Cyber-shot DSC-L1 ($299) is an ultra-compact
4 Megapixel camera with a 3X optical zoom lens. When
I meant ultra-compact, I'm not kidding -- the L1
makes the Digital ELPH look big. In what is becoming
a trend, the DSC-L1 will come in four colors: silver,
dark blue, black, and dark red. As you can see, I
reviewed the blue model.
Despite its tiny size, the L1 has
most of the features as Sony's other point-and-shoot
cameras, including things like an AF-assist and VGA
movie mode. There some things that are missing, like
an optical viewfinder, which are the tradeoffs for
having a camera this small.
If you're ready to learn more about
the L1, I'm ready to tell you. Our review starts now!
What's in the Box?
The DSC-L1 has an average bundle.
Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 4.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot
- NP-FT1 rechargeable lithium-ion
- 16MB Memory Stick Duo w/adapter
- Battery charger / AC adapter
- Tripod adapter
- Neck strap
- USB cable
- CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package
software, ImageMixer VCD2, USB drivers, and Cyber-shot
- Camera manual
The DSC-L1 uses the tiny Memory Stick
Duo card, which is yet another expensive and proprietary
memory card format from Sony. Duo cards come in sizes
as large as 1GB, but you'll only find a 16MB one in
the box. I highly recommend buying a larger one, with
128MB being a good starting size. Sony includes an
adapter which allows you to use the Duo cards in devices
that have regular Memory Stick slots.
The L1 uses the same NP-FT1 battery
as Sony's popular DSC-T1 camera. It doesn't pack a
lot of juice (just 2.4 Wh of energy), but Sony still
managed to squeeze out 240 photos per charge (per the
CIPA battery life standard), which is well above average
for an ultra-compact camera like this.
As you know, I'm not a huge fan of
proprietary batteries like this, but they're unavoidable
on a camera this small. Be warned that they're expensive
($50 a pop) and you can't use "regular batteries" to
get you throw the day in an emergency. One thing I
do like about the InfoLithium battery used by the L1
is that it tells you exactly how many minutes you have
left before you run out of juice.
When it's time to charge the battery,
just plug in the included AC adapter. It takes about
2.5 hours to fully charge the NP-FR1 battery. You can
also use the adapter to power the camera and save your
batteries for when you're on the road.
The design of the L1 includes a built-in
lens cover, so there's no lens cap to worry about.
As you can see, this is one tiny camera -- about the
size of a Snickers bar!
There are quite a few accessories
available for the DSC-L1. The most interesting is the
SPK-LA marine pack ($99), which protects the camera
from the elements and also lets you take it up to 3
meters underwater. Other accessories include an external
battery charger ($59), car battery charger ($69), and
various carrying cases. An accessory kit ($69) is also
available, which includes an extra battery and a leather
viewer (Windows only)
Sony includes Picture Package for
Windows as the main image viewing application. And "viewing" is
about all it does -- you can print and rotate your
images, but that's it. The software can also create
slideshows with music or burn your photos to a CD-R
Mac users don't get to use PicturePackage
(you can use the camera with iPhoto without issue).
Instead, they get ImageMixer VCD2 and the Image Data
Converter. ImageMixer is used to create a Video CD
from your images. Video CDs are kind of like a poor
man's DVD -- not as good, but usable.
The best part of the software package
is the Cyber-shot Life tutorial, which is Windows only.
Here, a girl and her dog show you how to use your camera.
While it's a little cheesy, the tutorial is far more
useful for learning the ins and outs of your camera
than the manual. Do note that it's not camera-specific,
but that shouldn't matter since Sony's cameras have
a lot in common with each other.
I don't think I've ever read a Sony
manual that I thought was good, whether on a $300 camera
or $3000 television. The one included with the camera
is complete, but cluttered, complex, and poorly-organized.
Look and Feel
The DSC-L1 is a tiny camera, smaller
than almost any you've seen with a zoom lens. It'll
fit comfortably into your pockets, and can go anywhere
that you do. The body is entirely made of metal, aside
from the plastic doors that cover the various slots
and ports, and it feels quite solid. The camera is
easy to hold with one hand, though I must admit that
the controls themselves left something to be desired.
