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Olympus Stylus 800 Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  9/29/2005

After its introduction in 1990, the rugged little clamshell Stylus quickly became the 35mm P&S camera of choice for a generation of travel writers, trekkers, serious travelers, war correspondents, and extreme sports fans. This amazing popularity was due in part to the camera's reputation for rugged dependability and excellent image quality and in part to a very effective advertising campaign featuring full-page environmental portraits and first person testimonials from several very famous professional photographers who never left home without one of Olympus' snazzy little clamshell Stylus 35mm P&S cameras in their pocket. After seeing one of these adds (with Helmut Newton) I bought a Stylus and I've been a fan ever since. In those days I shot mostly color slides or B&W print film, so the sexy little Stylus let me carry a camera loaded with color print film for those occasions when you just want a good snapshot. The camera was small enough to drop in my shirt pocket or one of the side pockets on my camera bag and it was tough as nails, easy to use, and produced consistently excellent 4x6 inch color prints.


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With the Stylus 800, Olympus combines tradition and innovation to create an attractive, weatherproof, and feature-rich digital camera that is a worthy successor to that first Stylus. The new digital Stylus 800 retains much of the style, charm, and usability of its 35mm predecessor and adds the ability to withstand extended exposure to mist, rain, snow, jungle humidity, desert dust, and ocean spray.

The Stylus 800 also provides 8-megapixel resolution, a very bright 2.5 inch LCD screen, a 3X optical zoom, "Point & Shoot" ease of use, some manual exposure capability, and an ISO 1600 sensitivity setting.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The Stylus 800 doesn't have an eye-level optical (or electronic) viewfinder.

The Stylus 800's 2.5" TFT "HyperCrystal" LCD screen is large, sharp, bright (215,000 pixels), fluid, color accurate, and shows 100 per cent of the image frame. The LCD screen remains highly visible even in bright outdoor lighting. Low light visibility is also excellent (the LCD automatically gains "up" in low light).


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Lens

When the Stylus 800 is powered up the 3X zoom telescopes out of the camera body; power it down and the lens is fully retracted -- both operations accompanied by the satisfyingly retro mechanical "snick" of the guillotine style lens cover. The Stylus 800's zoom is not threaded for mounting auxiliary lenses or photo filters.

Excellent optics was one of the reasons the original Stylus cameras achieved legendary status, and the Stylus 800 continues that tradition with an all glass Olympus f2.8-f4.8/38 - 114 mm (35mm equivalent) optical zoom lens. Barrel Distortion (straight lines bow out from the middle) is a bit lower than average at the wide-angle end. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in from the middle) is very well controlled at the telephoto end of the zoom range. There's no visible vignetting and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is essentially invisible. Minimum focusing distance is 1.2 inches (in Super Macro mode) more than tight enough for frame filling flower/insect close-ups.


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Resolution is excellent, check out these pollen-dusted bees working this Passion Flower


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Macro shots are consistently quite good with excellent detail and accurate color.

Auto Focus
The Stylus 800 provides a fairly basic (no user input and no manual focus options) TTL contrast detection auto focus system. AF is quick and consistently accurate in good light and considerably better than expected in low light.

The Stylus 800 features a genuinely unique blur reduction system. Blurred images are often a result of the camera's auto exposure system selecting a shutter speed that is too slow for conditions or ambient lighting. The Stylus 800's BrightCapture technology boosts the ISO sensitivity (up to ISO 2500) in poor lighting and that causes the camera's auto exposure system to select a higher shutter speed. When the CCD sensor detects movement at the sensor plane it deletes blur and compensates for sensor movement. Maximum resolution in Blur Reduction mode is 3 megapixels (2048 x 1536). Excepting photographers who happen to stumble across Bigfoot out in the woods I don't really see the Blur Reduction mode as particularly useful. Images shot in blur reduction mode didn't have the grainy photo-journalistic immediacy I expected, rather they're just very soft (which kind of defeats the anti-blur thing in my opinion) much softer than a formal soft focus portrait.

Flash

The Stylus 800's built-in multi mode flash provides settings for Auto, Red-eye reduction, Fill, and Off modes. Maximum flash range (according to Olympus) is just over 21 feet, which seems a bit optimistic to me. The flash does work well in the normal macro mode, providing even flattering lighting. Flash coverage in Super Macro mode is better than I expected, but (like most P&S cameras) brighter at the top of the frame than it is at the bottom. Flash recycle time is about 5 seconds. User's who enable the red-eye reduction flash mode can use the Red-Eye Fix menu function (post exposure) to eliminate red-eye from their pictures.

Memory Storage Media

The Stylus 800 saves images to xD picture cards. No xD starter card is included, but the Stylus 800 provides 32MB of internal storage (of which just over 21MB is available for image storage)

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

Auto-Connect USB 1.1 out and A/V out

Power/Battery Life

The Stylus 800 draws its juice from a proprietary Olympus (3.7v/1230mAh) Li-12B battery. Battery life is slightly above average, I didn't keep track of numbers, but I racked up 51 exposures one day and 69 exposures the following day (on one charge) without a low battery warning. The included charger needs about two hours to fully charge the Li-12B.

EXPOSURE

The Stylus 800's Program (AE with user input) mode is the default exposure mode and it is more than adequate for eighty per cent of the pictures situations most photographers will get themselves into. I left the Stylus 800 in Program mode virtually full time. The Stylus 800 also provides 19 scene modes (portraits, landscapes, indoors, sports and action, beach and snow, sunsets, etc.). The Stylus 800 doesn't really have a full manual mode, but it does provide an Aperture Priority mode and a Shutter Priority mode for those brave souls who want more input into the exposure process.

Movie Mode

The Stylus 800 doesn't really match up to the competition in the movie department. Movie Mode permits users to capture (mono) 640x480 video clips at 15fps. This may be the Stylus 800's Achilles heel because 15fps makes for very choppy video, the frame rate should have been 30fps. If the video feature is important the Stylus 800 may not be your best choice. Movie duration is limited only by the capacity of the xD card mounted.

Metering

The Stylus 800's default light metering system is Olympus' proven Digital ESP multi-pattern (evaluative) metering. More advanced users can enable spot metering (great for biasing exposure to the most important element of the composition, for instance the eyes in a tight portrait). Metering is accurate (but a bit conservative) in all outdoor lighting and generally very good indoors and under dimmer light.

White Balance

Olympus digital cameras are well known for their highly accurate white balance systems and the Stylus 800 is no exception. The Stylus 800 provides TTL Auto WB and pre-sets for tungsten, overcast, sunlight, and fluorescent light 1,2, & 3.

Sensitivity

Auto and user selected settings for 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO

 
ISO 64 [larger]                             ISO 100 [larger]

 
ISO 200 [larger]                           ISO 400 [larger]

 
ISO 800 [larger]                           ISO 1600 [larger]

In-Camera Image Adjustment

In-camera image adjustment is pretty much limited to Exposure Compensation (useful for lightening or darkening the image). The Stylus 800's Exposure Compensation (+/- 2 EV with 1/3 EV increments) mode is easily accessible and very simple to use.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, & ERGONOMICS

The Stylus 800 is an elegant little silver digicam that shows a clear sense of style. The Stylus 800 is small enough to be easily dropped into a pocket or purse, but it isn't so tiny it doesn't feel comfortable in your hands. All controls are well placed and easily accessed.

Olympus cameras are menu driven which can be frustrating, but the Stylus 800's menus are logical and easily navigated. The Stylus 800 (metal alloy and polycarbonate construction) feels substantial and well built. Rubber weather seals and a unique double body design ensure that the Stylus 800 is tough enough to overcome the challenges of inclement or unpredictable weather, extreme environments, and rugged terrain.

Technical Specifications

Included

LI-12B rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger, Wrist strap, USB cable, A/V cable, Software CD-ROM, Basic user's manual (printed)

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The Stylus 800 does a very good job in the image quality department. Colors are neutral and hue accurate, as opposed to the occasionally garish over-saturation common with most P&S digicams. The Stylus 800's images are very sharp with slightly enhanced contrast interpolation.

Below are virtually identical images shot with the Sony DMC W7 and the Olympus Stylus 800.

 
Olympus 800 [larger]


Sony DSC-W7 [larger]

Notice the W7's highly saturated color Notice the Stylus 800's more neutral color

ISO 64 and ISO 100 images show almost no noise. ISO 200 and ISO 400 images show above average noise, higher ISO settings (800 & 1600) are very noisy.

Is the ISO 1600 setting useful? Here's a handheld (no flash) ISO 1600 night shot from Fourth Street Live. Noise is high and detail is a bit fuzzy, but it is a usable image (at least at 4x6 inches).


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Noise levels are above average and images show some pattern noise in dark areas of the image and minor noise is visible even in outdoor images (probably due to the Stylus 800's aggressive sharpening algorithm). There is some noticeable loss of highlight detail in light colored areas in bright sunlight, but this is fairly typical of compact digital cameras.

The Stylus 800's auto white balance does a very good job even in tricky lighting. The white balance pre-sets produce a marginally cooler (with the exception of the tungsten setting) color balance.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The Stylus 800's boot-up cycle, shutter lag, and AF lag times are all about average. Shot to shot times are relatively quick and (dependent on whether the flash is used) run from less than 2 seconds to about 5 seconds. Write to card times seem to be about average.

A Few Concerns
The Stylus 800 lacks an optical viewfinder and the compass switch (4-way controller) could be larger. The full user's manual is on CD. There's no easy way to delete a photo right after it is captured. Like nearly all compact digicams, the Stylus 800 has redeye problems. Finally, there's no support for USB 2.0 high speed.

Who is the Olympus Stylus 800 Best Suited For?

The compact, durable, feature-rich, and weatherproof Stylus 800 is a very good choice for skiers, hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, beach aficionados and anyone who enjoys photography and loves the great outdoors.

Is the Stylus 800 really weatherproof? Here's an image I shot in a torrential downpour, both the camera and I were completely soaked (with no effect at all on the camera).


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Conclusion

The stylish little Stylus 800 does everything very well, but it doesn't do anything exceptionally well. Image quality, operational speed, and usability are all about average, but that's not a bad thing -- average is actually pretty good these days. Still not convinced? The Stylus 800 is built like a tank, it's weatherproof, it's compact and lightweight, and it makes an excellent "take it along everywhere" photographic tool for family shooters, active folks, outdoorsmen (and women), and travelers.

Pros
Very good image quality, weather proof, user friendly, some manual exposure options, neutral colors, and 2.5" LCD screen

Cons
Slight tendency toward over-exposure, noisy images at higher ISO settings, redeye, no USB 2.0, full user's manual available only on CD