DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Sunday, September 1, 2002
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 8, 2002

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The review has been finished using a production model camera. Product shots have been updated where necessary, and all sample photos are from this shipping model.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F707 (see our review) was one of the big hits of the last year. It offered the best photo quality (for a 5MP camera) in many people's opinions, a fast 5X optical zoom lens, laser focusing system, manual controls, and much more. It's design is also very unique, to say the least.

When word began to surface of a replacement for the F707, speculation was rampant. Would it be 6 Megapixel? 10 Megapixel? Would it use the Foveon X3 sensor? And what about the same? The most common guesses that I saw were the F707V and F909.

As it turns out, the new Cyber-shot DSC-F717 ($999) is more of an evolutionary upgrade to the F707, rather than something totally new. It takes the already excellent features of the F707 and improves on them even more. The lens and CCD are identical on both cameras.

In a nutshell, here are the differences:

  • New color (silver)
  • Hot shoe
  • New manual focus and manual zoom ring
  • 5 point (manually selectable) Multi-point AF system
  • Significantly faster startup time (50% faster)
  • Faster shot-to-shot speed
  • USB 2.0 support
  • More white balance modes
  • Live histogram
  • ISO now goes to 800
  • MPEGMovie HQX
  • More Multi-Burst modes
  • Includes 32MB Memory Stick

Join me now as I cover these new features and more in our review of the Sony's newest digital camera!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-F717 has an excellent bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 Mpixel Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717 camera
  • 32MB Memory Stick
  • NP-FM50 Li-ion rechargeable battery
  • AC Adapter
  • Shoulder strap
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Pixela ImageMixer and drivers
  • 123 page manual (printed)

The F717 has everything you need to get started: batteries, storage, and software.

The included Memory Stick has doubled in size since the F707, to 32MB. It's an improvement, but still pretty small for a 5 Megapixel camera. You'll want to buy a larger card for it.

The F717 uses the same FM50 InfoLithium battery as its predecessor. The InfoLithium batteries are nice because they tell you how many minutes are left before you're out of juice. It's also a very powerful battery -- it's also found on Sony's camcorders -- with 8.5 Watt/hours of power. For the sake of comparison, the EN-EL1 battery used by the Nikon Coolpix 5700 is just 4.8 Watt/hours. Sony estimates that you'll get nearly 3.5 hours of use per charge!

When you need to recharge, you plug in the AC adapter into the camera, and the battery charges in 2.5 hours. You can also use the AC adapter to power the camera in a studio setting, or if you're transferring photos to your computer.

The downside with these proprietary batteries is the cost ($60) and the fact that you can't use standard batteries (as you can with AA-based cameras) if you're in a bind.

To protect your Carl Zeiss lens, Sony includes a lens cap with retaining strap.

The DSC-F717 is compatible with many accessories from Sony. This includes conversion lenses (wide and tele), filters (polarizing), and flashes. You can also get a lens hood and wired remote control. A carrying case is also available.

Sony includes Pixela ImageMixer for viewing and editing your photos. I still haven't had a chance to try it. The camera is compatible with Mac OS X and I assume Windows XP as well.

The F717's manual is a definite improvement over the F707's. It's arranged better and is easier to read -- and less like a VCR manual.

Look and Feel

The DSC-F717 is kind of a bizarre looking camera -- it's "all lens". You either love it or hate it.

The camera is on the heavy side, but then again, it's big, and mostly metallic. This is not a pocket-sized camera in any way - it's aimed more towards enthusiasts than casual shooters. The camera is easy to hold, with a decent-sized grip for the right hand, and that huge lens for the left.

The dimensions of the F717 are 4.75 x 2.75 x 6 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 696 grams with battery, Memory Stick, lens cap, and shoulder strap attached.

One of the tricks of the F717 is the ability to swivel the lens. It's hard to show in pictures, but above is my attempt. The LCD is always facing the right-hand side of the picture, so you can see how much it swivels in each direction.


The "shooting over heads" example

This feature comes in handy in many situations. The one I always think of involves Disneyland, one of my favorite places. Let's say you're in the back row of people watching a show or parade. Here you can just hold the camera above the heads in front of you, swivel the LCD down, and voila -- you can see what you're photographing.

