We all have a smartphone in our pocket now, which includes ever improving cameras that are replacing compact point and shoots. But there still exist a premium sector of point and shoot cameras such as the Sony RX100 that promise DSLR like quality and functionality in a tiny package. So is it worth splashing out on such a camera, or could you theoretically get by entirely on a smartphone like the Samsung S21 Ultra? Let’s take a detailed look…
The question here is not whether the Samsung S21 Ultra is a great camera-phone. It is. That is not in doubt. It’s whether it is the only camera you need to take with you wherever you go. So I’m comparing its lens(es), image quality & specs, video quality & specs, functionality, portability, battery life and build with the Sony RX100 – the king of the compact point and shoot sector.
Before we go any further, the outcome of this video may be decided pretty quickly for you depending on what you need a camera to do. If you just want to take snapshots of your kids, and document your life, then a smartphone like the S21 is definitely all you need. It’s got more power than most people will in fact ever need. But if you’re a more enthusiast/pro-level photographer, or if you need to take pictures for a blog, or shoot video for a vlog or perhaps create content for social media, then you may have slightly more demanding requirements. You’ll want to know if a good smartphone can do it all for you, or whether you should go the extra mile and have something with higher quality output.
Lenses and sensor:
Sony RX100 – available in several guises, the most popular of which are the mk iv / v with a f1.8-f2.8 24mm-70mm equivalent zoom lens or the mk vi and vii with a f2.8-f4.5 24-200mm. These are Zeiss lenses and are larger and higher quality than those found in the phone. All the Sony RX100 cameras have a 20MP 1” sensor.
S21 Ultra – has a ultra wide (12mp), wide (up to 108MP), and 2 telephoto lenses (10MP), plus the front facing camera with a 40mp sensor. It might not boast the same level of quality lenses, but it makes up for it in available focal range and megapixel-age.
Winner: S21. It has a wider focal range. The image resolution available is also huge. However, the sensors are much smaller than the 1 inch.
Sony – The 1” sensor captures more light and is capable of producing much more pleasing bokeh (out of focus areas) than the phone can manage. The 20MP sensor is big enough for most enthusiast needs. Detail is far better on the Sony. It exhibits none of the mushy, splodginess of a phone camera’s tiny sensors. Performs much better in low light in terms of noise.
S21 Ultra – each lens has its own sensor. Some of these are quite small resolution (10mp for the telephotos) and some are huge (108mp for the main wide angle camera). You’d expect 108mp to deliver incredibly high resolution and detailed results, but in reality the relatively small size of the sensor prohibits the camera from really capturing the level of detail you’d expect at this resolution. Fuji GFX 100S it aint. The wide angle sensor is particularly poor quality in lower light and of the 2 telephoto lenses which provide 3x and 10x optical zoom respectively, the 10x lens/sensor is far superior in image quality over the 3x lens/sensor.
Winner: Sony RX100. Out of focus areas are smoother and more DSLR like. The S21, like many camera phones, tends to compensate for its lack of detail capturing ability by applying extra sharpening. This leads to an overly crunchy, digital looking image.
Sony RX100 – small enough to fit in your jeans or jacket pocket. Could also be carried in a case on a strap or belt.
S21 Ultra – It’s a HUGE phone and you’ll definitely notice it in your pocket, but it still goes in!
Winner – by a whisker, the S21. It’s more likely to always be on you as your main phone, too. The RX100 is a super portable camera though.
Sony RX100 – Battery life is fairly poor. Rated for less than 300 shots. Gets drained particularly quickly when shooting video. Just carry spares.
Phone – good for a days shooting. Bit of a pain when it runs out though. Can’t pop another battery in.
Winner – S21 Ultra.
RX100 – solidly built with a metal casing. It feels solid and well made. I still wouldn’t want to drop it though!
S21 Ultra – Again, dropping it without a case wouldn’t be good for it, but it may well survive.
Winner – draw. Both are well made, and feel solid. You’d probably be likely to pick up cosmetic scrapes on either if you dropped them. The phone also has a large glass front which would make it more susceptible to damage. The extending lens of the Sony is a vulnerable point.
Sony – 4k24,30fps. Full HD 24, 30, 60, 120fps. Slow mo up to 1000fps. Record in HLG, SLOG, SLOG 2, CINE 2.
S21 – 8K!!! 4k60, 30, 24, Full HD 60, 30, 24. Slow mo at 480fps. Manual pro mode available but no LOG or cinema modes.
Winner: on paper, the S21 wins easily, but the 4k quality of the Sony is far better. The Sony’s Full HD quality is also leagues ahead. It can’t shoot at such high frame rates, but its output is far more professional looking and can be colour graded far more easily in post. The S21 does have better image stabilisation but it’s not always a replacement for a gimbal. My choice for video – the RX100.
