DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Review
by J. Keenan -  7/31/2008

Just about the time you think you've seen the end of the current crop of digital ultrazooms, up pops the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 (henceforth the "H50"). The camera was announced towards the end of February but didn't ship until May, so it's a relatively recent arrival to the party whose guests include Fuji, Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic – at least at the really big end of the zoom spectrum.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50


The Sony brings a relatively modest 15x Carl Zeiss lens to a market segment where those four other guys are all packing 18 or 20x lenses, but it does outrange Canon's 12x offering. (As an aside, anybody wanna bet that with Photokina coming up in September, Canon won't be bringing up the rear on ultrazoom lens length once that show gets put to bed?) In any event, while the Sony might not be quite as wide or as long as most of the competition, let's see how it measures up otherwise.

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The H50 features a 9.1 megapixel "advanced Sony Super HAD (Hole Accumulated Diode) CCD sensor design that allows more light to pass to each pixel, increasing sensitivity and reducing noise," along with Sony's BIONZ processor that "delivers speed and precision." In addition to the aforementioned Carl Zeiss zoom lens, there's a 3.0-inch LCD monitor with a tilt range of motion, optical (and also ISO boost) image stabilization, sensitivity levels ranging from ISO 80 to 3200, controls from fully auto to fully manual with a number of special scene modes thrown in for good measure, and 15MB of internal memory.

The camera accepts Memory Stick Duo or Memory Stick PRO Duo media, and Sony includes a rechargeable li-ion battery and charger, lens hood and lens adapter ring, lens cap and strap, shoulder strap, A/V and USB multi connector cables, a remote commander, and CD-ROM software with each camera.

There's a wealth of other features incorporated into the H50 as well, including face and smile detection technology, dynamic range optimization, variable noise reduction, intelligent scene recognition and an infrared Night Shot capability. The H50 can suit the user who simply wants to set the camera on auto and fire away with confidence that the camera will take care of the rest, or go completely off the other end of the spectrum with inputs galore, including a Happy Face Retouch tool that Sony should have left on the drawing board (I didn't have the heart to subject anyone to that device; if you want to see why Happy Face Retouch is a bad idea, check out DCR.com editor David Rasnake's review of the Sony DSC-W170).

There are eight primary shooting modes:

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
The H50 is typical for cameras in this class, resembling a mini DSLR.

Styling and Build Quality
The H50 features a metal and largely composite body – the plastics used are the norm for this market segment of camera, which appears to be well built.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Ergonomics and Interface
The first thing I noticed with the H50 is how "busy" the body is – there are buttons or controls everywhere on the top and back of the camera.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

The deep handgrip portion of the body is done in a rubbery material that I'd prefer a bit tackier to help promote the grip, but otherwise the shape is good.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

I had ongoing trouble with inadvertently zooming the lens when holding the camera in one hand. The zoom button lies directly under the thumb of the right hand, and it was easy to zoom without knowing it. There were no problems when using the camera with both hands, and the zoom button is nicely placed for use while shooting, but just carrying the camera around and having the lens not be where I "left" it became annoying.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

I also had a tendency to hit multiple targets when using the control button -it just wasn't tall enough to activate without often hitting one of the other functions (display, self-timer, macro or flash) situated around it.

Display/Viewfinder
The H50's 3.0-inch LCD monitor has a 230,000 pixel composition and was one of the better monitors I've come across on a compact digital camera (the other was a 3-inch model as well, which is probably significant).

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Nice for image review in good light, it was actually fairly usable for composition in direct outdoor light conditions. The monitor may be tilted up and away from the camera body to help with difficult shooting angles.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

There is also a viewfinder with a diopter adjustment. Sony didn't publish any details on the coverage afforded by the viewfinder that I could locate, but it appears to be in the 90 to 95 percent range.


PERFORMANCE
The H50 seemed to generally perform at the level of its competitors in this class.

Timings and Shutter Lag
The H50 took three seconds to power up, but once ready could acquire focus with high contrast subjects and good light at wide angle in about 0.3 seconds. This time could lengthen a bit as the lens was zoomed toward the telephoto end but stayed fairly quick in good conditions. Shutter lag was a very satisfactory 0.05 seconds. There is an AF illuminator light to assist with dim conditions where times predictably will generally lengthen, sometimes going to a couple of seconds or more.

Single shot-to-shot (shoot, write, re-acquire focus and shoot) times ran about 2 seconds.

