DCRP Review: Minolta DiMAGE 7
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Monday, September 17, 2001
Last Updated: Friday, December 14, 2001

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One of the most anticipated digital cameras of 2001 is the Minolta DiMAGE 7 ($1499). Not only was it the first 5 Megapixel camera, but it also has a 7X Minolta GT lens, full manual controls, a hot shoe, and Microdrive support.

In late August, a challenger from Sony arrived: the DSC-F707 (see our review). Using the same 5 Megapixel CCD, the Sony has a 5X optical zoom lens, and it costs $500 less. I would imagine that the DiMAGE 7 will fall in price to compete, in the near future. So how does the Minolta stack up by itself, and versus the Sony? Find out in our review.

What's in the Box?

The DiMAGE 7 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.25 (4.95 effective) Megapixel Minolta DiMAGE camera
  • 16MB Lexar 8X CompactFlash card
  • 4 AA alkaline batteries (non-rechargeable)
  • Neck strap
  • Lens hood
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring DiMAGE Image View Utility and drivers
  • 147 page camera manual + 67 page software manual (both printed)

In this spot I usually complain about a camera's use of proprietary batteries. Well, the good news it is that the DiMAGE 7 uses good old AA's. The bad news is that you have to buy them yourself, which is disappointing considering the price of the camera.

The include alkaline batteries were dead in (I'm not joking here) maybe ten minutes of fooling around with the camera. NiMH batteries will do better, but the DiMAGE 7 on the whole is an incredible power hog. I don't have any concrete numbers to give you, but I would highly recommend always carrying a spare set of batteries. (Minolta claims about 110 minutes in playback mode, or 200 shots in record mode.)

Another comment from Steves Digicams, which I did not notice on my camera, was that the grip got hot after a while.

Two other "boo, hiss" points: the included 16MB card is way too small for a camera with this many pixels. Also, there's no lens cap strap, so watch out or you may lose the lens cap.

A nice touch included in the box is a lens hood/shade, which can be stored on the lens barrel when not in use. You'll see a photo of it later in the review.

The DiMAGE Image Viewer is something you may end up using more than you expect, as I'll discuss later. It's pretty mediocre but it gets the job done in most cases.

The manual is surprisingly good, and you'll need it, considering just how difficult to use this camera is.

Accessories for the DiMAGE include an external battery pack (not a bad idea), close-up diffuser, and various external flashes.

Look and Feel

The DiMAGE 7 is an SLR-style camera, that you'll have trouble using until you crack open the manual. It's covered with knobs and buttons that will be unfamiliar to most people (myself included).

While the camera may look professional, it doesn't necessarily feel like it. I couldn't help but think there was a bit too much plastic on this $1600 camera, and I'm not sure how well it would hold up over time. I'm told the frame itself is made of metal.

The camera is exceptionally easy to hold, with a large grip for the right hand, and a large lens barrel for the left. The dimensions of the DiMAGE 7 are 4.6 x 3.6 x 4.4 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 505 grams (17.8 oz.). It's not a pocket-sized camera by any means, but it's not what I'd call "bulky" either.

Let's start our tour of the DiMAGE 7 now, beginning with the front of the camera.

One of the highlights of the DiMAGE 7 is that F2.8 7X optical zoom Minolta GT lens. The focal range is 7.2 - 50.8 mm, which is equivalent to 28 - 200 mm. If you're saying "wow, 28 mm is unusually wide for a digital camera", you're right. The lens is threaded for 49mm attachments, as well.

The lens barrel operates the zoom lens mechanically, a nice feature to have. There is no button to operate it -- just your wrist! There are markings on the barrel for 28, 35, 50, 100, 150, and 200 mm. In addition, there is a switch which locks the camera into macro mode at 200 mm.

At the back of the lens barrel (not seen here), there's a wheel for manual focus. This is an electronic, rather than mechanical dial.

The pop-up flash (shown in the photo at the top of this page) is raised manually. The flash range depends on focal length and ISO setting, but is roughly 0.5 - 3.8 m (wide-angle) and 0.5 - 3.0m (telephoto).

