Sony RX10 Field Test
Sony RX10 Field Test
by Mike Tomkins | Posted 11/26/2013
The Sony RX10 is radically different to anything else on the market, but the pairing of a bridge camera design, a really great lens, and a larger-than-average sensor (by point-and-shoot camera standards, anyway) makes a whole lot of sense.
The RX10 foreshadowed. When Sony announced its RX100 compact camera -- spiritual forebear of the RX10 -- in the middle of last year, I was thrilled -- and I was among the first to rush out, credit card in hand, to buy one for myself. The RX100 answered what seemed to me to be an obvious need for some middle ground between point-and-shoot cameras with the image quality you'd expect of a postage stamp-sized sensor, and mirrorless or SLR cameras with the bulk you'd expect from a large sensor.
My RX100 wasn't intended to replace the latter -- and you'll still have to work hard to pry my SLR from my cold, dead hands -- but its combination of significantly better image quality than the typical point-and-shoot and a much more compact body than an interchangeable-lens camera made huge sense to me. It's gone on to become my go-to camera, with my cellphone relegated to throw-away snapshots, and my SLR to carefully-planned, you'll-never-have-another-chance photo opportunities.
Why do I shoot with the RX100 so much? I have a four-year old son, and since his birth, travel -- whether it's halfway around the world, or just a few miles down the road -- has become much more of an event. My smartphone doesn't provide satisfactory image quality for my keeper shots, but at the same time, my heavy, bulky camera gear now invariably has to be left at home in favor of a more compact, portable option.
And doubly so when traveling overseas. Everything required to occupy (and care for) my son takes up most of the carry-on space, and I'm hesitant to send my expensive camera gear for a dropkick ride in the cargo hold. (I have family who worked in the airline industry, so I know very well just what my checked bags -- and their contents -- go through.)
Answer to the RX100's shortcomings. Much as I loved my RX100, though, I longed for a little more in the lens department. The Sony RX10 answers that need in spades, providing a spectacular lens that gives far more zoom reach and a bright f/2.8 constant aperture across the whole zoom range. When I first heard that the RX10 was on the way, I was both excited, and a little worried. Could Sony put the ball out of the park again? It seemed a tall order, and I was especially concerned about the RX10's size and price.
I shot the Cyber-shot RX10 alongside Sony's full-frame Alpha A7 and A7R for a week, on a press trip in Nashville, Tennessee, and I've used it for a couple of weeks since. It rapidly became my go-to camera, getting great shots I'd have missed while fumbling with lens changes if shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. It's also smaller and less expensive than either, once you include similar optics.
Would size be an issue? When I finally got my hands on the RX10 at a Sony press event in Nashville, Tennessee a couple of weeks later, my concerns about the size were redoubled, but only briefly. This is a much bigger camera than the RX100, certainly, and initially I found that a little offputting. But then, I sat down and thought carefully about what I'd need to provide similar coverage and a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture with an interchangeable-lens camera.
The answer was pretty clear: I'd need at least a couple of lenses just to match the Sony RX10's coverage, and that's even before I considered trying to account for the bright, constant-aperture design of its lens. No matter which mirrorless mount I chose, I couldn't find one that could compete with the Sony RX10 on size and convenience, let alone would an SLR manage to do so.
I had high hopes for the RX10's image quality, having seen what the RX100 II -- with which it shares an image sensor -- is capable of. It didn't disappoint, turning in great results in all manner of different shooting situations.
The turn-to camera. Once I got out and started shooting with the RX10, my impression that its size wasn't really an issue was reinforced. For most of the next week, I shot the RX10 alongside Sony's full-frame A7 and A7R mirrorless cameras side-by-side, and quickly found it becoming my favorite of the trio. I've since shot the RX10 by itself for a couple more weeks, and my love for it has only grown.
Incidentally, my rapidly-forming positive opinion of the RX10 was mirrored by what I heard from more than a few of my fellow journalists at Sony's press event. Sure, the larger sensors of the other cameras were nice, but there was definitely something to be said for having plenty of zoom reach -- not to mention some handy macro performance -- on tap, without having to constantly switch lenses back and forth. And the RX10's huge, crisp viewfinder was inviting indeed.
The image quality of the RX10, also, was more than sufficient for the majority of my photos. And even if I'm not really a movie guy, per se, it didn't hurt that the RX10 had great video chops as well.
The RX10 in-hand. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's return, for a moment, to how the RX10 handles.
