Review: Sony RX10 III – the perfect cycling camera

When we first took up cycling, one of the biggest questions I had to ask myself before every ride was, “which camera do I take?”.

If there was a chance of encountering a portfolio- or photolibrary-worthy shot, that would mean hauling the Nikon D800 and, at the very least, the 24-70mm lens. That’s because I’d want the full 36 megapixels (MP) to ensure quality. But it’s a big chunk of kit, taking up most of the space in a pannier. And I soon found that the maximum focal length of 70mm wasn’t good enough, which meant taking extra lenses.

More often, I would carry the Fuji X100. That has just the one focal length, equivalent to 35mm, so it’s even more limited in terms of the shots you can get. And it’s only 12MP. But it has the inestimable benefit of being small and light.

Occasionally, if I figured the opportunities for good photographs would be unlikely, I’d just take my iPhone. That was always a mistake.

I figured I needed a compromise between the Nikon and the Fuji. It would need to have a zoom with a good range of focal lengths. It would have to be reasonably light and compact, but at the same time capable of producing images of sufficient quality to appear in exhibitions and be sold as stock.

I started looking at the upper end of the compact camera market. But there were always too many compromises. So finally I arrived at the bridge camera. And the one that stood out – at least on paper – was the Sony RX10 III. So that’s what I bought.

Sony RX10 III – the lens gets a lot longer when you zoom out to 600mm!

Behold, the Sony…

I’ve written a general review about theSony RX10 III over on my photography website. So here I’ll mostly concentrate on how it’s worked out using it as a bike-borne camera, and some impressions gained over several months of taking pictures.

The first thing to note is that it’s relatively small, given the capabilities. It’s like a professional DLSR that has shrunk slightly in the wash.

The Zeiss zoom lens has an equivalent focal length range of 24-600mm. Yep, I didn’t accidentally slip an extra zero in there – the top end is genuinely 600mm. And it’s pin sharp throughout the range. As you might expect, there’s a little distortion at the extremes, but nothing that’s not fixable in post-production.

To put it another way, it’s all the lenses you’re ever likely to need during a bike ride rolled into one. Sure, there are ‘super zoom’ cameras out there that go further – one Nikon stretches the range to 2000mm, which is insane. But there aren’t that many occasions when you can make decent use of such extreme focal lengths. Even with the 600mm limit of the Sony, I often find myself bumping into issues of atmospheric or heat haze affecting image quality. Here’s an image I posted the other day where all sharpness has vanished because of heat haze. (I mean, it’s quite a nice effect, but you don’t want it that often.)

Heat haze…

The system provides image stabilisation – which is useful when you haven’t brought along a tripod or monopod and want to use the longer focal lengths. I’ve been able to hand-hold 600mm shots and get sharp results. However, a monopod or other support definitely makes a difference.

The maximum aperture is also respectable – f/2.4 at 24mm, quickly dropping to f/4 once you get into the telephoto range.

Naturally the Sony RX10 III also shoots video, in resolutions up to 4K. That’s something I’ll be playing with in the future but isn’t of great relevance to me right now.

But talking about resolution … the Sony is a 20MP camera. That isn’t exactly stellar resolution these days, but it’s enough. In fact, it’s more than enough for photos destined for a blog, and plenty for shooting stock images for a photo library. In fact, some of the pictures I’ve taken with this camera have been blown up to 120x80cm for an exhibition without using upscaling and only a modicum of sharpening. This is one of those pictures, with the focal length set to roughly 200mm equivalent:

And what the hell, here’s another, this time at the 600mm end:

Pointe de la Torche, Penmarc’h, Finistère, Brittany, France

I wouldn’t push enlargements much beyond 120x80cm, like I would with the 36MP images from my Nikon D800, but it’s rare that you’d want to do that. Also, there’s something about the Sony sensor’s pixel structure that means you have to be very careful about not over-sharpening. The image starts to break up quite quickly – more so than with images taken with my D800 (which also, as it happens, sports a Sony sensor).

In use

So what’s it like to use? It handles much like a DLSR, albeit a small-ish one. The viewfinder image is large and bright, and you have the option to use the articulated LCD screen. The amount of data on the screen is configurable, including a handy artificial horizon. So, all in all, the camera makes composing a shot and choosing the right exposure quick and easy. That’s important for a cycling camera because you don’t want to waste time. While I might be happy to work slowly and deliberately on other occasions, when I’m out on a ride I typically want to grab the image as fast as possible.

On the same point, the camera wakes up from sleep reasonably fast. And you don’t have to remember to turn it off – it will do that itself, helping to prevent wasted battery power. However, it’s a good idea to turn off the camera manually before shoving it back into a pannier or rack bag. The reason is that, when it goes to sleep, the camera retracts the lens. It would be easy for the lens to foul on something in the bag, which could cause mechanical issues down the line.

Also on the matter of handling – the Sony uses proper knobs, rather than dials or menus – for mode selection and exposure compensation. And there are configurable buttons to access the functions you use most (for example, I have one set to allow me to quickly change ISO setting). To zoom the lens, there’s a rocker switch around the shutter release, but you can also fine tune using one of the main lens rings. This all helps to make shooting faster.

The focal length range is fantastic, covering everything I need when riding. The built in image stabilisation works well, although I’ve occasionally used the bike itself to steady the camera.

One slight drawback is that I find the image becomes quite noisy quite quickly when you increase the ISO setting. For maximum quality images (ie, exhibition and stock images) I try not to go above ISO 200, although 400 is generally fine and I will try 800 in a pinch. Anything above that is too noisy for high-quality work; however, for blog images 1600 is workable.

The feel of the camera is a little plasticky for my taste. But it has already survived one drop on to rock and it’s certainly up to the rigours of being shoved into a bike bag.

The Sony (with lens hood) compared to the Nikon D800 plus 24-70mm zoom (without lens hood). Much more compact and half the weight.

It’s smaller, and half the weight, of the D800 plus 24-70mm. It has more megapixels that the Fuji X100, plus all the focal lengths I ever want. And it has the image quality to produce large exhibition prints. For me, it’s the perfect cycling camera.

To check out more of my photography, visit my professional fine art and stock photography site at Zolachrome.

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