Tuesday, January 21, 2014

REVIEW: Sony DSC-RX10–a7 Alternative or Overpriced a3000?

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 Digital Camera
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 Digital Camera

In looking at my old mail, I requested one of these cameras to review last October when I first learned about it. It took me a few months to actually get one which must be a sign they are selling well, but in all honesty I also had other cameras higher in the queue to review. After spending a month and 585 pictures later, I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to render my verdict on this camera.

Some other bloggers have given this camera high praises, and its specs are very impressive. It’s also very well built and feels worthy of what I would call a modest price for the features it offers. However, the thing I really wanted to know was this the ultimate Sony for the casual user that was being overshadowed by its a7 and a7R siblings, or was it just a fancy a3000 with a bunch of features that do little to improve the overall experience? The RX1 had impressed me in many ways except for its fixed lens, and the RX1R didn’t address that problem, so I figured the RX10 could finally hit the sweet spot.

In my hands, my initial thoughts were “wow, this is a really nice camera”. When I scanned the specs, I even thought this could possibly squeeze in as my 2013 camera of the year winner. I’m a sucker for Zeiss lenses, good build quality and high quality displays so my expectations going in was that I was wielding a very special camera.

Much to my surprise, a funny thing happened while I was testing this camera and looking at its results. I began to forget about all of the other Sony cameras I’ve reviewed except one – the a3000. While on paper the two cameras are miles apart from each other, this camera really started to help me appreciate how good the a3000 really is. This led to a conclusion that why isn’t this camera so good that I’m wanting to compare it to the a7R that I tested at the same time I tested this camera – in similar conditions? The answer is simple, this camera has most of the drawbacks of the a7/a7R yet its only advantage seems to be a big zoom lens. The more I used this camera, I thought – why wouldn’t I just get a a7 with a good lens or save money and get a a3000 that I felt created images that weren’t $1000 worse than this camera? However, each time I thought this I kept saying “but it’s got a Zeiss lens, and it’s well built, and it’s got a better display, and it’s got all this cool stuff (that many people would never use).” This of course begged the question, were all of these things creating images that were a $1000 better than a3000 or would a little more money for an a7 be a better choice?

Read on to see what I came to love and hate about this camera, and my final verdict about how it fairs against its much cheaper and a little more expensive siblings.

Hands On Notes

To keep things short, I’m just including a brain dump of my notes below rather than a more narrative discussion:

