My review of the Sony RX10iii solely as a video production camera. What works? What doesn't.

Sunday afternoon coffee at grandmother's house.

I know you've probably read a few RX10iii reviews from videographers around the web and they may have been lukewarm about their (short) experiences with the camera as a motion shooting tool but I have a different perspective. I have just used the RX10iii as a primary camera for a video project that we've been working on, in spurts, for over a month. Many days we put miles on the car and hours on the camera; going from one town to another in central Texas; shooting interview footage. 

Ben and I have recorded in driving rain, in ghastly heat and  humidity, under all kinds of lighting conditions, and in plain ole sunlight. We logged about three hours of 4K video and at least another hour of 1080p footage. We've scrolled through said footage for about 60 hours in order to log it, select it, use it, edit it and color correct it. We've given the camera's output a good, hard look. And, for the most part, I like what I've seen. So let me take some time to break it down. 

I've been watching the "one inch" camera space, and video camera space, for several years now having owned and extensively used all three of Sony's one inch RX10x  cameras. It has not escaped my notice that Sony also uses the same basic sensor technology in the PXW line of prosumer video camera like the x-70 and x-150. These video cameras are designed in the traditional video camera shape and structure and have some niceties that would be welcome on anyone's video productions. The two biggest features I wish I could transplant to the RX cameras would be: the ability to plug XLR microphones directly into the camera, without having to use an interface unit or having to buy the Sony pre-amp, connector contraption; and being able to select and use the 10 bit, 4:2:2 codec available in those cameras (in 1080p). 

Given that the RX10iii has the latest and most advanced version of the 20 megapixel BSI sensor it makes sense that the information coming off the sensor is equivalent between this camera and the latest dedicated, one inch, video cameras and so the difference in final output is mostly down to the processing. I waffled a bit before I started the project I alluded to above. I toyed with the idea of buying one of the dedicated video cameras but in the end I tested and tested the cameras I had at hand and did not find them wanting. My main method of shooting involved putting the camera into the 4K mode and shooting with a flat (but not as flat as an S-Log file) video picture profile. I mostly used #4 in the Sony picture profiles provided. 

When we brought the footage into Final Cut Pro X we transcoded the XAVCs 4K files to ProRes 422 and edited on a 1080p timeline. The downsampling of the 4K to 1080p yielded very, very good results. Noise was low and detail was head and shoulders above almost any 1080p camera files I have seen so far. I was also a little nervous about how well the RX10iii would handle higher ISO settings in video but I was able to go to 800 ISO without noticeable noise, and at those settings there was no diminishing of detail, contrast or saturation when viewing the files after conversion to the editing file type. With those considerations behind me I moved forward with confidence in the technical aspects of the cameras; what remained to be seen was the handling and operational complexity of working with a camera that attempts to straddle two worlds --- video and still imaging. 

I used the camera in two basic ways. I either put it on a big, Manfrotto video tripod with a stout fluid head, or I used it with a shoulder mount that went a long way toward physically stabilizing the camera. With the shoulder mount there was little-to-no low level, hand-induced jitter to mess up the shots. While I'm not stable enough to keep the camera rigidly in one spot for thirty seconds or a minute I was certainly able to hold the camera steady enough for 10 to 15 second insert shots, and general B-roll. When we shot B-roll with people, in interview situations, we were generally using the RX10ii, also on a good tripod system.

When I used the shoulder rig I also took advantage of the camera's very, very good image stabilization. In 1080p mode the camera can take advantage of the five axis technology that they've obviously bought from Olympus. When combined with the shoulder mount the camera, across the focal lengths, was smooth as baby oil on glass. All motion was well damped. In fact, I shot a number of sequences of flood waters from an observation point that required me to use the long, 600mm, end of the lens quite a bit. Even at 600mm the footage is sharp and steady. It gets even better if I exhale while shooting....

Holding the camera in one's hands and using it without a tripod or a shoulder mount the camera becomes no better or worse (stability) than what I experienced last year shooting a restaurant video with a brace of Olympus EM5-2 cameras.  At any rate it is profoundly better at stabilizing images in video then anything I've used from Nikon. I think part of the performance of the camera's stabilization has to do with advantages conferred by the size of the sensor. A smaller sensor requires less movement to stabilize and has appreciably less mass to continually stop, start and control. While the O.S.S is good on the A7r2 body it doesn't hold a candle to the full, active O.S.S. on the RX10 series. (Full active only on 1080p. 3 Axis on 4K).

