Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
RSS feed
A Canonian Goes Sony: The DSC-V3

A Canonian Goes Sony: The DSC-V3

I've been looking for a digital compact camera to complement my Canon EOS-10D for a while now. I used to own first a Canon PowerShot S40 (still in active use by my wife) and then a Minolta Dimage 7i. Although excellent cameras in their own right and especially compared to what else was available at the time, I felt both were seriously lacking in certain critical areas, in particular focusing speed and precision. After months of pouncing on every new review, and bugging camera stores to let me fondle some of them, I finally broke down and bought the Sony V3. Here are my impressions of it. As usual, this is not intended to be a comprehensive review, but rather a "field report" of my experiences in using it for the mission I bought it -- a take-anywhere "second camera." Take it for what it's worth.

Street shooting with the DSC-V3. (Helsinki, January 2005)

The DSC-V3 proves that Sony knows how to engineer a camera, and how to build a camera, but they still have a thing or two to learn about designing a camera. It is built well, loaded with features, and performs excellently. However, while the design has clearly been thought through thoroughly, it lacks the extension-of-your-hand feel of really good designs that have gone through several iterations (or been made by people who have done similar designs for decades). Even after a fair bit of use, it still feels just a little bit awkward and strained. In the end, this doesn't really matter much -- all cameras have their weak points, and as weak points go, this one is fairly harmless.

Build

The camera is built extremely well. The metal body is heavy, solid, and cool to the touch, the rubber on the grip gives an impression of quality, and all the switches and buttons operate with satisfying mechanical clicks and tactile feedback. All the mechanical motions happen with a smooth precision that radiates a feel of quality and reliability. It is among the nicest-built cameras that I've had the pleasure of handling, and has to be among the best in its class in this respect. It looks classy, too, in its slightly retro and Leica-ish lines. It's also quite easy to operate with gloves on -- no mean feat for something this small. Even the little buttons have enough tactile feedback and they're spaced widely enough not to get in the way.

Not everything fits the design idea, though. It's a shame about the shiny tooled logo, the anodized brushed-metal top, and the gobs of text all over the place. While they would look fine on a stereo, they definitely cheapen the look of a camera. Hint to Sony: cameras have white, embossed logos and matte or spatter black paint, and I know the camera has a 4x optical zoom, MPGmovieVX, Smart Zoom, and that it's a DSC-V3 without having to read it every time I pick it up. Next time, look harder at the Leica that inspired this design (the plain one, not the lizard-skin gold-plated special edition) and copy it even more. And do bundle a proper wrist strap instead of making your customers shop after-market.

The V3 is actually a pretty small camera. While definitely a class bigger than the pocketables, it's only a little bit bigger than my smallest film compact, the Rollei AF-M 35. I wouldn't recommend this for a pocket camera, but if you carry a bag or a satchel, it should fit in just fine.

Viewfinder and LCD

The good news is that the V3 sports an excellent LCD. It's big, pretty crisp, and has a reasonably fast refresh rate. It also has an anti-reflective coating that unfortunately also appears to be pro-nose-grease-and-fingerprints. At this time of year in Finland (January 1, 2005) I've had no chance to see how it does in bright daylight (since there isn't any), but I've had no trouble using it in the kind of daylight we do get. There's certainly no problem in darkness -- the LCD gains up quite nicely when the light gets low. In hand-held shooting (which is what I do) the LCD is not a limiting factor. Of course, a few more pixels wouldn't do any harm: the LCD is so big it does look a trifle rough, but given the choice between a small and high-resolution LCD and a large and lower-resolution one, I'll take the big one any time. The LCD is definitely a major plus in the design of the V3.

This was about as close to bright daylight as I could get in Finland around the turn of the year. No problems seeing the LCD...

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the optical viewfinder. Please, Sony, the next time you're taking notes from a Leica, look through it. I won't expect you to put something that good on a digital compact, but you could at least make a little effort on this front, especially if you style the camera to look nice and retro like this one. The V3 deserves a real optical viewfinder, instead of this miserable tunnel with variable coverage. To add insult to injury, the viewfinder window is placed in such a way that it's very easy to cover it with a finger, at least smearing it. It's no excuse that the competition isn't any better.

Control layout

A camera this small will always entail some usability compromises -- there just isn't enough body to put all the switches and dials on that you might want. Sony have tried to make the best of it. There is a total of 20 buttons, switches, and dials on the camera, a few of which have more than one action associated with them. The control scheme is well thought out and works nicely after a bit of practice, although some functions aren't immediately obvious: the manual isn't in the box just for padding.

The jog dial is the camera's most important control (after the shutter release, of course). It is used to set the exposure-related parameters (except ISO). For example, to set AE compensation, click, roll right and click to select AE compensation, roll left or right to set it, then click, roll left, and click to return to normal operation. These click-roll-click operations are actually quite fast and fluid once you learn them.

