Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review

When we first heard about the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 our ears pricked up with joy. A superzoom-esque camera with a 24-200mm f/2.8 equivalent lens and the same 1-inch sensor as found in the award-winning Cyber-shot RX100 II - could the RX10 be the all-in-one camera for all things?

Then we saw its DSLR-like size and caught wind of the £1,000 asking price and were left scratching our heads. Just who was the RX10 aimed at?

Fortunately we had almost a week to experiment with the camera and all it had to offer out in the wild - quite literally, from the St Lucian rainforest, to beaches, townships and triathlon finish lines - and it all fell into place. The RX10’s audience might still be niche, but Sony has developed a crossover camera that answers a lot of questions - while posing some others. Should you consider buying one?

Crossover category

The Cyber-shot RX10 reads like one kind of camera on paper, but to us it felt somewhat different from potential expectations. It can’t be described as a superzoom as the top-end 200mm equivalent just isn’t far-reaching enough when considered against almost-competitors such as the Panasonic Lumix FZ200.

READ: Panasonic Lumix FZ200 review

At the other end of the scale the lens - a 28-200mm equivalent, complete with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture - gives the RX10 both weight and proportion of a DSLR scale. And yet the lens isn’t removable. This is an all-in-one solution; a camera category all of its own.

So who might buy it? Well, buy a DSLR with a similar lens and the lens alone would cost more than the RX10’s outlay. So there’s one obvious angle. We know that £1,000 is a lot of money - but all things relative, it makes sense in this context.

Pro design

That price tag begins to make even more sense when getting used to the quality of everything that’s on board. In addition to a solid, weather-sealed body - we’ve been rained on, coated in sand, and have had to clean the then grubby front optic many times - there are all the dials and buttons you’re likely to need too.

On top is a mode dial to the left side, with a +/-3EV exposure compensation dial to the opposite right. Just forward from the latter is a custom "C" button for quick access to whatever you programme in for quick selection purposes.

But perhaps most exciting of all is a proper clickable aperture ring. Or, as luck would have it videographer fans, non-clickable. The f/2.8-16 aperture range can be adjusted in third stops, or if you want an open, smooth-rotation when capturing video footage and making live adjustments then flick the on/off button to the base of the switch. Our only gripe is the placement of said switch: it’s too easy to knock it into the non-click mode by accident.

Like a "normal" compact camera, the RX10 has a zoom toggle next to the shutter to glide through the zoom range or, if you’d prefer, the rotational lens ring will electronically power through the range. It travels smoothly, but - and another issue for us - it travels too slowly. And we couldn’t find an option within the menu to give it some extra oomph so it’d charge through that range. It’s one thing having a decent lens - this is a Vario-Sonnar T* - instead of a pricey DSLR optic, but if the manual focus rotation is a slow-down hindrance then that could be the difference between buying or not. Such is the way with a non-analogue lens, and this is where it feels more HX300 than pro.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot HX300 review

Fully featured

But the other features make up for our small gripes. The rear 3-inch, 1,440k-dot LCD screen is mounted in a title-angle bracket that we found ourselves using a whole lot for waist-level work.

Then there’s the built-in electronic viewfinder which is exceptional as these things go. It’s in an entirely different league from anything you’ll find in a compact camera: the same 1,440k-dot resolution as the camera's main 3-inch screen but squeezed into a 0.39-inch OLED panel - and it looks great. It’s sharp, it’s smooth in playback, the magnification feels more like using the NEX-6 - it’s that level of pro - and it was an essential when the Caribbean sunlight became too much to manage via the rear screen.

READ: Sony NEX-6 review

There is always going to be the party that won’t like using an electronic viewfinder as much as an optical one, and while we get that we’re totally sold that the RX10’s finder is more than good enough. In some high-contrast scenes feedback was a little dark or pushed contrast to excess, but that was our only moan.

A glance at the front of the camera reveals a focus-type switch - enabling quick adjustment between single (S), continuous (C), manual (MF) and direct manual focus (DMF - for manual focus override). We predominantly used the camera in single autofocus where it proved quick and accurate to lock onto subjects. There are options for automatic multi-point, centre-point only and a flexible spot focus area that can be user-defined around the majority of the screen. Zoom through the focal range and the autofocus speed doesn’t change much at all, meaning even those full extension shots are delivered with speed. The only thing we'd like to see is a Panasonic-style "Pinpoint" autofocus system.

READ: Panasonic Lumix GM1 review

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review - sample image at ISO 125, f/2.8 - click for full-size JPEG crop

One of the most impressive things about the lens is just how close it can be to a subject and still be able to focus. A standard 200mm DSLR lens won’t focus just 30cms from the lens' front element, whereas the RX10 can do just this. Pull the zoom back to its widest-angle setting and it’s reduced ten fold to just 3cms. Top stuff.

For the other focus modes we found the "focus peaking" feature in manual focus - where in-focus subject edges glow with a colour to confirm that they’re in focus - to be of use, and continuous autofocus delivered with some success too.

We say some success, as if you want to use the RX10 for tracking fast-moving subjects it’s not going to always deliver. We were shooting the finish line of the first St Lucia triathlon and were able to capture tired runners crossing the line in frozen-action and sharp detail.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review - sample image at ISO 125, 1/1600th sec - click for full-size JPEG crop

However, we found in some cases the camera would miss the moving subject and end up focusing on a promo flag behind, for example. As there’s not a huge amount of continuous autofocus control - the camera recognises what it believes to be the subject, which it then wraps a green/white box around in order to live track - and no touchscreen or more advanced 3D tracking it can slip up. But it’s about as good as you’d expect from, say, a compact system camera these days; it just won’t replace a decent DSLR system.

