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Sony Mavica MVC-FD7
Do I like it or not?
by Rick Smith (October 1998)

With about a half hour of research with Stephen Jones (another Reviews OnLine editor) over the phone and seeing the unit only once, I bought a Sony Mavica MVC-FD7. I seem to have a love/hate relationship with the camera. A year after I purchased it, here are my findings.

"Do you like the camera"? I have been asked that question many, many times from people who asked me, while I took the nearly 6,000 pictures, in the year I have had the unit.

I answer the question by telling them that it is indeed a digital camera. (It was misrecognized by Microsoft security as a video camera at the CES 1998 keynote address and they wanted it turned off!) Since it is digital, I have a digital relationship with it -- a love/hate relationship, nothing in between. There are several features that are so outstanding, they simply make other digital cameras look like very bad designs, while other features need improvement.

The features I like (and took for granted) was that I can take pictures for almost eight hours before having to change batteries. I have complained that I had to carry an extra battery all the time to get "more shooting time". I hear that some cameras have to change batteries after only 25-30 pictures! That's about the time I am changing my diskette.

Yes, a diskette - that is the single most powerful feature of the camera. Period. Taking pictures on inexpensive diskettes removes any restraints you might have about taking a picture. I simply don't care and if the mood hits me I'll take the shot - Whatever it may be. One time, while standing in line in Las Vegas, I focused my camera on the interesting design of the carpet and I took a picture. Now I have a picture of the carpeting of the former Aladdin hotel. This is indicative of type of shot that the Mavica lets you take that you would NEVER think of taking.

The camera is really in its element in bright daylight. Sunlight shots are absolutely wonderful. Nature shots in full sun are great! Shots in poor light can be very marginal. Using the flash isn't much help because the flash is so powerful, but more about that problem later on.

Another very powerful feature is the zoom lens. Yes, most digital cameras have a zoom lens, but the Mavica has a 10 to 1 zoom lens - the largest I have seen in any digital camera. It simply allows you to take pictures that you can't take with other cameras. When I used a 35mm camera in the 1970's I had two lenses, a 50mm and a 400mm. I, of course, coveted a 85-235 Macrozoom lens, but I never bought one.

Since I learned to hand hold a 400 mm lens in action shots (without a rifle stock), the Mavica gives me what I had. It allows me to "get there" without have to walk up to the subject, something I would have to do with a camera with a lower zoom ratio. This is useful for journalistic photography as well as nature photography.

The other feature I like is that the camera has 5 modes which turns it into 5 cameras in one! This feature was lost on me - and I took over 700 pictures without knowing this. This is due to the fact that Sony described this powerful feature on only a single 2x3 inch page of the over 200 page manual. That sounds like a long manual but, unfortunately, the manual covers 5 languages so you really have 5 translated copies of a 40 page manual and clearly the camera needs more than that. The manual spends more time describing how to charge the batteries than using these critical features. These 5 cameras allow you to use the camera normally; in a portrait focus mode; in a high speed shutter mode; in a high brightness (beach mode) and in a scenic mode (focus set at infinity). When I ask other Mavica owners about this feature, many are completely unaware of them!

Each mode makes some shots look quite different, while at other times, they make little difference. It's what I call the "Zen" of the camera. In fact, I warn people that once they learn about the new "modes", their initial picture taking quality will drop. They will either choose the wrong mode and made a bad picture or take too long to decide on the mode and lose the shot. Eventually you do get better. I found that it took several hundred shots for me.

The oddest feature of the camera is its five digital modes. They are normal, inverse, Black and white, sepia and pastel. They are interesting, but I have found limited use for them. Inverse is useful for taking a picture of a set of negatives and getting a quick "proof" - sounds like a solution in search of a problem. The black and white mode is sometimes handy to use in darker situations, where color is not going to show up. It helps eliminate color artifacts (color blotches) in the darkness. Sepia is interesting for taking 1800's style pictures, but many photo editing tools can easily do this. I have found absolutely no need for pastel mode, even in Las Vegas!

Strangely, the camera has a limit of 55 pictures per disk. I have been able to hit this limit, but the disk was only half full. Not sure why this limit was set, but this rarely becomes a problem.

The standard picture concepts of "bracketing" and taking the same shot at different angles really pays off with the Mavica (although I tend to forget this rule when taking pictures at trade shows). First, it is cheap to take more shots and many time a shot looks much better on the Mavica than it does on your computer.

