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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  1/21/2006

After almost a decade of rampant growth and cutthroat competition the digital camera market has finally come of age. Five years ago a 3-megapixel digital camera (from a major manufacturer) with a 1.5 inch LCD screen and a 3X zoom (like the then very popular Olympus C3000) sold for about five hundred dollars.

sony cyber-shot DSC-h1
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Consumers consistently demand better digital cameras. They want shutter lag to shorten, battery life to improve substantially, resolution to increase relentlessly, cutting edge features to multiply exponentially, and for prices to fall with each new generation of digital cameras. Camera manufacturers continue to comply and consumers today are getting much more for their digital camera dollars than they did five years ago.

The Sony Cybershot DSC H1 is a perfect example of that consumer driven product evolution. The H1's 5.1 megapixel resolution, 2.5 inch LCD screen, and Super Steady Shot (image stabilized) 12X optical zoom provide photographers with an incredible increase in performance, flexibility and creative potential when compared to the cameras of five years back -- and the H1 costs about a hundred bucks less than consumers shelled out for the C3000 in 2001!

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

One of the best examples of consumer driven product improvement are now ubiquitous larger LCD screens. The three most consistent consumer demands (in the digital camera marketplace) have been for reduced shutter lag, larger LCD screens, and longer battery life. Today's 2.5 inch LCD screens positively dwarf the 1.5 inch and 1.8 inch LCD screens of five years ago. Larger LCD screens make review simpler and image composition faster, easier, and more accurate -- and that means consistently better pictures.

sony cyber-shot DSC-h1
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The H1 sports a slightly grainy (115,000 pixels) 2.5" LCD screen that's bright, color correct, quite sharp, and lag free -- and here's the best part -- the H1's LCD screen remains visible (and usable) even in bright outdoor light.

Above the LCD screen is the H1's EVF (electronic viewfinder). The EVF is sharp, color correct, and provides the same 100 per cent view and full info display as the H1's LCD screen. The EVF/LCD button and the Image Stabilizer button are perfectly placed (immediately opposite the shutter button and exactly adjacent to one another) for maximum user convenience.

Zoom

The primary reason consumers will buy this camera is the DSC-H1's f2.8-f3.7/6-72 mm (36-432 mm 35 mm equivalent) IS (image stabilized) 12X zoom. Some purchasers may wonder why this massive optic doesn't sport the Carl Zeiss nameplate since Sony has a long-term relationship with Zeiss and most upper-tier Sony digital cameras do sport Zeiss badged zooms.

The H1's zoom covers about the same optical range as the Canon S2 IS and the Panasonic FZ5. When the camera is powered up the zoom extends slightly (a bit over an inch) after which zooming is mostly internal. Like it's primary competitors the H1 has a maximum aperture of f2.8 (minimum aperture is f8.0).

Sony cyber-shot DSC-H1
Wide-angle view (38mm) [larger]

Sony cyber-shot DSC-H1|
Telephoto view (432mm) [larger]

The H1's zoom is fast and operation is smooth and very quiet. Images show accurate color, although reds are (typically) over saturated. Caucasian skin tones are consistently a bit sallow, but I personally prefer sallow (slightly yellowish) to the ruddy (slightly reddish) skin tones of most digital camera. Resolution (apparent sharpness) is quite good and corners are surprisingly sharp for a lens of this complexity.

Barrel distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame at the wide- angle end of the zoom) is high. I didn't notice any pincushion distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is fairly high and visible in high contrast color transition areas. Close-ups are sharp and show decent detail.

The H1's zoom is threaded (for the included lens adapter) so shooters can mount inexpensive 58mm screw in filters and optional auxiliary WA, Tele, and Macro lenses. Sony also provides a very nice petal style lens hood and a standard pinch-release lens cap.

Image Stabilization

Sony's Super SteadyShot image stabilization system allows shooters to obtain sharper images at slower shutter speeds (up to 3 f-stops slower) and at longer zoom settings and in lower light, all of which would normally result in blurry images. Super SteadyShot can be set to either Exposure mode (IS is activated immediately prior to exposure) or Continuous mode (IS is enabled full time) -- in continuous IS mode the camera uses up power reserves like the Space Shuttle uses up rocket fuel at lift off. The H1's Super SteadyShot system (like most of the competition) shifts lens elements inside the zoom to compensate for minor camera movement and camera shake.