When I use the shoulder mount I am pulling the rig into my shoulder while shooting, holding the grip in my right hand and using my left hand under the camera and rig as a further point of stabilization. Just holding a naked camera up to my eye seems to be less effective --- by a long shot.

Much has been written about how poor the menu structure in the camera is, that's why I have nearly every video control I typically use set up on the function menu which comes up with the touch of one button. On mine I generally have: The microphone level control. The steady shot menu. The focus area.  The ISO. Face detection on/off. The White Balance menu. Focus Peaking controls. Zebras Control. Picture Profile menu. And, Exposure compensation. There's one intentionally left for still imaging; its's the drive mode...for those times when I want to switch to a self-timer.

Given that the menu structure is the same as that in the other five Sony cameras I use I've gotten used to the locations in the menu for stuff I use all the time but can't set on the function menu. Things like formatting, file types, file sizes, aspect ratio, and creative styles. (creative styles and aspect ratio can be selected but only by sacrificing one of the other six functions I've already chosen...).

So, how do I shoot with the camera when making video? I always start with a cleanly formatted card. Even though I find the camera's automatic white balance to be accurate 95% of the time I either set a preset WB (like "daylight" if I am shooting outdoors in the sun, or "cloudy" if I am shooting in overcast) or a custom white balance. I do this so the white balance or color balance of the frame will not shift or change if I pan across a scene or move the camera so that it sees a large field of one color or another. Lately, when using mixed lighting I am always making a quick custom white balance from a Lastolite White Balance target just before I start shooting.

Before you shoot you'll have to select your "file type" and also the size/data rate. If I set my camera to XAVCs 4K I'll need to go to the menu just below that and choose from 4 different settings: 30p at 100 M, 30p at 60M, 24p at 100M or 24p at 60M. The M refers to mbs. I generally shoot fun stuff for me at 24p @100M and client stuff at 30p@100M. Interestingly, while the XAVCs codec was problematic to edit in the past it can be used directly in the Final Cut Pro X now, without transcoding. Even in 4K.

In most situations where I shoot for clients I start with 4K and then downsample in editing to the more standard, and almost universal, 1080p size. This gives me great image quality and, if I want to do severe cropping or "Ken Burns pan and scan" stuff I can have the editing program refer to the full sized content to use so there is no quality loss.

There is one other size and file type setting that I'm getting good use from when shooting fast motion and I want to have the option to slow down the speed in post; that's the 120p @100M setting. If I am working on a 30 fps timeline I can slow the 120p footage down by up to a factor of 4 to create a very impactful (and smooth) slow motion effect. Unlike the higher frame rates available this one works in 1080p and can run for a full (almost) thirty minutes. If you place 120p footage on a 30p timeline but do not slow it down what you really get is incredibly smooth image quality. Also, since you are shooting at a higher shutter speed (1/250th), pulling 2 megapixel still frames that are convincingly sharp is less hit-and-miss.

Once we've got the settings taken care of we can start setting up to shoot. If I am working under bright sunlight I generally don't want to stop down past f8.0, and there is no built in neutral density filter, so I use a variable neutral density filter over the lens. I work with the lowest ISO available in the video mode (100), set the aperture I want, as well as the shutter speed that matches my fps setting 1/50th or 1/60th --- in most cases) and then dial in the amount of ND that matches everything up.

While I can use the live histogram to help me zero in on the correct exposure I find the use of the zebras to be quicker and more efficient. If I am shooting outside I set my zebras to come on when the highlights hit 100%. I look for the lightest tone in my shot (usually puffy white clouds in blue sky) and I rotate the VND until the zebras just start to appear in the bright spots of the clouds.

If we're not including sky I'm happy if someone in the scene is wearing white because I can use that for zebras. If wardrobe isn't cooperating I pull out the Lastolite WB target, flip it to the white side and then use that in the scene to find the 100% (255) mark. I can always err on the side of being just a little dark but once you crest the 100% mark with your white tones they are lost to you. Using the zebras a nice safety feature.

After I've gotten the scene comped, balanced and well exposed the last thing I need to do before I start shooting is to focus the camera. Now, in bright light (above about EV6) the camera does a great job of autofocusing, but there are a few things you should know. First of all, the options for AF are narrowed down to just two: Continuous AF and Manual. There is no locked in S-AF. Many people who are used to locking in their focus in S-AF with the halfway hold of the shutter button will be disappointed when they get bit by this because in video it's going to be C-AF  regardless of where the focus control knob is set or you can use manual focus. By that I mean you can have the camera set at "S" on the front control but the camera will ignore that command and default to C-AF. You have been warned. If you set it to "manual" then you get manual focus.

