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.
In general, the HX300 is fairly fast ultra-zoom P&S digicam. From off to first picture capture is about two seconds. Ultra-zoom lenses don't move all that fast and that's fine for video clips where users want slower more controlled zooming, but if you are trying to track a fast-moving subject like a skateboarder, the HX300 can seem a bit slow. The HX300 is a competent picture maker that is capable of producing consistently very good to excellent still images and very good HD video. The HX300's performance was dependably competitive (equal to or better than) similar ultra-zoom cameras from other manufacturers that I've reviewed.
The HX300 features a TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF, Multi AF, Flexible Spot AF, Face AF, and Tracking AF. The HX300's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. The HX300's AF system is consistently quick to acquire the subject and locks focus with reliable accuracy.
The HX300 utilizes a sophisticated new optical image stabilization system. Generally with systems of this type--a single element in the zoom is shifted rapidly to overcome minor involuntary camera movement. Sony's enhanced IS system utilizes multiple shifting elements, rather than just a single element for enhanced anti-shake control and sharper images.
Sony claims the HX300 is good for 310 exposures with a fully charged NP-BX1 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The battery charges in the camera and requires about 90 minutes for a full charge.
In the final analysis everything comes down to the HX300's f2.8-f6.3/24mm-1200mm (equivalent) Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom. The HX300's f2.8 maximum aperture is significantly (two thirds of a stop) faster than average for cameras in this class. Center sharpness is excellent, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel and pincushion distortion are visible, but seem well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate, though visibly oversaturated. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, but fairly slow when compared to cameras with shorter zooms. Interestingly, there is much less motor noise than I expected.
With most ultrazooms the maximum telephoto setting can often be more of a problem than a benefit since long zoom digicams produce images that are notoriously soft at the maximum telephoto setting. Sony's product development folks did a remarkably good job on the HX300's zoom. This lens (though not particularly compact) is much sharper (at the long end of the zoom) than expected. I handheld the camera for every shot that is used in this review. Check out the demo image below and you'll see what I mean --that image was a grab shot, handheld, at or very near maximum telephoto and it is surprisingly sharp--noticeably sharper than it would have been at 50x with most (if not all) of the HX300's competition. That old school looking zoom ring on the front of the HX300's Vario-Sonnar is, in fact, a by-wire zoom control ring which is good for small zoom adjustments and can be used for manually focusing the lens. The zoom control ring does prove to "lag" a bit. DSLR users will immediately notice the lag. Point and Shoot users might not see much of a problem with this.
The HX300 captures HD video at 1440x1080p @ 60ifps with stereo audio and the 50x zoom can be used during filming. This camera also provides an HDMI out so that users can watch their HD video clips on their wide screen HD TVs. Video clips are sharp and hue accurate (although visibly oversaturated) with very good contrast. Below is a two part sample video.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC HX300 utilizes a new 20.4 megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor to capture images. Like most compact P&S digital cameras, image files produced by the HX300 are optimized for the bold, bright colors and slightly flat contrast that veteran shooters refer to as "consumer" color. Recorded hues are accurate but noticeably more intense than in real life. The bottom line is that the HX300's color interpolation, while a bit more intense than neutral, is consistently and dependably hue accurate. The colors I saw on my monitor when I reviewed the images I shot with this camera were very close to the colors I saw when I shot the pictures. Coupled with the HX300's improved AF and IS systems images generated by this camera are noticeably sharper than similar images from its competitors.
Outdoors, in good light, the HX300 consistently captures very good to excellent images in all shooting modes. Indoors, the camera performs with a little less certainty, but its indoor performance, is at worst, average for cameras of this type--however that supposes that users will be relying primarily on the wide angle end of the zoom for most of their indoor work - the farther you zoom indoors, the worse the image quality will become.
The HX300, with its monster Carl Zeiss zoom, can easily handle landscape/scenic photography, wildlife photography, event photography (festivals, concerts, parties, family gatherings), and travel photography. A DSLR shooter would need a camera bag full of very expensive lenses to cover the same range as that amazing 50x zoom. If you don't need a touch-screen LCD, GPS, or Wi-Fi (and you can live with the non-intuitive menu system) the HX300 produces the best image quality of any ultra-zoom P&S camera that I've used to date. The HX300 would be an almost ideal choice for an aspiring photographer on a budget, an excellent choice as a family camera, and a very good choice for travelers who have the space and want a tough easy to use digital camera with lots of reach.