Both devices have great functionality and are generally on par. The autofocus is better on the Sony and is easier to get focus despite the phone’s touch screen. Sometimes the phone is just too large to be able to wield effectively.
The Sony has a stereo mic that is ok, but not in wind. Only the mk vi and vii have mic-in jacks. But there is the Sony ZV1 which is basically an RX100 mk V with a flippy screen and a better mic capsule with wind-noise filter and a mic-in jack.
The phone’s audio is ok, but again suffers from wind noise. No headphone / mic jack but you could use the USB C port.
Both devices have a detailed level of settings to customise the action of the camera. The phone auto selects profiles based on what it detects in the scene. The Sony has scene modes you can manually select as well as an intelligent auto mode. Both can shoot HDR photos. The phone can shoot HDR video. There are time-lapse modes and intervalometers. The Sony has a greater level of settings in the end. The phone is loaded with more trickery in terms of effects.
The Sony is small but the presence of dedicated hardware controls is a welcome one, as is the digital viewfinder and pop up flash, and crucially the articulating 3” screen. You also hold this like a proper camera. It also has a smaller overall footprint and is a little easier to wield.
The S21 has a massive screen that really helps composing and seeing what you’re shooting. However, it doesn’t flip around so for awkward angles you may not be able to see it that well. In wide angle modes, you may end up with your fingers in the shot more often than not! Because the phone is flat and thin, it’s more difficult in some cases to shoot video with camera movement. However it is easier to whip it out and double tap the power button to get the camera app up and running. It’s usually just more accessible than a camera (unless the camera is already in your hand or around your neck).
Winner: Sony RX100.
The phone is formidable. It’s so good that it could easily be used by content creators to record vlogs, take images for social media, portraits, snapshots, landscapes. Its specs look hugely impressive on paper, but that’s not the end of the story. When you use the phone, you realise after a while that the quality of the images it produces varies a lot depending on what lens you’re using and the available levels of light. It’s all very well having the ability to shoot 8k video and 108 megapixel stills, but if the detail is poor and the image quality is mushy, then you’ve just got a really huge bad looking image or video file.
Particularly, when I spent a day filming my kids in good light, I noticed that the difference in quality between the various lenses/sensors was startling. Noise and mushiness was very evident in the ultra wide and telephone lenses. The standard wide lens was head and shoulders above the others for quality. I also noticed that sometimes the stabilisation would not fix rotation of the phone when holding it in landscape orientation. This is can be annoying to work with in post. In low light the sensors can’t produce good quality video that you would want to use professionally or at an enthusiast level. The successful use of this phone then, to create photos and videos that are of a higher quality than the standard snapshot taker would be happy with, depends on your knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses in certain conditions. You’d need to know which lens to use when and how to get the best out of it. It’s possible, but can certainly be frustrating.
The Sony is an incredibly accomplished little camera. The amazing advancements in phones make it look less impressive than it is, simply because they boast SO many features. But what the phone shows off with in terms of gimmicks and bells and whistles cannot mask the underlying quality gap between a phone and a good size sensor and lens combo. The Sony’s quality genuinely rivals DSLR / Mirrorless camera quality and is a far more effective photographic tool for enthusiasts and professionals who are looking to carry something super portable with them. You can choose between a regular focal range with fast apertures, or a longer more versatile focal range with slightly slower lens apertures, and now also opt to have the Sony ZV1 for the ultimate vlogging camera. Phones are certainly catching up, but their biggest hurdle is sensor size. Even the high resolution 108MP sensor on the S21 cannot match the Sony’s 1” sensor for quality and refinement. Phones have to get round this using computational power and clever software, which currently doesn’t quite live up to its organic counterpart.
If budget permits, get both! I use the phone for when I’ve not brought my other cameras. It’s also sometimes more accessible than the camera in my bag. It can deployed to do certain duties like time-lapse whilst you snap on your main camera, or take video whilst you take stills. The phone can very nearly do it all, but it still produces video footage that looks like it was taken on a phone. With stills, it very much depends on what you’re shooting. Bright scenes in daylight where everything is in focus, the phone can cope with admirably, but shallow depth of field is what give large sensor cameras their advantage. It’s so much more attractive. Again, the phone has to fake it, or is only possible to a small degree. The Sony’s sensor is still small compared to a full frame camera, but its more natural looking shallow depth of field wins out over the phone. Colour rendition is also better and RAW files contain far more data. Night or low light images generally look much better on the Sony.
If budget doesn’t permit, I’d recommend getting whatever phone you can afford or the iPhone 12 Pro or Samsung S21+ – both have excellent cameras that will do what you need them to on a daily basis, but no phone comes close to Sony’s amazing compact point and shoot RX100 series for sheer quality.