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Olympus, D-320L Digital Camera
Affordable "megapixel" resolution

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Affordable 1024x768

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"Top of class" resolution

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LCD and optical viewfinder

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Removable storage

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Panorama mode

Olympus has been one of the more successful traditional, film-based camera manufacturers making the transition to digital photography. Their first efforts (the D-200L and D-300L digital cameras) enjoyed much critical acclaim and commercial success, and were leaders in image quality and ease-of-use. The D-300L in particular garnered a great deal of attention as one of the first truly affordable digital cameras with near-megapixel resolution. With the D-320L, Olympus has continued this tradition, with added features and an even lower price.

Overview
The Olympus D-320L is a compact digital point & shoot camera that fits comfortably in your hand, and provides excellent picture quality and ease of use. A 1/3", 810,000-pixel CCD captures 1024x768 pixel images and stores them in three different "quality" (image compression) modes. It provides both an optical viewfinder and back-panel LCD screen for framing, and includes a high-quality (glass) autofocus lens, built-in multimode flash, and useful software. Specific features added to the D-320L over it's D-300L predecessor include removable media and a video-out connector.

Closely approaching the magical "megapixel" resolution level pictures from the D-320L can be printed at quite reasonable sizes without undue artifacts or loss of sharpness. Prints of 4x5 inches are tack sharp, and even full-page 8x10 inch printouts are very usable. What's more, as a more mature product, Olympus has had more time to recoup their engineering costs on it, with the result that it presently sells at a very attractive price point for the feature set it offers.

Design
With the same form factor as its "little brother" the D-220L, the D-320L is shaped very much like a traditional film-based point and shoot camera, and fits the hand well. At 5 x 2.6 x 1.8 inches (127 x 66 x 46 mm) and 9.4 ounces (266 gm), it is compact enough to fit into an average coat pocket, yet still conveys a solid "feel" during use. The unit has a built-in protective lens cover that also functions as a power switch: Sliding the cover open turns on the camera power, closing it turns the camera off. (As a nice touch, the cover also blocks the viewfinder when in the closed position, so there's no chance of missing a picture because the camera happens to be turned off when you click the button.)

Viewfinder
The D-320L addresses the "optical vs LCD" viewfinder controversy by providing both. A bright optical viewfinder provides framing marks for both the "normal" and "macro" modes of the camera, and the back-panel LCD screen can be used either as a viewfinder, or to review images already captured. You can turn the LCD viewfinder on or off at any time by pressing the green button on the back of the camera when in "capture" mode. Like all such panels, the LCD on the D-320L is fairly power-hungry, so you'll want to be judicious in its use to conserve battery life. Fortunately, the D-320L's optical viewfinder is more than adequate for most picture-taking, and about the only time we really felt a need for the LCD viewer was when doing macro photography.

We did notice one quirk with the D-320L's LCD viewfinder: When operating "live," it doesn't show the entire field of view of the image sensor. If you frame a subject exactly using the LCD viewfinder, you'll discover that the final image includes about another 5-10% of the total image area on the top and bottom of the frame. This took a little getting used to when shooting some of our more analytical subjects (such as the resolution target), which required very precise framing. Most casual shooters should find this no limitation however.

Optics
Olympus has always distinguished itself with excellent optics on its consumer film cameras, and their digital cameras are no exception. The D-320L is equipped with a high-quality glass, "aspheric" lens design that undoubtedly contributes to the excellent overall image quality. With a focal length equivalent to a 36mm lens on a 35mm camera, the fast f2.8 lens captures a slightly wider than "normal" field of view. (Moderate wide-angle lenses of this type are the norm for most point and shoot cameras, whether film or digital. In most point and shoot applications, the ability to fit more of the subject into the frame is a decided plus.)

The lens system operates at one of three fixed apertures: f2.8, f5.6, or f11. These are automatically selected by the autoexposure system, but the actual aperture in use is not reported to the user.

The lens autofocuses from 27.6 inches (70cm) to infinity in "normal" mode, and from 7.9 to 27.6 inches (20 to 70 cm) in "macro" mode. The macro mode provides for close-ups of small objects, covering an area of roughly 7.8 x 5.8 inches (19.8 x 14.8 cm) at closest approach. (For reference, the small brooch in the "macro" test shot is about 1.05 inches (27 mm) wide.)