Not surprisingly, given its greater size than my RX100, the Sony RX10 is pretty comfortable in-hand. Its large lens coupled with a relatively narrow grip meant that it wasn't terribly conducive to single-handed shooting -- the center of gravity is just too far from the grip for that -- but shooting two-handed was a delight. And with this style of camera, with zoom / focus and aperture rings around the lens barrel, I'd really want to shoot two-handed anyway. Occasional shots single-handed were no problem, certainly.
Tilting display. The tilting LCD display -- not a feature of my RX100 -- was great for shooting over my head, or low to the ground. It's a shame that it doesn't help out with portrait-orientation shots, though, and for that reason I would have preferred a side-mounted tilt-swivel screen, even if it cost a little more.
With default settings, colors were a little muted compared to typical point-and-shoot cameras, but I think the Sony RX10's target customer will likely prefer this to blown-out, garish colors. (And not only is there a lot of scope for tuning this to your taste in camera -- you can also shoot raw for total control.)
Gorgeous viewfinder. When I wasn't framing from a challenging angle, I shot almost exclusively with the electronic viewfinder, which is very inviting indeed. It's not quite as high-res as that in the Alpha 7, but it's certainly more than sufficient in terms of sharpness and resolution, and it's sharp right out into the corners, as well.
Perhaps more importantly, it compares well even to my APS-C SLR, with a large, bright view and relatively minimal lag. Add in the benefits of being able to see info overlays, exposure, white balance, and even menus without taking my eye from the viewfinder, and even I -- someone who has long favored a prism-based TTL viewfinder -- am pretty much sold on the merits of the EVF.
With a smaller sensor than a DSLR and most-all mirrorless cameras, the Sony RX10 doesn't provide quite as much scope for shallow depth-of-field effects, but it also outperforms its bridge camera competitors with their smaller sensors handily. (And the bokeh is buttery-smooth.)
And for bonus points, it projects a good way from the rear of the camera, so I don't feel I have to smoosh my nose against the screen to see anything.
Split personality zoom. Initially, I found the presence of two zoom controls -- the ring around the lens, and the rocker around the shutter button -- a little confusing. I quickly realized the reason for this, however: there's no dedicated manual focus ring, and so the zoom ring takes over this action when manual focus is enabled. That means a backup control is needed for the zoom, and so the rocker makes perfect sense.
There's not really room to comfortably accommodate another ring around the lens, and I don't think I'd want to sacrifice the aperture ring to gain a dedicated manual focus ring, as I control aperture manually much more than I focus manually.
Lens rings. Both rings are fly-by-wire types, and while I'd have preferred to have had a direct, mechanical connection, they were reasonably responsive. The zoom ring allows very small, accurate adjustments -- much more so than I could achieve with its rocker control -- but I did find myself wishing the drive mechanism was faster, and could better keep up with swift turns of the ring. (There's a step zoom function, but this doesn't increase speed, just steps the zoom to certain predefined focal lengths instead of zooming smoothly.)
The aperture ring was interesting to me for another reason: the small switch on the base of the lens which is used to enable or disable its click detents when the ring is turned. I'm not used to seeing controls placed on the underside of the lens barrel, and so it took me quite a while to find this. (In part, perhaps, because my RX100 has conditioned me to expect a smooth, clickless ring on RX-series cameras, as that on my RX10 was when I took it out of the box.) On the plus side, it's very unlikely to get accidentally bumped in this location.
The optional click. I was thrilled once I finally found the switch, and was able to provide the click stops that my RX100 lacks. That little bit of tactile feedback makes a world of difference to me. But why, then, provide a click-free option? The answer is for video shooting, where the clicks wreck the audio portion of your movie, and make it hard not to shake the camera, to boot.
The RX10 also betters the typical bridge camera in terms of autofocus performance, responding much like a DSLR in this regard, even though it lacks a phase-detection sensor, and so has to rely on contrast-detection. And if you focus manually, shutter lag is actually less than most consumer DSLRs.
Sadly, the stepless ring isn't accompanied by a stepless aperture -- peek in the front of the lens as you turn the ring, and you can still see that the aperture diaphragm still stops down in measured steps. The RX10 does do a reasonably good job of minimizing steps in brightness as you turn the ring, though, and for consumer use it's likely good enough to make playing with depth-of-field effects in video enjoyable.
Weather sealing. (!) Another nice surprise came when I took a closer look at the RX10's specifications. I hadn't realized this at launch, but the RX10 is environmentally sealed against dust and moisture, both on body seams and controls. We've not seen the degree of sealing stated in the US market, but overseas, the camera has been described as "splash and dustproof", suggesting that you shouldn't have to worry too much about a little light rain.
