There is just something about small cameras that pack a punch. Compared to meticulously planning a shoot and bringing your full gear, I still take most of my photos of life as it evolves around me. This means that having a camera with me is essential. As good as they become, smartphones don’t appeal to me.
I do sometimes plan and go out with the sole intent of taking photos. I recently got up in the middle of the night to do a sunrise shoot. Most of the time, though, I go about living life and carry a camera and, if I see something, I want to be able to capture it.
Gear choices are very personal, of course. What works for one may not work for another, and certainly, nothing works for all. Over the years, finding the ultimate compact to be my always-carry-camera has led me to use and try different models. This article will talk about the Sony RX1R (versions i and ii), the Leica Q, the Fuji X100 (S and F), and the Ricoh GRIII. I will also explain why I bought a Sony A7C and why I ended up selling it.
This isn’t going to be a true head-to-head comparison, but I will reflect on using these cameras over the years and what I liked and did not like. I can already let you know that I currently own two compact cameras, the Sony RX1Rii and the Ricoh GRIII. Are they better than some of the alternatives out there? Not really; the current camera options are all so good that it comes down entirely to personal preferences. I will explain why I made the choices I made, and perhaps they can be of use as you decide what your best option is.
I owned a Fuji X100S before, but the camera that really opened my eyes with regard to how well a high-quality compact camera works for me was the original Sony RX1R back in 2015. I got rid of the X100S because I wouldn’t say I liked the softness of the images. I still had my Fuji interchangeable setup, which I enjoyed, but I travelled a lot because of my job, and I noticed that I wasn’t carrying my Fuji gear as much on shorter trips.
By then, I did realise that even when I wasn’t travelling, having a camera that you can sling over your shoulder felt like something I wanted to have. Fuji cameras and lenses are quite compact already, especially compared to the DSLR alternatives at the time. But small differences in size can have a big impact. This will be a common theme in this article because the size of a high-quality compact camera in relation to what it delivers has to be just right.
The compact size of the Sony RX1Ri (and the ii, since they are identical in size) is quite amazing when you think about it. Packing a full-frame sensor with a very high-quality 35 mm f/2 lens into such a small package remains unique, even in today’s market. The body is about as deep and wide as the Ricoh GRIII, the lens making the difference in size. I loved the RX1R image quality from the start. The lens renders a beautiful mix of crisp and sharp images with a gentle falloff. Judging by the internet forums, the owners of RX1R’s hold on to their cameras because, once you experienced what it does, you will cherish it. I did end up getting rid of the original RX1R because the lack of a viewfinder bothered me too much.
By then, the genie of the high-quality compact camera was out of the bottle. The next camera on the journey was a purchase that I took a long time to get comfortable with. I had just stumbled into the Leica world and enjoyed the different feel in shooting with an M240 and manual focus lenses. I will admit that I fell for the Leica experience, and, for a few years, it did cloud my judgment a bit. I got somewhat distracted; I wasn’t paying enough attention to the kind of photographer I was becoming and whether Leica would fit the profile or not.
The Leica Q
But back to my next high-quality compact camera purchase. With my Leica rose-tinted glasses on, there was only one choice that made sense, the Leica Q.
I found a good second-hand deal with a price tag I could accept and decided to go for it. I had my initial doubts about two things with the Q, both nothing really to do with the camera itself but my personal preference. The first was the focal length. I wasn’t quite sure whether 28 mm would work for me. The second one was the size of the camera. The Q is small for what it does, but it is not that small. In the end, I ended up shooting with the Q extensively, but in a slightly different way. For a while, I only shot with the Q in combination with a 75 mm Summicron on my Leica M. This worked very well for me and, with these two focal lengths combined, I felt I was able to shoot almost everything I encountered.
In a two-camera, two-lens setup, the Q was amazing. The simplicity of the user experience, coupled with the wonderful lens, provided great images. The viewfinder was a game-changer at the time, and, even today, it still is top class. As far as using the Q as the one camera to take with me, it didn’t work so well for me. I found 28 mm as a single focal length not great in practice. I missed the ability to frame things a bit tighter. At the same time, the Q offered digital zoom views that provided 35 mm and 50 mm, which always felt more like a gimmick to me. The other drawback also weighed heavy on me, quite literally. I found the Q to be just a bit too big to sling over your shoulder or put in a (winter) coat pocket. While the Q had a place in my camera bag for a few years, I ended up parting with it as my quest for a single compact, high-quality camera continued.
The Fuji X100
The lesson I had learned so far was that I wanted a tighter field of view than the Q provided, preferably a smaller body, and I definitely wanted a viewfinder. This led me to take another look at the Fuji X100. By now, the series had progressed to the fourth iteration of this camera, the X100F. It ticked all the boxes. It was smaller than the Q, with a 35 mm-equivalent lens and a decent viewfinder. It also has an aperture ring which I love.
The F100F was well built; the image quality was good too. And, yet, I just didn’t gel with it. To this day, I still cannot quite explain the reasons why I just didn’t enjoy shooting with it. This camera has a huge fanbase, and the latest version, the V, seems even better and capable of astonishing results from such a small package.
I also think it is pretty special that are the two converters available for the X100F (or any edition, although they have improved as the series matured). You can turn the X100 into a 28 mm, or a 50 mm, and the results are pretty good. You lose a bit of quality, but it still beats a digital zoom or cropping afterwards. In the case of the 28 mm, cropping is obviously not even an option. These converters bring real versatility to the Fuji. But all this was not enough. After a period of trying to get used to the camera in the hope that I would enjoy picking it up more, I gave up and sold the Fuji.
For a while, I had no high-quality compact camera at all. The Q2 was announced, but it would still not work for me as a single camera to take as all the drawbacks were still there. The next compact camera I bought missed two of the features I decided were essential for me. And I love this camera. So much for consistency on my part…
The Ricoh GRIII
The camera I am talking about is the Ricoh GRIII. I bought this compact to take with me when I want to go absolutely minimal. I wrote about how this is the perfect camera to take with you when cycling or any outdoor sports where you want the lightest “proper” camera with you. It doesn’t have a viewfinder, and the focal length is 28 mm. Would I prefer Ricoh to have made this a 35 mm with a viewfinder in it? Yes, I would. But then again, it probably wouldn’t be the size it is in its current form, and that is exactly what makes it so great.
The Ricoh GRIII even slips into a summer coat pocket. The image quality from this thing is ridiculous. The speed of the lens in combination with the APS-C sensor may not be all that great, but they did manage to build in stabilisation which is quite an accomplishment. It is a bit of a niche camera for me; I take it when I go cycling or any other activity where I want the smallest and lightest camera. In such situations, I don’t want to take any heavy stuff with me, or I am carrying other stuff, and I have no room for a larger camera. With this focal length so close to what most smartphone cameras offer, I still would take this with me as smartphone shooting doesn’t do it for me.
Not having the two things I really do like in a high-quality compact camera, the Ricoh GRIII remains a special occasion beast. I still wanted to have another option for anything but cycling or ultra-minimal activities. After reviewing the options on the market in the late summer of 2020, for which the different lockdown versions provided ample time, I went full circle and ended up buying a pristine second hand Sony RX1Rii.
Back to Sony
After having used the Sony for six months, I can say that this is the single camera to take for me. For now, that is. Because I was tempted by something else on the market almost immediately after my purchase, let me explain my mini side-step first before I go on applauding the Sony RX1Rii.
Just when I bought my RX1Rii, Sony announced the Sony A7C. This slimmed-down version of the A7 series made me rethink my purchase. After all, I did have an A7Rii when I didn’t want to use my Leica SL with manual-focus M lenses. So the appeal of the A7C was that this might serve as the single compact, high-quality camera while also serving as a light second body for my Sony kit, next to the A7Rii.
Online comparisons showed the A7C to be about the same size as the Leica Q. While I thought that to be a bit too big, the benefit of being able to use the interchangeable lenses made me consider the A7C as a real option. I couldn’t get a good read on the actual size despite all the online size comparisons out there. And with the stores still closed, I decided to buy it and see for myself, knowing I could always return it or resell it.
Once I had the A7C in my hands, it was pretty clear this was not a contender for the high-quality compact camera choice. Not even close. It looks small, but it is actually still quite substantial. And the trade-offs are made on things that matter to me. The viewfinder is mediocre; the 0.59 magnification makes it feel like looking through a keyhole.
