The Sony Cyber-shot HX50 is the world's smallest 30x optical zoom digital camera. Find out how it performs in the What Digital Camera Sony HX50 review.
Sony’s first foray into the format didn’t come until 2007, with the launch of the DSC-H3, which featured a high-quality 10x zoom Carl Zeiss lens. The H-series has been part of Sony’s range ever since, and has now culminated in the HX50, which features a lens with 30x optical zoom, equivalent to 24-720mm, currently the longest zoom range on any pocket-sized compact camera.
In fact there are only a small handful of large bridge cameras that have greater zoom capability, including Sony’s own HX300. Is the HX50 just about the zoom, or is it in fact a more complete imaging proposition?
Sony HX50 Review – Features
The Sony HX50’s key feature is this remarkable lens, and it’s certainly an impressive bit of kit. It bears Sony’s G series label, used on its high-end products. Its actual focal length is 4.3 – 129mm, with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 – 6.3.
At full extension it protrudes 60mm, but retracts back into a bezel that protrudes just 10mm from the camera body. Considering that the whole camera is just 38.4mm thick including that bezel it represents a remarkable feat of optical engineering.
Naturally fitting such a monster lens to a compact camera such as the Sony HX50 is not without its problems, and as we’ll see when we come to look at the camera’s overall performance the sheer time it takes to roll in and out is significant. More importantly, and a problem which dogs most super-zoom cameras, holding 720mm-equivalent lens still enough to take a sharp picture is nearly impossible.
As usual Sony has come up with a few technological solutions to try and make it work, but has only been partially successful. We’ll take a look at those results later.
The Sony HX50 is equipped with a 20.4 megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor, but unlike real high-end cameras it’s only of the smaller 1/2.3in size. Using a larger 1/1.7in sensor would have reduced the effective magnification of the lens, so it’s a bit of a swings-or-roundabouts situation, but cramming such a high resolution onto such a small sensor causes its own set of problems.
Other noteworthy features include a multi-accessory shoe that can be used to attach an external flash, electronic viewfinder or stereo microphone, however in typical Sony fashion the shoe is a unique proprietary design so your existing third-party flashgun won’t work. Only a Sony flashgun designed for this interface will fit, which means shelling out £130 for a HVL-F20M, or £550 for a HVL-F60M. Other Sony Alpha system flashguns will work, but only if you buy a £25 adapter. The FDA-EV1MK electronic viewfinder is also a pricey add-on, currently around £380.
The HX50 is the latest in a growing number of digital cameras that included Wi-Fi connectivity with both a networked PC and with a smartphone or tablet, via an app that can be downloaded from Google Play for Android or the App Store for iOS devices.
It included all the usual functionality, such as instant sharing and backup of captured images, and remote camera operation, as long as you are within Wi-Fi range. Both the app and the supplied PC software (Sony PlayMemories Home 2.0) are more complicated than they need to be, and don’t really provide much in the way or picture editing control.
Sony HX50 Review – Design
As intimated in the previous section, the HX50’s design is a touch deceptive. It’s designed to look like a serious high-end camera, taking many design cues from advanced Sony models such as the RX1 and RX100, but in fact internally it has a lot more in common with the simpler point-and-shoot cameras of the WX series.
The control layout on the back panel is almost identical to the excellent RX100, but unfortunately just not quite as good. The D-pad is particularly poor; it’s a rotary design, and both shutter speed and aperture control are adjusted by spinning the bezel.
Unfortunately the bezel is quite small and fiddly, and it’s all too easy to press a little too hard when rotating it and accidentally go into the flash setting or display options menus when you’re trying to set the shutter speed. When are manufacturers going to realise that these multi-purpose controls just aren’t a good idea?
Annoyingly the HX50 does have a very nice dial on the top plate for setting exposure compensation; it would have been a better idea to use that as the main adjustment control and leave EV compensation in its usual place as a D-pad option.
Another minor annoyance with the control layout is the dedicated video button. This is placed handily right next to the thumb grip on the rear panel, which means that it’s very easy to accidentally press it when you pick up the camera and instantly start recording video, which can be very frustrating if you’re trying to take a picture in a hurry.
