Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 11/14/07
Update: 12/10/07 Removed reference to Cyber-shot Station CSS-HD1 dock, as the H-series is not compatible.
The Sony DSC-H3 is the latest addition to the company's Cyber-shot H-series, forming a new entry point to the line beneath the existing DSC-H7 and DSC-H9 models.
The Sony H3 combines eight megapixel resolution with a 2.5-inch LCD display and a powerful Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar branded 10x optical zoom lens, offering a range from a rather tight 38mm wide-angle to a very useful 380mm telephoto. As with previous H-series models, the DSC-H3's lens incorporates Sony's Super Steady Shot optical image stabilization to minimize blur caused by camera shake -- an essential feature for such a long zoom when not using a tripod. Other Sony H3 features include ISO sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 3,200; an advanced sports shooting mode which combines predictive continuous autofocus with high shutter speeds; a Memory Stick DUO/PRO DUO card slot and 31MB of built in memory; and power from a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The DSC-H3 also offers high definition component video output via an optional proprietary cable.
The H3 includes Sony's face detection technology, which is linked not only to the camera's autoexposure and autofocus systems as in most similar systems, but also to white balance and flash metering as well -- allowing the camera to ensure proper flash exposure and pleasing flesh tones. Also, the Sony H3 includes Sony's Bionz image processor -- first seen in the company's Alpha dSLRs -- which the company says will offer improved image quality, faster response times, and better battery life in its compact cameras.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 ships in black from early September 2007 and is priced at U.S.$300.
Sony H3 User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Sony's H-Series is the company's stable of long zoom thoroughbreds. The H1 was launched in early 2005 with the H2 and H5 following in Spring 2006. When I reviewed the H5 last year, I complained that it was awkward to use but took marvelous pictures.
The 2007 H-Series is completely redesigned. The Sony H3 is probably the most radical member of the series. Gone is the electronic viewfinder and the LCD has shrunk from 3.0 to 2.5 inches. That, along with a move to lithium-ion power from AA power has made the Sony H3 a much smaller camera.
That's good because you'll want to take the Sony H3 with you everywhere, particularly to sporting events.
A long zoom is essential for shooting sports. Turn the television to any sporting event and you'll see the pros shooting with what look like telescopes. Even from the sidelines of a grade school soccer match, though, you need a long zoom. The Sony H3 has just the reach you need. Its reach at the equivalent of 380mm is serious fun, and you can double that at full resolution and get a crazy 51x zoom if you'll settle for 640x480-pixel image.
Focus is also an issue in trying to track fast-moving athletes. The Sony H3's Sports mode uses a combination of continuous focus and predictive focusing to set focus where the action is, according to Sony. And, of course, the Sony H3 can select a shutter speed as high as 1/2,000 second to stop the action.
This little sibling to the H7 and H9 is great for shooting outdoors, period. And you won't have to take out a loan to acquire the Sony H3, either.
Look and Feel. While the Sony H3's design is inspired by the mini-SLR school, it's flatter on top and the grip is more of an add-on. That makes it sort of an odd duck to look at but comfortable in the hand.
I liked the both the grip and the heft of the Sony H3. The grip actually has a little breathing room between it and the lens, making it comfortable to hold. And the Sony H3 weighs a bit less than average for its class, so you won't get tired holding it (sporting events require a lot of holding and just a little shooting). It comes with a nice shoulder strap but you should find a bag to transport it.
Also included with the Sony H3 is a lens adapter and a lens hood to shade the lens when shooting into the sun. The lens adapter is required for the optional 0.7x wide angle converter and the 1.7x telephoto converter. You also need the lens adapter to attach the hood and the combination blocks the light from the Sony H3's flash. Not a big deal indoors, since you rarely need a hood when shooting with flash, but good to know when shooting outdoors with fill flash. The adapter also accepts 58mm screw-on filters.
The Sony H3's controls are really minimal and easy to find. So you won't have to remember much from one session to another. On the top panel, the small but functional Power button sits flush behind the large Shutter button. A Mode dial occupies the rear corner of the top panel, making your options easy to find.
On the Sony H3's back panel, zoom is controlled by a rocker switch and the four-way navigator with arrow buttons that also control what you see on the display, the flash mode, Macro mode and the self-timer sits in the corner to the right of the Menu and Home buttons that give you access to the LCD menu options.
Right behind the popup flash is the Playback button. You can press this to turn on the Sony H3 without extending the lens, but you have to hit the Power button to turn it off.
