Quite some time prior to my testing of the Sony Cyber-shot H55, I used to shoot 35mm slides (mostly Ektachrome and Kodachrome). I loved the bold and vibrant, but highly accurate colors and the incredible detail captured by slow ISO speed 35mm transparency films, but I hated waiting two weeks to get my Kodachrome slides back. The digital imaging revolution changed all that. Today's photographers can do things that old time shooters never imagined possible like adjusting color (in-camera) to mimic slide film and reviewing images immediately after you shoot them.
Cameras have changed, too. After spending many years carrying a heavy 35mm camera bag around, I've come to appreciate super capable pocket sized point-and-shoot digicams. Until quite recently most compact and ultra-compact cameras featured 3x or 4x zooms, but consumers have been demanding more megapixels, smaller cameras, snappier performance, longer zooms and lower prices since the introduction of the first commercially available digital camera (the 1.3 megapixel Kodak DCS 100) in 1991.
One of the most exciting developments in the ongoing digital imaging revolution is the compact ultrazoom - these minuscule cameras sport 10x to 15x zooms. Sony recently introduced two new compact ultrazoom Cyber-shots, the top of the line DSC-HX5 and its little brother the DSC-H55. The H55's collapsible 10x zoom makes it possible to carry a camera with a 25-250mm (equivalent) zoom lens around in your shirt pocket, and while most of its competition provides only auto exposure, the H55 features a full manual mode which may make it more appealing to photo enthusiasts who often disparage the compact ultrazoom class for its almost insidious dearth of user input.
BUILD AND DESIGN
At first glance, the Cyber-shot H55 is a rather conventional looking compact point-and-shoot. My H55 test unit was black with silver trim (there is also a silver version with black trim) and attractive in a practical sort of way - yet another exemplar of the usability driven industro-chic school of digicam design. While the H55 is unlikely to turn any heads, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The H55 is unobtrusive (at least the black version) making it easier for photographers to capture natural looking environmental portraits and candid street shots.
The Sony H55 is genuinely compact, measuring 4x2.27x1.13 inches and weighing in (minus battery and memory media) at just 6.0 ounces. The robustly built metal-alloy/polycarbonate body appears to have good dust/weather/moisture seals and feels comfortingly solid in the hand. Not only does the Sony Cyber-shot H55 slip easily into a typical shirt pocket or a small purse, it also carries nicely when gripped loosely in the palm of the hand with the wrist strap looped around the right hand. Even though the H55 has rounded corners and smooth surfaces, it is fairly stable in use thanks to the nicely placed finger groove grip and thumb rest.
Ergonomics and Controls
The H55's user interface is pretty basic and the control layout is fairly typical and sufficiently similar to most other recent point-and-shoots to inspire confidence. Controls come easily to hand for right-handed shooters. The H55's on/off button is a bit too small and occasionally requires an extra push or two to power the camera up or down. The H55's user interface is logical and uncomplicated; all buttons are sensibly placed and easily accessed, but they are not as clearly marked as I would have liked. Unfortunately there is no direct access method, like Canon's "func" button for adjusting ISO and White Balance or other often changed settings; any adjustments must be accomplished via the menu. Nor is there a dedicated "one-touch" button for starting and stopping video capture, users must set the mode dial to "movie" mode and then begin and end recording by pushing the shutter button - but the H55 does provide a useful elapsed time style recording duration readout.
The H55 is a small camera that feels solidly built and somewhat heavier than expected. The camera body is oblong with rounded corners and lacks a traditional handgrip, but it does feature a small cylindrical bulge at the right end of the body (as seen from the rear) and a groovy finger grip on the front of the camera and a matching truncated thumb groove on the rear deck. All controls, with the exception of the on/off button, mode dial, shutter button, and zoom controller rocker switch, are located on the back of the camera. Ergonomically, the H55 is well designed and comfortable in use, even over extended periods.
Menus and Modes
The H55's icon-driven menu system is easy to navigate and a bit of explanatory text accompanies every choice. Menus are simple, logical, and easy to use - which is a good thing since dedicated controls are limited.
