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Minolta Dimage F300

A compact, stylish camera with a full five-megapixel sensor and clever autofocus system.

Review First Posted: 05/22/2003




MSRP $600 US

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

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5.0-megapixel CCD yields images as large as 2,560 x 1,920 pixels
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3x optical zoom lens, with range equivalent to 38-114 mm
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Sophisticated five-zone autofocus system
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Full auto mode plus wide range of manual exposure options

 

Manufacturer Overview

After something of a slow start, Minolta came on strong in the consumer digicam market two years ago, its DiMAGE 7 rocking the high end of the market as the first five megapixel consumer model. Last year, they continued their innovation with the DiMAGE X and the DiMAGE F100, the latter of which sported an innovative autofocus system ported from Minolta's advanced film cameras. As Minolta has rolled out more digicam models, it has become clear that innovative design and high optical quality are particular hallmarks of their designs.

This year, Minolta has upgraded the F100 with a five-megapixel sensor, with the resulting F300 model retaining most other features and operating characteristics of last year's design. The result is a very nice new camera, with some really unusual features, like "intelligent" autofocus that responds to your subjects directly, and an automatic "scene mode." The F300 also takes nice photos, and is very nicely styled, with a compact, all-metal body and fully retracting lens design that makes it easy to take along on outings. While Minolta was a little slow entering the digital fray, they now seem to be more than making up for it with interesting innovations and really excellent lens design. Read on for all the details on the new Dimage F300!

 

High Points

 

 

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Executive Overview

Nearly identical in shape, size, and design to the preceding Minolta DiMAGE F100, the F300 sports a larger, 5.0-megapixel CCD for capturing higher quality images. The F300 features the same 3x optical zoom lens, full manual exposure control, and exposure features as the F100. But it adds a Center-Weighted metering mode, a high-speed Continuous Advance mode, different ISO equivalents, and extended Movie mode capabilities, among a few other minor adjustments. Like the F100 before it, the F300 has a sleek, skinny body tailored for larger pockets and small purses, and its light weight makes it very portable. The matte, all-silver camera body measures 4.37 x 2.07 x 1.28 inches (111 x 53 x 33 millimeters), just a hair larger than the F100. With batteries and memory card, the F300 weighs only 8.3 ounces (236 grams). A small strap secures the camera to your wrist, although 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.

For composing images, the F300 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. Built into the F300 is 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 turned on, and retracts it when powered off. 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 F300 looks to be of unusually high quality, quite sharp from corner to corner, and with very little chromatic aberration. (Although it does have more barrel distortion than average at its wide angle setting.)

The F300 offers both automatic and manual focus control, with a selectable five-point autofocus system and the Subject Tracking AF mode that debuted on the F100. In typical use, the 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 focus on moving subjects. As the subject moves across the frame, the locked focus continuously changes to whichever of the five AF regions is most appropriate, tracking the subject as it moves. This is great for snapping sharp images of children and sporting events. You just have to keep the subject framed and the camera does the rest. You can also manually lock the focus on just one AF area. A Full-Time AF option enables the camera to continually adjust focus, instead of waiting until the Shutter button is halfway pressed. That should reduce shutter delay, although at the cost of increased power consumption. A digital zoom option enlarges images as much as 4x, 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, with a full Auto mode, as well as Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. The preset "scene" modes include Portrait, Night Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Sports Action, and Macro modes. An Automatic Digital Subject Program option puts the camera in charge of which scene exposure mode it should use to take the picture. The camera assesses the subject and exposure conditions, and automatically selects the best scene mode to shoot with. (Sounds crazy, but it seemed to work well on the F100, and I'm glad to see it offered again here.) 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 lets you keep the shutter open for as long as 15 seconds by holding down the shutter button. The F300 has three metering modes, Spot, Center-Weighted, and Multi-Segment (the latter of which divides the image into 270 sections, meters them independently, and then makes the exposure decision based on the overall distribution of light and dark areas). 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 64, 100, 200, and 400. White Balance can be set to one of six modes, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Custom (the manual setting). A Custom Recall setting lets you recall the previously-used Custom white balance, without having to reshoot a gray or white card, a handy feature. The F300 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. Two Continuous Advance modes capture a series of images in rapid succession. Frame rates are as fast as 1.2 frames per second, depending on camera settings, in the normal mode, while a UHS Continuous Advance mode captures a maximum of 11 frames in one second at a reduced resolution of 1280 x 960 pixels. The F300's Movie mode captures moving images with sound, at 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 pixels, for as long as 20 minutes (depending on file size and memory card space). A Night Movie mode optimizes the camera for darker shooting conditions. Additionally, an Audio mode records as much as 30 minutes of continuous audio, and a Voice Memo mode records 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 rated as effective to approximately 11 feet, depending on the lens zoom setting. (In my own tests, I rated the flash range at about 10 feet, but the lens was set a bit towards the telephoto end, which reduces flash range somewhat, due to the reduction in maximum effective aperture as the lens focal length is increased.)

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 32MB card is shipped in the box with the camera. Available image sizes are 2,560 x 1,920; 2,048 x 1,536; 1,600 x 1,200; or 640 x 480 pixels. The UHS Continuous Advance mode, however, captures 1,280 x 960-pixel resolution images. A USB cable accompanies the camera, as well as a CD loaded with an updated version of DiMAGE Image Viewer and USB drivers for both PC and Mac platforms. The updated software includes improved print utilities, a movie editor, and an updated image browser, among other features. The F300 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 power the camera, and Minolta offers an AC adapter as a separate accessory.

