Just get the Sony RX10

Earlier today, a friend asked what sort of camera they should get if they wanted a “grown-up camera”. Normally, I would start asking a lot of questions and try to pinpoint the perfect camera for your particular needs and preferences. But right now, it’s easy.

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If you want a small camera that’s worth carrying around (by that I mean it’s better enough than your phone), your one stop is the Sony RX100. Everyone loves the RX100. Here’s the Wirecutter reviews of the original RX100 and of the RX100 Mark 2 and David Pogue’s rave on the Mark 3.

If you don’t want the nifty pop-up viewfinder on the Mark 3, save money and get the original, which is still available and nearly as good. Budget another $40 or so for a stick-on grip to make it a little easier to hold on to. Have fun.

Now, if by “grown-up camera” you meant something more like a DSLR—big, black, serious-looking—skip the usual suspects from Canon and Nikon and just get the Sony RX10. The RX10 has the same 20 megapixel image sensor as the RX100. But instead of a svelte little brick, the RX10 has a big, black, serious-looking body packed with buttons and dials. You can’t change lenses, but the lens that’s bolted on is a doozy: 24mm (wide angle) to 200mm (solid telephoto) with an unusual bright and consistent maximum aperture, so you can shoot in lower light or get less noise or go for that coveted blurry background at all zoom settings.

An orange-red flower in front of panels on a building
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This isn't particularly blurry, though.

That lens almost completely drives my recommendation. Compared to the lens or lenses that come packaged with entry-level DSLRs, it’s brighter, probably more flexible, and almost certainly better. A single lens with the same brightness, quality, and convenience does not exist for DSLRs; to match the range and the f/2.8 constant aperture, you’ll need two professional-grade lenses, each of them will be nearly as heavy or heavier than the entire RX10, and you’ll spend at least $1000 on each. An investment, sure, but a hefty one.

On top of that, neither of those über lenses would let you focus as close to your subject as the RX10 does. Yep, it’s also a solid close-up lens with no special "Macro" mode or adapter lens required. You could get closer with a macro lens, but that’s another $1000 or so and another lens to fumble around.

The RX10 has such a flexible lens and still keeps the size reasonable because its image sensor is smaller than those in DSLRs. The RX10’s sensor is smaller than DSLRs or Micro Four Thirds cameras, but much larger than phones or point-and-shoots. This comparison shows the relative sizes (using the RX100 sensor, which is the same as the RX10). All other things equal, a larger sensor gives you better image quality and… larger lenses.

Size isn’t everything, though. Ming Thein says it’s generally on par with recent cameras with much larger sensors. Thom Hogan say “for such a small sensor, this is still darned good performance”. And you’ll make up for some of the difference with the lens, which is better than DSLR kit lenses. Thom goes on to say, “I have to say I’d probably prefer the RX10 combo to a lot of low-end DSLR plus kit lens combos for a large chunk of photographic situations”.

My dog reclining in a chair and looking into the distance
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ISO 3200 here. There's some noise, but color and tonality are still really good.

Can you get better image quality? Yep. Always. But the RX10’s pictures are excellent—beyond good enough for nearly everybody.

Other nice touches:

  • It has image stabilization, so you’re more likely to get a sharp picture as the light drops.
  • It’s moderately weather sealed, so it can take a splash or get caught in the rain.
  • It has a shutter that’s nearly silent.
  • It has a built-in 3-stop filter so you can better isolate subjects from their backgrounds in broad daylight or control shutter speed while shooting video.
  • Oh, right: it’s a solid video camera.

Nothing’s perfect. When I tried one, I didn’t think the continuous autofocus tracking was super; if you’re shooting fast-moving sports/kids/pets, DSLRs are your best bet (assuming you put in the practice).

My dog running towards me
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Action shot. If I had to guess, the camera focused behind him while trying to keep up.

Also, the motorized zoom isn’t particularly snappy moving from wide-angle to telephoto, which can be frustrating if you’re not used to it.

Finally, there’s the price. When it debuted, Sony wanted $1,300, which nearly every review thought was too rich; nearly every review is stupid. $1,300 isn’t cheap, but it’s a bargain for the feature set and flexibility. You’d spend over $2,500 on a comparable DSLR kit ($600 Canon T5i + $900 Canon 17–55/2.8 + $1,000 Sigma 50–150/2.8 IS).

Lately, new competition has forced Sony to drop the price to under $1,000, which I makes it a much easier choice. Said competition, the Panasonic FZ1000, is also worth looking at: it shoots 4K video and has a “more zoom” lens that might appeal. I’d still get the RX10 for the constant f/2.8 aperture, near-silent shutter (Update: turns out the FZ1000 has a nearly silent mechanical shutter of its own) built-in 3-stop filter, and better build.

I’m certainly looking at one to replace my Micro Four Thirds kit. Here’s the family portrait:

My Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds camera and lenses
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From left: G1 with 7-14mm, 20mm f/1.7, 14-45mm kit lens, 14 f/2.5, and 45 f/2.8 Macro

And here’s the RX10 next to the G1 with just one of those lenses (the 45mm macro):

My Panasonic G1 and 45mm macro next to the RX10, which is slightly larger
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RX10 on the left. My, what a big lens you have!

Sure, the RX10 can’t focus as close as my macro lens, and it’s not as wide as my ultra-ultra-wide that I don’t particularly love and it’s way larger than the petite ‘pancake’ lenses, but I don’t think I’d miss any of those in reality. And instead of having to juggle a pile of lenses, I’d have one thing that does nearly everything. It’s a solid compromise.

So, to sum up:

  • Need a compact camera that’s amazing? The Sony RX100 is your Huckleberry.
  • Looking at a DSLR? Give the Sony RX10 a long look. You're getting much more lens without giving up a lot of image quality.

Am I doing it wrong?

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