Burst performance was also quite good, although it slows significantly when raw files are needed, which describes most of my shooting. Still, it helped me get some nice shots of the extremely energetic and vivacious Leah Turner, an up-and-coming country singer, in the recording studio.
Occasionally imperfect. There were only a few things I'd like to see changed about the Sony RX10's body. Perhaps the most significant of these was its upper rear dial, which is presented end-on, just barely protruding from the body. It's sandwiched top and bottom by slight bulges in the camera body, and this coupled with shallow knurling made it a bit awkward to turn with the pad of my thumb. The problem wasn't helped by the texturing on the camera body, which made it hard to differentiate whether or not the dial had even turned, unless I paid attention to the value for the setting I was adjusting in the display or viewfinder.
My impression of the upper dial, incidentally, wasn't helped by the fact that there was noticeable panel flex / creak around this point on the RX10's body. Albeit slight, it was the only place in which I noticed this, and it detracted a bit from what otherwise seemed like a pretty bullet-proof body.
A mind of its own? The lower dial, which sits side-on in a ring around the OK button, and doubles as a clickable four-way controller, was also the source of a little early frustration for another reason. This dial turns smoothly and easily, but perhaps a little too easily. It defaults to ISO sensitivity control in most modes, and it took me a little while to realize why the sensitivity kept changing on me seemingly at random, until I realized that my shirt buttons were turning the dial as the camera swung around my neck.
A quick visit to the menu system, and I simply disabled the dial altogether, but a slightly stronger click detent on the dial would have obviated the need to do so (and to lose a valuable external control in the process.)
Just a few times, I found that the exposure compensation dial -- which has a relatively mild detent -- had gotten turned by mistake, as well. It only happed perhaps three or four times in several weeks of shooting, though, so I don't consider it to be a huge issue. I just made sure to glance at exposure compensation a little more often than I normally would.
White balance was pretty good for the most part, although indoors and under street lighting it often tended a little on the warm side with a bit of a yellow cast. Of course, you can always shoot raw, and then fine-tune the color to your heart's content after the fact, without affecting image quality.
Plenty to love. Otherwise, though, I really loved the body. Controls were in just the right places, and comfortably within reach -- mostly, without even needing to adjust my grip. The menu system was straightforward, and mostly pretty logical. The addition of hints as to why features are disabled when you can't access them (and how to fix the problem) is great, and helped me to become familiar with the camera much more quickly.
Bright, clear monitor. I've already mentioned the Sony RX10's viewfinder, but I should note that its main, tilting LCD is also great. It combines high resolution with Sony's WhiteMagic technology, and just like that on my RX100, it's very visible even on a bright, sunny day, with minimal glare and reflections. It's also surprisingly resistant to fingerprints and smudges, and those which manage to adhere are easily wiped off with a lens cloth.
Not only does it have a bright f/2.8 constant aperture; the Sony RX10's zoom lens also provides plenty of reach, from a generous wide angle to a healthy telephoto. I seldom felt limited by the zoom range, and that's definitely good news. Both shots here were taken moments apart from the exact same point.
Handy status display. The top-deck LCD info display is a great touch, too. I actually didn't use it as often as I expected to, and as I would with my SLR cameras, perhaps because there's so much info already available through the electronic viewfinder. It was great for checking basic setup at a glance, though, and the backlight design is very thoughtful. (There's a small button next to the display, used to enable and disable the backlight, and its not-too-bright orange color didn't disturb my night vision as some info LCD backlights can.)
The menu delay. Performance was, for the most part, excellent. There was one thing, though, which I found quite frustrating. (And I'm probably more sensitive to it than most photographers, because I take lots of bracketed raw+JPEG sequences which take a while to write to the flash card.) For some reason, the Sony RX10's menu system takes a second or two to come back to life after each burst of shots. More frustratingly, when it does finally appear, quite a few menu options are grayed out for a further second or two. (And there seems to be no rhyme or reason to which these grayed-out items are.)
I enjoyed shooting with Sony's full-frame Alpha A7 and A7R, but for my money the DSC-RX10 was even more fun, and much more approachable. Pros and serious enthusiasts will want the Alphas' full-frame sensor, but for consumers and size-conscious enthusiasts, a more portable camera+lens package like the RX10 makes a lot more sense than an interchangeable-lens camera.
It strikes me that the menu system likely takes very little processor time to render and display, and that the same is likely true of changing an individual setting. The fact that you have to wait around for this to happen can make the camera feel sluggish when it really isn't, and I'd like to see Sony address this with a firmware update. Simply allowing all settings to be accessed while your images write to the flash card would let the photographer get on with the job of setting up for their next shot while they wait for the buffer to clear, and reinforce the impression of a high-performance device.
