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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 Ken McMahon, July 2010
 

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 review

Released in February 2010, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 is a compact super zoom, or, if you prefer, travel zoom, with a 10x optical range, 14 Megapixel CCD sensor and 3 inch LCD display. It shares the same body shape, lens and some features of the higher-end Cyber-shot DSC-HX5, with the major difference being that in place of the HX5's 10 Megapixel Exmor-R backlit CMOS sensor, the H55 has a 14 Megapixel CCD sensor.

Though capable of producing bigger images, this means the H55 lacks the HX5's super-fast continuous shooting capability along with it's hand-held twilight and anti motion blur modes. It also lacks the HX5's built-in GPS and, though it can shoot HD video at 720p resolution, doesn't share the higher resolution 1080i option that's available on the HX5, nor the stereo audio recording, but it does retain the Sweep panorama feature which produces a still panoramic image from a panned video clip. If you're interested in finding out more about the H55's more sophisticated sibling, check out our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 review.

Travel zooms, so called because they pack a big zoom into a compact body that's equipped for all situations, are becoming increasingly popular and all of the major manufacturers now offer at least one model. We've tested the Cyber-shot DSC-H55 up against two other models released at about the same time and offering similar specifications for roughly the same money - the Nikon COOLPIX S8000 and Panasonic Lumix TZ8 / ZS5.

   
   


Measuring 103 x 58 x 28 and weighting 200g with battery and card, the Cyber-shot H55 shares the exact same dimensions and weight as its more capable sibling the HX5. It's 17g heavier, one millimetre taller and a couple of millimetres thicker than the Nikon COOLPIX S8000 and smaller and lighter than the Panasonic Lumix TZ8 / ZS5 by a similar amount, but to look at and hold you you'd be hard pressed to spot the difference.

The body has a slight cylindrical bulge with a indent that runs the full height of the front panel, providing a very comfortable snug fit for the second and third fingers of your right hand. A similar, smaller indent on the back feels like it was tailor-made to fit your thumb. The result of this curvaceous styling is a camera body that feels like it's stuck to your hand - this is ergonomic design at it's best. Our review model was finished in black, but the H55 is also available in silver.

 
 
 
 

The H55's top panel is home to a small, flush-mounted on/off button, a gun-metal grey shutter release with zoom collar and, on the cigar-tube-shaped right edge, a 7-position mode dial with Movie, Sweep Panorama, Manual, Program auto, Intelligent auto, Easy and Scene modes.

Round the back there's nothing other than moulded plastic in the top half of the rear panel, which is part of the reason the H55 is so comfortable to hold. In the lower half is a playback button, conventional 4-way control pad and menu and delete buttons.

You won't find flaps and doors on the sides of most Sony compacts and the H55 is no exception. Instead, Sony favours a single proprietary connector in the middle of the base of the camera. The supplied cable that connects to this port has a standard USB plug, composite video and stereo audio connectors so you can connect to a computer or a standard definition TV. The H55 does also support HDMI output to HDTVs, but only with an optional adapter dongle.

 
 
 
 
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While this single port keeps the lines of the H55 clean and free from doors, if you lose or damage the supplied cable you'll have to buy another from Sony. We'd prefer to see standard A/V, USB and HDMI connectors of the sort used by Nikon and Panasonic.

The battery and card compartments are located behind a door on the right side of the camera base. The H55 takes SD and SDHC cards in addition to Sony Memory Stick Duo and Pro Duo cards. The tripod bush is located on the opposite side of the base, which can make it difficult to level the camera on some tripods, but at least it's underneath the lens.

The Cyber-shot H55 has a built in flash with a quoted range of 3.8 metres at the 25mm wide angle focal length. That's fairly average, but well short of the figure claimed by the COOLPIX 8000 and Lumix TZ8, however, as we've said before these figures that are based on auto ISO settings don't mean much. In practice the H55 delivered bright even illumination that was the equal of the other two models. The flash is slow to recharge between shots, though, and after taking a shot using the flash we had to watch the orange flashing indicator for a full 8 seconds before the flash was ready again. On the plus side if you press the shutter release all the way down while you wait, the shot gets taken as soon as the flash is ready.

