Thoughts on the OLYMPUS D-600L Electronic Camera

- Photo from Olympus D-600L Web page -


This is not intended to be a D-600L manual; I'm not going to tell you everything about this camera. This is more about what the ads and the manual don't say.

Most people interested in Digital Photography will know the Olympus D-600L: It's a "Megapixel" camera near the top of the current consumer price scale. But is it any good?

The answer to that question could be either "Yes, very much." or "No". It will depend on what you expect and what you need. There are other reviews on the web, and my observations will not be factually different from what others have said. Whatever the case, there are things you should know before you buy!

One of the significant points about "Megapixel" cameras is that affordable electronic cameras have finally arrived at the standard of resolution generally deemed the minimum acceptable for film cameras. That usual standard for depth of field requires that the 'circle of confusion' be no larger than the diagonal dimension of the image divided by 1500. With the Olympus D600-L, the pixels are one diagonal divided by 1600 along each side! One can argue about whether the minimum standard has actually been achieved or not (there really still are only 1280 pixels along the actual diagonal, not 1600) but at least we're getting very close.


First the good points:


The not-so-good points.

You've probably read that this thing eats batteries. It borders on the unbelievable. It cooks them first, and then eats them. I bought a demo camera, so I didn't get the factory-supplied alkaline batteries. A new, sealed, set of four standard AA alkaline cells lasted for 4 pictures - FOUR. That's all! After that there was enough power left to view the pictures on the LCD screen, and to download them to the computer, but setting the camera to "Record" would show a "batteries exhausted" symbol. For whatever reason, the recommended Nickel-Metal-Hydride batteries last much, much longer - though you should still have an extra set handy. I typically get around 70-80 pictures, even with flash, or even with the camera "on" all afternoon. With such a difference, the rechargeable NiMH batteries should really be standard. If one has been taking a number of pictures relatively quickly, the batteries will actually get hot!

Without good batteries or with the camera switched off, you can't even see through the viewfinder! It's blocked internally.

There's no facility for manual control. There's an awkward menu-accessed exposure compensation control, but no other exposure or focus control. You can zoom, you can push the button, you can set the flash mode and the self timer, you can review your pictures and you can print your pictures. That's about it. (One can set the focus to one of two fixed distances, but I don't consider that acceptable.)

Although it's an SLR, there's no ground glass focusing screen. You cannot easily verify focus; focus is pretty well up to the camera. In the bright outdoors it does a decent job. In the bright indoors, it will occasionally get it wrong. In dim light, it will usually get it wrong, or worse, it will refuse to take the picture even when it got the focus right! When the camera is on a tripod or other stand, one can use the parallax method to verify focus. There's a small black circle in the middle of the viewfinder frame. While moving one's eye from side to side a quarter of an inch or so, observe the relative motion between the image and that circle. If they seem to move exactly together, the camera is in focus. If not, it's out. While a true ground glass screen might make the viewfinder dim, it ought to be possible to use a central circle of microprisms to advantage.

There's no manual focus. Even if you know the distance, there's no way to set the focus. It has to focus for itself! And for every shot! You can't even lock-in focus from one shot to the next. (As noted above, one can set the focus to one of two fixed distances.)

There does not seem to be any easy way to assist the weak built-in flash. There seem to be several flashes even when red-eye reduction is not switched on. I suspect one flash - the first one - is for exposure control. It's the one that will trigger a flash slave unit, but it's not the one that gets used to take the picture. A camera of this quality and utility really needs a flash sync terminal. (There are two solutions: buying a special flash or slave unit and building a special slave unit.)

There's no way to set the focal length of the zoom lens to a particular focal length. Worse, if you turn the camera off and back on - or if the camera turns itself off to conserve batteries - the focal length will be reset to the minimum (wide) setting! Other settings, like close up mode, will also be lost.

It's easy to understand why the viewfinders of film cameras often show less than the real image. That practice covers for a lot of fine adjustments, possible slide mounts and even operator error. But why does the LCD screen have to show less than is actually recorded? In one case I thought I'd missed the essence of my intended image. No, when I got home and looked at the files on the computer, all was there! (The LCD screen cannot be used as a viewfinder on this camera, so why crop the display?)

The image files (pictures) are given sequential names like "PIC00001, PIC00002..." etc - which is not so bad. But if you delete one, all photo files with higher numbers will be re-numbered: decremented by one. Furthermore, if you download the files to a directory (folder) already containing image files, the new files will be renumbered again to continue from the highest number already in the folder. So you kept nice, careful notes about each shot, eh? Carefully referenced by number... I'd much prefer that the camera gave each shot a unique number from 00001 to 99999 and didn't change it thereafter. Warn me if there's a conflict, but please don't change anything! I'd like to be able to reset the counter to zero manually, perhaps.

The camera uses auto white balance. That's probably a laudable intent. But I have yet to see a shot that couldn't use a bit of colour correction. How nice it would be to set the required correction in PhotoShop (as an "action") and re-run it for each frame of a series taken under the same conditions. If you are fussy, each frame will need to be corrected separately. If you are not so fussy, one set of corrections might do for most pictures taken of the same subjects under the same light conditions. For the first series of outdoor pictures I took, the red and blue saturation needed to be reduced, but the green increased. I thought the next series would probably be the same. No, this time it was the green that needed to be desaturated. And with my camera, flash pictures are always blue-magenta. Maybe I could develop an "action" for flash shots. One really should be able to select from a few pre-defined white balance settings - daylight, flash, halogen flood, tungsten, fluorescent, candlelight etc.

Many of these issues are discussed on the D-600L FAQ page.


Back to some Other Good Things

OK, so the camera has it's limitations, but it's still about as good as affordable electronic cameras get right now. In one task it was a pure joy - except for the focus problem. I have a 100-year-old photo album inherited from my grandfather. He was a pretty good photographer. But he glued the prints into the album, and I didn't want to cut up the album to scan the pictures with a flatbed scanner. The D-600L focused close enough all on its own to do the job. Even more of a surprise was that for most of the pictures, the built-in flash worked just fine! I had expected to see uneven illumination and glaring specular highlights. No. My grandfather did use mat paper, and that definitely helped with the specular reflections, but uniform illumination up close like that? Who would have believed it! The task went much quicker than scanning all those prints. And the results were excellent!

And children love it. You can let them try it out and then erase their pictures. No "film" lost. Keep those extra batteries handy, though.

It is fun to use. It does take decent photographs. It is a good camera. It just doesn't do everything I would like. It's not the ultimate electronic camera. We have much to look forward to!


What does the D-620L Change?

The D-620L camera announced in late 1998 offers a number of improvements, a few of which answer some of the criticisms above. The 620 claims the following improvements:

The camera is also a lighter silvery colour, has an extra fixed focus setting (now infinity, 8 ft and 1.3 ft, though the buttons on the back that set the distance are not in the logical order!), and accepts 16 MB memory cards. Controls seem now to be a bit more logical to me, but maybe I'm just getting used to things. The autofocus is still deficient. It does seem a wee bit better to me, but using the D-620L side by side with a Canon EOS-1 showed the 620 to be vastly wanting in this department. (The two cameras are not that far apart in price! The 620 should be better than it is.) And the instruction book could still be much improved.

All-in-all, it's a better camera. But we still have a ways to go.


The FlashPath Floppy Disk Adapter

The "FlashPath" adapter is an Olympus accessory intended to let you interface your computer directly with the flash memory card your photos are stored on - without having to use the camera itself. And it works. It's even a bit faster, perhaps, than a fast serial port (four minutes to download 7 MB worth of files). You place the flash memory card in this adapter and then put the adapter in your 3.5 in floppy drive.

But I don't believe the instructions! The 80 page instruction book does not explain how to use the thing! It goes on and on with warnings and explanations of error messages. It tells you how to install the necessary software, as well as two utilities, and how to de-install the software. But the only useful thing it actually explains how to do, is to use the one utility it suggests you should NOT use!

Be warned - there's no warning on the package - this device does not work with all floppy drives. The read-me file that appears after installation lists about 20 computers it has worked successfully on. Are you filled with confidence yet? It warns that one cannot use any external floppy drives: no SuperDrives, no PCMCIA-interfaced drives, no 2.88 MB drives, no 3-mode drives (whatever they are), etc. Did it work with my PC? No. It came only with PC software. Did it work in my Mac? Yes! - using downloaded software from the Fuji web site! (Thanks to The Digital Camera Resource Page for pointing this out! It's now also available from the Olympus Download site.) Did it work with my PC at work? At first it told me there was no usable FlashPath adapter in any drive. So, initially I thought it was a bust there too, but that turned out to be just because I didn't know how to use it! As I said, there were no instructions for actually using the thing for its intended purpose!

So how does one use it? Well, much like a floppy disk. I guess that's the unstated point. Floppy disks don't usually come with instructions either. I'm a mostly-Mac person. I didn't twig that a PC would not even know the FlashPath was there until I had actually tried to access it to read or save a file, or at least view the directory. So, before the status utility can tell me whether or not the FlashPath is OK, I have to try to use it! There's still a lot about it I don't know. Can I save anything on it? Can I use it to store my secret diary on? How will the camera react if I do? What does that funny folder name (IMOLYM) mean? How do I erase just one file? What are the restrictions on file names? Can I just change a file name without altering the file? How will the camera react? Will the camera change the file name?

I believe this is the first time I've encountered a camera or computer (hardware or software) manual that entirely omitted the instructions for using the whatever for its intended purpose. It's like buying a new camera, reading the instructions from cover to cover and never being told how to turn it on, where to look through the viewfinder or what button to press to take the picture! I guess we'll just have to wait for the (third party, cost extra) Book! Or maybe I should take this as a market opportunity!

There's a complete review of the FlashPath adapter on The Digital Camera Resource Page.

If you have a computer with a PCMCIA Card capability, it's lots faster to use a SmartMedia to PCMCIA adapter.


(Updated 26 Dec 1998)

Harold M. Merklinger

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