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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: August 29, 2004
Last Updated: May 3, 2012

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The Sony 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 DSC-L1 camera
  • NP-FT1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • 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 Life tutorial
  • 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 case.

Picture Package 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 disc.

ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac only)

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.

Cyber-shot Life (Windows only)

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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass
Canon PowerShot SD300 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.8 in. 5.7 cu in. 130 g
Casio Exilim EX-Z50 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.9 in. 6.7 cu in. 121 g
Fuji FinePix F440 2.9 x 2.5 x 0.8 in. 5.8 cu in. 150 g
Konica Minolta DiMAGE Xg 3.4 x 2.6 x 0.8 in. 7.1 cu in. 120 g
Nikon Coolpix 3700 3.8 x 2.0 x 1.2 in. 9.1 cu in. 130 g
Olympus Stylus Verve 3.7 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. 9.0 cu in. 115 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX7 3.7 x 2.0 x 1.0 in. 7.4 cu in. 136 g
Pentax Optio S4i 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 in. 5.3 cu in. 105 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1 3.8 x 1.8 x 1.0 in. 6.8 cu in. 122 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1 3.6 x 2.4 x 0.8 in. 6.9 cu in. 180 g

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 camera.

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 lenses.

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 your subject.

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 the following:

  • Image resolution / Delete photo
  • Display - toggles LCD on/off plus what is displayed on it
  • Menu

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, spot)
  • Down - Self-timer (on/off)
  • Left - Quick Review (jumps to playback mode)

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 range.

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 you:

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 tripod mount!

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-L1

Record Mode

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 second.

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 cameras.

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:

Resolution Quality # images on 16MB card
2304 x 1728
Fine 8
Standard 14
4M (3:2 ratio)
2304 x 1536
Fine 8
Normal 14
2048 x 1536
Fine 10
Normal 18
1280 x 960
Fine 24
Normal 46
640 x 480
Fine 97
Normal 243

There is no RAW or TIFF mode on the DSC-L1.

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 normal

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 available
  • 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 JPEG quality
    • Multi burst - takes 16 shots in a row (at interval selected in menu) and compiles them into one 1 Megapixel image (like a collage)
  • Multi-burst interval (1/30, 1/15, 1/7.5 sec) - for the multi-burst feature described above
  • Flash Level (Low, normal, high)
  • Photo Effects (Off, black & white, sepia)
  • Saturation (Low, normal, high)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high)
  • Sharpness (Low, normal, high)
  • Setup - opens setup menu, described below

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, shall we?

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 photos.

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.

Movie Mode

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.

Click to play movie (16.8 MB, 640 x 480, VX Fine mode, MPEG format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

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 features include:

  • Resize - change an image's size. The original image is not deleted.
  • Rotate
  • 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 res image.

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 camera.

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 focusing
  • Very good movie mode
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • USB 2.0 High Speed supported
  • Impressive battery life for its size

What I didn't care for:

  • Images seem soft and muddy; some vignetting
  • Weak flash
  • Redeye
  • No optical viewfinder or video out port
  • 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 Cyber-shot DSC-T1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-L1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery.

Want a second opinion?

Read another review at Steve's Digicams.

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.

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