Endearingly Awkward – Seeking Beauty With A Flawed Humble 4MP Digital Camera

This post began as a second impressions review of the 2001 4MP Olympus Camedia C4040 Zoom I recently bought.

But what evolved, was a wider exploration of how all cameras are flawed in some way, and how we choose to embrace those flaws can ultimately result in the camera being far more endearing than a hi-spec auto-everything wonder camera that also makes us a cup of tea and massages our feet as it churns out clinically perfect image after clinically perfect image.

The first question in my original experiment was to ask whether a 17 year old 4MP digital camera was of any use in 2018.

For the Olympus, in short, the answer’s emphatically yes, it still delivers very pleasing pictures.

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In my initial testing though, I found the C4040 had many quirks.

Some were mildly annoying, others potentially a complete deal-breaker as to whether I would bother picking the camera up again, or simply drop it in to the nearest charity shop.

Having spent more time with the Olympus now, I wanted to write about how its imperfections somehow add up to an endearing awkwardness that suggest I might be returning to the camera time and time again.

Which, yes, got me thinking more widely about this balance between simple and complex, and how some cameras can be just as unappealing for their over-automation and simplicity, as others are for their intimidating complexity.

And for each of us, our definition of what makes a camera enjoyable and worth using is unlikely to be at the extremely simple or unnervingly complex ends of this spectrum. But at a sweet idyll in between.

Here then are the “flaws” of the C4040 and how I’ve eliminated or overcome each of them.

Whilst some are camera specific, many, if not all, apply to using many classic digital cameras.

Problem 1. It’s noisy and slow on start up. This is mostly the sound of the lens extending from its flush dormant position, and even once that’s happened, and then the top LCD display appears, there’s a further couple of seconds delay before the screen comes on and the camera is ready, some seven seconds after switch on.

No problem. I switch it on once when I start my photowalk, and then leave it on. The screen and top LCD go to sleep (silently) after maybe five minutes to save battery, but a squeeze of the shutter button brings it back to life (almost silently, there’s a tiny whirr) in a moment. At the end of the photowalk I switch it off fully.

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Problem 2. It’s bulky for a compact. In fact it’s not that compact, certainly not in the trouser pocket class of the tiny Sony L1 or even my Ricohs.

No problem. I never actually carry cameras in my pocket (or really anything else), and virtually always have a small (man)bag with me for keys, wallet, phone, water and a snack. I mostly keep compact cameras in my hand, with a wrist strap when I’m using them, and in the bag when I’m not. The Olympus is fine on my wrist, and when I’m carrying it for slightly longer periods without taking pictures, I hold it comfortably around the lens. The hand grip is really good when shooting, and unlike some compacts, there’s plenty of space for your thumb to rest firmly without inadvertently pressing buttons. Plus it’s actually only 450g with batteries and strap – only 200g more than my Pentax Q or Ricohs, and nothing like the 1.1KG of my Pentax K10D DSLR.

Problem 3. The screen is small and hard to see in bright light.

No problem. At 1.8″ yes the screen is smaller than the 3″ of some of my compacts, but it’s big enough to compose and judge exposure with, especially as there is little clutter in the way of icons and numbers on screen like many cameras. Plus as mentioned before, a smaller screen gives more room for your thumb on the rear panel. Every one of my digital compacts (including my phone) are difficult to see in bright light, you just have to try to shield them from the sun.

Problem 4. It tends to over expose, especially in lower light.

No problem. After a little trial and error I found that setting the exposure comp (the +/- buttons are directly on camera back, no need for menu delving) at -0.7 works very well as a base point, then occasionally I might dip down to -1.0, using the screen to judge. With my Ricohs I always use -0.3 a starting point as nearly all small sensor cameras are more prone to overexposing (clipping) highlights, so I’m well used to this.

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Problem 5. The AutoFocus (AF) hunts in low light.

No problem. Sometimes there is no fix, it simply won’t lock focus. Then I have the option to switch to manual focus (slow, but deliberate, and at least it’s an option) or find a different composition with more light. Today, from around 50 photographs, I only recall one occasion where I had to walk away. Not really an issue at all.

Problem 6. It doesn’t display what focal length you’re at, and there’s no step zoom.

No problem. For most people this is a non-issue, they just stand and zoom until the composition is right then fire the shutter. This is not how I zoom though. I just like to know, and be at a familiar focal length, not 39mm or 74mm. With my Ricoh GX100 you can turn on step zoom and then shoot at 24, 28, 35, 50 or 72mm, and it tells you on screen. I realised with the C4040 there’s a Custom memory where to can choose how pretty much everything is set up when you turn on the camera. In this you can set the focus at 35, 55, 80 or 105mm. I’ve set mine to 80mm and I’m loving the extra reach and potential for shallow depth of field this gives. So now I never need to touch the zoom controls, or wonder what focal length I’m at.

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Problem 7. The ISO only goes up to 400. I often shoot my Pentax Q at ISO800, so this plus the 47/1.9 lens gives plenty of scope for low light. Similarly my Ricoh GRD III has an f/1.9 lens and I use that almost exclusively at ISO400. The Olympus’s max aperture at 80mm is f/2.3.

No problem. When I used to shoot film, my favourite emulsion was Fuji Superia 100. I got used to this ISO. Same with my Pentax K10D DLSR, ISO100 is the native ISO of the sensor, and where I’ve shot 95% of photos. With the Olympus, after experiments at ISO100, 200 and 400, I liked the images best at ISO100. So that’s what I use. For lower light I hold my breath and lean on something, or change the composition. Some shots have come out blurred, but I still take plenty in dimly lit churches with no problems, and in daylight this is a complete non-issue.

Problem 8. The memory all resets when the batteries are removed for a long period. Meaning all those carefully set up features all default back to the factory, er, defaults, and you have to go through them all again in the Custom memory.

No problem. In fact this is only an issue if you leave the batteries out for a while. I use rechargeable AAs, and when they ran down, I removed them to charge them. When I put them back in maybe six hours later, everything had reset. So I reprogrammed everything in the Custom memory (which only actually took about two minutes), then removed the batteries again and quickly replaced them. Everything was still remembered. So the solution is to either carry a spare set of rechargeables (I have some somewhere in some child’s toy or other!) or a set of regular AAs just to keep in the camera while the others are charging. Which is what I do with all digital compacts, have a spare battery or two that’s charged.

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Problem 9. The close focus of 0.2m at 35mm is not close enough. I’m used to much closer, up to 0.01m with my Ricohs.

No problem. As I mentioned in the previous post about the C4040, somehow it makes more sense to use it at 80mm. And of course the camera remembers this focal length if you put it in the Custom memory, so you never need to touch the zoom control. At 80mm you gain a greater depth of field, plus that extra reach means 0.2m is plenty close enough for all but the most intimate shots.

Problem 10. It’s only 4MP, it can’t be any good.

No problem. I love what the C4040 can do set to ISO100, 80mm, HQ (there’s also a Super HQ I setting haven’t felt the need for), black and white, with my usual tweaks in Snapseed afterwards. This gives an original image size of approximately 800 x 600mm (32 x 24″). On screen the 1024px version is fine (just under half the original length/width) and for 8 x 6″ prints it’s also more than adequate. From my experience of maybe half a dozen digital compacts and a few phone cameras, I would suggest that the lens and sensor size are much bigger factors in the quality of the final image than the raw MP figure. Especially if you’re not making massive prints. The Olympus has an excellent lens, and a still pretty large by compact cameras standards 1/1.8″ CCD sensor (my Pentax Q is only 1/2.3″) that work very well together, and for me make it punch well above the expectations a 4MP camera suggest.

As you’ve read, some of these solutions eliminate a problem entirely, and some are an ongoing workaround.

No significant obstacles remain with the Olympus C4040 that would stop me using it further. It’s actually made me curious about other models in the long running range too.

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And as we spoke about above, this is a wider discussion. Sometimes photography is just too easy with everything automated and all of the decisions and control taken out of your hands.

Cameras like the C4040 have their own personality, and make you work with it a little for your reward.

And for me with the Olympus, that reward, in both the more engaging user experience, and the final image, is more than worth it.

How many “flaws” do your favourite cameras have, and how do you overcome them? Where do you stand on the spectrum between having complete creative control or letting the camera automate everything?

Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

16 thoughts on “Endearingly Awkward – Seeking Beauty With A Flawed Humble 4MP Digital Camera”

    1. Yes I agree to a point, but I still like to keep my toolbox pretty lean overall, and not have a large range of super specialist tools/cameras. Then never have the right one with me.

      Love that Frank Lloyd Wright quote…

  1. Dan, love this post…. full of info for me to digest…. I’ve a few low mp cameras, a minolta dimage x60 digi compact being one…. it’s a beaut of a camera and has a super lens to boot, I also like the fact that the screen is really clear and not full of icons that have a nasty tendency to distract me at times….there is much mileage in these “older” cameras…. plus if you buy wisely and carefully… then it’s not a lot of money if said camera dies….nice choice of cameras your end, thought provoking postings and subjects Dan…. I doff my cap… to you sir

    Best

    Lynd

    1. Lynd, from what I’ve read, the early Minolta digital cameras were very promising, and of course good enough that Sony bought them out and kept a lot of their technology (especially the Minolta/Sony A mount, and a wide number of lenses).

