Sony’s flagship bridge camera, the Cyber-shot HX300, features a 20.4-million-pixel sensor and 50x, 24-1200mm f/2.8-6.3 Carl Zeiss super-zoom lens. So what does it mean for image quality? Read the Sony Cyber-shot HX300 review...
Sony Cyber-shot HX300 at a glance:
- 20.4-million-pixel, 1/2.3in (6.17×4.55mm) Exmor R CMOS sensor
- 4.3-215mm (24-1200mm equivalent) f/2.8-6.3 Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* lens
- 10fps burst mode
- 1.44-million-dot electronic viewfinder
- 920,000-dot tilt LCD screen
- Around £420
Sony Cyber-shot HX300 – Introduction
In light of the danger to the compact camera market posed by the rise of smartphones, Sony is concentrating on two key areas where dedicated compact cameras still have the advantage: image quality and zoom range. In fact, 80% of Sony’s compact cameras in 2013 will be ‘high-zoom’ types. New models, the HX300 and WX300, both feature new sensors and improved optical zooms over their predecessors. The HX300, on test here, offers the widest zoom in Sony’s range.
The HX300 is Sony’s flagship bridge (super-zoom) camera, offering a mammoth 50x optical zoom. Its equivalent focal range is 24-1200mm, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8-6.3. This zoom range is matched only by Canon’s PowerShot SX50 HS and the Fujifilm FinePix SL1000, while Fuji’s FinePix HS50EXR and Nikon’s Coolpix P520 both have 42x zooms. The main question regarding Sony’s HX300 – or indeed any of these models – is how far a camera’s zoom lens can be pushed before image quality is compromised? In this test we go one further, and assess the impact that the HX300′s high pixel count has on its image quality.
Sony says the HX300 produces better image quality and has a wider zoom than its predecessor, the HX200V, despite being physically smaller. This is achieved primarily by its lens, which has 15 elements in 10 groups, including three aspheric elements. These elements help keep the size down without introducing spherical and chromatic aberration. The lens also carries Sony’s super ED element, as found in the company’s Alpha cameras – which is a first for a non-RX-series Cyber-shot model – as well as two ED elements.
Lenses that offer extreme telephoto settings are only usable if their stabilisation is effective. In the HX300, the ‘shift’ group of lens elements that provides stabilisation has been moved to the front rather than the rear of the lens, where Sony claims they improve stabilisation when shooting at the telephoto end from 3.5EV to 4.5EV. As lens elements are larger and heavier at the front of a super-zoom lens, a more powerful actuator system is used in order to shift the extra weight effectively and neutralise camera shake.
Image: The class-leading, 50x optical zoom means distant subjects can fill the frame. Importantly, stabilisation is very effective for accurate composition
A new, class-leading 20.4-million-pixel sensor has been introduced in the HX300. However, as it remains a compact 1/2.3in (6.17×4.55mm) in size, this means that it is crowded with small pixels. The camera is also only able to record in JPEG format – raw capture seems an obvious and disappointing omission, given that it is available in cameras such as Canon’s PowerShot SX50 HS.
Drive modes include a continuous high 10fps mode, possible for a 10-frame burst, as well as various self-portrait options. More picture effects have been introduced too, and the scope for combining these effects into one image has been improved.
Build and handling
The HX300 may indeed be smaller than its predecessor, but at 129.6×93.2×103.2mm it is still the size of an entry-level DSLR. It is lightweight and can comfortably be operated for long periods even with one hand. Comfort is also helped by the handgrip, which fits the hand just right and is covered with tactile rubber for a steady hold. The body is still made mostly of plastic but, as bridge cameras go, the build quality is solid enough.
Most of the lens barrel is covered by a grooved control ring, which has two modes accessed by a switch on the side: AF/ zoom and MF, both of which handle very well. With such a wide zoom range precision is difficult, especially when each turn of the lens ring or the other zoom switch by the shutter prompts a big leap in focal length. On the plus side, zooming from one extreme to the other is speedy: taking pictures of a lake, I was able to zoom in on a heron before it took flight.
Sony’s revised lens design – with the stablisation group at the front of the lens – makes it possible to achieve sharp shots at telephoto settings. Stabilisation is available in two modes, to counter standard or extreme movement, but there is no option to turn it off. Without stabilisation at 1200mm, a shutter speed of 1/1250sec would be necessary for a sharp shot, but with stabilisation it is possible to use a speed as slow as 1/100sec – impressive stuff!
Like the RX1 and RX100, the HX300 uses the new BX1 battery, which Sony claims has up to twice the life of the batteries used in its previous generation of Cyber-shot cameras. The battery provides a respectable 310-shot life for the HX300. During the course of a day using this camera, often in its high-speed burst modes and with a spot of HD video recording, I found the battery lasted most of the day, which surpassed my expectations.
I would, however, like to see an improved shutter button – currently it requires a firm push to activate the shutter. A nice touch, though, is the custom button that can be assignedto any one of a number of key functions, such as white balance. All in all, the camera handles really well.
LCD, viewfinder and video
The HX300 offers both an electronic viewfinder and a rear LCD screen to view and compose images. With 921,000 dots, the 3in rear screen has a class-leading resolution. The display is bright and crisp and offers a wide viewing angle. Furthermore, the screen can be tilted for viewing from high and low angles when in landscape format, or from the side when the camera is in portrait format.
There is no eye sensor next to the viewfinder. Instead, a button adjacent to the viewfinder is used to switch between displays. Again, the viewfinder has a class-leading resolution at 1.44-million-dots, and its lag is impressively minimal when panning. The display of the viewfinder is not quite to the same standard as the types in Sony’s SLT cameras, but for a bridge camera it is very good.
Full HD 1080p videos can be recorded in AVCHD format at 50p, with stereo sound.
White balance and colour
With only JPEG capture possible, it is crucial to get the exposure right when taking an image. With manual exposure control selected on the shooting mode dial, it is possible to take control of the white balance, with auto, seven presets and a custom setting available, the last of which is easy to take a reading for. As I would expect, when using AWB and the autoexposure modes, the colour temperature is on the whole a little cool and influenced by predominant colours in a scene – for example, a magenta tone is present in green landscapes.
Tweaks to the colour rendition are easily made when in one of the auto modes using the Photo Creativity menu, which is entered via the bottom button on the control wheel. This provides a beginner-friendly navigation route to changing the colour temperature, saturation or adding a picture effect, such as partial colour and pop colour.
The dynamic range of the HX300 is good enough for a camera at this level. Expect the usual highlight clipping in scenes with a broad range of brightness values – for example, detail in the whites of sunlit clouds or white feathers of a bird may not be present. In the auto mode, if the camera detects that the scene has a wide dynamic range, it can automatically take a HDR image to boost tonal information. This is recorded over consecutive frames in quick succession, for which a tripod is not needed.
In any one of the manual exposure modes, the metering can be controlled using the spot, centreweighted or multi-segment modes. In the autoexposure modes, metering is determined through auto scene detection. In the dull overcast weather that was consistent throughout this test, exposure usually needed brightening up by around 0.7-1EV when using multi-segment metering. This is good because highlight detail is maintained more often, but given the camera’s limited ability to control noise, underexposure can be an issue for cleaner, noise-free results.
The HX300 has a relatively comprehensive set of AF modes and features. A dedicated focus button next to the camera shutter offers multi, centre and flexible spot AF, the last of which can be selected from any one of 117 AF areas in the large central portion of the frame, navigated using the control wheel. When in the multi-segment mode, face-detection AF is possible, with options for ‘child’ or ‘adult’ priority.
As I would expect, in bright light AF is snappy, but in low-contrast light the contrast-detection-based system is slowed down somewhat. I used the camera to take pictures of white water rafting, and the face detection and subject tracking seems responsive enough, with around eight out of 10 shots in focus.
Images: The 10fps shooting burst works for 1sec, but one must wait while the files are being processed before another sequence can be captured
See these larger sample images taken with Sony Cyber-shot HX300.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured with the lens set to its 100mm (4.3x zoom approx) position. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.
With a resolution of 20.4 million pixels, the HX300 has an output of 5184×3888 pixels, enabling prints sized approximately 17.3x13in at 300ppi. However, like so many other bridge cameras, the sensor is small, which means it is more crowded with pixels and consequently at a higher risk of noise. For example, the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS has just 12.1 million pixels on a sensor that is the same size.
The HX300 records still images in JPEG format only, that when processed (in-camera) are corrected for contrast, distortion and noise reduction. There is no option to turn off the application of sharpness, contrast and noise reduction, but each can be set to low, standard or high strength. Sony describes the HX300 as using ‘Adaptive NR’, which uses an algorithm that applies more noise reduction to areas like the sky where there is little detail, but less to areas of high detail, which helps to maintain an image’s integrity.
A 20.4-million-pixel sensor should exceed the 24 mark on the AP resolution chart reached by the HX300, but the camera’s performance still betters the lower-resolution competition, such as the SX50 HS. However, in low-contrast light using the ISO 1600 setting and above, the quality of detail dramatically declines and the Canon cameras performs better. I expect detail produced by a compact camera to resemble a watercolour when viewed at 100%, and this is especially the case with the HX300 at ISO 1600 and higher. In short, the camera performs well in good-contrast light when used in a manual exposure mode, but pays the price in low-contrast light mainly due to its high pixel density.
Image: Taken at ISO 400 but then brightened by +2EV, luminance noise is uniform in both highlight and shadow areas.
On paper, the HX300 is class-leading in many areas: its wide 50x optical zoom, high-resolution sensor, good EVF and rear tilt LCD. However, how a camera performs is what really matters. The first thing to note is that the HX300 handles really well – it slots perfectly into the hand, is lightweight and, importantly, its lens control is quick and easy and its stabilisation is excellent, enabling handheld use at telephoto settings.
As for image quality, the HX300 was always going to have its work cut out, what with its wide zoom and high resolution. Detail in any sensitivity setting above ISO 800 is not good. Luminance and chroma noise is evident at all the ISO settings too, although this is not unusual.
All in all, the HX300 handles beautifully, offers a versatile zoom and has a solid performance in bright light, but is less suitable in when light levels drop.
Full 1080p HD (50fps), 720p (30fps), H.264 MOV video with stereo sound
Auto, 7 presets and 2 custom
SD, SDHC, SDXC, Memory Stick Pro Duo
5184 x 3888 pixels
Tilting, 3in, 921,600-dots
20.4-million-effective-pixel, 1/2.3in, back-illuminated CMOS (6.17 x 4.55mm)
Auto, Auto+, PASM, memory, panorama, 3D, video, 9 picture effects and 15 scenes
650g (including battery and card)
Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* 4.3-215mm (24-1,200mm equivalent) f2.8-6.3
NP-BX1 rechargeable Li-Ion
Up to 30-1/4000sec
Single, self-timer 2 or 10secs, bracketing, self-portrait (1 or 2 people), continuous up to 10fps
Adobe RGB, sRGB
±2EV in 1/3 steps
Single, continuous, tracking AF, manual
129.6 x 93.2 x 103.2mm
Multi, centreweighted, spot
Mini HDMI, digital/video out, remote