that I will use it). There are add-on “telephoto” and wide angle attachments. But the beauty of this little camera is that it is simple to use, yet has all the capability serious shooters will want to make creative images — without any accessories.
It pays to remember, here, what a very good friend of mine once said about equipment. Every single piece of photographic equipment out there is a compromise. There are minor things I miss about the NEX-6. That wonderful f1.8 Zeiss lens is the biggest thing. The ability to interchange lenses might be another. While in Japan, I can identify two specific instances where I would have liked to pop a telephoto on. But only two out of several hundred images is not bad, in my view — and an acceptable compromise. There are – for sure – going to be times when “more camera” (i.e., a full frame or larger sensor and interchangeable lenses) is going to be warranted.
But I have now taken over 2,000 images with my RX100iv. I am pretty well satisfied that it was a great choice for a general purpose and travel camera. I think that if you are an experienced and serious photographer who travels or has a use for a smaller format camera — this is one you should look very hard at.