Fuji FinePix F550EXR Review
Look and Feel
The FinePix F550EXR is a compact ultra zoom camera that looks a whole lot like the F300EXR that came before it. The body is made mostly of metal and feels pretty solid, save for the usual flimsy plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment. Ergonomics are fairly good, though I found my thumb resting on the playback button, which can lead to unintentional button-presses. The movie recording button design is a bit awkward, as well.
The FinePix F550EXR is available in black and red, at least here in the States. You may find it in additional colors in other countries.
Now, let's see how the F550EXR compares to other compact ultra zooms in terms of size and weight:
The F550EXR is right in the middle of the pack for both bulk and weight. It's small enough to fit in nearly any pocket with ease, so it can go anywhere that you do.
Let's start our tour of the camera now, shall we?
The FinePix F550EXR has the same 15X optical zoom lens as its predecessor. It's definitely an impressive feat of engineering that Fuji can stuff a lens this powerful into a body 1.3 inches thick! Not surprising, there are some compromises that come along with a lens like this, and the first is a relatively "slow" aperture range: F3.5 - F5.3. The focal length of the lens is 4.4 - 66 mm. which is equivalent to a very nice 24 - 360 mm. As with nearly all compact cameras, things like conversion lenses and filters are not supported on the F550EXR.
This diagram shows how the EXR sensor uses its pixel layout in different ways to achieve three different effects.
It uses a double exposure for the Dynamic Range Priority mode and pixel binning for the High ISO & Low Noise mode
Image courtesy of Fujifilm
At the other end of all that glass is a brand new 1/2", 16.0 effective Megapixel, backside-illuminated EXR CMOS sensor. There were lots of unfamiliar words in that last sentence, so let me tell you what each of those technologies offers. The backside illumination moves the wiring to behind the sensor, allowing for improved sensitivity and less noise. The CMOS technology allows for fast data readout, which in turn gives the F550 an impressive burst mode and Full HD movie recording. Perhaps the biggest part of the sensor design is Fuji's EXR pixel array. This allows the camera to do one of three things: produce photos with high resolution (16 Megapixel), wide dynamic range (8MP), or low noise at high sensitivities (also at 8MP). You can only use one of those EXR modes at a time, and you can select them manually, or let the camera choose based on the scene. I'll give you some examples of some of the EXR modes later in the review.
The sensor is also involved with the F550's image stabilization system. The camera detects the tiny movements of your hands that can end up blurring your photos. It then "shifts" the sensor itself in order to compensate for this motion, allowing for a higher likelihood of a sharp photo. Now, an image stabilizer can't do everything: they can't freeze a subject in motion, nor will they allow for handheld, multi-second exposures (though Fuji has something that tries to handle that). Want to see the image stabilization system in action? Have a look at these:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on (shooting only mode)
Both of the above photos were taken at roughly 4.7X zoom, with the shutter speed at 1/6 second. You don't need to be a professional camera reviewer (whatever that is) to see that the image stabilization system worked as advertised here. The IS system can also be used in movie mode, though I didn't find it to be terribly effective. Take a look at this brief sample clip to see if you agree.
To the upper-right of the lens is the F550's pop-up flash. The flash rises automatically when the camera is turned on, but unlike with the F300EXR, you can push it right back down if you don't plan on using it. The working range of the flash is 0.2 - 3.2 m at wide-angle and 0.9 - 1.9 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO), which is not good. As with nearly all compact cameras, you can't use an external flash with the F550EXR.
On the opposite side of the lens is the stereo microphone as well as the AF-assist lamp. The latter is used as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also serves as a visual countdown for the self-timer in low light situations.
Something else the FinePix F550EXR shares with its predecessor is its very nice 3-inch LCD display. This screen has 460,000 pixels (so everything is nice and sharp), colors are pleasing, and the viewing angle is nice, as well. The LCD has some of the best outside visibility I've ever seen. Low light visibility was decent, with the screen brightening up automatically in those situations.
Now it's time to talk about dials and buttons. I'm going to start with the mode dial, which Fuji has cleverly angled 45 degrees toward the back of the camera, for easier access. The items on the mode dial include:
The FinePix F550EXR has two auto modes. One is a basic point-and-shoot mode, while the EXR mode will select both the EXR mode and one of twenty-seven possible scene modes. Do note that camera options such as exposure compensation, white balance, and the flash setting cannot be adjusted in either of these modes.
EXR mode menu
So what are the three EXR modes? Resolution Priority mode shoots at 16 Megapixel, and is what the camera will use in most situations. I'll have more on the image quality of the camera at that setting later in the review. High ISO & Low Noise mode cuts the resolution to 8 Megapixel and uses something called pixel fusion (a type of pixel binning) to reduce noise levels when the sensitivity climbs. The Dynamic Range Priority mode also reduces the resolution, and can reduce highlight clipping, either automatically or manually. These last two EXR modes are where the F550's sensor design really shines.
