My new toy: Fujifilm F200EXR

(April 9, 2009)

I’m a happy user of the Fujifilm S9500 bridge camera since 2005, but lately, I noticed that it would also be really nice to have a second, smaller camera that I can take with me (almost) everywhere. This isn’t a problem in itself – there are countless compact point-and-shoot cameras at around 200 € on the market. However, most (if not all) of these suffer from too high resolutions and too small (1/2.5″) sensors. The days of the legendary F30/F31 with its large 6-megapixel sensor and unrivalled low noise are also long gone, so my »new camera« project was on hold for a long time. That was until february, when Fujifilm announced the release of its new compact F-series model, the F200EXR, based on the highly anticipated SuperCCD EXR sensor. After reading the first beta reviews and seeing the first example images, I immediately ordered the camera and it arrived just in time for my Paris visit, where I had the perfect opportunity to test the camera. Here’s what I found out.

Handling

The F-series cameras never were designer models, and the F200EXR is no exception: The basic shape is close to a simple box, and while there are a few semi-stylish curves here and there, it’s not the prettiest-looking camera. The back side is occupied by the huge 3″ screen with its 320×240 pixels (unfortunately – a higher resolution would have been welcome on a screen this size). Next to that, there are some really tiny buttons and controls that inevitably generate a »this looks like a toy, how am I supposed to use that?« feeling at the first sight. But looks are deceiving – the controls are actually pretty nice to use and it’s no problem to hit the correct buttons.

In typical Fujifilm style, the shooting options are spread over two different menus (the normal menu and the »F« key menu), and it’s not always logical which option is where. This takes some time getting used to, especially since some of the options are in different places than they used to be on older models. The face detection function seems to be particularly important to Fujifilm, as they spent an own key for it. Other than that, there are no surprises to be found in the menus – all the neccessary options are there.

Review/playback mode is pretty fast; it’s possible to skim over the pictures at a rate of about five images per second. This is a huge improvement over my S9500, which was extremely slow. The F200EXR also has some useful overview modes, up to a 10×10 images grid. Zooming into images also works very smoothly. There’s no histogram display, though.

The camera takes pictures in resolutions of approximately 12, 6 or 3 megapixels. Each of these settings are available in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio as well as cropped to 3:2 and 16:9. Not all resolutions are available in every mode – some of the EXR modes limit the sensor to 6 megapixels, which is a hardware restriction because there’s actual pixel binning taking place right in the sensor. Given the fact that 12 megapixels are only useful under a few rare circumstances, I almost exclusively use the 6-megapixel resolution.

Shooting Modes

The F200EXR has the usual set of default modes: a fully automatic one, program AE, a manual mode and a bunch of scene-specific presets nobody is ever going to use. There’s one additional mode, though: EXR mode, which has four sub-modes – HR, SN, DR and Auto. These modes correspond to the different settings of the EXR sensor. Let’s have a look at these:

EXR-HR: In this mode, the EXR sensor simply acts as a high-resolution 12-megapixel CCD sensor. It works just like the program AE mode on a normal 12-megapixel camera: you can set up a few things like ISO, white balance and exposure compensation, but everything else is mostly automatic.

EXR-SN: This mode simply bins two sensor pixels together, yielding a 6-megapixel image with less noise than normal (i.e. a better signal-to-noise ratio). Other than that, it’s a pretty straightforward program AE mode. The ISO sensitivity can be chosen directly or using three different automatic modes that limit the sensitivity to ISO 400, 800 or 1600.

EXR-DR: This is perhaps the most interesting feature of the EXR sensor: Every second pixel will capture the image with a lower sensitivity (1/2 or 1/4 – there seems to be an 1/8 setting, but I’ve not yet found out how to enable that). This practically generates two 6-megapixel exposures at once. The camera then merges them into a single image with increased dynamic range. Apart from this, it’s again a program AE mode, but for unknown reasons, the ISO sensitivity can’t be set automatically here; you’re limited to the three »automatic-with-limit« settings from SN mode.

EXR-Auto: Fujifilm praises this mode as the next best thing since sliced bread, and in theory, it really sounds nice: EXR-Auto mode analyzes the current picture and automatically switches into one of the three EXR modes based on the type of image you’re trying to capture. Unfortunately, this mode is completely unusable because it forces the camera to use continuous AF, refocusing permanently while you’re still positioning the camera. This does not only sound very unsettling (I can literally hear the focus motor suffer), it also wears out the focus mechanics, uses more battery power and some users also reported that more heat builds up.

Program AE: This mode seems to be a superset of (nearly) all other modes. It even makes use of EXR-DR mode if appropriate. To make things even more strange, this is the only mode where the full range of ISO settings is available, ranging from 100 to an insane 12800 (though only in 2-megapixel resolution).
All things considered, program AE seems to be the best mode to use on the camera. In Paris, I did most of the shots in EXR-DR and EXR-SN mode, but in hindsight, I figure that program AE might be the smarter choice. At least, the few (10-20) photos I took in program AE were all captured with very reasonable settings.

Manual Exposuse: This mode has two sub-modes: Aperture priority and full manual exposure. The former only supports two aperture settings, f/3.3 and f/8. In principle, I’m fine with that, because I rarely use any other settings than the highest and lowest aperture, but I don’t understand why the upper setting is f/8 when the camera is perfectly capable of using f/11 in the AE modes.
The fully manual mode also offers only two aperture settings, but a lot of shutter speed settings. Setting these up is a bit fiddly, though. Also, I don’t get why there isn’t a shutter priority mode.

