Sony RX10 II Field Test Part II
Sony RX10 II Field Test Part II
Shooting the 'works at Knoxville's final Boomsday
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 09/11/2015
If you've read the first part of my Sony RX10 II field test, you'll know that I've already found a whole lot to like about this camera. (If you've not already read that first Field Test, I'd recommend starting there and then coming back to this one afterwards!)
A quick recap for those who've just tuned in!
Just as did its predecessor a couple of years earlier, the Sony RX10 II packs a whole lot of camera into a solid and surprisingly compact body. It would take at least a few lenses to match the RX10 II's capabilities in an interchangeable-lens camera, and it's really quite freeing to shoot with something of not dissimilar size to an entry-level DSLR with kit lens, and yet not feel limited by it.
The RX10 II still has the same quality feel and (for the most part) good ergonomics as did its predecessor. And its now even more of a pleasure than ever to shoot with, thanks to a superb new high-resolution electronic viewfinder, which truly makes manual focusing a snap.
And just as in the earlier model, the RX10 II's versatile combination of sensor and lens give good coverage from a generous 24mm-equivalent wide angle to a fairly far-reaching 200mm-equivalent telephoto. In good light at least, image quality is great across that whole range, too. (I preface that comment because, as of my last field test, I'd yet to test in low light. We'll come to that in just a moment, as you'll see.)
And I found the RX10 II's new high frame-rate and Ultra High Def 4K video capture options to be really great, too. Sure, there are still things I'd like to see improved. Most importantly, I'd like to see a touch-screen and a more versatile side-mounted tilt/swivel mechanism added to the LCD monitor instead of the existing tilt-only screen. I also found myself wishing that I could just save high frame-rate videos at their native resolution, rather than waiting for them to be upsampled. Really, though, those are some very minor niggles.
Documenting the end of an era
I've been having a whole lot of fun shooting with the RX10 II over the last few weeks, and have found myself reaching for it over other, larger-sensored cameras time and again. And now it's time to complete my field test with a look at the RX10 II's Wi-Fi wireless communications, as well as how it handles shooting in low light conditions. (Both in terms of high ISO sensitivity and noise characteristics, and in the long exposure department.)
To give these a good workout, I decided to head down to Knoxville, Tennessee's Boomsday, a Labor Day tradition which began as an anchor event for a local radio station in the late 1980s. That's well before my time -- I first moved to Knoxville in 1998 -- but by the time I arrived in town it was said to be the the largest fireworks show in the Southeast, and the country's largest Labor Day weekend show. And while the crowds have soared, more than doubling the population of downtown for that one evening each year, I've always found Boomsday to be a lot of fun.
Sadly, this year was also to be Boomsday's last. It turns out that strapping a whopping five tons of fireworks to a bridge and then setting it alight is an extraordinarily expensive affair, especially once all the ancillary costs of running and policing the event are added in. The pricetag was fast approaching a quarter of a million dollars for a seven hour event (and 20 minutes of fireworks), and far too many attendees were simply driving in from out of town, then leaving right after the show having spent almost nothing. The result was a big loss on each year's festivities, and an end to the fun.
And so I really wanted to get some good shots by which to remember Boomsday, because I rather doubt we'll have a fireworks show approaching its scope again in Knoxville any time soon.
Time for a night shoot!
I couldn't make it downtown early, though, as I had other commitments, so I showed up right around sunset -- still a good couple of hours before the fireworks were set to start, but well after the festivities were underway. Parking was, predictably, a difficult proposition and I finally found a space a good three-mile, rather hilly roundtrip walk away from the riverfront.
Needless to say, as I made the long trek to the river -- surrounded by my fellow hordes of would-be revelers -- I once again found myself greatly appreciative of the RX10 II's compact size and relatively light weight, for the zoom reach on offer. The Sony RX10 II really is just about the perfect balance of hand-holdability, zoom reach and image quality for the common man, in my opinion.
Sure, I'd love to have more zoom and a bigger sensor, but either would inevitably bring compromises in other areas, and I wouldn't want to make those trade-offs. Instead, I find the RX10 II to be the perfect complement to my DSLR, with the latter coming out only when image quality is the most critical thing, and Sony's stunning long-zoom doing the bulk of the shooting the rest of the time.
Starting off with some high ISO
And speaking of shooting, it was time to do some. As I was passing Market Square enroute to the river, I figured I'd stop and get some early blue hour shots to test out the Sony RX10 II's high ISO chops.
The square was about as busy as I've ever seen it, at least other than when there's a live event under its pavilion. The sheer number of people milling around made getting good angles a bit tricky, because there were just so many people constantly walking through the frame.
And honestly, the blue hour hadn't reached its prime yet anyway -- it would be another five or ten minutes until the sky had that really deep, rich blue I was after, and I was on a bit of a tight schedule. After a few quick shots, I decided I'd do better to head down to the river front and try to secure a good location for a photo.
I'd yet to stray beyond about ISO 5000 equivalent, but what I saw in these early Market Square shots suggested that ISO 3200 was very usable indeed, and even higher sensitivities still had a good bit of detail, although noise was starting to intrude a bit.
Really user-friendly Wi-Fi -- for Android, anyway
This little stop-off also gave me a chance to test out another feature on my checklist. I'd been wanting to try the Sony RX10 II's Wi-Fi, and I've also been working to grow my Twitter following lately. (Are you among my followers? If not, I'd be honored if you'd follow me here -- and of course don't forget our official IR Lab Twitter account, as well.)
And so I killed two birds with one stone by sending a photo from Market Square to my phone, and then sharing it on Twitter. It really couldn't have been much easier: The Sony RX10 II has one of the cleanest and friendliest Wi-Fi implementations I've ever seen, at least if you're an Android user.
(Those of you on Apple's iOS platform will still need to pair manually before you can transfer images, but that's entirely Apple's fault. The company still continues to resist calls for it to allow third-parties to access the NFC radio which is built into its newest phone models, and it's that radio which Sony is using to such good effect on Android devices.)
I'd already used Sony's Wi-Fi app off and on over the past few weeks, and so I knew what to expect. A first gentle tap of my phone against the camera's right side -- approximately aligning the NFC logos on both devices -- had been enough to bring me to the Google Play store to install the required PlayMemories Mobile app on my Sony Xperia Z2 smartphone.
Share photos to your phone without pressing a single button
Where it got really clever, though, was the next step. If I started playback mode on the camera, a second tap of the two devices would not only launch the PlayMemories Mobile app automatically, but would also transfer that image to the phone for me immediately, with no fuss whatsoever.
Compared to cameras which make you fumble to select images on the camera after connecting from the phone, or which make you wait to download thumbnails of your images to the phone and then decide what to transfer, this is a much more logical workflow. Chances are I've already opened my image in playback mode to take a look at it anyway, and will make my decision to share or not pretty much instantly. Letting me act on that decision without a single extra button press is just plain genius.
Fast transfers, even among a gigantic Boomsday crowd
By default, the image transfers at two megapixel resolution, but this can be changed through the phone app's menu to allow transfer of the original image, instead. I tried this, and found that even on a day like Boomsday -- and once I'd made my way into the very epicenter of the party -- the full-res transfers were still swift, taking just a few seconds apiece.
That's really rather impressive, considering the number of phones and Wi-Fi hotspots all over the place competing with each other. Early reports are that this year's Boomsday attendance topped 200,000 people, with a large proportion of those packed into an area of just six or seven acres. It was enough that at some points my phone had issues maintaining cell service, but there were no such issues for the Wi-Fi connection between phone and camera.
Just a few taps to tag and share on social networks
With the image transferred, it was just a matter of a few seconds to share it on Twitter. I tapped the Share icon in Sony's app, then selected from the list of apps on my phone. PlayMemories Mobile then helpfully provided me with a chance to preselect some hashtags.
Here, I was given a choice of my own user-generated tags which could be saved for future reuse, or some that, honestly speaking, are predominantly there for the company's own marketing purposes -- #Sony, #SonyCamera and #SonyRX -- but which some users who were particularly proud of their new camera might also opt for.
One minor tagging criticism -- #listenupsony
With the tags selected, Twitter's app took over with the image already added to my pending tweet, along with the tags. One extra tag -- #PlayMemoriesMobile -- had been added, something which I found just a little bit cheeky. A quick test ascertained that this was only the case if I had selected other tags for inclusion, though; if I skipped Sony's tagging altogether, no tag for PlayMemories Mobile was added to the tweet either.
It's easy enough to delete that extra tag if you don't want it, but I'd still like to see it listed for deselection in the tagging dialog nonetheless. It gets a bit tedious manually removing it every time, and on Twitter in particular, a 19-character tag (20, once you add a space) seems a bit wasteful when you have a 140-character limit.
Tagging doesn't work with all apps -- Facebook, for example
I only have one other very minor criticism of the tagging function. After selecting my tags for the first time, I was shown a rather clumsily-worded warning that the "Hashtag function of this application may not be available depending on the service". What Sony is trying to communicate here is that the tagging function may not work, depending on which service or application you're sharing to. And that's true -- the hashtags work with Twitter and Google Plus, for example, but not with Facebook.
That message could be better worded though, and there's no reason to show it at all if you're using one of the most common networks. After all, before the tagging dialog appears you've already selected which app you'll be sharing via, and so Sony's own app must presumably be aware of that choice.
Sure, Sony can't test every app for compatibility, but I can't imagine it would be that difficult to test just the most common ones. It strikes me that there are probably only a handful of most popular social networks in each market, and quite likely there would be a grand total of maybe a couple of dozen really broadly-adopted social networks worldwide. So why not simply test their apps for compatibility with tagging, and then if the user elects to share to one of those networks' apps and it doesn't support tagging, just don't show the dialog in the first place?
The warning message could then be reserved for use solely when you're using a social network whose app hasn't been tested for compatibility. I'd really like to see this happen, as it would make Sony's already quite robust Wi-Fi sharing implementation even better.
Transferring images in bulk is very straightforward
Incidentally, you may be wondering what happens if you want to transfer more than one image at a time, and so did I. The tap-to-transfer method is incredibly easy and intuitive if you just want to transfer a handful of images, but it would quickly become tedious and quite time-consuming if you had to do it with dozens or hundreds of them.
The answer is pretty straightforward, although not quite as simple as the single-image transfer. You can either switch to playback mode and then hit the function button (which acts as a "send to smartphone" button when reviewing images), or use the "Send to Smartphone" option in the menu system. (There's also a "Send to Computer" option, which requires that you first install PlayMemories Home and then connect via USB once to allow the camera to determine where it should transfer images.)
The menu option will allow you to select images either on your phone, or on the camera itself. Selecting on the phone is pretty straightforward, providing a list of dates and then thumbnails for a given date when you tap on it. Tap again once on each thumbnail for which you want to download the image, and a check mark appears. Quick and easy, but there's still quite a bit of tapping involved to select large swathes of images.
Selecting on-camera gives three options: Single-image transfer, transfer of all images on a certain date, or multiple-image transfer. This last works somewhat similarly to selection on the phone, except that you can only see one image at a time, and select it by using the center button which sits at the middle of the four-way control wheel.
And you get the same three options if you simply hit the function button in playback mode, so if this is your preferred transfer method -- which it will be if you have many images to transfer -- then you can save yourself a trip to the menu system.
Movies can be transferred too, but only with limitations
You'll notice that I've so far mentioned images only. Yes, you can transfer movies, but only with one very important limitation: XAVC S movies (whether 4K or Full HD) and AVCHD movies cannot be transferred via Wi-Fi. Nor can high frame-rate movies. The only choice for Wi-Fi transfer is vanilla MPEG-4 movies, and that limits you to a choice of 28Mbps, 60 frames-per-second Full HD; 16 Mbps, 30 fps Full HD; or 6Mbps, 30 fps HD capture.
In fairness, it's likely that most smartphones and tablets aren't going to be capable of playing XAVC S or AVCHD video without third party software. And playing 4K video smoothly might be too much of a challenge for the relatively less powerful chipsets used in many smart devices. But be that as it may, fast mobile internet is pretty broadly-available these days, and at least some of us are lucky enough to have high data caps that let us take advantage of it.
It'd be nice if the Sony RX10 II also played ball in this area, and allowed transfer of any file type, perhaps after displaying a warning that the transfer might take some time and the file might not be playable on the smart device. Then we could offload and share our highest-quality videos online, regardless of whether the phone or tablet itself was capable of playing them.
But then Sony's hardly alone in not allowing transfer of these file types -- in fact, some cameras still won't allow Wi-Fi transfer of videos at all.
Continuing on to the riverfront (and higher sensitivities)
But enough of Wi-Fi for the moment. (We'll come back to it once more in a minute.) Having finished sharing my photo on Twitter, I'd started to make my way back down towards the riverfront, following the crowds through downtown Knoxville. And now, the blue hour was well and truly here. The Sony RX10 II's ISO sensitivity started to climb, and with it the noise levels.
By the time I reached ISO 6400, there was some definite splotchiness appearing, with the grain looking less film-like in out-of-camera JPEGs. And noise reduction was definitely obscuring the finer details. Still, shots at this sensitivity and even a bit beyond were still very usable, just not for pixel peeping. And here I was, shooting handheld with a relatively compact long-zoom camera more than half an hour after sunset. That's something smaller-sensored long zooms wouldn't be capable of with remotely this image quality.
A country concert reminds me of some likes and desires
Arriving at the riverfront, I found a country music concert underway, and quite a crowd in front of the stage, singing along. The singer, Nashville-based Camaron Ochs -- better known as Cam -- wasn't one I was personally familiar with, but the music was pleasant enough, and Cam certainly seemed to be a crowd-pleaser.
I stopped for a few quick shots, and once again found myself thankful that Sony had included a tilting LCD, although a side-mounted tilt/swivel would have made my shots in portrait orientation over the top of the crowd rather easier to frame. That great zoom lens did help me bring the talent right up close and personal, though, even from way back in the crowd.
I did discover a slight shortcoming of the RX10 II's design at this point, however. It's tripod mount, although very nicely centered on the central axis of the lens, is very near the back of the camera body. My tripod of choice for the evening -- a relatively lightweight Feisol Traveler CT-3441S Rapid with a Photo Clam PC-33NS ball head -- uses a small Arca-style camera plate that's just 2.3 x 1.5 inches in size, and I'd mounted it on the camera before leaving the house to save time.
Even though it was so small and mounted as far forwards as possible, this camera plate nevertheless caught on the bottom of the LCD monitor if I tilted it downwards without first popping the top of the display out from the camera body. (And even if I tilted the top of the display out first, the camera plate still limited how far inwards the base of the display could be tilted.) Hence, I couldn't get the full 45-degree downward tilt without first removing the camera plate.
Not a huge problem, but a minor annoyance which Sony could resolve on future models simply by moving the tripod socket a bit further forwards.
Even ISO 12,800 is pretty usable
Even with the lighting set up for the concert, the Sony RX10 II had by this point reached its single-shot upper sensitivity limit of ISO 12,800-equivalent, and with the exception of my fireworks long-exposures, here it would remain for much of the rest of the evening.
Even at this maximum sensitivity, I still thought the RX10 II's images were quite usable, but the higher noise reduction levels did start to give images a somewhat "painted" look. Looking at the raw files, noise levels were obviously much higher, but the grain pattern was at least reasonably tight.
I'd really be interested to see what DxO OpticsPro's PRIME noise reduction can do with the RX10 II's raw files, but sadly it isn't yet supported as of this writing. (The company is promising support from October 2015.) I'm betting it will be worth processing my favorite shots again in OpticsPro once that support arrives, because the PRIME engine has done a really great job with the other cameras I've tried it with.
Wi-Fi remote control is a very handy feature to have
Having arrived at the riverfront, I was fortunate to find a pretty good position right down by the river, at the base of a rather packed boat dock. After a few shots of the boats, I set up my tripod, aiming to keep a bit of the boats and Boomsday attendees in the foreground. I couldn't get as much as I'd have liked into the shot, though, as I'd ended up pretty close to the bridge from which the fireworks are set off, and so really needed to angle my camera upwards a long way to be sure of getting the 'works at the top of the image.
