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Fujifilm F200 EXR

May 13th, 2009
A compact camera that aspires to appeal to veteran photographers.

For at least the past two years, point-and-shoot camera makers have been locked in a race to improve megapixel counts. While this was effective for awhile, they've quickly hit a wall as noise and other problems with image quality have prevented them from going much further. There are also few cameras that truly give experienced photographers the control they want without veering into large, semi-pro compacts or full-fledged digital SLRs. Fujifilm says its F200 EXR addresses both with a unique sensor, which reduces noise and improves dynamic range, as well as manual controls that are rarely seen in this class. We hope to find out whether this is more market posturing or a long overdue bridge between two different worlds.

design, controls and the interface

The first experience most will have of the F200 is its exceptionally reassuring build quality. While there are a lot of reliably built compact cameras in existence, Fujifilm's is special in that it seems to have been a top priority; there are no loose or hastily-tacked on parts that are likely to break. The most fragile is the cover over the AV/USB port, which is still better-built than some of the rubber flaps you see on other cameras.

On this front, it's worth noting that Fujifilm has adopted standards in most areas save for that port area in question. Rather than a typical mini USB connector, owners have to sync to a computer with a proprietary port that handles both data and video, with a combo USB and video output cable to match. It's a potential problem if you ever lose the supplied cable, and it also limits the choices for video quality; unlike some cameras at this price point, there's no HDMI option.

Dials and buttons are themselves sturdy and, for the most part, well laid out and familiar to anyone who has used a point-and-shoot in the past. Buttons are sufficiently large that they won't be hit by accident. Those transitioning from a different-brand camera may have to adjust to the "F" button specific to Fujifilm; this is where many of the immediate shooting settings, like ISO, image resolution and (for the F200) dynamic range are located. It's actually a very helpful system and, while not as quick as having dedicated mode dials on "prosumer" cameras like the Canon PowerShot G10 or on an SLR, it's a logical place to put these features versus other, less commonly accessed settings. We also appreciated that flash options were relatively complex: it's possible to choose a slow-synchro or red-eye reduction mode that's meant less to flood the scene with light (a potential problem in very dark rooms) and more to provide just enough detail for the intended shot.

Perhaps the most conspicuous differences in these controls are the options on primary mode dial: rather than focus on scene presets and other very novice-oriented modes, they skew towards choices an at least moderately experienced photographer would want to make. Besides full auto and video recording, most of the semi-automatic modes give a large amount of control back to the user and take advantage of the EXR sensor; the less experienced can use a portrait mode as well as two natural light modes that alternately force the flash off or else take two quick photos with and without. There's a programmable mode for those who know enough to always have familiar settings for most of their shots, and -- a true rarity for the category -- a full manual mode.

This last setting lets owners choose their own aperture and shutter speed and works fairly simply: pressing the +/- shortcut on the directional pad switches it over to controlling either lens feature using cardinal directions to change settings. It's enough to fine-tune the result, though the changes you can make are fairly coarse and may not be perfect for those who want very precise adjustments. Some photographers might also dislike the choices of near-total manual controls: there's no shutter priority mode, and aperture priority is only available by stepping out of manual mode and choosing it from the "shooting mode" menu when in programmable mode. As a result, those used to the depth of shooting modes on some truly advanced cameras may still feel slightly frustrated. They may also be disappointed by the absence of RAW, which isn't unusual in compacts but is something many pros would prefer to use.

Still, the breadth of controls and Fujifilm's near rebellion against "easy" camera modes is refreshing, and by itself may put the F200 on the short list for experienced shooters looking for a pocketable camera when a full-sized model isn't allowed or is just too large.

image quality: regular shooting

One limitation of compact cameras that Fujifilm can't quite escape is the sensor size: it still has to be the same as for most other compacts, and that will limit both the light sensitivity and fine detail. There will still be moments where information is noticeably lost to blown highlights or to shadows, even if colors themselves are fairly vivid. We didn't notice much if any in the way of chromatic aberration -- that is, the "purple fringing" that occurs when a too-small lens is fitted relative to the sensor. The lens is actually surprisingly capable and, thanks to the 5X reach, is more likely to properly frame the shot without having to crop later (and lose detail as a consequence).

