by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 06/19/08
The Sony H50 offers a sensor resolution of nine megapixels along with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar branded 15x optical zoom lens that includes Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization. Other H50 features include ISO sensitivity from ISO 80 to 3,200, a not-so-generous 15MB of internal memory, and a large 3.0", tilting LCD display with 230,000 pixels.
The Sony DSC-H50 uses contrast detection autofocusing, with face detection, nine focusing points, and an AF assist lamp to help out in difficult lighting conditions. Exposures are determined with multi-pattern metering by default, and both center-weighted or spot metering modes are also on offer. As well as the internal memory, a Memory Stick Duo slot (compatible with PRO Duo cards as well) lets you expand capacity to meet your needs. Power for the H50 is provided by a proprietary NP-BG1 lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
The Sony Cyber-shot H50 has a suggested retail price of US$400, but can be found for quite a bit less via the shopping links above right or below.
by Mike Pasini
The Sony H50 is the latest in Sony's line of long zoom digital cameras, with a small, stout body and an SLR-like appearance. Its 15x reach is not quite state of the art, with cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, and Fujifilm offering 18x and 20x optical zooms, but it's in the ballpark.
Long zooms like the Sony Cyber-shot H50 are bulkier than the slip-in-your pocket ultracompacts, but they're built to get you comfortably close to wildlife and sports action, something no cute digital camera can do. Their big tech hurdle has always been focusing speed, reflected in shutter lag. At telephoto focal lengths it can take any camera a while to find focus. When your subject is not inclined to sit still (like a hummingbird), that can make things pretty frustrating.
Sony brings some interesting technology to the Cyber-shot H50, including its Nightshot infrared mode (a lot of wildlife prefers the night scene) and Super SteadyShot to stabilize the image at long focal lengths.
This year the Sony H50 adds some new tricks to its bag. Those include improved face detection of up to eight faces with child/adult priority and Smile Shutter mode which can trip the shutter as soon as a smile, grin, or laugh is detected. Okay, not particularly relevant to wildlife, but not to be missed, either.
DRO Plus mode has also been added to the Sony H50 along with intelligent scene mode, which can detect low light, backlight, and whether or not a human face is included to determine which of several scene modes to use among Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight using a tripod. The Cyber-shot H50 can also immediately take a second shot with optimized rather than standard settings.
A few other technologies worth highlighting in the Sony H50 are Sony's new "real" color mode, which skips a lot of the Bionz processing and Easy shooting mode, which has been inherited from the company's Handycams, increasing font size and simplifying vocabulary as well as camera options.
The Sony H50's autofocus now understands when to slip into Macro mode, so you don't have to remember.
Sony has also devoted some resources on organizing images so they can be more easily retrieved on today's larger memory cards. You can view your images by date, face or no face, smile or not, adults, children, etc. You can even organize your images in the Sony H50 in up to six groups of favorites.
If a long zoom is on your short list, the Sony H50 offers some enticing features. Let's see how they measure up.
Look and Feel. While it looks like a heavy-duty digital SLR in pictures, the Sony H50 is actually a pretty compact digital camera, easily handled with just your right hand. In fact, there's nothing for your left hand to do. Zooming, which you usually do with your left hand on a digital SLR, is handled by a Zoom lever on the top right of the back panel.
I much prefer a Zoom ring around the Shutter button but on the Sony H50 the Shutter button is at the forward sloping top end of the very comfortable grip. As comfortable as the grip is, it isn't wrapped around four heavy AA batteries, but a lightweight lithium-ion cell like any compact digital camera, so the camera itself is not heavy.
The Sony H50's Metering and Shutter Release buttons are located just to the rear of the Shutter button, and right behind them is the Mode dial with 12 options. Those begin with the standard Program, Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes. Then there's the standard green Auto mode joined by a new Easy Shooting mode. High Sensitivity, Smile Shutter, Portrait, and Advanced Sport modes are followed by Scene mode and finally by Movie mode.
