4th Apr 2014 | 15:45
Sony's bridge camera gets an overhaul and it's almost perfect
Bridge cameras continue to be one area of the compact camera market that remains buoyant in an otherwise declining arena. The HX400 is one of the larger bridge models available, closely resembling an entry-level or even enthusiast DSLR/T in overall body size at least.
The key selling point of this camera is its massive focal length. It keeps the incredible 50x zoom length of its predecessor, the HX300, which equates to 24-1200mm in 35mm terms.
Impressively, it also manages to have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 (at the widest point of the lens), rising to f/6.3 at the telephoto end. It's also a Zeiss Vario Sonnar T* lens, which should mean that it's capable of producing high quality images.
Outwardly, much of the HX400 remains the same as the camera it replaces, such as the three inch tilting screen on the back of the camera. Inwardly though, the HX400 has seen some key improvements that should equate to better image quality.
For starters, the latest image processor, the Bionz X can be found in the camera. This is the same processor as is already being used in the top-of-the-range full-frame A7 and A7R cameras.
Bionz X is claimed to be three times faster than the previous generation of processor, so focusing, start-up, shot-to-shot times should be improved, as well as noise reduced in low light/high sensitivity images.
Whereas the HX300V had a 20.4 million-pixel Super HAD CCD sensor, the HX400V has been upgraded with a 20.4 million-pixel back illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor, which should also help with low light shooting. Furthermore, the camera has a native sensitivity run of ISO 80-3200, which is expandable up to 12,800.
It also inherits some of the other interesting technologies from the A7 and A7R, including detail reproduction technology, diffusion reduction technology and improved area specific noise reduction – all of which should combine together to beat the results that the HX300 was capable of.
Another improvement is that, like many of Sony's other recent introductions, the HX400 is fitted with integrated Wi-Fi and NFC technology, which can be used for remotely controlling the camera from a smartphone or tablet, or for sharing images to social networking sites.
As with several other Sony cameras, you can increase the functionality of the camera by downloading additional apps from Sony's PlayMemories store. You can also send images from the camera directly to a smartphone or tablet for emailing or sharing on social networking sites.
The rear-screen is a 921,000 dot Xtra Fine TFT LCD screen, and although it isn't touch sensitive, it does tilt upwards and downwards, which should be useful for shooting from awkward angles. The screen is joined by an electronic viewfinder, which has a sensor for automatically detecting when the camera has been lifted to the eye.
The finder itself is bright and clear, and offers a great view of the scene. Bridge camera EVFs tend to be a disappointment, but happily, the one here is actually useful and we found we used it very frequently during the review.
The camera offers manual control, along with semi-automatic modes, such as aperture priority, as well as a complement of fully automatic and scene modes. Creative options are also included, such as digital filters and a sweep panorama mode, and should appeal to the Instagram crowd.
It's worth noting however that unlike some other bridge cameras on the market, the HX400V is not capable of shooting in raw format.
Sony claims that the HX400V's battery is capable of lasting for around 300 shots. We're keen to test the battery life as this is aimed at travelling photographers who wouldn't necessarily be able to charge a camera very often.
There are quite a few bridge cameras in this premium segment of the market, but the natural competitors for the HX400 seem to be the Canon SX50 HS, Panasonic FZ72 and Fujifilm HS50.
Build quality and handling
As already mentioned, the outward construction of the HX400 remains pretty much the same as the HX300.
The grip is a chunky affair, while the textured coating helps it feel secure in the hand and gives it a higher quality appearance.
The styling of the camera is very much in the DSLR camp, with a mode dial on the top of the camera to quickly switch between different exposure modes, such as fully automatic, superior auto and movie mode.
There's also full manual control available from here, along with aperture priority and shutter priority modes. Handily, there's also space for up to two groups of customised settings, in case you often find yourself shooting one particular type of scene, such as low light.
Unsurprisingly due to its huge focal length, the lens is the largest element of the camera. Traditionalists will no doubt enjoy the fact that you can zoom using the lens itself. If you prefer though, you can use a switch around the shutter release button.
Zooming itself is fairly fluid and smooth, which is useful when you need to zoom back in and out when composing an image of a subject in the distance.
Just within handy reach by the thumb, on the back of the camera, is a scrolling dial that you can use to change the aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode you're shooting in.
Sony is big on customisation, with most of its compacts and compact system cameras offering the ability to change the operation of the camera depending on what your preferred method of working is.
There's a function button on top of the camera, just in front of the mode dial and behind the shutter release button. It's easy to reach with your finger, and it brings up a sort of quick menu, which has a number of oft-used functions assigned to it, including white balance and sensitivity.
You can change these around, or switch them for different functions altogether if you prefer. Next to the function button is also a custom button, which can be assigned to one particular function, such as Wi-Fi options.
On the back of the camera is a traditional four-way navigational pad, with each of the directions assigned to a different function. For instance, up controls the camera's display, while the down button accesses exposure compensation.
Unlike some of the other Sony cameras out there, these buttons can't be customised to something different, but it's still a sensible arrangement of the options.
Also on the back of the camera is a Menu button for accessing the main menu. Sony has recently decided to unify all of its menu systems throughout its range, so if you've used a Sony DSLT, CSC, or even another compact camera recently, you'll be at home here.
If you haven't, it can take a little bit of time to get used to the way the menu works, but for the most part it's sensibly arranged into different tabs. You may find you don't need to use it all that often anyway, since the quick menu – accessed by the function button – does the majority of jobs you need.
As there's no touchscreen, changing the AF point has to be done via buttons. First of all, you'll need to set the Focus Area mode to flexible spot. Once you've done that, you can use the centre button in the navigation pad to bring up the point, and then the directional keys to scroll around to the point you need.
You can also adjust the size of the point by using the dial on the back of the camera. Although this process isn't quite as fast as it is on cameras with a touchscreen, it's still relatively quick once you've set it up.
Not only does the camera have a tilting screen, but it also has an electronic viewfinder. The viewfinder has a sensor that automatically detects when the camera has been lifted to your eye. This works well to provide a seamless transition, but if you're using the screen tilted downwards to take a picture from a low angle, you may find you need to be careful that your body doesn't cause the sensor to switch the camera off.
We have come to expect great things from Sony cameras in the recent past, and while the HX300 offered a lot of good functions, we hoped that image quality would be improved for the HX400V.
With the addition of the Bionz X processor and a CMOS sensor, it would have been disappointing if there wasn't a notable improvement, so we're pleased to say that there is one. Images straight from the camera display bright, punchy colours that, while being accurate, are nicely saturated to give a pleasing effect.
The 20.4 million-pixel sensor is capable of resolving a lot of detail. If you look at an image at 100%, even at the lowest sensitivities, you will see some examples of image smoothing to produce a slight painterly effect.
This isn't particularly unusual for compact cameras (despite appearances, the HX400 still falls into this range) and the HX400 actually puts in a better performance than the HX60, which was announced at the same time and also features a 20.4 million-pixel sensor.
One of the biggest differences with this camera should be in low light performance, and the HX400V does well at high sensitivities. Looking at an image taken at a high sensitivity such as ISO 1600 reveals that at normal printing and web sizes (A3 or below) an overall impression of low noise and high detail is created.
If you examine at 100%, again you find examples of image smoothing, but noise is minimal. Noise reduction technology has done well, sometimes at the expense of detail, but unless you're printing at very large sizes this is unlikely to be a problem.
Activating Multi-Frame Noise Reduction means that the camera will take a few shots in very quick succession and combine them, taking areas of the photo with the least noise and putting them together for a cleaner image.
This works very well. It's worth remembering to switch it off when you're in a very well lit environment though, as waiting for the camera to process multiple files can take a while, and is generally only necessary in high sensitivity situations.
Generally, the camera's metering system does a good job of producing accurate exposures. Having said that, occasionally we had to dial in a small amount of positive exposure compensation, especially in darker conditions.
This isn't particularly uncommon for cameras of this type though, and if you're using it in manual or semi-automatic mode, it's something you should be familiar with.
Similarly, the automatic white balance system does a great job of producing accurate colours. When faced with artificial lighting conditions, the camera errs ever so slightly towards warmer, orange tones, but if you find it problematic you could always switch to a more appropriate, specific white balance setting, such as incadescent.
With its huge zoom range, it's obviously important that the camera performs well at the far end of the telephoto optic. The camera's optical image stabilisation does a fantastic job of not only helping to keep shots blur-free, but also in keeping the shot steady while you're composing an image. This is especially useful if you're hand-holding the camera (it's assumed that the majority of holidaying photographers will be doing so).
If the 50x optical zoom isn't enough for you, you also have the choice of using Clear Image Zoom. This is Sony's brand of digital zoom, which similarly does an excellent job if you really need that reach. It's basically a crop of the image though, so it's also something you could achieve in post-production. Having a 20.4 million-pixel sensor means you can crop an image without losing too much resolution.
Autofocusing speeds are pretty decent with the HX400V, especially in good light. When heading indoors, or into a dimly lit area, speeds slow down a little, but are still pretty impressive, especially for a compact camera.
Strangely, although macro focusing is possible in automatic mode, there seems to be no way to activate macro focusing when shooting in manual or semi-automatic modes, which is a little frustrating when you want to fill the frame.
Slew of options
There are lots of options available on Sony cameras, which should appeal to those looking to get creative shots. Digital filters can be applied via the function menu when in manual and semi-automatic mode, and there are some fun options here.
Our favourites include Toy Camera and High Contrast Mono. It's a shame that the camera doesn't shoot a clean version of the image, in case you decide you don't like the filter at a later point. You can also change Picture Styles for a subtler effect, such as Monochrome, or Vivid.
Sony is a pioneer of Sweep Panorama technology, so it's no surprise to see that performing well here. It's very easy to use, and the resulting stitched image is excellent, with barely any example of blurring and a distinct lack of obvious clues that the images have been stitched together.
The HX400V's battery copes well and lasted a couple of days of reasonably intense shooting during tests. You can purchase an additional battery if you're worried about battery life, but it would be worth purchasing a charger too, since the battery charges in-camera.
