Olympus FE-250 Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 6/26/2007
One of four simultaneously announced new FE-series digital camera models with approachable, beginner-friendly features, the Olympus FE-250 has been shipping since February 2007, with a list price of $300. The Olympus FE-250 combines an eight megapixel CCD imager, an Olympus-branded 3x optical zoom lens, and a 2.5 inch LCD display in a pocket-friendly body. The FE-250 aims to keep things simple, with 13 Scene modes that make it easy to get the shot without understanding the subtleties of shutter speeds, apertures and suchlike.
In addition to its 20MB of built-in memory, images can be stored on xD-Picture cards. The FE-250 offers a maximum ISO sensitivity of 3,200, with the ability to bump this to ISO 10,000 equivalent at reduced resolution. (We do caution readers to take claims of extremely high ISO settings with a large grain of salt though - Images shot with such extreme settings may be of questionable value, even for 4x6 inch snapshots.) The FE2-50 also has a VGA Movie mode with sound at a frame rate of 30 fps. Power comes from a proprietary Lithium Ion rechargeable battery. There's also USB computer connectivity, and video out to let you see your photos on a television.
Olympus FE-250 User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Let's just start this review by admitting I had a lot more fun with the Olympus FE-250 than I usually have with an entry-level digicam. Sure, I had to give up some of my favorite tricks (like shutter priority shooting) but I didn't mind the holiday. Sometimes you just want a camera that's smart enough to take snapshots effortlessly. The FE-250 is that smart -- and that simple.
I like to set the shutter speed to 1/30 second when I shoot in dim light so I avoid blurry images. But I also like to crank the ISO up to 400 to register as much of the scene as I can. With the FE-250, I took advantage of its high ISO sensitivity, setting the ISO to 1,600. I didn't have to worry about the shutter speed at that ISO setting. Simple. Smart. Shots captured at ISO 1,600 made rather soft-looking 8x10 inch prints, but I found them fine for viewing on a wall, at typical distances of a couple of feet or so. They were still slightly soft at 5x7, but looked great as 4x6 inch snapshots.
Eight megapixel sensors can make for noisy images, but Olympus has found a good use for all those pixels: Average groups of them together, reducing the noise. At ISO settings over 3200 (and there are two: 6400 and 10,000) you're shooting 3-Mp images, not 8-Mp images. Normally, 3 megapixels would be enough resolution to make decent 8x10 inch prints, but the noise processing applied to these very high-ISO images from the Olympus FE-250 meant that they were really only usable for 4x6 inch snapshot prints. Still, given the choice between getting a blurred mess (from camera or subject movement) vs a slightly soft 4x6 inch snapshot, I'd take the latter any day of the week.
In another twist on making good use of fewer pixels, the Olympus FE-250 can also drop down to 3 megapixel resolution for super-fast motor-drive performance (in this case 15 fps). Two different requirements, two smart ways to use an 8-Mp sensor.
The Olympus FE-250 also smart enough to help you solve some common shooting problems. Guide mode lists a number of problems you may stumble across. With a click of the Right arrow, the FE-250 tells you how to handle the problem and, at the same time, sets itself up for you. Some examples include "Brightening the image," "Super close up photo," "Shooting at night" and many more.
The Olympus FE-250 doesn't overwhelm you with dozens of Scene modes, either. The most common ones are right on the dial: Portrait, Landscape and Night Portrait. And there's a Scene mode with a few more like Candles and Document for more specific situations.
The size is right, too. Compact enough to take with you everywhere but not so small you can't actually grip it. And the LCD is large enough to show off your shots right away.
Design. I find the FE-250 both attractive and intelligently designed. Compromises? Not on the FE-250.
Take a look at the bottom plate to see what I mean. You'll find the speaker there where it can resonate off whatever surface you place the camera on, adding a little depth to the otherwise small sound. (If you set it down flat on a surface, the sound can be muffled, but if the lens is extended, you can tilt the camera forward (gently!) so its resting on its lens. This lets the sound bounce up off any flat surface the camera is resting on, directing it very nicely toward your ears.) And the tripod mount, though plastic, is far enough from the battery/card compartment that you can attach a quick release mount or tripod and still open the compartment. Not a lot of cameras get the bottom plate right.
The same is true of the control layout. On the top panel, you can't miss the Power button. It's small enough to not intrude during normal operation but easy to find. The Shutter button is large and prominent and surrounded by the Zoom level with a prominent knob to help you push it left or right. You just can't confuse these things on the FE-250.
The back panel gets away with the minimum number of buttons. A pair above the LCD to switch between Record and Playback, a smooth Mode dial, a large four-way navigator that's no cheapie, with an OK/Function button in the center and a Menu button and Erase button below the navigator. Simple.
