Sony RX10 IV Field Test Part I
Sony RX10 IV Field Test Part I
The large-sensor, long-zoom love affair continues...
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 11/29/2017
Right from its very beginning, I've been a big fan of Sony's RX10 camera family. I've personally reviewed every single camera in the series to date, and I've found the RX10 line of cameras to be great all-rounders, capturing everything from family and pet photos and travel shots to sports, nature, portraits and more with equal aplomb.
The original Sony RX10 single-handedly created the large-sensor, long-zoom camera market, and the followup RX10 II -- of which I personally own a copy -- further refined the experience while adding a performance boost. Last year's RX10 III brought even more performance and a new, much further-reaching zoom lens, albeit with a noticeable increase in heft. And now, some four years after I first reviewed the original RX10, the new Sony RX10 IV aims to take the RX10 III design to the next level courtesy of major autofocus and performance improvements which it shares with Sony's pocket-friendly RX100 V compact.
Suffice it to say that I've really been looking forward to getting my hands on the Sony RX10 IV ever since its announcement in mid-September 2017 -- and now that I've done so, I'm happy to be able to bring you the first in my two-part, real-world test of the RX10 IV!
The key to the Sony RX10-series cameras has to be their combination of sensor and lens. Sure, their shared 1-inch sensor size might not offer quite the same low-light image quality you'd get from an even larger APS-C or full-frame sensor, but the RX10 series nevertheless still captures great photos in a wide range of conditions, day or night. And they're certainly head and shoulders above what you could expect from photos shot with a small-sensored travel zoom, let alone your smartphone..
Yet unlike larger-sensored options, the RX10-series cameras don't require that you to deal with the hassle of swapping lenses back and forth to match your subjects. The Sony RX10 IV I'm reviewing herein offers a staggering 24-600mm equivalent focal length range right out of the box, on tap and available any time you need it. If you wanted similar reach from an APS-C or full-frame camera body, you'd need to carry a moderately-sized lens bag everywhere you go.
And the time you spent swapping those lenses to suit your subjects wouldn't be the only sacrifice you made in the name of image quality, either. The overall kit of body and lenses would be significantly bulkier and heavier than is the Sony RX10 IV.
Like the pocket-friendly RX100 V -- which I also reviewed last year -- the Sony RX10 IV upgrade is all about speed, and make no mistake: I plan on testing that speed out for myself soon. But given that my colleagues Jeremy Gray and Dave Etchells have already turned in a great round of gallery photos with some very active subjects, I decided that it'd be best to start my own shooting with something a little more serene.
For my first real-world shoot, my son and I headed to Mead's Quarry, part of Ijams Nature Center. It's usually a pretty peaceful location, despite being only minutes outside of our hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and offers an interesting variety of subjects in a relatively compact space. And since it's pretty close to downtown, it paired up nicely with a photo walk there too, although as it happened an unexpected change of plans meant I had to curtail the latter expedition. I followed up a few days later with another photo walk around the nearby resort town of Gatlinburg, TN instead, where there was loads of color on display as always.
Having already shot with the earlier RX10 III with which it largely shares its body design, I pretty much knew what to expect from the Sony RX10 IV in terms of its layout and handling. There are, after all, only two changes to the overall control and hardware layout.
If you're more familiar with the original, shorter-zooming RX10 and RX10 II, though, you'll find that the RX10 IV is noticeably larger and heavier than those earlier cameras. It's about a third heavier than were the RX10 and RX10 II, and has a much wider lens barrel than those models, as well as being both deeper and just slightly taller than either.
That's not to say it's unduly bulky, mind you. The Sony RX10 IV is still pretty compact and portable when one takes into account its far-reaching zoom lens. In my earlier RX10 III review, I felt the same basic body design compared well to some of the smallest and lightest DSLR and mirrorless cameras on the market.
The Canon SL1 DSLR and a selection of consumer-grade lenses together offering a shorter 20x zoom range are a good 50% heavier than the RX10 IV, and much bulkier. And while a really small Micro Four Thirds body like the Panasonic GM5 with lenses providing a 21x zoom range would be similarly bulky but a bit lighter, it wouldn't offer the SLR-like handling, comfort and profusion of controls found on the Sony RX10 IV.
Just two dedicated control tweaks since the Sony RX10 IV's immediate predecessor
So what are the changes since the RX10 III? Both are to be found nestled side-by-side on the lens barrel and the bottom left corner of the Sony RX10 IV's front deck (as seen from the rear). There's a new focus range limiter switch that allows you to restrict the focus range to a minimum of three meters, instead of the default 3cm at wide angle or 1.4 meters at telephoto.
Interestingly, Sony's user manual notes that this switch doesn't prevent focusing to closer than three meters unless you have also zoomed in past a 150mm-equivalent (55mm actual) focal length. And in my own testing, I found that I could focus to as close as 2.4 meters even if I zoomed all the way in to the maximum telephoto focal length of 600mm-equivalent. But while the three-meter figure might be a bit loose, the function certainly does help prevent racking focus at the longer focal lengths.
The other tweak to the Sony RX10 IV's control layout is to its focus mode switch. In place of the four-position switch on the RX10 III, you'll find a five-position switch on the RX10 IV. So what's the extra position? A handy new auto mode which will select between single-servo or continuous-servo autofocus operation as appropriate for your subject. That could save a good bit of fiddling with the switch if you're shooting a mixed selection of active and static subjects!
