The Sony HX99 is a tiny camera with a massive zoom. It makes for a very good and versatile everyday travel camera that easily fits in your pocket. Here's my hands-on review.
The Sony HX99 is a tiny, pocketable compact camera with a massive zoom. It brings Sony sensor expertise and the standard Sony menu system to a highly portable and reasonably priced package. It has an 18.2 MP CMOS sensor, a 24-720mm (35mm equivalent) ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T zoom lens. There’s a tilting back screen, optical stabilization, a built-in electronic viewfinder, and high-bitrate 4K30 video recording.
After shooting with it for some time, here’s my hands-on review.
It’s a very small camera and easily pocketable. There’s not much space for ergonomic niceties aside from a small vertical ridge on the front to help with finger grip, but overall it feels good in the hand. It’s certainly not what you’d call heavy, but it still manages to feel solid and substantial.
Buttons and Controls. It’s a very small camera, which means that there’s limited space for the camera’s controls. So the buttons and dials are small to the point that anyone with large hands is likely to find them a bit hard to use. That said, the buttons are logically spaced out and there aren’t too many extraneous ones. And you can assign specific functions to some of them.
The joystick-style dial on the back of the camera is important for moving through settings and the menu. So they’re crucial controls that you’ll end up using in normal shooting. But I also find these the hardest to use. Specifically, the dial is both a set of buttons, depending on where you press it, as well as a rotating dial for moving through options. It’s the rotating part that I find tedious because it’s far too easy to push in instead and end up doing some option you don’t want to do. It comes down to a combination of design and the tiny size. I understand the ingenuity of cramming a bunch of different controls into a single controller, but it’s also my least favorite aspect of the HX99’s controls when shooting.
There are two shutters. There’s the usual one on top for taking photos. And then there’s a separate one on the back that starts and stops video recording. I like this kind of setup because it means that if you want to go back and forth between shooting video and taking photos, you can do it simply by using the appropriate shutter, and there’s no need to go into the menu system or use a mode dial to switch shooting modes.
The zoom controls on this camera are likely something you’ll end up using quite a bit–the massive zoom is, after all, one of the defining features of this camera. But it’s something I took a while to get used to. At first, I found it frustrating to use the zoom lever because I wasn’t finding it at all precise and responsive. It took me a while to work out that it’s not like a simple zoom rocker as some cameras have, which zooms in and out at a single defined speed. It’s more responsive than that. If you just move the lever gently a small distance it zooms slowly. And you can zoom quickly by pushing the lever all the way. Figuring this out made a big difference in using the zoom feature for precisely composing shots. There are also options to control the zoom speed in the menu system.
Screen. The screen, or monitor, as it’s called in the manual, takes up much of the back of the camera. Sony cameras tend to have some of the best screens on offer, and this is another one that is bright and crisp.
It’s a touchscreen, but not for everything. You can use the touch for things like selecting focus or automatic exposure points, but you can’t use it to navigate the menu items. Oddly, you also can’t use it to swipe to move between images when playing them back on the screen.
It also has an interesting way of operating in conjunction with the popup electronic viewfinder. If you’re shooting with that, you can enable the back screen as a touchpad, which does basically the same thing, but you see the interaction in the viewfinder rather than on the back. There are options for enabling and disabling these controls in the main menu system.
The back screen tilts, but it only tilts up in one direction. It’s good for shooting down low. And you can flip it up to make it useful for selfies, but it’s not much help if you’re trying to hold the camera up over your head for a high viewpoint.
One minor annoyance is that the screen doesn’t work with polarizing sunglasses. Lots of cameras have this issue. It’s a small thing, but if you tend to wear polarizing sunglasses when out the camera’s back screen will just look completely black.
Menu System. The menu system will be instantly familiar to you if you’ve used any of Sony’s other recent cameras. I like it, but I’m also used to it. I’ve seen criticisms from users who find it too complicated, and I think they make a good point if you’re coming at this camera from the perspective from someone looking for an entry-level camera. As much as this camera is likely to appeal as an entry-level offering with an extra-long zoom, like many of Sony’s cameras its probably geared better toward someone who has the time and inclination to really get to know their camera. It’s not so much that there’s anything inherently complicated about navigating the menu system once you realize that there are tabs and then sub-pages for each tab that you navigate both horizontally and vertically, but that there are a lot of options there that aren’t necessarily self-evident and that don’t appear on simpler cameras.
Viewfinder. There is a built-in electronic viewfinder. It stores away inside the camera body, but you can pop it up. For an electronic viewfinder, it actually works quite well. It’s sharp and responsive and gives you the same display as you see on the back screen.
But there are a couple of little tricks to getting it to work that took me a few moments to figure out. When you pop it up, if you just try looking through it you’ll see only a blurry mess that’s entirely unusable. The first thing you need to do is slide the back of the viewfinder horizontally out so that it’s flush with the back of the camera. You can try looking through it now. If it’s sharp–great. If it’s still a bit blurry, there’s a small lever on top that controls the focus. To fold the viewfinder away again, you’ll need to push the back of it in again and then you can push the whole viewfinder back down to be stored away.
Flash. There’s also a small built-in flash. It’s tiny and doesn’t have much reach. I rarely use built-in flash as a light source, but it’s potentially useful if you’re looking to trigger other off-camera flashes optically.
The HX99 is in Sony’s DSC category (the full model number is DSC-HX99), which stands for digital stills camera. As with most cameras today, it can also shoot high-quality video, but in terms of its features and capabilities, shooting photos has the priority and Sony presumably expects the photo shooting features to be the ones that most users will use most often.
