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Olympus Stylus 720 SW Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Camera Review
by Howard Creech -  5/15/2006

When the first Olympus Stylus was introduced in 1990 it quickly became the 35mm point & shoot camera of choice for a generation of minor celebrities, edgy writers, off the beaten path travelers, slumming pro photographers, and assorted adventure junkies - due in large part to its reputation for rugged reliability and consistently excellent images. The new Olympus Stylus 720 SW is built like a tank with space-age water/dust seals (it's waterproof to 10 feet/3 meters) and ultra sturdy (shockproof in a 5 foot/1.5 meter drop) exterior/interior construction.

olympus stylus 720 sw
(view large image)

The 720 SW is one of only a couple of shockproof/waterfproof digital cameras currently available - it was designed to be taken along in situations (like back country hiking, off-road biking, snorkeling, skiing, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, hang gliding, and white water rafting) that would require leaving other digital cameras at home. One of the newest members of the Stylus tribe, it also features 7 megapixel resolution, a 2.5 inch/6.4 cm LCD screen, 28 shooting modes, and a 3X zoom.

What's New

The Olympus Stylus 720 SW was designed to survive a five-foot/1.5 meter fall. Olympus accomplishes this impressive feat with "floating" components (the tough as nails metal alloy outer body absorbs impact without passing the trauma on to the camera's delicate optics and electronic circuitry).

The Olympus Stylus 720 SW is waterproof (to 10 feet/3 meters - for up to 1 hour) so it can be taken out in inclement weather, to the beach, to a pool, on a boat, or into the water without damage.

The 720 SW also features Olympus' proprietary Bright Capture Technology (BCT) and Digital Image Stabilization (DIS) mode. BCT automatically boosts LCD screen brightness making it easier to see and compose images in low/dim light. Blurred images are often a result of the camera's auto exposure system selecting a shutter speed that is too slow to freeze movement. The 720 SW (via DIS mode) boosts ISO sensitivity in poor lighting, forcing the camera's auto exposure system to select a higher shutter speed, which reduces blurring due to camera shake during the exposure.

NUTS & BOLTS

Viewfinder/LCD

The 720 SW doesn't provide an optical viewfinder.

The 720 SW's 2.5" TFT LCD screen is large, relatively sharp (115,000 pixel screen resolution), bright, fluid, hue accurate, and shows almost 100 per cent of the image frame. The LCD screen remains visible in bright outdoor lighting and low light screen visibility is also excellent thanks to Bright Capture Technology (Olympus claims the 720 SW's LCD screen is up to 4x brighter in low light than conventional LCD screens).

olympus stylus 720 sw
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Lens

When the 720 SW is powered-up a guillotine style lens cover slips out of the way, exposing the front element of the folded light-path design internal f3.4-f5.7/6.7mm-20.1mm (37mm-111mm 35mm equivalent) 3x optical zoom. The 720 SW's internal lens makes for a much smaller footprint, but since no part of the zoom extends from the camera body auxiliary lenses and photo filters can't be used.

Overall, images are slightly soft (due to the complexity of the compact folded light path internal zoom design) and corners are noticeably softer than average. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow outward from the center of the frame) is a bit lower than average at the wide-angle end of the zoom range. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center of the frame) is very nicely controlled at the telephoto end of the zoom. There is no visible vignetting (dark corners) and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is well below average.


(view medium image) (view large image) This close-up of frontlit blooms against a bright blue sky (high contrast color transitions) shows almost no chromatic aberration (purple fringing).

Minimum focusing distance is 2.8 inches (in Super Macro mode), close enough for e-bay shots, but not quite tight enough for frame filling bugs & flowers close-ups.

Auto Focus (AF)

The Olympus Stylus 720 SW utilizes a fairly standard TTL contrast detection auto focus system with iESP AF and Spot AF area modes. AF is consistently quick and dependably accurate in good light and considerably better than expected in low light.

Manual Focus (MF)

The Olympus Stylus 720 SW has no manual focus (MF) capability

Flash

The 720 SW's built-in multi mode flash provides settings for Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Fill flash, and Off. Maximum flash range (according to Olympus) is just over 12 feet, which seems pretty accurate based on my (admittedly unscientific) tests. Flash coverage in Macro mode is (quite un-typically for consumer grade digital cameras) fairly even. Flash recycle time is about 5 seconds. Users who enable the 720 SW's red-eye reduction flash mode can use the Red-Eye Fix menu function (post exposure) to eliminate/minimize red-eye in their images.

File Storage/Memory Media

The Stylus 720 SW saves images to xD picture cards or to 19MB of internal storage. No starter card is included. Only Olympus branded xD-Picture Cards can be used with the 720 SW's Panorama function. xD picture cards are currently available in capacities up to 1GB.

Image File Format(s)

JPEG

Connectivity

USB 2.0 out, A/V out, and DC in

Power/Battery Life

The 720 SW draws its power from a proprietary Olympus LI-42B (3.7v/740mAh) Lithium-ion battery. I didn't track numbers, but based on my field experiences (heavy review/delete/re-shoot, occasional flash use, and continuous LCD use) with the 720 SW, battery life (125-150 exposures) is a bit below average for ultra-compact digital cameras. The included LI-40C AC charger needs about two hours to fully charge the LI42B. The LCD screen can't be turned off (there's no optical viewfinder) which means there's no practical way to conserve juice, so most 720 SW purchasers should factor the cost of a back-up battery into their price calculations/comparisons.

EXPOSURE

For most casual shooters, the 720 SW's Program (Auto exposure with user input into ISO sensitivity, white balance, metering, etc.) "Point-and-Shoot" mode will be all that's needed. The 720 SW also provides 24 scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Landscape and Portrait, Night Scene, Sport, Night Portrait, Sport, Indoor, Candle, Self Portrait, Available light, Sunset, Fireworks, Museum, Cuisine, Behind Glass, Documents, Auction, Shoot and Select 1, Shoot and Select 2, Beach and Snow, Under water wide 1, Under water wide 2, Under water macro, and Underwater snapshot.

Movie Mode

The 720 SW's rather ho-hum Movie Mode permits users to capture 640x480 video clips (with mono audio) at 15fps (the frame rate should have been 30fps). Movie duration is limited only by the capacity of the xD card (up to 1GB) installed. If the video feature is an important selection criteria the 720 SW may not be the best choice.

Metering

The 720 SW utilizes Olympus' Digital ESP multi-pattern (evaluative) metering system. More advanced users can opt for spot metering which is great for biasing exposure on the most important element of the composition (like the eyes in a head & shoulders portrait). Metering is accurate in all outdoor lighting (but with a tendency toward minor over-exposure) and generally very good indoors and under dimmer light.


(view medium image) (view large image) These backlit gone-to-seed dandelions illustrate the 720 SW's tendency to slightly over-expose highlights.

White Balance (WB)

The 720 SW provides TTL Auto WB and pre-sets for tungsten, overcast, sunlight, and fluorescent 1,2, & 3, but no custom/manual WB mode.

Sensitivity

TTL Auto sensitivity and user selected settings for 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO (plus ISO 2500 in the low light Scene mode - at reduced resolution).

 
ISO 64


ISO 100


ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 64 - ISO 200 images are quite good, with good detail and very low noise. ISO 400 images are slightly better than average, but ISO 800 images show noticeable loss of detail and very high noise levels. ISO 1600 images show significant detail loss and are far too noisy.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

In-camera image adjustment options are often ignored by digital camera shoppers, but experienced photographers know in-camera image adjustments are a very important tool for overcoming minor exposure problems in the field. The 720 SW provides a number of useful tweaks (via the edit sub-menu) including Redeye fix, B&W, Sepia tone, image brightness, and color saturation. Purely decorative options include Frame (adds a decorative frame around the image), Title (allows users to add a title to an image), and Calendar (users can create a calendar using their images).

Very light or very dark subjects can trick light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images. The 720 SW's Exposure Compensation mode allows users to subtly modify exposure parameters - base exposure can be adjusted over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments to compensate for difficult lighting and subject/background reflectance/non-reflectance problems or to overcome environmental variables.

CONTROLS, DESIGN, ENGINEERING, & ERGONOMICS

Olympus' 720 SW is a very compact brick shaped digital camera with no handgrip - so the included wrist strap should be attached and used at all times. The front of the 720 SW is an elegantly minimalist industro-tech brushed aluminum die stamped expanse broken only by the zoom opening, the tiny flash, and 3 stainless steel screw heads.

Three fourths of the 720 SW's rear deck is dominated by the 2.5 inch LCD screen. The remaining quarter contains 4 dedicated control buttons, the zoom rocker switch, the compass (4-way controller) switch, and the 720 SW's speaker. All controls are logically placed and all shooting functions are easily accessed. Olympus digital cameras have always been menu driven and the 720 SW is no exception, but menus are simply laid out, logical, and easily navigated. Experienced photographers will have no problem using the 720 SW right out of the box -- beginners should be able to shoot very good quality images after a short familiarization with the camera and a fast scan of the user's guide.

olympus stylus 720 sw
Top view (view large image)

olympus stylus 720 sw
Bottom view (view large image)

Technical Specifications

Included

LI-42B rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger, Wrist strap, USB cable, A/V cable, Software CD-ROM, & Basic (Printed) user's Manual (the full user's manual is on CD)

Optional

If 10 feet isn't deep enough, Olympus provides an optional underwater housing (PT-033) for the 720 SW that allows the camera to be taken down to 130 feet/40 meters.

PERFORMANCE

Image Quality

The 720 SW does a very good job in the image quality department. Colors are slightly punched up, but almost neutral when compared to most of the competition. Images are consistently just a bit soft, but not objectionably so.

Noise levels are noticeably below average, although there is some minor pattern noise in dark image areas. There is also some noticeable loss of highlight detail in light colored areas in bright sunlight, but this is fairly typical of compact digital cameras.

olympus stylus 720 sw
(view medium image) (view large image) Note the slightly punched up but hue accurate color of the red flowers around the center of this image, but the 720 SW's TruePic TURBO processor couldn't handle the bright front lighting in the center of the image -- note color shift and blotching (Chroma noise) in the brightest areas.

Overall, image quality is quite good, although some serious photographers will be turned off by the slight general softness of the 720 SW's images and some casual shooters may consider colors slightly under-saturated. Pattern noise and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) are very well controlled, but there is some blotching (Chroma noise) visible.

Timing/Shutter Lag

The 720 SW's boot-up cycle (about 2 seconds) is a bit slow for a camera that doesn't have to extend its lens. Shutter fire is almost real time - about 1/10th of a second when the camera is pre-focused and less than 1/2 a second from scratch. AF lag times (about 1 second from scratch and about 1/2 a second with pre-focus) are about average. Shot to shot times are also in the average range and (depending on whether the flash is used) run from about 2 seconds to about 5 seconds. Write to card times also seem to be about average.

A Few Concerns

My major concern with the 720 SW is the general softness of its images. Standard (4x6) prints will look fine, but enlargements may appear a bit mushy.

Conclusion

The Olympus Stylus 720 SW was designed to withstand total immersion in water, extended exposure to mist, rain, snow, sleet, rain forest style humidity, dust, and ocean spray, plus the hard knocks and occasional slips and falls associated with active lifestyles. It is small enough to drop in a shirt pocket, tough as nails, easy to use, and retains all the style of its classic Stylus film camera ancestors. I didn't take the camera underwater, but I did take it out in the rain a couple of times with no ill effects.

olympus stylus 720 sw
(view medium image) (view large image) This rainy day shot was no challenge for the weatherproof 720 SW

I hadn't planed to test the 720 SW's shock resistance, but I had just finished polishing the LCD screen on my shirt (preparatory to reviewing some saved images) when it slipped from my fingers and fell face first (about 3.5 feet) to the (carpeted) floor with no apparent damage. I often counsel my readers to use the wrist strap at all times with compact digital cameras, so clearly I was remiss in failing to follow my own advice.

Dedicated underwater cases for compact digital cameras generally run at least half the purchase price of the camera, so the 720 SW's $400.00 (underwater ready) price tag is a real bargain for snorkelers, sailboarders, boaters, swimmers, water skiers, seashore lovers, and beachcombers. The 720 SW's images are a bit soft overall, but when the camera's underwater capabilities, dust/weather resistance, and general toughness are factored in - I believe its strengths outweigh its weakness by a substantial margin.

Pros: Waterproof, shockproof, dustproof, compact, stylish, good noise management, and very good image quality

Cons: Images slightly soft, no custom WB mode, slight tendency toward over-exposure