This is a lengthy review, so here is a summary what I thought to be important
Recommend this product?
1. This is a compact, small sensor, slow lens camera, so don't expect miracles
2. This camera is loaded with features and you need to learn to use them to get the best results
3. The automatic settings favor high sensitivity (ISO) settings that help to minimize stabilization/blur problems but tend to result in shadow area noise (mottling).
4. On one very important criteria, dynamic range, this is, as far as I know, the best you can get in this size camera
5. The interface takes a while to learn because there are so many options organized rather confusingly.
Conclusion: if you just want to point and shoot, buy a simpler camera. If you understand the basics of photography and are willing to change the settings, this camera can give you usable pictures in situations too difficult for other cameras.
For the record, the optically identical F500exr is almost as expensive and lacks many important features but has all the same limitations and so it doesn't make a more sensible choice.
Now for the details:
Small sensor, small lens
The convenience of a pocket size camera is very alluring to many. The problem with smallness is you can't collect enough light to maximize photo quality with exposure times short enough to avoid handheld blur except in well lit scenes. Smaller sensors gather less light, and the smaller lenses let less light through, particularly when they have long zoom ranges as is the case with this Fuji. To make matters worse, this small sensor has a very high pixel count, which means each pixel is smaller and gets even less light.
Canon (Powershot S95), Panasonic (Lumix DMC LX5) and Olympus (XZ-1) all make luxury compacts of similar size that are designed for great low light performance. Uniformly they all have larger sensors (34%, 49%,49%), lenses that collect about 4 times as much light, and have only a 4x zoom instead of 15x. And all of these upscale cameras have only 10 megapixels rather than16. This means each pixel is getting up to 10 times more light at a given shutter speed. As I write this they cost from $50 to $150 more, but are probably what you should consider if you want really good low light performance using point and shoot automatic settings.
So the F550exr is a light challenged camera that gives you in return a far longer zoom at the same size. The difference in megapixels is largely irrelevant except in ideal, very bright conditions and that's assuming the lens is sharp enough to use that much resolution which is something beyond my capability to test.
The good news is that the F550exr still collects enough light to give good results in most outdoor daylight scenes.
All those complex options
The EXR cameras have separate menus for shooting functions and viewing functions, and this can get a little confusing but is ultimately learnable. There's also a third setup menu. Yes, you're going to have to study the manual. I previously owned Fuji's first EXR camera, the F200EXR which has a similar setup so I was familiar with the interface. And yes, it took a while to get used to. What takes a while to understand is which options are available in which shooting mode--they change. There is a guide at the end of the manual but the options are all represented by icons which you will need to learn.
For still photos, you can make adjustments to reduce noise, reduce blur, increase color saturation, or capture more highlights in high contrast scenes and more. There are "bracketing" options that let you take 3 shots of varying, exposure, dynamic range (more on that below), and color intensity. You can then save the best result and discard the others.
It may sound like an unwanted burden unless you're a gadget freak, but this is a camera where practice pays off. It's the best way to learn the limitations of the camera and which options provide benefit. The monitor is decently sharp, so you can asses your results quickly.
At the time of this writing I have not had the chance to try some of the advanced features like RAW file processing, panoramic shots or "best frame capture" or features that require a tripod, like Pro-low-light. There's a lot here to explore. You can download the manual from Fuji's website to see all the features.
Change those automatic settings
For my taste, the automatic settings set the camera's sensitivity too high which reduces the chance of motion blur but can make the shadow areas look blotchy. You can think of the sensitivity settings (ISO) as how much the camera's processor will have to amplify the light readings to create a picture--the higher the ISO setting the more times the signal is multiplied. At high sensitivity settings the pixels get very little light using a short exposure time. The processor then multiplies these light readings. Unfortunately the pixel-to-pixel sensitivity variations are also multiplied resulting in variations in brightness and color, i.e. noise. At low sensitivity settings the camera takes in more light, primarily through a longer exposure time, so less signal amplification is needed and noise is far less apparent.
