With their new line of basic and compact Cybershot P-series cameras, Sony are clearly aiming for the first time digital camera buyer, since the new models are designed for making picture-taking as easy as possible without compromising on quality.
Here we will look at the Sony DSC-P100 in particular, as it is the most advanced model from the series, offering excellent quality and lots of flexibility for creative photographers. To this aim Sony have incorporated their new, faster Real Imaging Processor, lots of easy to use features and a sharp Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar 3x optical zoom lens. Beside many automatic features the Sony DSC-P100 also has manual flash and exposure settings, to make taking pictures a bit more challenging than just pointing the camera at your subject and shooting away.
Using the camera
When you pick up he camera, you will undoubtedly notice its rounded shape, which makes it easy to hold and use. The camera - which is available in red, silver or blue - has a brushed stainless steel finish and its small size means you can easily carry it with you in your pocket or in a small purse. But don't let the small size fool you. Inside we find a full set of features, which are usually only found on more full-sized, high-end 5-megapixel cameras.
Start-up time is mighty quick. In less than 1.5 seconds the Sony P100 is ready to take the first picture. Shutter lag is almost non-existent, especially if you pre-focus the camera by half-pressing the shutter release button. Be careful though, the shutter button needs a sensitive touch or else the picture is taken before you can say "Cybershot rulez". . .
In burst mode, at the finest quality setting, you can capture 9 shots with 1.5 seconds in between. Or you can opt for Multi Burst mode, which makes it possible to take 16 images in less than one second. Image size is then fixed at 1Mp and all 16 images are recorded within a single animated frame. Switching back and forth between recording and playback takes less than a second.
All controls are neatly arranged on the back with just the on/off switch and shutter release button on top. The big dial for choosing Program, Scene or Manual settings is conveniently located so you can operate it with your index finger and there is no risk of accidentally turning it while holding the camera. Below it is the 4-way controller plus 3 single buttons for monitor on/off, deleting images and calling up the menu. The zoom controller is located at the back on the right.
The large 1.8" LCD screen is clear and bright and with 134.000 pixels it can be used to review images - with he possibility to zoom in up to 5x, access the menu or act as a live viewfinder to frame the image. This is what most people will be doing anyway, as the optical viewfinders on these very compact cameras are usually quite small and not very accurate. Plus, as one user put it, there is not much real estate to be putting your face up to anyway. The same is true for the Sony DSC-P100 with the optical viewfinder showing only from 80 to 85% of the image from wide angle to tele. Neither is there any dioptric adjustment as Sony probably realise that not many people will be using the viewfinder anyway.
As we already mentioned the Sony P100 is aimed at first time buyers or snapshooters and so the bias of the whole camera is towards easy picture-taking. However some features and accessories show that Sony has clearly tried to make the Sony Cybershot DSC-P100 interesting to more advanced photographers as well. For instance, the built-in flash has modes for Auto flash, Red-eye reduction and Slow Synchro, not unusual you might say, but the DSC-P100 also features auto daylight fill flash for backlit or shadowed subjects as well as dynamic white balance flash for greater colour accuracy. Apart from this, flash intensity can be manually adjusted in three steps. As an extra accessory Sony market the HVL-FSL1B external slave flash with bracket to conveniently extend the effective working range to 16 feet, which is a worthwhile improvement over the restricting three metres of the built-in flash.
Another feature that makes life a lot easier if you decide to have your images printed, is the choice to opt for an image size of 2592x1728 pixels, which is the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio for perfect 4 x 6inch prints. So no more problems with heads being cut off or image detail lost at some processing labs that still do not know how to handle digital image sizes after all these years of digital photography.
When taking pictures in Auto (point and shoot) mode, the camera takes care of all settings for fully automatic picture-taking, with only minimal exposure or image information being displayed on the LCD screen. Switching to Program AE, many more settings can be adapted by the user. You can opt for Multi or Center AF; spot or multi-pattern metering - with exposure compensation over 2EV in 1/3 steps; 6 white balance settings; fine or standard picture quality and ISO settings from 100 to 400. Apart from this saturation, contrast and sharpness can be set to plus, default or minus, while certain image effects like sepia or B&W are possible as well. All the menus are nicely arranged at the bottom of the LCD screen and the 4-way switch is used to select the various items. Unlike some other models on the market today everything is self-explanatory so beginners will quickly feel at home with the camera.
To ensure that pictures are captured in-focus and with the proper exposure, Sony has incorporated a smart auto-focusing and exposure system, that automatically makes the necessary adjustments even when the subject is off-centre or in difficult lighting situations.
Scene modes that can be selected are as diverse as twilight, twilight portrait, landscape, soft snap, candle, beach, snow, high-speed shutter or fireworks. Apart from this the P100 also features full Manual exposure with the possibility of independently adjusting aperture and shutter speeds by moving the 4-way controller left/right or up/down respectively. There are two apertures to choose from (f2.8 and f5.6) while shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/1000. Deviation from the correct exposure in Manual is indicated in +/- 1/3EV steps next to shutter and aperture values on the LCD screen. Beside this there is a live histogram that lets you evaluate highlight and shadow detail to assess if any further corrections are needed.