Having set everything up how I wanted it, I had some time to kill, and so offloaded a few more images with the one-tap process to share with friends and family. I'd been planning on shooting the fireworks with a short self-timer to avoid camera shake on the tripod, but as I was downloading images via Wi-Fi, it suddenly occurred to me: I had full remote control of the camera at my disposal from the same app.
I quickly configured the RX10 II to launch the Smart Remote app on the camera itself, allowing remote control whenever I bumped phone to camera in record mode, and was set to go. And just in time, too -- the fireworks started a couple of minutes after I got done testing out the live view feed, which was updating reasonably quickly despite the number of people, phones and Wi-Fi hotspots in the vicinity.
Given my position, even at wide angle there was no way I'd get anything in the foreground if I framed in landscape orientation, and so there wasn't much opportunity to change my framing through the show. Hence, I decided to stick with the same framing and instead play around with my exposure instead, varying the shutter speed and aperture while sticking around base ISO.
Not all camera body controls work when using Smart Remote
I was briefly confused when I changed the aperture setting on the camera and nothing happened in the app. After all, I'd already figured that changing the shutter speed on the camera body caused a corresponding update in the app, and I found it easier to use the physical controls than to try to use the on-screen controls in the app itself.
Thinking about it, though, there's no way for an aperture update in the app to make a change to the physical ring position, so the compromise for having that physical aperture ring is that aperture control when using Smart Remote must take place on the phone or tablet. And understanding that, I can live with it even if initially it seems a little unintuitive.
Smart Remote is quick and responsive, and a pleasure to use...
After that initial hiccup, though, I found shooting with my phone very easy indeed. In fact, I could even look away from the camera and enjoy the fireworks myself, holding my phone up higher where it remained in my peripheral vision and I could see when each exposure finished. I'd accidentally left full-sized image transfer enabled, but decided not to bother with changing this during the show, since the transfers were taking place impressively quickly.
I did change the app settings to stop reviewing images after capture, though, so I could get back to shooting more quickly. And throughout the show, I got some photos I was really quite pleased with. I couldn't wait to get the raw files onto my PC and tweak the exposure, pulling back highlights a little here, or bringing up the shadow detail there.
(The latter, in particular, was needed as it turned out that my foreground subjects mostly weren't lit up very much during the exposures, but also didn't reach far enough up the frame to be silhouetted, leaving the foreground feeling rather empty.)
...but there's an important catch to remember
And then I stumbled on the fly in the ointment. Even though the camera had been configured for raw+JPEG capture, once I got back to the office and offloaded my photos, I made a sad discovery. All of my images shot using the Smart Remote app were saved in JPEG-format only, with not a single raw file I could tweak to better my results. Sure, I could still work on the JPEGs, but any clipped highlights or blocked-up shadows were permanently lost to me.
It was heartbreaking, because there were a couple of shots I really felt could have benefited a lot from that tweaking, and while the Sony RX10 II's raw files didn't seem to offer as much latitude to recover highlight and shadow detail as would my DSLR, there still seemed to be a good bit of scope for correction. And as I looked more closely at my photos, I also realized that auto ISO sensitivity control was also active, when I'd believed myself to be shooting at ISO 100. (That explained why the exposure wasn't varying quite how I'd expected it to through the shoot.)
PlayMemories apps have their own separate menu system
So why weren't my raw files saved, even though I'd just been shooting in raw format right beforehand? Well, it turns out that there's a completely separate menu system -- inaccessible from the smartphone, only from the camera itself -- which is hidden until the Smart Remote app is running. Changes made in other modes aren't reflected here, even if the menu option is simply a duplicate of that in the regular menus, and so you have to reconfigure everything when you switch to Smart Remote shooting.
