Sony RX10 III: The Swiss Army Knife of Cameras
By Craig Litten
Back in my photojournalism days my colleagues and I used to dream of the perfect zoom lens, and all-in-one that would encompass every lens we’d ever need to carry. We’d joke with each other about wanting something to the effect of a 24 to 600mm f2.8, that way we’d have only one lens covering every focal length we’d ever need, and it would be with us at all times. This was long before the days of the 16mm zooms of today, so we didn’t dare dream “that big.” We knew full well though, that this was technically impossible and if it was even possible it would be a huge lens that you wouldn’t be able to carry around. But we dreamed anyway. This was back in the film days, you know, full frame 24 x 36mm, plastic gelatin acetate.
When digital first started to become mainstream (think: Sony Mavica or Minolta RD-175), being naive as I was back then, I never dreamed digital would overtake film, so I totally dismissed it. It was clunky, bulky and frankly, the cameras were ugly. Little did I know though, back when dreaming of the perfect zoom lens, that it would become a reality in the digital realm mainly because of digital sensor technology (with sensors much smaller than 24 x 36mm), and most likely, computer aided lens design.
ENTER THE SONY RX10 III
It is true, the lens on the RX10 III in not an f2.8, but who cares, fast lenses are much lens important today than they once were. Back when I was shooting film for a living, we basically had two choices of film: black & white with an ISO of 400 (Kodak Tri-X 400), and color slide film (chrome) which was ISO 100 (Fujichrome RDP100—a.k.a. Provia). Both could be pushed processed, but the more you pushed them, the worse they looked. ISO 400 slide film did exist, but it looked really bad and was very grainy. The RX10 III gives us 1/3 stop more light at the wide end of 24mm equivalent (from this point forward when I mention focal length, I’m referring to the RX10III’s equivalent focal length) than my “dream lens,” and one stop less at f4. But it’s worth mentioning that if you are shooting with a top-of-the-line Nikon or Canon 600mm super telephoto lens (I used the Canon version for many years), it’s an f4 also. But unlike the film days, the RX10 III has high ISO capabilities and can be shot up to ISO 12,800.
MAY MIRACLES NEVER CEASE
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: the crown jewel of this camera or the RX10 III’s “ace up it’s sleeve”, is its 24 to 600mm zoom lens. Plain and simple, if you are thinking about getting this camera, THIS is the reason to plunk down your cash. It’s simply stunning in every way. I really put the camera though it’s paces and tested the lens in every type of situation I could think of—even a real wedding, and this lens shines at every focal length which hopefully you’ll be able to see for yourself in the images samples. Plus, I included a lot of straight-out-of-camera, jpegs for you to view.
When the camera first arrived and I picked up the box, it was a lot heavier than I expected. I proceeded to open the box and removed the camera, and was a bit turned off by its size and weight at first. Make no mistake, it’s a bit on the large size. Even though I’ve seen pictures of it compared with other models, I was hoping that it was smaller. Just glancing at it sitting on my desk, it looks like any DSLR—a bit bloated-looking compared to Sony’s other sleek models. It’s also weighty and has some heft to it. It feels very solid though, and is extremely well made. I’d say it looks and feels like a smaller to mid-range DSLR; perhaps a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D5500 with a larger kit zoom lens attached—that would be my guess as I don’t own either of those models, but think it a pretty fair comparison. Although, the zoom on the RX10 III feels a bit fatter of larger in diameter and shorter (when collapsed) than most kits zooms that come with DSLRs. It’s not a problem though as the grip is almost perfect and very grippy.
So again, when I first picked up the camera it felt large and heavy to me as I’m used to shooting with my Sony a7-series cameras and prime lenses. But when I started using it, all of the negative feelings and trepidation disappeared, and I rarely thought of its size because of how incredibly well the camera handles and performs.
So to sum up my feelings about the size and weight: when compared to the performance of the camera and what it will do for you, size and weight are totally a non-issue and really won’t matter at all to most users.
DESIGN AND HANDLING
I’m only going to touch on a few things that I noticed while using the camera. The RX10 III is solid and extremely well made and well designed. If you’ve owned or used the preview RX10 models, it’s obvious the RX10III takes its design cues from the former models, but it’s a bit beefier.
