Saturday, March 8, 2008

Adventure Camera: Olympus 1030 SW

This is a quick and dirty look at the new Olympus Stylus 1030 SW: a 10MP, waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof compact digital camera. It is equipped with a fairly capable 28-102mm F3.5-5.1 lens, good for scenics to portraits and is a handily portable package to take to the beach, skiing, just about anywhere.

Construction

It feels very solid with some of the best seals I’ve seen. This is waterproof to 10m (33’) but that’s the limit, and IMHO, it doesn’t pay to test the limits. I wouldn’t take this thing diving, unless I’d bought the optional underwater housing.

There is a very useful lens protector that slides across the lens when the camera is turned off to protect it against splashes and scratches. The very large LCD on the back is not protected, and one of the first things you’ll want to do is buy a stick-on screen protector for it.

Features
On first look, the menu seems simple enough, however, it can be challenging finding out what features are available using certain modes.

The LCD is accurate, color wise, and what I see on my calibrated monitor looks close to the LCD at plus 1 brightness. The default brightness for the LCD is not enough, and it is hard to see in bright sunlight. It’s too bad that more and more manufacturers are choosing to omit the optical viewfinder, but I suppose that’s progress.

It has a digital image stabilizer, and you use it by setting the mode dial to Anti-Shake. This seems like a useful feature to have on all the time, unfortunately, using this feature also locks in Auto ISO.

What is missing is an interval timer that would allow me to rig this camera to the front of my kayak or mountain bike and take a shot every 5 minutes or so.

Performance
Shutter lag is evident. Pre-focusing improves the responsiveness greatly and you’ll need to pre-focus if timing is critical. Unfortunately, the multi-zone autofocus (iESP) and Face Detect AF are a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. Setting AF to Spot, which uses the central AF point to focus and then recompose will give you more consistent results. If you use ‘Shadow Adjustment’, the AF mode is locked at ‘Face Detect’. Bummer.

The write time between shots is pretty long. Setting the drive to continuous will lock in exposure and AF, and will allow a faster rate of shooting if you hold down the shutter release. Continuous ‘Hi’ will reduce the file size, and allow even faster shooting.

It is unusual for a JPEG only camera to not allow you to adjust some basic parameters like contrast, saturation and sharpening. But the 1030SW doesn’t. You are basically stuck with the scene modes (which I don’t use).

One useful adjustment feature it does have, is the ‘Shadow Adjustment Technology’, which is basically a sort of ‘contrast control’. I’d leave this on all the time, except that using this locks the AF mode to ‘Face Detect AF’. What the *%#@.

Image Quality
Images come out well exposed, fairly punchy and saturated, and I like the results from the ‘Shadow Adjustment’ feature. The default sharpening looks a touch low, but it can be sharpened with a simple image editor like iPhoto.

The default exposure and ESP exposure metering is pretty good. Normally, I have to dial in some exposure compensation, but the multi-zone ESP metering works for me.

Images look clean at ISO80 and 100. Noise creeps in at ISO 200 and takes a big jump for the worse somewhere between 800 and 1600. Note that if you are using Anti-Shake mode, the ISO setting is locked to Auto.

Limited flash control and performance is normal for this sort of camera. At times, my subject will be bombarded with too much light (yucks!). There is a setting, which says ‘Fill Flash’, but all this does is to tell the camera to always fire the flash.

Auto White Balance looks fairly accurate, but I didn’t have time to review it under tungsten or fluorescent lighting, which are normally problem areas for some cameras.

Conclusion (For now)
There are few cameras that fulfill the role of a compact, rugged and waterproof camera. The freedom of being able to pull a camera from a case strapped to your backpack and not having to worry about it is liberating. We keep ours in a Lowepro D-pods 10 Case. If you are the sort of person who normally leaves the camera in Auto, or uses the scene modes, I think you’d be pretty happy with it. If you are a bit of a control freak, then beware: conflicting features and modes make controlling this camera a bit of a nightmare. We'll be bringing this camera along for our upcoming kayak expedition and will probably have more to say when we get back.

Photo:
Top: The Olympus 1030SW in British Green.
Bottom: Splashdown! 13.18mm, 1/320 f4.0, ISO80. Taken with an Olympus 1030SW.