Here's a look at the dimensions of
the DSC-L1 when compared to some of the competition:
(W x H x D, excluding protrusions)
|Canon PowerShot SD300
|| 3.4 x
2.1 x 0.8 in.
|Casio Exilim EX-Z50
|| 3.4 x
2.2 x 0.9 in.
|Fuji FinePix F440
|| 2.9 x
2.5 x 0.8 in.
|Konica Minolta DiMAGE
|| 3.4 x
2.6 x 0.8 in.
|Nikon Coolpix 3700
|| 3.8 x
2.0 x 1.2 in.
|| 130 g
|Olympus Stylus Verve
|| 3.7 x
2.2 x 1.1 in.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7
|| 3.7 x
2.0 x 1.0 in.
|Pentax Optio S4i
|| 3.3 x
2.0 x 0.8 in.
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1
x 1.8 x 1.0 in.
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1
|| 3.6 x
2.4 x 0.8 in.
While the Pentax Optio S4i still holds
the title of smallest and lightest camera, the DSC-L1
is pretty close.
Okay, let's take a closer look at
the DSC-L1, starting as always with the front of the
A small camera requires a compact
lens and the L1 has one. It's an impressive feat of
engineering to get a telescoping lens into something
so thin! Just like many of Sony's other cameras, the
L1's F2.8-5.1, 3X zoom carries the Carl Zeiss label.
The focal range is 5.1 - 15.3 mm, which is equivalent
to 32 - 96 mm. The camera does not support conversion
Above the lens is the AF-assist lamp,
something that Sony cameras have had for years. This
helps the camera focus in dim lighting conditions.
To the left of that is the built-in
flash, which has a very short working range of 0.2
- 2.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 1.5 m at telephoto.
You cannot attach any external flash to the L1.
On the back of the camera is where
you'll find some of the sacrifices that Sony had to
make to keep the size of this camera down. The first
is the LCD size: at 1.5" it's on the small side.
But Sony didn't skimp on the quality of the screen.
Although it has just 78,000 pixels, images are sharp
and bright on the LCD. This is also a hybrid (transreflective)
display, which allows for much greater visibility outdoors.
You can also turn off the backlight when you're shooting
outside to help conserve the battery life. In low light,
the screen "gains up" so you can still see
The DSC-L1 has no optical viewfinder,
as you can see. This is a big deal for some and not
for others (I always like having one myself).
Below the LCD are three buttons, which
are quite small (hey, I've got big fingers). They do
- Image resolution / Delete photo
- Display - toggles LCD on/off plus
what is displayed on it
To the right of those buttons is the
four-way controller. You'll use this for menu navigation
as well as:
- Up - Flash (Auto, forced flash,
slow synchro, no flash)
- Right - Metering (Multi-pattern,
- Down - Self-timer (on/off)
- Left - Quick Review (jumps to playback
On top of the DSC-L1 you'll find the
rather poorly-placed microphone (watch your fingers!),
power button, mode switch, shutter release button,
and zoom controller.
The mode switch moves the camera between
playback, still recording, and movie mode.
I am not a fan of the placement or "feel" of
the zoom controller. This is one of those "your
mileage may vary" kind of things, and is why I
always encourage people to try before they buy. What
I don't like, you may find acceptable. Anyhow, the
zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto
in two seconds. There are 8 steps throughout the zoom
The only thing to see here is what's
hidden behind that plastic cover at the top of the
photo. Behind it you'll find a USB 2.0 port (it'll
work on your old computer too) as well as the DC-in
port (for the included AC adapter). The L1 does not
have a video out port.
There are some things to see here
too, and this time I'll actually open the door for
Here's where you put the NP-FT1 battery
as well as the Memory Stick Duo card. As I mentioned
earlier, Sony includes an adapter which lets you use
the Duo card in a regular Memory Stick slot.
The included battery and memory card
are shown at right.
Oh, and the plastic door covering
these two slots is fairly sturdy.
The only thing to see on the bottom
of the L1 is what looks like a mini-tripod mount. Normally
I'd make a big deal about a camera not having a standard
tripod mount, but Sony has done something pretty clever
with the DSC-L1. Just grab the included tripod adapter
and screw it on like so:
And your L1 now has a standard metal
Using the Sony Cyber-shot
The DSC-L1 takes just two seconds
to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's
pretty darn fast.
