Sony DSC-H5 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5
Resolution: 7.20 Megapixels
Sensor size: 1/2.5"
Lens: 12.00x zoom
(36-432mm eq.)
Viewfinder: EVF / LCD
ISO: 80-1000
Shutter: 30-1/2000
Max Aperture: 2.8
Dimensions: 4.2 x 3.2 x 3.6 in.
(108 x 81 x 91 mm)
Weight: 20.8 oz (591 g)
includes batteries
MSRP: $500
Availability:  
Manufacturer: Sony
7.20
Megapixels
12.00x zoom
1/2.5"
size sensor
image of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5
Front side of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera Back side of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera Top side of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera Left side of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera Right side of Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera

Imaging Resource rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Sony DSC-H5 Overview

by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 07/14/2006

In early 2005, Sony launched the first in its new H-series of digital cameras, marking their return into a market segment from which they'd been conspicuously absent -- the long zoom digital camera. The H1 proved popular, and at the Spring 2006 Photo Marketing Association tradeshow the company launched two new cameras to follow in the H1's footsteps: the Sony DSC-H2 and DSC-H5.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 offers a sensor resolution of seven megapixels along with a new Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 12x optical zoom lens with 58mm threading and Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization. Other features include ISO sensitivity from ISO 80 to 1,000, a choice of both aperture- and shutter-priority plus a fully manual mode, 32MB of internal memory, and a three-inch LCD display. Battery life is rated at 340 shots.

The Sony DSC-H5's images are framed and reviewed on either a whopping 3.0" LCD display with 230,000 pixels, or a 0.3" LCD-based electronic viewfinder with 115,000 pixels. The Sony DSC-H5's LCD features Sony's Clear Photo LCD Plus technology, reducing reflections and improving visibility, as well as increasing the viewing angle. The Sony H5 uses contrast detection autofocusing, with 3 focusing points and an AF assist lamp to help out in difficult lighting conditions. Image 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. Available in both black and silver body colors, the Sony DSC-H5 is priced at $500. Read on for the whole story.

 

Sony DSC-H5 User Report

Cyber-shot H5

It seems like just yesterday (or the day before) that the only long zoom digicam -- the Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom -- was discontinued because "consumers prefer the little cameras." There were a lot fewer digicam buyers in those days, apparently. But that 2-megapixel long zoom had some devoted fans ready to buy a long zoom with a larger sensor. Just wait, they were told, just wait.

And in fact, if you happen to be a Long Zoom Procrastinator, this is the Golden Age. Not only are we seeing 10x and 12x zooms from a number of manufacturers, but several are offering more than one model. I myself have recently reviewed offerings from Fujifilm, Kodak (regular size and a subcompact 10x zoom) and Canon (a real gem) -- and there are others I haven't seen from Panasonic and, of course, Olympus. Not to be left out of the chase, Sony has doubled its offerings this year with the previously reviewed DSC-H2 and the DSC-H5 that's the subject of this review.

The good news about several of these new long zooms (but unfortunately not all) is that they include image stabilization. While shooting hand-held at 380mm or more requires stabilization, the benefits of image stabilization don't stop there. It significantly enhances available light shooting, making hand-held shutter speeds of about 1/15 second feasible (and 1/4 possible), and consequently helps macro shooting where added depth of field can make the image.

Sony has a long track record with image stabilization in its camcorders, but we are starting to see its Super SteadyShot image stabilization system employed in its still cameras. A button to the left of the Sony DSC-H5's Power button toggles it on and off, simple as that. And a menu option determines whether it's active during framing, or just when the Shutter button is pressed.

Also tossed into the Sony DSC-H5 bundle are some high ISO equivalents. The H5 can shoot as high as ISO 1,000, obviating the need for flash and its inherent red-eye.

3.0-inch LCD. Note the live histogram (bottom right of the LCD).

Sony was also among the first to discover consumers like not just "the little cameras" but big LCDs on those little cameras. And they've put quite a large LCD on the Sony DSC-H5. Let's take a closer look at Sony's flagship long zoom.

Design. Sony endowed the H5 with the mini-SLR form factor so many long zooms use. While the H2 is sheathed in silver, the DSC-H5 sports a less reflective black body. It feels well-balanced in the hand and not at all too heavy to carry.

Wrist Hold. Carrying the H5 in the shooting position wore out my finger tips (there's not much room around the grip), so I came up with a more comfortable approach.

I carried the Sony DSC-H5 with me on a long afternoon hike from the sunny side of the city under the Bay Bridge to the fog-obscured Golden Gate Bridge. I secured it with a small wrist strap I have laying around rather than the supplied shoulder strap. As the day wore on, my fingers got sore from holding the grip in the shooting position as I carried the camera around. Eventually, I developed a carrying grip to avoid pressing my fingertips into the small camera body.

It's as nice a grip as any other long zoom, certainly, but it illustrates a problem I had over and over again with the H5: It seems designed from drawings, not sculpted from clay (unlike the Canon S3 IS, which was nicely sculpted). The Sony DSC-H5 is an attractive design, certainly, and not impossible to learn, but it just didn't work for me.

The grip wasn't the only issue. More troubling was the Sony DSC-H5's control placement. The thumb pad on the rear of the body is just below, but exactly as deep as the zoom toggle above it. Guess what? Right, I kept resting my thumb on the zoom toggle. It was just a little "too" convenient.

Controls. The Sony DSC-H5 was little too convenient for me. My thumb is above the grip but the zoom toggle is just above that and the navigator just below, all on the same plane. Plus there are some important buttons right alongside. It's easy to hit the wrong thing.

So were the Menu and Display buttons tucked alongside the thumb pad. I kept hitting one or the other, bringing up a Menu system I didn't need or disabling the live histogram display. And I did it a lot.

Oddly enough, the one set of controls I wanted to find by touch on the Sony DSC-H5, the four-way navigation controller, was hard to find by touch because it was as smooth as the rest of the back panel. I had to look for it.

Two controls I did like were the Shutter button, angled toward the front, and where it should be on the grip, and the Command dial just below it. Sony has used Command dials on its digicams going back to 1998. I liked them then and I like them now. Twirl to your setting and press to activate it.

Diopter Adjustment. It's underneath the EVF's eyepiece. But that means the eyepiece protrudes, snagging on camera bags and coat pockets. Or just jabbing you in the chest (hence my preference for a wrist strap).

The diopter adjustment was another mystery. It's under the eyepiece, which happily makes it hard to accidentally move once you've set it. Unfortunately, it also means the eyepiece protrudes beyond the pane of the back panel. That makes it a little awkward to pack and carry the Sony DSC-H5. Hung around your neck, the H5 pokes you in the chest like an annoying relative trying to make a point.

On the lens end, Sony includes a lens hood and a hood adapter. The adapter screws into the body and protects the extended lens from the lens cap attached to it. The hood locks onto the end of the adapter in either its working position or its reversed storage position. The Sony DSC-H5 is quite a bit more compact without the hood assembly, but I left it on. I tend to shoot into the sun quite a bit.

With the adapter in place, however, the pop-up flash is useless, creating a lovely shadow of the hood assembly in every wide angle shot. It's one or the other, flash or natural light; although if Sony had designed the pop-up flash so it rose just a little higher, the whole problem would have been avoided. Note that if you remove the Sony DSC-H5's lens hood and leave the adapter in place, no shadow is cast by the flash, though the combination looks rather unfinished.

Lens Hood & Adapter. I was so glad to have it that I kept it on all the time, but the flash wasn't tall enough to peek over it.

Let's call these quirks rather than deal breakers. But with so much competition in the long zoom game, sometimes a quirk makes all the difference.

Viewfinder. Like all long zooms, the Sony DSC-H5 uses an electronic viewfinder. And it's a nice enough EVF that I almost always used it rather than the glorious 3.0-inch LCD. I persuaded myself that it gave me a little more battery life. But since I was shooting mainly in bright sun, I could better see what I was doing using the EVF (although the LCD is pretty bright in full sun).

But for playback, the Sony DSC-H5's large LCD was a real winner. This is much larger than the 2.0-inch screen on the H2, but to really appreciate the difference, count the pixels. I counted approximately 230,400 pixels on the H5 compared to the H2's 84,960.

But then, that's another reason I preferred the EVF. I didn't want anyone else to see what I was shooting.

Battery Compartment. Just two AAs are all it takes. But these were 2500 mAh NiMHs.

Card Compartment. Same compartment, but you don't have to lose power just to switch cards. A little half-door lets you access the card without bothering the batteries. Smart.

Performance. Power-on was slow. And the Sony DSC-H5's Power button is a stretch to reach.

Zoom was not as smooth as butter on a summer afternoon, but it was controllable. I was able to compose my images without tapping the Zoom toggle back and forth. And the Zoom level is pressure sensitive, so I could quickly get to one end or the other by pressing harder.

Shot-to-shot speed was good in Burst mode. A tiny button behind the Sony DSC-H5's Shutter button cycles through Normal / Burst / Bracketing / Multiburst modes. Multiburst records a series of shots without the shutter sound, more like a video capture.

The live histogram is a real blessing, partly because it's difficult to appreciate your exposure on the LCD/EVF displays. I was constantly surprised to see how well the H5 had done when I reviewed the images on a computer. Using the EVF -- and even the Sony DSC-H5's LCD -- to evaluate the pictures, surprisingly didn't do them justice. They looked more washed out and overbright (which they tend to be anyway) on the camera than they did on the computer. But camera LCDs are not 24-bit color displays, so don't be too surprised.

I've been impressed recently by how well some long zooms do with digital zoom, a feature I had gotten into the habit of avoiding. So I've retrained myself (with relish and the odd hot dog) to turn it on when a new camera arrives because the results are much better than they used to be.

Sony pioneered intelligent digital zoom with its Smart Zoom, which just avoids resampling the zoom crop to the full file size. The Sony DSC-H5 provides the latest generation of that wonder as well as the sort of digital zoom you usually get: resizing. Both were usable, which is saying something. The H5's range with digital zoom is fairly modest compared to its competitors, but still gets into spotting scope range.

Zoom Range

Wide Angle. This is at 6mm, as wide as it gets.

Digital Zoom. And here I am zooming all the way in at 72mm (a few steps left of the above shot) -- but I was standing in a strong wind that blew the evergreen branches in and out of the image and even made me unsteady as I tried to center the Palace of Fine Arts. Still, it's a sharp image with SteadyShot.

The Sony DSC-H5 makes an odd but constant noise, that seems unrelated to the zoom and focus motor, almost as if it had a fan inside. You can hear it if you put your ear to the camera or use the EVF to compose images. Don't be alarmed, it's normal; and no, it's not the sea, nor is it the SteadyShot mechanism, because the sound persists even when it's off.

Shooting. I had some aggravating experiences while shooting with the Sony DSC-H5. I suspect that they fall more in the Quibbles Department than Defects Division, things I'd eventually have gotten used to, but they were impediments.

The Sony DSC-H5's EV setting for one. It's on the controller I found difficult to find. So, peering through the eyepiece at the EVF, I would realize I needed some exposure compensation and have to take my eye away from the scene to find the controller, activate EV, snuggle up to the EVF again and slide the command dial around to set it.

Available Light

Slow Shutter. At 1/13 second but only ISO 320 (minimizing noise).

High ISO. Shutter up to 1/40 second with ISO at 1,000. Not bad.

Getting to the ISO setting (one of the distinguishing features of this long zoom) was also tortuous. There is an ISO Scene mode on the Sony DSC-H5's Mode dial, but I would have liked an ISO button instead. It's just too useful to be reserved for special occasions.

Probably most annoying, though, whenever I powered the Sony H5 on in Program mode, it always selected a shutter speed of 1/1,000 second. I was constantly fiddling with the Command dial to lower the shutter speed to get a reasonably sharp f-stop setting. Why couldn't it just remember the last setting?

Also right up there in the nuisance category was the lack of an auto rotate function. You can indeed manually rotate images during Playback, but the Sony DSC-H5 has no orientation sensor. That meant a lot of extra work for me. I shoot a lot of portrait-oriented images.

Finally, the autofocus illuminator was not only visible in the EVF when I half-pressed the Shutter button, but it caused otherwise shy bystanders to stare at me as if I were doing laser eye surgery without a license. You can turn it off, but then it's not a feature any more.

Daylight. Program AE always liked 1/1,000 second, here at f/5 and ISO 125.

Quite a few gripes for such a handsome camera, but they're all out of the way now. Let's talk about the nice things.

I always like to see a 16:9 image size option. And the Sony DSC-H5 did not disappoint me.

It also lets you set the Flash Sync to either rear or front curtain. That's an unusual option in a digicam but a welcomed one. Front is a bit more responsive, firing the flash when the shutter opens. But Rear, which fires the DSC-H5's flash right before the shutter closes, is essential when shooting moving objects so the blur captured with ambient light doesn't precede them.

Bird Watching. Caught with digital zoom at 72mm.

And I can't overlook the full exposure control available with Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes leading the list. But there's also a simple Auto mode and seven Scene modes (High Sensitivity (ISO), Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Beach, High-Speed Shutter (Sports), Landscape, and Portrait).

Sony packs two Stamina 2500-mAh NiMH AAs with the DSC-H5. On our longest outing, shooting 80 pictures, I got the low battery warning, but the camera kept shooting. Sony includes a charger with the H5, an unusual but appreciated touch.

And a good thing, too, because as I used the H5, I enjoyed it. Especially when I got home and had a look at what it had done.

Summary. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 is an attractive camera but it stuck me as designed on a computer, rather than sculpted in clay. It is handsome, but awkward to use. Its awkwardness would, I suspect, take only a few days to overcome, but it marred my otherwise happy experience with this camera whose images were a delight to review on the computer.

The high sensitivity of ISO 1,000 brings with it plenty of noise, but also delivers shots you wouldn't otherwise get. With image stabilization and a good noise filter in your editing software, you won't mind.

The double digital zoom option was welcome as well. Smart Zoom is restricted by the image size you've selected (unavailable at the largest sizes), so it's nice to have Precision Zoom available as an option on the Sony DSC-H5. And being able to select the Flash sync front or rear curtain was a delightful surprise, too.

But the real thrill of a long zoom is its extended optical zoom. The Sony DSC-H5 brought back some crisp, colorful images that are beyond the reach of many other digicams. No complaints about that!

 

Basic Features

  • 7.2-megapixel CCD
  • 12x zoom lens (equivalent to a 36-432mm lens on a 35mm camera)
  • Max 16-52x digital Smart Zoom (depending on selected resolution) plus 24x Precision Digital zoom.
  • Electronic optical viewfinder
  • 3.0-inch color LCD monitor
  • Full Manual through Automatic exposure available, including Aperture and Shutter priority and seven Scene modes
  • Built-in flash with five modes and an intensity adjustment
  • 32MB internal memory
  • Sony Memory Stick Duo storage (no card included), compatible with Memory Stick Pro Duo.
  • USB 2.0 computer connection
  • Two AA NiMH rechargeable batteries and charger included
  • Software for Mac and PC

 

Special Features

  • Super Steady Shot optical image stabilization for steady shots at telephoto focal lengths
  • High Sensitivity, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Beach, High-speed shutter, Landscape and Portrait preset modes
  • Movie recording mode (with sound)
  • Multi-Burst slow motion mode and Burst continuous shooting mode
  • Email modes
  • Shutter speeds from 1/2,000 to 1/4 sec in Auto mode, 1/2,000 to one second in Program mode; and 1/1,000 to 30 seconds in Manual mode.
  • Aperture range from f2.8 to f8, depending on zoom position
  • Image Sharpness and Contrast adjustments, plus Image Color options
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release
  • Macro (close-up) lens adjustment
  • Spot, Center-Weighted, and Multi-Metering modes
  • Adjustable AF area and four AF modes
  • Auto ISO setting or 80, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,000 ISO equivalents
  • White balance (color) adjustment with seven options, including a manual setting
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge printing compatibility

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

  • Sony DSC-H5 camera
  • Shoulder strap
  • Two NiMH AA batteries, a case, and charger
  • USB cable
  • AV cable
  • Lens Adapter ring
  • Lens Hood
  • Lens Cap and strap
  • Software CD containing Picture Package (ver. 1.6 for Windows), Pixela ImageMixer VCD2 (for Mac), a PC-based tutorial and USB drivers.
  • Quick-guide manuals and registration information

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Responsive with a good shutter lag time, very good shot-to-shot speed
  • Image stabilization works well, essential for a long zoom and great for available light
  • Better than average color accuracy
  • Very capable Movie mode
  • Very fast Multiburst mode, great for analyzing golf/tennis swings
  • Large 3.0-inch LCD is usable in very bright light
  • Very good low-light shooting capabilities
  • Image noise at ISO 200 and below is pretty good
  • ISO up to 1000
  • Bright AF-assist light
  • Design is chunky but compact, fits the hand well
  • High chromatic aberration lens distortion, noticeable in some images at the edges
  • Slightly warm skin tones
  • Auto white balance had a hard time with household incandescent lighting
  • Rather contrasty default tone curve
  • Image noise high at ISO 400 and up; at 800 and 1,000 images are almost unusable
  • Anti-noise processing trades away some subtle subject detail at all ISO levels
  • Control layout allows for easy accidental activation of too many controls

 

Like the preceding Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1, the Sony DSC-H5 offers optical image stabilization with a very long zoom lens. The Sony H5 provides more manual exposure control than many other long zoom digital cameras, yet is easy to use in full-auto mode, and its seven pre-programmed scene modes help with tricky subjects. The design and layout of the H5 is very user-friendly, and the camera boasts accurate EVF and LCD displays. Occasionally modes can get confusing to those more familiar with Sony's other point-and-shoot models, but a brief look at the manual will quickly make it all clear. The Sony DSC-H5 is fairly fast on the draw, with faster than average shutter response, a smooth and responsive zoom, and very good shot-to-shot cycle times. Optical quality is very good, but we were disappointed with the high chromatic aberration and softness in the corners at telephoto; that's part of the tradeoff found in a very long zoom that we think most will find acceptable. That the Sony H5 does all its tricks with two AA batteries is impressive. Overall, given the low price and good performance, the Sony H5 is a bargain in a 7.2-megapixel 12X zoom, and a clear Dave's Pick.

 

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