Sony DSC-H1 Review

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1

Steves Conclusion

The Cyber-shot H1 is SONY's entry in the megazoom digicam market. Equipped with an image-stabilized 12x optical zoom lens and a 5-megapixel imager, the H1 offers enough resolution for 11x14-inch prints, and a versatile zoom range that allows you to easily compose shots of near or distant subjects. The camera's feature-rich exposure system is simple enough for a beginner, yet offers advanced photographers plenty of opportunity for creativity. The beginner will enjoy the simplicity of Automatic point-n-shoot mode, and benefit from the pre-programmed scene modes, including Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Portrait, Landscape, Beach, High-speed shutter and Candle. The advanced user will enjoy the H1's Program AE, Shutter-Speed priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, and Manual exposure modes.

The most prominent feature of the H1 is its 12x SONY zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 36-432mm in 35mm equivalence. That's a lot of lens by anyone's standards especially when the vast majority of other digicams only have 3x zooms, and today's 8-megapixel cameras, including SONY's F828 offer only 7x or 8x zooms. Anyone who has used a digicam with a long focal length zoom knows that these lenses really add to the overall "fun factor" of using a camera. But the longer the focal length, the more susceptible images are to blurring from camera shake. Non-stabilized cameras with high power telephoto lenses require the use a tripod or a faster shutter speed to overcome the camera-shake issue. Not so with the H1; its Super SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization feature reduces the effect of camera shake in your long telephoto shots, and makes the camera capable of taking handheld shots in lower light levels without the flash. I was consistently able to capture blur-free images hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/100 second at the lens' full telephoto 432mm focal length, more than 2 stops better than the rule-of-thumb shutter speed of 1/focal-length, and experienced a high percentage of blur-free images at 1/50 second -- the H1's image stabilization really works.

This versatile lens is also fast; its maximum aperture ranges from f2.8 at wide angle to f3.7 at telephoto, further enhancing your ability to capture sharp images in marginal lighting conditions. I noticed a moderate amount of barrel distortion in full wide angle, but no pin cushioning at telephoto focal lengths. I also noticed a slight amount of chromatic abberation (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas throughout the zoom and aperture ranges. The zoom mechanism is driven by a 2-stage switch-actuated motor; it operates smoothly and quietly throughout its range. The motor runs at a slow or fast speed depending on how far you deflect the zoom lever, making it easy to compose the image without overshooting the desired focal length.

You have a choice of two viewfinders for composing and reviewing your shots: an LCD monitor, or, like most digicams with a big zoom, a high-resolution electronic viewfinder (EVF) with diopter adjustment. The LCD and EVF are equally-functional, you can setup the camera, compose and review your images on either one. The viewfinders provide a wealth of exposure information, including the ability to display a histogram while reviewing your images. I favored the 2.5-inch LCD for camera setup and image review, and the EVF for eye-level shooting SLR-style; switching between the two requires only a single depression of the FINDER/LCD button. The viewfinders intensified the live image somewhat in dim lighting conditions, providing some help in to composing shots; the focus-assist lamp helps, but only momentarily as the H1 attempts to focus. The LCD was bright enough to use outdoors, but lacks an anti-reflective coating that would minimize glare. The EVF was also effective outdoors, but would benefit from a deeper eyecup. The H1's viewfinders were effective when following a moving subject, providing a continuous image during autofocus without freezing.

The H1 is a very responsive camera, approaching dSLR performance in single image capture mode. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under 2.2 seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured an impressive 1/10 second when pre-focused and 3/10 second including autofocus time; about 1/10 second of that is attributable to the delay in the live image presented on either of the H1's viewfinders. In Single shot mode, the H1 captured 5-megapixel Fine images at the rate of one per second without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 1.7 to 10 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject.

The H1 offers two continuous shooting modes, Burst and Multi Burst. In Burst mode, the H1 captured 9 images in 5.8 seconds and took 6 seconds to clear its full buffer; subsequent images could be captured only after removing your finger from the shutter button and re-depressing it. By default the camera briefly displays the last captured image which makes it difficult to follow a moving subject. This can be solved by setting the Auto Review option to "Off" in the Setup menu. In Multi Burst mode, the H1 records 16 shots in a single 1280x960 image. You can specify the Multi Burst shot interval: at 1/30 sec, the 16 images will be captured in 1/2 second, at 1/15 second they will be captured in 8/10 second, and at a 1/7.5 second interval the sequence is completed in 1.8 seconds. Multi Burst is intended for uses such as evaluating an athlete's form. Performance measurements were made while using a SONY 512MB Memory Stick PRO, shooting 5-megapixel images in Fine quality.

