Sony DSC-F505v: Would You Like Some Camera with that Lens?
The DSC-F505v marks Sony's entrance into the 3.3-megapixel digital camera fray... sort of. The camera does, in fact, build on a 3.3-megapixel CCD, but with a maximum, uninterpolated resolution of only 1,856 by 1,392, the F505v is technically only a 2.6-megapixel camera. In an effort to get a camera with a 3.3-megapixel product to market quickly, Sony has simply shoehorned a new CCD into its older, 2.1-megapixel DSC-F505 model. Unfortunately, because of the engineering of the older model, Sony was not able to take advantage of the full resolution of the beefier chip. Specifically, because the camera's lens was designed to project onto a smaller focal point, the new 3.3-megapixel CCD is not fully utilized, though this camera produces excellent images all the same.
Big Lens, Little Body
The F505V looks like a big, professional-quality lens with a point-and-shoot camera dangling coincidentally behind. But oh what a lens: Sony built the camera around a fast, high-quality, 5x Carl Zeiss zoom lens. Stuck onto the back of this large-barreled lens is a small, swiveling body that houses the camera's controls, Memory Stick, and LCD viewfinder. No optical viewfinder is provided, so this is not a camera for users who prefer a traditional camera feel.
The Sony DSC-F505V features a 5X Carl Zeiss lens attached to a small, rotating camera body based around an LCD viewfinder.
With a focal range of 38 to 190 mm (in 35mm equivalencies) the f2.8 lens offers a greater zoom range than any other camera in its class. And the Carl Zeiss name is more than just an expensive "designer" tag: The optics on the F505v are exceptionally good.
Despite its somewhat funky appearance, the camera is quite comfortable to use. Once you've inserted the proprietary Sony InfoLithium battery and Memory Stick into the camera's right side, the unit has a very nice balance when held in your left hand. The swiveling body offers the same type of flexibility as other split body cameras, such as the Nikon Coolpix series or the Agfa ePhoto 1680. The body cannot swivel a full 180 degrees, but it offers enough rotation to facilitate overhead shots or low, tricky macro shots.
The top of the camera houses its sliding power switch, a three-position mode switch (Still, Movie, and Play), a zoom control, and the shutter button. The back of the camera sports a hybrid LCD viewfinder -- one that has a backlight that can be switched off in daylight to save batteries, and turned on inside when ambient light isn't enough to see the screen. On the back panel you'll also find a 4-way rocker switch for navigating the camera's menu system, a flash button, a display control, and the program mode button.
The camera's LCD is of good quality, but not quite as good as that of the Canon G1, our current benchmark of LCD quality. Though covered with an effective anti-glare coating, the screen was not quite bright enough for easy viewing in direct sunlight. One particularly nice feature, though, is the backlight switch located directly below the LCD. Because the backlight doesn't really offer much in the way of image quality when viewing in direct sunlight, you can turn it off to save battery power.
The back of the F505v houses the camera's LCD and simple menu control. Additional controls are mounted on the side of the lens barrel.
Sony has done an excellent job of providing access to the features most serious shutterbugs will need most often. The left side of the lens barrel, for example, houses separate buttons for activating the camera's spot meter and macro mode, as well as a button for selecting white balance. A fourth, smaller button is provided for setting manual white balance. Unfortunately, you'll have to dig in to the camera's menu system to find the exposure compensation controls.
Shooting: A Breeze
The F505v is a comfortable camera to shoot with, as long as you're partial to shooting with an LCD viewfinder. Easy to hold and packing a bright, clear screen, the camera made shooting a pleasure.
The F505v's zoom is very fast and almost silent, and its extended range makes it much more flexible than most of its competitor's lenses. The camera boasts an incremental zoom control, which zooms faster or slower depending on how far you move it. Because the control was a little overly sensitive, however, getting the exact framing we wanted often required a number of attempts.
The F505v features a manual-focus ring that can be activated by flipping a switch on the side of the lens. Though not a true mechanical focus, the "fly-by-wire" mechanism feels much nicer than the typical choose-a-distance-from-a-menu manual-focus control. Focusing using an LCD screen can be difficult, but the F505v automatically enlarges the center of the image to aid focusing. The camera's auto-focus is good enough even in low light that you'll rarely need the manual focus.
The camera's LCD continuously displays a very accurate measure of remaining battery time (in minutes), the current resolution, the number of pictures stored on the camera's Memory Stick, and a graphical representation of how full the memory is. Unfortunately, neither of these read-outs gives a very good indication of how many more pictures you can shoot at the current resolution. Instead of an indication on how many shots are left, you get a read-out of how many have been taken. The camera also lacks a read-out of current shutter speed and aperture.