Those bugbears aside, the HX50 is quite nice to handle. It has a decent sized handgrip on the front, and the controls, annoying though some of them are, are at least clearly labelled. The build quality is also up to Sony’s usual high standard, with tight panel seams and a good quality finish. The body is part plastic, part metal and has just enough weight to feel strong and durable.
Sony HX50 Review – Performance
One of the things we look out for on a digital camera is start-up time. If you see a good photo opportunity you want to snap it as quickly as possible, so you don’t want to be waiting around for your camera to sort itself out. As we mentioned earlier however, that massive 30x zoom lens does slow the HX50 down quite a bit.
From a cold start the HX50 takes approximately three seconds to start up, roll out the lens, focus and take a picture, which is pretty slow by most standards. It also takes about two and a half seconds to shut down and put the lens away.
Once the Sony HX50’s up and running though it can shoot fairly quickly, with a shot-to-shot time of approximately one second, which is on a par with most other current compact cameras. This speed is thanks mainly to the autofocus system, which is very quick and accurate.
There are a couple of caveats to go with that performance though; the exposure system isn’t as quick as the AF system, and if you move from a dark scene to a very bright one, such as going from indoors to outdoors, it can take the camera several seconds to adjust, resulting in some under-exposed shots.
Having a 720mm-equivalent lens on a relatively small camera creates some handling issues. At full zoom it’s very difficult to hold the camera steady enough to get a good shot.
The Sony HX50 has SteadyShot optical image stabilisation, which helps to a certain extent, but there is still visible shake blurring on hand-held shots taken at 1/40th of a second. More effective is the blur reduction technique used in the Superior Auto mode, in which the camera takes three frames in quick succession, and then combines them into one shake-free image.
It works very well on stationary subjects, allowing sharp hand-held shots even at full zoom. It also works on moving subjects, but it has to be said that the results were sometimes a bit disappointing.
One aspect of the HX50’s performance that doesn’t disappoint at all is battery duration. It’s powered by a 1240mAh li-ion battery for which Sony claims 400 shots or 200 minutes of video on a full charge. We weren’t able to shoot that many frames during testing, but after nearly 300 shots it was still showing a full charge on the monitor display, so we have no reason to doubt Sony’s claim.
Sony HX50 Review – Image Quality
Looking at the overall picture quality, the Sony HX50 does fairly well, but only when compared to point-and-shoot compacts. If you start comparing it to the kind of high-spec advanced compacts that it would clearly like to be, it falls down rather hard. It has a tiny overcrowded sensor, and suffers from all of the problems which that inevitably brings.
Colour and white balance
Sony’s colour processing has always been very good, and the HX50 is no exception. Colour reproduction in good light is pretty much perfect, with nice even gradation of tone, good saturation even on very light colours and very good contrast. Automatic white balance is accurate and copes well with unusual lighting such as sodium street lights. The manual pre-sets are also accurate, with three different fluorescent light settings that cope well with modern compact fluorescent bulbs, and a handy one-touch manual setting.
As was noted earlier, the exposure metering system can sometimes lag behind the autofocus system, and as a result some shots snapped in a hurry can be poorly exposed. However as long as you give it a second to adjust itself, the exposure metering in normal lighting is impeccable. It also copes well in most common lighting situations, such as shooting into the sun, or very bright reflections on glass.
The dynamic range isn’t exactly brilliant, but it is somewhat better than expected, thanks no doubt to some clever processing, but even in very high contrast situations it does retain a decent amount of shadow detail.
With a maximum image size of 5184 x 3888 (20.15 megapixels) the HX50 should be capable of recording a huge amount of detail, but in fact its ability to do so is limited by its JPEG processing. Close examination of the images shows a lot of processing artefacts even on very low ISO shots, as well as JPEG compression artefacts around high-contrast edges.
Images look great at a distance, but as soon as you get up close you notice fuzzy details, colour bleed into white areas, colour interpolation errors and more. There’s really not much point in having a 20MP sensor if it produces less detail than a 12MP sensor with better processing.
