DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 Review
by David Rasnake -  9/29/2008

These days, you can get just about any feature you can imagine a pocket camera. From face detection to image stabilization to ultra high-speed shooting, there's a premium ultracompact model that has it.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780


But sometimes you don't want all of that. At times, I think all of us, from DSLR shooters to casual shutterbugs, have wished for a camera that's small, light, affordable, easy to pocket, and easy to use. Think of it as the modern equivalent of those disposable film point-and-shoots, only it has the added advantage of being reusable. And if you're lucky, the advantages of being stylish, functional, and capable of better shots than a Kodak FunSaver as well. That's where the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 comes in.

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

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 is an 8 megapixel ultracompact from Sony that is unique in its class, with a smaller set of features and a less substantial price tag than many of its ultracompact peers. The latest update in a long line of small, affordable S-series pocket cameras from Sony, the Cyber-shot S780 features an 8.1 megapixel sensor, a 3x zoom lens, and a 2.5 inch LCD at its core.

It's also worth noting that Sony's latest S models (a 7 megapixel version, the S750, is also available) have gone on a serious diet compared to their predecessors in this line, thanks to the decision to use proprietary li-ion batteries for power in place of bulky AA cells. Indeed, the S780 trades advanced features like optical/mechanical image stabilization and large, high-res LCDs for enough compactness to fit in just about any pocket served up at a price point that suits just about any wallet.

Of course, with a street price under $150, compromises are to be expected. As noted, there's no image stabilization technology other than ISO boost. The S780 sports a highly limited number of shooting modes and control options. Video is also a weak link, with the S780 limited to 320x240/30 fps video capture; the movies look good, and audio is decent for a tiny camera, but in a segment where more and more cameras are offering 720p video capture, this spec in particular seems more than a bit dated.

Unusually for an ultracompact, there's no scene preset menu with an exhaustive list of options on the S780. Rather, the camera provides six preset options, each with their own mode dial position. Beyond its scene presets, the S780's basic shooting modes are as follows:

Conspicuously absent among the S780's scene modes is any kind of high-speed or sports preset. This, combined with the lack of manual controls, makes it difficult to get the S780 to default to an appropriately high shutter speed for action shooting. If you have active kids you're looking to photograph, or hope to take even casual sports photos, the Cyber-shot really doesn't offer the range of tools needed to do the job.

Connectivity with the Sony is fairly straightforward, using a single port and multi-function cable for both file transfers and A/V out. In a nice touch, the S780 also lets you specify whether it shows up as a mass storage device or uses Picture Transfer Protocol when connected to your computer via USB.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality
If the S780's street price puts it fairly consistently below the $150 "budget" pricing mark at the moment, you'd be hard pressed to tell by looking at it.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

The camera pulls off a high-end look similar to Sony's Cyber-shot W models, only smaller in basically every dimension. The difference comes in terms of feel, because whereas the W cameras are overwhelmingly constructed from metal, the S780 exhibits a mostly plastic build. The front panel and bezel rings are carefully styled to look like metal, but a good old-fashion "tap test" shows it the S780's shell to be all polymers under its aluminum and chrome veneers.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

While Sony's all-metal cameras definitely have nicer feel and heft in hand, the S780 does a decent impersonation of metal that's almost impossible to expose without actually handling the device, and it has the added benefit of plastic's extremely light weight to boot. Weight, especially, is no small consideration for a camera that's likely to spend a lot of time riding around in pockets, and in the case of this Cyber-shot, it's svelte enough that I rarely even noticed its presence in a pants pocket.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

Those worried about ruggedness issues stemming from the S780's composite construction needn't. Panel flex is nonexistent even when torquing the camera hard, and other than a typically flimsy battery/memory door with a nasty habit of popping open and dumping your memory card out at inconvenient moments, the camera feels nice and dense – like it would easily survive typical wear and tear, plastic construction or not. Overall, if the materials used aren't quite as high-end those on some other Cyber-shots, the build quality is still all Sony in this case.

Ergonomics and Interface
The fact that cameras as small as the S780 simply don't fit in my hands makes me a poor judge of ergonomic issues with ultracompacts (as "ultracompact" equals "ergonomic issue" in my world). Even testers with smaller hands, however, commented on the fact that the S780's back panel buttons feel a little cramped, making it hard to make clean presses (on every button except the appropriately large zoom toggle, that is) unless you're pretty deliberate about it.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

From an interface perspective, all of the control action is centralized on the back panel, with only the power button and more amply sized shutter release appearing up top.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

On the front deck, I appreciate that Sony had the foresight to put the flash on the opposite side of the lens from the grip, making it almost impossible to unknowingly cover the flash with a finger.

