Hey, kids — it’s time for a quiz!
Have a look at these photos:
Now then: Which camera do you think took them?
Well, you probably know me well enough to realize that this was a setup. The pictures are from the last camera most people would expect to be capable of such clarity, flexibility, and low-light skills. It’s the tiny one on the right. (You can see the full-size originals of those photos, and many more, on my Flickr page.)
That’s the new Sony RX100 Mark 3 (or M3, as people in a hurry call it). It’s the successor to the M2, which is the successor to the original RX100. Each time, Sony packs more quality and features into this absolutely tiny machine. And in the M3, well, it’s just showing off.
The best feature by far — and a key reason you’re paying $800 for this tiny camera — is the huge sensor inside. Bigger sensors give you better pictures: sharper in low light, better color. Trouble is, small cameras generally have small sensors. Not this baby; its sensor is about four times the size of its rivals’. Read my column here for more on why sensor size matters.
The Sony RX100 M1 and M2 also had this 1-inch sensor. So what’s new in the M3? Three big things and a lot of little ones.
First — and read this slowly: It has a viewfinder, the kind you hold up to your eye.
This makes me giddy. Believe it or not, viewfinders are nearly extinct in pocket cameras. I couldn’t find a single compact camera model from Canon, Nikon, or Olympus that still has one; as far as I can tell, they are gone for good.
For longtime photographers, that’s a heartbreaking development, but the people have spoken: They’d rather have a big screen, even if it means leaving no room for a viewfinder.
Too bad. A viewfinder is a big, big deal when you’re shooting outside, because sunshine washes out the screen on the back. And your camera is stabler when it’s pressed against your face.
Sony has found an astonishing solution, a first in the history of cameras: a pop-up viewfinder. It gives you both a viewfinder and a huge screen. When you want to peer through it, you flick a little button at the top-left edge of the camera, and — pop! — the viewfinder snaps upward. It’s been hiding behind that huge screen all along.
To complete the setup, you tug the back of the viewfinder, extending it. Once that’s done, it’s a full-blown viewfinder, complete with a diopter (a lever that adjusts the focus for your particular eye). In other words, you can use the camera without putting on your glasses; the viewfinder does the vision correcting for you.
It’s not an optical viewfinder, mind you, but rather a flawless electronic one, meaning that you’re actually seeing a tiny OLED screen. It also means you get to see the effect of any settings you’re changing before you take the picture.
Be aware, though, that using the viewfinder cuts the M3’s battery life by about a third (230 shots instead of 320) — and 320 shots isn’t that great to begin with. Second battery, anyone?
Also be aware that popping up the viewfinder turns the camera on, which is terrific. However, pushing it back down turns the camera off, which is not terrific; sometimes you push it down because you feel like framing shots with the screen. You didn’t want to turn off the camera — you just wanted the viewfinder to go back into its shell.
The second big change in the M3 is the back-panel screen. It tilts and pivots, like the one on its predecessor, so that you can shoot over your head or down low without kneeling — but this time, it flips all the way upside-down, so that it’s facing forward. And you know what that means: It’s perfect for selfies.
(Here’s a little tip I made up myself: You can use the screen’s hinge system to prop the camera at interesting angles.)
All the delicate moving parts on the Sony make me a little nervous. This is not a cheap camera. Sony wants $800 for it (and will find plenty of buyers at that price; photographers online are going nuts over it). You will worry about something breaking or getting bent, or at least I do.
There’s an important third change in the M3, too: Its lens. The RX100’s lens has always inspired the raising of eyebrows because of its industry-leading f/1.8 maximum aperture. (Lenses with smaller f-numbers can let in more light. One delicious result: that blurry background look so common in professional photography.)
But the original RX100 models offered f/1.8 only when you were fully zoomed out. If you zoomed in, you rapidly lost that huge aperture, winding up at a disappointing f/4.9.
The M3 lens doesn’t zoom as much as the previous models’; it’s 24-70 mm (about 2.9X zoom) instead of 28-100 (3.5X). That’s a bummer to many.
But, in exchange, you get a much “faster” lens that dims only to f/2.8 when you’re fully zoomed in — better low-light photos and greater opportunities to blur the background, no matter how much you’re zoomed in. And at 24 mm, the M3’s lens can capture a wider angle.
The camera offers some minor new goodies, too: a built-in neutral-density filter (cuts down on the light, so you can choose aperture or shutter-speed settings that would otherwise overexpose your shots). And “zebra lines” that warn you, in the preview, about areas of the picture that will be overexposed.
Many old goodies survive, like a ring around the lens that can control whatever you like: aperture, focus, and so on.
And a really wonderful Fn button, which summons instant access to the six or 12 photographic parameters of your choice: flash mode, focus mode, ISO, that neutral-density filter, whatever. And WiFi, so that you can transfer any picture to your phone for instant posting online. And lots of customizable controls, including four buttons and a notch on the mode dial that can recall whatever set of settings you’ve stored there.
That mode dial also includes Sony’s spectacular, and spectacularly useful, Sweep Panorama mode. It captures full swaths of the world around you with a single swing of your arm, either with the camera held upright —
— or turned 90 degrees, for a taller (but less wide) frame:
There is, by the way, one missing goodie: There’s no more hot shoe (accessory connector) on top. On the M2 model, you could attach an external microphone to it (there’s no way to use one with the M3) or an optional external viewfinder; that, at least, is now unnecessary.
The video story
Not only does this camera take better photos than anything else its size, but it also captures better video. Incredibly good video, thanks to new M3 developments like these:
• Full-sensor readout. Believe it or not, one frame of HD video is only 2 megapixels big. Most large-sensor cameras therefore capture way too much information for video — they throw away as much as 80 percent of the captured information. (They store one out of every five horizontal lines in the image.)
“Since there are so many rows of pixels missing from each frame,” Sony explained to me, “anything in the scene of repeating high spatial frequency (like bricks or Venetian blinds) leads to pronounced aliasing, resulting in color falsing and moiré.”
The M3’s processor is so fast, however, that it records all the data from the sensor, skipping no lines at all. The resulting video picture is pure and artifact-free.
• XAVC compression is a professional-caliber compression scheme for video. It uses much more data to describe the scene — if you buy special SDXC memory cards.
There are also stereo mics, three levels of image stabilization, and an HDMI output jack so you can observe your video on a bigger monitor as you shoot it.
You can use all the camera’s photographic controls for video, and even change many of them (like exposure, ISO, and focus mode) while you’re filming. Sony even designed the lens ring to turn smoothly and silently, to avoid clicking sounds or vibration that would wreck your video.
Making its mark
We live in an age when every camera company has eliminated eyepiece viewfinders from its pocket cameras. Including Sony, by the way.
That Sony can cram that beloved feature and so much more into a palm-sized, pocketable camera already makes the M3 a modern miracle of mechanical miniaturization. But that it also takes better photos and videos than any pocket camera on earth — well, that’s when my admiration turned to awe.
And it’s fast, too. I mean, this thing can pump out 10 shots a second, 20 megapixels each. Incredible.
You might wish it could zoom a little more, or that the battery lasted a little longer, and you’ll pray that all those delicate moving parts remain intact. But, brothers and sisters, this is the camera the world has craved for decades: a professional-caliber photographic instrument that’s no more hassle to carry with you than a phone.
There’s an old saying in the photography business: The best camera is the one you have with you. I’d phrase it differently: The RX100 M3 is the best camera you can always have with you.
You can email David Pogue here.