I’ve always been an SLR guy, to be honest. While I’ve had moments of lust for a Leica, and also love my Fuji X-100, the big bulky system camera is the tool of the real photographer. Or so I thought until recently…
Bridge cameras seem like an uneasy compromise. You have the general form factor of a DSLR, although lighter and smaller. But they’re not as portable as a genuine compact. And they still make you stare at a screen to compose and focus. I was never really sure why people went for them.
Two things made me look again. The first was that I took up cycling. My wife, Trish, and I ride e-bikes (and blog about it at Bocage Biking). Cycling and photography are a match made in heaven, especially for a landscape photographer like me. So naturally I always take a camera with me.
Often, this is the Fuji. It’s light, compact and produces stunningly good images. But its fixed 35mm-equivalent lens is restrictive. So that means I often end up hauling around the Nikon D800 with the 24-70mm zoom. That gives me more framing options but not as many as I’d like unless I also pack extra lenses. And it’s heavy and bulky.
I considered a compact camera of some sort and even came close to buying an Olympus. But while many of the photographs I shoot while out cycling are just for the blog, I also want to be able to grab stock images for the photo library, and that means being able to shoot raw on a reasonable size sensor through a good lens.
And then there’s the second factor: I also wanted a camera I can easily carry everywhere – a walk-around camera for when I’m not on a photographic mission – but that gives me a wide range of focal lengths. These days I’m having to deal with the effects of getting older, and a bag full of lenses just isn’t an option for me any more. Weight has become a critical factor.
And so I came to discover ‘super zoom’ bridge cameras. Some of them are insane. I saw one Nikon with an equivalent focal length range of (if memory serves) 24-2000mm. This is made possible, of course, by the use of small sensors.
The Sony RX10 III is more modest in its ambitions. Its Zeiss lens gives a range equivalent to 24-600mm, which is plenty. And all the reviews I read suggested that the lens performs extremely well throughout its range. (Spoiler alert: it does.) It has a reasonable maximum aperture (f/2.4 at 24mm, soon dropping to f/4 once you get into the telephoto range). And the 20MP 1in sensor is good enough to produce high-quality stock and exhibition images. And the thing that finally swung it was the RX10’s video capabilities. For the short films I make with the Zolascope group I’ll still prefer the full-size sensor of the D800. But for personal videos, the Sony is ideal, and the fact that it’s a bridge camera means the viewfinder remains operational while filming. There are 4K and high frame-rate modes, too.
What’s more, you get all this in a package that is about half the weight of the D-800 plus 24-70mm zoom and is significantly smaller.
The overall design is that of a scaled-down DSLR, with all the controls where you’d expect them. Sony hasn’t tried to innovate too much in terms of the user interface and that’s a good thing. But let’s look at a few notable details.
The exposure compensation dial (up to +/-3 stops) falls naturally to the right thumb. This can be a problem on some cameras: with my Fuji X-100 I’ve developed a sort of nervous tic, checking the compensation dial every few minutes because it’s so easily knocked out of position. The Sony doesn’t seem to suffer from this problem, but then I can’t squeeze it into a pocket.
The Zeiss lens achieves its speed partly from its diameter. It’s wide. And this has one downside. While I’m very appreciative of having a physical aperture ring, its diameter makes it rather clumsy to use. With my accustomed method of grasping the ring with my thumb and index finger, I find the latter bumps into the fingers of my right hand as they curl around the handgrip. Everything’s a bit too close together. So the camera isn’t as comfortable and natural to use as I’d like.
One other note about that aperture ring: there’s a switch on the underside of the lens that lets you choose whether the ring has click detents every third of a stop. With this switched off, you have a continuously variable aperture. I can’t see why you would want to finesse the aperture setting to a degree greater than a third of a stop, but it’s there for those whose OCD is even greater than mine.
The LCD screen on the back of the camera angles upwards, which I’ve found useful on many occasions, especially as I’m getting too old to crouch!
The overall build quality is good, but I’m constantly aware that it’s a plastic body. I wouldn’t like to give this camera the kind of hammer to which I’ve subjected my Nikon SLRs over the years. That said, it has been dropped onto rough granite from a couple of feet with no ill effects.
Sony is famously incapable of producing a logical structure to the menu system for the camera’s settings. And so it is with the RX10 III. When I first got the camera I found myself paging back and forth to find the settings I needed. However, now that the camera is set up the way I want it, there remain only a few settings that I need to access regularly, and I’ve assigned a couple of these to the three programmable multi-function buttons.
As I’ve already hinted, the lens is good. It’s very good. Oh hell, it’s stunning. You can find all kinds of optical tests online, but the bottom line is that this lens is going to cause you no grief whatever focal length or aperture setting you use. For all practical purposes, it’s up there with DSLR system lenses (with one exception, see below). You needn’t worry that you’re going to suffer the curse of the kit lens.
Using the lens is a bit more of a mixed bag.
First, there’s the zoom. To change focal length, there’s a rocker switch around the shutter release. This is well positioned. The zoom motor is pretty responsive and fast. Actually too fast for my taste and I have a distinct tendency to overshoot. There are settings buried within the menu system for speeding up the zoom but not for slowing it down.
