The Sony DSC-TX5 is a FUN camera! It was purchased specifically for my Hawaii summer vacation. I wanted a small camera that I can take to the beach and into the water without worries. Well, I’m back from my Hawaii trip and the camera successfully survived 2 weeks on the beach and in the salt water. I purchased the camera back in mid-June and after over 3 months of constant use, I can give a thorough photographer’s review. There are some comprehensive reviews out there including this one from DigitalCameraInfo.com that do lab testing on cameras. While they are great at specifications and test results, I wanted to give a review from a photographer’s point of view. My current default camera is the Canon 7D Digital SLR and my frame of reference is of a serious amateur photographer.
My number one requirement for my next point and shoot camera was for it to be waterproof. These types of cameras also typically handle some drops and cold weather which would also be a plus. I originally considered the Canon D10. It has a fine reputation and won last year’s dpreview’s Waterproof camera Group test. Unfortunately, the D10 is a big and bulky camera. It looks purposefully built for underwater picture-taking however, it would not be easy to carry around day-to-day, away from the beach and pool. This is where my second requirement asserted itself. I wanted a camera that was small enough to carry everyday. I figured it could also function as my carry-all-the-time camera that many serious photographers like to have these days. My Canon 7D DSLR is wonderful but its size makes it a camera that I need to consciously decide to carry around. And though I get accused of taking my 7D almost everywhere, I still can’t pocket the 7D. My ideal choice would have been a waterproof Canon S90, which arguably has the best quality image for a small point and shoot (the Canon S95 was just announced which may top this) but unfortunately such a camera does not exist. Also I didn’t want to bother with a bulky and expensive underwater housing. Well at about half the thickness of the Canon S90, the Sony TX5 turned out to be much better than I thought. While I’m sure the S90 has better image quality, the TX5 has features that are hard to beat. In fact, I would bet the Sony is a much better camera to have for all around usefulness and fun.
The sleek and small shape of the Sony is hard to resist. As a camera that I want to carry all the time, it functions perfectly. There is a sliding cover that protects the lens and a quick slide down and up on this cover tuns the camera on and off. I frequently keep the TX5 in my front shorts or Jeans pocket and usually forget its there. If you look at the image to the left, (click on the image for a larger version) you can see that its a bit thicker than a first generation iPhone, but it’s also narrower and shorter. [2 more size comparisons here] It’s small enough that I feel I don’t need a separate carrying case for it. The funny thing is, the camera looks delicate enough that people don’t expect it to be waterproof. The camera in the water glass was a little “party trick” I played on some unsuspecting people at a bar. Time after time, people who see the camera are amazed at its under water abilities. This is Sony’s first waterproof camera and they have done a great job. Now keep in mind this thin-ness comes at a price. Many of Sony’s underwater competitors go down 30 feet or so — the Sony, only 10 feet. This did not matter to me since its was going to be used in a pool and in and around water on the beach. For people wanting to do some minor scuba diving or deep snorkeling — it’s probably not your camera.
The Fun Factor
I must say, this camera is packed with lots of gadgety modes such as Anti-motion blur, Hand-held Twilight modes, Backlight Correction HDR, Movie mode and iSweep Panorama. These modes are accessible via touch screen interface. Anti-motion blur take 6 images and automatically finds the image with the least motion blur. Hand-held Twilight takes 6 images and merges these images together to reduce noise which typically occurs in low light photographs, especially from point and shoots. Backlight Correction HDR takes 2 photos at different exposures and does a psuedo-HDR image. 720P HD Movies are supported, of course both in and out of water. iSweep Panorama, which is my favorite gadget mode, allows you to automatically create a panorama in camera by quickly sweeping the camera along the horizontal axis. Sony claims the iSweep feature creates 243 degree panoramas. I found that the actually width of the panorama depended on how quickly you do the sweep motion. There is a certain optimal pace to create these panoramas and its not hard to do at all with a bit of practice. The stitching of the panoramas is usually quite good with a some stitching artifacts popping up from time to time. It handles people movement amazingly well. People and other objects moving though your scene as you create the panorama usually do not mess up the stitching — quite remarkable. The panoramas themselves are not ultra high-resolution so don’t expect incredible quality. I see them as great ways to record the feeling of a place. Panoramas give a sense of place that you don’t always get from regular photographs. Here are some examples below. Click on the image to get a larger version.
