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Sony HX99 (and HX80/B) (1 Viewer)

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
I’ve never used a camera while birdwatching, and am considering a very gingerly first dip of the toe into this area. I wouldn’t care very much about taking artistic pictures. I would care about:

Capturing accurate reference shots, minimum weight and bulk, simplicity of operation, autofocus speed, and whether continuous shooting refocuses between shots, having the most useful zoom size for birding that allows for minimum weight and bulk, and having some hope of capturing images of birds in flight or overhead.

I can’t use anything as bulky as a bridge camera.

I’ve guessed, very tentatively, that a 30x optical zoom point-and-shoot would be all right as an introduction to using a camera in the field, depending on its focusing controls, speed, and ease of use.

I’m looking first at Sony, simply because they seem to have the best bridge cameras for birding, and because the HX99 (and, in Europe, HX95) are in the headlines as new releases.

How well would Sony HX-series cameras serve my purpose? Do you have any thoughts about the differences between these—and perhaps other—compact models? Their similarities seem overwhelming.
 

Neil G.

Well-known member
Hi bud,
The camera you want doesn't really exist and a compact camera certainly won't be very good for birds in flight.They also won't have very efficient continuous focus modes or be very fast focusing.
Don't forget that although 30x zoom sounds good,most of these compacts zoom from a wide angle setting meaning that at it's furthest reach,it still won't be that powerful.
Another minus is that most compact cameras either have a no viewfinder or an excuse for one which won't help you get half decent bird photos.
I thought about going down the compact route for a while as it's a lovely thought.......been able to get good bird shots with a camera you can slip in your pocket.......it's just not that simple unfortunately.
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
I’ve learned a little more since posting, which I’ll relay in case anyone is interested.

Apparently, given its sensor size and ‘superzoom’ lens, the HX99’s zoom ranges from 24mm to 720mm, or 14.4x magnification (before applying cropping to its 18-odd megapixels). Such a ‘30x zoom’ doesn’t make a camera a true telephoto, but, on the other hand, it’s more powerful than any lens I currently bird with.

More interesting, perhaps, it seems as if the HX99 can continuously refocus 11x per second, and take 10 exposures per second, for 155 exposures in a row. Since it also shoots 4K video, it seems possible that, given the right amount of daylight, at least some of the resulting frames, even of a fast-moving target, might show enough detail to be useful.

It also supports RAW mode, which struck me as a hopeful sign. Here are Sony’s specs for the new model: https://www.sony.co.uk/electronics/cyber-shot-compact-cameras/dsc-hx99/specifications

As you say, since there’s no optical viewfinder, the ‘viewfinder’ is a big OLED, which I can imagine could be more frustrating to locate a bird in than a straight viewfinder.

I can easily imagine, too, that all the compromises I think of myself as being very willing to make now would become unbearably frustrating if I really tried to use a compact superzoom for bird photography—however far down superzooms’ evolutionary path the HX99 seems to be. Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing your experience.
 
