With smartphone cameras getting better by the day, the compact camera segment isn't flourishing like it once used to. There are some things a compact camera can do that most smartphones can only dream of, most notably optical zoom, but other than this, you can achieve remarkable quality photos and video with many of today’s phones.
On the other hand, the premium camera segment is still going strong as these products tend to offer DSLR-level features and performance while still being inconspicuous enough to travel around with. Sony has been especially successful in this area with its popular RX 100 series.
Today, we’ll be reviewing the RX 100's superzoom cousin, called the RX10 III, which Sony launched in India back in April. Armed with a new lens and higher zoom capability than its predecessor, is the RX10 III worth its hefty Rs. 1,14,990 asking price?
Sony RX10 III design and build
Although it’s part of Sony’s compact Cyber-Shot camera lineup, there’s nothing small about the RX10 III. Its body is about the size of an entry-level DSLR and it's on the heavier side, weighing just over a kilo. The lens is also quite large for a compact camera (72mm) but most of the lens barrel retracts into the camera body, making it relatively portable.
The three rings around the barrel let you adjust the zoom level, focus and aperture. You can swap the functions of the zoom and focus rings in Settings if you prefer. The aperture ring offers a smooth progression through the range but you can enable “click” feedback with a toggle switch placed below the lens. There’s a focus-hold button just where your thumb would be, and a button to cycle between Manual AF, DMF (Direct Manual Focus), Continuous AF, and Single-shot AF.
There’s sufficient rubber cladding that offers good grip for your right palm, and we like what Sony has done with the ergonomics. Despite its plastic body, the RX10 III feels well put-together. What we didn’t like is the tactile feedback of some of the rear buttons, which feel a bit cheap.
The camera isn’t built to withstand the elements of nature but the ports get dust- and water-resistant flaps. On the left, we have 3.5mm headphones and microphone ports, a Micro-HDMI output, and a Micro-USB port for charging/ data transfer. Just like the Sony A6300 (Review), you can charge this camera using a high-capacity power bank. There's an SD or Memory Stick Duo card slot on the right, and a battery compartment on the bottom.
The top of the camera houses the mode dial, backlit display, more shortcut buttons, and a dedicated dial for exposure compensation. The power switch is coupled with the shutter release button and the zoom rocker. Nearly every shortcut button can be remapped to perform a different function so you can customise the layout to suite your shooting style. However, we wish the C2 and C1 buttons had been a bit closer to the shutter button as they're a bit out of reach of the index finger.
The 3-inch LCD display is sadly not touch-capable but the brightness level and resolution (1.2 million dots) are fairly good. It flips outwards and can be moved up or down to a certain degree but it can’t flip around backwards. Sony has gone with an XGA OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) with a 0.70x magnification level and 2.3 million dot resolution. This comes in handy in bright sunlight that tends to wash out LCD displays.
The Sony RX10 III ships with a rechargeable battery, power adapter, shoulder strap, and a lens hood. There's also a card in the box with that you can register for your two-year warranty.
Sony RX10 III features
Two of the biggest reasons to give the RX10 III a second glace over a DSLR are the 25x zoom range and high framerate (HFR) shooting mode. The camera boasts of a 20.1-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor (1-inch) with a dedicated DRAM chip attached to it, which is capable of buffering 250fps, 500fps, and 1000fps slow-motion videos. It also uses a contrast-detection autofocus system, just like its predecessor.
The 18 element ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T lens has a focal length of 8.8mm to 220mm (24-600mm, 35mm equivalent), which is much more than what its predecessor offered. Sony has also managed to keep the aperture fairly wide at just f/4 at the extreme telephoto end, which is good for low-light shots. Other features include an ISO range of 100-12800 with one-third increments; burst mode of up to 14fps in Speed Priority mode; RAW capture (ARW 2.3 format); a shutter range of 30 seconds to 1/2000 seconds; and 4K video recording. The RX10 III also supports professional level S-Gamut and S-Log2 video modes for advanced colour grading in post-production.
The RX10 III features Wi-Fi and NFC for pairing with Sony’s Play Memories smartphone app. You can use this to transfer pictures to your smartphone for quick sharing or use your phone as a viewfinder for remote shooting. We’ve seen this before with the A6300 and it functions the same here. The same goes for the menu system, which is not the easiest to navigate, but you get accustomed to it after a bit. There’s a built-in app store which lets you add functions to the camera such as different effects that can be applied to your pictures.
