Shooting a commercial video project with the Sony RX10 mk3. Pluses and minuses. Stuff that works and stuff the messes you up...

Configured for handheld shooting with ambient sound. Not for interviews.

I'm always disheartened when I read instantaneous reviews of a camera. Most are regurgitations of what's on the data sheet coupled with whatever negative performance rumor is circulating around the web. Why do I bother to read the fast breaking reviews? Sometimes they'll point to a tragic fault in a camera that makes it an absolute deal killer and that can be helpful. But for the most part it's just a lot of hot air, translated into web crap. 

I like to test cameras the hard way before I go to the keyboard and share my findings. Case in point is the Sony RX10 mk. 3. I bought the camera at the full retail price back on May 4th. From Precision Camera in Austin, Texas. That's about 23 days ago. I was prompted to buy it by my really good experiences using the RX10 mks 1&2. Knowing those previous cameras in the family, forward and backward, I was able to hit the ground with a good amount of familiarity. The second reason for the purchase back then was the imminent start of a video project that's gobbled up lots of days and hours in the interim. I thought that this camera, used in conjunction with a few other Sony cameras, would make a great production camera for a two person video project that mostly takes place during bad weather, and on the run. While the camera could be operationally a bit better I must say at the outset of this post that there are no flies on the 4K files that one can squeeze from this wonderful machine. It's a stellar imager.

Many, many people horribly misunderstand the market for this camera. I hear all the zany reasons why no one in their right mind should own one. The primary objection is the size of the camera and the next most popular mindless rant is about the price. I am stunned that people are completely fixated on size rather than on the important parameters that a tool like this one is created to serve. When did the litmus test of a camera's acceptability become its ability to be shoved in the front pocket of a pair of pants? Amazingly stupid. It makes more sense to say that this camera is not one that will suit your needs but the size of a working, production camera is a silly point on which to judge. Not every camera made is intended to fall into the category of the mindless point and shoot.

As far as price goes I think I can make a very convincing argument that, based on the features and performance in the package, this camera is one of the very best values on the entire camera market. Not cheap, just a very good value. Why? Because in one package you are getting a state of the art lens with a reach out to the equivalent of 600mm. In addition to a lens that, on any video or interchangeable lens camera, would cost more than the total of this camera and lens, you are getting really remarkable 4K video performance from one of the top makers of no bullshit, full on professional, world class, video cameras. The same company that made BetaCam SPs the go-to video production cameras of the 1980s and 1990s. The same company that makes cameras that make Academy Award winning movies (the F65) and many more great, highly professional, industrial video cameras. They've put more movie making capability in this $1495 camera than any of their competitors and it shows. 

But there's more. Even if you never push the red button and take advantage of the killer video potential of this camera you would be using a camera with a wonderful imaging sensor, coupled with a killer lens for still imaging. One with both great range and superb image quality. Put it all together and you've got a camera that film makers and videographers, as well as still photographers, would have given a lot more money for just a few years back, if one had even existed!!!

So, back to reviewing the camera. While some reviewers might take the camera on a hike for weekend and shoot various landscape shots in good lighting, I think you must really immerse yourself in a camera to fairly understand its attributes and its foibles. Using a camera for a couple of hours on a weekend is not the same thing as using a camera for multiple working days; with real clients, real working situations, real deadlines, and a multitude of things you cannot control. Like weather. Light levels. It takes time and interactive investigations to discern the optimum apertures or the prime working ranges of the image stabilization. Even responses to ISO are varied in all cameras when one considers subject matter, light levels and accuracy of exposure. These things are all learned by pushing the envelope and then breaking the envelope to see where the edges of performance meet the boundaries of failure. There just isn't a meaningful shortcut. 

Several reviewers who wrote "reviews" just days after the cameras became available were whining about handling. How could they have possibly come to grips with the haptics of a new hand tool in just 24 to 48 hours? Muscle memory and menu memory take time to integrate into the human mind. 

But enough about the mercenary shortcomings of the hordes of web denizens who are mostly interested in the click thru marketing money of camera review content. Let's talk about the camera in actual use... 