You do all your framing with the Sony H3's 2.5-inch LCD. With just 115,000 pixels, text isn't displayed very smoothly, but it works fine. There's no optical viewfinder and no electronic viewfinder either, but that just helps hold the cost down.
The Sony H3's LCD, like all LCDs, is a very accurate viewfinder, however. At wide angle it shows 102.6 percent of the scene. At telephoto it shows exactly 100 percent.
Despite its shiny surface, I was able to use the Sony H3's LCD in direct sun, something I can't say about many LCDs these days.
The Sony H3's 10x optical zoom lens starts out at 38mm, not really wide enough for cramped quarters. This isn't the camera for real estate agents. But at telephoto it gets to 380mm, just what you need to isolate someone across the field. Add 2.0x digital zoom and you're looking at 760mm.
And Sony is smart enough to include its excellent SteadyShot optical image stabilization on the Sony H3 so you don't get blurry shots handholding the camera at those extreme telephoto focal lengths.
Interface. The H3 uses Sony's new menu system, which is not my idea of a good time.
Setup functions are accessible by pressing the Home key. You can get to the Shooting or Playback modes (including Sony's sophisticated slide show mode), access the Printing or Music Tool, Manage the Sony H3's Memory (internal and card) or adjust the Settings (Main Settings, Shooting Settings, Clock Settings, and Language Settings).
Pressing the Sony H3's Menu key in a shooting mode brings up Image Size, Bracketing, Color Mode, ISO, Metering mode, Focus, EV, White Balance, Red-eye reduction, Contrast, Sharpness, SteadyShot, and Setup options if the mode supports them.
In Playback mode, the Sony H3's Menu button presents the following options: Delete, Slide Show, Retouch, Protect, DPOF, Print, Rotate, Select Folder.
Modes. Shooting modes include Auto, Programmed Auto, Manual, Scene, Landscape, Twilight Portrait, Advanced Sports Shooting, Soft Snap (blurred background), and High Sensitivity. Other Scene modes include Twilight, Beach, Snow, and Fireworks.
Movie modes on the Sony H3 include MPEG VX Fine with audio (640x480 at 30fps), which requires Memory Stick PRO DUO media), MPEG VX Standard with audio (640x480 at 16.6fps), and Presentation Mode (320x240 at 8.3fps).
The real prize in these is Advanced Sports Shooting. It combines fast shutter speeds with continuous focus and predictive focus to capture athletes in action. We didn't actually test this mode on the Sony H3, however, so we're not sure that it would serve, but the combination of a long zoom, fast shutter speeds, Super SteadyShot and high ISO mean you should be able to get some good shots if you practice and take a lot of pictures. All sports shooting takes time and experience, so don't just take one shot and put the camera back in its bag. The Sony H3 has what it takes to fill your frame with the athlete, but you have to do the rest.
Special Features. Among the Sony H3's finer virtues are the collection of imaging technologies Sony has slipped into its 2007 lineup. Those include its Bionz processor, face detection technology, High ISO, Super SteadyShot, in-camera editing, and HD output signal. They're worth examining in depth.
Bionz. Sony's 2007 lineup profits enormously from the Bionz image processor descended from the one in Sony's Alpha dSLR. It's responsible for some improvements most of us take for granted with every new generation like faster image processing and quicker response times, but it goes quite a bit further. It's also one reason the Sony H3 rates 330 shots per charge rather than a more typical 250.
Enabled by Bionz, the Sony H3's D-Range (Dynamic Range) Optimizer captures a wider density range than normal, holding highlights while bringing out details in the shadows.
See the Gallery shots under the Samples tab to draw your own conclusions. Take a close look at the pink Begonia shot. That's the kind of subject that typically gets blown out, but in the Sony H3's shot, it holds onto quite a bit of color and even some detail in the highlights. At the same time, the dark leaves have quite a bit of shadow detail, too. That's the Sony H3's Bionz at work.
Face Detection. Sony's version of face detection is quick, finding as many as eight human faces in the frame. It looks for a combination of eyes, nose and mouth so only heads facing you are identifiable. No pets either.
Available in Auto and Portrait modes, the Sony H3's Face Detection controls more than focus, extending its reach to exposure control, white balance adjustment, and flash control. That's more important than it may sound. Finding the faces to focus is a pretty clear benefit, but controlling the flash so it illuminates them both at that distance and for that subject is a big help, as is the white balance adjustment. Even more so is adding that information to the Sony H3's exposure calculation. Think of all those brightly lit landscapes that don't expose the people close to the camera. Now your camera, detecting the faces, will expose for them rather than the blue sky behind them.
