Sony DSC-V3By: Shawn Barnett and Dave Etchells
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Page 2:Executive OverviewReview First Posted: 09/09/2004, Updated: 11/30/2004
Sony DSC-V3 Executive Overview
by Shawn Barnett
With an improved build, greater speed, and a wonderfully large screen, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V3 gives rangefinder lovers more of what they want a digital camera for, integrating some of the innovations we saw debut in the Sony F828. V1 fans will appreciate the new features, but some might not like the increased size. Since most of the increase is due to the addition of a handgrip, I don't mind so much.
The Sony DSC-V3 is a mid-size rangefinder camera clearly aimed at enthusiasts who want a little more control over their photography, but either don't need a massive zoom lens, or prefer the ability to see actual light transmitted through a "real image" optical viewfinder. The camera captures a 7.07 megapixel image (3,072 x 2,304), as well as several other sizes, including those suitable for email and Web use. Its 34-136mm equivalent lens covers the common zoom range for a rangefinders of this type, a spec that appears unchanged from the V1. The V3 accepts accessory lenses to make it more wide angle or increase the telephoto length. NightShot and NightFraming modes are also carried forward in the V3, useful tools that you'll find only on a few Sony digicams.
Many will be attracted to the V3 more because of its big camera performance combined with a 2.5 inch LCD display, completely ignoring the optical viewfinder. These users would do well to note that the optical viewfinder may at times be necessary, since the 2.5 inch LCD on the V3 differs from the LCD on the Sony T1 in one key area: sunlight viewability. This is because the T1's LCD is transflective--meaning it works well in sunlight--and the Sony DSC-V3's is only transmissive, meaning that it is backlit for indoor use, but can wash out in direct sunlight. Though our area is generally lacking in sunlight, our tests outdoors during the fleeting moments of sunshine a Georgia Summer offers indicate that this will not be a huge problem. That's good, because according to our standard test, the optical viewfinder covers between 79 and 88 percent of the area captured, slightly less to slightly more than the 85 percent that is typical, and parallax appears to be a factor, though this is not uncommon among rangefinders regardless of type. Worse than the low coverage of the V3's viewfinder though, is that it varies with the zoom setting, making it very difficult to mentally compensate for its imperfect coverage. Another hit on the V3's optical viewfinder is lack of diopter correction of any kind, and though it is not impossible to use with glasses, I found I had to smoosh my nose into the lovely LCD to get a full purchase on the image, or turn my head and look through the far side of my spectacles' reach.
The 2.5 inch LCD is arguably the camera's most attractive feature. It makes using the Sony DSC-V3 a pleasure, offering big icons and a better idea of what you've captured when looking at pictures in Playback mode. The 5x Playback zoom is made more meaningful on such a big screen, making it easier to check focus, though I'd like to see a 10x playback zoom on a camera with resolution this high.
The grip size and shape on the Sony DSC-V3 are just right for anyone with small to mid-size hands, with a protrusion near the top that is designed to keep your middle finger out of the way of the optical viewfinder. This is still a small camera, so your pinkie will just have to find a place to curl up under the camera's bottom plate. The shutter button is comfortably placed, at just the right angle. Your thumb rests on the back in a relatively open location, just left of the zoom rocker and above the Five-way controller. The tip of my thumb rests on the mostly recessed the CF/Memory Stick switch, so there is some danger of accidentally changing cards mid-session, but I haven't found this to be a problem yet. There is little in the way of a thumb grip, though Sony did create a slight lip for the zoom control. While it works just fine, I find the zoom control to be a little small for a camera of this size. Combine that with what feels like a very slow zoom mechanism, and I often found myself wondering whether I'd activated the zoom at all. If a mechanical zoom is necessary, as is the case on most point and shoot cameras, a slower zoom is better because it offers finer control, and since this camera is meant for the hobbyist, this is likely what Sony was thinking. Just a little faster would be better.
To power the unit on, you have to reach over the massive mode dial with your right index finger and hit the prominent power button. Again, here is an aspect that makes the Sony DSC-V3 somewhat cumbersome, but in a way that a higher end camera is expected to be cumbersome. Though not as convenient as it might be, it somehow gives the camera that "pro camera" feel. The power switch is positioned below and to the right of the large flash and hot shoe mount bulge which works together with the previously mentioned massive mode dial to prevent accidental activation of the power or NightFraming/NightShot buttons.
While I've described the mode dial on the Sony DSC-V3 as massive, that doesn't mean I don't like it. Its beautiful metallic sheen makes it lovely to look at, and it is both slick enough, and its detents firm enough that it won't likely be moved accidentally, but a thumb and forefinger will find just enough grip on the outside knurl to turn it easily.
Actually bringing the lens out to its active position takes a little longer than I think it should, requiring about three seconds from start to readiness. Shutdown takes even longer, at almost four seconds. That will matter to some, and not at all to others. Though Sony has made a concerted effort to make some of their other cameras react more quickly, apparently they don't think their target market for the Cyber-shot DSC-V3 will care as much about this as they do about a slow and careful zoom. While the zoom feels a little leisurely, it's important to note that the V3's shutter response is quite the opposite: With full-autofocus shutter lag times of 0.28 - 0.66 seconds, the V3 beats the pants off a lot of the competition in this category, including its chief rival, the Canon G6.
The lens is covered by a two-piece shutter that moves out of the way when the lens opens, so there will be no dangling lens cap to mar the lines of this high-end digicam. The optic itself seems a little small for the camera's size, certainly in this category, again compared with the Canon G6. Its maximum aperture is f/2.8 compared to the latter's f/2.0, a full stop difference--stretching to a two-stop difference at the telephoto end. The Sony DSC-V3's lens is pretty sharp though, and does a much better than average job of maintaining that sharpness into the corners. (The Canon G6 also does a very good job holding sharpness into the corners though, and overall edges the V3 in resolving fine detail.) As was the case on the V1, the lens opening is masked with a rectangular plastic or metal bezel designed to limit unnecessary stray light from entering the top and extreme side angles and thus reducing image contrast. It acts much like a lens hood.
As I already mentioned, the V3 can use both a Memory Stick (regular and Pro) and a Compact Flash card, which opens the camera up to significantly larger storage capacities at a lower cost. Both cards are inserted from the bottom of the camera, beneath the grip area, where you'll also find the slim battery behind a reasonably sturdy plastic door. It should be noted, however, that to take advantage of the highest quality video mode offered by the Sony DSC-V3--DV-quality 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second--you'll need to own at least one Memory Stick Pro card, since this mode will not function with standard Memory Stick nor CF, regardless of speed.
The V3 has a built in flash, and can accept an external flash via the built-in hot shoe, with Sony recommending their HVL-F32X for full TTL flash metering. An unique swivel mechanism conceals the internal flash head beneath the V3's SONY logo. The flash is very close to the lens, and we have already experienced some shots with red-eye as expected.
Speaking of red, one of the most useful features on the Sony DSC-V3 is what Sony calls Holographic AF. It's called holographic because light from a single laser diode passes through a holographic diffraction grating that splits the beam into a matrix of 29 perpendicularly-arranged lines that are aligned at 45 degrees from horizontal. The result is an excellent light pattern that remains surprisingly sharp out to the camera's maximum reasonable focusing range, giving the contrast detection AF just what it needs to pull focus in a hurry. The image size seems to "grow" at a carefully calibrated rate, because it appears to be about the same size on the LCD no matter how far away the object may be.
Incidentally, as I aimed the V3 at my son, repeatedly painting his face with red laser lines, I paused to wonder whether I might damage his new little eyes, but we are assured by Sony that the Class 1 laser used in the V3 is safe for human eyes. Holographic AF goes back to the F717, and is good enough that other manufacturers should either imitate it or license it from Sony. Seriously. You can focus on a blank wall with this system, even in complete darkness, and faces can be made almost frighteningly clear. I should warn you not to point this thing at yourself in macro mode, as I did. It'll take a few points off your self-esteem, believe me, revealing every flaw and pore you have in viciously sharp detail.
As if this cool laser pattern weren't enough, Sony has once again included the NightFraming/NightShot mode in the Cyber-shot DSC-V3. Rather than permanently filter it out as other camera manufacturers do both of these features take advantage of the tendency of digital cameras to pick up infrared light. For normal photographs you want to filter this light out, because it distorts color rendition, but Sony got clever and mounted their IR filter on a moveable frame. Press the NightFraming/NightShot button and you'll hear a loud click. That's the IR filter moving out of the way. NightFraming is a useful tool, making the V3 more capable than even film cameras, because with this camera you can literally see in the dark, yet still capture a full color image. First the camera shows you a green monochrome image with an eerie glow at the center. This is from the infrared beam the camera is projecting (it appears as a dim red glow from the front of the camera). With this assistance, you can frame your shot fairly well. It really only illuminates the center of the frame with the camera at wide angle, but it's enough to see what's where before you take your shot. Then you press the shutter and the camera goes back to color mode, indicated with a click as the IR filter moves back into place. Now a laser pattern is projected to focus. Once focus is achieved, the IR sensor moves back out of place so you can continue to frame your shot with IR assistance. Finally, you press the shutter and the IR filter moves back into place, the shutter is tripped, and the flash fires, yielding a full-color shot with no IR signal to degrade performance. All this sounds like a lot of trouble, but the camera handles it automatically. It can be surprisingly useful in common low light situations like amusement parks or indoors at night.
Not quite as useful but still a lot of fun on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V3 is the Night Shot mode. You won't hear any clicking in this mode except when you turn it on and off. Here, the IR filter moves out of the way during both viewing and capture. The resulting images are green monochrome (in some of my test shots, red does tend to show through a bit). This mode's usefulness is clear, for taking pictures in darkness or near darkness without disturbing the subject with focus assist beams or flashes. As I mentioned, the IR beam does glow a faint red, so anyone conscious of your presence will catch you--or else freak out and think you're giving them a truly evil eye--but it would be perfect for catching a sleeping child. NightShot mode can also be used for video, so you can also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your spouse snores, for example. We're told this mode does not actually see through clothing, as has sometimes been reported, so no one need worry that you're ogling them electronically.
The Cyber-shot DSC-V3 has seven Scene modes and the five basic capture modes: Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. Though I tend to stay in one of the semi-auto modes (seldom the green, "Full Auto" mode), I found Manual mode surprisingly easy to use. For the best results, I just turned on the live histogram display (activated by pressing the Display button), set the Mode dial to M, and used the Command dial to adjust aperture and shutter speed as necessary. The screen gives you a rough estimate of what the captured image will look like with its live display, and the camera tells you how close it thinks you are to the ideal exposure with the EV numbers, over a range of plus or minus two. Finally, the histogram shifts left or right as you change the exposure, giving you a graphical display of what light values will be captured. The one dial moves between the two items (shutter speed and aperture) with a roll of the dial, and a press on the dial lets you adjust one or the other, again with a roll of the dial. Pretty simple. All that assistance on a 2.5 inch screen makes Manual mode more accessible than ever.
As for usability, the V3 is easy to understand and use. The main control buttons, arranged around the Five-way controller right of the LCD, are small and difficult to see in low light, but they're aggressively raised and easy enough to find and distinguish with your thumb. Their close placement, rather than being a hindrance, is a boon to usability because you need only move your finger a short distance--less than an inch--to reach the button you need. The resistance is firm, so you're unlikely to press the buttons accidentally, and if you do, you'll know it from the radical change of depth. This sounds strange to mention, but as interfaces go this kind of stuff is important. I would say the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V3's button design is excellent. One exception is that when the power cord is plugged in it's hard to reach the Menu and Resolution/Delete buttons, but the typically excellent run time provided by the V3's InfoLITHIUM battery system (just shy of 3 hours, worst-case) mean that relatively little time will likely be spent with the camera plugged into its power adapter.
Menus take the common Sony form on the Cyber-shot DSC-V3, with a bar running across the bottom from which pop-up lists emerge as each item is highlighted. I should also mention the Enlarged icon switch that appears in Setup. On by default, this mode momentarily enlarges turns icons yellow for certain functions that have just been activated on the Five-way pad: items like Flash, Macro, and Self-timer modes. The larger screen also makes it easier to recognize one of the more important items to check every time you turn on your digital camera: the ISO setting. On cameras with smaller sensors (that is, on prosumer cameras, as opposed to larger digital SLRs), this is far more important, especially when those sensors reach into ISO 800 as does the V3. These shots can be quite a bit more noisy, and users would do better to stay in Auto or the lower ISO settings.
Overall, the Sony DSC-V3 is a solid performer. Build, design, and feature set are aimed at the enthusiast, and offering many of the key advances that have come along in Sony's photo technology. Meanwhile, we can say that the big screen offers direct advantages right away in framing your images and appreciating them after capture. The interface is also easy. Other cameras in this space often have a tilt/swivel or flip-out screen for easy viewability in awkward places, but Sony bet on the bigger screen perhaps to differentiate themselves from the pack. Since no one else offers a 2.5 inch screen on this category of camera, it just might attract quite a few.