In Auto (flash) mode the flash fires whenever the available light isn't adequate for a good exposure. In modes that support it the flash can be forced off or on and there's a slow synchro mode for using the flash to fill-in while making the most of available light with a slower shutter speed.

The Cyber-shot H55 uses an NP-BG1 Lithium Ion battery which on a full charge provides enough power for 310 shots using the CIPA (Camera Imaging Products Association) standard. This is a really impressive performance from a camera with a 10x zoom and a 3in LCD – components that can drain power very quickly. The remaining battery power is indicated on the screen by a four-segment icon.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 coverage wide
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 coverage tele
4.25-42.5mm at 4.25mm (25mm equivalent)
  4.25-42.5mm at 42.5mm (250 mm equivalent)

The Cyber-shot H55 has the same 10x zoom lens as the HX5 with an actual range of 4.25 to 42.5mm which in 35mm terms is equivalent to 25 to 250mm. Not only is a 10x zoom in a compact of these proportions pretty exceptional but, in our view, Sony has encompassed the best possible range of focal lengths. At 25mm you're just inside super wide angle territory which means you can get a great perspective on all kinds of subjects from small interiors to expansive landscapes. Compositionally you'll find some great angles to shoot with a lens that goes this wide and it will also help you get everyone in the frame for tight group shots. A two second press on the zoom collar and you're at the 250mm end of the range where you can shoot close up portraits, wildlife, tightly-framed sports action, anything that's out of reach and would on a compact with lesser reach be insignificant detail in the centre of the frame.

It's true that the H55 is 50mm short of the COOLPIX S8000's 300mm maximum telephoto and there are compact super zooms out there that will go even further, but for all but the smallest, most distant subjects, the H55 will get you close enough.

When the on/off button is pressed the H55 powers up, the lens extends by 18mm and the camera is ready for action in around 2 seconds. The zoom takes just under a couple of seconds to travel through the full range at the fastest of its two speed settings, it would be quicker but there's a slightly frustrating fractional delay between pressing the zoom collar and the motor whirring into action.

The zoom is quiet (enough to avoid any motor noise being recording when it's activated during video recording) and its passage is reasonably smooth. By nudging the zoom collar we were able to get it to jump through more than 20 discrete steps, but the action isn't very positive. If you give the collar the briefest of flicks nothing happens and the tendency then is to over-compensate and go too far, so fine control is, at best, a knack to be acquired.

   
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 Stabilisation: default
1/25, 80 ISO, 4.25-42.5mm at 42.5mm (250mm equivalent)  
   

 
The Cyber-shot H55 has Optical SteadyShot image stabilisation which attempts to eradicate blur caused by camera shake at slower shutter speeds using a system that shifts the lens elements to compensate for camera motion. While earlier Cyber-shots allowed you to choose whether to activate SteadyShot, on more recent models this hasn't been an option and it appears to be active all the time. There are SteadyShot options for movies, about which more in a while.

As SteadyShot is continually active, our usual before and after comparisons are not possible. So what we have here is a single 100 percent crop taken from the centre of an image shot with the Cyber-shot H55 with the lens extended to its maximum 250mm focal length. The camera was set to Program mode and with the sensitivity set manually to 80 ISO the metering set an exposure of 1/25th of a second.

Under ordinary circumstances, i.e. without stabilization, you wouldn't expect to get sharp results at this focal length with shutter speeds slower than 1/250th of a second, so the H55 let us hand hold shots over three stops slower than traditional wisdom suggests.

 
 
 
 

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 has three main focusing options for general-use: Multi-AF which automatically picks from nine areas, Centre AF which only considers the middle area, and Spot AF which concentrates on an even smaller area in the centre of the frame. Note neither Centre AF nor Spot AF modes can be adjusted to consider other areas of the frame. In use the focusing is pretty quick and rarely made us wait.

