Fujifilm FinePix F550 EXR Review
The Fujifilm Finepix F550 EXR is a new 16 megapixel compact camera with a 15x, 24-360mm zoom lens. Capable of auto-focusing in as little as 0.16 second, other highlights of the successor to the popular F300 EXR include an EXR Back Side Illuminated CMOS sensor, advanced GPS functionality, high-resolution 3 inch LCD screen, 8fps continuous shooting, RAW image capture, full 1080p HD movies and High Speed movie capture at 320 fps. The Fujifilm Finepix F550 EXR is available now in black or silver at a retail price of $329.95 / £329.99.
Ease of Use
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, seems to be the mantra behind the external design of the new Fujifilm FinePix F550 EXR, which looks almost identical to the F300 model that it replaces. Therefore a lot of the comments that we made about that model apply equally to the F550, which has the same glossy curves as its predecessor. The new 16-megapixel model somehow shoehorns a 15x optical zoom (24-360mm equivalent in 35mm terms) into a slender, handbag or pocket friendly chassis, measuring just 22.9mm in depth at its thinnest point. The lens is neatly folded away when not in use, making the F550 EXR eminently pocketable, with overall dimensions of 103.5x59.2x32.6mm and weighing 215g with battery and optional SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card inserted.
Even in its inactive state, the camera's optics look like they're ready to burst forth from the body. The lens barrel is surrounded by what resembles a pregnant bulge, its rounded edges and controls avoiding this Fujifilm looking like the usual rectangular box that so many other compacts resemble. Apart from that, the F550 EXR presents a clean and sophisticated faceplate, the only features apart from said lens being useful rubberized hand-grip, a window for the self-timer/AF assist lamp and four holes for the stereo microphone, all positioned top left of the lens.
The back of the F550 also impresses, sporting a 3-inch, wide view 460k-dot resolution LCD. So in practice we didn't miss that the camera omits an optical viewfinder of any kind, as the LCD screen is perfectly adequate for outdoor use. Pricing is nigh identical to its close contender, the Fujifilm having a high-ish suggested pricing of £329 in the UK. Out of the box you get a basic quick start manual, with the rest on a supplied CD ROM. This also includes the usual basic software, here FinePix Studio for Windows PCs and FinePix Viewer for Macs.
Since this is a point and shoot camera first and foremost, Fujifilm has thoughtfully ramped up the performance of its auto focus features, with a claimed focusing speed of just 0.16 seconds. Other key features include a 360° motion panorama mode for sweeping landscapes, the ubiquitous face detection/recognition (including dogs and cats), tracking auto focus, the DSLR-like background blurring Pro Focus mode seen on other EXR compacts, plus 'intelligent' flash and gyro sensor image stabilisation.
To help avoid blur resulting from camera shake when shooting in low light or hand-holding the camera at the telephoto extremity of the zoom, Fujifilm have added a 'belt and braces' solution of high ISO sensitivity, stretching up to ISO 12800 at full resolution (JPEG only), a built-in mechanical stabilizer with Continuous or Shooting Only modes, and digital image stabilisation too if required. Activated via the IS Mode menu option, you can set the system to Continuous, Shooting Only, either mode with the addition of digital stabilisation, or Off. Note that the camera will only automatically adjust the ISO speed when using the Auto shooting mode - in the other modes the ISO speed that you select will always be used, so only the mechanical CCD-shift part of the system is used.
Film simulation modes show off Fujifilm's heritage, the choice once again being the well-saturated colours of 'Velvia' mode, the default natural-looking setting of 'Provia', or the soft and gentle 'Astia' for portraiture, plus black & white and sepia. Likely to get more use by those with families is an auto release mode that fires the shutter when the camera detects the subject is looking directly at the lens. Fujifilm suggests this is ideal for photographing never-sit-still children and babies. We also get full 1080p HD movie clips, with usefully a dedicated video mode button on the backplate that falls readily under the thumb, and a mini HDMI output alongside the regular AV and USB output at one side. Plus, in playback mode, there's a chance to sort through images faster with the Photobook feature, as well as rate your favourites by allocating stars to them.
Like most of its travel zoom ilk the F550 EXR is made for the pocket, there's not much of the actual camera to get a firm grip on. There's a gentle curve and rubber patch to the left hand edge at the front while at the back the F550 EXR Fujifilm has introduced possibly the first 'booty' on a digital camera. A bulge top right provides a resting place for the thumb, a backward slanted shooting mode dial (thus echoing the FinePix HS10) topping it off; an unusual move that Fujifilm suggests makes for easier control access and so faster operation. It looks at once like that portion of the camera is melting, and at the same time very cool indeed.
