Every year I go on vacation with my family to a small lake in Indiana. Typically, this has been a time for me to put down the DSLR and shoot film or sometimes just not take pictures at all. For the last several years, I've brought my Nikon FM and shot a few rolls of film. This year, I decided to do something a little different.
For 8 rolls of film, color and black and white, plus processing, I figured I would spend about $100. Instead of buying film, I started looking for a cheap-o digital camera for less than $100.
Sure, I could use my iPhone, but on a lake vacation I get nervous about dropping things in the water. I haven't done it yet, but I am convinced it is only a matter of time.
So I did some research and asked Amazon to find me a camera for less than $100 that I wouldn't feel too bad about dropping, splashing, crunching or losing. One of the more highly reviewed options turned out to be the Sony W800.
It's a 20mp point and shoot that fits in even the smallest of pockets. It's smaller than my iPhone 4s and I figured, why not?
THE QUICKIE REVIEW: If you don't care how your pictures turn out and you have some patience to re-shoot things a few times, get this camera, leave it on auto-mode and give it a shot. If you'd like your pictures to come out in focus, with the right white balance and a reasonable exposure on the first try, move on and try something else. It would also be perfect to give to your kid to use so they don't keep borrowing your nice camera.
During my test I made only a few adjustments to the default settings. I set it to shoot in continuous mode (which conveniently disables the flash), disabled the digital zoom, and I forced it to shoot in the highest possible resolution (still JPG format, because this camera doesn't know what RAW is). Other than that, I let it choose all the settings for me. Set it and forget it.
SPEED: It is surprisingly snappy. There is a delay between pressing the button and taking the picture, but for the most part it can be anticipated. The camera starts up quickly and is immediately ready to shoot. From pressing the ON button to taking a picture was about 3 seconds. The trick comes when you want to turn the camera on, max out the zoom (5x), have the camera focus, THEN take a picture. With that timeline you're looking at about 7 seconds. Compared to a prosumer DSLR, that is depressing, but for your average person who just wants to take a picture, an extra 10 seconds doesn't matter much.
I spent about 5 minutes getting this picture of Mocha chasing the ball into the lake. Getting an image that was in focus was difficult. The camera has a fancy subject-tracking-focus feature that works OK, but it still took me several tries. Luckily for me, the dog was happy to continue chasing her ball.
COLOR: The Sony W800 doesn't do white balance very well. It also has a hard time with exposure, but we'll get there in a bit. The sunset below was ORANGE. It was so orange that the camera auto-corrected way too blue. I'd say about 1/3 of the 693 frames I shot are white balanced incorrectly. Not the end of the world, except that when it gets the white balance wrong, it generally misses the exposure and/or the focus too.
Compare the sunset above to this one (shot on a D300s), which is what Oliver Lake sunsets actually look like:
LOW LIGHT PERFORMANCE: In a word - abysmal. The iso maxes out at 800 and as far as I can tell, the shutter speed can't go slower than 1/4 of a second. Perhaps it is my own fault, since keeping the camera in continuous shooting mode disables the flash, but indoor pictures at night were a complete no-go.
LENS: The wide-angle side of this lens is perfect. Exactly the right focal length for a little camera and it lets you get all the goods in the frame without having to move around. The 5x zoom is a bit limiting. I'm a 15x zoom kinda guy. But, at 20mp, you can crop a bunch out of the image and still end up with a file that is usable. All my finished JPGs are 10mb or larger which makes for plenty of room to crop in. The macro focus works well and doesn't need to be put on a special setting to work. Just stick the camera right next to the subject and it will focus. Love that feature.
BATTERY: I haven't had to think about a camera battery in a long time. My DSLR just goes and goes and goes. This one goes for about two days of moderate use before you have to charge it. It DOES NOT accept AA batteries, which is a bummer for me. You have to use a proprietary charging cable to charge the internal Lithium Ion battery. Proprietary cables are another bummer for me.
SPECIAL: It takes panorama pictures better than my iPhone. Press two buttons and you're in pano-mode. Press another two buttons and you're back to shooting regular stills. I like that feature. I also like that you can choose the aspect ratio that you shoot in. I experimented with 16:9 and enjoyed it.
Not-quite 180 degree pano.
I did get some pictures that turned out OK. The W800 seems to prefer front light or side light on a subject that is not moving, which makes it easy to focus and get the exposure right.
In all I did almost 700 frames in this test. I kept 200 that were in focus and the exposure was close (1 star) and of those I am willing to post about 57 (2 stars). I only got ONE frame that I really like (3 stars) shown below:
If I was going to keep this camera (and I'm not), I would keep it on auto mode, force it into 16:9 aspect ratio, and shoot weird wide angle panorama pictures with it. That's a neat feature and it's an aspect ratio that I don't often think in.
Instead, I think I will take this camera back to Target, where I purchased it for $79 and use the money to test out another POS camera. I'll know when I find one that I like because I won't want to return it.
Overall, I give the Sony W800/B two and half stars.