In all, this separate menu gives you a choice of image size, aspect ratio, quality, drive mode, flash mode, flash compensation, focus area, ISO sensitivity, metering mode, white balance, DRO / Auto HDR, Creative Style, Picture Effect, Focus Magnifier, Face Detection and Movie options. So in other words, there's quite a bit to keep track of -- and keep updating -- as you switch back and forth between shooting on the camera, and in Smart Remote mode.
This is just downright unintuitive, frankly, and I can see no reason for it. I wasn't a big fan of Sony's PlayMemories camera apps when they first launched, and although they've since grown on me, the way in which they're isolated from the rest of the menu system still makes it far too easy to forget they're present.
Thinking back, I've hit this problem before
During my Portland trip as discussed in my first field test, I actually ran into a similar issue with the $10 time-lapse app on the Sony A7R II, which I'm also reviewing. On that trip, I wanted to shoot a time-lapse with the A7R II, but could not for the life of me find where it was enabled. I tried the drive modes. I tried hunting through the menu. I even tried checking if it was somehow configured from a custom button control. And then it hit me: It was hidden among the PlayMemories camera apps, and siloed off from the rest of the camera.
Much as I now love the availability of these apps, which I understand are quite a popular purchase with Sony's customers, I think that isolation really hurts their utility. It's too easy to forget they exist, and too easy to forget how they're configured -- especially Smart Remote where most everything else about the app leads you to expect to do the gruntwork on the phone, not the camera.
I'd really like to see Sony rethink this design. For my money, once a PlayMemories app is installed, all of its options should then appear in logical places in the camera's existing menu system -- and if they mirror an existing option (for example, file type selection) then they should simply share that option with the camera's other modes. That would be far, far more intuitive than a dozen separate menu systems for a dozen different user-installed PlayMemories apps.
Be that as it may, I do still appreciate the presence of these PlayMemories apps. They are, in effect, a way of upgrading the camera's firmware to add new features and capabilities after you purchase. And while some of them cost a bit of money, you're only paying for the apps you intend to use. (Not are you paying a lot -- the pricing is in impulse buy territory, and not dissimilar to what you'd pay for a smartphone app.)
Pricing is one area where the Sony RX10 II does face a bit of a battle, though. With a list price of US$1,300, both of Sony's main rivals are a whole lot more affordable. The Panasonic FZ1000 lists for US$900 (30% less than the RX10 II), while the Canon G3X lists for US$1,000 (a 23% savings).
And list pricing doesn't tell the whole story, either. Sure, Panasonic's camera has been on the market for quite a while longer, but street pricing for the FZ1000 is now in the region of $750, while Sony's camera still remains at around the list price. Realistically, you're quite close to being able to pick up two FZ1000s for the price of one RX10 II, and that's quite a big ask.
But there's no question about it: You're getting a whole lot of camera for that pricetag. If I was on a budget, I think I'd reach for the Panasonic FZ1000 without hesitation, knowing I was saving a significant amount and still getting a very well-reviewed camera. (It scored a Dave's Pick in our review, after all.)
But the Sony RX10 II is an even more compelling camera than was its predecessor, and that makes it a much harder decision which camera I'd pick if money were no object. The Panasonic FZ1000 sports a tilt/swivel LCD which I find much more versatile, and boasts more zoom range at the expense of a variable aperture, but the RX10 II bests it in several other important ways.
There's the handy top-deck info LCD, which lets me switch to a less-distracting overlay on the main LCD. And as a raw shooter, I really appreciate the RX10 II's greater raw burst depth. And the RX10 II's integrated neutral-density filter is a big plus, too, making it easier to take advantage of that bright maximum aperture or to use lower shutter speeds.
But I think the biggest advantages for the RX10 II come in video mode. Not only does it match the FZ1000's highest-quality 4K capture mode, but it also provides high-quality XAVC S capture at 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, almost doubling the Panasonic's Full HD bit-rate. And there's also a headphone jack for audio levels monitoring, not to mention all of those really fun high frame-rate modes.
I think for a videographer, the Sony RX10 II offers the more impressive package. Were I not wanting to record video, though, I think I'd probably stick with the Panasonic FZ1000. And so the close battle between Sony and Panasonic continues -- and indeed, is now closer than ever!