Note: Our full review on the Sony RX10 II has been posted, read it here.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 II is extremely versatile; bridge cameras by nature are the Swiss Army Knife of the camera world. Of course being able to do it all often means doing it all, just not all that well. But so far, the RX10 II has impressed us with its ability to perform well enough, in most situations.

If you take a look through our sample gallery, you'll see we've had the opportunity to use the camera in a wide range of everyday scenarios. Situations like low light shooting, candids, street photography and portraits. In all of these situations the RX10 II performed admirably, which is encouraging. After all, the allure of a bridge camera as robust as the RX10 II, is its ability to replace, at least in theory, a tremendous amount of camera/lens combinations.

But what about something more challenging? Something with fast action, like team sports? As part of our forthcoming RX10 II review, I really wanted to push the camera to its limits, because on paper, it looks quite attractive. It can fire off bursts as fast as 14 fps (with focus locked) using Speed Priority mode, 5 fps using AF-S and 3fps using AF-C. It also offers Sony’s Lock-on AF mode, opening up the possibilities for subject tracking.

Admittedly, its been some time since I last shot soccer. Still, it’s a great sport for real-world evaluation of AF systems for a couple of reasons. For starters, unlike American football, soccer is very easy to follow at field level. It’s also a sport in which players’ faces are unobstructed by a helmet. But most importantly, its a fast-paced game with easy field access.

It is not impossible to shoot sports, like collegiate soccer, with a Sony RX10 II, it is just difficult. ISO 1000, 1/1000 sec, F2.8. Shot at an equiv. of 73mm. This image was shot using C-AF in wide mode.

We spend a lot of time here at DPReview establishing well-controlled ways to compare everything from image quality to dynamic range, and autofocus performance is something we’re striving to test in greater detail. Our current tests are designed to represent a subject moving toward the camera at a moderate speed in a pattern the camera can't easily predict, such as a young child running in a garden. This is challenging enough to separate the better AF systems from the weaker ones, but it's always good to check the real-world relevance with some in-the-field testing. In the case of soccer, with a more complex and challenging scenario: faster moving subjects, other players crossing in front of the desired target and multiple similar targets.

So as a control, I had fellow editor Sam Spencer accompany me to a double header at the University of Washington, shooting with a Nikon D5500 paired with a Nikon 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 zoom lens. Why this pairing? Because that lens/camera combo comes out to about the same price as a new Sony RX10 II. The Nikon is also a camera we’ve tested before, and we have a good understanding of how well it performs when shooting a moving subject using AF-C.

Before discussing how the two cameras compared, its worth acknowledging their differences. The Sony RX10 II is the most expensive bridge camera money can buy. It uses a 1"-type sensor, which is big for a its class, but only one third the size of the APS-C sensor found in the D5500. It features a 24-200mm equiv. zoom lens with a constant aperture of F2.8, which, is the equivalent of an F8 constant aperture in full frame terms. Compare that to the 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 lens we used on the Nikon; in full frame terms it is equivalent to a 27-200mm lens with an F5.3-8.4 maximum aperture, so fairly similar.

One major advantage the Nikon had going in, is the complexity of its AF system. It uses phase detection to acquire focus, while the RX10 II uses contrast detection only. Because phase detection gives the Nikon awareness of subject depth, we had a pretty good feeling it would surpass the RX10 II in AF accuracy. Also, Nikon, as a company, has decades of experience developing AF systems for professional sports shooters. And while the D5500 does not use the company's most robust AF system, it still benefits from 30 years of research.

On the Field

Shot with the Nikon D5500
(Open both in a new window to compare)
There were more than a few instances where Sam and I got nearly the identical frame of peak action happening in front of us. Unfortunately, the vast majority of his were in focus, while mine where not.  ISO 1800, 1/1000 sec, F4.5. Shot at an equiv. of 70mm. Photo: Sam Spencer

Shot with the Sony RX10 II
Here's the same exact shot, taken by me, with crummy focus. This is just one of a couple of examples where I missed a shot Sam got. ISO 800, 1/1000 sec, F2.8. Shot at an equiv. of 63mm.

The Nikon D5500 outperformed the Sony RX10 II in every way possible, when it came to shooting soccer. After the game, Sam and I both took the images we had shot, and sorted them by first identifying 'selects,' any image that could be potentially usable, then rating those selects with stars. When all was said and done 1/10 of the images I shot with the RX10 II were marked as selects. And 2/3 of the images Sam has shot were marked as selects. For the sake of keeping the figurative playing field level, I looked through Sam’s selects and confirmed that he was rating his 'keepers' using similar judgment to how I rated mine.

It is worth noting that while I tried my hands at each of the AF modes when shooting with the RX10 II, Sam stuck to Nikon’s 3D AF mode. In brief, here’s how he got the most out of it, “I’d find my target, possibly downfield, align the center AF point over their face, and half-press to engage AF. The rest was just waiting for the moment to release the shutter. I could then let tracking do the rest, and place the subject on either side of the frame without having to manually change AF points.”

Sam found that in most cases, the Nikon was able to keep subjects in focus and track them across the frame. All he had to do was make sure the camera was pointed in the right direction, and that he was hitting the shutter at the right time. So what were stumbling points that lead to the RX10 II dismal success rate? The answer is hands-down its inferior AF system.


In the first part of the video below, notice how rapidly the camera hunts in and out of focus as I hold the shutter half-pressed. This is how a CDAF system works: focus is confirmed by first hunting past a subject. For relatively stationary subjects, even in low light, CDAF can work perfectly fine and it is often even more accurate than PDAF. But throw in a rapidly moving subject and you have a recipe for a difficult AF scenario. On top of that, add in other rapidly moving subjects swarming around the subject you are trying to shoot, and you have a difficult shooting scenario for any AF system. For the record, the first video clip was taken with the camera set to AF-C, using only the center point for focus. This is how I’ve always set my DSLRs for shooting sports, so it seemed like a good starting point for shooting soccer with the RX10 II.

AF acquisition aside, the constant hunting made it damn near impossible to follow the action and properly compose shots. Switching the camera to ‘Wide’ mode in AF-C, instead of a single point, to my surprise, helped minimize the apparent hunting quite a bit. Of course, by choosing the 'Wide' setting, I essentially gave the camera the choice of what player to focus on, instead of picking the subject myself. When the action was near, as in: filling more than 50% of the frame, the RX10 II was usually able to acquire focus and keep focus as I held the shutter.

In general, I found Wide mode tended to focus on the nearest subject, as it is designed to. And because I was shooting at an equiv. of F8, even if focus was on the wrong player, say a defender in the foreground trying to steal the ball from the player I’m shooting, chances are the player I want will still fall in, or near the realm of focus.

Still AF-C + Wide did not give me the hit rate Sam enjoyed. But it did give me a better hit rate than trying to shoot 14 fps bursts (as I mentioned, focus is locked when shooting at this frame rate). Using Speed Priority Mode tended to result in one sharp image, followed by about 20 slightly out of focus images, which is exactly what you might expect.

I did also try using Lock-on AF in AF-C, but the nature of soccer, with multiple players dressed alike running around in a non-predictable motion, simply made it unworkable. It a shame because if the RX10 II could accurately subject track, it would help alleviate the symptoms of another problem discussed a bit more in depth after the jump: EVF 'blackout.'

Other Issues

Boy, did that game and a half make me yearn for an optical finder. Sure, the new electronic viewfinder in the RX10 II is crisp, and well-sized, by EVF standards, but for sports, its simply not good enough. When panning with your eye to the finder, rolling shutter is an issue (also demonstrated in the video above).

But even more problematic is the EVF 'black out' that occurs after each frame is fired, when shooting using AF-C. This slight delay between shots was a major contributor to me not being able to follow the action. And frankly I was disappointed that a camera like the RX10 II, which boasts a super fast sensor, is still unable to fire bursts without interrupting the EVF display.  Having used cameras like the Nikon 1 J5, that can fire off full-res bursts with continuous AF and no black out, I was really expecting more out of the RX10 II.

To be fair, if you switch the camera to Speed Priority mode, the RX10 II will not blackout in-between each shots. But as I mentioned before, Speed Priority disallows the camera from using AF-C, which I found to be disadvantageous for a sport as fast-paced as soccer.

Another major issue I ran into is the speed at which one can zoom the RX10 II’s 24-200mm equiv lens. Zoom-by-wire is simply not fast enough to shoot sports. I constantly felt like I wasn’t able to get to where I wanted to be in the zoom range fast enough. And this is true despite the new 'fast' zoom speed option in the menu.

And as the sun went down, and the men’s team was lit by overhead lights, I ran into another issue: AF performance got worse. The camera’s CDAF system needs more time in less light to acquire focus, and it is quite noticeable. For most of the second game, I had no choice but to shoot using AF-S.

You're going to have a hard time getting sharp, split-second action shots like this, in low light, with the RX10 II. This one was was taken with the Nikon D5500, using a reasonably-priced zoom lens. ISO 7200, 1/1000 sec, F5.6. Photo: Sam Spencer

Final Thoughts

So while the Sony RX10 II can handle itself well in many shooting scenarios, sports photography is not one it excels at. Having only a CDAF system proved to be the most challenging part of using the camera. Sure the non-mechanical zoom, with its sluggish speeds, and non-optical finder made composing difficult. But if the AF system were on par with the Nikon; if the RX10 II used PDAF instead of CDAF, it may have been possible to work around those challenge and get closer to the hit rate Sam enjoyed.

Which brings me to an interesting points. Panasonic superzooms, like the FZ1000, feature something called Depth from Defocus, which uses information about the lens' out-of-focus characteristics, to better determine how far out of focus an image is, and in what direction the focus needs to change, in order to make the subject sharp. It's not PDAF, but it is can acquire focus potentially faster than CDAF only. Could such a system help close the gap between the RX10 II's sports performance and the performance of the Nikon D5500? Maybe not, but it could give the RX10 II a bit of a leg up.

In fact, we recently pitted the RX10 II against the FZ100 in our AF biking test (as part of our forthcoming RX10 II review), and found the Panasonic to offer a slightly higher hit rate when shooting a moving subject using AF-C, when that subject is coming right at the camera. In the case of both cameras, we used a single center point for our test.

Of course, let's not forget that the RX10 II has the Nikon beat in quite a few other areas, specifically video capture and performance. Not only can it churn out beautiful 4K footage. It can also shoot at frame rate as fast as 960 fps. Good luck doing that with your Nikon D5500. So while the Sony RX10 II can perform many photographic and video duties well, there are definitely areas in which this 'all-rounder' struggles. Sports is one of those areas.

The Sony RX10 II may not be able to compete against a DSLR, when it comes to shooting sports. But that does not mean you can't have some success, not to mention fun, getting action shots. Just stick to well-lit sports, and be sure to keep the camera set to AF-C in 'Wide' mode. ISO 500, 1/1000 sec, F5.6. Shot at an equiv. of 127mm.

Special thanks to the University of Washington Huskies for access to the games!