Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55
by Greg Scoblete and Stephanie Boozer
Review Date: 05/25/2010
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 digital camera is a 14.1-megapixel camera with a 10x optical zoom lens. The Sony H55's lens carries the same Sony G branding as the company's digital SLR lenses, an indication of its confidence in the lens's optical performance. Actual focal lengths vary from 4.25mm to 42.5mm, equivalent to a range of 25 to 250mm in still image mode. This equates to everything from a generous wide-angle to a very useful telephoto. When shooting high-def movies, the sensor crop raises the effective focal lengths to a range of 30 to 300mm, and for standard-def movies the range is equivalent to 36 to 360mm.
The Sony H55 has a two-step aperture, which varies from f/3.5 to f/5.5 across the zoom range. At wide-angle the alternate aperture is f/8.0, and the lens also includes a built-in neutral density filter. To help combat blur from camera shake, the Sony DSC-H55's lens includes an optical stabilization mechanism which works in concert with a built-in gyro sensor to detect and correct for camera motion. As with certain of Sony's other recent Cyber-shot cameras, the stabilization function works with up to 10x increased power in movie mode, which is one reason the focal range is shifted in movie mode.
As is sadly the norm for most compact cameras these days, the Sony Cyber-shot H55 doesn't include any form of optical or electronic viewfinder. Instead, Sony has opted for a 3-inch Clear Photo LCD display with a resolution of 230,000 dots, roughly equating to a resolution of 320 x 240 dots with three dots per color. A nine-point autofocus system includes face detection capability, and can recognize up to eight faces in a scene. The face detection function can be disabled if desired, and can also be programmed to give priority to either adult or child faces. The AF system can also operate in either center-weighted or spot-AF modes.
ISO sensitivity in the Sony DSC-H55 ranges from 80 to 3,200 equivalents, and exposures are calculated using multi-pattern, center-weighted, or spot metering. 2.0EV of exposure compensation is available in 1/3EV increments, and to help with capturing contrasty scenes, the Sony H55 includes Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer function. DRO can be disabled or set to operate with one of two strength levels. Nine white balance settings are available, including Auto, Manual, and seven presets. Shutter speeds vary from 1/1,600 to two seconds controlled automatically, or as long as 30 seconds controlled manually. Burst shooting is possible for up to four shots at full resolution, with a rate of 1.84 frames per second. A built-in, four-mode flash operates to a maximum range of 13.5 feet at wide-angle, or 8.5 feet at telephoto, using the ISO Auto mode.
As well as still images, the Sony H55 can capture either high-definition 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) or standard definition VGA (640 x 480 pixel) video at a frame rate of 29.97 frames per second. Movies are saved with MP4 compression, and include monaural audio. The Cyber-shot H55 also includes a sweep panorama function that can capture up to 100 shots automatically by simply sweeping the camera across the scene, and then stitch these, in the camera, into a single image with up to a 244 degree field of view. A Self Portrait Timer mode allows the photographer to get into the picture before the shutter is automatically triggered, and a Smile Shutter function ensures everybody is smiling before the shutter fires.
The Sony H55 stores images on Secure Digital and SDHC cards, but not the newer SDXC types. The Sony H55 is also compatible with Sony's own proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo cards, and includes 45MB of built-in memory, enough to provide for a few of the most important photos should you accidentally leave your flash card at home. Power comes from a Sony InfoLithium NP-BG1 rechargeable battery, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 is rated as good for around 310 shots on a charge. Connectivity options include both USB 2.0 High-Speed data, as well as standard and component high definition 1080i video output.
