It’s no secret that smartphones have done some serious damage to the compact camera market. The age-old adage that the best camera is the one you have in your pocket rings true, especially in a world of triple and quadruple camera smartphones that have excellent image processing capabilities.
Compact cameras aren’t quite extinct just yet though. This fierce competition from phones has just meant camera makers need to build in really good reasons to buy a compact camera, and no company has championed this effort more than Sony with its RX100 series.
Complete with its 1-inch larger-than-usual sensor for great quality, and a fast aperture zoom lens, is the RX100 VII the best-in-class pocketable compact out there?
Small, portable and clever
- Dimensions: 101.6 x 58.1 x 42.8mm
- Weight: 302g (incl. battery & card)
- Pop-up viewfinder and flash
- 180-degree flip-out screen
With a compact camera, the big thing (well, little thing) is the size. The unit needs to be portable, pocketable and unobtrusive, while retaining enough features and capabilities to make it worthwhile buying. The RX100 series has led the charge on this front for many years, a vein in which the seventh-generation model continues.
Lengthways, the RX100 VI is about two-thirds the length of an iPhone 11, and is noticeably narrower. That means, despite being the thickness of about five smartphones, this camera is very easy to pop into a pocket, or just hung from your wrist using the included cord.
To its credit, Sony has manage to stuff in so many little features into the camera that you can do pretty much anything with it. It has Sony’s typical 180-degree flippable screen on the back, taking up the majority of the space, alongside some physical controls and a nice thumbrest.
Like the company’s bigger cameras, such as the A6600, the RX10 VII’s hinge/arm design isn’t perfect though. It only lets you have the screen tilted up or down, so you can’t rotate it around to the side or in on itself for protection. It does means you can see yourself when vlogging or shooting a selfie, but a slim portion of the screen is obstructed by the top of the camera’s body when in this position. What’s more, if you happen to have the little pop-up flash extended, even more of this screen is blocked.
Still, it was very useful being able to get selfie shot framed, and undoubtedly even more useful for shooting low down and being able to have the screen rotated 90 degrees to making framing much easier.
As well as having the pop-up flash hidden in the top of the camera, Sony has tucked away a pop-up viewfinder, which you can eject by quickly flicking the ‘Finder’ slider on the camera’s side. Doing so automatically powers up the camera ready for shooting, for those who still prefer to frame shots using the traditional method. It’s especially useful in sunlight, where a rear screen makes things hard to see.
Other features on the top include the little on-off button, the shooting mode scroll-wheel, and the shutter button surrounded be the zoom in/out slider. Being small, the shutter button isn’t as easy to find blind as it would be on a bigger camera, and it doesn’t depress very far, so it’s hard to tell when you’ve actually pressed it.
While the RX100 VII’s design means you don’t get dedicated scrolling buttons for instantly adjusting ISO sensitivity, aperture or shutter speed, Sony has instead put a rotating control around the base of the lens, which you can turn to manually adjust various aspects. You can have adjust the aperture value, for example, then use the rotating dial around the main control buttons on the back to adjust the shutter speed. But you can customise it to suit your wants, should you wish to control other values. It’s pretty flexible, and very useful.
- 24-200mm (equivalent) f/2.8 – f/4.0 zoom lens
In a world where the compact camera is competing with smartphones, the zoom lens is what really sets it apart. In this particular instance, that’s a 24mm to 200mm equivalent, which runs from wide-angle to medium focal lengths.
Despite being relatively small and compact, the zoom offers incredible versatility. It’s able to go from ultra-wide expansive landscapes to zooming right in on a subject, such as the ship in the example above.
It can move smoothly between those two extremes to offer a plethora of angles. However, you don’t get a constant aperture all the way through the zoom range, but the f/4.5 maximum at 200mm is usable. Even in low-light the results really aren’t too bad.
From one zoom to another now: speed. Like its more expensive compact system cameras, the RX100 VII is fast, and features a similar engine to the all-out full-frame A9. That means it focuses quickly and takes a shot in the blink of an eye.
