Sony RX10 II Field Test Part I

A hard act, followed: Sony's impressive long-zoom just got even better

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Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

73mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 100

Back in late 2013, Sony launched the RX10, a camera which promised to do the same thing for the long-zoom camera that its RX100-series had for pocket cameras. With a much larger than average 1"-type sensor, the RX10 could capture really great photos that were packed with detail.

And while it wouldn't rival a DSLR or mirrorless camera in low light, the Sony RX10's bright constant aperture 24-200mm equivalent zoom lens would've required a hefty bag of glass to match with an interchangeable-lens body.

I was a big fan of the original Sony RX10

I first got the chance to shoot with the Sony RX10 alongside the Sony A7 and A7R mirrorless cameras, and while their full-frame sensors ensured that the latter duo grabbed all the headlines, the long-zoom RX10 was the sleeper hit for me. Nor was I alone in that assessment: We gave the RX10 our 2013 Camera of the Year award in the Enthusiast Zoom category.

There are two main rivals for the Sony RX10 II

For a long while, the RX10 went completely unchallenged in the marketplace. It wasn't until the launch of the Panasonic FZ1000 in mid-2014 that there was a true rival, but when it arrived choosing between the pair became a mighty difficult task. Image quality was pretty much a wash between the two, but Sony's camera boasted a higher-quality feel, bright f/2.8 constant-aperture zoom, and better battery life. For its part, Panasonic answered with greater performance, a more powerful zoom and 4K video support.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

137mm-equivalent, 1/160 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1000

It was a very, very close thing, but in the end I found myself reaching for the FZ1000 more often when I left the office, after shooting the pair side by side. Since then, Canon has also joined the fray with the G3X, a model with which I've yet to have the opportunity to shoot. And that's the market into which the Sony RX10 II launches, a followup that keeps the same great lens and body as its predecessor, but with some very important changes.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

98mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 2000

(Want to see how they compare? We've prepared side-by-side comparisons against the new Sony RX10 II for you -- see them at these links: Sony RX10 II vs. Sony RX10, Sony RX10 II vs. Panasonic FZ1000 or Sony RX10 II vs. Canon G3X.)

A beautiful backdrop for my first shoot with the RX10 II

Now, the Sony RX10 II is here, aiming to win my allegiance once more with greater performance, in-camera 4K video capture and high frame-rate / slow-motion video key among the new feathers in its cap. And once again, my first opportunity to shoot with the new camera came at a press event -- this time, in Portland, Oregon.

This was my first time in Portland, which I found to live up to its rather quirky reputation. (And I have to say that I found it to be a really picturesque city, as well!) Strolling around the center of town early on the morning after my arrival -- having missed shooting the previous afternoon and evening, thanks to a succession of flight delays -- I refamiliarized myself with the basic design that's shared by the Sony RX10 II and its predecessor pretty quickly.

The same great body with some subtle improvements

The body of the Sony RX10 II is essentially identical to that of the earlier camera. The only control changes are the replacement of one of the two Memory Recall positions on the Mode dial with the new HFR or High Frame-Rate position, and the addition of the Delete button to the roster of the RX10 II's customizable controls.

Sony RX10 II Review -- Product Image

Sony RX10 II Review -- Product Image

Sony RX10 II Review -- Product Image

The control layout is pretty good, overall, although one criticism from my original Sony RX10 review remains: I'd still like to see the upper rear dial tweaked for better comfort and tactile feedback. As is, it's very close to flush with the slight bulges above and below it in the camera body, and this coupled with its small size and placement a bit left of your thumb's natural resting position make it both slightly tricky to roll with the pad of your thumb, and hard to tell by feel whether you've done so successfully. (Of course, you can look at the exposure indications in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor for a visual confirmation of the change.)

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

107mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 200

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

31mm-equivalent, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 800

And I still find the control for the optional click detent on the aperture ring a little too well-hidden. It sits beneath and just to the right of the lens (as seen from the rear), a location that's obscured by your hand and the grip from most angles. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes -- because I couldn't see it, I tended to forget the control was even there. Saying that, a journalist from one of our friendly rival publications told me that more than once he'd changed the control by mistake when intended to turn a lens ring, something I can't say that I personally experienced at all either on the Sony RX10 II or its predecessor.