Switch the camera on via the recessed top plate button that sits alongside the shutter release, once again encircled by a zoom lever, and there's an immediate irritation. The integral flash, prior to this neatly sunk within the top plate, rises automatically, and without request, much the same in fact as the flash does on the Canon PowerShot SX220 IS. You can at least gently rest your finger on the flash to stop it from appearing, or push it back down once it has risen.
The F550 EXR takes roughly two seconds from being activated before you can fire off the first shot, rear LCD bursting into life and lens extending to maximum wideangle with an audible mechanical whirr. A half press of the shutter release button and AF is virtually instantaneous, in keeping with Fujifilm's claimed 0.16 second speed. Though it's neither here nor there, the on/off switch glows with a cool blue light, which recalls the same feature incorporated on Samsung's compact range.
Also on the top plate directly above the lens is a large lump housing the F550 EXR's main new feature, built-in GPS - the F550 is actually the first Fujifilm model to offer integrated GPS, 14 years after the ompany released an optical GPS device for the DS-300 camera. The camera recognises your location and displays the longitude and latitude co-ordinates or the place name if recognised. You can then search for an image by place name and create a photobook using the Photobook Assist function. The F550 can also navigate you to where a specific photo was taken, acting like an iPhone-lite by providing the distance and direction from your existing location. Finally, the camera can join the dots between your photos and create a map of the route using the Tracking Data option.
GPS can be manually turned off or on, either permanently on or just when the F550 EXR is switched on. The first option is useful if you quickly move from one area to another and don't want to wait for the camera to lock onto a signal again, although it does drain the battery more quickly. The F550's GPS receiver works a lot better than most other GPS-capable cameras that we've reviewed, saving accurate positioning information for the majority of the images that we shot in built-up central London, making this camera useful for urban as well as rural photographers. The main downside of the GPS is the subsequent drain on battery life, with the camera only managing just over 150 shots with GPS turned on instead of the 250 that it can manage without.
Somewhat strangely, there's no external control for another of the F550 EXR's star turns, its fast continuous shooting speed. Instead the Continuous menu option brings up four options - Off, Top 4, Best Frame Capture and three different kinds of bracketing (exposure, film simulation mode and dynamic range). Choosing Top 4 allows you to take 8 full-resolution photos at 8 frames per second, which is faster than most compact cameras and indeed most DSLRs too. The only fly in the ointment are that only 4 out of the 8 are actually saved to the memory card. Choosing Best Frame Capture shoots at 11fps at 8 megapixel resolution from the moment that you focus and then saves up to 16 images including pre-recorded frames. Once the burst is completed, it takes over fifteen seconds for the camera to clear the buffer, during which you cannot take another picture. There is also another continuous shooting speeds where the Fujifilm F550 EXR shoots at a faster speed 11fps at at 4 megapixel resolution for up to 32 frames.
Although JPEGs are quickly committed to memory in single-shot mode with only the briefest pause between each one, unfortunately there's a very noticeable 5 second delay between the capture of one RAW file and the next during which you can't take another picture, which rather slows down the shooting experience unless you stick to the JPEG format.
Both the power button and shutter release fall readily under the forefinger when gripping the camera in your right hand, and the zoom lever is similarly ergonomically located. Nudge the latter and said zoom veritably powers through its broad focal range, zipping from maximum wideangle to extreme telephoto in actually under three seconds, and thankfully a little quiter than on the previous F300EXR model.
Looking at the rear of the camera, there's a clearly labeled and logically laid out control set, with a chunky, ridged shooting mode dial which is reminiscent of those found on DSLR cameras. Ranged around the dial, which turns with just the right amount of resistance for it to lock firmly into place at each setting, are a range of shooting options, such as full auto, program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual modes, along with a scene position mode (SP1) that's pre-optimised for common subjects. Note that there are only three available apertures in A mode, rather limiting your control, although there is a full range of shutter speeds on offer.
There are two more shooting modes that are particularly noteworthy. First up is the EXR Auto mode (one of the four EXR modes), which is an 'auto everything' scene recognition mode that's the equivalent of Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode. Although far from infallible - if you're not paying close attention and it's presented with a busy scene it will call up landscape when macro is needed and vice versa – it instantly makes the F550 EXR more beginner friendly, instantly recognising 10 basic scenes and then applying one of the three other EXR modes too.
