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Zooming Around with the Extremely Versatile Sony RX10 III

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday August 4, 2016

Dirty Old Town

Found my love by the gaswork croft
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town, dirty old town

I heard a siren from the dock
Saw a train set the night on fire
Smelled the spring on the sulfured wind
Dirty old town, whoa-oh, dirty old town

We're goin' to take a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
And we'll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town, dirty old town
Dirty old town, whoa-oh, dirty old town…

    Dirty Old Town, Ewan MacColl  


There's nothing more fun than wandering around an old mill town with a camera and recording the last vestiges of a bygone era. We hear a lot these days about the dying of American manufacturing, but until you walk through the ghost factories on long-dead railroad sidings the reality doesn't quite hit home. I found the RX10 III's zoom lens was perfect for framing vignettes of the now-abandoned buildings. Both were shot at 1/125 second at f/7.1, ISO 800. The quality of images shot at that high ISO was very impressive.

Snapshot:

Full name:  SONY RX10 III
Sensor Type:  1.0"-type (0.52" x 0.35") Exmor RS® CMOS sensor, aspect ratio 3:2
Number of Pixels (total):  Approx. 20.1 megapixels
Lens type:  Zeiss® Vario-Sonnar® T* Lens, 18 elements in 13 groups Zoom lens range:  F2.4-4 large-aperture 24-600mm zoom lens (35mm equivalents)
Optical Zoom:  25x
ISO Sensitivity (Still Image):  ISO 64–12,800
ISO Sensitivity (Movie): ISO 100–12800 equivalent (expandable to ISO 64/80)
Steadyshot:  4.5 stops of image stabilization
Recording Formats: [Still Image]: JPEG, RAW; [Movie]: XAVC S, AVCHD format Ver. 2.0 compatible, MP4
Weight:  2.51 lb / 1095 g (sans battery and memory card)
Full specifications:  http://www.sony.com/electronics/cyber-shot-compact-cameras/dsc-rx10m3/specifications


The 25-600mm zoom of the RX10 III is nothing short of amazing as a lens capable of capturing both scenic shots and wildlife close-ups. Look at the top photo (shot at the widest setting) and see if you can you even see the cormorant. The bottom shot was made a few seconds later from the exact same position at the 600mm setting. After too many decades of hauling a shoulder bag full of lenses to get such a range, it's a lot of fun to have 25x optical power built into one camera body. The top frame was shot at 1/1000 second at f/5 and the bottom at 1/400 second at f/10, both at ISO 200.

A River Runs Through It

For anyone that’s looked at enough of my photos, it becomes pretty obvious that I live near (and love photographing) a river. The river happens to be the mighty Housatonic and it begins its 149-mile journey in western Massachusetts and it empties into Long Island Sound just a few miles from my house in Connecticut. Between the headwaters and the mouth, the Housatonic passes through some of the prettiest towns in New England and creates some beautiful postcard photo opps. It also flows through some old mill towns that would make the lyric above seem like a really good action plan. And we'll chop you down like an old dead tree.

Where I live, near the mouth, the river is flanked by the towns of Stratford and Milford, both pretty waterfront communities where the river has become the center of the local boating universe, a thriving shellfish industry and is home to an abundance of wildlife. Whether you boat or fish or just like to watch the river flow, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place to spend time. But just 10 miles upstream the river has two completely different towns clinging to its shores, namely the twin cities of Shelton and Derby, once prosperous mill towns in the Naugatuck River Valley (the Naugatuck River empties into the Housatonic in Derby). Like all of New England’s old mill towns, these two have seen better days and visiting these towns is like stepping back 100 years in time. Though both towns have pretty and very prosperous areas, both still have blocks of crumbling factory rows, abandoned river locks (still fascinating to explore) and abandoned railroad tracks standing as stark reminders of days gone by.

With this dichotomy flowing through my mind and Rod Stewart’s version of “Dirty Old Town” playing in my head (I was lucky enough to tour with Rod in the early 1970s as a photographer and got to hear that song live many times from the stage), I decided to take the Sony RX10 III on a shooting challenge. I started along the mouth of the Housatonic and, over the course of a few days, wandered up to the fading mill towns. I was curious to see if I really could leave the house each day with just one camera, with a built-in lens and not feel that I’d miss any photo opportunities along the way. How did the Sony hold up? Read on and see.