Fortunately, the lens also has a zoom ring. (You can choose which of the two rings around the lens is used for zooming and which for focusing.) This is not mechanical as it is on a DLSR lens. It’s an electronic input device. If you use only the ring for zooming, there’s a significant lag after you first start turning it before anything happens, which I find frustrating. My preferred technique is to get the focal length roughly right with the rocker switch and then finesse the setting using the lens ring. The latter responds pretty much immediately if you’ve just zoomed using the rocker switch. It’s a bizarre way of going about things, but works well once you get used to it.
The RX10 III has a number of clever focusing options. As well as the usual autofocus, you have two manual modes. One is fully manual and the other is assisted manual in which a half-press on the shutter release triggers the autofocus but then leaves you to fine-tune focus with the lens ring. To help you, the camera can be set to display a magnified view of the area around the focusing point. This kicks in the moment you start moving the focusing ring and drops you back into full frame view two seconds after you stop focusing. You can set it to five seconds or ‘no limit’, in which case the view stays magnified until you take the shot.
In practice, I find this all rather irritating. Maybe it’s because I work rather slowly. While focusing, I’ll pause to consider whether the focus is exactly right and, just before I come to a decision, the image drops back to full frame. So I have to start focusing again to check! With the five-second setting, there’s an irritating pause waiting for the magnification to end. I’d prefer it if there were more choices between two and five seconds. Three would suit me fine.
The upshot is, I mostly use autofocus. And this isn’t bad. It’s fast and accurate in most instances. You can move the focus point to almost anywhere in the frame, although I haven’t yet found a way of getting it to pop back to the centre with a single key press, like you can with the D800. When contrast is low, the autofocus can give up. In the frame below, for example, it had terrible trouble, racking back and forth several times before settling on infinity.
There’s also a follow-focus option – focus on an object (such as a face) in the frame and the camera will keep that in focus as it moves. It works reasonably well, but can get confused and switch allegiance to another object.
A review of the video capabilities will have to wait until another time. I haven’t yet been able to explore them fully. Here I’ll confine myself to a couple of quick observations.
The ‘Movie’ button to start and stop recording looks like it’s conveniently placed for your right thumb, but it isn’t. I find myself taking the camera away from my eye to find it. Maybe that problem will go away with practice.
There are several vibration-reduction settings available. The most effective of these produces horrible artefacts and is, in my opinion, unusable even for holiday snaps. This is something I need to explore more.
The camera has a ‘clean’ 10bit 4:2:2 HDMI output. But for some reason my Atomos Ninja can’t see it, which is something else I need to explore.
In terms of handling, using the RX10 III as a video camera works very well. Even without using the follow-focus function, the continuous autofocus manages pretty well in fast-changing scenes, with little tendency to hunt.
Shooting with the RX10 III
For many years now the longest lens in my armoury has been a 300mm. That’s been used occasionally, but for the most part when I remove the 24-70mm from my D800 it’s to mount either a macro or my beloved 180mm f/2.8 (in all its manual-focus glory). With the Sony RX10 III I reckoned I would use focal lengths in the 24-200mm range, with the longer settings being a ‘nice to have’ for the very rare special occasion.
I was wrong.
Maybe it’s the novelty and it’ll wear off. But I’ve found myself heading out to the 600mm end far more often than I’d have thought. Here’s a shot taken recently on that setting.
Should I have gone for a camera with an even longer range? Well, no, I don’t think so. For one thing, super zooms involve a lot of compromises when it comes to resolution, distortion and aberrations. The longer the range, the more compromises. The Zeiss lens on the RX10 III is as good as it is partly, I suspect, because Sony opted not to compete with the likes of Nikon when it came to zoom range.
And even with a 600mm equivalent, there are times when its usability is limited by external factors, especially atmospheric haze. The shot below took some post-production sharpening to make it at all usable, not because of camera shake (it was shot at 1/1600th on a monopod with vibration reduction active) but because of mist. Sports and wildlife photographers may have a different perspective. But for my work, a 600mm equivalent is as far as I’m prepared to go.
Like I’ve said, the lens is spectacularly good given the range (actually 8.8-200mm) and the cost. But it’s not perfect. I’ve noticed a kind of flattening of the contrast – a sort of halo effect – when the subject contains points of light, such as specular reflections, or high contrast details. I suspect internal reflections in the lens. You can deal with some of this in post-production, for example through the judicious use of Lightroom’s clarity slider. But the RX10 III doesn’t give the punch I get from my Nikon gear in these circumstances.
Noise is another issue. I don’t much like going above ISO 400 on the RX10 III. This is not a scientific assessment and I have yet to do proper tests. But my gut feeling so far is that noise kicks in pretty quickly as you boost the sensor speed. My default setting is ISO 100 for landscape work and 200 when going walk-about. And post-production sharpening rapidly emphasises the noise.
The vibration reduction compensates for this shortcoming to a large degree. In good daylight, my increasingly shaky hands have successfully hand-held shots at the 600mm-equivalent end of the zoom range (ie, 220mm in real money). None of my other gear has VR, so this is a new experience for me. Mind you, I don’t get away with it all the time, so a monopod is now my constant companion. The sunset picture above was taken on a lightweight tripod.
Apart from my fingers tangling with each other when using the aperture ring, general handling is excellent. It’s pretty much a DSLR-like experience. In fact, it’s so much like having a DSLR with a ridiculous range of lenses that I now break out the Nikon only for those occasions when I know I want the absolute best image quality, the 36MP resolution and am prepare to put up with the weight. For cycling, walking and all general-purpose photography, the Sony RX10 III is now my go-to camera.