Sometimes I'll let the camera focus a wide scene in C-af but the bane of that is you never know, especially with a moving subject or a moving camera, when the C-af will decide to hunt. I might start the focusing process by letting the camera find the subject in AF then lock the focus and switch to MF for the actual shooting. That works quickly and well for the most part but many scenes will require you to manual focus. Many, many scenes.

So, you have a long lens that's not particularly fast, given the sensor footprint. That makes it really hard to just look at the screen and fine focus. Objects don't just pop in and out of focus as they do on large format cameras when using very fast lenses wide open.  Even the focus peaking is too optimistic for critical use. The only way to go is to use focus magnification. But in video you are limited to a limited resolution when in the video setting. In video the biggest magnification available is 5.8X. Might be enough for young and agile eyes, or wide angle work, but for perfect focusing with longer focal lengths, wide open, you might want more. Sometimes I'll head back to the still photography mode settings, hit the magnifier in that mode, selecting 11X or more, get the focus nicely grooved in using the manual setting and then switch back to video mode. The frame size may change slightly but the focus doesn't seem to change as long as I don't re-zoom or hit the focusing ring. It takes a bit longer but at least you'll know you've got the sucker as sharply rendered as it's going to get.

Now we're ready to shoot. One thought about fine tuning image quality... a big VND on the front of the lens means you probably aren't going to be able to use the supplied shade while shooting but all that exposed glass just seems to attract flare the way first graders attract colds. There are two things you need to do. If you are shooting wide angles you've got to keep the front surface of the filter stringently clean. At wide angles there is actually enough depth of field at certain apertures to show dirt on the lens! I carry liquid lens cleaner and a cleaning cloth with me in the bag. I end up using it a  lot. But also you'll find that a dirty filter, or a filter prone to flare, needs to have the right kind of shade or flag to subdue the nastiness that is non-image forming light. In 2013 I bought a lens flag that uses a velcro strap to attach it to a lens. The rectangular flag can be positioned anywhere around the lens to block flare inducing light. The panel can also be bent (armature wire inside) to hold a shape or position.  I never used the device until I started shooting video with the RX10iii and now I use the blocker all the time. Kills flare. Makes pictures crisp, contrasty and more saturated --- especially in conjunction with the variable neutral density filter.
An inexpensive Zomei VND. I bought a 77mm that I use with a 72-77mm step up ring.

The lens is wonderfully sharp from wide open until diffraction becomes noticeable (which is also dependent on the focal length setting). You can get away with smaller apertures at longer focal lengths. At the wide end I shoot between wide open and f4.0.   Some people have bitched and moaned about the fact that this incredibly sharp and well corrected lens gets slower as it gets longer. While many of us set a focal length for a shot and resist "tromboning" the zoom control for some it's a necessity to be able to change the framing while shooting and there is a simple solution to maintain the exposure equally across a zoom from 24-600mm. Just set the aperture to the maximum minimum aperture. If it is f4.0 at 600mm start by setting the aperture at f4.0. It will not change as the lens zooms. That seems pretty logical but I guess some people want it all; the ability to go from 24mm to 600mm at f2.4 with no change. Sorry, they don't make that lens yet.

While some of the other Sony cameras I use (a6300) have noticeable rolling shutter with fast moving subjects or fast pans the RX10iii seems pretty immune to the effect. I do not fear following moving cars or moving the camera. (rolling shutter shows up as distortions of the image; or "jello" cam).

If you get all the ducks in a row, and you are using the picture profile or creative setting that gives you the tones you want, then you've got the visual end of the camera down. If you've done it right you'll get footage/content that's as good as any 4K camera on the market under $2,000, and maybe a lot better than a few that are well over $2,000...

And you'll be able to do this for thirty minute "bursts" without having to stop. So far, the hottest day we shot on this month, outdoors, was about 95 with 85% humidity. It was uncomfortable for humans but, as long as I kept the camera flagged from direct sun exposure (a practice consistent all the way up the moving making food chain) the camera never experienced an alarm or a shutdown for heat. In fact, even when used in full sun I never saw a heat warning. Sony has certainly done some good engineering here compared to 4K use in the a6300 camera.

