It’s been a bit of a Holy Grail for me over the last number of years… I love working with my full-frame system and the quality it provides, but not when I’m in “tourist mode”, constantly on the move, exploring new places, often on a timeline dictated by the needs of non-photographers. Even when backpacking or canoeing I’d rather not have my FF system with me. So my Holy Grail has been to find the “ultimate travel camera” that will allow me to capture the nature, outdoor and landscape photos that are my forte as a photographer.
Is it even possible to define a single camera – or system-in-camera – that can handle all the permutations and combinations of not just travel destinations and subjects, but personal shooting styles as well? Could there possibly be one camera that “does it all”: one that captures everything from the narrow streets to the historical details of European cities; a camera that is not prone to beach sand, backpack lint or the dust of the Serengeti, yet has a lens with enough reach to capture wildlife on safari or from a canoe; one that keeps up with the movement, colour and glitz of Mardi Gras, but can also capture the minute details in the broad expanses of the US Southwest or the glaciers of Iceland?
This “ultimate” camera needs to be relatively lightweight in order to be carried around all day, yet have a fast enough lens to capture photos at the edges of daylight, plus a sensor producing an image quality high enough for book publishing and fine art prints. HDMI video would be a minimum requirement; 4K video is pretty much expected these days. A tall order, certainly. Are we there yet? Well, almost…
I thought we were when Panasonic released its FZ1000 with an ƒ2.8-4, 25-400mm (in 35mm terms) Leica lens and 4K video. In fact, I used one for about 6 months and was very pleased with prints up to 13×19″ made from raw files. Clearly, the 1” sensor does not stack up to my full frame system for pixel-peeping detail, but even upon close examination, only knowledgeable photographers looking at side-by-side examples would see a difference – and photographers are not usually the ones buying my work! Then, along comes Sony who unexpectedly trumped the FZ1000 with the newest iteration of their successful RX10 line, the RX10iii.
Although it is twice the price of the FZ1000, the RX10iii sensor has an edge in IQ and has slightly better dynamic range. The Zeiss lens is faster (ƒ2.4-4), is mostly distortion-free and has a greater reach (24-600mm). The RX10iii also has weather sealing – more important than you might think; I don’t want to put my camera away in dusty or inclement conditions! More significantly, I don’t want dust creeping into a system that I cannot clean.
The EVF of the RX10iii is sharp and seems larger and brighter than I ever expected from a small sensor system, and there is no video lag. As an OVF user all my life, Sony’s EVF didn’t take any getting used to. In fact, the info provided around the viewfinder is excellent and I don’t find it intrusive. After turning on the hash lines for composing and the digital level, I’m set to go.
Perhaps even more significant is how well Sony has transferred other video options to still photography by including “live” custom-set highlight warnings and focus-peaking. Combined with the exposure compensation wheel landing exactly where my thumb is, I can nail perfect exposure (using ETTR) and perfect focus, with no guess-work, in one shot. Any need for bracketing is gone, except for HDR work.
Focus peaking is also brilliant: while many EVF cameras have had this for some time now, for EVF-newbies like me, having real-time hyperfocal distance built into the viewing experience without having to stop down the lens is wonderful. Using minute yellow pixels, the EVF clearly shows which areas of the scene will be in focus as I change apertures from 2.8 to 4 to 5.6. Which brings me to one of the distinctive advantages of smaller 1″ sensors…
Shooting at ƒ5.6 provides equivalent depth of field to a FF lens set to about ƒ16 (more precisely, ƒ15.27). For a landscaper like me, this opens up a whole host of hand-held opportunities at ISO100 that would not otherwise be possible, specifically in the more dramatic light at the edges of daylight—even with a polarizing filter. You’ll not want to use ƒ8 or above for stills, as the reduction in sharpness due to defraction becomes obvious. However, in a dark cathedral, at ƒ2.4 I can still manage full 24mm interiors with a full-frame depth of field equivalent of ƒ6.5 or I can zoom in to capture the details I mentioned earlier. Of course, this greater depth-of-field will pose a problem for the isolationists who want minimal depth-of-field, but those shots are still possible, to some extent, at longer focal lengths.
Ergonomically, zooming in for details is no problem. One feature which may cause some to scratch their heads in disbelief is the option of zooming to precise focal lengths of 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc. I mean, “why bother?” when you have the flexibility of zooming to any focal length – just zoom and go, right? For me, having used fixed focal length lenses for years, I still “see” photos in terms of perspective, so I appreciate this precision, zooming to the focal length I visualize for the photo, then finishing by “zooming with my feet” for precise composition. This minor detail tells me that the RX10iii was designed with photographers in mind.
When shooting with longer focal lengths, the camera is well-balanced in the hand and the stabilization is better than I’ve seen from either Nikon’s in-lens system, the Olympus or Panasonic’s sensor stabilization system. Proof of that is in the Great Grey owl photograph below. It was shot at ƒ4@1/125 using 600mm equivalent (actually 220mm) at ISO400 – and it’s tack sharp as the 100% crop illustrates. Imagine having a 600mm ƒ4 lens for less than $2 grand, plus a complete camera and video system!
