Originally Posted: July 11, 2011
Last Updated: July 12, 2011
The Fuji FinePix F550EXR ($349) is a compact ultra zoom camera featuring a 16 Megapixel EXR CMOS sensor, a whopping 15X zoom lens, a high resolution / high contrast LCD, Full HD video recording, and a built-in GPS with a huge database of landmarks. It's joined by its little brother, the FinePix F500EXR, which has the same features, minus the GPS. Other features include sensor-shift image stabilization, an EXR Auto mode that selects both the best EXR and scene mode for you (more on EXR technology later), manual exposure controls (and support for the RAW format), high speed continuous shooting (among other things), a 360 degree panorama feature, and even cat and dog detection.
The F550EXR has a little brother, known as the F500EXR, which has the same features, except for the GPS and a bit less built-in memory. It sells for about $20 less.
Is the FinePix F550EXR the ultimate travel camera? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The FinePix F550EXR has an average bundle for a compact camera. Inside the box, you'll find the following items:
- The 16.0 effective Megapixel FinePix F550EXR digital camera
- NP-50 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
- Battery charger
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring MyFinePix Studio, FinePixViewer, and RAW File Converter
- 25 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)
As with most compact cameras, the FinePix F550EXR has memory built right into it. In fact, it has 39MB worth. Unfortunately, that hardly holds just five fine quality JPEGs or one RAW image, and the write times are terribly slow, as well. So, you'll want to buy a memory card right away, if you don't already have one. The F550 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC media, including the new super high-speed UHS-I cards. I'd recommend a 4GB card if you're taking mostly stills, and at least 8GB if you'll be recording a lot of movies. You'll want a high speed card (Class 6 or higher) for best results.
The F550EXR uses the same NP-50 rechargeable lithium ion battery as the F300EXR that came before it. This battery contains 3.4 Wh of energy when fully charged which, while not great, is typical for cameras in this class. Let's see how that translates into battery life:
The FinePix F550EXR's battery life comes in at about 5% above the group average. That's with the GPS off, though, so expect much lower numbers if you're using that feature (especially in the always-on mode).
All of the cameras in the above table use proprietary lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are on the expensive side, with an extra NP-50 costing around $50 (generics are available for less). And, when your battery dies, you won't be able to grab something at the corner store to get you through the day.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger. It takes around 150 minutes for the NP-50 to be fully charged. This charger plugs directly into the wall, which is my favorite type.
As with all compact cameras, the FinePix F550EXR has a built-in lens cover, so there's no clunky lens cap to deal with.
There are really just two accessories available for the F550. The most interesting is the WP-FXF500 waterproof case (priced from $200), which lets you take the camera up to 40 meters under the sea. A less exciting, but perhaps more useful accessory is the AC adapter. You'll need to buy both the AC-5VX AC adapter (from $33) as well as the CP-50 DC coupler to make it work, but I don't think the latter is even available to purchase anymore! If you do manage to get your hands on one, you will be able to power the F550EXR without draining your battery.
Fuji includes a number of software products with the FinePix F550EXR, and the first I want to mention is My FinePix Studio. This Windows-only product can be used for transferring photos from your camera to a computer, after which you can edit or share them. On the main thumbnail screen you can filter through your photos in a number of ways (people, events, location) and create "Smart Albums", like in iTunes. Here you can also view a slideshow, print or e-mail a photo, or upload them to YouTube or Facebook.
Editing a photo in MyFinePix Studio
The editing features in MyFinePix Studio are fairly basic. You can do an auto image enhancement, or adjust the brightness, contrast, and gamma manually. You can rotate or crop a photo, and remove redeye. There are also numerous special effects, including classics like grayscale and sepia. Unlike with JPEGs, when you double-click on a RAW image you won't get the screen you see above. Instead, the RAW File Converter software mentioned below will load and open the selected image.
