A few months ago, Jason finished his review of the Sony DSC-RX100 and published it here. It’s an excellent long-term, all-round review and I have no intention of trying to best or recreate it. It was that very review that finally convinced me to buy the little pocket-powerhouse instead of a seemingly more-powerful and bigger-named alternative (including the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and the Sony NEX7). So, no, this article is not going to be a further review of the RX100. What I am posting here will be an exploration of this diminutive superstar camera and how it fits inside my existing photography routine and workflow in post. It’s true that the RX100 punches well above its weight (240g including battery in case you were wondering) but can I rely upon it for outings where taking along the A77/A99 and kit isn’t desirable or practical? That’s what I’m doing here, providing a customised snapshot of a real user’s real-world user experience. I want it to be the bee’s knees, but let’s see how it shapes up.
Patience & Stealth
Normally when I take stock-photos of my cameras, I mount them on a light-stand which I then clone out so it appears they’re floating in space. You’ll note with this one I’ve stuck it on a tripod and left the mount in the shot to show off possibly the strongest point the RX100 has to offer a street shooter chasing candid shots of strangers rather than posed street-portraits – its extremely compact form factor. I mean, look at it! It’s smaller than the tripod head for crying out loud. It is pocketable, it can be used comfortably in one hand, it will help you get shots you would otherwise not have been able to get with another larger camera. It’s subtle, unassuming and deceptive. Sure there are plenty of other micro-form factor cameras out there, but none of them have the imaging abilities or provide the creative freedom offered by the RX100. It really is just that much better than the rest of the class.
To get this first image, I’ve waited patiently for about 2-minutes for the very crowded city street to clear, standing about 2-metres (6-feet) away from the subject. I had the camera at chest height, just far enough from my body that I could see the screen on the back, and my finger had a half-press on the shutter to maintain focus lock. It would have been more comfortable to achieve if the screen on the back was articulated, but it wasn’t impossible. At no time did the guy notice me, nor did any person in the crowd pay any attention to me causing my stakeout to be ruined. This is important if you’re trying to capture an unguarded moment, as opposed to a posed street portrait.
To process this photograph, I’ve just taken the RAW image into my primary workflow solution, digiKam (it’s a FOSS Lightroom equivalent) and straightened & cropped, then performed the standard or basic set of alterations prior to converting to B&W. The B&W template I’ve used is Ilford FP4+ with a yellow filter, but I’ve also jiggered around with the contrast and brightness to get the subject’s reflection in the bus window as clear as possible.
I’ve been using digiKam as my primary image catalogue and alteration solution for about 3-years now. I switched to it after I decided to abandon OSX in my studio (predominantly video at that time) because Apple had finally managed to upgrade my hardware into obsolescence. I’d already been exploring FOSS alternatives to everything so I built an i7-based workstation, filled it with Linux and FOSS solutions and, for the most part, have never looked back.
The big thing about Linux and FOSS solutions is hardware compatibility so I’m reliant upon the RX100′s RAW images being usable in my software packages. Luckily, shortly before I bought the little camera, new libkdcraw and libraw packages supporting the RX100 were released to my Linux build’s repository, so it was just a matter of updating and I was off and running. Hopefully it won’t be too long now and my A99′s RAW output will be supported, too.
Similar story for capturing this second image, but the workflow is a little more intricate. I’ve started by sending the 3-shot bracketed set of RAW images (+/- 0.3EV) through Photomatix Pro 4 for exposure blending. This image is not a true HDR, rather it’s exposure fusion, but it’s close enough in method to be mistaken for HDR anyway. Once I was satisfied with the Photomatix output, it went into digiKam for the regular corrections, a little colour intensity manipulation, then straighten & crop and viola! FYI I’ve intentionally blown out the highlights around the subject’s little island haven to reinforce a sense of isolation and sanctuary to the lone iPad kid’s world.
