A REVIEW OF THE SONY DSC-F707 5.25-MEGAPIXEL CAMERA An evaluation of the Sony 707 camera by a photographic novice

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For 30 years my only photographic experience was fumbling with a Pentax MX. I've never taken a class or read a book about photography and haven't even devoted myself to learning as I used this camera. I am a photographic sub-novice. I'm writing this article in case there are other sub-novices out there who are considering purchasing this camera. UPDATED!!! Please jump the the bottom of this article to see why after two years of using the Sony I decided to replace it.

When the Pentax finally died I decided to go digital. I also decided to stop fumbling and start learning how to take better pictures. With this goal in mind, and the consideration that many of the things I take photos of are very small and detailed, I decided to purchase a higher-end camera. My criteria were: high resolution so small areas on a frame can be expanded without becoming grainy, a good lens for sharp images, ease of operation, and the shortest possible focusing distance.

Two days of reading camera reviews on the Internet narrowed the choice down to two cameras: the Minolta Dimage 7 and the Sony DSC-F707. Both had similar capabilities. The differences were that the Minolta was slightly more expensive, looked more like a regular camera, and had a different control button layout. I headed to the stores to see what each was like.

The Minolta felt better in-the-hand than the Sony but its LCD finder looked grainier (making it more difficult to get a clear focus in manual mode) and the control button positions weren't as conveniently placed.

The Sony is a strange-looking camera (It looks like a small box mounted on the side of a bazooka) and was very uncomfortable to hold. But, the buttons were easier to work and the finder was much sharper. I was starting to lean toward the Sony.

If the sharpness of this image is soft, don't blame my scanner. This is a self portrait. The camera took it's own picture by autofocusing off a dirty hand-held mirror (and not very steadily held at that) to a second dirty mirror to take its own image, which also had to traverse the gauntlet of mirrors back to the camera. Then I mercilessly reduced it to a very small file size. In spite of this, the finest lettering on the label on the lower left of the lens could easily be read in the original photograph.

I went back to the Internet for more research. What I noticed is that the reviewers who compared both cameras all tended to prefer the Sony. Also, the Sony's 94 percent approval rating by 351 purchasers was higher than any other camera in the pro-sumer 5-megapixel camera class. Then I noticed something else. Most of the reviewers were contrasting the Sony's faults against professional grade cameras in the $4,000 to $5,000 range and it was doing a good job of holding its own against them. The Minolta, on the other hand, was largely being compared to other $1,000 cameras in its own class and was being rated as equivalent to them. This suggested to me that the Sony was successfully jumping at a higher bar. Also, one reviewer mentioned that the Minolta he had been provided by the factory repeatedly failed to release the shutter when triggered and its body got hot enough to be uncomfortable to hold. That last item might be a plus in the Arctic, but not in my high-desert location. It was clear that the Sony DSC-F707 was the better camera.

I shopped around for the best deal and purchased the Sony. The after-tax price came to $1,068 from Circuit city. (Ouch!) I could have saved $100 by going mail order but many of the cheapest mail order sites had very low purchaser-satisfaction ratings. Besides, I wanted the camera now.

The best thing I discovered about the camera when I got it home was something in the box other than the camera: the manual. The Sony came with the best, easiest-to-understand manual I have ever used. As I've already confessed, I know nothing about cameras in general and even less about digital cameras in specific. Yet in two minutes the manual had me taking better pictures than I'd ever gotten with the old Pentax. The manual is broken up into easily absorbed sections with simple clear directions and explanations, outstanding illustrations, and in most cases an example that explains the practical side of what that section taught the user to do. It took an enjoyable hour to slowly work through the 50-page manual. By the time I was done, I felt confident that I knew how to use the camera. It'll be some time before I can claim to have mastered it but I'm confident that doing so will only require going through the manual a couple more times. If Sony wins any awards for this camera, the kudos should go to the people who wrote the manual.

On to the camera. The buttons are conveniently located and easy to use. The camera worked the first time right out of the case (It came with the battery fully charged. That's a nice touch by the Sony people and much appreciated.) and hasn't malfunctioned once, in spite of my inadvertently punching buttons out of sequence. After a week's use, I'd say the designers did an excellent job of building a semi-professional camera that even the most inexperienced novice can use. With everything left in the default full-automatic settings, the camera works as easily as the simplest point-and-shoot... except that the image quality is far superior. One of the things I particularly liked was the phenomenal battery life. Fully charged, I've repeatedly exceeded four hours of mixed picture-taking and image-viewing. According to most of the reviews I read, similar cameras are lucky to get an hour and a half. The most amazing capability to me is that at its closest focus, 3/4-inch from the front of the lens, the in-focus zone seems to be close to 3/16s of an inch deep. To someone used to one-tenth as much, this is enormous.

