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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 26, 2007
Last Updated: January 9, 2008

The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 ($479) is Sony's top-of-the-line ultra zoom camera. It features a whopping 15X optical zoom lens, optical image stabilization, tilting 3-inch LCD display, full manual controls, infrared "NightShot" shooting, and much more. It also uses the same Bionz image processor as Sony's Alpha digital SLR, which promises improved performance and photo quality over previous models.

If you want to save some money, then you may be interested in the H9's little brother, the DSC-H7 ($399). This camera is almost identical to the H9, with the differences being LCD size (2.5" on the H7), battery life (better on the H7), and NightShot (the H7 doesn't have it).

Being a top-end ultra zoom, the H9 finds itself amongst some pretty tough competition. How does it perform? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-H9 has a good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

Like all of Sony's 2007 cameras, the Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has built-in memory instead of having a memory card included in the box -- 31MB worth to be exact. That holds just ten photos at the highest quality setting, so you'll want to buy a memory card right away. The DSC-H9 uses Sony's Memory Stick Pro Duo cards, which currently top out at 8GB, and I'd recommend picking up a 1GB card along with the camera. An adapter is included with all MS Duo cards so they work in standard Memory Stick slots.

The DSC-H9 uses the same NP-BG1 lithium-ion battery as several of Sony's other cameras. This is the only Sony digital camera battery that I know of that isn't an "InfoLithium", which means that it won't tell you how many minutes you have left before the battery dies. The NP-BG1 has 3.6 Wh of energy, which isn't much compared to what you'll find in other ultra zooms. Here's how the H9's battery life compares to other ultra zooms:

Camera Battery life, LCD on
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon PowerShot S5 IS * 450 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S6000fd 400 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Fuji FinePix S9100 320 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
GE X1 * 600 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Kodak EasyShare Z712 IS * 275 shots KLIC-8000
Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom * 530 shots 4 x 2300 mAh NiMH
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 * 380 shots CGR-S006
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 * 360 shots CGR-S006
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 * 340 shots 2 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 * 300 shots NP-BG1
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 * 280 shots NP-BG1

* Has optical image stabilization

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

What can we conclude from this chart? For one, the H9's battery life is about 20% worse than its predecessor, the DSC-H5. You can probably thank the huge LCD and anemic battery for that. In the ultra zoom group as a whole, the camera's numbers are a good 40% below average.

I must mention my usual complaints about proprietary batteries before we go on. They're more expensive than rechargeable AAs (the BG1's prices start at $40), and you can't use "regular batteries" to get you through the day in an emergency. It's a shame that Sony abandoned the AA battery support that was on all previous H-series models.

When you're ready to charge the H9's battery, just pop it into the included charger. And then be prepared to wait. It takes a whopping 4.5 hours to charge the battery, which seems ridiculous to me. Naturally, Sony sells a faster charger (which takes just 1.5 hours), but that'll set you back nearly $60.

As you can see, the H9 comes with a big lens cap to protect that big lens. There's also a retaining strap in the box, which prevents you from dropping the lens cap off a cliff (which I've done).

You'll also find an absolutely enormous lens hood in the box with the camera. The lens hood is almost bigger than the camera itself! It's actually two parts: an adapter that screws onto the lens barrel, and the hood itself. You'll want to use the lens hood when shooting outdoors. I should also mention that the lens adapter is required for using the optional conversion lenses and filters.

Another thing you'll find in the box is a wireless remote control, and you can see what it can control in the above photo. The receiver for the remote is on the front of the camera, so keep that in mind when you're using it. I did find that I could bounce the IR signal off of walls to use the remote from behind the camera.