I’ve played with all of these gadget modes but only consistently use the iSweep Panorama and Movie modes. The other modes are good to have in a pinch, especially if you know when to use them optimally. There are also other features that detect faces, blinking eyes and even smiles. I have these modes set to automatic and occasionally see icons pop-up to tell me they are doing something, when I take portraits. Since I do “serious” HDR images with my 7D, I was curious about the HDR mode on this tiny camera. Of course, the HDR processing is basic but I do notice a bit more detail in high dynamic range scenes. At times, even with this light HDR processing, there is a bit of un-realness to the images. For this reason, I do not usually use this feature.
The movies are easy to take and they came out wonderfully on the beach. The camera has built-in image stabilization so most of the video came out nice and smooth without much jumpiness. The only time the image stabilization could not keep up was when I was buffeted by the ocean waves. At 720p , I found the HD video quality good enough to enjoy on the computer without any concerns of low image quality, at least in bright light. I consciously decided not to bring my 1080p camcorder and have not regretted the decision one bit. The longer zoom and better microphone on the camcorder maybe better for filming performances and school plays but the Sony TX5 was more than enough for a vacation movie camera. Especially one that can be brought to the beach without worry. And of course it waterproof so I had no fears of taking video in the water. Click on the images below to see the quality I got with this point and shoot camera. They were taken in and around water so yes the camera is really water proof! The movies are available at different sizes including the original 720p video.
The User Interface
The TX5 has a minimal number of buttons. In addition to the front cover that acts as an on and off switch, there are 4 more controls. A shutter button, a zoom toggle, a play button to review photos and an on/off button. Most of the controls are accessed through a large 3 inch touch screen on the back of the camera that can both control settings, display menu items and display the photos and videos that were taken. The touch screen is responsive but not to the level of an iPhone. It does not support multi-touch controls, just selecting of buttons and a swipe to move through a preview of images. I generally find the swipe motions frustrating since I’m used to the iPhone. Touching the on-screen buttons to change setting works good enough in most cases. I would categorize the LCD touch screen as acceptable but not outstanding. Color and brightness are generally good but will be hard to see in really bright sunlight. Since there is no view finder, you will have to estimate framing on those extra bright days. In practice I did not find problems using the camera in my tourist mode in Hawaii.
The interface is designed for novice shooters and there is not much manual control over the camera. I believe the touch screen controls are easy enough to use that casual snap-shooters and non-technical people should have no problems. Even after an extended period of non-use, the camera should be easy enough to pickup and use without much of a learning curve. The lack of controls, however, may frustrate more serious photographers. Its not just a matter of access to the controls. There are manual adjustments that simply do not exist on this camera which are available on many other cameras such as adjusting the aperture size or shutter speed. There are adjustments for exposure compensation, ISO level and white balance are available in the P mode. Beyond the gadget modes described above, there are really only two normal picture-taking modes. A P mode that allows a level of configuration and a Green colored Intelligent Auto Adjustment (Full Auto).