Sony have done a pretty good job of dividing up the rest of the functionality between the various modes and menus; I found that the things I needed to access most frequently were behind only a click or two. Even the "live" menu system is very fast to navigate, much better than the system on the Canons I've used. For example, setting ISO or any of the other "second-degree" shooting parameters (white balance, flash exposure compensation, contrast etc.) involves navigating to the right menu with the left or right directional button and selecting the desired setting with the up or down arrow -- by omitting both the "selection click" and "confirmation click," Sony has made the process faster and more fluid by half. Breaking the menu paradigm was a courageous and very good decision.

The V3 has been criticized for only allowing one notch of adjustment for the second-level shooting parameters (contrast, saturation, sharpening, FEC etc.). In my personal opinion, the design decision makes sense: it simplifies the menu system just a little bit, making it just a little bit easier to navigate. Some flexibility is sacrificed for some fluidity. I prefer it this way: for situational hand-held shooting, the adjustments give quite enough control for my taste, and I appreciate the simplicity. However, this is something that would have been easy to make configurable -- for example, a setting in the Setup menus could have allowed choosing 1 or 3 levels of adjustment for the parameters.

Overall, this is definitely the best menu system I've ever seen on a digital camera. The V3 even remembers the last menu used, even after powering it off. Nice.

Switch flash-exposure compensation to -1, flash to slow-sync, and pop goes the weasel. Easy with the V3's control layout. Good job, Sony!

There are a few wrinkles, though: for example, image replay is behind a separate mode that must be selected on the dial; in shooting mode, only the last image shot can be reviewed. It would not have complicated camera use to have "shooting priority" image review. What's more, the lens retracts when switching to play mode, and since lens retraction and extension isn't exactly lightning-fast, this is a bit of an annoyance. A subtle lack of refinement rears up its head. It's very good, but there's still room for improvement.

How do you mean, inelegant?

All in all, the control layout and menu system are thoroughly thought out and highly functional. So what's all this about "inelegant," then?

The thing is, as well thought out as the system is, it's somehow just not quite "right." In a really good design, all the controls somehow naturally fall under your fingers, and there's only one obvious way to hold and use the camera. The V3 isn't like this. When I first picked it up, I found myself missing the shutter release, my middle finger was in front of the viewfinder, and I couldn't reach the zoom lever without shifting my grip. Again, the manual came in handy -- Sony actually explains how they intend us to hold the camera. (For those of you who are lazy, both the ring finger and pinky go under the camera; this brings the thumb and forefinger where they belong.) However, even after practicing the "right" grip, the placement of the zoom lever in particular feels wrong, and the grip is a bit strained -- my hand tires much more quickly than with the much heavier EOS-10D. For kicks, I repeated a shoot I'd done with the V3 the next evening with the 10D, and the difference in refinement was quite something -- although of course it's not fair to compare a compact design with an SLR design; the SLR will win simply because of the bigger body. But the V3 could have done better.

As stated, not a huge issue, but something worth noting anyway -- and worth improving in future models.

Magic Auto-Focus

There's only one word for the auto-focus system on the V3: brilliant. When used as a point-and-shoot, that is, set to wide-area AF and shot without pre-focusing, it is blazingly fast, dead-on accurate, and almost uncanny at guessing what the subject in the photo is: it seems to pick out a moving subject against a static background, a static subject against a moving background, an off-center subject... it's almost scary. It can even snag an approaching subject -- usually very tricky. As light levels go down, things slow down somewhat, but it just doesn't miss. This is the first AF camera of any kind I've used where the auto-focus is truly point-and-shoot. For timing purposes, it's still not as good as a really good manual-focus camera, since there is an AF lag of a few tenths of a second, but it's so good that it's possible to shoot situationals effectively without losing the decisive moment much more frequently than with heavier-duty gear. The auto-focus alone is a killer feature on this camera -- I could put up with a lot more than minor design inelegance to get this.

Casting tin is a Finnish New Year's tradition. Here's the instant Aune's tin hits the water. Achieving focus lock accurately in a very short time in these conditions (off-center subject, low light levels, cluttered background) is a quite a feat -- but the V3 did it. Again and again. I don't remember being this impressed by a feature of photo gear since I put my eye to the viewfinder of an EOS-650 with the Sigma 12-24 on it.

I generally dislike flash photography. It's evil, but sometimes a necessary evil. I don't even own an external flash for any of my cameras, and have no plans on getting one -- certainly not for the small take-anywhere camera. Unfortunately, there are times when it comes down to the choice of using a flash or not shooting the picture at all. While on-board flashes are the most evil of all, the implementation on the V3 is one of the less irredeemably evil ones I've come across. The basic flash modes are there (on, off, slow-sync), and it's possible to dial in FEC at + or - one level (stop?). Slow-sync works as expected, and at -1 level, the flash is usable for fill-in without looking too awful. I just don't get the rotating flash design: since there's no way to rotate it up for bounce flash (why not?) the only function of the feature seems to be that it made it possible to put the big ugly shiny VCR-like SONY logo on the front. Luckily ISO800 (actually about 640, according to DPReview) is perfectly usable, and even has a little bit of latitude for adjustments, so flash isn't a requirement as much as you might think, despite the unexceptional maximum aperture (f/2.8) of the lens.