There are several accessories available for the DSC-H9, and I've compiled them into this handy list for you:

Accessory Model # Price * Description
Wide-angle conversion lens VCL-DH0774 From $160 Reduces the focal length by 0.75X, giving you a new wide end of 23.3 mm.
Telephoto conversion lens VCL-DH1774 From $113 Boosts the focal range by 1.7X, giving you a whopping new telephoto maximum of 790.5 mm.
Circular polarizing filter VF-74CP $110 Reduces reflections from water and glass, and also darkens the sky
MultiCoat protector VF-74MP $50 Protect your lens from dust and scratches
HD output cable VMC-MHC1 From $34 1.5 m component video cable (with stereo audio as well) lets you connect to an HDTV
AC adapter AC-LS5K From $31

Power the camera without wasting your batteries

Compact battery charger BC-TRG From $59 Dump that slow charger and use this fast one instead.
Carrying cases

LCS-HB
LCS-CSH
LCJ-HD

From $31
From $20
From $43
Various cases for protecting your H9. The last one is leather.
* Prices were accurate when review was posted

That's a pretty good selection of accessories, eh?

One of the H9's unique features is to output HD quality video to your HDTV. To do so you'll need to buy the component video cable, which plugs into the side of the camera. Once you've got that cable, you'll be able to output video at resolutions as high as 1080i. If you're just viewing one photo at a time, they will not fill the screen, unless you took them in the 16:9 mode. The only way to see them full screen is to use the slideshow feature, and then everything looks really nice. For some bizarre reason, movies cannot be played back at all when using the HD cables.


Picture Motion Browser for Windows

Sony includes version 2.0 of their Picture Motion Browser software with the DSC-H9. This software is Windows only, so Mac users will want to use iPhoto or Image Capture to get photos off of the camera.

The software offers the usual thumbnail view of your photos (shown earlier), plus the calendar view you can see above. From either screen you can select photos for printing, e-mailing, and slideshows. You can also burn them to a CD or DVD.

Double-clicking on any thumbnail brings you to the edit screen. This adds some basic photo editing tools such as redeye reduction, brightness/contrast/saturation adjustment, and trimming. You can also put the date on your photo -- something which the camera itself does not do.


Music Transfer in Mac OS X

Also included is Music Transfer for Mac OS and Windows, which is used to customize the slideshow background music on the camera. The camera can hold four separate audio tracks, limited to 3 minutes in length.


Selecting tracks on an audio CD

In theory, you select unprotected MP3s or tracks on an audio CD, and the software will convert it into whatever format the camera uses. In reality, I was unable to get the software to see any of my MP3 files, but it worked fine with CD audio.

As with their other 2007 cameras, Sony has put the majority of the H9's documentation into a PDF file found on the software CD-ROM. There's a printed basic manual in the box with the camera, but fore more details you'll have to load up that PDF file -- something which buyers of a nearly $500 camera should not have to do. Once you do get to the manual, you'll find that it's contents are fairly easy to understand.

Look and Feel

The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 looks like an evolved version of the DSC-H5 that came before it. When I reviewed the H5, I praised its build quality. Unfortunately, that's changed on the H9, which feels a lot cheaper and more "plasticky" than its predecessor. Even the $230 Fuji FinePix S700 I just reviewed feels more solid. The material used for the right hand grip is slippery plastic, instead of rubber. The grip isn't terribly large, either, so you'll want to brace the camera with your left hand.

While most of the buttons are in the right places, I don't like the new location of the command dial (around the four-way controller), which is too easy to bump accidentally (and explain why that can be a problem later).

Images courtesy of Sony Electronics

Originally the DSC-H9 was going to come in black only. Sony changed their minds, and now offers it in silver as well. As someone who has used both colors, I'd say get the black one, as the silver one looks really cheap.

Now, here's a look at how the DSC-H9 compares to other cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot S5 IS 4.6 x 3.2 x 3.1 in. 45.6 cu in. 450 g
Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd 5.2 x 3.8 x 5.0 in. 98.8 cu in. 600 g
Fujifilm FinePix S9100 5.0 x 3.7 x 5.1 in. 94.4 cu in. 650 g
Kodak Easyshare Z712 IS 4.1 x 2.9 x 2.7 in. 32.1 cu in. 300 g
Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom 4.6 x 3.1 x 3.1 in. 44.2 cu in. 365 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 5.5 x 3.4 x 5.6 in. 104.7 cu in. 668 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 4.4 x 2.8 x 3.1 in. 38.2 cu in. 310 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.7 in. 54.9 cu in. 406 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7 4.3 x 3.3 x 3.4 in. 48.2 cu in. 375 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 4.3 x 3.3 x 3.4 in. 48.2 cu in. 375 g

As I hinted at earlier, the H7 and H9 are noticeably lighter than the DSC-H5 that came before them. It's also a bit smaller. In the ultra zoom group as a whole, the H9 is right in the middle of the pack.

