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Sony Cyber-shot RX10 Gordon Laing, February 2014
 
 

Sony RX10 verdict

The Sony Cyber-shot RX10 is one of the most interesting cameras I've tested for a long while, and continues Sony's proud tradition of experimenting with form factors, capabilities and delivering something that's truly unique in the market. Anyone remember the F-series and R1 for example? They were pretty special, and on the whole the RX10 works very well too, exceeding expectations for this product category.

The RX10 is, most simply, a pimped-up bridge camera. One with a bigger sensor and brighter, higher quality lens than most models, and one that's packed with professional movie features that could see it adopted by video journalists and documentary film makers. In a body around the size of an entry-level DSLR kit, you're getting a 24-200mm equivalent zoom with a constant f2.8 focal ratio, excellent optical stabilisation, a large and detailed electronic viewfinder, tilting screen, Wifi with NFC, an aperture ring that can be switched from clickable to smooth, microphone and headphone jacks, a clean HDMI output, manual control over movie exposures, focus peaking, zebra patterns and the possibility of connecting XLR mics via an accessory; and while the body is roughly the same size as an entry-level DSLR kit, it's much tougher, indeed weather-proof, and feels very confident in your hands.

It really couldn't be further from the budget bridge cameras on the market, most of which may deliver considerably longer optical ranges but using relatively tiny sensors complemented by comparatively basic controls and construction. But then the RX10 couldn't be further from them in price either. It's three times the price of Panasonic's FZ200, double that of the Olympus STYLUS 1 (both of which also sport constant f2.8 apertures and longer 25-600mm and 28-300mm ranges respectively), and roughly the same price as, say, a Canon EOS 70D mid-range DSLR albeit in a kit with a shorter 29-88mm equivalent zoom. As always it's about finding the right balance between sensor size, lens range, body size and price. But one thing's for certain, there's nothing like the RX10 around, so what works and what doesn't?

   
 


First the image quality, which I'm pleased to say is very good. We already knew what to expect from the sensor in terms of resolution and noise, as it’s the same one fitted in the Cyber-shot RX100 II, one of my favourite compacts. This 1in type sensor may be beaten by Micro Four Thirds and APS-C sensors for noise at high sensitivities and the potential for delivering very shallow depth of field effects, but coming from the other end of the scale it's head and shoulders above the 1/1.7in and the 1/2.3in sensors more commonly found in super-zoom and bridge cameras. In my tests the RX10, STYLUS 1 and Lumix FZ200 all started-off with similar amounts of noise, but with the smallest increase in sensitivity a gap began to appear which grew wider and wider throughout the range, until at around 1600 ISO the RX10 was up to two stops cleaner than the STYLUS 1 and even further ahead of the FZ200.

The higher 20 Megapixel resolution doesn't push the sensor too far either, and actually gives it a great deal of potential to crop over its rivals. The STYLUS 1 may zoom 50% longer to 300mm, but if you take a 12 Megapixel crop from the RX10 at 200mm, you're left with a field of view that's actually only slightly wider. The higher resolution also gives you the chance to downsample to reduce the impact of noise.

The lens is also very sharp across the entire range, even when the aperture is opened right up to f2.8. It's noticeably crisper at the edges than the STYLUS 1 in my tests. Do remember though despite having the biggest sensor and longest actual focal length of its rivals, you'll still need to employ tricks like zooming all the way in or getting really close to your subject to achieve any kind of shallow depth of field effects. That said, if still photo quality is your priority, then the RX10 still beats its rivals overall, just don't mistake it for a DSLR or mirrorless camera equipped with 24-70 and 70-200mm equivalent f2.8 zooms.

The video quality is also very good, although as a non-pro videographer, I can't say if you'll personally be satisfied by the output. Friends who are pro videographers have commented on scaling and compression artefacts, so I'd recommend studying mine and other's clips for yourself to see if they meet your expectations.

But what I can say is the video feature set is fantastic with jacks for external microphones and headphones, focus peaking, zebra patterns, a built-in ND filter (which is also useful for shooting stills at f2.8 in bright conditions), full manual control over exposures, clean HDMI output and the chance to connect XLR mics. Zebras and peaking are also useful to still photography and a welcome addition here.

The handling was also good. The RX10's weatherproof body feels very solid and confident in your hands (and shrugged off steady drizzle in my tests), there's a great selection of controls including an aperture ring that can be switched from clickable to smooth, and the viewfinder is superb, delivering a huge image that's packed with detail. The camera could also fire-off decent sized bursts at 10fps, not just for one second, but two and a half in my tests.

