OK, you’re the camera industry. The smartphone is eating your lunch. Nobody’s buying compact cameras anymore. Everybody is taking pictures with their phones. What do you do?
You hit ’em where they ain’t. You make cameras that do what phones can’t do: zoom, or accept changeable lenses, or take truly professional-quality photos.
That’s exactly what Sony did when it came up with the RX100 camera in 2012. It was the size of any other compact camera, but its $650 price tag hinted at something unusual inside: a huge image sensor. A 1-inch sensor, the biggest ever stuffed into a pocketable zoom camera and three or four times as big as other pocket cameras’ sensors.
A big sensor means big pixels. So this yields fewer speckles (less grain) in low light, better color, and superb dynamic range (the spectrum from darkest to lightest pixels). A big sensor is also a must if you want sharp subjects against blurred backgrounds, a hallmark of professional shots.
The Sony RX100’s lens, meanwhile, had a maximum aperture(lens opening) of f/1.8 at the wide angle — the widest aperture available on a pocket camera. And that meant even more blurry background capability and even better results in low light. The RX100 takes pictures like these:
In other words, the RX100 was a near-professional camera packed into an amazingly tiny body.
Enter the Canon
Once the RX100 started garnering rave reviews and tremendous sales, the sharks began to circle. Now, Sony’s RX100 Mark 3 has been joined by a rival from Canon, the G7X.
These cameras are, by the numbers, identical. Same 20-megapixel, 1-inch sensor. (Neither company will admit to me that that they’re using the exact same sensor. But if they weren’t, they would have said so.)
Same tough, black, metal body. Same f/1.8 lens. Same built-in, self-closing lens cover. Same stereo microphones and crisp high-def video. Same micro HDMI jack for viewing your masterpieces on a TV. Same ability to take RAW-format photos for much more flexible editing. Same Wi-Fi and near-field radio for sending photos wirelessly to your phone on the spot. Same feature that lets you use your phone as a remote viewfinder and shutter for the camera.
Both cameras offer 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). Each has a ring around the lens that can control aperture, focus, zoom, or whichever setting you choose. The Sony’s ring turns silently, which is a plus when you’re recording video; the Canon’s clicks as you turn it.
In most cases, these two cameras even take essentially the same photos. They’re both spectacular in low light and terrific for portraits:
But the G7X is not strictly a copycat. Canon’s engineers have packed some astonishments into the G7X that leave the Sony in the dust. For example:
The Canon zooms much farther. It’s a 4.2X zoom (24 to 100 mm), compared to the Sony’s 2.9X zoom (24 to 70 mm). That’s a huge advantage.
Then again, each photo has 20 megapixels. That’s more than enough for simulating a little additional zoom — by cropping into a photo.
As on most cameras, the aperture shrinks as you zoom in. When you’re fully zoomed, you’re down to f/2.8 on both of these cameras. But the Canon gives you 44 percent more zoom at the same “brightness.”
The Canon has a multitouch screen. You can tap to indicate where you want to focus, blurring the rest.
Or, when you’re playing back pictures, you can spread two fingers to zoom in, just as on a smartphone.
There’s a dedicated exposure dial on top of the Canon, underneath the mode dial. Great for making quick brightness adjustments without any fiddling.
The Canon costs $100 less than the Sony: $700 instead of $800.
Is that it, then? Has Sony’s monopoly on the pocket pro camera finally ended?
Where the Sony RX100 still wins
The Sony still has so many counterbalancing advantages that choosing between these two machines will be excruciating. Yes, even with the $100 price difference. For example:
The RX100 Mark 3 has better specs: Slightly better flash power, smaller size, lighter weight, and much better shot-to-shot times when recording RAW files. Neither camera has exceptional battery life, but the Canon’s is really weak (210 shots versus the Sony’s 320 shots).
Incredibly, the Canon doesn’t have any kind of panorama mode, not even the old-style mode through which the camera helps you align multiple side-by-side shots manually. Come on, Canon — even phones have seamless automatic panorama modes these days.
The Sony has Sweep Panorama, which is among the best panorama modes ever invented. You just swing the camera around you, pressing the shutter button; it snaps away, creating a 270-degree, automatically stitched, perfect panorama in real time. It’s the ultimate wide-angle feature.