A histogram is
shown on the LCD in record mode
The L1 focuses very quickly when you
halfway-press the shutter release button, taking about
0.4-0.6 seconds to lock focus in most situations. The
AF-assist lamp helped the camera focus well in low
light conditions, though focus times can exceed one
Shutter lag was very low, even at
slower shutter speeds. Sony has done a good job of
getting rid of this annoyance on all of their recent
Shot-to-shot speed was excellent,
with a delay of around a second between shots (assuming
the post-shot review feature is turned off).
You cannot delete a photo right after
it's taken -- you must use the Quick Review feature.
Now, here's a look at the image size/quality
choices on the L1:
||# images on 16MB card
2304 x 1728
2304 x 1536
2048 x 1536
1280 x 960
640 x 480
There is no RAW or TIFF mode on the
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.
Sorry these look
so bad, they are photos and not frame grabs like
The L1 uses the same menu system that
is used on Sony's other recent cameras. The menu is
overlay-style, meaning that its shown on top of the
image you're preparing to shoot. Here are the menu
options on the L1:
- Camera (Auto, program, night scene,
night portrait, landscape, soft snap, snow, beach,
candle) - most of those are scene modes; Program
mode is the same as auto but with all menu options
- Exposure compensation (-2EV to
+2EV, 1/3EV increments)
- Focus (Multi AF, center AF) - the
former is 5-point autofocus
- White balance (Auto, sunlight,
cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten) - no custom mode
- ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
- Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
- Rec Mode
- Normal - regular shooting
- Burst - took 4 shots in
a row at about 1.1 frames/second at the highest
- Multi burst - takes 16 shots
in a row (at interval selected in menu) and
compiles them into one 1 Megapixel image (like
- Multi-burst interval (1/30, 1/15,
1/7.5 sec) - for the multi-burst feature described
- Flash Level (Low, normal, high)
- Photo Effects (Off, black & white,
- Saturation (Low, normal, high)
- Contrast (Low, normal, high)
- Sharpness (Low, normal, high)
- Setup - opens setup menu, described
Hopefully everything up there is self-explanatory.
I did want to mention something about the burst modes,
though: the LCD goes blank between each shot, making
following a moving subject difficult.
There's also a setup menu, which has
the following options:
- Camera 1
- AF mode (Single, monitor)
- see below
- Digital zoom (Off, smart,
precision) - see below
- Date/Time (Off, date, day & time)
- whether date/time is printed on your photos
- Redeye reduction (on/off)
- AF illuminator (on/off)
- Auto Review (on/off) - shows
images on LCD after it is taken
- Camera 2
- Enlarged icon (on/off) -
a visual aid for changing camera settings
- Memory Stick Tool
- Card format
- Change/create rec folder
- manage folders on the memory card
- Setup 1
- LCD backlight (Normal, bright)
- Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
- Language (English, German,
Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese)
- Setup 2
- File number (Series, reset)
- USB connect (PictBridge,
PTP, normal) - you may need to change this
depending on the operating system on your computer
- Clock set
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 DSC-L1 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 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.
Let's move on to our photo tests now,
The DSC-L1 does not have a macro mode,
but that doesn't mean that you still can't shoot close-ups.
You can get as close to your subject as 12 cm, regardless
of the shooting mode.
The L1 produced a very "smooth" rendition
of our usual macro subject. There seems to be a bit
of a yellow color cast to the image, which is most
likely a white balance issue. Since the camera lacks
a custom WB mode, I had to use the tungsten setting,
which is evidently not a perfect match for my 600W
quartz studio lamps.
The DSC-L1 did a fine job with our
night test shot. The camera took in plenty of light,
there's no purple fringing to be found, and noise levels
are low. The only way to take long exposures like this
is to use one of the night scene modes, and even then
it's just a 2 second exposure (I typically expose this
shot for 4-5 seconds). There's no way to manually select
the shutter speed on this camera. In fact, there are
no manual controls at all on the L1.
There's moderate barrel distortion
at the wide end of the L1's lens. While there's no
real evidence of vignetting (dark corners) in this
test show, you may encounter it in your real world
Not surprisingly, there is a fair
amount of redeye in flash pictures taken with the L1.
While your results may differ, I'd say that most people
will be cleaning this out of their photos.
Overall I'd rank the L1's image quality
as just okay. While my real world photos were well-exposed
with accurate colors, details in the pictures seemed
soft and fuzzy. Even the sky seemed unusually blotchy.
