The Sony RX10 is a cousin of the much smaller RX100 II, which was quite popular due to its size/performance ratio. Both cameras share common traits like the 1” sensor, but the RX10 has the benefit of getting the latest hardware from Sony, namely the Bionz X image processor that is used in the high-end Sony Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R cameras which gives it a lot of computational power to process shots and videos.
The main feature of the RX10 is a 24-200mm zoom that offers a constant f2.8 aperture. This is a rare combination since it is quite difficult to find such a capability in many camera configurations. While f2.8 lenses are quite common in the DSLR world, a constant f2.8 is more unusual, and one with a 24-200mm capability is rare since 17-55mm or 70-200mm are the norm.
In Sony’s own Alpha line up, it’s already difficult to find an f2.8 17-55 lens, so the RX10 does bring something interesting. I took one for a spin to see how I would use its capabilities, and in this review I will explore how good it is, and what needs it can fulfill.
Sony RX10 Specifications Highlights
- 20-200mm lens with f2.8 constant aperture
- ISO 125-12800
- Water resistant body
- 1.23M pixels LCD with tilt
- 1.44M pixels viewfinder
- 10FPS burst mode
- 1080p 60FPS video recording (full-sensor sampling)
- NFC, WiFi
How I use my cameras
Before we dive deep into the review, I wanted to give you a sense for what I do with my cameras. Typically they have two distinct purposes and both are work-related.
First, I take a lot of photos at Trade shows and conferences where lighting conditions are usually awful (dark, yellow-tinted). And since gadgets are super-shiny, Flash isn’t a great option. That’s where a good low-light camera comes in handy. Secondly, I take photos in a more natural and bright lighting for reviews, when I can control the lighting.
For my personal use, I tend to simply snap photos with my phone, except if there’s a wedding or something important happening.
The Sony RX10 is marketed by Sony has a do-it-all camera that is designed to be particularly proficient in low-light situations and long-zoom situations. The bulk of its unique capabilities comes from the constant 24-200mm f2. 8 lens.
It is also built with an accessory shoe which can receive a number of accessory, the most interesting of which (in my opinion) is an external microphone. If you find a 3rd party one that will fit the shoe, there is also a 3.5mm audio input connector on the left side.
This camera also includes an Electronic View Finder (EVF) which helps the photographer frame the shot even during a sunny day when the LCD display would have a hard time
At first glance, the Sony RX10 looks like a compact DSLR with the typical grip and large lens. However, the lens is not detachable, and if I show the RX10 next to a full-size DSLR, the difference becomes much more obvious. I have medium-sized hands (M gloves) and I found the grip to be a little narrow, but it worked OK. You have to exert a little more pressure than usual, but after using the camera for a few weeks, I didn’t think about it twice.
At the top, you will find fairly typical functions in three areas: first, there’s an island on the right side which hosts the power and zoom controls along with the shutter button. Next there is a dial to control the exposure bias. On the other side, the mode selector dial lets you switch to the desired modes.
In the middle, you can see an accessory shoe mount which is so much better than the wimpy connector that I have on the older NEX3F and NEX5N. On either side of the shoe mount, you can see the stereo microphones. Their placement may make them prone to catch wind noise, but if that’s an issue to you, then an external microphone remains an option.
In the back, there are more controls, all located around the right thumb. I really appreciate the physical buttons on cameras because they tend to get the job done faster. So far, the best all-touch camera that I have used is the Samsung Galaxy NX which runs a full Android. However, even that powerful camera can’t beat physical controls when productivity is required.
The RX10 comes with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) which protrudes from the back. The EVF is fairly comfortable to use and is a lifesaver in general, when it’s too bright to use the screen. It can’t compare to the clarity of an optical viewfinder, but it gets the job done nicely if framing is what you want. The colors look close to what you get in the final picture, so it takes some guessing out of the equation, which is a nice thing about the EVFs.
The right side is fairly plain and besides the SD card slot, there isn’t much to look at. The left side is where all the connectivity is: 3.5mm stereo input for an external microphone (this is great), 3.5mm audio output for headphones/speakers, micro USB for charge/sync and micro HDMI to connect to a TV/monitor).
The battery compartment is located at the bottom (in the grip), and there is of course a tripod mount connector.
In the back, there is a 4/3 LCD display with a decent resolution and quality. I have seen better displays using OLED, etc., But overall this one works well enough and although I wouldn’t mind getting a better one, I can’t say that it got in the way. For this price, I think that Sony may want to consider upgrading the display quality a little.
Since the display tilts upwards to be parallel to the ground and downwards at a 45 degree angle, you can easily take shots with the camera raised above your head, or shoot movies with the RX10 at chest level. This offers more options, but also more comfort and stability in general.
Of course, a very bright sky or environment would make using the LCD challenging, but that’s what the EVF is here for.
With its general form-factor, the Sony RX10 does look superficially like a small DSLR camera. The right-hand grip and carrying it in general feels somewhat like a DSLR as well. However, the overall handling is quite different and look aside, I don’t think that it handles like a DSLR at all.
