Another Nail in the Coffin of Entry-level/Budget Enthusiast DSLRs? Sony RX10 Mark III Takes On the Sony a6300 with Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8

I didn't think I'd like this camera: I'd chosen to buy Sony's RX100 Mk IV last year when I faced the choice. But then I returned that camera when I realized it didn't have enough reach and I didn't like futzing with the pop-up viewfinder (I loved everything else).  Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when an RX10 Mark III loaner showed up on my doorstep, in the middle of my on-going love affair with the Sony a6300 and a just-arrived Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 - a true rock 'n roll combo. So I did the obvious - I pitted them against each other during a family portrait shoot. I’ll cut straight to the chase: the Sony RX10 Mk III is so good – and so close to an a6300 with the already-legendary Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 - that if you can’t get amazing photos with it, the problem is…ahem…do you see it coming… YOU (or, in my case, me). Even bigger: the RX10 Mark III may be another nail in the coffin of entry level/budget enthusiast DSLRs.

But I’m keeping my a6300.

And my Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 G OSS, Sony FE 28mm f/2, Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS, and Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8.

Rock and ROLL!

There’s something enormously satisfying about the compactness of the a6300, its better low light sensitivity and dynamic range, and superior autofocus.

 And there's just nothing like a good fast prime of the caliber of the Batis 85/1.8. Or any of the other guys above. They offer creamy bokeh, the opportunity to operate at significantly  lower ISOs for the same EV and thus lower noise and wider dynamic range; and -- at least while they're on the camera -- much more compact dimensions and lighter weight.

You can't get these on a zoom which begins with a 35mm equivalent maximum aperture of f/6.5 at 24mm, and by the 35mm equivalent of 100mm has a maximum aperture approaching f/11. When compared to the Batis 85mm's f/1.8, that's a huge difference: about six stops that you can allocate to shallow depth of field or lower ISO. Think ISO 100 vs. ISO 6400, with a smaller sensor working that 6400.

Make no mistake, however: the RX10 Mk III is yet another extraordinary combination of functions and price point from Sony, and threatens to cut into traditional DSLR sales.

RX10 Mark III above, a6300 below. Note much thicker body and grip of RX10 Mark III. Then again, that's a single focal length 85mm lens on the a6300 (including lens hood), but a 24-600mm (35mm equivalent) on the RX1o Mark III!

RX10 Mark III above, a6300 below. Note much thicker body and grip of RX10 Mark III. Then again, that's a single focal length 85mm lens on the a6300 (including lens hood), but a 24-600mm (35mm equivalent) on the RX1o Mark III!

The RX10/3 Has Superior Ergonomics

At first I didn’t like the RX10 Mark III’s size – especially compared to my current preoccupation, the a6300. But when I compare the RX10 Mark III (39.2 oz with battery and card) to the Canon 1D (56.9 oz without card or lens), it is downright petite.

The RX10 Mark III feels big next to the a6300, but downright petite compared to a Canon 1D.

The RX10 Mark III feels big next to the a6300, but downright petite compared to a Canon 1D.

The RX10/3’s controls fall more naturally under your fingertips than they do on the a6300, including movie stop/start and the rear dial used for positioning the flexible spot focus, unavailable on the a6300. The RX10/3 grip is more substantial.  

RX10 Mark III really does fall to hand much more nicely than the a6300 -- especially movie start/stop and placing a spot focus within the frame using the rear dial.

RX10 Mark III really does fall to hand much more nicely than the a6300 -- especially movie start/stop and placing a spot focus within the frame using the rear dial.

You can access the memory card from a side door on the RX10/3 without having to remove the camera from a tripod or gimbal to get at the compartment underneath like on the a6300 (sadly, this is not true of the battery). There’s a real exposure compensation dial on the top plate.

Little things make a big difference on certain kinds of shoots: imagine having to take your camera out of the gimbal, off the tripod, or out of the cage every time you need to change a memory card. Think: a6300. Then again, you're more likely to do any of these things to change the battery, in which case think: the a6300 AND the RX10 Mark III, since both use the same battery accessible only from the bottom plate. This is one reason why their bigger brother, Sony's FS5,  is the best "no futzing around" ILC video camera for the money out there. IMHO, anyway.

Little things make a big difference on certain kinds of shoots: imagine having to take your camera out of the gimbal, off the tripod, or out of the cage every time you need to change a memory card. Think: a6300. Then again, you're more likely to do any of these things to change the battery, in which case think: the a6300 AND the RX10 Mark III, since both use the same battery accessible only from the bottom plate. This is one reason why their bigger brother, Sony's FS5,  is the best "no futzing around" ILC video camera for the money out there. IMHO, anyway.