The automatic exposure modes work surprisingly well. I’m used to having cameras that are prone to over-exposure (for example, I run my S9500 with an exposure correction of -2/3 EV for almost all the time), and I was delighted to see that this is not the case with the F200EXR. If anything, the camera tends to underexpose in situations with very high contrast, but this is rarely the case. The AE is not perfect, though: The maximum shutter speed selected by the AE is 1/4s, which is not enough under low-light conditions with low ISO values. This is quite surprising, considering that it’s no problem to crank the shutter speed up to 8 seconds in manual exposure mode. Maybe Fujifilm wanted to play it safe and limit the shutter speed to a value that can still be compensated decently with the built-in image stabilization. If that was their goal, they succeeded: In low-light situations, I mostly used SN mode and increased the ISO sensitivity until I was around 1/4s, and none of the photos taken this way were blurry enough that I had to delete them. Not a single one. So even though this artificial limit sucks, it has its good sides to it.

Another thing I don’t like about AE is that it tends to exaggerate sensitivity. Normally this isn’t much of an issue, since I mostly select the sensitivity by hand, but in EXR-DR mode, where this is not possible, I saw the camera frequently using ISO 200 in bright sunlight.

Image Quality

Now let’s get to the interesting stuff: image quality. The SuperCCD sensors are famous for their low noise, which is said to be half-way between normal cheapo compact camera CCDs and the sensors used in DSLRs. Since I don’t have a full lab of different cameras at hand, I can’t compare this myself – this is up to Phil, Simon and Richard at dpreview.com (who finally reviewed the camera, just two months after its release). What I can do, however, is compare the various EXR modes and ISO settings against each other, as well as check how well the new sensor compares to the 5th generation SuperCCD HR in the S9500:

click here to see the noise comparison

(sorry for the blurry images – I didn’t use a tripod when taking the pictures)

In program AE mode, the F200EXR’s sensor shows about as much noise as the one in the S9500 – except that it has 12 megapixels instead of 9 at the same 1/1.6″ sensor size, so this is still a considerable improvement. Much more interesting is EXR-SN mode, which is in fact one ISO level better than EXR-HR mode. Its ISO 400 noise level corresponds roughly to ISO 1600 of a typical APS-C DSLR, which is a good result for a sensor with only about one third of the area per (binned) pixel.

Another interesting question is the usefulness of DR mode. There’s one thing that must be said very clearly about this: Don’t expect miracles. If you do (like I did in the beginning), you will be disappointed. DR mode is not about producing fantastic HDR-style images with a single shot. It’s rather a nice little helper in situations where the dynamic range of the scene is just that tiny bit too large that clipping would occur. From all the situations where I photographed a scene in both DR and non-DR mode, there are only very few where there’s a noticeable difference. (But then again, I shot most of my photos in DR mode, so I may not even know in how many situations it already saved the picture.) Here’s what the difference typically looks like:

 

In the left image, which has been captured in normal (non-DR) mode, the bright spots in the rocks are clearly overexposed. In the right image, taken with DR set to 400%, the overall exposure is the same, but the details in the rocks are not lost.

Random other remarks

The 5x zoom lens seems to be of good quality. Even though it’s pretty small, its performance is OK. Sharpness is good even in 12-megapixel shots and I don’t have seen any vignetting yet. Purple fringing can be seen, but it seems to be even less than in my S9500. Speaking of which, I noticed that even though both camera’s lenses start at 28 mm (equiv.), the F200EXR seems to have an even wider field of view.

The camera supports either SDHC or XD cards (only one of them can be installed at any time). In addition to this, there are 48 MB of internal memory – perhaps there’s a 64 MB flash in it, but the firmware is just 16 MB ;)

There’s also a video mode, but it’s obvious that Fujifilm doesn’t care much about video recording: It can capture video at 640×480 @ 30 fps, but the quality isn’t anywhere near the photo quality. Also, it only records Motion JPEG, which generates quite large files.

The camera is powed by a small (1000 mAh) Li-Ion battery which lasts for only approximately 300 pictures. An external wall-plug charger is supplied; charging inside the camera isn’t supported.

I didn’t use the USB port of the camera yet, so I can’t tell whether it uses the mass storage protocol, MTP or even proprietary crap. The same is true for the A/V output: it’s there, but I didn’t bother to test it.

Conclusion

Every review I read so far came to the same conclusion: Regarding image quality, this camera is as good as it gets in the point-and-shoot segment. For a compact camera, its low-light performance is outstanding and only rivalled by it’s venerable predecessor, the F31fd.

Now I don’t have other point-and-shoot cameras at hand, let alone a F31fd, so I can’t confirm any of these claims; but what I can compare it against is my good old S9500. And even though this was (and still is) a pretty good camera for its type, the F200EXR is just better. The image quality is nearly perfect and AE mode, even though it has its quirks, works better than any other I’ve seen before, including some DSLRs. EXR-DR mode, despite not being the miracle some people hoped for, is very useful for scenes with high contrast.

I’d really love to see the EXR sensor, enlarged to APS-C format, in a nice entry-level DSLR. I bet it would kick some asses there – but until then, I’m satisfied with what I have now: The probably best compact digital camera ever built.


Finally, here’s a very short summary of the highlights of the camera, Ars Technica style:

The Good

  • Very good image quality
  • Reliable AE and AWB
  • EXR-DR mode can be helpful in high-contrast scenes

The Bad

  • AE limited to 1/4s shutter speed, prefers high ISO settings
  • It’s still a compact camera – taking pictures in bright sunlight is hard because you don’t see anything on the display

The Ugly

  • Having to wait for a bridge camera or DSLR equipped with the SuperCCD EXR chip

1 Response to »My new toy: Fujifilm F200EXR«

Post a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Captcha: