|The Minolta Dimage 7 Digital SLR
by Vivid Light Staff
The thing I really despise about writing digital camera reviews is that by the time you get done covering all the technical detail the article sounds more like a spec sheet than a camera review. What gets lost in all that detail is what it's like to shoot with the camera. After all, getting great images is what photography is really about. Whether you're using digital or film should be secondary to the images. Getting images happens to be something the Dimage 7 is pretty good at.
The marketing department at Minolta is working overtime pushing the fact that the Dimage 7 has 5.24 megapixel resolution. While that's impressive, it's been our experience that 3 megapixel cameras (such as the Nikon 995) produce excellent results for all but the largest prints. Then there's the whole argument of what resolution really means - but we won't get into that here.
What we found most impressive about the Dimage 7 is the fact that you can largely forget all the technical BS and treat it like a camera - at least for most shooting situations.
With most digitals you spend a lot of time fiddling with incredibly small buttons and flipping through menus on a little LCD screen. It's enough to make you nuts. While the results can be good photos, the picture taking experience is less than thrilling - and in some cases down right annoying.
If you're experienced with modern SLRs and even mildly acquainted with digital cameras you'll be able to start using the Dimage without ever looking at the manual. High praise indeed. The Dimage handles like an SLR, albeit a very light one (it's plastic body weighs just 17 ounces). Zooming from 28 through 200mm is done by rotating the lens barrel. Maximum aperture is variable from f2.8 to f3.5. The camera mode is selected using a large dial on the top deck of the camera (ala an SLR). You have a choice of using the camera in full automatic mode, one of four pre-programmed modes (landscape, action, backlit, and night), or you can selectively take control of any number of features up to full manual control - including manual focus (controlled via the AF/MF button on the side of the camera). There's even a macro mode for close-up work.
The Dimage 7 has a built in flash that is equivalent to the built in flashes on most SLRs. An impressive feature is the fact that it also includes a standard flash shoe that is compatible with any of Minolta's flash units or any Minolta compatible aftermarket flash. Flash compensation requires that you delve down into the Dimage 7's menus and is available in 1/3rd stop increments. Though I must say that the navigation of those menus using the toggle button on the rear of the camera is straight forward. This is a good thing since the default flash settings when using the 5600 HS(D) (click here for a review of the 5600 HS(D)) tended to be a little hot. Dialing in -2/3rds stop flash compensation seemed to give us warmer skin tones. But this is one of those personal taste things and yours may vary. In addition to flash compensation you can also set the on-board or external flash to rear sync or red eye reduction mode. The bottom line is that it's as easy to use this camera with Minolta's flash system as it would be to use any film camera.
Another feature that warmed our hearts was how easy it was to use standard filters with this camera. The front of the lens is threaded to accept a 49mm filter (a common size for Minolta lenses). While we didn't have any 49mm filters we did have an adapter ring that allowed us to use a wide range of filters with this camera including polarizers, colored filters, and split neutral density filters. This makes it much easier to balance light when shooting landscapes. It also means you can use your existing SLR filters. You're not forced to buy a slew of undersized filters as you are with some digitals.
Controlling how the camera records images is intuitive as well. Saturation, exposure compensation, and contrast can all be controlled using an "effects" switch on the side of the body. To set any one of these, rotate the switch to pick the item you want, then hold in the center of the switch while rotating the command dial. Use the same procedure to set any of the major controls on the Function dial. With it you choose the modes the camera will shoot in (ISO, white balance, motor drive, program mode, image quality, and image size). It's worth touching on the details of a couple of these.
You can choose an ISO mode from 100 to 800, though we found images shot at 800 to have quite a bit of noise. We preferred to shoot at 400 or slower unless we absolutely HAD to shoot at 800. There are four program modes: auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual.
White balance modes include auto, daylight, tungsten (for indoor shooting), fluorescent, cloudy, and custom. With any digital you'll get the best results after getting a better understanding of white balance and when to override the auto white balance setting. We found graduated neutral density filters, especially in mixed sun and cloud, often fooled the white balance logic. Something not obvious when checking the image on the LCD. This necessitated tweaking the image after loading it into the computer. Other filters, such as polarizers, didn't seem to give the meter any problems in this regard.
Speaking of the LCD, this was one area where we were less than thrilled. The color accuracy and contrast of the LCD left a bit to be desired. With some images it appeared that you had good balance from dark to light until you uploaded it to your PC. Only then did you find out that you didn't have the detail you thought you had in the shadow areas. The LCD also washed out in the bright Caribbean sunlight making it difficult to judge the quality of images. We would hope the next generation Dimage would have a more accurate LCD.
A feature we loved about the LCD was the ability to control exactly how much information is displayed in the LCD. With some digital cameras there's so much information in the LCD you can barely make out the image.
Shooting with the Dimage 7
A positive is the hinged viewfinder that tilts up 90 degrees making it easy to shoot from near the ground without requiring you to get down on your belly. A negative is that this is made possible because the viewfinder is electronic rather than optical - making the image in the finder jerky. Kind of like watching the Blair Witch project through your camera. This can get old fast, especially in low light. Curiously the LCD panel image is steadier than the finder image. To conserve battery power (LCDs use a lot of juice) there is a sensor next to the viewfinder that blacks the LCD when you're looking through the finder, and blanks the finder when you're not. You also have the option of turning the LCD screen off entirely and only using the finder to further conserve battery power. But doing so takes away a powerful digital tool - the ability to instantly see what you've just shot.
The viewfinder also has a built in diopter adjustment wheel. But reach for your pencil eraser. This is a very small wheel. But forget about critical adjustment of the finder. It's only really useful when using manual focus and macro modes. For either of these situations pull your eye back and use the LCD. It's the best option for critical focus.
The Dimage 7 gives you two ways to view your images. Quick view allows you to toggle through images. But you can only view or delete them. Playback mode allows you to zoom and pan around your images to check detail and sharpness. You can also view the camera's settings at the time the image was created and an image histogram.
A warning icon that is supposed to be a shaking hand is displayed if the shutter speed drops below reciprocal of the focal length (1/focal length). We found this to be overly pessimistic and pretty much ignored it. But it will be useful for those who lack a steady hand or good hand holding technique.
Now after saying all of these good things about the Dimage we come to the one thing that caused one tester to almost throw the camera into the Gulf of Mexico (we're not kidding). That's the Dimage's quirky appetite for batteries. A four pack of alkalines are included with the camera and Minolta sent along a battery charger and four rechargeable batteries. Now we all know that digitals have an appetite for batteries, but since the Dimage 7 takes readily available AA batteries we thought "no problem". We were wrong.
After chewing through the first set of alkalines and the rechargeables our fearless editor strolled into a corner store and purchased several packs of Duracell AA batteries - the only brand in the store. After driving to the other side of the island, content that he had new batteries, he discovered that none of the Duracells would work in the camera. Each new four pack yielding only a low battery warning. Next he raided the 5600 flash knowing that he had loaded four new Eveready AA batteries before leaving home. These worked fine for about 23 shots before another low battery light stopped him dead in his tracks. The Duracells still gave only a low battery warning. Thinking that the Duracells couldn't possibly all be dead (the expiration date was 2005) he tried them in the flash - which strobed away happily.
Next he tried mixing on Eveready with three Duracells. Magically the camera worked - but only for about five shots. He cycled through each of the Evereadys mixing them with Duracells each time and getting five to seven shots on each one before the screen blanked when pressing the shutter. It was now sunset and frustration from nursing batteries for several hours had set in. As the sun dipped below the horizon a twin masted sailing ship headed into the harbor. He waited forty minutes for the ship, clouds and light to align perfectly for a cover shot and when he pressed the shutter - the display went black and displayed only a blinking dead battery light. Evidently an amazing level of self control was all that kept the Dimage 7 from finding a home at the bottom of the Gulf.
We contacted Minolta regarding battery life. We were averaging 27 to 30 shots from off-the-shelf alkalines and had duplicated the Duracell problem back at the office.
Minolta recommends 1600mAh rechargeables for longer life (we observed this). They also noted that "Alkaline batteries have different characteristics or performance from one brand to another, or even within the same brand". They went on to note that Duracell Ultra seemed to provide better performance than standard Duracells (we didn't get a chance to verify this).
As for why we got a low battery indicator from batteries that still worked in other devices: "For 'dead' batteries which are not actually dead, this is to assure quality of recording data into the CF card. If the power supply is accidentally terminated during the data recording into the CF, the data may not be recorded in the card correctly. The DiMAGE 7 processes a huge amount of data at a very high speed and administers battery check strictly."
This may be true but the fact that the battery check doesn't fail until you press the shutter can be infuriating. It appears that the battery check logic needs a bit more tweaking.
This is a fine camera. More comfortable and intuitive to use than most other digitals (other than point and shoot cameras). It requires a minimum of mucking around and it succeeds wonderfully at feeling like a camera rather than a palm pilot. Give me longer battery life and fix a couple of little quirks and it will be just about the perfect digital camera.
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing