The most recent addition to Olympus Stylus Digital camera line, the pocket-sized 7.1-megapixel Stylus 780 has a weatherproof body, 5x optical zoom lens, and 2.5-inch LCD display. Mechanical image stabilization and a maximum sensitivity of ISO 1600 set the Olympus Stylus 780 apart from previous Stylus digital cameras. It’s a lot of camera in a very small package – and you can take it out in the rain!
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I saw the Olympus Stylus 780 at the 2007 PMA tradeshow in Las Vegas and couldn’t wait to try it. It’s got all the makings of a great pocket-sized, outdoor and travel camera. The weatherproof body, Dual iS image stabilization, new TruePic III processor, a 5x zoom lens, and sensitivity up to ISO 1600 make for a powerful and flexible compact digital camera camera. Plus, I’ve enjoyed my experience with other Olympus Stylus digital cameras. So I told them to put me at the top of the list to review the Stylus 780.
I got the camera a few weeks ago and have used it almost every day, mostly for outdoor photos on hikes, mountain bike rides, and trips to the park with the dog. I’ve also taken a lot of flower pictures since my yard and the mountains are in full bloom.
The Olympus Stylus 780 digital camera has a great set of features. Pocket-sized, weatherproof point-and-shoot performance is the name of the game with the Olympus Stylus line, which began back in 1991 with the Olympus Stylus/mju 35mm point-and-shoot camera. With a 5x optical zoom lens, 2.5-inch LCD, mechanical and electronic image stabilization, and a weatherproof body, the Stylus 780 has a pedigree and all the parts to make a great take-everywhere digital camera.
For me, the most important feature on the Olympus Stylus 780 is the image stabilization. (Learn more about image stabilization) The 780 uses what Olympus calls “Dual iS” image stabilization. It’s “dual” because the camera has both mechanical image stabilization (MIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS). Olympus’ Sensor Shift image stabilization – the mechanical part of the system, helps compensate for camera shake when you’re taking pictures in low light. Electronic image stabilization uses high ISO settings to help freeze action. EIS is activated either by choosing the “High Auto” ISO setting in the Function menu or one of the three scene modes that use electronic image stabilization for action or low light photography.
The Olympus Stylus 780 doesn’t have advanced exposure modes like aperture priority or metered manual. It has a program mode that offers exposure adjustment via exposure compensation, an pure point-and-shoot Auto mode, and 22 scene modes ranging from standards like Landscape and Portrait, to more specialized modes like Underwater Wide and Auction. Each scene mode includes a description of what the mode is for and how it helps capture that type of subject. There’s also a Shooting Guide menu, which lists different types of subjects and photo problems with detailed instructions for how to best capture them with the Stylus 780.
Olympus Stylus 780 – SCN Mode Menu
Olympus Stylus 780 – GUIDE Menu
There are two macro modes with a dedicated button on the back of the camera. One lets you focus at 7.9-inches/20 cm at wide zoom and 23.6-inches/60 cm at the telephoto end of the zoom. The other, Super macro mode, fixes the zoom and allows you to focus as close as 1.2-inches/3 cm – that’s close!
In the Hi drive mode, the Olympus Stylus 780 can capture 3.5 images per second for up to 11 frames. Flash and ISO settings are limited in the Hi drive mode, and the resolution is restricted to 2048 x 1536 pixels (3.1 megapixels). But the flash will strobe in the Hi drive mode and that’s very impressive.
The 5x f/3.5-5.0 optical zoom lens is equivalent to a 36-180mm lens on a 35mm film camera. That’s a pretty good range for a camera that fits in the pocket of your jeans. It’s capable of getting in pretty close to most subjects and works great for zooming in for landscape photos. However, the 36mm wide end isn’t really what I consider wide.
There are a couple of other features that should be mentioned: Shadow Adjustment Technology and the Panorama scene mode. Essentially, the Panorama scene mode is a built-in stitching system that helps the photographer create a panoramic image in the camera. You have to use an Olympus xD memory card and the included Olympus Master software in order to use the Panorama scene mode. Shadow Adjust has a dedicated button on the back of the camera that simply and automatically compensates for contrasty lighting or backlit subjects.
Olympus Stylus 780 shooting mode display w. info and histogram
Olympus Stylus 780 Function menu
Olympus Stylus 780 menu navigation
Olympus Stylus 780 main menu
Olympus Stylus 780 playback mode display w. info
Olympus Stylus 780 playback mode display w. info and histogram
The Olympus Stylus 780′s most important design element isn’t readily visible. In order to protect delicate mechanical parts and sensitive electronics, rubber gaskets protect all openings on the camera.
