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The quest for a high-quality compact camera: Sony’s RX1Rii still rules them all

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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.

Reflections

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.

Full-frame sensor

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.

The RX1Rii

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?

Read more from Erwin Hartenberg

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24 COMMENTS

  1. I had the original RX1, and the image quality was amazing. The lens is fantastic, and the sensor made beautiful images. The handling, however, was terrible. It’s a very small camera, and (for me) very uncomfortable to hold. The lack of a viewfinder is also a strike against it.
    I suppose the newer version takes care of the viewfinder issue, but the (too) small size remains.

    My favorite camera for high quality images in a very compact form? A Barnack Leica, a Summicron collapsible, and a roll of Delta 100.

  2. Thank you for this very fascinating saga/search. Not having such an elastic cheque book as you (!), I cannot make the same up-market choices. But your way of weighing the pros and cons of different compact solutions is very instructive. I have recently been experimenting with fixed focal length lenses on my Sony A6000, with my Leica X2 tagging along for 35mm company. In contrast to yourself I am much more at ease with 28mm and 45/50mm than 35/36 – as witness the amount of time my X2 has spent in the cupboard! I did try the Fuji X100S, thinking I could use the wide and teleconverters, but I couldn’t gel with it, and buying a camera with the deliberate intent of never using its native focal length seemed slightly crazy. So out went the X100S. Probably at the end of the day, I will stay with the Sony A6000 series and for real compact go with the RX100 line. So that’s my saga, and thank you for the exchange.

  3. I also had the Fuji X100S and the Leica Q but ended up selling both, the Fuji because of the soft images (especially up close) and the Leica Q because it was not getting much use (also owning the SL and the T). I love the SL with the Summicron-SL 35mm but at the same time I truly hate Leica for making that combination so unnecessarily big and heavy (750g for a 35mm f2, what on earth were they smoking in Wetzlar?). The SL is unfortunately way too big for me to travel with. I used the CL 2 years for travel but have now gone back to the M. I have been very tempted by the Sony A7c but I am sure the EVF and the missing front dial would probably not work for me. Sony could make an excellent A7c II though with minor adjustments. Let’s hope they do! And their latest GM lenses combine very high image quality with a relatively small weight penalty. Again they are marching in the right direction. I have totally given up on Leica producing a more compact FF L-mount camera. As long as sales of Q and M remain high they will probably refuse to go there…

  4. Thanks Erwin for a thoroughly interesting article. Size is important of course and like you I don’t fancy lugging heavy DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Fortunately we are nowadays spoilt for choice with quality small cameras such as the Ricoh GR3, the Fuji X100V or XF10, the Leicas T & TLs or CL, the Sony 6K series, the Canon M series or the small Olympus or Panasonic small M43. The Sony RX1Rii and Leica Q are “much” bigger than the ones mentioned above and are not in the compact league but a sort of in-between a small camera and a mirrorless one. To my mind the important choice comes to the imaging and FOV you prefer. I love the image of the derelict boat (test of time) taken with the Q. Enjoy your RX1Rii
    Jean

  5. I think sir, your journey has ended. They have not come out with a 111, so that is why I suspect it’s a dead end system like what Leica did to X’s! I agree w Jean last comment they are not compact cameras, i love my Q but if I get decent price I go for Leica Q2M. That retractable view finder is neat but you put eye cup on it it won’t retract, seems like opening for weather related conditions. Enjoy your Sony and keep making photos !

  6. For digital , only the SONY and the Ricoh are contenders for a ‘compact’ camera, the others are too big and heavy. We had real compact cameras when we had film. If you want to see something compact look at the Olympus XA series, Minolta TC-1, original GR series, Contax T series, Minox, Rollei. and the list goes on. Those are ‘compact” and truly amazing at what they can do for the size.
    In 2021 I’m still using some of them.
    If you are looking at modern and availabe new options, the CL would be a more compact choice than the Q.The SONY is amazingly versatile for it’s size

  7. I am wondering why Sony has not updated the camera. Maybe the market is too compact.

    I really enjoyed reading your journey through finding a camera that suits you. Some of your journey reminds me of my camera cycling that partially could have been avoided if I had a local well stocked camera store to fondle cameras and compare.

  8. Hi Brian, probably the market for high end fixed lens camera is limited and that won’t generate continued revenues by selling lenses. It is a shame because RX1 series is really good. I had RX1R and I loved the rendering and 3d pop from the images.The raw files were ‘sweet’. The size was good and handling wasnt really that bad for me. Ultimately the sticking points were lack of a VF and focus issue -only sometimes. I thought of getting this 42mp model but didn’t need these megapixels to fill my (computer’s) memory and also I think pop up VF idea is great but fiddly.
    I enjoyed going through the pictures here, reminded me why I loved the camera so much and perhaps shouldn’t have sold.

  9. I think Sony is aiming to win customers via the A7C approach with the trio of small lenses they just announced (24,40, 50). The A7C is great and I read really good things about the new small form factor lenses but the the A7C is *not* small. It is smaller, sure. But quite a step up. And I do think Leica is missing out on an opportunity with the CL…..

  10. Hmmmm – well, to start with, great article and journey and I’m glad you’re happy.
    I’ve had so many many compact cameras, and they have all represented more of a compromise than a small bag with an M and a spare lens . . . and they’ve never really got used.

    To be honest I don’t see the point, if it doesn’t fit in a pocket (properly) then it’s hard to beat an M10-R with a 35 (or 28)

    all the best

    • B-b-but ..My M10-P with its (brilliant!) 75mm 2.8 (Summarit) lens weighs 1015 grams, or – as we say in old money – 2 pounds 4 ounces.

