The Superzoom Wars 2011 are in full swing. Which long-zooming, dSLR-looking, $400-500 camera will attract the most buyers this year? Which one will cause the most ire?
Here, we take a look at the Fujifilm Finepix HS20EXR superzoom, the model with the most immediate enthusiast appeal: Tons of hands-on control, RAW capture, and based on the oversized sensor and tried-and-true processor, the promise of the best-in-class image quality, too.
But Fuji has caught some flack over the past few years for making cameras that get in their own way, either because of a clunky interface, a design flaw, or a firmware issue. After one false start -- Fujifilm had to issue a firmware update within the first couple weeks of release to fix an overzealous temperature warning -- the HS20EXR looks like a serious contender. Read on to see how the HS20EXR stacks up.
Body & Design
At a glance, the HS20EXR looks just like a dSLR. It’s bigger and heavier than even some small dSLRs, like the Pentax K-r. The breadth and layout of controls and direct-access keys are beyond what any other superzoom offers, too.
The centerpiece of the camera is the 24-720mm (30x zoom), f/2.8-5.6 lens slapped on the front. It’s far more versatile than any affordable dSLR lens, and no larger than a typical 18-55mm kit lens at the wide-angle setting (though the length almost doubles at the telephoto setting). The twist-style zoom-mechanism comes complete with focal-range indicators on the barrel. There’s also a manual focus ring at the base of the lens, and a lens cap and tether come included, too.
The most obvious feature on the rear panel is a tilting, 3-inch, 460,000-pixel LCD. It can’t swivel like a hinged screen, but the vertical viewing angle is adjustable. Five direct-access keys sit to the left of the LCD, arranged vertically -- an uncommon sight on a non-dSLR. Those buttons provide direct access to settings that serious shooters would want to get at quickly, including ISO, light metering mode, autofocus mode, type of focus, and white balance.
The layout to the right of the LCD is more typical of a superzoom, including a viewfinder/LCD toggle, dedicated video recording button, an auto-exposure/autofocus lock, a display/back key, a playback toggle, and a four-way selector. And as implied, there’s also an electronic viewfinder, complete with diopter adjustment and eye-level sensor. At 200,000 pixels, it looks a bit grainy, but hey, it’s a viewfinder.
A hot-shoe accessory port sits up top, as does a pop-up flash (its release sits to the left). The mode dial and selection dial (kind of like a thumb-wheel, but on the chassis rather than inside it) sit to the right. Hotkeys for exposure compensation and burst selection sit further toward the front, and a shutter-slash-power-switch sits at the tip of the right-hand grip. The SD/SDHC slot gets its own compartment on the right side. The A/V, USB, and HDMI outputs get a compartment on the left side. And the big 4xAA battery cavity has a door on the bottom panel, next to the tripod threading.
Some aspects of the construction feel a bit flimsy. The pop-up flash “clacks” instead of clicks when its lowered, for example. The zoom action isn’t as buttery smooth as it could be. And there’s a barely audible “tick” when the camera changes orientations (we believe that this is the orientation sensor, and Fujifilm assured us and one of our readers that it’s nothing to worry about -- see the comments section below). But we’re mostly nitpicking here. Time will tell how well the HS20EXR holds up, but it seems solid enough. If you think you've received a defective model, swap it for a new one.
Performance & User Experience
The HS20EXR offers one of the most versatile user experiences of any fixed-lens camera out there. Bar none, it offers the most hands-on control in the superzoom class. There are two distinctive Auto modes: regular Auto, and EXR Auto (which has three different modes on its own). Program mode and all the manual exposure modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual) are all here. Add in a bunch of preset scene modes and a few"advanced" modes like sweep panorama and "Pro Focus," and this has about 29 shooting modes by my count, without counting filters and effects.
Then there are plenty of exposure and processing adjustments. ISO sensitivity, white balance, burst rate, exposure compensation, and the like are all par for the course, but the HS20 also allows adjustments to in-camera sharpening, noise reduction, dynamic range handling, and RAW capture. Even better, many of these adjustments have direct-access keys on the body, as described above.
Even the twist-barrel zoom and manual-focus ring are more dSLR-esque than we're used to seeing on superzooms (or any fixed-lens camera for that matter), whose zooms are almost always controlled with a tilter mounted around the base of the shutter button, and don't always feature a manual focus mode. Point-and-shooters might have a bit of a learning curve getting used to zooming by hand. It's a bit tricky to keep the camera steady while twist the barrel, for instance. On the other hand, it's quicker to zoom this way.
It’s cool to see such an intensive control scheme on a so-called “bridge” model. New photographers can step up to something like this and feel like they’re using a serious camera; serious photographers get the benefit of an all-in-one with a massive focal range without losing too much of the control they expect.
In general, the HS20EXR performs quickly, thanks predominantly to the backside-illuminated CMOS sensor at its heart. When it's working correctly, it's nearly as quick as the fastest superzooms out there (most of which use BSI CMOS sensors, too). Shot-to-shot times are barely noticeable in many situations, autofocus is quick and accurate in good lighting, and burst shooting tops out at an impressive 8 frames per second at full resolution, and 11 frames per second at medium resolution (we’ll explain why that’s important later).
But in certain conditions, the performance slows down. Writing RAW image files to the card, for example, takes about five seconds, incapacitating the camera in the meantime. Focusing in low-light situations is tough for any camera, but when the HS20EXR can't lock focus on the first try, it can take four or five cycles to get it right. Writing multi-shot composites takes a few seconds, though that's no surprise.
The menu system frustrated us at times, too, as it often does on Fujifilm cameras. It seems disorganized; we can't figure out why certain settings are in the Shooting Menu while other equally (if not more) important settings are in the Set-up Menu. But because there are so many direct access keys on the rear panel, it's not a deal-breaker.
Since the HS20EXR runs on 4xAA batteries, the life depends on the type of battery it's running on. It's rated for 350 shots per set of alkaline batteries; we got about 320 frames out of the set that Fujifilm provided with the review unit, but that's within 10 percent of the advertised life, so we'll count it in their favor. Over 300 shots on a set of alkaline batteries is impressive, and there's no outlet required.
Image & Video Quality
This is tricky, so grab a drink and get comfortable. Let’s start with the regular old 16-megapixel mode, available in standard Auto, Program or any of the manual exposure modes. In bright conditions at the lower end of the ISO range, shots are detailed and well-exposed. Most photographers will be happy most of the time. Noise begins to creep in around the ISO 400 mark, though shots are still usable at medium or medium-large sizes up through ISO 1600. The HS20 supports sensitivities up to ISO 12800, but the image quality takes a big hit as colors desaturate and details turn to mush. Most other extended zooms are based around CMOS sensors this year as well, and this is a typical performance. These shots are maybe a bit sharper and brighter than what the competition offers, depending on who you ask (we think so), perhaps in part because of the slightly oversized half-inch sensor, though it is not a striking difference.
But the HS20EXR has a trick up its sleeve: EXR mode. It kicks the processor into overdrive and offers an unexpected image quality boost. EXR mode has three speeds: Resolution Priority, D-Range Priority, and High ISO & Low Noise. All three offer advantages, but the latter two modes, which drop the resolution down to 8 megapixels, are the secret ringers that help the HS20EXR 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 HS20EXR drops down to 8 megapixels, whether its in D-Range Priority or High ISO & Low Noise (or even one of the regular PASM modes, just shot at the ‘M’ medium resolution), shots are clearer than their full-sized counterparts (in similar shooting situations, that is). It controls noise especially well at this setting, making it a nimble low-light shooter. It’s also a better all-around shooter than a lot of CMOS-based long-zoomers out there too, avoiding the drab, washed-out, de-saturated look that some models churn out even in the best shooting conditions. It’s a few leagues below a dSLR or even an fast-lens advanced compact, but it does do quite well compared to its superzoom peers. Know this camera, work within its limitations, and the results will impress.
