Point & Shoot: Best-buy compact

Recipe For Cheap, Good Photography.



True story: Six years ago a Big-Time Photo Magazine Editor (BTPME) told you about a camera with these juicy specs:

• 35mm f/2.8 aspheric lens that, at moderate apertures, could resolve to just under 90 lines/mm;
• highly accurate wide-area and spot autofocus that worked in total darkness;
• 4-1/1000 sec shutter with flash sync at all speeds;
• evaluative metering that read color as well as light level, plus spotmeter;
• autofill flash with both flashmatic and sensor automation;
• weatherproofing.

Did he tell you it also fit into a very small shirt pocket? You bet he did. When you found out it cost about $179, you broke down the doors to the camera store.

Another true story: Same BTPME tells people today the same camera is available for $79, and they yawn.

You people are so fickle.

So we thought we'd revisit this little camera that, ounce for ounce and dollar for dollar, delivers more sheer picture-taking ability than any film camera we can think of.

You need only look at the baseplate of a current Epic to notice one predictable change: the camera is now assembled in China (from parts made in Japan) rather than entirely in Japan. The fit and finish of the camera seems not to have suffered; the back still needs that firm squeeeeze to compress it reassuringly tight against the weatherproofing gasket.

In many ways the camera remains just as gee-whiz as it was at introduction. F'rinstance: Olympus designed a special stainless-steel shaft drive for the camera, instead of the usual bunch of plastic gear wheels, so that the camera could fit the larger 123A lithium battery instead of the dinkier and wimpier CR-2.

|| |---| | | Makes Cents: $79 in basic black; champagne $10 extra.| Then there's the trick meter. By incorporating a color-sensing system in the meter cell, the Olympus wizards enabled the camera to detect fluorescent light. The Epic will pump out some fill flash to counteract the green, even if there is enough light for an available-light exposure. Not a perfect fix, but it has improved many an office picture.

We thought we'd test the lens on the latest version, and resolution of the four-element lens proved outstanding, center and edge. We got 83 lines/mm center, and 60 lines/mm at the edge. Very low flare was seen, with a small ghost, and only slight corner falloff-both excellent. Distortion was nearly undetectable pincushion. Flash was more than powerful enough at its rated maximum (13.5 feet for ISO 100) and coverage was quite even.

So why don't cameras like these sell? The major reason is zoom envy. Even people who don't really know what a zoom lens is want a camera with a zoom lens. So they will forego a convenient camera with a really sharp lens for...what? To save walking five big steps closer to your subject?

Digital point-and-shoots, of course, are now also seriously cutting into the sales of film cameras, zoom or no zoom.

You may wonder why, six years later, we're tilting at this particular windmill. Well, the Epic is essentially the last of a dying breed, and we think people should know about it before it goes bye-bye. It remains a super camera for serious photographers looking for a pocket pal, and is nice choice for the older kid who's getting into photography but who doesn't quite want to tackle an SLR yet. With today's 800- and 1600-speed color-print films, it's perfect for available-light snapshooting.

And it costs $79. That's the current tithe at reputable stores for the basic black model, U.S. warranty, battery extra. Add 10 bucks for the girlie version with the pretty champagne-finish and the date/time back. Add 10 bucks to either for a kit with case and battery.

And don't say we didn't tell you.

Some Epic Discoveries:
Fast flash: At reasonably close distances (three feet) and ISO 400 or faster film, you can fire off a properly exposed flash shot as fast as you can repress the shutter-nearly once a second.
Speedy shots: The exposure program is biased toward higher shutter speeds. With slower films (ISO 100), you can limit depth of field pretty effectively, especially when shooting close.
Low parallax error: The Epic takes pretty accurate closeups at its minimum focus distance, 14 inches. The trick is a reflex finder that bends the light path to view through a window very close to the lens.
Still Annoying After All These Years
Disco-flash! 16-count 'em-16 stroboscopic bursts as a redeye preventive (and blink producer). We've always turned the dang thing off and used a redeye pen (or Photoshop) later.
The world's most inconvenient spotmeter switch: You have to press two tiny recessed buttons simultaneously. It's every bit as difficult as it looks. We know some Epic owners who don't even know it has a spotmeter.
Invisible warning lights: Not beside, but inside the finder. Particularly troublesome for eyeglass wearers, who have to shift their eye around to see them.
Late, Lamented, and Sharp
Other than premium-priced "posh" point-and-shoots, the last f/2.8 pocketable other than the Oly Epic was the oxymoronically named Big Mini F by Konica (about $180). Descendent of the original autofocus pocket 35 (the Konica A4), the Big Mini F was a solidly made, sharp-lensed camera with some nice features, including basic exposure compensation. Konica never aggressively marketed the camera, and buyers were, typically, indifferent to a non-zoom: the BM-F bit the dust in 2000. Hard to find, even on eBay. Anybody comes by new old stock, give a cyber-holler at www.POPPHOTO.com.