Small overcrowded sensors have three main problems; lousy dynamic range, poor colour saturation and high-ISO image noise. The HX50 has managed to dodge most of the bullets from the first two, but it can’t avoid that last one. The ISO settings range from 80 to 12,800. At the lowest setting the picture quality is pretty good, as one might expect, but as the sensitivity is increased the images start to look more and more over-processed, with a steady decline in fine detail.
There’s no real cut-off point, but by 1,600 ISO most fine detail has been lost, there is distinct banding in tone gradations. There’s no real noise as such, but the heavy noise reduction does mean that the images look more like approximations.
At 6,400 and 12,800 ISO the noise reduction reaches its limit and heavy granular noise does become apparent.
Sony HX50 Review – Verdict
The HX50 is a prime example of the old maxim “Jack of all trades, master of none”; it tries to do too much and doesn’t do any one thing particularly well.
Despite its superficial similarity to Sony’s high-spec advanced compacts, the HX50 is really just a point-and-shoot compact with aspirations. The lens can feel unwieldy at full zoom, and the sensor is too small for its resolution.
It’s not bad for an all-rounder though, and if you use it properly it’s capable of turning in good quality pictures under a wide range of conditions. However the small overcrowded sensor limits the image quality, while the limited degree of manual control and lack of raw mode will discourage the enthusiast, and will probably just confuse anyone else.
Sony Cyber-shot HX50 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of sample images captured with the Sony Cyber-shot HX50. For a full range, including ISO comparison shots, head on over to the Sony Cyber-shot HX50 sample image gallery.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX50 is aimed at the discerning photographer, featuring a 24-720mm equivalent Sony G lens with optical image stabilization and a maximum aperture of f/3.5-6.3. Other headline features include a 20.4MP Exmor R CMOS sensor, Sony’s premium imaging chip that boasts low noise performance, and a Bionz processor. The Sony HX50 can shoot up to ISO 3200 natively, or up to 12,800 using Sony’s By Pixel Super Resolution” technology and overlay burst shooting.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX50 offers full manual control with a high degree of direct on-camera input, including a physical mode dial and exposure compensation dial on the top plate, as well as a user-definable custom function button on the back. A Memory Recall setting on the dial allows up to three sets of shooting data to be saved for future use, while a multi interface hotshoe enables the attachment of a compatible electronic viewfinder, microphone or flashgun, though there’s also a built-in pop up flash.
The Cyber-shot HX50 also offers a slew of features for those happy to let the camera take control, including a range of scene modes and a selection of nine Picture Effects filters such as Partial Colour, Pop Colour, Miniature, Toy Camera, Watercolour and High Key.
The Sony HX50 shoots full HD 1920×1080/50p movies in the AVCHD format, as well as MP4, with Optical SteadyShot compensation for reduced camera shake. Wi-fi functionality is also provided, offering the ability to transfer images to a smartphone or control the camera remotely using Sony’s PlayMemories Camera Apps.
Other features of the Sony Cyber-shot HX50 include Sweep Panorama, and an X-type lithium-ion battery that provides around 400 photos from a single charge.
Although somewhat larger than its 20x zoom cousin the WX300, the Sony Cyber-shot HX50 is remarkably small and light for a camera with a 30x optical zoom, especially since most other cameras offering this zoom range are bridge cameras. However it feels well made and the materials are of a high quality.
There’s a decent sized handgrip and a shutter release button that falls easily to the hand. The inclusion of an exposure compensation dial is a welcome addition, and its positioning on the rear corner makes it easy to access. Both this dial and the mod dial are reassuringly stiff enough to not be knocked accidentally. The ability to attach third party flashguns is good, as is the option of an electronic viewfinder, though potential buyers should be aware that the EVF costs as much again as the camera.
The zoom lever wastes no time taking the lens from minimum to maximum focal length, though conversely this may make fine adjustments more difficult.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX50 is available in the UK from early May 2013 and will cost around £350. Check back for a full review in due course.
Watch our First Look Video