Olympus D-400 Zoom Digital Camera
Olympus puts it all in one package: 1.3 megapixels, 3x Zoom, free FlashPath & more!
(Initial review date: 1 November, 1998)
||1,280 x 960 pixel resolution|
||3X optical zoom, + 2X digital|
||Optical and LCD viewfinder|
||Spot or Average light metering|
||Excellent low-light capability|
||8MB SmartMedia and FlashPath included!
Olympus has been one of the more successful traditional, film-based camera
manufacturers making the transition to digital photography. They established
an early leadership role with their D-200 and D-300, and haven't let up since:
They were the first with under-$1,000 digital Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras,
in their D-500 and D-600, and have demonstrated exceptional customer support
by offering a retrofit service to adapt their D-600's to the newer 16 MB SmartMedia
standard. Now, with the D-400 Zoom, they take their line to the next level,
with incredible image quality and features, in a compact and easy-to-use package.
D-400 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 Olympus D-400 Zoom, ranked in a completely arbitrary order reflecting our own personal biases and dispositions ;-)
- 3x optical zoom lens (35-105mm equiv.), 2x digital tele mode
- EXIF file format includes standard JPEG and TIFF Uncompressed mode
- Both center-weighted and spot metering options
- +/- 2EV exposure compensation in 1/2 EV steps
- 2-position quick focus settings, 8 feet and infinity
- Very good low-light capability, down to ~6 EV
- Includes 8 MB SmartMedia card (compatible with 16 MB media)
- Includes FlashPath adapter in the box!
- Includes Enroute's "QuickStitch" panorama software very slick!
- ISO 60-120 (adjusts based on lighting conditions)
- Dioptric correction for viewfinder sharpness
- 3x image inspection mode on playback
- Built in 4-mode flash
- Macro, Burst, and Panorama modes
- Familiar point & shoot body (very similar to Olympus film models)
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In the D-400 Zoom, Olympus appears to have taken everything they've learned from their earlier rangefinder digital cameras (the D-220L, D-320L, and D-340L), enhanced the features to match frequent user requests, and added a zoom lens to boot. The result is an exceptionally capable camera, with 1280 x 960 resolution, excellent color, a 3x aspheric zoom lens, multi-mode flash, excellent image quality, and rapid operation. Images are stored in a total of four different quality modes, ranging from uncompressed (hooray!) 1280 x 960, to compressed 640x480 pixel sizes. Throughout our testing of the device, it was clear that this was a true fourth-generation digital camera, the emphasis being on the camera part, rather than the fact that it is digital.
User feedback from prior models is evident in a number of areas, including the optional uncompressed file format, the "spot" exposure metering option, the broad 2-EV exposure compensation range with 1/2 EV steps, and responsive picture-to-picture cycle times. The 8MB-capacity standard SmartMedia memory card and the included (in the box) FlashPath floppy-disk adapter were particularly welcome additions. (For those of you who haven't used one, the FlashPath adapter not only makes interface to the host computer considerably easier, but much faster than the usual serial connections.)
The D-400 Zoom looks very much like Olympus' earlier non-zoom compact digital cameras, the D-220, 320, and 340. Actually, its design is closest to some of Olympus' film-based point & shoots, reinforcing Oly's message of "Capital 'C' camera, little 'd' digital." The body is rectangular but slightly rounded, constructed of metallized plastic. A sliding lens cover also serves as an on-off switch, although the telescoping zoom lens makes shutdown a two-step procedure: First, slide the front cover in just enough to trigger the lens retraction. Then, once the lens is fully retracted, close the cover the rest of the way.
The D-400 Zoom is very comfortable to hold, while still meeting the criteria of being able to fit (albeit a little heavily) into a standard shirt pocket. At 5 x 2.6 x 2.1 inches (127 x 66.5 x 53 mm) and 9.5 ounces (270 g) without batteries, it's a compact, dense handful. The location of the shutter button and zoom lens control lever made for fairly easy one-handed shooting (at least, if you're right-handed).
In common with most digital cameras these days, The Olympus D-400 Zoom includes both optical and LCD viewfinders. The bright optical viewfinder has "crosshairs" marking the center of the image area, and zooms along with the lens as you move from wide angle to telephoto and back again. Of interest to againg users (like your reviewer), the optical viewfinder includes a "doptric corrector" adjustment, to compensate for near- or far-sightedness. Additionally, the back-panel LCD can be activated for use as a viewfinder at any time, and automatically illuminates when entering digital tele or macro modes (see below). As with most other LCD panels, the display screen on the D-400 is fairly power-hungry, so you'll want to be judicious in its use to conserve battery life. Fortunately, the optical viewfinder of the D-400 is pretty accurate, meaning you'll probably only need the LCD viewfinder for macro or digital telephoto shooting.