If there's one thing likely to drive you mad when using the S780, it's the seemingly innocuous issue of button press feel. Simply put, through some strange combination of a sluggish graphical interface and buttons that are just too hard to cleanly push, our S780 test unit seemed to register presses only about half the time. Hoping that we had simply received a mistreated review unit, I ducked in to the nearest electronics store to the DCR office with an S780 on display only to find the same thing. Admittedly, floor samples don't exactly lead lives of leisure either, but this suggests that either the S780's controls don't hold up well to repeated use, or they come this way from the factory. Either way, it's not a good thing: the degree of difficulty involved in quickly and cleanly scrolling through menus on this camera will test your patience.

Thankfully, there aren't very many menus to scroll through on the S780. The basic shooting adjustments are housed within a two-page menu that sits at the bottom of the composition display.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

In light of Sony's usually over-polished, over-structured interfaces, it's somewhat ironic that the S780's blocky shooting control menu is both ugly and stone simple. Still, it does a fine job of getting you to the settings you need, and I'll take straightforwardness over flashiness any day of the week.

Four more short pages (three or four options on each) in a full-screen menu contain all of the S780's setup options. And that's it. There's certainly nothing that will wow you in the graphical interface, but if you can get past the menu structure's primitive, dated appearance, it actually works just fine on the whole.

Display and Viewfinder
Somewhere along the way, as 2.7 and then 3.0 inch LCDs have become the norm, 2.5 inch displays have started to look shockingly small. The S780's big black plastic bezel around the display doesn't help in this regard, making the display on this camera seem so tiny at first that I actually felt compelled to confirm that it indeed measures 2.5 inches diagonally.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

With 153,000 dots of resolution, the S780's display is appreciably less sharp than some high-spec competitors. Just the same, refresh is snappy regardless of whether the camera is working outdoors or in dim indoor light. Viewability could be better in bright light, though a press of the display function button engages the S780's high-power mode, which helps somewhat in this regard.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
A primary concern with budget point-and-shoots is that historically, at least, many of them have been so darn slow. To get the kind of press-to-capture speed needed to not have to plan your shots seconds in advance, a full-feature, full-price camera used to be the only way to go. While the S780 doesn't exactly fly along, it does prove that you don't have to spend a fortune to get performance that gets you close to what some much more expensive cameras can pull off.

Pure shutter lag (the time from press to capture without pre-focusing the camera) is the S780's least impressive number. Under best conditions, the camera will get you into the 0.09 second range – a long way from the 0.03 second times of the fastest ultracompacts. Times were also more inconsistent than we're used to in this regard, averaging out at 0.12 seconds. This may seem like a long lag, and comparatively it is, but with that said I rarely had trouble capturing action scenes precisely with pre-focus and a bit of anticipation.

AF acquisition times are where cameras in the S780's class tend to suffer more, but turning typical on its head, the S780 actually sports a surprisingly quick focusing system. In the camera's default Multi AF mode at the wide end of the lens, press-to-capture times without pre-focus averaged 0.72 seconds. If it's not winning any foot races in its class, the fact that several significantly more advanced cameras have turned in slower numbers in this test speaks well for the S780's overall performance.

Continuous shooting capabilities certainly won't blow you away: the S780 manages only three shots before stopping to clear the buffer, and does so at a steady but generally lackluster 1.6 frames per second. Based on what other models in this class are doing, this performance doesn't seem to either particularly help or particularly hurt the S780's position. It simply is what it is.

For a pocket camera, the Cyber-shot's power-up cycle does seem to drag along a bit. You'll be hard pressed to get a shot off in less than three seconds from the time you turn the camera on, meaning that your chances of catching rapid action if you aren't prepared are pretty slim. Again, though, in light of the standards for this class, this is an on-par number.

Auto Focus
The fact that the S780 offers more focusing options than many cameras costing twice as much is certainly appealing from the perspective of specs sheet comparisons. And the system's in-use performance actually sweetens the deal even more in this case. The camera provides Center AF and Multi AF modes, plus a selection of "near distance" AF options that allow you to select an approximate distance to subject (in meters, unfortunately for those of us in the U.S. who largely ignored the Metric Conversion Act); the camera then hunts for lock in a limited range around that distance, further speeding up its performance from what we saw above in the standard test in most cases.