The product bundle includes Sony's Picture Motion Browser v5.0 and Picture Motion Browser Portable (5.0 for Windows / 1.1 for Mac OS) applications. Sony also includes a one year limited parts and labor warranty. Pricing for the Sony DSC-H55 is around US$250, and the camera is available in both black and silver versions from April 2010.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55
by Greg Scoblete
The DSC-H55 was one of several new Sony Cyber-shots introduced in February. It borrows its build from the higher-end HX5V, but it trades the HX5V's backlit CMOS in favor of a CCD (1/2.3-inch Super HAD type). While it bumps the still photo resolution up to 14-megapixels, the Sony H55 lowers the HD video recording resolution from the HX5V's 1080i down to 720p. It boasts a 10x optical zoom lens packed snugly into a compact camera body that's 1.1-inches thick.
The Sony H55 takes its place toward the top of the compact Cyber-shot line at a suggested retail price of $250. In some ways it's geared toward enthusiast shutterbugs who want full Manual control; though it's important to note that it lacks aperture and shutter-priority modes, so it only has full Manual mode. The Sony H55 also has an "Easy" mode and Sony's Intelligent Auto thrown in for those desiring a "set it and forget it" experience.
Look and feel. The Sony H55 cuts a fairly workmanlike appearance with a brushed silver exterior and black trim around the perimeter. It's also available in black. It won't win any fashion awards, but it's not unattractive. At 7.0 ounces (198g) with battery and memory card, the Sony H55 has a good heft to it for a compact point-and-shoot; it feels sturdy in your hand. It's certainly not obtrusive when slipped into your pocket or purse (note: I do not wear a purse, but I have it on good authority).
The back of the Sony H55 has a slight indent for your thumb to rest while shooting. Running along the front of the camera is a rounded curve to further improve your grip. So the Sony H55 gets good marks for the ergonomics, if not the aesthetics.
Controls. Sony kept the external controls to a minimum on the H55. Atop the Sony H55 is the Power button with a green LED in the center to indicate when the power's on; the Shutter button, which is nestled inside the Zoom lever; and a Mode dial, which provides access to Scene modes, an Easy shooting mode, Sony's Intelligent Auto, Program, Manual, Sweep panorama, and Movie mode.
Around back, bunched to the right of the 3-inch LCD is a button for Playback, and a four-way controller for changing Display settings, activating Smile shutter, setting the Self timer and adjusting the Flash. Beneath the controller, a pair of buttons let you enter the menu or delete photos.
While the controls are for the most part well situated, twice while shooting my thumb grazed the Playback button, throwing the camera into Playback. Once mindful of the close proximity of my (admittedly over-sized) thumb and the Playback button I was able to avoid any further mishaps. The four way control is also a bit tight, so you'll likely find yourself relying on a fingernail for greater precision.
Lens. The Sony H55 packs a 10x optical zoom (25-250mm, 35mm equivalent) Sony G lens into its svelte midsection. It's a heartening trend to see ever more wide-angle cameras hit the market and the Sony H55's 25mm setting is definitely welcome when shooting stills indoors or in tight spots.
While you'll enjoy 10x magnification while filming movies with the Sony H55, you won't get the full 25mm wide-angle for videos. HD/widescreen movies start with wide-angle at 30mm (out to 300mm at the telephoto end) and 4:3 movies start at a wide-angle of 36mm (out to 360 at tele).
The Sony G lens is comprised of 10 elements in seven groups with four aspherical elements and an aperture range of f/3.5 to f/8 (2-steps) in Manual, Program, and Intelligent Auto. The lens incorporates Sony's Optical SteadyShot stabilization. When shooting videos, you can choose between Normal or Active SteadyShot. In Active, the camera compensates more aggressively for camera shake by moving the internal lens element at a greater range of motion (10 times the normal range, according to Sony).
The Sony H55 has 9-point autofocus with center weighted and spot AF options. You'll also get Macro focusing up to 1.92 inches (5cm) at wide-angle and 3.28 feet (100cm) at telephoto. The Sony H55 enters into Macro focusing automatically, as part of the Intelligent Auto mode, which is a very nice touch.
Modes. You'll find a manageable list of eleven scene modes on the Sony H55 including High-sensitivity, Twilight, Twilight portrait, Soft snap (for portraits with a blurred background), Landscape, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Advanced sports, Gourmet, and Pet.