Though the manual doesn’t really describe how each EXR mode works, we can make some assumptions based on what Fujifilm has said in their press materials for this camera and how previous EXR sensors have worked. In D-Range Priority, the HS20EXR combines two or more shots -- some overexposed, some 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, and a bunch of current cameras use it. In High ISO & Low Noise mode and perhaps PASM modes, M size, the HS20EXR uses “pixel fusion.” It’s an advanced concept, but Fuji says that it doubles the effective size of each pixel so they're all more sensitive to light. We think that it has something to do with the way that pixels are arranged on the sensor as well.
So in bright, beautiful conditions, feel free to shoot at full resolution. But when the going gets tough, drop it down. 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 manual-exposure modes.
The HS20EXR also supports RAW capture, to the delight of enthusiast shooters out there. So even if the 8-megapixel JPEGs still leave something to be desired, RAW mode leaves plenty of headroom for hands-on compression. Fujifilm’s proprietary RAW editor is a bit awkward to use, and most forum chatter seems to favor pretty much any other RAW editor out there. Go with what’s personally comfortable.
Taken in context and all things considered, this is a great sensor. Thankfully, shots are mostly free of lens-based problems too. Purple and green sometimes appear in areas of high contrast (edges of buildings or tree branches in front of a grey sky, for example), but that’s an issue with just about any camera. There’s some barrel distortion at the 24mm wide-angle setting, but it’s just barely noticeable at the corners and edges. Telephoto shots look a bit soft, but this could have as much to do with the hand-shake that any huge zoomer runs into as it would with lens quality. Even with optical (sensor-shift) image stabilization, some telephoto shots are bound to come out a bit shaky.
Overall, we’re happy with the HS20EXR’s image quality, probably more than we are with any superzoom out there right now. It offers more control than any superzoom on the market but can takes some great shots without too much fiddling. Every review comes to a different conclusion about this camera’s output, and for different reasons. Just remember that it’s really a point-and-shoot on steroids, so look at it with an open mind, and you’ll find a lot to like, especially if you’re willing to do some digging to get there.
Video mode, on the other hand, is a sore spot. The HS20EXR shoots 1080p HD video, which is always great, but two issues hamper the experience. 1) It focus-hunts mercilessly, stopping on its subject only after a few blurry trips in and out of focus. 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 HS20EXR is a compelling package. The image quality is great, the physical interface and range of manual controls are impressive, and it has a huge focal range, too. The user experience is as close to a dSLR's as any fixed-lens camera gets.
It does have some flaws. Video mode is bush league. The glacial RAW write times and occasional performance hiccups are irritating. Even aside from those flaws, it's not the camera for everyone. Casual users who won't put the time in to learn at least some of its ins and outs would be better served by a more beginner-friendly camera. And the picky enthusiasts who will only buy The Best Camera in the World should know that this is not that camera. (That camera doesn't exist, but that's another argument for another time). But folks who want the out-of-the-box versatility of a superzoom with as much of the dSLR feel as a fixed-lens camera can muster should be pleased with the HS20EXR.
There are some other superzooms worth a look. The Panasonic FZ100 offers control and picture quality second only to the HS20EXR, but is basically free of performance hiccups, and it's more beginner-friendly as well. The Nikon P500 is a solid option as well, with the longest focal range in the superzoom class (22.5-810mm -- that's a 36x zoom), a user-friendly interface, and surprisingly good image quality, too.
Anyone willing to spend almost $500 on a camera should really look at a dSLR, too. Superzooms have their place, but there's no substitute for a dSLR in serious photography. The image quality is exponentially better, the control is unparalleled, and the potential for upgrades is unlimited. Our favorite entry-level dSLRs at the moment are the Nikon D3100, Pentax K-r, and Sony A55.