Pop quiz, hot shot. What looks like an action cam, is tough like an action cam, but isn’t actually an action cam? I don’t know either, but that’s kind of the best way to describe the Sony RX0 Mark II. It’s a $700, video-centric, GoPro-shaped camera that could perhaps be called a travel camera or a vlogging camera. When the stars align, it shoots stunning footage. When they don’t, it’ll leave you scratching your head.
Body-wise, the RX0 II hasn’t changed much from 2017’s Mark I. It’s 1.63 inches tall x 2.38 inches wide x 1.44 inches deep and weighs 4.7 ounces. And though she be but little, she is fierce. The camera is waterproof to 33 feet, drop-proof to 6.5 feet, and crush-proof to 440 pounds. It also has a 1-inch image sensor capable of shooting 15.3MP stills, which is a lot bigger than the sensor on a GoPro (1/2.3-inch sensor for 12MP). The field of view, however, is much narrower than a GoPro’s, or really any other action cam on the market. The RX0 II has a (35mm equivalent) field of view of 24mm, where as a GoPro has a much wider 15mm equivalent. You really can’t stick it on the nose of your surfboard or use a selfie stick while snowboarding with it and expect to be in frame. This is the main reason why I wouldn’t really consider the RX0 II an action camera, but there are others, too, which we’ll get into a bit later.
The RX0 II can shoot video at 4K at speeds up to 30 fps or 1080p video at 120 fps. Both the GoPro Hero6 and Hero7 can shoot double that (4K60 and 1080p240), but the Sony has some tricks the GoPro doesn’t. For starters, it shoots video at a higher bitrate, which effectively crams more quality into your clips. In addition to Sony’s very smart Intelligent Auto mode (which basically chooses all the settings for you), if you switch to a manual mode you can gain a lot of granular control over the image. Something camera geeks will be happy to see is that the RX0 II can now shoot in the S-Log2 picture profile.
In layperson’s terms S-Log2 is a very flat color profile. Blacks and whites both appear grayish and colors are washed out and muted. Generally speaking, for those who are willing to really dig in during post-production and do some granular color correcting, this should give you the most flexibility to make the image match other cameras or give it the certain stylized look you’re after.
There are some significant caveats, though, when shooting S-Log2 with the RX0 II. While it does indeed give you a lot of flexibility in the colors, this is compressed video, so you’re only going to be able to push and pull so far (note: you can hook the RX0 II up to an external recorder for uncompressed 4:2:2 video, but that, to me, defeats the purpose of a pocket-sized camera). The dynamic range also falls way short of what you’d get with a larger-sensor camera, so there’s a limit to how much you can tinker with the shadows and highlights.
The biggest issue is that S-Log2 requires a minimum ISO of 1000. An ISO that high introduces a lot of digital noise into the shadows, especially on an image sensor this small. Also, because ISO 1000 is pretty sensitive, and because the camera has a fixed aperture of f/4.0, the only way for it to keep the image from being overexposed is to crank up the shutter speed like crazy. That’s not an ideal solution because higher shutter speeds generally result in a less cinematic image, which is probably why you’re using S-Log2 in the first place. Basically, it’s probably not worth it unless you have a suite of neutral density (ND) filters. Sony makes an ND filter kit, but it takes some installing, and then the camera stops being waterproof. You can also get a press-on ND filter kit made by PolarPro for about $120.
One thing that may appeal more to filmmakers than your average consumer is the RX0 II is built to work with multiple units. You can control five at once from your phone or, if you buy Sony’s $700 Camera Control Box, you can operate up to 100 of these at once. I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a rig on the set of an action movie, if they can get the footage to match their main cameras.
Woof, that was nerdy. Let’s get out of those weeds for a second.
The RX0 II feels mostly designed for vloggers, not action camera work
One of the reasons I said this camera is made for vloggers is the screen in the back can flip all the way up and face forward, essentially making this a very powerful little selfie cam. Again, the angle is fairly narrow, so it’s going to be a medium close-up at widest. When the lighting is right, that shot looks fantastic. The shallow depth of field with the 1-inch sensor gives you a sharp focus on your face while softly blurring the background. It creates nice separation, making it look like it was shot with a larger camera with a decent lens. The camera has electronic image stabilization, but it isn’t nearly as good as what you get with the GoPro Hero7 Black or even with Sony’s own X3000 Action Cam. It helps a bit, but it’s certainly nowhere near “gimbal-like.”
The built-in microphones on the camera sound shockingly good, especially for a waterproof camera. That said, this camera blessedly has a standard mic jack, as well as a micro HDMI port. Sony sells a small, directional, external mic, which will raise the audio quality even further when paired with a handle that Sony makes (that includes start / stop and zoom buttons). Frankly, though, I think the magic of this camera is how small it is, and if you start adding accessories, then it’s no longer that high-quality video camera that fits in your pocket.
The RX0 II shoots stills, of course, in both JPG and RAW formats. The photos look really good when there’s enough light. The Intelligent Auto mode does a reliable job of balancing light and detail, and the colors are nice and vivid. In low light, the image falls apart. When I took a photo of my dinner (something a lot of aspiring travel influencers will surely want to do with this) at a dimly lit bar, the ISO jumped up to 6400, and the resulting image is extremely noisy. It fairs a bit better than a GoPro would, but it’s certainly nowhere near as clean as my Google Pixel 3 XL.
Unfortunately, there are a few things about this camera which make it hard to recommend. The most glaring flaw is that there is no continuous autofocus. That means that the focus locks in when you begin recording, and it will stay at that focal point, so if your subject (or you) gets closer or further away it will start to blur, and the combination of the 1-inch sensor and the fixed f/4.0 aperture means it will blur quite badly. In practice, this ruined a ton of my footage. If I tried following friends on snowboards or skis it was almost impossible to maintain the same distance. If you start at a selfie angle and then want to turn the camera to show your surroundings, it can’t adjust, and so the scenery is blurred. When I tried to use the camera with a selfie stick for snowboarding, it focused on my glove, the stick itself, or me when it was close, then when I’d extend the stick it would be out of focus. It was very frustrating.
Lack of continuous autofocus is a real dealbreaker
I reached out to Sony to ask why AF-C was left out, and while the company didn’t have an official response, it indicated that the larger image sensor in a tiny body is likely the culprit.
“Creating a large sensor camera of the size of a[n action] camera required unprecedented optical and mechanical miniaturization, and continuous autofocus appears to be one of the tradeoffs,” said a Sony representative.
Those are all fair points, but the Sony RX100 line has the same sensor, in just a slightly larger body, and it does offer AF-C. I view the RX0 II as a run-and-gun camera. It’s something you want to be able to quickly pull out of a pocket and just start capturing high-quality content. The lack of continuous autofocus really hamstrings that effort. If I have to stop and then restart recording every time I want to focus on something new, I’m just going to start using my phone, which has continuous autofocus as well as tap to focus. It really limits the kinds of shots you can get and it’s a major oversight.
The gallery above has five sample shots straight from camera and the same images with light editing in Lightroom.
There are others. This camera’s menu system is nearly identical to the one on my Sony A7R III. It includes some awesome things like the ability to record proxy videos when shooting 4K (making them easier to edit later) and it has a histogram while you’re shooting. That said, the menu has 30 pages to it, and the font is extremely small. I have 20/20 vision and I couldn’t read it at all on a bright day. There are a few reasons for that. The 1.5-inch screen is tiny and very dim. Even more maddening, you can’t adjust the screen brightness when you’re shooting in 4K mode. I defy you to tell me that makes any sense. Also, the display isn’t a touchscreen which would help solve some of the menu woes as well as the focus issues.
Slow-motion features abound, but most are too low quality to be useful
Other tidbits? The camera has a built-in time-lapse mode, which is nice, and it includes Sony’s impressive Eye-AF, which allows the camera to dial in on a subject’s eye for focus. It’s handy for stills, but I wouldn’t really consider this a portrait camera, so continuous autofocus would be far more valuable to have. The camera suffers from very bad rolling-shutter effect (objects look like Jell-O when you pan sideways), and the image stabilization isn’t great. You can transfer your footage to Sony’s Movie Edit app on your phone which uses the camera’s accelerometer data to reduce rolling shutter and improve stabilization, but then you’re limited to 1080p exports, and the app is currently smartphone only, so it isn’t a great option.
Sony also has some high frame rate modes for super-slow motion, but beyond 1080p120, quality takes a real nosedive. You can shoot a few seconds of video at 240 fps, 480 fps, and 960 fps, which sounds cool until you realize that the resolution is reduced to 1676 x 942, 1676 x 566, and 1136 x 384, respectively. The 240 fps is usable for Instagram and that’s about it. The idea of shooting 960 fps is awesome, but at that resolution it really looks like garbage. These videos also take minutes (plural) to process. So, if you’re standing on a jump waiting for snowboarders to fly by, you’re going to miss a lot of stuff while you’re waiting for the camera to catch up.
So, ultimately, what do I think? This is an incredibly powerful camera that is capable of generating really beautiful images for its size, but ultimately it’s sandbagged by a couple bad decisions. It’s too limited to recommend it at its current $700 price tag. If you’re an aspiring vlogger I’d be way more inclined to recommend the Sony RX100 line. It has the same image sensor, but it will take much better photos (with optical zoom), be stronger in low light, and yes, it has continuous autofocus and a larger, more useful screen. It isn’t waterproof, but it will fit in your pocket. The latest RX100 VI goes for $1,200, which is a lot, but you can probably find a used Mark V or even a Mark IV for about the same or less than the RX0 II, and you’ll still get more bang for your buck. If it’s a true action camera you’re wanting, the best I’ve used is the GoPro Hero7 Black.
This camera has a lot of potential, but I’d wait to see what fixes they can make in the Mark III, if Sony decides to make one at all.
Photography by Brent Rose / The Verge
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