Street shooting by streetlight is definitely pushing it for the V3, but it can be done, to an extent.

I won't dwell too much on the rest of the "basic imaging features" of the camera, since they've been systematically covered in great detail by more competent reviewers than me. Let it be said that the V3 is good enough when it comes to metering, white balance, and overall image quality. The metering is biased a bit towards underexposure (which is not a bad thing, since it helps retain the highlights and it's easy to adjust auto-exposure on the fly anyway). Auto white-balance gets it close enough to be easily tweaked in post-processing most of the time, the presets are pretty dead-on, and manual white-balance is excellent. In fact, white balance is overall significantly better than on my 10D, both in auto mode, presets, and manual. Reviewers have noted that auto white-balance leaves incandescent a bit yellow; this is true, but I actually like it -- it preserves some of the quality of the light without leaving the pictures completely orange. Who knows, perhaps Sony intended it this way.

How good is the image quality?

A compact digicam with a small sensor is inevitably a compromise when it comes to image quality. While the pixel count is high (in fact, the V3 produces images of almost exactly the same width as my 10D), the quality of the pixels is necessarily lower. The detail is rougher and "chunkier," there are more sharpening halos and other artifacts than on a dSLR shot in RAW (RAW is pretty much a non-starter on the V3, since it locks up the camera and the proprietary format isn't supported by most RAW workflow programs), and there is less dynamic range. The compact lens has its limitations too; in particular, it exhibits considerably more distortion and somewhat more chromatic aberration than you'd expect from a midrange SLR standard zoom. However, the quality is still pretty good. For the hell of it, I downsampled some post-processed V3 images to the same pixel dimensions as the venerable Canon EOS-D30 -- to 3.34 MP. They looked pretty damn good. Most of the noise from the higher-ISO shots was gone, the interpolation and sharpening artifacts were gone, and most of the chromatic aberration had faded out too. The microcontrast still isn't as good as on dSLR images, though. But in one sense it's not too inaccurate to say that the V3 produces images that are almost as good as my 10D, only approximately one third smaller. When you think about it this way, it's pretty remarkable for a small-sensor camera, and certainly more than enough for my intended use.

As an aside, the experiment puts an interesting light on the megapixel race: I compared the V3 with some shots from my S40 downsampled to the same size, and there really wasn't that much difference between them. In other words, I'm not at all sure how much real image quality the near-doubling of the megapixel count between the two cameras has added -- at low ISO anyway; at ISO400-800 the V3 is clearly better than the S40, especially when you take into account the higher pixel count and its noise-reducing effect at any given target size.

A full-size crop of a V3 image downsampled to D30 width. Not too shoddy.

In terms of image quality, the V3 is certainly good enough to be a serious photographic instrument, whatever that may mean -- but at least so far, dSLR's are a pretty long way ahead.

What's it good for?

I bought the V3 to be the companion to my dSLR -- something to keep with me all the time, more or less. The deciding factor was the speed: it was reputed to be fast, and boy is it ever. Indeed the V3 seems to be a very good fit for the "second camera" mission. Indeed, I get a feeling that this may have been the primary mission the designers had in mind -- the emphasis seems to be on fluidity in use rather than maximal levels of control; something that a seasoned shooter would be more likely to appreciate than someone just getting deeper into photography. On the other hand, the V3 is a superb snapshot camera -- click it into the green mode, and it really is point-and-shoot simple.

I would feel very comfortable recommending the Sony DSC-V3 as a second camera for any dSLR shooter who doesn't need an ultra-compact for the job, or for anyone who wants something that can really be pointed and shot (and doesn't mind the price). As a "first camera" it is a bit problematic, though -- for that mission, I would like more control and more flexibility: a wider and brighter lens, image stabilization, buffered RAW, and more levels of adjustment for some parameters. In other words, either one of the SLR-likes, or indeed a dSLR.

The DSC-V3 won't be my last compact digital camera (I hope): what I really want is something more or less this size and more or less this fast, but with more sensitivity and a brighter lens -- and you can skip the zoom, thank you very much. In fact, in most respects the Canon G6 would have been just the ticket -- but the AF performance was so much worse that I reluctantly dropped it from my short list. My dream is a digital compact with an APS-C sensor and a 35/2.0 (or thereabouts) lens. Until there is one available, though, the V3 will get the job done excellently -- and my wife Joanna liked it so much that I know what's going to happen to it once something like that does arrive on the market.



Couple at the cathedral. Winter, 2005.