      Some digital cameras, even fairly low end consumer compacts, have a ridiculous amount of clutter on screen. I don’t know why they don’t realise it just makes a camera more intimidating and difficult to embrace, especially for the casual amateur users they’re aimed at.

      Fortunately many have display options where you can have the bare minimum, or nothing, so you can focus (literally!) purely on the composition.

      I have a post in draft about how to shoot digital on a shoestring, and some of the pitfalls. Look out for that within the next few weeks!

  2. There was a link I saw recently (and it could well have been elsewhere on your blog Dan) to an article bout Magnum photographer Alex Majoli using an Olypmus like that one. I had an Olympus SP-510 for a bit (which is similar to the model you have here) and it felt great in the hand but the image quality was awful.

    1. I think there was an ongoing range of these type of “Camedia” cameras by Olympus – C3030, 4040, 5050 etc, with increasing MP, and all seem to be well rated. I believe Alex Majoli used a C5050 which I understand is the same lens and sensor size as my C4040, but 5MP instead of 4MP. So still pretty humble compared with today’s MegaPixel monsters, but very capable.

      1. I watched a Daido Moriyama documentary again on YouTube the other day. He’s so right – it really isn’t about the camera at all. A great photographer will make great images with almost anything it seems.

        1. Do you have the link to that documentary Richard? I’ve just finished a Moriyama book.

          This is how I see Wouter Brandsma. He’s had a (small) number of compacts over the last few years (I’ve bought at least three compacts based largely on the images he’s made with them), but his style and his ability to make memorable images has been very consistent. For at least a year or so I believe he’s been using an iPhone only.

          1. Sure – I think it was this one:

            …which shows him shooting with a 35mm Ricoh. This one is good as well though (and shorter). Much more recent and sho0ting with a digital compact:

            I love his style of photography – walking around, shooting without disturbing the scene and moving on. Grainy and alive. I like this much more than “street portrait” style photography.

            Oh and based on your recommendations, I also follow Wouter Brandsma and jtinseoul. Both great examples of compact camera photography and sources of inspiration, thanks.

          2. Thanks Richard, I’ll check those out soon.

            Yes Wouter and JT are both major inspirations to me too, and no coincidence they’ve both used compacts extensively.

          3. I watched the “In Pictures” video again just now and (according to the YouTube comments) the camera he’s using is a Nikon Coolpix S9100. Who knew? 😀

          4. Richard I watched that one last night, really enjoyed it. I also liked his low key approach, always moving, not raising any attention. This is the kind of street photography I could possible get into. And yes I was quite surprised to see him zoom in one part of the film where he was approaching a couple. Is that the Nikon you have?

            I also liked his thoughts around colour and b/w and how colour imposes too much on the photograph. I think he called colour photography vulgar, but that may have got lost in translation.

          5. It’s great isn’t it? Mine is the S9900 so a couple of models newer I guess, with the same sensor size (1/2.3″) but more mega-pixels (16 Mp vs 12 Mp) and a longer zoom. Neither of those matter much really. If it’s good enough for him, it ought to be more than enough for me.

            I love his thoughts about B&W photography too. Without wishing to sound pretentious, there is a feeling I get from good B&W pictures that I don’t very much with colour. An actual feeling in my chest. I’ve tried to convince myself that I should shoot more colour, in part I think to be sure that my preference for B&W isn’t because I’m doing “what everyone else does”.

            I think in less pretentious and simpler terms, I’ve shot lots of both now so I’m getting to know what I like and what works. I’m sure I’ll shoot more colour pics as well from time to time as some subjects lend themselves to it. My general preference at the moment though is for B&W.

          6. It made me think a little more about zooming and my rather fixed views on it (ie I don’t do it, and even with zoom cameras I tend to use the lens at a set focal length).

            With b/w I think a major appeal for me is that it is by default an artistic interpretation of a scene, an altered version, shaped by the photographer.

            With colour of course there are still other aspects you can influence and choose, but it’s usually much more like the actual scene the eye saw at the time. Removing colour instantly makes a leap into it being an artistic interpretation of a scene, rather than pure documentation of it.

            I know that potentially sounds pretentious too! 🙂

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