My other control concerns, it seems, have largely been addressed. For example, the easily-bumped lower rear dial, which sits face-on around the OK button, no longer defaults to ISO sensitivity control, and so I no longer faced that initial confusion on finding that my ISO sensitivity had changed every time I picked up the camera. (You can still set the dial to one of several options -- including ISO control -- should you want to do so, though.)

And throughout my Portland shoot, I never once noticed the exposure compensation dial having been changed unintentionally, something I noted in my RX10 review. It seems, perhaps, that Sony has increased the click detent just slightly on the RX10 II's dial. Either that, or I've just been luckier this time around!

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

85mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 1600

Gone, too, is the slight panel creak I noted around the upper rear dial on my RX10 review sample. The Sony RX10 II feels extremely solid, and lacks the rather plasticky feel of its closest rival, the Panasonic FZ1000.

One seriously gorgeous electronic viewfinder

The new electronic viewfinder in the Sony RX10 II is a beauty, and I definitely gravitated towards shooting through the finder rather than at arm's length with this camera.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

57mm-equivalent, 1/60 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 320

(With a fairly generous 200mm-equivalent telephoto and a high-res sensor, it makes sense to do so even with the camera's SteadyShot image stabilization, as well. Holding the finder to your eye helps give a steady shooting posture.)

Sadly, I didn't have the original RX10 for a side-by-side comparison, but the higher-resolution viewfinder display in the RX10 II is certainly very sharp indeed, making it extremely easy to judge focus.

Still no touch-screen or tilt/swivel, sadly

At various points in my Portland shoot, I did find myself wishing for both a touch-screen display (as in the Canon G3X) and a side-mounted LCD tilt/swivel articulation mechanism (as in the Panasonic FZ1000), but neither is a deal-breaker for me. The touch-screen would have been nice for focus point selection, and the side-mounted display would be more versatile than the tilt-only screen of the RX10 II.

The reason I find the Sony's articulation less versatile is that it can't be turned forwards for selfies, tilt sideways for portrait shots over your head, or close inwards for protection. I still found myself using the RX10 II's more limited articulation quite a bit, though, often shooting from waist-height or over my head for an interesting perspective on my subjects.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

166mm-equivalent, 1/200 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600

For the most part, an intuitive interface

And save for the lack of touch autofocus, the Sony RX10 II's on-screen user interface is for the most part quite intuitive. There are a few places where the menu system feels a little bit disorganized, but that's true of quite a few rivals as well, and for the most part options I wanted to change frequently were to be found in logical groupings near the start of the relevant menu. And the Function menu makes it very quick to change the very most frequent options, especially if you leave the LCD monitor set to its Info Display mode.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

117mm-equivalent, 1/100 sec. @ f/10, ISO 6400

I'd quite like to see the ability to disable the LCD altogether in record mode, though, so I could save battery by activating only the EVF when the camera was raised to my eye. It's not that battery life was short -- on the contrary, one battery pack usually got me through a full day's shooting unless I was recording a lot of video -- but anything that would help me get more life out of a battery would be a good thing when I'm away from a charger, as I typically was all day long during the Portland trip.

A very responsive camera, although raw shooters won't see the full performance

During my first shoot with the Sony RX10 II in Portland, I found it to be a very swift camera in most respects. Autofocus was fast and confident in good light, and even in fairly low light the camera was able to lock focus by itself more often than not. With that said, I was able to focus manually through the electronic viewfinder in even lower light, thanks to the RX10 II's ability to ramp up brightness of the live view image at the expense of noise.

The Sony RX10 II also lends itself well to fast-moving subjects, able to shoot at seriously impressive rates of up to 14 frames per second in full resolution, so long as you're in JPEG mode and keep focus locked from the first frame. I'm a raw shooter for the most part -- or raw+JPEG when I'm working on a review -- and the RX10 II sadly still penalizes you significantly with its raw burst performance. Even here, though, the rate of around eight frames per second matches my enthusiast-grade DSLR, and is more than capable of making up for my less-than-perfect reflexes.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

200mm-equivalent, 1/400 sec. @ f/4, ISO 100

The buffer is much more generous, but takes a while to clear

And the buffer depth is now significantly more generous than that of the original RX10, meaning that I never found myself waiting on the camera and missing a shooting opportunity -- at least, so long as I didn't want to make a significant settings tweak between bursts. In fact, the only real weak spot in terms of performance was the buffer clearing time, which struck me as a bit longer than average for a camera of this resolution. (And that was when using Sony's own 94MB/second flash cards.)

