DCRP Review: Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000
Last Updated: Monday, November 13, 2000

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Since the inception of digital cameras, consumers have been stuck with zoom lenses no greater than 3X. Yes, there were some exceptions, most notably from Sony, but for the most part you were out of luck if you wanted something bigger. Things are starting to change though, with Olympus' C-2100 Ultra Zoom ($999), as well as Fuji's FinePix 4900 Zoom (to be reviewed soon). These two "big guns" have 10X and 6X optical zooms, respectively. In the case of the the Olympus, there's an optical image stabilization system, to help remove the "shakes" that may blur a highly zoomed picture. Plus there's all the manual controls you can eat. If you've been waiting for a camera like this, it's time for dinner!

Coolpix 950, maximum optical zoom C-2100, maximum optical zoom

The shots above should illustrate the difference between the average 3X optical zoom and the C-2100's 10X "Ultra Zoom". Impressive, no?

What's in the Box?

With one exception, the C-2100 has a great bundle included with the camera. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 2.1 Mpixel Olympus C-2100 Ultra Zoom camera
  • 8MB SmartMedia card
  • Four AA NiMH batteries (rechargeable)
  • Battery charger
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • Lens cap
  • Remote control
  • CD-ROM featuring Olympus Camedia Master v2.0 and Adobe PhotoDeluxe
  • 210 page manual (three manuals, one in each language: English, Spanish, and French)

The main complaint here is the skimpy 8MB SmartMedia card that Olympus chose to include. This card can hold 1 TIFF, or 5 SHQ shots, so you'll want to buy a larger card right away.

The other thing I often complain about is the lens cap. While Olympus did include one of those, they forgot to throw the 2 cent strap that keeps it attached to the camera, so you might lose it if you're not careful. I'd recommend a trip to a camera store to pick up this much needed item.

Otherwise, the news is good. Olympus included four 1600mAh NiMH rechargeable batteries, as well as a charger. Olympus claims that you'll be able to shoot about 100 photos per charge of the batteries.

Like all of Olympus' high-end cameras, the C-2100 comes with a wireless remote control. You can control both record and playback mode with the remote, and it comes in really handy when the camera is hooked into the TV.

I've discussed the Camedia Master software in detail in the C-3030Z vs. Coolpix 990 review, so you can read up on it there. While it's no Photoshop, it does the basics well.

The manual included with the camera is long and detailed, though a bit unclear at times.

Look and Feel

The C-2100 Ultra Zoom body reminds me of the C-2500L's body, except with a bigger snout. There's a comfortable grip for your right hand, and plenty of room under the lens barrel for your left. The body is mostly plastic, but it feels pretty sturdy. The dimensions of the C-2100 are 4.44 x 3.06 x 5.56 inches, and it weighs in at 19 ounces (1.2 lbs) empty. It didn't seem that heavy, perhaps due to the distribution of the weight over a large area.

On the front of the camera, you'll find the lens (of course), and an AF illuminator for focusing in low light. The lens is the main event on the C-2100 Ultra Zoom. It's a 7-70mm lens (equivalent to 38-380mm on a 35mm camera), and it stays inside the barrel at all times. It's also super quiet -- you hardly know it's doing anything.

The back of the camera will seem familiar to any owners of recent Olympus cameras. The 1.8" LCD is typical of Olympus cameras - bright, clear, and smooth.

What's really different about the Ultra Zoom is the "optical viewfinder". Instead of looking through glass, you're looking at a small LCD screen, which sees exactly what the CCD of the camera is seeing. The advantage to this is that a) it's through the lens (TTL), b) you get to see lots of info not normally seen through the optical viewfinder, and c) it works great outdoors, when the main LCD cannot be used normally. My main complaint about the LCD viewfinder is that the resolution isn't nearly as good as if you were looking through a traditional optical viewfinder. The LCD viewfinder does have diopter correction (just like a regular viewfinder), so those of us with glasses can see things a little better.

The buttons to the right of the LCD viewfinder are for flash settings (rec) / delete (play), and info (both modes - more on this in next section).

To the right of those two, is the four way switch for navigating menus.

Just right of that is a button for AE Lock (rec) / DPOF print marking (play).

The buttons directly to the right of the LCD monitor are for manual focus (rec) / menus (both) / protect (play), toggling between the LCD viewfinder and monitor / quick play mode (both modes), and invoking the menus.