This may look like just the lens, but there's a whole lot more hidden inside! More on that in a bit.

The Carl Zeiss lens (5X optical + 2X digital zoom) is quite fast: F2.0 - F2.4. The focal range is 9.7 - 48.5 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 190 mm. The lens is threaded for 58 mm attachments.

There is also a manual zoom/focus ring around the lens, which I'll describe in more detail later in the review.

Those small circles around the lens (3 of them) look innocent enough, but they play a big part in the most interesting features of the F717: Nightshot, and Hologram AF.

Nightshot is the same feature seen on Sony's camcorders. It uses IR illumination (from those circles at the top) and an IR filter to take photos in complete darkness. Sure, everything is green, but it's a neat trick. There is also a feature called NightFraming -- I'll discuss both of these in further detail later in the review.

The other neat feature on the front I haven't seen on any other digital camera (aside from Sony's MVC-CD400) is called Hologram AF. It uses a Class 1 laser (just right of the lens) to shine a grid of red light on the subject. The camera then looks at the contrast between the laser light and the subject, and focuses. Sony says that this is a step above AF illuminators (which light up a subject so the camera can find the contrast between subject and background).


The laser grid created by Hologram AF

At first glance, you might think that you don't want to take a picture of a person using Hologram AF -- after all, you're not supposed to shine lasers in people's eyes! But, according to the manual, you could stare at it for 30,000 seconds and still not go blind... not that I advise trying!

One caveat about those lasers and lights around the lens is that they become useless when you screw on a filter or conversion lens.

Above the lens is the pop-up flash. Like the F707, the F717 uses "true TTL flash metering", where the camera actually fires the flash twice. The first time it flashes, the CCD measures the exposure. The second time, it actually takes the photo. This ensures proper exposure of those flash shots. The whole thing happens in a split second.

The working range of the flash is 0.3 - 4.5 meters. If you want more flash power, you can add an external flash. You guessed it -- more on this later. One thing to note is that if you use a conversion lens, you may block the flash.

Here is the back of the F717. The 1.8" LCD display is bright and fluid, and the brightness is adjustable via the setup menu. When you turn the flash on, the image on the LCD brightens, as well.

Just to the left of the LCD is the electronic viewfinder, or EVF. This is like a little LCD that you look into. The benefits are that you're seeing more of the frame than with a regular optical viewfinder, and you can see a lot more information (such as exposure) than with a regular viewfinder. The downsides are that it can be hard to see in bright light, and that the resolution isn't great. As EVFs go, the one on the DSC-F717 is pretty good.

There is also a diopter correction knob for those of you with less than perfect vision. A switch to the right of the EVF lets you switch between the EVF and LCD.

Just below the EVF, under a plastic door, are the A/V out and power-in ports.

Above the LCD are buttons for Display (toggles info on LCD/EVF), Thumbnail mode (in playback), and Menu.

Just right of that is the four-way switch, which also has buttons for:

  • Flash Setting (Auto, forced flash, no flash)
  • Macro
  • Self-Timer
  • Quick Review (shows the last shot taken)

Here's the top of the DSC-F717 -- you'll have to excuse the lens cap down at the bottom, which I used to prop up the camera. You can see just how big the lens is compared to the body! The flash is seen folded down here -- it's released electronically when needed.

Just below that is one of the best new features of the F717 -- a hot shoe! You can use Sony's HVL-FL1000 (which also plugs into the ACC port) or any commercially-available flash. Sony advises you to use the camera in manual or aperture priority mode while using the flash, though the other modes will work.

On the main body you'll find:

  • Speaker
  • Microphone
  • NightFraming/Nightshot switch
  • Mode Wheel
  • Shutter release button
  • Exposure compensation button (the usual -2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Thumb wheel (for changing settings in manual mode)

Here's some more information about Nightshot, and also the NightFraming feature. As I mentioned, Nightshot uses IR light to illuminate a subject, and the CCD captures it (in green). It works for stills as well as MPEG movies.

NightFraming takes Nightshot, Hologram AF, and TTL Flash Metering and combines it to help you take night shots. When turned on, the LCD shows everything in green Nightshot mode. You compose the picture, and press the shutter release button halfway. At that point, the IR filter turns off (so back to normal colors now), the Hologram AF uses the laser to focus, and the flash double-fires. Thus, you can easily take flash photos in almost zero light. It's a little awkward at first, but soon it becomes almost second nature. Below are two examples from the old DSC-F707 that illustrate how this works.


