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Sony RX10 review: the everything camera

The future of the point-and-shoot is the superzoom

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Sony RX10 1024px
Sony RX10 1024px

It takes a lot to make me take off my headphones on the New York City subway. But one night, standing on the platform, I saw a crowd start to gather on the other side of the tracks. I pressed pause on my 945th listen of “Gust of Wind” and spent the next five minutes listening to a man in a winter coat sing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” in the loudest, most soulful voice I can imagine. It was one of my all-time favorite New York City moments, a nice reminder during a horrible winter that I still love this place.

After 30 seconds in a trance I wanted to take a picture, and I had the perfect thing: the Sony RX10. Sony’s new $1,299.99 superzoom has a big enough sensor to get a good shot in that dimly lit subway station, long enough zoom (just over 8x) to capture the man’s emotional face as he sang, and dual microphones that could just capture his voice two tracks away. And it’s simple enough that I wouldn’t miss my chance. My iPhone couldn’t get the shot I wanted, but the RX10 had a chance.

That’s why Sony made this camera, really. Because there are some shots a phone just can’t get. And while we’ve learned to accept a slightly lower-quality image in exchange for the convenience of a smartphone, sometimes you just need something better. So Sony built something a lot better.

Hardware and design

A sheep in wolf's clothing

Here’s how you’re meant to use the RX10: pick it up, turn it on, and take pictures. It looks like a DSLR but this is a point-and-shoot in the purest sense. On top there’s just one mode dial and one exposure control (a smart choice because it’s so straightforward: higher is brighter, lower is darker). There’s a scroll wheel on the back for flipping through pictures or changing primary settings, plus two programmable buttons for quickly changing other settings. I bet most users won’t ever touch any of them, and that’s fine. But if you’re so inclined, the RX10 is actually a great way to start to experiment and learn what settings do.

To a point, anyway. Virtually every setting and option you’d want is here somewhere in Sony’s simple text-based menu system, but the RX10 is never going to handle like a DSLR. I mostly shoot in aperture priority mode, controlling aperture and ISO and leaving everything else up to the camera. That works fine, but as soon as I try to shoot in manual mode, or even control things like metering or the location of the focus point, it gets clunkier. The RX10 is above all made to be simple, which is where its price really holds it back: this camera isn’t an investment, really, and you’re not going to grow into it beyond a certain point. It just is what it is.

What it is is a hefty, black, magnesium alloy camera with leathery finishes everywhere and a look not dissimilar to Sony’s Alpha DSLRs. It’s sturdy and weatherproof, surviving both a shoot in the snow and a topple out of my bag. It weighs just shy of 2 pounds but is relatively easy to hold in one hand thanks to the big right-hand grip. More problematic is that at nearly 6 inches thick and 5 inches wide this camera needs a bag or a strap, not a jacket pocket.

It’s the RX10’s lens that makes it so large, and with good reason. It zooms from 24mm to 200mm, at a bright f/2.8 aperture the entire way. It’s one of the most versatile superzoom lenses I’ve used, able to take solid photos whether I’m an inch or a room away from what I’m shooting.

There are superzooms with longer range (Nikon’s P520 has an insane 42x zoom, compared to 8.3x here), but few that are so good at both wide and tight angles. The lens’ only real issue is that it takes a long time to zoom in and out, since it’s all electronically controlled so as to be smooth when shooting video. There’s both a zoom trigger and a manual ring, but either way it takes a second to catch up. As long as my subject wasn’t running in my direction the camera’s zoom was more like a nuisance than a real problem, but shoot your kid's fast-moving soccer game at your own risk.

Display and viewfinder

Most people who buy the RX10 will be upgrading from a smartphone camera or a point-and-shoot, and in a fit of "It’s Photography Time!" may gravitate toward using the RX10’s electronic viewfinder. I’ve always been partial to optical viewfinders, which provide a more accurate view of the image you’re shooting (an EVF is still a screen, no matter how good), but I’m coming around to Sony’s idea. The RX10’s eyepiece shows all relevant information and overlays it on top of your subject; I can do just about everything without ever taking my eye away from the shot. But I suspect most people will eventually shift to using the 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera just like I did. It’s every bit as sharp, bright enough to use outdoors, and able to tilt up and down so you can shoot with the camera above your head or below your waist. (Sadly, though, no selfie mode.) There’s something wonderfully focused about using a viewfinder, but I’ve realized that with the LCD on I can both see the shot through the camera and in the real world.

Equally comfortable being used like a point-and-shoot or a DSLR

Thanks to built-in Wi-Fi and NFC, you can also control the camera with a smartphone using Sony’s PlayMemories app. But I don’t recommend it: the app is slow and simplistic, can lag pretty severely, and requires you to connect to the camera each and every time you want to use it. It’s certainly the easiest way to get photos from your camera to your phone or to set up a remote shutter in a pinch, but it’s not a good system to use frequently.