FinePixViewer for Mac
Mac users get their own piece of software, but it's not really worth installing. FinePixViewer for Mac hasn't changed in several years, and it's basically limited to viewing, cropping, rotating, and placing text onto your photos. It can't view RAW images at all, so you'll need to use the RAW File Converter software below, or just do everything in iPhoto.
RAW File Converter EX
The bundled software for working with the F550's RAW images is called RAW File Converter EX. If it looks familiar, it should -- it's SilkyPix. This is a very powerful RAW editor, though the interface is clunky, and some of the English translations are a bit strange. Both Mac and Windows versions of RAW File Converter are included.
You can also use Adobe Photoshop CS5 to edit the camera's RAW files, though be sure to have the latest version of the Camera Raw plug-in installed.
So what are RAW files, anyway? These files contain unprocessed image data captured by the FinePix F550EXR's sensor. Since this is literally raw, untouched data, you have the ability to tweak things like white balance, noise reduction, and color, without effecting the quality of the image. The downside is that file sizes are larger, photos take longer to be saved to your memory card, and that they all need to be post-processed in order to get them into more common formats like JPEG.
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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(Downsized from 16M)
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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.
Using the Fuji FinePix F550EXR
It takes about 2.8 seconds for the FinePix F550EXR to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's pretty slow for a camera in this class.
There's no live histogram on the F550EXR. Also note that rather unusual-looking target at the center of the frame
While the F550EXR lacks the hybrid AF system of its predecessor, its focusing performance is still very good. At the wide end of the lens expect focus lock in 0.1 - 0.4 seconds, with telephoto times ranging from 0.6 - 1.0 seconds. Low light focusing was accurate on most occasions, with focus times hovering around the one second mark.
I didn't find shutter lag to be an issue, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes occurs.
Shot-to-shot delays were brief when taking JPEGs. You'll wait for just one second before you can take another photo. When using the RAW format, you'll have to wait more like five seconds before you can shoot again. Adding the flash into the mix did not slow things down noticeably.
There's no way to delete a photo that you just took -- you must enter playback mode to do so.
Now let's take a look at the available image size and quality options on the F550EXR:
And now you see why I recommended buying a good-sized memory card along with the camera!
The FinePix F550EXR can take RAW images, either alone, or with a JPEG of the size of your choosing. I explained the benefits of the RAW format earlier in the review.
The FinePix F550EXR has the standard Fujifilm menu system. It's pretty basic (no help system) and on the sluggish side, but it gets the job done. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of items in the record menu:
- EXR mode (Auto, resolution priority, high ISO & low noise, D-range priority) - only shown when mode dial set to EXR; discussed earlier
- Advanced mode (Motion Panorama 360, Pro Focus, Pro Low Light) - only shown when mode dial set to Adv. discussed earlier
- Scene position (Natural light & flash, natural light, portrait, portrait enhancer, dog, cat, landscape, sport, night, night (tripod), fireworks, sunset, snow, beach, underwater, party, flower, text) - only shown when mode dial is set to SP
- ISO sensitivity (Auto, Auto 400, Auto 800, Auto 1600, Auto 3200, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800)
- Image size (see above chart)
- Image quality (see above chart)
- Dynamic range (Auto, 100%, 200%, 400%, 800%, 1600%) - the last two options are only in the D-Range priority EXR mode, which I discussed earlier
- Film simulation (Provia/standard, Velvia/vivid, Astia/soft, B&W, sepia)
- White balance (Auto, custom, sunlight, shade, daylight fluorescent, warm white fluorescent, cool white fluorescent, incandescent, underwater) - the custom option lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting
- Continuous (Off, Best Frame Capture, top 4, dynamic range bracketing, Film Simulation bracketing, AE bracketing) - discussed earlier
- Advanced Anti Blur (on/off) - also discussed earlier
- Face detection (on/off) - see below
- Photometry [metering] (Multi, spot, average)
- AF mode (Center, multi, continuous, tracking) - see below
- Face recognition - see below
- Recognition (on/off)
- Register - a new face
- View & edit - existing faces
- Auto registration - after repeated photos of the same person, the camera will ask if you want to register their face
- Movie AF mode (Center, continuous)
- Movie mode (1920 x 1080, 1280 x 720, 640 x 480, HS 640 x 480, HS 320 x 240, HS 320 x 112)
- AE bracket EV steps (±1/3, ±2/3, ±1 EV)
Since I've covered most of those earlier, the only things that need to be discussed here are the AF modes and face detection/recognition features. The center and multi AF modes should be self-explanatory. The tracking mode will let you pick a subject, and the camera will attempt to keep them in focus as they move around the frame. The continuous AF mode always has the camera focusing, which reduces focus times, but at the expense of battery life.