The Achille's heel for some shooters is battery life. I see where the are coming from. I understand their pain. But it's not something that bothers me much, if at all. I've never had a battery last for less time than a full 30 minute take. I carry a box of generic batteries (Wasabi Power, etc.) with me on every paying shoot. I check the battery level before we start shooting. If the interview will be a long one I'll change the battery before we get going. If we're in the studio with the camera connected to a monitor via HDMI and the camera's "energy saver" duration set to infinity (never shuts off) I can connect one of those USB Lithium battery packs to the USB connector on the camera and have ten times the reserve I would have in a fresh camera battery. One big, 10,000 maH battery will last for days and days. I sometimes wish for bigger batteries, mostly when I am walking around and don't want to carry anything more in my pockets than a $10 bill for coffee, but then I find myself being perfectly happy with the overall size of the camera and not anxious for it to grow bigger. You just can't have it both ways.

Someone will take me to task for not mentioning the fact that the aperture ring can be "unclicked" so that it becomes a noiseless operation to change f-stops but frankly, I've never had the use for it yet. We're pretty locked down when we're lit, on a tripod and shooting an interview. If we needed to change the aperture to compensate for changing light outdoors I think it would be easier and probably just as effective to set the camera of Auto-ISO instead. That way we could have automatic compensation for light level changes but keep the f-stop set for the depth of field we wanted in the first place.

Most of the time I don't want to change aperture but might want to fine tune the exposure and I'll set the camera to Auto-ISO and just use the exposure compensation for fine tuning. Not the clickity manual EV control on the top of the camera (I am convinced that is for stills...) but the menu driven exposure compensation (which you will notice is one of my presets on the function menu) because it changes the compensation noiselessly so I can effect the change while shooting. Nicely flexible camera, yes?

Let's move on to audio, shall we? The major benefit of a conventional, professional or prosumer video camera is having balanced XLR connectors for two microphones built into the camera body (or handle). Grab the XLR cables, pop them into the connectors with microphones on the other end and you are ready to set your levels and get after it. But the RX10iii, with it's need to stay relatively small and to do double duty as both a still and a video camera compromises by leaving off the professional audio connectors. This, however, doesn't mean it's a crippled audio tool like older generations of DSLRs with their bad audio circuits and auto level controls. No, it turns out that the RX10iii has very good preamplifiers but they sit just inboard of a small and more fragile 3.5mm stereo connector.

While there are a growing number of decent stereo microphones that can be used directly into the camera there are far more really, really good microphones that don't match the unbalanced, higher impedance connection, and you might want to use one of those microphones. There are a number of relatively inexpensive "boxes" that can take a balanced XLR input, transform the impedance to match a typical consumer camera input and output the signal to a 3.5mm connector. Voila, pro microphone into (new style) production camera with 3.5mm inputs. The Beachtek D2A that I use also has knobs to separately control the volume of two microphones, a switch to choose between line levels and mic levels and the ability to have stereo input or to have one microphone send the same mono signal to both channels in the camera. Very cool. About $180 bucks. No active circuitry to add any noise.

Also, no extra batteries required. But there is one downside....

Some microphones depend on the device they are plugged into to supply the electrical power they need to work. In the parlance of the industry, they require "phantom power." Their needs range from 24V to 48V DC. Most professional, full time video cameras offer phantom power as an built in feature. Neither the RX10iii nor the D2A have that feature set and it's something that both my nice Sennheiser MK-600 shotgun microphone and my Audio Technica large diaphragm, narrator microphone require. While you can  buy dedicated power supply that delivers phantom power to microphones both my Zoom H4N and my Tascam DR-60ii digital audio recorders offer the feature across all channels. Even if I want the convenience of having the audio on the same memory card and in the same file as the video I can still use the digital audio recorders as pre-amps+mixers+phantom power supplies and then run a connector from the output of the digital audio recorder into my camera to record both audio and video to its internal SD card.

If I take the time to calibrate my camera to my digital audio recorder with a 1K test tone, at a known signal strength, I can set the camera to a value of -12 Db and then use the controls on the digital audio recorder to control the strength of the signal being output to the camera. That gives me the ability to amplify the signal (in the case of a microphone with a very low output level) which I can't do with the Beachtek, or to use the same control to turn down the level and prevent clipping the signal. Just like white levels in the visual portion of our program, once the digital audio signal goes over 0 dB it's just a mess.

It doesn't matter if I'm bringing the signal straight into the camera from the microphone or D2A or amplifying it and bringing it in through a digital audio mixer: I'm going to be listening to the audio I'm getting by plugging in a set of high quality, closed ear, headphones plugged into the camera's headphone jack. It's pretty mandatory. You want to make sure that the final signal is good, not just some intermediary signal. I could listen to a signal coming off the audio recorder but if the cable to the camera is bad, or the camera is set incorrectly, I will never know until it's too late and I'm trying to edit the footage in the studio, late at night. That would be so sad....

Here's the deal with audio into the RX10iii. If you get the levels right, if you match the impedance of the microphone to the camera's input, if you put your microphone in the right place, if you condition your shooting environment to get rid of audio problems (bounce, echo, noise), the microphone pre-amplifiers in the RX10iii are very good and mostly noise free. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that they use the same monolithic audio processing chip that the bigger and more expensive cameras in the line up do. After all, the audio is linear PCM and that's mature technology. The difference between a great audio processor chip and a run of the mill one is probably a buck or two at the most and it just doesn't seem like this is a place where Sony cut corners.

People have all kinds of opinions on audio and only some of them are based on facts, or even good exercises in eliminating mismatches and variables. I've done my research and tried to do a good job of matching electrical interfaces in the audio pathway. If another reviewer says the audio is "crap" or "noisy" put the review down and do your own tests. Use the right mics. Use the right cables. Use the right matching boxes. Use the right levels. And then listen for yourself on a really nice set of headphones, not the earbuds from your Samsung Galaxy phone. See for yourself. You might find that Sony knows what they are doing in the audio world. A lot.

Well, after a lot of hands-on shooting I can say I really respect this camera as a video capture tool. The video pathway is good in 10080p and great in 4K. The range of controls for picture profiles, time code, exposure controls and parameter fine tuning is great as well. The lens does what it was designed to do and does it very well. The audio recording section of the camera is quite good (to my ears much better than the audio in the Panasonic GH4 on which I shot a long project in 2014.. ) and the camera is capable of making great content.

It's a pretty camera and it's well designed. After 40 or 50 hours of time spent in your hands doing work the camera maps to your brain pretty well and the controls become comfortably familiar. There were no hiccups in our editing. Nothing from the camera created problems. Any production problems were human judgement induced. If there was a noisy track it was from my hubris in shooting during a driving rainstorm, in a warehouse with a metal roof. If there was a focus problem with face detection AF it was my fault for trying to make it work under lighting conditions that also made manual focusing difficult. I should have added more light, not blamed the camera.

The camera has lived on the floor of my car for weeks at a time. It shot in the rain with basically a plastic bag draped over it. It's been banged into stuff. I continues on without any symptoms of abuse being visible, or emerging in use.

There are a few things the camera doesn't do but, in fact, they are very minor omissions in the grand scheme of cameras. Generally the camera won't give you narrow depth of field. I miss that sometimes when making portraits in that last century style that we've all come to love so much. It's not a rocket fast focuser like the Panasonic fz 1000 surely is. It would be nice of Sony could put the same PD focusing tech they used on the a6300 sensor onto the next generation one inch sensors. And, instead of bigger batteries it would be nice if Sony could invent more efficient batteries. Maybe a little plutonium core for a power source that only needs recharged once every fifty years. Oh yeah, another complaint is the lack of a built in ND filter. Easily remedied in the aftermarket....

Had this camera been launched about eight years ago, into the video market of the time, it would have easily sold for ten or twenty thousand dollars. Don't believe me? Go back and look at what was there at the time and what the costs were.

After using this camera on a long project and several one day projects, and having edited hours of 4K and 1080p footage I can honestly say that the only thing you'll likely miss are physical controls to control sound levels, and the ability to get very narrow depth of field. For the money it's a great video camera and I'm happy to use it for a wide range of shooting situations, including typical run and gun stuff. You know, jump out of a pick-up truck in the rain with the camera on one shoulder, line up your shot and record linemen working to replace blown transformers, brush the rain off, get in the truck and head to the next site. Nice.

But what is the underlying story? For me it's the fact that this generation of one inch sensor cameras (including the Panasonic fz 1000 and all previous RX10 models) is good enough to compete in projects at every level except when exacting parameters like narrow d-o-f and super high ISO are required. That the age of mandatory interchangeable lens cameras as professional tools is so last decade. That tech is slowly homogenizing the very top and the middle markets with cameras that enjoy very similar final output products. With good processing, and post processing skills, the images from the one inch sensor cameras can rival the full frame super cameras that used to be the signature of the working professional. There are "outlier" applications where ultimate image quality is still important but those are few and far between and are not really relevant to the way most professionals conduct their day to day work. Be it video or still imaging. Feels like another sea change coming on.