To test the High ISO & Low Noise feature, I used our studio test scene, which you'll see a lot more of on the next page. There are four photos to compare here, all of which were taken at ISO 1600. The first was taken in the High ISO & Low Noise EXR mode. The second was taken in Resolution Priority mode and downsized to 8 Megapixel, to see if there's any difference between it and the photo taken in the High ISO mode. Next we have photos from two competitors, the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V, both of which were downsized to keep things competitive. Let's see how it all worked out:
(High ISO & Low Noise mode)
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(Downsized from 16M)
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|PowerShot SX230 HS
(Downsized from 12M)
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The first thing to note is that yes, the photo taken in High ISO & Low Noise mode does indeed look better than the 16 Megapixel photo that I downsized in Photoshop. I'm pretty sure that's due to the pixel binning system being used by the EXR processor for the former. The FinePix F550EXR wipes the floor with the PowerShot SX230 HS at ISO 1600, though the Sony performs surprisingly well at ISO 1600 -- perhaps even better than the F550. I think the take-home message here is that you want to use the High ISO & Low Noise mode whenever you're shooting at high sensitivities, as things are just too noisy at the 16 Megapixel setting.
Many camera manufacturers offer dynamic range improvement features on their cameras, but Fuji is one of the few that actually delivers the goods. The F550EXR's Dynamic Range Priority mode uses the EXR sensor to combine two exposures -- one underexposed and the other overexposed -- in order to reduce highlight clipping in your photos. You can let the camera handle things automatically, or crank the DR manually as high as 1600%. For this example, I put the camera into DR priority mode and used our purple fringing torture tunnel to show off its abilities:
|Auto DR (400%)
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The default crop shows what the camera chose automatically, which is 400% DR. There's some highlight clipping here, but it's not nearly as bad as the blown-out mess at 100% and 200%. Interestingly enough, the manually selected 400% option looks a bit different than the Auto version -- who knows why. At DR 800% you really get that blue sky back, and even more so at 1600% -- most impressive. The problem with the two highest DR settings is that noise levels get pretty high. Thus, I'd try to keep things at 400% unless you really need something stronger.
So those are the F550's EXR modes! Now let's talk about the scene modes available on the camera, specifically this selection that I found the most interesting:
- Natural light & flash: takes a photo with natural light (which usually requires boosting the ISO) and another with the flash
- Natural light: takes a photo using only natural light
- Portrait enhancer: Smooths skin and removes blemishes in your people pictures
- Dog/cat: the camera actually recognizes certain breeds of dogs and cats, and makes sure they're properly focused and exposed; worked fine with my flame-point Siamese!
- Night/night (tripod): the first one boosts the ISO to allow for handheld night shots, while the other uses long exposures
- Underwater: don't know why they have this, as Fuji doesn't sell an underwater housing for the F550EXR
The Advanced spot on the mode dial contains three relatively unique options:
- Motion Panorama 360: pan the camera from left-to-right (or vice versa) to create a gigantic panorama
- Pro Focus mode: combines three exposures to blur the background of your photo, while keeping the subject sharp
- Pro Low Light mode: combines four exposures into one, to reduce blur and noise in low light situations
The Motion Panorama 360 works exactly like the Sweep Panorama feature found on Sony cameras. You simply pan the camera from side-to-side, and the camera combines numerous exposures into a single photo. You can take photos at 120, 180, and even a full 360 degrees using this feature. While this feature is fun and works well most of the time, Sony's got a leg up on Fuji at this point, as their latest cameras have the ability to keep people from getting chopped into pieces.
After much trial and tribulation, I finally got the Pro Focus feature to actually work on a Fuji camera! This feature combines up to three exposures into a single image to produce a photo with a sharp subject and an out-of-focus background. It's very finicky, and will usually give you an error when you try to compose a photo. But on a few occasions I actually got it work, and above is a nice example. You can choose how soft the background is, on a scale of one to three. The resolution is set to 8 Megapixel in this mode, as well as for the one I'm about to describe.
The Pro Low Light feature combines four exposures into one, with the intent of creating a sharp photo in low light. I wasn't able to get one from my usual night photo location this time, and to be honest, these features rarely work from there anyway. If you're close enough to your subject where camera shake isn't going to be an issue, you'll probably end up with a sharp photo, though expect quite a bit of noise.
Enough about all this point-and-shoot stuff -- what about manual controls? The FinePix F550EXR offers manual control over the aperture, shutter speed, or both, though there are limitations. Anytime you want to adjust the aperture, you get just three choices. For example, at full wide-angle, your choices are F3.5, F7.1 and F10. In shutter priority mode you have a limit range of speeds and you can't adjust the ISO manually -- it's auto or nothing. In full manual mode you get access to the full shutter speed range, but do note that as you increase the ISO sensitivity, the minimum shutter speed will increase as well. For example, at ISO 100 you can use a shutter speed of 8 seconds. At ISO 200, the maximum is 4 seconds, and so on.
Returning to our tour, let's look below the mode dial, where you'll find the playback and movie recording buttons. The latter isn't very well designed; it's awkwardly placed and doesn't protrude from the camera, making it hard to press.