The camera locked onto two of the six faces
The camera's Intelligent Face Detection system can find up to ten faces in the scene, and make sure they're properly focused. The F550 can detect faces from nearly all angles -- even in profile. It can also learn who people are, and give them focus priority whenever they appear in the scene. These registered faces can also have their name, birthday, and category (relationship to you) stored in memory, as well. The face detection didn't actually perform that well in my test, usually finding just two faces (out of six) in the scene.
There's also a setup menu on the F550EXR, which you can access from either the record or playback menus. This is where you'll have to go to use the RAW format, which is ridiculous if you ask me. The options in the setup menu include:
- Time difference (Home, travel)
- Silent mode (on/off) - you can also quickly turn off all of the camera's noises by holding down the Disp/Back button
- Reset - back to defaults
- Format - internal memory or a card
- Location search (Off, permanently on, when switched on) - another place to turn the GPS on and off
- Location info (on/off) - whether landmark or coordinates are shown on the LCD
- Tracking data (on/off) - whether GPS data is saved to a log file, which can be imported into MyFinePix Studio
- GPS units (km, miles)
- Image display (Off, zoom, 1.5 sec, 3 sec) - post-shot review; the zoom option lets you enlarge an image to check for proper focus, open eyes, etc
- Frame numbering (Continuous, renew)
- Operation volume (Off, low, middle, high)
- Shutter volume (Off, low, middle, high)
- Shutter sound (1, 2)
- Playback volume (0 - 10)
- LCD brightness (-5 to +5)
- Auto power off (Off, 2 mins, 5 mins)
- Dual IS mode (Continuous, shooting only, continuous) - see below
- Redeye removal (on/off) - whether the camera digitally removes this annoyance from your photos
- Digital zoom (on/off) - it's best to keep this off
- AF illuminator (on/off)
- RAW (Off, RAW, RAW+JPEG) - why this is buried in the setup menu is beyond me.
- Save original image (on/off) - whether unprocessed versions of photos taken using the redeye removal or "advanced" shooting modes are also saved
- Auto rotate playback (on/off) - whether portrait images are automatically rotated on the LCD/EVF
- Background color (Blue, purple, pink, orange, green, black) - for menus
- Guidance display (on/off) - whether "tool tips" are shown in ceratin situations
- Video system (NTSC, PAL)
- Power management (Power save, clear display) - this essentially adjusts the LCD refresh rate
The only thing I want to mention here are those two image stabilization options. Continuous IS has the system always running, which helps smooth things out when you're composing a photo. Shooting IS only activates the system when the photo is taken, which results in better shake reduction. You can also turn image stabilization off entirely, which is advisable if you're using a tripod.
Enough about menus -- let's do photo tests now! Before we begin, I should tell you that shortly before I got to taking the studio photos, a spec of dust appeared on the sensor (or perhaps the lens) of the F550EXR. Not surprisingly, I was unable to remove the dust spec, seeing how the camera was sealed. Rather than wait for Fuji to send out another camera, I decided to shoot the test photos with the dust spec. All of these photos were taken at the 16M resolution, unless otherwise noted.