You can hold the camera either horizontally (for superwide) or vertically (for pretty wide and very tall, as shown in the third example here).
(These Web-optimized versions are only 500 pixels wide. You’ll have to imagine how stunning they look at 6 feet wide over your living room couch.)
Sony offers more video options than Canon. You can use more of the manual controls for movies that you would use for stills — manual exposure, for example — and Sony gives you a choice of frame rates, like 120p (great for slow motion). You can even take stills while recording video, which is fantastic.
On both cameras, you can flip the screen straight upside-down so that it’s facing you, a feature obviously intended for selfies:
But the Sony’s hinge mechanism is more sophisticated. Its screen can also tilt down by 35 degrees, which is helpful when you’re shooting something with the camera over your head.
You can charge the Sony from a USB cable — the same one you use to charge your phone or tablet, if you like. The Canon, on the other hand, requires its battery charger, which you have to remember to pack and track.
I find the USB cable method far more convenient, but not everyone sees it that way; after all, Canon’s system lets you charge one battery while you’re using another. (You can do that with the Sony, too, but its external battery charger is an extra-cost option.)
This is the big one — the killer: The RX100 M3 has an old-fashioned viewfinder, the kind you hold up to your eye.
Optical viewfinders are nearly extinct in pocket cameras. No Canon or Nikon compacts have them anymore.
But a viewfinder is incredibly important when you’re shooting outside, where sunshine would wash out the screen on the back.
Sony’s surprising solution: a crisp, electronic, pop-up viewfinder. 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.
When I took the Canon and Sony out for a few days of shooting, the viewfinder made the difference again and again. In sunlight. In darkness. Shooting video.
Shooting sports with the Canon’s burst mode is frustrating, because the screen display can’t keep up with the shutter; what you’re seeing falls farther and farther behind what you’re capturing. On the Sony, there’s no such problem; the viewfinder view of the action is never interrupted or delayed, even when you’re capturing a crazy 10 shots a second.
(For those keeping score at home: The Canon GX7 captures more shots per second while continuously refocusing. In “don’t refocus between shots” mode, the Sony captures more shots per second than the Canon.)
A tale of two powerful rivals
I’ve been reviewing cameras for 15 years. And for most of those years, I bemoaned the fact that small cameras always had small sensors. What the world was waiting for, I always said, is a pocket camera that takes professional-caliber pictures.
I was told by the manufacturers that the limiting factor wasn’t physics, but price. Such a camera could be made — but those big sensors and high-quality lenses would make the camera cost much more than other compacts. Triple or quadruple the price. And nobody would buy them.
That’s why Sony gets tremendous credit for taking the risk in 2012: for creating a camera category that hadn’t existed before, and for finding a new reason for compact cameras to exist in the age of the smartphone.
Its new look-alike competitor, the Canon G7X, is also an incredibly successful camera. Almost everything you point these cameras at comes out looking great: rich colors, wide dynamic range, amazingly crisp focus — and blur only when you want it.
If you’d used one of these cameras to take the picture of that dress, the Internet would not have worked itself into a frenzy trying to figure out what color it was.
Anyway, here’s a summary of what differentiates these two cameras:
$100 less expensive
44 percent greater zoom
Sony RX100 M3
Pop-up electronic viewfinder
Up/down tilting screen
More video control
Charge from any USB cable
In my book, the Sony maintains its crown; I could never go back to a camera without a a viewfinder. And maybe the heating-up competition means that Canon’s next version will add a viewfinder, or maybe Sony’s will match the Canon’s zoom range. (By the way, the previous Sony RX100 model, the Mark 2, is still available. It does match the Canon’s zoom maximum — 100 mm — and costs even less at $600, but it doesn’t have that pop-up viewfinder.)
If you’re used to taking pictures with a smartphone or a standard pocket camera, prepare to have your mind blown. The Sony and Canon cameras cost much more than other cameras their size, but that’s the wrong way to think about it. Instead, you’re buying semi-professional gear that’s been miraculously miniaturized. Now you can have a sensational camera with you whenever photographic inspiration strikes. If you care at all about your photography, that’s money well spent.