The F505v's menu system is activated by pushing up on the four-position rocker switch. Menus are simply and easily navigated, though we often found it easy to push the loose four-way switch in the wrong direction. Consequently, it sometimes took several tries to make the correct selection.
The camera's auto-focus seemed a bit slow during testing, but a quirk of this camera was more troubling: The F505v freezes the image on-screen while it measures focus -- an approach we found to be somewhat unnerving while shooting.
In addition to a full auto mode, the camera offers shutter- and aperture-priority modes, though shutter priority lacks a bulb mode, maxing out at 8 seconds. A number of pre-set exposure modes fix the camera's settings for particular situations -- night or landscape, for example.
The F505v is a little behind when it comes to some features that are now standard on most 3.3-megapixel cameras. There are no manual ISO controls, only two metering modes (matrix and spot), and no fully manual mode. Like most of its competition, though, the camera offers a movie mode that can shoot short 320-by- 240 MPEG movies with audio.
In general, the build of the camera is up to Sony's usual excellent standards. Unlike some of its competitors, there are no flimsy doors or port coverings to break off of this camera. The unit's USB and video out ports are covered by a very sturdy top-mounted, metal door, while its battery and media compartment is enclosed by an elegant, spring-loaded cover.
Image is Everything
Though some elements of the F505v's design might feel like last year's technology, the camera competes well with the latest state-of-the-art models in image quality. Images from the F505v have the usual assortment of quirks and problems, but in general the camera produces very pretty pictures. Colors are strong and saturated without being overblown, and the camera's metering is first rate. And despite having a slightly lower resolution than its true 3-megapixel competitors, this camera produces images that provide an incredible amount of sharpness and detail, thanks to the quality of the Carl Zeiss optics.
Though technically only a 2.6-megapixel camera, the F505v delivers images with excellent sharpness and detail. Click here to see the full-resolution image.
If there's one consistent weakness to the F505v's images, it's a slightly "cold" quality that can appear in highlights and bright midtone areas. However, these casts are so slight that they are easily corrected with some simple editing.
Images from the F505v tend to have a slightly cold quality, as does this sample image, but this blue cast can be correctly easily in editing. Click here to see the full-resolution image.
We were very impressed with the camera's metering, which consistently made good decisions in difficult situations. Especially pleasing was the camera's ability to preserve color and detail in brightly-lit skies -- a trick that can trip up even the best of its competitors
The F505v had no trouble preserving shadow detail while maintaining color in the sky in this image. Click here to see the full-resolution image.
Also impressive was the general low level of noise in the F505's images. And, though we were able to force the camera to produce chromatic aberrations, it took a lot of work. The camera's lens had some distortion at both ends of its zoom range, but this distortion was no worse than what most cameras in its class produce. In general it's easy to work around these problems.
The camera offers four levels of sharpening, but we found the default settings to be just the right level for most situations. A number of silly special effects features -- sepia, negative, solarize -- are also included, but we'd gladly trade these for adjustable ISO settings.
In addition to its full resolution, the camera offers a 3:2 aspect-ratio mode, which provides a simple cropping of the full-resolution images; a 1,280-by-960 mode; and 640-by-480 images. You'll also find an interpolated 2,240-by-1,680 mode that gets the camera into the 3-megapixel range (3.7-megapixels, to be precise). Normally, I'm not crazy about interpolated images, but the F505v does a pretty good job of interpolating.
Flash performance on the camera is good, though we occasionally found the camera's white balance to be a bit off when using the built-in flash. Though positioned directly above the lens, the F505v's built-in flash is far enough away that red-eye is not a terrible problem.
Power and Storage
Anyone who's used a Sony camcorder should appreciate Sony's InfoLithium battery technology. The F505v uses a small battery but still manages to deliver about an hour's worth of continuous use from one charge, and the InfoLithium technology affords a dead-on accurate reading remaining battery life. If you're shooting in bright light, you can always turn off the LCDs backlight to conserve power.
Not surprisingly, Sony has chosen its proprietary MemoryStick technology as a storage medium, but the F505v ships with a wimpy little 8 MB card. With full-resolution (but non-interpolated) images, this was only enough for 6 images, so you'll probably want to buy an additional card along with the camera. Memory Sticks are currently available in capacities up to 64MB.
Sony ships the camera with a single battery and a charger that can double as an AC power supply, a handy feature for studio photographers and for powering the camera when using its USB connection.
At the End of the Day
Yes, it's tacky that Sony has plastered "3.3-megapixels" all over the camera, when without interpolation it only actually delivers 2.6-megapixel images. However, the difference in final image size between 2.6 and 3.3 megapixels is pretty small, and the camera's sharpness, detail, and color fidelity are so good that you shouldn't let its slightly lower resolution deter you. All in all, this camera's image quality and comfortable use make it an attractive option for the discerning digital camera shopper.
Read more by Ben Long.
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