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Zackiedawg

Well-known member
First, just wanted to point out one thing - the HX99 actually does have an EVF (viewfinder) - it's a pop up unit, and electronic - not super high resolution, but it does help for viewing and tracking/locating birds through a viewfinder as opposed to holding the camera out at arm's length.
As for overall image quality - it does have a very small sensor - so don't expect too much, especially in anything but very bright sunlight. If you're using such cameras more for spotting and identification, they can work OK - but if you're hoping for sharing/displaying photos, you're going to be much more limited with any small sensor compact camera - daylight shots, or small display sizes. In perfect light and conditions, you may get some decent shots.
Tracking subject wise, it's just not going to happen. All the burst-speed claims and refocus claims are practically irrelevant in real world use - when looking at tiny sensor cameras with contrast-detect focusing systems, there is no 'tracking' since CDAF systems don't have distance information and therefore can't use predictive algorithms to follow movement - CDAF focusing has to cycle back and forth looking for the best edge contrast to determine if it's properly focused, and can't effectively track any moving subject with any reliability. A subject not changing relative distance to you (such as flying parallel) may be capturable, but even then, the slow speed of CDAF focusing systems will make it challenging.
Though the sensor has lots of megapixels, the sensor size being so small, those pixels are tiny, and won't retain high levels of subject detail especially when cropping, or when light is lower and higher ISO or gain is necessary. A larger sensor will have inherent advantages here - even with less optical reach - a 1" sensor camera with a 400mm or 600mm reach will in most cases yield significantly better results when cropping, and in low light...even though you don't have as much optical reach, the lesser zoom with a larger sensor will look cleaner and more detailed when cropped than the tiny sensor at 720mm. Unfortunately, moving to a larger camera body is going to be required to get anything reasonably good in reach - you're going to want 400mm equivalent at a minimum with a 1" sensor and 20MP - such as the Panasonic LX1000 or Sony RX10III/IV...those are much chunkier bodies to accommodate the optical zoom required with the larger sensor.
I"m not discouraging the idea of using a compact big zoom camera for bird spotting, basic ID, etc - and in good conditions you may even come off with some nice shots. But just keep your expectations reasonable with how far that type of camera will take you - low light shots in a dark forest, birds in flight, etc, will just not be a very reasonable expectation, nor will displaying large cropped photos with superb detail or starting your own gallery! ;)
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Thanks—that is super-helpful! And fascinating about how the different autofocus systems work.

So I think I’ll just keep working on learning to sketch, with pencil and paper, what I see through my binoculars—there’s more than enough challenge in that to keep me busy for at least a couple of years—and Wait For The Technology To Improve some more.

I see people out there with giant, bazooka-like cameras, and I just can’t imagine carrying them—though I definitely can imagine how satisfying it would be to bring something tangible home, in the form of a picture, from a great moment of birding.

So the desire to square this particular circle is strong! I appreciate your detailed explanation.
 

Neil G.

Well-known member
Hi bud,here is an example of the sort of quality you can get from a small sensor camera.....it isn't all doom and gloom.Unfortunately,this is a large bridge camera but i think the quality is worth the bulk.This is a Water Rail behind a lot of natural cover which shows that the autofocus was up to the task of getting a sharp image in fairly challenging circumstances.This is a case where a small sensor and huge zoom will beat a 1"sensor and shorter zoom......the bird was too far away from the hide i was in for a shorter zoom,even with a 1"sensor,to get this sort of detail.Also,this was taken in fairly overcast conditions so you can see that smaller sensors are coming on a bit.
ISO 200
F6.3
Image at 10mp
Around 1600mm
Nikon p900
 

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Neil G.

Well-known member
Here is another of a Reed Warbler.This is a tiny bird and was quite a distance away.....another example of a small sensor with a long zoom doing a decent job.
The photo is also cropped.
ISO400
F6.3
5.9 mp
Around 1800mm
Nikon p900.
 

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HermitIbis

Well-known member
I see people out there with giant, bazooka-like cameras, and I just can’t imagine carrying them [...]

I know what you mean, looking at this size comparison of three different cameras. Didn't find the particular Sony model you inquired about. The size of the Sony HX90V must be close to the HX99, a weight of circa 200g is not a burden. All three cameras that I've compared here come at a similar price, list price of the Canon SX70 is circa Euro 550. A used Nikon V2 + CX 70-300 still costs a little more, perhaps Euro 650.

Size and weight are very different: 200g vs 510g vs 950g. The Nikon V2 may be too large for you, if you carry a bino. Still I'd recommend to read reviews. If the SX70 (announced for December) is similar to the SX50, at least you get a fighting chance at slow raptors in flight. The Nikon V2 is doing well with fast flying birds.

Zackiedawg gave excellent advice: lower your expectations - or put the extra weight of 500g or 1kg in your backpack, for roughly the same costs. At the end it is similar with binos: you pay twice for a bino that is 100g lighter.
 
