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Features

Exposure Mode Dial Options

Now let's move on to the items found on the camera's mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection and Photo Creativity controls. Some menu options are locked up.
Superior Auto mode Similar to the above, but will take multi-exposure shots (handheld twilight, HDR, anti motion blur), as well.
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access. Sorry folks - no Program Shift feature here.
Full manual (M) mode Select both the shutter speed (30 -1/1600 sec) and aperture (F3.2 - F14) at the same time. Do note that you can only choose from two apertures at any given time, due to the camera's use of an ND filter. Thus, at wide-angle you can only choose between F3.2 and F8.
Memory Recall (MR) mode Quickly access up to three sets of your favorite camera settings here.
Intelligent Sweep Panorama Sweep the camera from one side to another and a single panoramic image is created. More below.
Movie mode While you can record movies at any time, this dedicated mode offers more options. More details on this later.
3D Still Image Record 3D stills or panoramas here. The Sweep Multi-Angle feature records an image in the same way as Sweep Panorama, and when you play it back you get sort of a faux 3D effect on the LCD.
Scene Selection mode Choose the situation and the camera will use the appropriate settings. Select from soft skin, b, soft snap, anti motion blur, landscape, backlight correction HDR, night portrait, night scene, handheld twilight, high sensitivity, gourmet/food, pet, beach, snow, fireworks, and advanced sports shooting (predictive AF). See below for more.
Background defocus Keeps the subject in the foreground in-focus, while blurring the background. This is a digital effect.

The camera has a pair of Auto modes (Intelligent and Superior), both of which feature auto scene selection. They can tell when you're using a tripod, and even distinguish between adults, children, and infants. There's also an Easy mode available, which enlarges the font and greatly reduces the available options. The Superior Auto mode does everything that Intelligent Auto does (except for Easy mode), plus adds multi-shot layering through features like Anti Motion Blur, Handheld Twilight, and HDR. More on those in a bit. Both of the auto modes also allow you to use the Photo Creativity interface.

The HX20V has a limited set of manual controls. While you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed, you have to use the full manual mode to do it (there are no 'priority' modes). In addition, you can only choose from two apertures at any time, due to the camera's use of a neutral density filter. On a more positive note, the camera offers both semi and full manual focus, plus white balance bracketing and fine-tuning. One feature you won't find on the HX20V is support for the RAW image format.

Sony cameras have some of my favorite bells and whistles out there. The HDR, Anti Motion Blur / Handheld Twilight, and Sweep Panorama features are very useful features which allow you to take photos in difficult lighting, and record huge panoramas with very little effort. I'll go through each of those features now.

Backlight Correction (HDR) Mode

The backlight correction HDR (high dynamic range) feature, combines three exposures - under, over, and normal - and puts them into a single image with much improved dynamic range (contrast). The camera shoots the burst quickly that a tripod is not needed - unlike on some other cameras. While Sony's NEX interchangeable lens cameras allow you to adjust the interval between each exposure, the HDR feature on the HX20V is totally automatic.

Standard photo HDR photo

You don't need to be a camera expert to see the huge difference between the two shots. With such a heavy backlight, the normal photo is almost completely dark in the foreground. The HDR features lets you see the foreground, without sacrificing the background detail. It's definitely one of my favorite features on Sony's high zoom cameras.

Anti Motion Blur and Handheld Twilight Mode

Anti Motion Blur and Handheld Twilight are very similar features. Both combine six exposures into a single image, which reduces both blur and noise. The difference between the two is that AMB tends to use higher ISOs than handheld twilight, so photos taken in that mode may be a bit noisier. Here's an example of the Handheld Twilight feature:

The example above is certainly not going to win any awards when viewed at 100%. However, it does look better than what you'd get if you just set the ISO to 6400 or 12800, thanks to the use of multiple exposures. Even so, both Handheld Nightshot and Anti Motion Blur are best suited for small prints.

Sweep Panorama Modes

If I'm not mistaken, Sony was the first manufacturer to release a camera with a 'sweep panorama' feature. Their latest revision, Intelligent Sweep Panorama, can shoot both 2D and 3D panoramas, plus special high resolution panos that you take in the portrait orientation. Taking panoramas couldn't be easier: just pan the camera from one side of the frame to the other, following the arrow on the LCD. The image is stitched together almost instantly. The quality of the standard panoramas is good but not fantastic. The high resolution versions are a whole lot more impressive. While the camera tries not to chop people in half, or have them appear in multiple places at once, it does happen on occasion.

A high resolution sweep panorama (I didn't go as far to the right as I could have)
A standard sweep panorama - the camera handled this difficult scene well

Clear Image Zoom

The only thing from that menu I want to tell you about is the Clear Image Zoom feature. This feature can be found on other cameras under different names, like Intelligent Zoom (Panasonic). The Clear Image Zoom feature will boost the zoom power by 2X, with 'close to the original image quality' using some digital trickery which Sony calls 'By Pixel Super Resolution technology'. At full resolution, that means that you now have a 40X, or 1000 mm, zoom lens! If you lower the image resolution, you can go even higher. Here's an example:

Full telephoto (500 mm) Full tele + clear image zoom (1000 mm)

As you can see, the Clear Image Zoom feature really lets you get close to your subject! It's always hard to judge how much image quality deteriorates, due to the atmospheric distortion that occurs at this kind of focal range. That said, I'd probably save this feature for smaller prints only.

Photo Creativity Mode

Photo Creativity mode - only available in Intelligent or Superior Auto mode - allows you to adjust the brightness, color, and vividness without having to know the somewhat more technical terms of exposure compensation, white balance, and saturation. These items are adjusted using slider controls on the LCD, as you can see above. Here you'll also find various Picture Effects, which I'll go over when we get to the menu discussion.

GPS

Unlike cameras from Fuji and Panasonic, the HX20V's GPS system is no-frills, with no fancy landmark databases or maps. You get your location and direction (courtesy of a built-in compass), and that's it. Satellite acquisition is decent outdoors (30-60 second acquisition times), and not-so-good when you're in big cities, which is typical. You can reduce these delays a bit by loading 'assist data' onto the camera using the included software, though it won't help when you're shooting in cities.

In-Camera Help

If you need a little extra help when using the camera, then just press the question mark button on the back of the HX20V. The guide tells you how to accomplish virtually every conceivable task, whether it's focusing, subject tracking, storing camera settings, or displaying a histogram.

Main menu of the camera guide One of the very detailed help screens, this one for white balance. You can jump directly to that menu option using the highlighted button.

Another option lets you choose an icon on the LCD, and the guide will tell you what it means. They even cover the various error messages that may pop up when you're using the camera. You can also press the ? button when you're in a menu, and the camera explain what the selected option does. Very nice!

Drive Modes

The four-way controller on the rear of the HX20V plays host to two items of note: drive modes and Photo Creativity mode. Here's a quick rundown of the most interesting drive mode options on the HX20V:

  • Continuous shooting: shoot as fast as 10 frames/second; more on this later
  • BKT (bracket): the camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure; you can select the exposure interval in the menu system; the camera can also bracket for white balance
  • Self-portrait timer: the camera will wait for one or two people to enter the scene and then takes a photo 2 seconds later
  • Self-timer continuous shooting: takes a burst of ten shots after a 10 second countdown
  • Self-timer bracket: starts bracketing after a 10 second countdown; every camera should have this!
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