My Theatrical Test of the Sony RX10. And what a fun romp it was.

My mistake. I used the clear digital zoom (interpolated pixels) feature on this one 
to get a 400mm equivalent that I could handhold.... 

One shoot. One camera. One Lens. (Not shown here, but still yummy: 24mm equiv. shots 
of the whole stage. And yes, the lines are straight).

By Austin Photographer, Kirk Tuck ©2014

If you've read the blog for a while you know that I shoot a lot of marketing images for the best live Theater in central Texas, Zach Theatre here in Austin. I've been doing it for twenty years now and I'm finally getting proficient at the whole thing. A lot of our shoots are studio productions done weeks or months before a play is ready for an audience. We used to do that kind of assignment with big strobes and Hasselblad film cameras and now we press whatever really good digital camera we happen to have into service. Any of the major brands, with more than 8 megapixels can do a great jobs when you have the camera anchored on a stout tripod, when you are using the best lenses and when you hot glue the ISO dial solidly to 100.

But the other portion of our photo assignments from Zach Theatre are what we call, "running shoots." These are the images that we take at the final dress rehearsals, and since the opening of the new Topfer Theatre (Zach's premier theater and stage) we do those dress rehearsals with an audience of "family and friends" in the house.

In the past I've tended to shoot these with full frame cameras and fast, long lenses but from time to time I've tossed in lots of Four-Thirds, micro 4:3s, and a never ending mix of strange birds like the original Sony R1 (still have some great shots from the Janis Joplin show from that camera...).
When I do a running shoot I try to cover everything so the marketing people have a wide range of images they can use across diverse marketing opportunities. That means I shoot a lot frames. So I get to know the camera I'm shooting with inside and out.

If you've shot live theater before you know that the light levels on the stage change constantly. You know that the light levels can get pretty low.  You know that the color of the light changes all the time (you can thank programmable LEDs for that...). And you know that actors constantly move and that their hands move even faster (1/250th and above can help stop hand blur. Sometimes).  You either want a camera that can read all that complexity or you need a camera that you can make adjustments and changes to almost automatically. A poorly set up camera can be a nightmare. A slow focuser will drive you nuts. And, you'll shoot at ISOs starting at 800 and, if you are lucky, cap at 3200.

In earlier digital days I found the Nikon D700 to be a wonderful theater camera when it came to focus and ease of exposure adjustments. It was great when we worked in tight. The big revolution for me came with the introduction of great EVFs.  Especially the one in the Sony a99. For the first time I could make "real time" adjustments and have a high degree of certainty that the images out of camera would match what I was previewing through the eyepiece. No more shoot-and-chimp.

I've been happy with the a99 and the 70-200mm 2.8 G lens but the entire universe is our lab and our newest infatuation here at VSL is the new baby Sony, the RX10. So, with a bit of trepidation I decided to go totally "bridge-cam" for the dress rehearsal of, "The Room Next Store."  Also known, in the theater circles as, "The Vibrator Play."  According to the camera critics I would be facing insurmountable odds. I'd be gnashing my teeth at the contrast detect auto focus. Especially on moving subjects going in and out of the shadows. The zoom of the lens would be too slow to catch any decisive moments, and the depressing capper to the whole gloomy undertaking would be the sheer nasty-ness of the microscopically small sensor. Even smaller than in the Olympus "world champion" camera. According to some critics I'd be better off using my cellphone....

Well. I'll cut to the happy ending. None of the crazy negative stuff came to pass. And the play is really fun, and funny and filled with clever examinations of sexual politics and hilarious plots twists. Well, just imagine a victorian society circa the invention of electricity and the idea of "curing" female and male "hysteria" with a vibrator.... I messed up a few frames from laughing too hard. I enjoyed it so much I was even able to ignore the woman in front of me who pulled out her cellphone and texted a bit...

Let's talk about camera set up. I have to face some limitations. The RX10 is not going to match the a99 or any full frame camera at ISO' above 800 so I decided to try to stick to ISO 800 and use 1600 as my high limit. Then I go backward and try to figure out what combination of shutter speed and apertures will match up we with that. I aimed for 1/200th of a second as a target shutter speed but I was willing to go all the way down to 1/80th since the image stabilization in this camera is very good. I knew I'd spend most of the evening at the long end of the lens so the extra stability was nice to have.

I was sitting in the middle of a (non-paying) audience (and I'm not a "dirty baby diaper hold" shooter) so I turned off the rear LCD and depended exclusively on the very good EVF. And that's actually a battery saving move as well. You see, there's a proximity sensor at the eyepiece and if you have only the eyepiece implemented whenever you move your eye from the finder it shuts off the monitor. Instant "eco" mode.

