DCRP Review: Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Saturday, June 22, 2002
Last Updated: Saturday, June 22, 2002

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While a 3X optical zoom lens is enough for most people, there are some who want just a little more zoom. Olympus provided that with their first two Ultra Zoom cameras, the C-700UZ and the still very popular C-2100UZ. Both of those cameras were 2 Megapixel, with the C-2100UZ having a lens stabilizer.

But as other cameras went up in resolution, the Ultra Zooms stayed behind at 2 Megapixel. So there was definitely some excitement in the air when Olympus released the C-720 Ultra Zoom ($599) in May. The resolution has gone up to 3 Megapixel, though the zoom has dropped from 10X to 8X.

Is this this the ultimate "ultra zoom"? Find out in our review!

What's in the Box?

The Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.0 effective Mpixel Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom camera
  • 16MB SmartMedia card
  • 2 CR-V3 Lithium batteries (non-rechargeable)
  • Shoulder strap
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Camedia Master software and drivers
  • Basic manual (printed, 43 pages) plus full manual on CD-ROM

Olympus has always been pretty skimpy on the bundles, and that continues with the C-720UZ. The 16MB card will get you started, but you're going to want to buy something larger pretty quickly.

You'll find two "long life" lithium batteries (CR-V3) in the box. While these really do last for quite a while, they will die eventually and end up in the trash. My recommendation: buy a few sets of NiMH rechargeables instead. Olympus doesn't provide any numbers on battery life, but the C-720 seemed about average during my review period.


You can see how small the C-720UZ is

Olympus includes a lens cap and retaining strap, to protect that 8X zoom lens.


Free sponge with every order!

One thing that I found humorous was a big foam "sponge" that was in the box. I guess it's to keep things from moving around in the box. Too bad they didn't use a full, printed camera manual to fill in that space instead (more on this below).

The camera doesn't seem to support any lens or flash accessories. The old C-700 supported the Olympus FL-40 external flash, but no longer.

The C-720 is compatible with Windows XP and Mac OS X. In most cases, you won't even need to install drivers.

The C-720UZ includes Olympus' new Camedia Master 4.0 software. This is a dramatically improved version of their photo viewing/editing software that they've been including for the last few years.

The editing tools included with Camedia Master are impressive. You can change all kinds of things like brightness, contrast, and color balance. There are also red-eye reduction and "instant fix" options.

The software is much more responsive than the previous versions. My only complaint is that the interface is non-standard on both Macs and PCs.

For $20 more, Olympus will upgrade you to the "Pro" version of the software. This adds contact sheet printing, image e-mailing, HTML albums, panorama stitching, and slide shows.

Keeping with recent Olympus tradition (unfortunately), the only printed manual you get is a "basic" manual. If you want more depth, you've got to load up the one include on CD. The manuals themselves have been improved over previous Olympus manuals, but are still not spectacular.

Look and Feel

The C-720UZ is virtually identical to the C-700UZ that it replaces. The one major change is the omission of the C-700's flash sync port.

The camera is a nice mix of metal and high grade plastic. It's small and fairly easy to hold, though I wish the right hand grip was larger. The camera is a bit too large to be considered pocket size, but it's much smaller than similar "big zoom" cameras.

The official dimensions of the camera are 4.2 x 3.0 x 3.1 inches (WxHxD), and it weighs about 315 grams empty.

Let's start our tour of the C-720UZ now:

If I'm not mistaken, I believe the lens is actually the same one as on the C-700. The change in CCD sensor just changed the focal range down to 8X. Speaking of which, the focal range on this F2.8 lens is 6.4 - 51.2 mm. That's equivalent to 40 - 320 mm. THe lens is threaded, though I couldn't find the measurements, nor any mention of lens accessories.

The lens is not stabilized, so you'll need a steady hand or tripod to take shots at full telephoto.

Just above the lens you'll find the self-timer lamp and optical viewfinder. Nope, still no autofocus illuminator. Come on, Olympus!