Okay, enough numbers, let's start our tour of the camera now.

The main thing to see on the front of the DSC-H9 is its all new 15X optical zoom "Carl Zeiss" lens. This F2.7-4.5 lens has a focal range of 5.2 - 78 mm, which is equivalent to 31 - 465 mm. Yep, that's a wider lens than you'll get on most ultra zooms. If you want to expand that range, you can, by picking up either of the optional conversion lenses I mentioned in the previous section. To use these lenses, or the 74 mm filters that I also covered, you'll need to attach the lens hood adapter first.

Deep inside the lens is Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization system. If you've been frustrated with blurry photos, which most often occur in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens, then you'll appreciate this feature. Sensors inside the camera detect "camera shake" (caused by tiny movements of your hands), and the camera moves a lens element to counteract this movement. It won't stop a moving subject, nor will it allow for handheld 1 second exposures, but it will allow you to use shutter speeds that would result in a blurry photo on an unstabilized camera.

Want some evidence? Have a look at this:


Image stabilization off


Image stabilization on

Each of the above photos was taken at a shutter speed of 1/10 sec. As you can see, without image stabilization, the resulting image was quite blurry. Turn on OIS and take the shot again and you get a nice, sharp photo. If you want another example of how the OIS system works, check out this brief sample movie.

Directly above the lens is the H9's built-in flash, which can be released both automatically and manually. The flash is extremely powerful, with a working range of 0.2 - 9.8 m at wide-angle and 1.2 - 6.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO).You may not want to take flash photos at Auto ISO though, as your images will turn out quite noisy -- it may be better to manually select a low sensitivity instead. You cannot attach an external flash to the DSC-H9.

To the upper-right of the lens you'll find the AF-assist lamp, IR transmitter, and remote control receiver. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations. It also doubles as a visual countdown for the self-timer. The IR transmitter throws infrared light onto your subject, which is used with the NightShot feature that I'll describe later.

One of the other big features on the Cyber-shot DSC-H9 is its enormous, tilting 3-inch LCD display. Just pull the hinged screen away from the back of the camera, and you can then tilt it up or down, covering 180 degrees. This comes in handy for when you're shooting over the heads of people in front of you, or when taking ground-level shots of children and pets.

Here's the LCD in a more traditional position. As you can see, it takes up a lot of real estate! As such, it seems to attract a lot of fingerprints, so be prepared to clean it frequently. The screen has a resolution of 230,400 pixels, so everything is pretty sharp. Outdoor visibility is good, but not great. Things are better in low light situations, as the screen "gains up" automatically, so you can still see your subject.

Above the LCD is the H9's electronic viewfinder, or EVF. This is like a small LCD that you view as if it was an optical viewfinder. It shows the same things as the main LCD (including menus), but it's not nearly as sharp or bright as a real optical viewfinder. Unfortunately, there's no ultra zoom camera with a real optical viewfinder. The EVF here is on the small size (0.2"), but the resolution is good (200,000). Like the main LCD, the EVF brightens automatically in low light situations. There's a diopter control dial on the side of the viewfinder that focuses the image on the screen for you.

To the right of the EVF is a button for switching between it and the main LCD (you can't use both at the same time).

Next up we have the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 2.2 seconds. I counted at least thirty steps in the H9's 15X zoom range.

Below that is the Menu button, which enters one of the two (three?) menu systems on the camera. I'll cover the menu system in detail later in the review.


Manual focus

Next we have the four-way controller, which has the command dial wrapped around it. You'll use the dial to adjust exposure, ISO sensitivity, and focus. The available focus modes are nine-point AF, center-point AF, flexible spot AF, and manual focus. Flexible spot lets you use the four-way controller to pick a spot in the frame on which to focus. This comes in handy when the camera is on a tripod. You'll also use the four-way controller in manual focus mode. A guide showing the current focus distance is shown on the LCD or EVF, and the center of the frame is enlarged, so you can verify that your subject is properly focused.