With its range of new automatic features and unusually intelligent focusing modes, the F300 is an exciting new digicam. The 5.0-megapixel CCD delivers high resolution images with good quality -- plenty of pixels for making 8x10 or larger prints, even with significant cropping of the image. Optional full manual exposure control, a sharp 3x optical zoom, and flexible, creative image adjustment features make the F300 perfect for a wide range of consumers, while 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 F300 very hospitable to novices who want to learn more, while the wide array of features and options will keep even the most experienced amateurs engaged. All in all, a very sophisticated camera in a compact package.

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Design

The Dimage F300's compact body design is nearly identical to the preceding F100 model. Its long and relatively thin profile is modern with a metallic grey metal body, accentuated by fairly minimal external ornamentation. Don't let the F300's size fool you though: The camera has a wealth of exposure features, including full manual exposure control and several nifty automatic features for better focusing and exposure. The 5.0-megapixel CCD delivers sharp, high quality images, great for printing as large as 8x10 inches or more with excellent detail. The F300 also features an unusually high-quality Minolta GT 3x lens, with the same useful Subject Tracking AF and Area AF features as Minolta's more advanced film cameras, in addition to full manual exposure control.

Measuring 4.37 x 2.07 x 1.28 inches (111 x 53 x 33 millimeters) and weighing just 8.3 ounces (236 grams) with batteries and memory card installed, the F300 will easily fit into a standard shirt pocket. Its small size is perfect for travel. You can just stash the camera in a pocket and go (although I recommend a small, padded camera bag for added protection). The built-in lens cover slides out of the way as soon as you power up the camera, making it quick on the draw, although it does take a few seconds for the lens to extend. A wrist strap accompanies the camera, for added security when shooting in precarious situations.

 

 

The front of the F300 is virtually flat when the lens is retracted, with only a few slight protrusions. The shutter-like lens cover protects the lens when not in use, and pops open as the lens extends from the camera body. Once extended, the lens protrudes an inch and a quarter from the camera front. Also on the front panel are the flash, optical viewfinder window, remote-control receiver window (just to the left of the flash), and self-timer LED lamp. In an effort to preserve the front panel's smooth face, a small, raised bump on the lower left corner of the front panel provides a minimal grip for your middle finger as you grasp the right-hand side of the camera. A slight edge on the bottom of the bump provides a little extra traction to strengthen your grip, providing more traction than I would have expected based on its appearance. Overall, this isn't the most secure camera grip I've seen, but the elongated body and rubber surface on the rear help somewhat.

 

 

The memory card and battery compartments take up the entire right side of the camera (as viewed from the rear). Lined up side by side, both compartments feature flat, rigid plastic doors. The SD compartment door simply pops open, hinged at the top so the door swings upward. By contrast, you have to slide the battery compartment door down first before opening it. The pressure of the closed compartment door keeps the batteries engaged, although I felt that the battery compartment door didn't latch all that well. It was easy to dislodge (and kill power to the camera) when handling the camera, particularly when putting it on or off of a tripod. Not a show-stopper problem, but a design issue I'd like to see Minolta correct on future models. Also on this side of the camera, above both compartments, is an eyelet for attaching the wrist strap.

 

 

The opposite side of the F300 has only a small bump on the side of the lens barrel.

 

 

A good-sized status display panel is located on top of the camera, as well as the camera's microphone, speaker, shutter button, and mode dial. The status display panel reports enough of the camera's basic settings to let you to shoot without using the LCD monitor (saving battery power).

 

 

The remaining camera controls share the back panel with the 1.5-inch LCD monitor and optical viewfinder eyepiece (which is very tiny). The optical viewfinder does not have a diopter adjustment, but does have a very high eyepoint. I could actually hold it some distance away from my eyeglasses and see the entire frame just fine, so even people with very thick eyeglass lenses should have no problem using it. Just beside the viewfinder eyepiece are two LEDs that show a variety of status information, such as when focus is set or when the flash is charging. A series of control buttons line the right side of the LCD monitor, and control Digital Subject Program, Menu, Quick View/Erase, and Display functions. Two more control buttons (Flash/Information and Exposure Compensation buttons) angle down from the top panel. A Four Way Arrow pad in the top right corner controls zoom and navigates through settings menus, with a single button in the center that confirms menu selections. The combination is very effective, with no chance of accidentally pushing one of the direction arrows when you actually meant to press the center button, and vice versa. (This is a common problem with cameras that use a single "rocker toggle" control to serve both arrow-key and enter-button functions.) Just adjacent to this arrow pad is a small LED, which lights whenever the camera is accessing the memory card. Finally, a connector compartment in the lower right corner holds the DC In and A/V Out / USB jacks, protected by a flexible plastic flap.

 

 

The F300's bottom panel is nice and flat, featuring only the metal tripod mount. (Bonus points to Minolta for using a metal tripod socket, rather than the more common but much less rugged plastic.) You can also see the bottom of the memory card compartment door. I'm glad to see that both the battery and memory card compartments are accessible while the camera is mounted to a tripod, which makes studio shooting a little easier. (Not likely to be a concern for typical users, but something I'm always aware of, given the amount of studio shooting I do while testing cameras.)

