Review: Sony RX100 VII compact camera
The seventh iteration of Sony’s RX100 series is a capable carry-anywhere camera. It boasts an excellent built-in Zeiss zoom lens and surprisingly good high ISO performance for a 1-inch (diagonal) sensor camera. If it weren’t for some limitations that do not directly relate to image quality, it would be more than qualified for many professional assignments.
For still photographers the best features of the camera include its size, long zoom lens, sensor quality, autofocus performance, and large tilting touch screen. It also has some outlying features like an insanely high burst speed of 90fps. It’s a capable 4K video camera for video blogging, too.
As accustomed as I am to full-frame and APS-C cameras, I was pleasantly surprised by the image quality produced by the 1.0-type (0.52 x 0.35 inch) stacked CMOS image sensor, even up into the relatively high ISO range. At lower ISO speeds, the dynamic range is more than adequate for most situations.
Most Carl Zeiss branded lenses are now made in Japan by Kyocera, and they remain some of the best lenses available in their respective classes. The angle of view captured by the built-in 9.0-72mm (24-200mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) f/2.8-4.5 Vario-Sonnar lens is rendered sharply from the center to the corners at all focal lengths. It has a sophisticated optical design combining 15 elements in 12 groups that serves its purpose. I didn’t see any outstanding optical defects.
There are downsides to the compact built-in lens design. At the wide end of the focal range, the lens focuses down to 8 centimeters, but at the telephoto end, close focus is limited to 1 meter. If you’re a fan of precise framing, the zoom control can be frustrating because only a light touch changes the focal length dramatically. In addition, the lens is not threaded to take filters.
The imaging pipeline pairs an Exmor RS 20.1-megapixel 8.8mm x 13.20mm (1.0-type) stacked CMOS sensor with the newest Bionz X image-processing engine tuned for this sensor. ISO sensitivity ranges from 100 to 12,800, and expansion settings allow for exposures at the equivalents of ISO 80 and 64 or up to 25,600 in both still and movie modes.
What does all of this computational power mean to a photographer? Among other things, it means that the autofocus systems in current Sony cameras, including the RX100 VII, work like magic. Back in 1962, futurist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote the now-famous line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The way Sony’s autofocus system works comes close to proving that adage.
Incorporated into the back-illuminated CMOS image sensor are 357 phase-detect autofocus points spread across 65% of the full imaging area, along with a whopping 425 contrast-detection autofocus points. Sony claims the RX100 VII can acquire, lock, and track focus in 0.02 seconds and perform 60 autofocus (and auto exposure) calculations per second.
Sony currently leads the field in autofocus systems by yards. Whether using Real-time Tracking for accurately following a moving subject or using face or eye recognition, Sony is doing autofocus better than any of its competitors. There is simply nothing comparable to the RX100 VII’s autofocus performance.
As an action camera, the RX100 is a firecracker. It’s capable of a sustained 20 frames per second (fps) raw or JPEG capture of blackout-free shooting—useful for covering a bride tossing a bouquet or kids playing soccer—60 fps with blackouts, and even a mini burst (7 frames in 0.11 seconds) at 90 fps.
For such a small camera, it handles well. The physical controls are laid out nicely, and I was able to learn how to use them by touch alone quickly. I especially liked the control ring around the base of the lens and the top deck controls. The 3.0 inch (diagonal), 4:3 ratio, 921,600 dot, touch-sensitive LCD panel can tilt up 180 degrees to face forward or down 90 degrees for low-angle shooting.
But there are some design limitations that irritate me. The tiny spring-loaded popup low magnification EVF is not just inadequate, it’s sometimes unusable. When depressed back into the body of the camera the camera turns off. Because of this you lose the several seconds it takes to turn the camera back on. There’s also a tiny sliver of a built-in flash that pops up out of the body. At least it doesn’t turn the camera off when you snap it back down. Instead of the minuscule EVF and Lilliputian flash, I would much rather have a smart hot shoe even if that meant a slightly larger camera body. With a hot shoe you could use a more powerful on-camera flash or even wirelessly triggered off-camera lights.
With the camera off and the lens retracted, the camera measures around 4 x 2.3 x 1.75 inches. Including SD media and battery, it weighs 10.7 ounces, making it small and light enough to carry in a large pocket or a small bag and thus an excellent camera for casual travel.
For video bloggers and serious filmmakers, the RX100 VII is a fantastic fit. For those just starting with motion work it can function as the core of a more extensive system. You can add an external microphone and, for better sound, more microphones and also a multi-channel audio mixer. For more advanced productions you may want to add a stabilization device, but note that there is no HDMI port for an external monitor. The camera can record 4K footage in either S-Log or a hybrid log-gamma picture profile for HDR video.
Performance comes with a price tag. At an MSRP of $1,299, the RX100 VII isn’t cheap, especially compared to other 1.0-type format cameras with fixed lenses. But if you can exploit its full range of capabilities, it might prove to be a bargain.
Ellis Vener is contributing editor for Professional Photographer.