Review: The Sony RX10

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Bathroom gamma

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.

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Negative positive negative positive

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.

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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.

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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.

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There really is nothing to give away the fact that this was shot at ISO 3200. Not even dynamic range.

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!

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An inexplicable scene.

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.

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Everything is relative, including time. Note bokeh – 100mm equivalent, f2.8, approx. 2ft subject distance.

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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Comments

  1. Hi Ming,
    i am an old owner of the “glorius” Sony R1;
    in these years, i have used it a lot, for familiy, landscapes and travels pics with overall good satistfaction;
    i always wished an optical stabilizer on the R1 zeiss lens, that i consider very good about quality/sharpness/colour rendition;
    so prior to upgrade to the RX10, my question are (even to others):

    - can you tell me if the zeiss lens on the new RX10 is equally good compared to the zeiss lens on the old R1 ?

    - how good is the optical lens stabilizer in this new RX10 (how many “stops” can you achieve i mean) ?
    is it really a valid/added value or is it not so good/usable in practice ?

    thanks in advance..
    Steve.

    • I used the R1 so long ago that I can’t remember, to be honest. The stabiliser is good for perhaps 2 stops. It is not as good as the E-M1/ E-M5 stabilisers, but comparable to most DSLR lens-based optical systems.

  2. Louis Lawrence says:

    Picked up my RX10 last week and used it for a wedding on Saturday (together with my Canons) – all I can say is YES!! The first test it had to pass was the environmental sealing. Got caught in the rain no probs (I dont think my 50D + 15-85 would have made it) – Louis

  3. Hi Ming.
    I do enjoy your reviews but feel that you may have been over-picky about the build quality of this camera. Am holding one in my hands now and can find no moulding lines on the lens and the LCD screen seems securely fastened to its surround. Perhaps your example is a bit of a dog…? Mine seems to built like a tank except for a slight wobble on a fully extended lens.
    I’m really enjoying using it and I understand and sympathise with your last thought about what to do with the rest of my gear.
    The answer probably is……sell it!
    Thanks for the thought-provoking reviews and articles!

    • I’m reporting it as I see it. The LCD bezel has definitely separated on more than one occasion and there is a moulding line. QC would appear to be variable. No reason to sell it, I didn’t buy this camera. It was a review unit from B&H (Sony Malaysia don’t seem to be interested in people who aren’t blind product evangelists).

  4. Hello Ming,

    I read you commentary about the Sony RX10. I am researching digital cameras to determine an intelligent purchase. I was hoping your commentary would provide me with the insight to simply purchase this camera and feel relieved. Yes, I’m lost in a jungle, while blindfolded, trying to find the perfect leaf. Some ‘sales’ type human beings suggest the RX10 is a good decision if I don’t want to buy and have many lenses. This part makes sense. For $1300 dollars, I don’t want a cheap but overpriced plastic toy. This is in reference to you comments about the build quality of the RX10. I also have discovered I will only speak to people who have been around photography and equipment for many years. Too many young people simply enjoy pushing buttons and have no idea what quality is. Their knowledge is simply reciting manufacturing specifications and marketing. These same people would use a fine micrometer as a wood clamp. You know where I am and there are simply too many widgets, cameras, lenses, reviewers that are nothing more than marketing agents. Then the element of subjectivity; I like red, he likes blue. I like pictures of birds only, he only likes portraits of women wearing lots of makeup, she likes photos of white horses only and on and on and on. The engineering types; are things made to within 1/10,000 ths. of an inch, while others are completely satisfied is something has a lifespan of 72 hours. It’s all insane and that’s where we are on planet Earth and have been for a number of centuries. This, we, need to evolve. Your personal suggestions, advice, criticisms are welcome. Thank You Ming.

    • The perfect leaf doesn’t exist. Find a leaf that works for you, and then abandon all review sites etc. and just go take photos. You’ll be a lot happier that way. I can’t say if the RX10′s build will be sufficient for you, but it was a bit borderline for me. Then again I’m the 1/10000ths type of person…

  5. Richard Paul says:

    I own this camera. The body is not plastic imitating metal. It’s magnesium. I’ve seen an exploded version of the camera. It’s mostly made of metal. Yes, the lens wobbles a bit. But there is no molding line on the barrel. The inside barrel is high quality plastic. The outer barrel is magnesium.

