Search for a Ski Camera: Sony RX100

For three seasons, I’ve wanted a durable camera that would fit in my pocket, deploy quickly and take great pictures at the same time. I’m talking about sharp images that can standup to close scrutiny. And while the most famous skiers can get down the hill with a full-on digital SLR, I simply can’t. I can’t manage the bulk, and those cameras can’t handle the impacts they’d be likely to encounter in my parka.

When I last tried to solve this problem, there were plenty of compact, tough, reasonably fast cameras out there, but none of them were delivering sharp, crisp images.

But things are changing. It seems that the proliferation of smart phones, and the reasonable decent cameras they contain, has all but killed the point-and-shoot market.  Sales of compact inexpensive camera have dropped like a stone, and that’s pushing camera manufacturers to up their game in the portable camera sector. I came across a camera review in the New York Times for the Sony RX100 entitled Tiny Camera to Rival the Pros.

While I don’t pretend to understand the technical mumbo jumbo that describes the latest camera technology, this line got my attention: “No photos this good have ever come from a camera this small.”  The Times goes on to say that the RX100 has a “huge sensor” and a “big aperture” which translated into english means “this camera takes amazing pictures.”

The camera sports a large-diameter F1.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T Lens with 3.6x Optical Zoom. I have no idea who Carl is or what Vario-Sonnar is, but I like the idea of a lens with a brand. Carl wouldn’t put his name on a junky lens would he?

Other features that sound appealing to me include high-speed auto focus, 10 frames-per-second burst mode, optical SteadyShot with Active Mode, sweep panorama mode and superior auto mode.

I have a few reservations.  The camera is pricey as hell ($645), and descriptions make no mention of shooting action like skiing. My new (read lazy) product research methodology includes typing in a product name, followed by “vs” to check out the competition.  The Canon S100 is even smaller, comes in at half the price of the RX100 and gets some pretty glowing reviews too. Ultimately, I may end up with the Canon.

The one thing that is really missing in this process — a casualty of the internet I’m sure — is a great, local, camera store where I could go and look, touch and tryout both of these cameras. With my general lack of patience for shopping, I’ll probably put my trust in the New York Times, roll the dice, and ask for one of the two cameras for Christmas. If I can swing this camera, it’ll be interesting to see if my photos are any better this season.

15 comments on “Search for a Ski Camera: Sony RX100

  1. FYI, Zeiss licenses or manufactures lenses for a variety of companies. The Panasonics are a good choice for quality to price, but they might not be as intuitive for you as an elph. This camera is great but has a couple of problems:

    1. It’s not clear how the AF will work for action

    2. $$$

    Just sack up and spend the big money on an SLR. It would really help because no one can ever seem to get a decent shot of me.

  2. I recall seeing some mention of this. P&S sized cameras with retractable lens with a good quality sensor is definitely an opportunity market for photo companies. Camera phones still absolutely stuck (I am stunned how poor the quality is on my brand new Samsung Galaxy SIII, one of the best phones on the market right now). But phone camera is “good enough” for most people just snapping pics and screwing them up with that lam-o facebook app.

    I disagree with ml242’s assessment of getting a DSLR. I think M43 is a much better option for that type of thing but even that is way overkill for most people. Even with my pancake, it is occasionally a pain trying to pocket my M43 camera. Though the sizes get smaller every year, but even a pancake lens sticks out and doubles the frame body. It just isn’t practical for most people.

    At twice the cost, I don’t know if this is worth it over the Canon, Panasonic, and Olympus offerings in the high end P&S level. How much better of a picture is twice the cost but still not M43 or DSLR quality going to be? I don’t buy it at that price unless you have to have great quality but can’t be bothered with lenses. Look at the Canon, Panasonic, or Olympus high end P&S around $300 or so instead.

  3. It’s such a tough decision. You do ski with that fanny pack thingy – that would probably fit a M4/3 or a small, durable DSLR (I don’t know if that exists).