I usually shoot in large/finest Jpegs but I though I might need some extra finesse in noise reduction so this time I shot RAW which also freed me up to shoot in automatic white balance, thinking I would do my color corrections in post. I used the movable AF focusing protocol and selected "smallest" for the AF box.

S-AF for the mode. No weird modes like HDR or DRO engaged. But I did enable the Clear Image Zoom. High ISO noise reduction was not set as that menu item is grayed out in raw.

Here's what I found: The camera never failed to lock in quickly and accurately to the subject on the stage that I selected. The focus, unless the subjects were in deep shadow, was as quick as nearly every phase detection autofocus DSLR I've ever used and quicker than several camera from a few generations ago that were four to six times the price of the RX10. Sorry phase detection fans.

Here's the big news....The color the camera kept deciding on in AWB mode was, when I pulled the raw files into Lightroom 5.0, exactly like the color I was seeing on stage. Now remember, I've been fine tuning previous cameras with exact custom settings or exact kelvin settings in order to manage color but no other camera I have ever used for this kind of work ever got me so inside the ballpark before. After a while I just presumed that the files would be close enough to not need tweaking.

At 100% (the land of the pixelphilia) and at 1600 ISO the images have the mushy, painterly kind of appearance we've gotten used to seeing from high resolution, small pixel well cameras, including the Nikon d800 and the Sony a77 and Nex 7. The files at both 800 and 1600 are a little flatter (in contrast) and have softer detail than files at lower apertures. But this is only apparent at 100%. As soon as you pull back to 66% or 50% the entire image on the screen looks good.

There's that pesky digital zoom again. But you know....sometimes you want to get close.

That's as close as I could get with the (handheld) 200mm equivalent. But I sure like the skin 
tones and the detail.

I wanted the image to be a little contrastier so I used a slider setting of 10 in clarity. I went down to sharpening and pushed the amount slider to 70 and at 1.0.  Then I went one menu down and invoked a bit of noise reduction mostly in luminance but ramped up the detail slider a bit. Once done I applied these settings to all 972 files I'd shot. Then I went back through and did little exposure tweaks to groups of images.

While the files are not as good as my a99 they hand 1600 ISO better than the Sony Nex7 or the Sony a77 and I think that's also a big deal out of a camera at this price. But what really impressed me was the lens performance. This will sound heretical but I decided, given the pixel sizes and the sensor size, that the lens was probably diffraction limited wide open. All that means is that the lens is probably computed to be as good as it's going to get wide open. The next two stops might be better but probably not by much. I thought, "what the hell. Let's go wide open." Since I rarely needed more depth of field and I was generally trying to nail focus on the main actor or speaker I didn't have problems with areas going out of focus. On a couple of occasions I dived down to f4 but mostly out of curiosity. Hello sharpness.

The files out of Lightroom were done at their full pixel dimensions of 5472 by 3648. Most of the images will be used on the web or offered to magazines and other printed publications at a "press room" size of around 3000x2000 pixels so they'll be downsampled in half. If you print the images in a tabloid you'll still greatly exceed the print specs for any rational size use.

But wait, there's more. After pounding through 972 images over the course of two and a half hours of shooting via the EVF the first (and only) battery was still showing 23%. WTF???? I thought this camera was supposed to be a monster battery sucker and I thought the battery was supposed to be lame. Not in my experience. In fact, I should have mentioned that I got well over an hour and thirty minutes of "camera on" time when I helped my friend Chris shoot video on Saturday. I know what the specs say but they are based on focusing, shooting and refocusing while using a flash 50% of the time. Your mileage will definitely vary.

So what am I to think of all this? The perfect little video camera combined with a great still camera for theatrical work. Huh? Who would have guessed it? And who would have been crazy enough to test one under these conditions? Well, for that you can pretty much always count on the crazies here at VSL. We love that kind of thing.

My advice to you would be to avoid this camera at all costs. If no one buys it the prices will drop near Summer and our staff will be able to buy bucket loads of them for much lower prices. We'll use them for everything. Hell, what am I saying? I'm already using them for everything. I'll reconsider when I hit something that doesn't work. Don't hold your breath.

in other news: Belinda and I finished working on, The Lisbon Portfolio. The photo/action novel I started back in 2002. I humbly think it is the perfect Summer vacation read. And the perfect, "oh crap, I have to fly across the country" read. It's in a Kindle version right now at Amazon. The Lisbon Portfolio. Action. Adventure. Photography.  See how our hero, Henry White, blows up a Range Rover with a Leica rangefinder.....

Remember, you can download the free Kindle Reader app for just about any table or OS out there....


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your settings ... very useful to those of us trying to improve our skills. I rented this camera to try out and loved almost everything except its weight, but I'm coming from a micro 4/3 setup, not a DSLR. Was especially happy (but depressed that I couldn't blame the camera anymore) to see that you can get such great photos with such a small sensor!

-DebbieM in PA

Racecar said...

These sample images are sharp and contrasty and grain is apparently non-existent. The Carl Zeiss lens coupled with the smallish sensor has acquitted itself rather nicely from what I can see. The question now seems to be, "Do I really need a 'full-sized' sensor?" In many cases I think the answer is probably no. Sensor technology has really improved dramatically in the past 5 years, and the RX10 takes full advantage of this. Can't wait to see the announcement of the "RX20" (only so the cost of the RX10 will come down.)

Tom Conelly said...


Thanks for another interesting discussion of the impressive capabilities of the RX10.

One question: you mention you were shooting in raw and that in some shots you also used a 400mm equivalent by selecting Clear Image Zoom. On my camera I find I have the Clear Image zoom option only in jpeg. The option disappears when my camera is set to raw. Am I missing something?

Thanks, Tom Conelly

rlh1138 said...

You have to stop writing about this camera. For some years now I've been able to be happy with my R1, and by reading your site and 'channeling' your various experiences with various cameras. Didn't need to actually have a Nex, or a A99, or whatever, of my own. But this one, I don't know, it's not working. You keep finding out more great things about it. I really can't spend $1200 right now. No, really I can't. Write about one of your Nex, or a Nikon or something. Then I'll be safe.



Claire said...

Kirk those images are simply *amazinng*. The color accuracy indeed (though I was obviously not at the play)seems mind boggling, so are detail and sharpness. Wow.

Martin Duerr said...

Wow! Always fascinated by reading your blog. I really like your images. The composition is perfect and the RX10 does the job very well. The colors and the detail ... delicious!
Such a difference if you look at all the numerous images in the blogs and the forums and your images. I often need to shoot at shows which nearly the same light conditions ... and now I'm sure to have a closer look at the RX10.



Anonymous said...

Great post, very impressive seeing what you can accomplish with this wonderful camera, some know how and lots of creativity. Keep these great posts coming- you are teaching us all to be better photographers. I am grateful! Mike

Kevin Blackburn said...

Thanks for a great read Kirk, We here have fallen head over hills in love with new mirror-less systems of the Fuji variety and I am amazed and HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY with the quality. I look for every opportunity to work them into my shooting for clients As a matter of fact we are headed out to the Super Bowl this weekend for one of our biggest Aviation clients and the plan is for them to be the front line gear for us.

Side note Im going to be in the Austin Area late Feb will say hey as I pass through

Anonymous said...
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Frank Grygier said...

Huge talent and years of experience trump sensor size every time.

Jim Waite said...

Good Morning Kirk,
My favorite; Theater. Your running thoughts on the process always help me with my work/art.
Several years ago when I wanted to get back to photographing theatrical productions, the field of digital cameras that were adequate for the job was limited. As I recall you were pretty much limited to Nikon and Canon higher end cameras. My first foray into digital cameras for my purpose was less than a success. I’m sure that my digital naivety was a big part of the problem, but my choice of camera did play a part. I’m now using Olympus om-d cameras with what, I feel, are really good results [just got the 12-40mm f2.8, Wow!].
As you have observed, a great number of the current cameras are up to the job. I have even seen camera phones and I-pads that produce nicely exposed pictures. What I haven’t seen in those phone and pad pictures is composition and capture of expression, energy, focus [not camera], focus [subject], etc. I’ve poked around the web quite a bit over the last few years looking for photos in this area. I’ve found a very wide spectrum of pictures. Most of the pictures on Community Theater and High School sites put up everything that came out of Mom & Dad’s entry level camera. Why do they post hundreds of badly focused, bad exposure, backs of heads, Bad Captures?
At the other end, there are sites of really wonderful art capture by people like Ken Jacques, Mark Turek, Kirk Tuck, Michal Daniel and a few others. These guys and some of the older guys like Nobby Clark and Max Waldman, have helped me get a better feel for composition and energy in a good capture.
It’s a process. I feel better and better all the time about my results. Please, I hope that you will continue to share your thoughts on this unique field of photography. I’m not where I want to be yet.
Jim Waite

Robert Roaldi said...

Can the EVF keep up with panning shots at sports events, like a bicycle race?

Doug said...

Kirk: Thanks and the RX-10 's performance looks great. What'd you think of the Clear Digital Zoom? I need a longer lens and 400mm at 2.8 sound great if it's any good. I normally print up to 13x19 and occasionally larger.

Richard Ryan said...

Nice review/commentary. I am however confused by your use of Clear Image Zoom (CIZ) while shooting RAW. That does not seem possible since CIZ seems to be only supported for JPEG only (not even RAW+JPEG)- did you switch to JPEG for those shots? Or am I missing something?

Carlo Santin said...