Because I’m using Linux, and Photomatix Pro 4 is made for Windows & OSX, I run a virtual machine with a Windows 7 guest to run it. It can be a bit fiddly to set up, but once you’ve got it working and your Linux folders shared as drive-shares, it’s all plain sailing. I also use the Win7 guest to use Sony Image Data Converter as a temporary workaround for my A99′s RAWs, so it’s not just a one-trick pony.
This third image is the one I went out to capture on the day and also involved a lengthy period of subtle surveillance. But it wasn’t a wait for a crowd to clear this time, rather I had to wait for ages to capture this fortuitous moment with people side-by-side while going up & down the escalators. It wasn’t as easy a capture as I had anticipated, but thanks to the tiny camera’s unimposing presence none of the escalator passengers, passers-by or indeed the shopping centre’s security paid me any attention whatsoever. This image is also the result of a single photograph, like the first, but in addition to the simple workflow above I’ve also spent a bit of time in Gimp applying a gaussian blur of varying intensity to different elements around the image to further separate the fore- from the background. The high-key finish was also a deliberate attempt to impart a sense of isolation from the ambient world.
In summation, for my stealthy and candid street needs, the Sony DSC-RX100 is the perfect tool that is far more suited to the task than any other digital camera in my inventory, and all of my film cameras, due to a combination of micro-form factor and diminutive appearance combined with its excellent image quality and broad dynamic range. In fact, it has even managed to nudge my beloved Yashica Electro 35GTN from the top-spot as my streeter-of-choice because of its versatility and the cost involved processing & scanning film.
Next: Powerful Panoramic Perfection…
Panoramas in Post
Something else I do a lot of with my photographic time is panoramas. While that does include the traditional panoramic scene (ie landscape, sunrise/sunset) for the most part I prefer creating unusal urban scenes in tight confines with high-distortion. My usual weapon of choice for this peccadillo is the Sony SLT-A77 fitted with the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 UWA lens. It’s provided me some great images of well- and lesser-known sites that are one-of-a-kind and hard for peers to replicate. They’re also very difficult to work in my panorama software of choice, Hugin, due to the high level of distortion attendant to the UWA lens. That’s no fault of the software, of course, rather the UWA lens and its propensity to distort an image. That difficulty is compounded when I use 16-bit TIFFs that have been created and tonemapped using Photomatix Pro 4. How well is the RX100 going to fill the big 77′s shoes for impromptu pano opportunities?
The RX100′s files make for perfect stitching fodder. With a decent distance between the subject and me with the lens at its widest (28mm equivalent) it imparts little distortion to the RAW files and I can get almost everything into a tight urban scene that takes my fancy. Close quarters is a different matter, but I’ll get to that in a second. This first scene is composed of three RAW images taken from the bottom up – a vertorama. I’ve edited and saved the RAWs as 16-bit TIFFs in digiKam prior to stitching in Hugin. After it was composed, I’ve used Gimp to straighten and correct the perspective, then scale it to a square (1:1) frame. I’ve got a few spots on my walls that would suit a square prints at the moment so I’m creating them digitally with panoramic images.
Here’s another square panorama created entirely differently. I’ve started with 4x bracketed sets of three portrait-oriented images each, then processed them in Photomatix Pro 4 for HDR/tonemapping. I’ve then put the 16-bit TIFF results of that process into Hugin for stitching. After toying with the idea of making a faux-fisheye effect with the image, I applied an Equirectangular perspective to straighten the lines. Back to digiKam for final toning and conversion to B&W, and crop to the square 1:1 ratio. In the B&W conversion, I’ve applied the Ilford SPX200 IR preset with a blue filter to really make the contrasty bricks pop against each other. I’m tickled pink with the results here.
