DISCLAIMER - In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I didn't buy this camera. It was given to me by Epinions for the purposes of reviewing here. That said, don't think I was influenced by this gift, since the camera is . . . well, we'll get to that in a second.
I've been into photography for nearly all my life, it seems. I was shooting with a Kodak instamatic when I was a wee tot back in the seventies and eighties, I went to film school in the nineties and despite drifting away from the hobby in the early aughts, I came back with a vengeance in the last 8 years or so. In that time I've been all over the map, camera-wise. I went from film to crappy point and shoot digital, to nice a nice DSLR rig, then back to film in the last couple of years.
I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Anyway, as part of my brainwashing - ahem - efforts to teach my 8 year old niece about photography, I got her a low rent point-and-shoot a Christmas ago, and soon she was ready to step up to the subject at hand: The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W570
UNBOXING - WHAT DO YOU GET?
So lets take a look at what your hundred and fifty bones gets you. . . .
* One DSC-W570 camera (duh)
* NP-BN1 style battery
* Battery charger
* Nylon wrist strap
* CD with the Sony picture browser, Users Guide and Product Registration
* USB A/V cable
* Shockingly, no memory card
Upon the initial power on, you jump through the hoops of setting the time and date, picking your time zone and the camera display color, including a horrific pink perfect for signaling planes should you ever become lost at sea! After that you're good to go! Well, after you charge the battery, that is - but it's a pretty quick charge cycle, so two or so hours later, you're good to go!
WHAT ABOUT THE CAMERA ITSELF?
The camera body is shockingly small, a little bit smaller than a deck of playing cards. The only controls on the top are the shutter release and the power button. While the shutter and power are kind of close to each other, Sony had the foresight to make the power switch slightly sunken - meaning that you'll have to work at depressing it by accident should you get the two mixed up.
The back consists of a zoom rocker switch in the upper right corner, right about where your thumb would rest (if you had normal hands and not freakishly large paws like mine). There's a slider switch just below that that toggles between still photos, panorama photos and motion pictures. There's a small d-pad just below that for controlling the flash on/off, the smile detection on/off, the self timer switch and a screen display settings. Okay, the flash on/off and the self timer are both useful, but did the smile detection and change display screen options need their own dedicated switch?
And of course the last thing on the back is the LCD display, approximately 2.5 inches across. The display seems pretty bright and easy to read in subdued light, and you have several settings for sharpness, brightness and so on. The only complaint is that the screen is nearly impossible to read in bright sunlight - a problem under certain conditions since there's no viewfinder on the camera. All composition will take place on the back screen - so forget about shooting at high noon.
On the bottom of the camera, we get the door that allows access to the memory card slot and the battery compartment, the USB port and a tripod thread mounting. There's not much room on this thing, so Sony didn't have much choice but to put the memory card door and the tripod thread right next to each other, so you cant get at the guts of the camera while it's mounted to your tripod. You want in, you have to unscrew it. I can, however, blame Sony for the thin, flimsy door. The thing feels really cheap and would seem prone to breaking if the wrong amount of force is applied in the wrong direction. Also, the USB port is exposed - while this wasn't a problem in the short time I had to review the camera, for the long term I could see all kinds of dust and gunk getting in there. Really Sony, you couldn't spring for a 2 cent rubber plug?
ENOUGH WITH THE BODY! HOW DOES IT WORK?
Despite the small package, Sony managed to cram in some pretty nice glass in here. We get a Carl Zeiss 5x optical zoom lens that can go from 25mm to 125mm and sports from F/2.6 to f/6.3. We also get digital zoom, increasing the range from 5x to 6.3x - but honestly, you don't want to do that. Any camera's digital zoom is going to look exponentially crappy when you crank it as far as it goes.
Sony also includes a wide range of scene settings: Soft Skin (shoot subjects with more beautiful skin), Soft Snap (shoot people and flowers with a blurred background for a softer image. Basically this shooting with a wide open aperture, so the background items are out of focus, emphasizing the foreground) Landscape mode (Use distant focus to shoot clear landscapes. In other words, a small aperture, giving you a greater depth of field), Twilight portrait (shoot with flash to balance subjects and dark backgrounds), Twilight (use a tripod and no flash to shoot beautiful nightscapes), High Sensitivity (reduce blur even when dark without using the flash), Gourmet (Shoot food to look yummy by using macro mode and focusing close up), Pet Mode (shoot pets and other subjects in motion with reduced blur. A cat? In motion? Clearly the designers have never owned a cat!), Beach (shoot beach and lake scenes emphasizing the vivid blue colors), Snow mode (shoot snow and mostly white scenes slightly overexposed), Fireworks (shoot fireworks without flash) and Underwater Mode (shoot natural blue colors underwater. Note - the camera itself isn't actually waterproof!)