You can manually set ISO in the f-menu as low as ISO 100. That might result in very long exposure times and resulting motion blur in some cases. Instead you can set the maximum ISO to 400 which will limit the noise and will work over a wider variety of scenes. Even in cases where the blur warning icon appeared I've been able to get clear shots. If you don't do this the camera will often choose higher sensitivities making noise more likely.
I also suggest, if you find the colors too bland, set the film simulation to Velvia which provides more radiant greens, or better yet, turn on the bracketing option that takes all 3 color intensities (not available in all shooting modes).
And if you're worried about noise, set the picture size to medium. You'll only get a 8 megapixel picture but it will be smoother and your file sizes will be more manageable. And 8 megapixels is plenty! Those deluxe compacts mentioned above have only 10 which is not significantly more. Frankly, in my opinion16 megapixels is uselessly excessive and the only justification for it is that it allows an 8 megapixel result in the split shooting modes (especially high dynamic range) that are possible only with Fuji's exclusive EXR sensor design.
I tried the automatic settings (the camera icon on the mode wheel) in bright light. You couldn't really predict the ISO the camera would choose. Don't use this setting for any action shots--they will likely blur. There's a sports setting on the mode wheel, so the designers considered that important enough not to bury it in a screen menu. Despite reports of high noise levels, I didn't see any that bothered me. Even with a fair amount of zoom. But again, I was in bright light.
Dynamic Range - the most compelling reason to buy this camera.
I take a lot of vacation pictures: landscapes with bright skies, outdoors with low angle sunlight, and other very contrasty situations like pictures in the deep woods where sunlit bright spots alternate with dark shaded areas. In these situations even the best cameras can't always avoid the highlight areas turning all white or the shadow areas turning all black. I can't see how anything could be more objectionable than having parts of a scene which looked fine to the naked eye turn out all black or all white in a photo. It's information in the scene which is simply lost. Take a look at your photo collection and you'll likely see this is a very common occurrence. Just a photo of someone in bright sun wearing a baseball cap shading part of their face is often more contrast than many cameras can handle. This is not an exposure problem but a "dynamic range" problem. No single exposure setting can capture both the highlight and the shadow detail.
This is all because the human eye has thousands of times more dynamic range than the best camera--a contrast ratio of over a billion to one. Or expressed another way, 13.5 f-stops. (Each increase of 1 f-stop is a doubling of the light level). The very best megabuck digital sensors may approach a sensitivity range of 10 f-stops, but a good pocket camera may capture only 7-8 f-stops. Therefore the problem, even though the metering in the camera will try to capture as much as it can.
Fuji EXR cameras are the only cameras that can take 2 different exposures simultaneously, and this gives them by far the upper hand in coping with high contrast shots taken with a hand held camera. You will see other cameras claim to have solutions for high dynamic range scenes, but they use other methods with severe limitations.
3 methods currently used to increase dynamic range.
The most common is often called "highlight priority" or something similar. Here the camera simply under exposes the shot to preserve highlight detail, then the camera's processor lightens the shadow areas to increase shadow detail. Unfortunately this increases noise in the shadow areas, but with a larger sensor and a bright lens (e.g. a Panasonic LX-3) the results may look perfectly acceptable. This method usually increases apparent dynamic range by about 1 f-stop.
Another method is often called "dynamic range mode" where the camera sequentially takes 2 or 3 pictures at varying exposures and then combines all the information into one result. This can increase dynamic range by 2-3 f-stops but since the exposures are taken sequentially any movement ruins the process so it is impractical for hand held shots. Apple's Iphone4 camera, for example, offers this feature and in the few cases where you manage to hold it steady the results are near sensational in high contrast scenes.
Then there's Fuji's EXR sensor method: Only EXR sensor pixels are laid out like a block of hexagonal tiles rather than as a grid so each pixel borders 6 other pixels rather than 4. This results in there always being two adjacent pixels of the same color (R,G, or B) next to each other. When Fuji's dynamic range mode is engaged at the higher settings, the pixels are divided into two sets which simultaneously take two different exposures. So the method works for handheld shots although the resulting picture has half the resolution. Fuji's first compact of this type, the now discontinued F200EXR, according to DPReview.com managed a dynamic range of 10 f-stops which at the time was as good or better than any DSLR.