  • I was surprised to discover that if the hood is off, that the popup flash isn’t half bad. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the better pop-up flashes that I’ve tested. Of course doing flash exposure compensation is very cumbersome, but I quickly found myself wishing for this popup flash on the a7R I was testing.
  • Like all Sony’s I’ve tested, I had an above average problem with blurry photos due to shutter speed choices by the camera. I also somehow ended up with ISO 3200 as the max ISO in Auto (my review unit could have came that way by accident), so I had dozens of shots ruined by the camera choosing f/4, 1/8 sec @ ISO 3200 in aperture priority mode. I won’t blame the camera for those failures as Auto ISO will support the maximum ISO, but it did seem to have a love affair with 1/30 sec quite often (which if you have moving humans usually means blurry photos).
  • One thing that really bugged me was that it was missing a front control wheel compared to the a7/a7R and many cameras I’ve tested. Some could argue that the aperture ring compensates for this, but it just annoyed me as I constantly found myself hunting for it.
  • I loved the aperture ring for quick and easy access, and I appreciated the switch underneath that allowed for a silent mode when doing video. While I preferred the tactile feedback, I appreciate the ability to do both.
  • While on paper the LCD good, it didn’t wow me in real life. I’d consider it more sufficient than anything else, and its pivoting screen was limited so you can’t do a selfie with your spouse or partner.
  • The electronic viewfinder (EVF) had that common Sony unreal feeling like you are watching something with nasty fluorescent lights. There was also latency when panning that I found to be disturbing. I didn’t experience either of these issues in the a7R that I reviewed, so I consider this EVF more of a checkbox feature than something I’d ever want to use.
  • During my testing I found that the battery life was adequate, so I have no complaints there.
  • I loved the range of the Zeiss zoom lens, but it tries to do so much that it comes at the cost of the image quality. A fixed f/2.8 across 24-200mm (effective) sounds like a dream and too good to be true, and in this case it proves to be just that – an unrealistic dream. This might have been a good lens 5 – 10 years ago, but it’s mediocre – at best – by today’s standards.
  • The in-camera noise reduction is unacceptably bad on this camera. I highly recommend shooting with it turned off and/or only shooting RAW then using a quality product like Noiseware to eliminate noise in a less destructive manner.
  • Auto White Balance could be very bad indoors, so this is a camera that I’d advise choosing a non-default white balance or using a gray card if you aren’t going to be shooting RAW (i.e., videos, pano, etc…).
  • The menu system on this camera is very cumbersome and the default button configuration make things like setting your flexible spot AF point very tedious. As a result, you’ll spend quite a bit of time figuring out how to get everything usable via numerous trips to the web due to a very inadequate printed manual. This is NOT a camera I’d even dream of letting my wife use as it’s too complicated compared to the Fujifilm X10/X20 or Canon G series cameras that she has enjoyed using in the past.
  • The autofocus performance and burst mode failed to impress me, and my active 4 year old repeatedly defeated it. Unless I had very good light and he was moving in a predictable pattern, I found the suitability for photographing my toddler to be below average. I would never trust this camera with an important shot of my kids or school sports.
  • Like the a7R, the timer drive mode failed to engage about 70% of the time. As a result, I’d have to hold the shutter release button for the entire 10 second countdown and then let go as the shot was taken which defeats the whole purpose! 100% of those shots naturally came out blurry, so I was very frustrated when the camera would do this for my long exposures shots where I had the camera on a tripod.

Bookshelf Test

The following shots are done on a tripod with all camera default settings except I also enable RAW. The full gallery of bookshelf images can be found at here, but I’ve included a few noteworthy images below. Please keep in mind that the images are not crooked – the camera is level, but the bookshelf has sagged over time due to weight so I use camera level instead of adjusting the camera for a level shot of the bookshelf. There’s also lens distortion with this lens at 24mm (effective).

f/5.6 @ 8.8 mm, 10s, ISO 125, No Flash

The result here is competitive with many DSLR’s – especially the entry level models. I found the results to be perfectly acceptable with the minimum native ISO of 125 (others are usually ISO 100 or 200 but not this camera).

f/4 @ 8.8 mm, 1/20, ISO 12800, No Flash

At ISO 12,800 there’s so much damage done to the image by the in-camera noise reduction that tons of detail is lost.

f/4 @ 8.8 mm, 1/20, ISO 12800, No Flash, From RAW via ACR 8.3

If you take the unprocessed RAW (shown above after ACR defaults) you’ll see that it’s got lots of good data with easy to remove noise. The image below is the same file (click for full-size) with Noiseware (Tutorial) default settings. The result is a decent file at a high ISO.

f/4 @ 8.8 mm, 1/20, ISO 12800, No Flash, From Raw with Noiseware Defaults

Be sure to click the above images to really get an appreciation of what’s happening here at full-size. This camera does an okay job, but most will find ISO 6400 to be the preferred upper limit.

Real World Sample Images

The following images come from in-camera JPEG’s using the camera default noise reduction settings. Most camera settings are the default with the exception of RAW+JPEG, a desired White Balance, a desired focus point, and occasionally a desired creative style being used.

