Check out an examination of photo quality from Sony's top-of-the-line ultracompact Cyber-shot DSC-TX9.
The TX9's photo quality is fairly typical for a point-and-shoot camera. It's good up to ISO 200, but at higher sensitivities its noise reduction softens fine details, which is noticeable when pictures are viewed at 100 percent or when heavily cropped. Even at the camera's lowest ISO of 125, subjects are soft and benefit from a little post-shoot sharpening either with software or the in-camera unsharp mask. By the time you get to ISO 400, photos start to look smeary. In its favor is its consistent color performance across sensitivities up to ISO 800. As long as you don't mind their painterly appearance at ISO 800, the results are fine for 4x6 prints and smaller and Web use. Photos at ISO 1,600 and ISO 3,200 look washed out and details are absent. In the end, if you're going to make poster-size prints and stare at them from a foot away, you're probably going to be disappointed with what you see. On the other hand, if a little softness doesn't bother you, this is a quite capable camera for taking photos under a variety of conditions without much effort from the user. (Click for larger view.)
The TX9 can take full-resolution high sensitivity photos up to ISO 3,200 and it has a High Sensitivity scene mode that will automatically pick an appropriate ISO for your needs In the case of the photo on the right it used ISO 2,000. Hand-held Twilight used a lower ISO 1,250 setting, so there was less noise to start with. Then, by combining multiple shots into one it removed much of the image noise and there's no motion blur from hand shake. It looks a little underexposed, but that can be quickly and easily fixed with software. These are 100 percent crops, too, so at smaller sizes the photos are certainly usable for small prints. Also, while the Hand-held Twilight mode is meant for scenery, there's an Anti-motion Blur mode for subjects that might move slightly, such as low-light portraits. (Click for larger view.)
The TX9's lens quality is OK. There is a little asymmetrical distortion at the wide end (top) and a touch when zoomed out (bottom), but it's really not an issue. Center sharpness is very good, but it drops off to the sides. The corners are particularly soft and the wide angle is extreme enough to cause fish-eye effect if you're too close to your subject. Fringing is below average to average; it is present in the high-contrast situations you would expect to see it, but it's only really visible at 100 percent and is thin enough that it could be removed with photo-editing software.
Photo color accuracy and white balance are very good. While blues and reds maybe aren't as accurate as other colors, they're still nice looking with all colors turning out bright and vivid. Plus, they're consistent up to ISO 800; above that, things are slightly washed out looking. Exposure is good; shots occasionally looked underexposed, which is easier to correct with software than overexposed. However, clipped highlights are pretty common.
For scenery and still subjects, take advantage of the TX9's Backlight Correction HDR mode that takes two photos at different exposures and combines them for one photo for a more natural looking shot. The left photo was taken in Intelligent Auto; the right with Backlight Correction HDR. (Click for larger view.)
The TX9's high-speed burst option is capable of capturing up to 10 frames per second at full resolution. The top photo is a 100 percent crop of the bottom image using this option. Since the camera focuses once for the entire burst, moving subjects won't always be in focus. On the other hand, you'll be able to get shots not possible with many ultracompact cameras and they'll be fine for 4x6 prints. There is one more caveat, though: once they're shot, you have to wait a few seconds for each shot to save to memory before you can shoot again.
In an attempt to give users a more "pro" look to photos, there's a new Background Defocus mode that takes two shots, identifies the background and blurs it while keeping the subject sharp and in focus. Recommended distance from the subject is about a foot (30cm according to what the camera says on screen) and you can set the amount of blur to low, medium, or high; this was taken at medium. The top photo is taken with it off, the bottom with it on. It's a nice option for when you want to draw focus to your subject and not, say, a parking lot full of cars that would ruin a shot. The algorithm needs some tweaking, but it's not bad. Just don't look too closely.
Another example of the Defocus mode, but this time it was able to clearly pull the subject from the background, so the flower stands out while the street, buildings, and traffic lights in the background are less distinguishable.
The Intelligent Sweep Panorama option lets you shoot horizontal or vertical panoramas with one press of the shutter release; this is unlike other cameras that require you to take several shots. It's been updated for 2010 on its models that use the Exmor R sensors. This new version--designated by Intelligent--automatically detects faces and moving subjects to avoid distortion. It's definitely one of those features you might not care about until you try it. Once you realize that it's fun and works well, you end up using it all the time. The quality isn't great, though, so they're best suited for small prints and Web use or viewing on a TV from a proper distance. Accompanying this is a 3D version for creating 3D panoramas for viewing on a 3D-enabled HDTV with the necessary glasses. (Click for larger view.)