Minolta DiMAGE S304 Review
By Movable Type Admin
The DiMAGE S304 is Minolta's "conventional" styled 3-megapixel compact digital camera. Unlike the SLR-styled DiMAGE 7 and DiMAGE 5 with their through the lens electronic viewfinders, the DiMAGE S304 looks and operates like a rangefinder camera. Housed in a durable aluminum body and equipped with a 4x optical zoom lens makes it a solid competitor against the Coolpix 995, but more attractively priced at just $699.
The S304 has got a very stable feel in your hand thanks to a large and fat fingergrip
that houses the CompactFlash Type I card slot and the battery compartment. It would
have been nice for Minolta to have incorporated a CF Type II card slot but in this day
of ever increasing capacity Type I cards I guess it's not that big of a deal anymore.
What is nice is that all of Minolta's cameras still use four AA type batteries as the
power source rather than a proprietary battery pack which seems to be the trend on most
other cameras. For about what it costs for one of those proprietary packs you can buy
two sets of high-capacity NiMH batteries and a rapid charger.
Ergonomically the S304 is well designed, with the exception of a really poorly located tripod socket. I know we complain we they put the tripod socket too close to the battery door but this is rediculous. There just isn't enough front surface to give you a good, stable mount and you're offsetting the weight of the batteries in the other end of the camera. At least the tripod socket is metal. On the positive side -- with your hand wrapped around the large fingergrip. your thumb falls naturally on the 4-way selector that controls the zoom. You can easily operate the mode dial with your thumb and the three buttons next to it. On top is a large and very readable monochrome LCD that displays all the important and frequently changed camera settings, unfortunately it isn't backlit. Next to the LCD is a button that quickly selects Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene or Text mode when shooting in AUTO. These selections can be made without having to turn the color LCD on thanks to the data LCD. The shutter release is well designed with a nice "half-pressed" and "fully pressed" point that gives the user plenty of tactile feedback.
The S304 is a rangefinder camera, it has an eyelevel coupled viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. The optical viewfinder has a fairly narrow viewing angle and requires that your eye be very close to see the entire frame. It isn't shaded and it has no diopter adjustment. It is well positioned though, right-eyed or left-eyed users won't end up with their noses stuck in the color LCD. The color LCD can be used as a viewfinder, with a refresh rate of 30fps it is smooth and clean except in low light conditions. The 1.8-inch color TFT display is high resolution and has a multi-step zoomed playback mode so checking for critical focus, color or composition is easy. The color LCD is covered by a shiny, clear plastic protector and could benefit from using some sort of non-glare coating. When Macro mode is selected the color LCD comes on automatically to prevent parallax errors of the optical viewfinder at close range.
As with all cameras the most important part is the lens and Minolta has put a very good 4x optical zoom lens on the S304. It covers the 35mm equivalent of 35-140mm focal length with a maximum aperture of F3-F3.6. There is moderate barrel distortion at full wideangle which is normal for most zooms but there's virtually no pincushioning at full telephoto, all in all a very nice lens. The autofocus system covers from 19.7 inches to infinity in normal mode and its dedicated macro mode covers from 6.3 to 23.6 inches. Unusual is that the macro mode is fixed at 15.5mm, the zoom control is disabled until you leave macro mode. The flash does a very good job of "throttling down" when used in the macro mode and produces properly exposed pictures without having to use any exposure compensation. The autofocus system has five, user-selectable focusing points that can be easily selected by pressing and holding the center of the 4-way switch for a second until they appear on the LCD. Select the desired focus point and press the center of the 4-way switch to lock it in. Pressing the center of the 4-way switch again will return the autofocus to wide mode.
There are two main still image recording modes on the S304, AUTO or MULTI. In AUTO mode you can select the image size and quality, enable voice memo or date imprint, enable digital zoom or instant playback from the menus or select Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene or Text mode from the top controls. Switching the camera to the MULTI position gives the user access to three full pages of menu options (outlined on page 3 of this review.) You can choose between Program AE, Aaperture priority or Manual exposure modes. Aperture priority mode only lets you select either a fully open or fully closed aperture and automatically selects the proper shutter speed. Manual mode gives you access to the full range of shutter speeds from 1/1000 to four seconds, the Bulb setting can extend that to a maximum of 15 seconds.
Exposure metering can be set for Multi-segment (256 segments) or Spot and the white balance has five presets plus custom. Exposure compensation is available from +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps and you can vary the color saturation and contrast level of the captured images. As with the DiMAGE 7 and 5, the S304 saves image data in its own color space so you need to either print with a PIM (Epson PRINT Image Matching) capable printer or post-process the images with the supplied DiMAGE Image Viewing Utility to get them into the sRGB color space. With the DIVU you can convert the S304's images into any one of the following color spaces: sRGB, AppleRGB, SMPTE-C, PAL/SECAM, ColorMatchRGB, AdobeRGB, Wide Range RGB, NTSC or CIE RGB. You can also achieve the same results by loading the images into PhotoShop and adjusting their levels. Without some sort of color adjustment the images are going to look somewhat "flat" when viewed on a properly adjusted monitor.
The actual operation of the S304 is what I would call "robust." The average shot to shot speed is about two seconds when capturing Large/Fine images. In continuous mode you can grab up to 4 frames (Large/Fine) at 1.4fps and then it takes about 3-4 seconds before you capture another one. When shooting in Single exposure mode you have to make sure to lift your finger off of the shutter button before you take the next picture or else the shutter is locked. Autofocus is a mixed bag, for the most part it works quite well in adequate lighting but in less than perfect conditions the AF can "hunt" for several seconds before failing. The S304 is like many digicams and could benefit greatly from some type of low-light focus assist illuminator.
Overall the S304's image quality is very good with well saturated colors and good dynamic range (after being processed by the DIVU) and I saw little to none of the usual chromatic abberation problems (purple fringing) experienced with other 3-megapixel cameras. The GT lens produces images as sharp as the Nikon and better than others. A properly matched lens and imager is key to avoiding the dreaded purple fringe effect and Minolta seems to have achieved this on the S304 as well as the Dimage 7 and 5 too. I think the S304 will sell well given the $699 price which is the same as the Sony DSC- S75 and less than most of the other 3mpixel cameras. Is it perfect camera? - No. Is it a good value for the price? - Yes!
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