Sony RX10 III Field Test
Sony RX10 III Field Test
All the zoom you could ask for in one seriously impressive large-sensor camera!
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 07/08/2016
Last summer, I wrote our review of the Sony RX10 II, a followup to the original RX10 which I'd also reviewed a couple of years earlier. I really loved both cameras, and own an RX10 II myself.
Like the RX10 before it, the Sony RX10 II really made for a great all-rounder camera when I didn't want to pack a larger-sensored body and some interchangeable lenses. (In our current era of increasingly expensive baggage fees and stringent weight limits when traveling, that's been rather often in my experience.)
The RX10 III's launch was much earlier than I'd expected, but made a lot of sense
When I first heard that Sony was preparing to launch the RX10 III a few months back, though, my initial reaction was one of surprise. Not because I couldn't think of anything I'd improve in its predecessor, necessarily, but more because it came so hot on the heels of the much-praised RX10 II.
With just eight months separating the two, the Sony RX10 III was clearly indicative of a different strategy -- and once I saw the specs, that strategy became clear. This wasn't to be a simple followup for the RX10 II, but instead a sibling which would sell alongside that camera, offering a more direct challenge to far-reaching enthusiast zooms like the Panasonic FZ1000 (16x zoom; 25-400mm equiv.) and Canon G3X (25x zoom; 24-600mm equiv.)
To achieve its much greater reach, the Sony RX10 III's lens no longer has a constant aperture
The most significant tradeoff to achieve the much greater zoom range -- the RX10 and RX10 II shared an 8.3x zoom 24-200mm equivalent lens -- was quite straightforward. In place of the constant-aperture design used for the earlier cameras, the Sony RX10 III opted for a variable-aperture optic like that of its Canon and Panasonic rivals.
That might seem a bit of a shame, but when one considers that the telephoto reach has literally tripled, going from 200mm-equivalent in the RX10 II to 600mm-equivalent in the RX10 III, it's a change that suddenly becomes much easier to live with. Both cameras share the same 24mm wide angle, incidentally.
The RX10 III's lens is brighter at wide angle, but falls behind the RX10 II from 34mm onwards
And when you are shooting at or near wide angle, the RX10 III actually offers a brighter maximum aperture than did its shorter-zoomed sibling. Where the RX10 II had an f/2.8 maximum aperture across the zoom range, the RX10 III starts from f/2.4 at wide angle.
With that said, though, merely breathing on the zoom ring is about enough to get the maximum aperture to fall to f/2.5. The focal length doesn't even register a change before the aperture falls, as you turn the zoom ring just ever so slightly, with the camera reporting f/2.5 max. while still indicating the same 24mm-equivalent focal length it started from.
As you continue to zoom in, the maximum aperture falls again to f/2.8 at 27mm-equivalent, and to f/3.2 at 35mm-equivalent. This marks the first point at which the RX10 II's optic bests that of the RX10 III in terms of maximum aperture. Up to 34mm-equivalent, it's as bright or brighter than the RX10 II.
Finally, the RX10 III's maximum aperture falls to f/3.5 at 56mm-equivalent, and to f/4.0 at 100mm-equivalent. From there, the maximum aperture remains unchanged all the way out to 600mm-equivalent, far beyond the 200mm-equivalent limit of the earlier camera.
Some will prefer the RX10 II's brighter lens, but for most, the RX10 III's much greater telephoto reach will be far more useful
For some, the constant aperture of the RX10 II will be preferable, and if you're in that group the RX10 II remains available. For the rest of us, though, the far greater telephoto reach is more important than a constant aperture -- after all, the difference between f/2.8 and f/4 is only one stop, but for that you get triple the telephoto reach.
The ability to bring your subjects up close without having to zoom with your feet is arguably much more useful for the average shooter. At worst, you only need bump the sensitivity up by a stop to counter the less bright aperture -- and that's only once you've zoomed in to somewhere between 35mm and 200mm-equivalents. Up to that point, the RX10 III's lens is as bright or brighter, and beyond it, you've roamed into focal length territory that the RX10 II ignored altogether.
The RX10 III's lens is certainly larger and heavier than that of its sibling, but compares well against interchangeable-lens cameras
As well as the difference in apertures and focal lengths, the RX10 II and III do differ significantly in another important way. Comparing the duo side-by-side, the Sony RX10 III is a little taller and quite a bit deeper than the RX10 II. Its lens barrel is also much wider, and together, these differences also contribute to a significant (~30%) increase in weight.
You'll definitely notice that difference when carrying the camera around all day or shooting handheld for lengthy periods, but its important to note that it's still much smaller and lighter than most interchangeable-lens cameras and lenses offering similar reach.
It's a little difficult to make a direct comparison, but for example, consider the Canon SL1. It's uncommonly small and light by DSLR standards, but equip it with battery, flash card and two consumer-grade zoom lenses -- the EF-S 15-85mm and EF 75-300mm -- for as much reach as possible, and it's already 50% heavier than the RX10 III, loaded and ready to shoot. And that's despite it offering only 20x zoom range with these optics, versus the 25x zoom that's built into the RX10 III.
Micro Four Thirds might offer an even more attractive proposition, but only if you don't mind juggling lenses
For Micro Four Thirds, the closest equivalent I could find was the Panasonic GM5 with 14-140mm and 100-300mm lenses, a range of about 21x with a little overlap at the middle of the zoom range. Here, the Micro Four Thirds setup, at 996g, was about 99g (9%) lighter than RX10 III. Or you could choose the 12-60mm and 75-300mm lenses, leaving a short gap in the zoom range for a ready-to-shoot weight of 844g and advantage of some 251g (23%).
So in terms of weight, at least, the Micro Four Thirds setup would win. (And it would also have a significantly greater light-gathering area.) But the GM5 lacks a comfortable handgrip, and shooting with this combo you'll face the inconvenience of needing to juggle lenses. And realistically, the GM5 plus lenses won't differ that much from the RX10 III in terms of size.
Even better ergonomics than the RX10 II
But enough of the on-paper comparisons -- how is the Sony RX10 III in-hand? Well, I already liked the RX10 II's handling, but the RX10 III is even better in this department. For one thing, the handgrip is a bit deeper and the body a little thicker. These combine to give a noticeably more comfortable grip overall, and also help offset the RX10 III's greater weight, although I should note here that at 6'1" tall, I have fairly large hands. If yours are on the smaller side, you may prefer a less substantial grip, but the friends I've let handle my review camera agreed that it was pretty comfortable to hold.
For another thing, the larger body has allowed Sony's designers more freedom with their top-deck control placements, and that's definitely a good thing. The flash button still sits where it did, and it's still a bit tough to reach single-handed without changing your grip, but the backlight button for the top-deck info display is now a good bit closer to the shutter button, and I can reach it quite easily with a single-handed grip now. There's also an extra custom button on the top deck.
Great news! The Sony RX10 III now sports another control ring on the lens barrel
And since the lens barrel is both wider and longer, there's also some more newly-added real-estate available there. Sony's designers have used this to add a second ring to the lens barrel, meaning that you can still control the zoom using the lens ring even when manual focus control is active. Like the zoom ring from the RX10 II, the Sony RX10 III's new focus ring has a fly-by-wide design, but it operates smoothly and has good precision.
And since it's fly-by-wire, you can also tailor it to your tastes. A really nice feature of the RX10 III is that you can select which ring controls focus and which is used for zoom control, and you can also select which direction focus or zoom should be adjusted, if you turn the rings in a given direction. It doesn't matter what past lenses or cameras you're used to, you should be able to mimic their operation with the RX10 III's updated control rings.
Of course, there's still an aperture control ring as well, and just as in the RX10 II, this can provide optional click detents when you want them, while allowing clickless operation if you flick a switch just inside the handgrip on the base of the lens barrel. I still think the location of this switch is a bit poor -- it's far too easy to forget it is there -- but it is nonetheless a handy feature.
A new focus hold button, and a subtly improved mode dial too
One other change on the newly-enlarged lens barrel is the addition of a button on the left side. This is nicely-positioned for twin-handed shooting, and defaults to acting as a focus hold button, preventing the autofocus from operating while it is pressed in. (It's also configurable, so you can choose from a very lengthy list of other features which can be controlled when it is pressed, if you don't think you'll use focus hold very often for your own shooting style.)
And moving back to the top deck, the mode dial is also a little taller now, and that makes it easier to grip and turn. As in the RX10 II, both the mode and exposure compensation dials have a strong enough click detent to ensure they won't likely be turned by mistake, but not so strong that you can't turn them by rolling them.