The viewfinder is excellent. So good in fact that I never noticed it, and it felt as if I were shooting with my a7s, a7R or a7 II. The viewfinder is better than that of the a6000.
The grip is excellent too. It’s big, beefy and rubbery and instills total confidence when shooting with the camera even if you choose not to use a strap. The on/off switch and zoom rocker, as well as the shutter button, fall right under your index finger as they should. The “Movie” button is well placed and within easy reach of your thumb (much improved over the a6000/6300 and a7 models) as well as the rear horizontal dial. The rear grip also protrudes from the body slightly and has a good rubbery surface on it too, making the grip near-perfect for most hands.
I personally don’t care too much for the aperture ring. In concept it’s a great feature, but since none of my other lenses have an aperture ring, I find it hard to get used to. At one point, shooting in manual mode I was trying to change the aperture and had forgotten about the physical dial, and was looking for a way to change it through the menus. Of course, if this was your only camera using it would become second nature.
The main problem with the aperture ring though, which Sony should fix in the RX10 IV, is that it does not extend all the way around the lens, but only on either side of the lens. I found this puzzling and it made the ring hard to turn as I kept reaching under the lens with my left index finger finding nothing. And when I found nothing, I’d reach farther under the lens to the right side and inadvertently trip the “Click On/Off” switch which turns off the aperture’s clicking noise for video shooters. The “Click On/Off” switch is poorly placed in my opinion as this is a feature that is secondary (compared to the aperture ring itself) and won’t be used that often. You’ll either have it on or off. Simply extending the aperture ring all the way around the lens barrel would solve both problems. I do suggest that Sony would make the “Click On/Off” switch a bit stiffer though.
The lens barrel is fantastic and has the same feel as all of the other Sony E-Mount lenses—ribbed metal. The way the zoom ring electronically zooms the lens in smooth, tiny increments is wonderful, and I found it very useful and precise in the field. Personally, I prefer using the zoom ring over the rocker switch, but I’m glad Sony included both. This is how I’d sum it up: with the zoom ring you have precise control over zooming for exact framing, with the rocker switch, you get speed. It’s the best of both worlds. Of course, turning the zoom ring faster or harder, will allow you to zoom faster. It’s remarkable really.
The only negative thing about the lens barrel is found under the lens itself between the rear zoom ring and front the focus ring, which is a small hard plastic nub that sticks out. I assume it’s there so that you can “feel” the difference between the two rings (the zoom ring and the focus ring), but I don’t like it as it hurts my finger.
It’s worth noting that when you turn the camera on, the lens extends to nearly double its off position length, to its default position of 24mm. So the camera is not as “compact” as it appears in the advertisement pictures.
The built-in flash doesn’t extend up high enough, and at 24mm the lens hood will cast a shadow on the scene. It’s a easy fix though, simply remove your lens hood (or replace it with a third party screw-in metal lens hood like I do on all my lenses). The shadow disappears somewhere around 40mm.
The worst part though is that the flash doesn’t pull back for bounce flash. This is nearly unforgivable since it seems like a very easy fix, and can make all the difference in the world for more natural-looking flash pictures without having to tote an external flash.
Memory Card Door
The memory card door is a very tight fit, and it’s difficult to remove the SD card. It’s not a deal-breaker, but worth mentioning. However, I do like that it’s placed on the side and separate from the battery.
The RX10 III takes the same battery as all the NEX models, the a5000/5100, a6000/6300 and all the a7 models, the Sony FW50. To me, this is a wonderful thing because many who buy this camera will already own this battery. This means one battery and one battery charger for all of your cameras, and when traveling, every bit of space counts. It’s also a wonderful convenience for those pros who will purchase this camera as back-up to their existing Sony gear. Personally, I love the FW50 as it’s small, light and relatively inexpensive and good enough. Do I wish Sony would release an updated FW50II battery with more power? Yes!
While heavily using the camera, I didn’t notice the battery at all. What I mean is, battery life never surprised me or slowed me down, and felt similar to all my other Sony cameras. I would say that for most users having one back-up battery would suffice. I never burned through two full batteries in a day, and I’m a fairly heavy user. I don’t think that this is a worry for most users. If you’re a videographer and shoot all day, every day, you’ll have to do your own testing. When I do paid commercial shoots with my a7 cameras (three bodies plus an a6000), I carry a dozen Sony FW50 batteries with me. Most of the time, I’m on my third battery (per camera) by the end of the shooting day, but never use it up.
