Sitting atop Sony's line of megazoom cameras is the 9-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-H50. Its 15x f2.7-f8 31-465mm-equivalent lens, coupled with the company's SteadyShot optical image stabilization, lets you shoot far and somewhat wide. It's also built around a system of modes and options that make it as nice a point-and-shoot as it is a fully manual camera. However, while the H50 should satisfy those on the fence about moving up to a digital SLR, megazooms are also the gateway drug of cameras, likely to be quickly outgrown by budding hobbyists.
Slightly smaller than the average digital SLR, the H50 is fairly lightweight for its class at just under a pound, but it's obviously not compact enough to put in a pocket. It's available in black or silver with a mix of plastic and metal parts, and the strap attachment loops on each side of the camera swivel, letting the camera point straight down when around your neck. The large hand grip makes carrying it comfortable, though the lens puts a chunk of the weight out front, throwing the balance off a bit.
At the front of the grip sits the shutter button, followed by metering and burst/bracketing mode buttons, and the mode dial. Your thumb rests naturally on the zoom-rocker switch on back. Below the rocker is a context-sensitive Menu button, a Home button for full access to settings, and between them a wheel dial surrounding a directional pad and an OK button for navigating menus. The directional pad doubles as controls for flash, timer, macro, and display options, and the wheel dial lets you quickly change ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in manual mode.
The 3-inch tilting LCD is definitely a highlight of the H50, because it allows so much freedom when shooting subjects at both high and low angles. It also performs well in direct sunlight. A button at the top left of the screen, however, toggles between the LCD and EVF--a better option in bright sun and when using the long zoom sans tripod.
The only minor quibble I have with the design is the lens cap, which, like so many of the megazooms, flies off the second you turn the camera on (luckily there's a loop on the cap so you can string it to the camera body). Also, raw capture and a hot shoe are noticeably absent.
Dialing through the H50's various modes and exploring the accompanying shooting options reveals just how versatile this camera is. Point-and-shoot basics like scene modes with Sony's intelligent scene recognition, Smile Shutter, face detection, ISO boost for low-light shooting, and an oversimplified Easy mode are all available, letting you hand the camera over to anyone to take pictures.
Then there's the new Advanced Sports Shooting mode that uses predicative autofocus and high-shutter speed (up to 1/4,000 of a second) to freeze fast-moving subjects. Capturing soccer players in action proved no problem and combining it with the Burst mode churned out great results without worrying about adjusting a single setting. That said, anyone looking to break out of snapshot territory will be pleased with the amount of flexibility provided by the H50.