While researching this purchase, the #1 complaint I heard about Sony cameras was their poor menu system. Until I became familiar with them, I, too, was continuously scrolling back and forth. However, I’ve also come to realize the value of the “Fn” button, well-placed, right where my thumb lies. It, combined with the thumbwheel, allows me to quickly change up to 12 customizable settings such as IQ, ISO, aspect ratio, focus area, flash compensation, etc. I can even organize the layout of the various options to group similar ones together. Brilliant! In fact, being the control freak I am and never trusting Auto ISO, I’ve programmed the thumbwheel to instantly rotate through the ISOs allowing for even more convenience whilst shooting.
Having put over 10,000km and 7,000 frames on the RX10iii over the last eight weeks, from the glaciers and volcanoes of Iceland, back to Canada then to the fells, dales, cathedrals and castles of England, in the rain and the sun, shooting everything from slow shutter speed waterfalls on a tripod to birds on the wing and Lightroom-stitched panoramas, I can safely say, the RX10iii is the ultimate travel camera. Given the various options I’ve described above, clearly it can be defined as a “photographer’s camera”. I’ve carried it around all day in my hand, over my shoulder, in a waist pack and, when not using it, I forget it’s even there.
The RX10iii is the perfect camera in that I always want it to be with me. I could never say that about my full frame system – great as it is, it’s also 5 times heavier. In an era of diminishing returns, that same system is also 3x more expensive, only reaches to 200mm (albeit at ƒ2.8; or 300mm if you figure in a similar sensor size), yet despite having almost double the pixels, its IQ is only slightly superior under normal viewing conditions. The only thing I’m really missing from the RX10iii is the 18-21mm range of wide-angle I love so much. (Maybe the Nikon 1″ sensor DL 18-50mm will fill that gap one day, but that will mean a second camera!)
To avoid being labeled a Sony fanboy, there are a few niggles Sony could improve upon. Obviously, I would like better DR and better performance at higher ISOs. ISO400 is quite usable, even 800 can be used for smaller prints (and definitely screen resolution photos) but beyond that is stretching it. I also wish the lens would focus a little closer at longer focal lengths. Close-up photography is very good in the 50 to 85mm range, but it’s helpful to have the greater working distances offered by close-focus in the 100 to 200mm range.
AF performance is just short of excellent, as it doesn’t quite keep up with Panasonic’s FZ1000, so there’s room for improvement there. Also, there is some distortion in the corners at 24mm – no worse than on some of my full-frame zooms, but it’s there nonetheless. Manual focusing takes getting used to: it’s mushy and, at first, slow-to-respond, then “clicks in”. AF-assist helps considerably. The LCD viewscreen is only tiltable horizontally and not fully articulated – not a deal-breaker, but certainly something to consider, especially for vertical orientation shots. GPS would be a welcome addition and I also wish Sony had included an external charger, but $30 online solved that problem along with an extra battery.
The AF, while not quite as quick and accurate as that found in the Lumix FZ1000, can still lock onto moving targets such as this loon from a canoe.
Lastly, Sony’s built-in panorama feature is sadly lacking in IQ. Even when oriented vertically, it shoots at a pixel height of only 2160pixels – less than ½ of what’s available. As well, the JPEGs come out somewhat “grainy”. In fact, I get better panos from my 5mp iPad Air camera!
When 24mm isn’t wide enough, stitching together images into a panorama is easy-enough, but not in-camera unless you’re desperate and will put up with a small, slightly grainy jpeg.
So, why didn’t I choose an APS or m4/3s system for travel? After all, a body and two zooms would be the same or significantly less in cost and would have features missing that I’ve described above. In fact, I greatly enjoyed using an Olympus 4/3s system for 5 years. But, for me, there is not enough of a savings in weight and two zooms is less convenient. Few are weather-sealed and the zooms that keep it in about the same price range as the RX10iii are a full stop slower at ƒ3.5-5.6 – too slow for my liking. Having everything built into a single camera with excellent IQ, solves a whole bunch of inconveniences and, when traveling, that means a lot!
But what about my FF system – does the RX10iii replace it? When traveling, canoeing and backpacking, definitely yes. The RX10iii fills a very large niche in my photography. In fact, my guess is the vast majority of photography by serious enthusiasts would be more than covered by the RX10iii. However, when I begin to think about professional aspirations, wider-than-24mm shots and astrophotography, when I know I’ll be working on a tripod to get the most IQ from the larger sensor, I switch to using my FF system.
At the same time, If I was told tomorrow I had to choose between the RX10iii and my FF system, I would choose the RX10iii because of two factors: the camera meets my IQ needs for books and fine prints and it is extremely versatile. I keep reminding myself: it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with what you’ve got. With the IQ, features and versatility of the RX10iii, it really is the ultimate travel camera. You won’t believe how good it is until you get it in your hands and make some photographs.
Having the ability to shoot across Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon to isolate the toe of the Fjallsjökull glacier is made easier with a 500mm lens – easily doable and sharp from corner to corner with the RX10iii and at only 1.1kg, it’s easy to carry around all day.]
Small sensors are at their limits with long exposures. This 30-second exposure made at ISO100 40 minutes after sunset, showed luminance noise equivalent to about ISO800. With luminance noise reduction applied, the noise was tamed to about ISO400 equivalent. The file is still publishable in a photo album or book format and even looks great as an 8×10 print.