Can One Camera Rule Them All? Sony RX-10 III Review

On a recent trip a met a guy carrying a cool looking little camera, a Sony RX10 III.  He let me hold it and try it, but only for a minute or two.  His story was a National Geographic photographer was a guest at his camera club, and suggested that people dump their big heavy DSLR bodies with all those lenses and get the RX10, and just carry that.  It’s extremely wide range zoom lens and advanced shooting capabilities covered most if not all needs of every semi-pro and even some pros.

Well, I was intrigued!  And, because it will shoot 1080p and “4K” video, and even slow motion up to 900+fps, well, I had to try one.

My choice is always to rent something for a while to get to know it  and see if it’s something I want to own.  I rented a Canon L series EF 24-105 f4 lens a while back because I wanted to try something better than my EF 18-105mm.  I was actually frustrated with it, and after a few days gave up on it.  Image quality was great, but it was way too limiting to be a lens I could keep on the camera. So renting paid off with experience.

I got an RX10 from lensrentals.com for a week.  It showed up in a nice little Lowepro bag, inside of a Pelican case, inside of a shipping box complete with return label and packing tape. No instruction book, but it’s all online anyway, so no big deal.  But actually the camera looked brand new, like nobody had ever used it.  It came with a battery and charger, no memory card, but I had a 64gig SD card ready to go.

My goal with this camera is to miss fleeting pictures by not having to swap lenses while carrying less gear.  As a subset, I wanted the longer zoom range for some wildlife shots, and of course to have the camera double as a great HD video camera.  Literally, a One Camera to Rule Them All solution.  As you might expect, it didn’t quite earn that grand title.

What I liked: 

The 600mm equivalent maximum zoom focal length got mixed reviews online, but I had a really hard time giving it up.  I’m an extreme lens fanatic, I love the longs and the very shorts, so I adapted to 600mm in seconds, and put it to good use, and loved it. It would be very costly and heavy to replicate that with a lens on my 7Dii.

The RX10iii is quite small (from my 7Dii perspective), and very light  The LCD screen is large, and can be quite informative.   The camera senses when you hold it up to your eye and switches to the eye-level electronic viewfinder so quickly you’ll think it’s on all the time.

I also liked the wide-angle end of the lens, a 24mm equivalent, very handy to have.  But if that’s not wide enough, you can shoot a panorama with the now-traditional panning the camera while it shoots method, which results in a series of shots stitched internally into a pano image.

I had fund with the video slow motion!  Lots of fun!  240fps, nice…but 960fps…now that’s almost Slomo Guys level.  Ok, not even close, but it almost seemed that way shooting humming birds wings.

The eye level video viewfinder was nice to have.  I hate composing video shots looking at the back of a camera.

What I didn’t like:

Startup time from off…talk about slo-mo!  Seconds while the camera boots up and the lens extends.  Those are shot-missing seconds, folks.  And my 7dii has fired a dozen or more shots in that same time from starting cold.

Zoom motor: One of the big things that separates pro video cameras from non-pro or semi-pro video cameras is the ability to control zoom speed, in particular, very slow zoom speeds.  The RX10iii will go Fast or “normal”, neither of which is anywhere near slow enough for professional looking “presidential crawl” zooms.  Worse, it has a very consumer-handicam zoom start/stop, not as smooth a speed ramp as is really needed.  Zooming with the lens ring is pretty much hopeless, the finger lever control is a bit better sometimes, but zooming is almost always a bit of a pain, and feels out of control.

Image Stabilization: The RX10iii has some kind of AI mode that tries to figure out what you are trying to shoot and locks onto that.  But it gets it wrong too.  I think there may be a way to shut that off, but the menu…well, next paragraph please.

As others have reported, the menu tree is a mess.  It’s illogical, difficult to navigate, and frankly very hard to learn.  I know I’m pre-programmed with the Canon menu system, but I deal with menus a lot on other devices, NVRs, AVRs, and measurement software to name a few.  But this thing was a task!   I had to go to the manual many times, and that didn’t always help.  It’s a big weak spot in this camera.

Image review after shooting: BIG ;problem here.  I never realized how much often a take a shot then recompose by zooming.  I guess I do it a lot.  If you take a shot with the RX10iii then immediately zoom out you get an image grid of a bunch of your recent shots and no live viewfinder.  Oh my, what a hair-puller!  Really had to try to un-learn that quick re-zoom thing.

Auto focus: There’s nothing like Nikon and Canon’s DLSR auto focus system.  Fast, accurate, easy to predict and work with.  The RX10 got lost a number of times, flat refused to lock focus on anything.  An eagle in flight against a clear blue sky completely threw it, fo example.  Shots lost.  Same eagle in a tree, bingo, dead on.  Shots fired…I mean pictures taken (the bird is protected!).

Low light performance: good, not great. If you shoot in extreme light conditions, use a 5D IV or a 7Diii, forget the RX10iii.

Sony’s own special Camera Raw format:  I don’t get it.  Why do we need so many incompatible camera raw file types?  I had to jump through hoops to import these images into iPhoto (yes, I’m behind) or more importantly Photoshop CS6.  Way more trouble than I’d like, but a few (expensive!) software updates and I’d probably not notice it much.

The eye level electronic viewfinder is a tad slow.  Slow enough to affect my timing for critical shots.  It’s also not nearly as sharp as an optical finder, though that part wasn’t as big a deal as I expected.  I could live with it.  At least until I picked up my 7D again.  Wow, that’s better!

Conclusion

Overall, I had fun with this camera, and did find it hard to let go of and return.  But it was also frustrating.  It met my goal of having a one-lens, light and compact camera, but it wouldn’t necessarily help me avoid missed shots because of slow start-up, and slow zoom.  I really liked a lot of features, but I also found some others frustrating.  My vacation shooting was fun, mostly, and the images are very nice.  I would not mind owning an RX10ii as a second camera, but I’m not giving up my 7Dii and lenses either, which at one point, I thought I just might.  The video capabilities were good, slowmo very nice, but zooming problems keep it from being a real video camera.

Would I buy one? Maybe.  Definitely maybe.

On that note, I still think DSLR video shooting is hobbled.  Once you’ve shot with pro video cameras nothing else will suffice. I’ll be looking into some of the better pro-sumer stuff at some point.  And will, of course, be renting.