This is the first of the problems with the camera. With a large LCD brightness adjustment on the back of the camera, you can make a picture look good or bad, but your not exactly sure what you are going to take a picture of. This is still a problem that plagues me - the shot looks great in the viewfinder and lousy on the computer.

The second problem is the super powerful flash. It is very handy for nighttime shots, but for real indoor pictures I have had difficulty using the flash without putting something in front of the flash. In fact, the flash is SO powerful I took a picture of a small building (the classic Phillips 66 garage in McLean, Texas) after the sun had gone down! - I even took a picture of the Rabbit billboard (also on 66) in complete darkness.

The third is the lack of a viewfinder. Taking a picture with a digital is not like taking a picture with a 35mm camera or even a Kodak disposable. You have to hold the camera away from you (in order to see the LCD viewfinder) and in this position, it is sometimes difficult to hold steady.

The fourth problem, for 35mm fans, is the COMPLETE lack of a manual exposure setting. This feature is absolutely critical when taking pictures that are going to be "stitched" together. The Sony does have a "set an exposure level" mode, but this involves pressing the shutter button down slightly and then composing and taking the shot (without pushing down too far or releasing the button). This constant going back and forth to "store" the exposure, is very troublesome, but the ONLY way to set a manual exposure level.

The other problem is speed of taking a picture. Click - wait and wait and wait for 7 seconds. It doesn't seem like much, but if you have limited time to take pictures you must carefully take your shot. If several shots could be taken and then stored, this would be perfect. Sony's new model takes only 3.5 seconds between shots and although this is better, it is still not as fast as you can click off shots with a 35mm camera, even WITHOUT a motor drive.

The optional 2x teleconverter that Sony shows on the box as an optional accessory has NEVER been available. The Wide angle lens is becoming more available, but most stores don't carry them. I may try the wide angle, but the telephoto will produce a shot that could make the effective resolution better than other digital cameras. Sounds crazy? Here's the thinking. If I am taking a shot at 20X, a "normal" digital camera would have to radically crop its picture to match the Sony picture. Even though the other digital camera started out with a high resolution, after cropping the Sony's might be better. I have no idea why Sony dropped this lens product.

The software that comes with the Mavica (ArcSoft Photo Studio) is okay, but nothing special. It doesn't even take advantage of the Sony thumbnail picture. This 64x64 image is recorded each time you take a shot, along with the real JPEG image. It is used as an index "print" when looking at pictures "in" the camera.

The only major problem in reliability is that the battery "broke" and won't stay clicked into the charger. I have to use duct tape to hold it into the charger in order to get the battery to charge. These batteries, at $70 retail, have a very poor snap in connection to the charger. Once charged this battery works great in the camera, so I don't understand why the charger wasn't built more like the camera - after all, the charger retails for over $120!! - Much higher than any laptop battery chargers I have.

Resolution and compression are the final problems. Would I want everything else the same and get as good a picture as the new Nikon digital camera - absolutely, every time I look at the pictures from the Sony, on the computer.

But as a camera for Web shots and just getting shots that you would ordinarily not take, it gets the job done quite well. (It must - it's the top selling digital camera in the U.S.A.) In looking over the facts and seeing only one unit, I cannot see how anyone would buy the MV5 unit. In fact, if someone gave me one, I wouldn't know what to do with it, other than selling it for the money or using it as a picture viewer. The $200 difference in price between the MV5 and MV7, gives you a carload of useful features - zoom, macro and effects.

Well that's it. As I said before, there are great features and there are bad features - after all, it's a "digital" camera. On balance however, I have taken 6,000 pictures that I would not have taken otherwise. My father said, when I was going to return the camera, "Keep it, at least you don't have to get the film developed". And with that low cost per picture, it's a ABSOLUTE winner.

Pro

Long battery life (with a conservative time meter - you generally have slightly more power that it shows.)
Diskette picture storage - low cost media
Great daylight camera in Bright sun
10:1 Zoom lens
5 different modes of operation (once you find and use them)
Flash - can turn "Night into Day" and get shots difficult to get any other way

Con

Resolution and Compression - even at lowest compression, some shots are grainy
Poor manual
Lack of a viewfinder
No manual exposure
Never sure of exactly what the picture will look like "out" of the camera
Flash should have a "normal" mode in addition to its current "Super flash" mode
Slow picture taking (7 seconds)
No 2X teleconverter available
Lame, generic software package that doesn't utilize the thumbnail image.
Poor charger design

Copyright 1998 Rick Smith All rights reserved.

   
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