This third scene was quite difficult to achieve. The location is a tiny covered laneway behind a hotel in Brisbane’s CBD, only about 2-metres (6-feet) wide, so I couldn’t compose this in a single image. The dreary light also meant I couldn’t grab it as an in-camera autopano. The solution was to capture 3 portrait-oriented shots from left-to-right and stitch them together with Hugin. This image is composed using out-of-camera JPEGs rather than RAWs, purely for the in-camera distortion correction. At widest angle in this sort of tightly-confined area the RX100′s lens gives a fisheye effect to the RAW images making it very difficult to stitch them without flaw. This distortion is deftly fixed by the RX100′s excellent JPEG engine. After the 3-images were stitched, I popped it back into digiKam for a little tweak here and there (levels, contrast, saturation) then a crop to square and viola!
To sum up, I have no qualms about relying upon the Sony DSC-RX100 for my impromptu pano needs. Its output is clear and bright, details are resolved well and the files are a pleasure to stitch in whatever programme you choose. Keeping in mind that the RAWs have a lot of fisheye-type distortion in close confines but relying upon the corrected JPEGs is not a hassle as long as you can collect enough light and stand still enough while doing so. Big thumbs up from me
Next: Selectively Coloured Masterpieces…
I know selective colour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and a lot of one-trick ponies have overdone it and ruined it for the rest of us, but I don’t care. I really love selectively coloured images and, as with every photography technique, there are some subjects that lend themselves very well to the technique and others that do not.
Even though the Sony DSC-RX100 has a selective colour mode built in to the creative menu, it won’t work if you’re shooting in RAW or RAW+JPEG (as I do) to collect images to feed your HDR programme of choice, so selective colouring in post is the order of the day. On Linux I use a combination of Tintii and Gimp – the former to knock all the wrong colours out and the latter to tidy up afterwards.
I’ve had to wait a while for the footpath in front of me to clear of pedestrians as well as the footpath behind the fire truck in order to capture this image how I wanted it. Once through the Tintii process (to pick out the red, green, blue and yellow) I created 2 versions of this image (one contrasty B&W and the other oversaturated selective colour) and combined them using layer masking in Gimp. I chose to gradually lower the intensity of the bottom layer (with the colour) to give a faded effect that complements the soft toning of the B&W layer. After a few days of solid contemplation, I chose to add a couple of texture layers using Gimp to effectively age the image and reduce the delineation between colour and B&W. Note the detail retained in the shadow under the awning as well as the highlights? That’s a sign of a good RAW image file at the start of the process, thanks to the RX100′s superior imaging ability.
This next scene took a fair bit of my time to create and, as you’d expect, I’m really happy with the final image. I’m so happy, in fact, that this is going to be the first completed image from the RX100 to go into my professional portfolio.
The original image wasn’t awash with a huge colour range – pretty much just the red of the bins, a mustard coloured wall behind them, along with dark in the shadow and bright in the Sun light. You can also clearly see here the fisheye effect on close objects I discussed in the last section, on the wall at the left.
After HDR and an aggressive tonemapping, I duplicated the resultant image twice then threw one into Tintii to take out everything but the red; and the other into digiKam to further enhance the already contrasty scene and convert it to B&W. I used Gimp to combine the two images using layer mapping then, before flattening, I applied a desaturated colourise to the bottom layer (B&W) to give it a subtle golden appearance.
I really like the vibrant red against the toned background here and will likely use this technique and workflow again in the future.
This third images is a more traditional selective colour image – nothing fancy, plain B&W toning, single colour highlight. And for the most part it is, too, although when I tried to segregate the red from the rest in Tintii, I found the glow from the neon sign was contaminating everything else in the scene so little bits of red were popping up everywhere.
The roof was especially contaminated and was impossible to separate from the neon. So in this instance I put Tintii away and relied solely upon Gimp and old-school patience with the Select tools. I created 2-versions of the image – lower layer in colour, upper layer in B&W – then once I’d selected the portions I wanted to keep in red, I simply brushed through the layer mask to the coloured image below.
