Olympus Stylus 740 and PT-034 Underwater Housing|
Thinnest 5X optical zoom camera in its class
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
We so happened to review the Olympus Stylus 740 the same time we reviewed the Stylus 720 SW. Both are modern 7.1 megapixel cameras that are relatively comparable in size. So why does Olympus offer two such seemingly almost identical cameras? Because they are anything but identical. In fact, when you place them side by side, they don't even look alike. They are completely different designs. The 720 SW was designed as a waterproof camera that can easily survive an hour at depths up to ten feet. That makes it perfect to have around the water, be it boating, swimming, snorkeling or even diving. The 740, on the other hand, is merely an "all-weather" design. It has seals and gaskets to make it splash-proof (and snow-proof), but you can't submerge it in water.
The reason why we reviewed the two cameras together is because Olympus offers an optional deepwater case for both. Place the camera inside the PT-034 Underwater Case and you can take it down to a depth of 133 feet, which is the generally accepted depth limit for recreational scuba diving. If you go deeper than that and are interested in photography you'll probably take specifically designed underwater camera gear with you, so 133 feet makes sense. We took both the Stylus 740 and the Stylus 720 SW on a diving trip to Florida and extensively tested them both above and under water.
How does it compare to the Stylus 720 SW?
Truth be told, our first impression was that the Stylus 720 SW had it all over the 740. The 720 SW just seemed to be a better overall package. Who'd argue with a camera being totally waterproof, so much that you can go diving with it? The 720 SW also looks like a million dollars with its sleek, angular, metallic case. It feels more substantial, and it has one of those internal optical zooms so that the lens never motors out. The 720 SW's list price is slightly higher -- US$399.99 compared to the 740's US$349.99 - but that seemed a small price to pay for all of its advantages.
However, nothing is ever totally clear-cut, and as our review went on, we grew to like the Stylus 740 more and more. But first we had to get over some prejudices. It is definitely not as handsome as the 720 SW. The big zoom lens dominates the front of the camera, and the lens motors out almost three quarters of an inch when you power it up via a slightly recessed button next to the shutter. Its entire body is sort of a slightly curved wedge. The housing is almost an inch thick on the right, and not much more than half an inch on the left. There are other bulges and curves, none of which seem to serve much of a purpose and the overall effect doesn't gel into a harmonious whole. That said, the Stylus 740 is definitely small and handy with a footprint of just 3.8 by 2.1 inches, and it weighs just over five ounces with its Li-Ion battery in place. Definitely pocketable.
Great zoom and image stabilization!
Closer examination of the specs reveals that the 740 is actually a more powerful camera than the more expensive 720 SW. For starters, it has a 5X optical zoom, covering the equivalent of 36-180mm in old 35mm film parlance. That is remarkable in a camera this small. Most run-of-the-mill consumer digicams have 3X optical zooms, so getting the extra magnification can easily tip the scale in the 740's favor. If you need to get closer yet, the Stylus 740 can use digital zoom to seamlessly boost overall magnification to 28X. And thanks to digital image stabilization, the digital zoom works amazingly well even without a tripod. We attempted shots at full digital magnification where no matter how steady we held the camera we could barely keep the remote subject on the LCD, yet the pictures came out razor-sharp. Olympus' digital image stabilization definitely works.
Terrific high-res LCD
There is a second area where the 740 has it all over the 720 SW: its LCD, while sharing the 2.5-inch diagonal size with its waterproof cousin, has a resolution of 215k pixel as opposed to just 115k on the 720 SW. That can make a huge difference. Not only is the display noticeably crisper and sharper, but the higher resolution also makes it much easier to determine if an image is really sharp. Zoom in and you can see all details whereas the lower res screen of the 720 SW gets a bit blurry in full playback magnification.
