Sony CyberShot DSC-H3 Review

Sony CyberShot DSC-H3

“If sports or action photography is high on your list, then the Sony DSC-H3 is the winner with the TZ3 fading down the stretch...”
  • Compact 8MP 10x digicam with OIS
  • Small LCD screen; limited manual adjustments

Summary

The march of the compact mega zooms continues. Sony recently introduced a very small 8-megapixel digicam with a 10x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. Like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3 and Canon PowerShot SX100 IS this camera is really targeted to folks heading out on vacation or just need a digicam with a wide range of focal lengths. Yes, we know there are 12x, 15x even 18x models available but they’re much bigger than the H3, TZ3 or SX100 IS. In fact, the DSC-H3 is even smaller than the 6x 8MP Canon PowerShot A720 IS . Since we recently tested the similarly priced TZ3 we were anxious to see which one was the better camera. Click to find out…

Features and Design

Available in black or silver, the Sony Cybershot DSC-H3 is an extremely compact, stealthy-looking digicam; we had the black version for this review. It measures 4.18 x 2.68 x 1.9 (WHD, in inches) and tips the scales at close to 14 ounces fully loaded. You can slip this into a jacket pocket with ease—as long as you don’t have the supplied lens hood attached. Personally I think it looks rather ridiculous—like a blunderbuss–and went about my business with it off. It doesn’t have a built-in lens cover so there is the possibility of losing the cap but what can you do? Panasonic wins this round with its built-in lens cover.

The front is dominated by the 10x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with a 35mm equivalent of 38-380mm. You get more on the long end compared to the TZ3 (28-280mm) but personally, the Panasonic’s 28mm setting is a winner for me. You may think I’m crazy which is why I always suggest you actually try cameras for yourself in the showroom. That extra telephoto may be just your cup of Red Bull. Also on the front of the camera is an AF Illuminator light, a mic and a few decals. The H3 has a grip on the right side. When you hold it, your finger naturally curls into position above the shutter and your thumb rests on the rear wide/tele switch. There’s a raised notch that keeps the thumb in position. Overall the camera seemed a little small for my hand but it might be just fine for yours—again that hands-on tryout is a must.

The top is fairly clean with a large knurled mode dial, shutter and power key. There’s also a potent pop-up flash that automatically opens if the light is too dim. It can be readily defeated with the flash adjustments on the four-way controller. The mode dial has a good assortment: full auto, program, manual, movie, access to four scene modes along with dedicated settings for landscape, twilight portrait, sports, soft snap for portraits and High Sensitivity to shoot in available light (ISO hits 3200). Although the Panasonic has many more scene modes it does not have aperture and shutter speed adjustments as does the H3. Even so the H3 is hardly D-SLR like since there are only two aperture settings (f/3.5 and f/8) but there are a wide range of shutter speeds (30 to 1/2000th of a second). Aperture- and shutter-priority are nowhere to be found but even this level of control is most welcome and a big leg up from the TZ3.

The back is very clean with “only” a 2.5-inch LCD rated at 115K pixels. Even though this is a low figure, the screen holds up well in bright light although it does smear indoors as you move quickly from one scene to the other. Still there seems like a lot of real estate on the back for a larger screen. Panasonic’s 3-inch LCD seems positively enormous by comparison. Above the screen is a playback key to review your shots. To the right is the wide/tele toggle switch that’s nicely placed; it also enlarges images during playback. Other controls include Menu, Home and a four-way controller with central set button. Menu gets you to the specific menus for the mode dial settings while Home opens a variation of Xross bar GUI found on the PS3 and other Sony gear. The four-points of the control ring give access to display options (grid lines, histogram), flash, self timer and macro.

A compartment on the right side has inputs for an optional DC-in adaptor and the supplied hydra-headed USB/video out. This camera offers HD video out so you can watch your images on a HDTV (this cable is optional). On the bottom is the compartment for the battery and Memory Stick Duo slot.