To the left of the Mode dial, the elongated Power button is highlighted with a green LED when the camera is on. Since you can toggle between the LCD and the Electronic Viewfinder, that's particularly handy, since you may not realize the camera is still on when you're using the EVF.
On the other side of the Sony H50's viewfinder, the Nightshot switch stands alone.
The back panel holds the Finder/LCD button to toggle between the LCD and the EVF on the left. A Presentation button sits next to the Sony H50's Playback button which is just to the left of the Zoom lever.
The four-way navigator with what Sony calls a Wheel Dial is right of the 3.0-inch LCD. A Menu button is above the Sony H50's navigator and a Home button below it.
In addition to those controls, there's a DC-In port on the top right side of the Sony H50 and Sony's proprietary connection for AV and USB on the bottom left side.
A metal tripod socket is under the Cyber-shot H50, off-center and close to the battery/memory card compartment. A speaker is hidden behind the LCD which snaps out from the bottom to tilt up or down from a hinge on the top (you cannot swing the LCD to the left or right, though). There's also a microphone left of the lens housing on the front.
The Sony H50 comes with a plastic lens adapter ring that screws onto the body, and to which you can snap on a petal-shaped lens hood. I put that on and left it on, even though it was awkward to reach inside the hood to put the lens cap on. The Sony H50's lens itself does extend (knocking off the cap) when you turn on the camera.
The Sony H50 is a handsome camera but it has some irksome design issues. The shoulder strap easily twisted into near basketry thanks to the unrestricted swiveling eyelets. And the lens cap was a nuisance, flapping around on its tether.
Worse, though, was the Zoom lever, which required some touch to control. It doesn't have much travel, which is great for zooming close-in quickly, but lousy for fine-tuning composition.
But the single worst physical feature of the Sony Cyber-shot H50 is the new Wheel Dial. It's simply an outer ring surrounding the navigator, which itself is a ring, a good bit wider than the wheel. Inside the navigator is a small OK button. It's very difficult to control any one of these three controls without bumping one of the others.
Moving the thin wheel to change a setting often takes you off the setting because you end up accidentally pressing the navigator. And when you do manage to get where you want to get, the Sony H50's OK button is so small that trying to confirm a setting or selection often takes you to another selection or setting because you have hit the navigator rather than the OK button.
And the bad news is that essential controls like EV compensation can be set nowhere else on the camera except by using the Wheel Dial.
Unfortunately, I'm not merely quibbling. I found the Wheel Dial unbearable to use.
Lens. The Cyber-shot H50's Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 15x optical zoom (with 2.0x digital zoom) has a focal length of 31-465mm. It has 13 elements in 8 groups (including one ED glass element and four aspheric elements). Shutter speeds of 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second are available (although various modes restrict one end or the other of that) to complement the aperture range of f/2.7 to f/8 at wide angle and f/4.5 to f/8 at telephoto. Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization is also built into the Sony H50.
The Sony H50's multiconnector supports USB 2.0 and 1080i HD video output. From our lab tests, it appears USB support is High-Speed (the fastest variant).
Interface. With the Sony H50's Home and Menu buttons, it may not be immediately clear what the Menu system hierarchy is. Home is the top of the hierarchy where you can setup camera behavior for Record mode, Playback mode, Slideshows, Printing, Memory Management (both built-in and cards) and general settings (for Main Settings, Shooting Settings, Clock Settings, and Language Settings).
Frankly, that arrangement never made sense to me. There are three Shooting Menu settings on the Sony H50: the Record settings, the Setup Shooting option and the Menu when you are actually in Record mode. What's the difference?
The first Shooting menu (which I've called Record mode) simply takes you to Record mode. Nothing to set up from the Home menu. The Shooting mode in the Setup option of the Home menus is to set options like AF Illuminator, Grid Line, AF Mode, Digital Zoom, Conversion Lens, Flash Sync., Auto Orientation, Auto Review and Expanded Focus (enlarging the center of the image during manual focus). And here again, knowing when to use the Wheel and when the navigator is not obvious, but still required (press the wrong one and you're out of the game; you have to back up or start over).
You press the Sony H50's Menu button to affect settings peculiar to that operational mode. I wanted to enable Real color to see what this new feature offered. So I pressed Menu in Record mode (I happened to be in Manual on the Mode dial, and that matters, too) and found Color Mode on the list of options which runs top to bottom over several screens -- but does wrap back around, fortunately.
So, for the most part, you visit Home when you are first setting up your camera and once you've gotten acquainted, you don't need it much more. But Menu is something you might visit frequently (any time you don't like what's going on).
Modes. There are two main Auto modes on the Cyber-shot H50: green Auto and Easy Shooting. Green Auto lets you set image Size, Face Detection, Scene Recognition, and Red-Eye Reduction. Easy Shooting uses very large type to offer only two options on the Menu: Image Size (Large or Small) and Flash (Off or Auto).
The Sony H50's traditional PASM modes are next. Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, and Manual Exposure all rely on the Wheel to select either the settable option or EV compensation. When the option you want to change is highlighted in yellow, you press OK to activate it and again use the Wheel to change the value.
Special modes on the Sony H50's Mode dial include High Sensitivity, Smile Shutter, Portrait, and Advanced Sports Shooting. High Sensitivity uses ISO 3,200 to shoot effectively in low light without flash while the Sony Clear Raw Noise Reduction system helps suppress the color noise that can degrade low-light shots.
Smile Shutter detects smiles and captures them immediately. The mode can be set to capture when your subject laughs, smiles or even grins, and (like Face Detection) is able to differentiate children and adults to set priority.
Advanced Sports Shooting simply selects a higher ISO more readily than other modes to freeze action and prevent blur. It automatically uses the Sony H50's Auto Focus to analyze subject motion and predict the next move while the shutter button is halfway pressed. A high shutter speed (up to 1/4,000 sec.) freezes the subject even if it is moving at high speed.
The Sony H50's Scene modes add special camera setups for Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Snow, and Fireworks.
Movie mode can capture MPEG VX Fine (640x480 at 30fps) with a Memory Stick DUO PRO, MPEG VX Standard (640x480 at 16fps), or Presentation Mode (320x240 at 8.3fps). Optical Zoom is available during movie recording.
While not, properly speaking, a mode, the Sony H50's Nightshot option is really a treat. I was able to get a clear shot of a dark corner of the closet I haven't seen in years. Fortunately nothing was growing there.
In-Camera editing options include Red-eye correction, Soft focus, Partial color filter, Fish-eye filter lens, Cross filter, Retro, Radial blur, Unsharp masking, and Happy face.
The Sony H50 includes a small remote control that can be used to operate the camera in either Record or Playback modes. It's particularly handy for firing the shutter without touching the camera in Record mode. And in Playback mode, it will be welcome when you connect the camera to a TV to display your images.
Storage and Battery. The Sony H50 ships with a 3.6V, 960 mAh lithium ion battery (NP-BG1). CIPA battery life rating is 300 shots with the LCD, and 330 with the EVF. In my use of the camera over a couple of weeks, I only charged it once.
The 15MB built-in memory isn't very generous, considering you can only fit about four 3,456 x 2,592 pixel Large/Fine images in there, but you'll be relying on a Memory Card Duo (and most likely a Duo Pro) anyway. The Sony H50 can handle cards up to 16GB capacity, although it does not support the Access Control security function.
Performance. Compared to other long zooms, the Sony H50 scored mostly Average and Above Average marks.
Startup was average at three seconds. It takes a while for any long zoom to extend and the Cyber-shot H50 was no exception. Shutdown was also average at 2.5 seconds. Neither of those scores were particularly notable.
Where it counts, the Sony H50 was above average. Its 0.699 second combined wide angle and telephoto autofocus lag and 0.008 prefocus lag were both better than average. When you're trying to capture wildlife or sports, those are the two numbers that really count.
While I usually report the combined shutter lag speeds, long zooms require a closer look at their telephoto lag, which can be significantly longer than the lag experienced at wide angle. Telephoto shutter lag is simply far more important in a long zoom than wide angle. And in that regard, as is typical, the Sony H50's telephoto autofocus lag was slower at 0.875 second, compared to wide angle at 0.522 second.
