Minolta DiMAGE F300 Review
The DiMAGE F300 is Minolta's 5-megapixel addition to its popular line of compact digital cameras. The "fit and finish" of this camera is excellent, the rectangular point- n-shoot shape makes it simple to slip into a pocket or purse and no need for much concern about its durability as it's housed in a highly durable aluminum body. It is light enough to carry all day but not so light that it is hard to control. New labor saving functions in this camera are Area autofocus, Subject Tracking autofocus and Automatic Digital Subject Program Selection.
Subject Tracking AF and Area AF work together to locate and follow the subject through three-dimensional space within the camera's wide focusing area at a speed up to 9 mph which is close to the speed of a child running or a grown-up walking at the camera. It works well as designed if your subject is slow enough, stays within the focus brackets (center 50% of screen), and you keep the camera motionless.
The Automatic Digital Subject Program Selection automatically selects one of five subject programs (portrait, sports action, landscape, sunset, or night portrait) to pick the best exposure and image-processing controls based on the subject and scene. This helps free you from the need to look at a scene, figure the conditions and make camera settings for each new situation.
Images are stored on Secure Digital (SD) or MultiMedia (MMC) cards, Minolta includes a 32MB card which is nowhere near big enough. I'd suggest a 128MB or 256MB size card for even the semi-serious user. The cover on the card slot is a little troublesome to snap open unless you have a fingernail or two. The built-in USB port will swiftly move your pictures from the camera to your computer, drivers included for Windows 98 SE, ME, 2000Pro, XP, Mac OS 8.6 - 9.21 or Mac OS X 10.1.
The overall operation of the F300 is robust. It takes about five seconds from camera on until it is ready to snap the first picture. It takes less than three second to go from Record to Play mode. The camera has a fairly fast autofocus system but it is without a focus assist lamp for very low light conditions. In Fine mode the shot to shot time is about 1.5 seconds, add four to five seconds for flash and yields an average file size of 2.5MB. The continuous drive mode lets you capture 1.2fps to a max. of 7 frames. The Ultra High Speed drive mode lets you capture at 11fps up to 11 frames (at 1280x960). If using the Super Fine TIFF mode be prepared to wait about 18 seconds between shots. This camera is optimized for processing JPEG images and this isn't a bad thing, Fine quality JPEGs makes excellent prints. The only difference is that with a TIFF image there are no compression artifacts to interfere with post-processing but the average Large/TIF image is a whopping 15MB.
I like the fact that Minolta's cameras still use AA type batteries versus the proprietary and often "wimpy" battery packs that seem to be all too popular these days. For what it costs for one of those proprietary packs you can buy two (or three) sets of high-capacity NiMH AA batteries and a rapid charger. And the NiMH battery technology continues to evolve, the capacity is now up to 2100mAH per cell with even higher capacity on the horizon.
Ergonomically the F300 is well designed,with your right hand normally gripping the camera and your index finger on the shutter release, your thumb falls naturally on the 4-way selector that controls the zoom. You can easily operate the mode dial with your thumb or index finger. On top is a large and very readable (but not illuminated) monochrome LCD that displays all the important and frequently changed camera settings at a glance. The shutter release is well designed with a nice "half-pressed" and "fully pressed" point that gives the user plenty of tactile feedback and the conventional "sounds" of a shutter. The speaker plays other sounds whenever a button is pushed which is adjustable in a menu.
The F300 is a rangefinder camera, it has an eye level coupled viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. The optical viewfinder has a fairly narrow viewing angle and lacks any kind of dioptric adjustment. The coverage of the optical finder is about 80% which means that you always capture more than you see. The LCD when used as the viewfinder is much more accurate at about 100% coverage. The color LCD is smooth and clean except in low light conditions. The multi-step zoomed playback mode allows for checking the focus, color or composition of the shot. The color LCD is covered by a shiny, clear plastic protector and could benefit from a 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 3x optical zoom lens on the F300. It covers the 35mm equivalent of 38-114mm focal length with a maximum aperture of F2.8-F4.7. There is moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle 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 17.7 inches to infinity in normal mode and its dedicated macro mode covers from 5.7 to 21.5 inches. Unusual is that the macro mode is fixed at a 2x telephoto setting of 15.5mm, the zoom control is disabled until you leave macro mode. In the Multi record mode the AF point is user-selectable, any of the 5 AF points may be chosen using the 4-way controller. 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.
There are two main still image recording modes; AUTO or Multi. In AUTO mode you can select the image size and quality, enable date imprint or digital zoom and select the drive mode from the menus. You can select Macro, Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Night Scene,or Sunset from the Macro control. Switching the camera to the Multi position gives the user access to three full pages of menu options. You can choose between Program AE, Aperture priority, Shutter priority or Manual exposure modes. Aperture priority mode lets you select from seven apertures and automatically selects the proper shutter speed. Shutter priority mode lets you select from 28 shutter speeds from 15 seconds to 1/1000 and automatically selects the aperture. Manual mode gives shutter speeds from 1/1000 to 15 seconds, plus Bulb setting which can extend that to a maximum of 15 seconds and aperture values are settable from 2.8 to 8.0.
Exposure metering can be set for Multi-segment (256 segments), Spot or Center-weighted and the white balance has auto and five presets plus custom. Exposure compensation is available from +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps. It also has Exposure Bracketing with selectable steps of 0.3EV, 0.5EV or 1.0EV.
Overall the image quality is very good with well saturated colors and good dynamic range. I saw little to none of the usual chromatic aberration problems (purple fringing) experienced with other cameras. A properly matched lens and imager is key to avoiding the dreaded purple fringe effect and Minolta seems to have achieved this on the F300.
The Minolta Dimage F300 has a suggested retail price of $499. Most of the competing 5-megapixel cameras are at this price point or higher. This is a good choice for the beginner or advanced user that wants the ability to make photo-quality prints from 4x6" right up to 13x19" wall size prints and have it in a durable yet "pocketable" sized camera.
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