Travelling cameras: the small but mighty Sony WX500

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The Sony DSC-WX500 is a camera that answers a pressing question: these days, when everyone has a camera in their cellphone, why do you need a point-and-shoot? The answer is, because a real camera can do so much more, and produce photos a cellphone just can’t match. And with its remarkable capabilities, the WX500 proves it in spades.

This is a small camera – one of the smallest point-and-shoots I’ve ever used. But good things come in small packages, and Sony has packed this one with a multitude of powerful features. In fact, it does things I’d all but concluded a compact camera couldn’t. And handily, you can use most of them just by choosing one of its auto or scene modes.

The first look

First, though, the basics: Despite its small size (only 101 millimetres, or 4 inches wide), the camera has lots of fire power, with an 18.2-megapixel CMOS sensor and Sony’s Bionz X processor. The sensor is smaller than I usually like in a compact camera, but it’s more than capable of turning out good photos. And it works well with the camera’s most impressive feature: its high-quality, 30X Zeiss zoom lens, with an amazing range equivalent to 24-720mm.

That’s good enough for nature photography, or getting good shots of something on shore from a cruise ship. And while these long zooms are hard to hold still enough for a sharp shot, Sony has addressed the problem with a sophisticated five-axis image stabilizer, good news for those with shaky hands. As well, the feature works both for stills and for video. Speaking of video, there’s a number of qualities and frame rates available. You can shoot in regular MP4 mode for e-mailable movies, or use the high-quality AVCHD if you don’t mind large files.

Sony WX500

The WX500 is good-looking, with its rolled edges and black-on-black colour scheme (you can also get silver and red). If you have large hands, you might find the size a bit of a challenge, but I found it fairly comfortable to use. And there’s room enough on the camera’s back for a bright, vivid 3-inch monitor that flips up to face forward so you can take selfies.

Sony WX500 back

The camera has full manual control modes for those who like to use their own settings. And if you’re the type who tends to leave the camera on auto, the WX500 comes with a powerful “Superior” auto mode. It compares the scene you’re shooting with 42 typical scenes in its built-in database, then chooses the most appropriate scene mode. It will even kick in a high dynamic range (HDR) mode to even out the bright and shady areas when you’re shooting in a high-contrast setting. (This feature does cause a short delay while the camera processes the shot.)

There’s also a slew of scene modes and image effects, and an improved “sweep” panorama mode that you can use with the camera in the vertical position to produce a higher-quality photo. As well, the camera has wi-fi capabilities so you can transfer your shots to your cellphone using Sony’s free PlayMemories app. It even has “tap” technology so you can transfer a shot just by tapping it against your phone or tablet.

Shooting with the Sony WX500

I took the WX500 along on my recent Viking European river cruise, and it was about as handy a companion as I could have asked for. The pint-sized camera slipped invisibly into my pocket or bag, and woke up fairly smartly when I wanted to take a quick shot. The long zoom lens slowed down the waking process a bit, but not badly.

I found the camera focused quickly and accurate in most situations, and rarely got the exposure wrong. And despite some early misgivings, the big monitor was acceptably easy to see in strong sunlight, though it could be a bit murky in difficult lighting situations. The flip-up monitor came in handy when I wanted to shoot something from a low angle, like these flowers at the Plitvice Lakes, Croatia – getting down on one knee is not as effortless as it used to be. (Note: the photos below are unedited, though some are cropped; click on them to see them full-sized.)

Flowers Croatia

The flip-up feature was also great for taking selfies, of course — a nice feature. And there’s an automatic three-second delay so I had time to strike a pose before the shutter clicked. It would have been nice if the monitor tilted down, too, for shooting over crowds, but Sony says that would have made this a more expensive camera (probably an acceptable price to pay).

The WX500 was great for shooting everywhere I wouldn’t want to pull out a big camera – restaurants and museums, for example. It was small enough to be inconspicuous, and the shutter was quiet enough not to attract attention when I didn’t want to, like in this coffee shop in Salzburg, Austria.

Salzburg restaurant

 

But this camera really shone in an area I never expected. I’ve tried a lot of compact cameras with super-long zooms, and the result is always the same: they just can’t turn out a really sharp image at the long end of the zoom. It’s too hard to hold the camera steady enough at that magnification — that is, until I tried the Sony WX500.

I had a few opportunities to take telephoto shots on my European trip, and it performed well when I did. But it really proved its worth when I took my annual bird-watching safari to Point Pelee, Ontario. As I described in my post about the trip, a battery failure left me without my SLR and big telephoto lens. Nothing to do but shoot away with the WX500, and the results were surprising, as you’ll see below.

Looking at the pictures

I got some great shots with this camera, both in good light and bad. The photos were generally sharp and well-exposed, with vivid colours that actually outshone those from the Panasonic mirrorless camera I had along (though this was almost certainly because of how the colour profile was set in the camera). In even reasonable light, it turned out great-looking shots like the one at the top of this post.

The WX500’s quick focus and manual settings were good for capturing action shots, even when I was shooting blind through a fence, like this shot of a race car zooming through the streets of Budapest. Note that the shutter speed didn’t quite stop the action, but that’s probably more my fault than the camera’s.

Race car Budapest crop

That versatility also helped when I put the camera to the test shooting bird shots at Point Pelee. With no other camera available, I tried it on shots I normally wouldn’t attempt with a compact superzoom camera. And to my amazement, most of them came out looking acceptable or better, even when I used the 4X digital zoom.

This shot of a yellow warbler about five metres (15 feet) away is very usable, even when cropped, and I managed to nail the focus despite the lack of a viewfinder and a true spot focus mode.

yellow warbler

This photo of a screech owl in a tree at least 30 metres, or 100 feet away, shows what the camera can do at a real distance, with the digital zoom in use. While it’s not perfect, it’s an amazing result for a compact camera at this distance. This is less than half of the original file, but it’s still good enough quality to put in my collection of bird species.

Screech owl

The photos weren’t perfect, of course. Getting the right colour tones in tough lighting conditions, like the artificial light in restaurants, for example, could be tricky. I ended up with a few very oversaturated shots like this one, in the dining room of the Viking Freya.

Dessert table

And when I pushed the camera to its limits, with a long zoom or very low lighting (or both), the shots could get a bit soft and show some grainy-looking “noise”. That was generally only noticeable at big magnification, however: in most cases, the photos were still usable.

Viking show

As for the movies, the way Sony deals with the video from its cameras can be a head-scratcher. They’re stored in the “Private” folder on your card, and once you find them, you still can’t see them unless you have a compatible media viewer in place. Once I installed the VLC viewer on my Windows 10 computer, I was finally able to view them. And they looked sharp and crisp, though I noticed a bit of “judder” effect and loss of focus if I moved the camera quickly. Here’s a clip I took in Deák Ferenc Square in Budapest,shot in MP4 mode.

The verdict

The Sony WX500 is a very capable travelling companion. With its small size, you can bring it almost anywhere, and shoot unobtrusively in most situations. And the long zoom gives it a huge advantage over most cameras of its type — certainly considering its size. It turned out excellent-looking photos in all but the most challenging light conditions. And while I didn’t use them, the camera’s wi-fi capabilities are useful for transferring photos and posting them to social media.

That said, because of its small sensor, this is not the ideal camera if you’re doing a lot of night shooting; anything shot at a high ISO setting is going to show some noise. However, Sony has included a lot of special scene modes that can be used in these situations, and of course, there’s a built-in flash.

Overall, I’d call the WX500 a good value at its price. It’s not cheap, but its powerful features and good photo quality make it a camera you could travel with for a long time. And if you’re doing some nature photography, it’s a great backup — I have proof.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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