Auto Focus

The H1's Contrast Detection Auto Focus system is accurate, even in fairly low light, but the zoom consistently overshoots the subject (at the telephoto end of the range) and has to hunt a bit before it manages to lock focus. The default AF mode (wide area Multi-Point AF) utilizes 3 horizontal AF points arrayed across the center of the image frame to quickly isolate and lock focus on the closest subject. Advanced users will appreciate the Center AF point and Flexible Spot AF (allows users to move the AF point to almost anywhere in the image frame with the compass switch) AF options.

The H1's AF is a bit faster than average (from scratch) but not fast enough to keep up with really rapid action. Photographers who can pre-visualize their images, utilize pre-focus (press the shutter button half-way while composing the shot, and anticipate the moment of peak action (trip the shutter about a half a second before all the elements of the composition align) will have no problem capturing rapid action.

Sony cyber-shot DSC-H1
Skateboarder "riding the rail" [larger]

In Manual Focus mode, the H1 provides an LCD screen distance scale and users shift focus with the L/R buttons on the compass switch (4 way controller). The central portion of the image frame is enlarged as an aid to more precise focusing.

Flash

The H1's built-in multi mode (Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Synch, Fill, and Off) flash is fully automatic and pops up when the camera's CPU determines it is needed. Sony claims the maximum flash range is almost 18 feet (at the telephoto end of the zoom range) which is a bit optimistic in my opinion, 12 or 13 feet is a more accurate estimate unless there is lots of ambient lighting and a white or very light background.

Flash output can be adjusted over a fairly flat 3-step (less flash, normal flash output, and more flash) range. Coverage is pretty good overall, but the zoom partially blocks the flash up close, so flash-lit macro images will be unevenly lit (lighter in the upper one third of the frame and darker over the bottom two thirds of the frame), but this fault won't affect natural light close-ups.

Memory Media

The H1 saves images to Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, Memory Stick DUO, and Memory Stick Duo Pro. It also provides users with 32MB of on board (internal) image storage. The H1's battery/memory media compartment has a very neat hinged cover that allows the memory media to be removed (or replaced) without opening the battery compartment.

Image File Format(s)

The H1 saves images in JPEG format only. It would have been nice if Sony had provided a TIFF or RAW mode.

Connectivity

A/V out, USB 2.0 (high speed) out, and DC in.

Power

The H1 draws its juice from two AA NiMH rechargeables, so power depth is wholly dependent on battery capacity. I didn't keep track of exposures so I can't provide specific numbers, but Sony claims 290 exposures with the included 2100mAh AA's. Based on my use, I suspect that is a "best-case scenario" number. The included charger needs about 5-6 hours to fully charge the batteries.

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EXPOSURE

The H1 provides users with a useful range of exposure options including Auto (P&S mode), Program (P&S mode with user input), Shutter Priority mode, Aperture Priority mode, and Manual mode (user selects all exposure parameters). The H1 also provides 7 Scene modes (Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Candle Light, Beach, High Speed Shutter, Landscape, and Portrait). In the Scene Modes the camera's CPU automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific image type selected.

Based on my experience with the camera, the H1's Auto (Auto, Program, and Scene) modes deliver consistently and dependably accurate exposures in virtually all lighting situations. Exposure accuracy in the camera's Manual Exposure (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and full Manual) modes is more dependent on the skill of the photographer.

Movie Mode

The H1 doesn't quite measure up to the competition in the video department, so if video capture is an important consideration the Canon S2-IS may be a better choice. H1 users can record MPEG video clips at VX fine resolution at 640x480 @ 30 fps with monaural audio. Video clip duration is limited only by Memory Stick Pro Card capacity (the H1's internal memory cannot be used at VX Fine resolution). Video clips can also be recorded at VX Standard resolution (more compression) at 640x480 @ 30 fps and at 160x112 @ 24 fps. Standard Memory Sticks and the H1's internal memory may be utilized in the two lower resolution video capture modes.

Metering

The H1 provides three user selectable metering modes -- Multi-Pattern (default), Center-Weighted Averaging, and Spot. The Multi-Pattern (default) metering mode is consistently accurate and dependable, even in difficult lighting. Savvy shooters will use the Spot metering mode to bias exposure on the single most important element in the composition (like the eyes in a head and shoulders portrait) and the Center-Weighted metering option to create classic landscapes.

White Balance

The H1's Auto White Balance setting is very accurate. Users also have several pre-set white balance options (Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Flash, and manual) designed to cover most shooting situations.

