Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H1 Review

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H1

“...the DSC-H1 is a worthy competitor in the mega zoom ranks.”
  • High quality 12x optical zoom; good image stabilization
  • Poor software; uses expensive Memory Stick Pro media; low quality LCD screen

Summary

Mega zoom digital cameras are all the rage this season.  Panasonic paved the way with its 12x optical zoom Lumix models, and other manufacturers quickly charged in to feed Americans’ desires for potent digicams that offer a wide range of focal lengths (around 38-432mm in 35mm terms).  Besides Panasonic, Canon and Konica Minolta have 12x digicams with image stabilizers.  Sony now has joined the ranks with the 5-megapixel DSC-H1 ($499).  In this case, it has a 12x Sony lens (not the usual Carl Zeiss design) that delivers 36mm-432mm of zooming power in a very compact package.  Zooms this powerful are great for vacationers, who are never quite sure what they’ll encounter in their travels; there’s no need to lug around extra lenses or deal with a bulkier D-SLR.  This camera, while hardly pocket-sized, easily fits in a carry bag or backpack.  It has a large, 2.5-inch LCD screen for framing and reviewing your shots, has very quick response time, and takes pleasing photos.  And the built-in optical image stabilizer, technology found on its camcorders, is a life saver–or should we say image saver?

Note:  For the record, the new 15x Samsung Camera Digimax Pro815 ($849, due in August) is the most powerful mega zoom camera.  It also has an 8MP imaging device.  We were only able to play with a pre-production model briefly at its June introduction, so we can’t make any “official” judgments about its quality or lack thereof.  We’re on the list to get one as soon as they’re available.

Features and Design

The DSC-H1 is a very compact camera, given its 12x optical zoom.  It’s about the size of the new Canon PowerShot S2 IS, another new mega zoom digicam with optical image stabilization for about the same price.  We won’t go into an HC1-versus-S2 riff, but the most obvious difference is Sony’s large, 2.5-inch LCD screen compared to the Canon’s variable angle 1.8-inch monitor.

The DSC-H1, made of metal and plastic, has a comfortable form factor with an angled shutter button nicely placed on the grip.  A jog wheel on the grip helps you to speed through the menus and make adjustments when you’re in manual, aperture- and shutter-priority modes.  The top of the camera has the power button, the often-used mode dial and the pop-open flash.  The dial is easy to read and clicks nicely into the desired shooting position.  You’ll also find a focus key for choosing the type of focusing you’d like as well as a key for taking a burst of images (9 maximum in 5MP fine mode) and for exposure bracketing, which takes three shots of a subject.  You can then pick the best and delete the others.

The rear of the camera has a minimum number of controls, since most of the real estate is taken up by the large, 2.5-inch LCD screen (rated 115K pixels).  We’re big fans of large LCD monitors since they make it easy to frame your shots and to show just-taken images with friends and family.  Along with the LCD, there’s an electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment.  To switch between the EVF and LCD, you simply press a key next to the viewfinder.

To the right of the screen is a wide/tele zoom toggle switch, a control pad with arrow keys and a set button to adjust camera parameters, a button for a histogram display, another for adjusting resolution and a menu button.  This is a typical digicam setup, but it would be better if Sony highlighted the menu subjects on the arrow keys rather than using etched icons (for flash, macro, self timer and review), functions photographers use often.

We left one of the rear keys for last, since it controls the very important optical image stabilization circuitry Sony calls SteadyShot.  “On” is the default position but you can turn it off to save power.  We suggest it be kept on at all times.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H1
Image Courtesy of Sony

Setup and Use

Sony is to be complimented for making this camera very easy to use.  When you open the carton, a Read This First brochure walks you through the initial setup of charging the two supplied AA NiMH batteries, setting the clock, adjusting resolution, selecting and changing modes, and so on.  It covers the vast majority of typical photographic situations.

A 108-page User’s Guide, written by someone whose first language is not English, goes into the nitty-gritty details of adjusting all of the camera’s many parameters including focusing and metering modes, picture effects…it’s a long, solid list.

