Fujifilm’s EXR-tagged, F-series cameras take great pictures. Over the past few years, Fuji turned this line into a dark-horse favorite among enthusiast shooters. With over-sized sensors and innovative processing techniques, the F-series does things that other travel zooms cannot. But for whatever reason -- maybe the less-recognizable name, or often clunky user experience, or the bit of extra know-how it takes to make one of these cameras really come alive -- these cameras haven’t been as popular as they should have.
Like most travel-zoom makers this year, Fujifilm took the more-is-more approach with the F550EXR. They packed it with all the trendy components and features, like a versatile 24-360mm lens, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, and GPS geo-tagging capability. Its spec sheet looks as strong as any long-zoomer, but we've seen this approach hurt a few cameras already this year. Read on to find out if Fujifilm lost the forest of great image quality through the trees of an impressive feature set.
Body & Design
The F550EXR is on the small side for a camera with a 15x zoom lens. At its thickest, it's about an inch and a quarter deep, and slightly longer and wider than a deck of cards. It fits in a pants pocket if it needs to, though more comfortably in a bag or jacket pocket. The shiny plastic casing would be at home on a prepaid cell phone, but it looks tacky on a $350 camera.
The layout is all business. A functional button, display, or input takes up about every square inch of real estate. Most of the rear panel belongs to a 3-inch, 460,000-pixel LCD, along with a few hotkeys for display adjustments, playback, video recording, and a general purpose functions, as well as a selection wheel.
In the top right corner, the mode dial sits at a 45-degree slant between the top and rear panels. The shutter/zoom-tilter combo sits to its left, followed by a small, recessed power button, a hump for the GPS tracker, and the pop-up flash -- annoying on any camera, but tolerable here. Up front, there’s a small rubberized grip, sitting beneath a stereo mic aperture and LED focus assisit lamp, and of course, the impressive 24-360mm f/3.5-5.4 lens. A sturdy plastic panel covers micro-USB and mini-HDMI ports on the right side, and a flimsier plastic panel covers the battery and memory card slots on the bottom. There’s a metal tripod threading down there, too.
It’s a well-designed camera, one that competes with its rivals in pretty much every design category. Perhaps it’s a bit cramped for folks with large hands, but nothing else about the body itself detracts from the total package.
Performance & User Experience
The F550EXR offers a decent user experience thanks to its nimble backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. Aside from its positive effects on high-ISO image quality, it also lowers shot-to-shot times, speeds up autofocus, and allows quick burst shooting -- 8 frames per second at full-resolution and 11fps at medium resolution (we'll get to why medium resolution is important later).
Fujifilm also loaded the F550EXR with a laundry list of features, extras, bells, and whistles. Two of this year's most-wanted and least-available features are here: built-in GPS geo-tagging, and press-and-sweep panoramas (360 degrees, no less). The panoramas work as expected. Hold down the button, and slowly pan the camera. It churns out a really long, really skinny shot. It is cool, though, and much more user-friendly than the panorama-assist modes that most cameras use.
The GPS is as well implemented as users can expect, on equal footing with the other GPS-enabled cameras we've seen this year -- that is to say, hit or miss. It hits in wide-open areas and misses in built-up areas. It works best when the GPS is set to Permanently On (the GPS unit pings the satellite periodically, even when the camera is off). It drains the battery, but it's better than waiting to reconnect at every power-on.
Plenty of manual controls await hands-on users. Alongside Auto, EXR Auto, Advanced modes, and some scene presets, the standard Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual Exposure modes (PASM) all have their own slots on the mode dial. It's the only travel zoom in production that supports RAW capture, a feature that is sure to persuade some enthusiasts to choose this camera over its several worthy competitors.
What might frustrate those enthusiasts, though, is the glacial pace at which the F550EXR writes RAW images to the card -- sometimes as many as five seconds, incapacitating the camera meanwhile. The overall interface can be frustrating, too. Some key adjustments are buried in the second or third page of the shooting menu, or even in the setup menu, while some less-important ones are front-and-center. Users will ultimately learn to live with the setup, but after reviewing several Fujis in the past few years and not seeing a marked improvement over time, we'd like to see them re-work the user experience.
The F550EXR's NP-50 battery is rated for 300 shots per charge, though this number is notably lower when GPS is set to Permanently On. Some users have complained of rapid draining, but Fujifilm already patched this issue in a firmware update. Even with the GPS-related battery drain, it's a longer-lasting battery than several of its competitors, which are rated somewhere around the 200 or 220-shot mark.
Image & Video Quality
This gets complicated, so get comfortable. Let’s start with the regular 16-megapixel Auto mode. In bright conditions, shots are well-exposed and detailed, sure to make most shooters happy most of the time. Some noise creeps in around the ISO 400 mark, though shots are still usable at medium or medium-large sizes up through ISO 1600. The F550 supports sensitivities up to ISO 12800, but the image quality takes a big hit as colors desaturate and details turn to mush. Based on what we’ve seen from other travel zooms based around CMOS sensors this year, this is pretty much the status quo. Nothing shocking, though the results would likely be better if the megapixel count was lower.
