After a stressful weekend I finally got time on Tues. evening to take a walk through downtown Austin with my Sony RX 10 and put it through its paces on a bright, sunshiny day. The camera exceeds my expectations in a number of ways. Quick reviewers complained about the speed with which the zoom operates. I find it to be just right in that you can make extremely fine adjustments without the zoom mechanism overshooting. A slow and steady turn on the zoom ring gets you from 24-200mm in just 2.5 seconds and unless you are doing zoom whips (shades of 1960's comedy movies) the pace seem appropriate.
The real story with the RX10 is about image quality and the combination of features which makes it such a good "hybrid" camera. Hybrid seems to be the predominantly used term for video and still capabilities in the same box. And the RX10 is a low cost exemplar of that conjunction. Why do I call a $1300 camera "low cost"? Because it is. The closest competitor to the RX10 is either the Panasonic GH3 or the Olympus EM-1. But each of these cameras is roughly the same price as an RX10 without a lens!!! When you buy an RX10 you are also getting a hell of a lens included in the total price of the package. To get the same reach and the same speed with the Panasonic or the Oly you'll need to add the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 and the 35-100mm f2.8 which triples the price.
While the sensor is smaller in the Sony it's not that much smaller and unless you are shooting everything with very limited depth of field it hardly matters. Based on the stuff I've shot with the Sony so far, in decent light, I'd call it a pretty even playing field. Turn the lights down a bit and the bigger sensor may have some advantages but.....we might be talking low single digit percentages.
I always smile when people come out against smaller sensors. Many act as though there's some sort of dividing line of square millimeters that signifies a barrier between cameras that can be used professionally and cameras that can't. I thought about this yesterday as I was having coffee with a very good friend. I mentioned that the fourth book I produced for Amherst Media called, Photographic Lighting Equipment, was primarily shot with a Canon G10 point and shoot camera.
I never mentioned it to the publisher because of the stigma that small sensor cameras seem to have but we've subsequently sold thousands and thousands of copies of that book and no one has ever complained about the technical quality of the images in it. The images I used the G10 for were all the illustrations of the gear. Not the sample images.
That camera used a small, dense sensor with 14 million pixels. If you tried to shoot it at higher ISOs it didn't look great but if you worked on a tripod, exposed well with 80 ISO set on the dial and paid attention the camera worked great. And for still life images the live view and deeper depth of field were both convenient and positive.
So, Tues. I walked through the city and snapped away at whatever I wanted. I wasn't doing great art. In fact most of the images will get tossed and not archived for anything. It was a therapeutic walk as much as it was a "break-in" session with the Sony. I could tell by looking at the monitor that the camera was doing what I expected it to. It locked onto subjects quickly. The exposures were all very good. I'd chosen "A" mode and vacillated between wide open and f4 for nearly everything. I dropped to f5.6 when I wanted deep focus. I was satisfied with the ergonomic side of the camera but I generally wait on judging overall image quality until I can toss the images up on the monitor and really peek at the the fine details and the edges of the frames. I noticed one thing that bothered me a bit. At 100% I could see a few sharpening artifacts. I went back to the camera and looked through the settings. I had increased the sharpness in the Standard profile by +1 based on someone's observation that the camera files in their test had been a bit soft. Now I see that it's not so. At "0" the sharpness is very well done in Jpeg. +1 is too much. I can only think that the person who suggested the sharpness needed to see his oculist.
One area of performance for the Sony RX10 that I haven't seen mentioned much is the performance of the image stabilization. The camera has two levels of image stabilization. Normal and Active. In "normal" you get routine lens based image stabilization and you can see the effect in the finder. When you bump the control to "active" you combine the physical I.S. with computed I.S. and while you lose a bit of image area around the edges you gain a level of I.S. that is almost on par with the legendary I.S. of the newer Olympus OMD cameras. When you couple that with a sharp (wide open) 200mm equivalent lens you have a really powerful imaging tool. One that preserves sharpness well.
I've learned the menu and I'm re-mapping my brain to more quickly discern which function buttons control what. There are enough external controls to make typical operation of the camera straightforward though I've come 180 degrees and wish it had a touch screen on the back like the Panasonic cameras I use...
And I guess that brings us to video. While the zooming of the lens slows down in video mode the focus doesn't. I'm pretty good about setting a focal length and sticking with it through a short sequence and the slower zoom is less obvious that a faster one but it would be best if the camera offered a variable speed zoom. One sad aspect of not having a touch screen is not having the ability to do "focus pull" by just touching a different area on the LCD screen. We never had that before the Panasonic GH3 cameras so I can live with it.
Here's the interesting part for me. At high quality codec settings the Panasonic GH3 makes wonderful video. It's better than the Sony in most ways. When you bring down the throughput to something more manageable in editing the Sony catches up. And then, at a certain point you can compare apples and apples. Either camera is a step up from the previous generation of even much more expensive DSLRs when it comes to nearly every parameter of image quality. While a D4 gives you lower noise in a file that's just about all it gives you. It's important to remember that no matter how many pixels you have in your D800 or Sony A7r they are all still being down sampled to 1000 x 2000 pixels. That's why they call it "2K."
But the full time live view in the Panasonics and the RX10 provides much better image control and autofocus. And here's where the RX10 races ahead of the bigger DSLRs and even the Panasonic, it's got the things that make making video easier. The ability to set zebras at various levels is even better than having a live histogram because you can program the point at which the zebras manifest. The focus peaking is great and works well in video mode (hello Panasonic GH3...). That makes focusing on the fly quicker and better than all the rest (shared by the Panasonic G6). When you combine all those attributes with manual audio controls and a headphone jack and then overlay very impressive image quality I think you have a package whose feature set brings much greater value to the table than most other current cameras out in the market.
It's not possessed of the highest res but at 20 megapixels it's more than most of us will ever need. It's not the quietest camera at high ISOs but is certainly professionally usable to 800 or 1600 ISO (depending on lighting conditions). It's not the smallest camera on the market, but I rarely try to put my Sony a850 in a trouser pocket either. For what they've combined inside the size is perfect.
So, who is this camera targeted at? How about a whole new generation of image makers who demand both high quality stills and pro level video in one package. How about any photographer who needs to travel light but still have a great lens range, with great speed in one small package? How about videographers who need high performance and great zoom range along with the features they are used to getting on dedicated video cameras (sorry, no S-Log)? If you understand that camera size is becoming less and less important and that small sensors can be made to be high performance imaging "film" then the camera shouldn't come as much of surprise.
The biggest feature to my way of thinking? The absurdly low price for the bundle of capabilities.
I need to spend a lot more time with this camera in order to really get to know it but what I'm seeing right now is pretty cool. A week or so ago I posited the question about whether or not a person could functionally run a medium to high end imaging business with this camera. I'm not ready to issue an unequivocal statement on that just yet but it is the only camera I'm taking out on assignment this afternoon to do an interior group shot around a conference room table in a downtown office building. The depth of field will certainly come in handy!
I have three or four pocket knives that people have given me over the years. Most knife enthusiasts tease about it but the one I keep in my pocket is the Swiss Army knife. I probably couldn't do much combat with it but it does everything pretty well and when we need to open bottles of wine on remote locations the "knife experts" come to me for that service. I like having the well made scissors in the SAK as well. The Sony RX10 is an imaging Swiss Army Knife done really, really well.