All images are copyright Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

f/5.6 @ 8.8 mm, 1/30, ISO 640, No Flash, Custom White Balance
This is a camera that will reward you if you get your white balance right in-camera manually

f/5.6 @ 8.81 mm, 1/30, ISO 800, No Flash, Custom White Balance

f/5.6 @ 8.8 mm, 1/30, ISO 2500, No Flash, Auto White Balance

DRO seemed to have some complete failures at time despite being in Auto mode

f/2.8 @ 11.56 mm, 1/40, ISO 500, No Flash

Reds are always a challenge, but cameras with a wider dynamic range can usually avoid the transition to orange shown here

f/8 @ 14.53 mm, 1/40, ISO 640, No Flash, Aperture Priority, –1 EV
The historical method of doing –1EV compensates but I’m finding that better cameras (and even some smart phones) can do this right in-camera without user intervention like this

f/8 @ 31.77 mm, 1/10, ISO 3200, No Flash

The dynamic range isn’t point and shoot bad, but its not RX-1 good

f/8 @ 10.28 mm, 6s, ISO 125, No Flash

Despite using a tripod, it took me 16 tries to get this shot due to problems with the in-camera timer not working

f/5.6 @ 10.49 mm, 1/30, ISO 1000, No Flash

Unless I went full manual, this was about the only shots I could get of my toddler that weren’t blurry

f/5.6 @ 42.73 mm, 1/100, ISO 3200, No Flash, Auto White Balance

I was very unimpressed with skin tones and portraits with auto white balance

f/5.6 @ 39.2 mm, 1/125, ISO 2000, No Flash, Cloudy White Balance

Cloudy was better, but still kinda green and blah

f/5.6 @ 45.37 mm, 1/125, ISO 2000, No Flash, Shade White Balance

Shade just gave a jaundice appearance to skin

f/8 @ 8.8 mm, 1/250, ISO 125, No Flash, In-Camera Pano

On multiple occasions my pano’s would leave a gray block on the right. Regardless of the reason, it seems like the camera should detect and trim this unnecessary block.

f/8 @ 8.8 mm, 1/200, ISO 125, No Flash

Zoom out and you can get a huge field of view

f/8 @ 73.3 mm, 1/250, ISO 200, No Flash

But zooming in all the way on the same scene and you’ve got a spy camera <g>

f/8 @ 8.83 mm, 5s, ISO 125, No Flash,
Tripod & Timer
Not bad, but I’ve seen many cameras outperform the results I see here

f/10 @ 10.49 mm, 3.2s, ISO 200, No Flash, Tripod & Timer

This reminded me more of what I’d expect to get from an a3000, not a camera with a Zeiss lens

See the full gallery at http://photos.ronmartblog.com/sony/rx10.

Real World Sample Video

Click here to go to this video on YouTube


To be fair, I could be a little overly harsh on this camera as I was testing the a7R at the same time I was testing this camera. The a7R has incredible image quality, so it has a way of making lesser cameras look inadequate. As a result, this might have skewed my opinion compared to what I might have thought had I tested this camera in isolation. However, I kept coming back to the same thought with this camera – I’d rather have a a7 if I was going to spend this kind of money, and if I was going to save money I’d prefer a NEX-7 or possibly even the super bargain a3000.

The Zeiss lens on this camera really disappointed me, but most super zooms with this much reach generally do. There’s a reason a really good zoom with 200mm spread cost a fortune, so if you cut corners on the glass then everything else looks bad on a fixed lens camera. In the end, I think that is where this camera falters and its also why its a3000 sibling succeeds – because it doesn’t try to overachieve.

This isn’t a bad camera, but I don’t think it’s one that is going to make any active/impatient photographers or parents with kids very happy (unless they only shoot in manual mode in good light). I also think that unless you always process the RAW files, you’ll probably find yourself seriously underwhelmed by the image quality (of the in-camera JPEG’s). Better quality is available by processing the raw images and using Noiseware (Tutorial), but for some that will be an additional unwanted step in their workflow. It’s also rather bulky in these days of camera downsizing, so I can just think of so many better choices on the market than this camera.

