Sony DSC-H2 Review

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2

Steves Conclusion

The Cyber-shot DSC-H2 is the little brother of Sony's DSC-H5 that we reviewed earlier this year. Compared to the H5, the H2's 6.0 megapixel resolution falls 1-megapixel short and its 2-inch LCD monitor is both smaller and less resolute. However the H2 retains the H5's image stabilized 12x zoom and high sensitivity. Like the H5, the H2'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 High ISO, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Portrait, Landscape, Beach, and High-speed shutter. The advanced user will enjoy the H2's Program AE with shift, Shutter-Speed priority AE, Aperture-priority AE, and Manual exposure modes.

The most prominent feature of the H2 is its 12x Carl Zeiss zoom lens, with a focal length coverage of 36-432mm in 35mm equivalence. 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, requiring the use of a tripod/monopod or a fast shutter speed with high ISO settings to overcome the camera-shake issue. Sony made the H2's longer focal lengths more usable with its Super SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization feature, reducing the effect of camera shake in your long telephoto shots and making 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 1/60 second. The H2's image stabilization feature also reduces the likelihood of blurry images when using the LCD viewfinder, which places the camera in a relatively unstable handheld shooting position.

This versatile lens is also relatively 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. There was a slight amount of chromatic abberation (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas, most noticable at the telephoto end of the zoom range. The lens produced sharp results throughout its aperture and zoom 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 easier to compose the image without overshooting the desired focal length. The H2 took about 3.6 seconds to zoom through its entire range at slow speed, and about 1.8 seconds at high speed.

While I usually advise against the use of digital zoom because of degraded image quality, the H2's Smart Digital Zoom is worth using when you don't need the camera's full 6-megapixel image quality. Smart Digital Zoom operates like an in-camera crop at less than full resolution, allowing a maximum combined zoom of 16x when shooting 3-megapixel images, 20x for 2-megapixels or 52x (the equivalent of a 1872mm lens on a 35mm camera) at VGA resolution.

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-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. Both viewfinders intensified the live image in dim lighting conditions, providing some help in to composing shots; the focus-assist lamp also helps, but only momentarily as the H2 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 rubber eyecup. The H2's viewfinders were effective when following a moving subject, providing a continuous image during autofocus without freezing.

The H2 is a fairly responsive camera, approaching dSLR performance in single image capture mode. From power-on until the first shot was captured measured just under 2.5 seconds. Shutter lag, the elapsed time between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, measured just under 1/10 second when pre-focused and 3/10 second including autofocus time; there was less than 1/10 second delay in the live image presented on either of the H2's viewfinders. In Single shot mode, the H2 captured 6-megapixel Fine images at the rate of one every 1.1 seconds without flash; with flash, the shot-to-shot rate was one every 1.8 to 16 seconds, depending on the distance to the subject and battery condition. Activating red eye reduction flash mode extends the pre-focused shutter lag to 9/10 second due to the pre-flash; during this delay, the H2's active viewfinder goes blank, making it difficult to keep your subject properly framed. Flash performance was a double-edged sword, having an impressive range of nearly 30 feet at ISO 1000 but taking an exceptionally long time to recharge, resulting in a lot of missed shots at long distances.

The H2 offers two continuous shooting modes, Burst and Multi Burst. In Burst mode, the H2 captured 7 images at 7/10 second intervals and took 4 seconds to clear its full buffer; subsequent images could be captured only after removing your finger from the shutter button and re-depressing it. During Burst shooting, the camera briefly displays the last captured image, making it difficult to follow a moving subject. In Multi Burst mode, the H2 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 1 second, and at a 1/7.5 second interval the sequence is completed in 2 seconds. Multi Burst is intended for uses such as evaluating an athlete's form. Performance measurements were made while using a SanDisk 1GB Ultra II Memory Stick Duo Pro, shooting 6-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 H2 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 H2'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 H2, 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 H2 enlarges the center of the live image, providing more resolution for you to determine focus. The H2 provides additional help with your manual focus effort with its optional "Peaking" function; it highlights the outline of in-focus objects in blue.

I was pleased with the H2'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 very good for a camera in this class, essentially absent at ISO settings of 80 and 100, detectable in shadow areas at ISO 200, and noticeable at ISO 400 with some loss of fine detail. At settings of ISO 800 and 1000, noise becomes more noticeable, with more loss of fine detail and the introduction of a slight bluish cast; that said, the availability of these high sensitivity settings and SteadyShot image stabilization enable the H2 to capture blur-free low light images like few other consumer digicams. Sports shooters, however, will be disappointed that the H2's fastest shutter speed in shutter-priority mode is 1/1000 second.

I was also pleased with the indoor results. The limited field of view at the lens' 36mm wide angle extreme combined with the powerful flash range allow interior shots of large rooms and large group portraits. You'll be able to include yourself in group portraits because the H2 has both a tripod socket and self-timer. But exploiting the H2's powerful flash has its cost in terms of a recycle time as long as 16 seconds, a delay long enough to cause you to miss some shots. The H2's red eye reduction pre flash works well at close range, but loses its effectiveness at distances of 15 feet and more. As I have already mentioned, the AF system, aided by its AF-assist lamp, worked very well in dim lighting. The H2 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 H2 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. Unlike most digicams, the H2 allows zooming during movie recording, introducing only a very slight amount of noise in the audio track. 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. 30fps 640x480 Fine movies consume about 1.3-megabytes per second of capture; be sure to get a high capacity Memory Stick PRO Duo so that you can exploit the H2's high quality movie mode.

The H2 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 nearly 200 shots on a set of 2500mah NiMH rechargeables with full-time use of Steadyshot shooting mode 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.

Like its big brother the H5, Sony's Cyber-shot H2 is a very capable entrant in the megazoom digicam market. Offering 6-megapixels of resolution, a high-quality image-stabilized 36-432mm zoom lens, very good image quality and responsive shooting performance, the H2 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. Photographers considering the H2 versus a consumer dSLR should recognize that its image quality, shooting performance and viewfinder quality are not quite up to dSLR standards. On the other hand, the H2 has several versatile features not found on dSLR's, including its movie mode, Multi burst mode, and Smart Digital zoom. If you have a need for megazoom focal lengths, the H2 also represents a terrific value; while dSLR image-stabilized long focal length lenses sell for thousands of dollars, the H2 can be had for under $350, image-stabilized zoom lens included. The H2 also represents a good value versus the H5; for about $100 less, you give up only 1-megapixel of resolution and the larger higher resolution LCD.

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 H2 should be high on your list. You should also consider the Canon PowerShot S3 IS. Both cameras carry similar specifications and are capable of delivering high-quality images. The S3 IS advantages include better Continuous AF tracking of moving subjects, industry-leading movie mode, articulating LCD monitor, faster shutter speeds and greater continuous shooting speed and buffer depth. On the other hand, the H2 provides greater indoor flash range and AF-assist performance, lower image noise at high ISO settings, ISO 1000, Smart Digital Zoom and Multi Burst mode.

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