The hottest in the superzoom segment these days are DSLR-like bridge cameras with massive super telephoto lenses. It clearly looks like all brands are updating their flagship superzoom models. Among a raft of new features, what you can’t miss is the 50x zoom lens. The first to feature a 50x zoom lens was the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS; a few months later, the Fujifilm FinePix SL1000 appeared on shelves. Today, we have Sony’s latest flagship, the Cyber-shot DSC-HX300, on which many enthusiasts have their eyes set. Let’s find out how exciting it is.
Sony's flagship superzoom digicam with 50x optical zoom
Design and features
Grip this 20 megapixel shooter firmly and you’ll feel like you’re wielding a DSLR, and that’s exactly how it’s meant to be—bridge cameras are designed to offer the comfort and stability of a DSLR. At the first glance, the large-bodied HX300 comes across as an entry-level DSLR, more so because of the large lens barrel that houses the 50x zoom lens. The chrome ring sandwiched between the lens and the body makes the lens appear interchangeable, but it actually isn’t. The lens on the HX300 has the same focal range as the one on Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. Starting at 24 mm, it’s nice and wide allowing you to shoot wide scenes and large groups of people without moving too far away. Focus on a distant object and keep the zoom lever pulled for a few seconds and you’ll get a 50-times magnified view. The lens extends to a whopping 1200 mm, which makes it easy to capture extreme close-ups and get a close view of scenes that are farther than a kilometre—not kidding, check out these photos.
20x optical zoom - approx 480 mm
50x optical zoom - a whopping 1200 mm!
The lens of the HX300 looks quite promising, at least on paper. With the largest aperture of f/2.8 at the wide end, it’s bright and comes in handy in poor lighting. At 1200 mm, you can drop the f-stop to f/6.3, which is quite respectable. We now have to see how this translates when it comes to performance in the real world.
The lens barrel has a ridged metal ring towards the outer end that can be rotated. A switch on the left side lets you set the function of the ring to zoom or manual focus. When used as zoom, the ring offers finer control over the focal length as compared to the zoom lever. Also, like with DSLR lenses, zooming is more convenient with the ring.
The ridged ring around the lens can be used for zoom or manual focus
A pop-up type flash, releasable by a tiny button on the left, resides above the lens. Sitting just behind the flash are a pair of stereo microphones. Moving to the top right, you have the mode dial and buttons for focus mode, custom function and EVF/LCD switch. Much of the rear of the camera is taken up by the 3.0-inch LCD monitor and EVF. It would have been nice if the monitor was of the fully-articulating type, but nevertheless, you get a tilting one which makes it easy to frame scenes with the camera held above your head or anywhere below the eye level for creative shooting.
Tilting LCD display lets you shoot from odd angles
The control panel comprises a 5-way D-pad, a dedicated button for video recording, buttons for playback, menu and in-camera guide/delete. The D-pad offers instant access to display info, flash modes, self-timer and burst modes, and Photo Creativity functions. A clickable jog dial is placed at the top right corner for convenient access while you’re shooting. The left side of the camera features a micro HDMI port and a micro USB port, both covered with a single plastic flap. In addition to PC connectivity and data transfer, the micro USB port is also used by the charger to charge the Li-ion battery pack inside the camera. Unlike many other cameras, you don’t have to eject the battery and charge it.
The user interface of the HX300 is clean and straightforward, which makes it quick and easy to use for both beginners and advanced users. If you have no idea about shooting parameters or want optimal exposure and quality without too much tinkering, set the mode dial to Intelligent or Superior Auto mode. These modes analyse the scene and subjects and accordingly use optimal settings. The type of scene detected by the camera is indicated by the icon in the top left corner of the display. The Superior Auto mode is useful for getting better quality results than with the Intelligent Auto mode, especially in low light. It shoots a burst of images and processes them to yield a blur-free photo with least noise and optimal exposure. The Photo Creativity function via the D-pad is only available when you’re using either of the Auto modes. On pressing the down button, you’re presented with sliders for brightness, colour, vividness and picture effect. These are nothing but simpler terms used for EV, white balance, saturation and effect filters, respectively. A one-line explanation with thumbnails depicting examples is displayed on selecting the sliders to make it simple—a nice way to make advanced functions accessible to novices.
You get auto, manual and scene modes
Although experienced users would prefer using the manual mode, the Scene Selection mode yields better results in certain scenarios.
- Soft Skin: Softens the skin of the subjects to make them look better.
- Background Defocus: Shoots two frames to process a pleasing background blur (shallow depth of field).
- Backlight Correction HDR: Shoots three frames and combines the results for optimal backlight, shadows and exposure throughout the frame.
- Hand-held Twilight: Shoots a burst of frames and uses noise reduction to process blur-free final result with least noise—ideal for shooting low-light scenes without a tripod.