The placement of the command dial is unfortunate. It's active by default in the P/A/S/M modes, so if you bump it you can accidentally change the shutter speed or aperture without intending to. I hope Sony puts out a firmware update to require a button press before you can adjust those things.

Anyhow, the four-way controller itself is used for menu navigation, as well as:

The final button on the back of the H9 opens up the Home menu... and I'll rant about that later in the review.

Now let's talk about what's on top of the DSC-H9. First up we have the microphone, with the power button next to it. Continuing to the right, we find the mode dial, which has a ton of options, which include:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shot, with some menu options locked up
Program auto mode Point-and-shoot, with full menu access; a Program Shift feature lets you select from various shutter speed/aperture combos by using the command dial
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the appropriate aperture; shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec
Aperture priority (Av) mode You choose the aperture and the camera uses the proper shutter speed; aperture range is F2.7 - F8
Full manual (M) mode You select both the shutter speed and aperture; same ranges as above.
Movie mode More on this later
High sensitivity mode Boosts the ISO as high as 3200 in order to get a sharp photo in available light
Portrait Scene modes
Advanced sports shooting
Twilight portrait
Landscape
Scene mode Even more scene modes can be found here, including twilight, beach, snow, and fireworks

Okay, lots to talk about here. First, you can see that the camera has a full suite of manual controls. One thing I touched on earlier was how the command dial was active by default, so be careful, as you can accidentally adjust the program shift, aperture, or shutter speed quite easily.

High sensitivity modes are all the rage these days, so naturally the DSC-H9 has one. This mode boosts the ISO as high as 3200 in order to get a sharp photo without resorting to the flash. The problem is that the photo quality is pretty lousy at high ISOs, as these examples illustrate. I would avoid using it, instead adjusting the ISO manually, keeping it as low as possible.

The advanced sport shooting mode uses predictive autofocus, so moving subjects will remain in focus as they move across the frame.

Getting back to our tour now, let's see what those two buttons above the mode dial are for:

The H9's burst mode is pretty good, and a nice improvement over previous H-series models. You can keep shooting at 2 frames/second until your memory card fills up. The LCD and EVF keep up with the action, so tracking a moving subject is not a problem. There's also an auto bracketing mode, which takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure. The interval between each exposure can be ±0.3 EV, ±0.7 EV, or ±1.0EV. If you've got room on your memory card, this is a good way to ensure proper exposure every time.

The last thing to see on the top of the DSC-H9 is the shutter release button.

On this side of the camera you'll find the NightShot on/off switch as well as one of the camera's two I/O ports.


NightShot in action

The NightShot feature is a gimmick, but it's a fun gimmick. When you activate it, the camera starts blasting infrared light on your subject. It also removes the IR filter that is normally in front of the CCD. The camera is then able to take photos or movies in total darkness, albeit with a greenish cast. Images are on the noisy side as well... but I doubt that most people will be making 8 x 10 prints of these photos -- it's more for fun than anything.

The H9's main I/O port is kept under an unmarked plastic door. The cable that plugs into the port includes both USB and video (including HD) output. The camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

On the other side of the camera you'll find its other I/O port: DC-in. This is where you'll plug in the optional AC adapter.

The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

On the bottom of the DSC-H9 is a metal tripod mount, the speaker, and the memory card/battery compartment. The plastic door over the memory/battery compartment is on the flimsy side. Whether you'll be able to swap memory cards while on a tripod depends on the mount you're using. I had to take the camera off of the tripod to remove the memory card, but I didn't have to take off the quick release mount in order to do so.

The now ubiquitous NP-BG1 battery is seen at right.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9

Record Mode

The DSC-H9 takes about 2 seconds to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's not bad for a camera with a huge lens, though the Canon PowerShot S5 I have at the moment does the same in about 1.1 seconds.