In most cases I have my camera set to P mode at ISO 125 (its lowest setting) to maximize the image quality. Because the camera has image stabilization and no moving mirror (like in a SLR camera) that induces vibration, I can take reliable photos at a slow shutter speeds such as 1/8 – 1/10 of a second. Since point and shoot cameras get noisy very quickly at higher ISOs I really try hard to take my images in P mode at ISO 125. I also turn off the flash most of the time to capture the images in natural light. If I need a faster shutter speed, I switch to the auto-everyting green mode. The auto-ISO in this green mode automatically bumps up and decreases the shutter speed. One thing I don’t like is that even in Auto-mode, in dark conditions, the shutter speed has to fall to about 1/13 of a second or slower until the ISO raises to the next level. I find that, at times, 1/13 is just too slow and I get motion blur in my subjects. The image stabilization may keep the camera steady at 1/13 of a second shutter speed but my subject I’m photographing may be moving too fast. I could understand why Sony programmed the camera to do this, since its wants to maximize image quality by keeping the ISO setting as low as possible. An advanced setting to override this behavior will be nice to have. When the flash is used, the shutter speed is set to 1/30 of a second in dark conditions. Even at 1/30, it maybe a bit slow, especially for rapidly moving kids. I’m typically used to a faster 1/60 of a second with my flash shots. The LED focus assist light works great though. I had no problems taking people shots with the built-in flash in dark conditions.
There are point and shoot cameras with more photographic controls for the serious photographer. While these would be nice to have, I’ve learned to switch to a laid back shooting style with this camera. I’m more concerned in getting the general mood and feel of an image rather than fine, precise control I demand from my SLR. In many ways, I use this camera in the same way many people use their cell phone cameras. You might expect such a laid back style not to yield good photographs but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the range of good images that I have captured. By trusting in the camera and not worrying too much about the settings, I’ve learned to have a fun and a relaxing time shooting. It perfectly matches the vacation/tourist mode that I was in while I was in Hawaii. If serious photographers can adapt to his mindset, this camera should work well for them. If not, and you can’t yield control to the camera, you should look at a different point and shoot. I now find that I use my TX5 with that relaxed mindset and switch to my “serious” mode when I use my Canon 7D DSLR.
Durability and Care
I usually keep the camera in my front pocket. I don’t keep objects like keys in the same pocket to minimize damage to the camera. After a month of carrying this around, I found very little damage, maybe a slight nick in the metal finish of the front cover. On the very first day, on the beach, I noticed some scratches on the LCD display. I believe this happened when I shoved my camera into my bathing suit pocket that was filled with sand. Over the course of the 2 week vacation, I tried to be a bit more careful (but not too much) and I didn’t notice any more scratches. Keep in mind the screen is plastic or plastic coated so sharp sand can scratch the surface. Also, I’ve noticed that the small joints between the panels on the camera collected particles of sand. Some got lodged in there tightly so it was a challenge to clean. I also worried about the lens potentially getting scratched by sand if I close the protective cover. I usually kept the cover open until I cleaned the sand off the camera. I was a bit dubious about a sliding cover working well in a sandy location but in actual use it was not bad. I did noticed sand getting logged into the sliding tracks at times so it would be wise to clean this out once in a while. Sony’s instruction manual talks about thoroughly cleaning the camera in clean water after any underwater use.
Speed and Responsiveness
The camera is fast enough not to be annoying. SInce my primary camera is a Canon 7D I’m used to a responsive camera. Even for point and shoots, I don’t want a camera that is pokey, slow to turn on or slow to focus. I find the focus fast and accurate and seems faster than the Canon point and shoots that I have used. Since there is no lens to extend or retract, turning on and off the camera is very fast. Previewing photos that you have taken is adequate in speed, not super fast but again not annoying. The interface is optimized for ease of use rather than fast setting changes. Therefore, if you are in the wrong mode and want to change it, it can be a bit slow. You need to change all of this through the touch screen since the camera lacks direct buttons and short cuts. If you are in the correct mode, I generally find the camera is fast enough not to miss the important moments. There is also a bust mode that shoots up to 10 photos in 1 second. You don’t get this speed continuously, just for the first 10 frames. This can be very useful at times however, after the 10 frames the camera is unusable for about 12 seconds while it processes the images. Also the camera does not refocus after each image in burst mode. I got some great shots of kids playing on the beach and jumping over the waves in this burst mode. Its a great feature to have when used correctly.
