Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z3 Review
The DiMAGE Z3 is the most powerful "Z" series camera that we've seen yet from Konica Minolta (as of 9/2004), it offers users a 4.0-megapixel imager combined with a powerful 12x optical zoom lens and Konica Minolta's proprietary Anti-Shake image stabilization system. It has a wide variety of exposure modes to choose from; full Automatic for the newby, Program AE for the novice, and advanced modes like Aperture priority, Shutter-speed priority and full Manual, that give enthusiasts total control.
The Z3's ergonomics are good. The controls are well placed and the menu system is easy to use. I was pleased to see that Konica Minolta did not use a "switch-finder" display on this camera, instead they used separate LCD and EVF displays. Outdoors I was able to use the LCD to frame, but due to its highly reflective surface covering there are many angles in which the sun reflects off of it and makes it difficult. That's when you switch to the EVF (Electronic ViewFinder.) Indoors both displays "gain up" to help brighten your subject, but they do tend to get a little grainy. The Z3 has a flash hot shoe for easily connecting an external flash. This is very useful when you're shooting in situations where the built-in flash lacks the range to illuminate your subject. It also allows you to bounce the flash (if the external flash has this feature), which helps eliminate the usual harsh shadowed and often over-exposed portrait shots.
The shooting performance was robust. From power up to first image captured measured approx. 3.0 seconds, that's pretty amazing since it has to extend its 12x zoom and boot up. Shutter lag was an impressive 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, and 2/10 of a second including autofocus. Shot-to-shot delay averaged the shot-to-shot time was approx. 1.8 seconds without flash and about 3.2 - 4.0 seconds with the flash. Sports shooters will enjoy 2 modes of rapid sequential shooting: Continuous, which is a standard burst capture mode, and Progressive, which captures images continuously at almost 3 frames per second but saves only the last 5 frames when the shutter is released. Using the Continuous mode, I was able to capture 10 frames in approx. 4 seconds. In progressive mode, I captured 5 frames in 1.7 seconds. Unfortunately, the viewfinder blanks out momentarily inbetween each frame captured which often made it difficult to follow fast-moving subjects. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Ultra II 512MB SD card, 2272x1704/Fine quality, Program auto mode, preview off, flash off, unless otherwise noted. Times may vary depending due to lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
Obviously, one of the biggest draws of the Z3 is its powerful 12X optical zoom that covers a focal length from 35 - 420mm in 35mm equivalence. The lens operates smoothly and can produce sharp images throughout its zoom range, but exhibits moderate barrel distortion at the wide angle end and slight pin cushioning at full telephoto. The lens is fairly fast with a maximum aperture of F2.8 (wide) to F4.5 (tele) which allows for the use of higher shutter speeds. Thanks to the camera's AS (Anti-Shake) system, users will be able to capture images with less hand shake at slower shutter speeds. We always recommend the use of a tripod or monopod for long telephoto shooting, even with cameras that have an AS (Anti-Shake) system. It's a good thing they included the AS system, because the Z3 is very light weight and prone to camera shake at longer focal lengths. While the Z3 boasts a 48x range by combining the 4x digital and 12x optical zoom, we recommend that you avoid using the digital zoom because it degrades image quality; if you need to enlarge a portion of an image, you'll achieve better results by cropping it later with an image editor. The autofocus system is fast and accurate in brightly light conditions, and was a little better than average in low-light conditions (for a camera without an AF-assist lamp.) However, it will fail if the light level is too low or if your subject lacks the necessary contrast. The Z3 lacks an AF illuminator and we feel that these devices should be standard on all digicams.
Like the other DiMAGE "Z" series cameras, the Z3 is powered by 4 standard AA-type batteries, this means you can use alkaline, one-use lithium, and NiHM batteries. As always we recommend using high-capacity rechargeable NiMH batteries, they'll save you money in the long run, last longer, and are safer on the environment. We found the battery life quite acceptable, capturing all of our samples images (about 150 shots) and concluding our other tests, with a single set of 2400mAh NiMH rechargeables and using the camera's power-saving features.
We were disappointed that the Z3 does not offer the high-resolution (800x600) movie mode, like that found on the Z2. The Z3 does allow you to capture motion video at either 640x480 (Fine or Standard) or 320x240 (Standard) at 15fps or 30fps with audio. In addition, the Z3's autofocus system operates continuously during movie capture. You can use the optical zoom while recording a movie, and adjust white balance and color modes via the movie record menu. Be careful when using the zoom option as the focusing system has difficulty keeping up with the lens. We recommend you set the focal length before recording, and if you're going to use the zoom, do it slowly.
The image quality in 2272x1704 Fine mode was average for a camera in this class. Outdoors it produced nicely saturated images, although some were a bit over-exposed when there were instances of extreme sunlight. The majority of our images were well exposed and had good overall color balance. There was an average amount of noise in low contrast areas as well as CA (chromatic aberation - purple fringing) in high contrast areas. There were also some images that were a bit soft; luckily the Z3 has adjustments for sharpening and contrast that help fix the problem. One area this camera seemed to excel at was portrait photography. Both our outdoor and indoor portraits were sharp, well exposed and skin tones were very natural. The "auto" white balance setting does its job well. I highly recommend that you make sure to always check the front of the lens for fingerprints before shooting. With most cameras this isn't a major concern, but it is with the Z3. If there's a big fingerprint on the lens your photos will have a haze to them. You can see what I mean by looking at PICT0018.JPG on our sample photos page.
Bottom line - the DiMAGE Z3 is a mixed bag, its powerful lens, Anti-Shake technology, and speedy performance will interest many, however the less than stellar "out of camera" image quality will put off others. Its 2272x1704 (4-megapixel) Fine images have sufficient resolution to create up to 11x14-inch prints. If you don't need 4-megapixels of resolution or a 12x optical zoom, then check out the more affordable DiMAGE Z10 with 3-megapixels and an 8x zoom for about $220 less.
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