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Olympus C-2000 Zoom Digital Camera - Full Review
Olympus raises the bar with 2.1 million pixels, unparalleled exposure control, and a great user interface!
(Initial review date: 14 February, 1999, Full review posted 25 April, 1999)
||1,600 x 1,200 pixel resolution|
||3X optical zoom, + 2.5X digital|
||Optical and LCD viewfinder|
||Spot or Average light metering|
||Program, shutter-, aperture-priority exposure modes, in 1/3-stop increments(!) FULL external-flash support! (with 1/3 stop aperture control)|
||Large RAM buffer for rapid shot-to-shot cycling, for up to 10 full-resolution images.
We were very fortunate to receive for evaluation a pre-production prototype of a new 2.1 megapixel digital camera from Olympus, the C-2000 Zoom. Because the unit we received was so early in its life cycle, Olympus initially asked us to not publish any pictures captured by it, as the color-management software was still in a relatively early stage of development, and image quality would therefore not be at all representative of the final production units. (From our experience with a number of manufacturers, this appears to be a common development process: Cameras are designed from a functionality standpoint first, and the color is tweaked into line only after the final hardware configuration has been fully defined.)
We've now had the opportunity to test a full-production model of the C-2000 Zoom, and have found it's image quality to be absolutely first-rate: Image sharpness and low-light performance are both significantly improved over the preproduction prototype we intitially tested.
Olympus has long been a leader in digital photography, with a line of distinguished products stretching back to their original D-200L VGA-class compact digital camera. Recently, their focus (no pun intended) has been on "filmless photography", rightly recognizing that people buy cameras to take pictures with, not merely as jazzy adjuncts to their computer system. With the goal of making the filmless photography experience more like the film-based one, their recent product introductions (notably the compact-format D-400 Zoom, and the SLR D-620L) have incorporated many "real camera" features, such as spot metering, and more-rapid shot-to-shot cycle times. (A persistent bane of digital photography has been the long delay between shots, mandated by the camera's need to process the information from one shot before proceeding with the next.)
Other than the cycle-time issue (which Olympus dealt with in dramatic fashion with the D-620L SLR digicam), a second major limitation of digital cameras has heretofore been their inflexibility in setting exposure parameters. Most digicams today have only two or three available lens apertures (if that many), and permit little or no control over the choice of shutter speed and lens opening. For many film-based photographers, the restrictions this imposes on the creative process are untenable: With no control over shutter speed or lens opening, the ability to isolate foreground and background objects, or to choose greater depth of field at the cost of a longer exposure times simply aren't options. Likewise, the ability to employ motion blur, or to freeze fast-moving objects is completely absent. Thus, many of the techniques used by film-based photographers to direct the viewer's eye within a scene, or to control a picture's composition have been lacking in affordable digital cameras. Lacking, that is, until now: With the C-2000 Zoom, Olympus has established a new standard for photographic control in under-$1,000 digital cameras, at the same time that they've expanded the basic capabilities of the camera with a 2.1 million pixel sensor and a variable ISO rating ranging as high as ISO 400. The enhanced creative control comes in the form of an exposure system in which both shutter speed and aperture value can be set in 1/3 EV (f-stop) increments across their entire range, with either full-program, shutter-, or aperture-priority metering, and an exposure-compensation adjustment of +/- 2EV in 1/3 EV steps.
To philosophize for a moment, as we begin to see digital cameras with over 2 million pixels of resolution appearing from a variety of manufacturers, we're rapidly approaching the point where the basic physical capabilities of the cameras are "good enough" for a broad range of applications. Now that the hardware itself is "good enough," we expect to see manufacturers more and more try to differentiate their products on the basis of features, ease of use, and creative capabilities. With the C-2000 Zoom, Olympus has clearly staked out important territory in this new domain of competition.
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"Executive Overview" (Click here to skip)
Beginning with this review, we're going to create "Executive Overviews" of each camera, to give a concise synopsis of their capabilities, for those wanting to get the basic information before committing to reading our (ridiculously detailed) full reviews. This information is also included on this site as a separate "Executive Overview" document, including more product shots and interface details. (Publishers/Webmasters: Contact us for information on licensing our review material for your own photography site!)
The Olympus C-2000 Zoom is a compact (5 x 2.6 x 2.1 inches, 107.5 x 73.5 x 66.4 mm) 2.1 megapixel digital camera, with a solid, "chunky" feel, yet a surprisingly light weight (9.5 oz, 272 grams w/o batteries). It's rather squat profile fits the hand and eye very well, but prevents it from passing the "shirt pocket" test for portability. Still, it's so compact, it should find its way along on many trips where a more bulky camera would be left behind.
Our first impression on handling the C-2000 Zoom was how much thought had obviously gone into the user interface. (The Olympus engineers must have been reading our reviews, in which we have regularly called for greater camera control without resorting to the LCD-based menu system!) For all its capability, the camera is not only remarkably easy to control, but also lets you know what it's doing at any given moment: If you choose to have the LCD screen active when shooting, the exposure time, aperture value, and exposure compensation settings are all displayed on a real-time basis. - No more wondering what shutter speed the camera might be using, or what aperture (and therefore what depth of field) you might have!
As noted in the preface, you can choose either full-program, shutter-, or aperture-priority autoexposure algorithms, and either averaging or spot-metering exposure evaluation. Couple this level of control with very rapid shot-to-shot cycle times, and you have a digital camera that finally gives you both the level of control and the "feel" of a high-end autofocus rangefinder camera. (Actually, you'd be hard-pressed to find this level of control without going to an SLR-style camera in the 35mm world.) Particularly useful for studio environments, a tiny infrared remote is provided, that lets you control not only the shutter, but the zoom lens and exposure compensation adjustment as well.
The basic image size captured by the C-2000 Zoom is 1600x1200 pixels, but lower resolutions of 1024x768 and even 640x480 are available as menu options. Likewise, there are several image-compression options, including an uncompressed mode producing full-resolution TIFF images for those times when you really need the absolute maximum image quality the camera is capable of delivering. The lens is a 3x optical zoom, ranging from equivalent focal lengths of 35 to 105mm, and a multi-step digital telephoto is also provided, with ratios of 1.6, 2.0, and 2.5 available. Normal focusing is from 31 inches (0.8 m) to infinity, while a macro option allows focusing as close as 8 inches (0.2 m). Lens apertures range from f/2.0 - f/2.8 (tele/wide) to f/11.0 (tele and wide). Shutter speed runs from 1/2 second to 1/800 second, and an undocumented time-exposure mode extends this to 16 seconds. An unusual feature is the provision for manually setting the camera's effective ISO speed (light sensitivity), to values of 100 (the default), 200, and 400. Five white balance settings are provided, including "auto."