As a Sony camera, it's not surprising to find the Cyber-shot HX5 packed with the company's latest face detection technology. Along with Off and Auto options, the H55 allows you to actually choose whether to prioritise Adult or Child faces, and amazingly it works too. If face detection is enabled, but no faces are detected, the camera reverts to the nine-area Multi-AF mode.

The HX5 also features Sony's Smile Shutter technology, enabled by pushing the rocker control to the left. This actually measures the size of your subject's smile, indicating their apparent cheeriness on a scale on the left. It’s surprisingly effective at doing it too, and fun to watch as the bar rises and falls as their expression changes. Then when the user-selectable trigger point is reached, the camera automatically takes a photo. There's three trigger options, with the mildest firing the shot with little more than a demure raise of the lips, while the strongest requires full-on toothy grins.

The rear of the H55 is dominated by the 3 inch screen with 230 thousand pixels. The top button on the control disc is given over to toggling screen display modes. Pushing it upwards toggles through four display modes. In the default mode the screen shows an information overlay that includes the shooting mode, battery level, image size, flash mode and number of pictures remaining, in intelligent auto mode it also displays the scene recognition icon. With the first press of the shutter release the active AF areas appear in green and the exposure information is displayed.

You can increase the screen brightness, increase the brightness and display a live histogram, and increase the brightness and turn off the info overlay. While it's good to have options it's hard to understand why Sony has tied the various information overlays to the increased screen brightness options. There are plenty of situations in which you might want to have the histogram displayed, or the info overlay turned off without adjusting the screen brightness and suffering the resulting shortened battery life and it's frustrating not to be able to choose one without the other.

Pressing the Menu button superimposes a number of settings running vertically down the left side of the screen; this selection of settings varies with the shooting mode. As each setting is highlighted, the various options available pop out to the right. In Program mode you'll be able to change the image quality, burst mode, bracket settings, exposure compensation, sensitivity, white balance, focus area, metering, smile detection sensitivity, face detection mode and DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer).

     

Like other Sony compacts, the last setting in the list, indicated by an icon of a briefcase, takes you to a series of vertically tabbed menu pages. Again with the camera set to Program, you'll see tabs for Shooting Settings, Main Settings, Memory Card Tool, and Clock Settings. The shooting settings include AF illuminator, grid display overlay, digital zoom, red-eye reduction and blink alert.

     

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There's also a Disp. Resolution option on the Shooting settings menu that offers two options – standard and High. This sets the screen resolution in capture modes, High being the maximum 230k pixels and Standard providing a reduced resolution view. We recommend you set this to high, after all, why limit your display to a lower resolution than it's maximum? One reason, of course, would be to conserve battery power and it makes you wonder which mode the H55's generous CIPA rating of 310 shots was achieved. It's not always possible to set the display resolution, in Easy shooting mode, for example it's automatically set to Standard and in Movie mode to High.

During playback, pushing the rocker upwards gives you the same choice of views as recording: normal brightness with basic shooting info, increased brightness with the same shooting info, increased brightness with extra details and finally, a clean view again with increased brightness. Pressing the menu button during playback accesses slide show, basic retouching, deletion, protection and printing options.

All of the H55's shooting modes are available directly, from the mode dial on the top left corner. These include Program auto, Intelligent auto, Easy, Manual, Movie, Sweep panorama and a SCN position which accesses 11 presets from a menu. Let's start with Program auto which is a fully automatic exposure mode. This, in common with some other modes uses the currently set metering mode – Multi, Centre, or Spot – to determine exposure.

In Intelligent auto mode the metering is augmented by scene detection which attempts to figure out what you're photographing and adjust the exposure accordingly. Depending on the subject the camera can switch between Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Twilight using a tripod, Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Landscape, Macro and Portrait.

The H55's scene detection works pretty well and is quick to identify subjects and display the relevant icon on the screen. It recognised people very easily and wasn't prone to misidentification of subjects though, like the COOLPIX S8000, it occassionally identified landscapes with a predominance of sky as backlit. For point-and-shoot operation it's certainly worth choosing this mode over conventional auto operation unless you want to bracket, set the ISO sensitivity or control one of the other settings that's only available in Program mode.

