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Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom

Olympus packs an 8x zoom lens into an amazingly small body, for an amazingly low price.

Review First Posted: 7/1/2002




MSRP $699 US

 

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Executive Overview
Following in the footsteps of the already well-established Olympus Camedia C-series of digicams, the C-720 Ultra Zoom combines all the best exposure features of the series with a true, 8x zoom lens. In addition to the long-ratio zoom lens, the C-720's advanced features include ISO settings ranging from 100 to 400, a fast 1/1,000-second shutter speed, and AutoConnect Storage Class USB -- providing plug-and-play transfer of images to Windows 2000, Windows Me, and Mac OS 8.6 and higher computers, without the need for additional driver software. The most notable aspect of this digicam, however, is its broad versatility. While it's targeted at experienced digital photographers -- those who want to step up to a camera with expanded capabilities -- it can also be set in a fully Programmed mode for point-and-shoot simplicity, or in one of four preset shooting modes for achieving optimum results in Portrait, Sports, and Landscape photography. (There's also three Slow-Synchro flash modes for evenly exposed night scenes.)

Size, design, and portability are the other really "hot" features of the C-720. It sports the same compact SLR-style design as the C-3020 and C-4040 -- Olympus' recently updated 3x zoom Camedia models -- with nearly identical dimensions except for a slightly longer lens assembly. In fact, compared to other 8x zoom digicams currently on the market (June 2000), the C-720 is remarkably compact, measuring only 4.2 x 3.0 x 3.1 inches (107.5 x 76.0 x 77.5 mm) with the lens retracted, and only an inch added with the lens fully extended. It weighs just 11.0 ounces (315 grams) without batteries, light enough to fit into a large purse or waist pack, but its classic silver and metallic grey color combination, enhanced by a satin finish, makes it deserving of its own protective camera bag or pouch.

The C-720 features an "electronic" optical viewfinder, which is essentially a miniaturized version of the larger, 1.5-inch, TFT color LCD monitor. The C-720's EVF is bright and clear, with a good, high eyepoint that makes it comfortable to use by eyeglass wearers. Both the LCD and EVF have detailed information displays and provide access to the LCD menu system. The EVF remains active at all times, but with surprisingly little negative impact on battery life. The 6.4-51.2mm 8x zoom lens is equivalent to a 40-320mm lens on a 35mm camera, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8-f/3.4 (wide angle to telephoto). In addition to the C-720's 8x optical zoom, images can be enlarged up to an additional 3x with the "digital zoom," effectively increasing the camera's zoom capabilities to 24x. (Keep in mind though, that digital zoom directly trades off image quality for magnification, because it simply crops out and enlarges the central pixels of the CCD.) The C-720's default image resolution is 1,984 x 1,488 pixels, but lower resolutions of 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, 1,024 x 768, and 640 x 480 are also available. Image quality options include two JPEG compression ratios, plus an uncompressed mode that produces full-resolution TIFF images.

The C-720 offers a great deal of exposure control, including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority, and Manual exposure modes. Program mode controls both aperture and shutter speed, with exposure times as long as one second. Aperture and Shutter Priority modes give you control over aperture or shutter speed, while the camera chooses the best corresponding settings. When used in AP or SP modes, apertures range from f/2.8 to f/7.1 and shutter speeds from 1/1,000 to 1/2 seconds. The Manual exposure mode provides the same aperture range, but permits shutter speeds as long as eight seconds. You can also put the camera into full Auto mode, or select between Portrait, Sports, and Landscape / Portrait scene modes for easy capture of what might otherwise be tricky subjects.

The C-720 provides four ISO options (Auto, 100, 200, and 400), automatic exposure bracketing, Digital ESP Multi-patterned and spot metering modes, plus exposure compensation from +2 to -2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments. White balance options include Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, or Fluorescent, to accommodate a variety of lighting conditions. Image contrast and sharpness adjustments are available through the LCD menu, and a Playback menu option lets you make copies of images in black and white or sepia tones. An adjustable Automatic Exposure Lock (AEL) function locks an exposure reading, without having to hold down the Shutter button halfway while you reframe the image. There's also a 12-second self-timer option for self-portraits, and a "2 in 1" capture mode that records two half-sized images and saves them side-by-side as one full resolution image.

The C-720's Movie mode records QuickTime movies without sound, in either SQ (160 x 120 pixels) or HQ (320 x 240 pixels) modes. Provided of course that the memory card has sufficient space to store the files, SQ movies may be as long as 70 seconds apiece, while HQ mode movies can be up to 16 seconds long. Two Sequence modes capture multiple images as fast as 1.2 frames per second (depending on file size), with an AF Sequence mode that adjusts the focus between each shot. Finally, Panorama mode lets you take up to 10 specially "tagged" shots for merging with Camedia's Panorama Stitch software on your computer. The camera's internal, pop-up flash unit offers six operating modes (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill-in Flash, Flash Off, Night Scene, and Night Scene with Red-Eye Reduction modes), with adjustable flash intensity.

The Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom ships with a 16MB SmartMedia memory card for image storage. Larger capacity cards are available separately, up to the current (June, 2002) limit of 128 MB. You can connect the camera directly to your computer via a high-speed USB interface to download images, and if you want a slightly larger viewfinder (or image playback) display, Olympus also provides a video output cable for connection to a television set. Software shipped with the unit includes Olympus' Camedia Master 4.0 utility package, a capable all-in-one image management program that provides basic organization and editing tools, in addition to a panorama "stitching" application. Apple QuickTime and USB drivers for Mac and Windows are also supplied.