A shot of my home office using Nightshot mode.


Here's the same shot, taken via NightFraming.
View full size image

The mode wheel (which has the power switch below it) has a very "notchy" feeling (that's a good thing) and has the following options:

Option Function
Setup Opens setup menu. More on this later in the review.
Scene Mode Choose between Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Portrait, and Landscape. The camera picks the best settings for these situations.
Full Manual You pick the aperture and shutter speed. See below for values.
Aperture Priority You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2 - F8 and will vary a bit depending on the focal range used.
Shutter Priority you choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 30 sec - 1/1000 sec.
Programmed Auto Camera chooses shutter speed and aperture but all menu options are unlocked. Shutter speed range of 1/30 - 1/2000 sec.
Fully Auto Same as programmed auto, but with very limited menu options
Playback More later
Movie Mode More later

In case you skipped over the chart, there are some shutter speed quirks on the F717. The shutter speed range in programmed or fully automatic is 1/30 - 1/2000 sec. Put it in shutter priority or full manual mode, and the range is 30 - 1/1000 sec. This means that 1) low light shooting in auto mode isn't going to work well, and 2) you can't select the 1/2000 sec shutter speed.

That little jog dial is used for changing things like shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation, plus it's also used for the F717's new 5 point selectable autofocus feature. You can switch between center, left, right, bottom, or top. If you want point and shoot focusing, just put it in Multipoint and the camera will focus on the left/center/right areas of the frame.

As you can see, the F717 is slightly different on this side compared to its predecessor.

The biggest change on the camera is the new manual zoom/focus ring. When the focus is set to auto, this ring will be your main way of operating the zoom lens. Just like a "real" SLR camera, you rotate the ring to zoom in and out. The big difference is that this is an electronic, rather than mechanical system. Because of that, you can choose which direction does what. For example, if you want to turn the ring clockwise to zoom in, you can do that -- and vice versa -- via the setup menu.

Sony has done a great job making this zoom ring "feel right".You can quickly zoom from wide to telephoto in just over a second, but it can be very precise for small zoom changes as well. It takes a bit of getting used to but I think most people will like it quite a bit.

Just to the right of the zoom/focus ring is a switch which toggles manual focus on and off. When you turn on manual focus, the zoom ring now works the focus instead. If you want to zoom, you'll need to use the zoom buttons located to the right.


The subject is enlarged in manual focus mode

When you're manually focusing, the camera enlarges the image so you can make sure your subject is in focus. The LCD/EVF show you the current focus distance, instead of the useless meter that most cameras show.

I already mentioned the additional zoom controls. If you don't like using the zoom ring, you may find these controls more comfortable. It is a two-stage button meaning there is a fast and slow zoom speed.

Continuing to the right, we find buttons for AE lock, metering (multi-pattern, center-weighted, spot), and white balance.

The F717 has new white balance modes that bring it up to date with the rest of Sony's cameras. The choices are auto, one-push (manual), daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, and incandescent. With one-push white balance, you can use a white or gray card to get accurate white balance in nearly any lighting.

Here's the other side of the DSC-F717, with everything closed up. The metal ring for the neck strap can get in the way of opening and closing the battery compartment door. Let's take a closer look at this side of the camera.

Here you can see the battery compartment opened up. Inside is where you'll put the NP-FM50 InfoLithium battery as well as your Memory Stick (both are shown here).

Here's a closer look at the lens barrel on this side of the camera. You can see the ACC port for the Sony HVL-FL1000 flash, and the USB port down at the bottom. The F717 is the first digicam that I've seen that supports USB 2.0! Most computers don't support it yet, though. One issue that kind of makes USB 2.0 irrelevant is that the Memory Stick read/write speed is 2.5MB/sec, so you can't really take advantage of the speed increase offered by USB 2.0.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. You can see the dual tripod mounts (both are metal), and also the cover on the USB port. That other tripod mount (non-threaded) is often found on video tripods, and keeps the camera from rotating while on the tripod.