The chrome accents on the brushed steel body are attractive, the lens surrounded by a series of concentric circles like the pattern a rock makes dropped in a pond. The microphone is tucked under the lens where your fingers won't muffle it. The small flash next to the self-timer lamp in the corner barely makes a ripple. And the sliver of a finger grip is handy and stylish. I might wish for a bit more room for my thumb on the back panel, but you can safely put it on the Mode dial once it's set. Smart.
This is a light digicam. You do notice that it's in your shirt pocket, but it's not obtrusive in the slightest. The Shutter button is sensitive enough that you don't jar the camera when you take a shot. So it feels well balanced despite its lack of heft.
I wish all digicams were as simply and elegantly designed as the FE-250. It may seem ordinary on a shelf full of similar slim silver digicams, but it stands out from the crowd when you actually use it.
Display/Viewfinder. There isn't an optical viewfinder on the FE-250, like most cameras in its class. The real question is how difficult it is to use the LCD in bright sunlight.
Fortunately, you can crank up the LCD brightness (at the expense of battery life) to make it a bit more readable. But even with normal brightness, I was able to compose images in full sunlight -- which I can't say about every digicam LCD I've looked at.
And with 230K pixels, it has enough resolution to show good detail on playback and keep the type readable in the menu system. No complaints about the LCD.
Performance. You don't expect great performance from an entry-level camera, even at this price. And the FE-250 generally follows those expectations: Startup, shutter lag and cycle time are all on the slow side of average by today's standards.
But the FE-250 offers a few compensations for those deficits. Battery life is robust enough you can let it fall asleep and wake it up when you need it rather than power it off and back on again (provided you mind the lens, so as to not bump it while it's extended). And the quick continuous mode (of 15 fps) may turn this 8-Mp beast into a 3-Mp digicam, but 3-Mp is a lot, certainly good enough for sharp 4x6 prints.
Image quality is entry-level, too, sacrificing highlight detail to get images that pop with contrast. Sharpness at the corners and in distant shots is a bit lacking, although the 3x optical zoom lens is amazingly distortion free, a rarity.
You can see the contrast issue in our shot of Hippocrates at right, a new friend of mine. The statue at UCSF is bright white and the evergreens behind it are, well, not. I took two shots of it, one with no adjustment to EV and one with -1.0 EV. Neither is quite right.
The 0 EV shot loses a lot of detail on the statue, although the trees aren't bad. There's also quite a bit of blooming around his head (that old purple fringe). You might think I moved the camera but the shutter was a fast 1/200 second on this shot. It wasn't me.
The -1.0 EV shot is actually a little too dark on the statue and yet the highlights are still gone. And the trees are just too dark. It's underexposed, no question, but still burned out. I really didn't know what to do, shift up to -0.3 EV or go down to -2.0 EV. Nothing was going to save those highlights and bring out the trees.
But there is detail in these 8-Mp images. The picture of the pillar at UCSF covered in photos is a good example. You can recognize people in that shot. So too is the first gallery shot of the bacopa ground cover. That image illustrates the falloff in sharpness at the edges even though there's no barrel distortion.
Certainly Olympus isn't shy about noise when it comes to cranking up the sensor sensitivity. You won't find many entry level digicams with ISO 3200, 6400 or even 10,000. (And in our view, the FE-250 perhaps shouldn't have some of those on it either.)
Are those real numbers? The upper two bring you back down to 3-Mp images. But ISO 3200 is still 8-Mp. These are certainly noisy images, but so are ISO 400 images on most digicams. So, given the noise, why not have ISO 10,000 in your bag of tricks?
The doll pictures in the gallery photos explain why. Taken in quite subdued garage light (the only illumination coming from a diffused window behind them), they range from ISO 400 through 10,000. The shutter speeds range from 1/8 second (blurry) to 1/200 second. And you can get a hand-holdable 1/60 second at 8-Mp with ISO 3200. The downside of course, is that you're not going to get tack-sharp 8x10 inch prints from these photos. In the case of the ISO 10,000 shot, it's questionable whether it's usable even as a 4x6 snapshot. Given that, it could be argued that it isn't valid to be putting an ISO 10,000 option on this camera in the first place. Still though, as noted earlier and at least in the case of the ISO 3,200 option, it's probably better to have a soft but usable 4x6 snapshot than a worthless 8x10 ruined by subject or camera movement.
That was enough to convince us to forget about the flash (which is good enough to light up a small room) and shoot at ISO 1600. Which turns out to be just right for a birthday cake aflame with candles. My shot in a room lit only by those candles and the light of dusk really caught the mood. Mom's face was aglow and Mario at the end of the table was lit by just the last light those candles could throw. The picture is just how the scene appeared to the naked eye. Prints from this shot were a bit soft at 8x10 inches, but just dandy at 5x7 and below.
Digital Zoom is smooth and responsive as you compose the image. The images themselves are oversharpened but certainly usable for a snapshot. Use the Full Exif Display button to look for the Digital Zoom tag to confirm the setting on my shots from Twin Peaks.
I really liked the color the FE-250 captured in the rose pictures. The modulation of tones, the detail, the sharp edges all pleased me. Again, these were Super Macro shots -- but wide open.
Olympus makes much of its Digital Image Stabilization, but it really just optimizes the camera for low light conditions using high ISO sensitivity and faster shutter speeds, rather than physically stabilizing the otherwise shaking optics. It's helpful, but not nearly as much as optical image stabilization.
Shooting. One thing I never get tired of complaining about is the absence of actual manual controls -- even on an entry level digicam. This camera with an aperture range of f2.8 to f8.0 and a shutter range of 4 to 1/1000 second begs to be fooled around with, but you just get Auto, Digital Image Stabilization, Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Movie and Scene modes.
Which suggests it's designed for someone who really doesn't want to think about what they're doing. In fact, why even slip it off Auto? Why bother with the Guide?
Of course, that someone is sometimes me. I don't always want to think about my options when I'm shooting. Sometimes I just want to get a picture of the cake and candles at the party. Or snap my nephews. Or get a nice close-up of some bug before it flies away. It was remarkable how often the FE-250 knew just what to do and got the shot.
But when you don't get the results you expected, Guide mode is ready to help. And if, going into the situation (like a birthday party with the cake on the way), you know what the problem is, there's a Scene mode tailored made to get the shot.
My favorite shots with the FE-250 were close-ups and low light images. The landscapes didn't fare quite as well, lacking detail and sharpness especially when digitally zoomed. But you could say that about a lot of entry-level digicams.
I've included some Super Macro images in the gallery that I liked quite a bit. The insect feeding on the orange flower is notable for the sharpness of the insect as well as the nice blurring in the background. Same with the flowering maple next to it, although that was taken in the shade. Both were 1/200 second (a smart choice for Macro), the difference being the f-stops. The insect shot was stopped down all the way to f8 while the maple was opened all the way to f2.8. And the camera left the ISO at 64.
There's also the usual zoom range images from Twin Peaks with a handful of digitally zoomed images (the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz) for comparison. Typical tourist shots. They look better on the LCD than they do on the computer, but that may be good enough for beginners.
Appraisal. Attractive, compact and capable, the FE-250 was fun to shoot close-ups and middle-distance shots with, disappointing me only a little with landscapes. I particularly liked shooting at high ISO even though the image size was reduced to 3-Mp and the shots were really only usable for snapshot-size prints. And I was glad to have 15 fps performance (even at 3-Mp again) when I couldn't wait five seconds between shots. It's a bit expensive as entry-level gear goes, but it grows on you the more you use it.
In the Box
The Olympus FE-250 ships with the following items in the box:
- FE-250 digital camera
- Wrist strap
- Quick Start Guide
- Lithium-Ion battery (LI-42B)
- Battery charger (LI-40C) with power cord
- USB cable
- Audio/Video cable
- Olympus Master 2.0 Software CD-ROM
- Warranty card
- Large capacity xD memory card. These days, a 512MB or 1GB card is a good trade-off between cost and capacity. (Check the shopping link above, cards are really cheap these days, so no reason to skimp.)
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
If there's a single reason the Olympus FE-250 isn't a Dave's Pick, it's the price. I really liked the size, weight, control layout and most of the images I took with the FE-250. It certainly is worth considering for anyone who enjoys taking pictures but doesn't like fiddling with camera settings, and that wants a really trim, compact, stylish camera that can be tucked . The FE-250 does all the fiddling for you, providing a couple of clever options to get shots that are typically out of range of entry-level gear.
While its startup and shutter lag performance aren't lightning-fast, they aren't much slower than other entry-level cameras. You probably won't be bothered by the startup speed, although waiting 5 seconds(!) between shots to get control of the camera back may be a nuisance.
Images are very color-saturated and high contrast, as they are on most entry-level cameras. You probably won't be spending much time editing them anyway, though. I didn't. I liked the color and detail, especially of my close-ups. They were ready to print right out of the camera. All in all, a nice little camera, just a shade away from being a Dave's Pick, but capable of making very nice photos under a range of conditions.