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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828

Sony extends their high end to encompass 8(!) megapixels and a sharp 7x Zeiss zoom lens. - And Sony's new RGB+E sensor technology for more accurate color!

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Page 4:Viewfinder

Review First Posted: 08/15/2003, Updated: 02/05/04

The F828 offers both a 1.8-inch, 134,000-pixel, rear panel LCD monitor and a smaller electronic viewfinder (EVF) in place of a true "optical" viewfinder. The EVF actually uses a tiny (and slightly lower-power) LCD screen to show the same view you'll see in the camera's monitor display. What makes the EVF so useful is the information display, identical to that shown on the LCD monitor (complete with navigable menus). As I noted on earlier Sony digicams using EVFs, the idea of being able to see the exposure settings in the eye level viewfinder is a good one, but navigating the menus through this small viewfinder is pretty tricky. I found it much easier to simply switch on the LCD monitor when I needed to change menu options. The EVF does feature a diopter adjustment dial hidden on the bottom of the eyepiece, but doesn't have quite as high an eyepoint as did the EVF on the F717. It's still fairly "eyeglass-friendly," but you'll have to press your glasses more firmly against the rubber eyecup than was required with the 717, and the eyecup tends to leave smudges on the lenses of your glasses. A slide switch on the rear panel controls where the view is displayed, either on the larger LCD monitor or in the smaller eyepiece.

The viewfinder LCDs represent an area where Sony has upgraded the F828 relative to the earlier F717. The F717's rear-panel LCD had 123,000 pixels vs the 134,000 of the one on the 828, a nice, but not very noticeable improvement. Much more impressive is the upgrade of the EVF though, with the EVF on the 828 sporting 235,000 pixels, to the 717's 180,000. The difference in the two viewfinders is immediately apparent if you hold each camera up to your eye. The F828's EVF doesn't so much appear sharper, as larger. When you look through the 828's EVF, the LCD screen covers a much larger field of view. (Which probably also explains why it has a lower eyepoint than the EVF on the F717.)

As I've noted in the past, I'm generally no fan of EVFs, finding them a poor substitute for true optical viewfinders. On the F828 though, the EVF seems to have more resolution than I'm accustomed to seeing (more even than the F707 and F717 models), which helps a great deal. Plus, the Night Shot and Night Framing modes eliminate one of my biggest objections to EVFs, which is that they're generally useless in low light conditions. Overall, even the F828's EVF doesn't take me entirely out of the anti-EVF camp, but it's definitely a further step in the right direction.

The Display button on the back panel controls the information display, with a choice of full or partial exposure information display in Record mode. The basic information display reports Flash mode, exposure settings (aperture and shutter speed), and Focus area. The detailed display also shows the remaining battery power, image quality and resolution, and a handful of other exposure settings. A histogram display appears in response to a third press of the Display button. The histogram graphs the tonal distribution of the image, and is helpful in determining over- or underexposure before snapping the shot. (Very nice, but I'd really like to see a "blink highlights" feature as found on some Nikon digicams.) Both the EVF eyepiece and rear panel LCD monitor have adjustable brightness settings. The LCD Brightness adjustment is the first option in the camera's "Setup 1" menu, with Dark, Normal, and Bright settings. When the camera is running on battery power, the second and third menu items are for LCD and EVF Backlight adjustment respectively. The backlight settings have Normal and Bright options, the latter of which is particularly helpful when shooting in bright, sunlit conditions. When the camera is plugged into the AC adapter, the LCD Backlight option disappears, because the backlight automatically switches to the "high" illumination setting by default.

In Playback mode, the Display button also controls the information display, but in this case, turns it completely on or off. The histogram is also available in Playback mode. An Index Display mode shows as many as nine thumbnail images at a time on the LCD monitor with a press of the Index button. While in Index display mode, pressing the Display button simply toggles the limited information display on and off. The Magnify button on the camera's rear panel controls the playback zoom, enlarging captured images as much as 2x. Turning the Command dial increases the amount of digital enlargement to 5x.

One advantage of an eye-level viewfinder, is that it promotes a more secure camera grip (arms clamped to your sides, camera body braced against your face), which particularly helps with long telephoto and low-light shots. It also provides a more natural "look-and-shoot" operation than when you're forced to rely on a rear-panel LCD display. On previous Sony digicams, I found the smaller EVF eyepieces difficult to work with in low-light situations, as the electronic viewfinder system typically requires more light to operate. As noted though, Sony's Night Framing and Night Shot modes are very effective in making the EVF usable at low light levels. (The Night Shot technology was first pioneered by Sony in its consumer camcorder lines, and made its debut in digital camera form on the original F707, in 2001.)

Night Shot and Night Framing take advantage of the CCD's sensitivity to infrared light, which is normally filtered out, because it tends to skew the camera's color rendering in bright sunlit scenes. Sony's Night Shot technology uses a movable IR filter that lets the camera take advantage of this IR sensitivity in low-light situations and block it at other times. The prototype model of the F828 I tested removed the limitation of Night Shot to Program and Auto modes that was present in the F707 and F717, allowing its use in any exposure mode. Unfortunately, it appears that production models of the F828 will once again restrict Night Shot to Programmed and Auto exposure modes only. The reasons for this are unclear, but are most likely related to issues of "propriety" - The Night Shot mode was similarly restricted in Sony's camcorders, because some users found that the IR technology could "see through" certain fabrics when used under daylight conditions. I personally never saw this, and think that the validity of the effect was dubious to begin with, but the furor in the popular press over the issue was enough to cause Sony to redesign the feature, restricting its use to dark shooting conditions. This is a real shame, as there are a LOT of IR photography enthusiasts who have been waiting for a digicam that would permit full exposure and depth of field control combined with IR-capable operation. (To date, the original Minolta DiMAGE 7 (not the 7i or 7Hi) remains the best option for digital IR photographers, as it was made with no IR filter over it's CCD.) I'd be happy to field any articulate arguments for "uncrippling" the 828's Night Shot mode that might help persuade Sony to re-enable it in a future camera or firmware release. - They don't seem to feel that this is a "make or break" issue for enough photographers to be worth supporting.

In Night Shot mode, the camera flips the IR filter out of the way for both the framing and exposure. Any natural IR light in the scene is augmented by two infrared LEDs on the front of the camera (just beneath the pop-up flash compartment), which project IR beams onto the subject. These lamps don't completely cover the field of view at wide angle, but they do a pretty good job from about halfway up the zoom range toward telephoto. The built-in illuminator lamps let you shoot in total darkness, but the pictures you capture will be monochromatic, with the majority of light areas of the subject showing a green cast (as is typical with Night Vision goggles). Some colors will render as different shades of gray than they would in a normal black-and-white photo. This is because the reflectance of objects is often different in IR than in visible light, so a "dark" color in daylight may actually appear quite bright in IR. (Note that when shooting reflective surfaces close-up, you'll be able to see the glow of the camera's IR lamps in the center of the image.)

In Night Framing mode, the camera also flips the IR filter out of the way and turns on the illuminator lamps, but only while you're framing your shots. As soon as you half-press the Shutter button, the IR filter flips back down, and the camera takes a normal visible-light photo, using the built-in flash. This is particularly handy for nighttime flash shooting, when you wouldn't be able to see (or focus on) the subject otherwise.

Overall, Night Shot and Night Framing are tremendous extensions to digital photography, clearly taking it into realms that film-based cameras just can't touch. Sure, you can shoot with IR film in a conventional camera, but the no-light viewfinder capability of Night Framing simply isn't available in the film world. Combined with the Hologram AF feature, it makes in-the-dark digital photography more practical than it's ever been. Big kudos to Sony for bringing these innovations to digital photography!

This isn't strictly a "Viewfinder" function, but I didn't know where else to mention it. Since it at least uses the LCD display, I figured I'd go ahead and talk about it here.

One of the best things most amateur photographers could do to improve their photos would be to simply crop them a little, cutting out distracting objects, and filling more of the frame with their primary subject. Virtually all Sony digicams let you do this right on the camera. Zoom in on an image in playback mode, and use the Multi-Controller to adjust the framing to your preference. Then hit the Menu button, and you'll see options labeled Return and Trimming. Select Trimming, and you'll see further options to select an image size. (Keep in mind that enlarging the image back up to full size after cropping it down only softens the detail, since no new information is added to the image file. The reduced number of pixels in the cropped image are simply enlarged to fill the full-size pixel array.) Select a size option, and the camera will save the image the way you've zoomed and cropped it on the LCD display into a separate file on the memory card. Very slick! (The animated screenshot at right was "borrowed" from my review of the F717. The function works the same way on the F828.)



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