Otherwise, a swift performer. And that, if you ignore this menu system quirk, is how the camera largely feels in other respects. It starts up reasonably swiftly, considering that the lens must be extended an inch or so at power-on. Autofocus is swift and reliable, and worked confidently for me even under relatively dim street lighting on a dark night. (In fact, in terms of AF performance, I'd describe the Sony RX10 as SLR-like, which is impressive for a contrast-detect based camera. And burst performance is reasonable, too. In fact, if you're willing to lock focus from the first frame, you'll get a full ten frames per second in JPEG mode, although for me with my raw shooting, that fell to a bit over six fps.
On-camera flash. I don't use on-camera flash particularly often, as I find it harsh and unflattering, and prefer to use an external strobe or a higher ISO sensitivity for a more natural look. Sadly, I didn't have access to any of Sony's external strobes in my time with the RX10, and so didn't get to give off-camera flash a spin. The internal strobe certainly seemed up to the job, though, with pretty good range for its size, and throttling down well for macro subjects. I was concerned about the lens shading the strobe, but in actual fact this wasn't a concern until I got very close to my subject at wide-angle. Shooting at telephoto, I could frame almost as tightly (and with less distortion, to boot), yet the flash wasn't blocked by the lens even at its closest focus.
Fun with macros. And man, could I ever focus close with the Sony RX10. I was surprised by just how small an area was covered, especially at wide-angle if I didn't need artificial light on my subject, and didn't mind a bit of distortion. OK, many point-and-shoot cameras will manage a smaller macro, but they don't typically do so without needing to enable a macro mode. And with an SLR or mirrorless camera, you'd be looking at buying a macro lens to get closer than the RX10 will. With the RX10, though, you can frame an area of around three by two inches at wide angle straight out of the box, and not a whole lot larger at telephoto.
Great image quality. Overall, I was quite impressed with the RX10's lens and sensor pairing, especially in Sony's corrected JPEG output. Not surprisingly, uncorrected raw files show quite a bit of distortion and chromatic aberration, but out-of-camera JPEGs at lower ISOs had lots of sharp detail, and controlled the lens defects well. Color was pleasing, and white balance mostly accurate, although it tended a bit warm under indoor lighting, and struggled to compensate for street lighting, with quite a yellow cast. (But then, that's not exactly rare.)
Noise levels. Compared to my RX100, noise at higher ISO sensitivities seemed -- not stronger, but less even and blotchier. Partly, it was likely down to differences in noise processing, but interestingly our lab testing also showed slightly higher noise in raw files compared to the follow-up RX100 II, with which we understand the RX10 to share its image sensor.
Even at the highest sensitivity, there's still a fair bit of detail left, although a good bit has been lost to noise and noise processing. Images can get a bit blotchy at ISO 3200 and beyond, though.
The difference isn't night and day, though, and the bright f/2.8 maximum aperture across the zoom range means you'll be needing those higher ISO sensitivities less than you would with many bridge cameras in the first place. Not to mention that, while larger SLRs and mirrorless cameras with their larger sensors will better the RX10 in terms of noise performance, its bridge camera competitors all have much smaller sensors, and the RX10 will simply trounce them in terms of noise performance. (Of course, it also costs a lot more than the typical bridge camera.)
Here's another shot at the highest sensitivity. It has a bit of a watercolor-esque look viewed 1:1, but again, there's quite a bit of detail left. The metering system nailed the exposure, producing a result much as I remembered the scene.
Wireless connectivity. The Sony RX10 includes built-in Wi-Fi and NFC wireless networking connectivity, allowing you to shoot remotely, and to transfer data from camera to smart device without a cable. The function work for both stills and movies, but with greater limitations for the latter. It's potentially useful when you want to distance yourself from your subject at least somewhat, although I had some issues with its functionality.
In my testing, I didn't have access to an iPhone, but I attempted to use Wi-Fi and NFC with two Android devices: an HTC One X+ smartphone (International edition), and a Google Nexus 10 tablet. NFC worked just fine on both devices, launching the PlayMemories app automatically, or prompting to install it (and calling it up in the Google Play store) if it wasn't already installed. The NFC functionality also triggered a Wi-Fi connection to be established automatically. So far, so good -- very simple indeed. (Sadly, Apple users can't take advantage of this simplicity, because Apple products don't include NFC.)