Using the Sony DSC-F717

Record Mode

Since the lens is fully enclosed and doesn't need to extend, the F717 is ready to go in just 1.6 seconds after you turn it on (this is faster than the F707). When you depress the shutter release halfway, the focus is locked in a second or so (depending on what the subject is and the focal length). Depressing the button all the way results in the photo being taken with almost no lag.

Shot-to-shot speed has been greatly improved on the F717. This is one of those cameras where you can really shoot as fast as you can compose. One area which has not improved is the amount of time you'll wait (nearly a minute) for the camera to record a TIFF image.

Another new feature on the F717 is a live histogram in record mode. It is disabled at the 3:2 ratio image size, though.

Sony has brought the F717 up to date with their latest noise reduction systems (there are three of them). There's one for chrominance (Clear Color NR), another for luminance (Luminance NR), and finally, one for noise (Slow Shutter NR). When shutter speeds drop below 1/25 sec, the "Slow Shutter NR" noise reduction mode kicks in. This results in a longer wait for the image to be recorded, but you'll be rewarded with a less noisy image.

Here's a look at the image size and quality options available on the 717:

Image Size # photos on 32MB Memory Stick
Fine Quality Standard Quality
2560 x 1920 12 23
2560 (3:2 aspect ratio) 12 23
2048 x 1536 20 37
1280 x 960 50 101
640 x 480 196 491

Like I said at the beginning of the review, the 32MB Stick is too small, so you'll probably want to pick up a larger one.

The menu system has not changed on the F717. It's still the same overlay-style menu that all Sony cameras use. Let's take a look at the various menu items and what they do:

  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800) - the 800 option is new!
  • Image Size (2560 x 1920, 2560 (3:2), 2048 x 1536, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, Standard)
  • Rec Mode
    • TIFF: uncompressed large image - only one fits on 16MB Stick.
    • Voice: Records an audio file along with a still image
    • E-mail: Records a 320 x 240 image in addition to the recorded image
    • Exposure bracketing: three shots in a row with different exposure compensation values (chosen in the setup menu)
    • Burst3: Records three images continuously, at 2 frames/sec. Too bad the burst mode wasn't improved upon on the 717.
  • Flash Level (High, Normal, Low)
  • Photo Effects (Solarize, Sepia, Negative Art, Off)
  • Sharpness (-2 to +2)

The Setup menu has been expanded. Here are the interesting items:

  • Moving Image (MPEG Movie, ClipMotion, Multi Burst) - explained later
  • Date/Time (Off, date, day & time) - imprint date on images
  • Digital Zoom (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Hologram AF (Auto, off)
  • Conversion lens (on/off)
  • Expanded Focus (on/off) - whether or not the image is enlarged in manual focus
  • Bracket Step (1.0EV, 0.7EV, 0.3EV) - for auto bracketing function
  • Hot shoe (on/off)
  • Zoom ring setup - choose which way you rotate the zoom ring for wide/tele
  • Memory Stick Tool (Card format, create/change folder) - a better folder management system
  • LCD brightness (Bright, normal, dark)
  • LCD/EVF backlight (Normal, bright)
  • File numbering (Series, reset)
  • USB connect (Normal, PTP)
  • Video Out (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language (English, Japanese)

Enough about menus, let's talk about photo quality.

The night test shot came out very well, but isn't perfect. It's soft, and there is some noise that reduces some detail in the image. Take a look at the sculptures just above the lower columns (I believe this is called the pediment) to see what I mean. Some chromatic aberrations can also be spotted.

The F717 has four different ISO values, so I thought I'd take this same shot at each ISO value. I've cropped out the same piece in each image for easy comparison.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

All images were taken at 1/3 second. After cropping they were resaved at "maximum" quality in Photoshop, so JPEG compression shouldn't affect what you see here.

The DSC-F717 did a nice job with our 3" tall macro subject. The colors look good (very saturated, especially the reds) and the image is well focused, even the nose (though I had to use aperture priority mode to get that in focus). It's a bit soft, but certainly acceptable to me. You'll be able to get as close as 2 cm at wide-angle, and 90 cm at telephoto, while in macro mode.

The F717's pop-up flash is well away from the lens, meaning redeye won't be a problem. My example above should illustrate that. This image was slightly enlarged so you can see the detail.

