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Conclusion - Pros

  • Reliable 'point and shoot' performance
  • Good image quality in good light; bright, sharp images with immediate 'consumer friendly' appeal
  • Powerful flash
  • Efficient image stabilization
  • Very good zoom range (although no real wide angle)
  • Compact dimensions for the zoom range
  • Reliable exposure system in most shooting conditions
  • Good edge-to-edge sharpness
  • Good detail at lowest ISO settings
  • Some in-camera retouching options
  • Predictive AF helpful when photographing moving subjects
  • Good movie quality
  • HDTV output
  • Good value

Conclusion - Cons

  • No real wide angle
  • Manual mode only offers 2 F-stop settings
  • Slow, unreliable focus in low light
  • Ugly, bulky lens hood (although you don't have to use it)
  • Mediocre build quality
  • Only basic external controls
  • Longwinded menu structure
  • Screen has a low resolution for its size and is not very bright
  • Non-standard video/USB connector
  • Combined effects of noise and noise reduction at high ISOs and in low light produces poor results
  • Noise reduction effects visible even at low ISO settings
  • Menus and review mode can feel a little sluggish
  • HDTV output requires additional equipment
  • Tendency to clip highlights and some minor color fringing issues
  • No manual (custom) white balance

Overall conclusion

I must admit I wasn't that impressed when I first held the Sony H3 in my hands. It looks like a toy camera and the build quality did not inspire my confidence either. In the three weeks or so that I have now used and tested the H3 I have had to somewhat change my opinion. In fact I have even grown a little fond of this latest addition to Sony's 'High-Zoom' range.

The H3 offers a massive zoom range in a very compact package: if you are looking for a camera that you can carry all the time but don't want to dispense with a very long zoom, you should seriously consider it as one of your options.

Image quality in reasonable light is good, the output is ready to print, sharp and with appealing colors. At higher ISO ranges and in low light this picture changes but the results are no worse than on the competition's comparable models - certainly not at standard print sizes. The image stabilization system works efficiently (though don't expect miracles at very low shutter speeds) and can help to reduce the need for very high sensitivities in at least some shooting situations. The H3 is a little prone to highlight clipping and there is some minor evidence of color fringing but you'd see that on most other compact cameras as well. The built-in flash does a decent job and has good reach, though sometimes a small dose of negative flash compensation can be beneficial in order to avoid blown-out highlights.

The exposure meter works reliably in most lighting situations and the Predictive AF is actually quite useful when shooting moving subjects (although it obviously has its limits, there is a reason for all those sports photographers carrying lenses that are about 20 times the size and weight of an H3...)

Is shooting with the Sony H3 all sunshine and roses then? Not quite - the H3 is competing in the budget bracket of the market and that's clearly reflected in its specification, construction and design.

It was almost certainly the Sony accountants (and not the engineers), who decided to procure the cheap plastic used for the camera body and the buttons. The same probably holds true for the screen. For its size it has a very low resolution of 115,000 pixels and therefore menus and images appear quite grainy. It's not great in sunlight either, this is where an electronic viewfinder would come in handy.

While 380mm (35mm equiv.) is more than enough focal length for the vast majority of photographers, 38mm at the wide end of the lens is far from being truly wide. If you shoot a lot in confined spaces stay away from the H3, you'll find yourself walking backwards into a wall trying to frame your subjects much more often than you'd wish.

The H3 is essentially a long-zoom point and shoot camera that performs well as long as you let it do its thing in Auto mode. Once you develop an ambition to set your own shooting parameters things get a bit more tricky. This is partly because some manual settings are simply not available, but also due to the fact that changing the settings that are actually there can be a fairly time-consuming process. This is owed to the slightly counter-intuitive menus and user interface in general. The lack of a manual White Balance option is particularly unusual on a modern digital camera. It is even more painful if the white balance presets are not particularly reliable (as we experienced in our studio tests). The H3 does not offer Aperture or Shutter Speed Priority modes although there is a fully manual 'M' mode. But, with only 2 possible aperture settings at a given focal length, its use is seriously limited.

Whilst I had no issues with focus speed or reliability when shooting outdoors in good light, indoors or in other low light situations speed can slow down dramatically with the focus needing various attempts to lock on the subject; not ideal if you want to catch that unrepeatable 'special moment'.

Another point of (minor) criticism is the non-standard USB connector provided by Sony. When you need to connect a camera (that has a standard USB connector) to a PC and have left your cable in a country far, far away it is usually fairly easy to pick up a USB cable somewhere, with the Sony you are simply stuffed (you can tell I speak from my own experience here).

Should you buy one then? As usual the answer to this question is: It depends. The H3's main competitors (10x zoom, 7 or 8MP, compact body) in the market are the Canon SX100 IS (which offers a few more advanced features and marginally better overall image quality) and the Panasonic TZ3. The latter is still our favorite for walkabout shooting thanks to it's better build quality and - more importantly - it's much more versatile 28-280mm zoom range (though high ISO / low light performance lags behind the other two).

In conclusion the H3 is a very compact long-zoom point and shoot camera that reliably takes pictures in Auto mode and doesn't break the bank. It's got its fair share of flaws but offers decent image quality (surprisingly good in good light), point and shoot simplicity and an efficient image stabilization system. You can easily take it with you anywhere you go and, most of all, it is simply fun to use.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 6.5
Ergonomics & handling 7.0
Features 7.5
Image quality 7.5
Optics 7.5
Performance (speed) 7.5
Value 8.0

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