First of all, the Sony RX10 is much lighter than many DSLR cameras that I have owned (Canon 20D, 40D, 50D) because both the body and the lens are significantly lighter. The RX10 with its lens weight about 830g. In comparison, my Canon 50D with its Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 lens weight 1280g, with 535g for the lens alone.
More importantly, even though I have an electronic viewfinder in the RX10, I found myself using the screen most of the time — except if I have no other choice because the ambient light is too strong to see what I am doing. And that’s not a bad thing: my job often entails taking pictures in a crowded environment and the Sony RX10 title display allows me to easily shoot pictures at odd angles.
Of course, a DSLR equipped with a tilt display would be as convenient so this is not a critical difference if you start from scratch. However, if you already own a DSLR, the RX10 may bring enough of a difference in this area that you may want to consider it as a supplement.
I found the RX10 camera to handle more like an ultra-fancy compact than a DSLR-like camera, so I just want to make sure that you know what to expect. For example, the power-zoom lens is great when shooting videos (more on that later), but it doesn’t feel like a DSLR lens whose zoom can be quickly tweaked by hand. This is not the same sensation at all, and that’s why I always use the zoom button rather than the ring on the lens.
Finally, the overall latency is the most perceivable difference between the Sony RX10 camera and a DSLR. Because it reacts like a compact camera, turning it ON and OFF is slower than a DSLR. The fact that the lens retracts also contributes to the overall lag. From an OFF state, it takes a couple of seconds to be ready to shoot. Waking up the camera from a sleep state is not much shorter.
Image Quality & Performance
Despite not having an APS-C sensor, I was very satisfied with the overall image quality of the RX10. I have uploaded some full size images shot with the camera, and I’m showing you things that have been shot rather quickly “on the spot”, rather than scene for which I took the time to try multiple shots etc. I have to admit that I take photos to capture the moment, rather than being an artist of sorts. I mostly use my cameras for work, where I almost never have time to properly setup a shot.
Not surprisingly, photos taken in bright daylight will often look great without much effort, and I’m fairly sure that most people will appreciate the RX10’s ability to zoom far without going to lose aperture.
This conference photo is interesting if you know the context. The man in the photo is Lenovo’s CTO receiving an Edison Award in San Francisco. I had arrived just late enough to get a seat that was fairly far away. This was mostly yellow artificial light and things were not so bright in there. I had to zoom all the way in and hold the camera higher above my head to avoid getting other attendees outlines in my field of view. With a quick sharpen filter, the image could have been used for web coverage without much of an issue.
I tried taking photos of moving vehicles with mild success. While some photos may be passable, I’m not convinced that the auto-focus, and the system as a whole does such a great job. Overall, my motion photos were always a little blurry and I feel like my DSLR would have done better. If you have patience and want to tweak and test things in manual mode, there is no doubt that you will get better results, but that is also true with a DSLR. Overall, I wouldn’t pick this camera for this specific type of shots. If you “have to” to them, then results may be “OK” depending on how picky you are with the sharpness, but this is not a strong point of the RX10. You can see more photos samples shot during a football game to have an idea of how it feels to use the RX10 as a spectator.
This is without a doubt something that virtually everybody likes to do at some point, and the RX10 is just brilliant for that. Here are some photo samples of long-zoom that I have taken over time. There’s no need for a long comment. It’s just plain cool. The image below is self-explanatory, but basically, it shows you what things look like at 24mm (no zoom), and what I can see in the photo after a full 200mm zoom and a 1-pixel crop of the zone in red.
Low light photography is one of the strong points of the RX10 thanks to its f2.8 aperture. But the real advantage that it holds is its 12X zoom at f2.8. It’s pretty easy and inexpensive to build a camera setup with an APS-C sensor and a 18-55mm f2.8 (not constant) aperture. However, getting a camera apparatus with a 200mm/f2.8 is much harder — let alone with a 16-200mm with f2.8.
While I can’t say that low-light photography is “out of this world” because other camera systems could rival the RX10 in specific scenes, I can say that this camera has a unique low-light range that I find very interesting and worth paying for. The typical example for me is when I attend conferences and want to shoot portrait photos of the panel speakers.
The lighting is often questionable and I may be standing or seating 5 to 10 meters away from them. This is not an ideal situation, but the RX10 will get the job done where my DSLR setup could not — at least, not without bringing a couple of lenses and carrying 3X the weight.
The video recording capabilities are also very handy and the zoom is magnificent as the video above will show you. As of now, most DSLRs are capable of capturing great videos, but depending on your combination of body and lens, chances are that the auto-focus may remain too slow. Many models also don’t have a phase-detection auto-focus (AF) when recording videos, so the AF often “chases around”, especially when filming shiny objects like I do.
On the other hand, the RX10 does a great job with video capture, and its AF system can easily handle those situations. In addition to that, the 12X zoom can be a powerful tool if you are far away from the subject. In fact, I recommend looking at this video which was shot during my initial hands-on with the RX10 when it was announced. Try doing this with a DSLR, and tell me what kind of weight and price you paid for to capture the exact same shot.
The camera can capture in both MP4 or AVCHD, which is a nice choice if you need to upload something quickly, versus editing it later when you get back to your computer.
Image Quality: Wrap-up
It’s fair to say that if I wanted to, I could build a $1300 DSLR setup that takes noticeably “better” pictures in a 18-55mm or 28-75mm range. That said, it would be a flawed comparison. It’s not just about price/performance, but also price/bulk/zoom-range/performance. The only consistent weakness in the RX10 performance is the relative lack of sharpness for a $1300 camera. This is fairly noticeable, and while I don’t mind because I work in web publishing, people who print things may have an issue with that.
If you want to see some full-size pictures, I have uploaded a number of them in the Ubergizmo Flickr account. My colleague Karsten Lemm has taken great photos with the RX10 as well, look at the full-size samples on his Smugmug account.
Second Opinion: Karsten Lemm
Since several people in the Ubergizmo team have a genuine interest for photography, we thought that circulating the camera around and getting more feedback would be great for our readers. Here’s what Karsten Lemm thinks about the Sony RX10 after playing with it for several days. I asked him to write the few paragraphs below, and you can see his photos and more details of his experience on his personal blog:
Karsten: At first glance, having a fixed lens may seem like a limitation for ambitious photographers – after all, this is the one and only lens you get. But in my (admittedly limited) tests I never felt restricted. The Zeiss lens turned out to be a stellar performer in hundreds of photos I took. Distortions at both wide-angle and fully zoomed in did not seem particularly obvious, and I did not notice the persistent lack of sharpness that you mentioned.
The camera itself feels intuitive and is quick to adapt to different shooting situations, thanks to a number of dedicated buttons. The clear and bright electronic viewfinder is one of the best I’ve encountered so far – and definitely a big help on sunny days when the display becomes washed out and nearly useless for accurate framing. I never hesitated to use it. Another nice feature proved to be the motorized zoom which can also be manually adjusted. That allowed me to make quick zoom changes when taking still pictures while smoothly zooming in and out during video recordings.
Battery life may be as advertised with 420+ images, but that’s definitely on the low end of what passionate photographers need these days (and only passionate photographers would pay $1,300 for a camera like this).
Low-light performance could also be better, but as long as you don’t want to make poster-size prints of pictures taken at ISO 1600 and beyond, the slight graininess should not be a big issue.
Overall the RX10 left me very impressed. The price may seem high – but much of it is due to the lens, and buying an equally capable lens for many other camera models (SLR or compact-system) will usually drive the overall price tag even higher. Assuming a similar lens is even available. For anybody looking to buy a versatile all-round camera that delivers best-in-class performance, the RX10 is definitely worth a look.
The battery life of cameras is typically rated with the number of shots they can take before running out. In this instance, Sony says that the battery can last for 420 shots.
This may be true, but in my experience, the number of shots doesn’t really matters: what matters is how the camera is used. For example, the auto-focus, the power zoom and the display are great battery killers. If they start working a lot because you keep changing the settings of if you put the camera on a table and the AF starts chasing around, the battery life will be impacted.
During a busy 2 hour conference, as much as 20% of the battery can be gone, but in general, I never found myself in a situation where I went anywhere close to 15% by the end of the day. I have to admit that I am not a professional photographer, but I figured that a day at CES or at Google IO is probably as intensive than most people’s days with a camera.
Fortunately, you can charge the camera with a simple micro-USB cable, which is neat because you probably have a phone charger or a battery pack. I really love cameras that are USB chargeable. Granted, you may get a faster charge with a dedicated charger, but since I only charge once a day (even at CES), it’s never been a problem to me. Losing a proprietary charger on the other hand is always a lousy proposition.
The one thing that I really want to see Sony change is the fact that the camera won’t charge over USB if you leave the power control to ON. For the love of me, I don’t understand why. My phone can do it, and the Galaxy NX can do it. Sony, please change it: it’s just too easy to forget to turn the camera OFF and to find it completely depleted in the morning if I left it connected to my PC.
The Sony RX10 is a very unique camera because of its awesome 16-200mm constant f2.8 lens — that pretty much sums it up. There is nothing quite like it.
This makes it very difficult to replicate its optical functionality with other camera systems, especially within the $1300 envelope. If you want to get more sensor surface for your dollar, or if you would rather use an f3.5-5.6 lens, then there are clearly other options on the market."THERE IS NOTHING QUITE LIKE IT"
What I really like about the RX10 it is an excellent do-it-all camera which I can use for macro photos, shooting gadget reviews or to take out for a nature trip. In every single case, it will do a great job in package size that is very reasonable.
To enjoy all these benefits, you also must accept that by nature, using it will feel closer to having a compact camera system than a DSLR one. Taking pictures won’t be as fast and it takes a little bit of time to turn it on and off, but it will do things that your typical DSLR won’t, like shooting better in the dark or being a better movie recorder.
If it was priced lower, the RX10 would be a very easy choice. However, at $1299, I would recommend thinking about how you really want to use the camera. With that kind of budget, there is a ton of options available to you, but none will truly be like the RX10