A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode

The DSC-H9 is one of the fastest focusing ultra zooms that I've used. It's right up there with the Panasonic FZ models, which are the best-in-class with regard to focusing performance. At the wide end of the lens you'll typically wait between 0.1 and 0.3 seconds for the H9 to lock focus. At the telephoto end you'll wait for longer, but not much longer -- focus times rarely exceeded a second. Low light focusing was accurate, but on the slow side -- it usually took more than a second for the camera to lock focus.

I did not find shutter lag to be a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.

Shot-to-shot speeds were excellent, with a delay of about a second before you can take another shot. If you're using the flash, expect roughly a three second wait.

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must first enter playback mode. And once you're there, prepare to experience one of the H9's really annoying "features". The lens retracts way too quickly (as soon as you move to another photo actually), and when you want to go back to shooting, you have to set the zoom position all over again. I learned this the hard way when shooting my night shots... I had to reshoot the entire sequence because I reviewed a few images that I had just taken.

Sony has started skimping on image quality options on their 2007 cameras. You can no longer select how much compression is applied to an image -- just its resolution. I'd call this a step in the wrong direction. Anyhow, here are the image quality options on the DSC-H9:

Resolution # images on 31MB on-board memory # images on 1GB memory card (optional)
8M
3264 x 2448
10 302
3:2 ratio
3264 x 2176
10 302
5M
2592 x 1944
13 384
3M
2048 x 1536
21 617
VGA
640 x 480
202 5928
16:9 (HDTV)
1920 x 1080
33 988

That last resolution (1920 x 1080) is the only true "Full HD" feature on the whole camera, despite all the labels on the box. The H9 doesn't support the RAW image format, and neither did its predecessor. Some of the competition supports it (namely Fuji, Panasonic, and Olympus), while others (Canon) do not.

The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you erase and swap Memory Sticks.

The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 (along with some other recent Sony cameras) has a totally new menu system, and I can't say that I like it. The regular "Menu" is an attractive, but sluggish menu system that sits on top of the image you're composing. A brief description of each menu option is shown when you select it, which is handy. The menu items don't "wrap around", so you have to do a lot of button mashing to navigate through them. Also, the scroll wheel can't be used in the menus, where it would be pretty helpful. Now, keeping in mind that some of these options are not available in all shooting modes, here's the complete list of record menu items:

The camera located three faces in the frame... ... and it locked onto the same three

Like so many cameras this year, the DSC-H9 has a face detection autofocus feature. For some bizarre reason, this feature is only available in two modes: auto and portrait. If you're in either of those modes, the camera will seek out up to eight faces in the frame (only two in portrait mode though), and make sure they're properly focused and exposed. In my "lab test", the camera locked onto three or four faces at a time, but never more than that. While I've seen better, the H9 still found more faces than many other cameras with this feature. Now if Sony would just let you use it in all the shooting modes!

Another one of the H9's manual controls is for white balance. Point the camera at something white (or gray), activate the one push WB feature, and you should be able to get accurate color, even under the most unusual lighting. There's no way to fine-tune the white balance like you can on some cameras, though.

Next up is the redeye reduction feature. If you're using face detection (which, again, is only available in two modes), you can select the "auto" option to have the software-based redeye removal tool run automatically if needed. Otherwise you can choose "on" to have use pre-flashes before the shot is taken, which is what all cameras have.

The DSC-H9 has inherited the dynamic range optimizer (DRO) feature from the DSLR-A100 digital SLR. This adjusts the contrast automatically, though I didn't notice any difference between this setting and just using "normal" contrast.

There are three options for the SteadyShot image stabilization system. If you select "continuous", the IS system activates as soon as you halfway press the shutter release button -- this helps you compose your shot without camera shake. For more effective image stabilization you'll want to use the "shooting" option, which only activates the IS system when the photo is actually taken. You can also turn the whole thing off, which is recommended for those times when you're using a tripod.

That brings us to the Home menu. The Home menu uses the Cross Media Bar (XMB), first seen on the Playstation Portable, which is now spreading across Sony's product lines, even to televisions.

