Fujifilm garnered a cult-like following of true believers following the release of 2006’s F30 and subsequent F31 and cheaper F20 cameras. These compacts, equipped with the latest in Fujifilm’s proprietary Super CCD technology, approached DSLR-level image quality in low light. While these 6 megapixel wonders were amazingly good, the megapixel race marched ever onward and Fujifilm shattered their lead with subsequent releases of mediocre higher-resolution cameras. The latest sensor technology is an EXR-equipped CMOS sensor that forms the backbone of all Fujifilm’s high-end compacts.
The F770EXR, with its 16 megapixel EXR-CMOS sensor and 20x optical zoom, stands at the head of Fujifilm’s travel zoom lineup and, at least on paper, is one of the best-specified cameras announced this year. Image quality has always been Fujifilm’s strong suit, but has the F770 finally nixed the quirky interface and usability issues that have plagued its predecessors? And will image quality still hold up against the latest backlight-illuminated CMOS sensors from the competition?
Body and Design - Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR
The F770’s matte-black plastic shell, subtly rounded along the top and grip, exudes a subtle sexiness; it’s no stretch to imagine this camera hanging next to the grappling hook on batman’s utility belt. Despite the obscene amount of features packed into the camera, the design and muted monochromatic labels lend the F770 an appealing austerity. In the hand, the build is similarly excellent and sits among the best-built cameras we’ve tested. Suffice it to say, we have no qualms about the F770’s construction.
The front of the camera, and in fact the camera as a whole, is centered around the enormous 20x optical zoom lens. The F770 is by no means a thin camera, yet the retracted lens still protrudes about half an inch from the main body. It’s noticeably larger than Panasonic’s ZS20, yet about the same size as the other 20x travel zoom cameras on the market. Due to this size and weight, Fujifilm has included a substantial rubberized grip that adds some confidence. The HDMI and A/V Out ports are hidden behind a door within the grip. The top of the camera has a pop-up flash, an On/Off button, a silver shutter button surrounded by zoom toggle, and a small Function button. The unusual Mode dial, which straddles the front and back plates of the camera on a tilt, includes Auto, Manual modes, EXR Auto, Program, Scene, and Advanced setting options. We should also mention here that the pop-up flash is enabled with a flash button on the left side of the camera.
The back of the camera is dominated by the crisp 460,000 dot, 3-inch LCD, which proved itself easy to see in even the brightest sunlight. To the right of that is a prominent thumb grip from which the mode dial sprouts, which even has some rubber beads next to it for extra traction. The record button rests on thisgrip, as does the card writing LED. To the left of that is the Playback button, which rests above a 4-way controller encircled by a control dial. The controller offers quick access to exposure compensation, flash output, the timer, and macro mode, while the center Menu/OK button brings up the full Shooting and Utility menus. Along the bottom are the Display/Back button as well as the F(photo mode) button, which calls up a shortened shooting menu. The battery and SD card are inserted in the camera bottom next to the metal tripod mount, which is off-center slightly due to the speaker’s location.
User Experience and Performance - Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR
As noted in this review’s introduction, the F770 is built around the intriguing EXR-CMOS sensor, which is manipulated to deliver three unique modes (things are about to get technical, skip to the nextparagraph if you don’t need the specifics). The first and default is Resolution Priority (HR), which uses the sensor’s full 16 megapixel resolution to produce files no different from any other 16 megapixel CMOS sensor. The second, High ISO & Low Noise (SN), utilizes an unusual array of pixels organized in color pairs rather than spaced evenly throughout. The camera then combines alike pixel colors, a process called binning, into an 8 megapixel file that theoretically has lower image noise than the full 16 megapixels would. The final EXR function, D-Range Priority (DR), exposes each of two photodiodes at each photosite at a different value, resulting in a much larger dynamic range without resorting to multiple-image HDR manipulation. The resulting image is also limited to 8 megapixels, but the better results are quite obvious. All three modes are housed within the EXR setting on the mode dial, where you can choose to set these manually or allow the camera to decide.
EXR mode is in every way preferable to Automatic mode, for it not only chooses these specialty scene modes, but pairs them with the usual scene assortment of portrait, landscape, greenery, macro, and the like. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any way to activate these specialty modes outside of EXR; SN is completely unavailable and DR is limited to 100%-400% or Auto. It’s fantastic that the F770 includes the full array of manual modes, scene modes, automatic modes, and specialty modes, yet the user is forced to use the fully automatic EXR mode if they want the best possible image quality.
