Price: £851.06 plus VAT
The first thing you notice on the Dimage 7 is its 5.2-megapixel badge. Digital camera resolution is advancing rapidly now, with 4mp and 5mp models appearing every month. The Dimage 7 actually captures 5.2, but outputs 4.95mp (2,568-x-1,928 pixels). Just as significant is a feature that makes this camera one of the best to use of the current crop: the zoom control on the lens is manually controlled by twisting the barrel. Manual is quick and precise – and far better than the slow, vague power zooms used on most digital cameras. Well done Minolta, and other companies please take note. This is an excellent lens, with a 7:1 ratio equivalent to a sensibly wide-angle 28mm lens zooming to 200mm (a digital zoom doubles this). A macro switch gives close focus for 25-60cm. The aperture range is respectable but not outstanding at f/2.8-8. The lens has a manual focus ring – a dedicated button switches from auto to manual, and an on-screen magnification option helps you preview the result. In focus The autofocus works well, with an on-screen indicator to show its point of focus. The focus zone can be switched between a central rectangle and a movable spot, which you steer to a particular point in the scene by the four-way control button. The camera uses the fairly common layout of a main body behind a big lens barrel, with a hand grip out to the right. The body looks and feels like cheap painted plastic, but the chassis is lightweight magnesium alloy. Unusually, the four AA batteries fit under the main body instead of the grip, but this allows the memory card (which gets hot) in the grip to be as far as possible from the CCD (which needs to stay cool). The 1.8-inch LCD preview/playback monitor is on the back panel. There’s also an eye-level electronic viewfinder for bright sunlight conditions. This has better resolution than rival cameras, but it’s still fairly coarse and jerky. The viewfinder can be rotated upward by up to 90 degrees. The downside of having two monitors and a high-resolution CCD is that the camera flattens rechargeable NiMH batteries very rapidly compared with other current cameras. Carry plenty of spares; Minolta doesn’t supply a power adaptor or charger. The flip-up flash unit on the top is OK, but keen photographers will use a separate higher-powered flashgun, which can be attached to the hotshoe. Dimage 7 can interface to several Minolta-programmed flashguns, including lens-mounted close-up units. There are three main control dials. One selects on/off, playback, movie, setup, and downloads. The other sets functions such as program/aperture/ shutter/manual exposure, image resolution and compression, ISO (100 to 1600), multi-shot/time exposures, and white balance. The third dial lets you select effects: contrast, colour saturation and exposure override. A small wheel in front of the shutter button lets you select from the options displayed on the top panel’s status screen, and is also used to select shutter and aperture settings when shooting. Five program modes, also selected from the top panel, cover portrait, sport/action, sunset, night portrait (reduces flash to preserve the background), and text. Exposed There are three exposure meter patterns, including spot, and you can optionally display an exposure histogram when you playback images. Other buttons lock the autofocus and auto-exposure. This means lots of buttons and dials – but the good thing is that you can access all the main functions in a hurry without wading through on-screen menus. The on-screen stuff is mainly for settings that don’t need to be changed too often. The movie shooting mode captures up to 60 seconds at 340-x-240 pixels, without sound. If you select maximum resolution and the highest quality compression setting, each image occupies 1.8 to 2.5MB, so you only get about seven on the rather stingy 16MB Compact Flash II card supplied. You probably need at least 64MB, though IBM Microdrives up to 1GB can be fitted. Raw (uncompressed) image format occupies 14.1MB. Downloading is through a supplied USB cable. Minolta’s Image Viewer utility gives good manual and auto tools to correct colour, density, contrast and sharpness, but runs slowly. It’s recommended that you open and save all pictures through Image Viewer, which converts the camera’s own colour space using the output profile of your choice. If you import images straight into Adobe Photoshop, the colours may be wrong. Image quality is very good. At full resolution, the amount of detail captured is spectacular, with more than enough resolution for an A4 print. The dynamic range is particularly good. The £851 price tag means that the Dimage 7 is the priciest in its class, but the resolution, lens, and properly thought-out controls probably make it the best high end consumer digital on today’s market – its main competitors are the £699, Fuji FinePix 6900 (35-200mm equivalent zoom, but its 6mp resolution is interpolated from about 3mp) and the bulky pro quality Olympus E10 (true optical SLR, 4mp, 4:1 zoom, non-interchangeable lens) at about £1,250. The main negative point is the very short battery life and a loose lens hood that kept falling off. If you want to save money and don’t need 5mp, the £799.99 3.34mp Dimage 5 is virtually identical, except the lens equivalence is 35-250mm due to the smaller CCD.