Fuji FinePix F550EXR Review
How Does it Compare?
The Fuji FinePix F550EXR sounds like a fantastic camera when you read its spec sheet. It has a unique sensor that allows you to prioritize resolution, dynamic range, or high ISO performance, plus a 15X, 24 - 360 mm zoom lens in a compact body, a beautiful 3-inch LCD, plenty of automatic and manual controls, a GPS with half a million landmarks built in, and Full HD movie recording. Unfortunately, the F550 loses major points with this reviewer for its image quality (and minor points for several other issues). The photos I took with the F550EXR were not only plagued by heavy noise reduction (which smears fine details), it also had substantial corner blurring, which Fuji confirmed was normal behavior (which was certainly not the answer I was expecting). Other niggles include slow GPS acquisition times, many manual control annoyances, a weak flash, and redeye. While the F550 has a lot to offer, I cannot recommend it due mainly to the lackluster image quality and questionable quality control.
The FinePix F550EXR is a stylish and compact digital camera, available in black and red. It's made mostly of metal, and feels pretty solid, save for the usual weak spot: the door over the battery/memory card compartment. Controls are well laid out, save for the awkward movie recording button, and I like the angled mode dial. In an impressive feat of engineering, Fuji has managed to squeeze an F3.5-5.3, 15X optical zoom lens (24 - 360 mm equivalent) into this compact body. The camera also features sensor-shift image stabilization to reduce the risk of blurry photos, as well as to reduce "jitter" in your movies. On the back of the camera is a really nice 3-inch LCD with 460,000 pixels. The screen is bright and sharp, with a wide viewing angle. Outdoor visibility is some of the best I've seen, while low light viewing was about average. The camera has a pretty weak built-in flash that pops up automatically when the camera is turned on. If you don't want to use it, just push it back down and it's out of your way. The F550 also has a built-in GPS which, when combined with a database of half a million landmarks, makes it a traveler's dream. The only problems are the slow acquisition times, the inability to edit or delete the landmark the camera has chosen, and the drain on the battery.
Not only has Fuji packed a big lens into the compact F550EXR -- they've done the same with features. One of the biggest is centered around the camera's 16 Megapixel EXR CMOS sensor. Its unique design allows the camera (or you) to choose whether to prioritize resolution, dynamic range, or high sensitivity performance. While the F550 won't win any awards for the first one, the Dynamic Range Priority mode really works, and the High ISO & Low Noise mode gives the camera a small advantage over typical compact cameras at higher sensitivities. Both of those modes lower the resolution to 8 Megapixel, which is really where the camera is at its best. If you're in the EXR Auto mode, the camera will pick one of the aforementioned modes for you, as well as choosing from 27 available scene modes. The F550EXR has manual controls as well, but they're crippled in several respects. First, there are only three apertures to choose from at any one time. Second, you can't adjust the ISO in shutter priority mode. On a related note, in full manual mode the ISO limits your shutter speed range, which is why my night shots didn't turn out too well. Finally, you can't use RAW above ISO 3200 when shooting full resolution, and the option itself is buried deep within the setup menu. The F550 also has a cool 360 panorama feature, which does just as it sounds: it creates a full "circlevision" image simply by panning the camera. And let's not forget the Full HD movie mode, which offers full use of the optical zoom lens, along with image stabilization, continuous autofocus, and stereo sound recording.
Camera performance was mostly very good. The only real drag was the camera's startup time of 2.8 seconds. While the F550EXR doesn't have the hybrid AF sensor found on its predecessor, it still locks focus very quickly. Expect focus times of 0.1 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle and 0.6 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto, with low light times around the one second mark. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays ranged from around 1 second for JPEGs and 4-5 seconds for RAW images. Adding the flash into the mix did not noticeably slow the camera down. The F550 has two continuous shooting modes, plus three types of bracketing (for exposure, dynamic range, and Film Simulation mode). You can shoot as fast as 8 fps at full resolution (5 fps for RAW) and if you don't mind dropping to 8 Megapixel, you can get that burst rate up to a whopping 11 frames/second. The camera's battery life of 300 shots per charge is above average, though that's with the GPS off. I would expect something close to 50% lower if you have the GPS on full time.
The most important thing on a camera isn't the size of its lens or the number of scene modes it offers. No, it's image quality, and that's where the F550EXR falls short. On a positive note, exposure was accurate, and highlight clipping usually wasn't an issue. If you do get clipped highlights, just crank up the dynamic range a bit and blue skies will return. Colors were pleasing in most situations, though the camera struggled under our studio lamps, producing photos with a yellowish cast. Purple fringing levels were minimal. That brings us to sharpness and detail, which is the F550's big problem. Photos taken at the default 16 Megapixel resolution have very strong noise reduction applied to them, which smudges and mottles fine details. Combine that with the corner blurriness that my camera had (and other peoples' cameras, too) and you've got a soft and fuzzy-looking mess of pixels. If you do like the F550EXR and manage to get one with a good lens, then lower the resolution to 8 Megapixel -- I think you'll be a lot happier with the noise and detail levels at that setting. The F550 has numerous ways of preventing redeye, but they didn't seem to work for me in any of my test photos.
I want to mention a few other things before I wrap things up. First, the door over the memory card and battery compartment is flimsy, and you won't be able to get at what's behind it when the camera is on a tripod. Second, the full camera manual is only available in PDF format on an included CD-ROM disc. And finally, I did have a spec of dust appear on the sensor toward the end of my time with the F550EXR, but I'm just going to write that one off as bad luck.
Ultimately, a camera is only as good as the photos it takes, and despite all of its cool features, the FinePix F550EXR is a letdown in the image quality department. While I have a feeling that I got a less-than-perfect sample (which Fuji still considers acceptable), the heavy amounts of noise reduction still make the camera's photos look worse than they should. I'm hoping that Fuji will remember the great F-series cameras of the past and perhaps give the F550's successor either a larger sensor or a smaller count -- and maybe work on the quality control while they're at it. For now, though, I'd recommend passing on the FinePix F550EXR, and maybe considering one of the cameras listed below instead.
What I liked:
- 15X, 24 - 360 mm zoom lens in a compact, well built body
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- Beautiful 3-inch LCD with excellent outdoor visibility
- Quick autofocus in most situations
- D-Range Priority feature dramatically reduces clipped highlights
- Slightly better than typical compact cameras at higher sensitivities when the High ISO EXR mode is used
- EXR Auto mode picks both the EXR and scene mode for you
- Limited manual controls, with RAW support
- Built-in GPS with 500,000 landmark database
- Impressive burst mode
- Nice panorama creation tool
- Full HD movie mode with stereo sound, continuous AF, and use of optical zoom and image stabilizer
- Optional underwater case
What I didn't care for:
- Heavy noise reduction smudges fine details of photos (lower the resolution for best results)
- Strong corner blurring, which Fuji says is acceptable (quality control problem?)
- Yellow color cast under artificial lighting (or at least my artificial lighting)
- Manual control woes: only three apertures to choose from at any one time; ISO can't be manually adjusted in shutter priority mode; ISO limits shutter speed range in full manual mode
- RAW only available in certain situations; option is buried in setup menu
- Weak flash
- Sluggish startup, GPS acquisition times
- Face detection system could be better
- Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while on tripod
- Full manual on CD-ROM
If it's a GPS-equipped camera you're after, then I'd recommend looking at the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS, Casio Exilim EX-H20G, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V. Some other compact ultra zooms worth considering include the Nikon Coolpix S9100, Olympus SZ-10, and the Samsung WB700.
As always, I recommend heading to your local camera or electronics store to try out the FinePix F550EXR and its competitors before you buy!
Check out our gallery to see how the FinePix F550EXR's photo quality looks!