The Manual mode allows you to select the shutter speed and aperture of your choice, by first pressing the centre button in the rocker, then up and down to change the shutter or left and right to change the aperture. Like most compacts though, there are some limitations.

While the shutter speed can be adjusted between 30 and 1/1600th of a second, there are only two aperture options, f3.5 and f8 at the wide angle lens setting and f5.5 and f13 and the telephoto lens setting. Furthermore, it appears that the H55 uses a neutral density filter in place of a physical iris diaphragm to adjust the aperture. This has implications for depth of field and image quality which are discussed, along with example images, in our HX5 review.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55: Sweep Panorama sample

4.25-42.5mm at 4.25mm (25mm equivalent)


Finally, we have the Sweep panorama mode. Panoramic modes on compacts are nothing new, but the traditional approach has been to help you to shoot several overlapping images that are then stitched. It's a complicated process fraught with problems and the results are often less than perfect. The H55 takes a different route, shooting a short video clip as you pan the camera from which it then produces a still panoramic shot in one of two available sizes, standard, 4912 x 1080 pixels and wide, 7152 x 1080 pixels. It's incredibly easy to use and the results, one of which you can see above and in the gallery, are pretty spectacular.

 

 
 

The H55 can shoot movies in one of two formats, 720p HD and standard resolution VGA at 640 x 480 pixels. The HD mode itself has two settings, Fine and Standard, effectively changing the recording bitrate and hence the movie quality. Fine mode records at an average variable bit rate of 9Mbps and Standard at 6Mbps. Video files are encoded using an MPEG-4 codec with AAC mono audio and saved as .mp4 files. Registered members of Vimeo can download the clip shown here for evaluation on their own computers.

The H55 lacks the 1080i HD mode of the HX5 and can only record mono audio. Another major difference is that the HX5's dedicated Movie recording button has disappeared from the back panel, but then it only takes a second to flick the mode dial to the Movie position so it's no great loss.

One of the great things about the H55 is that its powerful zoom can be used during video recording. It's restricted to the slower speed setting which not only provides a graceful slow zoom perfectly suited to movies, but keeps the noise level low enough to avoid being picked up by the mic, even though it's positioned directly above the lens.

As we said earlier, there are two SteadyShot settings when shooting movies – Standard and Active, the latter offering a more powerful stabilizer that in promotional videos Sony shows operating in a 'steady cam' fashion, smoothing out bumps and jerks caused by the photographer following a subject on foot.

While it lacks the very fast continuous shooting and stacking options of the HX5, the H55 does have a Burst mode that records up to 100 images in succession. The first four frames are shot at a rate of 1.84fps, then things slow to regular rate of about 0.5 frames per second, in other words one frame every two seconds. Things don't get any quicker even if the image size is reduced, so if you're looking for fast continuous shooting you'll have to look elsewhere. Though lacking the kind of performance the HX5 offers, both the Nikon COOLPIX S8000 and Panasonic LUMIX TZ8 have better continuous shooting capabilities than the H55.

The H55 has a Super HAD CCD sensor which records images with a maximum resolution of 14 Megapixels measuring 4320 x 3240 pixels with an aspect ratio of 4:3. A variety of smaller sizes are available including a cropped wide-screen 16:9 ratio measuring 4320 x 2432 . All still image files are JPEG compressed using a single setting that produces average file sizes of around 5 to 5.5MB.

The sensitivity ranges from 80 ISO to 3200 ISO at full resolution and the H55's shutter speed range runs from 30 seconds to 1/1600 in manual mode with a lower limit of 1 second in Auto mode and 2 seconds in Intelligent auto mode.

To see how the quality of the Cyber-shot H55 measures-up in practice, take a look at our real-life resolution and high ISO noise results pages, browse the sample images gallery, or skip to the chase and head straight for our verdict.

 

All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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