Towards the top-right of the photo, you can see the C-720UZ's popup flash. There's a button on the top of the camera that releases it. The working range of the flash is 0.1 - 5.5 m at wide-angle, and 1.0 - 4.5 m at telephoto. As I mentioned, the C-720UZ does not support an external flash like its predecessor.

Here's the back of the camera. Like the C-700 before it, the C-720 has a smaller than average (1.5") LCD display. It is of very good quality, though -- bright and fluid.

At the upper left of the photo, you can see what looks like the optical viewfinder. But it's not a traditional "window-style" viewfinder that you're used to. This is an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is like a little LCD display. An EVF is a mixed bag: you get to see what the CCD sees (thus, no parallax error), and menus and settings can be viewed on it. The negatives include increased power consumption, and difficult viewing when it's too bright or too dark outdoors. I'd rather have a real optical viewfinder myself, but all these ultra zoom cameras use EVFs.

The EVF here is just okay. The resolution isn't nearly as high as the main LCD, and it shows. Also, the frame rate is lower, so when you point the lens in a different direction, everything is pretty choppy. The EVF has a diopter correction knob for those without perfect vision.

The three buttons to the right of the EVF serve multiple purposes, depending on which mode the camera is in. From left to right:

Record Mode Playback Mode
Drive (Single-frame, continuous, continuous AF, self-timer, auto bracketing) Delete photo
Macro mode
Spot metering
DPOF print mark
Flash (Auto, forced w/redeye reduction, forced, slow sync, slow sync w/redeye reduction) Protect image

Some further explanation is required on some of those. There are two continuous shooting modes. The first one will lock the focus and exposure settings on the first shot, and fire up to up 5 shots at 1.2 frames/second. The other continuous mode will redo the focus and exposure for each shot. This slows the rate down considerably.

Auto bracketing will take 3 or 5 shots in a row, each with a different exposure compensation value. You can set the EV increment in the setup menu.

The macro / spot metering button cycles through ESP metering, spot metering, macro, and macro + spot metering.

Getting back to our tour now. Just northeast of the main LCD are the power and "custom" button. The custom button is AE lock by default, but you can change it to almost anything you like. For me, it was used to switch between Program/Shutter Priority/Aperture Priority/Manual modes.

To the right of the LCD, you'll find the usual four-way switch, with the OK/Menu button in the middle. Besides operating the menus, the switch is used for changing the shutter speed and aperture while in the manual modes, plus exposure compensation (in 1/3 increments).

The final button on the back of the camera is the Disp(lay) button, just below the four-way switch. This toggles between the EVF and the LCD.

Moving on to the top of the camera now. Normally, I'd complain about the lack of an LCD info display up here, but since you're forced to look at the main LCD or EVF, it's really not needed.

The items of note here are the flash release button (hard to see), zoom control with shutter release button, and the mode wheel.

The zoom controls are perfectly place, and they operate the 8X zoom smoothly. The zoom is quite responsive -- you can move from the wide to tele position in about 2 seconds.

There are 8 options on the mode wheel:

  • Playback
  • Auto record
  • Landscape/Portrait shooting
  • Sports shooting
  • Portrait shooting
  • P/A/S/M - more below
  • My Mode - more below
  • Movie mode

Auto record is pretty much point-and-shoot. You can't change many options.

DCRP veterans probably know what P/A/S/M is, but I'll explain it again anyway. There are four "programs" in this mode: programmed auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual.

In programmed auto mode ("program mode"), you have full control over everything except the shutter speed and aperture.

In aperture priority mode, you choose an aperture, and the C-720 picks an appropriate shutter speed. The apertures available range from F2.8 - F7.1.

Shutter priority mode is just the opposite; you choose the shutter speed, and the camera selects the aperture. The shutter speed range is 1/2 - 1/1000 sec. If you're using the slow sync flash mode, you can go as slow as 2 seconds. I wish Olympus would open up the full shutter speed range, instead of cutting you off at 1/2 or even 2 seconds.

To get the full range, you need to use full manual mode. Here, you set both the aperture and shutter speed. The aperture range is the same, but the shutter speed range changes to 8 - 1/1000 sec.