High ISO, Super SteadyShot. With optical image stabilization, you don't have to resort to flash when the light is low. And when IS isn't enough, the Sony H3 lets you crank up the sensor's gain control (raise the ISO), which you do at the expense of adding a little noise to your image.
Sony is to be applauded for including both options in its 2007 lineup. The Sony H3 has 10x optical zoom that can get to 20x zoom at full resolution or 51x with digital zoom at a VGA image size, so it really needs image stabilization for long zoom in daylight. But even for low-light situations, it's indispensable. Super SteadyShot can allow you to hand-hold the Sony H3 at low ISO settings to get both good detail and good color.
Our low light shots in the Gallery include a series of stick shift images both Auto (ISO 125) and from ISO 400 to 3,200. The thumbnails are remarkably consistent in color. But if you study them you'll see that the detail starts to disappear as the ISO increases. At ISO 3,200, the Sony H3 used a 1/80 second shutter speed. But relying on Super SteadyShot, I was able to shoot as low as 1/20 second (far below the reliable 1/60 second hand-held limit) at ISO 800, with a much better result. The ISO 400 shot, taken at 1/10 second was slightly soft due to motion blur.
Still, there are times when you have to crank up the ISO. The Sony H3 will still deliver good color and you can smooth away much of the noise in post-processing if it bothers you.
That's our one disappointment with the Sony H3's image quality, however. Sony tends to prefer to hang on to the color while letting the detail dissolve away. Again, the full-resolution gallery shots show you what we mean.
In-camera retouching. In-camera image editing is another trick Sony has added to its 2007 lineup. It can automatically detect and remove red-eye, a real blessing if you're printing flash shots directly from the camera at a party, say.
The Sony H3's other editing tools are a lot of fun too. With the Partial Color option you can pinpoint an object in your scene to hold its color and watch as the Sony H3 turns everything else into monochrome. Then you can use the Zoom lever to expand or contract the color effect; great for images of flowers.
You can also apply a fish-eye lens effect with nine levels of control or blur the periphery with five levels. These modes on the Sony H3 aren't just fun, but they can minimize composition problems, too.
Storage and Battery. The Sony H3 has 31MB internal memory but you'll want to pick up a big Memory Stick PRO DUO for it as well. The faster PRO DUO will keep up with the Sony H3's higher quality Movie mode. Just make sure you also get an adapter with it so you can use the smaller DUO where larger Memory Sticks are expected (like many card readers).
The average file size of Large/Fine images was 3,303K with a 7.3 compression factor. Many of the gallery shots came in under 2.5MB, however.
The Sony H3 is powered by a 3.6V, 960 mAh lithium-ion battery rated for 330 shots according to CIPA standards. I never ran out of power on my outings or afterwards while looking over the shots on the camera. An optional power adapter is available that plugs into the side of the Sony H3, but you don't really need it.
Shooting. Both startup and shutdown times were above average for a long zoom digicam and I really wasn't bothered by either. The Sony H3's autofocus lag ranked average, but there's a very large difference between wide angle and telephoto performance. Wide angle autofocus lag was a stunning 0.31s, which is nearly dSLR performance. Telephoto was less than spectacular, however, taking 1.36 seconds to acquire and shoot.
Don't let that bother you, though. If you remember the old prefocus trick of holding down the shutter button, you'll be back in dSLR territory; faster in fact. The Sony H3's lag is just 0.08 second when prefocused.
Cycle time at 0.51 second was above average for a large/fine image shot in continuous mode, so you can catch the action.
In Macro mode the Sony H3 was able to focus down to a 1.26 x 0.95-inch area. But you can't use the flash. The extended lens casts a shadow over the subject as our Macro Flash test shot demonstrates, which you can see under the Exposure tab.
Our Flash tests at ISO 100 only run to 16 feet. Sony claims the Cyber-shot H3 can reach 23 and in our Manufacturer Flash Test it does indeed, but at ISO 500. Still, that's quite a range; and it's also the reason it takes 10 seconds for the flash to recycle.
Our low light tests were also impressive, showing only a slight dropoff at ISO 100 and 0.67 lux.
HD Output. Sony touts the H3 as an HD camera, but that moniker really refers just to the 1080i output signal for stills. The Sony H3 doesn't take HD resolution movies (either 1080 or 720). In fact, Sony doesn't even supply a cable with the H3 to connect it to your HD television - that's optional.
