The Sony Mavica FD7

Note: This article, written in 1998, has mostly historical value. All opinions and judgements shown here were, I believe, valid at the time of writing. When I'm updating this note (April, 2003), the digital camera technology is much more advanced, and in this view the Mavica FD-7 seems, of course outdated and crude. Still, it was a milestone, or almost so.

Some cameras of the 1998/99 vintage are aging gracefully, still quite usable and capable of good results. Unfortunately, the Mavica is not one of them.

Sony is still making some cameras of the Mavica FD line. These which I could try out do not deserve a recommendation.

Still, the particular camera reviewed here is, after six years, still alive and working well in hands of a young family friend in Poland, who is getting surprisingly good results, often turning the camera limitations into strong points of his images. Once again, the most important factor is the photographer...

An educated layman's review

In 1997 I decided to buy a digital camera. The concept of virtually unlimited, cheap storage of images directly on floppies looked like a great thing, and the other specs were also quite impressive — this is why I have chosen the Sony Mavica MVC-FD7.

After having used the camera for six months or so (although not as much as I could wish), I wrote this brief summary of my findings.

Update of November '98: Recently Sony replaced the FD-7 with a very similar model, FD-71. This camera is a little smaller than its predecessor, but the differences in specs remain rather insignificant. The floppy drive speed has been increased, and there is an "uncompressed" mode, where you can save just one picture on a diskette without image compression. Otherwise most of my remarks here are relevant to the new model as well.

Look and feel: The camera is large and blocky (it weights about 600g or 1.3 lb), although quite handy to hold and use. It also seems to be well-made and looks generally nice, especially after you get rid of all these stickers Sony put on the body for I don't know what purpose.
Controls: Logically placed and convenient to use. Many functions are accessed via a nifty rocker switch (like a chopped-off joystick) on the back, with the visual feedback right in the LCD screen.
The rocker switch is used to add exposure compensation, to review stored pictures and to access some less frequently used settings from a menu. Other functions have their own, well-marked buttons or sliders: changing the lens angle, activating the flash, switching between picture-taking and replay modes, etc.
You don't need to look into the user manual (and that's good, as the one provided with the camera is not worth much).
Lens: The lens is a 10:1 zoom, with the focal length range of 4.2-42 mm (equivalent to 40-400 mm on a 35mm camera). Very impressive, although somewhat missing at the short end, of limited use indoors. An equivalent of a 28-135 mm lens would be, I think, more useful. The maximum aperture varies from f/1.8 to f/2.9, depending on the focal length.
This is a "real", optical zoom, as opposed to an "electronic" one, where zooming in is done by using only the image information from the central part of the image sensor, with possible interpolation to improve the apparent sharpness.
It is hard to tell how good the lens is, as the image quality is limited by the sensor resolution; it seems to be adequate within these limitations.
There is no lens hood or any other flare protection built in. Sony also does not bother specifying the lens f/stop range; this isn't something they want you to worry your pretty little head about.
Flash: The camera has a flash built in. The bad news is that the flash is not very smart, always firing at full power. According to the specs, the distance for flash pictures is from 2 to 4 meters (7 to 13 ft), but expect that pictures taken from less than 8 feet will be usually burned out, these taken from distances greater than 10 ft will be underexposed.
You can buy a $50 pocket camera now with a flash pumping just as much power as needed. This improves the pictures and saves the batteries. The manufacturer's cost of the appropriate circuitry is perhaps 50 cents. Why wouldn't Sony put it on their $700 flagship camera?
The flash is activated with a button on the camera back. It stays on for just one picture, so that you will always forget to press it again. Most irritating.
Viewfinder: The FD7 has a relatively large (2 inches diagonal) LCD viewfinder, just fine for framing your pictures (and doing a fine job as a control screen). With the limited pixel resolution, however, it cannot really be used to judge the quality of the focus, therefore the manual focusing option is not too useful.
Although the LCD viewfinder provides accurate framing (no parallax!), it gets dark outdoors, especially in bright sun. The finder brightness control does not help much here. Even a simple optical viewfinder would help a lot (with an additional benefit of saving battery power). Besides, viewing with your arm extended does not provide a steady grip; a camera shake (especially at the telephoto lens setting) is more than likely.
Power source: The lithium-ion battery pack included with the camera has the claimed life of 1.5 hrs and lives up to this claim. If you switch the FD7 off when not in use (to avoid drain by the LCD viewfinder), this is more than enough for a weekend trip; very impressive! The battery status is shown in the LCD display and the readout seems to be accurate.
A fast charger is included with the camera; it is quite large (about 4×1×1.5 in) but not heavy (less than 5 oz, or 120g). Most importantly, it will work with both the U.S. and European voltage (110 vs. 220V).
Storage: This is why I bought this camera: it stores images on a 3.5' floppy (it will even format one, if asked to). The images are stored in the compressed JPEG format (as .jpg files, readable by any graphic program), so the number of frames fitting on a disk will vary. Expect about 20 pictures in the "fine quality" mode (1:5 compression ratio), per floppy; double that in "standard quality" (compression 1:10).
Images may be reviewed on the LCD viewfinder and you may delete on the spot any you do not want to keep. After a picture is taken, the camera needs about seven seconds to process it and write to disk — a delay comparable to that in many cameras using solid state storage.
Exposure: Sony does not want you to bother with things like exposure settings (or even to know what settings does the camera choose for you). You have the general mode and five autoexposure programs to choose from: landscape, portrait, sport, beach and night. There is nothing about the aperture or shutter speed range in the user manual.
In addition to autoexposure programs, a number of "picture effects" is selectable with a press of a button: pastel, sepia, monochrome and negative (referred to as "negative art" — oh, how I like being treated as an idiot in the morning!). I found these "effects" useless: the simplest graphic program will allow me to do much more interesting things to my pictures.
In low light conditions (or under fluorescent light), however, switching into monochrome may bring, an improvement in image quality. Too bad this is never mentioned in the manual.
Image tonality: Under good light conditions the image tonality is more than satisfactory. Most of the outdoors pictures taken under sunny conditions look good, and a look at the equalization histogram confirms this impression: the available tonal range is used optimally or almost so. (Under diffused light the pictures tend to be too dark, with the upper half of the tonal range is mostly not used.)
Image resolution: Most of magazine reviews judge the image resolution by its nominal value: a camera with 800×600 pixels, for example, will be judged higher than one storing 640×480 images.

From this viewpoint the 640×480 nominal resolution of the FD7 looks quite good (at least in this price range).

Now the bad news: the real resolution of pictures from this camera is significantly worse than the number of pixels would indicate. Even a casual look at a picture from the FD7 will reveal vertical scan lines, at least two pixels thick. A 640×480 Mavica shot viewed on the screen will just look unsharp.
Documentation: Simply speaking, quite useless and, on top of that, offending your intelligence. Sony seems to have problems telling difference between promotional blurb and user documentation. People, I'm not an idiot (at least not all the time)! I already shelled out my $700 to buy the bloody thing so the last thing I need the user manual to tell me is that I'm going to take great pictures (whatever that means). Pleeze! I already bought it, now tell me what I need to know!
The manual contains virtually no technical information — like exposure range or degree of the JPEG compression. It refers a number of times to "frame" and "field" modes without even mentioning what they are (and understanding this helps in using the camera better); I have already seen promotional brochures containing more useful information than this manual. Sorry, Sony, I feel disappointed and offended.
(I am not in a position to give advice to a giant corporation, but if they could hire someone who knows how to write in English...)

Should you buy a Mavica?

This is not an easy question. First of all, it will not replace your film camera, even a $10 disposable, but this is not its intended use.

From the image quality viewpoint some Kodak models offer better results at the same (or lower) price, but the convenience of almost unlimited storage capacity (you can buy extra floppies at your local supermarket after midnight!) may be very appealing to some.

What bothers me is that Sony just made an adequate camera, being so close to making a good one. There are two features badly missing in the FD7: an optical viewfinder and a smart, automated flash. The first omission seriously limits the camera usability outdoors, the second, ironically — indoors. Looks like someone spent some time coming up with two flaws to impact the result as much as possible.

Most of the Mavica users on the Web seem to be quite happy with the camera (or even enthusiastic about it). I am not unhappy with my FD7, but I would expect more. If you need to make a decision, check what the others say, than make your mind — and whatever you decide, don't blame me!

Sample pictures

One of my test picture series, shot in all possible modes (with a tripod to eliminate camera shake).

The reduced 280×210 picture shown here has been slightly equalized and sharpened. For comparison (and to see the scan lines), see the raw, full-size image (fine quality, frame mode).

Digital cameras (not just the Mavica) are still having problems with large, saturated color areas: the red is bleeding. A $6 disposable camera loaded with film would do a better job here. Still, not too bad...

Mavica pictures look acceptably sharp only when reduced to 320×240 pixels or less, with some extra image manipulation (mostly sharpening and, occasionally, a little of equalization).

This is not an easy subject: mostly whites and grays, and the camera did a respectable job here. The reduced version underwent just some sharpening and a touch of equalization. Click here for a full-size, raw image.

More Mavica pictures can be found in my Outer Banks, Annapolis and Hook Going Places pages.

I took a series of such mug shots for my employer's corporate Web page. A larger (although also touched-up and reduced in size) version of this picture may be viewed by clicking here.

For this purpose the Mavica is hard to beat: five minutes from shooting to posting on the server. Besides, being able to take twenty pictures and to review them on the spot increases the chances for having one approved by both the photographer and the choosy subject.

Setting the zoom lens to a longer focal length allows to get a more pleasing perspective and allows to use fill-in flash avoiding disastrous overexposure.

Other resources

(Unfortunately, none of the links listed in the original version of this article are alive any longer, so this section had to be removed.)

My Mavica photographs

Here are some of my pages, illustrated with pictures taken with the Mavica.

Outer Banks, North Carolina: If you like long, empty (and drivable) beaches, warm weather, good seafood and simple life, consider Outer Banks for your next seaside vacation.

Annapolis, Maryland in the United States: a state capital, historic town dating back to the 17th century, becoming more and more a popular Summer trip destination, and for good reasons. Besides, I live ten miles from here.

Hook in Hampshire, England: a small, very British town one hour south by train from London. Nothing special, not much to see or to do, yet I like it.

Mavica® and Sony® are registered trademarks of Sony Corporation.
This page is not sponsored or endorsed by Sony and presents the views of the author.

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Posted March 1998; last updated 2003/04/12 Copyright © 1998-2003 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak