Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II
Sony has a line of compact pocket cameras that perform more like DSLRs than point-and-shoots. These cameras deliver image quality that exceeds what one would think a camera this small could be capable of. This is the Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 line, and there are four versions available.

The original Sony RX100 was released in the summer of 2012 and it immediately made a splash in the camera pool. Featuring a 20.2-megapixel 1" CMOS sensor, a Carl Zeiss 28mm-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 zoom lens, and controls similar to those found on DSLRs, the camera quickly became a must-have tool for many photographers.

One year later Sony released the RX100 II. In this version the original sensor was replaced with a 20.2-megapixel 1" back-illuminated CMOS sensor, which gave the camera improved high-ISO capabilities. Sony also made the rear LCD screen tiltable, placed a hot shoe on the top, added WiFi capabilities, increased the battery life, and improved the video quality.

In the summer of 2014 Sony released the next version of the camera, the RX100 III. Sony replaced the lens with a Carl Zeiss 24mm-70mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8. The hot shoe was removed and a popup electronic viewfinder added. This version of the camera also included an improved tiltable real LCD screen and an updated image processor.
Tire Pile - Mojave, California
ISO 160, f/8, 1/80, 68mm.
This last summer the next version was released, the Sony RX100 IV. The big change is that the sensor was replaced with a 20.2-megapixel 1" stacked back-illuminated CMOS sensor, which makes the camera operate faster and allows for 4K video. Also, the electronic viewfinder was improved.

With each new version the price also increased. The original RX100 currently has an MSRP of $500, the RX100 II has an MSRP of $750, the RX100 III has an MSRP of $800 and the RX100 IV has an MSRP of $950.

In 2013 Hasselblad released a cosmetically altered (but otherwise identical) version of the original RX100 camera called the Stellar. The next year they released a cosmetically altered (but otherwise identical) version of the RX100 II called the Stellar II. These cameras cost about double the price of the Sony models, and some "special editions" versions of the Stellar cameras have an MSRP of over $3,000!

I did a survey of my own photographs and determined that about 75% of my images were captured with a focal length between 60mm and 100mm (equivalent), so I knew the first two versions were the ones that I needed to consider. I chose the RX100 II over the original model because of the improved sensor, and it is this model that I'm reviewing here.

The Sensor
Sinister Smile - California City, California
ISO 160, f/5, 1/60, 43mm.
When Sony released the Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II in the summer of 2013 it produced image quality (according to DxOMark) that exceeded that of all Micro Four Thirds sensors and matched the image quality of many APS-C sensors. The sensors in those cameras are much larger than the 1" sensor found in the RX100 II, so this was quite an accomplishment! In the two-and-a-half years since, Micro Four Thirds sensors have caught up to the sensor in the RX100 II and many APS-C sensors have surpassed it. Even so, Canon's Rebel T6S DSLR, which has an APS-C sized sensor and was released earlier this year, was found to produce very similar image quality to the RX100 II, despite the big difference in sensor size.

The 20.2-megapixel 1" back-illuminated CMOS sensor has very good dynamic range. In fact, according to DxOMark, it has the exact same dynamic range as the Canon EOS 5DS full-frame DSLR released earlier this year. There are certainly cameras with greater dynamic range than the RX100 II, but the camera holds it's own remarkably well considering that it has a ton of tiny light-sensing "pixels" crammed onto a small sensor.

I found that the dynamic range has more leeway in the shadows than the highlights. There's a sharp cutoff where highlights clip. The shadows, on the other hand, seem to hold details pretty well. For this reason I like to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop (to prevent clipped highlights) and increase the shadows and mid-tones in post-processing.

