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Sony Cyber-shot W300 review

Although it appears that digital cameras are not getting any more compact than they already are, the number of megapixels is still rising. This month we had the chance to try out Sony's latest Cyber-shot, the DSC-W300. A compact model with a whopping 13.6 megapixel sensor, a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with 3x zoom and nifty little gadgets like face and smile detection, dynamic range optimizer, image stabilization and noise reduction.

Using the camera

The Sony W300 we had on test was finished in an attractive gun metal grey. The dark grey suits it to a tee and makes it look very stylish and classy indeed. The all metal body feels very durable and strong. All controls have a positive, confidence-inspiring feel to them and their lay-out is logical and intuitive. Although the Cyber-shot W300 is really compact it is quite a heavy camera, and you will certainly notice it if you carry it in your trouser pocket. Not to such an extent that people will start wondering if you are glad to see them or if that is a camera in your pocket, but its weight surely makes its presence felt.

front of Sony Cyber-shot DSC W300 rear of Sony Cyber-shot DSC W300

The extra large 2.7" LCD screen with 230.000 pixels is supplemented by a zoom control, a large Mode dial, the 4-way/OK switch and a number of small dedicated buttons marked Menu, Home, Playback and Slideshow. The Menu switch handles things like recording mode; image size and quality; exposure compensation; flash settings; face detection or red-eye and noise reduction (called DRO - Dynamic Range Optimizer - in Sony's book). The Home button is used to change general parameters such as shooting modes; memory card; print, display or slideshow settings. The many options in the various menus are endless and will provide many a fine hour with the camera and manual on your lap, trying to find out what all the options are for and where they can be found. Luckily, for general shooting, the large Program wheel will provide most things you need to take good quality pictures without fuss. The various menus can then be consulted if and when you feel the need to.

One of the things we noticed in use, was that all controls are marked in very tiny print, which can make reading them a bit awkward sometimes. After some time though, you will know exactly what all the buttons are for, so the tiny print is no longer an issue, but the screen info at the capture or review stage, is also a bit too minute to read comfortably if your eyesight is getting a bit hazy as you get older. There is a small optical viewfinder which helps in composing an image, a handy option as the glossy finish of the screen is highly reflective in bright conditions.

The Sony W300 seems less responsive than some other cameras we have tested, in fact it is quite slow at times. Start up time is alright but especially when changing image settings or using the menu functions, there appears to be a longer wait than usual, before the menu is shown or the camera reacts. Also, reviewing images is not as swift as we would have liked. Incidentally when turning our test camera on or off, the speed with which the lens flaps opened or closed seemed to be influenced by temperature or climate conditions. We noticed that - in our camera at least - the two lens diaphragms reacted very slowly in hot, humid weather, while in colder conditions their action was almost instantly. This is a mechanical issue as there was no difference with the battery removed or the camera switched off. We suspect this to be a defect of our test sample and it should not be characteristic of all DSC-W300 models.

A nice touch is that, when changing any of the camera's settings, a concise but clear helpline explains what every function does. This will be extremely helpful if you are just starting out in photography and need a bit of assistance in capturing images in the best possible way. The functions on offer are quite advanced for such a tiny camera. Apart from the usual single or continuous recording modes, images can be bracketed from 1/3 EV to 1 EV. The camera then takes three images over and under the metered exposure. There is exposure compensation over +/- 2 stops; three metering modes (matrix, centre-weighted and spot); red-eye reduction on/off or only when faces are detected in an image; three levels of noise reduction and image stabilization. A live histogram helps in evaluating correct exposure.

The Sony DSC-W300 has an automatic shadow recovery function called Dynamic Range Optimizer. You can opt for simple recovery of image detail lost in shadow areas or increasing shadow detail without losing highlights. A function which may come in handy for spontaneous photography is Face Detection. The camera can recognize human faces and focus with priority on a person's face. It can distinguish between children's faces or adult ones. In connection with this, flash can be set to auto red-eye reduction when a face is detected. Red-eye can be reduced at the capture stage or removed in camera afterwards, together with many other post-capture retouch options such as cropping; adjusting image size or format; sharpening; adding a zoom, blur or fish-eye effect to subjects, or creating a nostalgic image by blurring and dimming the periphery of a chosen subject. It is even possible to modify a person's face in post-production to make it appear as if he or she is smiling. Image format can be adjusted for HD television by cropping an image to 16:9 size or reduce its size for web, blog or e-mail.

Apart from Face detection, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 has a rather gimmicky function called Smile detection. Ideal for parties or social gatherings. However, according to the manual, successful smile detection is dependent on several factors, which we do not want to keep from you. So here goes: "Keep in mind that faces should not be partially hidden by sunglasses, masks or hats; do not cover the eyes with your hands, narrow the eyes for better recognition; orient the face in front of the camera and be as level as possible; give a clear smile with an open mouth as the smile is easier detected with the teeth showing." So far for spontaneous snaps. Makes you think what the camera would do when you are attacked by a vicious dog showing its teeth.

Flash options on the DSC-W300 are very diverse and can be adapted to a wide range of situations. Naturally there are the usual settings like Auto flash; flash on or off; or flash with slower shutter speeds, but flash intensity can be adjusted to a lower or higher setting for more balanced fill-in light in daylight situations and it has second curtain flash which fires just before the shutter closes.

Although this is a point-and-shoot camera you will find a lot of manual exposure control or other user-friendly options to override the camera's automatic settings. This makes this Sony Cyber-shot attractive to a whole range of users from the aspiring amateur, to the advanced enthusiast who knows what he is doing. An option which is not found on many compacts is full manual exposure control. With the help of a live histogram and EV-scale, indicating the amount of over or under exposure, shutter speeds can be set manually from 30s to 1/1000 with a choice of three apertures to achieve exactly the effect you are after.

Apart from central or 9 area multi-point AF, semi manual focus sets a fixed focusing point to a pre-determined area, which is useful when shooting through a window or when focusing in dimly lit surroundings. There are four ranges that can be set from fairly close (0.5M) to infinity. This setting will also prove its use when capturing spontaneous snapshots quickly, as the camera will not have to lose precious time focusing and the shot will be captured the instant you press the shutter.

In the box

As our test Sony DSC-W300 came without any software, manual or extras, we cannot really comment on the software on offer. We managed to locate a manual on the internet, and from this we know that Picture Motion Browser is included with this Cyber-shot, as a basic software program used for downloading and organizing images, while Music Transfer makes it possible to add music to a slideshow later. The manual has 141 pages and explains every camera function in great detail.

The camera uses a 3.6V 3.4Wh (960 mAh) lithium-ion NP-BG1 battery, which needs a three-hour charge before it is fully charged and ready to be used. We did not completely empty the battery between charges, but from our experience with the W300 we think it should be possible to capture 200-plus images per charge, which is quite good for a camera in this class. If you should use the NP-FG1 battery (not supplied), the minutes will be shown on screen indicating the amount of battery time remaining.

fill-in flash

You can use Memory Stick Duo or ProDuo cards, which are available in a number of sizes. As always we would advise you to buy the largest card you can afford. Although chances of a card failing are really quite small, for holidays or other important events, it may be safer not to put all images on one card since, if a card fails, all pictures will be lost. It might be better to divide your holiday snaps over two or more different cards, just to make sure. A couple of 2Gb cards would be a safe compromise for most users. The W300 has an internal memory of 15Mb which can hold three or four 13Mp images at their highest quality setting, which makes it perfect for emergency use only.

There is a three way connector cable with the DSC-W300 (USB or AV) for downloading images to printer, computer or (HD) television. Should you want to show your images on screen as a slideshow, stylish, basic or nostalgic slideshow effects are possible with a range of music styles to be selected in camera, or you can add your own CDs or MP3s files. The tempo in which images are shown can be varied according tot the effect you have selected, to keep your audience from falling asleep when showing all 584 snaps of your loved one by the seaside.

The Cyber-shot station (CCS-HD2), which is available as an aftermarket accessory, enables faster charging than the supplied BC-CSGB battery charger and makes it even easier to connect your camera to a TV.

Image quality

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 has a f/2.8-5.5 7.6-22.8mm Carl Zeiss Vario- Tessar lens with a 3x zoom, equivalent to 35-105mm in 35mm terms. This coupled to a 13.6 megapixel sensor delivers excellent images with plenty of detail. There is some moderate barrel distortion at the wide angle end of the lens which shifts to some slight pincushioning when you zoom in, but this is perfectly normal in any camera in this class and has to do with the way these miniature lenses are built.

full res. image with natural colours standard colour setting high sharpness high saturation

Images are well exposed and color rendition of the Sony is excellent with nicely balanced, natural colors straight out of camera. If you feel the need for stronger or more muted colors you can opt for vivid or more natural colors. Color rendition can also be adjusted by dialing in more or less saturation, sharpness or contrast, or images can be made to look cooler or warmer. There are various filter effects which can be applied by adding a green, blue or red filter to shift color balance. Useful maybe for making woods greener, sunsets redder or skies bluer. Of course many of these settings are different ways to achieve the same thing. Setting warmer colors adds a touch of red to an image, while for cooler colors the camera shifts color balance to the blue side of the color spectrum.

At lower ISO settings detail is truly superb. The W300's lowest setting is 64 ISO and although we captured most images at ISO 100, the most practical option in our view, there was virtually no noise present. At ISO settings between 800 and 3200, noise becomes more evident, but we feel these images are still perfectly useable. As the grain at the higher ISO settings is reminiscent of conventional film images it could even be considered quite artistic in certain image situations. We did not try any noise reduction, but application of this in-camera will provide two levels of reducing the grain even further should you desire.

full res. image at ISO 100 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 3200

Automatic exposure and automatic white balance are perfectly capable of handling most image situations and we did not experience any quirks in this department. All images are well exposed and in extreme lighting situations it helps that you can use manual shutter or aperture settings, or choose any of the seven white balance settings, plus the custom option of metering a white card under available light and setting this as a preset.

After plugging the camera into the USB-port of our Sony 40W4000 HDTV the USB Photo Viewer immediately recognized the W300 and started loading the pictures from the camera. The HD TV remote control enabled us to easily rotate the pictures where needed and start a HD quality slide show with impressive quality.

Conclusion

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 is bound to be attractive to a broad range of consumers. It can be used by the novice who requires a fully automatic camera, while more experienced users will appreciate the options of manual control over exposure and other settings. Once you have found your way around the extensive menus and get to know this little tool a bit better, you will find it an excellent companion to record your memories. Functions like adjustment of flash intensity or shadow control; image stabilization or noise reduction, really add to the camera's versatility, although we believe other options like smile detection or some quirky filter effects will not see that much use.

ISO 400

Although operating speed is not the strongest point of this Sony DSC W300, we were very pleased with the overall image quality and its excellent color rendition. All controls are built to last and with its strong, all metal body, we believe this camera will deliver years of trustworthy service. Since the compact arena is a field where competition is fierce, it pays to shop around and see what else is on offer before you commit yourself to any camera in this class. The Sony DSC-W300 however, would certainly deserve a place on your shortlist.


Additional information: Sony W300 product details and other reviews
August 14, 2008

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