At first blush, the Olympus C-5050Z doesn't seem like a big improvement over the 4040 I already had. Yes, there's a small increase in pixel count from 4.1 meg to 5.0. But that's not a big deal; we're talking about a difference of 12.5% in each dimension (from 2272x1704 to 2560x1920). That's hardly enough to get excited about, especially when most of my requirements were more than met by 4 megapixels. My web, printing and even desktop background needs are all in the 1.5 to 2 megapixel range. So what possessed me to upgrade, beyond my complete inability to be satisfied with last year's model?
There is of course a lot more to a digital camera than its pixel count. And the 5050 packs a lot of improvements into a case that's a tiny bit bigger and a couple of ounces heavier than the 4040. Here's a short laundry list of the ones that helped to sell me:
Dual memory card slots that support xD and CompactFlash, in addition to the usual SmartMedia cards. You can even use an IBM Microdrive, which is a lot of picture storage for not too much money. (A 1GB Microdrive got me through the first three weeks of my New Zealand trip.) And you can copy pictures between cards from within the camera; a useful backup when a laptop isn't convenient.
An LCD display that swivels up and down, making it a lot easier to compose closeups, as well as those candid scenes where you don't want to bring the camera up to eye level. The adjusting LCD is also easier to see outdoors, since you can position it more easily away from sunlight.
A hot shoe for an external flash. Using Olympus's smart FL-40 flash with the 4040 requires a special cable and a hand grip and bracket attachment. It works well enough. But it's an additional expense and it's even more stuff to lug around and bolt together. Being able to slip a flash on top of the camera is a nice little win.
An improved macro capability. The 4040 will focus on objects as close as 20 cm, about 8.2 inches. The 5050 has two macro modes that let it focus down to 2 cm (less than an inch). Which can be a lot of fun when you're snapping pictures of tiny little flowers. Trust me; it's more interesting than it sounds.
Easier access to various settings. The redesigned UI on the 5050 includes individual dial settings to move among fully programmed, aperture preferred, shutter preferred and full manual modes. There are also specialized modes for portrait, landscape, portrait in front of a landscape, action and night photography, as well as a user-customizable mode. And there's a jog dial for making adjustments, in addition to the four directional buttons.
A higher quality lower sensitivity mode. Digital cameras offer variable light sensitivity, where you trade off picture quality (more noise or what looks like film grain) for faster shutter speeds or a smaller lens opening. The 4040 has sensitivity equivalent to film in the range of ISO 100 to 400. But the 5050 adds an ISO 64 mode; when there's enough light it can produce a sharper, even more realistic image.
Well, that's the theory. In practice I noticed a definite improvement in the quality of the pictures I took. They're sharper, richer and just have more of a snap. See if you agree; compare the floral images below to the 4040 images on the previous page. As before, I shot each image at the camera's maximum resolution (2560x1920), cropped to a standard size of 1920x1440 and then scaled to half and one third size.
Full Size (219k)
Half Size (53k)
1/3 Size (32k)
Full Size (287k)
Half Size (95k)
1/3 Size (55k)
Full Size (243k)
Half Size (66k)
1/3 Size (39k)
Full Size (247k)
Half Size (67k)
1/3 Size (38k)
Here's a more direct comparison of the two cameras: identical scenes (or as close as I could get) shot a few seconds apart. I've scaled each image down to 1920x1440 and then half and one third sizes.
Full Size (494k)
Half Size (160k)
1/3 Size (81k)
Full Size (337k)
Half Size (96k)
1/3 Size (48k)
Full Size (618k)
Half Size (181k)
1/3 Size (88k)
Full Size (408k)
Half Size (109k)
1/3 Size (51k)
The first difference you may notice is that the 5050 doesn't have the problems with chromatic aberration that show up in the 4040. That's the purple fringing in transitions from dark to very bright areas, as in the trees in the left hand image. Fixable with Photoshop, but annoying nonetheless. Other differences are in the brilliance of the color; the 5050 just seems more vibrant. And there's a flatness to the pictures from the 4040; things don't seem quite as three dimensional somehow.
The upshot of all this is that I think I'm suddenly getting better pictures. And, perhaps coincidentally, I find myself going beyond the camera's fully programmed mode and experimenting more with depth of field and other tricks. For whatever reason, I'm more creative with this new camera. Which is really the point, isn't it? So maybe it wasn't such a silly purchase after all.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California