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

200mm-equivalent, 1/800 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 100

The Sony RX10 II also retains its predecessor's slightly frustrating tendency to lock you out of the main menu system for a short period after long bursts, and to gray out the drive mode option in the Function menu while the buffer is being cleared. A problem I hit even more often was that I couldn't start reviewing images while the camera was still writing to its flash card, leaving me waiting a few seconds after a bracketed burst of raw+JPEG shots to see my result.

Excellent image quality for its class

But really, I'm splitting hairs here. Overall, performance was great for this class of camera. And the same is true of image quality, which if anything I felt was just ever so slightly better than that of the original RX10. (With that said, though, it's a modest improvement -- not that I was expecting anything different given that the sensor resolution and use of backside-illumination are both unchanged.)

To get any better image quality, though, you'd need to step up to an interchangeable-lens camera with a larger sensor -- and that's going to mean buying at least a couple of lenses to match the RX10 II's bright constant aperture, generous zoom range and handy macro capabilities. The result won't be as compact and convenient, and that size and weight savings is what makes the RX10 II's 1"-type sensor so attractive to me.

4K and high frame-rate video set the RX10 II apart

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

53mm-equivalent, 1/800 sec. @ f/5, ISO 100

Once I'd gotten a generous selection of still images under my belt, it was time to switch to video capture -- and it was here that I was really keen to see how the Sony RX10 II performed. In particular, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the new high frame-rate mode, which the RX10 II shares with its pocket-friendly sibling, the RX100 IV. (If you want to see why I was so excited, you'll find the answer in this awesome video shot by my fellow IR staffers when we first got that camera in for review. Sadly, I wasn't in the office at the time, and so missed out on all the fun!)

Until just recently, I'd never really played with high frame-rate video, because none of my cameras supported the function, and nor did those I'd gotten the chance to review -- at least, not in any meaningful manner. (The high frame-rate functions of the few cameras I'd tested all came accompanied by postage stamp-sized resolutions that made them utterly unappealing for me.)

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

175mm-equivalent, 1/25 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 12,800

High frame-rate video is great even for slower-moving subjects

My first experience with high frame rate capture came only recently, when I picked up my Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone about a year ago. That certainly whet my appetite, but with a maximum capture rate of 120 fps, anything beyond about a 5x slow-motion effect proved unacceptably stuttery, and so I was limited to a fairly modest slow-mo. (And of course, the fixed focal length lens and smartphone image quality left something to be desired, as well.)

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

81mm-equivalent, 1/25 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 12,800

But I knew from playing with my phone that slow-motion could be a worthwhile tool, and not just for action-packed subjects. The video clip below, shot with the RX10 II, is a nice example of what I mean. As the dancer pirouettes in front of me, her hair bouncing in slow motion gives the clip a dreamy, languid feel that I really like. And in a touch of luck, one of the key drawbacks of high frame-rate mode -- the fact that you can't adjust zoom, focus or anything else while the clip is being captured -- became a boon for this particular clip.

I'd set focus before the clip started, and was shooting with the camera set to buffer high frame-rate video continuously, then only save the last two seconds once I indicated the end point for the clip. The dancer strayed beyond my depth of field as she moved, but at the perfect moment she both moved back to her original position, and then chose to look straight at the camera.

Action is the obvious choice to slow down, but even less active subjects can benefit from high frame rate capture. Here, I'm shooting at 240 fps with 60 fps playback, for a 4x slow-motion effect. Coupled with a shot that starts out of focus and ends up sharp, it gives a rather dreamy, languid effect.
Click to download the original file

My point is this: You wouldn't expect a tightly-framed portrait of a relatively slow-moving dancer to make a good high frame-rate subject, but it most certainly can be. A clip like this one -- albeit more likely coached a little, instead of being just a happy accident -- wouldn't look out of place in a music video or movie.