For most typical light levels and shooting situations, the F200 is quite capable; we had no issues with noise up to ISO 400, and even ISO 800 is often acceptable if the situation either demands it or else you're deliberately going for a film grain-like effect. ISO 1600 can simply be too noisy more often than not, however, and shows visible mottled colors rather than just additional grain. We'd avoid ISO 3,200 and would particularly use the extreme ISO, reduced resolution modes (up to 12,800) only as last resorts when flash is banned. To date, it's only high-end digital SLRs like Canon's EOS-5D Mark II or Nikon's D700 that can manage those levels without being unusable.

Flash performance is adequate to good. It would almost always create a pale tone and produce highlights, but it would keep a large amount of detail and produced surprisingly pleasing shots at concerts or in a dimly-lit pub, where the subjects weren't always very close to the camera and thus had the risk of being poorly lit by a flash with too short a range. Red eye didn't seem to be an issue thanks to the slow-synchro option.

An appreciated touch is a film emulation mode that lets photographers simulate particular types of conventional film, such as Velvia or Provia. These ultimately amount to color balance changes, but they can be useful for producing either punchy or soft color tones without knowing the intricacies of color temperatures.

image quality: EXR modes

Of course, the very selling point of the F200 EXR is its ability to overcome usual camera weaknesses, and it's here where it veers off the path of usual compact cameras. For all intents and purposes, the EXR (extreme range) sensor lets photographers make a direct trade-off between resolution and advantages in difficult lighting conditions. As the individual sensors are laid out in a cross pattern rather than a square grid, Fujifilm can alter the behavior of pixels while in many cases only having to drop the resolution in half and without noticeably worsening the look. To reduce noise, the F200 "fuses" pairs of pixels together to collect more light; to improve the dynamic range and thus reduce the instances of lost detail, it deliberately underexposes every other pixel.

It's a revolution, in theory; in practice it's still very good, but isn't quite as stunning or universally applicable as the marketing might suggest. We got the most use out of it in enhancing the image quality in well-lit but high contrast scenes. In shooting flowers, for example, we noticed that the flowers themselves showed more of their subtle creases and wrinkles, while there were far fewer blown-out highlights in the larger scene. We also noticed improved detail in darker areas at times: when snapping photos of a musician playing outdoors against a dark building, the details of those just inside the building popped into much greater relief.

The dynamic range mode isn't flawless, however. Because of the bias towards underexposure to improve range, it can at times actually render a low-light scene even darker rather than bring out the intended detail. Its behavior in dark environments sometimes seems a bit random, too, as at other times it would work more effectively than the low-noise mode at capturing a dark scene. As such, the dynamic range mode for EXR is best more for casual shooting in conditions that would already deliver usable shots rather than at the very edge of acceptability.

Flowers shot normally; notice the overly bright highlights.

Flowers shot with EXR in dynamic range mode; much more balanced.

A musician shot normally; the pub behind him is dark.

With EXR dynamic range, the pub shows much more detail.

Ironically, we got less significantly less use out of the low-noise EXR mode than we expected. While it's true that it reduces the total amount of noise, it won't do so to such an extent as to let you increase the ISO sensitivity to a high level (such as ISO 1,600) without a visible penalty. We primarily saw it eliminate the mottled color effect that often creeps up in high noise situations. There were even a few instances where it darkened the scene or, in one odd instance, led the camera to choose the wrong color balance. Ultimately, as with the dynamic range mode, it's more an extra safeguard for image quality at more common light levels like ISO 400 or 800 where that extra amount of noise reduction can produce an image more suitable to a blowup or to printing.

Normal mode with high noise.

With EXR low-noise on: mottled color is gone, but nets a darker scene. Dynamic range mode was more effective here.

While this suggests Fujifilm might be overselling EXR, and not without some merit, the truth is that we found ourselves invoking EXR mode more often than not, even at the expense of some control. It enhances image quality just enough in certain situations to compensate for deficiencies that would otherwise be inescapable in a compact camera.

video recording quality

For all the gains made in still image processing with the F200, the camera is strangely retrograde in its video support. Its maximum recording is capped at a resolution of 640x480; that's certainly acceptable, but it's sub-par when compared to other cameras in the class. Canon's PowerShot SD970 IS and Panasonic's Lumix ZS3 both record video in HD and are arguably much more future-proof, especially since video hosts like Vimeo and YouTube now regularly offer HD or near-HD options. Less expensive cameras either offer HD or at least offer widescreen modes that more properly fit the aspect ratios of modern TVs.

