Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

The Sony A7 series marked a turning point for photographic gear, but it also overshadowed another new Sony offering every bit as unique as its full-frame companions. The RX10 was designed to bring powerhouse features into a practical and versatile package. For that reason, it holds vast appeal for many different types of shooters.

What Is It?

A $1300 fixed-lens, long-range zoom camera. Yeah, that's a ton of money for what's essentially a super-zoom; those usually max out at around $500. But the RX10 is a whole other animal. It's got a 20.2 megapixel, 1-inch sensor, the same one as in the terrific RX100. It has a bodacious optically stabilized Zeiss 24-200mm (full-frame equivalent) f/2.8 lens, and a host of other features that make this a power user's camera masquerading as child's play. It's also a video shooter's dream, so much so that it even rivals some high-end DSLRs for usability and quality.

Why Does It Matter?

People buy DSLRs for great image quality; they buy super-zooms to get close to the action. But a DSLR with a high-quality telephoto zoom lens is insanely cumbersome, not to mention expensive. The RX10 is the first camera to feature such a versatile lens affixed to a highly capable body. It also provides the best aspects of DSLR video without the fuss of changing lenses. That's huge.

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

Design

The RX10 is about the size of a Canon Rebel T4i. It's got an attractive magnesium alloy body with a giant Zeiss lens affixed to the front. This all makes for a bulky camera, but when you consider how insane the lens actually is—a hulking 24-200mm f/2.8 with image stabilization—it seems pretty darn compact. In fact, the RX10's lens is a marvelous feat of engineering. It's got a focus and aperture ring on the front, while the body features physical controls for exposure compensation, shutter speed, as well as two custom function buttons and a rotating selection wheel.

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

Atop is a 1.14 million dot OLED viewfinder above a tilting 3" LCD. On the front of the body is a focus-mode switch. I think every camera should have a switch like this, letting the user quickly change from manual focus to auto. Unfortunately the design of Sony's switch is a disaster. The round clicking dial is nearly impossible to flip with one finger, and so small that it's even a struggle with two. Aside from that one switch, the RX10 is soundly designed and comfortable to hold.

Using It

Shooting with the RX10 is not unlike shooting with any mid-range mirrorless camera. It's easy to manually control, and decently responsive.

If you're coming from the world of high-end cameras, the biggest difference is the power-zoom lens, controlled either by a ring on the lens barrel or a lever in front of the shutter button. Using the zoom ring takes toe-tapping five or six seconds to go from 24mm to 200mm, while the lever takes about three. This never hindered my shooting, it just feels different than the quick snaps of mechanically controlled zoom lenses. One cool advantage here is that you can set the camera to automatically zoom to common focal lengths—35, 50, 70, 100, 135, 200.

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

What I love about using the RX10 is that even though it's not necessarily meant for pro photographers, Sony didn't dumb down the feature set. It doesn't omit useful controls for the sake of making looking idiot-proof. The menus, for example, are direct and thorough, like you would find on a DSLR. Almost every button is customizable. It even has a wonderful little LCD display on the top displaying exposure info, battery life, and card space. That's big-kid usability!

The photos coming out of the camera are of similar quality to the smaller RX100 II. They are superior to almost any other compact or super-zoom camera you will come by, and just under the quality of a larger-sensor DSLR. You will absolutely notice the difference coming from a phone or lesser compact. At the same time, most non-enthusiasts probably wouldn't notice the jump from the RX10 to a DSLR.

Autofocus is sufficiently fast for most uses. It's not going to match a DSLR when tracking moving subjects, but it will still perform better than other fixed-lens cameras.

