Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V1 Digital Camera; 5-Mp Prosumer Camera With 4x Carl Zeiss Zoom, Plus Exclusive Night Shooting Modes

The most prolific manufacturer of digital cameras, Sony was also one of the first to introduce a 5-megapixel model, the DSC-F707 in 2001, later replaced by the F717. The company's latest high-end 5-Mp camera, the DSC-V1, should become more popular, thanks to its smaller size and lighter weight. This model is absolutely loaded with capabilities, including most of the features that we expect in an SLR camera--plus some night shooting options exclusive to Sony.

During early summer, I shot over 200 images of various subjects including outdoor portraits of grads before their prom, cycle race competitors, flower gardens, street performers, and re-enactors dressed as British Redcoats. The DSC-V1 proved to be very responsive and quick, and my best images made large prints of exhibition quality.

On sunny days and in cloudy/bright conditions, the DSC-V1 produced beautiful images, in its default settings, with fairly accurate color balance, and very high color saturation, contrast and sharpness. With light-toned subjects such as these, some exposure compensation was necessary for the most accurate exposures. (At f/5.6 in Aperture Priority AE with +0.7 compensation; Auto white balance.)
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Camera Characteristics And Capabilities
Somewhat boxy and traditional in style, the DSC-V1 is a bit thick but still fits into a large shirt pocket. Because of its many aluminum components, the camera is rugged and surprisingly light in weight. Like many "prosumer" models, this one includes several analog buttons, dials and switches for quickly selecting certain features and for making some settings. This is also one of the few compact cameras to include a hot shoe for a high-powered accessory flash unit (HVL-F32X) useful for distant subjects and in low-light conditions.

Because the camera includes a vast range of capabilities and overrides (as detailed in the Facts chart), many features do require access to one of the electronic menus. The first is available via the Set Up option on the mode selector dial while the other is accessed with the Menu button. Like an SLR camera, this one also provides a great deal of data in the LCD screen as to modes, settings, f/stop, shutter speed, exposure histogram, and even the remaining memory card and battery capacity. Clearly, Sony is targeting the experienced photo enthusiast with this camera.

Image quality in high resolution TIFF mode is remarkable. This illustration shows only a small part (15 percent ) of a full image, sized for making a 10x13" print at 280dpi and optimized for printing in Photoshop. Most photographers who view the oversized ink jet glossy hanging on my wall believe that it was made with a
6-Mp SLR camera. (At f/7.1 at ISO 100 in TIFF capture; Macro mode; image file increased from 14.5MB to 28MB with bicubic interpolation.)

Quick Draw
The DSC-V1 is also very quick. Start up time is a mere 3 seconds. Because there is no obvious wait for focusing or shutter lag, the camera is ideal for capturing a fleeting gesture. Image recording time is short, only 2 seconds in the large/fine JPEG mode. Shoot three 5-Mp frames at a fast 2 fps, and the camera is ready to shoot another burst in 9 seconds. The only commonly-used feature that's slow is TIFF capture. Recording time for an uncompressed 14.5MB image is a full 45 seconds; it's worth the wait, for the finest possible image quality.

A few unusual features are also worth noting here. The first is the "Smart Zoom" system that allows digital zoom only at lower image sizes and only when zooming will not affect image quality. Sony's low-light shooting options are even more fascinating. Select Hologram autofocus and a special laser system (safe for human eyes) projects a bright red cross-hatched hologram pattern onto the subject. More effective than a conventional focus assist beam, this allows for autofocusing in low-light, although focus acquisition takes a second or so in very dark locations.

Because it's impossible to compose an image in the dark, the DSC-V1 includes a NightFraming mode. When selected, the camera projects infrared (IR) beams onto the subject to produce a monochromatic image in the LCD screen for framing the photo. After focus is achieved, the exposure is made with TTL flash for a nicely-lit photo. NightShot IR mode is quite different, intended for taking infrared pictures of a nearby subject in total darkness without flash. When selected, the camera employs the IR illuminators to make an exposure at a shutter speed of a mere 1 second (at ISO 100) and Noise Reduction is automatically activated.

With its unique laser hologram AF assist system, the DSC-V1 will autofocus even in total darkness. In NightFraming mode (above), the camera produces a nicely lit image with TTL flash. The effect is quite different in the NightFraming IR mode (below) that employs only IR beams to light the subject generating so-called infrared images. (Both in Program mode at ISO 100 and f/3.5; IR image: 1 sec exposure, with +0.7 exposure compensation.)

Evaluation: Simple to operate in its basic modes, the DSC-V1 becomes more complicated when you want to access the subject specific Program modes and most of the advanced capabilities. Frankly, too many features require access to the electronic menus. Hunting for the desired option is slow, and some features are difficult to find. Because operation is not intuitive, a full study of the instruction manual is essential in order to exploit this multi-talented camera's vast potential.

While I appreciated the data provided in the LCD screen, the numerals are tiny and difficult to see, especially in bright light. A camera of this size and price range should include a larger monitor with a better anti-reflective coating. This nit-picking aside, I considered the DSC-V1 to be extremely fast and versatile. I missed only one feature: greater burst depth. The ability to shoot more than three frames in a series would make it even more useful in action and candid picture taking.

Anyone who frequently takes flash photos in low-light will certainly appreciate hologram autofocus. In very dark conditions, the NightFraming mode can also be useful. While it's not easy to frame a subject in darkness using the rather dim infrared image on the LCD screen, it is certainly possible. In my tests, both focus and flash exposure were close to perfect with subjects that were up to 6 feet from the camera. Because the NightShot IR mode generates pictures that are green-toned, grainy, and dark around the edges, this system is more of a novelty.

Field Test Results
After setting up the DSC-V1 for a specific subject type and the lighting condition, I found the camera to be very reliable. The five-point autofocus system was useful for quick shooting with an off-center subject while the single-point autofocus allowed me to focus on the eyes in portrait shots. I particularly appreciated the Continuous autofocus mode for moving cyclists during a race. While the system is not super fast, it worked well with competitors working their way up a hill. I found no need for manual focus but it would be useful for landscapes and some still life compositions.

With its quick response, Continuous autofocus system, 5 point AF sensor, and the 2 fps Burst mode, the DSCX-V1 often produced a series of three sharply focused images of moving subjects. While the AF system was not designed for sports photography, it's certainly effective with more typical (slower) subjects. (At 1/250 sec in Shutter Priority AE mode; +0.7 exposure compensation; fine/large JPEG capture.)

In multi-pattern metering, the camera tended to underexpose light tones and overexpose mid tones slightly, easily corrected with exposure compensation. The forced flash system was useful for fill-lighting in bright conditions, producing a fairly subtle effect with the output set to "low." With its TTL flash system, still rare in prosumer cameras, this Sony model certainly produced pleasing flash photos both indoors and out.

The camera's white balance performance was quite good on sunny days and in flash exposures. Although some images are slightly warm (yellow) in tone, that's easy to correct with Auto Color or a minor color balance adjustment in Photoshop; this step is worthwhile, especially for the best skin tones. Images made without flash in shade or on cloudy days (with "Auto" or "Cloudy Day" white balance) often exhibit a blue or a yellow color cast. Skin tones are unattractive, especially when shooting in the default setting for color saturation. For better results with portraits of grads and cyclists, I needed to do some serious color balance correction in Photoshop before making prints suitable for framing.

The DSC-V1 allowed me to control motion and depth of field--as well as every other image parameter--great for serious photography. While this is a subjective judgment, I found the default level for color, contrast and sharpness excessively high. Anyone experienced with one of the Photoshop programs should set these factors to low. Fine-tune the images as necessary with the software and the resulting prints will often be outstanding.

The DCS-V1 is a successful and versatile camera that should satisfy the photo enthusiast who is not yet ready for a digital SLR system. While it can be used for snapshooting in Program mode, it would be most appropriate for an experienced shooter who will use the wealth of options to control all aspects of an image. The color cast problem in some lighting conditions can be overcome with Photoshop or with the Custom White Balance option: using a white card to calibrate the system for very accurate results.

Image Quality Assessment
Thanks to the USB 2.0 interface, uploading numerous images to my PC was very quick. As expected with a 5-Mp camera with a Carl Zeiss lens of superb quality, the TIFF images, made at ISO 100, exhibit remarkable quality and little evidence of "purple fringing" (chromatic aberration). At 100 percent magnification on my monitor, they're clean and smooth, with exceptional clarity and great resolution of fine detail, suitable for very good 10x13" prints after doubling the file size in Photoshop.

Because TIFF recording time is quite long, I generally worked in JPEG large/fine mode at ISO 100 producing images that opened as 14.5MB files. These are almost as impressive as the TIFF files. Edges are sharp, not jagged and JPEG artifacts--caused by the 6:1 compression--are barely noticeable. More importantly, my best 9x12" prints are outstanding, drawing rave reviews from family and friends. Images made at ISO 200 are still quite good, with slight digital noise in shadow areas, but at each higher ISO setting, the colored specks become more obvious.

With its high grade Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar lens, Super HAD 5-Mp sensor and sophisticated processing system, the DSC-V1 often produced images of superlative quality at ISO 100. My best JPEG images made for 9x12" ink jet prints of photographic quality, or 10x13s that most viewers rated as "very good." (At 100mm equivalent; f/7.1; TTL flash; image made at "low" setting for color, contrast and sharpness and fine-tuned for printing in Photoshop.)

Final Evaluation
At $699, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V1 offers good value for a rugged 5-Mp camera with a premium-grade 4x optical zoom lens, high-speed performance, and an incredibly rich feature set. When compared to the highly-rated Sony DSC-F717--with its bulbous 5x zoom lens and electronic viewfinder--the DSC-V1 is a more desirable camera. While the F717 ($749), with its larger 2/3" sensor, produces even higher image quality, the V1 is more convenient and portable; it also includes extra user-adjustable options for greater versatility. If you're on a tight budget but want a "less complicated" 5-Mp camera that's even smaller, check out the Cyber-shot DSC P92. Equipped with a Sony 3x zoom lens, three-point autofocus system, five Program modes and the most important overrides, it's a bargain at the street price of $429.

· Great versatility with 4x zoom, numerous recording formats, operating modes and overrides, plus compatibility with accessory flash unit and len converters
· High-speed autofocus, minimal shutter lag, quick JPEG processing, fast 2 fps framing rate
· Superb lens, well corrected for aberrations and distortion, plus useful (digital) SmartZoom
· High-resolution capture with very good to excellent image quality, suitable for making prints larger than 8.5x11"

· Inconsistent and often poor white balance in shade and in overcast conditions; need to set Custom white balance or use image enhancing software, especially for pleasing skin tones
· Maximum burst depth of 3 frames is inadequate
· Somewhat complicated to operate; numerals on LCD screen are too small
· Short battery life (84 minutes shooting time when using LCD screen)

· Sensor: 1/1.8" CCD; 5 million recording pixels
· Capture Modes: Single shot; 3 shot burst mode at 2 fps
· Capture Formats: TIFF (up to 2592x1944 pixels); five JPEG options plus two "quality" (compression) levels; several MPEG movie modes with sound, plus multi-burst mode
· Storage: Memory Stick including high capacity Pro cards
· White Balance: Auto and Custom white balance; also, Daylight, Cloudy, Incandescent and Fluorescent settings; automatic Dynamic Flash white balance
· Lens: Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 7-28mm (equivalent to 34-136mm) f/2.8-4 with aspheric elements; up to 4x digital SmartZoom
· Focusing: Single shot and continuous TTL autofocus; 5-point and single sensor selectable; Hologram AF illuminator; 13 step manual focus; focuses to 15.7" and to 3.9" in Macro mode
· Sensitivity: Auto, and 100, 200, 400 and 800 equivalent
· Operating Modes: Manual; Aperture and Shutter Priority AE; Program with Program Shift; eight subject specific Programs
· Exposure Control: 49-zone multi-pattern, spot and center-weighted light metering; Exposure Compensation and Bracketing; AE Lock
· Shutter Speed Range: 1/8 to 1/2000 sec; 30 to 1/1000 sec in manual mode
· Flash: Built-in pop-up TTL flash with pre-flash metering; redeye reduction, Off, slow-sync and forced-flash modes; three output level settings; hot shoe and terminal for proprietary accessory flash
· Power: Infolithium NP-FC11 rechargeable battery and AC adapter/charger, included
· Dimensions/Weight: 3.9x2.6x12.3"; 10.9 oz including battery
· Street Price: $699

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