Exposure
The D-320L is rated at an equivalent ISO speed of 100, and has a shutter-speed range of 1/4 to 1/1,000 seconds. This, combined with the aforementioned f-stop range of f2.8 to f11 means it can capture non-flash images over a usable lighting range of EV10 to EV22. (In actual use though, we found we could get entirely usable images at light levels as low as EV9.) The autoexposure system works through the lens (TTL), and so is less likely to be affected by stray light than otherwise. When setting exposure, the camera first selects one of the three available f-stop openings on the lens, and then picks the exact shutter speed needed to produce the required exposure. A 12-second self-timer gives the photographer time to get into the picture him/herself.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The 1/4 second lower limit on shutter speed can be a great help in getting shots that would otherwise be too dark. This is a 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! In our view, Olympus has 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 able to hand-hold a 1/4 second exposure, but it's just about guaranteed that most amateurs will have a hard time below 1/30 or even 1/60. 'Nuff said...

Like any autoexposure system, that of the D-320L is subject to being "fooled" by unusual subjects, whether a light object against a dark background, a backlit subject, or one that's unusually uniform in overall brightness (such as a snow scene). To accommodate these situations, Olympus includes an exposure adjustment control with a range of +/- 1 f-stop to accommodate these situations. Thus, if you think the situation calls for it, you can easily request one f-stop lower or higher exposure, simply by pressing the "+" or "-" buttons on the camera's back while taking the picture. This is a very useful feature, and the D-320L's implementation via the back-panel buttons makes it relatively easy to access "on the fly."

We also liked the focus/exposure lock function of the D-320L, that allows you to pre-set the exposure prior to the shot itself: 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.

The built-in automatic flash has a working range of 7.9 inches to 9.8 feet (20 cm to 3 meters), and provides a rich assortment of operating modes, including "red-eye" reduction, force fill, auto low-light, and auto back-light modes, and of course "off" for those situations in which you want the camera to just do its best with the light available. As with the D-220L, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the D-320L's flash worked at very close distances, for "macro" shots. Many digital point and shoots have a hard time throttling-down their flash for macro shooting, but the D-320L did quite well in this regard.

The D-320L showed very good white-balance compensation, although it was a shade less capable than that of the D-220L: Shooting under available light, the camera was able to produce natural, well-balanced and well-saturated colors under a wide range of conditions, although it couldn't entirely compensate for the warm cast of household incandescent lighting. (Look at the indoor/incandescent portrait shot to observe how well the camera coped with the very "warm" incandescent lighting.)

One of the D-320L's more unusual features is its ability to capture stop-action sequences, at 9 images per second! This could have interesting applications for "photo finishes" at racing events, or for capturing a fleeting expression at a surprise party. -A fun addition, although one we had little reason to exercise in the "typical" shooting we performed as part of our testing.

Operation and User Interface
Overall, operation of the D-320L is very similar to that of its "little brother," the D-220L. Operation of the camera is straightforward, controlled by 5 buttons plus the shutter release along the top of the camera, and three buttons on the back, next to the LCD screen. A small LCD readout on the camera's top displays status information, such as operating mode, shots remaining, and battery condition.

Functions are assigned to the top-of-camera buttons depending on the mode you're currently in: Capture or Viewing. The camera is in capture mode whenever the front is slid open to reveal the lens and viewfinder. Viewing mode is accessed by closing the camera front, and pressing the green button on the camera back to activate the LCD screen.

In capture mode, the top buttons let you select flash operating mode, enable the self timer, choose "HQ" or "SQ" image quality, and select from several camera operating modes, including standard, macro, multi-exposure, or panorama mode. Macro mode adjusts the camera lens to shift its focus range from the normal working distance of 27.6 inches (70 cm) to infinity to the macro range of from 7.9 to 27.6 inches (20 to 70 cm), and is indicated by a small icon of a flower in the LCD readout. Multi-exposure mode was mentioned earlier, in which the camera captures a sequence of nine 640x480 images at 0.1 second intervals. (Note that this mode works only at "SQ" resolution.) This mode could be useful for capturing fleeting expressions, kids or pets in mid-leap, etc. Unfortunately though, you'll need to do so with plenty of available light, as the flash can't cycle fast enough to fire that rapidly.