Image Quality. Our ISO 100 Still Life test shot is stunning, showing excellent color and great detail. Again the Bionz processor is hard at work, holding detail in the Hellas label so you can see it's a mosaic while showing the threads in the white cloth beneath the dark coffee cup in the lower right corner.
The only image that disappointed me in the gallery was the bright red flower (YDSC00717). The red is really unnatural, far too saturated. The Sony H3 had a problem with reds.
While our Multi Target test shot shows chromatic aberration in the corners and across the frame at telephoto, resolution is sharp to about 1,500 lines both horizontally and vertically.
Appraisal. The Sony H3 has a lot of what most folks a looking for in a digital camera. It's relatively small, has a long zoom bolstered by image stabilization, has the options of Manual, Auto, or several full-auto modes, and is pretty simple to use. Our most important measure these days is how well the images print, and the Sony H3 gets a very high score, with the ability to capture ISO 100 images that print very well at 13x19 inches. Even ISO 3,200 images shot in daylight balanced light are usable at 4x6; otherwise, we recommend you stick to ISO 1,600. Prefocus shutter lag is just astonishingly fast, making the Sony H3 a good choice for kid photos. At wide angle, autofocus is fast, but that story changes a lot at telephoto, so make sure to prefocus when shooting long shots. Overall, if you like this size of camera, you'll be rewarded with some of the best shots you can get from a small Sony camera.
- 10x optical zoom, 38-380mm 35mm equivalent
- Up to 51X Smart Zoom (20x at full resolution)
- Maximum aperture: f/3.5-4.4
- Compact design for a long zoom, although not the smallest
- 8.1 megapixel Super HAD CCD
- 2.5-inch LCD Screen
- Nine-Point Auto Focus
- Advanced Sports Mode uses predictive focus control with continuous AF and up to 1/2,000 sec. shutter speed
- Face Detection-2 recognizes up to 8 faces and controls focus, exposure, color, and flash in Auto or Portrait mode
- HD output with optional component cable
- HD slide show with music
- Powerful flash to illuminate subjects up to 23 feet away
- Super SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilization
- High Sensitivity Mode up to ISO 3,200 with Sony's original Clear Raw Noise Reduction
- D-Range optimization
- In-camera retouching
- In-camera red-eye reduction
- 31MB internal memory
- Broadcast quality Movie mode
- Stamina battery power provides up to 330 shots
In the Box
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 ships with the following items in the box:
- Rechargeable Battery - NP-BG1
- Battery Charger - BC-CSG/CSGB/CSGC
- Multi Connector Cable - USB, AV
- Power Cord
- Shoulder strap
- Lens Cap
- Lens Cap Strap
- Lens Hood
- Lens Adaptor Ring
- CD-ROM Software
Note: No Memory Stick DUO media or adaptors are included.
- Large capacity Memory Stick PRO DUO. Memory Stick PRO versions can handle high-res movie data and give faster download times. They should be used for all current Sony cameras. These days, 1GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity, but if you plan to capture many movie clips, 2-4GB should be a minimum.
- Small camera case like the LCS-CSH soft carrying case for outdoor and in-bag protection
- 0.7x wide angle converter (VCL-DH0758)
- 1.7x telephoto converter (VCL-DH1758)
When a camera like the Sony H3 comes into a crowd of photography enthusiasts like we have here at Imaging-Resource.com, the question is, "Is that a camera I can carry when I don't want to schlep my SLR?" Well, while most of us can't stand the Sony H3's Home menu, we have to admit that it's a nice lens and that its printed results are quite good. The large lens shade is a bit off-putting, taking up more space in a bag than the camera itself. But overall, the Sony H3 is a nice little camera that will deliver good shots in most lighting situations, and its extra features and extra fast pre-focus shutter lag are just enough to serve as a quality snapshot camera. However, its increased chromatic aberration at telephoto that runs across the entire frame, plus the limitation of only two aperture settings might prevent most picky SLR shooters from thinking of the Sony H3 has a true SLR replacement.
As a quality digital camera for the everyday shooter, however, the Sony H3 offers a lot. A 10x zoom in a small package is always welcome; and it comes with the image stabilization it needs to get the long shots. Face detection and lots of ISO headroom mean you'll be able to take better photos of friends and family with and without flash in more places. Though there are a few foibles that might not make the Sony H3 for you in particular (see the Pro/Con list above), we still see the Sony H3 as a great camera that's worthy of a Dave's Pick.