Initial Review Date: 22 December, 1998
|1,344 x 1,008 pixel resolution|
|3X optical zoom (38-115mm equiv)|
|Optical and LCD viewfinder|
|Modular design allows lens/CCD swap(!)|
|Digita operating environment|
|Excellent resolution and color!
Minolta is a mainstream film-based camera manufacturer, with a well-deserved
reputation for quality and strong ergonomic design in their prosumer SLR bodies.
Their approach to the digital market has heretofore been somewhat measured,
but nonetheless marked by innovation. Their early Dimage V VGA-level digital
camera had a unique detachable lens design, that allowed the lens/sensor unit
to be positioned as much as 3 feet away from the camera body, allowing unique
viewing angles and candid possibilities unattainable with conventional units.
On the high end, Minolta created the RDC-175 SLR camera, which used a multiple-sensor
design to achieve high resolution and almost complete freedom from color artifacts
at a lower cost than most of its competitors. With their newly-announced Dimage
EX 1500 Zoom/Wide digital camera (reviewed here), and their veritable onslaught
of film scanner products (which we will be reviewing soon), Minolta appears
to be moving into a very aggressive cycle of product development and innovation.
As we'll discuss below, the Dimage EX 1500 combines several key innovations
with strong picture quality to mount a major challenge at the high end of the
"point & shoot" digital camera market.
EX 1500 Zoom "High Points" overview
Several readers have requested quick, up-front feature summaries of the cameras we review, which we'll be doing from this point onward. Herewith are the key characteristics of the EX 1500 Zoom, ranked in a completely arbitrary order reflecting our own personal biases and dispositions ;-)
- 3x optical zoom lens, 38-115mm equivalent focal length range
- EXIF file format includes "1:1" JPEG mode for maximum image quality
(1.5 meg file)
- Detachable, upgradeable lens/CCD unit
- Optional lens extension cable (1 meter) for flexible shooting angles
- Large 16-megabyte RAM buffer for continuous shooting, up to 7 full-res frames
- Burst mode supports up to 3.5 fps at full resolution.
- 25-segment TTL metering
- +/- 2EV exposure compensation in 1/3 EV steps
- External passive autofocus system
- Manual focusing w/focus aid in macro mode
- Digita OS from FlashPoint, for powerful scripting capabilities.
- Includes 8 MB CompactFlash card
- ISO 125
- 2x image inspection mode on playback
- Built in 5-mode flash
- Macro, Still, Burst, and Time-Lapse modes
- Automatic or 3-mode manual white balance setting
- Progressive counter provides unique image file names
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Minolta has packed a variety of in-demand features into the Dimage EX 1500, and used Flashpoint's Digita operating environment to provide a powerful scripting language to extend the camera's capabilities. Features include a 3x aspheric optical zoom lens, a 5-mode flash, a 1.45 megapixel CCD image sensor, excellent overall image quality, and an available image-storage mode with absolutely minimal compression. To our minds though, two features really make this unit stand out relative to other devices on the market.
An especially key feature is the camera's enormous 16 megabyte RAM "buffer" memory, that lets you shoot up to 7 full-resolution images without pausing. In practice, we found this to make a huge difference in how the camera felt, producing a responsiveness much more akin to a high-end film-based point and shoot than a typical digital camera.
The absolutely unique characteristic of the Dimage EX 1500 though, is what we think of as the "anti-obsolescence" character of the removable CCD/lens unit. In the near term, you can switch the zoom lens for an extra-wide angle unit, bringing interchangeable lenses to prosumer digicams for the first time. Looking to the future though, the flexible hardware/firmware design of the body (based on a powerful, programmable chip set and the Digita operating environment) holds the promise that the camera could be upgraded to a higher-resolution sensor, simply by plugging in a different CCD/lens unit! While such an upgrade likely wouldn't be cheap, it would certainly be less costly than trading in the entire camera for the next step up in resolution. (NOTE: The foregoing is pure speculation on our part, as Minolta has steadfastly refused comment on the prospect of future upgrades. We feel there is a strong basis for our projections though, based on early press releases, emphasizing the "expandable bus" architecture of the EX 1500, with the clear implication that it could provide expansion or upgrade capability in the future.)
The Dimage EX 1500 Zoom appears ruggedly constructed, with most structural elements of the case made of aluminum, the sole exceptions being the battery compartment door, some parts of the lens/CCD housing, and some hard-rubber trim elements to provide better gripping surfaces for your fingers. (We were particularly pleased that the latch mechanism holding the lens/CCD to the camera body is all-metal construction.)
The EX 1500's shape is fairly rectangular, with only a slight rounding of the
corners, giving the camera an outward personality that says "serious industrial
tool" more than "warm-fuzzy consumer gadget." We see this as
quite in keeping with its feature set and intended audience. The zoom lens projects
about a half-inch (1 cm or so) from the front of the case when not operating,
and extends another 3/4 inch (1.5 cm) or so when the camera is powered up. The
LCD panel and associated control buttons project about a quarter inch from the
rear of the camera body. Overall dimensions are 5.0 x 2.7 x 2.3 inches (127.5
x 67.5 x 58.5 mm), and the unit weighs in at 10.8 ounces (310 g) without batteries.
(The "Wide" model, with fixed focal-length wide-angle lens is slightly
larger, at 5.0 x 2.7 x 2.5 inches (127.5 x 67.5 x 62.5 mm), and 11.9 ounces
(340 g) without batteries.) Its thickness make it a bit of a tight fit for most
coat pockets, but Minolta includes a very functional leatherette case in the
box with it. The controls are laid out such that you can shoot one-handed fairly
easily, but control layout and balance would make this easier for someone with
smaller hands than your reviewer's ham-sized appendages. ;-) As with all cameras
we've tested, the control layout has a distinct right-handed bias. (Now there's
a niche market: I wonder if we'll ever see "left-handed" cameras?)