On the performance side, another surprise comes in the fact that the camera is amazingly good in low light and against low contrast subjects. In two days of grabbing quick indoor snaps with the S780 while at Photokina, I can count on one hand the number of times in hundreds and hundreds of attempts that the camera failed to lock focus. Better than that, the system makes good, predictable decisions when in multi-area mode as well. Although excessive hunting wasn't much of an issue, even in low light, utilizing the approximate distances modes helped keep this in check as well. In short, learn how to use what the S780 offers in terms of features and this camera's AF system – though lacking in more advanced technologies like continuous focus – is up to just about any snapshooting challenge you can throw at it.

Lens and Zoom
If the AF system on the S780 feels like it easily could have been sourced from a Sony W model, the lens brings things back down to reality a bit. It's a 3x zoom, with a downright mundane equivalent range of 35-105mm. Aperture is a reasonably quick f/2.8 at the short end of the zoom, and a more pedestrian f/4.8 at telephoto. Anymore, the whole idea of only having a 3x range to work with may seem particularly limiting to some, but remember that we're talking about a sub-$150 ultracompact here.

Performance-wise, the zoom isn't bad at all, traveling quickly and fairly quietly from one end of the range to the other. The travel is also basically stepless, but fine adjustments require a delicate hand on the hard-to-press zoom toggle – not always an easy feat to accomplish.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

The S780 also struggles a bit to find a lock when shooting in macro mode, though the camera is capable of focusing down to around 1.2 inches in our testing.

Flash
The S780's flash unit isn't the most well-speced one we've ever looked at, though it does have a full complement of modes including a slow synchro setting. What it doesn't have, though, is much in the way of power, topping out under 12 feet at wide-angle with auto ISO selected. Lock down the ISO – which you may want to do, given this camera's questionable performance as low as ISO 400, even – and you run out of range in a hurry.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

In spite of limited power, the S780's flash is also prone to blowing out highlights at close range, especially.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

Thankfully, skin tones look fairly natural in flash shots, and beyond this, a three step flash power compensation option (minus, normal, plus) makes it easier to smooth things out all around. In our testing, we found it to be a good idea to shoot almost exclusively in the reduced power option as a default setting, adjusting from there as needed.

If the S780's flash doesn't put out much light, at least this lack of power seems to keep recycle times low: full-power flash recycle comes in a respectable 5.8 seconds.

Image Stabilization
The S780 doesn't come equipped with optical or mechanical image stabilization. The closest you'll get, in fact, is the Cyber-shot's ISO boost mode, which claims to allow for blur-free shooting in low light. Given the among of noise and edge softness introduced above ISO 400, however, we might take issue with the "blur-free" claim.

Battery Life
The S780 is rated for 280 shots per charge – not a bad number for a slim camera. Shooting some flash shots as well as grabbing several videos, I hit 215 frames before the low battery indicator started to warn me that I was getting close to the edge. Based on these two pieces of information, it seems that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a consistent 200-plus shots per charge from the S780 no matter how you use it.


IMAGE QUALITY
From a build and performance standpoint, the S780 has consistently impressed. When it comes to image quality, however, there's less to be unequivocally positive about. As a snapshot camera, the S780 is perfectly competent, and assuming that's all you intend to use it for, respecting its limitations you should be able to produce some nice family or vacation shots. However, if you're looking for a camera that allows you to do more with your images – like make large prints, for instance – there are simply better choices out there.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
Limited dynamic range is to be expected from the S780's 1/2.5-inch CCD sensor. Unfortunately, the camera's multi-area metering seems to be poorly tuned to expose for highlights, making shooting in high-contrast outdoor situations a particular challenge.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

In the example above, the camera severely blows out the highlights and pushes shadow detail into the mid-range. Manual metering using the S780's spot metering mode can be an effective aid in a situation like this, but I found it just as easy to engage the on-screen histogram and use exposure compensation accordingly. In this particular case, it took -1.7 EV to reel in the highlights using the camera's multi-area metering (at the expense of a touch of shadow detail, it should be noted).

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

For scenes with less contrast, though, -0.3 EV was generally enough to bring out depth in sky blues and up scene punch all around.

As noted, for more precise metering control, center-area and spot metering are also available via the shooting menu.

The S780 doesn't push sharpening hard in any of its shooting modes. With a slightly watery lens and a sensor that struggles to resolve fine detail even at low ISOs, some judicious post-shot sharpening can actually be of benefit in this case. Sharpness can be boosted via a shooting menu option in Program mode, which helps to give a crisper look to the S780 final output.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Sharpness Plus

Like most Sonys we've tested recently, the S780 has trouble rendering pure reds with any measure of neutrality. Even in the default color mode, we experienced obvious red-channel clipping in normal shooting with this camera.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Normal (default)

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Normal (default), 100% crop

Kick the S780 over to the Rich color mode from its default setting and things get even more electric and unnatural.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Rich

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Rich, 100% crop

A Neutral mode smooths the red skew out a bit, but even with saturation scaled back, red reproduction is still not true-to-life.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Neutral

Under close scrutiny, then, the S780's images prove to be overly contrasty, color skewed, and a bit soft all around. Whether most of this (other than the metering concerns, perhaps) will be noticed by this camera's target market is an open question, however. While there are clear compromises here, for a camera in this price range, there's very little that's surprising.