Our macro test turned out fairly well, though the yellowish color cast shows that the FinePix F550EXR struggled with our studio lamps. While the camera has custom white balance, there's no way to fine-tune it, which could've avoided this color cast. Anyhow, the figurine looks nice and sharp, save for some minor artifacting due to noise reduction.
The minimum focus distance in macro mode is 5 cm at wide-angle, and 1.2 m at telephoto.
The night shot turned out just "okay". The F550EXR is rather inflexible when taking long exposures, due to its slow lens and 8 second shutter speed limit. I would've preferred a 10 second exposure for the above photo, but it's just not possible. Anyhow, the buildings are fairly sharp, though you can see some mottling and detail loss due to heavy noise reduction. The edges of the frame are also very soft, which is a problem I had with this camera. On a more positive note, purple fringing is nonexistent, and highlight clipping is kept to a minimum.
Due to ISO and shutter speed constraints, my usual night shot comparison shots came out too dark. For example, at ISO 200, you cannot use a shutter speed slower than 4 seconds, which isn't long enough. I am also skipping the night shot RAW comparisons due to huge differences in brightness between the RAW and JPEG images. Our studio ISO tests remain, however.
The F550EXR uses both a preflash to shrink your subject's pupils, plus a digital redeye removal system to eliminate this annoyance from your photos. Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts, I was unable to get a redeye-free photo. Even the tool in playback mode didn't help. While your results may vary, I would expect to see redeye in at least some of the flash photos that you take with the F550EXR.
The first thing you'll probably notice in our distortion test is the dust spot that I mentioned in the intro to this section. You can also see the yellowish color cast that comes from the camera not getting along with our studio lamps. As for the actual test results, there's mild-to-moderate barrel distortion on the F550's 24 - 360 mm lens. You can see what this looks like in the real world by checking out the building on the right side of this photo. It's hard to see at this size, but there's also substantial corner blurring on this lens, and I'll more on that below. While the test chart has some mild vignetting in it, I didn't find it to be a problem in my real world photos.
You've already seen bits and pieces of this earlier, but here's the full studio ISO test. Since this test is taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results between cameras I've reviewed over the years. The photos below were taken at full resolution, until the two highest sensitivities when the camera requires you to drop to 8 and 4 Megapixel, respectively. With the usual reminder to view the full size images as well as the crops, let's take a look at how the F550EXR performance across its ISO range:
ISO 6400 (8M)
ISO 12,800 (4M)
Things look decent but not spectacular at ISO 100 and 200. It's not hard to see the "jaggies" around the edges of the letters in the photo. Details start to get smudged at ISO 400, but it's there's still enough left for a small or midsize print. At ISO 800 we get more grain-style noise as well as a drop in color saturation. I'd save this setting for small prints only. ISO 1600 is pretty washed out and noisy, and if you recall the test on the previous page, things look better if you use the High ISO & Low Noise setting here. Unfortunately you cannot manually select an ISO above 1600 in that mode, but you'll get a similar effect by just lowering the resolution to 8 Megapixel in Program mode. The ISO 3200 shot is definitely suited for shooting at that lower resolution, though I'd avoid the two highest sensitivities (6400 and 12800) entirely.
Now let's do a RAW comparison, though I must preface it by pointing out that Photoshop's RAW conversions are coming in much brighter than the original JPEGs. I don't know if that's a feature or a bug, but it's worth a mention. And with that, let's see if we can find a benefit to shooting RAW on the F550EXR:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
Aside from colors being brighter and more saturated, I don't really see much of an improvement to be gained by shooting RAW (and I didn't at ISO 3200, either). I should point out that you can shoot RAW at lower resolutions, though only in the EXR modes. For example, you can take an 8 Megapixel RAW photo by switching into the High ISO & Low Noise mode. I can't guarantee that the results of shooting RAW will be any better at that size, but there you go.