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Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Wow, those are incredible photos—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such clearly etched feather detail before! Really amazing work, and clearly you also know exactly what you’re doing with that equipment. I’m still waiting to see any rail a tenth as clearly.

Still, that is encouraging. I think I may just need to try and borrow some cameras from people to see what I could reasonably expect. In asking the question, I did not have expectations as modest as the current technology still requires one to have—but there may also be real advantages to being a rank novice, since I wouldn’t necessarily understand how bad my pictures were!
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
That size comparison site is great fun as well. I’ll look at the different models you mention. Bridges may not actually be as impossibly bulky as I’d assumed. I think seeing other people’s gear in the field, where they are unmistakably in love, in part, with just how large their lenses are—since for some of us gigantism is plainly a feature, not a bug—I’ve gotten a slightly inflated idea of how cumbersome anything other than a point-and-shoot has to be.
 

Zackiedawg

Well-known member
In part, the reason I went with an interchangeable lens camera for birding was that it allowed me to buy a reasonably small body, that when paired with tiny lenses could be used as an all-purpose travel camera and be unobtrusive, yet when I was out for birding and wildlife shooting, I could stick that big wildlife lens on there - the system being modular allows it to go from smaller than a bridge superzoom to larger than one - depending on which lens I pair it with. Yet as a mirrorless system, it remains smaller than my DSLR system used to with the same type of reach...yet still has a very large APS-C sensor, allowing for a ton of cropping leeway, high detail, and superb low light ability, and super-fast focus tracking of moving subjects.
So while my system with my big 100-400mm zoom lens attached looks big, the very same camera can slip in a coat pocket when traveling with a small prime or kit lens attached to it, where I don't need the big reach lens.

Check this size comparison for what I'm talking about:
https://camerasize.com/compact/#612,656.660,797,656.360,ha,t

That's got the P900 superzoom bridge, my A6300 APS-C sensor camera with 100-400mm lens attached, my A6300 again but with the small 16-50mm kit lens attached, and the tiny Sony HX99. For a big sensor, I can go from big wildlife rig to pocket cam, with the same camera. So I only look like a masochist with a giant lens when I'm out birding.

Being able to track a purple martin at full speed in flight, and shoot a bird in a forest at ISO 6,400 with good feather detail, are both key areas where the large sensor cameras and DSLRs/mirrorless systems with phase-detect autofocus systems, will show their advantages.

As Neil points out, there's nothing at all incapable or wrong with a superzoom bridge camera for birding ID - and even for some nice shots. It's just more dependent on good light than the larger sensor systems are. Daytime outdoor sunny day shooting can yield good results even from tiny sensors. I started out with a small-sensor superzoom camera when I first started getting into birding, and it served me very well for years. Even 11 years ago, with only 7MP, I could get some very nice shots. But I started really wanting to shoot birds in flight more reliably, and really wanted to be able to shoot in a dark forest on an overcast day - that required going to the bigger sensors if I wanted anything more than a basic identification photo.
 
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marcsantacurz

Well-known member
The Nikon P900 and the Sony HX99 have the same size sensor: 1/2.3". The difference is the Nikon has a much larger physical lens, so goes out beyond the 720mm of the Sony.

When you are looking at effective focal lengths beyond, say 200mm, I cannot emphasize enough how important a viewfinder (EVF) is. trying to hold a camera at arms length and align the LCD at 720mm is going to be very hard. So, I would put a premium on EVF quality. Even if you use a monopod, holding it at arms length is hard. The other thing to consider is if you use bifocals or progressive lenses, you will be switching from long view to short view trying to align it, whereas with the EVF you have a single view. So, it is super important IMO.

I do not have experience with either camera, but you could also look at the Panasonic Lumix ZS70. Same 1/2.3" sensor, but a tiny bit more resolution with 20.3MP. On the Sony you have a 118mm f/6.4 (physical) lens. The panasonic is 129mm f/6.4, but both are 720mm equivalent. Panasonic 5fps continuous autofocus (10fps fixed focus), Sony 10fps (not sure if that's fixed focus or continuous focus). Panasonic 322g, Sony 242g. The Sony also has their Eye AF, which people love for portraits (not sure how well it works with birds).