In common with almost all other digital point & shoots, both the optical and LCD viewfinders on the D-400 Zoom don'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 89% of the final image area in telephoto mode, and 88% in wide-angle mode. The image is well-centered in the optical viewfinder at the wide-angle end of the focal-length range, but shifts slightly at the telephoto end, producing final images biased toward the top of the viewfinder. Using the LCD viewfinder, you'll find that it shows only 89% of the sensors field of view in either wide-angle or telephoto modes, but the area it does show is very accurately centered. Overall, this viewfinder performance is fairly typical of most digital point & shoots, tending slightly toward the more accurate end of the scale.
Overall, we found the LCD screen on the D-400 Zoom very effective: While it only sports 72K pixels of resolution, it has a very fast refresh time, and an excellent glare-reduction filter. It also has a brightness-control adjustment available via the back-panel menu system. The net result is that it provided good feedback for images captured, and did very well in bright sun (at least compared to many other digicam LCD screens).
Olympus has always distinguished itself with excellent optics on its film cameras, and their digital cameras are no exception. The D-400 Zoom is equipped with a high-quality glass, "aspheric" zoom lens design that undoubtedly contributes to the excellent overall image quality. With a focal length range equivalent to 35-105mm on a 35mm camera, the fast f2.8-4.4 (wide-tele) lens ranges from moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto focal lengths. We were very impressed by the almost total absence of any geometric distortion in the D-400's images in telephoto mode, and the very small amount at the wide-angle end.
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 31 inches (79cm) to infinity in "normal" mode, and from 8.0 to 31 inches (20 to 79 cm) in "macro" mode. The macro mode provides for close-ups of small objects, covering an area of roughly 2.4 x 3.2 inches (6.0 x 8.0 cm) at closest approach. (For reference, the small brooch in the "macro" test shot is about 1.05 inches (27 mm) wide.) This very good macro performance: Combined with the high basic resolution of the D-400, the level of detail you can capture is pretty amazing.
Digital Tele/Wide Mode
Olympus pioneered the "digital tele" function that's become popular among other digicam manufactures as well. Some manufacturers are touting "digital zoom" capabilities, in which the camera electronics interpolates data from just the central portion of the sensor array to produce a full-size image. The result is a zoomed-in but soft image, at the expense of slightly longer in-camera processing time.
Olympus' approach is to simply crop-down to the central 640x480 pixel area of the sensor array, and save it as an "SQ" quality (640x480) image. In this mode, the rear-panel LCD automatically illuminates to provide a "live" viewfinder, rather than having the user rely on a set of markings in the optical viewfinder, which would be less accurate. The view in the LCD while in "tele" mode is noticeably more pixelated than normal, but not objectionably so, and the screen refresh rate remains high. (Some "digital zoom" cameras have very slow viewfinder refresh when operating in telephoto mode.)
This is an interesting approach to a digital zoom: In common with other digital (as opposed to true optical) zooms, no additional information is being added to the image beyond that contained in the central 640x480 area. Overall, the end result is exactly the same as if you'd simply cropped-into the full high-resolution image, to select a smaller area to display full-frame. Most of the differences occur at the point of image capture: First, you can see exactly how the image is being cropped and composed at the moment of capture (via the back-panel LCD screen). Second, you're not using up storage capacity with a high-resolution image when all you care about is the central portion. Finally, when it comes time to print or otherwise use the image, you don't need to perform the cropping as a separate step. If you're interested in maximum efficiency, this last is a significant advantage.
The D-400 Zoom has roughly the same exposure capability as the earlier D-340L, being based on the same sensor. It is rated at an equivalent ISO of either 60 or 120, depending on the lighting conditions: In bright conditions, the camera electronics reduces sensitivity to ISO 60, producing somewhat improved noise and color purity. Under low-light conditions though, the ISO rises to a value of 120.
With a shutter speed range of 1/2 to 1/500 of a second, and lens apertures ranging from f2.8 to f11, the usable lighting range of the D-400 Zoom should be from about EV7 to EV21.5. This roughly agreed with our experience, although we felt the camera performed pretty well all the way down to a light level of about EV6: At EV7, it was capable of capturing a very bright image. This is excellent low-light performance, although such capability is becoming more common than it once was. 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.
