DCRP Review: Minolta DiMAGE S304
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Friday, March 1, 2002
Last Updated: Friday, March 1, 2002

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You didn't hear a lot about Minolta in the digital camera world until the arrival of the 5 Megapixel DiMAGE 7 last year (see our review). The DiMAGE 7 caught a lot of peoples eyes -- and their checkbooks too. Minolta is now working their way from the prosumer to consumer-level cameras, with the new DiMAGE X being the new "entry level" camera. The DiMAGE S304 (under $500 street) is a midrange camera in Minolta's lineup. If you want a few more pixels, the 4 Megapixel DiMAGE S404 (also under $500 street) is also available.

How does the S304 stack up against the competition? Here we go!

What's in the Box?

The Minolta S304 has an average bundle. It includes:

  • The 3.2 (effective) Mpixel Minolta DiMAGE S304 camera
  • Four AA alkaline batteries
  • 16MB CompactFlash card
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • CD-ROM featuring DiMAGE Viewer Utility, ArcSoft PhotoImpression, drivers
  • 59 page manual (printed)

The DiMAGE's bundle isn't great. The 16MB CompactFlash card is a bit skimpy, but what bothers me more is the inclusion of non-rechargeable, alkaline batteries. The power-hungry S304 will burn through them quickly, and into the trash they go. My suggestion? Pick up at least two sets of NiMH rechargeables as soon as possible.

Minolta says the S304 will last for about 110 minutes on a set of batteries. I must also refer you to DP Review's battery life test page, where you'll see that Minolta cameras have the shortest battery life of the cameras on the list. I found the battery life to be mediocre, when I went out and used it.

Minolta includes a lens cap with strap, so your lens will be protected.

As far as accessories for the S304 go, you can get an external battery pack, wireless remote control, and since the lens is threaded, you can use third party filters. I'm not sure what Minolta offers as far as lens accessories.

You may or may not end up using Minolta's DiMAGE Viewer Utility. As you'll see, the S304 uses a different color space for its photos, and you must use the utility to convert the color space. The utility leaves much to be desired in terms of ease-of-use.

The S304's manual is above average, with lengthy descriptions and not too many bullet points or "notes" in micro-type.

Look and Feel

The DiMAGE S304 is a mid-sized camera, comparable in size to the Canon PowerShot G2. The metal body gives the S304 strength, and also weight -- the camera is fairly heavy. It's a little too big to fit in your average pocked. The camera is easy to hold, though you need to be careful not to cover the microphone with your left hand when recording audio.

The official dimensions of the S304 are 4.5 x 2.5 x 2.3 inches (W x H x D) and it weighs 335 grams empty.

Let's take our usual 360 degree tour, starting with the front of the camera.

One of the standout features of the DiMAGE S304 is its 4X optical zoom Minolta GT lens (F3.0). It's nice for a camera to have more than a 3X zoom! The focal range is 7.15 - 28.6 mm, which is equivalent to 35 - 140 mm. The lens is threaded for 35.5 mm attachments.

Towards the upper right of the photo is the S304's built-in flash. The working range of the flash is 0.5 - 3.5 m (wide-angle) and 0.9 - 3.0 (telephoto). External flashes are not supported.

If one thing is missing from the front of the camera, it's some sort of AF assist lamp, for low light focusing.

Here now is the back of the DiMAGE S304. The 1.8" LCD, like on the DiMAGE 7, doesn't seem as good as other digicams. Images always appear blurry to me on it, even in playback mode. It's not terrible, but certainly not great. The image itself is bright and fluid though.

Just above the LCD is the optical viewfinder. In my opinion, this tiny viewfinder is way too small for a camera this big. Even the micro-cameras have larger ones. In addition, there is no diopter correction feature.

I'll cover those three buttons to the right of the optical viewfinder when we look at the top of the camera. That leaves us with the four-way switch and the three buttons below that. The four-way switch is used for menus, as well as controlling the zoom lens. The lens moves smoothly, though there's no indication on the LCD as to how far your zoomed in.

The four-way switch serves an additional purpose when in Manual Record mode. Holding it down will put the camera into focus point selection mode, where you can choose one of five points for the camera to focus on.

The menu button is self-explanatory. The QV/Trash button will quickly put you in playback mode. The trash feature (playback mode) does just as it says. The display button below will toggle the LCD on and off, as well as what is shown on it.

