I tend not to get too excited about small sensor cameras anymore. They certainly have their own advantages over large sensor (APS-C, full frame, medium format) cameras – size, weight, cost. And lens design flexibility. Lens creators can fashion glass with 35mm equivalent focal lengths for small sensors that would be extraordinarily heavy and unwieldy if they tried to cover the full frame sensor size, but can be kept small and compact when they only need to cover a much smaller sensor.
It’s the lens that makes the RX10 Mk III something to get excited about. A 24mm to 600mm (full frame equivalent) focal length zoom, it covers wide to extreme telephoto and yet collapses to a size small enough to squeeze into the same shoulder bag I use to carry around my Sony RX1R – with a built in viewfinder to boot. It even has image stabilization built in.
It is not the first ultra-zoom compact camera ever made, and not even the first to reach 600mm, but it may be the first to do so with such (comparatively) excellent image quality. Judged against its small sensor peers, this is an expensive yet highly capable “bridge” camera that can serve as a fun backup camera for extra reach or even as the main travel camera for those who favor flexibility over the ability to make huge prints or take low light shots.
I have a lot of “cons” in the list up there, and I think it is important that anyone who is thinking about purchasing this camera know about them. For many people, all – or almost all – of those cons will be inconsequential. For example, for an amateur who wants a travel camera that is relatively compact in size but allows for a huge zoom range, and who is only really taking photos for memories and for posting online, this is essentially the perfect camera (if the price is right for that person).
But the deficiencies inherent in the small sensor have to be addressed. Specifically, image quality suffers greatly after you start going above ISO 100. By 3200 it’s a smeared mess, but even by 400 you can definitely notice a large dip in the per-pixel quality and ability to make out the fine details in the photograph. I would not be comfortable selling prints from this camera above about 8in x 12in for ISO 100, and would not sell anything above that ISO, period. I just don’t think my customers would be happy with the quality.
You could argue that for black and white shots high ISO adds character, but here the problem is not just fine grain like, say, the D800E would add. Instead there is a loss of detail and smearing, probably as a result of aggressive noise reduction that is baked into the RAW file even though I set noise reduction to the lowest setting in the menu when I got the camera (note: I rented this camera and shot about 1,000 images).
It isn’t fair to compare this camera to cameras with significantly larger sensors. That’s obvious. But I do think readers should know what they are getting into. The lens is great, but don’t expect magic – the sensor is still 20 megapixels packed into a tiny little space, and as a result ISOs above 100 just start to fall apart.
So for professionals who make money off prints, I would recommend staying away or only use as a backup/fun camera.
The other drawbacks are pretty minor and things I could live with. It feels very much like a piece of consumer plastic, rather than prosumer (RX1R) or pro (Leica Q feel, for example). It takes its sweet time to start up and power off, because the lens has to retract out of the body and back in again. Zooming is slow unless you set the zoom speed to the highest in the menus (do this), and then it is acceptable. Face recognition sometimes found my toddler’s face, or my wife’s face, but often as not didn’t, or instead bracketed a section of grass or rock that apparently resembled a face to the algorithm employed. Battery life is mediocre. The viewfinder is fine.
And, really, 600mm is a heck of a lot of fun. It’s addictive to have this zoom range available. You can take snaps that would simply not be possible with any other camera, and make compositions that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Sure you could “zoom with your feet” with a 200mm lens on a full frame DSLR…except when you can’t (or if you did your feet would end up in the ocean or off the edge of cliff).
It’s fun. It’s a tad expensive. It’s a little slow. It’s carry-everywhere compact (with a little shoulder bag – this is *not* pocketable like the RX100 series).
It’s…pretty cool. Just don’t expect magic.