As a pro mountain sport photographer, and someone working and playing in the mountains more than 300 days a year, I used to dream of having a camera light enough to not be a burden but also capable of producing the highest quality image files. I tried many systems but all came up short, the quality was not there. Then in 2012, we bought our first Sony system, the RX10o II. We shot it here and there and it seemed very good, but of course we were still shooting our big Canon systems for all our work. Then our first experience on the Hardergrat came and we decided to take only the RX100. The Canon was much too heavy for the trail that we had heard was long and difficult, staying light seemed best.
And so at sunrise, in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been, I was left standing with this point and shoot cursing my decision to not bring the “real” camera. I shot anyway, and thought everything looked ridiculous on that tiny screen. But at home that evening when I imported the images into Lightroom, they seemed okay. I figured they would at least be good enough for social media or blogging. Then I started developing them and suddenly they came to life, they looked nearly as good as the Canon DSLR images. We processed them properly in Photoshop and put them into our stock collection. These were some of the first images made on the Hardergrat and they were picked up everywhere. From that little Sony RX100 we had major magazine covers, advertisements, and even huge 3 meter wide trade show displays. I had found my super light camera system! I hope our story of discovering what is possible with the the Sony systems can help you make a camera decision.
This seems like a good time to announce that I am in no way affiliated with Sony. My enthusiasm about their products comes only from the fact that I am a professional user appreciative of the quality they provide, and the incredible bulk and weight savings. I am not here to explain any technical aspects, only real world, hands on usage and experience with the Sony systems and why they might be right for you. For technical specs, and quality comparisons, I use the DXOMark site.
Our evolution as Sony users continued when we next bought the a6000, a slightly larger body with the ability to change lenses. Now we had a camera that was more versatile and with even better quality, plus with the a6000 we had a viewfinder to look through allowing for more creativity and easier viewing in sunny weather. With the a6000 we were shooting many of our trail running tours and ski mountaineering days, the images were getting published and the quality outstanding.
In early summer of 2015, I got involved with Ueli Steck’s 82 Summit project. I would be joining Ueli for some peaks and photographing the experience. I figured I’d take along the a6000, but I was limited at the time to a 24mm lens and climbing often requires wider. The a7II system was the next choice, done! Now we had all three of the Sony Alpha cameras. I used the a7II for the entire summer of 2015, never touching my Canon gear again.
At this point I was convinced that the system was right for me, the quality of the image files from the a7II were better than the Canon 5d Mark III and 1D Mark IV and the weight savings tremendous. My only issues with Sony were the battery life and tiny buttons. Shooting Sony with gloves on is nearly impossible. I decided that before getting rid of all the Canon gear, I’d spend a winter shooting the a7II and the new a7RII. Winter came and went with no problems, then 7 weeks in the Himalaya with Ueli Steck and David Göttler at Shishapangma with only the Sony systems – and still, zero problems. I returned from the Himalaya and took 15 years of Canon gear to the used shop.
At this point, all our work was being shot with the a7 systems, while the RX100 II was being used for more fun trips. The a6000 with its 12fps was along for running days. We had our system. But like every piece of technology these days, it only got better. We upgraded to both the RX100 IV and to the a6300, which has since become my favorite camera.
The vast majority of the work we shot in the summer and fall of 2016 was with the a6300. All our work this year was from very real trips in the mountains, photoshoots more about real experiences than about production – the a6300 is ideal, pro quality files and super light. There are a huge number of high quality lenses now available for Sony users. Our a6300, once limited to 24mm, now has a razor sharp Zeiss 12mm lens which converts to an 18mm, perfect for much of our work.
What does all of this mean for you? Good news… For mountain sport folks wanting the lightest, most simple systems, you have two incredible options. The RX100 IV and Sony a6300 are, in my opinion, perfect cameras for most everyone.
Sony RX100 IV
This little camera has an electronic viewfinder, shoots 14fps, and produces images you can do most anything with. That 14fps number is important if you shoot running or skiing, all but guaranteeing you’ll get the shot with the best body position. In addition, the camera is completely managed by Sony’s phone app Play Memories, allowing you to set up the camera and shoot with your phone – action selfies!