Over on the far right is the release for the CompactFlash slot door.

Here's the top of the S304. I'll cover those three buttons towards the bottom-center first, left to right:

  • Flash [record] / Zoom [playback]
  • Drive (Single-shot, self-timer, continuous shooting, AE bracketing) [rec]
  • Exposure compensation [rec] - the usual -2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments

Some more info on those drive modes. Continuous shooting mode will take photos at the rather sluggish rate of 1 frame/second. The maximum number of shots that can be taken in this mode depends on the image size/quality settings, but it ranges from 4 to 25. The AE bracketing feature will take three shots in a row with differing exposure compensation values (which you set via the menu).

Just above that is the LCD info display, which shows things like flash setting, quality and size, shooting mode, shots remaining, and battery status.

By pressing the small silver button just to the right of the info display, you can toggle between five shooting modes:

  • Macro
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Night Portrait
  • Text - black and white mode for photographing documents

Towards the lower-right of the picture is the S304's mode wheel. The choices are:

  • Off
  • Auto Record
  • Manual Record (Minolta calls is Multl-Function Record Mode, but I'll use the former in this review)
  • Playback Mode
  • Movie Mode
  • Setup
  • PC Connect

Auto mode locks down most of the manual features of the camera. You can only change image size/quality, drive mode, exposure compensation, and the flash setting. You'll have to enter Manual Record mode to toy around some more.

Other items of note on the top of the camera are the shutter release button, and the microphone (far left).

The only thing you'll find on this side of the camera is the speaker.

Here's the other side of the camera, where you'll find the CompactFlash slot as well as the A/V and USB ports. The CF slot is Type I, so no Microdrives. Here you'll also find the DC in port (for optional AC adapter), which is under a rubber cover.

Two complaints about the CF slot which might seem somewhat dumb: One, the plastic door seems very flimsy; Two, that metal ring for the strap gets in the way of the door when you're trying to close it.

Finally, here is the bottom of the S304. Towards the left, you can see the compartment which holds the four AA batteries. You can also see the metal tripod mount, strangely positioned towards the corner of the camera.

Using the Minolta DiMAGE S304

Record Mode

After powering on the camera, it takes about 4.5 seconds for the lens to extend and prepare for shooting. Depressing the shutter release button halfway generally results in locked focus in less than a second. Despite it's lack of a AF illuminator, the camera usually locked focus (or claimed to) in low light. Depressing the shutter release button fully results in a photo with minimal shutter lag.

If the post-shot preview is turned off, you can take another photo almost instantly, giving the S304 excellent shot-to-shot speed. The only exception, of course, is when you take a TIFF image (known as Super fine quality on the S304). That will lock up the camera for over 40 seconds while the file is written to the CF card.

Speaking of image quality, here's a look at the choices available:

Quality Resolution File Size Images on 16MB card
Super Fine
(TIFF)
2048 x 1536 9.1MB 1
1600 x 1200 5.6MB 2
1280 x 960 3.6MB 4
640 x 480 960KB 16
Fine 2048 x 1536 1.6MB 9
1600 x 1200 1.0MB 15
1280 x 960 660KB 23
640 x 480 270KB 57
Standard 2048 x 1536 900KB 16
1600 x 1200 600KB 26
1280 x 960 410KB 38
640 x 480 200KB 81
Economy 2048 x 1536 590KB 27
1600 x 1200 380KB 41
1280 x 960 290KB 54
640 x 480 150KB 104

Those of you who are familiar with the DiMAGE 7 review might have noticed that the S304 does not have a RAW mode, like its more expensive sibling.

Let's cover the DiMAGE S304's menus now. Keep in mind that many of the options are only available in Manual Record mode.

  • Basic Settings
    • Exposure mode (Program, aperture priority, manual) - note the lack of a shutter priority mode
    • Image size (2048 x 1536, 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
    • Quality (Super fine, fine, standard, economy)
    • White balance (Cloudy, daylight, auto, tungsten, fluorescent, custom)
    • Focus mode (AF, MF)
    • Sensitivity (Auto, ISO 100, 200, 400, 800)

  • Custom Settings 1
    • Full-Time AF (Yes/no)
    • Metering mode (Multi-segment, spot)
    • Exposure bracketing (1.0, 0.5, 0.3 EV steps)
    • Digital zoom (On/off)
    • Instant playback (2 sec, 10 sec, off)

  • Custom Settings 2
    • Color mode (Color, B&W)
    • Sharpness (Hard, normal, soft)
    • Contrast (High, normal, low)
    • Color saturation (High, normal, low)
    • Voice memo (5 sec, 15 sec, off) - record a sound clip with each image
    • Date imprint (Yes/no)

Two quick comments: there's a manual white balance mode that you can use in those tough lighting situations. As for the manual modes, there's only aperture priority or full manual -- I wish there was a shutter priority mode too. There are limited choices for aperture priority mode: F3.0 and F6.7 at wide-angle, and F3.6 and F8.0 at telephoto. In full manual mode, you can select from the same aperture values, plus shutter speeds of 4 - 1/1000 sec. A bulb mode is also available.

There is also a setup menu with the usual settings such as time & date, power saving, card formatting, and more.

Before we look at the test photos, I need to bring up the color space issue, which also came up with the DiMAGE 7, so I will just repeat it here:

The DiMAGE S304 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.

Now, let's see those photos. I did not change the color space on these, so you can see exactly what the camera produces, unedited. Some of the gallery images will be changed, so you can see the difference (the images definitely seem more saturated and colorful).

The S304 locks the focal length somewhere in the middle in macro mode, so I had to back up from the subject quite a bit, and still couldn't fit the whole thing in. The macro distance on the S304 is 16 - 60 cm.

Here's another macro shot I've been doing lately -- the electric shaver. I couldn't get the camera to focus on it in AF mode, so I ended up doing it manually. The results from both tests came out pretty well, as you can see.

Though I wish it was brighter, this image represents what the skyline looked like when this photo was taken. I believe this was 4 second exposure (which is the max -- how are you going to do bulb mode without a remote shutter release?). One thing that impressed me was how sharp the buildings were, and even more so, how little noise is in the shot.

Overall, the camera did a fine job in the photo quality department. Images were sharp, colors were accurate (at least after converting the colorspace to sRGB), and chromatic aberrations (also known as purple fringing) weren't a major problem. Take a look at the photo gallery and judge the quality for yourself.

Movie Mode

The DiMAGE S304 can record 60 second movie clips, with sound. They're recorded at the usual size of 320 x 240. When filming, the optical zoom is locked in the position it was when you started filming. You cannot use the digital zoom, either.

Here's a sample movie:


Click to play movie (AVI format, 1.9MB)

Can't view it? Download Quicktime.

Playback Mode

The S304's playback mode is pretty standard, but very well implemented. The usual features like slideshows, DPOF print marking, "zoom and scroll", and thumbnail mode are available.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you zoom in 2X, 2.5X, or 3.2X into your photo, and then move around in it.

By pressing the four-way switch up, you can get a little more information about your photos.

The S304 moves through photos at lightning speeds -- one of the fastest playback modes I've seen.

If there's anything missing, it's an in-camera rotation feature.

How Does it Compare?

For the most part, the Minolta DiMAGE S304 is one of the best 3 Megapixel cameras out there. It has a nice 4X optical zoom lens (instead of the usual 3X), a better than average amount of manual controls, very good photo quality, and a movie mode with sound. The downsides are the below average battery life, colorspace issues, and my silly complaints about the CompactFlash slot cover. If you're looking for a midrange camera, I'd strongly suggest checking out the S304. If you like the S304 but want more pixels, don't forget the 4 Megapixel DiMAGE S404 either.

What I liked:

  • 4X optical zoom lens
  • Very good photo quality
  • Nice selection of manual controls
  • Great shot-to-shot speed
  • Very fast playback mode
  • Movie mode with sound

What I didn't care for:

  • Would like more aperture settings and a shutter priority mode
  • Best color comes after changing colorspace to sRGB
  • Poor battery life
  • CompactFlash issues: flimsy door + wish they could've put in a Type II slot instead
  • Strangely positioned tripod mount

Other three Megapixel cameras to check out include the Canon PowerShot G1 and S30, Casio QV-3500EX, Minolta DiMAGE 5, Nikon Coolpix 885 and 995, Olympus C-3020Z and C-3040Z, Sony DSC-S75, and the Toshiba PDR-M71.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DiMAGE S304 and it's competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a few more opinions?

If you're considering this camera, then don't miss reviews from Steves Digicams, Imaging Resource, and DP Review.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not send me requests for personal camera recommendations.

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