Prior to testing the Dimage EX 1500 Zoom, we'd seen early user comments in internet news groups, and had some email correspondence with the first '1500 owners. (Who all seemed quite pleased with their purchases, by the way.) A number of people commented about the relatively small control buttons on the camera's back that are used to navigate the menu system, and select most camera functions. Indeed, when we first started working with the EX 1500, we also had a hard time pressing the tiny buttons with our largish fingers, often resorting to the use of a fingernail, and being frustrated when we didn't hit the button dead-center each time. It came as quite a revelation then, when we subsequently discovered the right way to use the control buttons! Rather than trying to press only the button, let your finger completely cover it and the surrounding area of the camera's back panel. Press firmly, and the button will actuate every time! Once we started using the buttons this way, we had no further problems. Actually, the way we usually operated them was to "pinch" the camera body, with one finger on the front of the body, and the other on the back, covering the button we want to actuate. We also found that the compact control arrangement lent itself quite well to one-handed (the right one) operation, using our thumb to actuate the buttons, and our middle and ring fingers to support the camera from the front.
In common with most digital cameras these days, The Minolta Dimage EX 1500 Zoom includes both optical and LCD viewfinders. The optical viewfinder has "bracket" marks around the center of the image area, as well as offset framing guides for use in close-up shooting. The finder zooms along with the lens as you move from wide angle to telephoto and back again, but does not have a dioptric adjustment to compensate for vision problems on the part of the user. Additionally, the back-panel LCD can be activated for use as a viewfinder at any time, and automatically illuminates when entering macro mode (see below). As with most other LCD panels, the display screen on the '1500 is fairly power-hungry, so you'll want to be judicious in its use to conserve battery life. A minor quibble about the optical viewfinder: It is placed very close to the lens, which will do much to reduce parallax problems in close-focusing situations, but this close proximity means that you can see the edge of the lens barrel in the lower right-hand corner of the viewfinder for about 20% of the zoom range, at the widest-angle end of the settings.
In common with almost all other digital point & shoots, the optical viewfinder on the EX 1500 Zoom doesn't quite show the entire field of view of the image sensor. If you frame a subject exactly using the optical viewfinder, you'll find that the area you framed occupies only 77% of the final image area in telephoto mode, and 76% in wide-angle mode. The image in the optical viewfinder is also displaced somewhat relative to the final one captured by the CCD, the final image being shifted left and up slightly at the wide-angle end of the lens' range, and left and down slightly at the telephoto end. Using the LCD viewfinder though, you'll find that it shows almost exactly 100% of the sensors field of view in either wide-angle or telephoto modes. Overall, the optical viewfinder performance is a bit "looser" than most digital point & shoots, but the LCD framing accuracy is markedly superior.
Overall, we found the LCD screen on the Dimage EX 1500 to be about average among the various camera's we've tested; neither the brightest nor the dimmest, the fastest nor the slowest refresh. The way that the anti-glare screen is integrated into the housing around the LCD did make the display a bit more susceptible to full-sun washout than most, though. (Fortunately, you have the optical viewfinder as a convenient backup.) Overall, our perception was that the LCD was somewhat sharper than many, an impression borne out by its 110,000-pixel rating; and that its refresh rate was a bit on the slow side, although far from the slowest we've seen.
The 5-element, 5-group lens on the EX 1500 seems to be of high quality, particularly given the very sharp images the camera produces in its highest-resolution mode. (The touted "three aspheric surfaces" may contribute to this sharpness.) The zoom range covers 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 38 to 115mm, a moderate wide angle to a moderate tele, and its maximum lens opening ranges from f3.5 at the wide-angle end to f5.6 at the telephoto end. This would make it a relatively "fast" lens in the world of film-based point & shoots, but most digital cameras these days have faster optics. (The 28 mm-equivalent lens on the 1500 Wide model has a very fast f1.9 maximum aperture.) Perhaps the exceptional sharpness of the lens is to some extent a result of smaller apertures overall.
The lens autofocuses from about 19.5 inches (0.5 m) to infinity in normal mode, and has a stated manual focus range of 14.5 to 19.5 (0.35 to 0.5 m) in macro mode. This last needs a little explaining: The EX 1500 uses a passive external autofocus system for normal focusing: Such systems typically have the benefits of relatively fast operation, and fairly good low-light performance. Non-TTL (through the lens) autofocus systems generally can't handle macro focusing though, due to parallax limitations. On the EX 1500, macro focusing is handled manually, using the "W" and "T" buttons on the control pad (the lens automatically zooms to maximum telephoto when put into macro mode). The camera displays a small focus-aid indicator in the upper left-hand corner of the LCD screen when in macro mode. This thermometer-bar indicator shows a measure of the image sharpness as the focus is manually adjusted. We found this provided a strong focus indication for subjects with high contrast and fine detail, but a less obvious "best focus" point for low-contrast subjects with coarse detail. Because the focus-aid display provides a continuous indication of focus accuracy though, it's fairly easy to home in on the optimal focus by finding the spot at which the indicator begins to go back down from its maximum, and then backing up a step or two.
In practice, we found the lens would focus quite a bit more closely in macro mode than the advertised distance of 14.6 inches (35.8 cm): Operation down to only 5.5 inches (14.0 cm) (!) seemed quite feasible. We took shots at both the "official" 14.6 inch minimum distance, and at the 5.5 inch distance we achieved. (Both distances were measured from the subject to the front element of the lens.) There's an interesting coincidence here: We wonder if the official spec from Minolta was supposed to have been 14.5 cm (5.7 inches), which was misprinted as 14.5 inches instead?