The RX10 is essentially the middle ground between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR. It’s a little bigger than I’d like, but it’s well-made and smartly considered. There’s plenty a pro will find to do with it, but nothing so intimidating as to turn off a novice. Sony built a camera designed to take great pictures in almost any situation without any help. All you need to do is point, and shoot.

Performance and quality

Over weeks of shooting, I almost never took a bad picture with the RX10. The 1-inch, 20.2-megapixel sensor is the same as the one inside the smaller RX100, and it works to similar effect. Photos are sharp from corner to corner, colors are vivid and accurate, and dynamic range was far beyond what I expected.

It's hard to take a bad picture with the RX10

The f/2.8 lens offers wonderful depth of field, especially zoomed in — DSLR lenses that can get this close and still shoot soft-background shots often cost nearly as much as the RX10. I was able to shoot clean pictures up to about ISO 3200 and safely went as high as ISO 5000 as long as I was shooting for Instagram and Facebook and not Flickr or a frame. At high ISOs Sony’s Bionz X processor does some serious noise reduction, which keeps photos from looking grainy but in really dark spots can leave them soft and mushy; I shot with the feature set to Low unless I was in truly dire straits.

Of course, in no measure is the RX10 the equal of a high-end DSLR like Sony’s own Alpha A7, a gorgeous mirrorless camera like the Fujifilm X100S or even a cheaper model like the Canon T5i. Many cameras with an APS-C sensor will do better in low light, and some will take sharper photos with the right glass. The RX10's real appeal is its versatility, though the image quality is certainly more than good enough for my tastes. For most shots, I couldn’t choose between what I get from the RX10 and, say, Sony’s NEX-6, and I rarely need better than that.

It shoots great video, too, at a handful of different frame rates and resolutions up to 1080p60. I always shoot at 24p — as should everyone — and the video the RX10 produced was excellent, both in picture and in sound. There’s a button on the back that starts recording a video as soon as you press it, no matter where you were on the camera before. The mechanized zoom means it goes in and out smoothly, and the finished product always looks twice as professional as it ought to.

Sony’s Achilles’ heel with many of its camera is autofocus, a problem that sadly plagues the RX10 too. I’d point at even a clear and obvious subject and the camera would hunt around before finding focus. Occasionally, it would simply settle in a blurry spot and take an unusable photo. It didn’t happen much, just often enough that I caught myself crossing my fingers whenever I framed a shot I only had seconds to get. There’s no clear reason for the problem, since Sony has a sharp, fast lens and a fast processor. It just hasn’t quite nailed focusing.

Sony really needs to solve its autofocus problem

The autofocus was the only reason I ever missed a shot, too, because everything else about this camera is fast. It turns on and captures a shot in about two seconds, has essentially zero shutter lag, and can shoot about two shots per second in standard shooting mode. I got about 500 shots from the battery before it needed to charge, a process both good and bad. The camera charges via Micro USB, which means you’ll always be able to find a cable in a pinch — another user-friendly move from Sony — but it’s spectacularly slow, and there’s no cable in the box.

Does the RX10 always take the best picture, in every situation, no matter what? No. But I never found myself wishing I had a different camera. Just the opposite, in fact: using the RX10 is like having a DSLR and a bag full of lenses with me at all times. And while I would have otherwise been changing lenses on my DSLR, I just zoomed in, got the shot, and moved on.

The camera for everyone, for everything

Point-and-shoots are dying because all they offer is better quality — and it seems no one cares about better quality when they’re just cropping things to a square and putting them on Instagram. But superzooms are a growing market because they offer what neither phones nor compact cameras posses: versatility. The RX10 works whether you’re on the field or in the nosebleeds, whether you’re on a sunny beach or a dark club. It’s a camera for everyone, for every situation. It’s easily the best superzoom I’ve ever used, and a camera that will satisfy just about anyone who buys it.

At $1,299.99, however, the RX10 becomes a complicated decision. It’s really only for people who can afford a DSLR, and don’t mind carrying one around, but don’t want to deal with the complex operation or with buying into a huge lens ecosystem. (It’s also a great second camera for pros who don’t want to carry a bag full of glass and a heavy DSLR, but that’s an even smaller market.) I’ve found convincing friends and family to spend $699 for the RX100 is a tough sell, so doubling that for a big zoom lens is going to be even harder.

But if you can afford it, it’s worth it. The RX10 has become the camera I lend everyone who doesn’t know anything about photography, and each and every time they’ve come back with gorgeous shots and praise for the camera. And it’s crept into my workflow as well, becoming my go-to camera when I don’t know quite what I’ll be shooting. If I need to be ready for anything, to take any shot at any time, I can’t think of a camera I’d rather have in my bag than the RX10.

It got me the perfect shot in that subway station, right as the next train left and the man in the black winter hat started to belt “I was born, by the river” to a new crowd of waiting riders. I’ll never forget it.

Product photography by Michael Shane