I got 5 shots in about 3 seconds in "burst" mode at full resolution. Sony claims "burst" will take up to 100 shots at an average of 1.64 fps, but in my experience you'd have to drop the resolution to 5 megapixels for the H50 to approach that figure. The H50 sets focus, exposure and white balance for the first shot and applies these settings to all subsequent shots in the sequence. There is also a brief blackout of the monitor/viewfinder after the first shot of the sequence, and some additional lag in displaying each shot, so panning with moving subjects becomes an exercise in guessing where to aim.

Depending on the shooting mode, shutter speeds may range from 30 to 1/4000th of a second.

Lens and Zoom
The Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 15x zoom features a maximum aperture range of f/2.7-4.5, making it fairly fast across its range of focal lengths which span the 35mm equivalent of 31-465mm.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Here are shots at both ends of that range:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Wide-Angle
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Telephoto

Auto Focus
AF options include a 9-area multi-point AF, monitoring AF, and flexible spot AF. I typically used the flexible spot with the size reduced to the minimum in order to specify exactly the part of the scene I wished to calculate exposure from. You'll go nuts trying to find the options in the menus; they're on the display screen in those shooting modes where AF is a user-selectable option. There is an AF illuminator light for help in low light conditions, but the range seems to be not much over 6 feet in my experience.

Flash
Flash performance is generally good, with accurate and pleasing color rendition when using flash as the primary illumination. Recycle times range from good (3 seconds) with partial discharges (flash used in relatively well lit areas) to terrible (13 seconds) with a full discharge (pitch black room, maximum telephoto, ISO 100, and minimum aperture). The 3-second recycle time will be more the norm for most users, but if you happen to push the flash envelope you'll have plenty of time to compose that next shot before the flash comes back. The H50 won't let you capture another image if you leave the flash enabled until it recycles.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

The H50 comes with a lens adapter ring and lens hood which are welcome additions in outdoor light, but with them in place the flash is severely vignetted – you need to zoom almost to full telephoto to lose the dark area.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

The good news is you generally won't be using flash outdoors so the ring and lens hood won't usually be a factor, but if you're shooting fill flash make sure to get them off the camera before the shot.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Image Stabilization
The H50 has what Sony terms a "double anti blur solution" consisting of optical image stabilization via a gyro that detects movement and signals corrections to the lens, as well as ramping up ISO sensitivity to increase shutter speeds. It appears that by selecting any of the shooting modes that allow the user to specify the ISO sensitivity that sensitivity boost is negated. I say appears because the Sony user's guide is quite mum on the issue – but the images don't seem to be showing increased noise attributable to higher ISO sensitivity.

Battery Life
Sony rates the H50 battery for 300 shots using the monitor, and 330 using the viewfinder. My usage was falling well short of the 300 figure even with extensive use of the finder.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

The culprit appears to be that the camera was set in continuous stabilization mode, which is much harder on battery life than shot-only mode (which only activates stabilization with the half push of the shutter button to acquire focus). Set to shot-only mode, battery life looks more in line with Sony's figures.


IMAGE QUALITY
Images from the H50 compare favorably with those from other cameras in this class.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Default images from the H50 were pleasing as to color and sharpness, which is good since there's not much to be done by folks in the full auto or scene modes to affect image quality. Users of the manual modes have a number of inputs to customize the camera's output. While I think the Sony produces images that can stand up to any of the other brands at lower magnifications, when things get to the 100 percent enlargement point I'm not as happy with the Sony as I was at the smaller sizes. There seems to be an artifact or two on some shots that downgrade their value, at least to my eyes.

Exposure, Processing and Color
The H50 can make use of multi-pattern, center weighted, or spot metering exposure options, with multi-pattern being the default. This shot of an Anna's hummingbird was one that I wished was on center-weighted or spot – he landed nearby and I didn't risk taking the time to switch metering modes. The bright areas in the background were just enough to make him a little darker than I'd have liked, but a little post processing makes this a perfectly salvageable shot.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Original
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Post Processed

The user then has a number of inputs to further modify the image. These include color mode, color saturation, contrast, and sharpness.

Here are shots in the Normal (default), Vivid, Real (a neutral-color mode), Black and White, and Sepia color modes.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Normal
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Vivid
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Real
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Black and White
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Sepia

Next, Normal color shots with increased saturation only, contrast only, sharpness only, and finally all three at once.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Normal, increased saturation
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Normal, increased contrast
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Normal, increased sharpness
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Normal, increased saturation, contrast, and sharpness

The H50 also provides for Dynamic Range Optimization, a process whereby highlight details are retained while greater detail is brought out in darker portions of images. Here are images with DRO off, at its standard setting, and at a post-shot processing DRO Plus setting.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
DRO Off
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
DRO Standard
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
DRO Plus

One byproduct of the Plus setting is that a close examination of those images sometimes shows them to be a bit more noisy that the standard or non-DRO versions. Another drawback is that DRO Plus requires an additional three seconds of processing time in shot-to-shot captures (for this reason, DRO Plus is not available in burst mode).

