Minolta DiMAGE Z1 Review
The DiMAGE Z1, Minolta's entry in the super zoom consumer digicam market, is a feature rich 3.2-megapixel camera the entire family can enjoy. With a range of exposure modes from automatic to manual, and including several pre-programmed scene modes, this camera can be changed from a simple point-n-shoot your children will enjoy to a photographic tool that will satisfy the creative urges of a semi-pro. Equipped with a 10X Minolta optical zoom lens, the Z1 offers a degree of versatility in composing your images that you will rarely find limiting.
The most dominant feature of the Minolta DiMAGE Z1 is its Minolta 10X optical zoom lens. Ranging in focal length from 38 to 380mm in 35mm equivalence, it offers the photographer enormous versatility in image composition; the 38mm wide-angle covers most interior shots, while its 380mm telephoto magnification will please the nature and sports photographer. If your shooting needs do exceed the 38-380mm range of the non- removable lens, Minolta offers an optional 0.75x wide-angle converter lens, the ZCW-100, which extends the zoom's wide angle focal length to 28mm in 35mm equivalence. The lens operates smoothly and produces sharp images throughout its zoom range, but with a bit of barrel distortion present at the wide-angle extreme. The lens is fast; with a wide-open variable aperture range of F2.8 (wide) to F3.5 (tele), it will allow for the use of higher shutter speeds than you might expect. But the lens is not stabilized, so hand-held shooting at 380mm may result in blurry images due to camera shake; we recommend that you avoid disappointment by using a tripod or monopod for your long telephoto shooting. While Minolta claims a 40x range by combining the 4x digital and 10x optical zooms, we recommend that you avoid the digital zoom because its use degrades image quality; if you need to enlarge a portion of an image, you'll achieve better quality by cropping in an image editor.
The Z1's shooting performance is very good for a consumer digicam. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 3.3 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was an impressive and professional- class 1/10 second when pre-focused, and 5/10 second including autofocus time; these results were obtained using a 256MB SD memory card with the camera set to 2048x1536 image size and fine quality, and include viewfinder delay, photographer response time, and image capture - they are numbers you can reproduce in the real world. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 1 second, while Continuous mode captured five shots in under 3 seconds. Sports shooters will enjoy 2 modes of rapid shooting: Continuous, which is a standard burst capture mode, and Progressive, which captures images continuously at 1 frame per second but saves only the last 5 frames taken before the shutter button is released. Unfortunately, the view finder went blank during both modes of continuous image capture, so you'll find it difficult to take a rapid sequence of images of moving subjects. Testing the camera at an automobile race, the consistent 1/10 second shutter lag enabled us to develop a rhythm with the camera and capture a high-percentage good shots.
We were happy with the results shooting indoors. The moderate wide-angle lens affords reasonable field of view, and its built-in pop-up flash has a powerful (by consumer digicam standards) range of up to 20 feet. You won't be illuminating an entire dance floor, but your large living room shots and group portraits will please. In low ambient light, both the LCD and its reflected viewfinder image were easy to view, the autofocus was a little better than average in low light. However, it will fail if the light level is too low of if your subject lacks the necessary contrast - focus assist lamps should be standard on all digicams. The camera was able to squelch its flash at close range, making it a good choice for shooting close-up images of small objects for inclusion in online auction listings. If you need more range or versatility than the built-in flash provides, you can attach the Minolta Maxxum Program Flash 5600 HS, Program Flash 3600 HS or 2500D to the built-in hot shoe.
We were generally pleased with our outdoor test shots. For the most part the images were sharp, well-exposed and richly saturated. We did notice more than an average amount of chromatic abberations (purple fringing on highlights) in high-contrast areas in both indoor and outdoors shots however. Beginners will enjoy the results of using any of the pre- programmed scene modes, including Portrait, Sports action, Landscape, Sunset, and Night portrait. We found the LCD viewfinder quite usable outdoors, even in bright sunlight. Its high refresh rate provided a high-quality real-time preview of moving subjects, and its viewfinder image reflected by the Switch Finder allowed for easy panning. I'm not sure exactly how durable this LCD-to-Eyelevel viewfinder mirror assembly is, it seems a little fragile to me. The switch when going from LCD to eyelevel finder just does not give me the "solid" kind of feedback I'd like to get and it's easy to end up partially between modes.
While it is not unusual for a consumer digicam to have a movie feature, the one provided in the Z1 is exceptional. In addition to the typical frame sizes of 320x240 and 160x120 pixels, the Z1 offers a VGA-sized 640x480 at 15 or 30 frames-per-second. In addition, the Z1 autofocus system operates continuously during movie capture, assuring sharpness.
The DiMAGE Z1 uses 4 standard AA batteries, and we recommend using rechargeable NiMH batteries. We found the battery life quite acceptable, capturing over 200 images from a single set of 2300mAh NiMH rechargables when using the cameras power-saving features.
With a street price of under $400 at the time of this review (October 2003) and a great deal of versatility, the Minolta DiMAGE Z1 offers a good value. Usable by every member of your family, it will produce high-quality images of everything from family events, objects for sale at online auctions, and nature to sporting events. If you value a super zoom lens, efficient use of batteries, robust shooting performance, VGA-sized movies, and a powerful flash, the 3.2-megapixel 10X zoom DiMAGE Z1 would be a good choice.
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