The autoexposure system in the D-400 Zoom is more sophisticated than most mid-range digital cameras, not only operating through the lens (TTL), but offering both center-weighted averaging and spot metering modes. This last is pretty unusual in digital cameras, but is tremendously useful when dealing with backlit subjects and other situations where the subject brightness is significantly different than its surroundings. The spot metering mode is selectable via the back-panel LCD menu system, but the camera always reverts to center-weighted averaging reading after it's been shut off.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The 1/2 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! Some camera manufacturers, Olympus among them, 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 a 1/2 second exposure, but it's just about guaranteed that most amateurs will have a hard time below 1/30 or even 1/60. (It's also true that a really great camera would have an ISO of 800 or so, so you don't have to worry about camera shake as much: Rest assured we'll make appropriate note of and give due credit to any such devices when they appear!)
Like any autoexposure system, that of the D-400 Zoom 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 +/- 2 f-stops, in half-stop increments to accommodate these situations. Thus, if you think the situation calls for it, you can easily request lower or higher exposure through the first screen of the back-panel menu system. In past Olympus rangefinder cameras, we liked the fact that you could get to the exposure compensation function just by pressing a back-panel button at the time of exposure, but complained that it could be awkward to hold the button down while simultaneously squinting through the viewfinder. Also, the adjustment range was limited to one f-stop either way, and there were no half-stop steps. Apparently Olympus was listening, because the full 2-stop range and half-stop steps of the D-400 is a big improvement. (A side note: here, we're talking in terms of f-stops, whereas elsewhere we use the term "EV Units". These are equivalent, a unit of either referring to a factor of two change in the overall exposure.)
We liked the focus/exposure lock function of the D-400 Zoom, 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. This feature is a real boon when used in conjunction with the spot-metering mode mentioned earlier.
The built-in automatic flash has a working range of 8 inches to 10.5 feet (20 cm to about 3 meters) in wide-angle mode, or 8 inches to 6.6 feet (20 cm to a bit over 2 meters) in telephoto mode, due to the decreased maximum lens aperture with longer focal lengths. The flash 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 earlier Olympus cameras, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the D-400's flash worked at close distances, for "macro" shots. Many digital point and shoots have a hard time throttling-down their flash for macro shooting, but the D-400 Zoom did quite well in this regard. As long as the subject wasn't pure, bright white, the on-board flash did an excellent job all the way in to the closest macro focusing distance of 8 inches (20 cm).
The D-400 Zoom showed really excellent white-balance compensation in our (fairly severe) indoor portrait test, under household incandescent lighting. The one limitation we observed was that color saturation on reds tended to be a bit high, producing a slightly ruddy skin tone in our model.
Like the earlier D-340L, the D-400 Zoom incorporates several improvements in the area of rapid camera cycling between pictures. Many digital cameras require an appreciable amount of time to process and store one image before they can capture the next one. In the D-400, Olympus has addressed this issue by adding a "write-through RAM cache." Without going into the technical details of this, the bottom line is that the D-400 Zoom maximum cycle time between images in its highest resolution mode is less than 7 seconds, decreasing to only 3 seconds in "Standard" quality mode.
Besides its faster normal cycling, the D-400 Zoom has a "burst" mode, in which it can take a "standard resolution" (640x480 pixel) picture every half-second, up to a maximum of between 6 and 10 successive images (depending on subject content, achievable compression ratios, etc.). Of course, when operating in "burst" mode, you'll be dependent on available light, since the flash can't cycle anywhere near that fast.
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 D-400 Zoom has a fairly quick shutter release, responding with a total delay of only 0.8 seconds very consistently, 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.
Operation and User Interface
Overall, operation of the D-400 Zoom is very similar to that of its predecessors, the D-320L and D-340L, albeit with a few added bells and whistle, not to mention a few extra buttons. Operation is straightforward, controlled by 9 back-panel buttons next to the LCD screen, a rocker-toggle (for zoom adjustment), and the shutter release on the camera's top. A small LCD readout on the camera's top displays status information, such as operating mode, shots remaining, and battery condition. Most of the camera's setup adjustments are made via the back-panel LCD screen and buttons.
Functions are assigned to the back-panel buttons depending on the mode you're currently in: Record or Display (playback). The camera is in record mode whenever the front is slid open to reveal the lens and viewfinder. Display mode is accessed by closing the camera front, and pressing the monitor on/off button on the camera's back, or by pressing the monitor button twice rapidly, to change directly from record to display mode.
With the added features the D-400 Zoom carries relative to earlier models, more of its functions are accessed via the LCD menu system, rather than through the back-panel buttons directly. In record mode, we missed the immediate availability of the plus/minus exposure compensation, which was accessed directly via back-panel controls on prior Olympus compact point & shoot models. On the other hand, the exposure adjustment of the D-400 has both a wider range and finer steps than earlier units, covering plus or minus 2 EV (f-stop) units in 1/2 EV steps. The exposure compensation adjustment is also the first item you encounter on the LCD menu system when in record mode, so it's still quite accessible.
Record-mode functions that are directly available from the back-panel controls include the various flash modes; "burst," macro, panorama, and digital telephoto modes; the self-timer; and the two (very useful) fixed-focus settings, one for infinity, an the other for 2.5 meters or 8 feet. (Digital telephoto mode and the fixed-focus settings were described in the earlier review section covering the D-400's optics.) The 3x optical zoom lens is controlled via a top-mounted rocker toggle control, right next to the shutter release.
The Function Button in Record Mode
We mentioned the back-panel "star" button above in regard to the macro and digital tele modes: Olympus simply calls this the "function" button. Pressed repeatedly, it cycles through a number of operating modes, eventually returning you to the default recording mode. We'll list each of the special-function mode in turn below.
The first special-function option is "sequence" mode. As its name suggests, this mode causes the camera to capture "bursts" or sequences of images, at about two frames per second, capturing a total of anywhere from 6 to 10 images, depending on the subject content. (Depending on the compression the camera can achieve, more or fewer images will fit into the available buffer memory.) In sequence mode, the shutter speed is set to a minimum of 1/30 of a second, to prevent blurring of the subject, so your shots may come out dark in lower light. Also, the resolution is limited to 640x480, and the flash doesn't operate, as it wouldn't be able to cycle fast enough to keep up.
The second special function mode is macro mode. This enables close-up picture taking, down to a subject-lens distance of only 8 inches (20cm). Shooting at the telephoto end of the zoom's range, this results in a minimum capture area of 2.4 x 3 inches. This is excellent macro performance, as you can see from the macro test image. Maximum shooting distance in macro mode is 31 inches (80cm), just overlapping the cameras minimum normal-mode focusing distance of 30 inches. Since viewfinder parallax is a real issue for objects this close to the lens, the LCD viewfinder automatically powers-up in macro mode, providing an accurate view of what you're shooting. We also found that the on-board flash works pretty effectively for macro shooting, successfully powering-down enough to avoid washing-out the subject.
Digital Telephoto mode
We mentioned the digital tele mode earlier. Basically, it just crops-out the central 640x480 pixel area of the sensor, displaying and saving the result as a file of that size. The effect is exactly the same as if you'd cropped into a full-size 1280x960 image in an image-manipulation program after the exposure. The advantage of the digital tele mode is that it allows you to easily compose and execute such cropping in-camera, eliminating an extra step later. Make no mistake though, no new information is being introduced into the image, so the results are clearly different than those obtained by zooming optically. Some digicam manufacturers offer "digital telephoto" modes that perform the same cropping function as the D-400 Zoom does, but which then interpolate the resulting data back up into a full-sized image. In our view, there is little point in doing so, because objects in the "digitally zoomed" image aren't going to get any sharper, just larger and fuzzier as you do this. To our mind, Olympus' approach of leaving the cropped image in its original, uninterpolated form is best. One consequence of the D-400's control layout though, is that digital tele and macro modes can't be combined on the same shot.
"Panoramas," in which several images are stitched together in the computer to create one large image, have become very popular with digital camera owners. Besides the fun of getting "the big picture," they also offer a way to significantly extend the resolution of the cameras, by combining data from multiple shots.
The D-400 Zoom is bundled with what is arguably the best and most versatile "stitching" software on the market, QuickStitch, by Enroute Technology. QuickStitch is amazing for two reasons: Not only is it one of the most automated and easy-to-use programs available, but it can assemble images in a two-dimensional grid, to produce final output that is not only wider, but taller than the individual images.
One of the big tricks with panorama shooting is to keep the exposure the same for all the images you're going to use in a single panorama. Most digital cameras adjust the exposure separately for each picture they take, which can produce blotchy results in the final, tiled image. To cope with this, Olympus has provided a "panorama" mode on the D-400 Zoom, in which the exposure (as well as the focus and white balance) for an entire sequence of images is set based on the lighting of the first shot taken in the series. This helps the images "stitch" well at their boundaries, without any abrupt brightness changes.
Besides the "exposure lock" function, panorama mode provides you with alignment guides at the edges of the LCD viewfinder, to help you align successive images with enough overlap for the stitching software to work its magic. It's important to note that the D-400 Zoom's panorama capability requires special software instructions found on the SmartMedia memory cards. As a result, you'll only be able to activate panorama mode when using Olympus-branded memory cards.
Record-mode menu functions
Olympus has added or enhanced a number of features in the D-400 Zoom over its earlier forbears. The result is a group of significant functional capabilities, accessible via the back-panel LCD menu system. These features are accessed by pressing the "menu" button on the camera's back, just above and to the right of the LCD screen itself. We'll cover each menu screen in turn below.
Before delving into the details though, we should state that we found the D-400 Zoom's LCD menu system very easy and fast to navigate. Some cameras have gone to glitzy multi-color menus, with 3D-effect buttons and other user-interface enhancements. In some cases though, the beauty of the interface appears to have come at the expense of rapid navigation. (It takes a lot of processor cycles to move around all that graphic-interface data!) The LCD menu system on the D-400 Zoom is basically tri-color (blue, white, and black), eschewing the more elaborate graphics in favor of a more functional design that's very fast to navigate. Once we got used to where various functions were located in the menu system, we found we could get to them very rapidly.
Even with the best automatic exposure system (see our comments on the D-400's spot metering function below), you sometimes want to brighten or darken the image relative to what the exposure metering would achieve on its own. Olympus has always offered so-called exposure compensation adjustments on its digital rangefinder cameras, but the abilities of the D-400 Zoom go a fair bit beyond those of the previous models. The D-400 provides a full 2 f-stop (or "EV-value") adjustment range, with exposure changes selectable in 1/2 EV steps. The broader range and finer steps are both welcome enhancements over earlier units. The EV-adjustment screen is the first one encountered upon entering the back-panel menu system, a good placement, given how frequently we use this capability.
Spot metering is a major enhancement on the D-400 Zoom, a feature rarely found on all but the highest-end digital cameras. Spot metering refers to a camera feature in which exposure is determined only by the brightness of a rather small central area in the image.
Most midrange cameras calculate the required exposure by simply looking at the average amount of light coming from the subject. This works well for "typical" subjects, in which there's not too wide a contrast range, or in which the subject itself isn't greatly brighter or darker than the background. A common situation in which this isn't the case is when a subject is strongly backlit, as when the sun is behind the person's head, casting their face into shadow. With most cameras, this would be a situation in which to apply the exposure-compensation controls, brightening the overall picture, hoping to lighten the subject's face enough to get a good exposure. Spot metering provides the true solution to the problem though, letting you set the exposure exactly for the subject's face, rather than guessing at how much darker it is than the surroundings.
The spot metering function on the D-400 Zoom is made more useful by the exposure lock function, which lets you "lock" the exposure for a shot by half-pressing the shutter button. Once the exposure is locked, you can move and recompose the image to your liking (without releasing the shutter button) before actually taking the picture. Using the D-400's spot metering and exposure lock functions in concert, you can produce perfectly-exposed images in almost any situation. (This is an incredibly useful feature overlooked by most amateurs, but heavily used by pros: Take advantage of the "free film" digital photography offers, and experiment a bit with the D-400's spot metering. Once you've gotten used to it, you may never go back to conventional averaged-metering again!)
The resolution/compression mode selection screen is the next option in the back-panel menu system. With it, you can select from various combinations of image size and compression levels, to make the best tradeoff between memory capacity and image quality.
The D-400 Zoom had a real surprise in store for us in the image-quality department as well: Optional, uncompressed image storage, in addition to the normal Standard, High Quality and Super-High Quality settings! Essentially all digital cameras (the D-400 included) use so-called JPEG image compression to squeeze the multi-megabyte image files they produce to a few hundred Kbytes each, allowing many images to be stored on even modest-capacity memory cards. The catch of course, is that nothing comes for free, and the compression process unavoidably involves some loss of image quality. Granted, the loss can be fairly small at the highest quality/lowest compression settings of a good camera, but many users have clamored for cameras that would allow them to save images in a completely uncompressed format, for those times when image quality was absolutely critical.
The D-400 Zoom is one of the first consumer-grade digital cameras we've worked with that offers this capability, and the first we've used in which the uncompressed file format was in industry-standard TIFF format, rather than a format proprietary to the camera manufacturer. The result is that you can slip the SmartMedia card into the (included) FlashPath floppy-disk adapter, and read the uncompressed image file into your Mac or Windows computer directly. We've included several examples of uncompressed image files on the web site, accessible via the pictures page. Note that each of these files is a 3.6 megabyte behemoth though, so you may want to wait until you have some spare 'net-time before you begin a download on one. D-400 owners will also discover that there's a price to pay for this file-size largesse: Not only do these huge files chew up memory-card space at a ferocious rate (only two of them will fit onto a standard 8MB memory card), but it takes a great deal of time (about 45 seconds) to save each one to the card. For those times when you really, really need the best the camera can produce though, there's no substitute.
All that said though, we have to add that the D-400 Zoom's "Super High Quality" (SHQ) resolution mode gives up remarkably little in the image-quality department to the full uncompressed mode. With a file size about 8 times smaller than the uncompressed format, you can fit around 18 images onto an 8 megabyte card in SHQ mode. HQ mode differs from SHQ only in the amount of compression applied, fitting about 36 1280x960 images onto an 8 megabyte card. Finally, SQ mode reduces the image size to 640x480 (but full-frame though, not cropped from the center as in digital tele mode), for a capacity of about 122 images per 8 megabyte card.
White Balance Settings
"White balance" refers to a digital camera's ability to balance-out color shifts due to the lighting on a subject. Our eyes have an incredible ability to ignore even fairly strong light coloration, and produce a fairly accurate sense of relative color values under widely varying conditions. All modern digital cameras have this ability to at least some extent, but sophisticated uses will often want to override even reasonably good automatic white-balance adjustments in various situations. One obvious example would be if you were shooting a sunset: The last thing you'd want the camera to do would be filter-out all the beautiful reds and purples, and render everything in shades of gray! More commonly, you may find yourself wanting to make minor adjustments under indoor incandescent or fluorescent lighting, or even outdoors, on a cloudy day.
The D-400 Zoom provides not only very capable and effective automatic white balance circuitry, but an unusually wide range of manual white balance settings to accommodate various shooting conditions. Besides the automatic white balance setting, presets are provided for both sunny and cloudy daylight, and both incandescent and fluorescent indoor lighting.
The white balance settings are accessed via the back-panel menu system, as the fourth screen in the menu cycle. This is a reasonable location for this function, since you'll generally access it less frequently than the exposure compensation adjustment, resolution setting, or metering mode that precede it in the menu order. To avoid lost shots due to a forgotten white balance setting, the mode returns to "auto" whenever the camera is shut down. Overall, we found the white balance settings of the D-400 Zoom to be very functional, and effective in their application.
Once you've captured one or more images with the D-400 Zoom, you'll want to view or review them. Picture viewing happens in "display" mode, which can be accessed in either of two ways: With the camera shut down, you can start it up directly in display mode by pressing the "display" button on the back panel. This powers-up the camera, and shows the most-recently captured photo on the LCD screen. The other way to enter display mode is very useful for reviewing photos you've just shot: If you're in Record mode, you can jump directly to a review of the last picture you took simply by pressing the "display" button twice in rapid succession. If the display was previously off, it will illuminate, and display the last picture. Total time to switch to Display mode from Record is only about 4 seconds, a relatively short time, relative to many other cameras. While this many not be a common end-user requirement, we very frequently find ourselves wanting to check the image we just shot to make sure it came out OK, leading us to highly value the D-400's quick review cycle.
Display Mode General navigation
In display mode, you can move forward or back through the images stored on the camera's memory card by pressing the "+" and "-" buttons on the back panel. You can also select a "multi mode" display, which shows small thumbnails of the pictures, 4, 9, or even 16 images at a time. (The number of images shown in multi mode is set by a menu preference.) When in Multi mode, one picture is selected by a white cursor frame around it. You can move the selection forward or back with the +/- keys. Pressing the "OK" button displays the selected picture at full size. In display mode, you can also protect individual images against accidental erasure (by pressing the "lock" button while a picture is displayed), or erase individual images (by pressing the red "erase" button while a picture is displayed).
3x zoom display
If you're trying to see critical detail in a picture you've shot with a digital camera, you're bound to be frustrated by its tiny LCD panels. Following a trend we're beginning to see from several manufacturers, Olympus cleverly side-steps this limitation with the D-400 Zoom by providing a 3x "close-up" display mode. At any time while viewing an image at full size on the display screen, you can activate the D-400's "close-up display" mode by pulling back on the top-panel zoom lever (pulling it toward the "T" position). You'll see a 3x3 grid overlaid on the image, with the central panel highlighted. You can move the highlight around the image using the +/- control buttons. Once you've selected the portion of the image you want to see in greater detail, you can zoom it up to full-screen by pulling the zoom toggle lever to the "T" position again. To return to the 3x3 grid display, just push the toggle lever to the "W" position. A second push to "W" will return you to normal viewing.
In practice, we found it a little cumbersome navigating into the close-up mode, selecting the pane, and then zooming in. On the other hand, this is minor carping, compared to the alternative of not having the capability available at all! - It can be invaluable for closely checking images you've shot. Even better, if you have the Olympus P-300 printer, you can directly print the magnified views of the image, for increased direct-print detail as well.