Set to Intelligent Auto, the Sony H55 can detect up to eight different photographic scenes and set exposure accordingly. An icon on the LCD helpfully alerts you to the mode the camera is operating in.
Face detection in the Sony H55 is capable of finding up to eight faces. It includes Sony's subset of face-oriented features including Child and Adult priority, for determining where you want the camera to prioritize exposure and focusing.
Smile shutter, another face detection derivative, and a Sony favorite, automatically detects when a person is smiling and snaps a photo (you can still snap one ahead of the smile shutter, if you so choose). You can use the dedicated button on the four-way controller to activate smile shutter, while you enter the menu to set the sensitivity: from "slight smile" to "normal smile," all the way to a hearty "big smile." Smile shutter works as advertised and is neat in a gee-whiz sense, but since it's only keying in on one element in the scene (a single, smiling face) I found the technological frisson wore off pretty quickly. However, kids and difficult subjects can get pretty giggly when they realize they can actually control the camera remotely with their smile.
Sweep Panorama, a feature Sony is rolling into more of its cameras this year, lets you easily create panoramic images by following a tiny icon on the screen as you pan the Sony H55. In Sweep Panorama mode you can adjust the direction of your pan (up, down, left, right) choose a standard or wide size, as well as make adjustments to white balance, exposure, metering, and autofocus. Unlike smile shutter, the thrill didn't fade for me with this feature -- unlike some older iterations of in-camera panoramic creation, the Sony H55 doesn't take an interminable period digesting the data and all the stitching is done automatically. You're ready to shoot in seconds after your sweep.
Note that the Sony H55 does not have the Intelligent Sweep Panorama that is present on the HX5V. Intelligent Sweep Panorama compensates for moving objects, like people walking or cars on the street by intelligently including only one image of such detected objects. As such, people and automobiles that are moving while you sweep will appear doubled, tripled, and even repeated dozens of times as you sweep, so you're better confining your Sweep Panoramas to relatively static scenic subjects.
My only problem with the Sony H55's panorama function is that the resulting image detail isn't really sharp at all. It's only good for printing on an 8x10 sheet of paper.
Easy. Sony also offers an Easy mode on the H55, which limits the adjustments you can make while shooting. The "display adjustment" on the four-way controllers gets deactivated, but you can still adjust the Self-timer (but only to 10 seconds), activate or deactivate the flash and activate Smile detection. If you enter the Menu while in Easy, you'll be given the option to adjust image size and (again) to set the flash to automatic, or shut it off. Given that all of the camera's functions are spelled out for you on the LCD, and there's a sophisticated automatic mode, the Easy mode option seems extraneous.
Menu. Sony's icon-driven Menu is easy to navigate and puts the generous space afforded by the 3-inch LCD display to good use. Short, explanatory text accompanies every feature choice, making it easy to grasp what the functions do.
Twist the physical mode dial and a virtual dial will pop up on the display, alerting you to the functions you're about to engage. It's easy to find what you're looking for, but there is a quibble: when you enter into the Settings menu (with the tool box icon), there's no way to jump back to the regular on-screen menu. Instead, you have to exit the menu entirely and then re-enter for making any further adjustments, which is a bit frustrating.
Otherwise, the Settings menu is straightforward, with Tabs on the left and multiple menus in each tab.
Storage and Battery. The Sony H55 comes with a scant 45MB of internal memory to get you started out of the box. In 2010, Sony finally capitulated and incorporated SD memory cards into their cameras and camcorders. They haven't given up on Memory Stick; instead, you'll find the Sony H55 outfitted with a two-in-one card slot. In an otherwise sturdily built compact digicam, the hinged door over the battery and memory card compartment felt remarkably flimsy, like it could easily snap with just a bit of careless pressure. So don't be careless.
On the power side, the Sony H55 takes Sony's InfoLithium battery, which the company rates for 155 minutes or 310 still photos.
