Iíve always been fascinated by photography.
I love playing with light, form, and composition, and the challenge of trying to capture something memorable out of even the most ordinary scenes.
Paradoxically, Iím not very fond of film. Sure, itís a wonderful medium: itís remarkably compact, and it maintains excellent quality--but it can be also be cruel and unforgiving. Looking at a strip of negatives, I could be reminded of the twelve truly awful pictures I went through to get that one perfect shot. I could return from a once-in-a-lifetime trip and discover I didnít really get the once-in-a-lifetime picture I thought I did. And the thought of all the chemicals and materials that go into developing a roll which may only yield only a handful of usable images makes the environmentally conscious part of me more than a little queasy.
This is why I love the concept of digital still cameras. If I screw up a shot, no one needs to know; push a button, and itís gone. I have the freedom to experiment without feeling guilty about wasted materials, since electrons are recyclable. And, of course, I have all the usual advantages of digital imagery (say, tweaking the color balance or putting a third eye on my sister's forehead) without the bother of scanning.
Unfortunately, Iíve never used a digital camera I could be enthusiastic about. Never, that is, until I got my hands on a Sony
Digital Mavica MVC-FD7. I discovered that while digital still photography still has a ways to go before maturing, it is at least well past infancy.
The camera stores images as 24-bit color, 640x480 JPEG files, which I consider to be a tolerable resolution for a digital camera, though not ideal. The resolution also proved to be a point of contention; any photography enthusiast who saw me with the Digital Mavica would be duly impressed, but would invariably sniff, "At that resolution, it'll never replace film."
Of course not. Until digital cameras can get thousands of lines of resolution per image, store dozens of images, and snap at least five images per second with a price tag under $1,000, they won't replace film. However, much like video cameras compared to 16mm movie cameras, most digital still cameras fill a different need. They're perfect for getting snapshots under tight deadlines, for taking pictures for the Web, for composing shots before using a "real" camera, and probably for more uses I can't even think of.
Still, I sometimes succumb to photographic snobbery as well. Most digital cameras are fairly compact and lightweight, which remind me more of the disposable cameras you can pick up at the drugstore instead of the more expensive SLR cameras. Sure, itís possible to get good pictures out of disposable cameras and smaller digital cameras without extra gadgets, but who said snobbery was rational? Besides, some of us like to fuss endlessly with settings to get just the right picture.
Resolution aside, the Digital Mavica fulfills most of that snobbery. Compared to most of the consumer digital cameras available, the Digital Mavica is larger (127 mm x 114 mm x 76 mm), heavier (about half a kilogram), and with its plethora of buttons and switches, more appealing to us gadget-mongers. The presence of a flash helps, too.
One noticeable aspect people either love or hate is the lack of an optical viewfinder. The 2.5" LCD viewfinder does have the advantage of positioning the camera for shots that wouldn't work otherwise (I composed a self-portrait using a mirror), but in bright sunlight, I sometimes just had to guess. Much like LCD-equipped video cameras which allow instant playback, the LCD screen can also be used to preview and selectively delete any images that have been stored.
The many buttons, switches, and on-screen menu options offer, among other things, picture coloring effects (greyscale, sepia, negative, or pastel), settings for different lighting conditions, a timer, automatic or manual focus, exposure compensation, zoom (up to 10x, optical), and brightness control. Thereís also a tripod mount and optional wide-angle and telephoto lenses.
When it comes to "film", most camerasí methods are expensive, annoying, or both. They might use PCMCIA (aka PC Card) cards or SmartMedia flash cards to store images, or require some kind of cable hookup to a computer. The Digital Mavica has the best method Iíve seen to date--it uses 3.5" high-density floppy disks. Open the release and the side of the camera pops open to reveal a drive bay. Pop an MS-DOS disk in before shooting, and the images will be recorded directly on it. Since MS-DOS disks can be read by just about any operating system these days, compatibility and data portability issues are almost nonexistent. Also, disks are inexpensive and very easy to find--I finally had a use for all of those America Online floppies. Itís so obvious you wonder why no one thought of it before.
Ah, but what of the image quality? All the features in the world would make no difference if the picture looked terrible. Never fear: after taking many pictures of people, animals, and things, I found the quality quite acceptable. There are concessions, of course. The camera pixelizes the image noticeably along the border of high-contrast regions. Its images also have a barely noticeable bluish tint, which can easily be fixed in any image processing program if youíre picky. Otherwise, there are no real complaints. The images have fairly good color saturation, and are about as crisp as you can get at 640x480 (fine details disappear easily at this size). Ideally, the Mavica series would support a minimum of 800x600 pixels, which I suppose will happen someday. Progress, after all, marches on.
A less-featured sibling, the MVC-FD5, is also available for about $200 less. Unfortunately, among the missing features are the zoom lens, the auto/manual focus, and the option to add other lenses. If youíre going with the Mavica--and, if youíre going with an under-$1,000 digital camera, you really should--splurge a little on the MVC-FD7. Youíll thank me later.