Speaking of printing, the D-400 Zoom has several features which support printing directly from the camera to the slick little P-300 dye-sublimation printer. Options include single-image printing, marking multiple images in the camera's memory for batch printing, printing "zoomed" sections of images as just mentioned above, and printing multi-image stickers, either 4 or 16 images per sheet. (My boys don't seem to be of an age that's affected by it, but stickers with your picture on them appear to be the latest craze among the young-teen set.) The back-panel controls provide quick access to print functions, and the display-mode menu system lets you select the number of stickers per sheet you want to print. We didn't use it with the D-400 Zoom, but our earlier experience with the P-300 printer led us to like it quite a bit: The images really have a glossy, "photographic" look and feel to them, and it's nice not to have to fire up the computer and two or three different programs just to get some quick prints out.
Display-Mode Menu Functions
In "Display" mode, the back-panel LCD menu system changes to offer a number of functions related to image viewing and maintenance, rather than image capture.
The first option on the menu is "Erase All," which does just what it says. The back-panel "Erase" button normally just erases the single image you're currently viewing. To speed clearing a card after you've downloaded all the images from it, use the Erase All function from the menu: Even a full 8MB card erased completely in just a few seconds.
Normally, when you're viewing images on the D-400's LCD, the frame number is displayed in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Alternatively, you can use the Number/File ID menu to switch this display to show the full file name on the SmartMedia card. Frankly, we're not sure what this would be useful for, but it's possible it would help you keep track of multiple memory cards and which one was in use at a given time.
When connected to the P-300 printer, you can optionally choose to label each print made with the date. This option is selected via this back-panel menu option.
While a largely self-explanatory function, Date/Time set also allows you to choose the order in which the month, day, and year are displayed.
In most cases, the "Erase All" function mentioned earlier will be all you need to use for clearing a memory card, but if a card somehow gets really messed up, the Card Format function will wipe it clean and reset it to factory-new condition.
Multi Display Format
Besides the single-image viewing mode, the D-400 Zoom will let you review images 4, 9, or 16 images at a time. You activate multi-display mode by pressing a button on the camera's back, but choose how many images are displayed at a time via this LCD menu option.
The D-400 Zoom's LCD screen is naturally quite bright, and pretty resistant to being washed out by bright light. If you're going to be shooting outside on a sunny day, and really need the LCD for either framing or photo review, you can crank the brightness up using this menu option. Note though, that you'll pay the price in battery life, as boosting the brightness of the LCD backlight really cranks up power consumption. - Conversely, you could dim the backlight down to save battery life, if you needed to use the LCD a lot, but were going to be in darker surroundings.
Display-Mode Special Functions
The "Special Function" button on the D-400 Zoom's back is mostly used to control printing options in Display mode, although the first option reached with it is that controlling the slide-show display. The slide-show capability is fairly primitive, simply running through all images on the memory card in sequence, continuously looping back to the beginning until the mode is disabled or the 30-minute power-off timer shuts the camera down.
All the other "Special" functions for display mode control printing, offering such options as mark/unmark for printing, selective or "print all" printing, 4- and 16-cut printing, and mirror printing.
Printing with the P-330
We've talked about Olympus' P-300 printer, which is controlled directly from the camera. Olympus also makes a P-330 model, with more intelligence and a card-reader built in. With the P-330, you can mark/unmark images on the memory card, then remove it and plug it into the printer for output, freeing up the camera for more picture-taking immediately. (Sounds great for parties or "event" photography. - Pictures with Santa Claus, maybe?)
Image Storage and Interface
The D-400 Zoom uses the diminutive SmartMedia stamp-sized memory cards for its removable storage, with a capacious 8 MB unit included as standard equipment. The bigger news though, is that Olympus also includes in every D-400 box a free "FlashPath" floppy-disk adapter unit for the SmartMedia card. This amazing device is the same size and shape as a floppy disk, and accepts a SmartMedia card in a slot in its side. With the appropriate driver software loaded onto your computer, you can just slip the FlashPath into your floppy drive, and copy files from the SmartMedia card into your computer as if it were a 2, 4, 8, or even 16MB floppy! (Actually, it works this way under Windows: On the Mac, the "beta" software we've seen so far works like an application program, rather than patching the system software to make the FlashPath look like an actual floppy disk.) The bottom line is very easy computer interface, and data transfers much faster than those possible over a serial port connection. While we doubt you'll end up using them much once you've tried the FlashPath, the D-400 Zoom also works with Olympus' Camedia camera-control program for both Mac and PC, as well as the TWAIN drivers on the Windows platform, and Photoshop acquire plug-ins on the Mac.