I use the tiny Think Tank Photo SD and Battery Wallet to carry a spare Sony FW50 battery and an extra SD memory card. They’re small, well made and cheap at $10. This would be all you need to go with your RX10III.
I’m glad Sony added a physical AF/MF switch. The more physical, customizable features a camera has, the better, and this camera is stacked. But I’m don’t read directions and remember searching through the menus to change from single AF to continuous AF and couldn’t find it as I’d forgotten about the front manual switch. Again, if you purchase this camera and own it using it regularly, it would never be a problem. Although, that being said, I did bump it from Single AF to Continuous AF a few times. The switch could be stiffer in my opinion.
Focus Hold Button
Like on the pro Sony G Master FE 24-70 f2.8 lens, Sony has included a “Focus Hold” button on the left side of the lens/body. A wonderful feature as the button is programable, like most of the buttons on any Sony cameras, and can be set exactly as you’d like to 56 different functions. Ah, control!
Buttons and Menus
One of the features I really love about Sony cameras is their amazing consistency from camera to camera with button layout and menus. I don’t mean just between their higher-end models like the a7 II, a7s II, a7r II, but between all of their models down to the super tiny Sony HX 90V. This floors me and at the same time, delights me. No other camera maker does this to this level, and it makes it so easy to transition between models while shooting with a variety of cameras for different purposes. This won’t affect most users, but if you owned say an a7 II, an a6300 an RX10 III and an HX 90V, you can set them up virtually the same way, and most of the buttons are in same place with only slight variations. This makes shooting different models a pleasure, and it is very practical.
If you’ve used any Sony camera from the HX 90V to the a7r II, you’re already familiar with the Sony menu system. Personally, I like them a lot. It is true that they could be categorized better (and there are blog posts our there that have gone into great detail concerning this), but they are vast and deep with nearly unlimited customization options, and the RX10 III is no exception. Actually, the menus on this camera are much deeper and offer features that my first generation a7 cameras don’t, as well as more advanced focus modes.
Lastly, in my opinion, Sony could improve the the RX10 III by adding a front dial that goes directly under the shutter button at the top of the grip (like on a7II models), and allow the aperture ring to lock into place for “Auto”. This way you can choose to use the horizontal front and rear dials for aperture and shutter speed if you wanted to. Or, it could be there for another function of your choosing.
Turning the Camera On
Just noting the obvious here, and somewhat reiterating what I stated above, but each and every time you turn the camera on, the lens defaults to it’s widest setting of 24mm. The only disadvantage I can think of here is that if you’ve turned it off (or let it go to sleep), and see a shot far away requiring the telephoto end of the lens, you’re likely to miss the shot as you may not have time to zoom in.
The lens also retracts when going into “sleep” mode which is a nice feature as it makes the camera more compact. When waking up from sleep mode (by tapping the shutter button), the lens again goes into its default 24mm setting by zooming out, effectively doubling the length of the lens.
THE WONDERS OF A 24-600mm LENS
As I stated earlier, the lens is where this camera really shines. Not only is it an amazing focal range, it’s technically excellent, dare I say, at every focal length. This lens is the crown jewel of the RX10 III and the first reason you’d purchase this camera. The second reason could be because of it’s excellent video capabilities inducing amazing slo-mo and 4K, plus external mic jack and a headphone jack.
Carrying an all-in-one camera body and lens with this staggering range cannot be understated. I’ve shoot for many years being forced to carry a variety of lenses to cover my needs. The industry standard is the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm. On top of that, many purchase a 300mm plus a 1.4x teleconverter. This still only gets you up to 420mm on a full frame camera, and if you include an APS-C camera in the mix, you’ll finally get past the 600mm mark but you’ll now have to tote two camera bodies, three lenses plus a teleconverter—hardly practical. And on top of that, if your 300mm is an f4, with the teleconverter you’ll now be at f5.6. If it’s an f2.8, the weight itself will kill you first. My good friend Neil from beautiful Leeds, England said he may be up to purchasing the RX10 III after reading this review, as he’s struggling with this very situation. A large DSLR, a kit of 3-4 lenses and a bad back.