We do have a minor quibble with the lens' zoom operation: The control buttons for the zoom function don't appear to be wired directly to the motor controlling the zoom's operation but rather, signal the CPU to move the lens in one direction or another. In practice, this introduces a slight delay between a change in the controls, and the corresponding action by the lens. If we were just trying for approximate framing in our shots, this system worked fine. For precise framing though, we sometimes found it more effective to simply move in or away a little, rather than trying to coax the zoom into an exact position.
Minolta rates the EX 1500 Zoom at an equivalent ISO of 125, which seems about right: Its shutter speed ranges from 1/4000 to 2 seconds, and although Minolta doesn't specify a minimum lens aperture, an assumption of f8-11 would produce a usable illumination range of roughly EV 7 to EV 22-23. While we couldn't directly test the upper end of this range, the lower limit seems to agree with our casual experimentation. (We're working on a test setup and protocol for low-light performance, but didn't have it completed in time for testing the EX 1500.)
The autoexposure system in the Dimage EX 1500 Zoom seems to be quite sophisticated, operating through the lens, and employing a 25-zone (!) matrix-metering algorithm. No spot metering is provided, but the matrix-metering seemed unusually sure-footed with difficult subjects, such as our outdoor portrait shots: We don't have any deterministic test for exposure accuracy, but we had a clear sense that the EX 1500 was doing a better job in this regard than did most cameras we've tested.
Like any automatic exposure system (regardless of sophistication), that in the EX 1500 will be "fooled" under some circumstances. To handle these situations, Minolta provides an excellent exposure-compensation system, allowing you to adjust the exposure up or down from the default value by up to 2 EV units, in 1/3 EV steps (an EV unit corresponds to 1 f-stop of exposure variation). This is not only a very fine-grained exposure adjustment, but we really applaud how accessible Minolta made this function in the user interface: To activate exposure compensation at any time, simply press the top or bottom button on the 4-button control panel at the upper right-hand corner of the camera's back panel. A small exposure-compensation indicator will illuminate on the back-panel LCD screen, showing the current compensation setting. Pressing the top button increases the exposure by 1/3 of a unit, pressing the bottom button decreases it by the same amount. In our digicam shooting, we very frequently find the need (or at least the desire) to adjust the exposure compensation to obtain the best results. Consequently, we see great value in not having to burrow into a menu system to access the EV-adjustment controls. The EX 1500 makes this function as accessible as any camera we've tested to date, and far more so than most.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The 2 second lower limit on shutter speed can be a great help in getting shots that would otherwise be too dark. This is a really long exposure though, well beyond most people's ability to hold the camera steady enough to render a sharp image. Use a tripod when it's that dark! Some camera manufacturers, have unfairly taken some knocks for "poor autofocus" in dim lighting, when the fault in many cases may lie with the photographer for not stabilizing the camera sufficiently. A few pros may be venture to hand-hold exposures as slow as 1/2 second, but it's just about guaranteed that most amateurs will have a hard time below 1/30 or even 1/60. (We've taken some flack for not calling manufacturers more to task for poor low-light performance, but are sympathetic to the difficulty of producing a digicam with an ISO of 1600 for less than several thousand dollars. In the case of the EX 1500, a "faster" lens would definitely have been a help for low-light situations, and we certainly would have liked to see an f2 maximum aperture, rather than the f3.5-5.6 of the actual product. On the other hand, we doubt we'd personally be willing to sacrifice one iota of the existing lens' exceptional sharpness to get there! It's all a matter of tradeoffs, and Minolta appears to have opted to spend their optical budget in increased sharpness and resolution, at the expense of ultimate low-light performance.)
Like most autofocus/autoexposure digital point & shoots, the Dimage EX 1500 provides for off-center subjects by offering a focus/exposure lock function: Pressing the shutter button halfway actuates the autofocus and autoexposure systems, without firing the shutter. Once the exposure and focus is set in this fashion, they will stay "locked" at the selected settings as long as you continue to hold down the shutter button. With this feature, you can easily accommodate off-center subjects by turning to center them, locking the focus and exposure, then turning back to frame the shot to your liking before firing the shutter.
Minolta rates the EX 1500's flash range as from 1.64 to 11.48 feet (0.5 to 3.5 m) at the lens' wide-angle setting, and from 1.64 to 7.54 feet (0.5 to 2.3 m) at its telephoto setting. These numbers agree well with our own experience, although we actually were able to use it a bit closer with good results, down to the official minimum-focusing distance of ~14 inches in macro mode.
The EX 1500's flash provides a rich assortment of operating modes, including auto, force-fill, auto "red-eye" reduction, force-fill red-eye reduction, and of course "off" for those situations in which you want the camera to just do its best with the light available. The camera also supports a special "slow sync" exposure mode, in which auto-flash operation is combined with a longer shutter speed, to allow the ambient lighting to have more of an effect on the final exposure of the scene.
White balance on the EX 1500 is controlled through the Digita scripting interface, which initially led us to speculate that special white-balance options might be accessible via scripting. Alas, a brief inspection of the Digita scripting SDK manual revealed that the scripting interface only allows scripts to select white-balance options already available in the camera's firmware. (We do still wonder though, whether white balance and other apparently "firmware" functions might be accessible to Digita "applications," going one level deeper than the scripting interface.) In our testing, the automatic white balance worked well in response to minor variations in color balance resulting from varying sky conditions outdoors, but left much of the warm hue of the household incandescent lighting in the indoor portrait shot. The explicit "tungsten" setting on the white balance script did better, but still left a fair bit of color in the scene, perhaps being designed for the slightly cooler tone of professional tungsten studio lights. (3200 K vs. ~2800 K for household incandescents.)