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Viewfinder

For composing images, the F300 offers both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.5-inch TFT color LCD monitor. The real-image optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens, but naturally doesn't show any digital enlargement (which is only displayed on the LCD monitor). The optical viewfinder doesn't have a diopter adjustment to accommodate near- or far-sighted users, but does have an unusually high eyepoint. This means that even people with very thick eyeglasses should have no problem seeing the full image area through the eyepiece. (This is a very nice feature for those of us who wear eyeglasses. Most camera viewfinders I've tested are usable with eyeglasses, but I generally end up having to mash my glasses against the viewfinder eyepiece to be able to see properly. With the F300, I could keep the camera a comfortable distance from my eyeglasses, so I was less worried about scratching my lenses if a speck of dirt gets between them and the viewfinder eyepiece.) Kudos to Minolta for this feature!

Two LED lamps on the left side of the viewfinder eyepiece report the camera's current status. For example, the top LED glows green when focus is locked, or flashes when the AF system is having difficulty focusing. The lower LED lamp lights solid orange when the flash is charged, and blinks while the flash is charging.

The 1.5-inch LCD monitor takes up the lower left portion of the F300's back panel, and automatically activates whenever the camera is powered on. The Display button just to the right controls the image and information display. One press disables the information display, while the second press deactivates the LCD entirely, while a third press reactivates the LCD with the information display showing. Included in the information display are readouts showing the current camera mode, flash mode, file size and quality settings, the number of available images, a set of focus brackets in the center of the display, and the shutter speed and aperture settings.

In Playback mode, the Display button again controls the information display, but also controls access to the nine-image thumbnail view of images stored on the memory card. The Information button (also Flash button) activates a histogram display, which graphs the tonal distribution of the image. This gives you some idea of the tonal range you captured and helps make it easier to see any over- or underexposure. Also in Playback mode, you can digitally enlarge the image as much as 6x, using the Four-Way Arrow pad's zoom controls.

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Optics
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The F300 is equipped with a 3x Minolta GT, 7.8-23.4mm lens (a 38-114mm 35mm equivalent). A shutter-like lens cover automatically moves in and out of place when the camera is powered on or off, eliminating the need for a removable lens cap. When the camera powers on, the lens telescopes outward an inch and a quarter into its operating position, retracting again when the camera is shut off (or after the camera has been left in Playback mode for a while). Aperture ranges from f/2.8 to f/8.0 (depending on the lens focal length, varying from a maximum aperture of f/2.8 at wide angle to f/4.7 at telephoto), and can be manually or automatically controlled. Focus also features either manual or automatic control, and ranges from 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) to infinity in normal mode. A distance readout appears on the LCD monitor in manual focus mode, with the actual focus distance controlled by the up and down arrows of the Four Way Arrow pad. (I applaud the inclusion of numeric reference points on the focus-distance display, but wish that there were more than five of them, as an aid in setting approximate focus in situations where you have to guesstimate the subject distance. - I also wish there were some way to cause them to display in English rather than metric units.) Pressing the center of the pad switches the up and down arrows back to controlling the zoom lens. In addition to the distance scale, the F300 zooms the LCD display by up to 2.5x (less if you already have the digital zoom function engaged when you switch to manual focus) whenever you adjust the focus manually, as an aid to achieving sharp focus. Macro mode changes the focus range for closer, smaller objects, focusing from 0.7 to 2.0 feet (0.2 to 0.6 meters). While the 20 centimeter minimum focusing distance doesn't sound all that close (many cameras focus much closer), the F300's lens operates in telephoto mode in macro (rather than the typical wide angle), so the net result is a good bit better than average macro shooting, with a nice working distance that helps the flash function well too.

In addition to the F300's 3x optical zoom, the camera also features as much as 4x digital zoom (enabled through the settings menu). But digital zoom compromises image quality because it only crops out and enlarges the central portion of the CCD image. Thus, it directly trades off resolution for magnification. The more you enlarge the image digitally, the softer it gets. (Digital zoom is useful though, when you're shooting at a lower resolution setting to begin with.)

The F300 offers some unique AF options, including Single Shot, Manual, Full-time AF, and a sophisticated Subject Tracking system, some of which use Minolta's Area AF system to automatically detect the subject. The camera's large central autofocus area (indicated by a set of white brackets on the LCD screen) is made up of five separate AF regions, arranged dead center, and above, below, left and right of center. When you press the shutter button halfway, one of these five regions will lock onto the subject. When in Auto mode, the focus "box" selected by the camera is highlighted in red, and you can watch it track the subject as you move the camera around. Tracking AF is also available as an option when the camera is in Manual mode.

In Single-Shot mode, the camera simply locks focus when the Shutter button is half pressed, basing focus on one of the five focus areas. You can specify one of the five focus areas as the only active area by pressing and holding the center button of the Four Way Arrow pad. This displays the AF Area selection screen, where you can use the arrow keys to select a focus area and then press the center of the arrow pad again to confirm the selection. The camera will then base its focusing only on that AF area. In Full-time AF mode, the F300 continuously adjusts the focus, rather than waiting for you to press the Shutter button halfway.

Subject Tracking AF, which first appeared on several of Minolta's film cameras and then the F100, works with all five AF Areas, locking a moving subject to one of the frames, and then "handing it off" to an adjacent frame as it moves. This should be great for catching shots of an active toddler or a child's first little league game, as you just have to worry about keeping the subject somewhere near the middle of the frame, rather than whether or not focus is set. For best results, frame the subject in the focus brackets that appear on the LCD display, and halfway press (and hold) the Shutter button. As the subject moves, the active AF area will appear in red. The AF tracking isn't lightning fast, but Minolta says it's sufficient to track a subject moving at 9 mph (14.5 km/h) toward or away from the camera, or 3.4 mph (5.4 km/h) from left to right, at a distance of 12 feet (3.5 meters) at the wide angle lens position, or 33 feet (10 meters) at the telephoto position. To translate this to the real world, 9 mph is about the speed of a child running, (well, a small child, anyway) while 3.4 mph corresponds to a brisk walk. The tracking ability is more effective with the lens at its wide angle position than at telephoto, and also benefits from plenty of light and a subject with good contrast. It appeared to work pretty well in actual use though, and seemed like it would be useful in many situations.

I mentioned Minolta's "intelligent" AF system that is supposed to recognize and focus on people in preference to background objects. I had a hard time confirming that this was the case, as opposed to the camera simply selecting the closest object in its field of view. It did in some cases seem to show a tendency to focus on people's heads, although I found that it could easily become confused in low contrast situations, or if there was a bright object (a CRT, for example) in the frame with the subject. Also, if I moved the camera too rapidly, the tracking system would lose its "lock" on the subject and possibly end up acquiring a different element in the scene as its "subject." Despite its limitations though, I thought that the F300's intelligent autofocus capabilities were a significant step forward for consumer digicams.

Like other Minolta GT lenses I've tested recently, the one on the Dimage F300 seems to be of unusually high quality for a consumer digicam. It's very sharp across the frame, with little or none of the corner softness I've come to expect from consumer-level digicam lenses. It also shows almost no chromatic aberration, another common consumer lens failing. It did have higher than average barrel distortion at its wide angle setting, about 1.1 percent. (Most digicams show 0.8% or less barrel distortion, and amount I still consider too high.) I also found the zoom control rather slow to operate, it taking about 3.5 seconds to rack from telephoto back to wide angle. On the plus side although, the F300's lens provided pretty fine-grained zoom control, with fairly small steps between its "preferred" focal length positions. (As near as I can tell, the F300's lens has about 13 actual focal length steps along its zoom range, more than most cameras I've tested.)

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Exposure

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The F300 has a broad range of exposure modes and features, providing excellent flexibility in this area. The Mode dial on top of the camera controls the main operating mode, with exposure mode options of Auto, Manual, Playback, Movie, Audio, and Setup. Within the recording modes, however, a range of exposure modes and controls can be found in the LCD menu system. Put simply, Auto mode does exactly what you'd expect, placing the camera in control of just about everything, from aperture and shutter speed to white balance and ISO.

An Automatic Digital Subject Program Selection option automatically adjusts the exposure settings depending on the type of subject or scene the camera thinks is being photographed. When the camera is in Auto mode, it automatically determines if the subject fits into Portrait, Sports Action, Landscape, Sunset, or Night Portrait presets. An icon in the LCD monitor lights to inform you which mode has been selected. (You can also manually specify which "Scene" mode you want to use by pressing the Digital Subject Program Selection button until the correct icon lights. The mode remains in effect until changed.) The automatic system activates when the Shutter button is pressed halfway. You can adjust the flash mode and exposure compensation, depending on the mode selected. This could be a great tool for novice photographers, who may not yet know a lot about photography but still want the best exposure possible. Remembering which manual scene modes are available when you need them can be challenging for anyone, but especially novices: In my opinion, automatic scene modes are a valuable innovation. (Remember that you might need a tripod for some shots, as the camera may use a slower shutter speed. The LCD monitor will flash a camera shake warning, or shaky-hand symbol, in such cases.)

The Manual Record mode setting on the Mode dial provides the full range of exposure features, letting you select from Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure control options (set through the Record menu). In Program AE, the camera controls both shutter speed and aperture settings, while you maintain control over Exposure Compensation, White Balance, Metering Mode, Contrast, etc. Aperture Priority mode means that you control the lens aperture setting, while the camera chooses the best corresponding shutter speed. Shutter Priority works just the opposite, as you set the shutter speed from 1/1,000 to four seconds while the camera picks the aperture. Finally, Manual exposure mode puts you in charge of the exposure completely, and increases the shutter speed range to include a Bulb setting, for shutter times as long as 15 seconds. In all three manual adjustment modes, if the camera's internal metering system disagrees with your shutter speed and/or aperture choice, the exposure settings are displayed in red.

Three exposure metering options are available through the settings menu in Manual Record mode: Spot, Center-Weighted, and Multi-Segment (default). Spot metering mode reads the exposure from a very small area in the center of the frame, which works well with high-contrast subjects. (A good example is a backlit portrait shot, where the subject's face is in shadow. Spot metering will let you expose just for their face, without the meter being confused by the surrounding brighter background.) Center-Weighted metering takes a reading from a broader area in the center of the frame, while Multi-Segment metering divides the image into 270 areas which are measured for both brightness and color. This information is then combined with the distance reading from the autofocus system to determine the best overall exposure. An Exposure Compensation button on top of the camera lets you adjust the exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third step increments. In situations where you're not sure what the best exposure is, the Auto Exposure Bracketing mode automatically takes three shots at different exposure settings. Activated through the LCD menu, this mode snaps one image at the normal exposure, one image that's overexposed slightly, and one that's underexposed slightly. You can set images to vary by 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0 EV steps, by pressing the right and left arrow keys while in the mode. An ISO setting adjusts the camera's sensitivity to light, offering an Auto setting as well as 64, 100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents. The F300 also offers a Noise Reduction option, which effectively decreases the level of image noise in longer exposures.

White Balance choices include Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, or Custom to correct the overall color balance. The Custom setting bases the color balance on a white card held in front of the camera. You can recall the previously-used Custom white balance as well, so you can quickly achieve the same color balance under the same lighting conditions without having to reshoot a gray card. The F300 also provides an extensive array of image adjustment controls, including Sharpness, Saturation, Contrast, and Color (which offers Neutral Color, Vivid Color, and Black and White options). You can instantly check the most recently captured image by pressing the Quick View / Erase button in any record mode, and most of the Playback mode options are available.

 

Flash

The F300's onboard flash operates in one of four modes: Auto, Fill, Flash Cancel, and Redeye Reduction Auto. A Flash button at the top of the camera's back panel controls the flash mode, and the corresponding icon appears in the LCD monitor. Auto mode lets the camera decide when to fire the flash, based on existing light levels and the amount of backlighting, while Fill mode fires the flash with every exposure (regardless of lighting conditions). Flash Cancel simply disables the flash. Redeye Reduction Auto fires two small pre-flashes before the full flash, reducing the red reflection in the subject's eyes (known as the Redeye Effect). Minolta estimates the F300's flash as effective from 1.6 to 11.1 feet (0.5 to 3.4 meters) at wide angle and 1.6 to 6.6 feet (0.5 to 2.0 meters) at telephoto settings. In my own testing, I found the F300's flash effective to about 10 feet, but my test conditions are such that the lens was zoomed slightly toward its telephoto end at that distance. A Flash Exposure Compensation adjustment controls the output of the flash, from -2 to +2 EV units, adjustable in one-third-step increments. One added note: It appears that the F300 actually boosts its ISO setting to 200 when the flash is enabled in dark conditions. This increases the range of the flash, but at the cost of increased image noise. Many current digicams use an ISO boost of this sort to achieve increased flash range, so Minolta can't be called too much to task for following suit, but I'd much prefer to simply see more powerful flash units on cameras to avoid the need for tricks of this sort.

Self-Timer / Remote Control Mode

Through the Drive setting of the Record menu, you can set the camera's drive mode to Self-Timer / Remote Control, Continuous Advance, UHS (ultra high speed) Continuous Advance, and Auto Exposure Bracketing. When set to the Self-Timer / Remote Control mode, the F300 provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is fully pressed and when the shutter actually opens. A small LED lamp on the front of the camera lights to indicate that the timer has started, and then blinks a couple of seconds before the shutter fires. This mode also works with the optional remote control accessory, which allows you to control the camera as far as 16 feet (five meters) away. The camera automatically changes the AF mode to Single Shot whenever you select the self-timer option, so the camera will lock focus on the subject when you trip the shutter release to begin the self-timer countdown.

Continuous Advance Mode

Two Continuous Advance modes capture a rapid series of images for as long as the Shutter button is held down (or as long as the memory card has available space). Normal Continuous Advance mode captures images at a maximum speed of 1.5 frames per second, depending on the image resolution and quality settings chosen (with the shutter sound switched off in the Setup menu). In my own tests, I found that the F300 could grab frames as fast as 1.09 frames/second when using its smallest image size (640x480), capturing as many as 60 frames before having to pause to write to the memory card. It's almost as fast with large/fine images, at about 1.0 frames/second, but the run length is limited to about five frames. Using the flash will reduced the rate of capture.

The UHS Continuous Advance mode captures a maximum of 11 frames in just under one second (a measured frame rate of 12.3 frames/second), and resolution is fixed at 1,280 x 960. Shutter speeds slower than 1/30 second, digital zoom, flash and super-fine quality can't be used in this mode.

Recording Movies and Sound

Through the Movie Record mode (set via the Mode dial), the F300 records moving images with sound for as long as 20 minutes (!) at the low-resolution setting, assuming sufficient memory card space is available. (A 20-minute movie occupies about 84 megabytes of memory card space.) Available movie resolutions are 320 x 240, and 160 x 120 pixels, and the amount of available recording time appears on the LCD monitor. Maximum recording time at the high-resolution setting is 3 minutes. Movie mode also works with the accessory remote control. Flash and digital zoom are disabled in this mode, but Exposure Compensation and White Balance can be adjusted. The optical zoom lens also remains active during recording, an uncommon feature on cameras with sound recording. (The zoom motors on most lenses make too much noise to permit their use while recording movies with sound. The lens motor on the F300 is nearly silent, so it's quite feasible to use it while recording.) Set through the Record menu, a Night Movie mode uses slower shutter speeds for better recording in low light.

Indicated on the Mode dial with a microphone symbol, Audio mode records a maximum of 180 minutes of continuous sound (without an image), at approximately 8KB per second. If you have a small card or less memory available on a larger one, the maximum recording time will be correspondingly shorter. As with Movie mode, the amount of recording time available appears in the LCD monitor. The audio quality is sufficient that you could easily use the F300 to record dictation, with the camera's microphone held a foot or less away from your mouth. When held further from the subject though, the microphone tends to pick up a lot of ambient noise and much less of the subject. Holding it at arms length and speaking in a conversational tone of voice results in a very noisy recording, with the recorded voice difficult to pick out above the ambient noise.

You can also record short clips of sound to accompany still images, through the Voice Memo option. Available only in Manual Record mode, this function is activated through the Record settings menu, and records a maximum of 15 seconds of sound to accompany an image. When used with Continuous Advance or Auto Exposure Bracketing modes, the sound file is attached to the last image captured in the series.

To prevent the lens from extending when switching from Off to Audio mode, hold down the Down button on the controller when turning the mode dial.

 

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times

When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a "lag time" or delay before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it, using a test system I constructed for this purpose. The test system has a resolution of 0.001 seconds, and is accurate to better than 0.01%.

NOTE: My qualitative characterizations of camera performance below (that is, "reasonably fast," "about average," etc.) are meant to be relative to other cameras of similar price and general capabilities. Thus, the same shutter lag that's "very fast" for a low-end consumer camera might be characterized as "quite slow" if I encountered it on a professional model. The comments are also intended as only a quick reference: If performance specs are critical for you, rely on the absolute numbers to compare cameras, rather than my purely qualitative comments.

Minolta Dimage F300 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
5.03
Rather a long time, even for a camera with a telescoping lens. The F300's lens is a little leisurely in its movements.
Shutdown
4.78
Time required to retract lens, also fairly slow.
Play to Record, first shot
1.43
Pretty fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
1.68
1.56
Top number is JPEG large/fine, bottom is JPEG small/normal. Pretty fast overall.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
(wide/tele)
1.33/1.37
First number for wide angle, second for telephoto. Quite a bit slower than average. (Average ranges from 0.8-1.0)
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.883
A good bit slower than average. (Average is about 0.5 seconds.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.208
Faster than average. (Average is around 0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time
2.29 L/F
2.08 S/B
First times are for large/fine mode images, second number is for small/basic ones. Buffer memory captures about 6 large/fine shots this quickly, then slows to about 9 seconds per shot. At the small/basic setting, the camera can capture dozens of shots without pausing. (I didn't test to find its limits, but it's somewhere well beyond 20.
Cycle Time, TIFF
(Uncompressed format)
53.47
Very slow. Camera controls locked out during TIFF file memory writes.
Cycle time, continuous mode
1.0 - 0.93
~5 frame burst in large/fine, 60+ frames in small/basic.
Cycle time, UHS mode
(Ultra High Speed mode)
0.081
12.3 fps
Ultra High Speed mode, shoots at 1280x960 resolution. Shoots 11 shots this fast, then has to wait about 18 seconds to write image data to the memory card before it can shoot the next sequence.

 

The F300 was generally a pretty responsive camera, with very good cycle times, at least when it was writing to its buffer memory. (The buffer memory holds six of the F300's highest resolution JPEG images, a good capacity.) The autofocus speed was pretty disappointing though, particularly when the lens was at its wide angle setting, where most cameras are generally faster. The F300 showed very similar shutter lag at wide angle as at telephoto, the respective numbers being 1.35 and 1.37 seconds. This is slower than most competing models on the market, with average shutter lag performance running in the range from 0.8 to 1.1 seconds. Prefocus shutter delay was very good although, at only 0.208 seconds. If you remember the trick of half-pressing and holding the shutter button before critical exposures, you should have no trouble catching the action with the F300, but its autofocus speed leaves something to be desired.

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Operation and User Interface

Although all the combinations of Record modes, drive modes, and exposure modes may seem complicated at first, the F300's user interface makes sense and is pretty easy to navigate once you get used to it. Most exposure options are controlled externally, by way of the Mode dial, Digital Subject Program button, Exposure Compensation button, and Quick View / Erase button. You can also control the flash mode externally, as well as the shutter speed and aperture when in any of the manual modes. The availability of the QuickView button makes double-checking images a snap without having to change over to Playback mode. Special exposure features are all adjustable through the LCD menu system, which is fairly extensive but uncomplicated. Menu screens are set up as subject tabs, which you can quickly navigate across with the Four-Way Arrow pad. The top status display panel is also a plus, reporting a lot of camera settings, so you can actually operate the camera with the LCD monitor disabled. (This saves a lot of battery power, see my discussion of that topic under the "Power" section later in this review.) You'll spend some time flipping through the instruction manual to understand the camera settings, but I doubt it will take too long to get the hang of it, no more than an hour or so for the average user.

 

Control Enumeration


Shutter Button
: Centered in the Mode dial, this metallic gray button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed. When fully pressed, it fires the shutter. If the camera is in Quick View mode, halfway pressing the Shutter button returns it to Record mode.

Mode Dial: This notched dial is on top of the camera, on the right side. Turning the dial selects the camera's operating mode, with the following options available:


Flash Mode / Information Button
: Located at the top of the back panel, and slightly angled down from the top, this button controls the flash function in any record mode (except for Movie), cycling between Auto, Fill, Flash Cancel, and Redeye Reduction Auto.

In Playback mode, this button controls the image information and histogram displays.


Exposure Compensation Button
: Directly to the right of the Flash Mode / Information button, this button activates the Exposure Compensation feature in any image Record mode (except Manual exposure mode). Exposure Compensation is then adjusted using the right and left arrow keys. In Manual exposure mode, pressing this button switches the arrow pad's left and right keys control between the aperture and shutter speed settings.


Digital Subject Program Button
: The top one of a series of buttons lining the right side of the LCD monitor, this button controls the Digital Subject Program mode of the camera in Auto Record mode. Pressing it repeatedly cycles through the following modes:

In Manual mode, this button access Macro and Night Portrait modes only.


Menu Button
: Next in line beneath the Digital Subject Program button, the Menu button activates the settings menu in any camera mode (except for Audio and Setup). Pressing this button also dismisses the menu screen.


Quick View / Erase Button
: Just below the Menu button, this control activates the Quick View image review mode when pressed in any image Record mode.

In Playback mode, this button erases the current image (with an option to cancel).


Display Button
: The final button in the series on the right side of the LCD monitor, this one controls the image and information display in Auto and Manual Record modes as well as in Playback mode. In Record mode, pressing the button once removes the information display, while a second press shuts off the LCD monitor entirely. A third press activates the LCD monitor with the information display.

In Playback mode, this button also turns the information display on and off.


Four Way Arrow Pad
: Located in the top right corner of the back panel, this keypad features four arrow buttons (one pointing in each cardinal direction) and a single button in the center. In any settings menu, these arrows navigate through menu options and screens. Pressing the center of the button confirms menu selections.

In Auto, Manual, and Movie record modes, the up and down arrows (marked T and W) control the optical and digital zoom. When manual focus is activated, the up and down arrows can control either the focus or the zoom. (Pressing the center button alternates between the optical zoom and manual focus options.) In Manual, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority exposure modes, the right and left buttons control exposure settings. Pressing and holding the center of the pad activates the AF Area Selection screen, letting you choose the autofocus area using the arrow keys. When you first enter Auto Exposure Bracketing mode, the left and right buttons control the EV step size that each shot will vary by.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images. When an image has been enlarged, all four arrows allow you to navigate the enlarged image.

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Camera Modes and Menus


Auto
: The first setting on the Mode dial (after the Off position), this mode sets up the camera to capture still images. The camera automatically determines aperture and shutter speed, as well as white balance, color, metering, and ISO. It also controls the Digital Subject Program mode, unless you specify a scene. The settings menu offers the following adjustment options (sorry, no screenshot of this menu):


Manual
: Enables still image capture, with more exposure options than Auto. Pressing the Menu button displays three screens of options.


Playback Mode
: Reviews all captured images and movies on the SD card. Users can view a histogram of each image, enlarge images as much as 6x, or view several images at a time in the nine-image index display mode. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:



Movie Mode
: Indicated by the movie camera icon on the Mode dial, this mode sets the camera for capturing moving images with sound. Maximum recording time is approximately 20 minutes per movie at the smallest resolution. The following basic menu options are available:


Audio Mode
: Records as much as 30 minutes of continuous audio, with no image(s). No settings menu is available.

Setup Mode: Displays the following Setup menu:

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Image Storage and Interface

The F300 stores images to SD memory cards, and ships with a 32MB card. I definitely recommend picking up a larger capacity card to handle the 2,560 x 1,920-pixel maximum resolution size and TIFF option. Memory cards are cheap enough these days that you really shouldn't restrict your shooting options by not carrying enough memory capacity with you.

SD cards themselves have a small write-protect switch on them, which will prevent anything from being written to them, as well as their being formatted. Apart from the card's overall write-protect feature though, the F300's "Lock" function prevents individual images from being erased or manipulated in any way. However, formatting a SD card erases all files, even locked ones.

Four main image resolutions are available on the F300, including 2,560 x 1,920, 2,048 x 1,536, 1,600 x 1,200, and 640 x 480 pixels. However, the UHS Continuous Advance mode records images at 1,280 x 960 pixels. Movies are captured at either 320 x 240, or 160 x 120 pixels. Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF files (via the Superfine quality setting) or as compressed JPEG files (Fine, Normal, or Economy compression levels).

The table below outlines the approximate number of images that can be stored on a 32MB SD card, and the corresponding image compression levels.

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
32MB Memory Card
Hi
Fine
Normal
Basic
Full
Resolution
2,560 x 1,920
Images
(Avg size)
1
14.7MB
6
2,560KB
12
1,306KB
23
674KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1 6:1 11:1
22:1
High
Resolution
2,048 x 1,536
Images
(Avg size)
1
9.4MB
9
1,641KB
18
853KB
35
451KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1 6:1 11:1
21:1
Standard Resolution
1,600 x 1,200
Images
(Avg size)
2
5.8MB
15
1,032KB
29
538KB
53
299KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
6:1
11:1
19:1
Low
Resolution
640 x 480
Images
(Avg size)
16
921KB
75
213KB
118
135KB
163
98KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
4:1
7:1
9:1

 

The F300 comes with a USB cable and interface software for downloading images to a computer. It's a true "storage class" USB device, which means it will show up on your computer desktop automatically in Windows Me and XP, or in MacOS 8.6 or later. The F300's USB connection is pretty speedy too, as I clocked its transfer rate at 496 KBytes/second on my Sony VAIO desktop, 2.4 GHz Pentium IV, running Windows XP. (For reference, slow USB-connected digicams upload at around 300 KB/sec, while fast ones run about 600 KB/sec.)

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Video Out

The F300 comes with an AV cable for connecting to a television set. Through the Setup menu, the F300 offers both NTSC and PAL timing options. All images that would normally appear on the LCD are routed to the external video display so that the television screen becomes an enlarged version of the LCD monitor, and can be used both for image playback and composition.

 

Power

The F300 uses two AA batteries for power, either alkaline or NiMH types, or accommodates one CRV3 lithium battery pack. I strongly suggest picking up a couple of sets of rechargeable NiMH batteries, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. A battery indicator in the status display panel reports the current charge level of the batteries. When battery power gets too low, a red battery icon flashes in the LCD monitor and the camera eventually shuts itself off. The F300 offers an Auto Power Save option through the Setup menu, which lets you specify how long the camera must be inactive before it shuts itself off. Additionally, the status display panel on top of the camera (which reports several important settings) means that you can easily operate the camera with the LCD monitor switched off. Working with the LCD monitor off drastically increases the amount of operating time for a set of batteries. An AC adapter is available as a separate accessory, recommended if you plan to spend much time reviewing images via the LCD monitor or downloading to a computer. (Really although, in terms of bang for the buck, just get a few extra sets of high-power NiMH rechargeable batteries, and a good charger. Read my review of NiMH batteries for current information on which cells have the most capacity, and my review of the Maha C-204 charger for a look at my favorite charger.) The projected run times in the table below are based on a set of AA NiMH batteries with a true (vs advertised) capacity of 1600 mAh. Cells are now available with true capacities as high as 2000 mAh, but I've continued to use the 1600 mAh cells as a reference, to provide continuity and a basis of comparison with older camera models first tested when 1600 mAh represented the highest capacity you could find in NiMH cells.

 

Operating Mode
Power Drain
(@ 3 v)
Estimated Minutes
(1600mAh, 2.4v
2 NiMH Cells)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
1,060 mA
72
Capture Mode, no LCD
15 mA
83 hours!
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
1,043 mA
74
Half-pressed w/o LCD
819 mA
94
Memory Write (transient)
1,141 mA
N/A
Flash Recharge (transient)
1,464 mA
N/A
Image Playback
576 mA
133

 

The Dimage F300 is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to power consumption. With the LCD on, battery life is rather short, even when using high-capacity NiMH rechargeable batteries. (Although a good set of true 2000 mAh cells should give a worst-case run time of just over an hour and a half.) On the other hand, with the LCD off, the F300's power consumption is among the lowest of any camera I've tested. The conclusion? High-capacity rechargeable NiMH AA cells are cheap enough these days that you should buy several sets, and always pack along a couple of sets of spares. Doing that, you'll get reasonable amounts of run time on outings, albeit with the hassle of having to deal with a few sets of spare batteries, and swapping them in and out of the camera. If you can manage to avoid using the LCD except when absolutely necessary though, you'll find that a set of good-quality batteries will easily last you for a full day's shooting.

 

Included Software

Packaged with the F300 is a software CD containing the latest version of Minolta's DiMAGE Image Viewer Utility for both Windows and Macintosh platforms. The DiMAGE Image Viewer Utility allows you to download images from the camera, view them, and organize them. With the latest version comes a more effective image browser utility, an extended meta data display, better printing utilities, and a movie viewer with correction tools. Also included are the necessary USB drivers for connecting the camera. Overall, this is a pretty capable software package, with a lot of image adjustment power built in.

 

In the Box

Included with the Dimage F300 digital camera are the following items:

 

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 

Digital Cameras - Minolta DiMAGE F300 Digital Camera Review, Information, Specifications

Test Results

In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the DiMAGE F300's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how F300's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.


Conclusion

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In almost every parameter, the Minolta DiMAGE F300 is an excellent performer, delivering excellent color with good white balance under a wide range of lighting. Its five megapixels of resolution combine with the excellent "GT" optics in its lens to deliver images that are sharp from corner to corner. The unusually sophisticated Autofocus (AF) modes for the most part worked well (if not infallibly), providing more consistent focusing with off-center subjects than you'd normally experience with the typical single-point digicam AF system. Exposure control is also very versatile, with controls that let you tweak color saturation, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. I thought Minolta hit the size/comfort balance just about right: The F300 is small enough that it could be called "pocket sized," but was big enough that even hamfisted Westerners like myself can hold it and manipulate the controls easily. The very high eyepoint on the viewfinder is a boon to eyeglass wearers too. No product is perfect though, and the F300's Achilles' heel is its shutter response: It's noticeably slower than most competing models, with about a 1.3 second shutter lag in full autofocus mode. (Its prefocused shutter performance is quite good though.) - If your primary interest is sports photography, look elsewhere, but if your applications don't require blazing shutter response, the F300 is one of the best compact five-megapixel models out there, delivering really excellent photos, at an attractive price point.

 

<<F300 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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