Then there's Variable Noise Reduction, where three NR Level Settings – High, Low and Standard – are available, allowing you to select the optimal setting depending on the scene and individual taste. Intelligent Scene Recognition Mode automatically detects five different types of scenes and selects the appropriate camera setting: Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight Using a Tripod. If you're getting the impression that the H50 has more bells and whistles than most folks would ever want or need, you might be right. But for those with creative juices running through their veins, the H50 might be just their cup of tea.

Finally, a word about Night Shot, which I first ran into with my Sony F717 circa 2001. It's an infrared shooting mode that produces a noisy, greenish image not unlike that of early generation night vision goggles, but it does this in near pitch black conditions. The shots are terrible, but the feature is really cool. These two shots were hand held and required fairly long shutter times, so not bad all things considered...

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

White Balance
Auto white balance was used for virtually all the images made by the H50 for this review, and did well overall. Incandescent light shot warm on auto, but cloudy and direct sunlight were both very accurately handled on auto. We had an uncharacteristic weather pattern during my two weeks with the H50 in that our beaches remained under a sometimes heavy overcast all day – I was hoping to see how the H50 did with sun and surf, but it does OK with gloom and surf.

Lens Faults
There is barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of image) at the wide-angle end of the zoom, and pincushion distortion (straight lines bend in toward center) on the telephoto end – no surprise for a wide-ranging lens.

Distortions were strong enough to show up in real world shots if you know where to look – at the top of the truck in the following shot, for instance.

There were also occasions of purple fringing (chromic aberration) in high contrast boundary areas that in some instances was getting objectionably apparent at 100 percent enlargement. The lens is a bit soft in the corners at both the wide and telephoto ends, and there is some light falloff in the corners at the wide end.

Sensitivity and Noise
The H50 doesn't break any new ground in this arena – it's competitive with the other brands in the class, but not leading the way.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 80
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 80, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 400
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 800
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 1600
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 3200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 80, 100, and 200 sensitivities all looked pretty good on the full size shots, but 100 percent enlargement shows things getting a bit noisier by ISO 200. ISO 400, 800, and 1600 all looked pretty good at full size as well, albeit with a bit more noise creeping into each one. Detail crops show a steady increase in noise at ISO 400 and 800, with a commensurately larger deterioration at ISO 1600, accompanied by some color drop off. ISO 3200 is just obviously noisier, both full-size and cropped.

When we applied low and high noise reduction to ISO 800, I thought the low NR version was a bit better, but found just the opposite true for ISO 1600. I was back to low NR when things got to ISO 3200.

Additional Sample Images

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

CONCLUSIONS
The Sony DSC-H50 is an attractive entry into the ultrazoom sweepstakes despite giving up a marginal measure of focal length at each end of the zoom spectrum to most of the other brands in the race. Good color and image quality, good shutter response, and more features than you can shake a stick at combine with typical ISO noise performance to produce a camera that a full auto user can take up with confidence. At the same time, the H50 offers a range of creative inputs to manual shooters that would seem to cover any possible option.


There are a couple of ergonomic blips that annoyed me and I still have a nagging concern that some of the Sony's shots don't look as good at 100 percent as they do at smaller sizes. But the ultimate question is if I were in the market for an ultrazoom, would I buy one? That answer is a definite yes.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50

Sensor 9.1 megapixel, 1/2.3" Super HAD CCD
Lens/Zoom 15x (31-465mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, f/2.7-4.5
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 230K-pixel Hybrid TFT LCD; 201K-pixel electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment
Sensitivity ISO 80-3200
Shutter Speed 30-1/4000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Easy Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Movie, Scene, Smile Shutter, High Sensitivity
Scene Presets Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Advanced Sports Shooting
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, Flexible Spot AF, Semi-Manual, Manual, Macro
Drive Modes Normal, 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
Internal Memory
15 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3456x2592
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Yes
Battery Rechargeable InfoLITHIUM 960 mAh lithium-ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Super SteadyShot, Smile Shutter, NightShot, HD component output, D-Range Optimizer