Like the Sony DSC-F707, the DiMAGE 7 uses a "double flash" trick (known as TTL Flash Metering) to ensure proper exposure. The first flash is used to illuminate the subject, while the camera judges the correct exposure to use. The second flash is the one that accompanies the image recording. All this happens in a fraction of a second!

If you want to add your own flash, there's a hot shoe (proprietary, I believe) on the top of the camera (I'll have a closer look in a bit). Minolta's Program Flash 3600HS and 5600HS, as well as the Ring Flash 1200 and 2400 are compatible. I'm not sure about non-Minolta flashes - my guess is that they will not work.

There is no AF assist lamp on this camera, so focusing in low light isn't going to be great.

The back of the camera shows the numerous buttons and switches available, and there's more where that came from.

The 1.8" LCD is bright and fluid, but for some reason didn't seem as sharp as other LCDs. I noticed this with the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) as well. It's way better than EVF's seen on other cameras, but it's still not nearly as good as a real optical viewfinder in my opinion. The EVF can rotate up to 90 degrees, if you wish. There is a small diopter adjustment knob on the left side of the EVF, for those of you without perfect vision.

The switch just to the right of the EVF controls whether the EVF or LCD are used. The default is auto, which uses a nifty sensor (which detects if you're using the EVF) to switch between the LCD and EVF.

Other items to the right of the LCD include the Menu button, 4-way switch, and the Quickview/Delete and Magnification buttons.

The Quickview feature will quickly put you in playback mode. The magnification feature lets you zoom in as much as 4X into photos, in both record and playback mode. In record mode, this is useful for confirming proper focus.

The four way switch does double duty as the "flex focus point" controller. When activated, you use the switch to move crosshairs around the LCD to the area that you want the camera to focus on.

Just below the LCD is the compartment for the 4 AA batteries. To the lower right of that, under rubber covers, are the ports for power in, video out, and a (wired) remote control.

Finally, at the top right of the photo is a button to lock the autofocus and exposure settings.

Here's a look at the top of the camera, with yet more controls. At the center of the photo, you can see the hot shoe. There's a plastic cover on it when it's not in use. To the right of that is the LCD info display. A nice feature with this is that it's backlit -- a feature not seen enough on digital cameras. Here, it's showing Program mode, shutter (1/60 sec) and aperture (F3.5) settings, single-shot mode, Normal quality, and large size.

The three items to the right of the info display are the mode wheel, "digital subject program button" (AKA scene mode), and a "return to default settings" button.

The "scene mode" has the following choices:

  • Portrait
  • Action shots
  • Sunset
  • Night Portrait
  • Text

The mode wheel has the following selections:

  • Off
  • Record
  • Playback
  • Movie Mode
  • Setup
  • PC Connect

On the top of the grip, you'll find the shutter release button, as well as a dial for changing manual settings.

Here's one side of the camera (with lens hood attached), featuring yet more dials and buttons. The way most of these controls work is similar to the Olympus E-10. You first select what option you want. Let's use Size as an example. You then hold the button down, while using that dial I just pointed out on top of the camera.

The top dial has the following options:

  • Size (2560 x 1920, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Quality (RAW, Super Fine, Fine, Standard, Economy)
  • Program Mode (Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Full Manual)
  • Drive (Single Frame, Continuous, Self-timer, Bracketing, Interval Shooting)
  • White Balance (Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Custom)
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800)

Some further explanation of some of these is necessary. First, RAW quality mode is the raw CCD data, and it must be processed in the Image Viewer first before you can do anything with it. Images recorded in Super Fine mode are recorded as TIFF files. Of course, the TIFFs are larger than RAW files, so I don't know why you'd use that. The chart below shows you all the size/quality combinations, and how many of them you can expect to store on that skimpy 16MB CompactFlash card:

Quality Resolution File Size Images on 16MB card
RAW 2560 x 1920

9.4MB

1
Super Fine 2560 x 1920 14.1 MB 1
1600 x 1200 5.5MB 2
1280 x 960 3.5MB 4
640 x 480 900KB 15
Fine 2560 x 1920 2.3MB 6
1600 x 1200 1MB 14
1280 x 960 680KB 21
640 x 480 270KB 57
Standard 2560 x 1920 1.2MB 12
1600 x 1200 480KB 30
1280 x 960 340KB 44
640 x 480 160KB 103
Economy 2560 x 1920 730KB 20
1600 x 1200 340KB 44
1280 x 960 280KB 57
640 x 480 140KB 118

The exposure modes include Program, Aperture and Shutter priority, as well as Full Manual. The Program mode chooses the best settings for you, and you can use "program shift" to try other shutter/aperture combinations as well.

