DSC-F55 Cyber-Shot
Great fun if you're a casual photographer
DSC-F55 Cyber-Shot
Revelations can hit in the strangest places. The day after the Littleton shooting, I picked up a newspaper and was transfixed; taking up a third of a page, there was a picture of a teenage girl, face contorted in anguish. That one photograph conveyed the horror and loss of innocence suffered by the students of Columbine High School far more intensely than any of the previous day's news footage. After all this time, I reflected, the single frozen moment still carries tremendous psychological impact--more, probably, than all the multimedia we can bring to bear.

Then I noticed the artifacts. I squinted, and confirmed it: the image had been taken with a digital camera.

I still can't believe how far we've come. It's been a year--maybe two--since I last heard the mantra recited: digital cameras are nice, maybe even useful, but they'll never replace film.

Where technology is concerned, people should know better than to say "never." With the recent spate of 2-megapixel cameras, digital photography is encroaching on the territory of 16mm film. The grail of 35mm is still a little ways off, but in the meantime, a third of a newspaper page with barely noticeable artifacts is nothing to sneeze at.

In any case, it was only a few weeks later that I got my hands on Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-F55, their first 2.1 megapixel camera. At first glance, the DSC-F55 looks like a scaled-down version of Sony's original Digital Mavica models. The DSC-F55 has a smaller form factor because it uses Sony's new Memory Stick for storage, rather than a floppy disk (a 4 MB Stick is included with the camera).

Once you pick the camera up, you'll appreciate the weight loss. The Digital Mavica was a little on the hefty side, not quite comfortable for extended use. The DSC-F55 just hits that sweet spot; it's not too heavy to carry around for an hour or two, but it's not so flimsy that you're afraid it'll break if you look at it funny.

Further, someone really took their time and designed this camera properly. Buttons are logically placed and labeled--I didn't bother opening the manual until a week after I'd started snapping away. A nice consideration is that none of them can be pushed accidentally. The shutter, which takes care of autofocus (and auto-exposure and auto-white balance) when you press lightly, isn't so sensitive that you'll accidentally take a picture when you're setting up a shot. (If I told you how many times that's happened with my SLR camera, you'd laugh at me.)

I had no complaints about the photographs. After spending a few weeks with the DSC-F55, I accumulated quite a collection of shots: indoor, outdoor, close-ups, long shots--every variation I could think of. Every picture was flawless. In particular, colors came out well: a photo of a Mickey Mouse toy on a glass table captured the bright colors and reflective surfaces as well as a close-up of a house plant caught the subtle shades of green. JPEG artifacting was only an issue in standard mode (as opposed to fine mode) at 640x480 with flat-color backgrounds. Otherwise, images were nice and crisp.

There are some frills beyond the essentials, of course, the most noticeable of which is the 180° rotating lens. I found this to be useful for taking photos while angling the LCD viewfinder out of direct sunlight, or for setting up shots at interesting angles. That the lens can rotate far back enough to see the photographer seems to serve no need other than narcissism; I obliged by snapping a dozen pictures of myself, but otherwise I don't see the need.

Also in the "interesting but dubious" category is the ability to record MPEGs with audio (up to 15 seconds at 320x200, or 60 seconds at 160x112). I confess that I don't see the purpose, but the audio-recording ability is nice--you can also use it to annotate still images.

Sony sells the audio/video output jack as an easy way to present your photos on a TV or use the camera as a camcorder, but once I mounted the camera on a tripod, it was an invaluable tool for previewing shots without straining to see the LCD viewfinder. I imagine the camera could also be used for CUSeeMe or other desktop video applications. Oh, and you don't have to worry about battery power for this sort of extended use--you can turn off the LCD backlight to conserve power. Better still, the battery charger doubles as an AC power adapter.

The DSC-F55 is a great little camera, and I enjoyed carrying it around and taking pictures with it. However, I'd still have to relegate it to "gadget" status. Here's an example to illustrate why: while taking photos of or from moving cars, I got very little in the way of motion blur. With one minimally distorted exception, every shot was sharp. On the other hand, while taking photos of an exuberant 2-1/2-year-old girl, I got some blurriness.

While some might suggest this says something about the energy level of young children, it's a reminder that the DSC-F55 lacks some of the features serious photographers crave. The shutter speed is fixed, as is the digital equivalent of film speed. Manual focus doesn't exist, and neither does an optical viewfinder. Simply put, my $600 SLR camera can still run circles around the DSC-F55 when it comes to flexibility. It's not a limitation of digital cameras per se; all of these things have been done on other models.

Don't get me wrong--the DSC-F55 is still quite enjoyable and useful, especially for the casual photographer. The problem will be with advanced shutterbugs: it can be a nice adjunct to "real" photography, but it can't stand on its own as a viable alternative.

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