In other respects, the Sony RX10 III's control layout is essentially unchanged from that of the RX10 II. All things considered, I think Sony has done a great job of utilizing the extra space on the newer camera's body and lens, and the result is that it helps keep you out of the menu system for even more of the time. After you've become familiar with where all the controls can be found by touch alone, this is a really satisfying camera to shoot with!
Same great viewfinder and articulated LCD monitor
The Sony RX10 III retains the same electronic viewfinder setup as used in the earlier RX10 II, and that's great news, if you ask me. It's an excellent viewfinder which provides a roomy view of your subject, has a good refresh rate and minimal lag, and is both bright and provides fairly realistic color.
Really, my only complaint about the finder -- and it's a very slight one -- is that although the eyepiece protrudes quite a long way from the camera, the hard rubber eyecup is not the most comfortable and won't conform to your face. That occasionally leads to your needing to shoot single-handed so you can use your other hand to shield sunlight that would otherwise disrupt your view.
This wide-angle image was captured from the exact same position as the telephoto one below
The LCD monitor likewise provides a responsive and fairly bright view of your subject or captured images. Its articulation mechanism is great for waist-level or over-the-head shooting, as well as for capturing shots really low to the ground. It's less versatile than a side-mounted tilt/swivel type, though, as it can't be angled upwards or downwards for shots in portrait orientation, and doesn't allow the screen to be closed facing inwards for a little extra protection.
Excellent performance, but buffer clearing is still an issue
Like the RX10 II before it, the Sony RX10 III offers really great performance. Having compared both cameras side-by-side, the RX10 II is just fractionally faster to start up, likely because its smaller and lighter lens takes less time to extend. Once started up, it was hard to distinguish a performance difference between the pair, at least unless I zoomed in beyond the limits of the RX10 II's zoom range. Both can focus and shoot bursts of images extremely quickly, especially in the Speed Priority Continuous mode with JPEG-only file format.
This telephoto image was captured from the exact same position as the wide-angle one above
Really the only time the RX10 III didn't feel fast in shooting was towards the telephoto end of its lens in low light or with low-contrast subjects, when autofocus could occasionally get a bit slow. (Sometimes it would rack through the entire focus range once or twice before managing to achieve a lock, but this wasn't frequent, and when it did, the conditions were challenging enough to make it quite understandable.)
Really, the only time I found myself concerned by performance in real-world shooting was when it came to clearing the buffer. Even with a really fast flash card, it could take as long as 30 seconds or so for the buffer to be entirely cleared. But then with such generous buffer depths, I rarely needed to fill the buffer in the first place, so in real-world shooting it wasn't such a huge issue, just enough to be mildly frustrating. I'd definitely like to see Sony improve its card-writing performance in future models, though.
The Sony RX10 III is all about that sweet, sweet lens
Not surprisingly, there's no question in my mind what my favorite feature of the RX10 III is. And yes, it's enough to make me want to switch from my RX10 II -- or at least, I would if I could afford the cost right now.
OK, it's a bigger and heavier optic than in the earlier camera. And yes, it has a less bright aperture across much of the range that it shares with the RX10 II. And of course, in common with other large-sensor ultrazoom cameras, if you look at an uncorrected raw file you'll see some very obvious distortion in the images, something which almost all raw processors and the camera's own JPEG engine will silently correct for you as each image is capture.
But it is just so incredibly convenient. Straight out of the box, it covers everything from a very generous wide-angle to a seriously impressive telephoto, and it even offers up a pretty good macro performance too. Yet I don't need to carry a bag full of lenses to achieve this, and I don't need to juggle with changing them back and forth in the field, perhaps missing shots in the process.
Really, there was only one thing I found myself missing: The lack of a built-in ND filter. Sure, you can still mount one on the RX10 III's filter threads, but that's hardly as convenient as having one you can enable on-demand whenever you need it. I'm not sure why Sony decided to omit one -- the earlier RX10-series cameras both featured an ND filter -- but I hope to see it return whenever we get a follow-up to the RX10 III, not that I'm expecting one any time soon obviously!
The Zoom Assist function makes it even easier to take advantage of all that tele reach
One feature which makes the Sony RX10 III's zoom lens even more useful is the Zoom Assist function -- and yet curiously, it's not enabled by default. It solves a very common concern with such a powerful telephoto capability. If you stray off your subject by mistake (and it's very easy to do, especially as you approach the 600mm-equivalent end of the zoom range while shooting a distant, erratically-moving subject), it can be very difficult indeed to relocate it without first zooming back out.
The Sony RX10 III can automate that process for you with its Zoom Assist function, but you'll have to assign it to one of the physical controls first, since it's not assigned to any control by default. You can choose to assign it to the C1, C2, C3, Center, AEL or Focus Hold buttons, but you can't assign it to the left, right or down buttons.
You'll need to enable the function first though, as it isn't assigned any control by default
I found it best to set it to the center button, as this allowed it to be comfortably pressed whether I was controlling the lens using the zoom rocker or lens ring. Assigning it to the center button does mean you can't use that control to let you move the flexible spot point using the arrow keys, at least unless you first assign another control that responsibility. I felt that the C3 button filled this role admirably well, though, and it's not assigned any function by default, making it ideal to enable the flexible spot selection function.
Once Zoom Assist was enabled, simply pressing and holding my chosen button was enough to rack the zoom to the wide-angle position as quickly as possible. And as soon as I let go of the button once I'd found and centered my chosen subject -- even if I managed to do so before the zoom had racked all the way to wide-angle -- it immediately returned to my previous zoom level for a nice, tightly-framed subject.
You can change the zoom level you'll return too while you're still zoomed out, as well
Even better still, while the button assigned to Zoom Assist is held in, the zoom ring and rocker both remained active -- not as "live" zoom controls, but instead changing the size of the box indicating your intended zoom level in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor. This meant that if my subject had also moved closer towards me or further away, I could change the zoom level to which the camera would return once I let go of the Zoom Assist-assigned button.
All of this also works during movie capture, incidentally, but here I found it rather less useful. That's because, obviously, the change of zoom level is recorded in your final video -- and it also comes accompanied by the noise of the zoom drive mechanism operating at its fastest speed. Still, if you're planning to edit your video clip afterwards to cut out these sudden zooms, it's nice to know that Zoom Assist will continue to function during movie capture as well.
No question, all this long-zoom convenience comes with quite a pricetag, though
If there's one thing that really stands out to me as a potential downside of the Sony RX10 III, it's got to be its pricetag. It carries a rather weighty list price of around US$1,500, and compared to its sibling or the competition, that's a big ask. The RX10 II was already premium-priced at US$1,300 list, and even a year after its launch that has only fallen on the street by some US$100 (~8%), suggesting that the RX10 III's own price is unlikely to decline very rapidly.
The RX10 III carries an even higher pricetag compared to that camera, and yet the nearest competition -- the Canon G3X and Panasonic FZ1000 -- can both be found on the street for around US$800-850, only a touch more than half what you'll need to pay for the Sony. Even the upcoming Nikon DL24-500 lists for only US$1,000, fully one-third less than the RX10 III.
Obviously, I can't make a direct comparison against the Nikon given that it's been indefinitely delayed while the company sorts out some technical issues with its image processor. Compared to the Canon and Panasonic, though, I think the Sony RX10 III is definitely the better camera -- but is it good enough to justify paying almost twice as much? That's harder to say.
You can actually buy a full DSLR kit with at least similar zoom reach for the same price
And it becomes even tougher to justify that pricetag when you take a look at the cost of a competing interchangeable-lens camera kit. For example, that Canon SL1 with EF-S 15-85mm and EF 75-300mm lenses which I mentioned near the start of this review? The whole kit can be picked up for the same US$1,500 pricetag as the RX10 III at current street prices.
Sure, it's not going to give you the performance of the Sony, and it won't give you as much zoom reach despite weighing a fair bit more, but it provides similar resolution from a much larger image sensor. Sony's use of backside-illumination technology offsets the light-gathering advantage of that bigger chip to a good degree, but you could always buy better, brighter lenses for the Canon down the road to improve its low-light shooting capabilities still further. With the Sony RX10 III, what you buy on day one is what you'll be shooting with for as long as you own the camera.
I'd really like to see the Sony RX10 III offered at a more competitive price, and I'm fairly certain it would fly off the shelves were it priced more like its nearest rivals in the category. But then, Sony doesn't seem to have had too much difficulty selling the earlier RX10 II even though it, too, was priced well above the competition -- and I guess as long as there are enough customers willing to pay the premium for a Sony RX-series camera, we're not likely to see pricing adjusted any time soon.
Compare image quality against larger-sensored cameras, though, and the RX10 III does surprisingly well
Perhaps part of the reason people are willing to pay that premium comes down to the Sony RX-series' reputation not just for cameras that are for the most part pretty well-specified in terms of features and performance, but also for good image quality. The Sony RX10 III certainly doesn't disappoint in this area, either.
