Sony has just released a new, tiny compact camera with a huge zoom range: the HX99. It seems ideal as a pocketable take-anywhere travel camera that can do things your phone can’t.
On paper, the Sony HX99 has a killer zoom range: 24-720mm. Expressed as a lens magnification value, that’s a 30x zoom. There are other compact cameras with 30x zoom, and there are even some with more magnification than that, but this is among the smallest of them to have a 30x zoom. Most of the others that might be called superzooms are significantly larger. It’s pretty remarkable in a tiny compact camera like this that fits comfortably in a pocket or purse.
That kind of zoom can come in very handy when you’re traveling. Whether you’re trying to take photos of polar bears in the ice from a safe distance on the deck of a ship or trying to pick out the details of famous landmarks, you can end up with photos that are more special than the usual run-of-the-mill snapshots.
The HX99 has only just been released, and I’ve been curious to see how well it works. So I’ve been shooting with it to put it to the test.
I also wanted to make sense of the HX99’s zoom specs. Because if you look at the box or marketing materials, you’ll see 24-720mm first, but then you’ll also see up to 1440mm. Both come with asterisks. Those asterisks are important because not everything about the HX99’s zoom capabilities is cut and dry.
Basically, the official zoom range of the HX99 is 24mm wide-angle to 720mm super-telephoto. Those are converted to 35mm equivalent (that is, as it would be on a full-frame sensor camera). And that range refers to the optical zoom–in other words, how far the lens itself can zoom.
The 1440mm refers to other electronic modifications and enhancements that are quite different. First, there’s something that Sony’s calling Clear Image Zoom. Then there’s a more standard Digital Zoom. These three types of “zoom” on the HX99 aren’t all equal, and they don’t all result in the same quality.
So my objective here is to explain what each does, show some examples, and suggest some scenarios for which mode to use when.
Optical zoom is the magnification done by the glass in the lens itself. When photographers are talking about a zoom lens, this is what they’re referring to. It’s a result of how light is moving through the lens’s glass.
The HX99 has an optical zoom that starts at 24mm (that is wide-angle territory) and goes all the way up to 720mm. That’s the kind of super-telephoto focal lengths that professional sports and wildlife photographers use, except they use monster lenses that can easily cost over $10,000 and weigh over 10 pounds. The HX99 fits in your pocket.
Image stabilization is available when using the optical zoom. Sony calls it SteadyShot. It uses a combination of a gyro-stabilized sensor and an algorithm to reduce the risk of motion blur caused by camera shake. Having this is important, because the more you zoom in, the more even the smallest of movements will be amplified.
Here are some side-by-side examples of the focal length at 24mm and 720mm. Obviously, you can use the zoom range in between as well–and much of that time that’s probably what you’d end up doing in real-world shooting–but my purpose here is to show the ends of the range. Overall, the fully zoomed in images are definitely less sharp and sometimes have chromatic aberration, but the tradeoff for such a massive reach is going to be worth it in many cases.
In this shot of the Washington Monument from the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool, you can barely see the ring of flags around the base of the monument. But when you zoom in, they come out clearly. For reference, it’s about 0.7 miles (1.1 km) from where I was standing to take this shot to the flags in the second frame.
This is a good example of how you can use the zoom to pick out details to get something a little different from the usual. While I was shooting this, I was amongst the usual dozens of tourists that are in the Lincoln Memorial during the day on any given weekend.
Both of these were taken from the same spot at the bottom of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If you look closely, you can see the US Capitol Dome just peeking out from behind the Washington Monument. The second shot zoomed in shows it clearly. The distance from where I was standing to take the photos and the US Capitol is around 2.2 miles (3.5 km).
This is of the Jefferson Memorial across from the other side of the Tidal Basin.
The distance from where I took this from the southeastern corner of the Tidal Basin to Rosslyn, which is where the buildings are, is about 2.25 miles (3.6 km).
There is one other thing worth mentioning about the optical zoom. If you have the image size set to medium or small, there’s a slightly extended range that you can tap into called Smart Zoom. It’s not a full-blown zoom mode itself–it’s just an extension of the optical zoom that taps into the extra sensor wiggle room available when you’re using the smaller image sizes.
Clear Image Zoom
Clear Image Zoom is Sony’s name for their proprietary enhanced digital zoom. It’s a software-based solution to enlarging the image. They don’t share exactly what’s going into the secret sauce, but it’s using some kind of advanced interpolation and signal processing to make educated guesses about what the extra pixels that need to be added should look like. Sony claims it results in images that are “close to the original image quality.”