The HX99 has an 18.2 MP sensor. It has a native ISO range from 80 to 3200, with an extended option up to 6400 (which is enhanced by software and the quality drops off markedly). And you have the option of shooting RAW (with Sony’s proprietary .arw RAW format).
Overall, it performs very well in the type of all-around general shooting that the camera is designed for. That is, if you’re taking with this with you on your travels as an ultra-lightweight and versatile camera to keep in your pocket, or for just general family or everyday photography, it performs well. And it does things that you can’t do with your smartphone. If you look up close at the images you can see some softness, especially the more you zoom the lens in, and I’ve frankly been a little underwhelmed by its performance in low light, but the overall look of the images is much closer to a good mirrorless, with reasonably sharp images and more natural color balance than the somewhat strange appearance that many compact cameras produce.
Here’s a rundown of some of the main features when shooting photos.
Zoom. A headline feature of the HX99 is its massive zoom range. The optical zoom is from 24mm to 720mm (35mm equivalent), which is remarkable for such a tiny camera. I’ve put together a more detailed post on the HX99’s zoom capabilities separately that includes some more practical examples, but here’s a quick one.
The lens barrel extends out from the camera when zooming in.
Stabilization. The camera has built-in image stabilization to help reduce motion blur. It’s a combination of optical and electronic stabilization that Sony has named Optical SteadyShot. I’ve found it to work well. There are, of course, limits, especially in low light and zoomed in, but you get a higher percentage of sharper images than if you didn’t have it.
Image File Formats. The default image file format is JPG. You can also choose to shoot in RAW that creates files with the extension .arw. You can also choose the RAW & JPEG option that saves two copies, one of each format.
Not every feature is compatible with RAW. Specifically, any feature that requires in-camera processing, such as the digital zoom features or special effects, will only work with JPG.
Image Quality. Image quality is a relative judgment. I’d say the image quality from the HX99 is very good but not great. It’s not really fair to compare it with cameras with larger APS-C or full-size sensors–you certainly do notice shortcomings if you compare it with those. It has a much smaller sensor, an outsized zoom lens, and is at a much lower price point. But in terms of compact cameras in the same ballpark price point (unlike, say, Sony’s RX100 cameras, which are over double the price) the HX99 fares very well.
Like most everyday cameras, it handles brightly lit subjects much better than ones with less-than-ideal lighting, and I’ve been a little disappointed at the dropoff in quality that comes in lower-light shooting. But it’s actually very good in an apples-to-apples comparison with other cameras in this class and price point. It’s just that we’ve become spoiled with the low-light performance of higher-end cameras in recent years. The image definitely softens up the more you zoom in, an inevitable side-effect of packing such an enormous zoom in. The lens is remarkably clean, by which I mean it’s sharp across the frame and there’s no distracting issues with chromatic aberration or vignetting. So if you temper your expectations to match what this camera is trying to accomplish, the image quality is pretty good, in my opinion.
Here’s a small sampling of images I’ve taken with the HX99. I’ve posted a much more extensive collection separately.
Even if the camera’s emphasis appears to be on stills, the HX99 also boasts impressive video recording capabilities. It’s top video mode is 4K30, and it can record with an impressively high bitrate (and therefore potentially higher quality) of up to 100 Mb/s. For slow motion, you can shoot at up to 120 fps in 1080HD.
There’s a separate start/stop button for recording video. If you’re switching between still photos and video, it means you do so simply by pressing the appropriate button without having to mess with menu systems or mode dials.
The HX99 includes wifi and Bluetooth connectivity, so you can do the usual types of wireless interaction with the camera.
There are also plenty of filters and effects modes, as well as panorama shooting that stitches the multiple images in the camera and outputs them as a single panoramic image.
This is a very small feature, but I think it’s a nice touch and worth mentioning. If you’re shooting in aperture priority mode, as I typically do, you can rotate the ring at the base of the lens to change the aperture. It’s a nod to the old-fashioned aperture rings on lenses, which are often disappearing on newer lenses designed specifically for digital cameras, but I find it a much easier and more intuitive way to do it than messing with buttons and menu items.
The lens is touted as a macro, but it focuses very, very close when fully zoomed out. By close, I mean around an inch.
It has a micro-USB port for charging and data transfer (a micro-USB cable is included). The port took me a moment to find. It’s not next to the battery or next to the micro-HDMI port–it’s up by the video start-stop button.
There’s also a micro-HDMI port on the bottom for direct video output.
It comes with:
It doesn’t come with a memory card (see recommendations below) or a case, although some retailers put together bundles that include some accessories.
The HX99 doesn’t come with a memory card by default. It takes a microSD-sized card and is compatible with microSDXC and microSDHC, which means in practice you can safely use cards from between 16GB and 512GB (or larger, when they become available). Probably the sweet spot in terms of convenience and prices is around the 128GB cards.
Particularly if you plan to use the better video recording modes, I’d recommend a relatively fast card to be able to keep up and prevent unexpected stops in recording. You don’t necessarily need the fast card money will buy–something like this card from Samsung or the SanDisk Extreme. I’ve also put together some more detailed recommendations separately.
You can find the HX99’s manual here.
For a tiny compact camera with a standout zoom and an suggested retail price of $450, the HX99 performs very well. Although it lacks bells and whistles of Sony’s higher-end cameras, especially the RX100 line of compacts and the mirrorless Alpha line, it still has the Sony polish that brings quality in handling and output. And while it doesn’t have every feature that can come in useful as a pocket-sized travel camera–it’s not waterproof, for instance, and doesn’t have GPS–it has more than enough to make it a very good choice to take with you on your adventures. And with such a massive zoom, you’ll also be able to focus tightly on the types of details that most cameras simply can’t capture well.
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