Now onto the top of the camera. The three buttons to the left of the LCD info display are for macro mode, metering (multi, spot, center-weighted), and drive (single, sequential, AF sequential, self-timer/remote control, auto bracketing).

What's the difference between regular sequential and AF sequential? In the former, the camera chooses all the exposure settings and locks them as long as you hold them down. You can capture up to 5 images at 1.5 frames/second in SHQ mode. In sequential AF mode, the camera recalculates exposure settings for each shot, thus slowing things down a bit.

Auto bracketing is a handy feature where the camera takes three or five shots in a row, each with different exposure compensation settings. For example, you can take shots at -0.3EV, 0EV, and +0.3EV. Sometimes the best picture is over or underexposed, so this feature is really helpful.

The LCD info display shows a wealth of information (a lot more than seen in the above shot). Here, you can see flash settings, image stabilization and metering, quality, ISO, and photos remaining.

The mode wheel is where all the action is up here. Underneath it, you'll find the power switch which can also reset your settings to factory defaults. Be careful, since it's easy to do that On the mode wheel itself, you've got several choices, including:

  • Movie Mode
  • S-Program Mode (more below)
  • Full Manual Mode (you set aperture + shutter)
  • Shutter Priority Mode (you set shutter speed, camera sets aperture)
  • Aperture Priority Mode (you set aperture, camera sets shutter speed)
  • Program Mode (automatic)
  • Playback Mode

S-Program mode is a new feature for Olympus cameras, which borrows a concept seen for a long time on Casio's cameras. You can choose from different situations, and the camera picks the best settings for them. These include:

  • Portrait Shots
  • Action Shots
  • People w/landscapes
  • Night Shots

In aperture priority mode, you can select from a number of choices, ranging from f2.8 to f8.0. In shutter priority mode, you can choose speeds from 1/2 sec to 1/800 sec.

And that's where things get a bit weird. When I was first trying some night shots, I was puzzled about why the camera wouldn't let me go slower than 1/2 sec. After some experimentation, I realized that you must be in full manual mode to go any slower. In manual mode, you can choose between 16 sec and 1/800 sec. Why they chose the 1/2 sec limit in shutter priority mode is beyond me.

The last item of note on the top of the camera is the shutter release / zoom controls. Both give very good tactile feedback, and are well-placed.

On the left side of the camera, you'll find all the I/O ports, as well as a few other things.

The I/O ports, from top to bottom, are:

  • Serial port (cable not included, but nice to know it's there)
  • USB
  • DC in (for optional AC adapter)
  • Microphone
  • A/V out

The ports are usually hidden under a fairly sturdy plastic door. Just to the right of the ports, you can see a small hole - this is the microphone. Above that is a 5 pin external flash sync port, for Olympus' FL-40, or any other compatible flashes. Above that is the dial for the diopter correction on the LCD viewfinder.

On the other side of the camera, there's only the door to the SmartMedia slot.

There's a lot of room behind that door... I can't help but wonder if there was supposed to be a CompactFlash slot in there too at one point, like on the C-2500L.

Last but not least, the bottom of the camera. The battery compartment is covered by a locking door. I should add that it's nice to see a camera using good old AA batteries, instead of the $75 proprietary batteries that are all too common these days.

The tripod mount, right in the middle of the camera, is surprisingly made of plastic.

Using the C-2100 Ultra Zoom

I'm going to discuss record mode in detail, covering both stills and movies, as well as playback mode.

Record Mode

Since the C-2100 has no lens to extend, it gets ready to take pictures quickly -- about three seconds. Shot-to-shot speed was very good as well. In HQ mode, there's about a 2 second delay before you can take another picture. The zoom controls were also quite responsive, as well as smooth.

As I already mentioned, the C-2100 doesn't have a traditional optical viewfinder. So what you see above is what you'll see when you look through it. It takes some getting used to, for sure.

