If you're one of those consumers who are amazed that anyone would spend $300, $500, or more for a digital camera, but you still want to take good photos, the Olympus D-545 Zoom is aimed at you. With its 4-megapixel sensor, 3X zoom lens, numerous preprogrammed shooting modes, and compact design, it offers a lot for the money. On the downside, it won't give you any advanced features, and its photo quality doesn't rise above its budget class.
The D-545 camera body is constructed mostly of plastic, with an attractive brushed-silver-colored finish that doesn't scream bargain basement. It feels strong enough to withstand a reasonable number of knocks and drops. With its retractable lens and its built-in lens cover, you could get by without purchasing a carrying case.
The shooting and playback buttons, the mode dial, the zoom toggle, the delete button, and the five-way navigation array are clustered to one side of the back panel. That configuration is convenient to reach with your right thumb and strongly favors one-handed operation. Fortunately, that's not a problem, given the camera's oblong shape and comfortable 6.7-ounce weight.
You won't find an optical viewfinder on this camera, but its 1.8-inch LCD is adequate for composing shots; however, it's not as large as the screens on some slightly more expensive compact models. Fortunately, it's bright and holds up fairly well in direct sunlight. The screen's menus are scaled proportionally, with clearly defined text, uncluttered icons, and color highlights that guide the eye.
Two AA batteries power the D-545. You should plan to pick up a couple of nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable cells and a charger since only alkalines are included. There's also no xD-Picture Card in the box to supplement the meager 14MB of built-in memory, so this Olympus isn't quite as big a bargain as it first seems. Expect to spend an additional $35 or more if you don't have rechargeable AAs or an xD-Picture Card already.
At this camera's price, you can't expect too much in the way of features. Olympus offers no real surprises and keeps the extras to a minimum. There's a collection of automatic scene modes, which include Portrait, Self-Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Sport, Landscape+Portrait, and Night+Portrait. The plain programmed-automatic mode promises adjustable control, though it adds menu options only for shot variations (digital zoom, panorama, or two-in-one photo) and white-balance settings. The panorama option lets you shoot as many as 10 frames that are then automatically stitched together with the supplied Olympus Master Software. In addition, there's a 320x240 video-recording mode and a burst mode that snaps as many as 9 photos in 6.6 seconds.
The lens compares favorably with those on cameras that cost two or three times as much. With an aperture range of f/2.8 to f/4.9, it is reasonably fast for an entry-level camera and should serve well for capturing low-light photos. The 3X optical zoom gives you a range equivalent to that of a 38mm-to-114mm lens on a 35mm-film camera, which doesn't give you much in the wide-angle department.
One thing we found irritating about the D-545 was the way it automatically reverted to its default photo-quality setting. If you prefer the best-quality SHQ setting for your photos, expect to reselect it each time you turn on the camera. No matter how many times we chose SHQ, the camera always reverted to the HQ setting. While both modes have a 2,288x1,712 resolution, SHQ uses less compression.
On a brighter note, our tests showed somewhat better than average performance. The D-545's wake-up-to-first-shot time of 3.7 seconds is quite respectable for a sub-$200 camera. Its shot-to-shot time of 2.1 seconds without the flash is also relatively fast for its category, and the 2.3-second shot-to-shot time with the flash is fast for almost any category of consumer-oriented digital camera. Not having to wait long for the flash to recharge is a big benefit for indoor action shots.
The camera's image quality was mixed. Our test shots showed good color accuracy and saturation levels, as well as a broad dynamic range for shots from an entry-level camera, with ample detail in shadows and highlights. Focus accuracy, however, was uneven. As a result, some of our photos were softer than expected. In the end, you get what you pay for. If you're interested in snapshots from an inexpensive, knockabout camera, the Olympus D-545 Zoom may fit your needs. But if you plan to make 8x10 or larger prints, consider spending an additional $50 to $100 for a more capable model.