Putting the Fun back into Futography
How Big is Your Gun?
Many photographers take their photography very seriously. And often rightly so. Photography can be an art form, a passion, an avocation, and a career. But for the vast majority of camera buyers it's about having fun – recording personal and family memories.
The perception exists that a serious camera is needed to take good photographs, which is why we see so many tourists with DSLRs. Yet we know that they'll never make more than 5X7" prints or post their shots to a web sharing site. That's fine of course, but my experience is that many amateurs burden themselves unnecessarily with bulky and expensive cameras when something smaller and lighter will do.
And what about pros and serious amateurs – those who are most likely the readers of this site? Do we always need to carry our big guns? Do we even want to? Is there an alternative that can make casual shooting fun again?
Sony HX5 @ ISO 125
On The Scene
About once every six months I lift my head above the more rarified waters of DSLRs and medium format gear to see what's new in the world of pocket cameras. These little guys come and go at a ferocious pace, and the rate of technological change is also astonishing.
I'm from the school of thought that holds to the premise that if you don't have a camera with you, you can't take pictures. Since it isn't always possible (or appropriate) to have a larger camera along, something that easily fits in a pants or shirt pocket is an appropriate thing to have handy, whether walking the dog around the block or going to the Opera. You never know, the Alien Mothership could land across the street, and without a camera – there goes your Pulitzer.
Over the past year or so I've covered a number of different pocket cameras, including the Panasonic Lumix ZS3, Fuji Finepix F200EXR and Canon Powershot SX 200 IS, the Canon G11, and Canon S90. Each has its pros and cons, though the S90 is the one that has found its way into my pocket the most.
But my interests also include shooting video. With my main video gear I shoot 1080i/60 or 1080P/60, while all pocket sized cameras thus far have been limited to 720P at best, and often VGA (uggh) as in the case of the otherwise appealing Canon S90. Also, many of these cameras use poor quality codecs, such as Motion JPG, rather than the somewhat more difficult to edit but usually higher quality AVCHD.
But those days are now passed. In January, 2010 Sony introduced two new pocket cameras, the HX5 and TX7. These cameras use the same 10MP CMOS sensor, and have the same 1080i/60 AVCHD video recording capability. This review is of the slightly larger HX5, though the TX7 will also be considered.
Sony HX5 @ ISO 125
The Sony Cyber-shot HX5 is a 7oz (200g) shirt or pants pocket-sized camera with a 25-250mm (equivalent) lens. The aperture range is f/3.5 – f/5.5 depending on the focal length. In 1080/60i video mode the focal range is 30-300mm equivalent.
This is not the widest range that such cameras sometimes offer, and certainly the maximum aperture is not the fastest, but these things are always about trade-offs between size, weight and quality. The HX5's lens seems to have struck an appropriate sweet spot.
The camera has a 10.1 Megapixel Exmor-R CMOS sensor and a Sony G series lens with 10 elements in 7 groups (including 4 aspheric elements). This is large enough to allow 13X19" (Super A3B) full frame prints, or moderate cropping with smaller sized prints. More than enough for what most folks will do with this camera, and a wise choice by Sony given how high pixel count / small sensor typically produce large but mostly poor quality images.
There is a 3" rear LCD, that while lower resolution than that of some competitors, is bright and does the job in most lighting conditions.
I found the HX5 to handle quite well. There is a thumb recess at the top-rear right that makes handling reasonably comfortable, and the number and placement of the controls is otherwise well thought out.
I particularly liked the mode dial as compared to the sister TX7 camera, which doesn't have one, because it allows for setting the camera to an appropriate shooting mode without having to turn it on first.
Sony HX5 at ISO 125
100% on-screen crop
Sony designates the HX5 as having a "G Series" lens. This is their branding for their top-of-the-line glass – akin to Canon's designation of "L Series" on their pro glass.
I've done no optical testing of the HX5, but some hundreds of frames and numerous large prints later I find only occasional IQ issues related to the camera's optics, and most of the time am quite pleased with results at all focal lengths.
The camera has a built-in GPS and digital compass. The coordinates of where you are are recorded into each image's EXIF data and one can then later identify the local where a shot was taken. The user need not do anything. It's completely automatic.
Lightroom, for example, will display the coordinates recorded in the GPS field, and then if you click on them will open a browser window showing the location.
There are lots of other cameras that now have built-in GPS, and some of them with even more sophisticated capabilities than those of the HX5. But the one built into the HX5 works fine, is so unobtrusive that it's all that most people will need.
Optical Image Stabilization
As do most cameras these days, the HX5 has optical image stabilization, and it appears to work quite well. In video mode there is an available "Active" mode that bumps things up a notch with even more aggressive anti-shake technology.
The Laundry List
I'm not into laundry lists. You know – the screen after screen of specs and features that are found on most camera review sites, but also just as easily found on the manufacturer's. There are numerous features on the HX5 that you'd expect, including built-in flash, face detection, smile detection, the use of SD cards as well as Memory Stick (finally!!!!!!!!), self timer and much more.
Indeed there are more gizmos than that, including Transferjet – which is a close physical contact high speed wireless system, though unfortunately this camera seems to be one of the first on the market with it, and there don't seem to be any other devices yet to mate it to.
Main Fun Shooting Features
I started off this report by saying that the HX5 puts some fun back into casual photography. Let's see what some of these capabilities are about.
The HX5 has a number of fascinating capabilities, including in-camera HDR and sweep panoramics. These are all made possible by the fact that the camera can shoot at a very high frame rate – up to 10 frames per second.
There are any number of pocket cameras that can shoot high speed bursts, but what makes the HX5 unique is that it can do so while producing full sized, full resolution 10MP images, rather than the smaller ones produced by most competitors.
Other than for analyzing golf swings and the kids at hockey practice, I can't see much use for this feature, but I suppose some people will.
But it's worth noting that this capability appears to be derived from the new Exmor R CMOS sensor. Sony claims better low light capability as a result of this new technology, though frankly I don't really see much if any advantage in low light performance over comparable Panasonic and Canon cameras in the same price and feature range.
Where the Exmore R appears to offer an advantage, along with the latests Bionz processor is in speed. Being able to shoot 10 FPS at full 10MP resolution puts this camera into high-end DSLR territory, and being able to shoot 1080P/60i, which also requires high throughput, also places the HX5 into a small and exclusive club. I know of no other camera this size that can match it (except its sister the TX7).
The HX5 isn't the first Sony camera to offer this capability, but it has refined it. In this mode you hold down the shutter release and pan the camera from left to right or up and down in a smooth and steady motion – just as if you were shooting video, but faster.
The camera shoots a series of narrow images at high speed and then when your pan is done it stitches them together in camera (taking about a second or so) and produces a large panorama. Camera playback can show you the image as a panning window or as a single shot. Nice.
The HX5 improves on previous versions by being able to detect both faces and subject motion and "intelligently" stitching around then. I found this to be the case, and rarely do I see any stitching artifacts even at 100% on screen.
Backlight Correction HDR
Left – standard exposure. Right – HDR Exposure
Utilizing the extremely high speed sensor readout of the HX5 there is a mode provided called Backlight Correction HDR. This takes two frames in immediate succession at different exposures and then blends the highlights and the shadows from each into a new composite image. I found it to work quite well, and does the job in many different back light situations.
My suggestion would be to lock the exposure if you can (half shutter press) on the brighter part of the scene before reframing. The only problem with doing this is that the HX5 locks both exposure and focus with a half shutter press, and there's no way to separate them.
If you're shooting at the wide end of the zoom range this isn't much of a problem, as a 5–10mm lens has so much depth of field as to make the issue moot. But at longer focal lengths you might not be so lucky.
Handheld Twilight and Anti-Motion Blur
There are two shooting modes that allow for the automatic blending of high speed bursts of images. The first is Handheld Twilight and the second is Anti-Motion Blur. While the at first appear to do the same thing – blend six exposures – the operate slightly differently and consequently produce differing results.
Handheld Twilight is biased toward medium ISO settings while Anti-Motion Blur pushes the ISO all the way to 3200, so as to maximize the shutter speed used. I would guess that one gains about a full EI worth of image quality over using a standard shooting mode.
My recommendation would be to use Handheld Twilight though when using wider focal lengths or one can brace the camera somewhat, as the camera won't automatically go to its top ISO unless absolutely required to in very low light conditions.
This is a tough one to report on. How one describes the HX5's image quality is very much a function of ones particular needs and frame of reference. I could trash the HX5 because large prints and 100% on-screen enlargements show a lot of artifacting, as seen below. There is simply an unacceptable level of detail smearing and "plastic" looking skin at high magnification and on large prints, even at ISO 100.
Hat and Rose. Washington. May, 2010
But, will this camera be used by people who view their images at 100% on-screen and on 13X19" prints? My guess is – not. Therefore I'm not going to do any further analysis of image quality, because I feel that for its intended uses and audience the HX5 does just fine.
If you're a serious photographer looking for a tool that can produce higher quality images, then I would suggest that a shirt pocket sized camera that costs under $300 may not be the choice for you. Also, the HX5 does not shoot raw, and therefore fully baked and sharpened images are the order of the day, making ultimate IQ less than that possible from a comparable sized camera, such as the Canon S90, which does have raw capability. But, the S90 doesn't have the fun features that the HX5 does, and also has primitive video capability by comparison. Horses for courses.
As mentioned above, the HX5 is one of the few shirt pocket sized still cameras to shoot 1080i/60 video. Though by no means a competitor to even mid-range camcorders, and certainly not to video capable DSLRs, the HX5 acquits itself quite well as an always available video maker.
The one minute opus featured below has been reduced to 720P for web display, but as you can see the camera can do a decent job in non-demanding situations.
Our ever intrepid traveling and shooting companion Bill Atkinson aids a couple of German
tourists to build a bridge across a mighty river so that they and his own traveling companions,
none of whom had rubber wading boots, could also enjoy the photographic vistas on the other side of the river.
The TX7 Considered
If you read the web sites and blogs that cover cameras you'll likely have the impression that since the HX5 and TX7 share the same sensor and numerous other attributes, they are very similar cameras, especially when it comes to image quality. Well, I'm here to tell you that this is not the case. Far from it.
While the specs tell us that the sensor is the same, I find it hard to believe that the imaging processing chips and codec are the same. While the HX5 produces low ISO images that while still not terrific are as good as anything that I've seen from a small sensor / pocket sized camera (JPG only variety), those from the TX7 are nowhere near as good. The lens is certainly a factor as well.
Plainly put, I was not very impressed with the still image quality from the TX7. Even at its base ISO of 125 there is a "digitalness" that we used to see in most smaller sensor cameras, but which fortunately seems less prevalent than previously. This is seen as less than smooth detail, that while not noise per-se, makes the image appear "crunchy". Whether as a result of JPG over-sharpening or a more insidious form of artifacting, it seems to pervade the camera's still images regardless of settings. The camera also has more than its fair share of purple fringing along with more chromatic aberration than I've seen in a while.
Handling and user interface are another issue. The haptics of the HX5 are about as good as it gets when it comes to small cameras. There's a manual mode dial, joystick and the usual button that make accessing various menu settings and controls in a manner no dissimilar from larger cameras.
The TX7 on the other hand is virtually devoid of physical controls, requiring almost everything to be set via its touch screen. I'm not philosophically opposed to touch screens, but after using an iPhone less responsive screens just don't cut it any longer. I also found that because it has no mode dial, with the TX7 I would never know what mode the camera might be in when turned on again. I would reach for it to take a quick shot and find that I was in video mode, or Sweep Panoramic, and by the time I'd touched my way to the preferred setting the moment would be gone.
In the end, I found that the HX5 is not that much larger than the TX7 and is such a superior camera in terms of image quality and handing that I'd be hard pressed to recommend the TX7.