I've always been pleased with Olympus' C-series of digicams and the flexibility they provide, and immediately liked the C-720 UltraZoom. Though some of the more in-depth manual controls of the C-3020 and C-4040 have been left out, the C-720 offers a nice array of exposure options and can still handle a wide range of shooting conditions. The availability of full manual exposure control, as well as a range of preset scene modes gives the camera wide appeal to novices and more experienced amateurs alike. The benefit of 8x optical zoom practically goes without saying, and the EVF viewfinder provides much more accurate framing than a standard optical viewfinder. Overall, the C-720 Ultra Zoom is a nice addition to the Camedia line.

 

Design

The Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom displays the same general body shape and size as the rest of the C-series, though it has a slightly larger lens barrel (to accommodate the impressive 8x zoom lens). The silver-toned body is boxy but compact, with a size that fits the hand well, and good balance when you're holding it. External control layout is similar to previous models, with a large Mode dial on top of the camera and an array of control buttons on the back panel. The C-720 Ultra Zoom features a 3.0-megapixel CCD, which delivers a maximum image size of 1,984 x 1,488 pixels, definitely suitable for printing as large as 8x10 inches with sharp detail. The most exciting feature on the C-720 is its 8x zoom lens, which, when combined with the 3x digital zoom, gives the camera an effective 24x zoom capability (though with the obvious quality tradeoffs of digital zoom).

The C-720 Zoom measures 4.2 x 3.0 x 3.1 inches (107.5 x 76.4 x 77.5mm), similar in dimensions to its cousins, the C-3020 and C-4040 models. A mixture of plastic and thin aluminum body panels keeps the C-720 Zoom relatively light weight at 11 ounces (315 grams) without batteries, though it does have a reassuring heft when you pick it up (due in part to the larger lens assembly). The camera won't fit into a shirt pocket, but does have a chance at larger coat pockets and purses. It comes with a neckstrap, but I strongly recommend picking up a soft camera case to protect the camera when traveling.

The front of the C-720 is relatively plain, featuring only the lens, self-timer LED, and front of the pop-up flash compartment. The telescoping lens extends about an inch beyond the front of the camera body when powered up in any capture mode. When fully retracted, the lens barrel projects only about a half an inch beyond the depth of the hand grip. When not in use, the lens is protected by a removable plastic lens cap that attaches to the camera with the supplied tether strap. A rubbery plastic grip bar on the inside of the handgrip provides firm purchase for your fingers as they wrap around the camera's body.

On the right side of the camera, the SmartMedia compartment is covered by a hinged plastic door that opens from the back panel. The center of the compartment door hinge serves as the eyelet for attaching the neckstrap.

On the opposite side of the camera is the connector compartment, which houses the DC-In, Video Out, and USB connector ports. A plastic, hinged door protects the jacks when not in use, and snaps firmly shut.

The C-720's top panel has only a few controls on it, just only the Shutter button (surrounded by the Zoom Lever), a Mode dial, and pop-up flash compartment (with a Flash Release button).

The back panel layout is logically designed, with all of the control buttons positioned above or to the right of the 1.5-inch LCD monitor. The four-way Arrow Pad serves multiple functions depending on the camera's operating mode, and is adjacent to the right side of the display. Arrayed across the top of the back panel are the Flash / Protect, Spot / Macro (with the added DPOF print feature), and Drive / Erase buttons. Below these are the Power and AE Lock / Rotate buttons. A Display button sits just below the four-way Arrow Pad and controls whether the rear-panel LCD is illuminated. The electronic viewfinder in the upper left corner of the camera shows a miniaturized version of the larger LCD display, and features a diopter adjustment dial for eyeglass wearers.

The bottom of the camera holds the battery compartment cover and a plastic screw-mount tripod socket. The tripod socket is just a little too close to the battery compartment to make battery changes easy when mounted on a tripod. (This is a pet peeve of mine, but I recognize that most people don't spend as much time with their digicams locked down to a tripod than I do.)

 

Viewfinder
The C-720 Zoom offers both a 0.5-inch electronic viewfinder and a rear panel, 1.5-inch, TFT color LCD screen, each with approximately 114,000 pixels. (This looks fine on the rear panel display, but the EVF display seems pretty coarse: I really have to question whether there's actually the same number of pixels in both, the rear-panel LCD clearly seems much sharper.) The EVF display also behaves a little oddly (IMHO) with moving objects or during rapid panning of the camera: I don't think it's a refresh rate issue, but the image blurs noticeably when you move the camera, or when an object moves across the field of view quickly. When things become more or less stationary again, the display seems to sharpen. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) accommodates eyeglass wearers with a diopter correction adjustment and a comfortably high eyepoint, leaving enough room between your eye and the finder for most eyeglass lenses to fit in. The tiny display is identical to that of the larger LCD monitor, complete with menus and exposure information. The EVF remains active at all times, which would usually result in rather short battery life. On the 720 though, battery life is over 200 minutes in capture mode with the EVF active, a commendable figure.

My regular readers will already know that I'm no fan of electronic viewfinders. They seem to be a necessary evil with long-zoom cameras, as it'd be prohibitively expensive and bulky to include an optical viewfinder with an 8x zoom to match the lens. EVFs do have the dual advantages of providing true "through the lens" (TTL) viewing, as well as a the same information display as on rear-panel LCDs, but to my mind the negatives outweigh the positives. My biggest objection to them is that they are generally useless for low light shooting, and the EVF on the C-720 UltraZoom is no exception. In my testing, it proved to be barely usable at light levels of 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux), while the camera was capable of recording usable images at light levels 8x lower. (Although the autofocus only worked reliably down to levels of about 1 foot-candle.)

The C-720's LCD monitor is controlled by the Display button located just off its lower right corner. Pressing the button simply turns the main LCD display on or off, but doesn't affect the information display or the EVF display. A detailed information readout on both monitors highlights a number of exposure settings, including the currently selected f/stop, shutter speed, and exposure compensation adjustments across the top of the screen. In Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the chosen aperture or shutter speed appears as a constant, while the second, automatically determined exposure value updates continuously to respond to changes in subject or lighting. The Manual mode displays the selected f/stop and shutter speed values together, while the exposure compensation value reports when a setting is over- or underexposed by glowing red. In my testing, I found the viewfinder display to be very accurate, showing only about 99 percent of the final image area. (Excellent performance, since I generally expect LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible.)

When using the LCD monitor to review captured images, you can zoom in on displayed images and then scroll around the enlarged image using the Arrow buttons. This is extremely handy for checking focus, small details, or precise framing. There's also an Index display option, which shows either four, nine, or 16 thumbnail-sized images at a time. A very handy "quick view" function lets you check the last picture taken in Record mode by pressing the Display button twice in quick succession. The image will remain displayed on the LCD until you revert back to Record mode by pressing the Display button again, or by half-pressing the shutter button.

 

Optics
The Olympus C-720 is equipped with an all-glass lens, with 10 elements in seven groups. The 8x, 6.4-51.2mm lens provides a focal length range equivalent to a 40-320mm zoom on a 35mm film SLR. (That's a slight wide angle to a long telephoto. Most 3x zoom lenses have a wide angle limit of 35mm, a bit more than 10% wider than the C-720's 40mm figure.) Apertures range from f/2.8 to f/7.1, with the maximum aperture setting dependent on the lens zoom position. Normal focusing distance extends from 24.5 inches (60cm) to infinity, while the macro focus range is 4.1 - 81.6 inches (10 to 200 cm). The Macro / Spot button on the back panel adjusts the focus range for closeup subjects, and includes an option for spot metering in Macro mode. Autofocus is determined through the lens, using a contrast detection method. This means that the autofocus will work properly with auxiliary lenses, as long although it should be noted that add-on lenses will usually affect a camera's focusing limits. A green circle lights solid in the viewfinder display whenever focus is set, and flashes if the camera is having trouble adjusting focus.

I don't (yet) do formal autofocus low-light testing, because there's such a wide variation of performance depending on the particular subject and lighting involved. (Sharp-edged, high-contrast subjects are much easier for cameras to focus on than low-contrast, fuzzy ones.) -Thus, any number I might come up with may be only marginally representative of what my readers might experience. That said, I do recognize the need for at least some sort of indication of low-light focusing capability. So, with a big YMMV (your mileage may vary) warning, I'll report that I found the C-720's autofocus worked fairly reliably at light levels of 1 foot-candle (about as bright as a typical city night scene, under normal street lighting), quite well at levels of 2 foot-candles, and hardly at all at levels of a half foot-candle and below. - A shame, since the C-720 is perfectly capable of acquiring images all the way down to the 1/16 foot-candle limit of my low-light test setup. - I'd really like to see a manual-focus option on the C-720 for use in low light situations.

The C-720's lens barrel incorporates body-mounted filter accessory threads that couple to Olympus' range of accessory lens kits, which extend the camera's telephoto, wide-angle, and Macro shooting capabilities. (An adapter barrel is required though, to permit mounting the auxiliary lenses beyond the furthest extension of the 720's telescoping lens assembly.)

While the C-720's lens provides up to 8x optical zoom, the camera's 3x Digital Zoom increases that magnification to a maximum 24x (albeit with noticeable quality degradations in the resulting image). Digital zoom is activated through the Record menu and controlled by the Zoom Lever on top of the camera. Since so-called "digital zoom" just crops out and enlarges the central pixels from the CCD's image, it directly trades resolution for magnification. This will result in very soft images if you're working at the camera's maximum 3 megapixel file size, but can be useful if you're only shooting at 640x480 anyway. (For web or email use.)

Geometric distortion on the C-720 was better than average at the wide-angle end, as I measured an 0.46 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared better still, as I could only find about four pixels of barrel distortion, about 0.20 percent. The 720's images are quite sharp across the frame, but the corners get soft -- Quite soft at the telephoto end of the zoom range, moderately soft at the wide angle end. Chromatic aberration was also moderate, showing about five or six pixels of light coloration on either side of the target lines. The corner softness at the telephoto end (technically, "coma," I think) made the chromatic aberration much more apparent there. (Chromatic aberration is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target shots.) Like the C-700 before it (and some other long-zoom cameras as well), the C-720's combination of corner softness and chromatic aberration can lead to rather visible purple fringes around the edges of distant, dark objects against bright backgrounds.

Confused by Apertures and Depth of Field? - Do you know how to use "Front Focus" or "Back Focus" to get *all* your subject in focus? Visit our free Photo Lessons area and click on the lessons "Focusing Up Close" and "Selective Focusing Outside!"

 

Exposure

Confused by White Balance? Visit our free Photo Lessons area and click on the lessons "White Balance Indoors" and "White Balance Outdoors!"

The C-720 Zoom offers fairly extensive exposure control, including Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes, as well as a handful of preset scene modes for shooting in specific situations. The Full Auto and Scene modes make the camera easy to use for novices, while the other options provide the flexibility demanded by more advanced users. All capture modes are set by turning the Mode dial on top of the camera, which also accesses the My Mode, Movie, and Playback modes. (My Mode lets you create a custom setup for the camera, including virtually every exposure and operating parameter, that can then be selected simply by rotating the Mode Dial to the "My" position. See below for more information.)

In Auto mode, the camera has complete control over the exposure parameters. You have control over options like zoom, drive mode, image size, etc., but no exposure adjustments at all (not even exposure compensation or white balance - this is truly a "point & shoot" mode). Program mode leaves the camera in charge of the aperture and shutter speed, while you control the remaining exposure options such as ISO, metering, and white balance. In program mode, you also have access to the exposure compensation adjustment, which lets you adjust the camera's automatically determined exposure setting by plus or minus 2 EV units, in steps of 0.3 EV. Aperture Priority lets you set the aperture from f/2.8 to f/7.1 (depending on the lens zoom position) leaving the camera to automatically determine the appropriate shutter speed. In Shutter Priority, you can select shutter speeds from 1/1,000 to 1/2 second, with the camera selecting the corresponding aperture setting. The Manual exposure option lets you control both aperture and shutter speed yourself, and the bottom end of the shutter speed range is extended to 8 seconds. An interesting feature of the Manual mode is that, as you scroll through the various exposure settings, the camera indicates whether or your chosen setting will produce a correct exposure. It does this by showing the f/stop, shutter speed, and exposure differential (the difference between your settings and what the camera metering system thinks is correct) in green when everything is OK. If it disagrees with your choice, the exposure differential shows in red how much under- or overexposed the image will be, based on the camera's own calculations. The exposure differential shows up as an exposure equivalent (EV) value, with the difference shown within a range of +3 to -3 EV. This is a very handy feature that I'd like to see implemented in the manual exposure modes of more cameras.

Three scene modes include Portrait, Sports, and Landscape-Portrait modes, which optimize the camera for specific shooting situations. In Portrait mode, the camera uses a larger lens aperture, which captures the subject in sharp focus in front of a slightly soft-focused background. Sports mode biases the exposure system toward faster shutter speeds, to help freeze fast-moving subjects. Finally, Landscape-Portrait mode uses a smaller lens aperture, to help keep both the foreground and background in sharp focus. Limited menu options are available in the scene modes, as their purpose is to simplify camera setup for novices. (A multitude of menu choices would only add complication to what are intended to be easy-to-use camera settings.)

The C-720 features a variable ISO setting, which lets you set the camera's light sensitivity to 100, 200, or 400 ISO equivalents, or to an Auto mode. The higher sensitivity settings, combined with the camera's maximum eight-second shutter speed, provide good low-light shooting capabilities. In my tests, the C-720 performed well at low light levels, capturing clear images with great color (see the test results section below). The higher ISO settings are also helpful when you want faster shutter speeds in normal lighting, to help freeze fast action. Of course, as with all digicams, the higher ISO settings produce photos with more image noise, much as higher-ISO film shows more film grain.

Two metering systems are available on the C-720: Spot and Digital ESP. Both are accessed through the Spot / Macro / DPOF button on the camera's back panel. Under the default Digital ESP setting, the camera takes an exposure reading from the center of the image as well as the surrounding area and chooses the best exposure based on brightness and contrast across the entire scene. Spot metering simply reads the exposure from the very center of the image, so you can pinpoint the specific area of the photograph you want properly exposed. (Spot metering is very handy when you have a subject that's backlit, or that has a very different brightness (either lighter or darker) than the background.) An AE Lock button locks the current exposure settings whenever pressed, so that you can independently lock exposure and focus. (AE Lock is useful when you want to base your exposure on an off-center subject. Point the camera at the subject, lock the exposure, then recompose your shot however you like. Your subject will be correctly exposed, regardless of what might be in the center of the frame when you finally snap the shutter.)

A Record View function can be enabled through the Record menu, which displays the most recently captured image on the LCD screen while the image is being recorded to the memory card. You can set the Record View to display the image only, or to display the image with a confirmation screen, letting you delete the image before it's saved to the card. This is a nice way to check your shots and not waste time switching back and forth between Playback and Record modes. There's also a Quick View function that lets you check the previously captured image, by pressing the Monitor button twice in quick succession. The most recent image is displayed, with an option to delete it.

In situations where exposure compensation is necessary, simply press either the right or left Arrow buttons (in all exposure modes except Manual) and the EV value displayed on the LCD will increase or decrease in one-third-step increments, up to a total of +/- 2 EV. Or, you can use the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function to automatically bracket an exposure as much as +/- 2 EV in either three or five step increments of 0.3, 0.6, or 1.0 EV units each. (NOTE that the number of shots you can take in AEB mode can be limited by your image resolution/quality setting. In SHQ mode, the bracketing series is limited to 3 shots. In HQ and lower size/quality settings, the full 5 shot series is available. Bracketing is not available at all when you're recording uncompressed TIFF images.) The auto bracketing will center its efforts around whatever exposure you've chosen as the starting point, including any exposure compensation adjustments you've made. AEB is really handy for those times when you want to make sure you get just the right exposure for a critical subject, and need to do so quickly.

White balance can be set to Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Tungsten, or Fluorescent, through the Record menu, to accommodate a variety of lighting situations. (Given the other advanced capabilities of the C-720, I'd really like to have seen a manual white balance option as well.) The C-720 UltraZoom also offers a 12-second Self-Timer for self-portraits or those occasions when you don't want to risk camera shake on a long exposure by pressing the Shutter button to trip the shutter.

There are also options on the record menu to set the in-camera image sharpening and contrast. This last option is one that I personally find particularly appealing: I find that I often want to decrease a camera's default contrast somewhat, to help preserve highlight detail on contrasty subjects. The "Low" contrast option provided by the C-720 is just right for that purpose.

Flash
The C-720 offers a built-in, pop-up flash, with six operating modes: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill-in Flash, Flash Off, Night Scene, and Night Scene with Red-Eye Reduction modes. Auto mode lets the camera decide when to fire the flash, while the Fill-in mode fires the flash with every shot. (Fill-in is useful for throwing light on backlit subjects, keeping their faces from being obscured in deep shadow.) The two Red-Eye Reduction modes fire a small pre-flash before firing the flash at full power, which reduces the occurrence of the Red-Eye Effect. Night Scene allows more ambient light into the background, producing more natural lighting behind a flash-illuminated subject. A button on top of the camera releases the flash from its compartment, while the Flash / Protect button on the back panel controls the flash operating mode. You can also adjust the overall flash intensity from +/-2 EV through the Record menu.