The only real downside to Sony’s high-end performance in a small form factor is thebattery life. It’s no surprise that the tiny battery inside the camera is a little on the weak side. Shooting B-roll through an evening event – roughly capturing around 25 minutes of 4K footage – was enough to see the battery emptied.
For the video makers
- Up to 4K resolution video capture
- Up to 1000fps slow-motion
- 3.5mm mic input
- HDMI out
For serious filmmakers, it’s unlikely that the RX100 VII will ever make a primary camera. But it will comfortably make a decent backup option. And it is the ideal solution for people who want to take their vlogging to the next level. The camera can shoot in resolutions up to 4K up to 30 frames per second (30fps), with higher frame-rates available at Full HD (1080p).
Surprisingly, it’s also equipped with HDR/HLG shooting capabilities – that’s high dynamic range and Hybrid Log Gamma – and can shoot up to a maximum bitrate of 100Mbps. Pushing to its limit will bring in some limitations though, like the 5 minute constant shooting at HDR levels, to prevent overheating.
The camera impressed us in a couple of ways while shooting in most conditions: the footage was more stable than we expected shooting handheld (thanks to Sony’s SteadyShot tech), and it focused quickly or kept focus even when moving around. We even used HDR in some fairly low-light conditions, shooting some B-roll for an event in a fairly dark recording studio.
As you’d expect, when shooting with little light available, the ISO sensitivity needs to be pushed up, particularly when zoomed in and, therefore, the wider aperture isn’t available. This meant there was some image noise creeping into shots, introducing a little grainyness. It’s not surprising, since that’s something even some of the bigger, more powerful cameras would struggle with.
The advantage to a compact system camera or DSLR with switchable lenses, however, is that you can invest in glass that’s much better for low-light shooting. With the RX100 VII, you get what’s on the camera, and that’s it. Thankfully, however, it’s decent.
Just as important as visual quality in video is sound quality. The RX100 VII has you covered here, too, thanks to a built-in 3.5mm mic port for plugging in an external microphone. You could use this for a small shotgun mic, or even a wireless receiver kit for a lapel mic if you wanted to.
The only downside is the design: there’s no cold shoe, so you’d need to have the camera and any mic/receiver fixed to a grip (like a GorillaPod), tension arm or cage of some kind. Sony has launched its own Shooting Grip for this very situation.
There’s also the fact that when panning from left to right, or the other way, rolling shutter effect creeps in a little, making the video seem a bit jumpy. Otherwise, the footage we got was sharp, vivid and surprisingly stable.
- 1-inch sensor, 20.1MP resolution, stacked construction
- BIONZ X image processor, ISO 100-12,800 sensitivity
- 357 AF points (PDAF), 425 points (CDAF)
- Animal and human eye tracking/focus
- 20fps burst speed maximum
Sony’s strength across its entire range of modern cameras is its autofocus capabilities; both in terms of speed, versatility and intelligence. The RX100 VII has these smarts too, meaning you get hundreds of phase-detection and contrast-detection autofocus points spread over a wide area of its stacked 20.1 megapixel sensor. In actual use this means a very efficient and consistent autofocus when shooting photos.
In addition to this, it can recognise human or animal eyes and lock on those instantly before snapping a photo. In most instances we tested this it worked very well indeed. In low-light, it was a little less snappy and reliable, producing ever so slightly soft images, but for the most part the result was an imaged snapped quickly that was sharp and in focus.
As for quality, Sony is a leader in this department. Because the sensor at the heart of the RX100 has always been a 1-inch size, it’s a lot bigger than cheaper, standard compact cameras. That means bigger ‘pixels’ in the sensor for better light-gathering properties, resulting in better quality overall.
In most instances, the results the RX100 VII produces are really strong. Colours, detail and depth is produced in a way that seems natural and attractive, without too much image noise. Similarly, shooting in low-light indoors didn’t faze the camera’s processing engine, meaning even higher ISO sensitivities avoid excessive image noise. Again, a benefit of a 1-inch sensor.
All this makes for quality that’s hard to criticise. Especially considering the small scale of a camera such as this.