And to my surprise, the RX10 Mark III has ever-so-slightly better eye relief (for me, when wearing glasses).

The RX10/3 Has Additional Features

While the RX10/3 shares 120fps 100mbps capability and the XAVC-S codec with the a6300, it goes a few better steps with 240, 480 and 960fps.  That last frame rate really sacrifices image quality and is cropped, but I was surprised how usable the 240fps and 480fps were.

While the RX10/3 has a mic jack like the a6300, it goes one better with a headphone jack, too.

Fascinating that the RX10 Mark III has a headphone jack, while the a6300 doesn't. And yet...smart.

Fascinating that the RX10 Mark III has a headphone jack, while the a6300 doesn't. And yet...smart.

The RX10 has an LCD panel on the top plate. No such luck on the a6300.

LCD panel on top plate, just like olden days of the Canon DSLRs. I like it!

LCD panel on top plate, just like olden days of the Canon DSLRs. I like it!

The Zeiss zoom on the RX10/3 also has an aperture ring on the lens itself. Nice (and especially helpful for videography).

Aperture ring on the lens barrel itself. Yay!

Aperture ring on the lens barrel itself. Yay!

And, in theory, the RX10 Mark III is more weather resistant. I didn't have the ambition to test that one out.

The RX10/3 Has That Stonkin’ Zeiss Lens – But That’s a Two-Way Street

For hundreds less than the price of an a6300 and a single Batis 85mm f/1.8, you can buy the RX10/3 with a built-in Zeiss lens with a last-you’ll-ever-need focal range of 24mm to 600mm (35mm equivalent). In fact, if you opt for turning on the Clear Image Zoom capability, it will take you all the way to the equivalent of 1200mm. It works.

Sony RX10 Mark III has a huge focal range. $1,498 at B&H

Sony RX10 Mark III has a huge focal range. $1,498 at B&H

Holy crap, that's some reach!

I got beautiful macro shots; crazy distance shots; and everything in between, all with a push of the power zoom switch or a quick twist of the lens zoom ring.

The flip side is that this is the ONLY lens you can have with RX10/3. And as sharp as it is (sharp enough that I simply stopped pixel peeping after just a moment because the images knocked me out), you simply can’t get the same level bokeh.

But that’s not the only challenge, as I wrote above.

It's worth repeating: the lens is variable aperture from f/2.4 - f/4.0, with the 35mm equivalent of  f/6.5 – f/10.9. While you can make up for some -- not nearly all -- of that by shooting at the long end of the tele range (and at the wide end it rarely matters for most general purpose shots), this really does matter in low light or when you’re trying to isolate elements within the frame for narrative punch.

Sony a6300 with Sony E50mm f/1.8 wide open on left; on right, Sony RX10 Mark III wide open on another day. I just couldn't get close with the RX10 Mark III, using as much of the long end as I could while preserving low noise levels (jacking up the ISO would have lightened the image but as I was already at max aperture it wouldn't have helped in that regard). This may not matter to you as much as it does to me, but make sure that's the case before you decide which way you want to go.

When light is at a premium, you’re talking a difference of four – five stops when compared to a field of view equivalent to the 85mm Batis on the a6300. Not only does this mean you can’t get as shallow a depth of field on the RX10 Mark III – you’re going to be asking its 1” sensor to step up in a way it just can’t when compared to the 24mp APS-C sized sensor in the a6300.

The a6300 Has a Superior Sensor

The sensors are both terrific, but the a6300’s is better. You can see the difference in noise with the naked eye when looking at ISO 12800 video, and you can certainly see resolution differences when you pixel peep. I’d give the a6300 at least a two stop advantage in low light, and it just holds up better under high magnification in stills. I didn’t conduct formal dynamic range tests, but casual observation leads me to believe the dynamic range of the a6300 is superior, too – without even going into S-Log.

The a6300 Has Superior Autofocus

While the RX10/3 has a flexible spot and a rear dial which makes it usable (unlike the a6300), I couldn’t reliably track moving objects from slow-moving bicycles to slower-moving runners.  The a6300 – with native lenses – is outstanding.