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG signal to noise ratio
In terms of signal to noise ratio, the HX400 again puts in a good consistent performance, especially at low to mid-range sensitivities. It is the Canon PowerShot SX50 again which beats the HX400 at almost every sensitivity, dipping just below it at the very top end of the sensitivity run.
JPEG dynamic range
Here we can see that the HX400 puts in a very consistent performance throughout the sensitivity range, but it's not a match for the Canon PowerShot SX50, which scores better than it at every sensitivity. It is also beaten by the Panasonic FZ72 throughout most of the range. The Fuji HS50 puts in a worse performance, but that could be a reflection of Fuji's tendency towards warmer tones.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Sony HX400, we've shot our resolution chart.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
Full ISO 80 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
ISO 80, Score: 22. (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 100, Score: 20. (Click here to view the full resolution image)
ISO 200, Score: 20. (Click here to view the full resolution image)
ISO 400, Score: 18. (Click here to view the full resolution image)
ISO 800, Score: 16. (Click here to view the full resolution image)
ISO 1600, Score: 14. (Click here to view the full resolution image)
ISO 3200, Score: 10 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
Sensitivity and noise images
Full ISO 80 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
ISO 1600 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
ISO 3200 (Click here to see the full resolution image)
Colors are bright and punchy straight from the camera, while skies are reproduced accurately.
At its widest point, the HX400V offers a 24mm angle of view (in 35mm terms).
At the optical zoom's full stretch, the HX400V offers an impressive 50x zoom, which equates to 1200mm in 35mm terms.
If 1200mm isn't enough for you - the camera's digital zoom allows you to double that again.
You can get pleasing shallow depth of field effects with the camera.
The camera's fully articulating screen helps when shooting from awkward angles.
The camera's Sweep Panorama mode is simple to use and produces the final image very quickly in camera, negating the need for post-capture intricate stitching.
On occasion, the HX400V has the tendency to underexpose, so you may find you need to dial in positive exposure compensation to get the correct exposure.
With its high zoom ratio, the HX400V will appeal to nature and wildlife photographers.
The HX400V's metering system copes well in the majority of conditions to produce well-balanced exposures.
While it's true that the bridge camera market remains buoyant, most of the other manufacturers haven't released anything particularly exciting in some time. Sony, on the other hand, continues to innovate and here in the HX400 it's using some of its best technology to reach out to a wider audience.
Obviously, it's image quality that's the most important, and happily the HX400V doesn't disappoint. Images are full of detail and have bright, punchy colours. Although if you examine at 100%, there is some evidence of image smoothing, but it's better than some of the other cameras currently on the market – including some in Sony's own range. It's also worth noting the unlikelihood that anybody would be examining images at 100%, or printing off at huge sizes.
Noise is also kept to a minimum, thanks in part to technologies such as the multi-area noise reduction, which is useful when shooting at high sensitivities. It's not as good to use in low light as a compact system camera or DSLR, but the sensor is a lot smaller, so that's of course to be expected. It can be easy to forget that this is essentially a compact camera thanks to its large size and design.
Of course, the huge zoom range is the key selling point of this camera. Happily, using it at the telephoto end of the lens produces blur-free images, thanks to the optical image stabilisation technology, which also helps compose the image.
This is a good camera for those who like to experiment and get a little creative with images, as it has a good range of digital filters, while the sweep panorama function is excellent. It's also great to be able to take full control over settings by shooting in manual mode, or semi-automatic, just as you might do a DSLR. This could be a good backup camera for a DSLR owner.
Having built-in Wi-Fi is starting to become a must-have for a lot of cameras. Still, it's nice to see it included on a camera like this. It means you can transfer a photo over to your phone for quick sharing to social networking sites, which is something that seems essential these days.
Having the ability to expand the functionality of the camera via PlayMemories cameras apps is also nice too, even though the range available is a little limited right now.
The tilting screen is a nice function, although, as we're starting to get tired of repeating, it would be nice to see a touchscreen. That said, the number of buttons and dials makes it easy to use the camera without one, so it's not as much of a problem as we've found it to be on other cameras.
The electronic viewfinder is also great. EVFs on bridge cameras tend to be a bit of a poor relation to those found on CSCs, but here Sony has put a decent device in, with the automatic sensor making it a nice, seamless transition between using the two.
There are a whole lot of things to like about the HX400V. But top of the list has to be the 50x optical zoom lens, which takes the crown as its key selling feature. It's a satisfyingly large lens, and the performance at either end of the optical zoom is great, too, making it a fine, flexible choice for travelling and holidaying photographers.
It's a big shame that you can't shoot in raw format. For a camera with this level of advanced control, it seems pretty remiss of Sony not to include it, especially at this price point.
Sony has produced another solid camera in the HX400V, with some excellent technologies working to make sure it produces excellent images. There are a lot of interesting functions that make it even more appealing, including the 50x optical zoom, built-in Wi-Fi and creative functions. It's a shame that Sony has neglected to include raw format shooting, otherwise this would perhaps have been almost the perfect bridge camera.