Image quality

All things considered the RX10 had thus far delivered a stronger experience than we were probably anticipating. And when it comes to image quality it continues in the same vein. We were certainly hopeful that the same 20.2-megapixel sensor as found in the RX100 II would deliver the goods, but with a different lens and body combination there was no guarantee.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II review

In the RX10 Sony has done it again. With many superzoom cameras image quality is often a compromise and there are fewer creative controls at your fingertips compared to a large-sensor system camera. The RX10 might not outsmart something like the full-frame Alpha A7 - which we were also testing in tandem alongside this fixed-lens model, not that it’s a directly comparable camera - but by and large it really impressed us.

READ: Sony Alpha A7 review

At the lowest ISO 125 setting - there are "extended" ISO 80 and 100 options available too, albeit with less dynamic range - shots are sharp and there’s barely a whisper of colour fringing (chromatic aberration) to the outermost edges. In raw files colour fringes are apparent to some subject edges but they're "clean" and not of great concern - some quick adjustments will see them gone no doubt.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review - image sample at ISO 125, f/2.8 - click for full-size raw crop

However, even at this lowest ISO setting the JPEG processing is a little "harsh" - that’s the best way we can think to describe it. Some of the more detailed finery in shots lacks the pop that might be expected and there’s some mottled patterning visible in the out-of-focus areas that you can see if you zoom right into 100 per cent scale on screen.

Bump up the sensitivity and we’ve found ISO 200 and 400 to be of similarly impressive ilk. That shallow depth of field is beautiful thanks to the sensor size, even if it lacks the fully-rounded bokeh punch of a higher-end system. We were shooting wild hens in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Square in Soufrière, St Lucia, which exemplifies the in-focus sharpness achievable when snapping at f/2.8. Great stuff.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review - sample image at ISO 200 - click for full-size JPEG crop

Push up into four-figure ISO sensitivities and, quite frankly, the RX10 surpassed our expectations. It’s typical for a compact-like camera - we know it’s not exactly compact in physical terms - to take a bit of a dive off a cliff come such ISO numbers, but not so here. We can see why the RX10 could be considered the all-in-one camera solution.

Only the raw files will need a bit of work to get the most out of them. The RX10 pushes the sharpness, contrast and shifts the brightness considerably in its JPEG shots which is particularly apparent when dealing with the original, untouched data. It’s worth the time when dealing with lower ISO shots as there's more refinement to the grain which, to our eyes, delivers a cleaner presentation - so long as you have a decent sharpening process in post-production.

Sony Cyber-shot RX10 review - sample image at ISO 1000 - click for full-size raw crop

It's our job to find fault, and there are one or two niggles. But every time we look through the shots we took with the RX10 we don’t get the feeling they were taken on a "compact" camera. The detail, blurred background effect when needed and sharpness straight from camera just stand out far beyond what such cameras would usually offer.

But as we alluded to earlier, it’s hard to compare the RX10 to, well, anything - it blows superzoom cameras out of the water, there’s no doubt about that, but at £1,000 it’s in a different league on the price front. It might not quite take on a DSLR with similar lens, but it does a darn good job and that was always going to be the compromise to make between those two potential product pillars. And, you know what, we think the RX10’s results are great.

Videographer’s dream

There’s another area to not ignore in the RX10 too: video capture. Most cameras can capture 1080p files these days, but the RX10 has a number of features that push it up a notch.

First off there’s that de-clicked aperture ring which means noise-free and smooth adjustment in real time. Second there’s the ability to manual focus if you want, complete with focus peaking to assist - again, no additional noisy interruptions. Third there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack to monitor audio in addition to a secondary 3.5mm microphone input to record audio off camera. It's about as complete a system as you can get and as the viewfinder is electronic it's also possible to use this during capture for additional stability.

Combined these features make the RX10 a very effective videography tool, the 1-inch sensor can be used to its maximum for blurred background effects, and the ability to shoot at f/2.8 is another bonus for not only the results but for keeping the ISO sensitivity down in dim conditions.

The 1080p files are captured at 60/50fps at 28Mbps at best quality, or there are 25/24p options at 24Mbps in the Full HD format if such frame-rates are preferred. Or there’s a micro HDMI output to capture files off-camera if you want to rig the camera up on a system - we've queried with Sony and the company has confirmed it's a clean HDMI out. Kudos.

Verdict

There's no doubting that the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 has a huge list of positives under its belt - that sharp, bright lens and constant f/2.8 aperture; the large sensor; the physical aperture ring; speedy autofocus; and a great LCD and viewfinder combination. It's a camera with stacks going for it, but it's not a camera that's going to suit all on account of its price point and physical size. That zoom also needs to travel faster, while there could be some refinements for in-camera crop, pinpoint autofocus options and a touchscreen wouldn't go amiss either.

But as much as we didn't quite get the camera at first, and irrelevant of how many pros and cons we can throw its way, it all came down to experiencing the RX10 in the real world for it to embed itself in our consciousness. And over the days that we delved deep into RX10 land, the more we wanted to stay there. Everything rapidly fell into place and we were snapping some great images with minimal effort. There was never a moment where we were left wondering "ah, if only I had that other camera with me."

The RX10 is the sort of camera that blows any long-zoom compact out of the water, while bringing high-end DSLR level features without the even-more-absurd price association. It sits in a category all of its own, will have some videographers' attention based on its spec alone, and delivers genuinely decent image quality.

Indeed the RX10 turned our initial expectations on their head and got us wondering why such a camera hadn't made it to market before. It's niche, but it's nifty - it's definitely caught our attention, even if it won't convince everyone. Now where's that spare £1,000?