In Aperture priority mode, you choose from a range of F2.8-F8 in wide-angle, and F3.5-F9.5 in telephoto. Shutter priority mode gives you a range of 4 sec - 1/2000 sec speeds to work with. Full manual mode lets you choose both shutter and aperture settings. There is also a "bulb mode" available in manual mode, which lets you keep the shutter open for as long as the shutter release button is held down (up to 30 seconds).

The Drive selections of note are continuous shooting, bracketing, and interval shooting. In continuous shooting mode, you can take up to give full size, Fine quality images, at about 1.1 frames/sec. You cannot do continuous shooting in RAW or Super Fine mode.

There are three types of bracketing on the DiMAGE 7: exposure, contrast, and color-saturation. The camera can shoot a number of photos at different settings, so you can take the best shot possible. (You use the digital effects control dial to change these settings.)

The interval shooting mode lets you take photo(s) at an interval of your choosing. The choices range from 1 minute to 60 minutes. You'll want an AC adapter to pull this off, as the batteries won't last long enough to do any good.

The usual white balance choices are available, as well as a custom white balance for those times when the presets don't work.

Getting back to the photo of the camera now, the next dial is the digital effects control. Here you can change exposure (±2), contrast, and color-saturation compensation (both ±3).

Other items on this side of the camera is a button to switch between manual and auto focus, and the macro switch. I found myself accidentally bumping the AF/MF button a few times... I guess it's not in the best place on the camera. To use macro on the DiMAGE 7, you must first put the lens into the telephoto position, and then lock it in place with the switch. More on macro later in the review.

On the other side of the camera, we finally find a moment of quiet! Over here you'll just fine the CompactFlash Type II slot, and the USB port. The plastic door covering this slot seems very flimsy for such an expensive camera. The CF slot does indeed support the IBM Microdrive, though I would imagine the batteries would be sucked up even faster if you used one.

Finally, the bottom of the camera. Down here the only thing you'll find is the metal tripod mount.

Using the Minolta DiMAGE 7

Record Mode

Since it doesn't have to extend its lens, the DiMAGE 7 starts up in about three seconds. When you depress the shutter release halfway, the auto-focus can be very fast, or nonexistent. I had a lot of trouble taking pictures at the recent San Francisco Grand Prix because the camera would hunt and hunt for focus lock and never found it, resulting in blurry pictures. You can switch into manual focus mode if you wish, and choose from a list of focus distances, or infinity. There was no noticeable shutter lag on the DiMAGE 7.

Shot-to-shot speed is pretty good -- about 2 seconds at Standard quality. Taking a photo in RAW or Super Fine mode will, unfortunately, lock the camera up for over 20 seconds while it writes the image to the CF card. One nice feature is the ability to delete a photo right after it was taken, before it's written. For some reason, this feature has disappeared from digital cameras in recent years.

Most of the controls on the DiMAGE 7 are dials on the camera body, but there are still many options available via the menu system. These include:

  • AF mode (single, continuous)
  • Metering mode (multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Flash mode (fill, red-eye, rear flash sync)
  • Flash compensation (±2)
  • Flash metering (ADI, pre-flash TTL) - ADI stands for Advanced Distance Integration and uses autofocus and pre-flash data to ensure proper exposure
  • Memory - stores your favorite camera settings
  • Exposure bracket (choose the increment for bracketing)
  • Interval (choose the interval for interval mode)
  • Frames (choose the total number of frames that will be taken in interval mode)
  • AF/AE Lock button (AF/AE hold, AF/AE toggle, AE hold, AE toggle) - define what this button does
  • Magnification button (digital zoom, electronic magnification) - define what this button does
  • Sharpness (hard, normal, soft)
  • Color mode (color, B&W)
  • Data imprint - print the date or text on your photos
  • Instant playback (no, 2 sec, 10 sec) - amount of time that images are shown on the LCD after they are taken

The usual setup items are also available by switching the camera's mode wheel to "setup".

Let's continue onto photo quality tests now.

Macro mode on the DiMAGE 7 is a bit different than on most cameras. You must set the camera to full telephoto, since at wider angles, your images may be distorted. This made taking the usual test shot a bit harder, as you can see. Nevertheless, the shot came out pretty well. The focal range in macro mode is 0.25 - 0.6 m.

I had a heck of a time with the night shot tests at first. I initially went out and took photos with the ISO set to "Auto". That was a bad move -- it was noise city. So I went back out and set it to ISO 100 and got much less noise (though it's still there). The full manual controls make taking shots like this a breeze -- and the backlit LCD info display helps too!

That brings us to the "color space" discussion. The DiMAGE 7 uses it's own proprietary color space (palette) for some reason. To get the most accurate color, it's been recommended that you run the images through the DiMAGE Image Viewer Utility and re-save them with the sRGB color space. To do this, you'll see an option to convert the color space when you're opening images, then just re-save them. Of course, this will add even more compression to the JPEG image. Digital Photography Review explains all of this far better than I ever could.

When all is said and done, I was happy with the photo quality from the DiMAGE 7. I'm not thrilled about having to run the images through DiMAGE Image Viewer (you don't HAVE to -- you probably want to though), but it does make the images more colorful. Take a look at our standard and SF Grand Prix photo galleries to judge the quality for yourself.

Movie Mode

The DiMAGE's movie mode is both good and bad. The good news is that you can use the zoom lens to your heart's content. The bad news is that no audio is recorded.

While the movies are saved at a resolution of 320 x 240, the actual video area is only 308 x 240. Movies are saved in the AVI format.

You will be able to record approximately 90 seconds of video on the included 16MB CompactFlash card. Clips are limited to 60 seconds each.

Here's a sample movie I took back at the SF Grand Prix earlier this month:


Click to play movie (1.3MB, AVI format)

Playback Mode

Like with movie mode, the playback mode is a mixed bag as well. The basic features we're all used to now are here: slideshows, DPOF print marking, image protection, and thumbnail mode. The only real "advanced" feature is the ability to copy an image from one CF card to another. There's no rotation or resizing available.

The zoom and scroll feature is here, via the magnification button. You can zoom in as much as 4X into your image and then move around (slowly) in it.

If you more information about your image, you can press "up" on the four-way switch. You can see above the information it will give you. Too bad you can't browse photos like this -- you have to move back "down" first, and then choose another image.

The camera moves through the images on the LCD very quickly, especially considering their size. It's almost instantaneous.

How Does it Compare?

The Minolta DiMAGE 7 is a very intriguing near-professional digital camera. Its 5 Megapixel CCD, impressive zoom lens, complete set of manual controls, and support for an external flash make it an impressive camera. However, the high price, fussy autofocus, complex controls, color issues, and flimsy body bring it down several notches for me. If I had never seen the Sony DSC-F707 before I'd probably be more enthusiastic about the DiMAGE 7. But considering the Sony can be had for $500 less and is more capable (in my opinion), that would be where my money would go. If the DiMAGE 7 does come down in price, I'd give it a serious look, but for now it's too much money compared to the competition.

Update 12/14/01: The price of the DiMAGE 7 has come down considerably, making it more appealing. Would I buy it over the Sony F707? Probably not. But take a look at it, by all means.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality (after a run through DiMAGE Image Viewer)
  • Tons of manual controls
  • Most impressive 7X zoom lens
  • Backlit LCD info display
  • Best EVF out there
  • Support for lens filters and flashes
  • Uses AA batteries instead of something proprietary and expensive

What I didn't care for:

  • Hard to learn & use
  • Need to run images through Image Viewer for optimum color
  • Auto focus is poor in many situations
  • Drinks batteries
  • No sound in movie mode
  • Feels cheap for its price

Other cameras to check out include the Nikon Coolpix 5000, Olympus E-20N, Sony DSC-F707, and the Fuji FinePix 6900 Zoom (I suppose).

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DiMAGE 7 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our standard and SF Grand Prix photo galleries!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

You'll definitely want to read reviews of the DiMAGE 7 from Steves Digicams and Digital Photography Review. If you want more opinions, check out Imaging Resource.

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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