As I alluded to above, if you compare image quality with even larger-sensored Micro Four Thirds or APS-C cameras, the RX10 III acquits itself surprisingly well. Corner softness is certainly an issue, especially wide-open and towards the telephoto end of the zoom range, thanks in part to the need for significant distortion correction to achieve such a far-reaching optic at this sensor size. But for a lot of your photos, the corners are relatively less important in the first place -- your subject (and your viewer's attention) will likely be much further into the frame.
In my time with the Sony RX10 III, I've found myself very satisfied with its image quality. Shooting with my son on a road trip to Lexington, Kentucky -- I wanted some interesting, new subjects with which to really get a feel for the camera -- I found its exposure, white balance and color very pleasing in a wide range of shooting conditions, the majority of the time.
Getting great photos (and sharing them with friends and family) is what really matters, and the RX10 III does a great job of both
And the photos, after all, is what a camera is about. The Sony RX10 III is definitely capable of excellent results with no need to fiddle with changing lenses. Sure, there's a bit of a learning curve if you want to get the most out of its many features and capabilities, some of which you might never even be aware of unless you crack open the user manual, browse the menu system or read some reviews like this one.
It also helps that the Sony RX10 III -- like its siblings -- offers a really great and intuitive experience when it comes to sharing your photos. Pairing is quick and easy, especially on Android devices, and so too is sharing to your phone and from there to social networks. And as in the RX10 II, there's also a very useful and powerful remote control capability that makes light work of shooting images on the RX10 III while controlling it directly from your phone.
At least, that's true so long as you remember that the remote control functionality (and other PlayMemories apps for the camera) is completely siloed off from standard shooting, with a separate menu system and settings which apply only when using each app. That's a design decision which I still find unnecessarly obtuse and confusing, and I really wish Sony would change, but once you're aware of it, it's easy enough to work around.
Good battery life for its class, but I recommend picking up an extra pack or two along with your new camera
There's one last point I want to address before I conclude my Sony RX10 review: Battery life. Here, you're not going to manage as many shots on a charge as you'd get when shooting through the viewfinder of a good DSLR, but that's not really a terribly fair comparison. The DSLR's viewfinder uses no power, after all, where the RX10 III must power either its electronic viewfinder or LCD monitor for you to be able to see what you're framing.
But with that said, battery life is pretty good for its class, and even compares quite well against some entry-level DSLRs or mirrorless cameras. On my trip to Lexington, I actually exceeded Sony's battery life figures by quite some margin, shooting close to 600 images over a several-hour period, and I still had a little battery life left at the end of the day. That's in part because Sony's figures are based on CIPA testing standards, which are fairly tough in requiring regular zoom racking and flash usage on 50% of shots, where in the real world I didn't use either the zoom or flash anywhere near so much.
Certainly, if you plan to take the Sony RX10 III on multi-day trips or to shoot even more liberally than I did, I'd recommend buying an extra battery pack or two. Really, though, I found myself quite pleased with its battery life, and that's not something I was really expecting given its really far-reaching zoom lens.
The Sony RX10 III is a superb camera if you can afford it; if not there are some really good alternatives at a much lower price
And so I've come to the end of my field test, and with it, my time with the Sony RX10 III. Would I buy this camera myself? Were money no object, I'd give a very resounding "Yes!" in reply to this question. Were I on a tighter budget, I think it's a lot harder to answer, though. There's no question that you're getting a heck of a lot of camera for your money, but you can also get quite a bit of camera from the competition at barely more than half the price.
If you're on a tight budget, I'd recommend getting hands-on with the RX10 III and its nearest rivals before making your decision, either in a store or if you're fortunate enough to know friends owning these cameras, down that path instead. If money is an important part of the equation for you, though, you might well be better served by a camera like the Panasonic FZ1000.
Sure, you won't get all the bells and whistles of this Sony, nor quite the same image and build quality. You're going to get a lot of its capabilities for a whole lot less cash, though, and with the money you'll save you'll take yourself a long way towards being able to afford another upgrade a year or two down the road should Canon, Nikon, Panasonic or perhaps another rival offers a stronger challenge to Sony at a more affordable price.
But if you can afford the cost of the RX10 III, I'd say go for it! It's one heck of a camera, and you're going to feel more than a tinge of jealousy whenever you see someone shooting with it, even if you'll know deep down that your money is going to go further in the long term!