The C-2100 has a pretty extensive menu system, which it overlays on top of what the camera is looking at. Here's what you'll find in the record menus:

  • Image Stabilizer (on/off) - Olympus recommends turning this feature off when taking night shots, or using a tripod or conversion lens
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - The 2.7X digital zoom gives you a total zoom of 27X! Do note that there's a reduction in quality when using digital zoom.
  • White balance (auto, daylight, overcast, tungsten, fluorescent) - nope, no manual mode
  • ISO (auto, 100, 200, 400) - when camera is in S/A/M modes, auto is not an option.
  • Flash intensity (-2.0EV to +2.0EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • Slow Flash (on/off)
  • Auto-bracketing (set up)
  • Multi-metering (on/off)
  • AF Mode (iESP, spot)
  • Full-Time AF (on/off) - when on, camera focuses without pressing shutter release halfway.
  • Sound record (on/off) - record 4 second audio clips after photo is taken
  • Card function (activate) - panorama helper on Olympus-branded SmartMedia cards
  • Function (black & white, sepia, white board, black board)
  • Card setup - format the SmartMedia card
  • Mode Setup - set basic camera prefs and defaults
  • S-Prg - choose which mode you want
  • Record mode (TIFF, SHQ, HQ, SQ)

You can select the resolution for both the TIFF and SQ settings, and the compression level for the SQ mode. It takes about 15 seconds to save a TIFF to the memory card. Now you can see why I complain so much about cameras where it takes 3 minutes to do the same thing!

View this image as JPEG (700k) or TIFF (2MB)

The C-2100 not only did a good job with the macro test (above), but it also did an admirable job with the white balance. Many of the cameras I test have a lot of trouble in this room (including my personal Coolpix 950), but not the Ultra Zoom.

The nightshot test also came out well, as you can see. There's minimal noise, and the detail is pretty good.

The shot above was taken in manual mode, so I could get the longer exposure times. I did notice some trouble in low light settings in Program mode, though. Take a look at some of the indoor airplane shots in the gallery (most taken with the flash), which show some noise. I imagine using manual mode would fix most or all of these problems.

Overall, though, I was very pleased with the photo quality of the C-2100. If you don't like what Program Mode gives you, you've got full manual controls to work with as well. The shot above was taken in shutter priority mode, and you can really see how I froze the action in this shot.

Click to view movie (6.8MB, QuickTime format)

The Ultra Zoom has a nice movie mode as well, which lets you capture QuickTime video, with sound, at 320 x 240. On the included 8MB card, you can take up to 23 seconds of 320 x 240 video, or about 100 seconds at 160 x 120. If you have a 16MB or larger card, you can get 35 and 145 seconds, respectively. And the best part? You can use the big 10X zoom during filming! Take a look at the sample above to see what I mean. [Updated 11/14/00]

Playback Mode

The Ultra Zoom's playback mode covers all the bases. There's slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, zoom & scroll, and more.

The camera takes about 3 seconds to go between SHQ photos (there's no low res thumbnail to tide you over). You can zoom out to 9 thumbnails at once, or zoom in to take a closer look at your photo. The zoom & scroll mode, as I call it, is pretty good - you can zoom in as far as 3X, and then move around inside the picture. The only wish I have here is that the scrolling around was a bit snappier -- you've got to hold the four-way switch down for a bit before it really starts moving.

If you want to get more info about a photo, you just press the Info button. While not as detailed as some cameras, I think most users will be happy with the information given.

One other nice feature is the ability to rotate photos, by using the macro and drive buttons. You'd never know about this feature unless you read the manual, though.

Playback menu

The only thing really missing here is the ability to delete a group of photos at a time.

How Does it Compare?

It's hard to compare the C-2100 Ultra Zoom, since there aren't too many cameras out there with a zoom like this. As a 2.1 Megapixel camera, it's a great one -- it's basically the C-2020Z with a large zoom lens. It's also got all the necessary manual features (with the exception of white balance), movies with sound, and a great bundle. If you want to break out of the 3X optical zoom mode, the C-2100 is a great way to do it!

What I liked:

  • 10X optical zoom. Need I say more?
  • Full manual controls
  • Movies with sound
  • External flash support
  • Uncompressed TIFF mode
  • Fast processing in both record and playback modes
  • Nice bundle includes battery kit and remote control
  • Impressive photo quality in most cases

What I didn't care for:

  • Strange limitation of shutter speeds in shutter priority mode
  • No manual white balance
  • Noise in low light shots in Program mode (see gallery)
  • Not totally sold on the LCD viewfinder idea

The only other cameras with zooms like this are the Casio QV-2800 (8X zoom; I believe it is only sold in the education channel), Fuji FinePix 4900 Zoom (6X), and the Sony MVC-CD1000 and MVC-FD95.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try this camera and the competition 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?

Be sure to read the reviews from Steve's Digicams, Imaging Resource, and A-Digital-Eye!

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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