If you can find a review that compares the EVF between the Sony and the Panasonic. that would be very important to me.

Marc
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Marc, thanks for stressing the importance of viewfinder quality. This is exactly the sort of thing I wouldn’t know to dig into. The LUMIX and its siblings look lovely—there’s clearly a lot of mutual flattery by imitation and red-hot moment-by-moment competition going on in this market right now, which generally makes for a good consumer experience. I simply cannot believe how much zoom and overall quality one can now get for $450. I almost wish I didn’t care about photographing birds, because the 1” sensor point-and-shoots would surely blow my mind for every other purpose.
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
I noticed that Stephen Ingraham had an appreciative review of the HX90V on his website, so I’ve posted a comment asking for his thoughts about the HX99 as a first birding camera—it will be interesting to see how he puts the cons as well as, perhaps, the pros!
 

njlarsen

Gallery Moderator
Opus Editor
Supporter
Barbados
Tracking subject wise, it's just not going to happen. All the burst-speed claims and refocus claims are practically irrelevant in real world use - when looking at tiny sensor cameras with contrast-detect focusing systems, there is no 'tracking' since CDAF systems don't have distance information and therefore can't use predictive algorithms to follow movement - CDAF focusing has to cycle back and forth looking for the best edge contrast to determine if it's properly focused, and can't effectively track any moving subject with any reliability. A subject not changing relative distance to you (such as flying parallel) may be capturable, but even then, the slow speed of CDAF focusing systems will make it challenging.
A larger sensor will have inherent advantages here - even with less optical reach - a 1" sensor camera with a 400mm or 600mm reach will in most cases yield significantly better results when cropping, and in low light...even though you don't have as much optical reach, the lesser zoom with a larger sensor will look cleaner and more detailed when cropped than the tiny sensor at 720mm. Unfortunately, moving to a larger camera body is going to be required to get anything reasonably good in reach - you're going to want 400mm equivalent at a minimum with a 1" sensor and 20MP - such as the Panasonic LX1000 or Sony RX10III/IV...those are much chunkier bodies to accommodate the optical zoom required with the larger sensor.

Justyn, I know you prefaced with small sensor, but some of the things you say could be read as if you completely discard contrast detection systems - after which you mention some other systems, one of which is also a contrast detection system. I just wanted to add this to stress the preface you came with -- small sensor systems.

Niels
 

Zackiedawg

Well-known member
Certainly some contrast detect systems are better than others...though in general it's accepted they aren't as good for tracking focus as PDAF systems. But I was specifically referring to the camera the OP was considering, and not necessarily ALL CDAF systems. And as I have mentioned many times in the past, it doesn't mean you CAN'T shoot moving subjects, just that it's more difficult with CDAF, small sensor cameras, and will depend much on whether the subject is moving towards you or moving quickly.
I've shot birds in flight with CDAF based systems and P&S cameras with CDAF systems - I know it's do-able, but hit rates are much lower and certain types of birds or movements can be well-nigh impossible.
When I recommended some of the long-zoom options with larger sensors and CDAF systems, that was really more about the reach and low light IQ being better with the larger sensor. I messed up the name on the Panasonic as I meant the 'FZ1000', not LX. When it comes to the tracking focus, the RX10III and FZ1000 won't be as capable, though the FZ should be better than the RX10III as Panasonic's DFD CDAF system is just about the best CDAF focusing system you can get for tracking...the RX10IV is a step above with its PDAF system, though clearly much more expensive.
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Justin, the Sony Alpha-based setup does seem like the best of every possible world—no compromises really required, depending on what you want to do on a given day—and after hearing about the problems with small sensors (which I hadn't realized were only 25% the area of a 1-inch sensor) I'd really like a 1-inch sensor myself. But I don't think I can get a Sony Alpha setup, simply because of expense, even before the additional zoom lens is taken into account. Even though I'd sure like to!

I think I do need to just press pause on this project. In the meantime I will try to focus on being a better observer, and understanding more of what I'm seeing, in terms of bird biology, anatomy, and behavior, before I spring for whichever camera seems most feasible after the passage of another year or two.

I saw a leucistic finch or sparrow yesterday that I couldn't help thinking it would be handy to be able to photograph and post here for identification help … but on the whole it was still a wonderful day's birding, even without the additional tech for which I yearn. Thanks again, everybody, for your help and clear explanations.
 
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Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Okay, I've revisited this, and after reading more—as well as reading Stephen Ingraham's opinion that a compact-format superzoom like the Sony HX80/HX90V/HX99 can actually be *too* small to be usable in the field, while fumblingly attempting to get onto and follow a bird—I'm less interested in pocket-sized cameras. I'm also more mindful of the limitations of 1/2.3" sensors, however much zoom they permit. And I've learned that the HX80/HX90V/HX99, my initial sentimental favorite, doesn't have continuous AF for still images at all, which seems pretty bad.

My inability to pay very much, on the other hand, has remained a constant. So I've recently been mulling the following three cameras:

• Sony RX10 Mark I (it actually wasn't called that, but just to be clear—the first generation of the RX10). With constant aperture, 1-inch sensor, and 20 MP resolution, its limited, 200mm equivalent zoom would not necessarily be the end of the world. (I could crop.) It can take bursts at 3 fps with continuous AF. The body is dust and moisture sealed. Great build quality.

• Canon Powershot G3 X. 1-inch sensor, 20 MP resolution, 600mm equivalent zoom (without constant aperture). Like the RX10, bursts at 3 fps with continuous AF. The body is weather sealed. It doesn't have an EVF, and I would have to get a used one later if that was a big problem for me. Great build quality.

• Panasonic Lumix FZ300. Constant aperture, 1/2.3-inch sensor, 12 MP resolution (a good thing, in the context of a small sensor), 600mm equivalent zoom. The best continuous AF. The body is weather sealed. Half the price of the others.

Does anything leap out at you? They're all different beasts, obviously, beyond all being weather sealed, large enough to handle comfortably, and having usable continuous AF. I'm most attracted to the Canon and the Sony, but the FZ300 sure seems to have a lot going for it.
 

Neil G.

Well-known member
Hi bud,here is my take on it:
1.Sony rx10 mk1.......200mm is not enough for birds and to crop enough to make birds large enough in the frame you will loose to much quality.To be totally honest i'm not that impressed with the image quality versus price of the sony bridge cameras anyway.
2.Canon G3x......i had one of these cameras with the add on electronic viewfinder and then i sold it.The autofocus on this camera was a let down for me,it certainly won't follow birds in flight very effectively.Overall it was a decent camera but for birds it was a disappointment.
3.Panasonic fz300......i had the fz200 which had the constant f2.8 aperture and it took some very good photos.As with all bridge type cameras,it helps the closer you get to the subject and the better light you work in.If the fz300 is as good as the fz200 in iq terms,this would be my choice out of these three models......the sony doesn't have enough reach and the canon has a hit and miss autofocus system.
 

Peter Audrain

Consummate Indoorsman
Man, I've been all over the place with this! And actually canceled an order for a Panasonic Lumix ZS50 / TZ70 this morning.

I have now simply ordered a 'Like New—Demo' Panasonic Lumix ZS70 / TZ90 from Adorama. I had been panicked at the last minute that the ZS50's autofocus might not be quite as amazing as the ZS70's is, since the ZS70 includes Depth from Defocus. And it will be nice, in any event, to have the use of a touch screen.

At $265, this is not a gigantic investment, and it seems as if the camera can actually do a lot of the things I will want it to do while birding—above all, have amazing continuous autofocus for its compact form factor. It seems as if Panasonic's compacts have the best AF this side of phase detection, and it's only gotten better since the ZS50.

I'll let you know what I think!
 

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