The H55 provides a slightly better than average collection of shooting modes - here's a breakdown:
The H55 seems targeted more toward shutterbugs than casual shooters, and unlike much of its competition it features a real manual exposure mode, although it doesn't offer either aperture priority or shutter-priority exposure modes. In Manual mode the H55's shooting apertures - f/3.5 and f/8 at the wide-angle end of the zoom and f/5.5 and f/13 at the telephoto end of the zoom offer just enough user input into the exposure process to whet the creative appetite of a photo enthusiast.
Like most currently available digicams, the H55 eschews an optical viewfinder, so the LCD must be used for all framing/composition, camera status, image review, and menu navigation chores. The H55's fairly large 3.0-inch screen covers most of the available real estate space on the camera's rear deck. The H55's LCD screen is adequate, but not on par with the Nikon S8000's super sharp hi-res LCD screen. The H55's LCD is fluid (movement is smooth and natural as opposed to jerky), reasonably bright, relatively (230,000 dots) sharp, and hue (color) correct.
In dim/low light, the H55's LCD automatically boosts screen intensity/brightness (brightness can also be adjusted manually). The H55's LCD is difficult to use in brightly lit outdoor settings; there were times when I could only see glare and reflections. A better anti-glare/anti-reflective coating would have made the H55's LCD screen much more useful and this is a very important consideration, since the LCD is the H55's only viewfinder. The LCD info display provides all the information the H55's target audience is likely to need.
Five years ago consumers often grumbled about slow point-and-shoot operation and using the H55 is like an exercise in virtual time travel. Manufacturers listened to consumer complaints about camera speed and gradually developed faster cameras. Consumers rarely complain about slow cameras these days. Competition is especially fierce in the compact ultrazoom class so why did Sony drop the ball with the H55? The H55 is quick enough to handle most general action photography, but the super slow shot-to-shot cycle won't allow capturing multiple shots as the action unfolds. Serious photographers are looking to capture the decisive moment and the H55 just isn't adequately responsive because of its slow image processing cycle.
Overall, the H55 does a pretty good job - providing an impressive level of usability and consistently first rate images plus manual exposure capability in a digicam marketing niche that's not known for allowing much personal input into the photographic process. But, for many shooters, especially photo enthusiasts (whom this camera seems to have been broadly targeted toward) those advantages may be outweighed by the H55's slow operational speed. In short, the H55 is slower in some important areas than most of its competition. The H55's boot-up cycle is on the long side of average at about 2 seconds and the 25-250mm (equivalent) zoom moves from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.5 seconds, which isn't blazingly fast either.
The H55's image capture/processing cycle (shot-to-shot timing) really leaves something to be desired. Compose your picture, then trip the shutter button and the H55 locks up (for 2.5 to 3.5 seconds) while its Bionz Processor saves the image. Hit the playback button and you'll have to wait (up to 2 seconds) before you can review your saved images. The H55 is much more competitive in terms of shutter lag, AF Acquisition, and continuous shooting.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Canon PowerShot SX210 IS||0.01|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||0.01|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S6000||0.03|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon Coolpix S6000||0.27|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||0.28|
|Canon PowerShot SX210 IS||0.36|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||0.39|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55||4||1.9 fps
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||3||1.8 fps
|Nikon Coolpix S6000||3||1.8 fps
|Canon PowerShot SX210 IS||∞||0.8 fps
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" denote the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The H55 features Sony's Steady Shot optical image stabilization system which works by quickly and precisely shifting a lens elements in the H55's 10x zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 EV slower than would have been possible without IS and still get sharply focused blur free images. The H55's optical image stabilization system is always on, but it occasionally produces a blurry image that should have been sharp.
The H55 draws its juice from a proprietary Sony NP-BG1 Lithium G rechargeable battery. According to Sony, the H55 can capture up to 310 images with a fully charged battery, but that seems a bit optimistic to me based on my experiences with the camera - I used the H55 pretty heavily for two weeks and had to charge the battery three times during the course of my test. It's difficult for me to keep track of exposures because I shoot, review, delete and re-shoot often, but I don't believe I shot anything close to 900 images.