This is, hands down, my favorite camera ever. I am able to completely rely on this little machine for work, and hardly feel it in my pack or pocket. I ran with it on the Dynafit Speed Transalp, a 3 day 90km trail running shoot, and my pack wasn’t much heavier than any other runner’s. I can’t recommend this camera enough, for both mountain sports or for general travel. I’ve found that the ideal lens for it is the Sony Vario Tessar Zeiss 16-70 which I always take with me, but so too the Zeiss Touit 12mm f 2.8, a very light option that gets you to 18mm with the a6300’s conversion.
Batteries : There is no denying that the Sony cameras go through batteries. It’s only a problem if you don’t have enough power, so I always carry multiples. Any day out will include at least three total batteries. In temps over 15° you can expect to get about 350-400 photos. As it gets colder things rapidly deteriorate, so it’s up to you how you manage the system. I keep batteries in my pocket, close to my body and continually rotate them in and out to keep warm ones in the camera. We have 12 batteries total for the a7 and a6300…
Small Buttons : I found that customizing the UI was crucial for minimizing issues with the buttons on the back of the camera. I made things as simple as possible by keeping most all my controls in the Function (Fn) button menu. One big improvement I found was to keep all the dial buttons turned off so I don’t accidentally hit any of them when moving quickly. There is a wealth of info online about the button functions and set up – find what works for you and learn it perfectly. Rumor has it that in the next weeks Sony will be releasing a major Firmware update with an all new Menu system. Let’s see if things improve…
Focusing : There are many options for focusing, both for action and still subjects. I’ve found the “Wide” mode to work best for subjects moving horizontally through the frame when in Continuous Auto Focus, while for still subjects, the Single Shot Auto Focus mode combined with the small Flexible Spot is very reliable. These are my go to combos, find what works for you.
Our lens selection is:
Sony Zeiss Touit 12mm, f 2.8
Sony Zeiss 16-70, f4
Sony Zeiss 16-35 f4
Sony Zeiss 24-70 f4
Sony Zeiss 70-200 f4
Very good to read a review from a trail runner’s perspective. This helped me make up my mind and get an a6000. Could you tell me what you use to carry your cameras when out on the trails? I’ve been looking for a small case which could be attached to a waist pack to allow quick access.
Hi Donny, For my a6300, I usually just have it in a beanie in my pack, and if it is out I have it held tight against my chest using my packs sternum straps (Dynafit running pack) which are shock cord and can be pulled tight. It’s not the ideal set up… But I do have a case that it fits perfectly into and pads it against my back somewhat, it’s some Manfrotto case I found at a shop, nothing special, just thin and light. Osprey is actually making a case that the a6000 fits perfectly into as well, although it’s a hair big, but a very good case. This one. Hope that helps! // Dan
How do you pack / carry the a6300 while running? Do you hold it, keep it in the pack, or secure it in another way so it does not bounce around? When / if it is in the pack, to you keep the lens and body connected?
I am a running and photography enthusiast am looking for a camera to use to document a few running tours this upcoming year. Your article was fantastic (though I am still debating between the RX100 and a6000). Thank you for such a great write up and your work is amazing. Hope to one day capture photos like yours.
Good question… and I am still trying to figure out the best solution. Mostly, I have the camera in the pack, in a beanie and yes, body and lens together. Or, it is out but held tight against my chest as I run under my sternum straps. Dynafit running packs have a shock cord that can be wrapped around it and tightened pretty good – it works, but it does tend to work itself loose over time. None of this is ideal – there needs to be a kind of holster it drops in and cinches tight on the chest.
Tough call on the 6000 series vs the RX100 – if I didn’t have to make work photos, I’d go RX100. Either way, you’ll have a good system.
Great points. I am also looking at the Olympus E-M10 II. It seems to split the difference (small and larger variety and better priced lenses with a sensor btwn 1″ and APSC). The RX100 is awesome, but I am having trouble paying ~$1000 for a point and shoot that I would only use for trail running. With an interchange lens system, I hope to get more use out of it.
And the a6000 seems like an awesome camera at a great price, but I worry about the small amount of lenses available specifically for it and their price. I ordered both the a6000 and the Olympus E-M10 II so I can try them both in hand.
What made you choose the a6000 over other mirrorless cameras?