From this point on, things got rather spottier, though. My HTC One X+, which works fine on Wi-Fi with every other network and device -- including cameras -- which I've tried was never once able to connect to the RX10, showing an interminable "Connecting" message. My Google Nexus 10 tablet connected just fine, but the connection was quite flaky, with a range of just 10 or 12 feet, and never working beyond line of sight. Even when side-by-side with the camera, the connection also regularly dropped out altogether, or connected fine (as confirmed by the working live view feed), but showed an animated, circular "busy" symbol at the center of the screen that never went away, preventing any of the cintrols from being used.
When it did work -- which unfortunately, was perhaps only two thirds of the time -- the live view feed was extremely quick, with perhaps a quarter-second of lag or less. Resolution was fair -- certainly nowhere near that of the Nexus 10 tablet, but sufficient to judge focus. And the controls, albeit basic, worked well too. Zoom was responsive and could be racked simply by holding my finger on the on-screen soft button, and lag before starting or stopping movie capture was minimal.
Unfortunately, settings control is extremely basic indeed, which robs the feature of some versatility. Beyond the optical zoom and shutter, few functions can be controlled remotely. Images and movies are shot with Program autoexposure, and all on-camera controls are ignored -- including even the focus mode and exposure compensation controls. There is no way to select a subject for focus, to focus manually or in single-servo mode, or to adjust the exposure level. All you can do is change the zoom position trip the shutter, start or stop movie capture, and for still images only, enable self-timer and flash.
Equally frustrating is that the data you've just captured isn't transferred to the smart device automatically. You have to disconnect the devices and then reconnect before you can transfer any data between them, and even then, you can't transfer raw images or AVCHD movies. Only JPEG or MPEG-4 movie transfer is available, and that rules out access to Full HD movies from your smart device, since these can only be shot as AVCHD. Hence you can only view and share Anamorphic HD (1,440 x 1,080 rectangular pixel; 16:9 aspect) and standard-def VGA (640 x 480 pixel) movies from your smart device.
You can, at least, select single or multiple files for transfer, from either the camera or smart device. There's no way to preview information about movies before transfer, though -- all you get is a thumbnail and a filename from which to make your transfer decisions. And I found transfer to be fairly slow, taking around 25-30 seconds to send a single, 45-second, Anamorphic HD MPEG-4 movie of around 63MB. This may explain why AVCHD transfer isn't possible at all.
I should also note at this point that my testing was done in a relatively quiet Wi-Fi environment, with only four visible networks other than the camera -- and three of these only showing a weak signal. Hence, I wouldn't expect issues with Wi-Fi dropouts and transfer rates, and nor do I see them with other devices. The tablet was also set to hold a Wi-Fi connection even when asleep, to choose Wi-Fi frequency bands automatically, and not to minimize power usage when Wi-Fi is active.
Still, even if it's limited in its feature set, the presence of Wi-Fi remote control and transfer at all is a nice touch, and it's quite possible that updates to the camera's firmware and to Sony's PlayMemories Home app on Android could resolve some of my issues. The iOS app may also perform better, although I didn't have the chance to test this.
Surprisingly good video camera. I'm not much of a movie shooter myself, as I don't have the mindset for video editing, and simple single-perspective video clips aren't the most exciting. Still, the Sony RX10 has some seriously impressive video chops. We'll have a video page shortly explaining this in more detail, but in a nutshell there are a few things to know: It's significantly less prone to moire and false color than most other video-capable still cameras, even interchangeable-lens models that cost a lot more. The RX10 also offers a built-in ND filter to help you tame too-fast shutter speeds, external mic and headphone connectivity, levels display and fine-grained levels control, and the (optionally) smooth-turning aperture ring I mentioned earlier. Throw in full-time autofocus to keep the consumer videographers happy, and the RX10 makes for quite a video camera.
But what about the price? Does it merit its pricetag? If you ask me, the answer is yes, and if I had the money available right now I'd probably pick one up myself. (Unfortunately, I don't -- but chances are I'll be buying an RX10 of my own, sooner or later.)
There really is nothing comparable to it on the market, much as was the case with the RX100 last year, and it offers a heck of a proposition for anybody wanting great image quality without an interchangeable lens mount. (And realistically, that's a lot of people -- many photographers will buy an ILC and then seldom if ever change the lens anyway -- in which case, why not go with a great fixed lens, rather than a kit lens that's almost an afterthought?)
I've had a huge amount of fun shooting with the Sony RX10 -- more so than any fixed-lens camera I've shot with in years. That, to me, says it all.
The Sony RX10 is among the rare ranks of cameras that really hurt to give back when the review's over. It's a safe bet that, sooner or later, I'll be picking one up for myself -- I enjoyed shooting with it too much and got too many great photos for that not to be the case.