The H55's built-in multi-mode flash seems like an afterthought. The H55's flash provides a minimal selection of external lighting options including Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Syncro, and Flash Off.. Maximum flash range (according to Sony) is 13.5 feet, which seems pretty optimistic to me since the flash is small and weak, but flash images do come out natural-looking.
The H55 saves images to SD, SDHC (but not SDXC) and Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo memory media or to 45MB of on-board memory. SD memory media is essentially ubiquitous in the point-and-shoot marketplace - everyone has switched to SD memory media including Sony.
The H55's true wide-angle to moderate telephoto f/3.5-5.5, 4.25-42.5mm (25mm to 250mm equivalent) 10x zoom carries the same "G" designator as many of Sony's digital SLR lenses. When the H55 is powered up, the zoom extends automatically from the camera body and when the camera is powered down, the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element.
Zooming is smooth and fairly quiet. The H55's optical performance is better than average. The f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than adequate for shooting outdoors in decent light. The camera's pint-sized form factor and extra lens reach make it almost ideal for candid/street shooters. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel distortion (straight lines bowing out from the center) and pincushion distortion (straight lines bowing in toward the center) seem well corrected.
Contrast is balanced and colors are hue accurate. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 0.16 inches. Zooming is smooth, silent, and fairly quick. The H55's lens also includes a built-in neutral density filter.
Wide angle, 25mm
The H55 records HD video at a maximum resolution of 720p (1280x720) or at lower VGA resolution (640x480) at 30 fps with monaural audio. Video clips tend to be properly exposed and run smoothly. Video quality is slightly better than average. The video that accompanies this review was shot near mid-day in very bright light. Colors are accurate and movement is smooth, even in macro range.
Sony digital cameras are well known for their highly saturated native (default) color and the H55 is no exception. Like most compact point-and-shoots, image files produced by the H55 are optimized for the bold, bright colors and slightly flat contrast that generally characterize digital point-and-shoot images.
Captured colors are generally hue accurate but brighter and noticeably more intense than real life colors. Reds are very warm, blues are bold, and greens, yellows and oranges are vibrant.
Outdoors, the H55 does an impressive job - image quality is reliably very good to excellent and exposures are generally accurate, but lots of sky in an image often results in slight overexposure with the sky fading from blue to white. Highlights are sometimes burned out in brightly lit outdoor scenes and fine detail is often missing in shadow areas. Indoors the H55 manages noise fairly well and captures high contrast detail nicely, but saved images are a bit flat and noticeably darker than average.
Auto White Balance, 5500k white fluorescent light
*Editor's Note: We've switched from incandescent studio lights to some new 5500k white fluorescent bulbs. All other aspects of our testing procedures remain unchanged.
The H55's Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions. The H55's Auto White Balance mode did a very good job outside, but it struggled a bit to get colors right indoors. In addition to the auto setting there are user selected Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, and One Push Set options available.
The H55 provides a decent range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 3200. Low ISO images show bright colors, slightly softer than average native contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 is also very good, but with a little less snap. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail.
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
Indoor image quality is acceptable, on par with competing digicams, but as sensitivity (automatically) rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise rises exponentially and color intensity (saturation) suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 400, but they increase substantially after ISO 800. All the sample images included with this review were recorded at the 14 megapixel fine JPEG setting.
In my opinion, the H55 is a little pricey, but I liked it and I had fun shooting with it. Overall, the H55 did a good job for me and with the exception of its abysmal shot-to-shot times I have no major complaints about the camera. The H55 is obviously targeted toward photo enthusiasts rather than casual photographers and that presents something of a quandary.
A 14 megapixel point-and-shoot with a manual exposure mode and a 10x zoom should be capable of capturing near pro quality images - and the H55 delivers excellent image quality and colors that remind me of classic Kodachrome slide film, but a 2.5 to 3.5 second shot-to-shot time isn't conducive to capturing the decisive moment. As it is, the Sony Cyber-shot H55 would be an almost ideal choice to replace an aging first digital camera, an excellent choice as a family camera, and a very good choice for travelers who want a small, lightweight, easy to use digicam, but I don't believe it is a good choice for photo enthusiasts.