Base ISO on this camera is 160, but is expandable to ISO 100. Between ISO 100 and ISO 200 the RX100 II will produce similar noise results to any other camera at base ISO. No surprise. It is when one increases the ISO that the differences begin to show.
Rusty Door Catch - California City, California
ISO 160, f/3.2, 1/200, 28mm.
The first increase in noise can be seen at ISO 400. It's not a huge jump, but it is noticeable when closely compared to full-frame sensors. At ISO 800 the difference is more obvious, and it is noticeable when closely compared to APS-C sensors. The maximum practical ISO for this camera is 1600, and it might be comparable to ISO 3200 on many newer APS-C cameras or ISO 6400 on many newer full-frame cameras. In other words, many newer APS-C sensors have a one-stop high-ISO advantage over the RX100 II and many newer full-frame sensors have a two-stop advantage. While the camera has a maximum ISO of 12800, I found that the results above ISO 1600 are not great and (for the most part) it's best not to go above that.

I was getting mixed results at ISO 1600 and I couldn't explain why at first. Then I realized that in bright-highlight situations I was underexposing to prevent clipped highlights, but in order to brighten the shadows and mid-tones I was increasing the noise in the image to an equivalent ISO above 1600 (an range between ISO 2000 and 2800). Besides that, the dynamic range decreases as ISO increases, so there was less to work with in the shadows. I discovered that it is best to correctly expose images at ISO 1600, or (alternatively) use ISO 800 and underexpose by one stop, and increase the shadows and mid-tones in post-processing (the results are similar, but you don't risk clipping the highlights with this method).

Colors are excellent, both in processed RAW files and in the out-of-camera JPEGs. As expected, the files (especially the RAW files) have plenty of latitude for manipulation. The photographs in this review were all significantly edited using post-processing software.

The 20.2-megapixel resolution is more than enough for most photographers. 5-megapixels are enough for 8" x 12" prints and 10-megapixels are enough for 16" x 24" prints. You should be able to produce 32" x 48" prints with this camera, although I have not printed that large.

The Lens
Diamond Sneaker - California City, California
ISO 160, f/5, 1/80, 49mm.
The lens is equally as important to image quality as the sensor. One thing that surprised me about the Sony RX100 II is the sharpness of the Carl Zeiss 28mm-100mm (equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 lens. It is easily as sharp as a high-quality fixed-focal-length prime lens, yet it is a zoom. Amazing!

The largest aperture, available only at the widest focal lengths, is f/1.8. Because of the small sensor size, the depth-of-field is limited, and f/1.8 on this camera will give a similar depth-of-field to using f/5 on a full-frame camera. For those who like having a narrow depth-of-field this may be a problem, but those who like having a large depth-of-field will find this to be great. Bokeh, when you can achieve it, is smooth and creamy.

At the telephoto end the largest aperture is f/4.9, which will give you a similar depth-of-field to using f/13 on a full-frame camera. The focal lengths where the largest aperture changes are 35mm (f/2.8), 50mm (f/3.2), 70mm (f/4) and 100mm (f/4.9).

The smallest aperture is f/11 (no matter the focal length), which gives a similar depth-of-field to using f/32 on a full-frame camera. Landscape photographers will love this! Diffraction seems to first become noticeable at f/8 at the wide angle end of the lens and f/9 at the telephoto end, and by f/11 it is somewhat pronounced (although still usable).
Toilets - Mojave, California
ISO 640, f/8, 1/125, 100mm.
The sweet spot for sharpness seems to be between f/4 and f/5.6 when the focal length is wider than 50mm and between f/5.6 and f/8 when the focal length is 50mm or longer. You'll notice soft corners whenever the aperture is larger than f/4, becoming increasingly pronounced as the aperture enlarges.

There is a lot of barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens. It's most severe at the 28mm (equivalent) focal length and decreases as one zooms--it's pretty much gone by 50mm. The camera will automatically correct this if you shoot JPEGs, but (obviously) you have to fix this yourself in RAW format. It's not difficult to fix but it makes batch-editing more difficult, increasing the time you'll spend post-processing your pictures.

There is pronounced chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) found at the edges of highlights. The camera will automatically correct this if you shoot JPEGs, but (obviously) you have to fix this yourself in RAW format (it's simple to do and not a big deal).

I've noticed some minor vignetting in the corners when using a large aperture and also at the far telephoto end of the lens no matter the aperture. It's barely noticeable and can be corrected in post-processing.
An Old Knob - California City, California
ISO 160, f/5, 1/30, 28mm.
The minimum focus distance is two inches at the widest focal length and 22 inches at the longest focal length. The camera is capable of macro photography at the 28mm focal length, but wide angle macro photography isn't all that practical. As you zoom the minimum focus distance quickly decreases to a point where macro photography is not possible.

