This page has been formatted to facilitate printout of the review.

Use your browser's "Back" button to return to the previous page, or the links at the top and bottom of this page to navigate to related information. If you have difficulty fitting the text on this page onto your printer output, simply resize your browser window to a narrower width and print again.




Remember us when it's time to buy!

Dave here: Have our reviews been helpful to you? (Is this article you're reading right now useful?) Preparing this level of information on as many products as we do is incredibly hard work, not to mention expensive. Things on the Internet may look like they're free, but they're not. (As a lot of big dot.com companies are finding out these days.) Somewhere, somebody has to pay to produce worthwhile content. YOU can help us though, by remembering us when it comes time to make your purchase. Would you consider coming back to our site and clicking-through to one of our advertisers to make your purchase? Every dollar you spend with one of our advertisers helps us directly (in affiliate fees) or indirectly (the advertiser will keep renewing their ad contract with us). To make it easy for you to support us, here's a URL you can visit, to see all our current advertisers, with links to click on that will register your visit to them as having come from our site. It's up to you where you buy, but Mike, Mike, Kim, Yazmin, Marti and I would be really grateful if you'd help us out by choosing one of our advertisers to purchase from.

Thank you for your support!
Dave Etchells, Founder & Publisher


Visit our "Buy Now" Page:
http://www.imaging-resource.com/buynow.htm





Back to Full Minolta Dimage 7 Review
Go to Minolta Dimage 7 Data Sheet
Go to Minolta Dimage 7 Pictures Page
Up to Imaging Resource Cameras Page


Minolta Dimage 7

Minolta unleashes the first 5-megapixel camera, with a tack-sharp 7x zoom lens, and amazingly sensitive electronic viewfinder!

Review First Posted: 5/23/2001



Click to Buy Now at Ritz Camera!

Must-have eBook, $20, Click Here!

MSRP $1499 US

 

*
5.2-megapixel CCD delivers uninterpolated images up to 2,560 x 1,920 pixels
*
Tack sharp 7x optical zoom lens covers a 28-200mm equivalent focus range
*
Ferroelectric LCD technology gives sharp electronic viewfinder image that is visible even at low light levels
*
12-bit A/D conversion provides excellent tonal range


Manufacturer Overview
Minolta Corporation is a traditional camera manufacturer of long experience, making a slow but calculated entry into the digital marketplace. Like its popular line of 35mm SLRs, the Maxxum Series, Minolta's Dimage Digital Cameras are developing a reputation for innovative technology in light metering, exposure control, and compact autofocus lens design. In 1996, Minolta introduced the Dimage V, the first digital camera with a detachable lens that enabled users to preview pictures with the camera body in one hand, while holding the lens at a distance in the other. Eventually Minolta developed the EX1500, a modular digital camera used as the framework for an amazingly effective 3D capture system, developed in partnership with the software firm MetaCreations (renamed Viewpoint Corporation in Fall 2000). In addition to conventional and digital cameras, Minolta manufactures high-quality light meters, spectrophotometers, colorimeters, and an award-winning line of film scanners, including the Dimage Scan Elite, Scan Dual II, and Scan Multi II.

Spring 2001 marks the introduction of three new Dimage digicam models -- each representing a separate price point to appeal to different segments of the digital market. Arguably the most exciting camera announcement of the year thus far (late May, 2001) The Dimage 7, reviewed here, will appeal to serious photographers who want high resolution (5.24 megapixels), a long-range wide-angle-to-telephoto zoom lens (equivalent to 28-200mm), and a sophisticated user interface with extensive creative controls. The Dimage 5 is the middle-range model, with the same sophisticated controls and 7x, but a smaller 3.34-megapixel CCD and a slightly shifted focal length range of 35-250mm equivalent. Finally, the compact, autofocus Dimage S304 is targeted for the amateur market, sharing the same microprocessor and most of the same technology, but with a 3.34-megapixel lens and 4x zoom lens equivalent to a 35-140mm on a 35mm camera. All three models are scheduled for release in the summer.

Highlights



Executive Overview
One of two new models scheduled for release in Summer 2001, the Dimage 7 Digital Camera is a groundbreaking product for Minolta Corporation, and indeed the digital camera field as a while -- integrating many of the outstanding features from Minolta's line of 35mm SLR film cameras with a high-quality 5.24-megapixel CCD, ultra-sharp 7x optical zoom lens, and advanced digital technology never before seen in a consumer class digital camera. Our first encounter with the prototype model was impressive, not only from the standpoint of image quality, but also the extensive creative controls, sophisticated camera functions, and user-friendly interface. This camera looks and feels much like a conventional 35mm SLR, with an elongated lens barrel and a lightweight magnesium alloy body that makes room for a wide variety of dials, switches, and buttons. Though camera operation appears complicated, it is logical and relatively easy to learn. Minolta has packed a lot of functions into a very workable layout, and a range of features typically found on very expensive pro-digital cameras.

Top on the list of features is a high-quality, 2/3-inch interline CCD with 5.24 million pixels (4.95 million effective), providing a maximum resolution of 2,568 x 1,928 pixels, the highest currently available (May 2001) among consumer digital cameras. The 12-bit A/D converter and relatively large pixel size provide a wide dynamic range (detailed highlights and shadows) and fine tonal gradation, with as many as 4,096 levels captured in each RGB channel. The CCD's light sensitivity ranges from ISO100 to 200, 400, and 800 ISO equivalency and may be automatically controlled by the camera. In support of this advanced chip technology, our test images showed extremely fine detail, even in low-light scenes, and a nice range of tones from bright highlights to deep shadows.

All that sensor resolution would be useless, however, if the lens wasn't capable of resolving such fine detail. The Dimage 7 features an advanced apochromat 7x zoom GT Lens, based on the same technology used in Minolta's popular Maxxum series SLR lenses. Comprised of 16 glass elements in 13 groups, the GT lens has two anomalous dispersion (AD) and two aspheric glass elements for sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion and glare. The 7.2-50.8mm focal range (equivalent to a 28-200mm zoom in 35mm format) provides maximum flexibility for extreme wide-angle interior and landscape shots, as well as close-up portraits and zoom action in sports photography. The manual zoom ring is a real pleasure to use, reminiscent of interchangeable zoom lenses from our days as 35mm film-based photographers, with a wide rubberized grip and smooth transitions between focal lengths. The Super Macro capability enables photographers to capture subjects as close as 5 inches from the lens.

One of the most impressive features, however, is the Digital Hyper Viewfinder. While technically an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) -- a miniature version of the larger rear LCD display (complete with information overlays) -- this viewfinder incorporates a sophisticated "reflective ferroelectric" LCD design, with a stated visual resolution equivalent to 220,000 pixels. We were amazed by the display quality, much better than we're accustomed to seeing in EVFs, with a remarkably smooth, sharp, and clear image, even in low light (!), where most EVFs fail miserably. In addition to better quality, the Digital Hyper Viewfinder offers unique flexibility, with a variable position eyepiece that can be tilted up as much as 90 degrees.

The Dimage 7's exposure system is like walking into a candy shop, you don't know which bin to dive into first! The autoexposure modes offer three metering options: multi-segment, center-weighted, and spot. The multi-segment metering divides the image into 300 segments, placing emphasis on the main subject, luminance values, color, and autofocus information to accurately calculate exposure. Like other AE metering systems, the center-weighted and spot metering options reduce the emphasis to a large area in the center of the frame, or a specific spot within the frame, respectively. Exposure modes include Programmed AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual, plus five Digital Subject Programs specifically set up for Portraits, Sports, Night Portrait, Sunset, and Text exposures. These presets use not only aperture and shutter speed settings to best capture the subjects, but also Minolta's exclusive CxProcess image processing to optimize color balance and skin tones.

On top of all these features, the Dimage 7 also provides a Digital Effects Control that can be used to adjust Exposure Compensation (-2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments) as well as Color Saturation and Contrast, within a seven-step range of values. The Record menu features a separate Digital Enhanced Bracketing option for taking three bracketed exposures of an image, with three different values adjustable from one-third, to one-half, to full-stop increments. A customizable AE / AF Lock button can be set to lock only autoexposure, or both autoexposure and autofocus. White Balance is adjustable to one of four preset options (Daylight, Tungsten, Cloudy, and Fluorescent), along with an Auto and Manual option. Shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to 4 seconds, with a Bulb setting that permits exposures up to 30 seconds long. Maximum lens apertures are f/2.8 at the wide-angle end and f/3.5 at telephoto. After you've recorded an image, you can check the results of all your "tweaking" in the form of a histogram, displayed in the camera's Playback mode.

The Dimage 7's Autofocus is powered by a Large Scale Integration (LSI) chip that rapidly processes image data through a high-speed 32-bit RISC processor. The autofocus information is measured in one three ways: Wide Focus Area averages readings from a large portion of the image center (indicated on the LCD by wide brackets); Spot Focus Point reads information from the very center of the LCD (indicated by a target cross-hair), and Flex Focus Point allows you to move a target cross-hair to any position within the viewfinder, so you can focus on off-center subjects without having to lock and recompose the shot.