"My Mode" is a feature that I wish more cameras had. This mode allows you to store your favorite settings for easy retrieval. For me, that's SHQ, ISO 100, no flash, with all other settings normal.

On this side of the camera are the I/O ports, found under a fairly sturdy plastic cover. The ports are DC in (for optional AC adapter), USB, and video out. I already mentioned the unfortunate loss of the flash sync port.

Here's the other side of the camera, opened up. You can see the SmartMedia slot (just pull the card out to remove it), and the included 16MB card.

Finally, the bottom of the camera. Down here you'll find the battery compartment as well as a plastic tripod mount. The C-700 uses 2 CR-V3 batteries, or more normally, 4 AA cells.

Using the Olympus C-720 Ultra Zoom

Record Mode

The camera takes about 4.5 seconds to extend the lens and "boot up" before you can start taking pictures. The C-720 isn't going to win any awards for autofocus speed. It takes about one second to lock focus at wide-angle, and I clocked it at nearly 3 seconds at full telephoto. Since it has no AF-assist lamp, the C-720 has trouble focusing in low light conditions. Shutter lag is noticeable, but brief.


Both the LCD and EVF show the same thing in record mode

Shot-to-shot speed is pretty average as well. You'll wait about four seconds between shots in SHQ mode. In TIFF mode, you won't be made to wait, like on some other cameras. After a few seconds longer than normal, you can take another shot.

Resolution and quality settings are pretty simple on the C-720UZ, as you'll see below:

Resolution Quality # photos on 16MB card (included)
1984 x 1488 TIFF 1
1984 x 1488 SHQ 7
1984 x 1488 HQ 21
1600 x 1200 SQ1 24
1280 x 960 SQ2 26
1024 x 768 39
640 x 480 99

There are three resolutions for SQ2 since you can pick one of them to use. This chart illustrates why I recommend a larger SmartMedia card.

The C-720UZ uses the newest Olympus menu system, and it's actually customizable. When you first start it, you're presented with four choices:

  • ISO
  • Mode Menu
  • White balance
  • Quality

Don't like those choices? With the exception of Mode menu, Olympus lets you put other choices in those spots.

Let's take a look at the Mode Menu now.

  • Camera Setup
    • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
    • P/A/S/M - explained earlier
    • Flash strength (-2.0EV to +2.0EV, 1/3EV increments)
    • Auto bracketing (3 or 5 shots; 0.3, 0.7, 1.0EV intervals)
    • Digital zoom (on/off)
    • Panorama - helps you make panoramic shots. Requires Olympus-branded SmartMedia card
    • 2 in 1 - two shots in succession combined into one
  • Picture Settings
    • Quality (see chart)
    • White Balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent) - what, no manual mode?
    • Sharpness (Soft, normal, high)
    • Contrast (Low, normal, high)
  • Card Setup (erase all, format)

  • Setup (the interesting ones, at least)
    • All reset (on/off) - retain settings after camera is powered off
    • Info (on/off) - exposure info shown on LCD in record and playback mode
    • Rec View (on/off) - shows image after it's taken on LCD
    • My Mode setup - choose your favorite settings
    • File naming (Auto, reset)
    • Pixel mapping - helps eliminate "bad pixels"
    • Monitor brightness - affects both the EVF and main LCD
    • Short cut - configure the first page of the menus, as I explained above
    • Custom button (AE lock, info, ISO, P/A/S/M, digital zoom, quality, white balance) - customize what this button does

Enough chit-chat, let's talk photos now!

Though the subject was a little softer than I would've liked (easily fixable), the C-720UZ did an overall respectable job with the macro test. The colors look as they do in real life, and noise is minimal. The focal range in macro mode is 10 - 60 cm (3.9 - 23.6 inches).

I underexposed this shot a bit, to help minimize chromatic aberrations (more about those in a second). But they're still very noticeable here. One thing that isn't noticeable is noise, which is impressive considering that the C-720UZ doesn't have a noise reduction system (or if it does, Olympus doesn't mention it). Since the camera has full manual control of shutter speed and aperture, you can get creative with shots like this.

Here's a 200% blowup of my new red-eye test. Even with red-eye reduction turned on, the C-720UZ still exhibits this problem. It's nothing terrible, though, and it can be correctly fairly easily in most software programs.

What are these chromatic aberrations that I alluded to a moment ago? Perhaps a more descriptive name for it is purple fringing, as it is often called. Have a look at these cropped images:

As you can see, parts of the image where a relatively dark subject hit a bright one end up with a purple "fringe" to it. It doesn't look good no matter how you cut it. If you're downsizing these images or printing them, the fringing won't be a major problem. If you're doing large sized prints, they may still be noticeable. The C-720 (and the C-700 before it) are much worse than average in the fringing department.

Overall, the photo quality on the C-720UZ is good, but not great. The purple fringing plays a big part in that. Also, the camera overexposed some images that came out perfectly on other Olympus cameras,so it may be a good idea to shoot with a -0.3 or -0.7 exposure compensation setting. Some readers also pointed out that the corners of many of the images aren't as sharp as the center. But don't just take my (our) word for it, have a look at our extensive photo gallery and decide for yourself.

Movie Mode

The C-720UZ's movie mode is really quite lousy for a $600 camera. You can record clips at 320 x 240 or 160 x 120, in QuickTime format.

The bad news: clips are limited to 16 seconds at HQ (320 x 240) and 70 seconds at SQ (160 x 120). Sound is not recorded. Despite, that you can't use the optical zoom during filming. In fact, you can't even use it at all in movie mode. It's locked.

That said, here's a very short sample movie:


Click to play movie (940KB, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The C-720 has a pretty decent playback mode. Slide shows, DPOF print marking, thumbnail mode, and image protection are all available.

The zoom and scroll feature is here too, allowing you to zoom in as much as 3X into your photo, and then move around in it.

 

Two other handy features are image resizing (to 640 x 480 or 320 x 240) and rotation. You can also convert your images to black and white or sepia.

To get more info about your photos, just turn on the info feature, and you'll get plenty.

The C-720 moves through images quickly -- about 1.5 seconds between high resolution shots.

How Does it Compare?

The Olympus C-720UZ is far from being a perfect camera. But it still gets my recommendation, mainly because there aren't many other high resolution cameras with a big zoom lens. Photo quality was a mixed bag. Sometimes it was quite good, other times the purple fringing was quite noticeable. The camera also overexposed images that cheaper (Olympus) cameras shot perfectly. Of course, you can get around this using exposure compensation, but my tests use default settings. Other things that bothered me me were the lack of an AF-assist lamp, a limited movie mode, and no manual white balance. The good points include a mostly complete set of manual controls, that big 8X zoom lens, and nice customizable menus and buttons. If you're into a big zoom camera, give the C-720UZ a look, but keep in mind the issues I've brought up in this review!

What I liked:

  • 8X zoom lens in a small package
  • Full manual controls
  • Customizable buttons and menus
  • "My Mode" helpful
  • Improved Camedia Master software
  • Pixel mapping feature blocks out bad pixels from CCD

What I didn't care for:

  • Chromatic aberrations a problem; image corners can be soft.
  • Overexposed a few images that shouldn't have been
  • No manual white balance
  • No AF illuminator
  • Loss of external flash support since C-700
  • No sound or zoom in movie mode
  • Bundle could be better (larger SM card, full printed manual, rechargeable batteries)

Some other cameras with 5X zoom lenses or greater include the Fuji FinePix 2800 Zoom (6X) and FinePix S602 Zoom (6X), Minolta DiMAGE 7i (7X), Nikon Coolpix 5700 (8X), Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom (10X, if you can find one), and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F707 (5X).

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the C-720 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Take a look at our extensive photo gallery to see how the C-720's pictures looked.

Want a second opinion?

Be sure to read Steve's Digicams review of the C-720 Ultra Zoom.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions about this review. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not write asking for personal recommendations, missing software/manuals, or technical support.

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