So far so good, but it wasn't all rosy for the RX10. The lens range, aperture and continuous shooting speed all suggest this could make a great sports camera, but its continuous AF just wasn't very successful in my tests at keeping moving subjects in focus. The STYLUS 1 faired better in this regard, but to be fair its smaller sensor and shorter actual focal length meant it was dealing with a deeper and more forgiving depth of field. The fact is, DSLRs shooting with predictive phase-detect AF through their optical viewfinders remain the best choice for keeping moving action in focus.

At first and even second glance, the RX10's movie feature-set seems to have thought of everything, but then why is it not possible to manually set the focusing area when filming? Or switch it from continuous AF to single AF? The inability to tell the camera where or when to focus when filming movies makes the AF in this mode much less useful than it could have been. The addition of a touch-screen could have made this even better, but for some reason Sony doesn't seem keen on them. It would also have made manually positioning of the focus area for still photos quicker than the current method.

The RX10's processing muscle (which allows it to down-sample 20 Megapixel images into Full HD sixty times a second) is very impressive, but it also suggests (to me anyway) that the camera could just as easily down-sample to 4k instead. Obviously there's other issues involved when handling a beefier stream, but it could give Sony the excuse to also implement a more professional codec than AVCHD. The RX10's movie capabilities could also be enhanced by adding a slow motion option, even if only at 720p. If 4k or slow motion are possible with a firmware update then please Sony, add this feature and the RX10 should fly off the shelves.

Sony's Wifi implementation is also basic to say the least. Yes you can wirelessly transfer JPEGs to various devices, at the full resolution if desired, and yes you can remote-trigger the camera with your smartphone. But the remote control capabilities really need to be upgraded. As it stands, the Sony app for iOS and Android devices lets you view the live image, zoom the lens and take the photo, but that's about it. Regardless of the exposure mode on the camera, it becomes fully automatic when remote-controlled by a phone or tablet, with no option to adjust the exposure, white balance or anything else; you can't even tap on the live image to move the AF area. Actually I tell a lie, you can adjust the flash mode and self-timer, but that's it. This represents very basic functionality in today's world of Wifi-equipped cameras and a disappointment considering the higher-end nature of the camera. There's not even the chance to record a log of GPS positions using your handset and tag your images later. The Olympus STYLUS 1's app offers so much more control.

But for me the biggest issue is actually the zoom. Not the range or the quality, both of which are great, but the actual means by which you adjust the focal length. The RX10 employs a motor-assisted zoom control which isn't particularly swift and slows down further when filming, right down to a point that if you saw something happen and needed to spontaneously respond, you'd get pretty frustrated. Forget crash zoom - this is like wading through treacle. Indeed this alone could rule it out for news gathering, which is a shame as it could otherwise be such a good camera for video journalism. A manually-linked zoom, which lest we forget Sony employed on the Cyber-shot R1 back in 2005, would have allowed faster adjustments, making it a much more responsive experience. Or how about simply offering a faster motorized zoom option even if it means the image may fall out of focus a bit? But as it stands, I found myself becoming very aware of the camera while adjusting the zoom when filming.

It is however important to put it in perspective. If you're coming from the consumer end of things (such as other bridge cameras), you probably won't be too bothered by the RX10's zoom speed, indeed you may like the smooth and leisurely way it draws subjects in or makes the grand reveal. It's certainly no worse than most of its rivals in this regard. But if you're coming from the pro-end and need to react quickly to something, it will frustrate you, so demanding videographers be warned.

Now before my final wrap-up, let's once again compare the RX10 to two of its nearest rivals, both of which offer big zooms with constant f2.8 focal ratios.

 

Sony RX10 vs Panasonic Lumix FZ200

     
 
 
     
     

The Lumix FZ200 is Panasonic's flagship super-zoom camera, and when launched it represented the premium end of the super-zoom bridge market. But since the STYLUS 1 and RX10 came along, it's actually become the most affordable of the three f2.8 super-zooms. So does it have anything in common with the RX10? Both models share DSLR styling with roughly the same size and shape, lenses with constant f2.8 focal ratios, electronic viewfinders, 3in screens, hotshoes and plenty of manual control, but their feature-set, capabilities and prices are quite different.

