You'll have a hard time taking a bad photo with the Olympus Stylus 780. This compact digicam features a helpful Guide mode and a smattering of manual controls to ensure users of all skill levels get the shot they want the first time. We loved the Bright Capture LCD and new Shadow Adjustment Technology (courtesy of Olympus' new image processor). For $349, we'd like to see an xD card in the box so you could start shooting right away, but otherwise this is a top-notch digicam.
With a total size of only 3.9 x 2.2 x 0.9 inches, we barely noticed the Stylus 780 in our jeans pocket. Though not ruggedized like the Stylus 770 SW--this camera's rough-and-tumble cousin--the 780's aluminum case is quite durable; sand and light rain had no effect on performance, and the 780 still looked new, even after three weeks in a crowded shoulder bag. The 5.1-ounce 780 features a 7.1-megapixel resolution, a gorgeous 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel HyperCrystal display with Olympus' Bright Capture technology, and a 5X optical zoom. Bright Capture helps you frame a low-light shot (whether it's a photo or video) by brightening the LCD screen.
The 780 takes about four seconds to start up, but once on, it was a breeze to operate. Its buttons are well labeled and backlit, but unfortunately, the control dial and a button's second label are not. The menu structure took only a few minutes to learn. A dial on the upper right corner lets you choose from Video, Guide, Scene, Camera, Playback, and My Favorites modes; a D-pad, zoom controls, and five function buttons rest to the right of the LCD, with the anti-shake, shutter, and power buttons on the top of the camera.
The Stylus 780 is the first point-and-shoot to use Olympus' new digital processing engine, the TruePic III Image Processor. This technology allows for mechanical image stabilization (MIS), which helps steady the shot by allowing the image sensor to move along the X- and Y-axes and compensate for movement by the photographer. We took photos of the Manhattan skyline using the Night Scene mode (which took all photos at a four-second exposure and ISO 250), and while the MIS helped steady a freehand shot, the photo was still blurry, though less so than with the MIS off. When we did the same test with the camera rested on a sturdy ledge, the MIS compensated for our shaky hand movement when pushing the shutter to remove any blur we saw without MIS, helping us get a perfect shot.
TruePic III also brings Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT) to the 780, a feature that locks in highlights and opens up shadows to bring out hidden details. We took a self-portrait in a coffee shop with spotty lighting. With SAT off, the flash washed out our face, and the background was dark and nondescript. When SAT was on, the photo was balanced, the subject natural-looking, and the background visible though not overwhelming.
Shooting with the 780 is like taking Digital Photography 101. Guide Mode suggests 14 scenarios you might encounter and then explains what settings to tweak to optimize the shot. We especially appreciated the "Shooting with effects preview," which lets you preview variations of an effect (like zoom or exposure) side by side.
Each one of the 780's 22 preset scene modes offers an explanation on screen, including standards like Beach/Snow, as well as more specialized settings like Cuisine. Shooting in Sunset mode, for instance, brought out the warm oranges, reds, and yellows of the sun setting over the Hudson River. Similarly, a photo of a statue against a cloudless blue sky had more accurate colors and better contrast when the Beach/Snow setting was activated than when it was taken in Auto mode.
The 780 needs only two seconds after clicking the shutter before it's ready to go again. If you want more control, you can tweak the 780's ISO (max is 1600), white balance, and metering. We also liked the superfast drive mode on the 780. Although Olympus claims you get only 3.5 frames per second for up to 11 frames, we held down the shutter for about six seconds and got 26 frames, (4.3 fps). We were even more impressed that we could preview those 26 frames with virtually no processing lag.
Our photos looked great on the 780's vivid 2.5-inch LCD. But for showing to a large audience, the 780 comes with a mini-USB-to-RCA video/audio cable. We connected it to a 22-inch Acer LCD, and the pictures looked very sharp. We like the included Olympus Master 2 software as well, which expands on the 780's baked-in editing features like Red-eye Fix and Brightness to give you Photoshop-like editing power. Use Master 2 to balance color, set curves, and adjust the hue and saturation while uploading and tagging your photos.
With its Guide mode, accurate scene selection, and easy-to-use menu, the Stylus 780 is a solid choice for beginners, but its manual settings, Bright Capture LCD, and MIS--not to mention superb photo quality--make it a good option for more advanced users as well.
Back to School: Top Digital Cameras
Snap incriminating Facebook photos even when you're on a budget.
Ten Quality Cameras You Can Afford
Want good-looking pictures without breaking the bank? We put the latest crop of digicams under $150 to the test.
Digital Camera Reviews
Read all our digital camera reviews, complete with star ratings.