We mentioned at the outset that one of the really significant features of the Dimage EX 1500 is its huge "buffer" memory, which the camera uses to store raw images until it has time to process them and save them to the CompactFlash (CF) memory card. The significance of this is that you can take up to seven pictures in quite rapid succession (in our tests, about one every 3.5 seconds or so), until the buffer memory becomes full. Whenever you stop taking pictures, the camera's processor goes to work processing the ones already captured, freeing up the temporary storage as each image is saved to the CF card. In practice, we found this meant that we could pretty much take a picture whenever we wanted: The seven images of temporary storage was more than enough for any normal shooting we were doing, and the camera always stayed ahead of us, until we actually filled up the CF storage. Even better (for inveterate knob-twiddlers like us), the menu system stays "live" while the camera is processing, making it easy to shoot a picture, change a setting, and then shoot another without waiting. The significance of this capability is hard to overstate, as it does much to make the photography experience with the EX 1500 mimic that of a film camera.
In addition to its faster "normal" cycling, the Dimage EX 1500 has a "burst" mode, in which it can take groups of images in very rapid succession, as long as you hold the shutter button down, until the buffer memory fills up. Burst capture can be set to "fast", "medium", or "slow," corresponding to capture rates of 3.5, 2.5, and 1.2 frames per second, respectively. A key feature of the 1500 in burst mode is that it isn't restricted to lower image resolutions as are most digital cameras we've seen offer in similar options: Up to 7 full-resolution, maximum-quality images can be captured in as little as 2 seconds from start to finish in the highest-quality mode. If you do set the camera to capture in its 640x480 resolution mode, the maximum burst length extends to 15 frames.
The Dimage EX 1500 also supports time-lapse photography, and you can program the camera to automatically capture up to 200 images, at intervals ranging from 60 to 32767 seconds in one-second increments, or from 1 to 546 minutes. As with burst mode, you can select any combination of resolution and image quality settings for time-lapse shooting, and either color or black and white formats. Once the camera is programmed, you initiate the time-lapse sequence by manually pressing the shutter button once: The first image is taken immediately, and a countdown timer appears in the information overlay, showing the time remaining to the next picture. Auto power-down is disabled in time-lapse mode, meaning you'll want to operate the camera from the optional AC adapter if you plan a time-lapse sequence extending over more than a few minutes. (If an AC outlet and the adapter aren't handy, turning off the LCD display will do a lot to conserve power.) You can abort a time-lapse sequence in progress by pressing the rear-panel "soft button" under the "stop" label in the overlay area.
One of the benefits of an LCD-equipped digital camera is the ability it provides to review your pictures as soon as you've taken them. Most digital cameras provide a brief "review" period after each exposure, during which the just-captured picture is displayed on the LCD screen. Usually though, you don't have any opportunity to do anything with the displayed image, other than decide whether you need to shoot another one or not. Usually too, your review time is fixed by the camera at a few seconds. With the EX 1500, you can choose whether you want to review your images or not, and if you've chosen the "review" mode, you'll have a choice after each picture to either save or delete it. If you don't explicitly tell the camera to save or delete the image, it will be saved automatically after 10 seconds. This seems like a good approach, as you sometimes will want to study an image for more than a second or two before deciding what to do with it, but certainly won't want to wait a mandatory 5 or 10 seconds after every shot. There's one additional user interface tweak we'd like to see in this regard though: Currently, the EX 1500 won't let you take a picture when you're in instant review mode until you tell it what to do with the previous image. It would be nice if the camera could be programmed to let you take a picture without manipulating the save/delete buttons first, interpreting a subsequent shutter-trigger command as an indication that you're happy with the previous image and want to move on.
We've recently begun measuring shutter-release delay times on digital cameras, since this is an often-overlooked parameter that significantly affects camera usage. We do the timing with a little utility program developed by Digital Eyes, running under Windows. By shutter-release delay, we refer to the lag time between when you press the shutter-release button, and when the camera actually takes a picture. This can include autofocus, autoexposure, and other camera functions before the shutter is actually tripped, and can be as long as a couple of seconds for some cameras.
The Dimage EX 1500 Zoom has a fairly quick shutter release, responding with a total delay of about 0.8 - 1.0 seconds, when starting from a "cold start," with no prefocusing or pre-exposure having been performed. The shutter lag time dropped to only 0.2 seconds if the exposure and focus had been preset by half-pressing the shutter button.
Special Exposure Modes
Another unique feature of the Dimage EX 1500 is the array of special exposure/image processing modes Minolta has equipped it with. We did only limited experimentation with these, but found the results very interesting. In "record" mode, the icon of a small camera appears over the right-hand "soft key" under the LCD display. Minolta calls this the "Digital Scene Selector," and pressing it cycles through a total of six different settings. We'll describe each briefly below:
Auto - the default setting. No additional image processing or unusual exposure adjustments are applied to the images in this mode.
Portrait - The portrait mode reduces noise and softens edges slightly. As its name indicates, this is probably most useful for obtaining a "soft focus" effect for more flattering portraits.
Landscape - A slight sharpening is applied to the images, improving the rendering of fine detail in complex textures. (In our testing, we were surprised by how well this seemed to work: Most in-camera image sharpening is very heavy-handed, producing noticeable "halos" around highly contrasting objects, and obscuring fine detail. By contrast, this function on the EX 1500 was quite subtle, appearing to simply enhance detail without adding anything artificial to the image.)
Evening/Sunset - We didn't play with this one, but it apparently disables the automatic white-balance processing of the camera, allowing it to capture the true colors of sunsets or evening skies.
Night Scene - This setting applies some form of electronic noise reduction, producing much cleaner images when shooting under low-light conditions.