White Balance
Under incandescent light, where many more expensive cameras' automatic white balance systems fail to neutralize color casts, the S780 performs remarkably well.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Certainly this isn't the kind of performance we've come to expect from sub-$200 cameras. While the S780 lacks more advanced custom white balance settings, the generally solid performance of its auto white balance system in a variety of settings makes this a minor oversight at most.

Lens Faults
The S780 shows moderate barrel distortion at wide-angle, and even more pronounced pincushioning at telephoto.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Wide-Angle

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Telephoto

Neither distortion is extreme, but they are both visible in some real world images if you know to look for them.

It seems that no budget camera is immune from chromatic aberrations, and the S780 shows the dreaded blue fringe in high contrast areas seemingly irrespective of focal length or aperture settings.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
100% crop

If you're working at the print or view sizes to which the S780 is most suited anyway (that is, prints no larger than 5x7 as a rule), the issue isn't a shot killer, but it's definitely present just the same.

Overall, the sample images below, taken across the S780's aperture and zoom ranges, suggest that the S780 struggles to find optical sharpness with any combination of zoom settings. While it's more pronounced at the corners, some general softness is present across the frame in most images. Again, if you're looking for a camera capable of extremely fine detail capture, an ultracompact is a likely a poor choice regardless. But even with that said, the S780 is far from the top of its class in this regard.

Sensitivity and Noise
Throughout our evaluation time with the S780, we were often impressed by just how much this Cyber-shot doesn't betray its low-budget roots. Until you try to shoot in low light, that is.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 400
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 800
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 1250
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
ISO 1250, 100% crop

The S780 is nice and clean at ISO 100, but that's about the most that can be said for it. Picky shooters will find things to pick at as early on as ISO 200, with ISO 400 starting to look downright jagged and messy.

Noise reduction kicks in aggressively at ISO 800, making the top two settings essentially unusable for anything other than 1024x768 screen-res use. There's very little edge definition at either of the top settings, and the fact that the S780 tops out at a very messy ISO 1250 (rather than the ISO 1600 or 3200 settings afforded by many of its competitors) makes it seem even more behind the times.

If your end goal is snapshots for your Facebook page, it's really not worth getting too wound up about the S780's weak high-sensitivity performance. As bad as it is comparatively, for low-res uses the Cyber-shot's output is perfectly acceptable. For print use beyond typical snapshot sizes, though, be prepared to keep the sensitivity below ISO 400 or pay the price in the form of soft, mottled pictures.

Additional Sample Images

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780


CONCLUSIONS
How to sum up the S780? On the one hand, it's a fun, simple camera that handles a range of shooting situations with aplomb. On the other, soft image quality hurts its chances with serious shooters looking for a deal. In this case, the general consensus around here is that you still get more than you pay for with the S780: excellent build quality, good performance numbers, and an interface that anyone can negotiate with ease. Where the Cyber-shot's low price shows through, however, is in its generally lackluster image quality. Competing against the likes of Fuji's Z20fd and Nikon's S210, we haven't seen anything with the S780 that those cameras don't also display. In each case, lens weaknesses can be an issue, dynamic range and metering are hang-ups, and shots simply don't have the crispness that their resolution might imply to many.


So does the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S780 earn our recommendation? It depends on what you're expecting from your camera. If you can really only spend $150, this is certainly one of the more high-function options out there. If you can swing a $200 purchase, however, the extra money can buy you a lot in terms of both features and image quality. The combined lack of a sports preset, a long zoom, impressive continuous shooting modes, and a continuous AF option makes the S780 a particularly poor choice if you're trying to photograph active subjects. For casual snapshooters on a serious budget, however, the classy S780 makes a perfectly fine companion for capturing general family or vacation shots.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 8.1 megapixel, 1/2.5" Super HAD CCD
Zoom 3x (35-105mm) zoom, f/2.8-4.8
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 153K-pixel TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-1250
Shutter Speed 60-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Movie, Scene, High Sensitivity
Scene Presets Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Flash
Metering Modes Multi, Center, Spot
Focus Modes Multi AF, 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
Internal Memory
31 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
320x240, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable 970 mAh lithium-ion, 280 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection