Sony, the electronics company who invented the original Walkman personal stereo in the 1980s, have also been synonymous with digital cameras right from the beginning of the digital photography era. Today, they market a wide range of popular cameras meant for the consumer market but also for more advanced photographers. Their latest model, the Sony DSC-V1 is clearly aimed at more upmarket shooters, especially if you consider the elaborate range of features it offers.
Over the years Sony's Cybershot range of cameras have distinguished themselves from the competition by a wide selection of sizes and body shapes, which more often than not could be called unconventional. Not so the Sony DSC-V1, which looks very traditional in that it resembles a 35mm rangefinder camera from the past.
Although it is not small enough to fit in your pants pocket, its boxy and relatively compact built lets you carry it in one hand without strain. It is very well constructed and its controls are user-friendly. The 5-megapixel CCD, coupled to the f2,8-f4,0 7-28mm Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar lens (34-136 equivalent), is easily good enough for quality high-resolution images. The exposure modes on the camera offer full manual control or program mode if you want to. You could even choose one of several standard scene modes such as Twilight, Snow or Beach settings. The selection of features on the Sony DSC-V1 is truly exceptional, offering the user as much or as little control as he likes.
Using the camera
So what is it like to work with? The first thing you notice is the large number of buttons and controls scattered seemingly randomly around the back and top of the camera. Taking a closer look reveals that they are all clearly marked and that it's obvious what their function is. Having more buttons has the advantage that camera settings and menu choices are not hidden in some far away menu, but that they are easily and quickly accessible from the outside, when you need them. The body is mostly metal and has a solid, well-engineered feel to it. The Sony DSC-V1 is not as light as some other compact cameras, but a bit more weight will assist the photographer in avoiding image blur from camera shake.
The optical viewfinder is clear and has a good size although there is no dioptric adjustment. A bit of a shame really that Sony hasn't included this, as they have put so many other useful features in this high-end consumer model. A nice feature to mention here is the zoom control switch on the back of the camera, which can be set to work in either direction. If you prefer "push up" for tele and "push down" for wide angle or the other way around, this can be customised by the user. There is a jog dial which makes it possible to override automatic settings at the touch of a button. Another nice touch is the little rubber button at the bottom of the camera which ensures it doesn't slip if you rest the camera on a wall or table to take an image.
Powering on the camera is quick and within three seconds the Sony DSC-V1 is ready to go. When pressing the shutter the camera locks focus in about half a second. In dark conditions the hologram AF laser system will project a grid of bright red lines on your subject and it may take an additional second to focus, but when you then press the shutter button, the photo is taken without delay. The shutter has a light touch which takes some getting used to, as it is well possible to accidentally take a photo if you are not careful. The image does not remain visible on the display, although by pressing the left button on the 4-way control you can view the last image captured. A trick which also works with some Canon cameras is to hold down the shutter after taking the photo and the image will remain visible on the TFT screen for as long as you hold down the shutter button. At 1,5 inches the screen is quite small and all the exposure information is in very small print, which can make reading it all a bit difficult,
especially if - like me - you are getting on a bit in years.
Shot to shot time is excellent, one of the fastest on the market, although admittedly if you have chosen to save your images in TIFF format, you will have to wait about 40 seconds before the camera is ready to take the next image. Our advice would be to leave TIFF format to the professionals and stick to JPEG, as the latter format in its fine compression mode is easily good enough to make large prints with any of today's cameras.
The camera has a hot shoe for mounting an external flash. A very worthwhile addition as it makes the Sony DSC-V1 one of the few digicams that can be used in combination with a studio flash system without the need for complicated gadgets. All you need is a simple hot shoe adaptor to connect the flash system to. Remember to first enable the hot shoe function in the setup menu or the external flash won't work. With the DSC-V1, Sony also provide a brand new optional flash, the HVL-F32X. This unit offers a host of features such as true TTL flash metering; a modelling light which fires a series of strobe flashes to preview how your flash will light up the scene; an AF assist illuminator - with two brightness settings - that greatly extends the camera's low-light focus ability; a guide number or 32 meters at ISO 100 and of course full manual settings. Naturally other external flash units can be used, but if you consider the extra features of the HVL-F32X, it sounds like a worthwhile accessory to a quality compact.
It should be mentioned that battery life is not one of the strong points of the V-1. Of course a small camera does not have much space for a large battery, but as other camera manufacturers succeed in extending battery life, we think Sony could do better than the 85 minutes recording time they claim. On top of this, recharging an empty battery takes a hefty two and a half hours. We were able to take about 175 shots before the battery needed recharging. As a comparison, cameras like the tiny IXUS 400 manage more than 300 shots on a single charge. If you are really serious about your photography, your number one accessory to buy with the Sony DSC-V1 should be a spare battery. What we do appreciate however is that the camera gives you the number of minutes of recording time you have got left, before the infolithium battery needs a recharge.
One unique feature the Sony has is the possibility to take shots in complete darkness. It works like this: The infrared-based Nightshot illuminates the subject through an IR filter and shows it in green on the LCD, then - when pressing the shutter halfway - the Hologram AF uses the laser to focus, followed by a double-fire of the flash and the picture is taken. No doubt helped by Sony's Slow Shutter NR noise reduction system, which springs into action when shutter speeds fall below 1/6 seconds, the Sony DSC-V1 produced really excellent low-light images which were clear and bright, with good colour and low noise at all four ISO settings.
In the box
The Sony package includes the 5,1 effective megapixel Cybershot DSC-V1, a 32MB Memory stick, the NP-FC11 infolithium battery, together with charger, USB and AV cables and hand strap. The enclosed CDRom contains Pixela ImageMixer and Image Transfer software for downloading images and basic image manipulation, plus there is a clearly written printed manual.
Pixela Imagemixer 1.5 is used for viewing and organising your images. You can do some basic editing like adjusting colour, brightness and contrast but that's about it really. To get into any serious image manipulation Photoshop Elements or some other dedicated program really is a must for any serious photographer. Chances are you already own one of these, as many hardware products like printers or scanners include either Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro in their bundle.
Pixela Image Transfer can be set up to automatically start downloading images as soon as the camera is connected through the USB port and turned on. The transfer is surprisingly fast but a feature I didn't like so much is that Pixela Imagemixer takes over the whole screen including the task bar. After transferring the images to your computer, Image Transfer asks if you want the images in the camera deleted. If you click "yes" the card is wiped clean for your next session.
It is not surprising that with a lens like the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar, the V-1's images are razor sharp. After all, Zeiss lenses have been around for as long as anyone can remember and they have always been synonymous with quality. All images possess an excellent sharpness from corner to corner, with no vignetting and only a little softening in the extreme corners at maximum telephoto. There is little barrel distortion at the wide angle end of the zoom and only slight pincushion distortion at the tele end. In all distortion is within the average range for digital cameras in this class, also considering the V-1 has a 4x zoom lens. Some colour fringing was visible in bright contrast situations and this seemed a bit more than average. A rather striking phenomenon was that the accuracy of the optical viewfinder actually varied quite a lot depending on the zoom setting. At wide angle it showed much less of the actual image than at the tele setting. The LCD showed a full 100% coverage though.
Colours are neutral and well-balanced rather than saturated. However, in overcast conditions they were a bit on the cool side. Shadow areas often had a definite blue cast to them, which can be adjusted by selecting the "cloudy" white balance setting (cf the images above which were taken with different settings).
The camera's multi-pattern metering worked faultlessly and difficult lighting situations were handled with ease, always delivering clean and well exposed images. The Sony DSC-V1 has a live histogram which is visible on the LCD to assess the brightness and contrast range before taking an image. You then have the possibility to adjust the exposure accordingly, but we found this was not necessary as the camera automatically made the right exposure decisions every time. There are the usual white balance settings plus the option to set a custom white point manually but again we hardly ever experienced the need to resort to manual settings to correct the camera's decision.
The Sony DSC-V1 is a very nice little camera with excellent image quality. We think it would be ideally suited to the advanced photographer who likes his photography to be a bit more creative and adventurous. There is the possibility to manually control settings such as aperture and shutter speed, white balance, focusing or flash output. The camera supports add-on lenses and has exposure bracketing with adjustable steps. There are advanced features such as the unique hologram AF laser focusing system or the Nightframing mode which can capture pictures in complete darkness. Add to this the Carl Zeiss 4x zoom lens with Smart (digital) Zoom feature or the hot shoe for mounting an external flash and you have the perfect tool for creative photography.
Some niggles we came across were the rather short battery life and the fact that, especially in overcast conditions, colours were a bit on the cool side. Exposure information on the TFT screen is in very small print and zooming in while in playback mode was a little slow, but that's about it really.
To sum it all up, the Sony DSC-V1 is a true enthusiast's camera worthy of the Sony name, since it really has everything the creative photographer could want and more. The Sony DSC-V1 is not as pocketable as some other compacts but its robust built and boxy shape make it easy to hold and comfortable to work with.