This menu has a bit of an identity crisis -- it doesn't know what it's supposed to be. Is it a mode dial? A setup menu? And why is there a "Shooting" option under the "Shooting" tab? Basically this menu makes it more difficult to adjust various features on the camera. Some of the options in the Home menu open up a third menu, for a grand total of three separate menu systems on the camera. So what's actually in the Home menu? Have a look:

What are those two AF modes all about? Single AF is just like you're used to: press the shutter release halfway and the camera locks focus. Monitor AF lets the camera focus constantly, even without the shutter release pressed. This helps reduce the time required to take a picture.

The camera has two types of digital zoom. Precision digital zoom is the same old "enlarge the center" system that you should avoid. Smart Zoom lets you enlarge the image without a loss in quality, with the catch being that you can't use much of it unless you're at a low resolution. The lower the resolution, the more smart zoom you can use. For example, lowering the resolution to 3MP will give you a total zoom of 23X (nice!). This feature is called Safety Zoom on Canon cameras, and Extended Optical Zoom on Panasonics.

Let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?

There's nothing to complain about with regard to the DSC-H9's macro test performance. Colors look good, the camera captured plenty of detail, and the figurine has a really "smooth" look to it. The camera's custom white balance feature had no trouble with my two 600W quartz studio lamps.

The minimum focus distance in macro mode is 1 cm at wide-angle and a whopping 1.2 m at wide-angle.

The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 turned in a nice photo of the SF skyline (complete with fog). The camera took in plenty of light thanks to its manual control over shutter speed. The buildings really pop out, and the image has the same smooth/soft (depending on your point of view) look as the macro shot. Purple fringing and blown highlights can be found here, and closing down the aperture would probably have helped with both of those.

Below is the first of two ISO tests in this review, which uses the same night scene that I just showed you. Here we go:


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 3200

There are just minor differences between the ISO 80 and 100 crops, with just a tiny bit of detail loss in the latter. At ISO 200 this loss in detail becomes more prominent, though making a mid to large size print shouldn't be a problem. Details start getting mushy at ISO 400, and this is as high a sensitivity as I'd use in low light situations. You get noise and significant detail loss at ISO 800 and above, with the two highest sensitivities being a complete mess (notice the diagonal lines in the ISO 3200 shot). The DSC-H9 isn't as bad of a low light shooter as the Panasonic DMC-FZ8 and Olympus SP-550UZ that I recently reviewed, but it's not great either. I haven't done this test yet for the H9's biggest competitor (the Canon PowerShot S5), but it will be interesting to see how the two compare.

We'll see how the DSC-H9 performs in better lighting in a bit.

Even when using the standard "pre-flash" redeye reduction system, the DSC-H9's people pictures still show a lot of redeye. The good news is that the built-in redeye reduction system works pretty well:

Now that's a lot better. You can activate this feature manually in playback mode, or have it run automatically if you're shooting in auto or portrait mode.

There is moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the DSC-H9's 15X zoom lens. For a great real world example of barrel distortion, have a look at the building on the right side of this photo. While the camera doesn't have a problem with vignetting (dark corners), I did spot some softness around the edges of the frame, especially at full wide-angle.

Here's the "normal light" high ISO test. This shot is taken in the studio, and can be compared between cameras (I recommend looking at the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 and Olympus SP-550UZ reviews). While the crops below give you a decent idea as to the noise levels at each settings, viewing the full size images is always a good idea.


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 3200

Although the images are on the soft side, there's no noise or noise reduction artifacting to be found in the ISO 80 and 100 shots. At ISO 200 we see slight amounts of both, but it's nothing major. The ISO 400 image has more noise reduction artifacting, smudging details and softening the image even more. Checking the ISO 200 and 400 photos against those from the Panasonic FZ8 and Olympus SP-550UZ, I'd say that the image has less noise than either of those, but those cameras are retaining more detail since there's less NR being applied. ISO 800 is probably the maximum I'd use on the DSC-H9, but only for small prints. There's quite a bit of noise at this point, less color saturation, and even more smudged details. The ISO 1600 and 3200 shots are not usable in my opinion. I don't even know why Sony bothered with the latter.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with the DSC-H9's image quality. It's good for the small print crowd, but for large prints and 100% onscreen viewing you might want to consider another camera. First, the good news: the H9 took well-exposed images, with pleasing, saturated color. Noise isn't much of a problem until you hit ISO 800. The reason there isn't any noise is due to the heavy noise reduction that the camera's image processor applies to each photo. The results of this noise reduction are soft images with smudged details -- even at the lowest ISO settings. For some examples, check out the trees and shrubs in these two shots, and how the buildings look "muddy" in this shot. Things only get worse at higher ISOs -- this shot (taken at ISO 200) looks more like a watercolor than a photograph. The DSC-H9 also has a noticeable purple fringing problem, illustrated nicely here and here.

