Sony DSC-RX100 vs DSLR. Why I have reverted to a compact digital camera
Posted in Technology on Thursday, 10th January 2013 at 8:51AM
About 6 years ago I was working mainly as an artist and decided I wanted to learn how to use a 'real' camera. Digital SLR cameras were becoming both affordable and capable enough to allow amateurs (i.e. me) to give it a go without breaking the bank so I invested in a Nikon D40x with a Nikon Nikkor 18-200 VRII zoom lens. My thinking was that this would be a flexible enough combination that it would cover me in most situations without needing to switch lenses.
After a couple of years I found the low light capabilities of this setup was pretty dismal compared to the newer entry level DSLRs so I purchased a Nissin Di 622 Mark II flash. By now my camera was something of a behemoth and required a fair amount of commitment on my part to lug it around. It was fine for purposeful photography outings but with the arrival of children and and the need to have a semi-decent camera always at my side, it was becoming impractical.
A few weeks ago I happened to be reading a review of Sony's new large sensor compact camera the RX100 and realised that the capabilities of this tiny camera far exceeded those of my 6 year old DSLR in just about every aspect. Within a couple of days my entire setup was on ebay and a couple of weeks later I had more than enough money to cover the cost of an RX100.
I've now had a couple of weeks to get used to the new camera and here are my first impressions.
This was my key reason for making the swap and the difference is basically ridiculous! Being only a little bigger than a pack of playing cards I now find myself taking my camera just about everywhere I go, no more do I have to choose between carrying the baby or the camera. I know that for a lot of people where photography is a major part of most outings, it is no big sacrifice to take so much gear on the road with them but I seem to be getting less and less time to do photography for photography's sake so having such a large camera on my shoulder was becoming pretty pointless.
On a bright day it is fair to say that my 6 year old DSLR did produce fantastic shots which possibly equaled those of the RX100 but this was in ideal conditions. The photos from the Sony are consistently bright and sharp in most conditions.
As soon as the sun goes in, which seems to be an awful lot at the moment, the RX100 comes into it's own. Where as before I would struggle to avoid underexposed or shaky shots on gloomy days or in low light I can now snap away with pleasing results and plenty of detail. It's fair to say that more recent entry level DSLR cameras are much better than the D40x in low light scenarios but for me it was still a revelation. With the Nikon I would start to experience unacceptable noise when shooting at anything over ISO 400, whilst again things are much better on modern DSLRs it is refreshing to be able to shoot at ISO 800 and above and for noise not to be an issue.
Above: Hand-held under dim lamp light with 100% detail
The RX100 also has a few different low light settings that take multiple shots at a really high ISO in quick succession then combine them to reduce noise and improve sharpness. Whilst it might not be useful in all situations it actually does a pretty good job. I took this picture in near darkness without a tripod and it's passable if not great.
Before upgrading to a digital SLR I used to really enjoy photographing bugs with the macro feature of the compact I was using. I always felt that this was one area of my DSLR setup that tempted me to start swapping lenses as the 18-200mm was obviously not made for macro. It's great to have a macro capability back with the RX100 and I think it's pretty good - fine for the sorts of things I like photographing anyway.
Depth of field
Another reason I liked my DSLR was its ability to isolate subjects from the background, something not usually achievable with a compact. Not so with the RX100, while the effect might not be as dramatic, thanks to it's larger sensor and 1.8 aperture setting you can still attain a good degree of isolation.
One of my main reasons for buying a DSLR was to become more creative with my photography and find out how a camera actually works when not in 'Auto'. Having a DSLR definitely helped me achieve this and I'm not sure I would have bothered had I switched straight to a camera like the RX100 but now that I am pretty familiar with the basics concepts I don't feel particularly restricted by the RX100. Indeed, having read the manual from cover I'm starting to think that it might even take me on to the next level because it makes using non-automatic modes far more intuitive and user friendly than my DSLR. Whilst it may seem that the controls are a dumbed down version of what is available to DSLR users and the lack of optical viewfinder is sorely missed, so far I'm finding myself able to do things that took me a while to work out on the D40x in half the time on my RX100.
The flash on the RX100 is obviously quite puny in comparison to the Nissin Di 622 but it has a trick which I absolutely love - it bends. I would normally shoot with the Nissin pointed upwards to bounce the light and create a much mellower effect, something that I liked and would have missed on a normal compact but with the RX100 you can just pull it back with your finger whilst taking the shot to produce a warm and natural looking photo. It may not seem ground-breaking and I'm sure that for anything but happy snaps it isn't going to cut the mustard but I always hated flash photos on previous compacts and now they look fine.
Above: Not the best example but you can see the difference between direct and indirect flash using the RX100
One fairly significant disadvantage this camera has over a DSLR is the inability to screw filters onto the lens. Whilst there are options available online (mostly from China) for clipping filters onto the lens I don't think I'd bother as they look a bit gimmicky and to be honest I've never been a big filter user.
One accessory I have bought is a faux leather case which gives it a really nice retro look. Whilst the Sony one costs about £40 and still isn't real leather, I bought one off ebay for £10 and am really pleased with the quality.
The RX100 also supports Eye-fi SD cards for wireless syncing and geo-tagging which I plan to purchase in the not too distant future as the RX100 case makes accessing the USB socket and SD card slot a bit of a pain.
Am I glad I sold my DSLR and bought the RX100? Yes - definitely. Whilst it would not satisfy a pro-photographer or even a really keen amateur, for someone with my needs it just makes far more sense. It may be expensive for a compact camera but it's not like any compact camera I've used before and when compared to a DSLR the cost is actually not so bad. Maybe in a few years once I've got more time to spend fiddling with settings and going out on photo trips I will look at re-investing in a DSLR but then again the chances are that by then we'll all be shooting with retinal implants.
It's now over 4 months since I wrote this article so I thought I'd give a very quick update. Am I still happy with this camera? Yes! Even more than when I wrote the original entry. As I have gotten to know the controls and quirks of the RX100 I have found that this camera has a huge amount of potential and that it is a really fun camera to use. I probably take about 10 times more photos than I used to largely due to the fact I actually take it with me everywhere I go and on the whole the results are pretty stunning for a compact.
I am even finding the in-built effects quite fun to use despite scoffing at them initially. I know that they could all be achieved in Photoshop and with a great deal more flexibility but I just don't have time to tweak my photos that much any more and the 'special' settings give me the chance to be a bit more creative on the fly. Taking photos with just the green parts in colour is surprisingly satisfying so long as you don't take your photography too seriously.
To give an idea of how much a part of my life this camera has become (and what prompted me to write this update), I actually had a nightmare last night that I scratched the lens and couldn't take decent shots anymore - maybe I am becoming too attached!