It's obvious I'm happy with the camera. However, there are some things about it that I don't like. One of the most-used buttons, second only to the shutter release, is the Control Button. This is a 5-function circular button with four functions being triggered by pushing the up, down, left, or right edges of the button. The fifth function is activated by pushing straight down on the center. The problem is that it's difficult to press straight down on the center. Fifty percent of the time I end up activating one of the edge functions. This problem is exacerbated by the concave design of the button. Rebuilding it flat, or better yet convex, would do much to eliminate this problem. The best solution would be to dedicate a separate button to the center function, which operates as a "yes" or "do it" button. My second complaint is that the camera looks strange. What you get in return for this is the ability to rotate the large lens up or down so that you can shoot up or down while comfortably looking forward. Two more minor issues are that the camera didn't come with even a token case to keep dust off it and that the holding clips for the lens cap are so shallow and recessed that anyone with normal-sized fingers will have it repeatedly slipping off his or her fingertips. Finally, I found the photo-processing suite on the CD provided with that camera to be worthless. In working on full-sized image files, the software works so slowly on my 333MH computer that it's impossible to get anything done. It was so bad that I talked to someone else who has the same software to see if I was doing something wrong and they confirmed that it runs excruciatingly slow. I ended up deleting it and using my old version of Adobe Photoshop 2.0, which works faster than my fingers can race over the keyboard. It may not be able to do as much, but then it doesn't make me wait minutes to perform simple operations.

BUT, the one design flaw than I cannot forgive Sony for committing is releasing a camera that is painfully uncomfortable to hold. The camera's height is so small that I only get solid contact with one finger and a small area of the palm of my hand. The camera feels as if it's about to slip out of my grasp and fall. Long periods of use cause cramping. (By the way, I'm not a giant. My hands are normal-sized.) It would have been a simple job to extend the right-hand part of the case down two inches so that users would have something to hang on to. I say so because I did it.

I covered the bottom of the camera with Saran wrap and molded a couple of dollars of epoxy putty over it to form a grip that fit into the palm of my hand and gave all of my fingers something to grab onto. After the epoxy had set, I removed the Saran wrap, sanded the outside smooth, and attached it to the camera with a heavy rubber band. Immediately, I was able to relax and hold the camera in a safe, firm, easy-to-maintain and stable grip. Why couldn't Sony do this? At the very least they could have offered something like this as an accessory.

This is the holding base I made. It may look crude but it works and fits so snuggly to the bottom of the camera that it hardly needs any form of attachment.

The above complaints not withstanding, I'm happy with the camera and feel I got my money's worth. I just wish Sony had made it easier to hold.

NEW!!! Interesting and useful performance parameters:

Here are few things I've discovered about the camera as I've used it:

1. The manual focus works through a servo that can tell if you want a quick change or a more precise one. Give the focusing ring a sharp twist and the focus changes from infinity to 0.02 meters in a half-turn. Move slowly and the same amount of focusing takes four complete turns.

2. The depth of the in-focus field for the closest focus (3/4-inch from the lens) is 0.050-inches (just under 1/16-inch) at F2.0 and 0.150 (5/16-inch) at F8.0.

3. At 12 inches the depth of field is 2 inches at F2.0 and 6 inches at F8.0.

4. At 24 inches the depth of field is 6 inches at F2.0 and 12 inches at F8.0

5. The depth of field at 60 inches and F8.0 is 24 inches.

6. Shooting an object at 60 inches using the 5x optical zoom gives a depth of field of 3 inches at F2.4 (minimum F-number at this zoom) and 12 inches at F8.0. The same object can be photographed at 12 inches giving the same image size but the depth of field is reduced to 2 inches at F2.0 and 6 inches at F8.0. Therefore, if you want to increase the separation between the object and its background, move in close. If the object is fat and you want all of it in focus or want the object and background in focus. back off and use the zoom for the same picture scale.

7. The distance-to-object numbers that show on the LCD when focusing is measured from the front of the lens to the object.

8. For me, I get more accurate focuses by using a diagonal "x" focusing target than I do get with a vertical/horizontal "+."

9. Although I praised the manual in the beginning, I'm beginning to see a weakness in it: it fails to explain what some functions are. For example, it tells you how to control something called the "sharpness" function, but doesn't say what the function is. I've taken the same picture over the entire "sharpness" range of -2 to +2 and can't detect any change in them. I plan on emailing Sony about this to ask them what it does.

10. The default recording format is JPEG. An alternate mode is TIFF which is uncompressed. I've recorded pictures in both and after printing, could not tell the difference in picture sharpness or color.

UPDATE!!! After two years of using the Sony I was ready to throw it down on a concrete slab and stomp it to pieces. Why? Here is my list of grevences:

1. In autoexposure/autofocus mode it takes an entire 2 seconds from the time the shutter release is pressed until the picture is taken. I can't count the number of good opportunities lost because whatever I wanted to capture had long since moved on. Even operating in full manual mode the delay is still close to a second, far too long.

2. Once the picture is taken the camera locks up for 2 to 3 seconds while the image is transfered to memory. During this time it's impossible to take another picture. The buffer memory, if there is one, is far too small and too slow.

3. The LCD viewer is far to small and grainy for manual focusing.

4. You can't changes lenses on it.

5. Sony claims this is a macro camera. It isn't. The largest image scale is 1:2, half the 1:1 of a true macro camera.

6. The flash speed isn't controllable enough. Also, there's no way of knowing what the high, medium, and low settings mean.

7. The 0.1 increments in the manual focus mode above 1.0 meters isn't fine enough.

8. The F8 minimum aperture setting is far to fast. It significantly limits the depth of field.

9. There's no distance readout in autofocus mode.

10. Sony's exclusive design precludes the use of third-party attachments.

11. The 1/1000 minimum shutter speed is too slow.

These limitations greatly reduced the joy of photography for me so I decided to research better grade cameras for one to replace it. My selection ended being the Canon EOS 20D 8.5 megapixel camera. To read why I chose thise one please return to the Photogrpahy section on my main page and read my review of it. Thank you.



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