The ultimate test and measure of a camera may be the image quality and the Sony TX5 does not disappoint, especially when shot at ISO 125, its lowest setting. I mentioned in the section above, I generally attempt to take my images at this ISO to maximize quality. At full screen on my 24″ iMac, these images have a crisp and detailed quality. The colors tend to be very bright and saturated — which is frequently the case with consumer cameras. I myself, also tend to like a lot of color so I do not typically mind these colorful and saturated images. With my DSLR, I typically add additional color saturating in post-processing. With this Sony, I add little to no additional saturation. I do notice that fill flash photos come out with even more saturation. I find these images to be too colorful for me and I actually reduce color saturation in post-processing with fill flash images. The look of the fill-flash does change depending on other lighting conditions so at other times, the color may not been as extreme. I have also noticed that skin tones seem to be somewhat off when using fill-flash. It’s hard to describe but the skin just seems to have an un-natural coloration to me. In dark conditions, the flash works well and gave a typical and accurate colorful image where the people are lit up but the background is black. I have found no issues with exposures which is great since the Sony does not have a histogram. I find that I rarely adjust the exposure compensation and except for the iSweep panorama mode, were the exposure setting is easily accessible. For regular pictures, the exposure compensation setting is buried in the menu two levels deep.
If you look closely, even at ISO 125 there is some noise but nothing to worry about. With many cameras I’ve used, noise levels vary with the type of image and exposure with generally darker images and under exposure producing more visible noise. Even in these cases, most people should be satisfied with the TX5’s look. I’m not an expert in point and shoot noise levels but I would suspect the class leading Canon S90 would be cleaner, especially since that camera starts at ISO 80. However, given all the great features of the TX5, I’m more than satisfied with is ISO 125 setting. Below is a image of a colorful salad I took in a restaurant. For some strange reason, I find myself taking photographs of food, especially if they look tasty, pretty or colorful. One of the benefit of having a small camera with my all the time.
Like any camera, particularly point and shoots, noise will increase as ISO is increased. For the Sony TX5, I find most images generally acceptable to ISO 800. The noise does increase and the in-camera noise reduction software may reduce some detail but I find the images useable. ISO 1600 maybe a stretch and possibly used only for emergencies or making smaller prints. I have never tried the highest ISO 3200 setting. Because this camera tends to shift ISO only after really slow shutter speeds, I am able to get images in fairly low light with a moderate ISO setting. The photograph of the Canon T70 camera is a good example. I took the T70 images on different days with different cameras. The first image was with my 7D with a 50mm f1.4 lens. Even at f1.4 and -2/3 exposure compensation I still needed to be at ISO1600 to get the needed 1/80 of a second shutter speed. The 50mm lens that I used is not image stabilized so I needed the higher shutter speed to keep it steady. Because of the extremely shallow DOF, much of the camera is not in focus. It may have an interesting dreamy look but it’s lacking a crispness to the image. The second image of the Canon T70 was taken with the Sony TX5 camera. Since the shutter was at 1/8 of a second, the Sony could remain at ISO 800. The image works better, in my opinion, since it has more depth of field and the entire camera is in focus. There is also enough detail in the background books to give a good context to where this image was taken — at a flea market. So this maybe an example of when an inexpensive point and shoot made a better image than a fancy and expensive DSLR. Of course, your opinion may be different. I like shallow DOF images myself but not at the expense of losing detail on the main subject.
The macro mode works great on the Sony. It has a smart mode that detects the distance to the subject and automatically goes into macro mode. This generally works reliably and I’ve only had to hit the macro button explicitly a few times on really close subjects. I get really sharp detail and I can get up nice and close to my subjects. Since I don’t have a macro lens for my DSLR, my Sony is currently my best macro camera. Also since point and shoots inherently have a deep depth of field (sharp focus from foreground to background), this works well for macro photographs.
The camera comes with a charger, a combination USB/Video cable and battery. I really love this small and compact battery charger. The charger plugs directly into the wall so there is no extra, bulky power cable. Some cameras charge the battery inside the camera which is a pain. If I need to charge another battery while I use the camera I can with a separate charger. And given the size of the battery and its lack of longevity, having a second a battery maybe a good thing. I generally got about 200+ images from a charge including previewing images, taking a few panoramas and some movies. I did find that I ran out of power if I used it during a full day of sightseeing. It will certainly depend on how you use the camera but for me a second battery would be a useful item to have.