It's the fast action which benefits most, though

Of course, it's the really active subjects that are the most fun. Allowing us to test the high frame-rate capabilities of its cameras in the real world, Sony had arranged an array of interesting subjects, from boxers to breakdancers, plus a full-sized ramp for skateboarders. The subject that most grabbed me initially was the boxers, thanks to the extra visual interest added by a couple of inches of water in which they were splashing around.

The same 4x slow-motion effect also lets you see quite a bit that escapes your eyes in faster-moving subjects.
Click to download the original file

Even a 4x slow-motion effect proved plenty to let you pick up details that would normally escape your attention, as you can see above. And while I was initially thinking the two-second default clip length limit would prove too short, it turned out to be plenty for most subjects even at these relatively modest slow-mo rates. (A two-second video works out to be eight seconds long when played back at 4x slow motion.)

Doubly so since I was indicating when I wanted the clips to end, rather than when they should start. (I did try the other option, but found that too often it cut the action off right when things were getting interesting, because I'd started the clip too early.)

Here, I've opted for a longer four-second clip length with the same 4x slow-motion effect.
Click to download the original file

You can trade quality for greater clip length

You can, however, trade off some image quality to achieve a longer clip length of four seconds, as I've done above. In 4x slow motion, that yields a 16-second clip length at 4x slow motion, or potentially as long as two minutes, 40 seconds with a 40x slow-motion effect. It's hard to say just how much quality you're losing, though, because the Sony RX10 II upsamples all of its high frame-rate video in-camera to Full HD resolution.

I can see why Sony chose to do this, because relatively low resolutions are par for the course in many high frame rate-capable cameras, even expensive models aimed at professional use. And for consumer use, upsampling video is perhaps beyond the abilities of some shooters. However, I wish this in-camera upsampling was optional, for several reasons.

Capturing this skateboarder nailing a flip trick took a lot of trial and error on both of our parts. I'd probably have gotten the video sooner had I not had to wait so long between shooting each video, however.
Click to download the original file

Upsampling to Full HD has some drawbacks

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the upsampling process doubtless contributes to the lengthy delay after each clip is captured -- and while I was trying to shoot some difficult subjects such as the skateboarder you'll see above, I frequently found myself missing a good opportunity because I was still waiting for the previous video to render. I'd imagine that the camera could be ready to shoot again a whole lot quicker were it not potentially having to upsample anywhere from 480 to 3,840 frames of video to a significantly higher resolution.

And that's not all: These upsampled videos take up a whole lot more flash card space than they would at their original capture resolution. At around 6-6.5MB per second of playback time, they can build up very quickly. (A two second, 20x slow-mo clip is a weighty 250MB.) And since the upsampling is baked in at capture time, you lose the opportunity to take advantage of higher-quality upsampling algorithms on the desktop, where there's a lot more processor power to throw at the problem.

Keeping a fast-moving subject centered at high frame rates can be pretty tricky, but I found myself getting better at it with practice. Here, I lost the bike rider out of the top of the frame, but I still liked the shot for his handlebar spin. Without it, though, I'd probably have scrapped the clip and tried once more.
Click to download the original file

One of the nice things about these press trips, though, is that it gives me the opportunity to meet some of the product designers responsible for these cameras. Rest assured that I gave this feedback to Sony's team, and I remain hopeful that they'll take my thoughts onboard. Whether or not it would be possible to make the upsampling optional in a firmware update, I'm not sure, but I'd really like to see it happen.

Great image quality at the low to mid capture rates

As-is, I don't know the original capture resolutions for high frame rate videos, and how they very with record frame rate and clip length. I personally found the image quality to be great at 240p with a two-second clip length, and plenty good enough at 480p for two seconds, or 240p for four seconds. Once I reached the top NTSC-mode frame rate of 960p, I personally found the quality a bit lower, but if the subject itself warrants that kind of speed I'd still be willing to put up with it.

