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My little Casio Exilim EX-S600, that I kept handy for grabbing unexpected shots when out and about, is in for repairs and maintenance.  I won’t know the prognosis for a while.  Sadly, Casio has discontinued this slim, compact model because it’d been deemed too dainty for rigorous use.  I wonder what that says about me,….

Being in the market for a possible replacement, I thought I’d give Olympus’s digital line another try.  Ten year ago I bought the Olympus C-3000 Zoom — I’ve used it as my studio camera ever since.  Without fail it has performed beautifully, and I love that I can control the f-stop and ‘push’ for exposure, just as I can with any good SLR.

So I figured the (recently discontinued, therefore ‘on sale!’) Olympus FE-360, small and lightweight like the Casio — but with larger memory, longer battery life, and newer digital technology — would do at least as well as the Casio.

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All images are copyrighted by Ryl Mandus.

May 9, 2010 — Sunday:

Bugged at not having a functioning out-of-the-studio digital camera on hand, I bought the FE-360, full of glee to have a second Olympus.  Once back in the car, Ben pulled the battery charger out and plugged in the brand-new battery, and we headed from downtown Portland to Mount St. Helens for a day trip.  The 30th anniversary of the earthquake-eruption is looming.

It was going to take about two hours for that virginal battery to charge, and I was impatient to be taking pictures — nothing unusal about that.  Ben, being the sweetheart he is, let me play with his digital camera: a Sony Cyber-shot DSC W290, with a Zeiss lens and 5x optical zoom.

 

During the drive north, I did what any photographer does when handling an unfamiliar camera for the first time — with care and respect for another photographer’s equipment, I experimented.  I played with it.  And I was impressed.  The resolution has razor-edges.  The shutter is fast — it grabbed the landscape as it zipped past at 70 mph:

As usual, I’m more fascinated by the clouds than I am by whatever is on the ground:

Though the eruption’s 30th anniversary was just days away, Johnston Observatory wasn’t open.  The road was closed — we couldn’t get anywhere near the caldera.  So we backtracked and stopped at a viewpoint with a restaurant and giftshop, where we made a new friend,…

… “Cooper”, the Spaniel pup.  He was wallowing at my feet, making typical happy-growly puppy noises, trying to wag a tail that wasn’t there — until he saw me pointing the camera at him.  He leapt to his feet then sat and posed, giving me his best side.  Even dogs are hams.

The Sony DSC W290 has a special talent for grabbing blue:

The above vista of Mount St. Helens is what I was looking at, taking shots of the snow-covered volcano, when I heard the drums and voices of a pow-wow dance on the wind.  The sound was distinct — 2/4 time on drum heads of hide, the rhythmic jangling of bells, the plaintive voices,…

… it was an eerie sound.  Mournful.  It caused my heart to twist a bit.  I turned around, turned again, trying to figure where it was coming from.  The sound stopped.  Ben asked me what was the matter, and I explained to him what I’d heard.  Though he’d not heard it himself, he didn’t doubt me — he knows I can pick up and identify music by its back beat, whether classical or rock ‘n’ roll, before he can hear it at all.  We both assumed it was coming from the restaurant.

I shrugged and returned my attention to getting photos of the mountains flanking the volcano — and I heard it again.  Drums, bells and chanting, undulating voices.  This time, moved as well as curious, we walked about, trying to discover its source.

The only source of any music we could find was the restaurant, which was playing pop 80’s.  And that doesn’t sound a thing like a Indian drumming or singing.  We remain mystified — but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard ghosts.

Having to be in Portland for dinner, we hit the southbound road.  Eventually the aforementioned battery gained a sufficient charge.  I started up the new Olympus FE-360, and began firing frame after frame, eager to see the results,…

… which are so feeble that I won’t publish them in any format, much less put my name to them.

Here’s where I admit that I’m completely dismayed by this camera after witnessing what Ben’s Sony can do.  This particular Olympus model can’t come even close — its images are dull, indistinct, many of them heavily blurred because of a sluggish shutter.

There was something odd about exporting the image files into iPhoto.  Though the image files are standard sizes, it took nearly 7 minutes to export only 44 images — and I typically shoot between 300 and 400 frames during a single outing, because I’m an advocate of bracketing.

Once the shots finally offloaded I was able to see how truly inferior they are.  The colors, shot in natural light, were far from faithful.  Finer details and nuances — one of the reasons I carry a ‘pocket camera’ –were absent.  Contrast, even in strong sunlight, was diluted.

This thing is — well, it’s a toy.  The menu consists of large icons instead of text, which itself is weird considering it has language settings.  After stubbornly working with it I saw this camera was likely designed for children, or adults who’ve never before used a digital camera of any kind.

The FE-360 has a powerful macro-zoom, and overall would do well for a beginner who has neither expectations nor a trained eye.

But I am no beginner.

I’ve been a photographer for close to forty years, now.  My first camera was a Kodak “Baby Brownie Special” — I still have and use this box camera.  My second camera was the rugged Nikkormat FTN, paired with the majestic Nikkor f/1:1.2 55mm lens — I still have and use this one, too.  I’ve worked with the Polaroid SX 70, whose format is unforgiving.  I have another antique camera, a pre-World War II rangefinder, that works amazingly well for its age and has never needed professional maintenance.  And I’ve been doing my own black-and-white darkroom work since I was seventeen.

I’m no neophyte.

But even those with decades of experience can sometimes be taken in by the shiny promises of advertising.  And you can’t learn whether a camera’s right for your needs until you’ve taken it out for a field test.

I kept the FE-360 for nearly a week, giving it every chance I could.

But it just isn’t the camera for me.

May 15, 2010 — the following Saturday:

The Shutterbug‘s policy is 7 days for return for refund, or 30 days return for exchange.  I was just inside the ‘return for refund’ period when I took it back to the store.  But I wanted to see what else was available that might truly meet my requirements in a compact digital camera.

John showed us a variety of cameras, including a couple of higher end models that can actually take my old Nikkor lenses — oh, my.  But that step will have to wait until I’ve scraped together a sufficient quantity of nickels.

He showed Ben and me a dozen different compact digital cameras that were within my very picky specs, and patiently answered all questions and allowed us both to sample them one by one.

After more than an hour (and a quarter hour after the store’s closing time), I finally settled on Canon’s PowerShot S90 — WOW.

The S90 is amazing.  It wakes up super-fast and is ready to shoot.  The shutter is quick, quicker than I’d ever expected from a digital camera.  It gives full control of the ISO, and even the warmth/quality of the available light — a feature I love, as I never use flash on purpose.

The prior weekend we went north to Mount St. Helens — this weekend we went to Bend and then to Mount Hood to give this Canon its own field test.  And as great as Ben’s Sony is, I like the Canon Powershot S90 even better.  Its optical zoom is only 3.8x compared to the Sony’s 5x — but its digital zoom is 15x.  Below is a detail of a shot, about twenty percent of the original area size, taken while in a car moving at 55 mph:

Notice the blur of the grasses growing against the roadside in the foreground.

It’s as sharp and clear as the Sony, too.  One thing really impresses me with this camera is the strength of its depth-of-field, from a f/2.0 -4.9 lens.  I got this shot in the pub at McMenamin’s Old St. Francis School, using the available light:

In the playback mode it gives all the technical data — ISO, f-stop, lighting, date and time of exposure, file and image sizes, and all the settings — of the image being reviewed.

Here’s a shot via the rear view mirror,…

… and that same aspect — with Mount Hood behind us in the distance — at full 15x zoom:

Not impressed yet?  Alright.  With the singular exception of the iPhone’s camera feature, its ability to capture low light — with all its ambient color — beats that of any other camera I’ve seen so far.  I took the photo below on the way down from Timberline Lodge after the sun had slipped down behind Mount Hood, taking all the daylight with it:

There are at least five distinct layers of distance of the Cascade Mountain Range visible in the above photograph.  The Canon PowerShot S90 even has a ‘candlelight’ mode.  It can shoot in black-and-white.  It can shoot in sepia tones — really, I could go on and on about this extremely versatile camera.  But this is one you’ve simply got to try for yourself to see what it can really do.

— Ryl

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