For me, the RX100 Mark IV is a key camera because if I do decide it is the only camera that is going, it needs to produce results I can distribute for our work. What I am doing tomorrow is a classic example… it will be something big and hard, and I am going with someone I need to keep up with, but it’s not for work. Hmm… the a6300 or the RX100? I decided to go light and simple. All I’m after is a social media pic or two. But if it is something that ends up being good, the quality should be there. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s IG photo to see if it went okay.
Why I chose the a6000 is pretty much the same as what you are doing, reading blogs… I had already used a RX100 Mark II and was super happy, so I had faith in Sony.
What you want to do with your images is a huge factor – if they are only for social, Like you said, I’m sure you have a lot more options for quality and for less money.
Great review. For shooting mostly stills do you think it’s worth spending the extra cash to get an a6300 vs a6000? I’m looking for a smaller, lighter body for running and ski touring to take rather than my a7ii
Thanks- awesome site !!
Depends on how you need to use the photos. For me it’s work, so the a6300 is necessary. If it’s for social media and home prints, then the 6000 is fine. Thanks for the nice words! That helps keep us going. Much appreciated!
Thank you – very interesting to see your work and read your perspectives. As I’m reading this in Dec. 2017, more than a year after your original post, with the A7ii available at the same price as an a6500, I wonder which you’d recommend for catching wide angle “landscape” type ski shots as well as for trying to capture face shots and park stuff? Does the IQ and DR range of the a7ii trump the quicker focus and slightly smaller size of the a6500? And, does the $400-500 dollar cheaper price of the a6300 beat both?
For my work the a6500 is enough for everything we need to do. But I am all about the light and small body.
Have you added, changed or upgraded your cameras, lenses or systems?
Thank you, especially for all of your hard work.
Kevin from Boston
We’re now shooting the a6500, the RX100 MIV and an A7rII – so just system upgrades. The a6500 has become the go to camera, and favorite… !
I suppose you’re using native lenses… For wider angle environment and Skateboard type (minus the fisheye) ski/snowboard shots, what’s your favorite on the crop sensor cameras?
I really like the Zeiss Touit 12mm. A bit slow to focus but razor sharp.
Hi Dan, I hope you’re well. Can I ask please if you’ve used the RX-100 V? What I’d appreciate knowing is, if you didn’t have the A6500, would you be happy using the RX-100 V for work photos? (I understood you felt the Mk II was not entirely suitable). Just wondered what your thoughts were about the two recent models. Any thoughts appreciated. Many thanks, John.
Hey Dan, Thanks for the great review, I just bought a A6500! Do you use the app to share photos with your phone? do you use an Iphone and if so have you figured out how to connect your camera to your phone?
Also which lense do you recommend for shooting low light mountain climbing shots? I try to take a lot pf photos when guiding and would love to hear your thoughts!
Good choice! I’m using the a650 more and more as my main camera. Yes, I use the app to send images to my phone, works great but requires some initial set up to make the wireless connection. For lenses, my two primary go to lenses are the Zeiss 16-70 and the Zeiss Touit 12mm.
It’s a simple and perfect combo.
Was looking for review of RX-100 for mountains sports, it is great!
Can you give a piece of advice regarding Mark VI?
What is more beneficial for mountains, skiing, ski-mountaineering, faster lens (of Mark V) or longer reach (of Mark VI)?
For me, I like the longer lens.
Great article. I just stumbled upon it. It also made me grant a few thoughts to the late Ueli…
Concerning the RX100 camera, I was wondering: it’s not weathersealed. But when hiking, cimbing and trail running, one is exposed to humidity (amon others sweat), rain and snow.
To what extent did you use the RX100 in more “extreme” conditions”?
I need a reliable allround camera in addition to my DSLR and my (poor foto quality) outdoor and underwater: for photos and videos of family and kids (at home and outside, for example in the snow), hiking in all weather (landscape and marmots), holiday photos.
Would the Mark 7 of the RX100 fill those needs even with missinf weather sealing?
Thanks in advance.
I am absolutely awful when it comes to camera care. I think that after 20+ years of working with cameras in my hand nearly every day, I’ve gotten lazy. I have broken lenses by dropping them, but never had anything go down from moisture. And I’m super rough on stuff. Sony has been totally fine so far.