These days just about everybody owns a camera of some kind. Most will by now have invested in the digital revolution, although some will still quite happily be using film. The more advanced photographers will most likely own an SLR of some kind, while the performance of modern compact cameras means that many users will never require anything more. Even camera-phones are beginning to be taken seriously as photo-imaging alternatives.
And this can only be a good thing, for without a doubt, one of the best ways to increase your chances of taking that great picture is to make sure you always have a camera with you. There's a condition amongst photographers that I like to call "Pulitzer Paranoia"; the fear that the day aliens land in the high-street, the neighbour's 7 year old son discovers he can fly, and the local farmer's prize herd of Friesians form a motor-cycle display team, you will have left your camera in the cupboard at home. But even if you never snap that prize-winning image, having a camera with you may mean you'll be able to take advantage of photo opportunities that would otherwise have been wasted.
Take last week, for example. I'd lost my glasses in London (long story involving the Gear of the Year Awards, our Chief Executive's birthday and a pedal-powered rickshaw) and made a last minute appointment at Specsavers. Now, whilst a trip to the opticians is unlikely to be on anybody's "Locations I must photograph" list, I've got into the habit of always having a camera with me. As I was waiting to pay for my new goggles, I heard a high-pitched shrieking/chattering sound. I was obviously not the only one, as other people in the shop all started looking around them to see where the noise was coming from. And there it was, the tiniest monkey you have ever seen in your life.
It turns out that a couple who breed marmosets had also popped in to pick up some glasses (for one of them, not for the monkey) and they take the little fella everywhere with them to help him become accustomed to people and the sights and sounds of the big wide world. Needless to say, it got the attention of everybody in the store, particularly the ladies, who seem to love small-furry-cute things. As I had my camera with me, I was able to take a few shots to show the kids.
Now these are by no means "great" photographs, but I was certainly glad to have had my camera with me at the time. You see, that's the beauty of the modern digital compact camera. The quality of the images they produce is remarkable, and yet they're still small enough to stick in a handbag or shirt pocket so that your camera can go everywhere you go.
It was with this in mind that I asked if I could borrow one of Sony's smart little cameras, the Cybershot T300, and take it for an extended test-drive. The camera is small and sleek looking, easily pocketable, and at it is incredibly good value for money. But is the style backed up by substance?
Sony Cybershot Sycophancy
There's no two ways about it, the Sony Cybershot DSC-T300 is a good-looking camera. As compact cameras go, this is a sexy machine, and I mean proper "dip me in chocolate and throw me to the kittens" sexy. Just look at it; it's sleek, stylish and sophisticated. The T300 has been available in whole host of colours, but without a shadow of a doubt, this black incarnation is by far and away the best. Personally, I've always had a thing about the combination of black and silver; the 2 just seem to go so well together. But colour isn't everything; it's important that things feel good in the hand too, especially if it's something you intend to play with on a regular basis. Luckily, the little Sony doesn't disappoint in this area either. It's small enough to be a "go everywhere" camera, but still feels solid in the hand. The front protective shutter slides up and down with a firm and reassuring click without feeling like it's in danger of being torn from the body of the camera, something which has been an issue on other cameras with a similar mechanism.
Of course, one of the defining features of the T300's design is that screen; it's positively huge. Now while size isn't everything, bear in mind that at 3 ½ Inches, the Cybershot's cinema-like screen is bigger than that found on John Logie Baird's first television sets. Of course, because the rear of the T300 is taken up almost entirely with screen, there's no room left for anything else, such as menu or function buttons. Whether Sony included touch-screen controls on this camera because they realised they had no space for actual buttons, or included the huge screen because they had already decided to use touch-screen technology and didn't need space for buttons, I don't know. It's something of a chicken/egg situation, but I'm inclined to think the two developed in tandem. As a result, though, the entire menu system for shooting, playback and general camera options are all accessed by dabbing different areas of the screen.
As neat as this is, it's not without its drawbacks. If, like me, you're partial to the odd oily snack (my particular weakness is for pistachio nuts), it only takes a few function changes to leave the screen looking like S.O.C.O. have been in dusting for prints, leaving the screen virtually un-viewable.
However, being the bright sparks that they are, Sony has thought of this. Included with the Cybershot T300 is a "Paint Pen", or stylus to you and me. In actual fact it's just an oblong piece of plastic with a pointy bit at one end for selecting buttons on the screen and a clip on the other to attach it to the camera's strap.
The only down side of this is that when you have the strap around your wrist as you use the camera, if you want to make a quick change to the shooting options it's easier and quicker to simply use a finger. But that's a minor niggle and laying off the nuts certainly won't hurt.
Putting the fun in function
The menu system takes a little bit of getting used to, but is actually pretty logical. Because part of this test was to see how well the Sony T300 would slot into my life as a companion camera, I made the deliberate choice not to consult the user manual, but to see how far intuition and previous experience would get me. As it turns out, quite a long way. The menu options are relatively standard and as found on most compact cameras. The exact functions displayed on screen will depend on which mode the camera is currently set to (shooting, playback etc.). However, a handy "Home" button in the top-left corner of the screen opens up a "Mode" menu, which allows you to enter any particular setting and make amendments to any of the options. There are also other features that are more obscure and only found on a handful of other cameras. These include various Face Detection options including Auto Red-Eye Reduction when a face is detected, and Shadow Detail Recovery where you can choose how much detail is shown in the darker areas and how the highlights are affected.
There's also a whole host of editing features that can be used in the Review mode. The Retouch option offers the standard image trimming facility, but also includes some more unusual on-camera editing such as the ability to sharpen, blur or remove colour selected areas of an image, or add a vignette, fisheye, or radial blur effect.
There's also the option to remove red-eye after the picture has been taken. I've always been a little cynical of this feature on other cameras, but it has to be said that on this evidence, the Sony does it very well.
If, like Damien, your subject is unable to crack a smile, the Sony T300 even allows you to add one afterwards! Honest, it's true! Although it should be said that results can vary depending how much "smile compensation" you add.
The Sony T300 also offers a Paint function. Essentially this allows you to use the stylus, or "Paint Pen", to draw all over and add borders to your photos. It's tacky, it's nasty, it's a lot of fun.
I'm not going to go through every single menu option and function available on the T300; there are lots and some of them would be quite dull in the telling. But one thing I will mention briefly is the image/size quality options.
The screen on the back is a 16:9 ratio and the Sony sells itself on its widescreen capabilities and TV compatibility. You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that the sensor is also 16:9. This, however, is not the case. Selecting the various formats on the camera shows the different file sizes. 16:9 is a 7MB image. By comparison, a 3:2 image gives an 8MB image. The largest file size on offer is 10MB but this provides a 4:3 image. What this tells us is that the sensor itself is a 4:3 format and any other image size ratio is a cropped version.
This is not particularly unusual; most compact cameras operate in the same way, but it's worth pointing out.
So, after reviewing the functions and playing with camera and its options in the office, it's fair to say that it all looks very promising. The next step is to see how the little T300 slots in to my life as a travelling companion. To do this, I will be taking it everywhere with me over the next couple of weeks and updating this review as I go along.
Watch this space, I'll be back.