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Toy for the digital gourmet

Times Staff Writer

Weighing in at 5.8 ounces in a body that’s barely bigger than a petit filet mignon, the Stylus 500 from Olympus is a worthy daytime companion, if not the ideal dinner date. Its 21 picture-taking modes (indoor, sport, behind glass, sunset, etc.) include one for cuisine. Aimed at shutter-bugs who treat dining out as gastro-tourism, the cuisine setting is meant to take the guesswork out of snapping pictures of appetizers, entrees and desserts and to provide souvenirs that are feasts for the eyes.

Although it’s not the first to feature a mode for shooting food (Pentax also has a similar 5.0 megapixel model) Olympus is capitalizing on a trend with its cuisine control. The idea is that you’ll be ready for your close-up when your plate arrives.

The camera, with 5.0 megapixels of image resolution, seems user-friendly at first glance. But for all its ease-of-use options, it is difficult to navigate through the menus to change the settings.

A first effort at photographing a plate of sushi in a restaurant revealed a shortcoming. Each time the camera is turned on, the user must select the shooting mode, or snap pictures on auto mode. Same goes for the flash -- it reverts to auto each time you turn the camera off, which can be annoying if you need to shoot something fast.

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And in the subdued lighting of a restaurant at night, you’ll want to in order to take advantage of the cuisine mode’s strength: the flash. When the cuisine mode is in use, the flash seems warmer and less glaring than when the camera is in auto mode. Colors are rendered more brilliantly than you might remember, and gone are harsh shadows and extreme contrasts of the standard flash.

In good available light, the Stylus 500 works better. Its sharp lens captures beautiful detail and nuance such as steam rising off a bowl of sauteed shrimp. But when light is low and you’re going hand-held, watch out. You might want to relive the gastronomic moments, but you don’t want to do so in soft focus.

The Olympus Stylus 500 comes equipped with a standard 32-megabyte memory card and features 3x optical zoom capabilities and 4x digital, all-weather construction and a large LCD field. It is available at Best Buy for about $400.


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