A Bridge Far Enough

Whether they will admit it or not, I think most SLR photographers, even most pros, secretly love the idea of having one camera and one lens that will do just about everything and do it well. Imagine, for instance, going off to shoot an editorial assignment (or a family vacation, for that matter) that involves shooting everything from close-ups, to scenics, to wildlife, to architecture to action—not to mention 4K video—and only packing one camera with a built-in lens. The convenience and fun factors are staggering. That’s why, whenever a new bridge camera with a longer, fast, sharper lens comes along, I’m ever hopeful.


One of the first places that I explored with the camera was an old Spanish-style church in Milford, Connecticut. The yellow stucco church was lit by a radiant late-afternoon sun and the RX10 III metered the scene beautifully. Top frame xposed at 1/250 at f/16, ISO 200 at 29mm (35mm equivalent); bottom 1/60 second at f/13 at 220mm. 

Enter the SONY RX10 III. The camera is essentially an update of the RX10 II (and the original RX10) with several interesting, though perhaps relatively modest, technical updates and one stunner of a great new lens: the 25-600mm Zeiss® Vario-Sonnar® T* f/2.4-f/4 lens. For someone that often carries as many as four lenses to cover that range, the idea of being able to hop in the car with one relatively small camera and still be able to cover that range is the stuff of daydreams.

But the lens is only part of the story here. This camera has a lot of features that make it a real pleasure to use. For one, there is a spectacular three-inch articulated 1.3 million dot LCD, in addition to the 2.4 million (1024 x 768) dot electronic viewfinder. If you’ve ever laid on your face in the dirt trying to compose a low-lying close-up shot, the convenience of composing on a tilting LCD is very appealing. The camera also features very impressive burst rates of 5fps (with AF) or 14fps (without AF) and the buffer can hold up to 45 JPEGS or 30 RAW files before it has to stop to transfer to them to the card. The camera is also weather sealed. Add to that stellar 4K video recording and you have one heck of a fun camera. But these are all just specs, here are my thoughts after a week of shooting:


The entrance to St. Gabriel's church. Exposed at 1/500 second at f/5.6, ISO 200, at 27mm.

The Lens.  Having a great zoom range means nothing if the lens isn’t sharp and the problem with most zoom camera lenses is that they have a nice quality zone in the mid range, but they fall apart at the extremes. This Zeiss lens is extremely sharp across its entire range and, oddly enough, is nearly as sharp at 600mm as it is in the middle of its range. Look at the photos of the cormorant and the swans (and the flower close-up below) that were shot at 600mm. While depth of field at the focal length will always limit just how much is in sharp focus (the laws of physics can be really nasty when they want to be), the actual plane of sharp focus is super sharp.

Exposure. One of the things that impressed me most about this camera was how accurate the exposures were. Though I always shoot in both JPEG and RAW simultaneously (which thankfully you can with this camera), I had to do very little actual exposure correction in editing—even with brightly-colored subjects in very harsh lighting like the yellow stucco church in brilliant afternoon sunlight.


Even in very difficult situations like this backlit Queen Anne's Lace, the exposures were perfect. I shot this at the 600mm setting just to see how if the resolution would hold up with a close-up subject at such an extreme focal length and I was very impressed with the result. Exposed at 1/200 at f/11, ISO 400.

High ISO quality.  Part of the time that I was shooting in the mill towns I was in the shadow of some big factory buildings in a kind of gloomy afternoon light and so I raised the ISO to 800 and 1,000 (the available range is 64 to 12,800). Even at those speeds there was nothing about the quality that I found objectionable and honestly, for online/Facebook use, I think you can safely use an ISO of 800 or 1,000 without any worries of degradation. Lowlight focusing (the camera only uses contrast focusing, there is no phase detection) wasn’t an issue either—though I’d love to see hybrid focusing.


While I was wandering the old mills looking for interesting detail shots the sun got swallowed up by clouds and I had to boost the ISO to 800 and the quality genuinely surprised me. Both were shot at 1/100 second at f/8, handheld. I was finding so many fun shots in the old factory rows that by the end of the day I had burned through two 16 gig cards.

4K Video. I only shot a limited amount of video, but the quality is just as beautiful as you would imagine. To have 4K capability (including super slow-motion modes) at your fingertips kind of blurs the lines between still and video cameras. You can record up to 29 minutes of 4K video. There's also a super slow-motion mode.


One of my cats shot with flash from just at few feet away with the lens set at 526mm. The exposure was 1/60 at f/4, ISO 200. You can see the flash in the left eye, but overall the light is very gentle even at such a close range.

