Having concluded that long telephotos on a full-frame camera are really quite awkward, I decided to check out current offerings in the small-sensor market. Some models can achieve a full-frame equivalent zoom of nearly 1000 mm, as the small sensor effectively crops out the center of an imaginary full-frame shot.
Many compact cameras look and work like shrunk regular cameras with fixed lenses, for example this Nikon Coolpix, but those require a camera bag to carry. If I wanted to bring a camera bag I’d just pack my full-frame gear, so these travel compact cameras were much more appealing to me. These models are barely larger than smartphones, fitting in a coat or even trouser pocket, and automatically retract and seal the lens when turned off.
Being an incorrigible Sony fanboy and already familiar with their peculiar camera controls, I got the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX90 for €345 incl. VAT at a local store. Note that there are two regional variants; America and some other locations get the HX90V which adds GPS location but does not differ in any other way, to my knowledge. Similar to other pocket cameras, the DSC-HX90 only measures 102 × 58.1 × 35.5 mm and weighs 245 grams. The picture shows it above an Apple iPhone 6s in a leather case. The iPhone with case is still thinner, but nearly the same width and much longer!
I immediately took the new camera for a tour, and you can check out the results in the Aying gallery which demonstrates the optical full zoom range, plus one shot with extra digital zoom just to show that it’s garbage as usual. That and some user errors aside (see the gallery description), I was very happy with the results. The DSC-HX90 is a great little outdoors traveling camera. Now on to a number of details that should be worth mentioning.
(2018-05-20: Posted another gallery covering Schloss Nymphenburg, this time without accidental overexposure.)
As hinted above, Sony’s traditional camera controls are notoriously designed by and for autistic Japanese engineers. Fortunately I’m already used to them from the NEX and Alpha series, but newcomers might want to check out the guide and manual. Consider other brands if they make your head spin.
Speaking of bigger Sony models, the DSC-HX90 surprisingly has their nifty “Direct Manual Focus” feature. Press the shutter halfway down to engage autofocus, then rotate the focusing ring on the lens to manually adjust focus. The viewfinder shows a magnified picture to assist in focusing. Normal autofocus worked well in my experience, for the record.
Did I say viewfinder? Oh yes, the DSC-HX90 doesn’t just have a swiveling backside LCD but also an extremely useful pop-up viewfinder, even with diopter adjustment. It’s crisp and clear and essential on sunny days when the backside display is virtually unreadable. Another pop-up feature is a small built-in flash though I doubt it would illuminate much, to be honest.
While the DSC-HX90 has a variety of automatic scene recognition settings, it also features the same manual and semi-manual drive modes as larger models, including manual aperture and shutter speed with automatic ISO selection. Various autofocus choices and automatic or manual white balance settings are available, among many others. You won’t be lacking options here.
Lastly, battery life seems very good. The charge indicator did not drop from full during my entire first tour. A relief, as the larger batteries of my Sony Alpha 7R/II seem to lose half their charge just from turning on the camera. Batteries can be charged when the camera is connected to a USB port, or to the included USB charger. A separate non-USB battery charger is available separately.
Sensor and Lens
The small 7.82 mm (1/2.3) sensor with 18.2 megapixels is unimpressive but perfectly sufficient given the vast optical zoom range, as you should never have to do zoom-by-crop. Optional dynamic range optimization (DRO) adjusts ISO for individual parts of a frame before it is stored. The camera only stores JPEGs with no raw file option so you can’t do much post-processing, but you shouldn’t need to.
The Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens covers a physical zoom range of 4.1–123 mm at f/3.5–6.4. As usual advertising converts only the zoom range to its full-frame equivalent of 24–720 mm. But to determine actual light capturing capability, the f-numbers must be adjusted as well. The zoom range ratio yields a factor of 5.85, so the full-frame equivalent f-stop range is only about f/20.5–37.4. With that little light coming in, available ISO settings go as low as 80 but only up to 3200. This is clearly a daylight camera.
The DSC-HX90 can be configured to extend its optical zoom range by another factor of four using digital zoom, with a first factor of two coming from what Sony calls “ClearImage zoom” followed by plain old “digital zoom.” Sony claims that ClearImage would “not significantly” deteriorate image quality, so I enabled it for my first gallery and included a sample shot. However, the results were disappointing. Any images exceeding optical zoom were quite obviously blurry, so it’s best to disable both digital zoom options.
This cheap little camera is frankly awesome, and I imagine so are its equivalents from other manufacturers. Obviously the first thought that popped into my head after seeing the results of my tour was, Am I perhaps a complete moron to have spent so much money on heavy awkward full-frame equipment? Now in my defense, I moved to APS-C and then full-frame many years ago when compact cameras were not nearly as good. A lot of improvements have happened in that sector by now.
At any rate, if you want a travel camera for outdoors sunlight shooting with an enormous zoom range, the DSC-HX90 is fantastic and in my opinion beats any larger option thanks to sheer portability, not to mention price. That said, full-frame still holds an inevitable edge due to the laws of optics when available light is limited, and also lets you mount powerful flashes, specialized lenses for e.g. macro photography, polarized filters, etc. I’m not giving away my full-frame gear yet, but I expect to use it a good deal less.