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. As mentioned earlier, the D-400 Zoom saves images as standard JPEG files (making it a "finished file" camera) at two different image sizes (1280x960 and 640x480), and three different compression settings (uncompressed, low, and high). These various options actually translate into three 1280x960 file types (uncompressed, Super High Quality or SHQ, and High Quality or HQ), and one 640x480 one (Standard Quality or SQ). Average file sizes range from 3.6 megabytes (!!) for the uncompressed format, to about 450K for SHQ, 225K for HQ, and 65K for SQ. These sizes correspond to storage capacities for the 8 meg card of 2, 18, 36, and 122 images respectively.
As a minor side note, we liked the fact that we could easily insert or remove the SmartMedia card while the camera was mounted on a tripod. Not a big thing, but some cameras use a bottom-mounted arrangement for memory cards, meaning you have to unmount them from a tripod in order to pull the card.
In addition to the serial computer interface, the D-400 Zoom also has a connector for connecting the camera to a standard NTSC video monitor. 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 D-400 Zoom runs from 4 AA batteries, but the large sensor, zoom lens, LCD screen, and flash will make anything other than rechargeable NiMH batteries little more than a cruel joke. With a set of 1300 mAh NiMH batteries, we ran our D-400 evaluation unit for well over a hundred shots, with very heavy use of the LCD screen, on a single charge. Standard alkalines would have lasted only a few minutes under similar conditions. Bottom line, plan to include a set or two of NiMH cells and a good charger as part of your initial purchase of the D-400.
Our D-400 evaluation unit was one of the first in the country, and so didn't come with the standard software package included. We're pretty familiar with Olympus' standard software bundle from past reviews though, so will include that information here:
The D-400 Zoom comes with an excellent complement of software. Direct camera control and image downloading are provided by Olympus' own Camedia software package. Although we now use the FlashPath adapter almost exclusively, we like the Camedia application a lot: It is convenient and easy to use, and quite fast at downloading images (at least, for a serial-port connection).
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.
(Note: The following were included with previous cameras, but we aren't positive of their status for the D-400 Zoom...) 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.
Earlier versions of the Camedia software included panorama stitching capability directly within the application itself (for the D-220L and D320L). For the D-400, this feature is provided by the vastly superior and nothing-short-of-amazing QuickStitch program from Enroute Technology. With versions included for both Mac and Windows, QuickStitch goes quite a bit beyond any other "panorama" software that we're aware of: It not only stitches conventional panoramas, but can assemble images two-dimensionally to create huge, high-resolution images from multiple smaller ones. (An array of up to 5x5 images can be assembled into a single enormous one.) While it can't compensate for every goof you might make in camera positioning, QuickStitch is little short of magical: The software has a remarkable ability to compensate for barrel or pincushion distortion between images, successfully stitching together photos that would be hopeless with lesser programs.
Overall, the software bundle provided with the D-400 Zoom provides a very complete suite of capabilities for capturing and manipulating your photos, and subsequently turning them into multimedia presentations. Even better, all packages provided are fully functional on both Mac and PC.
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 D-400 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 D-400 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 D-400 Zoom: Images were consistently well-exposed, with bright, clean colors and excellent detail. We were particularly struck with how well the D-400 held detail in both strong highlights and deep shadows, and by its exceptional resolution and sharpness. Color accuracy and saturation were very good, with only a minor weakness in the greens and very slight deviations in pinks and yellows preventing a "perfect" score.
Detail and resolution were very good, with a visual resolution of approximately 600-650 line pairs/picture height in both vertical and horizontal directions, clearly at the top of the field. Performance in the outdoor far-field shot was exceptionally good as well.
Both optical and LCD viewfinders on the D-400 Zoom were about typically accurate, showing 88% of the field of view captured by the CCD. The view through the LCD is perfectly centered at all focal lengths, while that through the optical finder drifts downward as you move toward the telephoto end of the lens' range.
The D-400 Zoom did quite well in macro mode, the telephoto zoom providing a comfortable 8 inch (20 cm) working distance, while capturing a small 2.4 x 3.2 inch (6 x 8 cm) minimum area. The flash works well up to the closest focus distance, successfully throttling-back its output enough for all but the lightest subjects.
It seems we fall in love all over again, every time the newest camera comes on the market! This is probably a bit to be expected, and is one reason we've taken one reader's suggestion of dating each of our reviews. With all that as a preface though, we were extremely impressed with the D-400 Zoom! It's image quality literally matches anything out there for under $1500 as of this writing, and it incorporates important feature enhancements like spot metering, expanded white balance control, and optional uncompressed image storage. Add the flexibility of a sharp, distortion-free zoom lens and compact, take-anywhere body, and you've got a clear winner!
Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a D-400 Zoom camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, we'll list the album here for others to see!
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Olympus D-400 Zoom, or add comments of your own!
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