The built-in, pop-up flash offers two methods of flash metering: Advanced Distance Integration (ADI), which bases its exposure on the lens aperture and feedback from the autofocus system (how far the subject is from the camera), and Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens), which uses a small metering flash before the main exposure to gauge how much light is reflected by the scene. The Dimage 7 also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching Minolta external flash units (and possibly compatible third-party units). Flash modes include Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, and Rear Flash Sync, with Flash Compensation available from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments.

Additional Dimage 7 features include a Movie mode, Continuous Shooting, 2x Digital Zoom, Interval Recording of two to 99 frames in 1- to 60-minute intervals, 10-second Self-Timer, Black-and-White mode, three Sharpness settings, and five image compression levels: RAW uncompressed files, and Super Fine, Fine, Standard, and Economy compression settings. Resolution options for still images include 2,560 x 1920, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, and 640 x 480 pixels. Movie resolution is 320 x 240 pixels.

Not to be outdone on the input phase of digital imaging, Minolta has incorporated Epson's new PRINT Image Matching technology, which ensures that all Dimage 7 files output on compatible Epson printers will be automatically color balanced to provide true-to-life hues and saturation. (PRINT Image Matching really seems to represent a breakthrough in print quality, allowing faithful reproduction of colors well outside the normal color gamut of CRT-based color spaces.)

Powered by four AA alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries (an optional AC power adapter is available), the Dimage 7 delivers an amazingly versatile package for the serious amateur or prosumer photographer. It's not a perfect product by any means, but it offers an exceptional array of features and capabilities, including one of the best fixed-mount lenses we've yet seen on a digicam.


Design
When Minolta announced the Dimage 7 digital camera, we couldn't wait to get our hands on it and take it for a test drive. In addition to its true 5.24-megapixel CCD, the Dimage 7 has a variety of innovative and exciting features, such as a clear and bright electronic viewfinder, 7x optical zoom lens, finely detailed image attribute controls, and fully manual exposure control.

The Dimage 7 is similar to traditional 35mm SLR design, but with a slightly "T" shaped body, due to an elongated lens barrel on the left side of the camera that extends behind and in front of the body and hand grip on the right. The camera is not very compact, measuring a substantial 4.6 x 3.6 x 4.5 inches (116.5 x 90.5 x 112.5 mm) with the lens at its shortest position, but its magnesium alloy body is surprisingly lightweight for its size (approximately 18 ounces / 510 grams without the batteries or CompactFlash card. An accessory camera bag would certainly be the preferred method of carrying and storing the Dimage 7, accessorized with the supplied neck strap for when you want to take it out for quick shooting.


The camera's front panel houses the Minolta GT 7x Zoom lens, Self-Timer light, and the front of the pop-up flash compartment. Encircling the lens are two adjustment rings: a rubberized optical zoom grip on the front end, and a notched Manual Focus ring at the base of the lens. A set of 49mm filter threads on the inside lip of the zoom lens accommodates filters and conversion kit accessories. A second set of filter threads, on the outside edge of the lens, accommodates the accessory lens hood. Also visible from the front of the camera are the Shutter button and Selector wheel, located at the top of the hand grip. Two vertical, raised ridges on the front of the hand grip give fingers a place to grasp as they curl around the grip.


The right side of the camera holds the CompactFlash memory card slot, covered by a hinged plastic door. A diagram on the inside of the compartment door illustrates the proper method of inserting the memory card, and a small black latch on the right is used to eject the card from the camera (the latch must be pulled up from the bottom into a vertical position to eject the card). Next to the eject button is a USB jack for direct connection to the computer. On the outside of the CompactFlash compartment is a tiny red light (near the top left corner of the compartment door), which indicates when the camera is accessing the memory card. (Do not open the compartment door when the light is on.) At the top of the right panel is one of the two neck strap attachment eyelets.


The left side of the camera features a host of camera controls, including the Function dial, Effects dial, Auto/Manual Focus button, and Macro button (on the side of the lens). The Function dial, located at the top of the panel, controls the image Size and Quality, Exposure mode, Drive mode (Self-Timer, Continuous Shooting, etc.), White Balance, and ISO. The Effects button allows users to adjust Contrast, Exposure Compensation, and Color Saturation. The Focus button simply switches between Auto and Manual focus modes. A Macro switch on the lens barrel can only be engaged when the lens is in full telephoto position. The second neck strap attachment eyelet is at the top next to the Function dial. Also visible on this side, on the very tip of the electronic viewfinder eyepiece, is the Diopter adjustment dial, which adjusts the viewfinder display to accommodate eyeglass wearers.


The top panel accommodates the pop-up flash compartment, with two small tabs on either side to open the flash, and an external flash hot shoe on top, which is protected by a sliding plastic cover that is completely removable from the camera body. The hot shoe features a custom electrode setup for Minolta accessory flash units. In addition, there are a number of controls that access various camera functions, including: the Mode Dial / Main Power switch, with Still Record, Playback, and Movie modes, plus Setup and Digital Connection settings; a Shutter button, a Setting Selector wheel, and a small Data Panel display that shows battery status, camera settings, and the number of images remaining. Finally, there is a Subject Program button (directly adjacent to the Data panel) that allows you to choose from one of five specialized shooting presets: Portrait, Sports Action, Sunset, Night Portrait, and Text.


The remaining controls are on the camera's back panel, along with the electronic viewfinder eyepiece , LCD monitor, and battery compartment. We were particularly impressed with the Dimage 7's electronic viewfinder (EVF), which features a reflective, ferroelectric display that translates into a very clear and bright viewfinder display. The viewfinder tilts upward about 90 degrees, offering more flexible viewing angles. When the camera is set to the Auto Display mode, an infrared sensor on the right side of the viewfinder eyepiece senses when your eye is near the viewfinder and automatically activates the EVF display. Control buttons on the back panel include the Display Mode switch (near the viewfinder eyepiece), which allows you to choose between EVF and LCD display, or Auto switching between the two; an Information (i+) button in the center of the Display mode switch, used for changing information overlays and alternating between full-image and index displays in Playback mode; a Menu button, a Five-Way controller for scrolling through and selecting menu options, a Quickview / Delete button; a Digital Zoom button near the bottom of the back panel; and an AE / AF Lock button located just below the Mode Dial in the upper right corner. Along the bottom edge are two compartments covered by flexible plastic flaps that fit snugly into place: On the left are the DC In and Video Out jacks, and on the right is the Remote control connector jack. The Remote control jack presumably works with a wired remote unit, available as a separate accessory. We would also like to commend Minolta for including the back panel access to the battery compartment, which allows you to change batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod (many digicams put this on the bottom panel, too close to the tripod mount).


Despite the slight curve of the battery compartment beneath the lens, the camera's bottom panel is fairly flat. A metal, threaded tripod mount is located in the front center of the back panel.


Viewfinder
The viewfinder is one of the most interesting aspects of the Dimage 7. It employs a "Digital Hyper Viewfinder" as well as an LCD monitor for composing shots. The Digital Hyper Viewfinder display would generically be called an "Electronic Viewfinder" (EVF), and is essentially a miniaturized version of the LCD monitor, complete with image information display.

We confess that we've never been big fans of EVFs, for a variety of reasons. For one, resolution is often considerably less than the rear-panel LCD, and it doesn't remotely compare to the view through a purely optical viewfinder. A bigger concern though, is that most EVF displays are woefully inadequate for low-light shooting. The high refresh rate required to provide a "live" view of the subject means that the CCD just can't capture enough light in each frame to make the EVF display usable. Time and again, we've seen EVF-equipped digicams that are capable of taking pictures in conditions far darker than those that can be viewed in the EVF itself. Without a low-light capable viewfinder, you're reduced to guessing where your subject is in the viewfinder.

Prior to receiving our evaluation sample, Minolta hinted that the Dimage 7's EVF would be something special. If anything, they understated their case. The EVF on the Dimage 7 works down to incredibly low light levels, and has very high resolution under normal lighting. The spec sheet indicates that the EVF uses a reflective ferroelectric LCD display, with a visual resolution "equivalent to 220,000 pixels". We're not sure how the "equivalent" resolution is computed, but there's no question that the resolution is quite high. The ferroelectric technology is also a new one on us, but apparently has been around since the 1980s. We don't pretend to understand how it works, but the bottom line appears to be that ferroelectric LCDs not only switch states faster (potentially providing faster refresh rates), but they are also somehow able to represent a full range of color at *every pixel,* compared to the purely red, green, or blue coloration available with conventional LCDs. This was evident in looking at the Dimage's EVF display, which appeared remarkably smooth, with none of the red / green / blue pointillist appearance of conventional micro displays. Whatever the technology, the Dimage 7's EVF is unusually clear and sharp, and is also dramatically more light-sensitive than conventional designs we've seen. (Note though, that at low light levels it switches to a monochrome mode to improve sensitivity.)