The C-720's flash has an unusually long operating range, rated by Olympus for up to 18 feet with the lens set to wide angle, and up to 14.8 feet in telephoto. This agrees well with my own tests, as the flash showed good brightness up to the 14 foot limit of my flash range test.

One of the features of the original C-700 UltraZoom that's most regrettably missing on the C-720 is the external flash sync terminal. The C-700 had one, the C-720 doesn't. :-(

Special Exposure Modes

Movie Mode
The C-720's Movie mode is accessible via the Mode dial on top of the camera (marked with a small movie camera symbol). Once in Movie mode, you can record QuickTime movies (without sound). The length of movie clips depends on the resolution setting and the amount of memory card space. At the 320 x 240-pixel size, movie clips can last as long as 15 seconds. You can record much longer clips at the 160 x 120-pixel resolution setting (up to 70 seconds). A number indicating the available seconds of movie storage on the SmartMedia card appears on the LCD and EVF monitors. You can use the digital zoom while recording movies, but the zoom action is slower than usual. (Most cameras I've tested don't permit any zoom during movie capture.) I was really surprised though, to see that Movie Mode forces the optical zoom lens to its wide angle setting. - What's the point of an amazing zoom lens, if you don't get to use it. Most cameras don't permit zooming during recording, but most will let you adjust the zoom before you start recording. (Olympus: How about it? Give us zoom in movie mode on the next model?) Spot metering, exposure compensation, focus lock, self-timer, ISO, and white balance are also available in Movie mode, all of which are likewise unusual features to find available during Movie recording. Both resolutions record at approximately 15 frames per second.

Panorama Mode
Like most Olympus digicams, the C-720 offers a Panorama exposure mode when using an Olympus brand panorama-enabled SmartMedia memory card. In this mode, the exposure and white balance for a series of shots are determined by the first exposure. The Panorama function provides light blue guide lines at the edges of the pictures to help you align successive shots, leaving enough overlap between them for the stitching software to be able to do its job. Up to 10 shots can be taken in a panoramic series. Note that this function is only enabled by the built-in panorama firmware found only on Olympus brand memory cards. Images are saved individually and then assembled on a computer using the (included) Olympus software after they've been downloaded.

"2-in-1" Mode
Accessed through the Record menu, "2 in 1" photography mode records two vertically-oriented, half-sized images. After capture, the images are saved side-by-side as one full resolution image, giving a split-screen effect. As with Panorama mode, a set of guidelines appear in the LCD display, to help you line up shots.

Sequence Mode
The C-720 also offers a Sequence mode that mimics the motor drive on a film camera, continually recording images for as long as the Shutter button is held down or until the memory runs out (this varies with the image quality setting and available SmartMedia space). The maximum frame rate is rated to be1.2 frames per second, although my own testing showed rates as high as 1.47 fps when recording in small/basic mode. As is usually the case though, the number of frames you can capture quickly is limited by the camera's buffer memory capacity. At maximum size and JPEG quality, you're limited to three or four rapid-fire shots. Sequence mode isn't available at all for the TIFF (uncompressed) image format. The AF Sequence mode also captures a rapid series of images, but adjusts focus between each shot, resulting in much slower shot to shot times (about 3 seconds).

My Mode
Accessed by turning the Mode dial to the "My" position, this mode lets you save customized settings and then access them simply by turning the Mode Dial. For example, if you consistently shoot in the same environment, you could save the exposure settings for those specific shooting conditions, so that they can be instantly recalled.(I can imagine this option being very handy for situations where you might have to switch quickly between two different environments. - Think of a wedding reception, for instance: Standard "program" mode for outside shots on the lawn, etc, but a custom setup in My Mode to shoot the indoor scenes under incandescent lighting.) My Mode even lets you edit the Shortcut menu items, which appear when the Menu button is pressed, to reflect often-changed settings. The My Mode is very flexible, letting you preset the following camera parameters (see the subsequent section on camera modes and menus for explanations of any settings which might not be obvious from the list below):

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, I now routinely measure it with a custom test system I constructed for the purpose. (With crystal-controlled timing, accurate to 0.01% and with a timing resolution of 1 millisecond.)

Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom Timings
Operation
Time
(secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
8.11
Camera has to extend lens first. Rather slow.
Shutdown
5.81
Time to retract camera lens. Also rather slow.
Play to Record, first shot
0.99
Time until first shot is captured. Quite fast.
Record to play
1.57
Time to display a large/fine file after capture. Pretty fast.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.29/1.45
First number is for wide-angle, second is for telephoto. On the slow side across the general range of digicams, even a bit slow for long-zoom models. (3x zoom cameras tend to run 0.8-1.0 seconds, long zoom models 0.95-1.4.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.21
Time to capture, after half-pressing Shutter button. Faster than average. (Average is 0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
3.2/2.8
First number is for large/fine files, second number is time for small/basic images. Rather slow by current standards - Oddly, the C-720's buffer memory doesn't seem to make much difference at all in single-shot mode.
Cycle Time, continuous mode, max/min resolution
0.9-0.67
0.77-0.67
First numbers are for large/fine files, second number is time for small/basic images. For some reason the interval between the first two shots in a series is greater than for subsequent ones. In large/fine mode, there's an 0.9 second delay between first and second shots, then others follow every 0.67 seconds. You get 4 shots before having to wait for the buffer to clear in large/fine mode, then need to wait about 11 seconds before you can capture the next series of 4. With the small/basic quality setting though, you can get over 100 images in a series, at the 0.67 interval. (That's a frame rate of 1.47 frames/second.)
Cycle Time, TIFF images 3.1/37.7 The C-720 can capture up to three TIFF images at intervals of 3.1 seconds, then it takes 37.7 seconds for the buffer to clear.