Slow Sync - We mentioned this earlier, in our discussion of the flash system. This setting enables the flash, but favors longer exposure times, to emphasize the natural scene lighting over the illumination coming from the flash itself.
Operation and User Interface
The Dimage EX 1500 uses the Digita operating environment from FlashPoint Technology. Thus, its user interface strongly reflects the "standard" Digita interface, although the control options and their arrangement has been set up by Minolta specifically for the '1500. Camera functions are controlled by an array of 12 (!) buttons on the back panel, plus the power button, and a slide switch for selecting the operating mode. Three of the buttons under the LCD display are so-called "soft" buttons, in that their functions are controlled by software, and change from menu to menu, governed by labels appearing above them on the LCD display.
Controls on the Dimage EX 1500 fall into two categories: Those immediately accessible via the various control buttons, and those for which you must enter the LCD-based menu system. The EX 1500 is a powerful and moderately complex device, with many available modes and options. Following recent practice, we'll present the camera operation and user interface in an expanded outline format, but this time will also include a true outline at the beginning, to provide a concise overview of the camera operating modes, controls, and indicators:
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Exposure compensation +/-
- Overlay display on/off
- Status display
- Display on/off
- Macro mode select
- Still/burst/time-lapse mode select
- Flash mode select
- "Digital Scene Select"
- (Informational displays)
- Pictures remaining
- Ready/Wait indicator
- Low battery indicator (when appropriate)
- Still/burst/time-lapse mode indicator
- Flash mode indicator
- Digital Scene select mode indicator
- Macro indicator/focusing aid (in macro mode only)
- Exposure compensation display (only while adjusting)
- (Menu-system controls)
- "Media Settings"
- Still mode
- Burst mode
- Time-lapse mode
- "Photo Script" menu
- White Balance
- Preferences Menu
- Capture settings
- Date and Time
- Counter Reset
- Camera Name
- Format Card
- "Media Settings"
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Next/previous picture
- Expand/Collapse (for burst/time-lapse images)
- Open/Close (for grouped images)
- Play (for burst/time-lapse images)
- (Informational Displays)
- Image Number
- Date & Time stamp
- Image Type (single, burst, time-lapse)
- (Menu-system controls)
- Play Settings
- Slide Show
- Playback Rate
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Next/previous picture
- Category select
- Expand/collapse (for burst/time-lapse images)
- (Informational Displays)
- Image Thumbnails
- Marked/Unmasked status
- Image Number
- Date/Time stamp
- Camera Name
- Image Type (still/burst/time-lapse)
- Image Category (if specified)
- (Menu-system controls)
- Edit Menu
- Camera-Camera transfer
- By Date
- By Category
- Video Mode
- Edit Menu
Phew! That's a lotta functions! We'll now take each of these in turn, and provide a little explanation of them, with a comment here and there. First though, here's a view of the camera back, showing the various control buttons we'll be discussing. (The three "soft buttons" under the LCD screen are a bit hard to see, due to the lighting - We just bought a soft box for our product shots, but it didn't arrive until after the `1500 had left.)
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Wide/Tele - the zoom setting of the lens is controlled by the "W" and "T" pushbuttons in the 4-button group at upper right on the camera back.
- Exposure compensation +/- Exposure compensation is immediately available by pressing the upper and lower buttons in the 4-button group at upper right on the camera back. Pressing one of these first shows you the current compensation setting, and subsequent actuations will increase or decrease the exposure compensation in 1/3 EV-unit (f-stop) increments.
- Overlay display on/off - status information is shown in two bands overlaid on the LCD image. You can turn this off for an unfettered viewfinder display.
- Status display - pressing the "Status" button at lower left on the camera back shows the number of pictures taken, current quality and compression settings, white balance setting, and the version of the Digita software being run. Exit back to the main display by pressing the "Exit" soft key.
- Display on/off - The "Display" button located on the lens unit lets you turn off the LCD display to conserve power. Note that this also disables the functions of all the soft buttons. Pressing the "Menu" button will bring up the menu system even if the display were previously off, though.
- Macro mode select - Macro mode is enabled by pressing the "Macro" button on the lens unit. This brings up the macro focusing aid in the upper left-hand corner of the LCD screen, zooms the lens to maximum telephoto, and changes the function of the "W" and "T" buttons to control the lens focus.
- Still/burst/time-lapse mode select - The left-hand soft key under the LCD display lets you select between still, burst, and time-lapse modes without entering the menu system. Each will operate with the parameters previously set by the appropriate menu entries.
- Flash mode select - The center soft key under the LCD controls the flash mode. Repeated actuations cycle through the available options, as described earlier, in the "Flash" section of the review. (The camera will default to the "auto" setting when it is next powered-up.)
- "Digital Scene Select" - The right-hand soft key under the LCD cycles between the six special exposure modes described earlier. (The camera will default to the "auto" setting when it is next powered-up.)
- Menu enable - The "Menu" button activates the menu system.
- (Informational displays)
- Pictures remaining - an estimate of the remaining CF card capacity, based on the currently selected picture type, size, and compression setting.
- Ready/Wait indicator - Normally shows "Ready" at the top center of the display. Switches to "Processing Pictures" or "Wait" when the buffer memory is full. Also indicates when the CF card is full.
- Low battery indicator (when appropriate) - When the batteries are low, a battery icon appears in the upper left-hand of the display, and a "Battery Low" indicator will appear at top center.
- Still/burst/time-lapse mode indicator - the icon and label above the left-hand soft key shows the capture mode the camera is currently in.
- Flash mode indicator - the icon above the center soft key shows the mode the flash is currently set to.
