Sony Mavica FD7

 

I recently purchased this Sony Mavica FD7 from 1997 as a fun look back to the early days of digital photography. Let's see what it's like to use a digital camera that's bigger than a modern full frame professional camera, yet uses an image sensor smaller than a smart phone. One that takes 10 seconds to write a 0.3 megapixel jpg to an internal floppy drive and generally feels like a Fisher Price toy...

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Design

The floppy discs determined much of the size and shape of this camera. It's actually the same width as Sony's modern full frame mirrorless cameras (A7/A9/A1), but significantly taller. The weight is also similar, although of course this includes a 10x zoom lens. The grip is chunky, but without much to actually grip your fingers into, so if you're using it with gloves in the cold (like I am) it's recommended to have a strap (which I didn't).

Controls

The buttons are few, which makes this a very easy camera to pick up and figure out. Controls for manual focus do exist, but the screen it so low resolution that it's almost impossible to use. The menu is a single page with only 4 options. There are some shooting modes, but you'd have to look through the manual to see what they might affect because there is no indication as to what the camera settings are at all other than exposure compensation. Formatting floppy discs has to be done at home, but it does tell you how many images you've shot and roughly how full the disk is. 

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Features

Although it's most a story of what it doesn't have, there are some standout features for the time. "Picture mode", allows you to chose negative, sepia etc. These are common now, but back in 1997 it blew people's minds seeing it in live-view. Secondly the surprisingly usable D-pad, to control the menu options and EV adjustment during shooting feels surprisingly advanced here. It's nice to see a timer (for delayed shooting), but like the tripod mount although this was an extravagant toy it was probably something that camera's just had to have.

Things noticeably lacking now are exif data or auto-rotation (for portrait images), but this seems trivial compared to no shutter speed, ISO, or white balance controls or display. Aperture? There isn't one.

Lens

With the sensor size being only 1/4" (3.7x2.8mm) this gives the FD7 a 9.5x crop factor. This is how they get away with a 10x optical zoom that doesn't protrude from the camera. It's protected by a piece of glass at the front which is quite far away from the front of the actual lens at 40mm, so any tiny dust on here will show up on your images. Although 40mm isn't particularly wide the image quality holds up fine until you go all the way to 400mm and then you get a bit of chromatic aberration. Although the aperture ratings sound not too bad here, once you multiply them by the crop factor they'll seem pretty poor and they are!

  • Lens (Actual): 4.2 42mm (f/1.8 - f/2.9)

  • Lens (Equiv.): 40 400mm (f/17.227.7)

This makes the entrance pupil between 2.3mm on the wide end and 14.5mm on the long end. Thus most of the time there is effectively zero depth of field to speak of. This is probably why the focus conformation bleep just sounds immediately when you hlf-press the shutter button for most normal distances. My guess is that it detects if you're not too close to anything and not zoomed in much it drops into a hyperfocal range where no focusing is done at all.

Screen

The screen looks pretty small compared to the camera itself, but 2.5" isn't too bad. What was bad was the resolution (making it impossible to focus manually), viewing angles (making low angles impossible to frame), or visibility in sunlight (making usable light generally really annoying to frame). It's nice that the FD7 had live-view, but relying on these old screens to shoot was just not ideal, thus you can see why DSLRs really were needed to mask this early tech. 

You can view the images you just took by switching the camera into "Play" mode on the back, but even if you just took it that image will need to be read from the floppy as there is no image buffer to speak of here. 

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Battery

The battery life sticker on the front boasts (very loudly) 500 shots, or 1.5 hours of screen time per charge. However, on the 3rd party battery mine came with I get about 50% more than that, perhaps due to newer battery tech. Even the original figures put in line with the best mirrorless cameras around today. This is extremely impressive, especially given that it takes 10 seconds to writ each image to a large spinning magnetic drive. You would need about 25 floppy discs to actually get that number however, bringing a whole different level of faff.

Memory

The Sony FD7 can record about 30 thousand pixels (or 4 kilobytes of data) per second - shooting one, 8bit, 0.3mp, JPG image in about 10 seconds. The fastest camera today can write up to 375,000 times as much data - firing off thirty, 12bit, 50mp, RAW images per second. 24 years has transitioned us from slow, unreliable, low-capacity magnetic discs to reliable, high-capacity solid state memory that are so fast they carry burn warning. It's now possible to fit 700,000 times as much data, in an area 167 times smaller than a floppy disc. To put this another way; Modern media can store 117 million times as much data per cubic milometer.

The 1.44Mb floppy discs hold up to 40 JPG, but in fine quality that number drops below 20. I have to admit that it's fun listening to the wherring of floppy disc writes after taking each photo.

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Sensor

This sensor's size & pixel count is 1/88th and 1/78th that of a 24mp full frame (respectively). This matches the pixel pitch pretty closely but the FD7 will look drastically lower quality per-pixel due to aliasing, interlacing, noise and dynamic range.

 

Apart from age the biggest problem here is the use of a repurposed 480i video sensor. This combined two interlaced VGA fields (scanned at slightly different times) to give a 640x480 image. Any slight motion would cause severe banding that destroyed what little image quality was available. Most of the time the effective resolution felt less than 0.1 megapixels.

Image Quality

These early digital cameras couldn't compete with 35mm film on any image quality metric, not even close. What they could offer was convenience, once you had bought the camera it was considerably faster and cheaper to view images compared to buying / processing film. If you wanted to email snapshots to family then it was light-years ahead. That was enough to get the ball rolling for digital photography, even if today's technology makes you wonder why they bothered with this transition.  

 

These thumbnail images typically display at 0.05 megapixels. Seriously, I would recommend using your imagination to visualize what these might look like large, any zooming in will only lead to disappointment...

 

Scale

It's a little difficult to see how big this camera is from the photos, even when you might know how big a floppy disk is. So here is an image of the Mavica FD7 next to a modern camera:

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