The new 20 megapixel Cyber-shot DSC HX300 replaces the HX200 in Sony's ultra-zoom line-up. When I was a kid we watched Sci-Fi movies and read Sci-Fi novels that predicted all the new inventions that would make our lives more fun in the future. One of the things that nobody predicted, back in that day, was cell phones and consequently cell phone cameras. Just a few years after the turn of the 21st century a whole new demographic was born--the cell phone camera photographer - and P&S camera manufacturers started losing market share to cell phone manufacturers. Camera manufacturers responded by making even smaller (much smaller than smartphones) ultra-compact P&S digicams and by introducing two new types of Point and Shoot cameras; the Ultrazoom camera (with zooms that ranged from about 25x and up) and the travel zoom camera (with zooms that ranged from 10x to 25x). For many practical minded consumers the only reason to buy a separate camera is if it does that something their cell phone camera can't do--like providing longer zoom ranges, and for many of those folks, the more zoom, the better.
That explains, at least in part, why I have had the great good fortune to review a large number of ultra-zoom Point and Shoot cameras from a wide variety of manufacturers over the past few years. The amazing thing about all those cameras wasn't their differences, but rather how similar they actually were. All of them share the same set of faults--slow maximum apertures (typically f3.5 to f4.0), very complex multi-element zoom formulas (which reduce contrast), noticeable barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom, increased purple fringing (chromatic aberration), more image noise than most other classes of digital cameras, and fuzzy/soft images at the telephoto end of those very long zooms.
However, a digital camera with a zoom lens that can go from true wide-angle to super telephoto allows photographers to cover virtually the entire spectrum of photographic genres--and cell phone cameras most assuredly can't do that. Which brings us, once again, to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300. The HX300 features a newly designed Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar f2.8-f6.3/24mm-1200mm (equivalent) zoom with improved autofocus (AF) for better performance at the telephoto end of that 50x zoom and enhanced optical image stabilization (OIS) made possible by including a second group of lens elements that shifts rapidly to correct for the slightest of involuntary camera movements - to improve sharpness at all focal lengths.
So the HX300 comes busting out of the starting gate with a faster maximum aperture than most of its competition, improved AF, and enhanced/improved image stabilization which should make this digital camera an industry leader. However, a number of professional reviewers are already beating up on the HX300 because it doesn't feature (like many of its competitors) a hot shoe, GPS, built-in Wi-Fi, a touch-screen, or a RAW capture mode. Wi-Fi, touch-screens, and GPS are actually cell phone features--not photography features and I don't believe any of them are required or even particularly desired by most P&S digital camera customers. The hot shoe (allowing the use of external flash units) is a useful, if seldom used, feature on cameras of this sort and RAW capture is important to DSLR photographers who are much more likely to engage in post exposure image manipulation than are users of consumer-targeted ultra-zoom P&S digital cameras. Sony obviously wanted to sell the HX300 for about the same price as its competitors (around $450.00 MSRP) and that meant--in light of the expensive newly designed zoom, improved AF and IS--that something had to go. So Sony's product development folks kept the stuff that was important to the demographic that buys ultrazoom cameras and skipped the stuff that's not to keep the price as low as possible. Kudos to Sony!
Build and Design
The HX300 bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor. So what's different? I've reviewed ultrazoom cameras from Nikon, Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung, and Canon and the optical performance of all those cameras was actually better than expected, but the AF systems and IS systems simply weren't up to the task of rapidly locking (and holding) focus on distant subjects and keeping camera shake at telephoto settings from negatively affecting subject sharpness. The HX300's new lens, fast maximum aperture, improved AF and enhanced IS systems have substantially ameliorated those issues. While the HX300 won't tell you where you are and you'll have to wait until you get back to your PC to post your newest images on Facebook, this camera features better "right out of the camera" image quality than any ultrazoom I have used. The HX300 looks like an entry-level DSLR and features polycarbonate body over metal alloy frame construction. Fit and finish are consistently excellent and weather/dust/moisture seals appear to be more than adequate. The camera features a slightly grainy flat black exterior and looks utilitarian--this is not the camera for stylistas
Ergonomics and Controls
The HX300's control layout is efficiently designed and all buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small--with the exception of the shutter button. The top deck features a standard mode dial, a large raised shutter button (with zoom toggle surround), the LCD/EVF button, a focus button, and a custom button. The back deck features the compass switch, the review button, a menu button, and the delete button. Sony completely skips the function button and the rotary jog dial surrounding the compass switch that are almost ubiquitous in camera's of this type. The HX300 features the best handgrip I've seen to date. A large/deep grip with a thumb rest sits on the back of the camera for added stability in handling. The HX300's one-touch video Record/Stop button is a bit smaller than it should be, but it is perfectly positioned so that it can be used without requiring the shooter to look away from the LCD/EVF when starting or stopping video.
Menus and Modes
Now we come to the HX300's Achilles heel. This digital camera features one of the least intuitive menu systems I have ever seen. Everything requires two or three button pushes to accomplish. Fortunately basic photography is possible without utilizing the menu and I suspect that most users will avoid the menu as much as they practically can. Here's a brief description of the HX300's shooting modes:
Auto: Just point and shoot. No user input.
Scene: Automatic scene program that instantly compares what's in front of the lens with an on-board image database and then matches that information with the subject's distance from the camera, white balance, contrast, dynamic range, lighting and color (just before the image is recorded) to optimize all exposure parameters for the scene mode selected. No user input except for flash on/off.
Program: Auto exposure with limited user input (sensitivity, white balance, exposure compensation, flash, etc.).
Aperture priority: Users select the aperture and the camera selects an appropriate shutter speed.
Shutter priority: Users select shutter speed and the camera selects an appropriate aperture.
Manual: Users select all exposure parameters.
Memory Recall Mode: Recalls camera registered user settings.
iSweep Panorama Mode: Auto register automatic panorama mode.
3D Still Image Mode: Allows users to shoot 3D images.
Movie: The HX300 records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1440x1080p @ 60ifps.
Like most currently available ultrazooms, the HX300 provides an EVF (electronic viewfinder) so shooters can use either the LCD screen or the EVF for framing/composition, image review, and menu access chores. The HX300's LCD is large and bright, making it easy to use in outdoor lighting, but glare and reflections in direct sunlight are still a problem. Users can always switch to the electronic viewfinder, but I found the EVF to be a bit small and dim. Sony eliminated the proximity sensor next to the EVF that allowed the camera to switch from the LCD to the EVF when it was brought to the users eye. Now the switch is made via the LCD/EVF button. The HX300 features a large bright 3.0-inch LCD monitor with 921K resolution. The wide-viewing angle TFT LCD monitor is sharp, bright, hue accurate, and fluid. The default info display provides all the information this camera's target audience is likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and brightness can also be adjusted to the inpidual shooter's preferences. Finally, the HX300's LCD folds out, which is useful when shooting macro or high-angle (above the heads in the crowd) shots, but the LCD doesn't swivel.
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