Photo Opportunities

Digital Cameras

Generation 4: I Can See Clearly Now (1998)

Kodak's DC120 is proof positive that specs don't tell you everything about a product. Although I did get some pretty good pictures with it, I was far from satisfied. And when Kodak announced their next camera I was even less impressed. The DC210 was a giant leap backward: a 2:1 zoom instead of the 120's 3:1 and fixed focus instead of autofocus. So after three Kodak cameras (four including the DC20 I never really used) it was time to look elsewhere.

The elsewhere turned out to be Olympus, which released its D-500L and D-600L models late in 1997. These are true single lens reflex cameras, rather than the rangefinders that I had come to know and love tolerate. More importantly, people with early access to the cameras began posting some incredible pictures. These samples were all far better than I was ever able to get with my Kodaks. So it was time to upgrade yet again.

My first problem was to choose between the two models. The D-600L boasts 1280x1024 pixel resolution; the D-500L is only 1024x768 but compensates by greater sensitivity to light (ISO 180 vs. ISO 100) and a much lower price tag ($900 US vs. $1300). I chose the D-500L for its price and its greater facility in low light. A second problem is that Olympus uses yet another kind of memory: SSFDC or so-called Smart Media. These are already competitively priced with Compact Flash, although we're still waiting for higher capacity cards to arrive. Like the DC120 and its Compact Flash, a Smart Media card can be placed in a PCMCIA adapter and read by a computer. Unlike the DC120 the Olympus camera uses the JPEG format for its images, saving a conversion step.

Now that I had my new camera in hand, it was time to test whether it really was an improvement. Below are three shots taken of SGI's new campus, taken from the same location with three different cameras. Notice the difference in the color of the sky; it's hard to believe that the DC120 shot was taken at 10:30 on a sunny Sunday morning! I cropped and then scaled all three images to the same size. Notice that the higher resolution DC120 produces a lower quality picture than the earlier DC50!


Now look at the full detail generated by each camera. Here is a 120x90 pixel clip taken from the original unscaled image. Notice how much sharper the detail is on the Olympus shot; despite having lower resolution than the DC120, it actually gives me more detail to work with.

Not everything is perfect with the Olympus camera. It eats alkaline batteries at an alarming rate. Olympus recommends rechargeable NiMH cells, which last a lot longer between charges than alkalines, whether rechargeable or not. Now I just need to find a 220V charger and extra cells for those trips outside the USA. (I'm sure you're all sympathetic at my plight.)

Battery problems notwithstanding, Olympus has given me exactly what I want: a convenient digital camera that's also a good camera. I wonder if I'd appreciate that accomplishment as much if I hadn't taken so many wrong turns. I'm guessing not.

Generation 4.1: Expanding your vision

I couldn't get by without a good zoom lens. The 3x zoom on the D-500L gives me the equivalent of a 50mm to 150mm lens. The lens is actually a lot shorter than that; the small size of the camera's CCD relative to 35mm film make it work like a much larger lens on a traditional camera. But sometimes even that kind of range isn't enough. How many times have you lost the picture you wanted because you couldn't get close enough? Or in the case of panoramic shots, further away? So I was interested in determining my options for augmenting the camera's optics.

Olympus makes add-on lenses for their IS-3 35mm SLR camera. Their web site has a nice brochure in Adobe Acrobat format that discusses using these lenses with the D-500L and D-600L. After reading the information there, I immediately ordered the .8x wide angle and 1.7x telephoto lenses, along with the 43mm-to-55mm step-up ring that will mate them to the camera.

The add-on lenses are big and moderately heavy. And one small annoyance presented itself right away: you can't leave the step-up ring in place! Leave it on the camera and you can't use the lens cap; leave it on one of the add-on lenses and you can't use the back cap. Needless to say, the camera-plus-lens won't even remotely fit into its case.

But the important question is how the lenses behave. I took some pictures of a sculpture near my office in Mountain View, trying various combinations of the camera's zoom and the add-on lenses. (Although you'd probably never combine a wide angle lens with a telephoto, I would hate to be accused of not being thorough. And you do get a nice vignetting effect, don't you think?)

+ .8x Wide Angle Unaided + 1.7x Telephoto
Wide Angle










I've scaled all of the linked images to 640x480. One advantage of having a camera with more resolution than you need is that you can use the extra data to give even more magnification. The third row of images takes the pictures from the second row and crops them instead of scaling. This magnifies the result by an extra 1.6x. Useful for those times when you just can't or don't dare get any closer.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California