The DSC-P100 can record movie clips with audio in the 640x480 VX Fine mode, at a frame rate of 30fps. However for clips at this quality the use of a Memory Stick PRO is required to insure that the data stream from the camera can be recorded fast enough. VX standard movie mode can be used with conventional Memory Sticks. At both settings the length of the recording is only limited by the space available on the memory card.
In the box
Apart from the DSC-P100 in blue, red or silver, the box contains the AC-LS5 power adapter that charges the NP FR1 info-lithium battery in about three hours. A fully charged battery should be good for about 360 shots depending on the use of the LCD screen or roughly 180 minutes of playback time, according to Sony. If you only take pictures occasionally, the supplied battery will suit you fine, as long as you make sure that it's fully charged in case picture-taking opportunities present itself. Otherwise get a spare one to make sure you are never without power. Other parts that are included are the obligatory wrist strap together with USB and AV cables and a printed manual of 124 pages in English. To ensure you can start taking pictures straightaway, Sony include a 32Mb Memory Stick. The Cybershot P100 uses the conventional Memory Stick or you could opt for the PRO version. Sony's latest Memory Stick Duo can be used as well if you use the adapter provided with it.
Software included with the camera is Sony Picture Package V1.0. This includes USB drivers for Windows 98, a tutorial that tells you all you need to know about the camera and the software plus the Picture Package program. It can be set to automatically transfer your images to a computer once the camera is connected or the DSC-P100 will show up as a separate drive on your PC. You can view your images, sort them by date, burn them on CD or create an automatic slide show. Picture Package is quite slow to start up thanks to elaborate use of Macromedia flash animations and apart from rotating images, there are no photo editing possibilities in the program. OK, we know the camera is meant for beginners but the software included is really a bit too basic to be of much use. Not Sony's best effort, we have to admit. Besides, the font used for the command buttons is very small and quite hard to read if your computer screen is set to 1024x768 pixels. Your best option for photo editing
would be to check if you have Photoshop Elements lying around somewhere and use that. Chances are you already own the program, as it comes bundled with lots of other applications, like scanners or printers. Using Picture Package to create auto slide shows however sees some really nice picture effects but it takes ages for the program to prepare the images and put together the slide show.
Sony market a whole range of accessories for the P-series cameras. To make uploading images to your computer even easier, the Cybershot station (CSS-PHA) is available as an extra. It can also be used for playing back slide shows on TV as well as charging the camera battery. The bundled infrared controller commands the docked camera to toggle between captured videos and still pictures. Should you want to take the P100 underwater with you, then the optional water-proof Marine Pack (MPK-PHB) is available to avoid getting the camera wet. Optional wide angle and tele adapters are available to make the P100 even more versatile and 37mm filters can be attached using the VAD-WA conversion lens adapter.
The DSC-P100 comes equipped with a f2.8-5.2/7.9-23,7mm Vario-Tessar lens (38 - 114mm eq.) manufactured by Carl Zeiss, a company which has traditionally been known for its superb quality lenses. And indeed, image quality on the P100 is excellent with nice saturated colours and superb image detail. There is hardly any chromatic aberration in high contrast situations. All images show good sharpness and resolution with good dynamic range and low image noise at ISO 100. At higher settings some noise is present in shadow areas.
Exposure is spot on all the time and images are simply perfect straight from the camera, so no post-processing will be necessary if you don't want to. The P100 produces fairly saturated colours by default, but should you prefer a bit more punch this can easily be adjusted by increasing saturation or contrast. Automatic white balance always worked faultlessly and we never felt the need to change from the automatic setting. At wide angle there is some barrel distortion that is gradually replaced by very slight pincushioning when zooming in. This fault is quite common in this type of camera and nothing to worry about. It is caused by the way these compact lens systems are constructed but in day to day photography it will not be noticeable at all.
Although the range of the built-in flash is rather limited, flash photography indoors is possible, however your best results will be achieved when shooting smaller groups or individuals. Lighting up a dark room with the camera's flash is beyond the P100's capability. But what these small in-camera flashes are really good at is providing fill-in flash in bright, outdoor conditions. Used in these circumstances the flash powers down to balance flash with ambient light for a well-exposed image. Beginners usually think that using flash is only necessary in dark conditions. We would advise you to try it out for yourself some time and see what a difference a small dose of flash can make to your outdoor people shots in bright sunlight. Especially with today's sophisticated cameras - like the P100 - the results will pleasantly surprise you as the camera automatically adjusts flash intensity and eliminates harsh shadows for a perfect image every time.
The P100 accompanied us to a classic bike meeting and all those images of which some examples are represented here, were taken with fill-in flash to lighten up the shadow areas.
We are sure, that just like its predecessors, the Sony DSC-P100 will be a big hit with the point-and-shoot crowd. It is simple to use, delivers excellent images and can be carried anywhere thanks to its small size. Apart from this it provides control over saturation, contrast and sharpness and there are several manual options to offer ample creative possibilities to more advanced photographers.
Coupled to this, the fast start-up time and the absence of shutter lag make this DSC-P100 the perfect companion for a day out. Sorry about the software package which is rather limited in its possibilities, but there are enough other programs on the market to compensate for this inconvenience. What remains is that Sony have again succeeded in releasing the ideal "take anywhere" camera for those who are looking for excellent image quality in an ultra-compact package. And isn't that what you were looking for . . .?