Saturday, June 30, 2007

Review: Niek Haak Reviews the Sony DSC-H9 - Part 3

Niek Haak contributes the final part of his expert review series of the new Sony DSC-H9 digital camera to the IR Buzz. Here he provides the results from his extensive experience with earlier Sony Nightshot equipped models, and makes comparisons to the H9 from his first hand testing.

Guest Author -- Niek Haak -- Part Three:

In Part Two we found that the H9 can take very nice infrared pictures if you get the exposure right, work in good lighting conditions, and if possible, stay away from the wide angle setting. In this part we look at color-infrared photography, the pros and cons of 'IR-modding', and my verdict on H9 infrared image quality compared to other cameras.

Color-Infrared. I am not a fan of color-infrared photography in general and usually prefer black-and-white or toned IR images. But sometimes, with the right camera and artist, (pseudo-) color IR can give very expressive and highly original results. Check out the work of Jesus Valenciano featured here on this site.

How does the H9 perform for color-infrared photography? My H9 pictures in Nightshot mode came out almost monochrome with every IR filter that I tested, including the 89B/R72 filters that normally produce slightly colored IR images with many other cameras. There is far less color in the H9 files than with the same filters on the DSC-F7x7s, probably a result of the processing that Sony uses in H9 Nightshot mode. Using other camera settings is not a solution. Normal camera modes using an infrared filter require very long exposure times which can result in poor image quality. The 'in-between' setting of the Nightshot switch produces a shadow in the lower part of the frame. Also, when a filter like the Hoya R72 is used with the 'in-between' setting, the red/purple color that results is outside the white balance range of the DSC-H9. Some older Cybershot cameras can correctly white balance the scene when using IR filters which helps in postprocessing. The DSC-V3 and DSC-F828 also have RAW format for better color postprocessing. With the H9 we only have a fixed quality JPEG mode. The strongly colored IR JPEGs from the H9 with their unpredictable artifacts are not a good basis for color infrared postprocessing. Because of these limitations my opinion is that the H9 is not a good choice for color-infrared photography.

IR modding. We previously mentioned the 'in-between' setting of the Nightshot switch. This moves the internal hot mirror partly out of the way without switching to official 'Nightshot mode' with its shutter speed and aperture limitations. Because this setting requires fiddling with the switch before every picture, and because there remains a shadow in the picture I don't consider it an attractive option for everyday use. Modding previous Cybershot models, the hot mirror had to be replaced with a special glass window (with critical dimensions), otherwise the camera would no longer focus at infinity. The in-between setting shows that this is not necessary with the H9. Full-IR modification of the H9 requires nothing more than insulating the contact that switches the camera into Nightshot mode when the hot mirror is moved. Check postings on the Sony Talk Forum on for details about how to do this. After this modification the Nightshot switch will only move the hot mirror out of the way, nothing else. Setting the camera to BW or Sepia mode makes it easier to judge the results on the LCD display and saves postprocessing time if you want BW infrared pictures. Because the hot mirror is not permanently removed from the camera, it still works perfectly for normal Color photography - unlike older modded Cybershot cameras that will need a relatively expensive external hot mirror to restore Normal Color photography capabilities.

To mod or not to mod? At first glance this makes the H9 the ideal camera for those who want it all: both normal photography with the hot mirror in place and full infrared photography (without limitations!) in Nightshot mode all in one relatively small camera. The question becomes, is this IR modification worth the warranty risk? Maybe some US suppliers will start offering modified H9 camera's including warranty, so anyone can decide for themselves if it is worth the extra cost. A modded H9 camera will save on accessories because only one standard IR filter (instead of special IR filter or ND filters) is all that is needed for IR photography. Modding the H9 will solve some of the problems with IR photography that were discussed in Part One and Two. With the modification we get rid of the Nightshot limitations on Shutter Speed and Aperture. Just one IR filter is all you need to handle both normal and infrared photography. The other H9 problems remain though. Noise, and smudging artifacts will still occur (just like with visible light). The problems with CA and corner sharpness at wide angle remain too, and stopping down the lens will not help much. Because of the longer wavelength of IR light, diffraction effects will kick in quickly when stopping down and reduce overall sharpness. With my modified DSC-F717 when using infrared light, I get the best image quality at f/2.8-3.5. From f/4.0 and certainly at f/5.6 diffraction will visibly reduce sharpness (but sometimes this is an acceptable tradeoff because of DOF, field curvature or using a converter). The H9 with its much smaller chip will probably be diffraction-limited with IR light even near full aperture.

