In addition to occasional vacations where photography and / or hiking are the main goal I travel – a lot – for work. Oftentimes, my Canon 5DmkIII gets left home alone. The difficulty and stress of travel is a monotonically increasing function of the amount of stuff you cart around, and I just don’t want to bother with the weight of my DSLR kit if I’m only going to have a few hours of free time in a location. Thinking this way though loses you photographic possibilities, and there have been plenty of images I’ve snapped with my iPhone that could have been nice photos with a better camera. So I’ve been thinking for a while about supplementing my existing gear with a camera that’s lighter and more likely to be with me when I travel.
The occasion of a trip to Istanbul to lecture on planet formation brought these thoughts to a head. I imagined – not entirely accurately as it turned out – that Istanbul would be a busy and somewhat chaotic city where having a camera smaller than a DSLR would not only be lighter, but also advantageous in terms of being more discreet. I consider the ability to shoot raw a must, and since the whole point was to get a camera substantially more portable than a DSLR the ability to fit it into a pocket was a major plus. The Sony RX100m2 fit the bill on both counts, and not without doubts I headed to Turkey with a brand new compact as my sole camera…
How did it work out? In one word: great. The famous historic sights of Istanbul – Hagia Sophia (above), the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Galata Bridge, and the rest – are actually much more “European” than I imagined, and you wouldn’t be out of place shooting street scenes there with a full DSLR setup. That said, a light and pocketable camera feels much better at the end of a day of sightseeing than a DSLR, and – with just a couple of caveats – I don’t feel I sacrificed many photographic possibilities with the baby Sony as compared to my usual Canon. Most importantly, I felt more comfortable shooting on the street with what appeared to be a “snapshot” camera rather than a pro-looking outfit.
What worked and what didn’t? In general, I was fully satisfied with the basic image quality and usability of the Sony:
- Image quality – since the Sony was the only camera I had, I haven’t tried (yet) any head to head comparisons with the 5DmkIII. Informally though, the files look quite fine at 100% in Lightroom, and there’s reasonable latitude to bring up the shadows or recover highlights. I took some care to avoid going beyond ISO 800 or 1600, but that was enough for hand held daylight interiors of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
- Usability – generally excellent. The camera arrived a couple of days before I left for the trip, and I spent maybe an hour with the manual configuring the settings to my liking. In use, the autofocus was fast and accurate, and the menus easy to navigate. It takes a couple more steps to adjust ISO than I’d like (with my setup), but that’s a minor gripe that could be fixed if you used the lens dial for ISO rather than aperture or some other function.
- Overall feel – also excellent. The camera is small, but solid – “dense” is the word that comes to mind.
Of course you don’t get all this good stuff without having to make some compromises too. As a longtime SLR and DSLR user, there were a bunch of things I missed:
- No viewfinder! In the abstract I’m pleased there’s no viewfinder, because small size and weight were the things I wanted most in my second camera. That said, it takes some getting used to. I mis-framed a bunch of shots, and although some of those were just due to inexperience I think it’s genuinely more difficult to compose on the screen than in the viewfinder under daylight conditions.
- Electronic zoom. It doesn’t work well if you’re used to a mechanically coupled zoom lens. You want to zoom in just a little, and you overshoot. Go back, and again you miss. There’s an option to change the zoom from (pseudo) continuous to a finite set of fixed focal lengths, and I think I’ll end up doing that – better to have definite constraints rather than imprecise freedom to set the focal length.
- Battery life. It’s half a day in real life. Not bad, but not what you get with a DSLR.
- 28mm at the wide end. I wish it was 24mm, and I’d willingly sacrifice some of the telephoto reach to go wider. I did a lot of stitching.
Everyone’s photographic needs are different, but I see a clear place for a high performance (and relatively large sensor) compact alongside a DSLR in my camera arsenal going forward. It seems clear to me that we’re still at least a generation or two from reaching the point of diminishing returns in the performance of full-frame DSLRs. On our summer trip, I got to compare images shot with my 5DmkIII with those my brother took using a Nikon D800e, using comparable “high end consumer grade” 70-200mm f/4 lenses. The Nikon gave very obviously higher resolution images, even with hand held shots taken with relatively inexpensive glass and no special attention to shooting at optimal apertures. With the very best lenses that promise near diffraction limited performance – perhaps a Canon 300mm f/2.8 or the forthcoming Zeiss 55mm distagon – I envisage in the not too distant future shooting reference images (and probably 4k video) that take advantage of 50 or even 100MP sensors. Clearly though that’s overkill for many many shooting situations. If I go hiking on a bright sunny day with harsh lighting, the chances of capturing an image that I’ll want to print at 30×20 inches are close to zero. A compact camera that’s “good enough” is probably going to be the right tool – for me – for such situations, and in the current generation the Sony RX100m2 does the job very creditably.