There were a few patches that were less-than-stellar, so I droppered up some colour from elsewhere in the neon and used the spray-paint tool to fix them. I then grew the selection by a few pixels and re-brushed with the tool set on 60% transparency, to give that fading light effect at the edges instead of a really sharp division. Because the white ceiling was fairly heavily “stained” by the red neon, showing up in B&W as a big dark-grey patch, I also used the clone tool to replace it with a nicer part of the ceiling.
So how does the bantam-weight bruiser address my needs for selective colour fodder? Admirably, that’s how. The colour bit-depth of the RX100 is sufficiently great so as to isolate, not just individual colours, but slight tonal variations of that colour when required. There is plenty of dynamic range held in the output photographs to enable you to process as much or as little as you want while still retaining the highlight and shadow detail, as expected in this time of pixel-peeping and digital divas. Remember, the more detail and image information you have to start with, the more room you have to move in post.
Next: Tonemapping with the Devil…
Unashamed overindulgence with HDR and tonemapping is becoming as unpopular as selective colour images, often times igniting the ire of self-proclaimed photography “purists” who insist true photographic art can only be achieved with a single image and light retouching, if any. To those fine practitioners I have only one word – “nonsense”. Photography is and has always been an art-form built on experimentation. It is a democratisation of the archived image for those of us who cannot draw or paint. The first HDR was created in the 1850s by Jean-Baptiste Gustav Le Gray of France, who combined two differently exposed negatives to create an image containing both the sky and the sea.
It was ground-breaking at the time because it was a technical impossibility to have both these elements on a single negative due to the extremes of luminous range. Without experimentation and innovation photography itself may never have evolved past daguerreotype or large-format field cameras. Actually I’m quite fond of the classic gear, but I digress.
Experimentation, innovation, pushing the envelope, exploring past established boundaries. HDR. Sometimes there’s no better feeling than to take a perfectly shot image and making it look absolutely insane with some HDR and aggressive tonemapping. Or even taking an average-to-ordinary set of shots and trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear using HDR and reasonable tonemapping – come on, admit it…we’ve all done it. But not every camera is able to give you the RAW images needed to feed your HDR programme of choice. All SLT/DSLRs will give you decent RAW images perfect for the process, as will most mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (eg NEX or M4/3 system), but not many ultra-compacts provide you with glorious RAW images capable of satisfying your tonemapping needs. The RX100 does, but how will they stand up to a prizefight with my recently updated Photomatix 4.2.6 install?
Brilliantly, that’s how. There were only a few spots on this chopper I wasn’t happy with due to grain and too much purple toning. I tidied them up after tonemapping (as you should do anyway) with my primary photo software, digiKam, and the Gimp. Despite the fast lens on the RX100 providing clear and bright images in all conditions, I still needed to apply noise reduction to the centre and lower bracketed images in the first phase of the Photomatix blending process. I’ve used the new Creative preset then adjusted it to taste. A lot of taste, as you can tell I like it spicy and this is close in aesthetic to how I process my urbex images, too.
But to prove that HDR does indeed have its genuine uses, in this second image I had the near-noon Sun against me as you can tell by the shadow. When I took the shots I had to blow the lit bricks out in the positive EV image so I could get detail on the bricks in shadow. Conversely, I had to really wind the negative EV image down to get the sunlit sections to display adequately. So the settings I used were +/-0.7EV at -0.3EV on the centre/standard image. I’ll bet you couldn’t even tell this was a vigorously tonemapped HDR if I didn’t tell you, either. That kind of subtlety is easy to achieve with good source images to start with.
The RX100′s RAW images really surprised me in how well they handled a challenging lighting situation. I think I actually thought they wouldn’t be up to the same standard as my “more serious” Alpha-mount cameras. Thankfully, it appears that I was wrong and the brand new 20MP 1″ CMOS sensor brings the goods.
For the curious among you, this relatively small plaque is hidden down what-is-now a small city lane in the Brisbane CBD and represents a small part of Australia’s financial history. In 1951, the Union Bank of Australasia (UK) merged with the Bank of Australasia (UK) for form the Australia & New Zealand Bank. The doors on this side of the building are now repurposed and there is another building’s back door directly opposite this wall, well within spitting distance. There’s not too many of these old plaques left in existence since the further amalgamation of another couple of British banks to become the ANZ Banking Group in the 1970s.