Both optical and LCD viewfinders are provided, the LCD being particularly accurate, and the optical viewfinder incorporating dioptric correction for eyeglass wearers. The built-in 4-mode flash has a range of up to 13 feet (4 meters), and also has the added capability for "slow-sync" operation, with both "front curtain" and "rear curtain" options. An external flash sync connector is provided, with the 1/3 f-stop aperture setting accuracy allowing very precise flash exposures. The unit ships with an 8 Meg SmartMedia memory card, connects to the computer via an RS-232 serial interface, and has a video output as well. Images may be captured and stored at several sizes and compression levels, including an uncompressed mode for maximum image quality. Software shipped with the unit includes a basic camera interface package, plus the extraordinary "QuickStitch" panorama-stitching application.
We found the C-2000 Zoom to be an exceptionally flexible digital camera, offering greater creative control than we're accustomed to, combined with one of the best user interfaces we've yet encountered. Image quality was first-rate, in both color and resolution. Sound interesting? - Read on for full details!
The "C" in the C-2000's model number stands for "Compact", and it certainly is: Check out the photo at right for a comparison with Olympus' own D-600L SLR digital camera, to see the size difference between the two models. At an overall size of only 5 x 2.6 x 2.1 inches (107.5 x 73.5 x 66.4 mm), and a surprisingly light weight of only 9.5 ounces (272 grams), it just misses passing the "shirt pocket" test, due mainly to the thickness of the body, and the protrusion of the lens barrel from the front. Despite this, it's so compact that we doubt it will have any problem finding a place on trips where more bulky cameras would be left at home.
We commented on the weight as being surprisingly light, not necessarily because it's so much lighter than other models, but because it's so much lighter than we thought when we first picked it up: The small size of the unit combines with a fairly normal weight to produce a very solid, "chunky" feel, suggestive of quality. Slightly over half of the camera's body is plastic (we'd guess about 60%), the remainder being anodized aluminum. Unlike some models using large amounts of plastic in their bodies though, the C-2000 Zoom feels quite solid.
Olympus fit an optically fast (f/2.0) 3x zoom lens into the small body of the C-2000 Zoom by using a telescoping design: When the camera powers-up in one of its capture modes, the lens extends about an additional inch beyond the front of the camera body. Fully retracted, the 3/4 inch-thick (20mm) lens barrel adds about 1/4 inch (10mm) to the overall thickness of the unit, by projecting that amount beyond the ergonomic bulge on the right-front (viewed from behind) side of the camera.
Although the camera's overall dimensions are quite small, the grip design sculpted into the right-hand side of the body works very well, providing a very secure one-handed grip, even for your reviewer's rather large hands. (The way the grip encourages your fingers to fold and wrap around the camera means it should fit a wide range of hand sizes quite well.)
Control layout is very logical and orderly, and the user interface a model of simplicity and flexibility. We particularly appreciate the feedback the camera gives you on its current choice of shutter speed and aperture values. We also appreciate the fact that a much broader range of camera functions can be controlled via the top-panel LCD readout than is usually the case: This promises to save on battery power by not forcing users to enter the LCD menu system to change common settings.
We also especially liked the little infrared remote control that's included with the camera: Our first reaction to this was "oh, another gimmicky remote-control gadget." In the studio though, once we tried it, we couldn't put it down! The remote not only lets you trip the shutter, but operate the zoom lens as well. See the "user interface" section of the review for more info on this.
The one complaint we had about the design of the camera was the very difficult-to-operate battery compartment door. - This sounds like a trivial gripe, but it had us gnashing our teeth on a number of occasions, until we figured out the right trick to get it to close. The problem is that you need to exert quite a bit of pressure on the door to hold it shut so you can actuate the latch, and the plastic it's made of isn't especially stiff. It seemed to us we needed three hands to get the battery compartment closed: One to hold the camera, one to press firmly on the compartment door (with at least two fingers, to distribute the pressure evenly), and one to actuate the compartment latch lever. We eventually achieved reliably good results by inverting the camera, placing two fingers on either side of the latch lever and our thumb on the shutter button, and pinching VERY firmly while rotating the latch with the fingers of our other hand. A trivial thing, to be sure, but we found ourselves dreading each battery change until we got the hang of it, and even then wished it were easier.
As is common among all but the lowest-end digital cameras today, the C-2000 Zoom has two viewfinders, an optical "real image" model, and the rear-panel 1.8 inch, 72,000-pixel LCD screen. The optical finder is more accurate than most, showing 91% of the final image area at the wide angle end of the lens' range, and 92% at the telephoto end (85% is typical of most cameras we've tested), while the LCD is extremely accurate, showing as close to 100% of the final image as we're able to measure. The optical viewfinder works quite well for eyeglass wearers (like your tester!), with both a dioptric correction adjustment, and a comfortably high eye-point, leaving a reasonable amount of room between your eyeball and the finder for an eyeglass lens to fit in. The optical finder is also almost entirely immune to framing errors due to lateral variations in eye location. As you'd expect, the optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens, but can't take into account the operation of the "digital zoom". Thus, the digital zoom function is only enabled when the LCD is operating in viewfinder mode. LED indicators adjacent to the optical viewfinder illuminate or blink to show camera status, such as flash charging, camera ready, missing memory card, etc.
When the LCD viewfinder is in use, the C-2000 Zoom provides an unusual amount of feedback about the current exposure settings, showing the currently-selected f-stop, shutter speed, and exposure compensation in a row of numbers across the top. In aperture- and shutter-priority modes, the aperture or shutter value appears continuously, along with the exposure compensation setting, while the second, automatically-determined exposure value (conversely, either shutter speed or f-stop) appears whenever the shutter button is half-pressed, triggering the autofocus and autoexposure systems.
The LCD view screen can also be used to review previously-captured images as well, and in that mode has the notable ability to zoom-in on displayed images by up to 3x. This is extremely handy for checking focus, small details, or precise framing.
We did find one viewfinder shortcoming in the prototype model we tested: The view through the optical viewfinder is rotated about 2 degrees, relative to the final image captured by the CCD. This has been a surprisingly common shortcoming of the prototype digicams we've tested, apparently resulting from loose tolerances in the jigs used to align the CCD with the camera body, during the (largely manual) assembly process. The good news though, is that we've never seen a problem of this sort carry over into production models, and assume that Olympus will correct it in the C-2000 Zoom as well.
Olympus is well-known for the quality of the optics on their 35mm and APS cameras, and that expertise shows in the lens on the C-2000 Zoom. An all-glass aspheric design, with 8 elements in 6 groups, it provides a range of 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from about 35-105mm. Of greatest interest in its design though, is its very fast f/2.0-f/2.9 (wide-to-tele) maximum aperture. This is a "fast" lens by any standard, and much faster than that of many competing digital cameras. Normal focusing distance is from 31 inches (0.8m) to infinity, while a macro mode moves this range to between 8 and 31 inches (0.2 to 0.8m). Autofocus occurs through the lens, using a contrast-detection method. This means that the autofocus will work properly with auxiliary lenses, but also means that you'll need to use the focus presets in very dim lighting (below about EV 8-9 or so). Under normal lighting conditions the focus is quite accurate, but no indication appears to be provided showing when focus has been achieved. This means that effective use of close-up lenses and other accessories will depend on knowing in advance the usable focal range of such items. (As long as you're working within the range of focusing distance that the accessory supports, the autofocus should work fine for you. The trick will be in determining what that range is.)
In addition to the autofocus system, the C-2000 Zoom provides two "Quick Focus" settings, which fix the focus distance at either 8 feet (2.5 m), or infinity. These are useful for achieving much shorter shutter delays (see the later section on shutter lag and cycle times), or for focusing on subjects at a known distance when shooting in very dim conditions, either using available light, or with a strobe. The documentation is a bit vague on the depth of field you could expect with the two Quick Focus settings, but it appears that in wide angle mode, the 8 foot setting produces good results from about 30 inches (0.75 m) to infinity. (This seems overly broad, perhaps referring to the depth of field with the lens stopped all the way down.)
We found the lens design particularly intriguing in one respect: Olympus told us that the unit had filter threads on it, and that they'd be adapting their full range of high-end tele/wide/macro adapters to work with the new model. We were surprised then, when we observed no filter threads on the lens barrel itself, when in its extended, working position. There are threads however, on a heavy plastic ring attached to the camera body, surrounding the lens barrel itself. As we operated the zoom, we observed that the outside lens dimensions don't change at all as the lens is racked from its wide-angle to telephoto positions. Olympus has confirmed that they will be offering a cylindrical adapter that screws into these body-mounted threads, and provides a second set of accessory threads at the end of the adapter, just beyond the furthest extent of the lens' travel. In this way, Olympus has solved the telescoping lens/filter thread dilemma that has stymied so many camera companies thus far: The problem with telescoping lens assemblies is that the mechanisms are rather delicate, and not able to handle either the weight of a beefy external tele-extender, or the torque required to dislodge a stuck filter attachment. While some might complain about the need to carry the extra adapter tube along with the C-2000, this strikes us as an elegant solution to a tricky design constraint that's baffled the industry as a whole until now. (It's one of those solutions that seem obvious, once someone else has thought of it.) We expect to see this approach copied by other companies in the next generation of compact-format digital cameras. While we haven't tested them, Olympus' accessory macro, wide-angle, and telephoto adapters appear to be very high-quality, multi-element optical-glass designs: For photographers interested in "interchangeable" lenses on a high-quality digital camera, the C-2000 Zoom looks like a good bet..
When Olympus shipped us the final production unit to test, they included the little lens-adapter ring, which provides a set of 55mm filter threads. We used this to good advantage with our fancy multiple-element macro lenses, and with the excellent 1.7x teleconverter Olympus also sent along. The series of images below show the incredible range you can achieve when using the 1.7x converter in addition to the on-camera zoom lens. (The secret's finally out: That's a "Lobster Crossing" sign in the upstairs window of the house!)
We've only recently begun reporting on lens distortion, so feel compelled to note here that some previously-reviewed cameras won't contain this commentary: Just because it isn't there, doesn't mean that their lenses are distortion-free! Conversely, just because we include this commentary here doesn't mean that the C-2000 Zoom is any worse in this respect than the general run of digital cameras...
The C-2000 Zoom shows slight (0.9%) barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of its zoom range, and almost imperceptible (0.3%) pincushion distortion at the telephoto end. We also observed some chromatic distortion at the wide angle end, as evidenced in our resolution target shots, as green/red fringes around target objects at the edges of the frame. The chromatic aberration is slight (we figure it at about 0.16% of the vertical frame), and disappears almost entirely at the telephoto end of the lens' range. There is no detectable "coma" (a radial blurring of the image at its outer edges), at any focal length. Overall, lens quality on the C-2000 Zoom appears to be very good.
One of the more unusual features of the C-2000 Zoom (at least as of this writing in April, 1999) is the option it provides to adjust its ISO value (light-sensitivity rating). From its default value of ISO 100, you can boost it manually to 200 or even 400, via an option on the LCD menu system. As you'd expect, the more-sensitive settings also result in more noise in the images, but it's exceptionally useful to be able to select the ISO value you want to work with: In many situations, you'd gladly trade a slightly increased level of image noise for the ability to use either a faster shutter speed or a smaller lens opening. By the same token, there are times when you'd actually like a lower sensitivity, to achieve various slow-shutter effects, such as a motion blur, etc. Low ISO ratings have been one of the unfortunate facts of life with under-$1,000 digicams, with few exceptions: We can't emphasize enough how nice it is to be able to select a higher ISO rating, and come back with a sharp (if slightly noisy) shot, rather than a blurry one taken at a slower shutter speed! Likewise, the ability to opt for a slightly greater depth of field is very nice as well. The variable ISO settings are only active in aperture-priority or shutter-priority exposure modes, as the programmed-exposure option appears to vary the ISO rating as needed to accommodate the exposure conditions, boosting the effective ISO when the light level is low. We determined this behavior by experimenting with the various exposure modes in low-light conditions, observing that the exposure parameters in "program" mode corresponded to increased ISO ratings when the lighting was dim. This analysis was subsequently confirmed with a beta copy of Juri Munnki's Cameraid software for the Mac, the latest version of which reads and reports on ISO data embedded in the EXIF JPEG file headers. (Note to Olympus: In our humble opinion, this is a major user-interface shortcoming! If the camera is going to change an important parameter on you like this, it should tell you about it! Even more so, it shouldn't let you think you have control over it, when you really don't! - At the very least, disable the ISO-adjustment option in the record-setup menu when in programmed-exposure mode!!) The manually-variable ISO option is also only active when the LCD viewfinder is enabled.