I have now shot over seven hours of video with the camera; most of it in 4K (UHD). I have experimented with every picture profile on the camera menu for video. I have preferences but I am fascinated (as are most neophytes like me) by S-Log 2. Most cameras make you feel your way through shooting with this super-flat profile but the RX10-3 is so nuanced for video users that it even has a setting in the menu called "gamma display assist" which shows a normalized representation of the scene you are shooting so you can at least be in the ballpark as you experiment with Log files. This is something usually only found on $10,000 and up, professional video cameras. It actually works. 

There are now a number of cameras that record 4K video (some better, some worse) but how many consumer priced cameras also allow you to record two different file sizes simultaneously. You can effectively generate an in-camera proxy file concurrent with your higher mbs 4K file. This is amazing. Since the camera records run rec and free run time code to both files you can do all your roughs in an easy to edit file size and then go back and, using the time coded log you will have created, quickly piece together your final cut program from your high res footage. Not available on any other brand of hybrid camera of this type. Pretty cool, huh?

I hear from many sources that the microphone inputs on this range of cameras are "noisy" and that they are not of the quality level found on "high end" cameras or standalone digital audio recorders. Could it be that there are some mismatches here instead of just presumptively dissing the camera's pre-amps? This became evident to me in an interesting way recently. I was using a Rode NTG-2 microphone directly into the camera and did, indeed, find it to be noisy.  The mic's output is low and I had to apply too much gain. But that mic set up for a balanced input and not the kind of input a stereo mini-jack is looking for. I presumed that the noise was the fault of the camera until I plugged a Rode Reporter mic (a dynamic mic) through a passive mixer that does correct for impedance mismatch and supplies a stronger signal to the camera inputs, and the results were night and day. The camera was relatively noise free. Then I used the Rode NTG-2 with the camera but put a Tascam audio recorder into the signal path. That mic requires some amplification! But when running from the Tascam into the camera I got the same results as with the Rode Reporter mic; it was nearly noise free. The lesson is that people need to experiment with various interfaces between mic and cameras before they pronounce one product good and one bad.

While we're still in the realm of video I have to mention one of my favorite features of the camera which is something I was first introduced to on the ancient Canon XL-1 Hi-8 video camera: slow shutter speeds in video. On the Sony it's called, Auto Slow Shutter. You can set lower shutter speeds than the usual video shutter speeds in order to suck in more light AND get special video motion blur effects. I used it last night to record lightning and it was perfect. You can use it to get motion blur with your video subjects. What we used to call "under-cranking" in the days of film based cinema. 
It can be a wonderful effect. It's the opposite of setting too high a shutter speed with the attendant sharp-but-jerky motion. It's smooth and downright sybaritic. 

Then there is the ability to control whether the audio you hear in your headphones is live or lip sync (matching the delay of the recording). Nice. Very nice. Almost as nice as the luxury of setting zebras over a wide range to cue you to possible overexposure. 

People bitch about the focus and zoom by wire in the camera but you do know that you can customize the settings and ask the camera to zoom fast, medium or slow. You can ask the camera to track focus in fast, medium and slow speeds as well. You can set the aggressiveness of focusing acquisition too. But a wonderful thing for an old Nikon user is that you can change the direction of the focusing and zoom rings; heck, you can even switch the zoom and focus ring duties with each other... The ability to fine tune the operational characteristics of the camera has not be written about much by any of the reviewers who are quick to bitch about AF but slow to realize the sheer amount of customization at their fingertips.....if only they read the very complete, online manual...

As a live theater photographer it should go without saying that I appreciate the ability to use a totally silent shutter with little or no degradation of image quality (depending on shutter speed range). Take that! DSLRs.

With all this stuff at my fingertips I started a video project about two weeks ago. I've used the camera for interviews in four different cities and in rural and mid-city locations. In each engagement I've learned more things that the camera does well and I do poorly --- but that's the way human learning usually works. As long as my mistakes don't impact the totality of the project they are beneficial since they show me the limits of the camera's abilities as well as my own. 