In the field, I found it frustrating to wait for focusing so I always prefocused by half-pressing the Shutter button, as I do for any long zoom racked out to its full telephoto focal length.
Cycle time for a large/fine images in continuous mode was about average at 0.61 second per frame.
Flash cycle time was a below-average 10.3 seconds, but the Sony H50 has a powerful flash, reaching further than any compact digital camera flash. So don't let that number bother you.
USB download speeds from the cabled camera to a computer were a stellar 10,075.7 Kb/s, clearly indicative of USB 2.0 Hi-Speed.
The 3.0-inch LCD is the largest on a long zoom, but the 15x optical zoom is a bit short of the 18x standard set by Sony's competitors.
Weight ranks about average at 15.59 ounces fully loaded with battery and a card.
That's a good report card and it was reflected in my actual shooting experience. The Sony H50 was easy to power up and was responsive. The Zoom lever was the one hitch in composing our shots, but once trained on a subject, the Sony H50 made it easy to catch the action.
Image Quality. Generally speaking, the Sony H50's lens showed the same sort of faults any long zoom suffers. Both barrel and pincushion distortion were high, and chromatic aberration was high at both wide angle and telephoto; typical long zoom lens traits. Though corners were relatively sharp, there was a large soft spot just right of center that was better or worse depending on the subject. Large, high contrast areas, like the black and white areas of our test targets weren't as soft as the subject in our Still Life target, which may have been due to a lens anomaly at that focal length, or strong noise processing in a given area.
Digital zoom (which all the surfer shots are) was better than most but still not quite as nice as I'd hoped. You're never close enough to the action, but I was pretty far away from the surfers and still got medium close shots -- detail I could not see with the naked eye.
Resolution was very good, though, at about 1,500 lines both horizontally and vertically. And color was good, oversaturating the reds and blues quite a bit (but that probably wasn't Real color mode). The Sony H50 captured a lot of fine detail with good overall sharpness, but the effects of noise suppression randomly soften lower contrast and fine detailed elements.
Noise was an issue at ISO 400 and noticeable even at ISO 200. Color held up through ISO 800 but took on a dark green cast at ISO 1,600 and 3,200. Printed results followed a typical pattern, but started at a lower size than average for 8 to 10-megapixel cameras. ISO 80 shots were good when printed at 11x14, but too soft at 13x19. The soft spot on the right of the image, as described above, affected the image down to 5x7, but was only noticeable at 4x6 on close inspection. ISO 3,200 shots were soft and faded, but still usable at 3,200, provided you like the subdued appearance.
The Sony H50's low-light performance was very good, capturing reasonably bright images even at the test's lowest light level and the camera's lowest ISO sensitivity.
It's asking the impossible of a small built-in flash to cover the range of the Sony H50's lens. So noting slightly uneven coverage at wide angle and dark images after 8 feet at ISO 100 is no surprise. ISO 320 at telephoto gets you out to 18 feet, just as Sony claims. That's a pretty good range with a reasonable tradeoff.
Our Still Life Test shows the blurring on the right side of the image with sharper detail in the center. Note the blurry WhiBal at the top center and the sharp Hellas label mosaics. What often looks like blur at the outer edges is heavy chromatic aberration that mostly affects the blue channel, causing quite a smudging effect in some subjects.
There is very little blooming of the highlights as evidenced by the Samuel Smith white label on the dark bottle, something I also noticed in my hydrant gallery shot. The Bionz processor seems to do a particularly good job at containing the highlights.
You do see the chromatic aberration in the white linen under the brown coffee cup, however. Much of the softness can be attributed to the chromatic aberration.
As for noise, take a look at the gallery shot of the Mercedes wheel. Color is well-rendered, particularly the weeds, which have a natural look to me rather than the oversaturated green I expect. Highlights are again well contained in the wheel; but notice, at full resolution, the noise in the tire itself. That's at ISO 200 and while not objectionable, there's no denying it.