The lens has seven elements in six groups and there are seven rounded blades. Sunstars look great and have 14 points. There's some lens flare and ghosting when you point the camera directly at the sun, but overall it isn't bad, especially when using a large aperture (it's more prominent when using a small aperture for some reason).

I've notices some banding in blue, cloudless skies when photographing towards or within a 90° angle of the sun. This is a common problem in digital cameras and I wasn't surprised to find it. I think the extraordinarily subtle changes in tone and luminosity are tough for digital cameras to handle. It isn't terrible and careful post-processing can reduce the effect.

The lens on the RX100 II is extraordinarily sharp but not without flaws. It's not surprising that there are some issues because, after all, this is a zoom lens and not a prime lens. The lens not only has to zoom but also retract into the camera body, so there are lots of moving parts. That they were able to get it as good as they did is actually quite an accomplishment.

Vintage Truck & Joshua Tree - Mojave, Caifornia
ISO 250, f/8, 1/80, 67mm.
One thing that really attracted me to the Sony RX100 II--and I imagine that it's the same for pretty much everyone who has purchased it--is the camera's size and weight. It's 4" x 2.3" x 1.5" and weighs just over half a pound. It easily and comfortably fits into your pocket. It's extraordinarily small and lightweight, perfect for travelling or hiking or pretty much anytime you don't want a bulky and heavy DSLR around your neck.

The camera is fairly quick. It takes almost three seconds from startup to first exposure, which is a little on the slow side, but considering that the lens has to extend from the body, that's not terrible, either. The camera is pretty responsive, auto-focus is snappy and you can shoot up to 10 frames-per-second (in Continuous Mode).

The camera's controls are via buttons, knobs, switches and wheels. Anyone who has ever used a DSLR will quickly understand how to operate this camera because the controls are similar. Many of the buttons can be customized to your liking. You can program three different "memory recall" settings that can be easily recalled for different situations.

One complaint is that the "control ring" (the ring on the front of the camera around the lens that's used to manually focus and can be customized for a couple of other things, as well) is not very responsive--it seems like you have to turn the thing forever. Another complaint is that the zoom switch is a little too responsive and it's sometimes hard to get the focal length just right. That's too bad because those two shortcomings sour what is otherwise a good design.
Disowned In The Desert - California City, California
ISO 160, f/5.6, 1/1250, 62mm.
Auto-focus, which uses contrast detection, is quick and accurate. The camera has face recognition and will automatically focus on the eyes. There are several different focus options: Single-Shot Auto, Continuous Auto, Dynamic Manual (auto-focus that can be manually refined with the shutter release button half-pressed), and Manual. There are three options for auto-focus areas: Multi (there are 25 points across the middle 2/3 of the frame), Center and Flexible Shot (there are 187 different points to manually choose from across the entire frame).

For manual focus you can focus peak which allows you to see a little better what's in focus and what's not. The way it works is a bit unconventional (at least it's not like anything I've seen before) and it takes a little bit to get used to. But now that I've used it several times I actually like it a lot.

Auto-white-balance is accurate in normal light. It seems a little too cool in the shade sometimes. Artificial light (especially florescent lights) seems to throw the white balance off and it often will be too warm. If you are shooting RAW don't worry about it. If you're shooting JPEGs simply make a test exposure to make sure that the white balance is correct.

The built-in light meter is usually spot-on accurate. You have three options to choose from: Multi, Center and Spot. The camera has three stops exposure compensation.
Abandoned With Joshua - Mojave, California
ISO 320, f/8, 1/80, 73mm.
The RX100 II can be set to fully auto (Superior Auto, Intelligent Auto or Scene), semi-auto (Program, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority) or fully manual. There's also an option for panorama mode and movie mode. One suggestion: go into the settings and set the red record button to only work when the camera is in movie mode. I accidentally recorded a number of short videos before I figured out to do this.

Panoramas are easy to create with the RX100 II. In panorama mode simply press the shutter button and sweep the direction the camera instructs. The camera does a pretty good job of stitching the exposures together. There are two options for size: Standard and Wide. You can also choose which way you sweep (right, left, up and down).

The in-camera JPEGs are good once you've figured out how they should be customized. I didn't like the factory settings, so I played around until I got them to look right. Thankfully the JPEGs can be heavily customized.

Most of my images are captured using RAW format. Sony doesn't include any software with the camera to post-process RAW files. What they don't tell you is that they've got a deal with Phase One that allows you to download and use their Capture One Express software for free (or you can download the full Capture One software for a steeply discounted price). Capture One Express is similar to Adobe Lightroom, and some will tell you that it's superior to Lightroom. The free software only works with Sony cameras.
ERV - Mojave, California
ISO 250, f/8, 1/125, 100mm.
You can choose JPEG, RAW or RAW+JPEG. The camera writes onto the card quickly and it takes some effort to fill the buffer. If you shoot in Continuous Mode and save in RAW format you'll max out the buffer after 10 exposures. I've yet to encounter another scenario where I reached the ceiling on the buffer.

The RX100 II has a popup flash on the top-left of the camera body. It works pretty well as a fill-flash and the camera does a good job of balancing it with the exposure. It seems to take a long time to cycle between shots. For occasional casual use it's great, but if you frequently use a flash you might consider investing in an external flash to attach to the hot shoe.

You can capture full 1080p 30 frames-per-second HD video with this camera. Sony gives you quite a few options and controls in video mode. The camera has stereo microphones built-in and you can attach an external microphone to the hot shoe. Also, you have the ability capture 17-megapixel still images while recording video.

I was surprised and pleased with the image stabilization included in the camera. Using good technique, I was able to fairly consistently get sharp images handheld with the shutter as slow as 1/4 with a wide angle focal length and 1/20 with a telephoto focal length. Amazingly, I was able to get one sharp image handheld with a 3/5 second exposure!
Deserted Desert Dreams - Mojave, California
ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/125, 100mm.
The camera can capture HDR images, and you can adjust how heavily it works. I'm not a big fan of HDR photography, but I did give it a try and it works. There are a couple of other camera features that take multiple exposures and combines them into one JPEG image (such as Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes), but I haven't tried them.

The rear screen is a 3" LCD with 1228k dots. It can tilt 90° up and 45° down. The screen's display can be customized. The RX100 II does not have a touch screen, but it is a quality screen nonetheless.

Sony claims that the battery can capture 350 exposures on one charge, which is good but not great. I've not exhausted the battery to know how accurate that number is. I have captured over 250 exposures on a fully-charged battery and the camera claimed there was still some life left. Even so, it's probably a good idea to get a second battery. The battery charges in the camera using a USB cord.

The camera has WiFi included. You can wirelessly upload photographs to your computer or even control the camera with your cell phone using an app that you have to download. I've not set this up so I can't comment on how well it works.
Happiness Is Marrying Your Best Friend - California City, California
ISO 160, f/4.9, 1/250, 100mm.
There are no threads on the lens to attach filters. Sony does make a glue-on attachment that you can buy that will allow you to use filters with this camera.

One great thing is that once you turn off all of the artificial sounds that the RX100 II makes--all the different beeps and so forth--the camera is extraordinarily quiet. There's a faint click when the shutter opens and closes, and that's it! It's perfect for street photography or anytime that you want to remain inconspicuous.

The RX100 II is solidly built. For the most part it feels tough. If you were to drop the camera the three spots that seem most likely to break are the flash (if it's open), the mechanism that tilts the rear screen (if the screen is tilted) and the lens (if it's extended).

Abandoned In California - California City, California
ISO 160, f/7.1, 1/800, 43mm.
It's amazing that such a small camera is capable of producing high-quality images. In photography, smaller and lighter are often better, especially for street, travel and adventure photography. It makes the experience much more enjoyable than lugging around bulky, heavy gear.

One question that I wanted to answer was whether or not you could replace your DSLR and assorted lenses with this one camera. And the answer is... maybe.