Another neat feature of the Digital Hyper Viewfinder is its auto-switching capability. On the right side of the eyepiece, there are infrared sensors inset behind a pair of vertical windows. (You can see the windows slot to the right of the objective in the viewfinder eyepiece photo above.) By placing the Display Mode control in the "A" position (see photo inset right), the IR sensors detect your eye as it approaches the viewfinder, automatically turn off the rear panel LCD, and activate the EVF. If you bring the camera back down again, the process is reversed, and the LCD panel comes back on. Very handy! (As you can see, there are also settings for activating the EVF or LCD only.)

For added convenience, the electronic viewfinder eyepiece tilts upward 90 degrees, offering a range of viewing angles. A Diopter Control sliding switch adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers, in arbitrary units from —5 to +0.5. (This covers a wider range of eyesight than we're accustomed to seeing in eyepiece adjustments. It handled our 20:200 vision with no trouble at all.)

We did find a couple of quibbles with the EVF though, and some users have complained about its characteristics quite a bit. Here's what the issues appear to be. (Both from our own observations and reports from users.):

  1. Eyepiece optics. - Several users have written to complain of blurriness in the viewfinder, which seemed strange to us and prompted us to take a closer look. We're not sure how to characterize it, but it did seem that we sometimes got a slightly blurry view in the eyepiece. We think this might be a "curvature of field" problem, where not all of the field of view is sharply focused at the same time. We confess that we couldn't get a consistent "look" though, as sometimes everything seemed perfectly sharp, while at other times, there was a distinct blurring around the edges. (All this with no change to the diopter adjustment.) It might have something to do with eye position, but we never did nail it down. 90+% of the time, everything looked OK, and those times it didn't, it seemed like a little fidgeting and squinting ended up with it looking right again. A bit of a mystery, but we do see what some users were referring to.

  2. The "cracked glass" effect. This is evidently a consequence of the ferroelectric LCD's square, firmly abutting pixels: If you have a subject in view with lots of very fine, sharply-contrasting detail, the viewfinder image gets a "crackled" look to it. It seems that these artifacts result from the fact that, while the square, smoothly tiled LCD pixels give a very smooth appearance, the image can change very abruptly from one to the next. On a conventional LCD, with the R, G, and B pixels spread across a bit of an area, your eye tends to smooth over inter-pixel transitions. With the ferroelectric LCD though, adjacent pixels can change brightness very abruptly, causing this "crackled" pattern.

  3. Blown highlights. - In extended use, the biggest complaint we personally had about the EVF was that it was very hard to judge what was going on in the highlights. In landscape shots where we cared about cloud detail for instance, it was very hard to compose the sky portion of the image, because the bright areas tended to wash out to a featureless expanse of white. This is somewhat due to the tendency of the camera itself to drop highlight detail, but we lay some of the blame on the EVF system for it.

Overall, after living with it a bit more in the production unit we received to test, we still like the Dimage 7's EVF better than others we've tried, but are still of the opinion that optical viewfinders are to be preferred if they're available. (As we see more long-ratio zoom lenses on digicams though, expect to see more and more EVFs along with them. - It's just too difficult to create a 10x zoom ratio optical viewfinder that's lightweight, accurate, and affordable.) We think the bottom line on the Dimage 7's EVF will be a matter of personal preference: It's hard to hear ourselves saying this (being such internet mavens), but prospective purchasers should probably make an effort to get a hands-on look at the camera and play with the EVF, before making a purchase decision.

The rear-panel 1.8-inch, TFT color LCD monitor is comprised of about 122,000 pixels, and offers a very bright, clear image display. Like the electronic viewfinder, the LCD monitor displays a range of exposure and camera information in both Record and Playback modes, which is activated by the i+ button on the Display Mode dial. While shooting with the Dimage 7 outdoors, we observed that the LCD seemed to be much less prone to washing out in direct sunlight than the LCD's we've tested on most other cameras.

In Playback mode, the Dimage 7 displays a fair amount of image information, which is again controlled by the i+ button on the Display Mode dial. A histogram feature is also available, for checking on the tonal range of the captured image.


Optics
The Dimage 7 is equipped with a 7.2-50.8mm, aspherical glass lens, the equivalent of a 28-200mm lens on a 35mm camera. This is a very nice range of focal lengths. The 28mm wide angle setting is particularly welcome, since most digicam lenses don't go that wide. Likewise, 200mm is a good medium telephoto length, about as long as one can comfortably handhold the camera without image stabilization. Unlike most digicams we've worked with, the lens zoom operates by rotating a collar around the lens barrel, which is coupled mechanically to the lens elements themselves. We like the sure, precise control this gives, as opposed to the rocker switch-controlled motor that most digital cameras use to rack the lens in or out. It definitely requires two hands, but the direct manual control will feel great to photographers accustomed to film-based SLRs.

The lens is made up of 16 elements in 13 groups, including two AD glass elements and two aspheric surfaces. Aperture is manually or automatically controlled, with a maximum setting of f/2.8 at wide angle and f/3.5 at telephoto. Focus ranges from 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) to infinity in normal mode. Activated by a small switch on the lens barrel, a macro focusing mode allows you to focus in on objects as close as 5 inches (13 cm) from the lens surface. A mechanical interlock prevents the Macro mode switch from being thrown unless the camera is at maximum telephoto. The minimum macro area covered at closest focus is a fairly small 1.93 x 1.44 inches (48.9 x 36.7 mm). A plastic lens cap with spring-loaded catches hooks into the inside lip of the lens, protecting it from dirt and scratches. The lens cap does not have an eyelet for attaching a strap, so you'll want to take extra precautions not to lose it.

The Dimage 7 provides both manual and automatic focus control. The camera's specification sheet describes the autofocus system as a "Video AF system." While we're not familiar with that terminology, conversations with Minolta engineers at PMA revealed that the Dimage 7 uses a phase-detection focusing technology rather than the much more common contrast-detection system. The advantage of the more complex phase-detect approach is that the camera not only determines whether or not the lens is in focus, but also how far out of focus it is, and in which direction (near or far). With this information, the camera can focus much more quickly, since it "knows" roughly how much, and in which direction, to adjust the focus, rather than having to "hunt" for the best focus at the outset. The AF system will still have to do some hunting for the best setting, but it should spend less time doing so than a contrast-based system. Our first test unit was an early prototype, and its autofocus was known not to be up to final specs, so we bypassed measuring the autofocus speed. However, Minolta predicts that the final production model is going to be a very quick-focusing camera.

UPDATE, 8/23/2001 - Sadly, this is an area where the camera didn't improve significantly relative to the prototype model: The Dimage 7's autofocus speed is actually a bit below average for its category. We also occasionally found a subject that would unexpectedly give the AF system fits. 98% of the time, it delivered excellent focus, even on subjects that we'd normally expect problems on . (Dark, relatively low-contrast objects, for instance.) The other 2% of the time though, it'd have a terribly hard time achieving focus lock on a seemingly innocuous subject that "should" be easy to focus on. (One having strong, high-contrast detail, for instance. Overall, it seemed that it did the best with subjects having texture, rather than simply strongly contrasting detail elements. This is perhaps a consequence of the phase-detect autofocus system. Overall, we'd say the "success rate" of the Dimage 7's AF system was about on a par with those of other cameras we've used, it's just that it seems to fail on a different sort of subject.

The Dimage 7's autofocus system offers both Single-Shot and Continuous AF settings. In Single-Shot AF, the camera only sets the focus when the Shutter button is halfway depressed. In Continuous AF mode, it adjusts focus at all times, continuously keeping the frame in focus. You can also determine the area of the image the camera uses to judge the focus, by selecting one of three autofocus options: Wide Focus Area, Spot Focus Point, and Flex Focus Point. The default options is Wide Focus area, indicated by wide set of brackets in the viewfinder image. By pressing and holding down the center of the Five-Way Arrow controller pad, the camera switches between Wide Area and Spot Point autofocusing modes (the latter indicated by a target crosshair in the center of the viewfinder). If you release the controller pad when the Spot AF target is displayed, you can then use the four arrow buttons to move the target around the viewfinder area -- this is what's known as Flex Focus Point AF. Wide Area AF bases its focus on the most prominent subject detail in the center of the frame, delineated by the viewfinder area that falls within the brackets. Spot Focus bases its focus on the very center of the frame, where the target crosshairs reside. Finally, Flex Focus allows you to move the focus point to anywhere within the frame, by manually moving the target crosshairs around the image area with the arrow buttons. (See the screen shot at right, in which we switch from Wide Area to Spot Focus, and then move the Flex Focus Point around the screen.)

You can switch to Manual Focus by pressing the AF/MF button on the camera's left side. In Manual Focus mode, you focus by turning a ribbed ring around the base of the lens barrel. As you focus, the distance is displayed in meters or feet at the bottom of the LCD monitor (or EVF) under the MF icon.

An AF/AE Lock button, located in the upper right corner of the back panel (below the Mode Dial), allows you to lock the focus for a specific portion of the subject without having to hold down the Shutter button halfway. Pressing the button also locks exposure. You can configure this button in the Custom 1 Record menu to switch between AF/AE Hold, AF/AE Toggle, AE Hold, or AE Toggle functions.

In addition to the optical zoom, the Dimage 7 offers a 2x Digital zoom button, located at the very bottom of the back panel, on the right side. In Auto Focus, pressing this button activates an instant 2x zoom. In Manual Focus, Minolta recommends using the button to magnify the focusing area, to help establish the correct focus, then return to normal setting to expose the image. (Keep in mind that digital zoom simply enlarges the central portion of the CCD image digitally, rather than magnifying it optically and, as a result, image quality is usually degraded in the form of lower resolution and increased noise.)

A set of 49mm filter threads around the inside lip of the lens accommodates Minolta's range of accessory filters and conversion lens kits. (We really liked having the fixed filter threads on the front element of the zoom lens, making it easy to attach auxiliary lenses and filters without any additional adapters or other gadgets.)

Our resolution tests indicate that the Dimage 7's lens is of particularly high quality, as it produced very sharp images from corner to corner. The vast majority of digicams we've tested tend to get soft in the corners, distorting and blurring details. By contrast, the Dimage 7 is amazingly sharp across the entire frame. We also noticed that the lens showed significantly less chromatic aberration than we're accustomed to seeing, most likely due to the larger-than-normal lens elements and multiple AD elements and aspheric surfaces. Overall, this looks like a great piece of optics, and is a significant part of why we liked the Dimage 7 so much. (Note to other manufacturers: A "killer" digicam is only as good as its lens - Could we *please* have more lenses with corner to corner sharpness and low chromatic aberration? Surely the market would support these!)


Exposure
The Dimage 7 offers excellent exposure control, with very fine-grained adjustment of such image attributes as Sharpness, Contrast, and Color Saturation. Though we found the camera's user interface a little confusing at first, with its myriad buttons, dials, and switches, we liked it quite a bit once we got the hang of it. (The combined use of functional dials, selection buttons, and the rotating command wheel is similar to the design of Minolta's film cameras, and very reminiscent of the earlier Sony DSC-D770. While something of a departure for the digicam market, this interface has proven very popular with users of both Minolta's film cameras, and the earlier Sony camera.)

The Mode dial on top of the camera controls the basic operating modes: Record, Playback, Movie, Setup, or Data Transfer. Within Record mode, you have several options: Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and a handful of preset recording modes, which we will describe a little further on. These first four are all accessed by turning the Function dial on the left side of the camera to the PASM position, holding down the button in the middle of that control, and rotating the selector wheel just to the right of the shutter button. It's definitely a two-handed process, but quick to execute once you are familiar with the system.

In Program AE mode, the camera determines the best possible exposure for the current shooting situation, setting the shutter speed and lens aperture automatically. Aperture Priority mode allows you to select the lens aperture setting, from f/2.8 to f/9.5 depending on zoom, while the camera selects the most appropriate corresponding shutter speed. In Shutter Priority mode, the user selects the shutter speed, from 1/2,000 to 4 seconds, while the camera chooses the best corresponding aperture setting. Switching to Manual mode gives you control over both shutter speed and aperture, with a Bulb setting available for longer exposures. Bulb exposure is determined by how long you hold down the shutter button, up to a maximum of 30 seconds. The Program Auto button, located on the top panel just above the Mode dial, is a handy feature, instantly returning the camera to all of its default settings and the Program AE exposure mode (especially helpful if you've set a number of functions and are looking for a quick way to get back to the default settings).

The Dimage 7's default metering system is a 300 segment evaluative mode, which takes readings from throughout the image to determine exposure. However, Center-Weighted and Spot metering options are also available. Spot metering is useful for high-contrast subjects, as it bases the exposure reading on the very center of the image. Center-Weighted metering also bases the exposure on the center of the image, but the camera takes its readings from a very large area in the middle of the frame. You can also lock the exposure reading for a particular part of the image by pressing the AE / AF Lock button on the back panel. This locks the exposure reading until either the Shutter button is pressed or the AE / AF Lock button is pressed again. (Halfway pressing the Shutter button also locks exposure and focus.) The Dimage 7's sensitivity can be set to Auto, or ISO equivalents of 100, 200, 400, or 800. Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments.

White Balance & Color Control
The Dimage 7 offers unusually flexible control over white balance, color rendition, and tonal range. Its White Balance system offers a total of five options, including Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Cloudy, and Custom, which is the manual setting. (In Custom mode, the white balance is determined by snapping a picture of a white card. The camera then adjusts its color balance to render the white card with a neutral hue.) We found the camera's white balance to be refreshingly sure-footed, providing accurate color rendition under a very wide range of lighting conditions. (We felt it did an excellent job with our very difficult indoor portrait shot, handling the household incandescent lighting just right. Its manual mode seems able to accommodate a very wide range of lighting conditions.)

We were also pleased to see extensive Contrast and Color Saturation controls in the Dimage 7. Both of these parameters are adjustable in seven steps across a fairly broad range of settings, using the Effects dial on the camera's left side in conjunction with the selector wheel next to the shutter button (the same controls used for Exposure Compensation). To make adjustments, you rotate the Effects dial to the parameter you're interested in changing, press the button at its center, and then rotate the selector wheel to choose the desired setting. We found this to be a very accessible, easy to use interface for these controls.

We've seen contrast and saturation adjustments in other cameras we've tested, but the usual approach is to offer only three steps of adjustment (low, normal, and high) for each. While it's better than no adjustment at all, we've found that they generally provide either too much or too little variation to be useful. The Dimage 7's seven-step adjustment makes more subtle changes, but ultimately it has a profound difference in how these controls can be used. With three steps of adjustment, the tendency is to view these features as "tweaks" reserved for special shooting conditions. The seven-step range enables users to literally customize their cameras to their personal preferences. For example, in the prototype samples we tested, we felt the default color was a little undersaturated for our tastes, and that we'd like to see something a little brighter and snappier. Want brighter color? No problem! Just boost the color saturation control a notch or two and you're there! The steps are small enough that they make subtle fine-tuning a very viable option, yet they cover enough range that you can use them to handle fairly extreme shooting conditions (such as pumping up the contrast on dreary, cloudy days). Kudos to Minolta for this implementation!

That said, we did feel that the Dimage 7 tended to lose highlight detail in some situations, and also that it's default color rendering was a little flat. Our personal preference is to run the camera with the color saturation adjustment routinely set up two notches. The highlight-detail issue is a bit tougher. This didn't show too much in our laboratory tests, and even our tough Outdoor Portrait test showed pretty good results. Again though, when we shot scenes with skyscapes having bright clouds in them (for instance), we often lost the subtle shadings of the clouds. Turning down both contrast and exposure compensation by one notch each helped somewhat, but left us with dark images that took tweaking in Photoshop to get looking right. We really applaud the fine-grained image adjustments, but would like to see the camera do a better job with highlight detail.

In addition to these subtle color and tonal adjustments, the Dimage 7 also offers a Black and White mode for capturing monochromatic images. It's accessed via the Record mode settings menu, as is a Sharpness setting that adjusts the amount of in-camera sharpening.


Flash
The Dimage 7 features a built-in, pop-up flash, which operates in either Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, or Rear Flash sync modes. To release the flash from its compartment, pull on the two small tabs on either side of the casing and lift up the flash unit. The Flash mode is changed through the Record settings menu. In Fill-Flash mode, the flash fires with every exposure, regardless of lighting conditions. Red-Eye Reduction fires a series of small pre-flashes before firing the flash at full power with the exposure. This reduces the occurrence of redeye effect. The Rear Flash Sync mode synchronizes the internal flash with an external flash, if connected. The flash is in the Off position when it's closed.

The Dimage 7 is unusual in that it offers two methods of flash metering. Its default mode is called ADI, which stands for Advanced Distance Integration. In this mode, it apparently bases its flash exposure on the lens aperture and feedback from the autofocus system. By determining how far away the target subject is, the camera knows how much flash power is required to illuminate it. As a fallback, a Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens) method uses a small metering flash before the main exposure to gauge how much light is reflected by the scene. Used in conjunction with the spot autofocus option mentioned earlier, the ADI flash metering should be much more accurate with small subjects against a different colored background than the pre-flash method.

The Dimage 7 also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching an external flash unit. The shoe design and contact arrangement are set up for Minolta's own dedicated flash units, but we imagine that compatible units are available from the major third-party flash manufacturers (Sunpak et. al.). Minolta's own Program Flash models 3600HS(D) and 5600HS(D) both work with the Dimage 7, and two macro flashes (Macro Twin Flash 2400 and Macro Ring Flash 1200) will work with an accessory macro flash controller.

Subject Program Modes
The Dimage 7 provides five preset exposure modes, including Portrait, Sports, Sunset, Night Portrait, and Text, accessed by pressing the Mode Select button next to the small status display panel on top of the camera (an indicator highlights each mode as it's selected). Portrait mode produces better-looking people shots by enhancing skin tones and decreasing the depth of field (to create a slightly blurred background). Sports mode provides faster shutter speeds to freeze action and maintains focus on quickly moving subjects. In Sunset mode, the camera employs slightly slower shutter speeds to let in more of the ambient light, and allows you to record the warm colors of the scene without compensating for them. In Night Portrait mode, the camera also uses a slower shutter speed to allow more ambient light into the image, however it also records true black values and preserves the bright colors of artificial lighting. The final preset mode is Text mode, which optimizes the camera for capturing black text on a white background, keeping the contrast level high so the camera doesn't expose for neutral gray.

Continuous Mode
Accessed via the "Drive" setting on the left-side Function dial, the Dimage 7's Continuous mode captures images in rapid succession, at roughly 1.1 frames per second. The production unit we tested grabbed up to four frames in large/fine mode at intervals of 1.02 seconds per frame. This is impressively fast for a 5 megapixel camera.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a digital camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms to do their work and can amount to a significant delay in some situations. Since this number is rarely reported by manufacturers or reviewers, and can significantly affect the picture-taking experience, Imaging Resource now measures shutter lag and cycle times using a proprietary electronic test setup.

Minolta Dimage 7 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
5.1
Time from power-up to first shot. Rather slow, given that there's no lens to extend.
Shutdown
7.1
Time to finish writing average large/fine file to the CF card. (Again, a bit slow, given no lens to retract.)
Play to Record, first shot
1.8
Time until first shot is captured. Quite fast.
Record to play
3.3/2.6
First time is for immediate switch after pressing shutter, second is time to display image from quiescent state in capture mode. About average.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.26 - 1.00
Longer time is for telephoto, shorter for wide angle. Both figures are a bit slower than average.
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.25
A good bit faster than average.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.17
Quite a bit faster than average.
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
1.45

1.66

50.7
First number is for large/fine files, second for small/economy. Last time is for full res TIFF files. Oddly, small/economy files take longer between shots than large/fine. Up to 4 large/fine files this fast, then must wait ~12 seconds between shots. Quite fast for full-res files. Times are in manual focus mode, add ~0.8 seconds per frame for autofocus delay.
Cycle time, continuous mode
1.02
Fairly fast. Captures four images, then takes 13.6 seconds for the next.


The Dimage 7 is a bit of a mixed bag speed-wise. Shot to shot, it's very fast for up to four shots at a time, thanks to a good-sized buffer memory. Continuous mode is also very fast. Autofocus delay is longer than average, a fact that surprised us: Prerelease, Minolta touted its phase-detect autofocus as being both faster and more accurate than normal contrast-detect schemes. It actually appears to be somewhat slower. Shutter lag in manual and prefocus modes is quite a bit faster than average. We're sure to hear about it, so note that the 0.13 second "shutter lag" reported by some other review sites is simply the figure given by Minolta on their spec sheet: It corresponds to the shutter lag when the camera is used in a prefocused mode, that is, when the shutter button is half-pressed before the shot is taken. - And actually, we measured this delay time at 0.17 seconds, not 0.13. Overall, a pretty speedy camera, held back from real speed-demon status by slower than usual autofocus times.


Operation & User Interface
The Dimage 7's user interface is much more sophisticated than most digital cameras on the market, as it provides significant external control over commonly used settings. As a result, the Dimage 7 should be more intuitive for film-based photographers who are accustomed to the "tactile" interface of the traditional 35mm SLR. The difference is immediately apparent with the mechanically-coupled zoom lens control, which provides much more stability than the motorized rocker switch zooms used by most other digital cameras. The rubber collar grip surrounding the lens barrel is clearly marked with corresponding focal lengths, so you know immediately the zoom setting at which you're operating -- a feature we've missed in standard digicams. Manual focus is more of a "fly by the wire" adjustment, in which a notched focus ring at the base of the lens is used to control the internal motor that actually makes the focus adjustment. In our opinion, the zoom control is much more important, however, given that the majority of users will spend more time in Auto Focus rather than Manual Focus mode.

Aside from Flash adjustments, you can control almost all of the essential camera functions without having to resort to the on-screen LCD menu system. Most of the camera adjustments are made by rotating a dial, pressing a button, and turning a selector wheel. This may sound like a lot of steps, but in practice we've always found external mechanical controls like these are much faster to navigate than LCD menu selections. In addition to the Mode Dial / Main Power Switch on top of the camera, the major interface elements include a set of function dials on the left side of the camera, a selector wheel just to the right of the Shutter button, and the top-panel LED data readout (or, you can refer to the LCD or electronic viewfinder displays.) Initially, we found it a little awkward to have to view the left side of the camera to select specific parameters, but after a few short hours of using the camera, we found ourselves simply counting the clicks on the dials to select the options we wanted. Bottom line, while they're rather unusual in the digicam world, the Dimage 7's controls lend themselves to quick, sure operation when you're in a concentrated (mental) shooting mode.

The sections below will walk you through all of the dials and buttons on the Dimage 7, explaining what each is used for:


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button
Located on the top right-hand side of the camera, this button sets exposure (in automatic exposure modes) and focus (in autofocus mode) when half-pressed, and trips the shutter when fully pressed.


Selector Wheel
This ribbed wheel sits just behind and to the right of the shutter button, conveniently under your index finger. All of the most commonly used camera settings are adjusted by using this wheel in conjunction with one of the function dials on the left side of the camera. It also controls aperture and shutter speed in exposure modes where those parameters are placed under the photographer's direct control. (Aperture or Shutter Priority, or full Manual mode.)


Mode Dial / Main Switch
In the right rear corner of the top panel, this knob turns the camera on or off and selects the main operating modes of the camera. Options include: Record, Playback, Movie, Setup, and Computer Connect modes.


Data / Status Panel
Not a control per se, this data readout panel displays icons and numbers indicating the status of a wide range of camera control settings.


Pro Auto Button
We called this one the "Help, I'm Lost" button. Pressing it resets most camera options to their default settings, and returns the camera to programmed autoexposure mode. (A handy way to get back to square one, after making multiple settings adjustments.)


Subject Program Button
Just to the right of the status panel, this button cycles the camera through its five "Subject Programs," including Portrait, Sports, Sunset, Night Portrait, and Text Modes. (We described the operation of these modes earlier, in the Exposure section of this review.)


AF / AEL Button
On the back of the camera, just below the Mode Dial is the AF / AEL button. Pressing this locks the focus and exposure settings (much as half-pressing the shutter button does). It can be configured to suit your shooting style via an LCD menu option. Focus and exposure lock can be set together or as separate functions, and it can also be used to toggle the lock on or off. (This would permit locking exposure without requiring you to keep the button held down while you focused, zoomed, etc.)


Display Mode Switch
Also on the back of the camera, just to the right of the EVF eyepiece is the Display Mode switch. This controls the operation of the rear-panel LCD and the EVF displays. Turned fully clockwise, it disables the EVF and enables the LCD screen. Turned fully counterclockwise, it enables the EVF and turns off the LCD. In its middle position, the camera will switch automatically between the EVF and LCD, depending on whether your eye is pressed to the eyepiece. (Pretty slick.)

Information Button
Located in the middle of the Display Mode switch, this button controls the amount of information displayed on the EVF and LCD screens while in Record and Playback modes, and it activates the Index display in Playback mode.


Menu Button
While the Dimage 7 does make considerable use of external controls, it also has an extensive LCD menu system, with three screens of menus in both Record and Playback modes. Pressing the Menu button calls up the menu system, or turns it off when you're done.


Five-Way Controller
This rocker control is used to step through selections within the LCD menu system and to interact with various status messages or requests for confirmation that appear on the LCD screen. You navigate the menus by pressing one of the four arrows around the control's periphery, and confirm selections by pressing the center of the control. In Playback mode, pressing the up arrow calls up the histogram display. In record mode, pressing and holding the center of the control switches the camera between Wide and Spot autofocus modes. Once in Spot AF, rocking the control moves the Spot crosshair around the frame, converting it to Flex Focus Point mode..


QV/Delete Button
Below the Five-Way Controller, the QuickView button lets you quickly switch from Record to Playback mode to view just-captured images. When viewing an image, pressing this button prompts the camera to ask if you want to delete it.


Magnify Button
Below and to the right of the Five-Way Controller, this button can be configured (via an LCD menu option) to either toggle the 2x digital zoom, or to magnify the center of the image by 4x for manual focusing.


Battery Compartment Latch
Directly below the LCD screen, this latch opens the battery compartment cover. We found it slightly challenging to actuate this latch while simultaneously pressing on the compartment cover to hold it closed, but it's far from the worst battery compartment design we've seen.


Function Dial
Located on the left side of the camera, just below and between the flash head and electronic viewfinder, this dial is the primary interface for controlling the most frequently used camera settings. Options include Image Size, Image Quality, Exposure Mode, Drive (single shot, continuous, or self-timer), White Balance, and ISO. You change a setting by rotating the dial to the appropriate position, and then pressing the central button while rotating the ridged Selection Wheel. When you press the center button, the corresponding camera option is displayed in isolation on either the LCD or EVF (whichever is in use), so you can see its current value as you rotate the Selection Wheel.


Digital Effects Controller
Below and forward of the Function Dial is the Digital Effects Controller. Its operation is very similar to that of the Function Dial, in that changes are made by rotating the dial, pressing the central button, and scrolling the Selection Wheel. Options include Contrast, Exposure Compensation, and Color Saturation.


AF / MF Button
Just to the rear of the Digital Effects Controller, this button switches the camera between automatic and manual focus operation.


Manual Focus Ring
Surrounding the base of the lens barrel, this ridged ring controls focus when the camera is in Manual focus mode. It isn't directly (mechanically) connected to the optics, but rather commands an internal motor to move the lens elements.


Macro Focus Switch
Located on the left side of the lens barrel, this control engages the macro focusing option. (Note that there's an interlock that prevents it from being engaged unless the lens is zoomed all the way to its telephoto position.)

Camera Modes and Menus

Still Capture Mode: Accessed by turning the Mode dial to the red camera symbol, this is the mode for all still-image capture operation. (Programmed, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes are selected via the Function Dial.)

Playback Mode: Indicated by the green arrow symbol, enables playback of previously captured images.

Movie Mode: Enables capture of (silent) movie sequences.

Setup Mode: Displays an LCD menu system allowing configuration of deeper camera operating modes, memory card reformatting, menu language choice, etc.

Computer Connection Mode: Activates the Dimage 7's USB port for downloading images to a host computer.

NOTE TO OUR READERS: The following menu options may change slightly in production models of the Dimage 7. Most are likely to remain the same though, and they serve to show many of the capabilities and options of the camera. We thus chose to show them here, with the caveat that there may be changes in subsequent retail units.

Still Picture Shooting Menu Basic Options


Still Picture Shooting Menu Custom1 Options


Still Picture Shooting Menu Custom2 Options


Playback Menu Basic Options


Playback Menu Custom1 Options


Playback Menu Custom2 Options


Setup Menu Basic Options


Setup Menu Custom1 Options


Setup Menu Custom2 Options



Computer Transfer Menu Options
The Dimage 7 connects directly to a computer as a "storage class" device. This means that on a supporting operating system (Mac OS or Windows ME or 2000), no additional driver software is needed. What's a bit unusual about the interface is that you need to go to this menu, select the USB option, and hit "enter". The camera then says "Initializing USB Connection", at which point it will show up on the computer's desktop. No big deal, but most cameras you simply put in the computer-connect mode and plug them in. - We're not sure why the D7's USB connection has to be "initialized".


Image Storage and Interface
The Dimage 7 uses CompactFlash Type I or Type II memory cards for image storage; a 16MB card comes standard with the camera. Third-party upgrades are available separately to memory capacities as high as 512MB using Flash Memory, and as large as 1GB (1,000 MB) with the IBM Microdrive. (Check Minolta's website for compatibility info, it's likely that only the second-generation, 512MB and 1GB Microdrives are supported.) The CompactFlash slot is on the right side of the camera, covered by a hinged plastic door that opens easily and latches securely. The card inserts with the electrodes going in first, and the front of the card (indicated by an arrow) facing the back of the camera. A small button beside the slot ejects the card by popping it up slightly, allowing you to pull the card the rest of the way out (put the eject button into a vertical position first by pulling up on the bottom edge).

Although individual CompactFlash cards cannot be write-protected or locked against erasure or manipulation, the Dimage 7 allows you to lock individual images or groups of images through the Playback menu. Once protected, images cannot be erased or manipulated in any way, except through card formatting. The Playback menu also allows you to delete images in the LCD display, format the number of images in the Index display, create a custom slide show, set images up for printing on DPOF compliant printers, and copy images to camera memory or a new CF card.

Four image resolution settings are available: 2,560 x 1,920, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, and 640 x 480 pixels. Files may be saved in any one of three JPEG compression levels, as well as uncompressed TIFF (indicated on the camera LCD as "SuperFine"), and a compact RAW format. Both settings are changed via the left-side Function dial and the Selection wheel next to the Shutter button. The number of remaining images that can be stored on the memory card is reported on the lower right corner of the Data Panel, in addition to the selected Resolution and Compression settings.

The table below summarizes the compression ratios and number of images that can be stored on the included 16MB memory card with each Resolution / Quality (JPEG Compression) combination.

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
16MB Memory Card
Raw
Uncompressed
Fine
Normal
Economy
Full Resolution 2560x1920 Images 1 1 6
15
23
Approx.
Compression
1.4:1 1:1 6:1
15:1
22:1
UXGA Resolution 1600x1200 Images
N/A
2
9
23
35
Approx.
Compression
N/A
1:1
3:1
7:1
11:1
SXGA Resolution 1280x960
Images
N/A
4
12
31
46
Approx.
Compression
N/A
1:1
3:1
7:1
11:1
VGA Resolution 640x480
Images
N/A
17
25
61
89
Approx.
Compression
N/A
1:1
1.5:1
4:1
5:1


A USB cable and interface software accompany the Dimage 7 for quick connection and image downloading to a PC or Macintosh computer. The Dimage 7 seems to be a true "storage class" device, as we didn't need any additional driver software for it to show up on our PowerMac G4 desktop. (Running Mac OS 9.0.4) We clocked its download speed at 259 KB/second. This is on the slow side of average: Most USB-equipped digicams come in at around 300KB/second, and some models go as high as 600 KB/sec.

One of the first things any new digicam owner will need is a larger memory card for their camera: The cards shipped with the units by the manufacturers should really be considered only "starter" cards, you'll definitely want a higher capacity card immediately. - Probably at least a 32 megabyte card for a 1.3 or 2 megapixel camera, 64 megabytes or more for a 3, 4, or 5 megapixel one. (The nice thing about memory cards is you'll be able to use whatever you buy now with your next camera too, whenever you upgrade.) To help you shop for a good deal on memory cards that fit the Dimage 7, we've put together a little memory locater, with links to our price-comparison engine: Just click on the "Memory Wizard" button above to go to the Minolta memory finder, select your camera model , and click the shopping cart icon next to the card size you're interested in. You'll see a list of matching entries from the price-comparison database. Pick a vendor & order away! (Pretty cool, huh?)

Video Out
The Dimage 7 provides a video output jack with an accompanying video cable. The signal timing can be set to NTSC or PAL via the Setup menu. An adapter cable terminating in a male RCA plug is included with units shipped to the U.S. European models will presumably include cabling appropriate to PAL systems. The Video output duplicates the contents of the LCD in all modes, permitting it to be used as an auxiliary viewfinder.


Power
Our prototype sample was quite power-hungry, and we'd hoped it was just a prototype issue, but it turned out that the production model also consumed quite a bit of power. The camera isn't by any means the worst we've seen in terms of battery life, but does show poorly against some of the leaders of the field in this respect. By the same token, we don't think it's quite earned the reputation it seems to have developed on the 'net as a power-hungry monster. Reports have circulated of some people only getting 10 shots per charge with high-capacity NiMH batteries. We have to say that this is clearly an abnormal condition, caused either by bad batteries, a bad charger, a bad camera, or some combination of the three. Based on our testing, you should easily get an hour to an hour and a half of continuous operation with a good set of high-capacity NiMH cells, even in the camera's highest-power mode. This is definitely a camera that you'll want to pack along extra batteries for, and a natural candidate for use with an external power pack, though. (See below.) An AC adapter is also available as an optional accessory, and would definitely be a good idea if you plan to use the camera for a lot of studio work.

With those comments as a preface, here are the power-consumption numbers we measured for the Dimage 7 in the lab, along with estimated run times, based on a set of (true) 1600 mAh NiMH cells:

Operating Mode
Power
(mA @6.0v)
Est. Minutes
Capture Mode, w/LCD
850 mA
90
Capture Mode, w/EVF
640 mA
120
Capture Mode, w/LCD "sleeping"
750 mA
102
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
860 mA
89
Half-pressed w/EVF
650 mA
118
Continuous Autofocus w/LCD
650 mA
96
Memory Write (transient)
990 mA
n/a
Flash Recharge (transient)
1000 mA
n/a
Image Playback
670 mA
114

So, the Dimage 7 is clearly a heavy power-user, but the numbers above don't seem to support the level of negative comment we've seen out there about it's power consumption. (Unfortunately, no other sites have done any power-consumption measurements, so the battery life discussions are all based on anecdotal evidence.) As mentioned above, there do appear to be several instances of individuals getting literally only a dozen shots or so per charge on a set of batteries, and this clearly is abnormal. Given the concern over power and reports of exceedingly short battery life, this might be a good point to make a brief mention of batteries and chargers...