Now, before you start sending me "you're being paid off by <insert camera company here>" or "it must have been windy that day" e-mails, please look at the Olympus E-510 gallery -- those photos were taken at the same time as the H9's. The damage caused by the DSC-H9's overzealous noise reduction system will be pretty obvious. Too bad the camera lacks a RAW mode!

Now I invite you to have a look at our photo gallery. There you can view eighteen photos, and I encourage you to view them at full size, and maybe print a few if you can. Then decide if the DSC-H9's photo quality meets your needs.

Movie Mode

The Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has a nice movie mode, though I was disappointed to see that there was no high definition movie mode to take advantage of the camera's HD output capability. The MPEG Movie VX Fine mode records video at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with sound until either the memory card fills up, or the file size reaches 2GB (that takes about 25 minutes). Do note that this mode requires a Memory Stick Pro Duo card, and it won't work with the internal memory either.

For longer movies that take up less space on your memory card you can use the VX Standard mode, which is still VGA, just at a more sluggish 17 frames/second. There's also a 320 x 240 mode for even longer movies, but the 8 fps frame rate makes this video too choppy to be useful.

The H9 is one of a select group of cameras that lets you use the optical zoom while filming. The lens moves slower here than it does when shooting stills to prevent the motor noise from being picked up by the microphone. It'll still be picked up, but only if you're recording in near silence. As you'd expect, the optical image stabilizer is active in movie mode.

Movies are saved in MPEG format.

Here's a sample movie for you, complete with some zooming action!


Click to play movie (18.3 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, MPEG format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime
.

Playback Mode

The playback mode is considerably different than what was found on the H9's predecessor, the DSC-H5. The menu system is the same style as the main record menu, which means that it's a bit sluggish and difficult to navigate. Basic record options include image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature (AKA playback zoom) lets you enlarge an image by as much as five times, and then move around in the enlarged area.

The H9 also has an enhanced slideshow feature, complete with fancy transitions and background music. You can use your own background music via the Music Transfer software that I described in the first section of the review.

Partial color effect Fisheye effect

One of the new playback items on the H9 is the retouch menu. Here you can apply various effects to your photos, including soft focus, partial color, fisheye lens, cross (star) filter, trimming (cropping), and redeye removal.

Some features from the DSC-H5 to go missing on the H9 include image resizing and movie editing. One feature that's still present is the one that lets you delete a group of photos at the same time, though you have to zoom out to thumbnail view in order to do this.

By default, the DSC-H9 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press "up" on the four-way controller and you'll see a bit more, including a histogram.

The H9 moves through photos at a good clip. You'll wait for less than one second to see the next full resolution image.

How Does it Compare?

Generally speaking, new cameras are improvements over their predecessors. Unfortunately, I don't think this is the case with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9. In most respects, it's actually worse than the DSC-H5 that came before it, which was generally regarded as one of the best ultra zoom cameras on the market. While some changes were for the better (more zoom power and improved camera performance), the H9 disappoints in several areas, most notably image quality, build quality, and usability. It's a decent choice for the 4 x 6 crowd, but fans of large prints, 100% on-screen viewing, or high ISO shooting should probably steer clear of the DSC-H9.