For cameras which record uncompressed RAW format files (the F550 EXR does but the F500 EXR does not) you can also recover some dynamic range by processing the files on a computer. For hobbyists with lots of time, the results can be productive. Camera reviewers who are expert can almost always improve photo quality by processing RAW files on a computer vs. the in-camera processed jpeg format output which is standard in nearly all cameras. I used to do this, but found I could spend a lot of time getting improved results and still couldn't recover as much dynamic range as some shots needed. Then I bought the F200EXR and was very happy with it until it went missing after a move. My results were good enough that I felt no need for tedious RAW file processing.
The F550exr can split the exposures even further than did the F200exr, offering a maximum dynamic range expansion of 1600% (which I presume means an extra 4 f-stops) rather than 800%.
I tried some extreme dynamic range shots and compared them using different settings. I was standing on a hill with the late afternoon sun in back of me facing the San Francisco downtown skyline, so I was getting a lot of intense near direct reflection off the buildings. Nearby trees provided dark shadow areas. On "automatic" the camera would sense the high contrast scene and crank the dynamic range up to 400%--the most it could do without using the dual exposure method that reduces the resolution. Still, when I reviewed the shot's detailed information (just press the display button 4 times), parts of the picture were flashing indicating highlights and shadows that were out of range and had turned completely white or black. Then manually setting the dynamic range to 1600%, nothing went out of range. I probably only needed the 800% setting. Comparing the two shots, the 1600% shot, even with only half the pixels, showed far more highlight detail and just as much midrange detail. The shadow areas looked dark in both shots but when I downloaded both to iPhoto and lightened the shadow areas the detail became visible in the 1600% shot before the noise became too bad. The shadow areas stayed black on the 400% shot, so information was lost. The 1600% shot had lower contrast and looked just slightly washed out by comparison, but that could be corrected with any software that allows variable radius local area sharpening such as Photoshop. I wouldn't bother with that unless I were going to make a print. On a radiant monitor (my HDTV) the lower contrast detracted very little.
The "Fuji knows best" dynamic range choices
And that is the price of capturing all of the high contrast scene information. Viewing options, be it a HDTV monitor or a lowly print, won't have enough dynamic range (difference between the brightest and darkest it can display) to show the brightness in original proportion. Contrast must be reduced to fit within the capability of the viewing medium. With prints particularly, this will cause portions of the picture to look somewhat washed out. When set to automatic mode, the camera errs on the side of using too little dynamic range instead of too much presumably to avoid the washed out look which to many users may be more obvious than the lost information.
To help you judge if you need to use a high dynamic range setting you can call up a histogram, a sort of brightness distribution of what the camera sees. If the histogram shows any pixels hitting either end, you need more dynamic range. After the shot you can similarly review the result. An unforgivable shortcoming of the lesser F500exr model is that it does not provide this information.
So far, I've seen some shots that needed a higher dynamic range setting than the histogram indicated, but that's based on what I see on the camera monitor. Indeed using the computer to view the more detailed histogram in iPhoto for example, I did find bits of information more extreme than showed on the camera.
So the dynamic range of this pocketable camera is in a class by itself. The automatic settings will not engage the highest dynamic range settings and that's where you, the user must become involved to realize the camera's potential.
Many other great features
First, there's that great zoom range. And it starts not just with wide angle (about a 60 degree sweep) but with ultra wide angle of over 70 degrees (varies on the frame ratio you choose). So for crowded indoor shots or real estate photos, this camera takes in as much as any handheld camera can without getting really serious distortion. Of course, you can get a tripod and use the panoramic feature and get a 360 degree view if you want! The other end of the zoom is more addictive than I thought it would be too. Great fun and amazing for such a small camera.
Then there's full HD video with stereo sound. And it gives you a great HD picture. But if you make long zoom changes the autofocus often does not keep up. I suggest making zoom in steps or pushing the shutter button to force a refocus. During quiet recording you can hear the zoom motor. In stereo. And at the long end of the zoom it is near impossible to hold the camera steady enough to keep the picture from being quite bouncy. When I loaded my video into iMovie and use the stabilization feature, I still couldn't smooth out the bounce.
If you don't want to fiddle with the controls, don't get this camera. Likewise If you do a lot of low light shots and can't stand noise. But if you shoot a lot outdoors and are willing to get involved with the control system you'll find this camera very rewarding.
I just can't help mentioning that in comparison to my lost F200exr, this camera has a lot of great features but can't take a better picture. The F200exr had the features, like the deluxe compacts mentioned above, that made it easier to obtain good results: a larger sensor, a slightly faster lens with only a 5x zoom, and fewer megapixels. Also, like the cameras mentioned above, the F200exr used a CCD sensor rather than a CMOS sensor which has better video characteristics. For the difference I'll be happy to gain that great zoom range and excellent video.
Experience update: Oct. 2011
I have now had the opportunity to take over 2000 shots with this camera in varying situations. I've also made dozens of movies. Here are my conclusions, and by the way, they should be largely valid for the updated f600exr model.
1. The lens is great. It is sharp enough to capture all 16 megapixels of detail even at full zoom. It will reveal far more detail than you can see with the naked eye. Depending on conditions you may see atmospheric disturbance effects similar to what you would see with an astronomical telescope. For example: discontinuities in utility wires one or two miles away taken at full zoom. For displaying photos on a HDTV (1080p is only 2 megapixels), you can zoom (or crop) way way in and still have enough sharpness to get a great picture.
2. The image stabilization is quite good, although it can't perform miracles. In daylight only a tiny percentage of my handheld shots had visible blur--even those at full zoom.
3. The noise is not that bad in the shadow areas. Even when using postprocessing to lighten shadow areas, there's enough smoothness to produce a great HDTV picture.
4. Battery life is decent, although lots of zooming does shorten battery life.
5. The long end of the zoom is addictive.
6. The camera is easily pocketable and easy to handle and decently quick to take a shot.
Not so good:
1. The EXR feature is a bust. I tried everything to get photos in this mode with acceptable noise--even used Silkypix to convert raw files to tiff files and imported them to Photoshop CS5. Maybe a more skillful editor could get better results, but I gave up on EXR and RAW and defaulted to the jpeg in-camera processing which seems to be very hard to beat. To capture the wide dynamic range shots, I used the full resolution Sport Mode to provide the least challenge to the stabilization and then reduced the exposure between 1 and 1+2/3 f stops. That way I had an even shorter exposure and almost no blown highlights-even in extreme contrast scenes. I then rebalanced the dark areas in iPhoto and was able to recover great shadow details and not once had clipping on the dark end. On my HDTV, which is where I display my photos, the results are great. This way EXR is really not needed and there's no EXR resolution loss.
Incidentally, I did find my old f200exr mentioned in the review, and it's EXR mode works well by comparison. Maybe the change from CCD to CMOS caused the noise increase.
2. Movies are so overly contrasty that they are useless. Lots of areas appear too dark to reveal any shadow detail. I used iMovie to capture still frames and brought up the shadows and found the information was still there, but I do not have software that can do this for an entire movie. Focus is very slow to adjust to a zoom change. The stereo sound is nice, but this is no movie camera. I found my iPhone 4 takes way better movies.
In conclusion, I am thrilled with my results from such a small, easy to carry and use camera. It's almost one inch thin and yet I get great resolution even at 360mm equivalent focal length. And on an HDTV I get 4 times that--an incredible 1440mm equivalent focal length with no apparent loss of resolution, and I rarely have a problem with blur using handheld shots. I now can get the pictures I want very easily, although I do have to do some simple adjustments afterwards.
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Amount Paid (US$): 349
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts