Digital cameras don't seem to be getting smaller anymore; in fact compact and ultracompact point-and-shoot digicams appear to have reached the practical limits of miniaturization. However, resolution (more megapixels) and popular features like Face Recognition AF, larger LCD screens, and image stabilization continue to proliferate.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 is a good case in point. The W300 is Sony's W series flagship model, an elegant retro-chic digicam with a scratch-resistant titanium shell. The compact little W300 is about the same size as it's predecessor, the Sony Cyber-shot W200, but it has more megapixels (13.6 versus 12.1), a larger LCD screen (2.7 inches versus 2.5 inches), a very good 3x (35mm -105mm equivalent) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom, the ability to interface with the latest generation of Sony High Definition TVs, and an enhanced feature set.
The W300 was designed to appeal to both casual users who want a compact or ultracompact digicam with lots of point-and-shoot features and automatic operation, and to photo enthusiasts who value tweakability, pocketability, ease of use, very good optics, and DSLR-like resolution.
The W300 features Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, 12 user selectable scene modes (including a new underwater scene mode) and an intelligent scene recognition mode – the camera automatically recognizes five popular scene types. There's also a new Extra High Sensitivity mode (ISO 6400) plus an Extra High-Speed Burst mode – 1.9 fps (for up to 100 images) at full resolution, or 5 fps at 3 megapixels.
In addition the camera provides five color modes, including a "real" color setting (for less in-camera processing and more accurate colors), and an improved AF system with automatic macro shooting. Sony's new Dynamic Range Optimiser (much like Nikon's D-lighting feature) which allows users to tweak brightness and contrast over the entire image frame or area by area to recover image detail lost in highlight areas or boost shadow detail without losing highlights.
The W300 is a natural choice for those who like to shoot portraits – the camera's Face Detection AF can not only identify and isolate faces, it can also distinguish between adult faces and the faces of children and it can detect when a face is smiling and then trip the shutter automatically. The W300 can reduce red eye at exposure or post exposure, and offers in-camera cropping and/or adding retro-style portrait touches like feathering or shadowing the borders of the image frame.
The W300's menu system is clunky and unnecessarily complicated – there is both a Menu button and a "Home" button (both of which lead to essentially the same place) and that seems a bit redundant. In my opinion users of any enthusiast-level digicam should have direct access to the exposure compensation mode and the ability to immediately delete an image immediately after review: with the W300 both actions require a trip to the menus.
Basic shooting modes on the W300 are as follows:
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Styling and Build Quality
The W300 is a compact lozenge-shaped, titanium clad point-and-shoot. It is very nicely built and sturdy enough to be taken just about anywhere.
The camera is attractive and stylish in a subtly elegant way reminiscent of traditional enthusiast mini-cams (like the Rollei 35S) from an earlier era. The W300 is easily pocketable, but like those classic picture makers from the past it is surprisingly heavy in relation to its diminutive size and that solid heft really inspires confidence.
Ergonomics and Interface
The W300 bears a strong family resemblance to its W series predecessor. Camera operation is logical and all controls are nicely placed and easily accessed. Those familiar with digital cameras will have no problem using the W300 right out of the box and even beginners should be able to shoot decent images after a brief familiarization period with the camera and a quick scan of the user's manual.
Sony's W-series mini-cams dependably default to the many nifty built-in image improvement/enhancement features automatically, so users don't have to remember to reset their favorite shooting options every time they power the camera up. On the negative side of the coin, the W300 is a bit too menu driven for a camera designed to appeal to photo enthusiasts. Strangely, the very tweakable little W300 has an unnecessary slide show button (this feature should logically have been a menu opton), but no direct access to the exposure compensation mode. Finally, while the W300's controls are logically placed and easily accessed everything is marked in surprisingly tiny print – not a good thing for older users and those who depend on eyeglasses.
The only image storage options are Sony Memory Stick Duo and PRO Duo cards (up to 16GB ) and a paltry 15MB of internal image storage – as always with Sonys, it would have been nice to see an SDHC card slot as well. One feature that I liked is that users can press the Playback button to turn the camera on and the lens will not protrude – the W300 just goes straight to review mode.
With the vast majority of currently available compacts and ultracompacts all framing and composition must be accomplished (at arm's length) via the LCD – which can present problems in high-glare outdoor shooting venues. Unlike most of its competition, the W300 provides a coupled optical viewfinder, although it is very small and somewhat difficult to use. The optical viewfinder provides approximately 85 percent coverage.
Most of the W300's target audience will use the LCD screen to frame and preview compositions. The W300's 2.7 inch, 230,000 dot "Clear Photo" LCD dominates the camera's rear deck. LCD images are bright, sharp, and hue accurate. The display itself is reasonably fluid, and gains up automatically in dim lighting; users can also manually boost LCD screen brightness.
The W300's screen shows 100 percent of the image frame and can be used in bright outdoor lighting, but glare/reflection and fade-out are problems. The LCD status display provides more information than the camera's target audience is likely to need and there's a real-time (live) histogram display to check exposure.
Timings and Shutter Lag
The Sony W300 is quick enough for most picture taking applications – about average in the timing and shutter lag department. But the W300 is definitely a camera that prefers to shoot portraits: like most pocket cameras, it is somewhat poorly suited for shooting high-speed action.
This remarkably talented young BMXer showed me a neat trick – a complete 360 degree mid-air flip. I tripped the shutter button as he hit the top of his arc and the camera's shutter tripped about half a second later, catching him upside down at the bottom of his arc. Even on a bright day with very good lighting, the image is still a bit blurred.
Start-up times run 3.9 seconds from power on to first capture. The W300 takes 0.67 seconds to acquire focus and fire, with pure shutter lag measuring an extremely fast 0.02 seconds.
In our testing, the W300 did somewhat better than advertised in continuous drive mode, capturing full-res frames at around 2.1 fps.
The W300 features a multi-mode (9-area AF, center AF, and spot AF) contrast detection auto focus system. AF is reasonably quick and dependably accurate. Depress the shutter button halfway and almost immediately the camera locks focus and a green confirmation light appears. The camera provides two AF drive modes – single AF and continuous AF. The W300's Face Detection AF function automatically isolates and locks focus on up to 8 faces in the image frame.
The W300 is not only capable of detecting and locking on to up to 8 faces simultaneously, it can also differentiate between child and adult faces and (in Smile Shutter mode) it automatically trips the shutter when your subject smiles. Sony's Face Detection/Smile Shutter system is linked directly to the W300's auto exposure and auto focus systems, and to the camera's white balance and flash metering systems as well.
Lens and Zoom
The W300's 35-105mm f/2.8-5.5 Vario-Tessar zoom is built by Sony to a time- and tradition-honored Carl Zeiss optical formula. The zoom extends from the camera body automatically when the camera is powered up and retracts back into the body when the camera is powered down (a built-in lens cover slides into place to protect the front element). Zoom operation is smooth, quiet, and very quick.
I shoot a lot of macro/close-up images, so I really liked the W300's auto macro function. Users can just move in on their subject (without having to push the macro mode button) and the camera automatically shifts into macro mode. This is a truly useful feature, since I almost always forget to disengage the macro mode. The W300 does have a dedicated macro mode button and if you are shooting skittish insects a few milliseconds can be shaved off the process (AF and auto macro mode shift) by pushing the dedicated macro button before moving in on your subject. Minimum focusing distance is 1.96 inches.
This Gulf Fritillary butterfly is a rarity here in North Central Kentucky, but it nicely demonstrates the W300's impressive macro capabilities – shot in program mode with the W300's auto macro function.
The only real complaint that can be mustered about the W300's zoom is that it seems a bit short: cheaper Sony digicams (like the W110 and W170) boast 5x zooms, and I think most users would have liked to have that extra reach.
The W300's tiny built-in multi-mode (Auto/Forced On/Forced Off/Slow Synch Red-Eye Reduction, and Off) flash is surprisingly powerful. As in most compact and ultracompact digicams the flash is very close to the lens (and on essentially the same plane), so red-eye will be a problem in flash lit portraits unless red-eye reduction mode is engaged. When using/testing point-and-shoot digicams, I generally set the built-in flash to off, since I much prefer the realistic look of natural lighting to the flat artificial look of flash-lit images from a direct flash burst. I didn't use the W300's built-in flash other than for a couple of cursory tests, so I can't comment on overall flash performance.
Maximum flash range (according to Sony) is 18 feet at the wide-angle end of the zoom. Practically, the maximum effective flash range is probably something closer to 10-12 feet, depending on your willingness to boost ISO. The W300's built-in flash provides three (Low, Standard, High) power output options, but flash recycle times were fairly slow, at 8 to 9 seconds for a full-power burst with a freshly charged battery.
Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization system largely eliminates fuzzy images by quickly and precisely shifting lens elements in the Zeiss zoom to compensate for shaky hands during exposure. W300 users can shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible without image stabilization. The W300 offers two active IS modes (plus off) – in continuous mode, stabilization is engaged when the shutter button is depressed halfway so users can view the effect. IS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (called shoot only mode) which is equally effective and uses less battery power. The W300 also has the ability (in conjunction with the IS system) to identify a moving subject and adjust sensitivity upward to force the camera to select a faster shutter speed, which helps to ameliorate motion blur.
The W300 draws its power from the Sony NP-BG1 3.6V 960 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. The W300's battery life is noticeably above average for compact/ultracompact point-and-shoot digicams. I didn't keep track of exposures, but I used the camera through several full-day shooting sessions (including one eight-hour session with a model) and I never ran out of juice – long weekends and short vacations will probably require a nightly recharge, however.
Sony claims the W300 is good (with a freshly charged NP-BG1) for 300 exposures; in my opinion a more realistic power depth assessment would be something like 150-175 exposures. The included Sony BC-CSG AC charger is the compact (foldaway prongs) type and it needs about 4.5 to 5 hours to fully recharge the battery.
Overall, the W300's image quality outdoors in good light is consistently very good to excellent. Images look sharp with accurate exposure and very good color balance. In general terms, there was minor but consistent edge softness in the vast majority of my outdoor images and very minor pattern noise can be seen (at full size) even at ISO 80.
Chromatic aberration, or purple fringing, is very well controlled, but visible – especially in some high contrast edge demarcations. Shadow detail (at the lower ISO values) is very good, but highlights are sometimes blown out – especially in brightly lit outdoor settings. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer function should really help in this area.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
The W300's BIONZ image processor does a very good job of balancing the input from the camera's exposure and metering systems. This affords users both a remarkably simple point-and-shoot digicam that does more than just average exposure data and simultaneously provides more serious shooters an enthusiast's camera with lots of tweakability (users can adjust saturation, sharpness, and contrast) and more comprehensive exposure options. Images are consistently and dependably metered correctly and accurately exposed.
I've used several Sony Digicams in the past (W200, W80, etc.) and I was always a bit irked at Sony's blatant "consumer" color interpolation – colors were unfailingly over-saturated and contrast was noticeably harder than it should have been. Amateurs like cobalt blue skies, bold reds, and bright green vegetation, but serious shooters know that when colors are punched up Caucasian skin tones shift from pink to ruddy and brightly colored flowers take on a "plasticky" look.
I was pleasantly surprised to see accurate almost neutral color interpolation with the W300 – for those who are especially picky about color accuracy the W300 provides a "Real" color mode, but I found the default color to be reliably accurate, both in hue and saturation.
This shot perfectly illustrates the W300 very accurate color rendition – the model's purple top is bright, but not garishly so and skin tones are near perfect. The other colors (greens especially) are faithfully accurate.
All this makes Sony's new Real color mode somewhat superfluous, since the camera's native color is fairly neutral and reliably hue accurate with realistic saturation levels. Those who prefer the bold over-saturated colors so popular with casual shooters can opt for the W300's Vivid processing option.
The W300 provides a slightly better than average selection of white balance options for its class, including Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, and One Push Custom (shooters can use a white card to manually adjust white balance). The W300's auto WB mode easily handles most shooting situations and I didn't notice any color aberrations at all in real world shooting.
Studio testing, however, reveals the W300 to struggle in balancing pure, warm incandescent light.
Default sharpness is a bit soft. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide end of the zoom is slightly above average, but pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom is a bit lower than average.
Chromatic aberration is well controlled – very minor purple fringing is visible in high contrast edge/color demarcation areas at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but this anomaly essentially disappears at the telephoto end of the zoom range. There is some noticeable corner softness, but no visible vignetting.
Sensitivity and Noise
Noise at the default settings is nicely managed. Low sensitivity images are close to excellent with very good resolution and lots of snap, although very minor pattern noise is sometimes visible at 100 percent enlargement.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
The W300's lowest sensitivity setting is ISO 80, and images shot at the lowest sensitivity setting are very sharp with lots of detail. ISO 100 and 200 images are very good, but with a tiny bit less pop and marginally higher noise levels than ISO 80 images. Results at ISO 400 are surprisingly good, but colors are starting to go a little flat and detail is beginning to soften a bit, due primarily to higher noise levels. Higher ISO images are visibly softer, colors lose their vibrancy, and detail loss is evident. The W300's user-selectable (high, low and standard settings) noise reduction feature gives users more control in this area, however.
Additional Sample Images
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 is a pretty impressive little digital camera. While it is clearly targeted at photo enthusiasts, with lots of user input into the exposure process and features like full manual exposure and in-camera editing (cropping, fisheye lens and unsharp mask filters, and a Real color mode), this camera also features plenty of auto mode picture making options that will appeal to neophytes and casual photographers. In short, the W300 should appeal to a broad range of users, from beginners to advanced amateurs.
The clunky menu system is somewhat irritating, but most users will quickly learn to use the camera's dedicated controls and avoid the menus whenever possible. Where the W300 really shines is as a portrait, informal portrait, environmental portrait, candid photo, and street shot picture taker. If you've ever fantasized that you were Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau, the W300 may be the compact digital camera for you.
|Sensor||13.6 megapixel, 1/1.7" Super HAD CCD|
|Lens/Zoom||3x (35-105mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, f/2.8-5.5|
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.7", 230K-pixel Clear Photo TFT LCD; optical viewfinder
|Shutter Speed||30-1/2000 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Easy Auto, Program, Manual, Movie, Scene, Smile Shutter, High Sensitivity, Extra High Sensitivity, High-Speed Burst|
|Scene Presets||Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Underwater|
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, Manual
|Metering Modes||Multi, Center, Spot|
|Focus Modes||Multi AF, Center AF, Spot AF, Semi-Manual, Macro|
|Drive Modes||Normal, Burst, High-Speed Burst
|Flash Modes||Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off|
|Self Timer Settings
||10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
|Memory Formats||Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick PRO Duo, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo|
|File Formats||JPEG, MPEG|
|Max. Image Size||4224x3168|
|Max. Video Size
||640x480, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||No|
|Battery||Rechargeable InfoLITHIUM 960 mAh lithium-ion|
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, DC input|
|Additional Features||Face Detection, Super SteadyShot, Smile Shutter, Happy Face Retouch, HD component output, D-Range Optimizer|
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