In its favour, the FZ200 sports a much broader optical range, with a 24x zoom equivalent to 25-600mm - this starts slightly wider than the Sony RX10 and ends with a telephoto reach that's three times as close. Indeed the FZ200, while out-gunned by variable aperture models like the Canon SX50 HS and Panasonic's own FZ70 / FZ72, features the longest range of all the constant f2.8 aperture super-zooms. Even if you take a 12 Megapixel crop from the RX10 at 200mm, it still can't match the reach of the FZ200. The FZ200's screen is also fully-articulated, so can twist and flip to any angle including back on itself for protection, whereas the RX10's screen can only vertically tilt.

In its favour the RX10 boasts a considerably larger sensor with roughly four times the surface area, not to mention packing 20 Megapixels to the FZ200's 12. In my results, the RX10 consistently out-resolved the FZ200 and also delivered much lower noise levels, especially above 400 ISO. Both may share electronic viewfinders, but the RX10's is about four times larger in area and more detailed too; the FZ200's viewfinder image is tiny in comparison. The screen is also higher resolution, there's more sophisticated movie options (including focus peaking, zebra patterns, stepless aperture control and a headphone socket), and the RX10 also features built-in Wifi with basic smartphone remote control. The RX10 body is also weather-sealed, and while it's about one third heavier than the FZ200, this lends it an air of solidity, making the Lumix feel almost hollow in comparison.

So the RX10 is tougher and weather-proof, sports a much bigger and higher resolution sensor, a considerably larger and more detailed viewfinder, far superior movie capabilities and also includes built-in Wifi, but the FZ200 counters that with three times the telephoto reach not to mention slightly wider coverage at the other end of the scale. The FZ200 is also much cheaper, costing around one third the price of the RX10 depending on your region. Certainly if the longer range, fully articulated screen, lighter weight and lower price are key factors for you, and you mostly shoot below 400 ISO, the FZ200 remains a cracking choice. Indeed after testing it again against these more sophisticated models I was impressed how well it performed, especially optically.

See my Panasonic Lumix FZ200 review for more details.

 

Sony RX10 vs Olympus STYLUS 1

     
 
 
     
     

The Olympus STYLUS 1 was announced shortly after the RX10 and like the Sony it aims higher than the average bridge or super-zoom camera. Both again sport constant f2.8 focal ratios, electronic viewfinders, DSLR styling and vertically-tilting screens, but there's a number of important differences.

In its favour the RX10 has a bigger and higher resolution sensor, a 20 Megapixel 1in type versus a 12 Megapixel 1/1.7in type on the Olympus. While the STYLUS 1 sensor is a little larger than the 1.2.3in sensor in the Lumix FZ200, it's still about 2.7 times smaller in surface area than the RX10 and it sows at higher sensitivities.

While the STYLUS 1 has a great viewfinder, the RX10's is even better with a larger view. The lens starts out wider too at 24mm vs 28mm. While the STYLUS 1 body feels robust, the RX10 goes one step further with weather-proofing and there's also more to hold onto if that's your preference. The movie capabilities are also more sophisticated with a headphone jack, zebra patterns, clean HDMI output, full manual control over every aspect of exposure, choice of frame rates, and the chance to connect XLR microphones via an optional accessory. The RX10's Wifi is also complemented by NFC for easier setup with compatible handsets. The RX10's lens is also sharper across the frame at all focal lengths, whereas the Olympus frequently became soft at the edges in my tests.

In its favour the STYLUS 1 has a longer telephoto reach: 300mm vs 200mm, although if you crop the RX10 to the same 12 Megapixel resolution it actually comes quite close to delivering the same field of view. The Olympus also sports a touch-screen, allowing you to tap to reposition the AF area, much easier than delving into Sony's UI. The Wifi implementation is much better on the STYLUS 1, with full remote control over exposures and most shooting settings, along with the chance to tag images with a GPS log made by your handset. Physically the STYLUS 1 may not be weather-proof, but it is much smaller and lighter: 13mm narrower, 15mm shorter and almost half the thickness, not to mention half the weight too. This makes a massive difference in portability, as the RX10 really demands a bag whereas the STYLUS 1 can just about be squeezed into a coat pocket. It sounds like a minor point, but I also found the STYLUS 1's built-in lens cover made it faster to power-up, take a shot and power down again, compared to dealing with a separate lens cap on the RX10 and FZ200. The STYLUS 1 is also much cheaper, indeed depending on region it could cost almost half the price of the RX10.

Ultimately the RX10, with its tougher build, bigger sensor and more sophisticated video capabilities, will better satisfy demanding photo and videographers, but the STYLUS 1 has struck a very nice balance between it and the traditional options like the FZ200. The STYLUS 1 offers a step up from most bridge cameras in quality, handling and control and cleverly gives you it in a surprisingly small and light package. It's a highly compelling option in this market.