This third image is what we’ve all come to expect from an HDR zealot – vibrant colours, contrasty range, haloing and unrealistic white balance. This image isn’t quite as grungy or dark as it could have been but, as I’ve said for a long time now, each scene has its own best way of being processed and it’s experimentation with the processes you have to hand that helps you find it.
Again, for the curious, Vicki’s House is actually the old Lands Administration Building (aka Executive Building) completed in 1905. Over the year’s it has been used as the offices of Lands and Survey Department, the state Premier, the Executive Council and the Queensland National Art Gallery. These days it’s a hotel for the Conrad Treasury Casino directly opposite. The statue of Queen Victoria has overlooked Queen’s Park since it’s construction.
The RX100′s RAW output will provide you with information rich images to feed to your HDR programme of choice to produce nice, big 16-bit TIFFs that you will be able to explore and manipulate to your heart’s content. This was quite unexpected, but very welcome nonetheless.
Next: The Image Nocturnal & Conclusion…
The Image Nocturnal
Over the last few years the majority of hobbyist photography I have done (as opposed to those increasingly rare paying gigs) has been in the dark. It started out as a necessity when I was working shift and finishing work at 2am most nights, then spending a couple of hours wandering the streets with my camera to wind down from a busy and stressful night’s work. Over time I became better at it and, as you’d expect, I began to specialise in low-light and night photography. Back in the day my weapon of choice was the much maligned Sony A350 which, combined with a few signature lenses, helped me create some of my favourite images. In 2011 I updated to the Sony A77, then last year to the Sony A99. But I can’t carry these big Alpha-mount bodies with appropriate kit around with me during my now ‘normal’ workday, so I had taken to carrying various 35-mm rangefinder cameras with me to work. Now I’ve got the RX100 my workbag is even lighter and my photolab expenses have dropped to nought. Given my fondness of the night shoot, it was only a matter of time before I would be trying out the ultra-compact superstar in the dark. I had high hopes considering its great all-rounder abilities thus far, so how do you reckon it went?
Not well, my friend. While this first image is perfectly acceptable for all but the most pedantic of users, I’m used to getting a lot more detail and information in the darker regions than this. See that pathway near the bottom left? Any of my larger Alpha-mount cameras would have given me a lot more range to work with in post rather than the clipped black region you see here. And on the subject of post, this image was created from an in-camera JPEG because the RAW image was unusable due to an untenable amount of noise. Because this is an in-camera JPEG, the auto-NR function has reduced the detail in even the well-lit areas to blotchy blobs. I’m not a pixel-peeper by nature, but I do like to print my images large and unfortunately this one won’t be suitable for much larger than an 8×12 glossy.
This second image is better by a fair amount, mostly due to the well lit pathway and background. But again, the bigger cameras would have given me more detail to work with off the lit path, as well as keeping those spotlights over the stairs from blowing out to look like clipped blobs of white. This lack of detail is most likely all due to the diminutive 1″ sensor. Sure, in daylight or reasonable light it will outshoot every other compact point-and-shoot with 1/1.7″ or 1/2.3″ sensors – even in the dark it will put them to shame – but if you’re after credible low-light and nocturnal performance stick with at least an APS-C sensor of moderate pixel density. There’s a very good reason the Sony NEX-5N is regarded as one of the best low-light cameras ever made.
This third abstract image is of an artificial waterfall under artificial light. The main subject of the intended shot is great, just what I was after, but take a look at the lights at the bottom. Blown out, fringed, colourless blobs and it was only a 1-second exposure. I’m going to head back to this site with my A99 and 24-70/2.8Z and capture this image again for comparison purposes…stay tuned.