The a6300 Had the Batis 85mm f/1.8

This is pretty straightforward: the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 is a sublime lens, especially on the crop-sensor a6300.  It doesn't have to do anything other than be a great 85mm lens, and on the a6300 that means it acts more like a close-focusing 135, arguably my favorite portrait focal length.

Although my breath was taken away by Sony's new 85mm f/1.4 G-Master, only the Batis has image stabilization, making it a better choice for the non-in-body-image-stabilized a6300. Yes, you give up fractionally more light (and a little "pop" that just about no one but you or I would ever notice), but you also save $600 given the Batis' $1,199 price tag vs. the G-Master's $1,798.

Yet I don't own either one of them, having opted instead for Sony's FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS.

Why?

I need that focal length to pull double duty as a portrait lens AND a macro lens for product shots, and I don't mind giving up one stop -- especially when it's every bit as sharp and costs $200 less these days even than the Batis.

Then again, the Batis is lighter, more compact and a joy in the hand.

Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 on left, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS on right. Both are stellar.

Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 on left, Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS on right. Both are stellar.

Sigh. What can I say? I'm a gear slut and wish I could have all three.

The a6300 Gives You Choices

All of which drives home the point that the a6300 gives you choice. Fast primes? Slow but precise manual focus? Cine lenses? Other lenses from other brands and eras with character? Take your pick, you can mount them all on the a6300.

I’m a fast prime guy. After dating Canon L zoom glass for years, I’ve returned to the fold with a spate of native Sony e-mount primes, and they are superb. I don’t like adapted glass the way many others do – no harm/no foul – but even lenses that have been very appealing to me, like the Voigländer Wide and Super Wide Heliars – are now available in e-mount and better for it.

With this written, the appeal of other glass with character is undeniable, and that’s simply not possible with the RX10/3.

And sometimes that extra fast prime can get you in trouble. You have to ask yourself “how often do I shoot wide-open, and when I don’t, how far do I stop down?” I like shooting wide open a LOT, and yet I blew a sequence of beautifully lined-up shots because I should have been shooting at f/8 (at least!) on the Batis instead of 2.8.

Oh well. Just proves yet again that it’s the person behind the camera that makes the difference.

In Use

I played around with the RX10/3 just to acclimate myself to it, conducting low light and rolling shutter tests, a high frame rate test, and an informal shooting-while-walking-the-pooch test.

Screen grab from 4K low light test (all video shot in XAVC-S)

Screen grab from 4K low light test (all video shot in XAVC-S)

Screen grab from 4K rolling shutter test

Screen grab from 4K rolling shutter test

Screen grab from RX10 Mark III, 480fps at 1080p, RX10 Mark III

Screen grab from RX10 Mark III, 480fps at 1080p, RX10 Mark III

Screen grab (cropped) from 4K crazy spur-of-the-moment pooch walk video, Sony RX10 Mark III. This was hand-held at 220mm (600mm 35mm equivalent). Wow.

Screen grab (cropped) from 4K crazy spur-of-the-moment pooch walk video, Sony RX10 Mark III. This was hand-held at 220mm (600mm 35mm equivalent). Wow.

Then I decided to take the RX10/3 and the a6300 with a Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 and Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 to a family portrait shoot on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

I’d also planned on taking the RX10/3 up to New York for some Jay Maisel-inspired cityscapes, but time and schedule conspired against me.

Sigh. The RX10/3 would have been perfect for that last one (I don’t have a long tele in my arsenal yet).

Here’s the takeaway: I got great shots with both camera/lens combos.

I enjoyed the feel of the a6300 and interchangeable lenses in my hand, but I preferred the flexibility the zoom on the RX10/3 gave me for capturing the little one.

Then again, I preferred the a6300/Batis combination for the shots I liked the most.

But like I wrote above, I am a prime kinda guy.

[all shots below are JPEG, uncorrected except for cropping]

Sony RX10 ISO 500, 1/1250, f/4, 54.57mm (~150mm, ~f/11 35mm equivalent). This is SHARP, with beautiful color.

Sony a6300 with Zeiss Batis 85mm at ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/1600 (~127mm, f/2.7 35mm equivalent). Sharp and cream-a-licious. 

Sony RX10 Mk III, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/1250, -.7 EV, 167.98mm (~455mm, ~f/11 35mm equivalent). Sharp, contrasty. Colors are a little cooler here (auto white balance on all).

Sony a6300 with Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8, ISO 100, f/1.8 1/1600. Gawd. PS: no artificial lights on any of these, no light shapers. Definitely warmer.

