ABP MVP: In-Depth Review of Sony RX100 III on a Backpacking Trip

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I recently returned from the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Despite living just a few hours away, I’d never visited the area and I was ecstatic to be headed down to a new spot with good friends.

Of course, no photographer can go anywhere without first hemming and hawing over what gear to take. You see, cameras are very much like skis these days—there’s one for every application, every condition, every pet portrait session, every uncle’s brother’s wedding, blah blah blah. You get the point.

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I took my full DSLR kit to have on hand for the car camping portion of the trip, but elected to take just my little Sony RX100 III for the hiking and backpacking portion through several slot canyons and Coyote Gulch. In this review, I’ll share my experience on how the camera performed in the hands of an experienced professional accustomed to hauling (and shooting) a big heavy DSLR (that churns out exceptional imagery mind you).

It’s worth noting that this trip was a trip with buddies. It was not a trip predicated upon photography. I knew my shooting style would need to be very run n’ gun. I knew that I wouldn’t have much time to switch lenses, ask my buddies to “do it again” or even throw my pack down and dive in for additional gear.

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It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t a particularly tough trip in terms of mileage and/or elevation, so while the weight and space savings was a huge bonus, I certainly could have dealt with the extra load of my usual setup, but this would serve as a good test run for those times when weight and space savings really are crucial. I was most intrigued at the thought of JUST having this little point and shoot to work with. I viewed it as a challenge of sorts, yet there really wasn’t much of a challenge at all as I was blessed with exceptional conditions for a good portion of the trip, and the camera proved itself very capable.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that a good portion of the shooting I was doing would be largely documentary. We would be hiking (and I would be shooting) in less than ideal light, but I still wanted to be able to freely document the trip and location.

I bring this up because I think it’s important to understand the variables that come into play for me when deciding which camera to use at any given time or scenario. Additionally, you may or may not identify with many of these variables, which are super important to consider when deciding which camera is the right camera for you to purchase for yourself.

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My kit consisted of the Sony RX100III (24 – 70mm lens, 20 MP full frame sensor), several P-size Singh Ray Grad ND Filters, a Singh Ray LB Warming Polarizer (paired to the camera with the help of a lensmate adaptor), my trusty Gitzo GT1551T tripod and a Joby gorilla tripod. All in all, the entire kit weighed in at a bit less than 7 lbs. Read: holy moly I feel like I’m walking on air.

Overall, the camera performed like a champ. Especially being paired with the right tools, and my usual cadre of filters, I can honestly say that there were very few times where I felt handicapped at all (keep in mind I’m comparing this experience to my typical shooting experience with a Canon 1DX). Occasionally, I hoped for a bit wider angle lens (as I knew I would), but 24mm is no slouch. My biggest oversight in using this camera was battery life. I am accustomed to a big, beefy battery. I hadn’t even considered the need for a second battery until…it died. Oh well, it died doing what it loved, right??? I got about 800 shots out of it, and then I was relegated to (gasp) the iPhone for the remainder of the hike out. The batteries are teeny, and I would have gladly packed an extra two or three. Oh well—live and learn.

Read on for a few more thoughts on my experience with this camera. Also–it’s worth noting there are MANY features of this camera that are not listed here. I’m not familiar with all of these features, and some of them don’t apply to my most common shooting scenarios. That said, there is a lot of functionality in this camera for all types of shooters.

Plus:

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1. This camera is obviously exceptionally light and small. Is it a 12 fps full frame monster? No! And that’s the beauty. It’s a little mini powerhouse that churns out amazing images when shot properly (note: when shot properly—this applies to any camera). I packed the camera in a small Lowe Pro pouch and threaded it through the chest strap on my backpack. It was right there. All the time, every time. No neck or shoulder pain from having the camera around my neck/shoulders. It was so easy. I stashed my filters on the side pocket of my Arc’teryx Altra 75 backpack, which made for easy access without taking the pack off.

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2. The articulating LCD screen is awesome. One thing I love about these LCD screens is being able to shoot at angles other than eye level and still able to see what you’re framing up. I always find myself shooting a great deal from waist level or even ground level with this camera, always looking at the LCD screen folded out. Side note: I do wish the LCD swiveled out so I could use it in the above situations when shooting vertically as well.

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3. Digital Level. In concert with what I just noted above, I love the digital level (can be visible on both the LCD screen AND the viewfinder). When not shooting at eye level (as well as when shooting on the go), it can be difficult to make sure the camera is level. While this is obviously fixable in post, it saves lots of time (and image info!) when you don’t have to level and crop after the fact.

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4. Excellent Image Quality. Especially given its size, this camera delivers huge on the quality scale. Dynamic range is legit, but most importantly, I’m impressed with how clean the files are for a point and shoot camera costing less than most lenses for my DSLR. Does it stand up to files from my 1DX? Not quite, in my opinion, but that would be an apples to oranges comparison. Previous to this camera, I could never convince myself to seriously shoot a P&S—I was just never seeing the image quality I needed. That has changed with the RX100III. You’re not going to be reproducing these images on billboards, but I am very comfortable submitting these images for editorial publication, other stock usage, etc.

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5. Full (intuitive) Manual Control and Manual Focus. Like most serious point and shoot cameras, the RX100III offers full manual control. The front “focus” ring can be set to adjust aperture when shooting in manual mode. This makes for quick and easy (simultaneous) adjustments without having to press an additional button to switch between shutter speed and aperture. Additionally, the manual focus setting is just a button push away, and focus peaking makes for easy assessment as to what is actually in focus in your frame.