Below that we have the four-way controller, which has a scroll wheel around it. You can use the scroll wheel for navigating menus, adjusting manual settings, and playing back photos. The-four way controller handles many of the same tasks as the scroll wheel, plus:
- Up - Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV) + delete photo
- Down - Self-timer (Off, auto release, 2 or 10 sec)
- Left - Macro (on/off)
- Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, flash off, slow sync)
- Center - Menu/OK
The "auto release" self-timer uses the camera's face detection system. When the F550EXR sees a front-facing face in the frame, it takes a photo. Fuji says that this feature is best suited for taking pictures of babies, but I imagine it works just fine with adults, too.
The last two things to see on the back of the camera are the Display/Back and F-mode buttons. The latter opens the F-mode menu, which has these options:
- ISO sensitivity (Auto, Auto 400, Auto 800, Auto 1600, Auto 3200, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800)
- Image size (see chart later in review)
- Continuous (Off, Best Frame Capture, top x, dynamic range bracketing, Film Simulation bracketing, AE bracketing)
- Location search (Off, when switched on, permanently on) - discussed later
- Advanced Anti Blur (on/off)
- Film simulation (Provia/standard, Velvia/vivid, Astia/soft, B&W, sepia) - color presets, not adjustable
I might as well touch on some of those now. First, the ISO options. In some cases, you'll have just an "Auto" option, which tops out at ISO 1600. In other shooting modes, you can select auto, but with an upper limit of 400, 800, 1600, or 3200. In some shooting modes you can select the ISO yourself (ranging from 100 - 12800), though that's not possible in shutter priority mode, for some reason.
There are two continuous shooting modes on the F550, plus three kinds of bracketing. The Best Frame Capture mode can take eight full resolution or sixteen 8 Megapixel photos at frame rates of 3, 5, 8, or 11 frames/second (the highest speed is also at 8 Megapixel). You can "pre-capture" seven or fifteen photos that the camera had been buffering before you fully pressed the shutter release button, so you never miss a moment. The "top x" mode is similar, except for the pre-capture. You can choose frame rates of 3, 5, 8, or 11 fps, and how many photos you want taken (4, 8, 16, 32). Do note that the resolution drops to medium when you select 16 shots, and it goes to small at 32 shots. The resolution also goes down when the 11 fps mode is selected. You can also take RAW images in the top x mode, though you're limited to eight shots at 5 frames/sec (still very impressive). The LCD keeps up nicely with the action for both of these modes, and write times are between 10 and 20 seconds, depending on the setting used.
The bracketing modes are for exposure, dynamic range, and Film Simulation mode. In all three cases, the camera takes three photos in a row, each with a different value. For AE bracketing, the exposure is adjusted between each shot, with a selectable interval of 1/3, 2/3, or 1EV. In DR bracketing, the camera takes a photo at 100%, 200%, and 400% DR. Film Simulation bracketing takes the first photo at the Provia/Standard setting, followed by two more using the Velvia/Vivid and Astia/Soft modes. Do note that only AE bracketing is available when the RAW format is being used.
The Advanced Anti Blur mode can be selected automatically by the camera in EXR Auto mode, but you need to turn it on first. This feature will take a series of exposures and combine them into a single image, with the aim of reducing noise. Yep, this is a lot like the Pro Low Light feature I told you about earlier.
I don't know about you, but I've had enough of the back of the camera, so let's move on to the top view.
The first thing to see here is the GPS "hump" at the center of the photo. Inside is a GPS receiver which the camera uses to locate you somewhere on the planet. The camera has a built-in database of 500,000 landmarks, so if you're standing in front of the Chinatown Gate (as I often do), it'll know that, and store the location in the photo's EXIF headers. As you might expect, the camera sometimes gets the landmark wrong, but as far as I can tell, there's no way to select from a list of nearby landmarks, temporarily turn the feature off, or remove the location from a photo you've already taken. The F550's GPS won't win any awards for speed. Initial acquisition time in a spot with a clear view of the sky took almost two minutes. After that things were better, as long as they was enough open sky. Forget about using it in big cities or indoors. You can choose to have the GPS always on (when kills your battery life, but reduces acquisition times) or only when the camera is turned on. You can also have the camera keep a log of your movements, which you can import into MyFinePix Studio to view on a map.
To the right of the GPS receiver are the power and shutter release buttons, with the latter having the zoom controller wrapped around it. The controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.8 seconds. I counted around forty steps in the camera's 15X zoom range.
I've already told you about it, but I should point out that you can see that angled mode dial in this view of the camera, as well.
There's nothing to see on this side of the camera. The lens is at full wide-angle here.
On the other side of the camera you'll find the F550's I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. These ports include:
- USB + A/V out (one port for both)
Down at the bottom of the photo you can see the door through which you'd run the power cord for the AC adapter, if you could actually buy all the necessary pieces.
That monster 15X lens is at its full telephoto position in this photo.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (yay) plus the camera's speaker and battery/memory card compartment. The door that covers the battery/memory compartment is a wee bit flimsy (as they usually are). As you can probably tell, you won't be able to access what's inside that compartment while the camera is on a tripod.
The included NP-50 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.