Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Overview
by Theano Nikitas
Review Date: 7/18/07
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 is a replacement for the DSC-H5, and features an eight megapixel CCD imager coupled to an impressive Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar branded 15x optical zoom lens, offering a range from 31mm wide angle to a very useful 465mm telephoto. As with previous H-series models, the DSC-H9'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. The H9's 3.0-inch LCD display can be tilted up or down to help you get the shot from an unusual angle.
Other Sony H9 features include ISO sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 3,200, a new advanced sports shooting mode that combines predictive continuous autofocus with high shutter speeds, a Memory Stick Duo / PRO Duo card slot plus 31MB of built-in memory, and power from a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The DSC-H9 also offers high definition component video output, via a proprietary cable. The H9 is the only Cyber-shot model in this year's lineup to feature Sony's Night Shot technology.
The H9 includes Sony's new face detection technology, capable of detecting up to eight faces simultaneously. Sony's system 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, which should help the camera ensure proper flash exposure and pleasing flesh tones. Also, the H9 marks one of the first applications of Sony's Bionz image processor -- first seen in the company's Alpha digital SLRs -- in their compact camera models. Sony says the Bionz processor will offer improved image quality, faster response times, and better battery life in its compact cameras.
Sony DSC-H9 User Report
by Theano Nikitas
Intro. With the recent price drop in digital SLRs, there has been some concern that bridge cameras (advanced fixed-lens models that provide a transition between point-and-shoot models and DSLRs) were going to be phased out of most product lines. That may happen in the end, but there's still something appealing about shooting with a super-zoom camera like the H9, because it delivers many of the benefits of a DSLR without the extra cost. I'm talking about the need to buy a more costly lens or lenses to reach the same focal range, as well as the extra weight. The DSC-H9's Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and Full manual exposure modes will meet the needs of those familiar with cameras, and its Full Auto, Program, and Scene modes can help those who aren't.
After some time recently with the substantial Canon EOS 1D Mark III, it was a pleasure to pick up the Sony H9 and sling it around my neck for some leisurely walks. As you'll see from the report below, the H9 performed admirably in some situations, but had its share of drawbacks.
Look and feel. Surprisingly compact and lightweight, considering its powerful zoom, the Sony H9 is styled to mimic the look and feel of a digital SLR. The grip is sufficiently large for a sturdy and comfortable handhold. The body is made of plastic of course, and while it's not as sturdy as a digital SLR, it doesn't feel fragile. Granted, the camera is obviously too large to tote around in a pocket but I was able to stow it in a medium-sized handbag when taking it out and about. More importantly, it was really a pleasure to take it with me on a walk through the park, dangling around my neck from the strap or holding it in one hand.
The Sony H9's most impressive feature is one you'll look at often: its 3-inch articulating LCD. It's hinged from right under the electronic viewfinder window by a unique L-shaped bracket that allows the screen to come out and swivel to face either 90 degrees straight up or 90 degrees straight down. Unfortunately, you can't use the H9 to take a self-portrait, as you can with some other swivel screens, because it doesn't face forward.
The camera's lens hood comes in handy when shooting outdoors in sunny conditions; it is rather monstrous, though. The camera doesn't even sit flush on a flat surface with the lens hood combination. It's actually two pieces. The first serves as a lens and hood adapter, and it screws on, and the hood mounts bayonet style. You can mount the hood backward for storage, but it's really hard to line up the mounting flange when you do it that way. Both block the flash at wide angle, and unfortunately can also unscrew and block the corners of your frame. It's a necessary accessory, so don't leave home without it, unless you plan to shoot only indoors; but be aware that it takes up about as much space as the camera itself. Sony should have done better here.