The camera is activated in viewing mode by pressing the green button next to the LCD on the camera back while the front cover is closed. This turns on the LCD, which displays the last picture taken. You can scroll forward or back through the images by pressing the grey "+" or "-" buttons respectively. Pressing the top-panel button labeled with a grid brings up an index of 9 thumbnails at a time, helpful for quickly finding the image you're interested in. On the D320-L, the index mode is especially helpful, as its larger images take longer to display on the screen. In viewing mode, you can also erase either the individual image currently being viewed, or the entire memory card at once. (Erasing the entire card requires holding down two buttons simultaneously, reducing the chance you'll do so by accident.)

One of the most unusual features is the D-320L's panorama mode: With this mode selected, the back-panel LCD lights up to serve as a viewfinder, to help align successive shots. You can then take a series of shots, panning the camera between shots, and leaving a little overlap between each frame. Sequences of shots taken in panorama mode can later be stitched together automatically by the Olympus Camedia software included with the camera. The panorama mode on the D-320L goes one step better than that on the D-220L, in that you can take panoramas in any orientation or direction, by pressing the back-panel "+" or "-" buttons. In panorama mode, the D-320L displays light blue framing lines on the sides of the screen, and arrows indicating the direction to pan the camera between shots. These framing lines and direction arrows change when you press the back-panel buttons, allowing you to pan either right or left, or even to turn the camera sideways to take in a taller view. (Sure wish I'd had this when we visited Sequoia National Park a couple of years ago. - There's no lens made that can take in an entire Sequoia tree from any reasonable distance!) This last feature provides a useful way to increase the camera's already excellent resolution even more, for stationary subjects: Turn the camera sideways, to produce images 1024 pixels high by however wide you want! Images shot in this mode can easily fill an 8.5x11 (~A4) sized page with a sharp photo.

A couple of practical tips for shooting panoramas: First and foremost, keep the camera straight and level for all shots. (We recommend a tripod.) Secondly, the camera sets the exposure based on the first shot taken, so you should choose your starting point to have reasonably representative lighting for the rest of the shots.

Besides normal free-ranging operation, the Camedia software also allows you to control the D-320L directly from your computer, while it is attached to the serial cable. This is also the only way you can put the camera into its "HQ2" mode, in which image compression is minimized to produce the highest quality images possible. (In practice, we found the differences between HQ1 and HQ2 modes to be strictly minimal. For all but the most critical applications, the default HQ1 mode will be the best tradeoff between resolution and memory capacity.)

Image Storage and Interface
The D-320L stores images on removable SSFDC "SmartMedia" cards. (Solid State Floppy Disc Cards - see the article on storage media for more information.) These cards are exceptionally compact, not much bigger than a largish postage stamp. The camera ships with a 2MB card as standard equipment, and can also accept 4 or 8MB cards. Additional cards can be purchased from Olympus, or on the open market. (If you are considering using third-party SSFDC cards in your D-320L, be sure to get 3.3-volt ones, as the 5-volt models won't work.)

The maximum number of images that can be stored on each card varies considerably, depending on the image quality level selected. The D-320L can save images at three different, user-selectable quality levels. High Quality Mode 1 saves 1024x768 pixel images with nominal JPEG compression, while High Quality Mode 2 uses less compression to achieve the highest possible image quality, at the cost of much less efficient use of memory space. Finally, "Standard" resolution mode saves images at half-resolution (640x480 pixels). A 2MB SSFDC card can hold 4 images in HQ mode 2, 10 in HQ mode 1, and 30 in Standard mode.

Images are stored on the SSFDC cards in standard JPEG format, and can be read directly into image-editing applications if you have one of the optional interface adapters for the SSFDC media. (See below.) In this respect, the D-320L is a "finished file" camera.

Data can be downloaded from the camera via a standard serial interface, at a maximum speed of 115 Kbaud. Download of a typical HQ1-mode image took about 17 seconds on our standard 133MHz, non-MMX Pentium PC. (Standard-quality images take about half as long to download.) Olympus provides several pieces of software for downloading images from the camera: For Mac users, there's a Photoshop plug-in "acquire module," a format supported by a number of Mac-based image-editing programs. Windows users will find a TWAIN-compliant acquire filter, a format supported by virtually all Windows-based imaging software. Finally, the D-320L is supported by Olympus' dedicated Camedia program, for direct control of various camera features, as well as up/download of images.