Let's investigate what I mean. First lesson: While face detection AF is a wonderful feature for still photographers it's not an optimal thing for videographers. I can see it work in photography and click the shutter in response. In video you get the same green box telling you that the camera has found a face and is focused upon it. But the conceit in my brain was that once the camera locked on it would stay there, clamped on like a bulldog on a bone. Early on I found that this was not so and that the camera would start looking around to see if there was anything more interesting to shift focus to. That was a disconcerting discovery make when reviewing an interview on my large monitor, back at the studio. The interview started in sharp focus and then, mysteriously (once my subject looked away for a second or two) the camera decided to shift to something in the background and rest there. Fortunately we were filming with two cameras and my second camera operator, a guy named, Ben, was smart enough, and cynical enough, to stick with manual focus on his camera. We opened with my in focus, tight shot and then transitioned to Ben's locked in footage for the rest of the interview. Better interviews came along later and this one got dropped from consideration. And I was okay with that...

I've experimented a bit more with the face detection AF and have found that the control/feature is dependent on high light levels to operate optimally. If you are locked on during a bright daylight situation you are pretty much okay. As the light levels drop; or if your subject is wearing glasses, prepare to intercede to save your own credibility. So, this leads us to manually focusing the camera. Which should be okay since we have peaking and the ability to magnify the frame. But just as in the FS7 professional video camera you can only "punch in" 5.8 X times. Unless you have some highly defined lines to focus upon it's not really enough magnification for my ancient eyes (or your young eyes) to see exacting focus. It's because the camera is resolving less in video and you are at the mercy of the lower resolution being presented to the EVF. If I could fix one thing about this camera it would be to add the ability to get more magnification during manual focusing (in video). You really only need to do it when you've moved, or your subject has moved, or you've changed focal lengths --- which means you need to fine focus a lot. 

I trust the "punch in" and the focus peaking for medium distant scenes but in interviews that are mission critical I will either attach the camera to an external, seven inch monitor to see focus more clearly or switch the camera out of the movie mode into the photo mode which allows me to punch in with a much higher magnification. After acquiring and locking the focus in by switching to MF I am certain I'll get what I want in sharp focus.  Be forewarned, if you are shooting video with any Sony still/video hybrid that you don't have the option of S-AF in video. Only C-AF and MF. Plan accordingly. 

Once you nail focus and once you get use to intelligently using the zebras for accurate exposure the only other parameter you really need to worry about is getting the color right. You want to use a custom white balance or a preset white balance instead of AWB for most things because it's a post production pain in the ass for still photography (you'll end up correcting individual frames as the color temps shift) or downright brutal in video as your scenes change colors before your very eyes in editing. I choose to carry a Lastolite gray target and use it with abandon. It makes post production so much more rewarding. 

Once you've played with the camera for days on end you will come to love the programmable function menu. Mine is peppered with shortcuts for video. Audio Levels. Peaking. Zebras, Picture Profile, Face detection AF, Focus Area, ISO, Steady shot on and off and white balance. With these set as shortcuts I need only hop into the menu to format cards and to reset time code. 

I'm sure a Nikon or Canon shooter, confronted by an EVF-enabled, mirrorless video powerhouse camera for the first time can be a bit baffled by so much stuff that actually works well and makes one's job easier and of a higher quality so I understand when I read a review that complains about handling and the menu interface. Again, spend some damn time with the camera and get to know it before you grab the keyboard and spew ignorance all over the place.

When I create video with the camera I have a checklist I've put together that I actually look at. I'm sure, over time, I'll have it memorized but right now it goes like this: set up camera on tripod and level it. Grab my target and custom white balance. Set the correct shutter speed for the frames per second called for by the project and then figure out exposure. If greater than f8.0 then pull out the variable ND filter. If lower than the widest aperture then figure out how to get the light levels higher or how sensitive my tolerance is for raising the ISO of the camera. For documentary work my tolerance goes up to at least 1600 but for CEO interview is drops down to ISO 100-200. I do want them to look so good that I'll get invited back....