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6. Functional Viewfinder. The Sony RX100III has a legitimate electronic viewfinder which, oddly enough, puts it in a category of its own above most other similar competitors. Despite the large LCD screen, there are still times when I like to shoot through the viewfinder—it’s nice to have it when you want it for sure.

7. Wi-Fi. So awesome to be able to transfer images to your phone directly from the camera. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this isn’t a standard feature on all professional grade cameras these days.

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8. Intelligent Auto Mode. Yes, I admit it. I use auto in this camera sometimes. And really, the intelligent auto mode is quite good. There’s plenty of times when I’ll prefer to shoot in full manual, but when I’m really pinched for prep time and/or simply shooting from the hip, this mode performs surprisingly well.

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9. Image Stabilization. The in-camera image stabilization is dialed in and I found it to be especially helpful when shooting in low-light situations, particularly in the slot canyons where many of the images I was shooting were in the 1/20 sec. range.

Minus:

1. Small size. What? Wait…you thought that was a plus, right? Really, it’s more a plus than a minus, but for those of us accustomed to shooting larger cameras, shooting a small point & shoot takes some adjustment for sure. This, along with truly utilizing the full functionality of the camera through preset and custom preferences simply takes time to get used to. I will say I wish I would’ve had the wrist lanyard on the camera when quickly trying to grab and use my filters.

2. Battery life. Mentioned above, this was something that caught me by surprise. I think the battery actually performs very well for a camera (and battery) of this size, but it is a downside of using a smaller camera for sure. As I mentioned above, the batteries are so small that you could even pack as many as 5 extra batteries and you wouldn’t even notice the extra weight or clutter.

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3. Lens range. I’d love to see something in the range of 16mm – 135mm. Pipe dream??? Probably. Again, this is something that simply needs to be considered when you’re comparing this camera to other options. Despite the lens limitations, with a 20 MP file, you can crop in a decent amount and still come away with a quality image if needs be (as seen above).

4. Low light shooting. As expected, this camera is not particularly at home when shooting in low light. I hesitated to go much higher than ISO 400, though I’ve always said it’s better to have a sharp, grainy image then a soft image with less grain. I think you simply have to know that this camera performs best in standard lighting situations.

5. No hotshoe for larger flashes. While I don’t shoot a lot of flash photography, it would be nice to have this option on top. Not a deal breaker by any means, but worth mentioning. The (small) built in flash does have a super cool feature, however, that lets you move it up and down, effectively allowing you to bounce the flash off a ceiling when shooting indoors—so much better than the deer in the headlights look with standard, direct flash.

 

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6. Panoramic Mode: I’m not a huge fan of having my composition dictated by the camera in this mode. I’d love for the panoramic mode on this camera to mimic that of my iPhone, where I can shoot a panoramic as wide or narrow as I choose. I also would love for this feature to be able to capture a panoramic in RAW format, thought I’m assuming there are some serious file/buffer limitations there. Regardless, it’s still nice to have the option to shoot a panoramic in-camera. I’m admittedly far too lazy when it comes to capturing/stitching panos from a grouping of images.

 

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Conclusion
Overall, I’m a huge fan of this little camera. If you’re looking for a small, no-nonsense point & shoot that delivers huge on quality, this is it. Throughout my couple days with the camera, I kept asking myself, “would I take this on a legit assignment and/or commissioned shoot???”. The answer really depends on the shoot, and I’d probably still steer myself in the direction of my larger DSLR for most projects. But the best answer is that I absolutely COULD if needs be. It has its limitations, as one would imagine, but there’s no reason one can’t capture worthy, publishable, drool-worthy imagery with this camera. The best assessment I can give is that, for professionals accustomed to shooting larger DSLR setups, this is an unbelievably refreshing and liberating tool that doesn’t leave you feeling as though you’re cutting corners. For the advanced amateur or hobbyist, you’ll be blown away at how well it performs, though it will take a bit of practice (as does any camera) to fully utilize its potential. Well done Sony!

Click on the gallery below to see additional images from this trip with the Sony RX100 III.

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2 thoughts on “ABP MVP: In-Depth Review of Sony RX100 III on a Backpacking Trip

  1. Hi Adam,

    Love you stuff (photography), esp. the landscapes. One thing I wanted to mention to you about the article / review of the RX100 III… you refer to the RX100 III as a “Full Frame Sensor”… twice at least. This is not correct. It’s a 1″ Exmor R BSI CMOS Sensor. It’s a ” ONE INCH” sensor, which is the same on versions I, II, III, and and now IV. I have the III myself, and love it.

    Before going on a family vacation to an Mexican resort, I decided to leave back all the bulky dSLR gear. I knew it would take away from the enjoyment of the trip. So, after a LOT of research (this is back in 2013), I decided on the RX100-III. In conjunction with purchasing the camera from a local photo store, I ordered two extra batteries with also came along with an additional recharger. But the most important thing I bought was a filter adapter, so I could shoot long exposures at the beach (Mexico). The adapter allowed me to fit an variable ND (albeit a fairly inexpensive version), as well as along with some step up filter adapters, I could put on a polarizer. I took along a very small lightweight tripod which collapsed to less than 12″, but could be fully extended to about 42″.

    All in all, I felt I wouldn’t miss a beat or an opportunity from the trip. I was thrilled with the results from the camera. It did perform like a champ. I came home with about 4300 (approx.) shots from the trip, and many many of them being keepers.

    I would recommend this camera (series of cameras) to anyone. The version “I” had some issues with the sensor (co-worker owns it), but it would seem they have fixed issues since then.
    thing I bought right away

    • Hello Sridip–thanks for the comment! You are spot on in that this is a 1″ sensor and not a full frame sensor. My mistake! Glad to hear you’ve had positive experiences with the camera as well.

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