Camera Test: Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-H9

What do you get when you put a huge 15x Carl Zeiss zoom on a tiny 8MP EVF body? Practically a DSLR.

Camera-Test-Sony-Cyber-Shot-DSC-H9
Camera-Test-Sony-Cyber-Shot-DSC-H9

The H should stand for Hooray. The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 ($459, street), the new flagship in Sony's line of superzoom electronic-viewfinder cameras, has a 15X optical zoom, 8-megapixel capture, image stabilization, and a slew of fun and useful features. It's almost as good as a DSLR, with the added benefit of a 31-465mm equivalent f/2.7-4.5 Carl Zeiss zoom.

Can it measure up? Sony certainly has gotten it closer to the DSLR mark than any superzoom EVF we've ever tested. Through ISO 400, it puts up Excellent image quality numbers: Excellent resolution (just shy of 1800 lines at ISO 80-200), Excellent color accuracy, and noise no higher than Moderately Low.

At higher ISOs, noise reduced the image quality rating, but we were pleasantly surprised. At ISO 800, the H9 displayed Moderate noise and Extremely High resolution, about 1550 lines average. At ISO 1600 and 3200, noise creeped into Unacceptable -- but not by much. This is much better than many highmegapixel compacts we've tested, and similar to some recent DSLRs. Plus, the H9's grain pattern at high ISOs is tight, like grainy color film. So, if not enlarged too much, shots at ISO 3200 could be usable.

Then there's the Super Steady-Shot lens-based image stabilization system. Giving you up to 3 stops of additional handholding, according to our DxO Analyzer 2.0 tests, it works well enough to let you turn down the ISO when shooting fairly stationary subjects. We used it to shoot from a moving boat, with the lens cranked out to 465mm, and got remarkably sharp pictures.

FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!

The shooting speed of the H9 also represents a leap forward. While its EVF has low magnification -- a small viewing image -- we preferred it to the big LCD for tele shooting, as it helps steady the camera and improve aiming accuracy. The EVF redraws so fast that you can pan quickly and not see a jump in the image. AF and shutter response are such that, with instant review off, we could focus and fire with less than 1 sec between single frames, and just a momentary blacking out of the EVF after each.

Continuous shooting is trickier, since the EVF freezes frames during bursts, making panning guesswork. But it fires up to 20 highest-quality JPEGs at high speed (we counted up to 2.5 fps), and keeps blasting up to 100 frames at better than 1 fps. Several DSLRs would envy this.

We also like the D-Range Optimization setting, borrowed from the Sony Alpha 100 DSLR. This compresses or expands dynamic range according to the scene lighting, and does a good job of toning down excessive contrast. You also can set contrast manually to three levels. We found the default (middle) level a bit high in contrast, and we got the best color accuracy using the -1 contrast setting.

HOLD THAT THOUGHT

The handling of the H9 is very pleasant; you can grip it much like an SLR, left hand cradling the lens.

The control setup is a bit chaotic, though. Some settings (ISO, shutter/aperture, exposure comp, AF pattern) appear on the screen and are adjusted by a dial around the four-way jog controller, used for LCD info, flash mode, focusing mode, and self-timer.

Often, we inadvertently switched the flash mode when we were trying to enter exposure comp. Other controls -- meter pattern, drive mode and bracketing, EVF/LCD screen switch -- are scattered on various buttons, and more adjustments are in the menus. You'll need time to become familiar with the controls.

The big 3-inch LCD screen, which tilts up and down, is a boon for careful composition, as well as picture review. You can even superimpose grid lines on it.

The H9 performs some clever tricks. Nightshot slides the infrared filter off the sensor, so you can shoot in total darkness using the camera's infrared lamp. (Distance is limited to about 10 feet, and exposures are in the tripod zone.) After-shot fixes span the useful (redeye reduction, cropping) to the fun (fisheye effect, starburst filter). You can shoot stills in 16:9 widescreen format and display them in high-def with the included HDTV cable.

What's not to like? The H9 lacks both RAW capture and Adobe RGB color space. A more serious omission is a hot-shoe for an accessory flash. Its long zoom lens does show some purple fringing at the edge of pictures, confirmed as chromatic aberration by DxO Analyzer 2.0 tests. And as evolved as the H9's EVF and monitor are, we still prefer the direct optical viewing of an SLR.

But just try to find an 8MP DSLR with an image-stabilized 31-465mm f/2.7-4.5 lens for less than $500. Which fits in a cargo pocket. Which shoots fast, with no vibration. Which weighs less than a pound.

And if you can live with a fixed 2.5-inch LCD and no Nightshot mode, the Cyber-shot DSC-H7 is otherwise the same camera and carries a street price $90 less than the H9. Hooray, indeed!

** COMPETITIVE SET**
• Canon PowerShot S5 IS ($500, street): This new 8MP rig has a less super 12X 36-432mm equivalent f/2.7-3.5 zoom. ISO tops out at 1600. Continuous shooting is a slower 1.5 fps. And it uses 4 AA batteries, not rechargeables. Pluses? Hot-shoe for EX-series Speedlites, and it records video in stereo, not mono.
• Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom ($490, street): Current zoom champ, with 18X 28-504mm lens equivalent f/2.8-4.5 and sensor-based image stabilization. But the 7.1MP Olympus produces more noise through ISO 800, and its aggressive noise reduction punishes resolution at ISO 1600 and above. Captures RAW, and shoots faster bursts at lower resolutions, but the Sony wins for full-res bursts. Vital Statistics

Imaging: 8.1MP (effective) CCD captures 8MP images (3264x2448).
Storage: 31MB internal memory, plus Memory Stick PRO Duo slot. Stores JPEGs.
Burst rate: Up to 20 highest-quality JPEGs at 2.5 fps, up to 100 at 1.8 fps (tested).
Video: 640x480 at 30 fps with mono sound.
AF system: TTL phase detection system with user-selected AF point anywhere on the screen or 9 autoselect AF zones; selected zone is highlighted on LCD. Single-shot and continuous AF. Cancelable AF-assist lamp.
Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec.
Metering: Evaluative, centerweighted, and spotmetering. EV -1 to 18 (at ISO 100).
ISO range: 80, 100 to 3200 in 1-EV increments.
Flash: Built-in with TTL autoflash, GN 43 (ISO 100, feet).
Electronic viewfinder: 0.2-in., 200,000- pixel LCD.
LCD: 3-in. TFT with 230,400-pixel resolution.
Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, A/V, and HD-component video.
Battery: Li-ion rechargeable; 280 shots per charge (CIPA rating).
Size/weight: 4.3x3.3x3.4 in.; 15.6 oz with card and battery.
Street price: $459.
For info: www.sonystyle.com.

Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAn-inside-the
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAn-inside-the
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityAn inside-the-park view of New York City's Columbus Circle. Good color and dynamic range at ISO 400.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityGood-shadow-an
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityGood-shadow-an
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityGood shadow and highlight detail in this peaceful park shot at 1/400 sec at f/5.6.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityGood-highlight
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityGood-highlight
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityGood highlight detail in the white shirt and pants.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityThe-Sony-H9-pe
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityThe-Sony-H9-pe
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityThe Sony H9 performed well on a bright and sunny day of deep shadows and hot highlights.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualitySitting-pretty
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualitySitting-pretty
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualitySitting pretty, with an exposure of 1/640 at f/5.6 with an equivalent focal length of 31mm.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWant-to-catch
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWant-to-catch
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityWant to catch the look on a pitcher's face? You can do it with the Sony zoom at 465mm (equivalent).Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityReady-aim
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityReady-aim
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityReady...aim... The speedy Sony caught the action shot with an exposure of 1/2000 sec at f/6.3.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityA-sea-of-peopl
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityA-sea-of-peopl
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityA sea of people lazing on the grass in Central Park on the first warm day of the season.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityTree-Climbing
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityTree-Climbing
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityTree Climbing 101, captured at an equivalent of about 285mm.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWho-can-t-resi
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWho-can-t-resi
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityWho can't resist a cute baby? Captured at a perfect portrait focal length of 80mm.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityZoom-with-a-vi
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityZoom-with-a-vi
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityZoom with a view: The Sony H9 let us zoom in quickly to a 285mm equivalent.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityNice-contrast
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityNice-contrast
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityNice contrast and color saturation in this reflection image, done at ISO 400.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWe-could-say-t
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityWe-could-say-t
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityWe could say that using the Sony H9 was like a walk in the park. Here's a scene on one of the famous bridges at an equivalent of 195mm.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityOK-so-we-shou
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityOK-so-we-shou
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityOK, so we should have popped up the flash for fill, but the H9's good dynamic range gave us plenty of detail in this shot at 1/500 sec at f/5.6 with a focal length of about 115mm.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityA-golden-retri
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityA-golden-retri
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityA golden retriever, salivating at just the idea of going for a swim in the lake.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAt-the-other-e
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAt-the-other-e
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityAt the other end of the zooming range, a 31mm equivalent gave us a shore-to-shore view.Photo By Linzee Karasik
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAt-an-equivale
Sony-Cyber-shot-DSC-H9-Image-QualityAt-an-equivale
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 Image QualityAt an equivalent focal length of about 400mm, the Sony H9 blurred out the background at an exposure of 1/400 sec at f/5.6.Photo By Linzee Karasik
ADVERTISEMENT