In addition, there was vignetting to be found in many
of my photos. I've seen this before on other ultra-compact
cameras (the Minolta DiMAGE X-series comes to mind),
and I think it's just one of the tradeoffs that comes
with a tiny camera like this. Still, you'll be able
to get nice small prints or web-sized photos from the
L1. Those with larger print needs or higher expectations
should look elsewhere.
Don't just take my word for all this,
though. Have a look at our photo
gallery and decide if the photo quality meets your
expectations. I also encourage you to print the photos,
just like you would if they were your own.
The DSC-L1 has the same, top-notch
movie mode as Sony's top-of-the-line digital cameras.
The MPEG Movie VX Fine mode takes VGA resolution video
(that's 640 x 480) at 30 frames/sec, until the memory
card is full. Sound is recorded as well.
The VX Fine mode requires a Memory
Stick Pro Duo card). A 1GB Pro card can hold about
12 minutes of video at this quality.
If you don't have a Pro Duo card,
don't fret. You can still use the very nice VX Standard
mode, which is still VGA, just at 16 frames/second.
A much lower resolution (160 x 112) option, known as
Video mail, is also available. A 128MB memory card
holds 6 minutes in VX Standard mode and nearly 1.5
hours in Video mail mode.
Here's a short sample movie for you.
The sound quality isn't great, but maybe that's just
the wind noise.
to play movie (16.8 MB, 640 x 480, VX Fine mode, MPEG
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The Cyber-shot DSC-L1 has a pretty
standard (though well-implemented) playback mode. Basic
features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image
protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll".
The L1 is PictBridge-enabled, allowing direct printing
to compatible photo printers.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term)
allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo, and then
scroll around in it. This is useful for checking the
focus in a photograph.
Some of the more advanced playback
- Resize - change an image's size.
The original image is not deleted.
- Divide - cut sections of movies
I do appreciate how the L1 lets you
delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all
of them. (To do this, you must be in thumbnail mode.)
The L1 gives you quite a bit of information
about your photos, including a histogram.
The camera moves between photos instantly.
Whether or not you get a low resolution placeholder
while loading a new image depends on the speed at which
you're moving through the images. If you go from one
to the next at a normal pace, you'll only see the high
How Does it Compare
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 is a decent
camera for those who value size over features and photo
quality. The L1 is ultra-compact and stylish, and it
comes in four colors. While it's easy to hold, some
of the controls are microscopic. The LCD is small as
well, but it's viewable in both in bright outdoor light
and dark rooms. Be warned that there is no optical
viewfinder on this camera. Something else you won't
find: manual controls. Photo quality is just okay,
with details appearing soft and muddy, with vignetting
(dark corners) popping up occasionally as well. Colors
and exposure were good, however, and purple fringing
was not a problem. The L1 offers a VGA movie mode that
can keep recording until your memory card is full.
Camera performance is very good in all areas, and battery
life is above average as well.
Some other negatives include the lack
of a macro mode (though you can still get as close
as 12 cm in normal shooting modes), a weak flash, redeye,
and the lack of a video out port.
If you want a camera that you can
take anywhere, and don't plan on making large prints,
I do recommend the DSC-L1. If you want more control
over your camera's settings, better photo quality,
or expandability, you'll probably have to buy a larger
What I liked:
- Ultra-compact, stylish metal body;
comes in four colors
- Robust performance
- LCD usable in bright and dim light
- AF-assist lamp; good low light
- Very good movie mode
- Live histogram in record mode
- USB 2.0 High Speed supported
- Impressive battery life for its
What I didn't care for:
- Images seem soft and muddy; some
- Weak flash
- No optical viewfinder or video
- No manual controls or macro mode
- Buttons are pretty tiny, as is
the LCD display
- Software bundle isn't great, though
the tutorial is helpful
Some other cameras worth looking at
include the Canon
PowerShot SD300, Casio Exilim EX-Z50 and EX-Z55, Fuji
FinePix F440, Konica
Minolta DiMAGE X50, Nikon Coolpix 3700 and 4200, Olympus
Stylus Verve, Panasonic
Lumix DMC-FX7, Pentax
Optio S4i, and the Sony
As always, I recommend a trip down
to your local reseller to try out the DSC-L1 and its
competitors before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our photo
Want a second opinion?
Read another review at Steve's
Feedback & Discussion
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.
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