Two-thirds of the camera back are dedicated to the 2.5-inch HyperCrystal LCD. Like most compact digital cameras now, the Olympus Stylus 780 has no optical viewfinder. Camera controls are placed well, with everything in reach of your right index finger and thumb. I like the Function button, which gives quick access to often used controls like ISO and white balance. Dedicated buttons give even easier access to the most important controls – exposure, flash, macro and self-timer. There’s also a Mode Dial for choosing the shooting mode, viewing photos, using the Guide mode.
I like point-and-shoot cameras that actually fit in my pocket. And in spite of having some big camera features, the Olympus Stylus 780 will fit in a shirt or jeans pocket. That means you can have it with you all the time, ready to get the shot – no matter what the place or occasion.
I’m always on the lookout for digital point-and-shoot cameras that can do serious trail duty with minimal compromise. The Olympus Stylus 780 is tiny and packs a lot of power along with excellent features. I was excited about it having actual mechanical image stabilization. In my experience, mechanical image stabilization is invaluable because it means I can shoot in lower light and use lower ISO settings for less noise, hence better image quality. I’m also a long-time fan of the weatherproof Stylus line. I am in the outdoors in all kinds of weather and a camera that can handle some moisture gives me a lot more confidence.
I didn’t have a real opportunity to test the Stylus 780′s weatherproofing because it never really rained while I had it. However, I gave it a couple of good blasts with the hose, just for a photo. It performed just fine after that. And based on my experience with other Olympus Stylus digital cameras, I am not at all concerned about using the 780 in the rain. Olympus has the weatherproof thing down.
For the most part, camera performance was very good. The new TruePic III processor is very good, making the camera quick, and delivering very usable images at high ISO settings. I was actually unprepared and happily surprised by the high ISO performance of the Olympus Stylus 780. I’ve come to expect mediocre to terrible quality from compact digital cameras at sensitivity settings over ISO 400. But Olympus has done a great job in this area. I’m a little uncomfortable about what I’m going to say next, because it goes against what we’ve all come to expect from compact digital cameras. But I’ve checked and re-checked and I believe that the 780 has absolutely usable ISO 1600. If you doubt, I suggest you download the full resolution version of the image above and print it to see for yourself. Normally I try to use the lowest ISO possible to minimize noise and optimize image quality. After using the 780 for a couple of weeks, I think I would actually try to shoot at ISO 200 or even 400 most of the time so that the camera can use a smaller aperture and faster shutter speeds. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, rest assured that the Olympus Stylus 780′s auto and scene modes will serve you well and you’ll get better photos in low light than you have with previous digital cameras. Olympus has done an amazingly good job with their TruePic III camera processor. Every type of photographer will benefit from the improved image quality and low light performance.
There were a couple of problems with the camera. One is that it doesn’t display exposure settings. It does have a histogram display to help judge exposure. But I like to be able to see the shutter speed the camera is using so that I know if I’m going to get a sharp photo. In my opinion, this is a major omission and it makes it hard for me to really get the most out of the camera. The average photographer might not care. But anyone who has a little camera experience is likely to want to know what shutter speed the camera is selecting. Knowing your shutter speed allows you to decide whether a photo is possible and the best technique to use.
Since the majority of my serious photography is of mountain bikers, I always take test cameras out on the trail. I had high hopes for the 780 as a mountain bike camera. However, like yours truly on the dirt jumps, it falls short. It’s really hard to take panning photos with only an LCD display. An optical viewfinder is more accurate and you pan better with the camera braced against your eye. And although it’s comparable to most cameras in its class, the 36mm wide angle zoom isn’t wide enough for tight trail photos. Finally, the flash is very weak. When shooting in the woods, the standard technique is to use the flash and follow the rider (pan). The lack of an optical viewfinder and a weak flash made it next to impossible for me to get a clean panning shot. Panning shots in the woods resulted in spookily dark photos of decapitated riders. Also, unless you’re using the Hi drive mode with its lower resolution, the shot-to-shot time makes it easy to miss a shot. It takes the camera a while to process and save an image. However, if you’re willing to use the Hi drive mode and shoot 3-megapixel photos, then the 780 is pretty quick.
The Olympus Stylus 780 excels at close-up photography. There are two macro modes that allow you to get pretty close. But the Super macro mode allows you to get within 1.2-inches/3 cm of your subject. There’s some distortion around the edges, but since depth-of-field with macro is so limited, it’s not that noticeable. And since the mountains and my yard are full of flowers, I found myself taking lots of close-up flower photos. In fact, I think these flower closeups – especially the ones I took after some rain – are the best photos I took with the 780. The mechanical image stabilization makes a big difference for a lazy photographer like me, too. Normally, a tripod would be necessary for these photos. But I did all right shooting handheld. If you like to take close-up pictures then this camera works very, very well. The mechanical image stabilization also makes it possible to take slow exposures of moving water, for that silky look. Normally, without a tripod, the image below would be all blurry because of my shaky hands. But the Stylus 780′s mechanical image stabilization, a few tries, and some careful bracing and breathing, made this come out very nicely, in spite of the super slow 1/13th of a second shutter speed.
Now the bad news. As wonderful as the design and features of the Olympus Stylus 780 are, the camera is spoiled for me by some hard to avoid lens problems. I took a lot of pictures with this camera. And I started to notice that many of them had soft spots that couldn’t be attributed to anything but a lens problem. Since I shot a lot of outdoor photos, I kept thinking the soft spots might be wind on leaves. But I did some very controlled tests to confirm the problem and discovered that the spots were there, in the same place, no matter what the subject. I then asked Olympus for another camera, in case I just got a bad one. The second camera had the same problem. Photos taken in low light, with the aperture wide open have soft spots around the middle of the frame. Click on the image below to view the high-res file and scroll around to see the soft spots. This would have been a very nice photo if it weren’t for the mushy areas.
There is a possible solution to the lens problem. Actually it’s more of a workaround, but it will help. Since the soft spot only occurs when the lens is wide open, using a higher sensitivity setting should avoid it. And since the Stylus 780 has such impressive high ISO performance, this is a realistic strategy for minimizing the problem. However, it’s a problem that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I like to always use the lowest sensitivity setting a camera offers, so I can get the best possible image quality. With the 780, I have to compromise ultimate image quality in order to avoid the soft spots. That’s a bummer.
Generally, I find that Olympus digital camera image quality isn’t quite as good as I’d like. That’s not to say it’s bad. I have tons of photos I’ve taken with Olympus digital cameras that I’m very pleased with. It’s just that Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and Nikon are usually a little better. The Olympus Stylus 780 is consistent with that experience. However, I was very pleased with the noise levels at high ISO settings. Olympus’ new TruePic III processor does a really excellent job at reducing noise and I have no problem using this camera at ISO 400, 800, and even 1600! The Stylus 780′s high ISO performance was a big surprise for me and I think it’s the most impressive part of the camera.
There’s a noticeable absence of purple fringing in Stylus 780 images. I’m not saying there isn’t any. But it’s much improved since the last Olympus Stylus digital camera I tested (Olympus Stylus 720 SW) and it’s not obvious enough to matter.
I almost always use auto white balance with point-and-shoot digital cameras. Olympus Stylus 780 color is pretty good, although there is occasional white balance wackiness, with darker images having a somewhat warm, reddish hue. Shadow and highlight details are preserved fairly well, although highlights have more of a tendency to blow out than with some other cameras I’ve used. Careful exposure, using the histogram will take care of this. Most point-and-shoot photographers likely won’t notice or care. But the camera does tend to lose some sky and cloud detail. And that’s always disappointing if you’re taking landscape or other outdoor pictures. Auto exposure metering is very good and aside from the highlight problem, I rarely had an exposure that really disappointed me. Most of the photos you see accompanying this review have had at least some adjustment in Photoshop. That being the case, they should be viewed as representing the ultimate potential of the camera and not what it delivers at the most basic point-and-shoot level. For pure, untouched image quality, it’s best to look at the studio sample photos.
Detail is very good. However, I often lost critical details in low light due to the soft spots I mentioned in the Camera Experience section. I checked and rechecked and neither focus nor noise was the problem. But there are distinct soft spots in many images, where important textural details like leaves, branches, and rocks are too soft. And what might have great photos are throwaways. Basically, a very nice camera has been seriously compromised by a lens problem.
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.
There are so many good things about the Olympus Stylus 780. It fits in your pocket, it’s quick, it’s weatherproof, the image stabilization works great, and the high ISO performance is amazing for a compact digital camera. But no matter how much I want to like it, I can’t ignore the 780′s lens problems. The Olympus Stylus 780 might have been a great camera. But not with this lens. Aside from the weatherproof body, there are other cameras that offer a lot of the same features and functionality. Unless you’re a photographer that shoots in bright, perfect light, where the lens won’t reveal its flaws, you don’t care about small details, or you need the weatherproof design, the 780 is likely to disappoint you, as it did me. Hopefully, the camera designers at Olympus will read this and go the extra mile on the next Stylus digital camera. I want it all. And I know they can do it.
Who Should Buy It
Pardon me, but I’m going to backtrack a little here. No one makes an outdoor point-and-shoot camera like Olympus. If you spend a lot of time hiking, boating, fishing, biking, skiing, or doing anything where a pocket-sized, weatherproof digital camera will come in handy, the Olympus Stylus 780 may serve you well. The only caveat is you must be aware of the camera’s limitations. If you aren’t super picky about image quality and don’t plan on shooting masterpieces or printing larger than 8×10, then the 780 is a smart, worthy camera. There are so many good things about it that everyone will like. But if you’re an experienced, demanding photographer, used to looking closely at your images, then I would advise you to steer clear of the Olympus Stylus 780. Unless I happened to get two bad samples, I predict the lens will let you down.
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