The Sony Cyber-shot HX100V hits the shelves some 2 years following on from the original Sony HX1 model. The latter was the instigator of the “Sweep Panorama” (live panorama capture that’s auto-stitched in camera) craze, and the HX100V not only takes this a step further forward but amps up the features elsewhere too.
Now with a 30x optical zoom that ranges from 27-810mm (equivalent) with a bright F/2.8-5.6 aperture, the Sony HX100V more than offers the extensive range integral to a superzoom. While its closest competitors - the Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR and Canon PowerShot SX30 IS - possess wider 24mm lenses, the Sony’s control provides a unique angle that’s great to use: surrounding the lens is a manual ring to extend through the zoom, but the flick of a switch will change its function to manual focus. This means both zoom and manual focus are ideally placed in relation to the body, plus there’s a second zoom in the form of a zoom rocker around the shutter that’s great in providing an extra steady hold while zooming during movie capture.
In addition to a 3-inch, 920K-dot variangle LCD the HX100V also has a built-in 200k-dot electronic viewfinder. Although the viewfinder resolution isn’t especially high and the size can prove frustratingly small to squeeze your eye up against, its presence is of huge use. Bright sunlight causes notable reflections from the LCD screen that can disrupt your work, and it is then that the viewfinder comes into play for more accurate composition and exposure feedback.
Dial in manual control
As well as automatic modes the HX100V also has full manual options and a thumbwheel-cum-button on the rear is well placed to quickly adjust options. Aperture, shutter, ISO and exposure compensation can be quickly toggled between by pressing down the thumbwheel itself, though having the ISO placed in the quick menu area would have made more sense.
Just behind the shutter there’s also a Focus button that opens up the autofocus area controls: the HX100V provides Multi (auto), Centre (middle-point only) or Flexible Spot AF (can be user-placed) options. Focusing is quick off the mark and the majority of the screen is available as a focus area, though there is a finger-sized outermost edge where focusing is not possible. Close-up focusing works well at the wider angle settings, but this quickly falls off as the zoom extends - don’t expect to be near to subjects and obtain focus at the fullest focal length (this wouldn’t be possible with any camera).
Sony being future-thinking there’re also a bunch of modes that plump out the specification: firstly there’s GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology that will track your location and add this data to images’ EXIF data. These “geotags” are a great way to organise images or albums by location or other similar use. Secondly there’s a 3D capture option, but this one may have less appeal overall. We’re not anti-3D, but to pull it off successfully it needs to be done right. Snapping two images through a single lens and then meshing them together in-camera doesn’t provide the integral twin-lens, distance separation or manual control that are key for 3D shots. That’s not to say it doesn’t work - the resulting MPO files look fine enough on a 3DTV or device, but Avatar this isn’t. Then, of course, there’s the latest iSweep Panorama mode - an update upon the HX1’s original that now shoots taller, more resolute files with all the live sweeping motion and clever in-camera stitching of the original. Resulting files are 1080 pixels high, but that’s the same vertical resolution as a Full HD television so there’s plenty of detail to be had.
Speaking of HD, the HX100V also delivers a Full HD 1080p movie mode at 50 frames per second (60fps for the US release) using the company’s AVCHD carrier and H.264 compression. Files are immediately replayable on the camera, but the native MTS file format will need to be converted to MOV for most computer-based players and editors (excluding VLC). The movie mode itself is automated - point the camera and it’ll continuously focus and auto-adjust exposure. The one and only manual control here is real-time exposure compensation adjustment that can prove particularly useful.
Single shooting is complemented by a continuous shooting mode that can snap away at up to 10 frames per second. Fast though this is we couldn’t get the camera to shoot any more than 10 in succession.
But the big question of them all has to be about image quality. Just how good are the HX100V’s images? The short answer would be “ok” rather than “great”. Sony has put a standard 1/2.3-inch-sized compact sensor into the HX100V’s body but then crammed some 16.2-megapixels onto this small space. Apart from the marketing benefits this may give the company it does absolutely nothing to enhance the resulting image quality for the end user. In fact it hinders it compared to a lower resolution sensor.
Although the ISO 100-200 settings are of good enough quality, examine them at actual pixel size and there’s notable softness and over-sharpened artifacts that result from processing. Here’s where RAW shooting would have come in handy for more user control - though there are three-level controls for Sharpness, Colour Saturation, Contrast and Noise Reduction to add that extra lick of detail (it’s only possible to see the results off-camera though, so you’ll need to tweak with the settings and view files in full before you know what suits). Above ISO 400 and image quality becomes even more limited, meaning the HX100V isn’t ideal for high ISO, low-light work - a shame when considering the success of Sony’s Twilight mode as found in its current compact camera range. However exposure is always accurate throughout the zoom range and scenes exude realistic colours whatever the ISO settings.
Those looking for a DSLR alternative be warned: although the HX100V will provide a zoom range beyond almost anything else on the market in a small and single package, the final image quality is the compromise. Sony should have stuck with a 10- or 12-megapixel sensor and tweaked it as best as possible to give the utmost quality. Casual users will be more than happy with its image quality that’s more than good enough for a variety of tasks, it’s just those looking to use full resolution files for critical detail prints won’t get quite everything here.
When it comes to superzoom cameras there are three major ones to consider: the 30x zoom Fujifilm HS20, 35x zoom Canon SX30 IS and now the Sony HX100V. Although the Sony may not offer the ability to shoot RAW files (Fuji HS20 only) and its images aren’t any better than a standard compact, it’s a belter of a performer in every other department.
The manual zoom/focus ring is great in use, movie quality is decent and the variety of features such as GPS, 10fps shooting and iSweep Panorama add that extra layer of appeal that also provides a lot of fun.
In our books the HX100V is a champion superzoom, if not the very best 30x zoom that’s available on the market.
Product shots by Stuart Miles, taken from our original Hands-on with the camera.