At this stage, Sony had not announced its set of compact primes, but there were other alternatives from Sigma and Samyang. None of them would get the combination close to the size of a Fuji X100 or a Sony RX1R. I held on to the A7C for a while, using it as a second Sony body, but I decided to sell it after all. It delivers great images; the AF is probably the best I’ve seen in any camera that I have used, and battery life is really decent. But since I had the RX1Rii, it didn’t add any value in terms of size. And it didn’t work the other way around either.
The size difference between the A7C and the A7Rii was less than I thought, meaning that the A7C was a lot closer to the A7Rii than the impression I got from the online comparisons. The weight difference was there on paper, but in practice didn’t matter all that much. The Sony A7C is a great camera, especially for people that like to shoot with the flippy and tilty screen. But its size benefits are marginal, and I did not enjoy using the viewfinder.
This brings me back to the Sony RX1Rii. I don’t understand why Sony would not opt for the same approach in the A7C as they did in the RX1Rii. Its pop-up viewfinder is excellent and works great.
For the final part of this article, let’s turn our attention to the Sony RX1Rii and what makes it work so well. By now, you have deduced that it delivers on the things that I find important. The viewfinder is excellent. It is so well-designed to complement the overall aesthetics of the body and to reduce the size further.
This camera was announced in late 2015. I am writing in May 2021, and there still is nothing out there like the RX1Rii. The body feels incredibly solid, and the build quality is evident from the moment you pick it up. Sony menus are a bit complicated, and this is where the RX1Rii shows its age because the A7C menu is a lot simpler to use. But, to be honest, once you set the camera up as you like it, you don’t really need to spend any time in the menu. The custom buttons and the function menu is all you need. The other drawback to this camera you hear about is the battery life. More a logical consequence of design choices than a flaw (here’s looking at you, Sony A7Rii), the small battery doesn’t last very long. But the battery itself is so small that you won’t really notice the impact of packing a second one. Not such a big deal, really.
The image quality of the RX1Rii was stunning in 2015 and is stunning today. It uses the same sensor as the A7Rii, its 42 megapixels giving you plenty of detail when you want it. And then there is the lens. The Zeiss Sonnar 35 mm offers a maximum aperture of f/2 and renders beautifully. I love that is has an aperture ring on the lens itself, making for easy adjustments.
Sitting right under the focus ring, there also is a ring that you can twist to choose between normal and macro mode. I find this feature quite useful, and I like that they made this part of the external controls instead of a menu option. The macro ring also has a side benefit. I am not sure this benefit was a deliberate part of the design process but putting the lens in macro mode makes the front of the lens protrude slightly.
This makes it much easier to screw on or off any filters you might use. In non-macro mode, it can be a bit of a hassle but once extruded, the access to the thread is much better. Being a 49 mm thread, there are plenty of options for filters out there.
Autofocus performance is good enough for my purposes. It is one of the few areas where the camera shows its age and the difference with a new offering such as the A7C is noticeable. It is a trade-off I am happy to make, given its benefits. Sony chose to put the AF selection in another external switch on the front of the camera. I like this a lot, further reducing the need to go into a menu.
When this camera came out, there were many comparisons with the Leica Q. This made sense because, even today, there really are only two premium compact, high-quality cameras out there. The Q has been updated to the Q2, now matching the resolution of the RX1Rii. You have read my reasons for not seeing the Q as a single camera option. I want to call out one thing that many of the comparison articles pointed out. The Leica Q was praised for its ease of use and interface. I wholeheartedly agree with this. It is also why I love my Leica SL. But the RX1Rii isn’t getting the credit it deserves in this area. Once you set it up, the user experience is actually incredibly intuitive and straightforwardly simple. With many external controls, custom buttons and a single wheel, adjusting settings on the fly is easy.
There you have it, a journey that has reached a destination (for now) with the Sony RX1Rii as my current choice for a single camera you can take anywhere. I will leave you with a few more images from the RX1Rii.
What do you think? Is the Q2, with its bigger and heavier body and wide-angle lens, the one to go for. Or do you agree with me that the Sony RZ1Rii offers the better-rounded package as a high-quality, carry-everywhere camera?