The camera comes with everything you need to get started. It has 31MB of internal to grab a few shots but definitely buy a one or two-gig high-speed Pro Duo card. You get all the basic straps and cables, the lens hood, lens cap and—my favorite—a piece of string to connect the cap to the camera. It also comes with Picture Motion Browser Ver. 2.1 software and USB driver on a CD-ROM.

After charging the battery and loading a 2GB Pro Duo card, it was time to start shooting…

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
Image Courtesy of Sony

Testing and Use

The DSC-H3 is a very speedy performer. It pops to life in less than two seconds as the lens extends. Where this camera blows the TZ3 away is in continuous shooting mode. Even though this is an 8MP digicam versus the 7.2MP TZ3, the H3 fires away at almost D-SLR speeds. This is a bit of hyperbole since the cheapest D-SLR is $500 USD, not $279 (real world) like this one. Still it’s close and the difference with the TZ3 is like night and day—it’s that dramatic. Sony states with your finger on the shutter you can capture almost two shots per second—and my tests matched that figure; this is with the flash off, of course. You can keep firing away up to 100 shots before the camera—or your card—gives it up. If sports or action photography is high on your list, then the Sony DSC-H3 is the winner with the TZ3 fading down the stretch…

I started off at highest resolution which is 3264 x 2448 pixels and in Auto. Face Detection was engaged as was OIS with all other settings in default (ISO, white balance, exposure compensation). Surprisingly there were no compression options (Fine, Super Fine). I imagine Sony sees this as a true aim-and-forget camera but it would be nice to have; this is something Kodak typically does not a Canon or a Nikon. Once in gear, I took a load of shots indoors and out, switching to the various modes via the main dial and working through the menus. I also used Program and Manual to round it out.

The DSC-H3 is a lot of fun to use. It grabs focus very quickly (thanks to a 9-point AF system) and there were no problems in very low light due to the AF Assist lamp. And as noted, it saves files to the card very quickly in single shot or burst mode although things slow down noticeably with the flash on. The menus are a breeze to you and although they don’t have all the deep onscreen explanations as other point-and-shoots, it’s child’s play making adjustments. I particularly enjoyed shooting in the Program and Manual modes where you can unleash your inner tweaker. You’ll find things like DR (Dynamic Range) adjustment, adjusting the flash level and lots more. When my capturing and downloading was done it was time to turn out a raft of prints.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
Image Courtesy of Sony

Before commenting, let me note the DSC-H3 has a number of in-camera fixes you can do like red-eye correction, add star bursts, turn a portrait into a fisheye view, things like that. They’re OK but I’d rather leave the editing to the computer—who wants to work on a 2.5-inch screen anyway? The same holds true for the slide show capability during playback. Although you can watch it with music playing in the background, the small screen takes away from the experience.

Now to the photos. For the most part I was very pleased. I did a lot of shooting of a still life in a very dark corner with available light, using 400 through 3200 ISO. I was very surprised the 3200 image wasn’t a pixilated mess; granted the noise was very noticeable in an 8.5×11 print but it better than most of the point-and-shoots recently used. Using the high ISO let me shoot at f/3.5 for 4 seconds and the OIS did a good job eliminating blur but there was some since no human can stand statue-still for that long. Also the images were soft because of all the noise reduction. However it’s good to know you can take decent shots with the flash off. As for the photos taken outdoors, there was no problem at all. Colors were rich and spot on with little purple fringes on high-contrast edges. The Face Detection system worked quite well too, not quite as good as Canon’s but still you’ll be happy with people shots.

Conclusion

While I liked the Panasonic DMC-TZ3, the Sony DSC-H3 has more positives such as much faster shot-to-shot times and quicker focusing. Image quality was just a tad better, not dramatically different but shooting at higher ISOs delivered less noise. I really wish the H3 had a larger LCD screen and the 28mm option because that would make it a slam dunk winner. As always do your own hands-on test but if it were my money, speed wins out—and the Sony has it to spare.

Pros:

• Takes quality photos
• Very responsive
• Reasonable noise at High ISOs

Cons:

• LCD screen too small
• No compression options
• Limited manual options

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