Although it lacks gee-whiz features and manual controls, the Olympus FE-120 offers budget-minded snapshot photographers decent image quality and a street price that qualifies as a genuine bargain for a 6-megapixel camera.
The Olympus FE-120 is otherwise stuffed with me-too features, including a modest 3X optical zoom, a 1.8-inch LCD that tends to wash out in bright sunlight, and 14MB of internal memory augmented by a 32MB xD-Picture Card. Easy to operate because it doesn't give you much to adjust, the FE-120 provides 19 shooting modes, macro capabilities that zoom down to within an inch of your subject, and a robust continuous-shooting mode that can capture 20 full-resolution images at a 1.1fps clip. Autofocus performance is poor, however, and motion-picture resolution is limited to 320x240 pixels. Even so, priced only $30 to $50 more than its 4-and 5-megapixel stablemates, the Olympus and , this top-end version is easily the most desirable of the bunch. The solid, silver-textured Olympus FE-120 weighs 7 ounces and is compact enough to carry in a large pocket. While its balance isn't quite right for one-handed shooting, those with small hands can probably find a grip that will allow thumbing the back-mounted zoom-rocker switch while keeping an index finger poised over the top shutter-release button. Everyone else will be more comfortable holding the camera with two hands while composing an image on the coarse 85,000-pixel LCD.
The only controls on the top surface are a recessed power button and a shutter release. You adjust all settings with a minimalist array of keys on the back panel. These include the zoom rocker; a trash/delete key; a four-way cursor pad with a central OK/Menu button; a pair of buttons that switch between recording and viewing modes; and a knurled mode dial for choosing programmed exposure, full auto, or one of the scene modes. Each of the arrow keys controls other functions, including a 12-second self-timer (left), auto/red-eye/fill/off flash options (right), macro mode (up), and exposure compensation of plus or minus 2EV in 1/2EV increments (down).
You can adjust all the other settings--and there aren't too many of them--from the menu system. Options include resolution, a continuous-shooting mode, memory formatting, and a few camera settings, such as date/time and LCD brightness. White balance is the primary image adjustment; there's no provision for changing ISO (which the camera sets automatically between ISO 50 and ISO 320), metering, or autofocus mode. Except for a zippy burst mode and admirable macro capabilities, the Olympus FE-120 offers a plain-vanilla feature set. The 3X zoom lens's 38mm-to-114mm range isn't usefully wide or especially long, but it will get the job done if you're willing to take a step forward or backward to make up for its limited scope. However, you can take quite a few steps forward to put the able macro capabilities to work. The ordinary macro mode autofocuses from about 8 inches to 24 inches, while the supermacro option is good down to 0.8 inch.
The camera automatically sets the exposure between 1/2,000 second and 4 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4.9, so it's a better choice for sports photography than for low-light shooting. Despite the lack of manual-exposure options, 19 shooting modes will cover you in just about any situation. In addition to programmed and full-auto operation, the scene modes include Portrait, Sports, Landscape, Night Scene, Night Scene/Portrait, Landscape/Portrait, Cuisine, Beach, Snow, Candle, Fireworks, Indoor, Sunset, Behind Glass, Available Light Portrait, and Self Portrait.
Because the AA battery power source provides more juice than the typical compact camera's rechargeable cell, the working range of the Olympus FE-120's flash extends out to a decent 12.1 feet at the wide-angle setting (ISO unspecified) but only about 7 feet when using the telephoto.
The Olympus FE-120 can merge two shots into one and create panoramas of up to 10 frames. Other fun features are tucked away in the playback menu, where you can add a colorful frame to your image; change the tones to sepia or black-and-white; resize an image; zoom in up to 5X; and view thumbnails in 4-, 9-, and 16-picture arrays. You can also set up PictBridge direct printing and DPOF print orders from the playback menu. The bright spot in our performance tests was the Olympus FE-120's lively burst mode. We managed to shoot 20 full-resolution images in 17.2 seconds before the buffer filled up. When we reduced the resolution to 640x480, this camera cranked out 155 shots in 120 seconds before we halted the test. The onscreen buffer indicator hadn't started to dip, so presumably we could have continued shooting until we filled up the memory card.
Other performance figures were less impressive. First-shot time was a poky 4.9 seconds, and shot-to-shot figures slowed from one picture every 2.6 seconds without flash to 3.2 seconds with the flash activated. Shutter lag seemed interminable at 1.3 seconds when shooting a bright and contrasty subject, and because the camera has no autofocus-assist lamp, lag reached an excruciating 2.1 seconds under low-contrast illumination.
The LCD worked well indoors and gained up sufficiently in dim light, but full sunlight easily washed it out. Those who purchase the Olympus FE-120 for the quality of its images will be pleased by its overall sharpness and broad tonal range. In outdoor shooting, it provided lots of detail in shadow areas but also exposed blue skies well, showing plenty of texture in fluffy clouds. Images were sharp, although JPEG artifacts became apparent under extreme enlargement; you can expect to print detailed images of 8x10 inches and beyond. A touch of purple fringing around backlit subjects was the most obvious optical problem with the Olympus lens.
Colors were neutral, with only average saturation; the ability to add in-camera saturation would have been useful. We noticed a blue/cyan color cast in outdoor pictures, and results under indoor illumination were a tad warm, whether we used automatic white balance or the tungsten preset. Noise levels were low at ISO 80 and not too bad at the maximum ISO 320, especially when the Olympus FE-120's automatic noise-reduction feature kicked in for exposures longer than half a second. This camera selects ISO settings automatically--you can't make adjustments yourself. Flash exposures came out even, and the camera's preflash red-eye-reduction feature did a good job preventing crimson pupils.