- High Sensitivity: Shoots a burst of frames at high ISO without flash and combines the results for most optimal low-light shot—useful for shooting without flash in extremely low light.
The only light source was an LCD panel - shot using Handheld Twilight scene
Other scene presets include Landscape, Fireworks, Gourmet, Pet, Advanced Sports Shooting, Beach and Snow. iSweep Panorama is also available, but as a separate mode on the dial. Here, you can choose to shoot 180 degree or 360 degree panoramic photos, plus you can tinker with parameters such as metering mode, white balance, colour saturation, contrast and sharpness to get great-looking shots.
A 180 degree panorama shot using iSweep Panorama mode
You can avail the Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual (PASM) modes via the mode dial if you want granular control over exposure and depth of field. The ISO, shutter speed, aperture and EV values are displayed at the bottom off the screen. You can switch between these by clicking the jog dial while rotating the dial changes the value of the selected parameter. The UI is snappy and quite intuitive; however, individual controls for shutter speed and aperture would have been more convenient.
The video recording feature of the HX300 deserves a special mention. The camera can record videos at full HD resolution and you can use the entire zoom range while recording. Now here’s the bonus; apart from the auto mode, you can choose to record videos using scene presets. However, only a handful of presets including Night Scene, High Sensitivity, Beach, Snow and Fireworks are available. Other options include face detection, IS level (for moderate or stronger movement) and quality settings. The HX300 also allows capturing photos while recording a video. Pressing the shutter release button while recording captures a still image. The size of the image can be set to 15 or 3MP.
Build quality and ergonomics
Sony has made no compromise with the build quality of the HX300—it feels like a premium product. The body is made of very good quality plastic and so are all the buttons, dials and flaps. The thumb grip on the rear panel is a patch on the body with textured finish that mimics leather, but it works. The large protruding grip is layered with textured rubber, which together with the thumb grip, inspires good confidence while shooting. Although we wouldn’t suggest, using the camera even single-handed isn’t a problem. It’s the size and weight of the camera (650 g) that requires using both hands. Not to mention you have to use your left hand to rotate the ring around the lens in addition to supporting the camera. Sony has got the placement of buttons and dials correct. With the camera held, the buttons of the control panel are in comfortable reach of the thumb. Likewise, the zoom lever and buttons on the top don’t stress the index finger.
Photos and videos look crisp and punchy when viewed on the camera’s 3-inch display that has a resolution of 921K dots. You may easily get lured towards the camera if you go by what you see on it. However, your views will change if you carefully assess the results in full view on a good monitor.
Purple fringing against strong backlight
The HX300 performs best indoors in good ambient lighting and outdoors in broad daylight. Photos shot at 20 megapixels look great when rescaled to the monitor’s resolution. But the flaws become very apparent when viewed at 100 percent zoom. It looks like the photo has been shot with a mainstream point-and-shoot camera. The exposure is handled quite well and the colour reproduction is very good. However, the lack of details due to noise and compression artefacts takes away the charm. So, don’t expect miracles should you want to use cropped portions of photos. Another problem is the occurrence of purple fringing against bright backlight – it is strongest towards the edges of the frame.
Under good lighting condition, the noise is handled quite well up to ISO 800, after which the graininess increases dramatically taking away the details. Thankfully, there’s not much colour deviation due to colour noise at high ISO.
What we found most interesting were effect filters, some scene presets, iSweep Panorama mode and video recording. The scene presets that we’ve listed in the User Interface section yield excellent results—much better than what you’d get with auto or manual modes. Panoramic shots look great, but only when they’re rescaled to around 50 percent. At 100 percent zoom, the details are very patchy. The effect filters include Toy Camera, Pop Color and Partial colour (red, green, blue and yellow), HDR Painting, Rich-tone Monochrome and Minature. You can get some very creative shots if these filters are used cleverly.
The quality of video recording is excellent – you won’t need a camcorder if you own this camera. Videos shot at full high definition are jitter-free and the image quality is excellent. Zooming and panning are very smooth. Unlike when shooting still images, zooming while recording videos is very gradual.
Sample shots (click on the photos for full view)
Good details and background blur
A crop of the photo of the moon shot at 1200 mm
Shot using Rich-tone Monochrome filter
100 percent crop from a 20MP frame - patchy details
Macro shot - very good details, shadows and colours
Shot using Partial Yellow effect
Verdict and price in India
Priced at an MRP of Rs 25,990, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300 is the most affordable super-zoom digital camera with 50x optical zoom. But that doesn’t mean it’s best value for money. You don’t get hot-shoe for external flash, RAW support, fully articulating LCD monitor, eye sensor for EVF and GPS. Also, the image quality isn’t extraordinary. If you’re meticulous about image quality and want the best-in-class superzoom, there’s nothing better than the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. You get most of the features that are missing on the HX300. Moreover, the imaging quality of the SX50 HS is far superior to that of the HX300.
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