And if you're coming from the earlier RX10 or RX10 II, you'll find that the Sony RX10 IV's controls will feel very familiar, as well. The basic layout is much the same, although with a new top-deck control arrangement and an extra top-panel custom function button taking advantage of the extra room provided by the thicker body. And there's also an extra button on the left side of the lens barrel which defaults to a focus hold function, but which I personally like to switch to controlling the eye AF function instead, as I find it more useful to have on tap for quick access.
When we first published our RX10 IV preview, we noted that Sony appeared to have switched from a lower-res WhiteMagic LCD monitor in older models to a higher-res (but non-WhiteMagic) screen in the RX10 IV. We based that assertion on the company's stated dot count for the display, however now that I've had the chance to compare the new camera to my earlier RX10 II side by side, it seems that the RX10 IV's display is in fact itself a WhiteMagic type.
Looking through a strong magnifying glass, I can see that the new and old screens have an entirely different pixel arrangement, but I definitely see red, green, blue and white subpixels on both screens. And comparing them side by side outdoors, I'd have to give a slight edge in brightness to the RX10 IV, although both cameras' displays are reasonably easy to see even in full sunlight.
At least, that's true so long as they're not too covered in smudges from fingerprints and noses, anyway. And with the Sony RX10 IV now being a touch-screen camera, that was immediately a concern for me, as you're going to be putting your fingers on the screen even more often now.
Thankfully, the RX10 II's screen was already fairly fingerprint-resistant, and that on the RX10 IV seems to be even more so. Making a direct comparison, while it wasn't impossible to leave a mark on the screen with my fingers, it was certainly harder to do so than on my own, older model. You may still want to keep a lens cleaner handy to wipe the screen now and then, though, as I found it easier to make a smudge using my nose -- and since the viewfinder is directly centered over the display, it's similarly likely to happen regardless of whether you are left or right-eye dominant.
And the addition of a touch screen is really great news when it comes to autofocusing, because it's so much more intuitive to select your subject by tapping on it. And that's true even if you're shooting through the viewfinder, as you can switch the display to touch pad mode, framing through the viewfinder while using a finger or your thumbtip on the screen beneath to drag your focus point around the image frame. And the touch functionality is pretty responsive, as well, tracking your fingertip quite quickly and accurately.
Sony has also tweaked the RX10 IV's viewfinder since the previous model, telling us that viewfinder lag has been decreased. The company didn't provide any figures for the improvement, and I have to admit I didn't detect a big difference shooting side-by-side with my earlier RX10 II.
However, with that said I'm satisfied with the Sony RX10 IV's viewfinder in most respects. It's responsive, bright, roomy, crisp and has good color to boot. Really, my only concern is that the viewfinder eyecup -- which is essentially unchanged since the original RX10 -- is still just not generous enough.
It's made of quite hard rubber, or perhaps a rubberized coating over hard plastic. Either way, it doesn't conform to your face, and only extends a few millimeters beyond the eyepiece lens as well. The result is that if the sun's in just the wrong place, you end up having to use a hand to shade your eye even when shooting through the viewfinder. But in other respects, I'm a huge fan of this viewfinder design!
The Sony RX10 IV has great image quality overall in daytime shooting
I have to say that thus far, after looking at my daylight photos shot with the Sony RX10 IV, I've found myself very impressed with its image quality for the most part. Admittedly, that's not really much of a surprise, as its predecessors also had ample image quality.
For the most part, exposures were very accurate, with only occasional and slight exposure compensation needed for scenes with more challenging lighting, in situations where most any other camera would likewise need a gentle nudge in the right direction.
The Sony RX10 IV's white balance was also spot on for most daytime shots, and colors were quite realistic, too. If anything, a little more so than is typical of cameras in this class, with images from the RX10 IV being a bit less crunchy and over-saturated than is typical of a camera aimed at consumer use.
A slight tendency for the Sony RX10 IV to pick shutter speeds too slow to handhold
Really, my only concern with my first batch of images was that I noticed some slight blur from camera shake in some shots. It wasn't a terribly common, affecting just a small fraction of my overall shots (and typically at the longer focal lengths), but nonetheless it was a little more frequent than I'd like to see.
Of course, thus far I've only shot in the daytime. I look forward to seeing how the Sony RX10 IV performs at default settings once the sun goes down, and gathering enough light for a good photo becomes more of a challenge. And it's also worth noting that all of this is at default settings. You can -- and if it proves a continuing concern in lower light, I will -- set the RX10 IV's ISO Auto function to aim for a faster shutter speed than the default when selecting the correct sensitivity for a shot.
Thus far, I'm seriously impressed with the Sony RX10 IV's performance. Obviously I've not yet shot very many active subjects, so I've not really begun to stretch its burst-shooting and autofocusing capabilities. 95% of my shooting so far has been in single-servo mode, and no more than perhaps a few quick bracketed series in succession.
But with the subjects I've shot thus far, the Sony RX10 IV has focused very quickly and yet quite precisely on the first attempt the overwhelming majority of the time. And it hasn't kept me waiting on the buffer yet, either. And you can rest assured that I'll be looking at performance more closely in my second field test.
More to come in my second and third Sony RX10 IV field tests!
And that about rounds things out for this first field test. In my second and final test, I'll be looking at sports shooting, low-light photography and movie capture. Watch this space!