    I definitely agree that smart phones shoot pretty damn good pictures for what they are. Really, what you’re trying to decide is how much better you want to go over phone pics. A p&s is only slightly better. A M4/3 is better, and a DSLR is way better. Only problem is, the better quality you go, the bigger the bulk (it’s freaking annoying to carry the DSLR on a regular resort day – I like it for the slower pace of BC, but when I’m charging, I hate it).

    I’m almost ready to say “who cares about photo quality?”. Sure you can get some badass pics, but they are few and far between, and to get them, you are more on a photography mission than a ski mission (“I’m going to set up here, you ski through here and turn here”).

    Of course, since I work a lot, I have to squeeze in runs whenever I can, and I don’t have a lot of time to kill taking pics – you probably have a little more free time on your ski days. And, one more thing – Neve is probably going to be your primary subject. So, you could get a DSLR and take solace in the fact that you’ll probably be skiing the easier trails for at least 3 more seasons (after which, she’ll be ripping Rumor)

  4. Carl Ziess is one of if not the top optical firm in the world and has been for 100 years.

    I had a great Nikon that took unbelievable photos. Unfortunately the gearing that extended the lens died after a few years of use. My Canon now is so so at taking ski photos. Some cameras have a mountain mode that adjusts to the light conditions with sun on snow – look for that.

    I agree size is a big key for me – I need it to fit in my jacket pocket without having it feel big in there. I use the camera to take video when I’m teaching and also have to carry a large 2 way radio around with me so size and weight are my most important selection factors. Cold weather battery life is also important.

  5. My comments will somewhat echo what Matt said: a DSLR is probably not practical for the type of skiing I do, nor for the type of skiing you seem to do. 90% of my ski time is with my family, and they’re not going to stand by while I mess with setting up shots. In your case, I’ve heard you comment that you don’t want to slow down your partners by taking photos. The camera I have now (a Panasonic) takes very good burst photos, I will look to use that function more heavily next winter. Z mentions a snow or mountain exposure setting – I think that’s pretty standard now on most P&Ss – I agree that’s a good feature.

    One last point – if you’re taking photos for this blog and you’re re-sizing them to a lower res so that the blog page loads quickly, aren’t you negating the stepped up quality of the DSLR? On my blog I generally re-size down to around 500K, I think you may be going a bit lower.

  6. Just because you decrease size doesn’t mean you don’t want high quality before the resize. Megapixels does not equal quality. Though I think “how much quality do you really need” is a very important question. I feel my images are much better since going M43 and I resize down to 800 width for my blog and then main page images get resized down again.

    Don’t pay attention to the fancy name on the lens (i.e. Carl Ziess). Panasonic and Sony do the same thing with their cameras; putting a big name top lens maker on their P&S lenses. The lenses are not the same as the top tier partner’s actual lenses. Not saying the glass is junk, but you aren’t getting a $1000 lens on a $300 camera.

  7. Harvey, another thing to consider if you get a DSLR is that you can blame the camera for slowing the group down even though we all know the heels are broken on your bindings.

    I kid, I kid.

  8. I’m pretty sure that when I’ve got a lot of size to an image (pixels and Kb) and it’s just not sharp, it has something to do with the quality of the glass. I may be overpaying for Carl Z or whatever is in the Canon s100 but it’s GOT to be better than what is in my $100 elph. Sounds like the ability put detail in low light will be better and maybe the burst will work too.

    I really didn’t know about the category (M43) until my dad, who lurks on the blog (hi dad!) sent me a PM telling me to check out the M43s at… drumroll please … a local camera store. So there is one. He says the sales help is non-existent, but at least I can look. I need to see how big the cameras really are.

    As far as an SLR. Just not happening. I need my camera in my breast pocket. Can’t work any other way. If the Canon s100 is really a step or two up, and compact enough, that’s the way I’ll go.

  9. Went to the local camera store tonight and my dad was right. Atrocious sales help in a disorganized (and dirty!) store. They didn’t have the RX100 in stock. They did have the Canon S100. It’s small and it is a beauty. I might have bought one on the spot but the kid behind the counter couldn’t find one that was unopened and/or had all the parts.