See my Olympus STYLUS 1 review-in-progress for more details.

 

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 final verdict

Let's not beat about the bush here: the Sony RX10 is the most powerful and capable bridge camera to date, but it's also the most expensive. So that's the non-shocker here: pay more, get more. But the interesting part is someone thought to take the bridge category this high-end in the first place. After all the same money could get you a mid-range DSLR or mirrorless camera with a bigger sensor, or you could pay as little as a third the amount and still end up with a respectable super-zoom camera with a lens that reaches three times further.

It's no surprise the company to take this step is Sony - after all, they've had past form with the F-series and the R1, but the RX10 is in a different league, pushing the feature set, quality and price higher than anyone has dared before for a bridge camera. It's a gamble, but on the whole I'd say it's paid off. The RX10 is clearly head and shoulders above its bridge rivals in every respect and a compelling alternative to a DSLR or mirrorless camera for certain photographers.

You're getting a lot of camera here: a comfortable, tough and weatherproof body with plenty of controls and customization; a superb electronic viewfinder and tilting screen; a useful and very high quality 24-200mm range with a constant f2.8 aperture and great stabilisation; pro-level movie features; and while the RX10 is unable to deliver the lower noise or shallower depth of field effects of cameras with bigger sensors, the results are good enough for most situations and way ahead of rival bridge cameras. And lest we forget while the RX10 isn't exactly light or cheap, it is considerably lighter and cheaper than a bigger sensor camera equipped with weather sealing and the same optical range at its disposal - plus there's not many cameras of any sensor size or price with the same array of video capabilities.

Here more than anywhere else you need to understand exactly what it is you want from a camera. If you want to obliterate the background with a shallow depth of field in a wide variety of compositions or enjoy low noise above 3200 ISO, then the RX10 is not for you. Instead you'll need a larger sensor camera and have to accept shorter zoom ranges, bigger gear and higher prices, especially if you want it all to be weather-sealed. If you want to zoom from 24mm to 600mm or more without changing the lens, then the RX10 isn't for you either. You need to be looking at more traditional super-zoom models like Panasonic's FZ200 where the compromise is a much smaller sensor with noisier images and video.

The RX10 slots somewhere inbetween, meaning many will consider it a compromise in sensor quality, optical range, price, or even all three. But equally there'll be those for whom Sony has struck the balance just right, and I count myself among them.

The RX10 makes a fantastic up-market travel camera, handling a variety of light levels and subject distances with ease while also shrugging-off inclement weather. The RX10 is ideal for the documentary film maker who wants the smallest and most discreet kit which offers the pro-level features and respectable results. The RX10 will also be welcomed by video journalists and news gatherers for the same reasons. I also think the RX10 makes a great camera for shooting concerts, with its useful reach, bright lens, great video and reasonably discreet size.

While I was frustrated by the RX10's zoom speed, basic smartphone remote control, lack of touch-screen and inability to control the AF while filming movies, I still couldn't help but find it an extremely flexible camera that could deliver great results. These frustrations prevent it from earning my top rating, but it remains a camera I can easily recommend, and I know a number of photographers and videographers for whom it's already ideal. Fix the issues and equip the RX10 with 4k and slow motion video though and Sony could have one of the best - maybe the best - general-purpose photo and video cameras around. The RX series is all about pushing the envelope and I can't wait to see where Sony takes it next.



Good points
Very high quality 24-200mm equivalent zoom.
Constant f2.8 aperture; good quality even wide open.
Comfortable and tough weather-sealed body.
Superb large and detailed electronic viewfinder.
Fast continuous shooting: 10fps for 2.5 seconds.
Powerful movie features with full manual control.
Microphone & headphone jacks and clean HDMI output.
Focus peaking, zebra patterns & built-in ND filter.
Manual aperture ring switchable from clicks to smooth.

Bad points
Slow zoom control, especially when filming.
Laborious to manually set AF area.
No touch-screen.
Can’t control AF while filming.
Disappointing Continuous AF.
Basic smartphone remote control.
No GPS tagging with Sony app.
No interval timer.
No slow motion video option.
Most expensive bridge camera to date.



Scores

(relative to 2014 bridge cameras)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

18 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20
18 / 20
16 / 20

87%
 

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A great-looking and highly informative eBook for anyone interested in long exposure photography. Whether you're into painting with light, capturing star-trails or creating timelapse video, author Jim M Goldstein has the answers. One of my favourite eBooks to date and one you'll want in your collection even if it's just to browse the great images.
     
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