After we've got WB and exposure figured out I make sure the Steady shot is turned off if I'm on a tripod and turned on if I'll be landholding (more rare). I check to make sure I'm set to the picture profile I want. Then I start checking audio levels and make sure I remember how to change them on the fly if I am not using an external mixer (which does make the job easier). I make sure to reset time code at the beginning of the project (rec run for most stuff) and finally, I focus. And focus again just to be sure. Now we're ready to shoot. 

If I've done all those checklist steps I am rewarded with crisp, clean, well balanced video that is easy to edit. Even easier if I've shot in 4K and I'm editing on a 1080p timeline in FCPX. 

Much has been made about the deficiencies of the Sony (ubiquitous) battery and its puny performance. Might be so for some people but I think they do a great job for video. I get about an hour and ten minutes of fun/run time which is not much less than I was getting with the much bigger battery in the Nikon D810. They are small and light, and Wasabi Power will sell you two aftermarket batteries and a charger for about $26 bucks. We keep them everywhere; pockets, camera bags, even in the cameras. 

I am sixty hours into shooting of the project at hand. I've shot in pouring rain using a cheap, plastic rain cover I bought at the camera store for $7.50. The camera got wet, drops got inside the plastic covering when I moved around. Water poured off the brim of my baseball hat and the hood of my poncho but the camera suffered no issues and was well enough for another bout of rain shooting today. While it is not a lightweight camera I am of the opinion that mass works for the person who handholds. I'll let the hordes of physicists here tell us why in the comment section..... A certain amount of weight is beneficial in being able to hold an object with any degrees of stillness. Take my word for it. 

I've spent twenty-five hours editing so far which means I've looked at the footage shot under a wide range of conditions, different lighting and different subjects. It's as stable as a rock.

I babied the camera when I first got it. Not anymore. I just use it now. And while we are in early days the camera has never let me down. But consider this: If I drop it, soak it, bang it up, etc. but am able to just get through this project before the camera ultimately dies I will have earned enough to keep the enterprise rolling for several more months as well as having enough surplus to replace my deceased camera. All from its first big foray out of the studio...

But wait! We've haven't even begun to talk about it's still photography performance...

It's right at the outside optimum limits of what you might hope for given the sensor size and the range of the lens. Let me explain: I've shot museum artifacts in the studio as well as long shots of trucks and line workers at twilight and in every situation the camera has excelled as far as image quality is concerned. I am a tripod user and a lowest ISO user so I'm rarely pushing the camera as hard as I might but I also have shot a dress rehearsal at the theater with this one and am impressed by everything except the focus at the long end of the zoom range. The image quality is great once the camera locks on but getting it to lock past the 500mms of equivalent angle of view can be frustrating. Maybe they'll improve that in version 4.0, which, given my early experiences with this camera, I will surely buy. 

It's not the optimal camera for several types of users. It's too complex for stupid people. It's too heavy for the fashion forward who must tuck a camera into a jeweled thong or tight jeans. It's existentially wrong for haters of camera with built-in video. It's not the optimal camera for people who live for tiny slices of in-focus imagery. If you love to wax on about "bokeh" you will not love this camera because what you probably mean is that you like stuff where the background goes totally out of focus. This camera does, in fact, generate wonderful bokeh, in the literal meaning, but doesn't have a fast out of focus ramp. You will not love it if you are one of those guys who is in love with the idea of a prime 28mm or a prime 35mm lens as being the focal length you think you see in. 

You will like the camera if you are using it to make money by shooting very, very good video and then turning around and shooting very, very good still images with the same camera. 

Get some big memory cards. Buy some more batteries. Do some exercise now and then so the camera's whopping 2.5 pounds doesn't pull your shoulder out of its socket or wreck your back (sarcasm alert for the slower readers). Learn the manual focus methods that give you a fighting chance at 600mm. And don't look back. This is a camera for people who love to get out and shoot, not dilettantes. But don't blame the camera, nobody likes dilettantes. Or reviewers who spend a lot of time at the keyboard but not nearly enough time with the camera in their hand shooting. Lots of specsmanship with no nuance. hmmmm.

P.S.  Life is too short for no whimsy.