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Sony Mavica MVC-FD91 digital camera
User Review by Dan Desjardins

(User Review first posted 18 January, 2000)


(Editors Note: This article was written and prepared entirely by Imaging Resource reader Dan Desjardins. The opinions and conclusions are his, and the article is exactly as he submitted it to us. (Dan wins this year's "devoted reader of the year" award! He's also the winner of our first annual Grover Henson Patient Author award ;-) - inside joke...) At this posting, we actually have an FD-91 in-house for testing, and will be posting a full review in the next few weeks. Dan's article gives a great perspective from someone who actually owns and uses the camera. It's also remarkably balanced, and free of the all-too-common "My camera is the best, because it's the one I bought" attitude many users adopt. Thanks again, Dan - What a great contribution!)





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800K Pixels, 1024x768 image size
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14x optical zoom lens (!) f/1.8-3.2-f/11.0
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True manual focus option
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Spot or averaging metering, Full-manual exposure option
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MPEG Movie mode, sound capture, image stabilization
 
 

Overview
When you compare the specifications of the Mavica to other digital cameras it becomes clear that Sony is interested in a slightly different class of user. This is a very capable camera, however Sony’s not in the pixel race. Sony is clearly targeting people whose need for resolution is modest, while their need (or desire) for other functionality is greater.

Let me save you some time - if you require high resolution the Mavica line is not for you, it wasn’t even designed for you. You won’t like it. Clink on another link now.

The Mavica can certainly be described as a handful. It’s large and awkward to carry, but it’s one of the most capable and flexible digital cameras. It’s priced typically at around 850 to 1000 dollars US.
The impressive capabilities include:

  • 14X optical zoom
  • Image Stabilization
  • Automatic and Manual Focus
  • Automatic and Manual Exposure
  • Spot and averaging exposure metering
  • Automatic and Manual White Balance
  • Saves directly to Floppy disc
  • MPEG Movie mode
  • Sound capture with pictures
  • Dual Viewing through LCD on the back and a separate LCD Viewfinder


It’s easy to imagine the challenge of miniaturizing this many features into a small package – even for the Japanese. This is a camera you take when you’re going on a photo expedition, not one you impulsively grab to gather snapshots at the picnic.

The 14X optical zoom is the longest range available in a digital camera. Do note this is 14X Optical, not digital. Digital zoom is lame. Digital zoom just makes each pixel bigger, so your impressive 1.3 megapixel camera will capture images with not-so-impressive resolution if you use the zoom. Although 14X is indeed impressive, I am disappointed the FD-91 doesn’t offer a wider-angle focal length than it does. I do most of my shooting with wide lenses, and the wide end of the FD-91 is not enough for me. It’s the equivalent of a 40mm lens on a 35mm Camera. Unfortunately I have not yet found a wide-angle converter that will work on the FD-91 either. If I do it will be expensive. The 52mm filter mount, and the deep inset of the optics means a decent wide-angle adapter will require a lot of glass. Most wide-angle adapters are designed for Video Cameras. Video camera optics are well below the quality tolerance for still cameras, so I’m not hopeful a nice one will pop up anytime soon. Sigh.

I have owned my Mavica for about six months now. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would actually use all of the capabilities in this camera, but in these past six months I have indeed used nearly every one.
I really haven’t used the email or Bitmap capability, mostly because it’s just as easy to reduce pictures in PhotoShop – or any other application for that matter. The bitmap mode is worthless, and only fills a disk with 1 picture of lower quality then the fine JPG mode.


Cool Features
The features on the camera that I use are:

Manual Focus: I can not imagine buying a camera without manual focus capability. Autofocus is nice, and I do use it, but it can only make decisions as good as the algorithm it employs – which is good most of the time. Occasionally I accuse the camera of knowing exactly when I’m going to take a picture so it can focus on something distant and insignificant. It annoys me. Indeed there are times the autofocus is nice, and I use it most of the time. But having the manual capability means I have a camera that can be trusted nearly all the time.

Manual Exposure: Manual exposure control is necessary for pretty much the same reason you need manual focus. The camera will get it right much of the time. The Mavica’s manual exposure control allows you to select both f stop and shutter speed. This is important since it is important to select higher shutter speeds for some subjects where freezing motion is important. Having separate f stop and shutter speed allows you to control your depth-of-field. Cameras that support only a general exposure setting can not give you this kind of control.

Manual White Balance: Again – in automatic mode the camera employs an algorithm to white balance the image. It typically averages all of the colors it sees and sets it’s white reference to the result. This is usually close. Usually. It’s often wrong and it’s best to find a white piece of paper, or use the white translucent lens cap to manually white balance the camera. It’s important you point the camera directly at the dominant light source with the cap on to do this correctly. The light source could be anything from a lamp, a window, the sun, etc. Some handy things to use for white balance instead of the cap are: White paper, Clouds. Bad ideas for white balance reference are the ceiling, white walls and your grandmothers white hair. Granny’s hair is blue and your ceiling and walls are off-white and dirty.

Sound Capture: I’ll mount my soapbox now. Adding sound to still pictures adds a dimension that compares to the introduction of color. I waited quite some time before I used the sound capture feature – it seemed a little odd to me. The first time I used it my daughter was learning Irish dance, to Irish music of course. I took pictures with sound and the results were incredible. The sound added a lovely dimension and I was smitten. To enjoy the full effect you should use an application that synchronizes the sound with display of the picture. The length of the audio is OK, however it would be better if it were longer. You get 5 seconds of sound captured right after the picture is taken. It’s hard to capture meaningful sound. Quite often the best sound for a photo gets cut off a little prematurely. The power of audio with still photographs is emerging – in the future it should be possible to capture more audio, and then edit only the section you want.

Image Stabilization: This is a very handy feature when you use the zoom lens. At 14X it’s very difficult to hold the camera steady without a tripod. The image stabilization certainly helps. This is optical image stabilization (which is important for still photography). With slower shutter speeds the image-stabilized photos do not suffer from typical hand-held shake. It chews up the battery so you won’t want to leave it on all the time.

MPEG Movie: The MPEG movie mode is very nice. I captured a couple of movies of my daughter’s dancing. It was very nice. Since you can really only fit one good movie on a disk you’ll need plenty of disks. Of the 5 movies I shot that night only one is really worth keeping.

Dual LCD Finders: A single large LCD Finder on the back of the camera may be OK for the Marquis De Sad, however my camera and I spend a lot of time in the sunlight. Having both finders is important if you plan to use the camera outside. The eyepiece blocks sunlight and provides a more familiar photographic metaphor.

The floppy: The floppy capability of this camera was a selling point for me. At the same time it makes me wince. Sony could have, and should have put a high capacity floppy on it. Floppies are cheap though – so grab a bag full. The camera has several features designed for managing the floppies. It can format and copy disks, as well as delete pictures. The Mavica creates a special index image for each picture. These small 64 X 48 pixel thumbnail images are used by the camera to display an index of all the pictures on a disk. They are not bitmaps, or JPG Files – they are proprietary files that are readable if you know how to convert them first – there’s only one PC program I know of that can read these (Maview).


Now for the lame side…

Lame Floppy: Saving to a floppy disk is great – but with super-disk technology staring them in the face it’s incredible to think Sony didn’t employ it. Sony doesn’t typically use their best technology in their own consumer products. They make the multi-megapixel chips used in so many other manufacturers cameras, just not their own. Yikes. It’s easy to imagine the impact a super-disk would have on the Mavica. (Ed. note: A lot of the appeal of the Mavicas is the "no cables, no special software, no complexity" of their floppy-based interfacing. I think going to a SuperDisk design would have reduced the appeal for many people, since they'd then need to get a special disk drive for their computer to take advantage of it...)

Lame Memory
: Memory is cheap. It wouldn’t have added a lot to the cost to add a couple of megs of memory to temporarily store several photographs for a burst mode capability.

More pixels please: OK – resolution isn’t the most important thing, but hey – it would be great if they came out with an FD-91HR model.

Size: I really can’t complain about this – but it is important for someone who needs a small camera to scratch the FD-91 off his or her list. The plethora of features this camera has simply can’t dance on the head of a pin. I will eventually buy a small, less featured camera for snapshots.

Lame flash: The camera needs a flash shoe or PC connector for an external flash. The built in flash is designed for snapshots, not really what the rest of the camera was designed for. This camera (like many others with poorly designed flash capability) produces a lot of red-eye. Sony couldn’t have placed the flash closer to the lens if they tried. Adding a simple flash shoe would have saved the day, and truly enhanced the purpose of this camera.

Wider lens: The camera doesn’t have a wide enough mode. It needs a good wide-angle adapter.


Final:
If you don’t require top notch resolution, but require a professional piece of equipment the FD-91 is a very good choice. Images are excellent. Color and contrast are superb. Overall it is a tremendous piece of gear. But with a big Homer Simpson DOH! - you will quickly realize Sony could have done even better with very little effort.

None of the suggestions above (see lame section) are pie-in-the-sky; they are pieces of available technologies that are neither expensive nor difficult to integrate. They are also pretty obvious, and I would have thought simple test marketing would have revealed these. I suspect Sony purposefully left them out. I won’t promote any conspiracy theories. It’s easy to imagine this camera taking an even larger market share with larger capacity storage.. c’est la vie.

Closing Editor's Note: Dan is not only a photographer and author, he's a programmer too! In particular, he's written an excellent little utility designed specifically for working with Mavica files, one capable of working with the "411" thumbnail files the Mavicas create. For more information, visit www.viewpix.com.

 

Specs:

Resolution
1024 X 768 (Fine)
640 X 480 (Standard)
320 X 240 (Email Mode)

Capture Mode
Bitmap (640 X 480 only)
JPEG (all resolutions)
MPEG Movie (160 X 112 & 320 X 240)
MPEG Sound (W/ JPEG only)

Storage
3.5 Inch Floppy (1.44 Megabytes)

Lens
14X Zoom (Optical)
Image Stabilization
Manual & Auto Focus

Focal Length Range
47mm – 518mm (as compared to a 35mm camera)

Aperture Range
f 1.8 – 11

Shutter Speed Range
1/60 – 1/4000

Power
NP-F330 150 Min
NP-F530 165 Min
NP-F550 180 Min


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