The case for the 740
If you're starting to get the idea that even though Olympus offers two 7.1 megapixel cameras there is a rhyme and reason to this, you'd be right. Quite obviously, the Stylus 740 is for the great majority who simply want to the best possible camera for taking snapshots. That's why it has the big 5X zoom and the very high res LCD. The 720 SW, despite its higher price, has the lower res display and only a 3X zoom (though it still looks better). So if you never get near water, the decision is totally clear. The Stylus 740 is the better deal, by far. On the other hand, if you do intend to go boating or swimming or snorkeling a lot, it's the other way around. The peace of mind that comes from knowing that the 720 SW was designed to operate underwater easily makes up for its lesser capabilities and higher price.
Interestingly, the two cameras even differ in their operation. You'd expect the controls to be uniform in two compacts in the same class and by the same company, but that is not the case. The 740 has a standard rocker for zooming whereas the 720 SW has two buttons. The 740's solution is better. And it uses a simple mode wheel where the 720 SW requires confusing button-pushing to cycle through modes. Again, the 740's solution is better. The 740's navigation is via five separate buttons while the 720 SW uses a disc. It also has four additional buttons to access the menu, display settings, delete, and printing. A full nine buttons in an area less than half a square inch is a bit of a challenge for those with clumsy fingers, but it works okay.
Point & Shooter with nice extras
In terms of operation, the Stylus 740 is mostly a point & shooter, but that doesn't mean all you can do is push the shutter button. The camera offers a choice of no fewer than 27 shooting modes. Each is described on the LCD with an icon, a sample picture, and then a description. But that's not all. There's also a built-in shooting guide that works like a mini "expert system." Let's say you find yourself in a backlight condition and don't know what mode to use. Simply turn the mode dial to "Guide" and select "Shooting into backlight."The camera now tells you to set the fill-in flash, set metering to spot, and increase exposure compensation. Select one or more of these, and the 740 will automatically make the setting changes. The Guide covers a bunch of different shooting situations and is very helpful not only for beginners, but also when you're still new to the camera.
But that's still not all. In an era where even high megapixel cameras have come drastically down in price, manufacturers need features and buzzwords to differentiate themselves and give themselves an edge. I already mentioned the Olympus Digital Image Stabilization that works very well. Another feature we came to appreciate was "Bright Capture Technology." In low light it's often hard to see what you're taking a picture of, especially in this day and age where more and more cameras, including the Stylus 740, no longer have an optical viewfinder. Bright Capture lightens the preview on the LCD by quite a bit; the difference is amazing. The camera then uses its very high ISO 1600 ceiling to capture good images even in low light conditions, often without a flash. We managed to get amazingly good low-light results, with very little of the graininess of high ISO shooting.
At this point I need to voice my usual gripe with Olympus cameras: most use the xD-Picture card format. They almost always cost more and are less available than the more popular SD Card format. We tried to buy a xD-Picture card our dive trip, but struck out in three stores that all carried SD Cards.
The PT-034 Underwater Case
Olympus always seems to go out of its way to please as many different types of photographers as possible, and that includes divers. Special deepwater cases are available for many Olympus cameras. That certainly cannot be taken for granted as each camera requires a specially designed case. That's expensive, especially since only a small fraction of Stylus 740 buyers will ever buy the underwater case. So we really appreciate this gesture by Olympus.
The PT-034 deepwater case is a thing of beauty. Whereas some underwater cases look like home-made science projects, the PT series cases all look as professional and polished as it gets. They are made of clear acrylic. Most seals, buttons, handles, and other small parts are bright red, giving the cases a unique, handsome look. The lens cover assembly is especially attractive. It's made of red anodized metal and has an inside thread for optional filters. The case is designed as a clamshell held together by two springloaded clasps. Every single hardware button on the camera has a corresponding button on the outside of the deepwater case. Considering those nine hardware controls in that tight half-square-inch square, that is quite an accomplishment.
Olympus uses a combination of color coding, icons and lettering to mark the controls. The zoom buttons are purple, the primary navigation controls blue, and the rest red. Labels are imprinted into the plastic, making them harder to read than, say, a simple black on white. The mode dial doesn't have any external marking and you have to rely on the menu to see what mode you're in. All buttons are spring-loaded, which means they do not provide the tactile feedback you have when you operate the bare camera. The trickiest to get used to is the shutter; it takes practice and experience to know when the shutter is depressed halfway down so it will focus before you take the picture.
How does it all work underwater? That depends. I can say unequivocally that I was more nervous using the 740 underwater than the 720 SW. With the 720 SW I always knew that it didn't matter if it got wet, or even if the case flooded. The 740, being only "weather-proof," would not survive a flooding. Proper handling, of course, will preclude flooding as the PT-034 case is exceptionally well made and we never saw any leaking. You need to, of course, maintain it properly, keep sand off the O-rings, and follow the maintenance procedures that include using a special silicone compound. The cases also use desiccant gel packs to avoid, or at least minimize condensation. The gel packs are supposed to be replaced for every dive, but for us they did the job for a full day's worth of diving. It can still happen that you get condensation in the camera when you go from hot, humid weather into much colder water. That happened to me. I opened the camera to wipe the condensation off and the gel pack promptly fell into the water. Oh well.
The Stylus 740 has three special underwater modes -- a macro and two wide-angle modes. One of the wide-angle modes has locked focus for quicker shutter release. This is what you want to use for general underwater shots. The other wide-angle mode uses autofocus, and that can be tricky as it is much harder for the camera to focus underwater than above. That's because divers almost constantly move, and because water always moves and most subjects as well. Another potential problem is that lighting conditions are worse underwater, which can lead the camera to use excessive exposure, resulting in blurry pictures. The flash often does not help because despite the diffuser plate mounted on the PT-034 housing in front of the flash, the flash often simply illuminates particulates floating in the water. That's called "scatter."
As a result, our initial underwater pictures were marginal. The macro mode worked very well, but the two wide-angle modes didn't yield the desire results. We got some good shots, but not as many as we'd have liked. A conference call with Olympus after the trip yielded a lot of good information. First, the obvious: even if you're the type who does not usually study the manual, when you go underwater, do. And spend a good deal of time practicing with the buttons and modes. Once under, you do not want to spent all your time pushing buttons on the camera. Second, practice with the fixed focus and autofocus modes to see what works best. Third, and most importantly, realize that while the Stylus 740 is a point & shooter, you can actually change settings in the modes. Using a higher ISO setting instead of leaving it on automatic would have resulted in higher shutter speed and sharper pictures. And so on. Practice is key.
As far as the flash goes, that's a mixed blessing. In macro mode it can yield superb results, but in the wide-angle modes it mostly brings scatter. The PT-034 case does have a "cold-shoe" so you can mount a third party flash triggered via fiberoptic signal when the internal flash goes off.
One thing is odd: the PT-034 case lists for US$249 whereas the very similar PT-033 case for the Stylus 720 SW goes for fifty dollars more.
In its own right, the Stylus 740 is a moden digicam that has a whole lot going for it. It is very small and light, yet offers the most desirable 5X optical zoom and comes with a very high-resolution LCD that greatly helps in figuring out which pictures are good and which can be deleted. It is also pleasing to the eye. The 740 also has a shooting mode for any occasion and we liked the "Guide" mode that allows easy access to all the built-in functions that might otherwise go unnoticed The digital image stabilization works very well, and we also liked the Bright Capture feature that brightens dimly lit subjects so you can see. Overall, the Stylus 740 is a better camera than the 720 SW IF you use it primarily on land. If you often shoot near or underwater, the scale tips in favor of the waterproof 720 SW.
Not so much:
- Small and light 7.1 megapixel camera with hi-res LCD
- Weather-proofed to handle splashes, a bit of rain and snow
- Great 5X zoom, superb image stabilization
- Optional PT-034 underwater case good for 133 feet diving
- Love the many scene modes and the special guide mode
- Strictly point & shoot
- Use of underwater wide-angle modes requires practice
- Somewhat odd-looking wedge design
- Uses often hard-to-find xD-Picture Card