I had the opportunity to go hands on for a short period of time with Sony's new RX100 Mark V ($998 at B&H) at their NYC press event. At some point I switched over from JPEG extra fine to RAW, only to realize once I started loading the files onto my computer that Lightroom, Photos and even Capture One do not yet have the RAW driver. So: JPEG's only for the moment - I will add once the drivers are available.
Speed, Reliability, Capacity
The headline updates to the Mark V version of the RX100 are speed, autofocus reliability and buffer capacity (4K remains the same). The RX100 Mark V uses phase detect; the IV uses contrast detect. Burst speed has risen to 24fps from 11fps. The buffer can now handle up to 150 shots at 24fps (but you'll wait while it writes if you actually shoot to the limit, and you'll spend even longer to page through them on the rear LCD panel).
And while not a headline feature (I didn't realize it was already in the IV), I was delighted to find the V also has a binary, 3 stop built-in ND (reducing light to 1/8 of what enters through the lens). It is not electronic - it's an actual filter.
Image Quality and Autofocus: Punching Above Its Weight Class
I've said and written this a number of times now about Sony's 20.1mp sensor, even before Sony added an LSI to the Bionz-X processor in the new V: it's really good.
And, while I'm awed by the technical advances across the board in the RX100 Mark V (especially the use of phase-detection for auto focus), I'm not quite sure what I think about the frame rates and buffer size.
First, the good news: the camera is sick fast in the tightly controlled conditions in which we shot, noise levels even at ISO 6400 were commendable when viewed where they most likely will be (mobile devices), colors were rich, and the intelligent auto exposure mode did the business - except for selecting shutter speeds too low to eliminate blur.
Which for many people defeats the value of very high burst rates.
So: if you leave the RX100 V in auto-everything, no surprise: you may not get what you want.
More importantly, even with -- maybe especially with -- all that speed and big buffer, I found that I preferred to go single frame and pick my moments instead. That's what Cartier-Bresson did. Whether I achieve it or not, I think that is the process of artistry.
Does this officially make me a crotchety old man? Geez, I hope not.
Decisive Moment vs. Decisive Mini-Event or Decisive Edit?
I joked with Sony's Mark Weir on-camera that maybe we need a new concept to address what the Mark V's frame rate and large buffer can do. This isn't decisive moment shooting -- the photographer isn't selecting it -- so much as "every moment" or "decisive mini-event" shooting in which the photographer chooses AFTERWARD. The decisive moment, in other words, now becomes a decisive edit.
The biggest problem with this approach (other than philosophical) in my book is that you then have to wade through literally hundreds of images to find the right one. It's bad enough inside Lightroom, Apple's Photos or Capture One (I used all three as I hunted for a RAW converter), but without a touch interface or a speed sensitive dial, it takes forever to find the image you want on the camera itself -- and with a screen so small, it's simply too difficult to distinguish an inch's worth of movement.
Which is why Apple's iPhone touch interface works so much better and their burst mode also includes an algorithm which presents what it thinks is the single best image.
Frightening on the one hand, but a necessary evil if you go down this path, I think.
Target Audience & Competitive Challenges
The RX100 is wonderfully compact -- truly pocketable. The auto-focus is great (I'm looking forward to seeing them put the PDAF of the V into the next version of the RX10 - along with a neutral density filter). The focal length range of the built-in zoom is the same -- slightly better -- than my go-to lens back in the day (though I always carried a 50/1.4 with me), the Canon 28-70mm f/2.8L. It's sharp. The sensor is great for its size. Taken altogether, it's an easy call to make: for about the same price as an iPhone 7 plus, you get superior image quality and photographic flexibility.
Hold that thought, because we'll come back to this once I get the RAW drivers.
Sony says 25% of the people who buy RX100s are pros.
But when pros need burst mode, it's usually for sports, sometimes weddings, sometimes portraiture. They'll typically be working with longer focal lengths, beginning at 85mm and running up to super telephoto.
Pros also want shallow depth of field and low noise.
The RX100 V gets much closer to these goals than a smartphone. But the compromises that have to be made to make it such a small package get in the way when compared to just slightly bigger cameras - like the a6xx series.
Then again, when pros don't want reach or shallow depth of field -- say, when they want great travel photos or just snaps that they can share with family and friends -- the latest crop of smartphones are very hard to beat. The iPhone and Samsung have much bigger screens, superior (and simple) touch interfaces, about the same wide end and closing in on the same long end (in the case of the 7+)... and Instagram.
The Irony of Instagram
The thing about Instagram is that it encourages people to spend more time on an individual image -- creativity, the very thing Sony seeks to inspire and uses as its touchstone in the Japanese word kando -- than the speed of the RX100 Mark V.
When you combine Instagram's creative push with ease of use, instant posting to the internet, and "always on you" availability, you can argue that the RX100 has a way to go before it is a compelling alternative to ever-improving smartphones.
Or you can argue that as good as it is, the RX100's days as a compelling alternative to smartphones are waning unless something changes, quickly -- even with pretty great slow-motion (better than the iPhone 7+ at the moment -- then again, better optics and better sensor, too - but hold that thought).
(amazing what you can do in post to make up for some of the limitations of a 1" sensor, even one as good as that in the RX100 Mark V)
Get More Smartphone-Like, or Get More -- Fast
Maybe the next RX100 should move to a different form factor, more akin to a smartphone. Much bigger screen. Full touch interface. Always-on, seamless connectivity to your favorite social apps.
Voice control, as with the nascent capability of GoPro's Hero5.
Or maybe it should stay in its current configuration, but with a longer top end, a touch screen and new UI even on the little LCD panel it has now, an f/0.75 constant maximum aperture (you read that right - it would take some of the strain off the sensor, and give us the full frame DOF equivalent of f/2.0 at portrait distances) , and STILL have always-on, seamless connectivity to your favorite social apps.
No -- it needs both.
If Sony -- all camera manufacturers, for that matter -- don't get there soon, I fear this category will disappear like the lower end point & shoot cameras of just five years ago.
And that would be a shame, because the RX100 Mark V is a technical tour de force.
But I still have a wish list
Irrespective of the speed with which Sony chooses to go or not go in these directions, I wish Sony would:
- add the auto pop-up-and-out EVF of the RX1-R Mk II;
- offer a right angle finder or better yet crib off of the Panasonic GX8 and make the EVF tilt-able;
- add a vlogger's flip screen;
- get to 135mm FF equivalent; and
- yes, improve the menu. Dramatically.
Summary, Part 1
The Mark V is a technical tour de force capable of wonderful image quality.
I think it's going to be a hit with a lot of people, and for the photographer in your life (even if its you!), it would be an amazingly generous, well-informed gift.
But at the moment the V is bracketed by smartphones just below or at its price point and its own a6000, a6300 and now a6500 siblings above it. It's a tough space in which to compete.
Smartphones are much easier to use, they've become surprisingly powerful (stay tuned for my upcoming review of the iPhone 7+) and sharing online is a cake walk. In the end, there's precious little that gets between you, the shot and the share.
At the other end, you've got more flexibility and even higher image quality from the a6xx line at the expense of... expense, size, weight, and futzing around.
If Cartier-Bresson were alive today, I bet he'd be using a smartphone. Simple, direct, more than adequate for street photography, combat journalism and the decisive moment. That's what the RX100 is up against.
If Sony made an a6xx version of the RX100 V - rangefinder-esque bigger body, bigger sensor, non-interchangeable lens but collapsible 18-90mm f/1.4 -- ooh, I'd take that trade-off in a heart beat.
Stay tuned for Part 2 for RAW images.
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Full disclosure: Sony covered travel expenses for the NYC event.