Camera Review: Cyber-shot DSC-H5

This 7MP EVF is reasonably priced and produces high quality images, but its slow autofocus and response time can be maddening.

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Camera Review: Cyber-shot DSC-H527242679481Sony CybershotDSC-H5I was on my vacation, cooking my family breakfast when my phone rang. It was my editor from PopPhoto.com touching base with me. He asked about the cameras that I was using and reviewing and I told him that I loved the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T10 (Click here to see this review) but hated the Cyber-shot DSC-H5. Well, after sleeping on it for a few nights I've decided that hate may be a little strong. I think a better description would be that I have a love/hate relationship with this camera. With the H5, there really is no middle ground because the features are either wonderful or horrible. I had to wonder how one company could design two cameras that are so diametrically opposed. There are many features that I truly loved about this camera, but others that caused me total frustration. And unfortunately, those that caused frustration are some of the most important in making images. Hands Feel & Primary Features: The H5 (street $385) is a 7MP camera that reminds me of the old Bronica medium format cameras. It has a long, sweeping pentaprism-style bump that houses the Electronic View Finder (EVF) and under this, it has a gentle curve that fits your left hand well and is filled with the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 12x optical zoom lens (36mm-432mm f/2.8-3.7 35mm equivalent) that incorporates Sony's optical image stabilization system. Holding the camera in your hands, you see how large and comfortable the hand grip is. The shutter release is big and covered in highly polished chrome that begs your finger to touch it. The function dial is oversized and very easy to read and use. The zoom toggle is placed precisely under your right thumb and the rest of the buttons are well laid out and exactly where you'd expect them to be. Put simply, the H5 is an ergonomic thrill ride.

I was on my vacation, cooking my family breakfast when my phone rang. It was my editor from PopPhoto.com touching base with me. He asked about the cameras that I was using and reviewing and I told him that I loved the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T10 (Click here to see this review) but hated the Cyber-shot DSC-H5. Well, after sleeping on it for a few nights I've decided that hate may be a little strong. I think a better description would be that I have a love/hate relationship with this camera.

With the H5, there really is no middle ground because the features are either wonderful or horrible. I had to wonder how one company could design two cameras that are so diametrically opposed. There are many features that I truly loved about this camera, but others that caused me total frustration. And unfortunately, those that caused frustration are some of the most important in making images.

Hands Feel & Primary Features

What's Hot • "Camera System" add-on options such as macro, wide angle and telephoto lenses • Zeiss optics • Whisper quiet camera and shutter operations • Very good image quality • Ergonomic hot-shot with excellent build quality • Can us commonly available "AA" batteries What's Not • Slow burst rate and buffer • Low amount of internal memory • Poor menu design • Missing shots because of unresponsive camera controls Product Gallery Image Quality Gallery

The H5 (street $385) is a 7MP camera that reminds me of the old Bronica medium format cameras. It has a long, sweeping pentaprism-style bump that houses the Electronic View Finder (EVF) and under this, it has a gentle curve that fits your left hand well and is filled with the Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 12x optical zoom lens (36mm-432mm f/2.8-3.7 35mm equivalent) that incorporates Sony's optical image stabilization system. Holding the camera in your hands, you see how large and comfortable the hand grip is. The shutter release is big and covered in highly polished chrome that begs your finger to touch it. The function dial is oversized and very easy to read and use. The zoom toggle is placed precisely under your right thumb and the rest of the buttons are well laid out and exactly where you'd expect them to be. Put simply, the H5 is an ergonomic thrill ride.

The camera has nice aesthetics as well, featuring a bold ring of chrome that calls attention to the superior quality lens and the high carbon plastic body that has a matte black finish sprinkled with flecks of silver. The camera feels solid and well built and the buttons have a precise feel to them when pressed. For the price, the build quality is amazingly good. Other features are a huge, 3-inch (230,400 pixel) LCD screen that can also be used as a viewfinder when swapped with the EVF via the toggle button that's located to the right of the EVF prism. The LCD is sharp, bright and viewable from a very wide angle. The EVF has a 200,000 pixel screen and a well-hidden diopter correction located under the viewfinder that works well and gives the image in the finder some additional sharpness.

Another cool feature of the H5 is that there is a plethora of add-on features that can be purchased separately. These include a macro lens and ND filters (the lens has standard 58mm threading, so you can use any photo filters that are 58mm), as well as telephoto and wide angle converter lenses. The H5 also comes equipped with a nice lens hood as well. Which begs the question: with all of these great features available, why didn't Sony include an external flash (maybe even with TTL) as well, like it's Kodak competitor, the EasyShare P712? Anyone who is interested in mounting different accessory lenses for this camera would probably like the option of a more powerful flash as well.

Battery

The H5 uses AA-sized lithium Ion batteries that ship with a charger. The advantage of using the AA design is that in an emergency, you can throw in an alkaline set of AA batteries and go. This may have been intentional because the charger that comes with the H5 is fairly slow. In some instances it took almost six hours to recharge a set of batteries. But when fully juiced, they are CIPA rated at 340 shots, respectable for this camera class.

I was also impressed with the quiet operation of this camera when all sound is turned off in the menu. The shutter in the H5 is so whisper quiet that I dare say you could take this camera into any situation where there's a need for silence and shoot available light images without interrupting. The only other camera I can compare it to as far as the low level of audio noise is a Leica.

Video Features

The H5 can also shoot extremely high quality video and has the ability to use the zoom lens at a reduced rate of speed in comparison to racking the zoom while shooting still photos. By slowing the zoom down, it eliminates most of the noise introduced when racking the lens during video capture. At its highest quality, the H5 can shoot 12 minutes of uncompressed NTSC quality (640X480 @29.9 frames per second) video on a 1GB Memory Stick Pro Duo card. At its lowest quality, the H5 is able to produce MPEG VX videos that use 8 fps at a resolution of 160x120. It is however, quite choppy and should be a last resort for video. There are other quality levels in between these that balance high quality video with storage economy that should serve just about anyone's needs.

Optics

Carl Zeiss optics are heralded for their high quality color fidelity and sharpness. Typically a lens used by professional-grade cameras, it's what makes the H5 appealing. The images are sharp and colorful with little in the image area that would be considered an issue caused by the lens. It's nearly flawless and I suspect that a majority of the price paid for an H5 is for the lens.

Scenes vs. Manual

The H5 has six different shooting modes and an additional six scene modes that cover shooting at twilight, at the beach and other situations where the camera may need to compensate for adverse lighting conditions. I was thrilled to see that one of the modes was manual and that Sony incorporated a wheel just below the shutter release that when pressed, switches between aperture and shutter speed and when turned, adjusts whichever of these is selected. It's quick, easy and works very well. Unfortunately, it's not a FULL manual mode, since the camera determines the ISO setting automatically. Another drawback is that the minimum aperture in manual mode is f/8. Sony isn't alone in this shortcoming though, but you have to wonder why a camera maker has manual shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/1000th of a second and then stops the aperture at f/8.

Drawbacks

By this point, you're probably thinking to yourself that the H5 doesn't really sound like such a bad deal -- and in these areas it's not. My main issue with the camera is that the autofocus is slow and even when it does appear to pop into focus, the camera will often times not shoot the image. I shot many good images with this camera but lost 2-3 times as many simply because the camera refused to shoot the image -- try as I might.

I found the burst rate to be pretty slow for a camera that is supposed to be the high-end version of the consumer line. I shot 11 images in 10 seconds, or 1.1 frames per second. Even the ultraslim T10 had a faster rate than this. Surprisingly, both cameras use an image sensor with identical specs: 2.5" CCD @ 7.2MP. Buffer and shooting speed are really big issues and while I don't expect this camera to have the speed and buffer of a high end DSLR, there should be some increase from the base consumer model to the high-end model. This is supposedly one of the features you'd expect when upgrading to the high-end model.

The menu, like other Sony cameras, seems haphazard and thrown together without much thought about how things should be organized. On certain cameras the menu is so well thought out that it's effortless to navigate and even without any instructions, you can go through these and find exactly what you're looking for. Unfortunately, the Sony H5 doesn't fall into this category and as I said in my earlier review of the T10, this is something that Sony should really consider revamping across its entire non-DLSR digicam line.

Another item that bothered me about the H5 is that it has 30MB of available internal memory (36MB total). That may seem like a lot at first glance, but when you compare it to the T10, which has 56MB internal, and then realize that the 30Megabytes in the H5 will only give you 8 high quality images, it seems a little meager for a camera that's supposed to be in the upper end of the consumer line. Memory has gotten so cheap that there's really no excuse for putting any amount less than 256MB in a camera like this. Make it so that if my Memory Stick should go bad, I can still shoot vacation photos or whatever I'm shooting without interruptions. It should also be possible through good menu architecture to swap back and forth between external and internal memory as without having to tether to a computer. The Sony models are lacking in this area while other camera manufacturers such as Pentax are doing this with their Sound/Image Swap playback function, and why Sony and other manufacturers don't make this easy is baffling.

If missing some shots doesn't bother you, and you want a reasonably priced camera that gives you high quality images for a consumer grade camera, the H5 just may be your choice. But it simply drove me crazy though that such a nicely designed camera would have issues like this. The camera is a real joy to hold and all of the add-ons allow users to have the most of the capabilities of higher end DSLR systems without the huge investment. But the bottom line is: to keep pressing the shutter and have absolutely nothing happen at the decisive moment is a lesson in total aggravation and if I were in the market for this type of camera, this alone would cause me to look elsewhere.

In the Box:

The 7.2 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-H5 digital camera
Two NiMH rechargeable AA batteries
Battery charger
Lens cap w/retaining strap
Lens hood
Conversion lens adapter
Wrist strap
USB cable
A/V cable
CD-ROM featuring Sony Cyber-shot Viewer
Printed "Read This First" guide and a 120 page camera manual

Specs:

107.8 x 81.4 x 91.2 mm (4 1/4 x 3 3/16 x 3 5/8 in)
389 g / 406 g without and with the Memory Stick and batteries.

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