This breakdancer looks mighty cool in 20x slow motion, but even a short two-second capture feels far too long. Of course, you can edit it down to just the best moments post-capture, but it proves the point that for human subjects, even a less powerful 10x slow-mo is plenty for most clips.
Click to download the original file

Slowing down too much yields boring videos

But on this particular shoot, none of the subjects I shot really needed that maximum frame rate -- and indeed, they looked too slow (and hence were rather boring) if I shot them so swiftly - in fact, even 480p capture and 24p playback was arguably too slow for some subjects. That's the case in the breakdancing video above: It starts off looking very cool, but by the time I was past the 30-second point in the playback, I found myself wishing it was playing a little faster.

With the right subject, though, such a high rate was enough to reveal a jaw-dropping amount of hidden detail. For example, in the clip below, you can see the skateboard flexing and vibrating as its rider's feet hit it mid-air, and again as the board lands on the metal rail at the top lip of the ramp.

The amount of detail hidden in this 20x slow-motion clip makes my jaw drop. There's just not a chance of seeing the subtle vibrations and flexing of the skateboard with your naked eye. With the Sony RX10 II's high frame rate capabilities, you're literally gaining access to a whole new world of interesting subjects.
Click to download the original file

That long zoom makes high frame rate more appealing

And the high frame rate capture struck me as even more useful on the Sony RX10 II than it is on its pocket-friendly sibling, the RX100 IV. The reason for that is simple: With a whole lot more telephoto reach on offer, you can frame your subjects much more tightly to focus the viewer's detail and extract every last subtle detail of the motion. I did just that in the 8x slow-motion clip below which focuses on the boxers' footwork, and the water splashing around as they sparred with each other.

The Sony RX10 II's powerful zoom lens is a huge boon when shooting high frame rate video, as it lets you focus your viewers' attention on much finer details that would be invisible at real-world speeds.
Click to download the original file

It's quite addictive uncovering little details like these as you're shooting, and it really made me want to get out there and shoot more high frame rate video. But I had other things I needed to test -- key among them the 4K video capture capability of the Sony RX10 II -- and so it was time to move on to other things.

4K is here and worth shooting -- even if your workflow isn't ready

4K isn't yet something I need from an output standpoint. I haven't personally made the leap to ultra high-def displays or TV yet, for two reasons. Firstly, I was burned by the rise and all-too-quick fall of 3D, but secondly and perhaps more importantly, I only just bought a new TV and wide-gamut monitor right before the 4K push started in earnest, and also recently upgraded my laptop to a model which I'm thrilled with, but which didn't include 4K. I can't justify the cost of yet another upgrade quite yet, although I'm sure it'll happen sooner or later.

A comparison of 4K 30p (top) and Full HD 60p (bottom) video shot on the Sony RX10 II. The first clip uses XAVC S compression, and the second uses AVCHD compression.

Neither have most of my friends and family made the jump to 4K yet, but with all that said, it's nevertheless nice to have the ability to record at 4K resolution. And not just for a degree of futureproofing, either: The post-capture possibilities make it very worthwhile. Video shot at 4K and then downsampled to Full HD has noticeably higher quality, and shooting 4K also allows me to further crop in post to tweak framing, guide the viewer's attention or simply further stabilize my video.

Great video quality and an impressive feature set

Overall, I found the Sony RX10 II's 4K video quality to be excellent. I did find its onboard microphone rather prone to wind noise, but that's true of most built-in mics. And not only is there a wind cut filter function available, but you also have two choices for external microphones.

Full HD 30p video shot using XAVC S compression.
Click to download the original file

You can connect a standard 3.5mm stereo microphone on the left side of the camera body, or one of Sony's proprietary Multi Interface Shoe microphones in the hot shoe on the top deck. (And one of these even offers a zoom function, mixing audio from the external mic and onboard mics in an attempt to match your focal length.)

For bonus points, you can even adjust audio levels manually and monitor them courtesy of a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack that sits right next to the mic jack. For video, there's no question about it: The Sony RX10 II is a powerful offering indeed.

Sony RX10 II review -- Sample photo

109mm-equivalent, 1/125 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 800

Plenty more in my second Field Test

And that brings me to the end of this first Field Test. In the second part, I take an in-depth look at Wi-Fi connectivity, and shoot plenty more high ISO / long-exposure images in low-light conditions. Hop on over to the second Field Test now, and find out what I made of it all!

 



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