The Sony H55 is bundled with the company's cumbersome multi-connector, which includes USB and A/V outputs. You'll have to spring for a composite video cable for viewing your HD videos on the big-screen (sorry, no HDMI either).
Shooting. Most long-zoom digital cameras struggle in the speed department, and the Sony H55 is no different. While it starts up fast enough, I found the Sony H55 a bit sluggish between shots. You can avail yourself of the burst mode, but it too is a bit limited, clicking off four full resolution frames at 1.8fps. With fast-moving children (are there any other kind?) I often found it a struggle to keep pace.
I kept the Sony H55 mostly in Intelligent Auto during a swing through the Museum of Natural History. Some indoor shots took on a noticeably yellow cast (see Gallery) but others were well-exposed. While you can ditch the flash and rely on the high-sensitivity mode, you'll need a very steady hand to avoid blur. After much experimenting, I often opted for the flash, keeping my distance and relying on the 10x lens to bridge the gap. Outdoors, the highlights were often over-exposed, but generally the Sony H55 fared well in the sun.
Shadow light, unfortunately, rendered very cold, and it was difficult to recover colors captured in this light. Even shots at ISO 400 were noisy and overprocessed, limiting print sizes to 8x10 or smaller. Despite capable image stabilization, the Sony H55 is very much a sunlight camera.
HD video recording is available on the Sony H55 at 1280 x 720 at 30fps (frames per second) with a bit-rate of 9Mbps (megabits per second) in the MPEG-4 format. There's also the option to record HD video at the more compressed 6Mbps, or you can scale down to VGA-resolution movies (although why bother, really?). I found the video footage fairly noisy, particularly indoors. It'll tide you over in a pinch, but don't mistake it for a high quality HD video capture device. The quality is roughly on par with what you'd find on your higher-end pocket camcorder, but unlike those video cameras, the Sony H55 lets you tweak the exposure, set white balance, choose multi or center metering and, as mentioned above, adjust image stabilization.
Sound is recorded through a small mono microphone located atop the camera. You can use the optical zoom during recording and it's mostly quiet because it moves slowly, although if you remove your finger from the zoom lever too quickly, it'll catch the clicking sound.
Playback: You can opt for the straightforward image review, hitting the Playback button and scrolling through your photos via the four-way controller. But should the mood strike, you can enter the menu and opt for a slideshow with music. You can also do some very basic re-touching, like remove red-eye, sharpen an image (saving it as a copy), and resize an image.
Summary. Functionally, the Sony H55 gives you a long zoom in your pocket without all the extras you get with the HX5V. If you don't need a GPS or compass, Handheld twilight modes, Intelligent Sweep Panorama, 10-frame-per-second mode, or 1080i movies, the Sony H55 trades you a higher resolution sensor, and still gives you optical image stabilization, a 25mm wide-angle lens, and Sweep Panorama mode.
See below for our image analysis and conclusion.
Sony H55 Lens Quality
Wide: Sharp at center
Wide: Slightly soft upper left
Tele: Sharp at center
Tele: Slightly soft upper left
Sharpness: Both the wide-angle and telephoto ends of the
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55's zoom show minimal softening in the corners, which
is quite good.
Geometric Distortion: The Cyber-shot DSC-H55's processor
is hard at work here, as there is virtually no visible distortion at the wide-angle
lens setting. Likewise, at telephoto, there's just a hair of barrel distortion
(<0.1%, about two pixels).
Chromatic Aberration: Chromatic aberration at wide-angle
is minimal, with only a hint of reddish pixels around the target lines. At telephoto,
the effect is a little stronger, but still fairly low.
Macro: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55's Macro mode captures a sharp image overall, with minimal blurring in the corners and along the edges of the frame. Minimum coverage area is 2.94 x 2.21 inches (75 x 56mm). Flash coverage is quite uneven, with a shadow from the lens and a strong hot spot in the upper left corner. Stick to external lighting for your closest macro shots.