      My RX100MkVI, though, weighs 312 grams (0 pounds 11 ounces) ..and its lens goes from 24mm (equivalent) to 200mm – er, rather more than Leica’s own very longest ever rangefinder lens (..at only 135mm, although I do have a Komura 200mm here in M-fit..) – and while its lens changes from 24mm to 200mm, it never changes in weight! And that also means not having to carry any extra lenses in your pocket; just the one lens does it all ..now whodathunk that’s possible? ..Rather like loading twenty books into an iPad, and it never ever gets any heavier or bulkier ..brilliant, eh?

      So at less than a third the weight, and about one third the size of the M10-P, it clearly makes so much more sense to carry the 2 pounds+ M10-P [..plus extra lens(es)..] than the featherweight, versatile RX100 ..especially as you get 4 extra megapixels with the M10-P compared with the RX100MkVi. ..Wait a minute..?

      “..if it doesn’t fit in a pocket..” ..but whoa! Surely I can fit three RX100s into a pocket that’s big enough for an M10-P – or M10-R – with its lens on it!

      NURSE’s voice from the Pantry: “Now stop squabbling, children; that nice Michael Evans is coming to tea, and we don’t want him to see you fighting, do we?”

      ALL: “Yes we do!”

  11. I’ve just gone full circle back to the Rx1rii also, *despite* the fact that I prefer the 28 mm focal length. For me there’s just no beating the form factor and quality. Would like to see un upgrade with better battery life and updated AF, but for now there’s nothing that can replace it.

    • Apparently the Zeiss on the RX1 series is more like a 32mm, than a 35mm, so not as far off from your preferred 28mm as you may think.

  12. I have an RX1Rii and a fujifilm x100v. The Sony is my favorite because it’s full frame and 42 megapixels, which gives me the freedom to crop. And when I do get the focus right it’s really sharp.

    I keep the the x100v because I go out on some hikes in all kinds of weather and through some difficult terrain, and it’s a better option in those circumstances because it’s weather resistant with the lens filter and because it’s smaller. Otherwise it’s the Sony.

    I thought about the Leica Q2 but there were a couple of things that dissuaded me (aside from the price of course!). First was the 28mm focal length–too wide for my liking. Also, it doesn’t have a flip-up LCD screen. I use that flip-up screen on the Sony all the time because I do a lot of street photography and I want to be able to take the shot and go quickly. Putting the camera up to my face draws unwanted attention to me. Actually I flip the screen up so much that I’ve had to get it repaired twice!

  13. Hello, great article. It reminds me of the journey of the hero, going far away through an odissey to pursue the quest of knowledge, just to be able to understand and comprehend when he’s back to his roots with all the load of new experiences on him/herself.
    I have gone through a similar journey, from the RX1R2, bought in dec 2016, to the various Fuji X100 and Ricoh GRDs incarnations, the Leica Q, the Sony A7C and finally the Leica CL, to go back again to my RX1R2. There’s no match for the time being to that Zeiss Sonnar and 42MPx sensor combination. The image quality, but overall their “Feel”, rests unmatched. Each of the contenders beats the RX1R2 on one field or another. The Fujis on “coolness factor”, the Leicas in AF speed and precision, the Ricohs in portability, the A7c in… well, this last one does not 🙂 . But the sheer rendering of that Sonnar is unbeatable, and the compromises you get to solve in order to use the RX1R2 all pale down once you realise the final image is what really matters.
    Thank you for this article

    • Hi Eduardo, that is high praise, just out of curiosity, which lenses did you use on the Leica CL? And what was wrong with the Sony A7c? I am still tempted by it occasionally.

      • Sorry for the long delay in this reply. I used the CL with the Elmarit TL 18/2.8 asph and the Summicron T 23/2. This last imho has to be the closer I could get to the RX1R2 in terms of IQ and user satisfaction factor. In fact, I still use the CL, but as a very portable interchangeable lenses system (with also some M, ZM and VM lenses). OTOH, the A7C gave me an astounding AF speed jump over the RX1R2, but the meh user experience, in-hand cheap feeling, a very standard IQ, even with the Zeiss Sonnar 35/2.8 FE convinced me to just turn back to the ‘ancient’ compact. Size of the A7C is by no means compact, and even maybe a few mm smaller than the CL, but the Leica feels much better in the hand for me.
        If you have already taken the plunge, please let’s know what your choice was. Best

  14. Hello and thanks for reading and listening to your thoughts about the art of taking photos with compact cameras. Now, in spring 2022 i would say, that the best personal camera is this thing in your pocket or hanging around your neck and for me maybe at the moment it would be the new RICOH GRIIIx. Thats the focal length of my beloved analogue ROLLEI 35T. Some times will never change. Take care, stay save and have fun which the camera is yours.

    • I think many Macfilos readers are fans of the Ricoh GR. I have a GRIII and find it almost the best camera for slipping in the pocket when I wouldn’t otherwise bother. It’s a sort of in-between, from a phone to something like a Leica Q2. I say almost, because I still prefer to have a viewfinder. That is the only negative against the GRIII or IIIx. Then again, if it did have an EVF is would be a bigger package…

  15. Fantastic article that mirrors my own current thought process. Thanks for sharing your journey…

  16. Interesting and truthfully written. I went through a very similar path and stuck with the Sony RX1RII. There are three reasons why. Weight and dimensions. Color-matched image quality that is close to medium format. I considered the Leica Q2 for a while, but the dimensions, the fixed display and the overly pop colors and the 24mm lens are the reasons why I prefer the Sony. Dan Koťátko

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