Like many Sony cameras, I find myself commending Sony for trying to meet a market need yet I find myself struggling to find enough reasons to recommend this camera. In the end, I can’t due to its unimpressive lens performance and below average usability. For as many things as this camera does right, I feel this would be a camera that offered much buyers remorse. I quickly found that I could trust it for travel photography or important family events, so I’d often reach for my smart phone as a backup to make sure I got the shot. With that being the case, why would I bother carrying this bulky camera with me?

My advice is that if you must stick with Sony then consider the a7 or NEX-7 instead. If you are willing to branch out then consider the Fujifilm X-E2, Canon 70D, or Nikon D7100 (at the time this was written). If quality trumps price then I’d consider the 5D Mark III, Nikon D610, or Canon 6D as alternatives (in that order).

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order on the B&H web site. My friends at Amazon have it available here.

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If you make a purchase using links found in this article, I may make a commission. It doesn’t cost you a penny more, but it does help to support future articles like this. B&H provided me with this loaner camera, but it was returned to them shortly after this review was published.

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Anonymous said...

You should read Ming Thein's and Kirk Tuck's web site to see their opinion of the RX10 and the results they are getting from it. Both put your bookshelf test to shame.

Since you seem to only like Cannon, Nikon and Fuji cameras why don't you stick to reviewing them. I find it interesting that better photographers get great results from cameras that you pan I wonder why?


ronmartblog.com said...

Hi Nathan,

I'm sorry you feel that way, but would you rather I give this camera a glowing review when I didn't feel that way? Would you prefer that I not tell you about the features that I found did not work particularly well? There's lots of sites that do that, but I try to point out not only what does go well but what doesn't with the cameras that I review - including Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm.

Unlike Ming, I don't edit my images in any way for my camera reviews. What you see is how they came out of the camera with no cropping, borders added, sharpening, contrast/color adjustments, etc... What's more, I try to capture images that are more everyday feel which I think represents what a majority of my audience would see if they used this camera themselves. Not all of my readers are as gifted photographers like Ming, and in all honesty I wouldn't classify myself as good as him from an artistic standpoint either. I guess if you are taking pictures that look like Ming's, then perhaps his style may suite you.

As for Kirk, I'm not familiar with him but I do find it interesting that he and Ming both use the Swiss Army Knife analogy in their concluding paragraphs. I try to do an independant review with original content and feedback, so what you find here isn't a "me too" review - it's a review about what I really think about the product. People are free to agree or disagree and solicit feedback from other sites/users. However, the majority of the feedback I get from real owners of the products that I review is [yeah, I noticed the same problems you mentioned in your review which makes me trust your site a lot more than others].

I don't claim to be the best photographer, and I have seen some gifted photographers get better images with their iPhones than many gear reviewers get with their best camera. Does that mean that the iPhone is the best camera on the market?

I'm guessing you are upset because you either own this camera or wanted to purchase it, and my feedback didn't mirror what you were hoping I would say. I'm sorry but I don't go along with the crowd and offer my real and honest feedback on all the cameras I review - even the ones I like. This approach has helped this site to currently enjoy 89k visitors from 180 countries per month, so it's a review methodology I intend to continue.

I think Sony is on the brink of some really great products, so I hope that they will see my feedback and use it to improve - as I think other camera makers have.


Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

The files I've shown in my running reviews of the RX10 are not manipulated, sharpened or subject to noise reduction software. My results have been very different from yours. I understand that Ming Thein has a post processing routine for the images he puts on the web. It may be cumbersome to people who want to see the straight files but it does show what a skilled photographer can do with the files. I am less skilled so I settle for showing my readers how the images look out of camera. I applaud your honesty in your feelings for the camera.

ronmartblog.com said...

Hi Kirk,

Yeah, I didn't detect that you had done any processing to your files. I should have pointed that out, so thanks for chiming in.

I have lots of respect for Ming's work too. We all have our own ways of reviewing gear and sometimes we'll agree and other times we will disagree. It's the nature of blogging because we are all sharing our own opinions.


Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

So true. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify. Keep on writing. The critics can write their own blogs if they feel inclined....