Sony a6300 with Zeiss Touit 12mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500.

Sony a6300 with Zeiss Touit 12mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500.

RX10 Mark III, ISO 320, 75.77mm, f/4, 1/1250, -.3 EV. I love the tele compression.

What the Two Cameras Have in Common

What these cameras share is this: they are both extraordinary devices.

Sure, they have the same menu system, good and bad. Neither has in-body image stabilization (and at 600mm, I missed it). They have about the same amount of rolling shutter (though in fact when you slow things down enough, the RX10/3 seems slightly – if not meaningfully – better). Neither has the FS5’s internal, variable electronic neutral density filter. Neither offers more than 8 bit 4:2:0. They are limited to the same XAVC-S codec, with 24p at 100mbps in 4K, 50mbps in 1080p. They use the same limited functionality remote app (aargh). They use the same Pez-sized batteries.

And neither has a touch screen, which doesn't matter to me unless the entire UX is really great -- like on the $30,000+ Hasselblad H6D.

But specs be damned: both the RX10 Mark III and the a6300 have great 4K-recording sensors and a full complement of video functionality from focus and exposure assists to at least 4x slow mo, even if they’re tuned differently for different purposes; they've got great viewfinders and the same kind of articulated rear screens; incredible though different glass sitting in front of them; and extraordinarily clever combinations of functionality and price points.

At normal viewing distances and size -- or when distributed over the web and as long as you don't pixel peep -- you can't go wrong with either one as long as you're not pushing the limits of what you're trying to do. 

Sony now has every single shooter blanketed with options except for the highest end of the hybrid stills/video market. These two cameras show just how little daylight Sony allows among just a small slice of their offerings, even when they come in different shapes and sizes.

“Spoilt for choice,” my Brit friends might say.

The Bottom Line

Here’s an odd reference point.

If I were moving up from a 128G iPhone 6s + as a new filmmaker; were looking for just one camera to do it all for me while traveling; wanted to documentary work in stealth mode; or I were otherwise budget constrained but could stretch to the RX10 Mark III for video,  it's a no-brainer. The RX10/3 is an incredible camera, ticks off just about all the boxes (feh, maybe not the ability to pull focus well -- no fly-by-wire lens can), and though it is not inexpensive at $1,498, you’d have to spend thousands more to get comparable focal range  with interchangeable lenses on the a6300.

And you'd need a stronger back.

On the other hand, if you want ultimate image quality, control and choice; have the budget; and don’t plan on shooting slow-mo above 120fps, the a6300 is the right camera for you (and you could probably slow it down a bit more in post without noticeable image degradation).

Unless, of course, you don’t need that last bit of low light performance, don't even need stills, but want the ultimate no-futzing around camera for documentary or narrative work at a remotely reasonable price AND want those crazy-high frame rates – then you’re talking the FS5.

Unless, again, you want…

You get the idea.

What's Next?

By the time you read this or see the video, I’ll have sent the RX10 Mark III back to Sony, and I don’t mind.  The a6300 is awesome, and every single piece of glass I have for it is incredible.

Then again, I’ll be traveling in Europe later this year. I want to pack light and I want to keep it simple. I was thinking of trying a couple of other non-interchangeable lens cameras like the dramatically more expensive Sony RX1 Mk II or Leica Q

Leica Q is a whopping $4,250, but when I held it in my hands at PhotoPlus Expo '15, ooooh.

Leica Q is a whopping $4,250, but when I held it in my hands at PhotoPlus Expo '15, ooooh.

Held this puppy in hand at a Sony press briefing. Veddy niiiice. Same 42megapixel sensor as in the a7r II. But even at  $1,000 less than the Q, it'll still take a chunk out of your wallet at $3,298. The RX10 Mark III looks compelling by comparison to either, but then again - if you want one of these cameras, you don't want the RX10 Mark III. Which is fine.

Held this puppy in hand at a Sony press briefing. Veddy niiiice. Same 42megapixel sensor as in the a7r II. But even at  $1,000 less than the Q, it'll still take a chunk out of your wallet at $3,298. The RX10 Mark III looks compelling by comparison to either, but then again - if you want one of these cameras, you don't want the RX10 Mark III. Which is fine.

But the RX10/3 is a really interesting alternative, price be damned. After all, it would give me focal length choices the other two can’t – and 4K video as well.

Maybe I just need -- who are we kidding, want -- a big fast native FE 400mm prime. Oh, wait - that doesn't exist yet.

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