If there are two numbers that you're inevitably going to see bandied around with the Sony HX300, they'll be 20 and 50. That's because this bridge has a 20-Megapixel 1/2.3" BSI CMOS Exmor R sensor, inherited from the HX50, and a 50x zoom lens (24-1200 mm, f/2.8-6.3). Loaded into a casing derived from 2011's HX100, those two features take this ambitious bridge to the top end of Sony's Cyber-shot HX camera series. Those specs certainly sound impressive on paper, but can they deliver in practice? Time to take a closer look.
In terms of design, Sony's latest bridge doesn't break with tradition. The has the same basic look as its predecessors, the HX200 and the HX100. There's a tilting screen, a deep-set and chunky handle for firm grip, and a practical multifunction zoom ring around the lens. Sony's 50x bridge is an imposing kind of camera, and while it won't win any prizes for the subtlety of its curves, the beefy body does make it feel quite reassuring ... until you get a closer look at the build.
The HX300 may be a heavy and bulky camera but build quality is quite disappointing. For starters, the shutter-release button has a press that's too long and not sharp or distinct enough. What's more, the zoom lever wobbles a little around its central axis.
When held in one hand, the lens quite clearly has a major part to play in the camera's 650 g total weight. Plus, you may even be able to feel the lens elements moving (even with the camera switched off), which can be a little disconcerting. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Even though they may look slightly textured, the plastics are hard and smooth, and they don't give the camera a particularly flattering finish. That said, the rubbery strip on the grip handle makes a nice touch.
Sony hasn't made too many physical changes to this camera compared with the HX200. In this year's bridge, the stereo mic just above the flash is a few millimetres slimmer. The playback button has moved down to the right of the screen just above the four-way arrow pad, shifted from its previous location next to the video-record button. This makes it easier to reach with your thumb. However, we just can't understand why Sony has ditched the proximity sensor that used to be next to the viewfinder ... especially since it was this EVF's only redeeming feature! Instead you get an EVF/LCD button to switch between the two manually, placed not so conveniently on the camera's upper face. Otherwise, the HX300 has the same low-grade viewfinder this bridge series has been sporting for three product generations.
The screen is therefore your best bet for lining up shots. Again, this is the same LCD as seen in the HX200, with VGA resolution and 921,600 dots. It tilts vertically, has wide viewing angles, decent contrast and renders colours with reasonable fidelity.
Otherwise, the HX300 handles more or less like its predecessor. It's an easy camera to use. In fact, the HX300 feels just like a regular compact camera in a massive casing. One thing to remember is that the ISO setting is adjusted by pressing the thumb-wheel rather than via the menu. Apart from that, there are no surprises in store and no customisable features for advanced users. And you can forget about shooting in RAW format too. Design-wise, it feels like Sony is resting on its laurels with the HX300 by simply spinning out the success of the HX200V. Let's hope that there's something new on the inside of the camera ...
Once a zoom gets over 20x (and even then we're being generous), we start to get worried about sluggish start-up times. Monster lenses can take a while to get all their elements into position, after all. Here, it takes just over two seconds for the HX300 to start up, which really isn't bad going for a 50x zoom camera. In any case, the HX300 does a better job than Sony's HX50 superzoom compact with its 30x lens, even if it's a little slower than the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. Still, Sony's bridge makes up for things with a fast photo saving time, where the HX300 is almost twice as fast as its Canon rival while also improving on the HX200. But, as usual, Panasonic's bridges are still leading the way on that front.
The autofocus works very quickly once it locks on to a subject both at wide-angle and telephoto (equivalent to 1200 mm). Even in low light, it gets the job done, keeping this camera speedy enough for day-to-day family use or for capturing the action when on holiday or travelling.
The HX300 and HX50 use the same 20-Megapixel BSI CMOS Exmor R sensor. That makes for a pixel density of 70 Mpx/cm² over this 1/2.3" sensor, making the photosites 1.19 microns across. But while Sony's superzoom compact does a good job of handling that level of pixel density, this bridge proves considerably more disappointing.
No mater what the ISO setting, pictures end up looking dull and generally lacking in sharpness. From 80 ISO, smoothing is very much present over the whole of the image and the camera struggles to render areas of flat, block colour. Quality stays more or less stable up to 400 ISO, but drops at 800 ISO, where contrast and saturation both taper off. Finer detail is lost altogether from 1600 ISO. And there's really no point using ISO settings higher than that!
But the sensor's high pixel density isn't the only thing to blame here, as the lens isn't exactly top-notch either. When switching the lens from 30x to 50x in this year's model, Sony has extended to focal range to use a wider wide-angle setting of 24 mm rather than 27mm. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 saves the day for a while, but other defects soon get the better of things. The image is soft in the middle and actually blurred around the edges. Chromatic aberration abounds and magenta fringes are clearly visible at wide-angle. At telephoto, the lens is very well stabilised and quality improves. Chromatic aberration gets corrected but sharpness levels could still be better.
Note that even when the sensitivity setting is low (80 ISO on the sample shots above), the image processing system applies a very heavy dose of smoothing in an attempt to back up the optical stabiliser. As a result, it may be tricky to get decent prints any larger than 4" x 6" (10 x 15 cm) at the maximum zoom setting. Plus, atmospheric haze is going to be an issue at this kind of extreme focal length. You can therefore expect to see some drop in sharpness, especially in hot weather or in polluted cities (like in our sample shots, taken in Paris).
In video mode, the HX300 has an option for taking still shots while you film. It even lets you choose between shooting 15-Megapixel or 3-Megapixel stills. Video is filmed in Full HD resolution at 50 frames per second (in progressive scan or interlaced formats), but the 24 fps mode seen in previous models has gone.
Image quality is perfectly fine, with no shimmering, decent exposure, smooth movement, a good dynamic range and remarkably effective focus tracking. The same can't be said for the built-in microphone, however. Sound may be recorded in stereo but it struggles to tell left and right apart and captures virtually nothing when a subject is over two metres away. While sound is pretty much audible in our test lab, you may struggle to make out what's going on at a family party, for example.