1-Inch Sensor Superzoom Cameras vs. Entry-Level Wildlife Lenses

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For the longest time, comparing image quality between point-and-shoot cameras and full-frame cameras, or even APS-C format cameras, was a conversation you could have start to finish during the course of an elevator ride. Point-and-shoot cameras were convenient, but the detail and dynamic range of their smaller sensors never measured up to the detail and dynamic range you get from larger sensors. And then one day Sony introduced a new 1" format CMOS sensor, and BOOM! People started having second thoughts about slinging heavy camera bags over their shoulders.

Not Too Big, Not Too Small—The Perfect Sensor Size

The size of Sony’s 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor, which has since been licensed for use in cameras produced by other camera manufacturers, is situated in a sweet spot among sensor sizes. Compared to a full-frame sensor, 1" sensors have a 2.7x crop factor, which is smaller than MFT (2x) and APS-C (1.5x or 1.6x) camera sensors. Conversely, 1" sensors are larger than the tiny 1/1.7" (4.6x) and 1/2.5" (6x) sensors found in conventional point-and-shoot cameras.

The physical size of the 1" sensor is large enough to suppress much of the noise that traditionally plagues photographs taken with point-and-shoot cameras. The dynamic range of 1" sensors is also notably greater than smaller point-and-shoot sensors, which results in greater detail in the highlights and shadows. In the world of point-and-shoot cameras, this has long been an issue. Sony’s 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor puts much of this to rest.

Weight and Size Factors

For some shooters, weight and size are major factors when choosing camera systems—and this is the target audience for cameras like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV, which in addition to featuring a 20.1 1” BSI CMOS sensor, sports a 25x ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T* 24-600mm f/2.4-4 equivalent zoom lens. (The actual focal length is 8.8-220mm) The camera and lens weighs in at 2.41lb and measures 5.2 x 3.7 x 5.7", which, on paper, makes Sony’s RX10 the ultimate travel camera of all time.

While there aren’t any full-frame equivalents of the 24-600mm zoom range of Sony’s RX10 cameras, a Sony A7-series camera with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens comes close for capturing distant wildlife subjects, albeit with a notably smaller maximum aperture. This camera/lens combination is also notably larger and heavier than Sony’s RX10 IV. Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM measures 4.13 x 10.24" and weighs 4 lb, which is already larger and heavier than the Sony RX10 IV. Add to this a Sony a7R III mirrorless camera, which weighs 1.45 lb and measures 5 x 3.76 x 2.9".

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

A Sony a7R III with Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM (left) alongside a Sony RX10 IV. The Sony RX10 IV, which contains a 1” CMOS sensor, effectively zooms from 24mm to 600mm and is about half the weight and size of the full-frame Sony a7R III and Sigma 150-600mm zoom lens.
A Sony a7R III with Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM (left) alongside a Sony RX10 IV. The Sony RX10 IV, which contains a 1" CMOS sensor, effectively zooms from 24mm to 600mm and is about half the weight and size of the full-frame Sony a7R III and Sigma 150-600mm zoom lens.

In all, the Sony a7R III and Sigma 150-600mm zoom combo is about twice the weight and size of the Sony RX10. As a bonus, Sony’s RX10 also enables the option of shooting at wide-angle, normal, and midrange telephoto focal lengths, whereas the Sigma zoom first starts at the 150mm mark.

It's also worth noting if a 24-600mm f/2.8-4 existed for full-frame cameras, you’d need a team of Sherpas to haul it around. And forget about squeezing it into an overhead bin—that’s simply not happening.

Are there compromises being made to create such an inviting camera and lens combo? You bet, but for many, these compromises are worth the price of admission.

Large Sensors vs. Smaller Sensors

Nobody will deny the fact modern point-and-shoot cameras take impressively fine photographs. Generally speaking, smaller sensors, which typically contain smaller pixels with smaller light-gathering photons, have narrower dynamic ranges than larger imaging sensors. As a result, highlights tend to blow out and shadows get crushed into inky darkness when shooting in bright, contrasty situations. More often than not, you must choose between highlights or shadows. Sony’s 1" CMOS sensor is large enough to handle these extremes far better than the smaller sensors we typically associate with point-and-shoot cameras.

The brilliance and clarity of the above peacock portraits clearly illustrate how well Sony’s 1" CMOS sensor performs (right) when compared to a similar photograph taken with a full-frame imaging sensor and a full-size zoom range (left).

Just as large-format film captures a wider range of tone (dynamic range) compared to medium-format film, larger imaging sensors invariably have greater light-gathering abilities than their physically smaller counterparts. When it comes to photographic tonality, bigger sensors are always better.

These photos were made in extremely contrasty lighting conditions, with Sony’s RX10 IV and a Sony a7R III with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens. At pixel resolution they can be told apart, but at normal viewing distances and when viewing midsize prints, the image quality is remarkably comparable.

However, with the above-mentioned parameters in mind, Sony’s RX10 IV and other cameras containing Sony’s 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor are capable of capturing high levels of both detail and dynamic range under a wide variety of shooting conditions.

Close Focusing—A Deal Breaker If There Ever Was One

When comparing Sony’s RX10 IV and the Sony a7R III with Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 3 DG OS HSM, focal range aside, one of the most jarring differences between the two camera systems was the difference in close-focusing distances. At 600mm, Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens can focus down to 9.19' (0.2x). At the 600mm mark, Sony’s RX10 IV focuses down to 11.81"! Any questions?

To illustrate the differences in close-focusing abilities between Sony’s RX10 IV and a full-frame camera with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens, I photographed a crop of newly emerging spring crocuses. (I chose crocuses because they don’t scare easily).

Photographs of crocuses taken with Sony’s RX10 IV with the lens set at 24mm (left) and at 600mm (right). The extreme focal range combined with the ability to focus inches from your subject makes Sony’s RX10 IV an extremely attractive choice for travel and wildlife photography.

Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens focuses close for a lens of its size. It also renders a lovely grade of bokeh, but it isn’t as optically flexible compared to the 24-600mm equivalent zoom lens on Sony’s RX10 IV.
Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens focuses close for a lens of its size. It also renders a lovely grade of bokeh, but it isn’t as optically flexible compared to the 24-600mm equivalent zoom lens on Sony’s RX10 IV.

It may not always be possible to get within minimum focusing distance to your subject with either of the two camera systems described in this article, but in the case of the Sony RX10 IV and similar cameras containing Sony’s 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor, it’s reassuring to have a camera that can get you in as tight as need be to your subject.

The close-focusing abilities of Sony’s RX10 IV and comparable cameras featuring a Sony 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor, combined with a 600mm equivalent reach make it a viable—and very affordable—option for high-quality wildlife photography.
The close-focusing abilities of Sony’s RX10 IV and comparable cameras featuring a Sony 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensor, combined with a 600mm equivalent reach make it a viable—and very affordable—option for high-quality wildlife photography.

 

The 600mm reach of Sony’s RX10 IV, combined with close-focusing abilities, enables you to truly see the white or—in the case of mountain goats—the amber of your subject’s eyes.
The 600mm reach of Sony’s RX10 IV, combined with close-focusing abilities, enables you to truly see the white or—in the case of mountain goats—the amber of your subject’s eyes.


The Faster the Lens, The Better Guarantee of Successful Wildlife Photographs

Creative and technical skills aside, the success of wildlife photographs often hinges on how well your camera can focus on the subject and nail a sharp, accurate exposure before the moment passes. If your lens spends too much time searching back and forth before nailing the focus on your subject's eyes, chances are you are going to miss the moment.

The wider f/2.4-4 maximum aperture on Sony’s RX10 IV is about 1-1/3rd stops faster than the f/5-6.3 maximum aperture found on Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens.

Lenses with slower maximum apertures also require longer exposure times once the light levels start dropping, and slower shutter speeds increase the likelihood of motion blur. Image stabilization (IS) can steady your camera, but if your subject decides to take off as you press the shutter button, no amount of image stabilization will freeze the moment a bird takes wing from a branch.

Closed System vs. Open System

Another consideration when choosing a camera system is whether you want an open or closed camera system. Sony’s RX10 IV is a closed system, meaning the camera and lens are permanently attached. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are open systems because the camera and lens can be upgraded when newer/better options become available. This shouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent when choosing a camera system, but should be a consideration, nonetheless.