Looking at another scenario, the only lens I could find that comes close in size, cost (plus camera body) and focal length is a Tamron 16mm-300mm (essentially a 25.6 to 480mm on Canon), but it doesn’t even zoom to 500mm, and is well over a stop slower at f6.3. True, you’ll have a larger sensor (APS-C vs 1”), but this Sony 1” sensor is so good that most will never care.
I had a blast shooting with this camera! Being able to go from wide angle, getting the entire scene in, and then zoom to anything I saw off in the distance was amazing and such fun—even with all of my years of shooting. When shooting an amateur surfer one day, I was actually able to sit under the shade of the fishing pier casually leaning against it, and still had enough zoom range on my lens to shoot tight, close-up photos.
Normally when shooting telephoto images you can’t shoot anything close to you without switching lenses. Not true with the RX10III, a simple flick of the zoom rocker or a turn of the lens barrel, and boom, you can shoot anything, anywhere, anytime—even macro. It’s incredibly liberating.
The macro capability of the lens is staggering for such a focal length. At the widest setting, 24mm, you can actually place the lens hood directly onto/against the subject you’re shooting. Of course 24mm, wide-angle macro isn’t ideal, the close-up abilities of the lens are still very good at other focal lengths.
WHO IS THE RX10 III FOR?
This camera has very wide appeal. I’d say across the board from the mom or dad who wants better photos of their children’s events, to the professional and just about everyone in-between. Personally, I would never had considered buying this camera until I got it in my hands and started shooting with it. If after reading this you’re still not sure, try renting it. Lens Rentals, which I believe is one of Steve’s sponsors and where he gets his gear from time to time, has it for under $66 (plus shipping) for three days—plenty of time to know if it’s for you or not. I have personally rented from Lens Rentals for years and it’s easy and safe.
I would call this the perfect travel camera. If you don’t mind the size, it packs everything you would need for travel. Add a small bag and a spare battery and you’re in business. The sensor is fantastic even up to ISO 3200 (for most) and even ISO 6400 for some who don’t mind the film-like grain. ISO 12800 is unusable in my opinion as it shows banding, something I’ve never seen in a Sony sensor personally.
Imagine traveling to Paris and shooting the Eiffel Tower from far away, getting the entire city-cape in one shot, and a filling the frame with the next shot. Or going on African safari and being able to zoom all the way in to get a close-up of a mother lion and her cub. This camera can do it and you’ll bring back high-quality, farmable images.
I’m not a videographer and cannot comment with depth about the video features of this camera, but that information is easy to find. But I’m also not blind. From my simple testing, the image quality amazed me with its depth, sharpness and clarity straight out of camera—which is what many want, but it also has advanced file formats and image profiles, dual recording, audio levels, focus peaking and variable frame rates all the way up to 240fps not to mention 4K, that will interest the professional for perhaps a B-roll camera. This camera would also likely appeal to an all-in-one video journalist on a budget, who could add an external mic, headphones, monitor, LED lighting, etc., and have the zoom range to cover any news scene.
The slow motion video that this cameras produces is unbelievable and loads of fun. There is nothing cooler than slo-mo, and everyone loves it. Simply turn the mode dial to HFR (I’m assuming it means High Frame Rate), hit the center button to place the camera on Standby, then press the Record button when you’re ready. The Image Stabilization in this camera is so good that some of the slow motion shots I took appear to be on a tripod—even at 600mm. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of 240 fps, but it even shoots 480 fps (which is pretty good quality) and even 960 fps where the images starts to really fall apart.
The Professional Photographer
If I were still working as a photojournalist, I’d have one of these in my bag, no question about it. Most of today’s news in on the Web, which is different from back when I started my career and everything was print-based. So large images sensors are not needed anymore for most things. Yes, they have their place and you need the super DSLRs like the Canon 1DxII and the Nikon D5 to capture many fast-moving sports events and news, but a camera like the RX10III has its place and shouldn’t be overlooked. Plus the image quality produced by this camera far exceeds the early digital cameras which were “good enough” for news and sports where image quality is secondary to getting the shot and telling the story. In fact, photojournalism is never about the image quality, bokeh or pretty pictures.
One scenario I can think of that I’ve covered in the past was the London Symphony Orchestra, where a camera’s shutter noise was equivalent to the death penalty. I was forced to stand on the very back wall with a sound blimp on my camera, hold my breath and dare not shoot when things got quiet. With a camera like the RX10 III and it’s silent shutter and incredible zoom range, I’d be able to roam around and shoot from anywhere in an event like the LSO.