While the DSC-H9 looks a whole lot like the old H5, it definitely looks and feels a lot "cheaper". The body is more plastic than before, and the grip feels slippery in your hands -- not exactly confidence builders. The zoom lens has been upgraded, going from 12X on the H5 to 15X on the H9. It also starts at a fairly wide-angle 31 mm. Should you want to widen the focal range, Sony offers wide and telephoto conversion lenses. Like the H5 before it, the DSC-H9 features Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization system, and it works as advertised. Flipping around to the back of the camera, the H9's huge 3-inch LCD display can now pull away from the camera body and tilt up or down -- a handy feature. The screen is sharp, with average outdoor and above average indoor visibility. Watch out though, it's a magnet for fingerprints. Just north of the LCD is the camera's electronic viewfinder, which is small, but sharp. Sony moved the command dial to a rather annoying position around the four-way controller, where it's very easy to bump accidentally (which can change exposure). For some reason, you can't use it for navigating the camera's menu system, which would've been a real time-saver.

As you'd expect from a higher-end ultra zoom, the Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has a full set of manual controls. These include exposure (aperture/shutter speed), white balance, and focus. Don't worry, point-and-shoot fans: there are plenty of scene modes for you to enjoy. One scene mode that I'd avoid is the high sensitivity mode, which can produce some really lousy-looking images if the ISO gets too high. The H9 has the now commonplace "face detection" feature, though Sony limits it to just two shooting modes. Same goes for automatic redeye reduction -- but at least you can run this effective tool manually from playback mode. The camera has a very nice movie mode, allowing for VGA quality video clips with optical zoom and image stabilization enabled. Another feature that has made somewhat of a comeback on the H9 is Sony's NightShot feature, which lets you take grainy, green-tinted photos in total darkness. It's not terribly useful, but it sure is fun. Finally, kudos to Sony for throwing both a lens hood and a wireless remote control in the box with the camera.

For the most part, the DSC-H9 is a very quick performer. The camera starts up in about two seconds, slightly faster than its predecessor. Focus times are excellent, even at the telephoto end of the lens. This is the first ultra zoom that really rivals the Panasonics in terms of focus speeds. Low light focusing wasn't as fast, but the camera consistently locked focus. Shot-to-shot delays were brief, even when using the flash. The camera's continuous shooting mode is very nice, taking photos at 2 frames/second until your memory card fills up. Since the H9 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, your photos will quickly transfer to your Mac or PC. The DSC-H9's weak spot in the performance department is in terms of battery life: it's well below average.

A camera can have all the bells and whistles in the world, but all that means nothing if it can't take a decent photo. It is here where I was most disappointed with the DSC-H9. Photos had good exposure and color, but those are about the only positives I can list. The camera applies too much noise reduction to photos, making them soft, with fine details smudged. Naturally, it gets even worse as the ISO goes up (especially in low light), with anything above ISO 800 being unusable. There's also quite a bit of purple fringing to be found on the H9's 15X Carl Zeiss lens. Redeye is a problem in flash shots, but the in-camera removal tool cleans it up well. Most of these things won't matter if you're making small prints, but any larger and you'll be sure to notice.

I've got a bunch of other complaints that don't fit in anywhere else. First, I've used three cameras with Sony's new menu system, and I still don't like it. It's sluggish, confusing, and inefficient. The DSC-H9, like other Sony cameras, retracts the lens soon after you enter playback mode. When you go back to shooting, your previous zoom position is lost, which was especially annoying when I was taking my test photos. The DSC-H9 doesn't offer any image compression options, unlike the DSC-H5 and nearly all ultra zooms on the market. It doesn't support the RAW image format, either. The included battery charger is unbelievably slow, and Sony wants nearly $60 for a faster one. And last, but certainly not least, a big thumbs down to Sony for only including the full camera manual on CD-ROM.

As you probably figured out by now, I have mixed feelings about the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9. It's a fairly nice camera for those making smaller-sized prints, but image quality is not good when you actually take a close look at the photos. Combine the lackluster photo quality with a host of other annoyances, and you've got an ultra zoom that's just "okay" in a crowd of excellent cameras.

What I liked:

What I didn't care for:

Some other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S5, Fuji FinePix S6000fd and S9100, GE X1, Kodak EasyShare Z712, Olympus SP-550UZ, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 and DMC-FZ50. There's also the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H7, though it will have the same issues as the H9.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-H9 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

Feedback & Discussion

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation or for technical support.

Want another opinion?

You'll find more reviews of this camera at CNET and Digital Photography Review.

 

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