Firmware upgrades aside, closed-system cameras like Sony’s RX10 IV are what they are and will always be, in terms of imaging and optical technologies. Open camera systems leave open the option to upgrade your camera, lens, or both as technologies and your shooting needs change.

Apples and Oranges

In some ways, comparing results between the Sony RX10 IV and Sony a7R III is a rigged match. Sony’s RX10 IV contains a physically smaller 20.1MP sensor while Sony’s a7R III contains a much larger 42MP imaging sensor. And perhaps that’s the point. While it would be fairer to compare the RX10 to a camera with a camera with a comparable pixel count, an open camera system allows for upgrades and performance improvements that evolve with newer camera and lens technologies.

Though I did not have an opportunity to compare Sony’s RX10 IV to a camera more fairly against a 20 or 24MP DSLR or mirrorless camera, I know from past experience with a variety of cameras containing 1" CMOS sensors and larger-format DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, size matters—the larger the sensor, the better the overall image quality. This held true in the days of film cameras and holds equally true when it comes to modern digital technologies.

The Challenges of Wildlife Photography

Capturing close-up photographs of wildlife in its natural habitat is not a matter of driving to the local park and grabbing curbside photos of squirrels rummaging around the picnic tables in search of leftover fries. The best photographs occur when animals are hunting and feeding, which, depending on your choice of wildlife, are typically around dawn and dusk. And while many forms of wildlife hunt and graze in open fields and skies, some prefer the stealth enabled by shadows. These are also the times when one learns the limitations of lenses with smaller, slower maximum apertures.

Canadian geese crossing a pond on a sunny afternoon is easy pickings for the Sony RX10 IV (left) and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM zoom lens (right).

A Tale of Two Juvenile Bald Eagles

The juvenile Bald Eagles illustrated below are the offspring of a pair of nesting eagles who set up housekeeping along the Raritan River near New Brunswick, NJ. After spotting them, I moved in as close as possible. The birds were backlit by late afternoon light and even at 600mm were small in the frame. Cropping in 66.7% enabled me to fill the frame better, but it also illustrated the shortcomings of the smaller imaging sensor.

At 600mm I was able to get in this close to these two juvenile eagles sitting on a branch. Backlighting required a bit of post-processing to open up details in the birds' feathers.

Even after extensive post-processing to hold the detail in the shadows and highlights of an already high-key lighting situation, the photograph taken with the 42MP Sony a7R III clearly displays the advantages of the larger imaging sensor.

Enlarged 66.67% for a tighter crop, the shortcomings of the RX10 IV’s smaller imaging sensor become more apparent, especially under backlit situations. This is where larger, higher-resolution sensors make the difference between a hit and a miss.

Convenience vs. Performance

The size, form factor, and image quality of cameras like Sony’s RX10 IV are dead-on. Where the camera stumbles is at start-up—the camera takes a few moments to come alive. Although power zoom enables smooth video sequences, for still images, zooming the lens can prove to be too slow when trying to zoom in or out quickly. This criticism applies to most if not all cameras in this category. Conversely, most DSLR and mirrorless zoom lenses are far quicker to compose with than their bridge camera counterparts.

A young buck strikes and holds a pose for my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 3 DG OS HSM (left) and Sony RX10 IV (right). The larger sensor and focal length on the full-frame Sony/Sigma combination provide narrower DoF compared to the smaller sensor size and shorter focal length lens found on the Sony RX10 IV .

Hair-trigger response times may not be critical when photographing landscapes, but when photographing quick-moving subjects you want a camera that can keep up with your instincts.

In the case of the two cameras compared in this review, the 1.3x speed advantage of the 24-600mm f/2.8-4 lens on the Sony RX10 IV counterweighs the operative speed and agility advantages of the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 3 DG OS HSM zoom lens. Depending on the lighting conditions, most shooters would be probably be able to zoom—and possibly but not necessarily focus the Sigma zoom quicker than the slower-zooming RX10 IV, but the wider maximum aperture on Sony’s RX10 IV will probably guarantee sharper results.