  10. Harvey, I don’t think most of us mind waiting a minute or two for you to take pictures. A friend out west likes to take alot of photos which can take some time to set up but during the long dark days of summer its sure nice to go back and look at them and realize that there is hope for better days ahead!I see it as a small price to pay. I was going to suggest skiing with a backpack but from your previous comments that doesn’t seem to be an option. You could go all out and get both cameras and ski with a pack. Then you have one for quick shots and one for set shots. PS will you please get your heel pieces fixed!

  11. I take a lot of ski photos for use on internet websites. I use a cheap Nikon Coolpix L26 that I got for $70 a couple years ago. Don’t have a smart phone, but All the smart phone and dumb cell phone photos people share with me are terrible quality compared to my cheap Nikon. Plus, the video quality is pretty decent, if only I knew how to compose decent ski videography.

    Believe it or not, the most important feature for me is how fast the camera fires up to be ready for a shot. The Coolpix is pretty good for that, but I’ve had better in prior cheap digicams (usually also carry an old one as backup). Many of my best photos occur with zero premeditation and are spontaneous shots of something interesting happening or likely to happen in the next five-ten seconds. I have a hard time, however, catching people at the peak of a jump when they are going for air, so I probably could benefit from a camera with better shutter speed features.

    I hesitate to invest in a better camera because of the punishment they take in winter/ski use. Constantly whipping it in and out of coat pocket, fooling with it on lift rides, exposure to cold and moisture, etc. I dropped mine this past season in Casablanca Glades at Saddleback, when I forgot to zip jacket pocket after use. Reported this in the lodge and got it back within a couple hours, good to go.

  12. I own and love the RX100, and I have owned similar Canon models to the S100. There are good reasons why the Sony is more expensive, and for me it’s an easy call. However, those reasons are mostly geared toward serious photographers. If you don’t understand the “technical mumbo jumbo” in a NYTimes camera review, then you’re probably wasting money buying an RX100 because you’re paying for features and capabilities that you’ll never use.

    The RX100 allows more control options for photographers who want to be able to control aperture, shutter speed, etc. If you don’t know what those things are, then why pay to be able to control them? Likewise, the RX100 has a bigger sensor so its images will hold up better if you are creating larger prints. But if you never print and/or frame any of your photos, then why waste a couple hundred bucks on that?

    For casual users who don’t want to learn about photography, but just want to shoot good photos for Facebook and social media, the Canon makes more sense.

  13. Stephen… I actually have a reasonable understanding of photography. I did a lot in the pre-digital era, and actually taught a class in B/W.

    Not sure if you are a skier or not. My needs are for something that will work reasonably well on automatic settings. I often taking hundreds of shots in a fairly hurried setting, trying to keep pace with aggressive expert skiers. (Rochester Mark is one of those experts who happens to have a LOT of patience.)

    My beef with the P/S cameras of the recent past was really that the quality of the lens was poor and images weren’t crisp. I ended up buying the Canon s100 and it produces better pictures on auto than other small cameras I’ve used. My primary beef with it is that it is too easy to accidentally change settings (like ISO) with cold or gloved fingers.

  14. I am probably too late for my response to make any difference to you but I will respond anyway since I just came across this blog. I am a skier and a photographer and have been photographing my ski trips family and friends for many years. I have gone from film to digital and tried various digital cameras. Obviously shooting an image of friends with the mountains and valleys in the background is one thing and trying to get a picture showing all the beauty of a particular mountain possibly with fog or slopes or fresh snow to make a large print is another thing. I rarely fall when I ski but I really don’t like skiing with an SLR. My latest all-purpose pocketable camera is the Canon S 100 and it has been a total failure. It stops taking pictures after 15 to 20 seconds of exposure to cold weather. Hard to believe but repeatedly true. Only a short video and it stops. It has caused me tremendous frustration while I’m skiing with my friends and after I get them all posed I can’t take a picture. My wife’s S95 does fine. The difference is in the battery, which is smaller in the S100 than S95 and has a lower rating. Canon has returned to the battery in the S95 for the S110. Canon has checked my camera out on 1 occasion and after I returned it again they replace the motherboard but still the camera performs poorly in cold weather.

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