The C-720 is an average to somewhat slow camera overall. Startup and shutdown are a little leisurely, as the telescoping lens mechanism is rather deliberate in its motions. Shot to shot time is 3.3 seconds or so, despite a fairly good-sized buffer memory. (This isn't a terrible time, but it isn't an industry-leading one either.) Autofocus speed is also a little slow, even when compared to other long-zoom cameras. - This results in a shutter lag that ranges from 1.29 to 1.45 seconds. Continuous shooting mode does pretty well, with a frame rate of 1.47 frames/second, up to the limit of the 4-frame buffer. All in all, not terribly slow, but a faster shutter response could have made this an excellent camera for sports shooting. As it is, unless you can prefocus the camera in advance of the action, you'd have a hard time capturing critical moments. (On the other hand, if you're dealing with subjects where shutter lag isn't that important, the C-720 gives great long-zoom performance at a bargain price.)

 

Operation and User Interface
The C-720's user interface is similar to that of other recent Olympus C-series digicams, so it didn't take long for me to get familiar with the camera. Even for users new to the interface, the menu layouts are quite straightforward. Because the EVF is active at all times, and displays the same information as the larger LCD monitor, you can quickly verify basic camera settings while aligning a shot, without having to activate the larger LCD display. A handful of external control buttons change the camera's basic settings, and a Mode dial on top of the changes capture modes quickly. The AE Lock button can be customized to activate a number of settings, another potential time saver during shooting. When you do have to call up the LCD menu, a shortcut screen appears first, with quick links to the image quality, white balance, and ISO settings. (You can also edit the shortcuts through the Setup menu.) Once you get into the actual Record menu, options are organized by subject, accessed by a series of tabs along the left side of the screen. This layout lets you quickly skip to the options you need without sifting through pages of menu items. In any of the manual exposure modes, aperture and/or shutter speed is adjusted externally, as is exposure compensation. Once you get the hang of things, control layout is quite intuitive and efficient.

Control Enumeration


Mode Dial: On the top of the camera is the Mode Dial, which controls the camera's operating mode. Choices are Playback, Auto, Landscape/Portrait, Sports, Portrait, Program / Aperture / Shutter Speed / Manual (P/A/S/M), My Mode, and Movie modes.


Zoom Lever
: On top of the camera, in front of the Mode Dial, the Zoom Lever controls the optical zoom in all exposure modes, and the Digital Zoom when enabled through the Record menu.

In Playback mode, the lever switches between Index view, normal image display, and playback zoom.

Shutter Button: Located in the center of the Zoom control, the Shutter button sets focus and exposure settings when pressed halfway and triggers the shutter when fully pressed.


Flash / Protect Button
: Located on the top, right portion of the camera's back panel, this button controls the Flash mode in all still capture modes. Pressing it cycles through Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Fill-in Flash, Flash Off, Night Scene, and Night Scene with Red-Eye Reduction modes.

In Playback mode, this button marks the displayed image for write-protection, or removes protection. Once protected, files cannot be erased or manipulated in any way, except through card formatting.


Spot / Macro / Print Button
: Directly to the left of the Flash / Erase button on the back panel is the Spot / Macro / Print button. In all Record modes, this button cycles between normal metering (Digital ESP), Spot metering, Macro (Closeup) mode, and Macro with Spot Metering modes.

In Playback mode, this button calls up the Digital Print Order Format (DPOF) print settings menu, which lets you tag the current image, or all of the images on the card, for printing on a DPOF-compatible output device. Once the image is selected, you can set the number of copies, whether or not to print the date and time stamp on the photo, and print a cropped area of the image.


Drive / Erase Button
: Adjacent to the viewfinder eyepiece, on the right side, this button controls the camera's drive setting in all still capture modes (that is, all capture modes except Movie), cycling through Single-Frame Shooting, Sequential Shooting, AF Sequential Shooting, Self-Timer, and Auto Exposure Bracketing modes.

In Playback mode, this button lets you erase the current image.


Diopter Adjustment Dial
: To the right of the viewfinder eyepiece, this dial adjusts the electronic viewfinder (EVF) to accommodate eyeglass wearers.


Power Button
: Directly above the top right corner of the LCD monitor, this red button turns the camera on and off.


AE Lock / Custom / Rotation Button
: To the right of the Power button, this button locks the exposure setting in any record mode. Through the Setup menu, it can be customized to control any other menu function.

In Playback mode, this button rotates the image display clockwise in increments of 90 degrees.


Four-Way Arrow Pad and OK / Menu Button
: Made up of four buttons arranged in a circle around a single "OK" button, the Arrow Pad controls many of the camera's operations. In all capture modes except Manual, the left and right arrow buttons increase or decrease the exposure compensation setting (provided the LCD monitor is active). In Aperture or Shutter Priority exposure modes, the up and down Arrow buttons adjust the lens aperture or shutter speed settings, depending on which mode you've selected. In Manual mode, the up and down Arrows control shutter speed, while the left and right Arrows control aperture.

In Playback mode, the left and right Arrows move forward or backward through the pictures stored on the card, or scroll around portions of the expanded image in Zoom Playback mode.

In the LCD menu system, the Arrow buttons navigate through menu screens and select settings. The OK / Menu button in the center of the pad displays the settings menu in any camera mode, and also confirms menu selections.


Display Button
: Diagonal from the lower left corner of the LCD monitor, this button turns the LCD monitor on or off. If pressed twice in quick succession, it displays the Quick View function, which calls up the previously captured image on the screen. A third press returns the LCD to its normal display.

 

Camera Modes and Menus

Movie Mode: Accessed by turning the Mode dial to the movie camera symbol, Movie mode lets you capture movies (without sound) for as long as the SmartMedia card has available space. Shutter speed is set automatically, from 1/8,000 to 1/30 second, depending on light levels.

My Mode: Configures the camera based on a set of user-defined camera settings, specific to shooting conditions. Exposure variables such as aperture, shutter speed, white balance, etc. can all be saved. You can even save the lens zoom position. My Mode settings are made through the Setup menu.

P/A/S/M Mode: Accesses a range of manual and semi-manual exposure modes, including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes. Program mode puts the camera in charge of aperture and shutter speed, while Aperture and Shutter Priority modes give the user control over one exposure variable and the camera control over the other. Manual mode offers full user control over both aperture and shutter speed. Apertures range from f/2.8 to f/7.1, depending on the zoom setting. Shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 1/30 second in Program and Aperture Priority modes, extend to 1/2 second in Shutter Priority mode, and to eight seconds in Manual mode.

Portrait Mode: Optimizes the camera for capturing portraits. A larger aperture is used, so that the subject is sharply focused in front of a slightly soft background.

Sports Mode: The camera's exposure system is biased toward faster shutter speeds to freeze action with moving subjects.

Landscape / Portrait Mode: This mode is best for capturing wide views of scenery or portraits in front of landscapes. The camera uses a smaller aperture setting, which increases the depth of field to capture both the foreground and background in sharp focus.

Auto Mode: The final capture mode on the Mode dial, this mode puts the camera in charge of everything, except for zoom, flash mode, image size, and drive mode. This is a true "point & shoot" mode, requiring almost no input from the user apart from a press of the shutter button.

Playback Mode: This mode lets you view previously captured images using the Arrow Pad to scroll through frames stored in memory. The Zoom Lever switches the image display to Index mode when moved in the wide angle direction, and when moved in the telephoto direction, enlarges a single image. While zoomed in on an image, the Arrow buttons can move the enlarged view around the full image area, allowing you to inspect all parts of it.

Still Picture Shooting Menu: (Note that available menu options will change depending on capture mode.)

Playback Menu

Image Storage and Interface
The C-720 uses 3V (3.3V) SmartMedia memory cards and comes equipped with a 16MB card. Currently (June, 2002), SmartMedia cards are available in sizes as large as 128MB.

The C-720 can store images in both uncompressed TIFF and compressed JPEG file formats. JPEG compression levels include Super High Quality (SHQ), High Quality (HQ), and Standard Quality (SQ). Both SHQ and HQ settings record files at the 1,984 x 1,488 pixel size, while the SQ compression level has several options. SQ1 records files at 1,600 x 1,200 pixels, and SQ2 records files at either 1,280 x 960, 1,024 x 768, or 640 x 480 pixel sizes.

The C-720's file naming protocol includes the month and day at the beginning of the file name, and provides the option of numbering images progressively from one card to the next, or of resetting the naming sequence for each card. The camera lets you write-protect individual images from accidental erasure through the Playback menu. Entire SmartMedia cards can be write protected by placing a write-protection sticker over a specified spot on the card. While individually protected images can still be erased by a card format operation, cards that are write-protected with a sticker are also protected against card formatting. Write-protect stickers can only be used once and must be clean to be effective.

The table below summarizes the compression ratios and number of images which can be stored on the included 16MB memory card with each size/quality combination.

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
16MB Memory Card
Hi
(TIFF)
Fine
Normal
Full
Resolution
1,984 x 1,488
Images
(Avg size)
1
8.8 MB
7
2.3 MB
21
0.7 MB
Approx.
Compression
1:1 4:1 12:1
1,600 x 1,200
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
N/A N/A 24
0.67 MB
Approx.
Compression
N/A N/A 9:1
1,280 x 960
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
N/A
N/A
26
0.62 MB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
N/A
6:1
1,024 x 768
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
N/A
N/A
39
0.41 MB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
N/A
6:1
640x480
pixels
Images
(Avg size)
N/A
N/A
98
0.16 MB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
N/A
6:1

The C-720 comes with interface software and cables for both Mac and Windows computers. It employs a USB interface for high-speed computer connection. I clocked the C-720's download speed at 540 KBytes/second when connected to my G4 PowerMac. This is at the upper end of the speed range for digicams I've tested, with only a few models coming in faster. Like most (all?) other current Olympus digicams, the C-720 is a USB storage-class device. Olympus refers to this as "USB Auto-Connect," and it means that you can connect it to computers running Windows Me, XP, or 2000 or Mac OS8.6 or later, without the need to load separate driver software. (Very nice if you're traveling and want to offload images on a computer in an internet cafe or other computer-for-hire venue.)

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 

Video Out
The C-720 has a Video Out port which supports the NTSC timing format. (I assume that PAL systems are available for European customers.) The video output can be used for reviewing previously captured images and movies, or running slide shows from the camera. It also shows all of the LCD menu screens, as well as the preview display from the LCD viewfinder. (This last means that you could use a TV monitor as a "remote viewfinder" if you wanted to.)

Power
The C-720 is powered by two CR-V3 lithium battery packs, four AA batteries (alkaline, lithium, NiMH, or NiCd), or by an optional AC adapter that can significantly extend battery life if you're doing a lot of downloads on the computer or working in a studio environment. As usual, I measured the C-720's power consumption in various operating modes, and translated the results into estimated minutes of runtime for each. (Based on a set of true 1600 mAh capacity NiMH batteries.)

Operating Mode
Power
(@6.5 volts on the external power terminal)
Est. Minutes
(4 1600 mAh NiMH cells)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
440 mA
161
Capture Mode, no LCD
327 mA
217
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
434 mA
163
Half-pressed w/o LCD
375 mA
189
Memory Write (transient)
554 mA
n/a
Flash Recharge (transient)
1110 mA
n/a
Image Playback
273 mA
175

The C-720's battery life is pretty good, better than many compact cameras, but not as good as larger models using hefty LiIon battery packs. Ultimate battery life is limited somewhat by the need to keep the EVF display running in order to aim the camera and compose your shots. I was surprised by how good runtime was in capture mode with only the EVF active though: Over 3 1/2 hours of continuous operation, much better than average among EVF-equipped cameras I've tested. Overall, battery life is pretty good, although I still strongly recommend that you purchase a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH rechargeable AA cells, and a good charger. Read my NiMH Battery Shootout page for the latest on actual battery performance, or my review of the Maha C204F to see why it's my favorite charger.

Included Software
The C-720 comes with a nice complement of software on the supplied CD. Direct camera control and image downloading are provided by Olympus' Camedia Master software package (Version 4.0) for both Mac and Windows platforms (Macintosh OS 8.6-9.2/OS X, Windows 98/98SE/Me/2000 Pro/XP). USB drivers for both platforms and an Apple QuickTime reader are also included.

Camedia Master lets download and organize images, as well as perform minor image correction and enhancement functions (such as adjusting contrast, sharpness, and color balance). For panoramic images, Camedia Master supplies a "stitching" utility to piece together shots vertically or horizontally. A complete printing utility works with the DPOF settings and allows you to print images directly to Olympus or other DPOF-compliant photo printers.

In the Box
The following items are included in the box:

 

Test Results

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In keeping with our standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only our key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the C-720 Ultra Zoom's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how C-720 images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

Overall, the C-720 Ultra Zoom performed well, producing pretty accurate color in most cases. For the most part, the camera's white balance system handled my testing well, with the Auto option typically providing the best results. However, I often noticed a slight warm cast with the Auto setting, particularly under our studio lights. The camera had a little trouble with the difficult incandescent lighting of the Indoor Portrait (without flash), producing a slightly warm color balance under both the Auto and Incandescent white balance settings. - Far from the worst I've seen, but more than I'd personally prefer. Despite the slight warm cast, the C-720 did a good job with the large color blocks of the Davebox target, with good saturation as well. The camera had some trouble with the awkward blues in the flower bouquet in the outdoor test shot, darkening the tone and shifting the color into violet (a common failing among many cameras I've tested). I also noticed slightly reduced saturation in the red tones in the outdoor house shot. Though its color performance falls a little short compared to previous C-series cameras I've tested, the C-720 still does a good job. I'd like to see a manual white balance adjustment however, which might eliminate the slight warm cast, and would almost certainly help it with incandescent lighting.

The C-720 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 600 lines per picture height, but I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,000 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns occurred at about 1,300 lines. There is a fair bit of softness in the extreme corners of the images though, which can combine with the modest chromatic aberration to produce very visible purple fringes around the edges of dark objects appearing against bright backgrounds in the corners of the frame.

The C-720's electronic viewfinder (EVF) proved very accurate at both wide angle and telephoto lens settings. At wide angle, I measured an approximate 99 percent frame accuracy.At telephoto, the viewfinder was very slightly loose, but very close to 100 percent frame accuracy. (Frankly, the coverage was probably exactly 100% for both zoom settings, the minor differences reflecting the margin of error in my measurements.) Given that I generally prefer LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the C-720 does an excellent job here. .

The C-720's full manual exposure control and maximum exposure time of eight seconds gives the camera great low-light shooting capabilities. At ISO 100, the camera captured bright, clear images with good color at light levels as low as 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux), though the target remained visible as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux). At ISO 200, images were usable as low as1/8 foot-candle (1.3 lux), and as low as 1/16 foot-candle at ISO 400. I noticed that images still appeared slightly dim, even at the brightest light levels, but were still good enough for use.The camera's Noise Reduction system did a fairly good job of eliminating image noise, however, a few bright pixels of noise made it into all of the images (with the highest level at ISO 400). Typical city street lighting equates to about one foot-candle (11 lux), so the C-720 ought to do a good job with much darker shots.

The C-720 was about average in the macro category, capturing a slightly large minimum area of 3.93 x 2.95 inches (100 x 75 millimeters). Resolution was very high, with sharp, well-defined details in the dollar bill, coins, and brooch. Exposure was a little bright, however, and there was some barrel distortion from the wide-angle lens position. (There's also a little corner softness present.) The C-720's long lens barrel blocks the flash in the lower left corner of the frame when you're at the closest macro shooting distance, and flash power is much too bright overall. Bottom line, an average macro performer, and plan on using an external light source when you're really close.

Despite the slightly warm color cast in some images, the C-720 Ultra Zoom did pretty well during my testing. Given the extensive range of manual controls it offers, a manual white balance option would have made a lot of sense as well. Still, overall color and saturation was good, and the camera's low-light shooting abilities should be ample for most uses.

Conclusion
If you need to routinely deal with distant subjects, there's simply no substitute for a long-ratio zoom lens. With an 8x zoom and three megapixels of resolution, the aptly-named C-720 UltraZoom offers a very affordable and functional entry into the realm of long-telephoto digital photography. It snaps good pictures, with good color and tone, but it has a few limitations too, including greater than average "purple fringing" of dark objects against bright backgrounds, in the corners of the frame (a common long-zoom problem), and a somewhat sluggish shutter response. As my regular readers will know, I'm also no big fan of electronic viewfinders, because they're generally next to useless in dim lighting. Still, looking at the camera as a total package, it offers really excellent value in a long-zoom camera. There's plenty of resolution for sharp 8x10 prints, color and exposure are very good, and there's plenty of manual control available. With the focusing set to "landscape", it'll snap good pictures down to very low light levels, with very little image noise. All in all, a good buy in a long-zoom camera, particularly if you're on a limited budget. The predecessor C-700 UltraZoom was a very popular model, and I expect the C-720 UltraZoom will be as well.

<<C720 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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