    The various features all work well especially focus peaking.

    What makes this camera great is the quality of the photos, but more importantly, the videos. It kills a friend’s expensive Canon DSLR in the video department. I see no annoying rolling shutter artifacts when using the RX10.

    I also own an RX1R which is a superb camera. Both have their advantages over the other.

    • Magnesium can also be injection moulded. But in this case, that seam line is definitely plastic. A little exploratory scratching didn’t remove paint, it removed plastic shavings.

      The inside barrel is pretty ordinary plastic and wobbles.

      You’re paying for the feature set, but not the build quality. I agree that image and video quality are impressive, build quality is not.

      • Richard Paul says:

        I have to totally disagree about the build quality. The case is all magnesium. It’s not injected molded plastic. My lens barrel has no visible seam. Yes, it does wobble slightly. But that seems to be normal. The knobs are all metal. The screens covering the stereo microphones look precision made. Everyone who’s looked at my camera has commented it’s superbly made.

        I own several cameras including two Leicas. The RX10 is a solidly made camera. I see no cutting of corners. Your review is the only one citing cheap build quality.

        • I certainly don’t think Leicas are the pinnacle of build quality either – recalls for detaching strap lugs? Base plates cracking? Hmmm.

          So long as you’re happy with it, that’s the most important thing.

          • Richard Paul says:

            Well, if Leica’s aren’t the finest built cameras, I’m wasting my time arguing. The lugs were fixed. I’ve never heard of a base plate cracking. I own an M9, a Monochrom, an X Vario and a Digilux 3. They are all superbly crafted. Far better than the cheap plastic build of my Nikon D600 which ended up needing the shutter replaced because it tossed crud onto the image sensor.

            • Do a little search and you’ll see I wasn’t the only one with a cracked baseplate. They tend to give way at the little notch end when you put the camera vertically on a tripod because that small piece of metal is insufficient to support the weight.

              The D600 is not any better than the RX10.

              • Richard Paul says:

                I can only go by my own plus two friends who own Ms. None of us ever had the base plate crack. I checked with the Leica rep in my area. He never heard of it as far as being an issue.

                Leica makes the best built cameras and some of the finest lenses. There’s a reason they cost so much.

                I just ordered a new M 240. I’m in the process of selling my M9 which is in mint condition. I had no idea a used M9 was worth as much as I’m being offered for it.

                • They cost that much because of marketing and German labor rates. Nobody else could sell a camera with a 2.5″ low-resolution LCD and focusing system that’s almost always misaligned for that much. I’ve seen several M9s and S2s with cracked sensors because the frames weren’t properly aligned. Do you really think your Leica rep would acknowledge a problem that would possibly cost him a sale, or affect reputation?

                  I’ve seen enough, owned enough and suffered enough to know it’s a waste of my time. I’ve had lenses with detaching elements and coatings – an 0.95 noct and 21/1.4; mechanical failures of aperture blades and clear optical decentering. I’m not here to convince you of anything or change your mind. But hey, buy whatever makes you happy.

                  • Richard Paul says:

                    It’s obvious you have an anti-Leica agenda going.

                    I’ve owned Leica gear going back to film days. I owned two M film cameras plus a Leicaflex. I currently own seven M lenses. I have never suffered any problems with cameras or lenses. My friends who own Leica gear have never complained.

                    I just sold my pristine M9 for $5,000! Now I’m about to buy a new M 240.

                    But back to the Sony. It’s not cheaply made. That’s utterly laughable. It happens to be one of the best built cameras I own. Go on the web and read the reviews. They cite the superb build quality.

                    • No, I just report what I see and experience. If you’ve actually read any of my Leica reviews you’ll see they’re generally quite positive. But given the very high failure rate of the gear compared to everything else I’ve used, I just can’t recommend it. Good for you if it works for you, enjoy your cameras and perhaps find another site that agrees with your opinions. You don’t have to argue with me if you disagree…

              • Richard Paul says:

                The D600 is a lot cheaper made than the RX10. It’s mostly plastic.

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