Honestly, after cycling through all the various modes, I didn't see any real difference between them. Shooting a portrait on Landscape yielded no better or no worse pictures than shooting in Soft Skin mode.
So how does the camera stand up in various lighting conditions?
Taking the Cybershot out on a bright and sunny day (a rare thing around Seattle) gave me a chance to try it out in nature. The Colors were pretty strong and accurate, not too oversaturated. The greens were dead on, the blue sky was rich and there was no problem with contrast with the fluffy clouds. The skin tones turned out pretty good and overall the shots were true-to-life. If there's a problem, it was that the camera tended to favor higher ISOs when set to auto. Even on a bright day, I was shooting at ISO 200
The Cyber-Shot is fair enough, with one caveat - zoomed all the way out tends to lead to some wicked distortion, almost a fisheye look to the shots. Great for landscape photography, but for portraits, it's not very flattering. Fortunately, zooming in slightly tends to flatten out any lens distortion (that or recognize the effect going in and work with it).
LOW LIGHT -
It doesn't seem to like lower light levels very much. Shooting my friend on the couch in later afternoon natural light - the prime golden hour time - the shots tended to be kind of grainy, even with the ISO turned down to it's lowest settings.
When shooting the mean streets of Seattle at night, the Cyber-shot is. . . fair. It tends to favor long exposures, meaning use a tripod or wind up with motion blur. Also, even with the ISO cranked way down, there was some pretty serious noise in the darker areas. That said, the white balance handles just about everything I could throw and every type light I found at it without missing a beat.
The odd thing? That there was no dedicated macro mode. That's not to say that the Cyber-Shot cant focus close up, just that the process is fully automated. A bigger problem is that doesn't seem to be any way to control the aperture, meaning that you have no control over the depth of field. Even when pouring light on a subject, there should have been a way to F-Stop down.
I was able to either get the clone trooper in the foreground in focus or the ones towards the back in focus. I had one of my 250 watt modeling lamp studio lights dumping illumination on the scene - there should have been no reason that I couldn't have the aperture closed down as far as it would go, but the best I could do was F/2.6 for all my shots.
Also, the camera tends to struggle with figuring out what the subject is and what to focus on. Unless the subject was 5-7 inches away, the focus tended to be real hit or miss.
If there's a serious flaw with the camera, it's the battery life. My Canon Rebel XSi can go all day long with some serious shooting, The Sony Cyber-Shot? I'm lucky to get an hour and a half of hardcore shooting (and don't even think about turning on the flash). Sony claims that you can get two hours of shooting out of a full charge. Even if we're being generous and taking their claims at face value, two hours is not nearly enough shooting life - so prepare to drop 40 bucks right out of the gate on a spare backup battery.
Also, the cycle time between the shots seems painfully slow. The camera starts up reasonably fast (about 2 seconds from power on to Ready to Shoot), but the cycle time between shots seems painfully long (about 3 seconds). Burst mode - holding the shutter release down - is marginally better (about 1.5 seconds), but if you're looking for a quick response, you're going to be missing a lot of shots.
Speaking of modes that the camera is missing, there's no sepia or B&W modes. If you want funky post processing modes, you'll have to fire up Photoshop after the fact. No posterization for you!
TOO LONG, PLEASE SUM UP!
As someone who takes photography as a hobby pretty damn seriously, the Cyber-Shot DSC-W570 is frustrating. There's no way to directly control simple basic camera functionality like the aperture or shutter speed. The low light photography is more noisy than I like and the response time between shots is slow.
However, I'm not the demographic for the camera. For the amateur who needs some shots at the family reunion picnic, it's perfect. For my eight year old niece, it's ideal. It's simple enough that anyone can fire and forget, the images look good enough for snapshots, the camera is it's sleek and portable and the price is very reasonable compared to a DSLR. Would I prefer if the camera was more powerful? Of course. But for what it is - a simple point-and-shoot - the DSC-W570 is just fine.
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Amount Paid (US$): I won it!
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Easy Enough for Anyone to Use