The photo of the ram on the left was taken with the Sony a7R III and a Sigma 150-600mm zoom, the photo on the right with the Sony RX10 IV. The big takeaway is that both options are capable of capturing 1st-class photographs.

The Best: Full-frame, Super-Telephoto Zoom System or Compact Super-Tele Bridge Camera?

Choosing the so-called "best" of anything is not as straightforward as it often appears, and choosing between camera systems isn’t any different. What I consider important considerations when choosing a camera or lens may not be yours, at least not entirely. We all want quick response times and photos that are razor-sharp, but few of us share common weight and ergonomic preferences when it comes to camera gear.

There’s no shortage of cameras containing Sony 20.1MP 1" BSI CMOS sensors that are capable of capturing pro-quality photographs, many of which have appeared on magazine covers. Do the photographs these cameras capture equal the quality of photographs taken with cameras containing larger, MFT, APS-C, and full-frame sensors?

Under ideal circumstances, the photographs can be indistinguishable from one another, but when photographing under lower lighting conditions, photographs taken with cameras containing smaller imaging sensors often display noise and artifacts at notably lower thresholds than cameras with larger imaging sensors. Autofocusing also suffers accordingly with these cameras. How much? That depends on the camera and the circumstances you are shooting under, but as the photographs captured using Sony’s RX10 IV clearly indicate, the differences between photographs taken with Sony’s "point-and-shoot" camera closely rival the image quality of photographs captured with a larger and heavier pro-quality camera with a midrange super-telephoto lens.

Do you have any experience using comparable camera systems? If so, what are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments section, below.

23 Comments

Allan, thank you for your informative article.  I have owned the RX10 III for four years and have created many wonderful images with it.  I have passed on buying the RX10 IV, but do realize it has some important improvements over the III version.  I am one of those people anxiously awaiting the RX10 V.  Any speculation on whether it will appear in 2021?

My first bridge camera was the Canon Pro 1 with a great 28-200 equivalent L lens (yes, the lens has the red stripe on it).  I have owned Canon FF and APS-C cameras, but was taken with the RX10 iii because of its wide range of applications in one small package.

The Zeiss T* lens on the RX10 iii is really amazing as other comments have pointed out.  You can see the difference in the resolution in your photos above over the Sigma lens.  As you mentioned the Zeiss has great close up ability on its own, but I purchased a Canon 500D close up lens which works very well on the Zeiss lens.  Both have 72mm threads.  This allows me to do amazing, even mystical, macro work on flowers.  However, bring along a good tripod, a geared drive head, a wireless shutter release, an open mind, and some patience.

I was recently able to capture a great shot of two bald eagles which I decided to made a large print of.  After much work in Lightroom (I'm not that proficient at it to begin with) I was able to use the recently released Adobe Super Resolution feature in PS Raw to create a very large TIFF file.  The final print is 36 x 54 inches and it looks great hanging on my living room wall.  Not bad at all for a 1" sensor!

Here's to hoping the RX10 V appears in 2021! 

Great article, I'm pleased to see some serious attention payed to the Bridge Cameras.

But There is another 1" sensor camera that should have been mentioned, the Panasonic FZ1000 and FZ1000M2.  Features and performance in the same range as the Sony but with a price tag much closer to what the serious amateur can afford. Those cameras need to be considered in the mix when talking about high end super zooms.

Yup. You got me on that one. Good catch.

-AW

Good article showing that IQ differences are minor while size and weight differences are huge! Would love to see a similar comparison between FF and M43. Also, I wish Sony would stop calling their 13x8.8mm sensor a one-inch sensor. It's half the area of M43, and the one-inch name is very misleading (I think intentionally).

Agreed! I complained but they didn't listen. And so it goes...

AW

I have a similar FF camera and lens, Sony A99ii with Tamron 150-600mm lens. Is the 42mp FF camera with that lens better than my RX10iv? Yes a little bit. Is the difference important to me? The answer to that question is I haven't used the A99ii/150-600mm combination since I bought my RX10iv 3 years ago.

Interesting and informative review of the cameras. But your immature Eagles are fully mature red-tailed hawks, likely a mated pair.

I guess it's more important that I get my photo info right than the age and breed of hawks and eagles... no?