Photos taken by the F717 are some of the best you'll find. The camera has incredible resolution, good sharpness, mostly accurate color, and low noise. It's not perfect, but as good or better than almost everything else. Images are sharp, but in the corners it may seem soft in some situations. Colors are good are saturated -- too much so in the case of reds. There is a bit of noise in the sky and in shadows, but as I said, it's no worse than any other high end digicam out there. Chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) were rarely seen in my tests. Take a look at our photo gallery and judge the F717's image quality for yourself!

Movie Mode

The DSC-F717 uses Sony's new MPEGMovie HQX mode and that's great news. First, some history. A few years ago, Sony came out with the MPEGMovie HQ mode, which was higher quality (though still 320 x 240) than most digital camera movie modes. Then came MPEGMovie EX, which got rid of time limits on video (until your memory card filled up), though not at the HQ setting. MPEGMovie HQX allows you to do it -- direct writing of HQ video until you run out of space.

You can fit up to 87 seconds of HQX quality video on the included 32MB Memory Stick. Buy a larger card, and you can record for even longer. Sound is recorded as well.

The F717 is a good camera for making movies not only because of what I just described, but also because it allows for the use of the zoom during filming.

Here's a quick sample movie:


Click to play movie (3.9MB, MPEG format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The playback mode is basically the same as on the F707. Basic playback features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll".

These advanced features include:

  • Resize - change an image's size
  • Rotate
  • Divide - splits movies in half
  • Trim - when zoomed into an image, you can crop the image down to the selected area. You choose the resolution of the new image (the old one is kept). The only thing to remember here is that if you take a small area of an image and then blow it up, you'll lose image quality.

The zoom and scroll feature is a bit slow, but is still better than average. You can zoom in as much as 5X, in 0.3X increments. This feature comes in handy when you want to insure that your picture was properly focused.


More info in playback mode. Note the picture of my feet.

You can get more information about photos by pressing the thumbnail button twice. You'll get a scrollable list of information that you can see above.

The F717 moves between images at an average speed in playback mode. It shows a low res version before a high res one replaces it. The low-res image shows up almost instantly, with the high res arriving three seconds later.

The one new thing here in playback mode is the addition of the histogram, as you can see above.

How Does it Compare?

The new Sony DSC-F717 is an excellent 5 Megapixel camera, and a nice upgrade to the F707. It offers stellar resolution, excellent focusing ability, a good deal of manual controls, a nice 5X zoom lens, a hot shoe, and the second best movie mode out there (after Fuji's FinePix S602 Zoom). The new zoom ring is a nice touch as well.

At the same time, it's not as much of a standout as the F707 was a year ago, now that Nikon and Minolta have caught up with their Coolpix 5700 and DiMAGE 7i cameras. The DSC-F717 has a fair amount of manual controls, but really doesn't compare to those offered by Nikon and Minolta. Those two companies offer controls like white balance bracketing, fine-tunable white balance, saturation controls, RAW image modes, and more. Many were hoping that Sony would add these to the F707, but it didn't happen.

Would I recommend the DSC-F717? Absolutely, without hesitation. Would I take a close look at offers from other manufacturers before you buy? You'd be crazy not to.

What I liked:

  • Excellent 5 Megapixel photos
  • Lots of bells and whistles such as Nightshot, and zoom ring.
  • Fast F2.0, 5X optical zoom lens
  • Hot shoe and histograms, at last
  • Great battery life
  • Many manual controls
  • Robust performance
  • One of the best movie modes out there
  • Support for USB 2.0
  • Support for conversion lenses and filters

What I didn't care for:

  • Missing a lot of manual controls found on other cameras at this price
  • Reds are "too red" (and not a lot you can do about it)
  • Loss of sharpness in image corners
  • Shutter speed limited to (no slower than) 1/30 sec in programmed/fully auto modes
  • No true continuous shooting mode
  • A RAW mode would be nice
  • Proprietary Memory Stick format

Other 4/5 Megapixel cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot G2, Fuji FinePix S602 Zoom, Minolta DiMAGE 7i, Nikon Coolpix 5000 and 5700, Olympus C-4040Z and the E-20N.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-F717 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Take a look at our photo gallery to see how the F717's image quality looks!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

Required reading includes reviews from Steve's Digicams, Digital Photography Review, and Imaging Resource.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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