Controls. When I first took the Sony H9 out of the box the control layout seemed logical enough, but I ran into trouble quickly when trying to adjust settings in Manual mode. Maybe my synapses were misfiring that day, but after a decade of reviewing hundreds of digital cameras, I had to go to the manual to figure out how to change a few of the Sony H9's settings. While I sometimes have to read the user guide to understand high-end digital SLRs, I can usually master the basics of all-in-one digital cameras on my own. With the H9, I was stumped. I knew the camera had fully manual modes and I could see the settings on the LCD, but my initial attempts to change them were futile.
After a quick glance at the manual I learned that you have to turn the Sony H9's "Wheel dial," a silver ring surrounding the 4-way controller, to select among the various options arrayed across the bottom of the LCD (options include ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture, Exposure value, and AF mode). Once you choose the item you want to change, just press the center Set button to highlight the item, then use the Wheel dial again to adjust the setting. Once I figured that out, operating the camera made more sense. The H9's Wheel dial, unfortunately, is very thin and placed so close to the 4-way controller pads that I occasionally tripped the self-timer or changed the flash setting. Changing settings got a little easier once I got used the Wheel and Set button combo, but still felt slightly awkward and slow.
The menu system's fonts and icons are larger and more readable than those in Record mode, but moving between items has been animated, and this animation--while pretty--takes too long between menu items. To add confusion, the Sony H9 has both Menu and Home buttons; which do you choose for what you want to do? Since all but the basic features are accessed via the menu systems--and some require some deep drilling to get to them--it would be nice to have a more user-friendly configuration, or more external control buttons; especially for features like Super SteadyShot image stabilization.
Display/Viewfinder. The Sony H9, like all superzoom cameras, has both an LCD and an EVF (Electronic Viewfinder). The Sony H9's 3.0-inch LCD is great, and its 230,400 pixels make for clean, sharp images. I often opted to use the EVF, which is reasonably bright and large. Both work well under low light conditions, so you're never without a means of composing.
There's plenty of information displayed on the Sony H9's LCD, but the text and icons are very small, almost unreadable for those with less-than-perfect eyesight. Still, pretty much all of your settings are there, plus a histogram. I'd rather squint a little than not have the information available at all.
Performance. The Sony H9 delivers good performance, and although I didn't shoot any high speed action, I had few complaints. Start-up time was pretty fast, and although it doesn't match that of a DSLR, the Sony H9's shutter lag was minimal. There wasn't much of a wait between shots, even with the flash enabled, and continuous shooting was peppy enough to capture sequences of rapid on-the-ground bird encounters.
The 15x zoom was responsive and moved smoothly through the entire focal range. Autofocus was good in both bright light and low light situations, although it occasionally searched too long at the telephoto end. Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, an absolute necessity with such a powerful lens, also worked well. The biggest frustration with the stabilization feature was that you have to go into the menu to turn it on and off.
Like many of today's digital cameras, the Sony H9 is equipped with automatic face detection. It works well to identify, focus on, and expose the faces in the scene, but again you have to dig into the menu system to activate it.
One of the more interesting features of the H9 is Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization, which is designed to provide a broader range of highlights and shadows. While it won't turn a bad picture into a good one, it seems to provide some subtle improvements. Even without using the DRO, the H9 generally delivered accurate and well-balanced exposures. Colors were well-saturated, but a Vivid color setting is available if you want to take the color intensity up a notch. I found that the Normal setting produced colors that were both accurate and naturally vibrant.
Shooting. My first instinct was of course to shoot with the Sony H9 outdoors. Since I have no access to a large indoor space, it's difficult to put the telephoto lens through its paces any other way. As it turned out, an early morning foray outdoors found droplets of water from the previous night's rainstorm. Though the H9's strong suit is its long lens, this was obviously the perfect time to test out its macro capabilities. I was surprised at how well the H9 handled close-ups, even when set to Program mode. Images of water drops on leaves were crisply focused, well-exposed, and nicely detailed.