The stick shift knob at ISO 400 enjoys good, accurate color and the noise seems fairly well contained in this macro shot. There seems to be a lot more noise in the shot of the gauges and keys, particularly in the gauge faces. But again, I don't find that objectionable.
Appraisal. While not the longest of the long zooms, the Sony H50 does provide above average autofocus performance, critical in this application, with a competent Carl Zeiss lens. Image quality can be deceiving, revealing defects on close examination that aren't apparent at normal viewing distances. Unfortunately the Achilles heel of the Sony H50 is its Wheel Dial and small OK button in the center of the four-way navigator. It's an essential but nearly unusable control. Overall, the Sony H50 is an average performer, with good but not excellent image quality. The build and screen are quite good, but the interface and optical and sensor performance are not as good as they could be. It's possible we got a defective sample, of course, and the good news about the distortion that bothered us is that it is fairly close to the outer edge of the frame.
Sony H50 Basic Features
- 9.1-megapixel sensor
- 15.00x optical zoom lens (31-465mm 35mm equivalent)
- Electronic Viewfinder
- 3.0-inch, tilting LCD
- 15MB internal memory
- ISO sensitivity from 80 to 3,200
- Shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second
- Max Aperture of f/2.7 at wide angle
- MS Duo/MS PRO Duo memory card support
- Custom lithium-ion battery
Sony H50 Special Features
- Face detection technology for focus and exposure
- Smile Shutter technology to capture smiles, laughs and grins
- Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization
- High Sensitivity mode of ISO 3,200
- Intelligent scene recognition for Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight using a Tripod with either automatic settings or optimized settings.
- Bionz image processor
- Dynamic Range Optimization Standard and Plus
- Nightshot infrared system
- Advanced Sports Shooting mode using AF to analyze subject motion, predict the next move while shutter is half-pressed and more readily use a high shutter speed (up to 1/4,000 sec.).
- Long distance flash
- Automatic Macro shooting
- Built-in color filters
- Real color mode to minimize in-camera processing
- Remote control
In the Box
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 ships with the following items in the box:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50 body
- Lens adapter ring
- Lens hood
- Lens cap and strap
- Shoulder strap
- Lithium-ion battery NP-BG1
- Battery charger BC-CSG
- Combo AV/USB cable
- Remote control RMT-DSC2
- User Guide (presumably)
- Warranty and Registration forms
- CD with Windows Picture Motion Browser Version 2.0 and USB Driver
No Memory Stick PRO 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, 2-4GB cards are affordable and maximize the capabilities of higher resolution digital cameras.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection like the Sony LCS-HD Soft H-Series carrying case for $49.99
Sony H50 Conclusion
There's a lot to like about the Sony H50. It fits the hand very well and isn't heavy enough to fatigue even a delicate wrist. It has a number of shooting modes to capitalize on its 15x optical zoom and fast shutter. Its one-button access to its slideshow mode is handy, especially considering how good the slideshows can be. Prefocus shutter lag is quick enough to keep up with the action at a blazing 0.008 second. The large LCD tilts so you can see what you're doing in a crowd, and the Night Shot mode makes seeing in the dark as easy as flipping a switch.
But there was one flaw that makes using the camera in the field very difficult, particularly since there's no way around it for setting essential camera options like EV compensation. That's the Wheel Dial. I found it impossible to navigate to options, select them, and change their values without accidentally leaving the menu altogether. Adding the image quality problems makes the Sony H50 hard to recommend as highly as we'd like. Were the performance of the outer 20% of the lens as good as the center, and indeed as good as the corners, we'd be more likely to give the Sony H50 a Dave's Pick despite the interface difficulties. But some strange interaction between the lens's pronounced chromatic aberration and anti-noise processing significantly degrades image quality at the far right in our sample enough that we advise caution. If the Sony H50's other features are good enough that you won't mind a little blurring at the outer edges, something that is common among long zoom digicams, give it a go; but be sure to take a few test shots to make sure you're happy with the unit you get.
The Sony H50 does offer a lot of nice features, with a good zoom range and a very big LCD, just know that the interface may take a little time to get used to.