Allan Weitz wrote an excelent well balanced & practical article. I am an old but avid enthusiast.The Sony RX 10 IV does what I consider very satisfactory job without pain. I will stick with it until National Geographic recruits me.  

I actually read an article recently by a Nat Geo photographer who uses an RX10iv for his work.

I have had the RX10 VI for e a couple of years now having replaced a Sony A65 and a herd of lenses. It was a great camera but the RX10 is so handy and light that I can take it anywhere without a huge bag of stuff including a Tamron 500 zoom. It is slow to start up and zoom, but I keep the power on most of the time while shooting wildlife. And the convenience of not having to pack all those lenses is much easier on my old body.

Another fan of the Sony as a travel camera. It's weatherproof enough for light-moderate duty and easy to live with. The RX10 III autofocus was no where near good enough, but the image quality was great. The IV has better and faster autofocus but the image quality dropped. The V has been rumored for years, I hope will combine the best of both.

Great article about a terrific product. I'm a lens designer and have been using the RX10 111 since it first appeared. The Zeiss Sonnar is a multiaspherical masterpiece. Kudos to the folks at Zeiss. I have gorgeous handheld closeups of butterflies AND the craters of the moon which I can send as evidence to anyone interested. 

I shoot with a Lumix FZ1000 and a Sony A99 using a lot of older Minolta glass.

Since I got the Lumix, I would say I use it 90% of the time. The convenience of not constantly changing lenses with image quality good enough for 16X20 prints is unbeatable. My Lumix is glued to my palm...

I've used the predecessor, the RX10 III for several years.  I got it as a "walk around" camera when I didn't want to carry my full frame Nikon.  I have come to respect it more than I thought that I would, but it does have limitations.  Slow start up and slow focus, especially when at the longer telephoto ranges, can be annoying limitations.  It is also a bright light camera - in darker scenes the small sensor size becomes much more apparent.  Capturing a moving target at high zoom, even in bright light, is less than a 50/50 chance.  The slow focus and hunting means that by the time it is focused on what you want it to be focused on, the target is probably gone.  At wider angles the focus is faster, but will never compete with the near instant focus of my DSLR's.  One feature that is not mentioned, but that I find extremely attractive, is the slow motion video.  At a max capture rate of 960(!) frames per second, you can slow down fast action by a factor of 30:1.  If you want to watch how a bird takes flight, or a water drop splashes, this is your camera.

Richard C. wrote:

I've used the predecessor, the RX10 III for several years.  I got it as a "walk around" camera when I didn't want to carry my full frame Nikon.  I have come to respect it more than I thought that I would, but it does have limitations.  Slow start up and slow focus, especially when at the longer telephoto ranges, can be annoying limitations. 

The RX10iv is far ahead of the RX10iii relative to Auto focusing and AF tracking. There is no comparison. The AF of the RX10iv is competitive with some of the best DSLRs out there, better than most. I know because I own both cameras. 

This is the decision I’m facing right now.  I hesitate because the RX 10 is 4 years old. 

Philip C. wrote:

This is the decision I’m facing right now.  I hesitate because the RX 10 is 4 years old. 

Well there is still no better super zoom camera made regardless of it's age.

I wouldn't hesitate because of the RX10IV's age. That camera performs beautifully. It rivals many newer cameras on the market. I love the fact that I have a wide range of focal lengths without having to carry multiple lenses, that it's fairly light yet has a great grip and that I'll never have to worry about a dirty sensor.

Honestly, I've taken much better photos than I did with my APS-C sensor. You won't regret the purchase but be astounded at what this camera can produce.

Extremely interesting article.  Thank you!  

By the way, I don't think the geese in the photos are Canadian Geese.  They're Canada Geese, named after John Canada.  

John Canada? Really? I never knew that. Did you know Blue Jays are named after a guy from Brooklyn named Harvey Bluejay? (Nah... I just made that up...)

-AW

Am I wrong in my observation that under the Convenience vs. Performance section, the image descriptions are reversed?...that the Sigma's is on the RIGHT and the Sony's on the left?  The image on the right seems to have better detail in the white (neck) area, and there is more DoF, which would indicated to me that the f/stop of the taking lens was be higher.

The image descriptions of the first photo of the peacock also appear to be reversed.

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