On other occasions, I used the Sony H9's manual exposure modes. Because the LCD washes out in the sun, I often had to step into the shade to view the LCD and change settings. I preferred shutter-speed mode, with and without Super SteadyShot, to ensure I could handhold the camera without blurring the image. For me, this was preferable to boosting the camera's ISO to gain extra shutter speed. Even though the H9's ISO goes up to 3,200, I was careful to keep the light sensitivity settings as low as possible to avoid blurring from the Sony H9's overly aggressive noise reduction. Using the Shutter-priority and Aperture-priority modes, the H9 delivered good exposures and the automatic white balance provided well-balanced colors even in shadows. Indoors the H9 didn't do as well compensating for incandescent lighting.
With its long lens, good continuous shooting speed, and fast autofocus, photographing wildlife in a neighborhood park with the H9 was fun. Only the most skittish of birds flitting between tree branches eluded the camera.
Although the Sony H9 offers automatic Face Detection, photographing people was somewhat limited since Face Detection is only available in Auto and Portrait modes. And, like most other options, activating Face Detection requires a trip through the menu system. It was often easier to just let the autofocus do its thing and not engage the Face Detection feature at all.
All images were shot at the highest resolution, but unfortunately there's no way to assign a compression level, which didn't make sense for a camera of this class. You can select from among six resolution modes, however, including 8 megapixel, 3:2, 5 megapixel, 3 megapixel, VGA, and 16:9. Whenever possible, I kept the ISO to 80.
Night Shot mode. Unique to the Sony H9 is its infrared Night Shot mode. Unlike past models with Night Shot, there's no Night Framing mode, nor does the H9 have Sony's excellent Holographic AF assist beam, which threw a marvellous laser pattern that stayed focused out to many yards. It has an infrared assist lamp that throws a narrow beam of infrared light. Our Senior Editor Shawn Barnett took the H9 into his kids bedroom to catch a few shots of them at night. He says they flinched a bit as the infrared illumination beam was shone on them. He had turned all sound off, but they might have heard the focusing motor.
You can also shoot video in Night Shot mode. Overall, Night Shot mode is a novelty, because when the subject is far off, I don't see much difference between Night Shot and a high ISO color shot. The major advantage is that you can take close range night images without flash because of the infrared illumination lamp. Holding a hand up in pitch darkness while covering the illumination beam produced only a slight glowing image of my hand with a one-second exposure.
All Night Shot images we captured were very grainy and soft. The Sony H9 can be used as an infrared camera for outdoor photography, but you'll need neutral density filters and a tripod to work with the low shutter speeds. Sony's original Night Shot cameras were considerably more capable in this area, but they've been crippled because of their infamous ability to see through clothing under certain conditions. To limit this ability, the Sony H9's Night Shot mode has a maximum shutter speed of 1/30 second or below, and the aperture remains wide open regardless what mode you set, hence the need for neutral density filters for outdoor shooting.
Movie mode. You can shoot 640x480 movies at 30fps with the Sony H9. Though the H9 can output 1080i signal for stills, there is no 1080i movie capture mode. More frustrating, you can shoot a still at 16:9, but not a movie. But you can zoom across the entire 15x optical range while recording a movie, and the big 3.0 inch LCD is a nice place to view them.
Remote. The included remote control has a few more functions than most, including a menu button and four-way navigator, in addition to the zoom, shutter, and slideshow buttons. Rather in the tradition of remotes that come with camcorders, this Remote Commander, as it's called, is very useful for placing your camera on top of the television for slideshows and video playback. You can activate the Sony H9 in either still or movie mode from a good distance. In the lab they couldn't go further than about fifty feet, and it still worked when the camera was facing the remote. But it's limited to about 13 feet with the camera facing away. The IR beam must reflect off of nearby surfaces to achieve this.
Summary. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 lived up to many of my expectations. Its 15x optical zoom provided a better-than-average wide angle starting point of 31mm (35mm equivalent), which lent extra flexibility since I could easily go from shooting a distant subject at the telephoto end to shooting landscapes, all with one camera. I was particularly pleased with its macro capabilities and the H9's continuous shooting speed is fast enough to capture action shots with relative ease. But it took a while to get accustomed to some of the controls, and I was disappointed at the lack of control over compression, the omission of RAW image storage, and the menu system. I'd also like to see the next iteration equipped with a hot shoe to accommodate an external flash, although the H9's flash power was generally above average.
