Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digital Camera - Review

Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digital Camera - Review

Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digital Camera - ReviewIf you're reading this, then you probably already know that there are a lot of different kinds of cameras in the world. This year, we saw the birth of a new variation with the advent of superzooms that don't have electronic viewfinders, such as the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 we'll be writing about here. The upside is that the cameras can be smaller than their EVF-laden counterparts, and if you despise peering into a tiny hole at an LCD while framing your shots, then you'll welcome this evolution. However, if you've discovered as we have that an EVF can come in handy when shooting certain subjects (we like using one when shooting baseball batters), then you might want to check out one of Sony's other superzooms, such as the DSC-H7 or DSC-H9.

Design and Features of the Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digicam

While the H3's small body design (for a superzoom) is definitely handy when trying to fit it in a bag or jacket pocket, it leaves few options for the button layout. Sony basically had to put the zoom rocker smack in the middle of where your thumb should naturally rest, which might seem good at first, but we ended up accidentally nudging it often when shooting, throwing off our zoom setting and messing up the framing of our shot. If Sony would've moved the shutter button a little to the left and the mode dial forward, the zoom rocker could've been moved farther right and given room for your thumb. However, as the body design goes, that's the biggest flaw. The grip, though small, is effective--curl your middle finger over the top of the grip, and the rest of your fingers fall nicely into place, though it does leave your pinky dangling, which always irks us. It seems as though camera makers have begun to despise the pinky finger. Most entry-level dSLRs and almost all superzooms have grips that can't fit a pinky.

Dominating the front of the camera is a Carl Zeiss-branded Vario-Tessar 10x optical 38-380mm equivalent f/3.5-4.4 zoom lens, which feeds light to an 8.1-megapixel CCD sensor. Around back you'll find a 2.5-inch, 115,000-pixel LCD. Caffeine addicts should be pleased to know that the H3 includes Sony's Super Steady Shot optical image stabilization to help compensate for hand shake. In case the built-in lens isn't wide or long enough for you, Sony offers both a 0.7x-wide angle converter (VCL-DH0758) and a 1.7x telephoto converter (VCL-DH1758). The necessary adapter ships with the camera and can also accept 58mm screw-on filters. The camera also comes with a lens hood that attaches to the front of the adapter. Unfortunately, it's so large that it obscures a large portion of the flash, which makes the use of fill flash almost useless if you use the hood. However, the adapter itself can likely provide enough shade from the sun when the lens is zoomed to its widest, which means that the hood is only really necessary when shooting telephoto shots, in which the camera's built-in flash probably won't be able to provide fill flash anyway.

As is the rage these days, Sony separates the H3's menu system into two sections. If you press the Menu button, it brings you to the shooting menu, which is home to settings you change often while shooting, such as image size, face detection, exposure and flash compensation, ISO, white balance, and more. If you press the Home button, you go to the setup menus, which let you control less-oft-changed settings, such as whether you have a lens adapter attached, or whether you want the AF assist light on or off. The menus use a new design that looks very similar to the menus on Sony's PSP. They look nice and are pretty intuitive, though it's strange that there's an option for the shooting menu in the home menu, but if you select it, it tells you to press the Menu button instead of just porting you over to that menu.

Like a lot of superzooms, the H3 includes manual exposure controls, though there are only two apertures to choose from and these vary depending on the focal length you're using at any given time. You won't find aperture- or shutter-priority, but there are the usual array of scene modes, some of which are in the menu and some of which reside on the mode dial, as well as program and full auto shooting modes.

Sony says that the H3 can output images and video to an HDTV if you buy the optional VMC-HD1 component video cable. However, since it's not included with the camera and Sony didn't send us one with the review sample, We can't verify this, though we don't really doubt them. This is a nice option, but we'd rather have seen an HDMI output on the camera instead of being forced to buy Sony's cable. Either way, viewing images on HD has always been a better experience for us than using the regular standard-definition outputs found on most compact cameras.

Performance of the Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digicam

Except for a slow flash recycle time, the DSC-H3 performed well in our lab tests. The camera took 1.8 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG, no doubt slowed a bit by the fact that the lens has to extend before you can shoot. It took 1.3 seconds between JPEGs with the flash disabled, jumping to 2.6 seconds between shots with the flash turned on. Shutter lag measured an impressive 0.4 second in our high-contrast test and 1 second in our low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. In burst mode, we were able to get an average of two frames per second, regardless of image size.

Image Quality of the Sony Cyber-shot H3 Digicam

Image quality from the H3 can be quite nice if you stick with ISOs 100 and 200, though that niceness is marred a bit by the lens' noticeable distortion, as well as some purple fringing on high-contrast edges toward the edges of images. I saw more noise than we would've liked at ISO 400. While images are still very usable and much of the noise is minimized during printing, there is a noticeable falloff in shadow detail and fine detail at ISO 400. Stepping up to ISO 800, noise increases only slightly, but there's more of a falloff in shadow and fine detail. At ISO 1,600 noise becomes heavy and most shadow and fine detail is lost. The top sensitivity setting of ISO 3,200 yields extremely noisy images with completely blocked up shadows and fine details. For example, text which was crisp and clear at ISO 200 and below, becomes completely illegible at ISO 3,200. I suggest staying below ISO 1,600 when shooting with the H3 and sticking with ISO 100 or ISO 200 whenever possible.

If you want a long zoom lens in a camera that's smaller, if not lighter, than most superzooms, Sony's DSC-H3 is a decent choice. Since this is a new category, it's hard to draw comparisons.