Minolta DiMAGE F100Minolta builds a compact, stylish 4 Megapixel model with sophisticated autofocus.
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Page 2:Executive OverviewReview First Posted: 04/18/2002, Updated: 05/29/2003
With a new look and a handful of new, "first time on a digicam" features, the Minolta F100 is an attractive new addition to the Dimage line. Packed with a 4.0-megapixel CCD, optional full manual exposure control, and a wide range of other exposure features, the F100 looks like a good bet to become a popular camera. Its sleek, skinny body design is geared for pockets and small purses, and its light weight makes it very portable. The matte, all-silver camera body measures 4.33 x 2.06 x 1.26 inches (111 x 52.3 x 32 millimeters) and weighs only 8.2 ounces (235 grams) with batteries. A small strap secures it to your wrist, though a small camera bag would be ideal for transportation. While the camera is pretty small, it actually fits most hands well thanks to its elongated shape, although there isn't much of a handgrip to speak of. Still, the smooth front makes the camera pocket friendly, as the lens retracts almost completely into the body.
Probably the most exciting new features on the F100 are the Area AF, Subject Tracking AF, and Automatic Digital Subject Program features. The advanced Area AF focus mode actually detects the subject in the frame. In their marketing material, Minolta claims that the camera is programmed to recognize people in photos, based on shape, brightness, and color characteristics. In playing with the camera, I found it could easily be fooled by cluttered backgrounds and bright objects near the subject, but in general it was surprisingly intelligent in selecting the most logical subject for any given photo.
In typical use, the camera's five-area autofocus system automatically locks onto the subject closest to one of the five areas (which are clustered near the center of the frame, located dead center, and up, down, left, and right of center). The feature is great at locking onto people in shots, typically focusing on the subject's head. The Subject Tracking AF feature takes this a step further, locking the focus on moving subjects. As the subject moves across the AF area, the locked focus continuously changes to one of the five areas and "tracks" the subject as it moves. This is great for snapping sharp images of children and sporting events, as you just have to keep the subject framed and the camera does the rest. This is the first time I've seen a tracking autofocus system like this on a consumer-level digicam, and it seems like a very useful addition.
I also liked the new Automatic Digital Subject Program option, by which the camera decides which of several "scene" exposure modes it should use to take the picture. Like many other digicams these days, the F100 offers a range of preset "scene" shooting modes, from Sunset to Sports Action. These scene modes combine a variety of settings, such as exposure compensation, ISO, and white balance into a single preprogrammed selection. They make it easy for novice users to set up the camera for special subjects that would be tricky to photograph otherwise. When left under auto control, the camera assesses the subject and exposure conditions, and automatically selects the best scene mode to shoot with. The F100's automatic scene mode selection seemed to work pretty well, making tricky subjects much easier to photograph. I'll explain more about the F100's various exposure and focus innovations later in the review, but the bottom line is that I think these new features give the F100 a significant edge in the digicam marketplace.
For composing images, the F100 features a real-image optical viewfinder as well as a 1.5-inch color LCD monitor, with a detailed information display. The optical viewfinder is a bit less accurate than average, with around 80% frame coverage, while the LCD monitor is pretty exactly 100% accurate.) In Playback mode, the LCD offers an optional histogram display for double-checking exposure. The F100 uses a Minolta GT 3x lens, with a focal range from 7.8-23.4mm, the equivalent of a 38-114mm lens on a 35mm camera. The telescoping design extends the lens outward from the camera body whenever it's powered on, and likewise retracts it when not in use. A shutter-like lens cover instantly slides out of the way as the lens extends from the camera, eliminating any need for a removable lens cap. Like other Minolta GT lenses I've tested recently, the one on the F100 looks to be of unusually high quality, quite sharp from corner to corner, and with very little chromatic aberration. (Although it does have rather a lot of barrel distortion at its wide angle setting.)
The F100 offers both automatic and manual focus control, with a selectable five-point autofocus system and the new Subject Tracking AF mode mentioned above. You can also manually lock the focus on just one AF area. A Full-Time AF option enables the camera to continually adjust the focus, instead of waiting until the Shutter button is halfway pressed, which should reduce shutter delay somewhat, at the cost of increased power consumption. A digital zoom option enlarges images as much as 2.5x, depending on the file size and quality settings, but like all digital zooms also reduces the overall image quality in direct proportion to the magnification.
Exposure control is varied and flexible, as the F100 offers a full Auto mode, as well as Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. The preset "scene" modes mentioned above include Portrait, Night Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Sports Action, and Macro modes. Available aperture settings range from f/2.8 to f/8.0, depending on the lens zoom setting, while shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to four seconds. A Bulb mode keeps the shutter open for as long as 15 seconds. The F100 has two metering modes, Spot and Multi-Segment (which divides the image into 270 sections, meters them independently, and then makes the exposure decision based on the distribution of light and dark areas), and Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third step increments in most shooting modes. There's also an Auto Exposure Bracketing mode, which captures three images at different exposure settings, useful when determining the best exposure is difficult.
The camera's variable ISO (light sensitivity) option offers an Auto adjustment mode, as well as ISO equivalent settings of 100, 200, 400, and 800. White Balance can be set to one of six modes, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Custom (manual setting). The F100 also offers image adjustment settings for Sharpness, Saturation, Color, and Contrast. A Self-Timer mode provides a 10-second countdown before the shutter fires, and works with the optional remote control accessory. There's also a Continuous Advance mode, for capturing a series of images in rapid succession (as fast as 1.2 frames per second, depending on camera settings). The F100's Movie mode captures moving images with sound, at 320 x 240 pixels, for as long as 35 seconds (depending on memory card space). Additionally, an Audio mode records as much as 30 minutes of continuous audio, and a Voice Memo mode records five- or 15-second sound clips to accompany still images. The camera's flash operates in Auto, Fill, Flash Cancel, or Red-Eye Reduction Auto modes, and is effective to approximately 9.5 feet (depending on the lens zoom setting).
Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF files, or as JPEG files at three different compression levels. All images and movies are saved to SD (or MMC) memory cards, and a 16MB card comes with the camera. Available image sizes are 2,272 x 1,704, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, or 640 x 480-pixels. A USB cable accompanies the camera, as well as a software CD loaded with an updated version of Dimage Image Viewer and USB drivers for both PC and Mac platforms. The updated software includes better print utilities, a movie editor, and updated image browser, among other features. The F100 connects to a television set via an included A/V cable, allowing image viewing and composition (NTSC or PAL timings). Two AA alkaline or NiMH batteries or a single CRV3 lithium battery powers the camera, and Minolta offers an AC adapter as a separate accessory. (Battery life is a mixed bag with the F100, either short or very long, depending on whether you're using the LCD display or not - see my later comments in the Power section of this review.)
With its range of new automatic features and unusually intelligent focusing modes, the F100 is an exciting new digicam. The 4.0-megapixel CCD delivers high resolution images with good quality -- plenty of pixels for printing to 8x10 inches or larger. Optional full manual exposure control, 3x optical zoom, and flexible, creative image adjustment features make the F100 perfect for a wide range of consumers, and the Automatic Digital Subject Program mode should do a lot to help novices bring home great pictures. The ability to gradually increase the amount of responsibility you take for exposure control makes the F100 very hospitable to novice users who want to learn more, while the wide array of features and options will keep even the most experienced amateurs entertained.
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