Zoom Assist is handy feature, especially when you have this level of zoom. Once assigned to any of the shortcut buttons, it allows you to temporarily zoom out a bit to make framing your shot easier. During this time, you can adjust the zoom level so that once you let go of the button, the camera automatically zooms in to the desired area. Dual Rec lets you capture up to 17-megapixel stills while shooting a video (except in 4K mode or at 100fps XAVC S HD). The built-in optical image stabilisation or Steady Shot feature does a decent job at keeping the frame steady, even at high zoom levels.
Sony RX10 III Performance
In our ISO test, the RX10 III managed to hold off noise till about ISO 800. At ISO 1600, there’s very mild noise in the test image but you have to go looking for it to notice it. At ISO 3200, luminance noise is easily visible but chroma noise is still kept in check and this goes for ISO 6400 and beyond as well. You’ll want to avoid using an ISO level higher than 3200, since pictures will lose out on detail and there’ll be noticeable artefacting.
The RX10 III is designed for shooting objects at great distances, and it does this incredibly well. The amount of detail, even at the 25X zoom level, is surprisingly good, with no vignetting. Objects captured are sharp and colour reproduction is spot on. There were instances when certain colours, especially greens, felt a bit exaggerated, but overall, it does a good job.
Landscape shots rarely exhibited chromatic aberration except for a couple of instances; however this was mostly in places that aren’t in focus. Barrel distortion is also kept in check. Thanks to the high aperture at the telephoto end, you can get a pretty good bokeh effect, which makes for some engaging shots.
Macro performance is also very good. If you zoom in to the sample photo of the dragonfly, you can actually make out the texture of its eyes. The Expand Flexible Spot focusing mode saved our skin many times when we were panning and needed to quickly re-focus on our subject. The Lock-on AF mode is useful if you want to track a moving object. Once locked on, the focus grid dynamically expands and follows it, which is very useful. While it works well, there were times when it would randomly lock on to something else in the frame instead of our subject.
Low-light performance is good too, provided you keep the ISO under 3200. Noise isn’t very visible here and the OIS gives you enough confidence to drop the shutter speed to as little as 1/15sec and be sure you'll get a stable shot without a tripod. The pop-up flash is powerful enough to light up a small room evenly, but its mechanism doesn’t allow it to tilt backwards if you wish to bounce it. Shifting focus isn't very quick here, unless you trigger it manually. It also takes a couple of seconds to re-adjust focus after zooming in or out, and a couple of times, we noticed some focus hunting when the lens was extended all the way.
Apart from the standard PSAM shooting modes, there's MR mode which lets you save custom presets for different situations and get to them quickly. HFR is the high framerate mode; and there are also panorama and scene selection modes.
Video is another area where the RX10 III really excels. 4K video looks incredibly good, both during the day and in low-light. While the regular video mode lets you shoot up to 100fps (120fps if you’re in NTSC), you’ll want to switch to HFR to go even slower. Once you choose either 250fps, 500fps, or 1000fps, you need to make sure your focus and exposure are all set as you can’t change anything once you start shooting.
Thankfully, the motor driving the lens is silent, so videos aren't ruined by mechanical noise. It's best to use the zoom rocker rather than the ring for zooming in and out of a video as the progression is a lot smoother.
After hitting the centre button on the job dial, the camera enters standby mode to begin recording. It then buffers about 2 seconds of footage and begins saving it to the memory card. The result is about a 90 second clip saved in slow-motion. The quality of videos at the maximum framerate is not the best, with noticeable interlacing in moving objects, and muted colours. Still, to be able to shoot super slow-motion at this price level is pretty impressive.
Sony RX10 III battery life
Battery life is good provided you enable Airplane mode, or else you can expect the camera to run out of juice very quickly. With Wi-Fi disabled on one excursion, we took 388 shots and about 20 4K and HFR videos, and still had with 20 percent remaining. If we had kept going, we would easily have crossed the claimed 420 shot mark.
If its size doesn’t bother you, the Sony RX10 III could make an excellent companion. It's a great choice if you travel a lot or are into wildlife photography. It is on the expensive side for a compact camera, but its zoom performance and video capabilities somewhat justify that, especially if you don’t want to bother with interchangeable lens cameras. Plus, the quality of 4K video is very good and you can have some good fun with the high framerate setting.
There are a few areas in which Sony could have improved, such as a touchscreen, better quality shortcut buttons, and a quicker focusing system for video. We hate to crib about the menu system again but it’s about time Sony overhauled it and made it simpler to use.
Despite these niggles, this camera is worth considering if you're in the market for a quality superzoom camera.
Price: Rs. 1,14,990
Ratings (Out of 5)