- Digital Scene select mode indicator - The icon above the right-hand soft key shows what mode the "Digital Scene Selector" is set to.
- Macro indicator/focusing aid (in macro mode only) - When in macro mode, the macro focusing aid appears in the upper left-hand corner of the LCD, in place of the normal pictures-remaining indicator.
- Exposure compensation display (only while adjusting) - While you're actually adjusting the exposure compensation, a small indicator appears in the upper left-hand corner of the LCD, showing the current compensation setting. This setting reverts to zero (no adjustment) after a power-off.
- (Menu-system controls)
- "Media Settings" - This menu controls parameters such
as image size & compression settings. (We have no idea why it's called
- Still mode - image size, quality, color (BW/Full), self-timer on/off
- Burst mode - image size, quality, color (BW/Full), burst rate (slow/medium/fast)
- Time-lapse mode - image size, quality, color (BW/Full), number of images, interval (minutes/seconds, 60-32767, 1-546)
- "Photo Script" menu - These functions are apparently
implemented as Digita scripts. Scripts you write can appear on any menu,
or even on an entirely separate menu you create yourself.
- White Balance - Auto, daylight, fluorescent, tungsten
- Bracket - off, half stop, full stop. When activated, the camera will take three shots each time the shutter button is pressed: One below the autoexposure setting, one at the auto setting, and one above it. The size of the steps is selected by the half stop/full stop options.
- Preferences Menu
- Capture settings - Sets file type (only EXIF permitted on as-shipped units), instant review on/off, system sounds on/off.
- Date and Time - Select date/time display format, set date and time.
- Counter Reset - As mentioned earlier, the EX 1500 has the handy function of naming each file uniquely, based on the total number of images shot since the counter was last reset. This control lets you reset the counter, but will only do so when an empty CF card is inserted, or if all the images on the current card are deleted.
- Camera Name - Get personal! You have up to 31 characters to name your camera. The camera name appears at the bottom of the LCD screen when in review mode, and is embedded in the EXIF JPEG file header information.
- Format Card - Format the CF card, erasing all images. (And all scripts, too!)
- "Media Settings" - This menu controls parameters such as image size & compression settings. (We have no idea why it's called "Media Settings"...)
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Next/previous picture - (self-explanatory)
- Zoom - When each picture is displayed, you initially just see a previously-stored thumbnail. After a few seconds (that is, once the camera's processor has had a chance to read the whole image into buffer memory), you'll see a "Zoom" label appear above the center soft key. Pressing it will zoom in on the image by about 2x on the LCD. You can then use the 4-button control group in the upper right-hand corner of the back panel to smoothly scroll around the full image. This is very handy for more closely inspecting an image after you've captured it.
- Expand/Collapse (for burst/time-lapse images) - By default, only the first frame of burst and time-lapse image sequences are displayed. When the currently-displayed image is part of a burst or time-lapse sequence though, the right-hand soft key will be labeled "Expand." Pressing it will "expand" the sequence of images, allowing you to view each of them individually. While viewing an expanded sequence, the soft key label changes to "Collapse," letting you collapse them back to a single image for display/review purposes.
- Open/Close (for grouped images) - performs the same function for image "Groups" as does Expand/Collapse for burst or time-lapse sequences.
- Play (for burst/time-lapse or grouped images) - You can have the camera automatically play back all the images in a sequence or group. Playback timing is set by the appropriate menu-system control. (See below.)
- (Informational Displays)
- Image Number - The file number assigned to the current image.
- Date & Time stamp - The date and time when the current image was first shot.
- Image Type (single, burst, time-lapse) - Icon in lower left showing image type.
- (Menu-system controls)
- Play Settings
- Slide Show - Select either all images or those from a specific category (see below), set the duration for each, from 1-10 seconds (although it may take the camera longer than that to uncompress each image), and set it to either loop after the last image is shown. When the slideshow is playing, the left-hand soft key is the "stop" button. By default, the information overlay appears, but you can turn it off with the "Overlay" button, for an unobstructed slide show. IMPORTANT NOTE: Unlike many cameras, the Minolta Dimage EX 1500 can accept essentially any JPEG file of the correct size, regardless of source. You can thus modify your images on the host computer in an image-manipulation program, and upload them back to the camera to create a custom slide show with labels, etc. You can advance to the next frame of a show manually, but there doesn't appear to be any way to pause a slideshow once it starts running. (Presumably, if you want full manual control of playback, you can just operate the camera in normal playback mode, with the information overlay turned off.
- Playback Rate - You can set the automatic playback rate for time-lapse, burst, and grouped images in one-second increments, from 1 to 10 seconds.
- Play Settings
As its name suggests, review mode lets you review images you've taken (and view information about them, such as time/date taken, size, quality settings, etc.), selectively delete them, move them to groups, and set a number of camera parameters.
- (Immediate-mode controls)
- Next/previous picture - self-explanatory
- Mark/Unmark - mark or unmark images for subsequent deletion, protection, collecting into a group, etc.
- Category select - This is a bit of an unusual function: The EX 1500 has a number of preset categories to which pictures can be assigned. Categories include Landscape, Vacation, Friends, and Family, among others. Categories can be a quick way of organizing images for display or slide shows.
- Expand/collapse (for burst/time-lapse images) - same functions as in "Play" mode.
- (Informational Displays)
- Image Thumbnails - a row of thumbnails shows the pictures on either side of the current one in camera memory. A larger thumbnail is also shown for the current image.
- Marked/Unmarked status - "Marked" pictures are indicated with a dog-eared corner.
- Image Number - unique sequence number for the current image.
- Date/Time stamp - date/time when picture was taken.
- Camera Name - self-explanatory, set under the "preferences" menu.
- Image Type (still/burst/time-lapse) - self-explanatory
- Image Category (if specified) - self-explanatory
- Menu-system controls)
- Edit Menu
- Delete - delete current image or all marked images
- Group - assign current image or all marked images to an existing group, or create a new group to assign them to.
- Protect - protect current image or all marked images to prevent deletion.
- Camera-Camera transfer
- Send... - Set up camera to transmit images to another EX 1500
- Receive... - Set up camera to receive image from another EX 1500
- By Date - Find and display images based on the date they were taken.
- By Category - Find and display all images in a selected category.
- Video Mode - Select NTSC or PAL for video output
- Edit Menu
Image Storage and Interface
The Dimage EX 1500 Zoom uses standard CompactFlash memory cards for image storage, and ships with an 8 megabyte unit as standard equipment. With an inexpensive adapter, these cards plug into standard PCMCIA or "PC-card" slots on a laptop for very rapid data transfer. Adapters are also available that connect to a PC's parallel port and accept the cards directly. Readers are also available for Mac users, but utilize the more-expensive SCSI interface. Accessory cards are available on the open market in sizes ranging as large as 64 megabytes.
The maximum number of images that can be stored on each card varies quite a bit, depending on the combination of image size and compression level selected. There are four different compression levels available for each of two different image sizes ( 1,344 x 1,008 and 640 x 480). Compression ratios are listed as Super Fine (1:1), Fine (1:8), Standard (1:20), and Economy (1:40). The Super Fine mode produces a file size of about 1.5 megabytes, so presumably the 1:1 designation refers to the ratio between final image size and sensor pixel count. These sizes correspond to storage capacities of full-resolution images on the 8 meg card of 5, 30, 40, and 80 images respectively. Capacities for 640 x 480 images are correspondingly larger.
As mentioned in passing in our discussion of the user interface, images can be "grouped" on the memory card to make it easier to manage the large numbers of images high-capacity CF cards can accommodate. When a set of images are arranged in a group, either explicitly by the user, or implicitly by the camera (for burst and time-lapse sequences), you initially only see the first image of the group when scrolling through the images stored on the camera. When you come to a group of images, a soft key is enabled to let you expand or open a group. Likewise, when you're viewing an individual image within a group, you can collapse or close it.
Interface to a host computer is accomplished by detaching the removable lens module and affixing a cable adapter in its place. This seemed rather odd to us at first, but upon further thought, we realized that this unusual modularity holds the promise for higher-speed host interfaces (such as parallel-port, USB, or FireWire) in the future. (This is pure speculation on our part, but it seems like a logical exploitation of this unique aspect of the camera's design.)
A minor design beef on the issue of memory: The CompactFlash card is located inside the battery compartment, on the bottom of the camera. Thus, you have to open the battery compartment to access the card, and the camera must be removed from a tripod in order to do so. - A minor point, but one we become acutely aware of in the course of our extensive studio shooting with the cameras. (You also run the chance of dumping the batteries on the floor, if you're as deficient in dexterity as the reviewer! ;-)
In addition to the serial computer interface, the Dimage EX 1500 Zoom has a connector for attaching the camera to a video monitor, and in fact supports both NTSC and PAL standards right out of the box. (This is a relatively unusual capability: Most cameras with video out support one standard or the other, but not both.) One of the nicest uses we've found for this capability is to make slide shows of business-trip events for the family left behind: Pictures of everywhere Mom/Dad went on the trip played back on the family TV are a great way to reconnect the family! (Note that you'll need a direct video input to your TV or VCR, not an "antenna" input. Most VCRs have direct video inputs, but many TVs do not. If yours doesn't, you can get an inexpensive adapter used to connect video games to a standard TV at most electronics stores.)
The Dimage EX 1500 deserves special mention in the area of image playback: Most digital cameras are very fussy about displaying JPEG images. They'll happily display images they've taken previously (uploaded back to the camera), as long as there's been NO change in the image at all. Usually, if you've opened and re-saved an image in any host-based imaging program, the camera will refuse to touch it. Not so the Dimage! It will not only accept images modified with Photoshop or other image-editing programs, but it will even display JPEG images from other cameras, having completely different pixel dimensions! This is really a significant benefit for anyone wanting to use the camera as a presentation tool.
The Dimage EX 1500 Zoom runs from 4 AA batteries, but its large sensor, huge buffer RAM, zoom lens, LCD panel, flash, and powerful processor mean that you can absolutely forget anything other than high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries! Given the extraordinary amount of computing power crammed into its case, the '1500 is clearly pushing the envelope on power consumption, so you'll want at least a couple of sets of the highest-capacity NiMHs you can find, and a good charger. You can also power the unit from the optional AC adapter, which is rated at 6V and a hefty 2 amps of current capacity.
The Minolta Dimage EX 1500 Zoom comes bundled with the Digita Desktop software from FlashPoint for host connectivity and simple image manipulation. Digita Desktop is compatible with Windows 95/98, or Windows NT, and has minimum requirements of 16 MB of free memory under Windows 95/98, 32 MB under Windows NT 4.0, as well as a minimum of 32 MB of free disk space. On the Mac, you'll need Mac OS version 7.6-8.1, with QuickTime 2.5 or later installed. (QuickTime 3.0 is required for the slideshow function, and the disk includes an installer for QuickTime 3.0, in case you don't already have it.) As to processor power, the recommendation is for a 75 MHz Pentium or better on the Windows side, and for a 68040 or better on the Mac side, although a Power PC is preferred. A CD-ROM drive is required on both platforms for installation.
Digita Desktop not only provides fairly straightforward up/download capabilities for image files, but also includes the ability to adjust or preset camera operating parameters (such as burst capture speed, image size/compression, etc.), and the ability to upload or remove script files. (More about scripting below.) In addition to camera-control functions, Digita Desktop offers fairly capable tone and hue correction tools, image sharpening, and a text tool for adding captions to images. Finally, you can create slide shows (including audio recorded on the host computer) that can be saved as either AVI files (Windows) or QuickTime movies (Mac).
Image transfer times over the serial cable connection seem to be about typical of other cameras. (The maximum serial speed for cameras is pretty well set by the serial protocols and hardware themselves, regardless of what the camera processor might be able to pump out.) In our brief serial-transfer testing, a 285K image file took about a minute to transfer to our Pentium II Windows '98 machine. We didn't explicitly time the file transfers on our Mac G3, but they seemed to occur at about the same speed.
As mentioned earlier, the Digita Desktop software supports both Mac and Windows platforms, and we used it on both. Surprisingly (to your Mac-bigoted reviewer), the installation on the Windows machine went much smoother than on the Mac. In fairness, our main Mac CPU is a G3 mini-tower, with every manner of extension and control panel loaded, ranging from color management to internet connectivity, to (shudder!) Microsoft OLE extensions. We've thus managed to take the normally stable Mac OS 8.1 and bring it to the utter brink of self-destruction. Once we stripped away many of the superfluous extensions, the stability of the Digita Desktop software improved markedly. At its best though, we have to say it never got quite as good as on the PC.
The scripting capability of the EX 1500 deserves some special mention, as it's so unique relative to non-Digita-equipped cameras. We'd worked with Digita-based devices previously, but that was back in the early days of the platform, before there were many sample scripts or the Software Developer Kits available. With the EX 1500, we were finally able to get a bit of a taste for what Digita scripting can be like.
Digita scripts live on the CompactFlash memory card, in the "System" folder. They're loaded when the camera "boots up," and can add functions to any menu in the LCD-based control system, or to separate menus that they create. The Digita language is pretty straightforward, resembling an interpreted, BASIC-like language, but with explicit variable declarations required. Its control structure includes IF...END structures, but appears to rely upon GOTOs to handle overall flow control between functions.
To delve into scripting, you'll want to go to the FlashPoint web site (the creators of Digita), register as a developer, and pull down their Software Developer's Kit for whichever platform (Mac or PC) you're working on. This package includes a couple of sample scripts showing what Digita can do. As it happens, both of these sample scripts (Birthday Party and Digita Theater) deal with post-capture processing and presentation, rather than camera control, but they give a good demonstration of the capabilities of Digita. Click here to see an example of what the Digita Theater script does.
In keeping with recent policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Minolta Dimage EX 1500 Zoom's "pictures" page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the EX 1500 Zoom performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, we were extremely impressed with the image quality from the EX 1500 Zoom: Images were consistently well-exposed, with bright, clean colors and excellent detail. As we've noted before, we tend to fall in love with every new camera we test, thanks to the continually advancing technology. With the Dimage EX 1500 though, we saw a number of image-quality characteristics that were at the very top of the class. Thanks in part to the unusually low level of JPEG compression used in the highest-quality storage mode, but also obviously to the high fundamental resolution of the CCD sensor, the EX 1500's images are among the sharpest we've seen in any camera to date. (December, 1998.) Color rendition was also exceptional, with excellent handling of both highly saturated colors and delicate pastels. Highlight detail and skin tones were excellent, but we observed moderate noise in the deep shadows of some images. Color balance was excellent under daylight and flash lighting, but the white balance algorithm leaves quite a bit of yellow in shots taken under incandescent lighting.
Detail and resolution were very good, with a visual resolution of approximately 600-650 line pairs/picture height in the horizontal direction, and perhaps 550-600 in the vertical direction. This isn't the highest we've measured on an objective basis, but the EX 1500's performance in the outdoor far-field shot was exceptionally good, at the very top of the field. Overall, we were a bit puzzled, in that the EX 1500 seemed to do better with natural subjects than its performance on the studio-based resolution test would normally indicate.
Due to the critical framing of our studio shots, we're always happy when we find a camera with an accurate LCD viewfinder, and the EX 1500 was a big hit in this department: Its LCD viewfinder appears to show exactly 100% of the final image area when framing the shots. (We attribute any inaccuracy in the viewfinder alignment shots taken with the LCD to the limits of our ability to identify the exact edges of our target's "hot" area. By contrast though, the optical viewfinder was rather "loose," showing only 77% of the final image area in telephoto mode, and 76% in wide-angle.
The EX 1500 Zoom did very well in macro mode, quite a bit better in our tests than its "official" specifications would indicate. As noted earlier, Minolta specifies the minimum focusing distance in macro mode as 14.6 inches (35.8 cm), but we had no problem focusing down to a minimum distance of only 5.5 inches (14 cm). At the 5.5 inch minimum distance, the telephoto lens combined with the very high native resolution to produce really exceptional macro pictures, covering a minimum area of only 1.33 x 1.78 inches (34 x 45 mm) with very high detail. The one downside is that focus is a manual process in macro mode. The built-in flash worked well up to about 12 inches or so, but washed out badly at the very short 5.5 inch distance. We found that using the combination of a 3-stop (ND 0.9) gel filter and a diffusion filter taped over the flash produced satisfactory but somewhat dark results: A 2-stop gel plus diffusion would probably be just right.
The Minolta Dimage EX 1500 Zoom is an very impressive camera with its high resolution and excellent color rendition. The rapid-fire picture-taking provided by its large RAM buffer is also a very decided plus. While Minolta hasn't made any specific comment about future upgrades, the camera's modular design and early Minolta press releases suggest this is part of their strategy. If so, the EX 1500 could well be the first "obsolescence proof" digital camera!
Reader Sample Images!
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