The camera is supplied with the usual list of accessories including a shoulder strap, A/V and USB cables, lens cap with attaching cord, two NiMH batteries, and charger.  It’s also supplied with a lens hood and adapter to connect it (more on this later).  Although the camera has 32MB of internal memory (good for an emergency if your card is full) it does not come with a Memory Stick card.  The company states that only Memory Stick Pro delivers MPEG Movie VX top movie quality (640 x 480 pixels, 30 frames per second).  Being dutiful consumers, we went to Costco and picked up a 512MB MS Pro card for $59.

Performance

The DSC-H1 is quite a performer.  Once the two NiMH batteries were charged (a long six hours) and loaded, the camera was ready to go in less than two seconds.  We shot a variety of images at the maximum 5MP JPEG fine mode (there’s no TIFF or RAW modes, unfortunately), and we were generally pleased with the outcome.

The SteadyShot system worked well, letting me take images at a slower shutter speed without blur.  For the most part, the amount of noise was acceptable until we went above 200 ISO (400 is the maximum).

The movie mode is quite good, especially when shooting in 640 fine.  The only problem is that it gobbles up space on the Memory Stick Pro card; our 512MB card could save around six minutes of footage.  Dropping it down to a much more pixilated 640 standard gives you almost 22 minutes.  This is definitely not a camcorder replacement, but you can grab a hopefully memorable clip.  The supplied A/V cable makes it easy to check out your work (videos and stills) on your TV screen.

As mentioned earlier, the camera is supplied with an adaptor and lens hood.  We suggest you leave them at home.  Although they work fine for faraway outdoor shots, they are nothing but trouble for close-ups with a flash, as they give you terrible vignetting.  I’d rather deal with some errant rays of sunshine.  The camera looks less clunky without the lens hood, anyway, and it’s a bit more compact.

The camera is rated 290 shots with the LCD on by the Camera and Imaging Products Association, an excellent number given the large LCD screen.  We did a lot of zooming, kept the optical image stabilization on and used the LCD screen all of the time and had no trouble doing a day’s worth of shooting with the supplied batteries.  We suggest you get another set to keep on hand, just in case.  You can always throw in two AA alkalines if you’re desperate.

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H1
Image Courtesy of Sony

Transferring photos is easy, but I suggest buying a card reader to handle everyone’s collection of flash memory cards.  It also eliminates connecting the camera via a USB cable.  The supplied editing software is worse than useless; it caused my computer to crash the first time I loaded it.  Once it was safely on the hard drive, it was scarcely worth the effort; editing capability was “challenged,” to say the least–it has minimal editing tools.  If you choose this camera and do not have a solid editing suite, budget for a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 for around $90.  It’s a great program and should be an object lesson for Sony engineers as how to design really good software.

Conclusion

I really liked using the DSC-H1 and enjoyed the resulting images.  The optical image stabilization did a nice job eliminating the blur from slower shutter speeds and extremely zoomed telephoto images, where any bit of handshake rears its ugly head in your prints.  Having the ability to zoom such a long focal length is a real plus.  Just try it out in the store; you’ll immediately see why we were so pleased and why it’s a great travel companion.  Battery life is very good, as is the response time.  When using Memory Stick Pro cards, you can record decent movies that are close to VHS levels, but it’s certainly no Mini DV camcorder.  It’s a nice feature, especially if something unusual takes place that begs for a video instead of a still.  The LCD screen is big, but the quality really is a drop-off compared to the screens found on Sony’s T series of cameras.  In case the screen wipes out in bright sunshine or a really dim scene, the EVF is there to save you.  However, Sony gets a half point deduction for including the insulting Picture Package software and continuing to use Memory Stick media against the on-rushing Secure Digital (SD) tide (I guess it wouldn’t be Sony if they weren’t so stubborn).  Perhaps the new leadership of Howard Stringer will clear out some of these very anti-consumer attitudes.  That off my chest, the DSC-H1 is a worthy competitor in the mega zoom ranks.

Pros

    • Attractive, natural-looking photos
    • Fast response, little shutter lag
    • Wealth of manual features and tweaks
    • Little red-eye effect
  • Winning AF Assist

Cons

    • Bad, bad software bundle
    • No flash memory supplied
    • Weak LCD screen quality
  • No TIFF or RAW modes

Editors' Recommendations