We've been working on testing batteries and chargers as sort of a background task for quite a while now. (Every few days, toss a set of batteries in the little battery-testing gadget Dave cobbled together.) We've found some interesting things. First, just because a battery *says* it's 1600 mAh (for instance) doesn't mean that it *is* 1600 mAh. Digicams definitely aren't a place to cheap-out on batteries, so it pays to get a good brand. We've tested (in alphabetical order) GP, Kodak, Maha, and Nexcell, all of which appear to be good manufacturers. Out of kindness, we won't mention the brands we tested that *didn't* measure up. We recommend the higher capacity batteries from each of these vendors. (But not some of the same companies' lower-capacity models.)

The second thing we've discovered is that a good charger is possibly even more important than your choice of batteries. (!) Even some rather expensive chargers won't bring a set of batteries anywhere near to a state of full charge. Thus, the wrong charger can turn your 1700 mAh batteries into a set of 800 mAh ones! We're working on a whole "power solutions" area for the site, to share our findings, but for now can just say that our favorite charger is the Maha C204 (shown above). The Quest Q2 and Alltek AT-5798 units also do a good job, although our test sample of the Q2 developed a bad circuit after only a little use. So... Get a couple of sets of 1700 mAh batteries and a good charger, and you should easily get an hour plus of continuous operation of the Dimage 7 per charge.

We mentioned external power packs above: Given the type of camera this is, you're going to want to use it for extended periods. What to do, besides turning it off quickly? Apparently knowing our penchant for such things, we've gotten a lot of questions from readers about external battery packs with this camera. The problem is that most NiMH-based packs don't work, as the Dimage 7 apparently needs a higher voltage at its external power terminal than these packs deliver. (The camera's power terminal is labeled "6 volts", most such packs don't come up to that voltage when subjected to high loads.) As we've found with several other cameras, the solution is a LiIon battery pack, which has a higher output voltage. Maha makes one (shown above), sold under their PowerEx brand. Running about $60, this unit provides 1400 mAh of power at a terminal voltage (under moderate load) of a bit over 8 volts. In our testing, the Dimage 7 ran just fine from this pack. The PowerBank's capacity should be enough to give you an extra hour to hour and a half of continuous running in maximum-power mode. (With the LCD enabled in capture mode.) Combine that with a set of the 1700 NiMH cells internally, and you'll be good for a full 3 hours or so of nonstop operation. - Easily all day if you're judicious about turning the camera off when not in use. One note - Maha makes both NiMH and LiIon versions of the PowerBank, make sure you get the LiIon model for the Dimage 7. (Model number MH-DPB140LI.) Click here for more information, or to order online. Highly recommended for this camera!

 

In the Box
The Dimage 7 ships with the following complement of accessories and software:

Some mention must be made of the software that accompanies the Dimage 7: The Dimage uses a proprietary color space, with a wider gamut than the conventional sRGB space used by most cameras today. As a result, its images will look much "flatter" (lower saturation) on computer monitors, unless their color space is remapped to that of the monitor. This can be accomplished via the Dimage Image Viewer application, and can be done in batch mode, to process many images at once.(We performed this transformation on all of the sample images displayed here, converting them to sRGB color space for display via web browsers.) In our experience, converting the images to sRGB did indeed brighten colors somewhat, although the effect was most noticeable in very saturated colors, particularly reds and greens. Less-saturated colors showed little change when they were remapped. While the transformation to sRGB did in fact brighten the color rendering somewhat, we still found that our personal preference was to shoot with the saturation control bumped up by two notches.




Test Results
Given that the Dimage 7 breaks so much new ground in its resolution and lens quality, we're going to depart from our usual format here a little, and spend a bit more time elaborating on the results of our tests. - Our normal approach would be to simply refer our readers to the Dimage 7's Picture Analysis Page, and encourage them to form their own opinions. We still encourage that practice, as it's our firm belief that your eyes need to be the final judge of which camera is right for you. What we'll do here though, is to show cropped samples from some of our test shots to illustrate particular points we view as important. We'll also show small version of some of the shots, so you can quickly form an opinion of color, night-shooting capability, etc.

Of course, the big story with the Dimage 7 is its resolution. With a 5.2 megapixel CCD, it has dramatically more pixels than the by-now-standard 3.3 megapixel cameras and even trumps 4 megapixel designs by a good 25%.

The illustration above shows samples cropped from our laboratory resolution-target shots, taken with three high-end digicams: The 5-megapixel Dimage 7, the 4-megapixel Olympus E-10, and the 3.3-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 995. Our normal practice is to apply no adjustment to any of the camera images we shoot, but in this case, we've tone-adjusted the shots from the various cameras, so they'd match in brightness, contrast, and color cast. - This was important, as differences in contrast can significantly affect perceived resolution, and this close juxtaposition would have exaggerated the effect of any differences.

In the figure, we've marked three points on each curve, which serve to characterize the cameras' resolving power. The red arrow indicates the point at which the first (often barely detectable) artifacts appear in the target image: This is the "visual" resolution, as defined by the ISO-12233 standards definition for digital camera resolution, and is the point that we normally use as the resolution number in reporting our test results. Note though, that the artifacts are often very subtle, consisting mainly of slight, anomalous thickening or blurring of the lines. This is one of the unfortunate aspects of the ISO-12233 standard, in that there's often a great deal of visible detail present well beyond the spatial frequency at which the first artifacts appear, and this number therefore sometimes underreports the resolution relative to what most users would feel was an acceptable level of artifacts or blurring.

Because the ISO standard is so conservative, we often report in our reviews that we saw "strong detail" out to such and such a point. Our criteria for "strong detail" has no formal definition, and is quite subjective, but does indicate resolution of a sort that may be considered useful by our readers. - This also seems to correlate a bit better with observations on "natural" objects in our other test images. Our criteria for "strong detail" is that the target lines still be clearly visible, although some blurring or aliasing may be present.

The final point we've marked is the "extinction" point, at which the camera completely loses all ability to distinguish the target lines from one another, and the image blurs into a more or less uniform grayness. This parameter really has no formal definition whatever, and is of questionable value in determining "real life" camera performance. It does correlate somewhat with the "sharpness" of a camera's images (as distinct from "resolution"), and some authors regularly discuss it. While it does seem to provide some indication of image sharpness, the relationship is not well established, and "extinction" numbers can be misleading.

In the illustration here though, all three indicators seem to line up fairly well, with the "Strong Detail" parameter in particular showing clear differences between the 3, 4, and 5 megapixel devices. The 5 megapixel Dimage 7 shows significantly greater resolution than even the 4 megapixel E-10, and relative to the 3.3 megapixel camera, the difference is dramatic.

Detail example, vs Nikon Coolpix 995
(a top-performing 3.3 megapixel camera)

995, original size

995, resized in Photoshop
(Bicubic Interpolation)

Dimage 7, straight from camera

These shots show how the laboratory tests translate into the real world: The Dimage 7's shots are again compared to those of the Coolpix 995, a very good 3.3 megapixel camera. The difference between 3.3 and 5.2 megapixels is very evident.

Corner sharpness examples. (Vs anonymous 3.3 MP camera)

Corner detail from "mystery" camera.

Matching corner detail from Dimage 7

One of the things that most impressed us with the Dimage 7 was the obvious quality of its lens: It shows better corner sharpness than the lenses of most digicams we've tested, and much lower chromatic aberration as well. The shots above are cropped from outdoor shots taken by the Dimage 7 and 3.3 megapixel model. (No, not the 995 again: We didn't feel it would be fair to single out a specific competing model in this example, since corner softness and chromatic aberration are so widespread among the prosumer cameras we've seen.) The improved sharpness of the Dimage 7's lens is obvious (there's more difference in sharpness here than would be accounted for merely by the difference in resolution), as is the lower level of chromatic aberration, as evidenced by the almost complete lack of red/green fringes around the dark tree branches.

Color saturation variations.
Color saturation variations. Middle is nominal, top left minimum, bottom right maximum.
(On the prototype camera, maximum color saturation setting darkened image somewhat. - We're guessing that this is just a prototype glitch...)


The Dimage 7's color accuracy was quite good for a prototype unit, and we really liked the fine gradations available via the Digital Effects control. The combination of fine step sizes with a total of 7 variations mean that you can really configure the camera to match your own particular color preferences. (For instance, when shooting photos with it for personal use, we routinely ran the color saturation up by one or two notches on the Digital Effects control.) The steps sizes on most cameras offering saturation adjustments are too large to be considered for use as a routine tweak on camera operation, but rather as special effects to be trotted out on those occasions calling for something fairly dramatic. The thumbnails above show the result of the full range of saturation adjustments being applied to the Davebox image.

Dimage 7 Samples in normal lighting conditions.

Before we get into the low light images, the thumbnails above show some of our standard test images, for those interested. (Once again, be merciful with our bandwidth, these are all about 2 megabytes in size.)

Examples shot under household incandescent lighting. (Lower light, so somewhat more noise.)

Auto White Balance

Incandescent White Balance

Custom White Balance


The Dimage 7's white balance system did a great job too: It's automatic setting handled most normal lighting situations quite well, although we found the custom option provided more accurate neutral tones in most situations. Our Indoor Portrait shot is a particularly tough test for many cameras' white balance settings, as the household incandescent lighting it's shot under has a very strong yellow cast. The three thumbnails above show the effect of the Dimage 7's Auto, Incandescent, and Manual white balance settings. We particularly liked the behavior of the Incandescent setting in this instance, feeling that it left just enough of the yellow cast in the image to capture the mood of the lighting, while still providing a well-balanced photograph. The Dimage 7 performed exceptionally well in the low-light category, as we obtained very bright, useable images at light levels as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) at all four ISO settings (100, 200, 400, and 800). We noticed a slight magenta cast from the low light level, but all four ISO settings produced good color overall. The 800 ISO setting produced the brightest image, though with a very slight, milky haze. Noise remained moderately low at the 100 and 200 ISO settings, increasing to a moderate level at 400 ISO and to a high level at 800 ISO. (We direct readers to Mike Chaney's excellent Qimage Pro program, for a tool with an amazing ability to remove image noise without significantly affecting detail.) To put the Dimage 7's low-light performance into perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so the camera should easily handle much darker situations without the flash.

NOTE: These images were shot in *low* light. Daylight shots show much lower noise.


In addition to our studio tests, we took the Dimage 7 out for an excursion to the local mall late one night, with results shown above. (Click on each image to see the full-sized version, but beware, they run about 2 megabytes apiece.) The quality of these night shots is simply outstanding: There's very little noise (particularly impressive, given the sensor's resolution, as well as the prototype status of the camera we were shooting with), and even more dramatically, there's no sign of the dreaded "purple fringe" problem seen in so many digicams in similar situations. (This phenomena has commonly been referred to as chromatic aberration, but we don't think it's actually that, since it seems to be much more a function of light overload than simple light/dark contrast breaks.) On the throwaway shot of the Best Buys store, we felt the lack of bleeding around the grossly overexposed streetlights was a significant point. The fourth shot above is of a house across the street, in a rather dark residential neighborhood. This was shot at ISO 800, with a 4 second shutter speed, and is *considerably* brighter in this image than it appeared to the naked eye: The fairly bright sky behind the house was in fact only dimly visible as city glow reflecting from low overcast. (Note that the noise level on this shot may be lower than you'd see normally: We shot this photo at the smaller 1600x1200 image size, so there may be some averaging between adjacent pixels going on, which would tend to reduce the noise level somewhat.) Bottom line, the Dimage 7 looks like it will be an incredible low-light performer.

Oh - and lest we forget to underscore this point again: The Dimage 7's electronic viewfinder worked perfectly well for framing all of these night shots! (The house shot was so dim that the EVF view was extremely noisy, but the fast was that we could still use the EVF to frame the image.) If you've ever been frustrated by the inability of an EVF to function in low lighting, you have to check out the one on the Dimage 7: It's the first EVF we've seen that we felt really could substitute for a true optical viewfinder.


Viewfinder Accuracy & Flash Uniformity, Wide Angle

Viewfinder Accuracy & Flash Uniformity, Telephoto

Speaking of the viewfinder, the one on the The Dimage 7 is very accurate, which showing approximately 99.4 percent of the final image area with the lens at full wide angle. At the telephoto setting, it's just a little loose, showing very slightly more in the frame than what ends up in the final image area. Really, it's about as close to a 100% view as possible though, so we give the camera high marks for viewfinder accuracy. Also as measured in our viewfinder accuracy test, flash distribution is fairly even at the telephoto setting, though very dim, with a slight reflection present at the center of the target. We also noticed a bright, vertical line just right of center. At the wide angle setting, flash distribution is fairly even and bright, with just a little falloff at the corners of the target.


The Dimage 7 performed very well in the macro category, capturing a fairly small minimum area of just 1.92 x 1.44 inches (48.76 x 36.57 millimeters), which is among the best we've seen. Detail and resolution are excellent, with very sharp details throughout the image. The printing on the dollar bill is very clear, as are the tiniest details of the coins. Color balance is a little warm, giving the gray background a reddish tint. The Dimage 7's built-in flash has a lot of trouble throttling down for this very tiny macro area, completely overexposing the image and washing out the color and details.

Throughout our testing, we were very pleased with the Dimage 7's performance. Resolution and detail are the highest of any camera we've tested to date, in over three years of testing. (May, 2001) The lens is very sharp, with very little chromatic aberration, and great corner sharpness. Exposure control is excellent, with great control over color, contrast, and sharpness. Macro and low-light performance are both excellent, leading us to think that the Dimage 7 is a good camera for just about any shooting situation. At an introductory price of $1,500, it clearly isn't a camera for the idle snapshooter, but if you're serious about your photography, the Dimage 7 should be at the top of your list for consideration. Very highly recommended.

UPDATE: 8/23/2001
Since this review was first written, we've gotten a production model to test, "lived" with the camera on our Alaska trip, and also seen some other new cameras that challenge the Dimage 7 pretty strongly. Here's where we end up, now that a few more months have gone by:

  1. We're still very impressed with the Dimage 7 - We still think it's a breakthrough product in a number of areas, including its lens (one of the best digicam lenses we've seen period, let alone a long-ratio zoom model) and the fine-grained control it gives you over color, exposure, and contrast. After using it in the field, we have even more appreciation for its control layout too, which is very functional, fast, and easy to get familiar with.

  2. It's no longer the holder of "highest resolution" honors, as newer cameras have equaled or surpassed it.

  3. Despite the fine-grained contrast and saturation control, we'd like to see improvements in the camera's basic exposure system. In high dynamic-range scenes (ranging from very light to very dark), it tends to overexpose the highlights somewhat, and we found it hard to correct for this without producing overly-dark images. Likewise, while we can get photos that we consider to be very pleasing by boosting the saturation two notches, we'd like to see the default color somewhat brighter.

  4. We're less carried away with the ferroelectric EVF than we were initially, although we still think it's the best EVF we've seen to date. Specific enhancements we'd like to see are more pixels (to provide better spatial resolution and avoid some of the "crackled" effect on scenes with fine detail), a better set of eyepiece optics, and less tendency to lose highlight detail.

Overall, the Dimage 7 is a very impressive picture-taking tool, with a tremendous range of control and a genuinely great lens system. It does seem to be a camera that polarizes people a great deal, as witness some of the wildly divergent opinions and reactions in our discussion forums. (Click the link at the bottom of this page to go directly to the discussion thread associated with this review.) For this reason, we'd strongly advise prospective purchasers to one way or another get their hands on a unit in a camera shop to see how the EVF and general "feel" of the camera strike you. If this means fewer sales through our advertisers, so be it: Our ultimate mission is to lead people to camera purchases that they're happy with, and in the case of this camera, it seems that holding one in your hands is an important part of that process.


Conclusion
While some of our rabid initial enthusiasm for the Dimage 7 mitigated a bit once we'd spent some time with a production unit, we're still very positive on the camera overall. - And judging from what we're hearing from many readers and the dealer channel, it seems we're not alone in that opinion: At least as of this writing in late August 2001, Dimage 7s are figuratively flying off dealer shelves. Minolta really broke out of the pack in early 2001 with the Dimage 7, being the first manufacturer to jump into the 5 megapixel arena. As noted though, the story of the Dimage 7 isn't just (or even primarily) one of resolution: The 7x zoom lens is one of the best we've seen on a non-removable-lens digicam, with excellent sharpness corner to corner, and very little chromatic aberration. The zoom lens also covers a very useful range of focal lengths, extending from an equivalent of 28mm at the wide angle end to 200mm at the telephoto end -- with the 28mm offering substantially more coverage than the standard 35mm focal length. While it appears to be at least somewhat a matter of personal preference and opinion, we feel that the Dimage 7's electronic viewfinder is superior to conventional LCD designs: This is the first EVF we've seen that is actually usable in reasonably dim shooting conditions. The ability to fine-tune color saturation and contrast allows users to adjust the camera to suit their own specific preferences. Add a capable (if proprietary) hot shoe flash connector, front-element filter threads, CF Type II (and Microdrive) compatibility, and topnotch ergonomics and interface design, and you have a very exciting camera. We liked the Dimage 7 a great deal, and it seems to be making a lot of owners happy too. If you're looking for a prosumer camera with high resolution, no-excuses optics, and great picture-taking control, the Dimage 7 could be the camera you've been waiting for.

<<Dimage 7 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

Reader Comments!
Questions, comments or controversy on this product? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about the Minolta Dimage 7, or add comments of your own!



Site Map | About Us | | Advertising | Privacy Policy | Usage Policy | Home

Imaging Resource © 1998 - 2014. Material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted or otherwise used without the prior written consent of .