I disliked the included Sony USB/video cable since its non-standard. I use a standard mini-USB cable for my external drives and my Canon 7D, I did not want to bother packing yet another cable — one that, if I lost, will be difficult to replace. When I used the Sony supplied cable with my Macintosh, it would mount 2 hard drives called NO NAME. I always seem to have problems un-mounting one of these drive volumes. After many USB downloading sessions, I would have many NO NAME drive volumes left on the desktop. I solved both issues by purchasing a small SD card reader. I use this to download my images to the computer instead of using the proprietary USB cable. Many computers already have built-in SD card readers which will make it even more convenient.
Finally the included wrist strap works well in general but since I could not tighten the strap, I felt uncomfortable using the camera in rough waters. I could easily imagine the camera slipping off the wrist and getting lost in the waves. I knotted the strap to make it tighter but an adjustable tightening mechanism would be great.
1. Small and portable – A take anywhere design makes it easy to always have a camera around.
2. Fun and easy to use – Easy to use interface and smart enough modes to take good images.
3. Good image quality – Colorful and saturated, images are geared more towards consumer tastes.
4. 25mm equivalent wide-angle view – Great for landscapes and people in landscapes.
5. Waterproof/Durability – Allows me to take this camera almost anywhere.
6. Compact Charger – Plugs directly into the wall. I hate bulky chargers with separate cables.
7. Stylish Design – Nice color options and a sleek modern design.
8. iSweep Panorama – In camera panoramas are really fun and accessible.
9. Great macros – Focuses in close with sharp results.
10. Nice movies – Nice quality for quick vacation video clips.
11. Fast response – Fast in focusing and the bust image mode is useful at times.
1. Limited manual control – A disadvantage for serious photographers but not for casual shooters.
2. Fill flash color – At times, I did mot like the skin tones under fill flash.
3. Non standard USB cable – Sony uses a special USB/video out cable.
4. Short battery life – Small camera = small battery = short battery life.
5. Strange Volumes on Mac – I get extra hard drive volumes that I can’t unmount.
6. Wrist strap – There is no way to tighten the wrist strap on the wrist.
You can probably tell from the review that I am very pleased with my Sony DSC-TX5. It has met or exceeded my expectations. If I had the chance to make the purchasing decision over again, I have no reservations in buying the same camera.
When I went to Hawaii, in addition to this small camera, I brought my 7D and several lenses. I used my 7D for more “serious” photography — the landscapes, the higher quality portraits and the action shots. There is no surprise that the 7D has better image quality and I was able to take some wonderful images, however, for the sheer fun factor, I would have to say the Sony TX5 has my DLSR beat. Why is this? The Sony is small and light. I can take it anywhere without it getting in the way. I can bring it to the beach, in the water, into the pool. It’s easy to hide and I don’t have to worry about it being stolen. When I had my 7D with me, part of me always worried about it and made sure that I didn’t leave the camera unattended. It’s an expensive piece of gear and I didn’t want someone to walk off with it or get it damaged in the water or sand. If I’m worried about the camera, even a little bit, I’m taking away some of the fun that I’m having on my vacation. That is less quality time, ever so slightly, with the kids and family. The Sony enabled me to relax and enjoy and play with the kids. I also got incredible closeups in the water, by the waves, that I would not be able to get with my 7D even with the longest lenses. After I got enough of the shots I wanted with my Canon 7D, I no longer brought it to the beach. I just took my little Sony and had a carefree vacation like normal (non-photographer) people. Sure, when I went out to take my landscapes, I still used my Canon and a tripod but that is a different kind of photography than the images I take with my family. For this reason I can confidently say, for most people, this Sony camera is all that they need for everyday use and vacations alike. I’m still not ready to give up my 7D even for some vacation shots, however the big camera will see less use when I just want to kick back and have fun.