The autofocus system delivered consistently sharp images. It uses a 3-area multi point system, or you can use a single point and position it virtually anywhere in your composition. With the help of its AF-assist lamp, the H1 was able to autofocus very reliably in conditions of low ambient light; in complete darkness, the maximum range of the AF-assist lamp was about 12 feet. AF was effective in low light even in the telephoto range of the H1's zoom lens. Manual focus is a feature missing from most consumer digicams, and for good reasons. First, it's impossible to determine focus using a zoom-coupled optical viewfinder, it does not offer a through-the-lens view and is intended only as an aid to image composition. Secondly, EVF and LCD viewfinders are not resolute enough for use as a focusing screen. The H1, however, enables Manual focusing with its Expanded Focus menu option. To focus manually, depress the FOCUS button on the top of the camera until the distance scale appears on the bottom of the viewfinder, then depress the left or right buttons of the 4-way controller to change focus. The H1 enlarges the center of the live image, providing enough resolution for you to determine focus, although it is not nearly as effective as a dSLR's focusing screen.

I was pleased with the H1's results outdoors. The power of the 12x zoom lens gets you very close to the action, allowing well-composed shots even from the spectator areas at sporting events. The autofocus system and lens combined to produce sharp results, although the Continuous AF did have some difficulty keeping a moving subject in focus. Images were well-exposed and richly saturated right out of the camera, but you can override the degree of sharpness, contrast and saturation using the camera's menu system. Image noise was good for a camera in this class, noticeable throughout at ISO 400, present to a lesser degree at ISO 200, detectable in shadow areas at ISO 100, and essentially absent at ISO 64.

I was also pleased with the indoor results. The limited field of view at the lens' 36mm wide angle extreme combined with the moderate flash range limit interior shots to medium-sized rooms and group portraits. You'll be able to include yourself in group portraits because the H1 has both a tripod socket and self-timer. As I have already mentioned, the AF system, aided by its AF-assist lamp, worked very well in dim lighting. The H1 is effective at squelching its flash at close range, and has good macro focusing; it would be a good choice for taking images of small objects for online auction listings.

The H1 has a movie mode with sound, capturing your choice of 30 or 16 frames per second at a resolution of 640x480, or 160 x 112 at 8fps. The 30fps 640x480 Fine movies consume about 1.3-megabytes per second of capture. Like most digicams, the H1 prevents zooming during movie recording; you can use the optical zoom only to compose the movie before you start recording it. In-camera editing of movies is provided in playback mode, allowing you to divide the movie and save it as a new file. The maximum length of capture in any quality setting is limited only by the size of the installed Memory Stick. A Memory Stick PRO card is required to record 640x480 at 30fps quality. Even at the highest quality setting the H1's movies were disappointing -- especially as how Sony leads the world in video camcorder technology.

The H1 is powered by only 2 AA batteries and I was impressed by their life considering that you always have either the EVF or LCD turned on when using the camera. It captured more than 200 shots on a set of 2500mah NiMH rechargeables with full-time use of continuous image stabilization and occasional use of continuous AF. As usual, I recommend that you acquire at least two sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries so that you are never disappointed when that once in a lifetime photo op meets a set of dead batteries.

I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the User's Guide that came with the camera. I found it somewhat difficult to find information, and the content was thin. SONY devoted only 50 pages of the manual to camera operation, not enough to describe the use of all of the H1's versatile features.

The Cyber-shot H1 is a very capable entrant in the megazoom digicam market. With 5-megapixels of resolution, a high-quality image-stabilized 36-432mm zoom lens, very good image quality and responsive shooting performance, the H1 offers a compelling combination of quality and versatility. It will please both the beginner and the advanced photographer with its consistently well-exposed and sharp results. The H1 presents a worthy alternative for consumer digicam users considering an upgrade to a consumer dSLR. While its image quality and viewfinder quality are not quite up to dSLR standards, the H1's versatility is unmatched by any dSLR available today. If you have a need for megazoom focal lengths, the H1 also represents a terrific value; while dSLR image-stabilized long focal length lenses sell for thousands of dollars, the H1 can be had for under $500, image-stabilized zoom lens included.

If you're looking for a light-weight, stylish, moderately-priced digicam that is versatile enough to handle most family events while getting you close to sports action or wildlife, the SONY Cyber-shot H1 should be high on your list. You should also consider the Canon PowerShot S2 IS. Both cameras carry similar specifications and are capable of delivering high-quality images. The S2 IS advantages include better Continuous AF tracking of moving subjects, industry-leading movie mode, articulating LCD monitor, faster shutter speeds, greater playback magnification, and greater continuous shooting speed and buffer depth. On the other hand, the H1 provides better indoor flash and AF-assist performance, a larger LCD monitor, lower image noise at high ISO settings, shorter shutter lag and faster AF performance.

It's difficult to choose between these two high-quality digicams. Please have a look at our Sample Photos, including S2 IS comparison shots taken at the same time under identical conditions.

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Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's H1 review

Imaging Resource's H1 review

Megapixel.net's H1 review

DC View's S2IS vs H1 review

PhotographyBLOG's H1 review

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