A good way to get more usable data into your nocturnal images is to drop the ISO down to the minimum (80ISO for the RX100), set your aperture down to the sweet spot of the lens (usually f/5.6-f/6.3) and leave the shutter open on BULB for the required amount of time to expose. I know, this goes against everything you’ve read about shooting in low light, with all the talk about high-ISO performance contributing to the confusion, but trust me. If you want crisp, well lit night shots with a minimum of noise and plenty of detail to afford a thorough processing, keep the ISO down and the exposure long.
Unfortunately, the RX100 has also let me down in another aspect because, not only does it lack a remote or corded shutter actuation ability, the longest the shutter will stay open on Aperture or Shutter Priority modes is 8-seconds. For anything longer you’ll need to put the camera into Manual Mode which will give you up to 30-seconds before slipping into Bulb mode. If you’ve got a secure mount or base, you can set your levels in Manual Mode and the shutter delay to 2-seconds for hands-free shutter actuation, eliminating shake the old-fashioned way. In fact, for the above 3-images, I’ve had the camera sat upon a homemade beanpod for stability. Unfortunately, for any exposures longer than 30-seconds in Manual Mode, you’re going to need to physically hold the shutter button down so forget about it unless you buy an aftermarket cable-release bracket or have the hands of a surgeon. If you’re a lightpainter, you can forget about it altogether unless you’ve got a friend along who you trust to actuate your camera properly or is adept at waving the torch/wand/fire around out front.
I’ve included this fourth picture to show that the RX100 isn’t all bad when the Sun goes down. This was my favourite shot of this particular outing and will also be finding its way into my portfolio, the second one for this little Sony. The settings were ISO125, f/8 and 1-second exposure on Shutter Priority. The B&W has been applied in post using my primary workflow solution, digiKam. The RX100 is a difficult camera to use after dark and it takes quite a bit of effort to master so, unless you have a really valid reason for carrying it at night, I highly recommend you leave it at home and take your SLT/DSLR or mirrorless with APS-C or larger sensor and cable-release or intervalometer abilities. Hopefully a future firmware update from Sony will bring complex timer functions to the RX100′s bag of tricks, or a wiley user will create a hack to enable the USB port to be used with a remote.
There you have it. The Sony DSC-Rx100 being put to the test by a real user in real-world photographic scenarios. For the most part the powerful little pocket rocket (I’ve taken to calling it Kylie) can handle anything and everything I throw at it in my normal photographic routine. It will make an able companion for outings where photography isn’t my primary motivation, as well as a sturdy and competent work bag camera. My walkabouts for candid street shots are definitely improved and enhanced by its tiny profile, unassuming nature, simple interface and powerful imaging ability. The fun, hobbyist shooting of random panoramas, HDRs and other creative bents requiring time in the digital darkroom is also easily fulfilled with high-quality, information rich RAW images from the new 20-MP 1″ sensor. I’ll even be packing it along as a backup on paid gigs henceforth.
Unfortunately, though, it is the camera’s facility and ability at night shooting that has lost it some of my favour. Night shooting is a big part of my repertoire and being able to stay in town after work to take nice long exposures of the city lights and alleyways would have made the RX100 perfect for me. As noted above, all it would have taken is a more complex menu timer function and greater than 8-seconds exposure time in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes; or, even more simply, a built-in wired or wireless remote facility.
Therefore my conclusion is this: the RX100 is a perfect street camera and pocket companion that conforms to my regular workflow and software packages with zero fuss, but it will not replace a full-featured camera system such as the Alpha or NEX ranges for their full-featured abilities. It really is that simple. It’s not a cheap camera by any means, so if you’re just starting out and want a camera that will support your growth as a photographer through all the different techniques and conditions on offer, take a look at the similarly priced Sony SLT-A57 or Sony NEX-5R, or similar offerings from other manufacturers in the same price range. Otherwise, if you’re a seasoned and experienced shooter looking for a little companion shooter where night photography isn’t a concern, this camera is for you.