I’ve found the results to be better than standard digital zoom (see below) but not nearly as good as the optical zoom. Which is right where Sony pitches it. The results are significantly smoother, especially edges, than the usual digital zoom, making the overall effect look more natural and appear more detailed. But it also tends to have a somewhat waxy look when used at the maximum. It’s pretty impressive that this is being done in the camera without the need to run it through separate image editing software with advanced interpolation features.
I can see times when Clear Image Zoom would come in useful, but it’s worth using it with the expectation that you’re going to sacrifice some image quality for that extra enlargement in the frame.
Here are some examples at 24mm, the 720mm limit of the optical zoom, and then the extended range of the Clear Image Zoom.
And here are some side-by-side examples at 24mm and the maximum range of the Clear Image Zoom.
Digital Zoom isn’t really a zoom–it’s basically a fancy crop. It’s not always implemented exactly the same way on different cameras, but two things set it apart from old-fashioned cropping that you’d do when editing a photo: it’s applied at the time you take the photo (ie. at capture), and it usually produces an image that retains the original dimensions (a standard crop will make the dimensions smaller).
The biggest drawback of digital zoom is that it enlarges the view without improving the detail. So the subject is larger in the frame, but it’s the same amount of detail that’s just enlarged, and the overall effect is that the image is not as sharp and crisp. I’m not much of a fan of digital zoom, especially with still photos (it makes more sense when shooting video).
The results when using the HX99’s digital zoom at its maximum aren’t particularly good. But that’s not something specific to the camera–digital zoom rarely proves to be a very effective technique. I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation where it makes sense to use it on this camera. The best argument is probably for instances where you’re going straight from the camera to social media, where the display image size is probably going to be quite small anyway. In that case, it’s really a convenience thing, but it comes at the expense of quality.
Here are some examples to show what I mean. First, here’s a sequence at 24mm, the 720mm maximum of the optical zoom, and then the extra reach offered by the Digital Zoom at its maximum.
And here are some side-by-side examples at 24mm and the Digital Zoom maximum that’s equivalent to 1440mm.
This is a handy feature that you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever tried to use binoculars or a telescope. When you’re zoomed in tight with such a narrow field of view, it can be hard to find the thing you’re actually trying to shoot. The Zoom Assist feature helps with this by providing a quick way to temporarily zoom out so that you can scan a wider area, locate what it is you’re trying to aim at, compose the shot, and then zooming back in instantaneously.
Before you use it, you first have to assign the function to a custom key. Here’s more information on it.
How to Change the Zoom Setting
The default zoom mode is the optical zoom. You can switch in the camera’s menu system. If the options are grayed out, it’s most likely because you have the image type set to RAW or RAW+JPG (Clear Image Zoom and Digital Zoom are only available when you’re shooting JPG (or video)).
You can find the option under the Camera 2 tab (the camera icon with the “2” next to it).
The Zoom Setting options are on sheet 4/7 of that tab.
The two electronic zoom options–Clear Image Zoom and Digital Zoom–aren’t available when you’re shooting RAW or RAW+JPG. They’re also not available if you’re recording video with a fast framerate of 120/100fps. And they’re not compatible with features such as face priority, locking autofocus, or auto object framing.
You can’t use zooming with the panorama shooting mode.
Something else worth noting is that while the HX99 has image stabilization, at the high end of the telephoto ranges, it’s not applied to what you see on the back screen. So unless you’re using a tripod, at the very high telephoto end of things, it can be quite tricky to keep the camera pointed precisely where you want it. It’s a time when it’s worth taking several photos as a safety net.
The optical zoom range of the HX99 is impressive by itself. Reaching to 720mm is quite a feat for such a small camera and come in hugely useful when you’re traveling. While you’re not going to confuse it with the sharpness and clarity of one of these $10,000 monsters that professional sports and wildlife photographers use, it’s still a mighty impressive zoom on such a tiny camera.
The two electronic zoom options, Clear Image Zoom and Digital Zoom, do add even more reach, although they come with some drawbacks in terms of image quality (particularly the Digital Zoom).
But I’ve been struck by how impressive its results of the optical zoom are. In such a tiny camera, a massive zoom like this can really help you get some unique photos on your travels that most other cameras this size simply can’t do.
Where to Buy
- ZEISS Vario-Sonnar T* 24-720mm High Magnification Zoom and High Image Quality Lens
- Stunning 4K video with full pixel readout and no pixel binning
Which Accessories to Get?
The most important accessory to start with is a memory card. The camera doesn’t come with a memory card as standard, although some retailers put together bundles that include a memory card thrown in. Here are some quick recommendations for good, cost-effective options:
A battery is included with the camera, but having a spare comes in handy with the relatively short battery life you get out of a tiny camera like this. The model number you want is Sony NP-BX1. You can get them individually, or pick up third-party versions that include external chargers.
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