Great set of photos, they look terrific. While the new Fuji is gorgeous, this camera is looking like perhaps it should be my next camera...and only camera for a while. $1300 and no need to fret over lenses. Hmmm...

theaterculture said...

I'm of two minds on these.

On the one hand, while I'm far from an "omg I can haz bokeh" full-frame warrior, a little less depth of focus would smooth out some of the background textures and make for more marketing-friendly images.

On the other hand, the riot of textures that makes some of the photos visually irritating is clearly a design choice, and the images convey it well.

Don't think I actually have a point there... just a question of whether the goal is to make nice buttery marketing shots or to document the work of theatrical art. But I will say that for an audience member this production will probably seem VERY different based on where in the house you're sitting. That design will frame the performances very differently from the 3rd row as compared to from the 30th, which is always the case but will be really exaggerated here.

Kirk Tuck said...

A few thoughts and corrections: First off, some have asked about Clear Image Zoom (digital zoom) and raw files. No, they don't work together and I did switch to jpeg format to use the CIZ. Sorry I didn't make that clear in the text.

Secondly, some have suggested that not having a more shallow depth of field is in some way a marketing impediment with images like these. I could not disagree more. I think plays like this one are all about context and that the additional depth of field lends itself to establishing that context.

Next on: If you make big, well done prints you will not want to make them with anyone's digital zoom images. While I'm sure it can be done I think you'll see a diminution of quality over native focal length files because of "on the fly" interpolation. Stick with 200mm and shorter for the exhibition prints. That being said I am of the opinion that the sensor in this camera, when shot at the Native ISO of 125, is as good as anything in the m4:3 or even current APS-C realm for big blow ups.

Finally, I haven't shot any fast moving sports with this camera so I don't have a clue about whether or not the finder will refresh quickly enough to be usable. Ben's last high school track season is here so we'll have a few chances to find out when he runs the two miler...

Kirk Tuck said...

They're, there, their.

There, there.

My English major brain knows the differences forward and backward but some how can't get my typing fingers well trained. They're apt to do there own thing over their on the keyboard....

Fingernails on the chalk boards to some... (and to Mike Johnston these endless ellipses are equally disturbing).

You're/Your/UR blogger is not well trained....

Kirk Tuck said...

Should read: "There apt to do they're now thing over their on the keyboard...."


Craig Soars said...

Kirk, great post and fantastic results. I previously shot local music on a smaller scale with 'early' digital and pushed B&W film, and like you, I'm amazed at the recent improvements in sensor technology and the impact on smaller formats. But like you, I lament the loss of certain 'looks' that only large formats and longer lenses can bring, at least in terms of digital options.

I remember shooting the NEX-7 and being quite amazed with the tonality and resolution (at lower ISOs), which was comparable to my medium format C41 scans.

If you like the Sony colours and UI, I can see cameras like the RX10 taking off as competent production tools in a variety of roles - where flexibility and results matter.

Thanks again for writing such a varied and interesting blog!

Anonymous said...

I thought the play was called "In The Next Room" (not "The Room Next Store"). Beautiful photos, and great blog post!

Rufus said...

Well maybe I am rowing against the current here, but I think these RX10 images show the weakness of the format.

They really are not a patch on the A99 stuff. To these eyes, they look flat and "snap shot" like.

Given that the shooter is in the warm confines of the theatre, I don't see the advantage of a small and light camera. It is hardly an endurance event, so the heavier rig is not going to be a problem, surely ? So why use the little cam when you will have to deal with compromises in terms of ISO and the ability to crop ?

No doubt the video is much better. I buy that. But I'm not so sure for stills. Print these into billboard size and I think the difference with the A99 would be apparent.

Adrian said...


I read your thoughts on the RX10 for theatre work with interest since I sometimes shoot indoor events on stage.

Having read your comments I was thinking about the camera, when something struck me.

I know you have a Sony A900 full frame sir that you use for low ISO studio work, since you comment the high ISO performance is not so great.

I have a Sony A850 - same sensor - and find I can shoot up to ISO 1600 and still get decent results when working from raw files. I know you often shoot jpeg only.

I am left confused - you don't like to use a 4 year old full frame slr at higher iso that DX0Mark rates at about ISO 1400 - yet you are telling us the virtues of a 1" sensor camera when shooting ISO 1600?

I appreciate they are very different cameras, and the jpeg engine in the A900/850 is terrible, but why is the A900 high ISO performance unacceptable, whereas that from the RX10 is?

I am not trying to argue with you - I just can't quite get my head around the logic that the one is ok and the other is not?

Michael Brosilow said...

Nice job. I'm a production photographer based in Chicago. (brosilow.com) Though I don't think the RX10 would replace my D800's it certainly does a serviceable job.
I always shoot raw though because there is always something to be pulled out of the shadows & added to the highlights.
I forwarded this to some friends that work at Sony & they in turn sent it to their camera team.