Does a fairly bulky/ heavy, expensive – $1,300 – fixed-lens, (relatively – 1″) small sensor camera have a place in the current camera ecology? Sony seems to think so. The RX10 is all about its lens: a fixed-aperture 24-200/2.8, Zeiss-branded unit that’s about the size of an 85/1.8 for a full frame camera. It is definitely not small. Sensibly, Sony have scaled the rest of the camera to match. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure out whether this is perhaps one of the smartest products of late, or fighting an uphill battle. The sad reality is that it probably will disappear as a footnote, overshadowed by its illogical A7 and A7r brethren.
Note: Welcome to the new review format. I’m going to tell you what I think, nothing more, nothing less. I shoot raw and process with ACR/ PS CC with the intention of subjecting the files to my normal workflow and finished-shot standards. If you’re looking for rigorous technical tests, there are other sites who have the time and resources to do it more comprehensively than I do. What I do is actually use the equipment to make photographs – after all, isn’t that the point of a camera?
This is not a small camera with everything fully extended/ deployed. Think consumer DSLR size, almost. Unlike consumer DSLRs and kit zooms though, this lens is excellent and f2.8 through the entire range.
In designing the RX10, somebody sensible probably actually sat down and thought about what the average consumer or hobbyist actually needs. Decent lens range and quality; doesn’t matter if fixed: check. Decent low light performance: check. Stabilizer: check. Good image quality: check. Ability to blur backgrounds (sigh): check. Manual controls, even if they never use them other than for bragging rights: check. Good LCD/ EVF: check. Good movie mode: check. The problem is, by the time they put everything together, it cost too much – or they realized how good a product it should theoretically have been – and then some corners were cut to maintain margins control the overruns. Unfortunately, these are very visible.
The camera has the same 20MP, 1″ sensor from the RX100II that’s capable of 1080p video, 10fps RAW and a surprisingly clean ISO 3200 (on par with the E-M5, and the last generation of APS-C cameras); it punches far above what you might imagine a sensor of that size should be able to do, and comes quite close to M4/3 at lower ISOs. This is a good thing, and one of the camera’s strengths. It’s paired with a Zeiss-designed 24-200/2.8, which offers very good resolution and microcontrast at all focal lengths and apertures – despite being a very ambitious zoom range and aperture. No, it’s not perfect, there’s probably some software correction being applied to even the raw files (knowing Sony) – and the corners could be better, but it’s good enough, the center is excellent*. It even has decent bokeh, if you use a longer focal length wide open and have a reasonably distant background. There’s a close-focus mode too, which doesn’t have to be separately enabled. Focusing is fast under pretty much all conditions and focal lengths – never mind that it doesn’t have phase detection photosites. It doesn’t need them. Mind you, it still can’t track moving objects though. In short: the camera’s image quality potential isn’t going to be the limiting factor in your photographs, and I know from experience with the RX100 that the sensor is capable of 24×36″ prints.
*Bear in mind this is coming from somebody whose new reference lens is the 55mm Otus.
So far, so good. Then we get into the controls: what Sony did leave on the mechanical side made a lot of sense: aperture ring (with switchable detents, smooth for video work, clicky for stills); a fly-by-wire lens ring than switches between zoom and focusing; exposure compensation and mode. Throw in a couple of control dials for good measure – even if the one under your thumb is far too stiff and buried to be easily usable. Again, all this is fine and good – a sensible choice. The menus are the usual unintuitive Sony disaster; however it might just be me not having spent much time on a Playstation recently. Even then, there’s a lot of configurability and customization built in; enough that you could mostly stay out of the menus once you’ve set it up. And I’m sure it’ll be a lot more familiar to a regular Sony user; there’s even NFC (whose symbol looks confusingly like a Nespresso machine, though I couldn’t figure out how to get it to make me a coffee) and wifi for the hipstagram crowd. One thing they do deserve a commendation for is making the instant review mode a full-fledged playback mode, so you can zoom, scroll, delete and compare images (like the Nikons) – I’m looking at you, Olympus and Canon.
The RX10′s movie mode is worth mentioning. Video quality is quite impressive; there’s very little to no rolling shutter; linear control over exposure via an aperture ring that can be de-clicked; focusing and zooming can be done smoothly via the lens ring or lever around the shutter, and on top of that, you get focus peaking and zebras too. As a bonus, the stabilizer works very well, and is a definite cut above the RX100′s. Video exposure can be fully manual or fully automated, as you please. It even has stereo mics built in, and external sockets for both external mic input and audio monitoring. I think the 1″ sensor size is actually in a sweet spot for video work: big enough to do well in low light and offer decent depth of field control and reasonable dynamic range; but not so big that focusing becomes a challenge. In all honesty, if my partner and I didn’t already have three E-M1s between us, we’d probably be looking at one of these for video work; in fact, we might do so anyway.