Sony H55 Image Quality
Color: Color performance is pretty good, with some oversaturation in the strong reds (a common occurrence among consumer digital cameras), and a small amount in blues as well. Otherwise, saturation is pretty good. In terms of hue accuracy, the Sony H55 pushes some yellow toward green, cyan toward blue, and orange toward yellow. Darker skin tones show a strong shift toward orange, while lighter skin tones are almost dead-on accurate (just a hint of pink). Overall, good results here.
ISO: Noise and Detail: The Sony Cyber-shot H55 handles image noise fairly well up to about ISO 400, but its rendering comes out very artificial, especially when the subject is organic. These crops don't quite reveal the tendency toward an artificial appearance mostly because it's a bottle label.
Chroma (color) noise is pretty well controlled to about ISO 800, where color balance begins to shift, and luminance noise increases here as well. ISO 3,200 detail is extreme. See Printed results below for more on what this means for printed images.
Wide: Quite bright
Incandescent: Manual white balance did the best job under
household incandescent lighting, through the overall image does appear a hint
cool. Both the Auto and Incandescent settings produced warmer casts, however.
ISO 200 shots look better at 13x19, though again with some luminance noise and a somewhat processed look on close inspection. For wall display, though, it's just about right. Printing at 11x14 eliminates this.
ISO 400 shots are usable at 11x14, but shadows appear somewhat mottled thanks to noise suppression. This looks a lot better printed at 8x10.
ISO 800 shots again look good in the detail department at 8x10, but the shadows have a strange mottled appearance, more like a painting than a photograph. This effect is sufficiently minimized at 5x7, though.
ISO 1,600 images are usable at 5x7, but better at 4x6.
ISO 3,200 files aren't usable even printed at 4x6 thanks to the mottling that now permeates the image.
Overall, this is a step below what the Sony H55's competitors are able to do, at least at high ISO. Something about Sony's noise suppression makes prints look more like paintings rather than photographs. It's a tendency that we've seen moderated in most of Sony's latest cameras, but it is quite pronounced here. Note that at the better sizes mentioned, you have to look very closely to see the effect, so keep that in mind.
Sony H55 Performance
Shutter lag: Full autofocus shutter lag is very good, at 0.36 second at wide-angle and telephoto. Prefocus shutter lag is 0.016 second, quite blazingly fast.
Cycle time: Cycle time, however, is sluggish, capturing a frame every 3.08 seconds in single-shot mode. Sony rates the H55's burst mode at 1.84 frames-per-second for up to 4 shots.
Flash Recycle: The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55's flash recycles in slow 7 seconds after a full-power discharge.
Sony H55 Conclusion
Sony's Cyber-shot H55 is a capable compact that promises a nice set of features in a pocketable package. With a 10x optical, wide-angle zoom it delivers fairly robust, good quality optics in a camera that's just 1.1-inches thick. While she won't turn many heads, the Sony H55 handles well and feels substantial enough in your hands (just don't manhandle the battery compartment).
Enthusiasts should appreciate the full Manual mode, but the lack of Aperture and Shutter priority modes will disappoint some. The very cool Sweep Panorama feature is good for a sweep snapshot, but not as good as the HX5V can capture, either in resolution or intelligence. Image quality is mixed; it seems the Sony H55 does best on sunny days in bright light, while indoors and in shade the cameras auto white balance struggles to get it right. The Sony H55 is also quick to raise sensitivity in Auto ISO mode, which can make for considerably softer images than expected.
Casual users shouldn't be intimidated by the Sony H55, though, which is accessible thanks to the iAuto scene selector, Easy mode, and the good use of the large 3-inch LCD to display brief explanatory text with each feature and function. Aspiring James Camerons may not be overly impressed with the H55's 720p movies, and those shooting in full Auto mode should limit their expectations to 8x10-inch prints, but for a $250 compact, the Sony H55 is a good basic snapshooter with a very wide and long lens.