This brings us to another unique aspect of the C-2000 Zoom: Its options for either aperture- or shutter-priority metering modes. These have been almost non-existent in the world of "inexpensive" digital cameras (defined here as those models costing less than $5,000 or so). Recently, we've seen some other units appearing on the market that offer this option as well, but the C-2000 Zoom appears to go a bit beyond the capabilities of the competition in this area: While some competing units only provide 3 or 4 fixed apertures in their "aperture priority" mode, the C-2000 Zoom offers true 1/3 f-stop resolution, in BOTH the aperture setting and shutter speed (in shutter-priority mode). This is a substantial improvement in exposure accuracy over all of its competitors, at least as of April, 1999, when this review was written. Combine this with the optional spot-metering mode, and you have an unparalleled level of creative control over the exposure process. The C-2000 also sports the usual "exposure lock" function, when you half-press the shutter button. Used with the spot metering, this lets you easily handle backlit subjects, without having to guess at exposure compensation.
Speaking of exposure compensation, even an exposure system as accurate and flexible as the C-2000's can be "fooled" by unusually-lit subjects. (A snow scene in winter, for instance.) In such situations, you need to be able to tell the camera to deviate somewhat from the exposure value its automatic metering system dictates. This "exposure compensation" adjustment is made on the C-2000 Zoom by using the rear-panel 4-way rocker control, rocking it right or left to increase or decrease the exposure in 1/3 stop (1/3 EV) increments, up to a total of +/- 2EV. The current exposure compensation setting is displayed on the rear-panel LCD screen. (The LCD viewfinder must be enabled to adjust this setting, but once set, you can turn the LCD off to conserve power.) If an exposure compensation is currently active, a small "+/-" icon appears in the top-panel LCD readout as well, to let you know there's an adjustment in force. This is both a finer adjustment and a more convenient user interface than most cameras on the market. (At least two other models currently offer 1/3 EV exposure-compensation resolution, but the C-2000's user interface for this function is one of the easiest and most natural we've seen.)
Returning to more mundane features, the C-2000 Zoom offers the typical 10-second self-timer, to allow the photographer to get into the picture, but augmented by an infrared "remote" that can be used to control the camera from a distance. There's also the usual complement of white-balance settings, including automatic, sunlight, cloudy, incandescent, and fluorescent. As is usual in the digital cameras we've tested, the incandescent setting appears tailored to the color balance of professional tungsten lighting, rather than typical household incandescent. The automatic white balance appears to be unusually effective though, as it performed very well on our difficult "indoor portrait" test shot.
As powerful as the C-2000 Zoom's ordinary, ambient-light exposure capabilities are, it really shines (no pun intended) when it comes to flash exposure. The camera has a fairly standard built-in flash unit, with four operating modes (Off, Auto, Fill (always on), and Red-Eye Reduction), and a range of 13 feet (4m) in wide-angle mode, or 8.5 feet (2.5m) at the telephoto setting. Any of these modes may be combined with a slow-sync option, in which the shutter is left open for a much longer time, increasing the ambient-light exposure. A"PC"-style sync socket provides for use with external flash units.
There's such a range of variation and creative control provided by the C-2000's flash system that we're a bit at a loss for how best to report on it. For openers, the internal flash is at least partially affected by the exposure-compensation adjustment, a very nice feature that gives you the ability to moderate the action of the flash in situations where it might otherwise be overpowering. Depending on the balance of ambient and strobe light , you can also obtain interesting and subtle effects by playing with the white-balance settings in conjunction with the exposure-compensation control. We were very surprised at the extent to which we could control the color balance and lighting of an indoor scene, depending on how these options were set. Combined with the immediate feedback available via the LCD display, we have to say that the C-2000 Zoom provides greater (or at least easier) creative control over flash photography than any film-based camera we've used to date, let alone a digital one!
We mentioned the slow-sync mode: This forces the camera to use longer exposure times in conjunction with the strobe. This has two effects. First, it allows the ambient lighting to make a greater contribution to the final exposure of the images. This can produce very nice effects, particularly in conjunction with the action of an external strobe unit, resulting in more naturally-lit photos. A second effect is that you can produce shots which combine a "motion blur" on the subject (due to the long ambient-light exposure) with a sharp initial or final image (caught by the flash exposure). Note that we said "initial or final" image: The C-2000 Zoom supports both "front curtain" and "rear curtain" triggering in slow-sync mode, firing the flash at either the beginning of the shutter-determined exposure time, or at the end. - So-called "rear-curtain" sync is necessary to produce motion blurs on moving objects that trail the sharp, flash-exposed image, rather than precede it.
As we mentioned above, the C-2000 provides a sync connector for an external flash unit, and the operating flexibility in this mode is exceptional: We found an incredible range of creative control through combinations of the external flash, normal or slow-sync flash settings, white balance selection, and exposure-compensation adjustments. The fine 1/3-stop aperture adjustments also contributed to this level of control, as did variations in ISO setting. By playing with the various settings, we could choose how we wanted the ambient lighting to balance with that from the strobe, and exercise a surprising degree of control over the color balance of the result.
To use an external flash with the C-2000 Zoom, you need to operate the camera in aperture-priority mode, controlling the amount of flash illumination reaching the CCD with the lens aperture setting (this is standard operating procedure for film cameras as well). The camera will attempt to produce a good exposure with its automatic settings, whether involving its own flash or not. - Thus, if you've disabled its internal flash, you'll get a rather long exposure time, effectively a "slow sync" mode, whether you want that or not. To get a shorter exposure time (1/30 of a second), you'll need to enable the camera's own flash, although this will normally result in an over-exposure, since both the internal and external flashes will be firing. Note though, that you can use the camera's exposure compensation to cut the amount of light coming from the onboard flash or (if you really only want the external flash, but still want a faster shutter speed), just block the on-camera flash tube with a piece of electrical tape or sliver of neutral-density gel affixed with transparent adhesive tape. In the short time we had the camera, we didn't have the chance to set up a series of shots showing the results of these myriad variations, and a full treatment is really beyond the scope of even an Imaging Resource review. Take our word for it though: We found a greater range of flash-exposure control with the C-2000 Zoom than in any camera we've tested to date! (April, 1999) - If flash shooting is a primary concern for your choice of a prosumer-level digital camera, the C-2000 Zoom should win hands down!
One tiny, ergonomic gripe about the external flash though: The "PC" sync socket is protected by a tiny plastic cover that strikes us as INCREDIBLY easy to lose -- There's nothing attaching it permanently to the camera (such as a tether of some sort), and it is small and difficult to grasp. It struck us as an accessory just begging to be lost!
Special Exposure Modes
In addition to the averaging or spot-metering modes and the half-press exposure lock option, the C-2000 offers a "panorama" exposure mode when operating with Olympus' own panorama-enabling SmartMedia memory cards. In Panorama mode, the exposure and white balance for a series of shots are determined by the first one taken. Note that this function is only enabled by SmartMedia cards including the special panorama-related firmware instructions found on Olympus-brand memory cards.
Taking advantage of its large buffer memory (see the subsequent discussion of shutter lag and cycle times), the C-2000 Zoom offers a "sequence" mode that effectively provides a motor-drive capability for the camera, letting you capture between 6 and 12 separate pictures (depending on the complexity of the image, and the resulting file sizes ) at approximately 2 frames per second. We found some variances in the operation of this mode, relative to that detailed in the draft of the manual we received with the camera, all of them favorable. First, the manual stated that the shutter speed was always set to 1/30 of a second in this mode: While true that this is the longest exposure time allowed, we found that higher shutter speeds were permitted under brighter conditions. Secondly, the manual stated that this exposure mode would always default to the "SQ" image-quality setting. While we discovered that, in fact, SHQ mode wasn't available for sequence-shooting, normal "HQ" mode was: Thus, you can capture sequences of full-resolution 1600x1200 images with the C-2000 Zoom, albeit at a higher compression ratio than used for the best quality supported by the camera. One obvious limitation of sequence mode is that the camera's internal flash may not be used with it. BUT: If you have an external flash capable of cycling at the 2 frame/second rate, and shoot in aperture-priority mode, you CAN use flash with the sequence-shooting mode.
Long Time-Exposure Mode (Undocumented/unsupported feature)
We're not sure if this is supposed to be an "official" capability of the camera, or if we were instead exercising a function intended to be used at the factory, for testing the CCD sensors. (It's even possible that this capability won't be present in the final production models of the camera, as it isn't mentioned anywhere in the documentation we received from Olympus.) We were first tipped-off to this from a post by a reader on Steves Digicams' message forum, but unfortunately didn't note his name, and that message has now scrolled off, so we can't credit him here. (If it was you, email us, and we'll give credit where due!)
It turns out you can activate a time-exposure mode on the C-2000 Zoom in the following fashion: 1) Select shutter-priority exposure mode. 2) Choose the slowest shutter speed allowed (1/2 second). 3) Hold down the "OK" button, while simultaneously rocking the jog control downward. The shutter speed display in the LCD will turn red, and display the numeral "1", indicating a one-second exposure time. In this mode, the lens aperture is locked at f/2.0-2.8 (wide-tele), and the exposure-compensation setting has no effect (even though you can adjust it via the jog control.) Once in this mode, you can select shutter speeds of 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 seconds, although the noise levels in the image are very high at the longest exposure times. (While a subjective evaluation, we felt we obtained good results with shutter speeds up to 4 seconds, at an ISO setting of 100.) Oh yes: You can combine time exposures with increased ISO settings. Frankly though, once you get to the equivalent of 4 seconds at ISO 100 (or, 1 second at ISO 400), anything beyond that only increases the noise in the image, and produces little real benefit. We hope this feature makes it into the final production models of the camera (where it's even possible that noise levels may be much reduced, due to more highly-integrated electronics): It is a genuinely useful extension of the camera's capabilities, and opens up nighttime and low-light photography considerably beyond the prospects offered by the camera's "standard" exposure options.
Long Time-Exposure Mode, f/11 aperture (Yet another undocumented/unsupported feature)
We're indebted to reader Mike Roda (thanks, Mike!) for this one: The "normal" long time-exposure mode described above forces the lens aperture to f/2.0. What if you want greater depth of field, or an unusually long exposure time in moderate lighting (to blur moving water, for instance)? It turns out there's another hidden feature on the C-2000 Zoom: You can set it to use an aperture of f/11 with the long time exposures! You do this as follows: 1) Put the camera in long-exposure mode, as described above. 2) Press and hold the "OK" button. 3) WHILE HOLDING DOWN THE OK BUTTON, half-press the shutter button, and the LCD readout will indicate an aperture of f/11. That's it! The f/11 setting will remain in effect until you move out of long-exposure mode, or until you do the OK/Shutter action again. Very slick! (But again, this is a feature that could well disappear in the future, as it isn't documented by Olympus, and so not officially supported.)
Low-Light Shooting Behavior
In our studio/lab tests, we found that the C-2000 Zoom's low-light performance using the long time-exposure mode was a bit of a mixed bag, which perhaps explains why Olympus didn't publish the trick for entering long-exposure mode. We obtained good results down to light levels of around EV 7 or so, but below that the color balance and gamma curve got pretty strange. At the very lowest light levels we tested (around EV 5-6, which is *really* dark), the MacBeth(tm) color chart took on a ghostly appearance, with very washed-out colors, and the black tape separating the color chips appearing as a strange silver tone. We don't know how much to make of this, as we've seen excellent evening/night shots on the various Japanese 'web pages that show C-2000 samples. We don't have any standard "night" shots, but will try to get out with the C-2000 for an evening of shooting sometime before we have to send it back. Our guess is that what we were seeing in the studio had something to do with infrared affecting the sensor, but we haven't had an opportunity to see what happens with an infrared filter in place. Outdoors at night, we expect that infrared would be much less of an issue.
Qimage by Michael Chaney - a useful companion for low-light work!
One thing that happens in very long exposures with CCD-based cameras is that noise and minor pixel variations throw a lot of non-picture garbage into the pictures. While the production model of the C-2000 Zoom was dramatically better than the prototype unit in this respect, you're going to find this sort of noise and "stuck pixel" problem with just about any digital camera when doing long time-exposures. We wanted to let our readers know about a VERY useful program for eliminating (or at least drastically reducing) these sort of problems, in the form of Qimage, by Michael Chaney. Qimage's "stuck pixel" filter in particular is little short of amazing, and makes the problem of removing the glints of stuck pixels from your low-light images trivially easy. You can download a 2-week free demo version of the program from Michael's site, and the "unlock" code only costs $30. If you plan to do a lot of low-light photography, Qimage is well worth the price! (Oh yeah: Qimage does a LOT of other stuff besides just filter out CCD noise - Check out Michael's site for the full list of features.) (Windows only.)
Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time 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 little Windows utility developed by Digital Eyes.
The C-2000's shutter delay is typical of digital cameras we've tested, at about 0.75 seconds for full autofocus, 0.3 seconds for preset focus (8 feet/2.5m or infinity), and 0.15 seconds with focus and exposure pre-set by half-pressing the shutter button before the shot itself.
We mentioned the C-2000 Zoom's rapid cycling or "shot recovery" time earlier: Our test unit could take about four maximum-resolution (SHQ JPEG mode) images or 9 HQ-mode shots in rapid succession, before having to pause to write data to the memory card. In this "rapid fire" mode, the shot-to-shot cycle time averaged about 2.5 seconds with full autofocus, or 2.2 seconds in a fixed-focus mode (8 feet/2.5 meters, or infinity). Once the buffer memory was full, it took a bit less than 20 seconds to empty sufficiently to enable capture of the next picture. One feature we liked very much (and that in our mind greatly contributes to the usefulness of the large buffer) is that the camera stays "live" while it is processing data from previously-captured images, in all but uncompressed TIFF mode. (Uncompressed images make you wait until the camera is done writing data to the card before it enables the user controls again.) Thus, you can change essentially any camera setting, without waiting for the processing of earlier pictures to be finished. This will be a great boon in many photographic situations, where you want to quickly "bracket" your shots, varying exposure, aperture, or shutter speed across several exposures in rapid succession, to maximize your chances for getting the shot you've visualized. If a shot every couple of seconds isn't fast enough for you, the camera's "rapid sequence" mode (discussed earlier), captures images continuously at about 2 frames per second as long as you hold down the shutter button, until the buffer memory is filled. (As noted, this is about 10 frames at full resolution, and we counted fully 50 frames in VGA (640x480) mode!)
Operation and User Interface
The user interface on the C-2000 Zoom makes extensive use of the LCD viewscreen for menu selections, and to provide feedback on current settings during use. We were pleased to see, though, that the top-panel LCD data readout can also be used to control many common camera functions. (Spot/averaging metering; flash mode; image quality setting; macro, panorama, or sequence shooting mode; IR controller on/off)
Overall, the C-2000 Zoom is a very responsive camera, not only in the shot-to-shot cycle time (as just discussed), but in its behavior starting up, shutting down, and changing between modes. The camera starts up or shuts down in about 3-4 seconds, most of that time being occupied with the zoom lens racking to or from its extended, working position. Switching between setup or playback and capture modes also takes about 3-4 seconds. Switching from a capture mode back to playback to review a just-shot picture requires a variable amount of time, ranging from about 3 seconds for an SQ-mode image, to a maximum of 11 seconds for a massive SHQ/TIFF-mode one.
We liked the user interface of the C-2000 Zoom a great deal: We generally prefer "mode dial" interfaces (see below), as they simplify the menu structure of a digicam a fair bit, and make for faster operation. In the case of the C-2000, our favorite user-interface feature is the way the camera tells you what aperture and shutter speed it's selected whenever the shutter button is half-pressed: As long-time SLR film-based camera users, one of the most annoying characteristics of digital cameras for us is the great mystery surrounding what the camera is actually doing exposure-wise. Most digital cameras leave you totally in the dark about the shutter speed and aperture opening being used for each shot. In the C-2000 Zoom, whenever the LCD viewfinder is in use, the camera displays aperture, shutter speed, and current exposure-compensation setting across the top of the LCD.
The infrared remote control Olympus provides with C-2000 Zoom is also a very welcome addition: In our own usage, we shoot most of our tests from a tripod, and the studio shots tend to have fairly long exposure times. To avoid any loss of resolution, we're always keen to reduce our disturbance of the camera while taking pictures. On a conventional camera, this would mean using a cable release, to avoid jostling the camera when pressing the shutter button. With most digital cameras, the best we can do is use a VERY sturdy tripod, and press the shutter button lightly. Thus, with the C-2000, we were pleased to be able to trigger the shutter by pressing a button on the tiny IR remote. The remote goes quite a bit beyond the functions of a simple cable release though, as you can also use it to change the exposure compensation setting, or zoom the lens in or out. In playback mode, you can step between pictures, and move in or out of thumbnail and "zoom" playback modes. We can imagine studio portrait photographers using the remote to let them work more closely with their subjects in front of the camera, possibly using an external video screen to make the viewfinder display visible. Olympus states the range of the remote as 5 meters (16.4 feet) when aimed at the camera from straight ahead, and 3 meters (9.8 feet) when aimed from an angle of 15 degrees to either side of center. In practice, we found this range to be very conservative, and in fact almost always used it from behind the camera, bouncing the IR signal off of our test subjects! About the only thing we could ask for in the remote would be the ability to prefocus the camera by half-pressing the shutter release, as you can do from the camera's onboard shutter button. A pretty small quibble though, as the functions built into the remote already far exceed those of a standard cable release or camera remote.
On-camera controls are surprisingly sparse, given the range of functionality they provide. On the top of the camera is the "Mode Dial," surrounding the power switch, and used to select from the various camera operating modes. Just forward of that, projecting at the front of the camera body is the zoom-control lever, with the shutter release button at its center. (In playback mode, the zoom toggle switches back and forth between thumbnail (index) view, normal image display, and "zoomed" playback.)
Only four controls appear on the back of the camera: The display on/off button, Menu button, 4-position "jog" control, and the OK button. Their functions are as follows:
Display On/Off - as you'd expect, this turns the LCD view screen on or off, but also is used in playback mode to delete the image currently being viewed.
Menu Button - enables the menu system, either on the rear-panel LCD screen, or the top-panel LCD data readout.
4-Way Jog Control - Much of the camera's operation revolves around this control: In capture modes, a left/right actuation increases or decreases the exposure compensation setting (provided the LCD view screen is active). In aperture- or shutter-priority exposure modes, up/down actuation of the jog dial adjusts the setting of the lens aperture or shutter speed, depending on the mode you're in. In playback mode, left/right actuation moves forward or back among the pictures in memory, or scrolls around the expanded image in "zoom" playback mode. In the LCD menu system, the jog control steps between menus and selects settings from them.
OK Button - As its name suggests, this button confirms settings you've selected from an LCD menu screen. It also controls subsequent printing of the images.
The C-2000 Zoom has five main operating modes, selected by the top-mounted Mode Dial, mentioned above. These operating modes are as follows:
- Shutter Priority: The user selects the desired shutter speed (in 1/3-EV units), and the camera adjusts the aperture to achieve the correct exposure. If the required aperture is beyond the camera's capabilities, the shutter speed/aperture status numbers in the LCD will flash red. User-selected ISO values are available in this mode.
- Aperture Priority: The user selects the desired lens aperture (in 1/3-EV units), and the camera adjusts the shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure. If the required shutter speed is beyond the camera's capabilities, the shutter speed/aperture status numbers in the LCD will flash red. (Minimum shutter speed in automatic-exposure modes is 1/2 second, even though the camera is capable of longer time-exposures, as noted earlier.) User-selected ISO values are available in this mode.
- Programmed Exposure: Here, the camera selects both shutter speed and lens aperture, but does so in a fairly intelligent manner, opting for faster shutter speeds when the lens is in the telephoto position than when it's working in wide-angle mode. User-selected ISO values are not available in this mode, as the camera apparently varies the ISO setting itself, depending on the lighting conditions.
- Playback Mode: View previously-captured images. Here, the jog control advances between successive frames in memory. The zoom toggle switches the display to a thumbnail/index mode when moved in the wide-angle position, and zooms in on the currently-displayed image by 3x when moved in the telephoto position. When zoomed-in on an image, the jog control can be used to move the enlarged view around the full image area, letting you inspect all parts of it.
- Setup/Interface Mode: Provides for setting a number of camera operating parameters, and for interfacing to a host computer via the RS-232 serial interface.
Control Enumeration: LCD Menu Screens
Having described the basic operation of the C-2000 Zoom, we'll now briefly step through its various menu options, to provide a more-detailed view of its functioning.
Capture mode menu:
Playback mode menu:
Setup Mode Menu:
Image Storage and Interface
The C-2000 Zoom uses the diminutive "SmartMedia" memory cards, and comes equipped with an 8 megabyte unit. SmartMedia cards are currently available in sizes as large as 32 megabytes, and the C-2000 is compatible with that card size as well. Depending on the image size and quality (compression level) chosen, the furnished 8 megabyte card can store anywhere between 1 (! - the huge 5.6 megabyte uncompressed TIFF format) and 122 images. We appreciated the C-2000's file-naming protocol, which progressively numbers each image shot with the camera, and also includes the month and day at the beginning of the file name. We couldn't find any way to reset the picture counter: Presumably it rolls over after 10,000 images (there appear to be 4 digits allocated to the frame number, but the embedded date code will help keep numbers from repeating for a long while. - This feature is so handy, we wish more digital cameras offered it: Frequently, you'll want to dump the contents of multiple cards into a single hard drive directory, but cameras that restart their file numbering over again for each memory card prohibit this, since the new files would overwrite older ones.
The C-2000 Zoom comes with interface software and cables for both Mac and Windows computers, and even includes updated "FlashPath" floppy-disk adapter drivers for the Mac platform (providing support for 32-megabyte memory cards on the Mac). Transfers over the serial interface appear to be a bit faster than the norm, with a 788K file taking 75 seconds on the PC, and 48 seconds on the Mac. (The Mac's serial port can run at a higher speed than those of most Windows machines.) This translates to transfer rates of 10.5 and 16.4 Kbytes/second, respectively. By comparison, the same file was copied via the (optional) FlashPath floppy-disk adapter in about 27 seconds on both platforms. (This represents a significant performance improvement for the Mac drivers, as FlashPath performance on the Mac had previously lagged behind that of the PC. The new Mac drivers appear to correct this shortcoming.)
Olympus' "Camedia 4.1" interface software also provides for controlling several camera settings as well, including timeout values governing when the camera will go into "sleep" mode when powered by AC or batteries.
The C-2000 Zoom has a video-out port, supporting the NTSC timing format in our test unit, but presumably the PAL standard in Europe and elsewhere. The video output can be used for reviewing previously-shot images, or running "slide shows" from the camera, but also shows all the LCD menu screens as well as the "preview" display from the LCD viewfinder. Combined with the very flexible infrared remote control we mentioned earlier, the availability of a "live" viewfinder display via the video signal opens interesting possibilities for portrait and child photography, using a video monitor as a remote viewfinder: The photographer could work with the subject, and compose the shot, seeing the results in real-time, and then trigger the camera to shoot when everything's just right. (As noted earlier, the remote control also operates the zoom lens and exposure-compensation controls, so you really have a significant amount of control when working remotely.)
Power for the C-2000 Zoom is provided by 4 internal AA batteries, or by an optional AC adapter than can significantly extend battery life if you're doing a lot of downloads via the serial port, or working in a studio environment.. As we mentioned earlier, LCD panels on digital cameras can really "eat" batteries, and the C-2000's is no exception. Fortunately, many common camera functions can be controlled via the top-panel LCD readout, without having to activate the rear-panel color LCD viewfinder. This can substantially reduce LCD usage, thereby increasing battery life. Unfortunately, the advanced exposure modes (aperture- and shutter-priority) and exposure-compensation adjustments require the LCD in order to operate. Thus, if you plan to exercise the creative control offered by the C-2000's advanced exposure modes, you'll doubtless want to buy a few sets of rechargeable NiMH batteries and a good charger!
The C-2000 Zoom comes with a good complement of software. Direct camera control and image downloading are provided by an updated version of Olympus' own Camedia software package. Although we now use the FlashPath adapter almost exclusively, we like the Camedia application a lot: It is convenient and easy to use, and quite fast at downloading images (at least, for a serial-port connection).
In addition to the Camedia package, Olympus provides acquire plug-ins for both Mac and Windows platforms.The Mac acquire module is a Photoshop plugin, supported by many Mac image-editing applications. On the Windows side, a TWAIN driver will provide near-universal access, given the wide range of applications that support the TWAIN standard.
With previous cameras, Olympus also bundled Adobe's PhotoDeluxe image-editing software, but it appears they no longer do so with the C-2000 Zoom. This is not as much of a loss as it might seem though, since the newly-upgraded Camedia program now provides a reasonable range of image-manipulation functions.
Early versions of the Camedia software included panorama stitching capability directly within the application itself (for the D-220L and D320L). For the C-2000 Zoom, this feature is provided by the vastly superior and nothing-short-of-amazing QuickStitch program from Enroute Technology. With versions included for both Mac and Windows, QuickStitch goes quite a bit beyond any other "panorama" software that we're aware of: It not only stitches conventional panoramas, but can assemble images two-dimensionally to create huge, high-resolution images from multiple smaller ones. (An array of up to 5x5 images can be assembled into a single enormous one. More to the point, you can easily stitch images either vertically or horizontally.) While it can't compensate for every goof you might make in camera positioning, QuickStitch is little short of magical: The software has a remarkable ability to compensate for barrel or pincushion distortion between images, successfully stitching together photos that would be hopeless with lesser programs.
Overall, the software bundle provided with the C-2000 Zoom provides a complete suite of capabilities for capturing and manipulating your photos. Even better, all packages provided are fully functional on both Mac and PC.
In keeping with our standard policy, the comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings. For a FULL commentary on each of the test images, see the Olympus C-2000 Zoom Pictures Page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we strongly encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the picture page, to see how well the Olympus C-2000 Zoom performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, the C-2000 Zoom turned in an excellent performance, particularly in the area of creative control. Colors were bright, accurate, and properly saturated, and detail was excellent. After an uncertain experience with the preproduction prototype we first tested, we're happy to report that the production model of the C-2000 Zoom showed excellent sharpness and resolution. The numerical performance of the C-2000 Zoom on the resolution test was very good, measuring 750-800 lines per picture height horizontally, and approaching 800 lines vertically..
The C-2000's 1/3 f-stop accuracy in both shutter- and aperture-priority exposure modes, and the 1/3 f-stop resolution in its manual exposure compensation setting mean you don't have to compromise on exposure accuracy. More significantly, the 1/3 f-stop aperture accuracy allowed very precise control over flash exposures, even with a "plain vanilla" external flash unit. Creative control of flash exposures doesn't stop there though: By combining the 1/3-stop aperture control with various white-balance settings, "slow-sync" extended shutter times, and manual EV-adjustments, you can achieve a truly unprecedented level of control over the lighting and color balance of your flash shots. (This camera really ROCKS when it comes to flash shooting!) This exceptional aperture control makes the C-2000 the first camera we've tested that we can confidently recommend for use in a studio environment, with professional strobe lighting. (Although, we strongly recommend against directly connecting high-voltage studio strobe packs to the little PC connector on the camera: Use some sort of a low-powered strobe on the camera to trigger slave sensors driving the studio packs!)
The C-2000 Zoom continues the Olympus tradition of bright, "snappy" color, the hallmark of their SLR-based cameras, the D-500L, 600L, and recent 620L. Combined with the higher resolution of a 2.1 megapixel sensor, the results are visually stunning.
The optical viewfinder is more accurate than most, showing 91% of the final image area, although our evaluation unit had the viewfinder rotated about 2 degrees relative to the CCD sensor. (We're confident this will be fixed on the final production models, it being an easy thing to correct.) The LCD viewfinder is deadly accurate for normal shooting, showing exactly 100% of the final image area. LCD accuracy decreases somewhat when the digital telephoto option is used, with the final image shifting upward somewhat from that shown on the LCD.
The C-2000's low-light performance was exceptional, with the camera producing good images in lighting levels as low as EV7, and usable ones as low as EV5, albeit with soft focus. The main limitation to better low-light capability (as with other high-end cameras we've tested) was odd color balance at very low light levels, rather than sensor noise, so we have some hope that the performance could be enhanced with a firmware upgrade. (Although we have no idea of whether the unit in fact can be field-upgraded in this manner.) As a reality-check on our studio testing, we took the camera to a nearby mall and shot some patrons at the local Starbucks coffee-shop hangout. WOW! The results were pretty spectacular, compared to other digicams we've worked with in the past. We have to say that low-light nighttime digital photography has clearly come to the under-$1000 camera range!
Native macro performance was also quite good, with the camera capturing a minimum field of view of 2.25 x 3.0 inches (57 x 76 mm). This is good, but not exceptional macro capability, although the availability of high-quality auxiliary macro lenses from Olympus will make the C-2000 Zoom a much stronger player in this arena once the accessory adapter unit is available. (As it should be by the time the production units ship.)
See for Yourself!
Take a look at the test images from the C-2000 Zoom (with extensive comments), or jump to the Comparometer(tm) page to compare its reference images with those from other digital cameras.
While the C-2000 Zoom is a true 2-megapixel digital camera, we feel that its exceptional resolution only accounts for part of its significance: As a continuation of Olympus' vision of "filmless photography," it truly conveys a user experience that is more photographic than digital. To date, this sort of digital photographic capability has been reserved for those with camera budgets in excess of $10,000. Now, Olympus is bringing the level of creative control demanded by serious photographers down to the under-$1,000 price range. We view the C-2000 Zoom as a bellwether of the direction the entire digital camera market will follow (emphasizing "camera" vs. "digital"), and in and of itself as an exciting entry on the playing field. We found the C-2000 Zoom to be a fun, compact, and most of all powerful creative tool that we expect will make many photographers very happy. HIGHLY recommended!
See what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about the C-2000 Zoom, or add comments of your own. (Read what's here, then add your own!)
For More Info:
View the Imaging Resource Data Sheet for the C-2000 Zoom
View the Sample Pictures from the C-2000 Zoom
Visit the Olympus Home Page the C-2000 Zoom
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