Another scenario would be shooting pro golf at the putting green, where clicking a loud shutter too early could get you killed on the spot, and then kicked out. The amazing zoom range would come in handy because there are times when the golfer is right up to the edge of the ropes, where you’re seated, and times when the golfer is on the far side of the green. With this camera in hand, it would present no problem at all, and with 14 frames per second shooting, you’ll be able to easily get the entire sequence should the golfer have a great reaction. You can also send images via Wi-Fi right from the course to the picture desk. Amazing.
The Wedding Photographer
Can you shoot a real, live wedding with the Sony RX10 III? Yep, I do think that this camera has good enough image quality, fast enough focus, and the incredible zoom range to pull of a documentary-style or photojournalistic-style wedding. In fact, I was curious about this very thing after using the camera for a week or so, so I decided to do just that, shoot a real wedding.
What I love most about its image sensor, is that at ISO 3200, it has a nice grain pattern and look—almost like film grain with a digital touch. No, it’s not film, as it’s cleaner and sharper, but I think the high ISO look of this sensor is beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed using a single camera, and nothing else, while shooting a wedding.
Do I recommend using it for a wedding? Why not? I don’t think it would suffice for those who shoot smoother, slicker images, but I’m a photojournalist, and I’m more interested in capturing life’s moments and emotion than slick imagery. This camera can do that without much problem. If you go back a decade or so when “wedding photojournalists” were still shooting film (some of this images are still out there on the Web), you’ll see that at higher ISOs the RX10 III competes pretty well. Sure it suffers from the lack of super shallow depth of field, etc., but the point I’m trying to make is that this camera is very special and incredibly flexible to do all that it can do.
The only hesitation I’d have is that in really low light, the focus can hunt some. But I don’t think it’s any worse than my a7r. Plus this can be overcome by preparing for it and shooting the necessary amount of images. I think in the right hands, there isn’t much you couldn’t do with this camera.
The Everyday Photographer
Finally, I think this camera would fit the needs of the everyday shooter who wants a really good, versatile camera to shoot his/her family, vacations, school events, life events like weddings, etc., and even for their own creative hobby of photography. I’d say consider the options, the pros and cons and go for it. I think you’ll be very satisfied. This is a camera that you can sit in the last row with, or stand at the back wall, during your child’s play and still capture great images. Soccer games or sports? I think with practice and 14 fps (frames per second), you’ll get the images you want from anywhere on the field. I did test the continuous focusing ability and was able to shoot the erratic sport of surfing without much problem. And the AF during video easily tracked boats coming in and out of the inlet. Is it a speed demon like the a6300? No, but it’s probably on par to the older a7-series camera bodies. And believe it or not, I shot surfing one day with my a7r just to see if it could do it. It did.
How do I sum up such a camera as this? I’m already at 4600 words, and could probably double that as there is just so much that this camera does, and so much to say about it. It literally is the Swiss Army Knife of cameras, the jack-of-all-trades and has everything including the kitchen sink. There are just so many uses for it, and in my opinion, it’s a great photographic tool to add to your tool box. For some it will be their main camera, for others, a back up, and still for others, a tool for specific jobs. The best part of the RX10 III, in my opinion, is it’s lens. The focal length is staggering, and the lens quality is exceedingly good. And, because of its range, it’s a lot of fun to shoot with. I think just about everyone reading this post got into photography because it is fun. And this camera opens up all kinds of avenues to explore if you ever get tired of zooming out to 600mm (I doubt you ever will). Incredible still shooting frame rate of 14 fps, excellent macro capability—especially at 24mm, surprisingly nice bokeh where the image transitions from sharp focus to blur, 4K video and slow motion video, and the list goes on, all in a single, well made, well designed all-in-one package. What’s not to love?
NEXT MODEL WISHES
- Flash that pulls back for bounce
- Aperture Ring that goes all the way around the lens
- Built-in Neutral Density Filter (like previous model)
- Front Dial under shutter button
- Hybrid Auto Focus (similar to the a6300)
“To hold it is not to love it; to use it is to love it.”
SUPER FUN, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! BUY IT at AMAZON HERE!
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