RISC World

Digital Photography World

Paul Johnson on the Sony Mavica cameras

Once upon a time digital cameras once were split into two camps, the memory ones and the Sony Mavica....

The Mavica was the first of the digital cameras to store it's pictures in a totally different way to a normal internal memory card camera. It used a floppy disc. This meant that to access your pictures, it mattered not a jot which computer you used as it didn't need specialist software or leads. On a RISC OS machine, you copy the files, put them through ChangeFSI and view them using which ever application you want.

Why through ChangeFSI?

Well, even though the pictures produced where in JFIF format, they had a strange header on them which ChangeFSI would strip off to produce a normal JPEG. Some other applications could not load the files produced by the Mavica, once again the bundling of ChangeFSI with all RISC OS computers has been shown to be a wise move.

The camera

The camera itself resembled a 10 pack of floppy discs, was grey with a very large viewfinder LCD on the back panel. It was also rather heavy (it weighed about the same as a pint of milk!), but there ended the problems. Other than a 35mm SLR camera, I have yet to see as many features on a camera. The zoom goes from 1:3 macro to a very wide angle (32mm). The upshot of this is that no matter where you are standing, you'll get a good photo. The flash is good for up to 30 feet (10 meters) again, better than some of the higher priced, low end flash guns available.

The images were stored on a conventional PC formatted 1.44Mb floppy. If you didn't have a means of formatting the disc, the camera could do it for you. These had two resolutions; high and low. High was 640 x 480, low 600 x 400. A disc could take around 20 high resolution and 35 low resolution photos.

The pictures could also have effects applied to them.

With the flick of a button, you could have sepia, black and white, inverted and full colour. A soft focus (read out of focus at the edges) was envisaged, but never came around, the shutter speed wasn't up to the task.

The viewfinder at the rear was 2 inches square. Under normal recording operation, the picture could be lightened on the finder (and indeed, on the picture itself - this is known as "pushing" on a conventional SLR, though it was through a different method). The definition wasn't that amazing, but was good enough of most users.

The menu system (play mode) was very good, but could be a bit of a pain to get to. Under the viewfinder there was a thumb control (something akin to a 2p coin, bevelled in the middle). To get the menu, you had to press it in. Sounds simple. No. The control also had micro switches to detect other movements of the control. It was entirely possible to select menu and delete a picture without noticing.

When in play mode, you could view 4 pictures at once (and using the thumb control) move the yellow box to the picture you want to see, a press of the button and the full size picture was shown. Very useful if you had a lot of pictures.

Of course, if you didn't like a picture, you could delete it.

Camera battery life was good (it was a rechargeable). Very early models had a problem with the floppy discs. In a nutshell, it scratched the surface of the discs and made them unusable - sounds like the X-Box ;-)

The actual taking of the picture was easy once you understood how it worked. On a conventional camera, a shutter control has two (or more) stages. The first is the half press. This gives access to see what the picture will look like, display the apature and speed settings and the such. The second stage was to take the picture.

Quite a few 35mm pocket cameras had this function, except that it would give a short burst of light in a vain attempt to avoid "red-eye". Not many digital cameras had that function. The Mavica had a variation.

The first half press framed the picture. People could move, but the camera would give off a pulsed red light (this did reduce red eye). The next took the picture. If the flash was selected or the auto flash was selected, then the flash would go off on the full press. The Mavica also had a backlight facility on the flash. Backlight is, as the name suggests, a backlighting facility. Normally, if you take a picture of someone with the sun directly onto them, there will be a large amount of shadow. A backlight pulses the flash at either a lower power rating or much quicker in order to illuminate the shadow areas.

The camera also came with an auto timer (the time was user adjustable) - almost unheard of at the time for digital cameras.

I suppose the biggest turn off was that at a shade under 800 UKP for the camera, strap, battery and charger was just out of the pocket for most people. Indeed, I only managed to get my grubby mits on it as the research group at Salford Uni bought one. They decided on that as the leader of the group was using a Mac at the time, and I only used RISC OS machines for my project work. About a month after getting the camera, my son was born - a lucky coincidence.

Using it with RISC OS

As I said at the start, as the camera required nothing special to transfer the images, nothing was needed to get going. JPEGs can be played with with most RISC OS packages (even Artworks now has JPEG facilities thanks to Martin Wurthener) and has the advantage of already being compressed, so gives 24 bit colour without a large memory overhead.

If you had an OS 2 machine and a PC emulator, there would be no problems with the pictures, though ChangeFSI for OS 2 was only a command line program (and I am not sure if it would strip the odd stuff from the header of the picture).

With no problems displaying the images and printing them (other than having to endure !Printers) and no special hardware, you could say that this is the perfect camera for RISC OS users.

The Mavica has undergone quite a number of changes in its history with a price reduction to a friendlier 400 UKP. The resolution has improved no end (it is now 800x600 as well as the other two modes) and it also now compresses the files to have more on the disc. As always though, the files are normal JPEGS (the header having long since been dropped).

In short, if you are interested in a digital camera that can be used on almost any computer, its worth hunting out a Sony Mavica.

Paul Johnson