No camera is perfect and the RX100 II is certainly not perfect. It has several limitations, including a permanently attached lens and limited high-ISO capabilities. If you can happily live with the limitations, than, yes, you could buy this camera and get rid of your DSLR. But if you cannot happily live with the limitations, then this camera can't replace your DSLR. However, it might still be a good tool to use when a bigger camera is less than practical.
No Preservatives - California City, California
ISO 160, f/3.5, 1/60, 28mm.
For someone who doesn't own a DSLR but is considering purchasing one, this might be a good alternative. You'd certainly spend more money on a DSLR and a good quality zoom lens that covers a similar focal range than you'd spend on this camera. Yet the RX100 II has all of the controls you'd expect to find on a DSLR.

My Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II was purchase from Costco. It came with a screen protector (which, once in place, looks like it was always a part of the camera), a 32 GB SD card and a leather case. I found it on sale for $500 (which, after taxes and shipping, came to about $550).

If you are in the market for a digital camera that is small enough to fit into your pocket yet delivers DSLR-like image quality, the Sony RX100 II (or one of it's siblings) is the camera to get. With an MSRP of $750, it's a little on the expensive side for a compact camera, but, then again, it is so much better than a typical compact camera. If you can find it discounted (around $500-$550) it's a very good deal.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans Day 2015

Old Yield Sign - Boron, California
It's Veterans Day in America. This is the day that we honor and thank those who are serving or have served in a branch of the United States military. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to all of those who have been in America's armed forces, because without you and all those like you we wouldn't have the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Something that you might not know about me is that I was enlisted in the Air Force for four years. I don't talk about it all that much, but it was an important step. My life would be a lot different if I hadn't made the choice to serve, and I'm confident that the decision was a good one.

My family has a history of serving in the U.S. military. My dad spent 20 years in the Navy. His dad was in the Army. I have uncles and cousins that served in different branches. An ancestor of mine even fought under General George Washington in our war for independence. 
Abandonment - Victorville, California
None of this has anything to do with urban exploration or photography, other than it might explain my fascination with abandoned military bases. The two images in this post are of Air Force bases that now sit abandoned and decrepit.

When I was a kid we usually lived in military housing. Even though the bases are different, the architecture is similar and I'm often reminded of my childhood when I explore and photograph abandoned military installations.

On this Veterans Day, as I honor and appreciate the veterans of the U.S. armed forces, I also am introspective. I'm reflecting on my own past--the child of a veteran and my own service--and how that has in a way molded who I am today. It's a good opportunity for me to contemplate my life and why I am the way that I am.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Things Change ...And Abandoned Buildings Come Down

Lake Front Property - Rosamond, California
There's a small abandoned ranch in Rosamond, California that I've visited and photographed a couple of times. It even made it into my post Top 10 Best Urban Exploration Sites In California's Mojave Desert. I noticed that of the four structures on the property, only one still stands. The other three have been removed and the property cleaned up.

Things change. Now that I've been doing this whole urban exploration thing for a few years, it's amazing to me just how much things change with the passing of time. Places that have been abandoned for years and years--perhaps many decades--will overnight vanish. It may seem like they're forgotten and will remain untouched for a long time to come, but you just never know when someone will start caring.

The moral of this is if you want to explore some abandoned place you've been eyeing, don't wait! Your opportunities may end before you expect them to.

All of the photographs in this post are of those three now-gone buildings (and the junk left inside). If I hadn't photographed them when I did, there would be no way for these images to exist. If I had procrastinated my opportunities would have slipped through my fingers. But since I did photograph the place, I now have these images to document what once was.
Classic Television Set - Rosamond, California
Wall Shadows - Rosamond, California
Full of Junk - Rosamond, California
What I Learned In Oklahoma - Rosamond, California
Old Chair, Broken - Rosamond, California
Vintage Abandoned Ranch - Rosamond, California
Now Unused - Rosamond, California
Light From Above - Rosamond, California
Forgotten Mess - Rosamond, California
Soundcraft - Rosamond, California
Young California Pioneer - Rosamond, California
To The Reader - Rosamond, California