But this camera has a trick up its sleeve. The F550EXR comes alive in -- surprise -- EXR mode. It kicks the processor into overdrive, so to speak. EXR mode has three speeds: Resolution Priority, D-Range Priority, and High ISO & Low Noise. The latter two modes drop the pixel count down to 8 megapxels, but those reduced-res shots are the secret ringers that help the F550EXR stand out.
For the few readers that are unfamiliar with the megapixel myth, here's a short version: The word "megapixel" sounds cool. In marketing, to sound cool is divine. Good marketing can influence even the savviest consumers, but most consumers are un-savvy. When an un-savvy camera buyer hears the cool-sounding word "megapixel," they believe that more is better. This is not the case. 8 to 10 megapixels is all that anyone needs. Any more than that is unnecessary, even detrimental. While almost all cameras do allow the option to store medium or small shots, those shots are usually just compressed versions of full-res shots; there’s not really a quality boost. We applaud Fujifilm for giving users the option to trade some resolution for a better-looking picture.
When the F550EXR drops down to 8 megapixels, whether its in D-Range Priority, High ISO & Low Noise, or even one of the PASM modes, just shot at the medium (‘M’) size, shots are clearer than their full-sized counterparts (in similar shooting situations, that is). Since it controls noise quite well, the F550EXR is a solid low-light shooter. Most advanced compacts still outperform it, but the results are actually quite nice. It doesn’t suffer from the same washed-out coloring that a number of other CMOS-based travel zooms do -- colors seem pretty natural to our eyes -- so it’s a nice daylight shooter as well. Know this camera, work within its limitations, and the results will impress.
Though the explanations are not readily apparent in the manual, we can make some assumptions about how the F550EXR accomplishes this feat, based on what we know about Fujifilm’s older EXR models. In D-Range Priority, it’s likely the the camera combines two shots -- one overexposed, one underexposed -- to balance the highlights and shadows in a frame. This technique is often known as high-dynamic range (HDR) photography, or multi-shot noise reduction. In High ISO & Low Noise mode and perhaps PASM mode, M size, the F550 uses “pixel binning.” It’s an advanced concept, but it has to do with the how pixels are arranged on the sensor. Good pixels stay, bad pixels go, and the processor fills in the gaps surprisingly well.
So in bright, beautiful conditions, feel free to shoot at full resolution. But when the going gets tough, reduce the resolution. We found that EXR Auto mode generally does a good job of picking the appropriate setting most of the time, though as mentioned, it’s possible to get very good results shooting at medium resolution in the hands-on modes.
It’s also worth noting that the F550EXR supports RAW capture as well, so even if the 8-megapixel JPEGs still leave something to be desired, there’s always the option to put on some elbow grease and do the processing yourself.
Beyond all the sensor-based madness, the F550EXR is mostly free from lens-based image-quality problems, too. Purple and green fringing are only sometimes noticeable in areas of high contrast. Distortion is well handled, even at the extreme settings (24mm wide angle, or 360mm telephoto).
All in all, we’re very happy with the F550EXR’s image quality. It isn't some miraculous, ground-breaking pocket camera, but it's darn good. We’ll call it the best in the travel zoom class this year. Haters are going to hate no matter what; they’ll try to discredit this camera because it halves its pixel count to get its best results. They can grumble all they want, but anyone who can approach it with an open mind should be pretty happy with the shots.
Video mode, on the other hand, is troubling. The F550EXR shoots 1080p HD video, which is always great, but two issues hamper the experience. 1) The F550EXR focus-hunts mercilessly, stopping on its subject only after a few trips back and forth from blurryland. Center AF mode controls the problem, but can’t prevent it. 2) At any considerable zoom range, videos suffer from frame wave. The picture wobbles like a desert mirage. It looks amateurish, just not something you should ever see in a serious camera. Whether these problems matter is up to personal preference. Stationary subjects in bright environments look great, so if that’s the extent of a user’s video-recording needs, fine. Fujifilm could conceivably correct this issue with an additional firmware update, but it has not rolled out yet.
The Fujifilm F550EXR is one of the best travel zoom cameras of 2011. It just takes some practice, patience and know-how to unleash its potential. For that very reason, its appeal might be limited. And there are some legitimate issues, such as the slow RAW capture, poor video mode, and occasionally frustrating interface. But anyone who gives it the time it needs will find a great camera with tons of hands-on control, an excellent feature set, and the best image quality in its class.
Its little brother, the F500EXR is also certainly worth a look. It's basically the same camera, just without GPS, RAW capture, or a few other insignificant features. At launch (a scant four weeks ago), the F550EXR cost $350 and the F500EXR about $300. Now it's more like $310 and $290, so the savings aren't really notable anymore. Do whatever makes you happy.
And if you do like the idea of a travel zoom, but aren't sure if you're ready to settle on the F550EXR -- that's fine -- we highly recommend the Canon SX230HS. It lacks RAW capture, but does have a GPS unit, speedy CMOS sensor, long zoom range (14x, but it starts at 28mm), and great image quality -- and it's more user friendly.