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Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

200mm equivalent - f/6.3, 1/200, ISO 160


Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

f/7.1, 1/320, ISO 160

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

f/9.0, 1/160, ISO 200

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 100

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

100% crop - f/2.8, 1/80, ISO 100

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

f/2.8, 1/20, ISO 1600

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

100% crop - f.2.8, ISO 1600/3200/6400

The real strength of the RX10 is in its glass. It's definitely the first fixed-lens camera to have such a long zoom lens with an f/2.8 constant aperture. You get the benefits of an amazingly wide 24mm (full-frame equivalent), all the way up to 200mm, which is perfect for shooting nature and sports and, you know, other far away things. If you're worried about shaky photos, don't be; the lens has two types of stabilization. Regular optical Steadishot works great, or you can enable Active Steadishot, which does a bit of digital sorcery, but cropping in on the image slightly. In our tests there wasn't much of a difference, so you're probably better off sticking with normal Steadishot. The last, and often overlooked, bonus of the lens is the amazing close-focus distance at around one inch at the wide end and about one foot at the long end.

The other strength of the RX10, besides the great lens and sensor combo, is its video capability. As a videographer, there are not many still cameras I have considered purchasing purely to use for video. The RX10 is an exception. Video is more than an after-thought here, and it shows in the sharp footage that exceeds almost any DSLR or mirrorless camera to date. I'm serious.

The secret isn't just in the great optics, it's in the way the sensor works. Because the resolution of still camera sensors are much greater than the resolution of HD video, most still cameras gather video images by only sampling parts of the sensor. This is called line-skipping, and it causes jagged edges and rainbow moire patterns. The RX10, on the other hand, samples the entire sensor's raw data, then downscales to HD resolution using the powerful Bionz X processor. It works great. We found the RX10's video detail to be almost at the level of the Canon 5D Mark III, the camera most pro DSLR shooters spring for. You won't get the creamy ultra-shallow depth-of-field, or quite the same low-light performance as the 5D Mark III, but the difference isn't major.

Further heightening the video experience of the RX10 are features like a built-in ND filter. which lets you shoot in daylight at larger apertures for maintaining shallow depth-of-field, headphone and mic inputs, a clickless aperture ring for smooth exposure adjustment, focus-peaking, and pretty solid continuous autofocus. All of this makes the RX10 a dream for anything from videojournalism to home videos.

Sony has included other standard crowd-pleasers like Wi-Fi and a pop-up flash. And I must emphasize this next point because it is a nagging item for photographers everywhere: the RX10 has the best-designed lens cap I have ever used. The grips are huge, the grasp is tight. It's a dream.

Still, the camera is not without its drawbacks. The tilting display is fine, but it would have been great if it rotated outward for setting up a wider range of video shots. As good as the video quality is, the annoying AVCHD codec could be replaced with something better. It's a dated codec that tends to garble under-exposed details.

Sony RX10 Review: A First-Rate Camera With a Do-It-All Lens

Likes

This camera is absolutely unique in providing versatility in an all-in-one package. No fussing with lens changes to go from wide to telephoto. Controls and handling are great for the most part. Video quality is outstanding and, combined with the usability and video-centric features like an ND filter and clickless aperture, makes for an unbelievable video package.

No Like

It's very expensive. There's also one minor control quirk, the funky focus mode switch. Video shooting could benefit from a flip-out, rotating display and a better codec. The lens is amazing but the compact RX100 is faster at the wide end at f/1.8.

Should You Buy It?

The RX10 is very nearly perfect as an all-in-one video/photo machine, as long as you don't mind sacrificing pocketability, and don't need the professional image quality of a DSLR (very few do). This is the camera to replace the hundreds of Canon Rebels I see on the street with kit lenses attached. Most of those users will never ever purchase another lens, defeating most of the point of a DSLR. The RX10 has a terrific lens with insane range. It's also ideal for video journalists and small-scale documentary shooters who want the least amount of hassle when capturing great video footage.

It's expensive, yes, at $1300. But think of it this way: combine a cheap DSLR like the Canon SL1 with a high-quality 24-70mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom, plus a high-quality stabilized 70-200mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom, and you are talking well over $2000. Add in the video features and compact size of the RX10, and all of a sudden $1300 doesn't seem so bad.

Or you could go with the much smaller RX100 II for half the price ($750). The image quality is the same, but it lack the zoom range and the first-rate video. In the end I think the RX100 suits photographers who want a second carry-around option, while the RX10 is for those looking for one camera that can do it all.