While this is a significant knock against the camera, the image quality is at least good for the category. It's not clear whether the EXR mode is at all engaged during the movie mode, but the quality of the lens and the built-in image stabilization result in a fairly clear picture. We were also impressed that the camera managed to capture a scene in a darkened nightclub (pictured below) with relatively little loss of the actual ambient light and while preserving much of the detail. The combination of both a wide angle and 5X zoom should also include more in the scene

As is always the case with virtually any compact camera using a mono microphone, sound quality is muted; we wouldn't expect more out of a point-and-shoot where space is still at a premium, and even digital SLR cameras like the Nikon D90 or Canon Rebel T1i regularly include single-array microphones due to size constraints. It does rule out the F200 as a dedicated video recorder, but that's also not why most would buy the camera.

Immaculate Machine performing "Dear Confessor" (available on iTunes)

a word on battery life

Due to time constraints, we weren't able to fully test the battery life of the camera. However, we can say that the (proprietary) lithium-ion battery doesn't drain quickly. We captured over 100 photos and a pair of videos in the space of testing, all of which involved using the sensor's full abilities (either in 12-megapixel normal mode or 6 megapixels with EXR). It was only at the very end of these sessions that the battery indicator dropped to the two-thirds mark, leading to the logical conclusion that the camera should last for about 300 stills before it runs dry. The larger but same-resolution Canon G9 is typically closer to 250 or less and hints that Fujifilm is making better use of its battery.

wrapping up

It's hard not to like the F200 EXR on at least some level. The EXR modes themselves aren't cure-alls, but at least in dynamic range mode the camera can offer just that extra needed amount of range to turn a typically overbright outdoors photo into a workable image. Again, it's less effective with low noise, but anyone who has been frustrated with compact cameras that produce unacceptable noise even at reasonable ISO levels may appreciate it by itself.

There are other qualities to appreciate even outside of this signature mode, and mostly revolve around the direct (and indirect) benefits of having a 5X zoom lens with relatively large glass. The orientation of the settings towards knowledgeable photographers is a welcome relief. Having a full manual mode, albeit without shutter priority, should likewise appeal to pros that may want an F200 as a companion to an SLR. And most are bound to appreciate the tougher-than-average construction.

Even so, we do have some reservations that prevent an unambiguous recommendation. A simple consideration is the proprietary nature of both the data cable and the battery. While it's not often wise to travel with a lithium-ion-powered camera outside of a home region without a power adapter -- we recommend an AA-powered camera instead -- Fujifilm's decision to use a proprietary port spells trouble for a vacationer if the USB cable is lost.

The most important factor, though, may simply be the price. At $400, the F200 EXR isn't a trivial expense when many casual photographers are now used to paying half as much. That isn't Fujifilm's target market, but the price is just high enough to trigger doubts for many; it's really a camera for veterans first and the mainstream second. Pricing the camera at this level moreover draws some uncomfortable comparisons. For the money, there are cameras with longer-ranged zoom, even in compact bodies, and there are similarly models with better movie modes. Anyone mulling a purchase of the F200 should strongly consider what they'll be most likely to do with it and whether they need the features in that compact a design.

As much as this gives room for second thoughts, the price still isn't outrageous knowing that it will run up against much more expensive cameras like the $500 Canon G10, which can potentially produce better shots are often too bulky to fit comfortably in a given pocket and don't have the option of boosting the dynamic range -- which often becomes an issue at the same light sensitivity levels. The F200 EXR isn't for everyone, and it's over-marketed, but does feel like a well-kept secret: for those in the know, it could be a go-to camera for relatively strong image quality without having to move to a semi-pro compact or DSLR.

- EXR helps dynamic range, less so noise.

- Large, good quality lens with 5X zoom.

- Presets skewed towards experienced users.

- Manual controls.

- Sturdy build quality.

- EXR aids aren't quite as good as marketed.

- Video mode underwhelming for the class.

- Expensive compared to most point-and-shoots.

- Proprietary data port.