Overall, the FinePix F550's image quality is disappointing. While exposure was accurate and colors were generally pleasing (with my studio lamps being the exception), the photos have strong detail loss and very significant corner blurring (here's a good example). The corner blurring was so bad that I asked Fuji to take a look at the photos and tell me if the camera was defective. The response was not what I was expecting: they said the camera was performing up to spec. It's probably a combination of too many pixels being pushed through that 15X lens and poor quality control on Fuji's part, but regardless, the photos don't look great. While other online galleries haven't shown corner blurring as bad as I've experienced (hence the QA problem), the noise reduction issue is definitely real, as you can see in the photo gallery at PhotographyBLOG. As far as noise goes, you'll want to put the camera into the High ISO & Low Noise mode for best results, as photos taken at full resolution don't stay clean for long. In fact, if you treat the F550EXR as an 8 Megapixel (rather than 16MP) camera, you'll be a lot happier with the results! Purple fringing was generally well controlled. Highlight clipping was a problem at times, but that just means that you need to switch over to the D-Range Priority mode.
So that's my opinion about the FinePix F550EXR's photo quality. Now it's time for you to view our gallery and see what you think!
The FinePix F550EXR and its new sensor can record Full HD video. That means that video is recorded at 1920 x 1080 at 30 frames/second, with stereo sound, for up to 29 minutes. A 4GB SDHC card will hold about 38 minutes worth of video. If you want a lower resolution, you can drop down to 1280 x 720 (720p), with the same time limit. You can also record at VGA (640 x 480), as well, for up to 115 minutes.
As with its predecessor, the camera lets you use the optical zoom while recording a movie. The lens moves slowly and quietly, to minimize the chance of the microphone picking up any motor noise. The camera can also focus continuously, so things will stay in focus as you zoom or pan the camera. The sensor-shift IS system is also available, though as I illustrated way back in the tour section of the review, it doesn't seem to dampen camera shake that much.
There are no manual controls of any kind in movie mode. You just press the red button to start recording, and again to stop. You can take a still image during movie recording by pressing the shutter release button. The stills are saved at the 8 Megapixel resolution.
The F550EXR can also record high speed movies, taken at 80, 160, or 320 fps. As is usually the case, as the frame rate goes up, the resolution goes down, so those will be recorded at 640 x 480, 320 x 240, and 320 x 112, respectively. These silent movies are recorded at high speed but played back at 30 fps, giving the impression of slow motion.
Movies are saved in QuickTime and use the H.264 codec.
Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the Full HD setting. I don't know about you, but the movies seem a little over-compressed to my eyes.
The FinePix F550EXR has a pretty neat playback mode. Basics include slideshows (complete with transitions and the ability to highlight faces), image protection, favorite tagging, voice captions, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view (up to 100 at a time), and playback zoom.
|Image search feature||Searching by GPS location name|
In addition to viewing photos one at a time or as thumbnails, you can also search through them by date, face (recognized, close-up, couple, or group), scene mode, file type (still or movie), whether they're tagged as a favorite, and even by GPS landmark name.
The camera allows you to rotate, resize, or crop photos. The only editing tool for photos is redeye removal, though it only works if the camera detected faces in the image. There are no movie editing tools available.
A crazy GPS-related feature that I can't show you (since I get no reception in my house) is called Photo Navigation. Once the GPS has your current location, you can pick a photo that has been geo-tagged and the camera will show you the direction and distance you need to go to reach that subject. I can't imagine ever using that, but there you go.
Another neat trick the F550 can do is create photobooks. These aren't books you can have printed; rather, they're more like electronic albums that can be viewed on the camera or in MyFinePix Studio on your PC. You can manually add photos to a book, or you can use the image search to help pick them.
The camera shows you a decent amount of info about your photos right away, including the landmark name or coordinates. For more info, plus a histogram, just press the display button.
The F550EXR moves through photos fairly quickly. If you're using the four-way controller, expect a full resolution image appearing about a half second after a low res placeholder. You can go a lot faster using the control dial, though it's showing the low res version only until you stop scrolling.
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!