DSC-H9 compared to previous Cybershot models. The Nightshot mode of the H9 is more restrictrive than previous Sony models, and build quality and ergonomics are a step down IMHO. On the other side the big and bright LCD, Steadyshot, fast autofocus and huge zoom range are a plus. We already noted in Part Two that there are some problems with image quality in general (especially with less than favourable conditions) and the optical quality of the lens. Previous Cybershot models like the DSC-F7x7s have good and reliable image quality in infrared. They have some visible noise but it is usually not a huge problem, as it is similar to grain in BW films and is totally different from the smearing that often pops up in H9 images. For general image quality, I definitely prefer the older Cybershot cameras. When looking at lens quality the comparison is more difficult. The H9 has an attractive zoom range and no hotspot. The biggest problem is the soft corners at wideangle settings (this occurs both with visible and IR light). Older Cybershot models have relatively soft corners too at wideangle in Nightshot mode (as far I as know) or do not have a real wideangle at all. A DSC-F7x7 with a high quality wide converter like the Olympus WCON-07 (effective focal length 28 mm) offers better image quality than the H9, especially in the corners of the frame. However, this only works well with an IR-modified 7x7 and it adds extra bulk and cost. In the tele range the H9 has relatively good optical quality and with the additional Steadyshot it will usually beat the older Cybershot models for IR pictures. However, I think most IR shooters will use wideangle far more often than the tele range, so optical qualities at wideangle are more useful to the average IR shooter. All in all, if you already have an older Cybershot camera with Nightshot, the H9 may have some advantages but better image quality is not one of them.

Other IR-digicam options. If you want a new digicam that can handle both visible and IR photography and don't require the absolute best image quality, the H9 is an excellent choice. It is one of the few digicams on the market that can take handheld IR pictures, it packs many advanced options in a small package, and IR photography is easy when you know and accept it's limitations. The H9 gets even more attractive for IR if you dare to perform the Nighshot switch modification.

Too bad that this camera has some serious flaws ... If you want good, reliable image quality in infrared, high build quality and good ergonomics, an older (used) Cybershot digicam like the DSC-F7x7s are probably a better choice. The 707 ( EUR 100-200 on Ebay) provides a relatively cheap entry into the world of IR photography. The 717 (EUR 150-300) adds better storage capacity, higher speed and some options that can be important if you remove the internal hot mirror. Even including IR modification the cost of these older models is in the same price range as a new H9 while being easier to use for IR shooting. Used DSC-F828 or DSC-V3 are also good choices for IR but they are still relatively expensive. Other recent digicams like some Fuji models can take more-or-less handheld IR pictures too, but I don't have experience with them. They have a less noisy image sensor and usually higher quality optics than the H9, so they might be worth a look. In the US there is also the Fuji IS-1, but it is far more expensive than the H9. If you don't object to using a tripod there are other current digicams that will give better IR image quality than the H9. For color-IR photography, or when you want the very best image quality in BW-infrared, an IR-dedicated DSLR with IR-friendly optics is the best choice. However cost, weight, and ease of use with the DSLRs are issues that should not be overlooked.

My H9 went back to the supplier because of uneven left/right sharpness. I decided not to take my chances with a new H9 as long as Sony decides not to fix some of the known problems, especially the noise/smearing issue. Until then, I will continue using my DSC-F717 for IR photography.

IR Test Gallery

If Sony listens I will be back with another look at the H9, but don't hold your breath ...

Copyright Statement: All images and written materials published in this Guest Article Contribution are copyrighted and are the exclusive property of the author. Images and material may not be reproduced or used in any way without the written consent of the author.


Bruce said...


Thanks so much for your comprehensive and informative review of this camera's IR potential. The three installments have been most helpful.

Looks like I'll be sticking with my modded F-707 for awhile.


Donald said...

Niek, is it possible to do the Nighshot switch modification on other DSC cameras?

Thanks, Don

douglw said...

Niek, Thanks for the review. I foudn it informative. I currently have a DSC-F707 that I would like to mod for IR, but I can't seem to find a hot mirror replacement. Can you point me to where I can buy one?

Thanks, Doug

Anonymous said...

Many thanks. And stunning images.