Fujifilm's EXR sensor can be utilized in one of three ways by the photographer. There's a choice between shooting at full 16 megapixel resolution in High Resolution (HR) mode, or an 8 megapixel image in the Low Noise (SN) mode for shooting without flash in low light conditions, or the Dynamic Range (DR) mode to achieve an optimal balance between shadows and highlights. The latter offers five strengths ranging from 100-1600%. If you can't decide which is best for a chosen scene or subject, then just leave the camera on the scene-detecting EXR Automatic Mode and let it choose for itself.
The second shooting mode of particular interest is the rather misleadingly named Advanced mode, which actually has three options that are well suited to all experience levels. The first shooting mode is the Panorama option, clearly inspired by Sony's popular Sweep Panorama function. This lets you capture a 120, 180 or 360 degree panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom, then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, with the exposure fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image.
Although undoubtedly fun, there are a few catches. The final panorama is of relatively low resolution, and if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated. If the exposure varies throughout the scene, then some areas will be over or under exposed, depending upon the exposure value that was chosen as the panorama was started. Finally, people and indeed anything that moves in the frame are recorded as several ghost outlines, which means that you can really only record static, empty scenes, something that Sony have solved in the latest iteration of their Sweep Panorama feature.
The Pro Low-light mode uses multi-bracketing technology, taking a series of four high sensitivity/low-noise shots in quick succession and combining them into an image with less noise than the single exposures. You can see examples of this shooting mode on the Image Quality page. The Pro Focus mode makes it easier to achieve a blurred background, perfect for portraits where compact digicams traditionally struggle.
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With video not represented among the other shooting modes on the dial, as mentioned at the outset this thoughtfully has its own button just below, a press of which kicks off recording whichever alternative mode had previously been in use. This means that movie quality needs to be adjusted separately by delving into the camera's shooting menu via the main 'menu' button. Surprisingly the zoom function can also be used when shooting movies, but in this mode it is altogether smoother, steadier and any operational noise - though still audible if filming in quieter environs - is nevertheless dampened down.
The F550 EXR offers full 1920x1080 pixel footage at 30 frames per second with constantly adjusting auto exposure and focus with stereo sound. There are still few digital compacts that offer 1080p video recording, so the F550 EXR is a definite camera to consider if movies are your thing. It can record video clips up to 29 minutes long for the 1920x1080 and 1280x720 pixel formats, with longer times available for VGA and SVGA modes. The dedicated Movie button on the rear makes it quick and easy to shoot a movie without missing the start of the action, and there's a mini-HDMI port for connection to a HDTV (cable not supplied). You can select one of the Film Simulation modes to give your footage a more creative look, and there's the option to take a still photo at any time during movie recording.
In addition to these "normal" movie modes, the F550 EXR also offers several high-speed modes, a feature that was first pioneered by Casio. There are three different speeds on offer - 320, 160 and 80fps, with the file size varying from 320x112 to 640x400 pixels respectively. This slow-motion effect is initially very appealing and sure to impress your friends, but there are some drawbacks to be aware of. Sound isn't recorded at all, horizontal bands can appear as the lighting fluctuates, and the actual sizes of the recorded movies are pretty small.
To the left of the video record button is the familiar playback button. Press this and as well as reviewing images the user is invited to have access to all the camera's extensive photobook features. Beneath this again Fujifilm has implemented the aforementioned Canon-like scroll wheel and central control pad combo, the latter itself encircling a central menu/OK button - for calling up said menu folders, always clear, concise and to the point with Fujifilm, and then executing any functional changes.
Ranged around this scroll wheel/pad are a means of adjusting exposure when in one of the capture modes, or deleting duff images in playback. We also get access to the camera's flash settings (oddly disabled if you've switched the camera to silent mode), self timer options and the ability to switch from infinity to macro focus - here close ups are offered down to 5cm.
Also doubling up, in terms of control, is a 'display' and 'back' button - the latter very useful if, in your keenness for exploration of the F550 EXR's Pandora's box of features, you've stumbled onto a setting you didn't actually want and want to retrace your steps. Last but no means least, tucked into the right hand corner of the F550 EXR's backplate is an 'F' (for 'Foto') button which, as regular Fujifilm users will know, provides a short cut to the likes of image quality and the film simulation modes. Operation pared down to the bare essentials for quick and easy access then, and very useful it is too.
The right hand flank of the camera features the cover for the mini HDMI port and AV/USB output, with a metal lug for attaching a wrist strap just above. At the camera's base meanwhile we find a centrally located metal screw thread and, to its side, a sliding door hiding the shared compartment for the optional media card and battery.