Flash power.  Both the quality and the power of the flash are better than I've seen in most bridge cameras. The flash head on the RX10 III pops up high enough to clear the long zoom barrel and the high angle provides a substantially more flattering light.



Mute swan cygnets are pretty well protected by their parents (who have zero fear of humans) but having such a long zoom let me shoot these from a safe distance. Exposure for the top shot was 1/250 second at f/11 (600mm) and the bottom was 1/60 second at f/8 (540mm).

Cons?

Before you think this was a complete love fest, there were a few things that I found mildly annoying, though most were very minor. The camera is a bit boxy and heavy (by comparison I found the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 which I found to be a much more comfortable camera to hold), but hey, compared to carrying a shoulder bag and three or four lenses, I’ll take it. Also, the camera comes with no external battery charger (I went online and bought one and two extra batteries—for a camera I don’t even own), you have to charge it through the camera. Also, and this made me nuts at times, if you shoot a photo and try to zoom to compose the next shot, you end up zooming the replay of the last image—you have to wait until the playback stops before you can zoom again. There might be a way to shut the playback off, but I haven’t found it.

Finally, this may or may not bother you, but the RX10 III ships with no manual whatsoever. You have to go online (I’ll save you the search: http://docs.esupport.sony.com/dvimag/DSCRX10_guide/en/contents/contentslist01.html) to find their help guide. I did find a great new book by Alexander S. White called The Photographer’s Guide to the SONY DSC RX10 III. A very detailed and helpful book I highly recommend it.

Conclusion

There are two things about this camera that rise above all others and that can’t be easily ignored. For one, while the 1” sensor is somewhat small (compared to ASP-C, for instance), the image quality is superb. Remarkable. Also, having one zoom that can cover such a huge range is very appealing. The files are radiantly sharp at most focal lengths, the images are noise-free, the colors are accurate and, as I said above, the exposures are nearly flawless in almost any light. Of course, there is the reality check of the price: almost $1,500 street. This is not an inexpensive camera and, in fact, I think it’s the most expensive bridge camera around. I have to think, however, that anyone that travels a lot or wants one do-it-all camera would love this camera. Was I able to get everything that I wanted to get with just one camera and one lens? Yep. No question, I never felt the urge to run back to the car for a different camera or lens. Now if they would publish a nice printed manual to go with it…


All these kids know about their town on the Housatonic is the faded glory. The tracks that once brought prosperity in and took products out are now just a place to kill time with friends. The river that once brought wealth to the towns is mostly an afterthought, a backdrop. Vines and "keep out" signs cover most of the buildings. Top shot exposed at 1/125 second at f/8; the bottom shot while sitting at a stop sign, exposed at 1/640 second at f/5.6. Both at ISO 800.

New Product News

AF-S Nikkor 105mm F1.4E ED. Nikon is celebrating the Nikkor lens- production milestone of 100 million units produced worldwide (as of mid-July) with the release of super fast new prime, the AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED for full-frame format cameras. The lens is resistant to dust and moisture and joins a select few others in the Gold Ring Series, which includes only premium primes with Nano Crystal Coat and pro-grade build quality. It will be available in mid-August.

SLIK LITE AL-420 Tripod. Here’s a clever idea that has probably buzzed around in photographers’ heads forever: a tripod with a built-in light! Think of all the times you were stumbling around in the dark looking for a lost lens cap, or a safe place to put down the third leg. Now SLIK has introduced the SLIK LITE series of tripods that feature a detachable LED light in the center column. The AL-420 is super lightweight tripod weighing in at just 2.2lbs and built from Aircraft-grade aluminum. When fully retracted the AL-420 is less than 17 inches long making it easy to toss in a carry-on suitcase or backpack but reaches over 60 inches when fully extended. It’s available for shipping immediately.

Fujifilm Shoe-Mount Flash EF-X500. And speaking of bright ideas, Fujifilm has just introduced the new Fujifilm EF-X500 shoe-mount flash unit. It has a guide number of approximately 50 and provides 24mm to 105mm zoom coverage, and an illumination angle of approximately 20mm when the wide-angle panel is used. The head can be tilted up by 90 degrees, down by 10 degrees, left by 135 degrees and right by 180 degrees for use as a bounce flash. It is also equipped with LED video light that you can use as an AF assist light and catch light—kind of a clever new idea. Powered by four AA batteries (included).

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