- 8.1-megapixel CCD
- 15x optical zoom lens (equivalent to a 31-465mm lens on a 35mm camera)
- Up to 76x Smart Zoom (at VGA resolution)
- EVF (Electronic Viewfinder).
- 3.0-inch color LCD monitor
- Automatic exposure, Program AE, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, Full Manual modes
- Built-in flash with red-eye reduction
- Burst mode
- Matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering modes
- Memory Stick PRO Duo (tested up to 8GB)
- 31MB internal memory
- USB 2.0 connection
- Rechargeable Lithium battery and charger included
- Software for Mac and PC included
- Fastest Shutter Speed of 1/4,000 sec. (in Advanced Sports mode)
- ISO from 80-3,200
- Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization
- Automatic Face Detection
- Dynamic Range Optimization feature
- Nine scene modes, including Advanced Sports Shooting and High Sensitivity modes
- Black and White, Natural, Sepia, and Vivid color effects
- Special Effects including Soft Edge Filter, Fish-Eye filter, and Partial Color filter
- Remote Control and Lens Hood included
- HD Still and Slideshow output
- In-Camera Red-Eye Reduction
- White balance (color) adjustment: automatic, presets, and manual
- DPOF (Digital Print Order Format), PictBridge printing compatibility
- Movie recording with sound
- Optional accessories include HD component cable, wide and telephoto conversion lenses, filters, travel charger, sports pack, camera case
In the Box
The retail package contains the following items:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 camera
- Shoulder strap
- Rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger
- USB cable
- AV cable
- IR Remote
- Lens adapter
- Lens hood
- Printed manual
- Software CD including Picture Motion Browser 2.0 and USB driver
- Large capacity Memory Stick PRO Duo
- Extra battery pack for extended outings
There's certainly a lot to like about the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9. It has a big 3-inch swiveling LCD and its image stabilized 15x optical zoom lens provides enough range to capture wide angle as well as telephoto shots. Top-notch macro capabilities and the availability of accessory lenses expand the camera's already broad focal range options.
To go with the powerful lens, you'll find a full set of manual exposure controls along with Auto, Program AE and scene modes, so there's a shooting mode for a variety of experience levels. The H9 is also outfitted with the trendy and often useful Automatic Face Detection, so your people pictures have a better chance of being in focus and well-exposed; there's even an in-camera redeye removal feature for a quick post-processing fix. Above average performance and a fast 1/4,000 second shutter speed gives the H9 enough speed to capture pictures of your kids on the soccer field, and it's all packed in a compact and lightweight body.
Unfortunately, the H9 falls short in a couple of areas. The user interface is a little different from most digital cameras and can be difficult to master. The menu system is also confusing and you'll need to drill down to reach a number of camera features, which can slow you down when you're in a hurry to get the shot.
Most people probably won't miss being able to capture images in RAW, nor will they lament the absence of a hot shoe to attach an external flash, although those features would be nice to have on a camera in this class, especially with the lens hood so handily blocking the pop-up flash. The more glaring omission, however, was the lack of compression levels. Night Shot mode might make up for it for some, but we found the images to be very soft, with less detail than an ISO 800 image.
Like most digital cameras, pushing the H9 to ISO 3,200 results in images so degraded that you'll struggle to make a 4x6 inch print from the files. More importantly, the H9's noise reduction also resulted in less than ideal image quality at all ISO settings. In bright light, the H9 delivered nicely-saturated, sharply-focused and well-exposed images, but indoors and in low light, noise suppression caused significant mottling of the images. If the H9's image quality weren't so dependent on using a low ISO in bright light, it would certainly have fared better in this review.