Sensitivity

The H1 provides an adequate, but fairly pedestrian range of sensitivity settings, including Auto, 64, 100, 200, and 400 ISO (35mm equivalent). The Auto Sensitivity setting does an excellent job in all but the most demanding lighting. It would have been nice to have an ISO 800 setting for low light/long zoom shots.

 
ISO 64 [larger]                                   ISO 100 [larger]

 
ISO 200 [larger]                                 ISO 400 [larger]

In-Camera Image Adjustment Options

H1 users can adjust Color Saturation, Contrast, and Sharpening over an arbitrary and not very precise 3-step (More, default, Less) range. The H1's PFX (Picture Effect) function allows users to capture images in B&W or Sepia tone.

The H1's exposure compensation (exposure can be adjusted through a +2/-2 EV range in 1/3 EV increments) function can be used to help manage difficult lighting (by allowing users to quickly and easily lighten or darken exposures).

The H1's Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) feature allows users to automatically capture a series of images of the same subject at slightly different exposure settings/intervals (with one push of the shutter button). This almost guarantees at least one "right on" exposure in tricky lighting or with subjects that are noticeably darker or lighter than their surroundings.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

The H1 looks, feels, and handles like a compact SLR. Construction is robust (mostly polycarbonate) and build quality is very good and the camera appears to be quite sturdy. Basic operation is simple and fairly uncomplicated with all controls laid out logically. The JOG dial is a nice touch, but Menus are un-necessarily complex and not particularly logical.

Technical Specifications

Street Price Range: $350.00-$450.00

Included

Two 2100mAh NiMH AA batteries and charger, Neck strap, USB cable, AV cable, Lens Adapter ring, Lens Hood, Lens Cap, Software CD, Quick start guide, and printed users manual

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The H1 is an excellent general-purpose digital camera that consistently delivers very good quality images. Colors are bright, hue accurate, very contrasty, and slightly over-saturated. There is no visible noise at the ISO 64 and ISO 100 settings -- ISO 200 images show minor noise and ISO 400 images are noisy, but less so than most of the H1's competition. Chroma noise (blotching) is a bit above average and Chromatic aberration is also above average, but well controlled.

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The H1 also does pretty well in the dark. The image above was shot handheld with the camera in auto mode. It is a bit darker (slightly under exposed) than it should be, but shows good color and very low noise levels.

Timing/Shutter Lag

Overall, the H1's timing/shutter lag performance is about average (for cameras in this class). Start-up times are very good for a camera with such a large zoom. Image capture is essentially real time with pre-focus and less than 1 second from scratch. Shot to shot times are very good (1.0-1.5 seconds), but the camera locks up when writing data to the memory card. AF speed is noticeably above average and IS doesn't seem to slow things down like it does with some of the H1's competition.

A Few Concerns

The H1 should be fast enough to capture high-speed action, but it isn't. Fine detail is often absent in H1 images due to the camera's tendency to burn out highlights.

sony cyber-shot DSC-H1
Note the lack of detail in frost crystals [larger]

Images look slightly "over processed". Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is above average and Chroma/Pattern noise (blotching) is above average which may limit enlargements to 8x10 or smaller. Image stabilization works well, but the H1 often hunts for focus and sometimes overshoots the subject (before locking focus) at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Finally, the H1's zoom suffers from above average barrel distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range.

Sony cyber-shot DSC-H1
Note the pronounced inward curve of the limestone columns [larger]

Conclusion

The H1 is up against some very stiff competition (the Canon Powershot S2 IS, the Konica Minolta Z5, and the Panasonic Lumix FZ5) in this very popular class. Competing models in the 5 megapixel monster zoom product niche are remarkably well matched, so the final choice may come down to just how important the video capture mode is, or whether users prefer a tilt swivel LCD screen to a fixed LCD screen.

The H1 has some warts; it is a bit slower than its competitors, its menu system is neither intuitive nor logical, and the user's manual is remarkably poor. However, this camera shines in some very important areas; images are consistently very good, the H1's Auto mode is so simple that even rank beginners can capture dramatic images, and more advanced photographers will appreciate the H1's responsive and flexible handling and operation. Choosing a long zoom 5 megapixel prosumer digicam is a very difficult task, but all the competing cameras mentioned in this review are winners -- so consumers really can't really go wrong.

Pros: Very good image quality, stabilized 12X zoom, 2.5 inch LCD screen, powerful flash, good ergonomics, great color, good battery life

Cons: No RAW or TIFF format, burnt-out highlights, slight tendency toward over exposure in auto modes, slight overall image softness, some focus hunting at long end of the zoom, high default contrast and sharpening, and above average chromatic aberration.