The cameras’s feel and haptics are a mixed bag. Some things are great: the grip is a masterpiece of curved comfort and sticky rubber; the dials have the right amount of clickiness and damping to not move accidentally but still be easy to turn; including a backlit top panel status LCD is a refreshing and useful change – but if only you could turn off the back LCD completely and use the EVF only. Design wise, I think it’s minimalist, well-proportioned and attractive; there are hints of Leica S about its left flanks. The lens cap is the first one that I’ve found to be an improvement on the Nikon design; it’s secure and easy to pinch open. Both LCD and EVF are of good resolution and refresh rate, but aren’t bright enough when the sun’s out outdoors. The eyecup isn’t deep enough to shade your view, either. And from here, we start going slowly downhill: there are so many near misses on this camera, it’s frustrating. The buttons are well laid out, but they’re flush flat and lack travel, making them difficult to locate by feel. There are two control dials for exposure, but the one under your thumb is so small, stiff and recessed you can’t easily turn it.
And it goes on: the (far too small) flash pops up in a very cool way like an aeroplane’s air brakes, but unlike an aeroplane’s air brakes, it’s a bit tricky to fold back down – I predict many broken flashes. The right side strap lug digs into your shutter finger; it should be 5mm further towards the back. There’s a dedicated and customizable AE-L button, but it’s too low; it should be where the movie button is (under your thumb) and the movie button should be where the AE-L button is. The shutter button is threaded for a cable release, and has nice springing, but far too much travel to the first intermediate position (AF) and almost none thereafter to full release, accompanied by a stiff break point. That’s a shame, because the leaf shutter on this thing is astoundingly quiet and smooth; it makes a pin drop seem loud and echoey by comparison.
However, the biggest disappointment in my book is the build quality. This simply does not feel like a $1300 camera; the main body itself is fine, and the plastic’s texture does a great job at imitating metal (helped by the weight of the thing, most of which is in the lens). It’s the details that fail: the tilting LCD has a little notch to help you get it out of its recess; except when you pull it by this notch, you also discover that the cover is only secured by two screws at the bottom, and the top is simply snapped into place. Result? It separates from the panel itself. Design fail. Hold the RX10 in your right hand, and you’ll feel comfortable and at home. Until you move it around a bit, then the lens barrel starts clunking (it’s wobbly – try moving it with your hands). Said lens barrel is also plastic, which is fine, except you can also see – and feel – the rough moulding lines in places. And then – again, on a $1300 camera – you don’t get a charger, you have to charge it over USB; which means you either have to spend even more on an external charger, or be limited to one battery. Good thing it lasts a while. But oh, so close, Sony, so close!
I think nobody can question the fact that Sony has a history of both innovation and pushing the technological envelope – from the first walkman to cramming ever larger sensors into smaller bodies (too bad the rules of optics mean that the lenses can never follow). The only problem is that sometimes these designs can be so left field that it’s not only unclear who they’re aimed at, but it also appears that sometimes things were done for the sake of it – not because they needed to be. The F828-series and R1 are cameras in this mould; in many ways, I think the RX10 is, too. It is definitely a much more mature and conventional design than the other two; it is probably meant to appeal to the same user group, too. Except that user group has now moved on to full frame or mirrorless, and has been conditioned by both Sony’s own and other marketing departments that more is always going to be better. In effect, the reason their products don’t succeed is because their marketing people continually shoot themselves in the foot. A good example: I requested an RX1 to review from Sony Malaysia after it was released. More than a year later, nothing. I followed up when the RX1R was announced, to be told, ‘we’re working on it’. Never mind the fact that there are definitely review samples out – all the local magazines already published theirs – or the fact that my monthly readership is several times more than all of the print magazines’ circulation combined.
And that’s the problem with the RX10: sufficiency. It is far more capable in every way than most people will ever need; to be honest, I could get away with using one of these for almost all of my professional work, and even the workshop videos. It will even do things that my other cameras will not – leaf shutter with full flash sync up to 1/1600s at f2.8, anybody? I wouldn’t need to carry 20kg of gear. I wouldn’t need to worry about lenses. I could have a few in case one broke, without breaking the bank. The RX10 is a camera that does many things very well, has some annoying niggles that you can probably overlook in light of the fact that none of them are really major. It is something that really makes you question the ‘more better’ philosophy being perpetuated elsewhere – in effect, an extremely refined Swiss Army Knife. An obsidian scalpel may be better for heart surgery, but let’s face it: how many really actually need that? In fact, I’m seriously considering buying one myself. Ironically, my biggest challenge in justifying it is also sufficiency: if I’m using this, what is all the other gear doing? MT
The Sony RX10 is available here from B&H.
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