The F770’s speed is also a mixed bag. The autofocus locks most of the time but not as regularly as we’d hope, resulting in false locks that were completely misfocused. There are some seriously impressive burst mode options here too, up to 11 fps at reduced resolution, yet the autofocus makes shooting sports frustrating. The LCD freezes while the camera searches for focus, making framing particularly difficult. Shot to shot times slowed way down when shooting RAW, too, making the user wait a few seconds between photos while the buffer cleared. The F770’s GPS, while it was accurate to within a couple hundred feet most of the time, did have some trouble placing us more exactly. There were even a few photos that were tagged over a mile from their shot location!
Ultimately the main problem, and this sounds funny to say, is that the F770EXR has just too many shooting options to choose from. Rather than just giving us the best low-noise photos using the SN setting throughout all modes, you have to choose between it, two different night scene modes, and the Pro Low-Light setting in the Advanced Menu. If you enjoy shooting in manual mode, will you decide to put up with fully automatic mode for reduced noise or never even bother? Half of the buttons in the automatic modes are completely disabled as well (including the Fn button), oftentimes with no explanation. We still aren’t sure what the F-button is for either; the menu it pulls up is just as needlessly intrusive as the normal menu and, while shorter than the full menu, often has items grayed out depending on your shooting mode. Even the flash won’t fire unless you remember to manually pop it. If we review cameras professionally and found everything frustratingly complicated, how will the average user fare?
Image Quality - Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR
Image quality is where the F770 really begins to shine, producing clean files through ISO 800 whether in HR or SN modes. The lens is sharp throughout most of the range, only letting up a bit at the extreme long end. Chromatic aberrations are impressively low, too, indicating Fujifilm must be doing something right with their lens coatings.The F770 does shoot RAW, too, although Adobe doesn't currently support the .RAF format and the included software is terrible.
As for the EXR modes, SN adds almost a stop of low-light performance over shooting in HR, allowing you to stretch to ISO 3200 in a pinch. We did try downsizing HR files to 8megapixels and comparing the two modes directly, yet its clear there’s more magic going on than simple binning; SN had noticeably less color mottling and color noise than the downsized photograph from HR. We have included samples of higher ISOs in both HR and SN along the right-hand side of the page. DR mode also proved itself highly effective, dramatically increasing the highlight range of photos without serious degradation in the shadows (which is typical for most compacts). When left on EXR mode the user is limited to 100%-400% dynamic range expansion, which is enforced for good reason. 800% and 1600% offer even more dynamic range but boost ISO to 200 and 400, respectively, and make images look unnatural. These higher dynamic range settings are there if you know what effect you need, but otherwise stay out of the way for casual users. The following samples, from left to right, are DR 100%, 400%, and 1600% (this last at ISO 400).
While Fujifilm should be commended for this overall performance, there does seem to be a downside. The images taken for our ISO test show marked color shifts in the oranges and reds. While at first we chalked this up to the white balance, the accompanying RAW files showed none of the same issues. Something with Fujifilm's in-camera JPG processing is messing with the colors. Whether or not this is a deal breaker is up to you, but it’s an unfortunate downside to an otherwise stellar performance.
Video quality is similarly excellent, although the autofocus had trouble when zooming in or out or panning. The footage itself is among the best you’ll find, but beware of that focus problem.
Conclusion - Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR
The F770EXR is a decidedly frustrating camera. If you’re a fully automatic user looking for great image quality and a long zoom, the F770’s EXR Mode will perform admirably. The camera seamlessly switches from resolution to dynamic range to noise priority without the user having to do a thing. The resulting pictures are punchy and usually cleaner at base ISO and up than those we’ve seen from the competition.
If, however, you want to take full advantage of this sensor’s performance while shooting in the manual modes you will most likely be disappointed. The learning curve is exceptionally steep and the seemingly arbitrary settings restrictions can get frustrating. With time and patience the F770 may become easy to use, but we think most would prefer another camera from the get-go. Overall, the F770EXR is a beautifully designed and well-intentioned camera, but Fujifilm seems to still be struggling to match their vision of superior image quality with similarly superior usability.
Canon’s SX260 HS and Panasonic’s ZS20 cameras both come close to the F770EXR’s image quality yet have the usability to match. We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention Nikon’s S9300 and Sony’s expensive HX30v, which both pack long zoom ranges but forego manual modes. The F770EXR was announced alongside the cheaper F750EXR, too, which loses the GPS and the F660EXR, which has a shorter zoom range.