A side-note on using the Camedia software: Options within the program allow you to specify File Type, Color Depth, and Size for the downloadedfiles. If any of these are checked, the software will force the images into the specified format. More significantly, it appears to do this by first uncompressing the files, and then re-compressing them (if required), with the new settings. NOTE that the Camedia software can't put any detail into the files that isn't already there! Consequently, if you select the "JPEG High Quality" option in Camedia, you may end up with larger files than were in the camera to begin with, but no additional detail. For best results, we recommend leaving all the options un-checked, which will produce exact copies of the original camera files on your hard disk. This is the most efficient import method, and the one used for all the test images appearing elsewhere on this site.

We mentioned adapters for the SSFDC cards above: Some vendors have available PC-card adapters for the SSFDC cards, allowing them to be plugged into standard PC card slots on most laptops. Unfortunately, most desktop computers don't have PC card slots, making that solution unavailable for many users. For these users, Olympus offers the "FlashPath" floppy-disk adapter. That's right: A floppy-disk adapter. This amazing unit accepts a SSFDC card, and then just plugs right into a standard PC floppy-disk drive. As far as the computer is concerned, you've just inserted a floppy disk having a capacity determined by the size of the SSFDC card involved (2, 4, or 8 MB)! As of this writing, this accessory wasn't yet available, but we expect it will be very popular, with a projected price of under $100.

Video Out
In addition to the serial computer interface, the D-320L also has a connector for outputting standard NTSC video. This is a capability we've generally found more useful than we first expected: Connected to a TV with a video input jack, the D-320L becomes a portable presentation machine! Since you can upload images back into the camera, you can select the best/most appropriate shots, put titles on them with the included PhotoDeluxe software, load them back into the camera, and then play them back for a presentation. As frequent business travelers, we've also found digital cameras a great way for the family back home to feel more connected with our business activities: A "slide show" of sights and people from a business trip is great for sharing the events of the trip with the kids. (And with the spouse left behind!)

Direct Printing
A unique feature of the Olympus digital camera line is their ability to attach directly to the Olympus P-300 photo printer. This printer outputs continuous-tone images on glossy photo paper, providing a convincing simulation of a "real" photograph. Operation is straightforward, with the printer plugging into the camera's serial port connection. Once connected, the printer is controlled from the camera, and you can select one or multiple images for output. Prints from the P-300 are on standard 4x6 inch stock, although the actual image area is only 3.1 x 4.1 inches (79x105 mm), leaving a fairly wide white border. With the high resolution of the D-320L, prints from the P-300 would be easy to mistake for snapshots from a film-based point & shoot!

We found the direct printer connection a very appealing feature, especially for events involving kids: There's nothing like seeing the picture moments after you took it! The ease-of-use also beats fiddling around for minutes to hours on your PC just to get a set of snapshots output. There's been some debate in the industry lately as to whether digital cameras should be full-function units with their own "smarts" on board, or rely on the host computer for all their intelligence. The D-320L coupled to the P-300 printer makes a convincing argument in favor of "smart" cameras.

Power
The D-320L is powered by 4 standard 1.5v alkaline, lithium, NiCd, or NiMH batteries, or from an optional AC adapter. As is the case in most similarly-equipped cameras, the LCD panel is rather power-hungry: You can dramatically increase battery life by only using the panel when absolutely necessary. If you are inclined to use the LCD more often than not, we strongly recommend rechargeable batteries of one sort or another. We had good luck with the Rayovac "Renewal" rechargeable-alkalines, standard NiCds, and the new high-capacity NiMH batteries. While rather expensive, the exceptional capacity of the NiHM batteries have lead us to recommend them to most digital point and shoot users. (Once exotic, NiMH AA batteries are now becoming common, with units available on the open market from Sanyo and Radio Shack, among others.) Olympus sells a set of 4 NiMH batteries with a charger as their part number 200517, for a suggested retail of $49.95 and an AC adapter as part number 200513, also at a suggested price of $49.95. Although more expensive than some of the third-party batteries, they have a power capacity of 1300 maH, as compared to the 1100 maH of most others on the market. (See our separate discussion on batteries for more information on the various types available.) Also (and probably more importantly), the Olympus charger is "smart," in that it can properly handle batteries with a range of charge levels, charging them only until they reach full charge: Some inexpensive charger simply charge the batteries for a fixed length of time, regardless of how much charging they actually need. This can damage batteries, or reduce their lifetime considerably.

Included Software
The D-320L comes with a good complement of software: Direct camera control and image downloading are provided by Olympus' own Camedia software package. We discussed most of Camedia's functions earlier, in the section labeled "operation," so won't go into further detail here. Overall, we liked the Camedia application a lot: It was convenient and easy to use, and quite fast at downloading images. The panorama function for the D-320L was an unexpected bonus.

In addition to the Camedia package, Olympus provides acquire plug-ins for both Mac and Windows platforms. As described earlier, the Mac acquire module is a Photoshop plugin, supported by many Mac image-editing applications. On the Windows side, a TWAIN driver will provide near-universal access, given the wide range of applications that support the TWAIN standard.

Besides the acquisition software, two commercial imaging packages are included: Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, for image editing, and InMedia's excellent Slides and Sound, for assembling your own multimedia slide shows. Both programs provide excellent functionality in their respective areas.

Overall, the software bundle provided with the D-320L provides a complete suite of capabilities for capturing and manipulating your photos, and subsequently turning them into multimedia presentations.

Test Results
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 links at the bottom of this page, to see how well the D-320L performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

The D-320L takes consistently high quality images, with exceptional resolution for its price point. In our testing, we found the viewfinder a trifle innacurate: The area shown in the viewfinder was well-centered horizontally, but was offset toward the top of the final image somewhat. The top of the viewfinder very closely coincided with the top of the final image, but the final image included as much as 20% additional area below that shown in the viewfinder. Viewfinder misalignment of this sort is fairly common with both digital and conventional point & shoot cameras, and is fairly easy to adjust for in typical shooting. Once we were accustomed to the slight shift in the viewfinder, we had little trouble framing our images.

A little more puzzling was the previously-mentioned cropping of images in the LCD when it was operating in viewfinder mode. We suspect this is caused by limitations in signal timing between the CCD image sensor and LCD display, but it was unexpected. Fortunately, the cropping is very symmetric, in that the horizontal coverage is exact, and the slices trimmed top and bottom are both equal and fairly small. Again, while a mild annoyance for our testing, this should have almost no impact on typical usage.

Using the "WG-18" ISO test standard, the D-320L's limiting resolution measured a very respectable 575-600 line pairs/picture height horizontally, and only slightly less (550-575 line pairs/picture height) vertically. (See the separate article on image resolution for an explanation of this new international standard for resolution measurement.) This is an impressive performance for a camera at such a low price point.

In real picture-taking situations, the camera revealed great detail in all situations, and provided good color rendition in a wide variety of lighting conditions. (Look at the colors of the flowers in both the outdoor and indoor/no flash portrait shots to see this.) You can get a good idea of the camera's detail-rendering capability in a real application by looking at the standard house image. Very fine detail is evident, and JPEG compression artifacts are minimal. Overall, the D-320L's color rendition had a very slight greenish tinge evident under all lighting conditions, and slightly less saturated colors than it's little brother, the D-220L. Both of these effects are very slight though, and easily corrected in the accompanying Adobe PhotoDeluxe image-editing package.

The camera's macro function is also quite good, although not capable of the "microscopic" macro shots some cameras on the market now offer. As mentioned earlier, at closest approach, the macro mode captures an area of roughly 7.8 x 5.8 inches (19.8 x 14.8 cm). (The small brooch in the "macro" test shot is about 1.05 inches (27 mm) wide.)

See for Yourself!
Take a look at the test images from the D-320L, or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images to those from other digital cameras.

Conclusion
The D-320L is an exceptional digital camera, producing some of the highest-quality pictures in its class, at a very affordable price! It would be an excellent choice for anyone wanting an economical, fixed focal-length digital camera to produce high-quality printed output.


Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a D-320L camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at photos@imaging-resource.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!

For More Info:
View the data sheet for the D-320L

View the test images from the D-320L

 

Reader Comments!
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Olympus D-320L, or add comments of your own!


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