Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Review

Introduced in late August 2009, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 slots into the Sony lineup at the top of their entry level/consumer DSLR fleet of five bodies (in addition to the three other Alpha models comprising the prosumer and up class). The camera features a new 14.2 megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor in the APS-C size format that produces a 1.5X crop factor (35mm film equivalent), as well as the newest BIONZ image processing engine and an ISO sensitivity range of 200 to 12800.

There are two distinct Live View modes, smile and face detection technology, two separate dynamic range management modes, an articulating 3.0 inch LCD monitor with 921k dot composition, up to a 7 fps continuous shooting rate and in-body stabilization. Automatic sensor dust removal, 6 specific scene shooting modes in addition to the usual DSLR menu of manual and semi-automatic modes, and an on-screen help guide and graphic display to further explain settings on the fly round out this fairly feature-rich model.

Following current Sony practice with their DSLRs, the A550 has no video capture capability. There are dual memory media slots for Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo media as well as SD/SDHC memory cards, but Sony recommends the PRO-HG Duo card and will not guarantee "proper operation for all Memory Stick PRO Duo media functions."

he A550 is available in body-only or kit form with the Sony f3.5/5.6 18-55 SAM zoom lens. Sony includes a power cord, battery charger and battery, shoulder strap, CD-ROM software, USB cable, body cap and printed instruction manual with each camera. In addition to Sony-branded lenses (some by Carl Zeiss), the camera is compatible with Minolta Maxxum A mount lenses.

When we shot the A550 briefly for a "first impressions" look at the camera, there didn't appear to be any areas of immediate concern save possibly some softness in image quality with the default settings. Did we discover anything during a more extensive shooting period to change our mind about this new Sony? Read on and find out.

The A550 features a two-tone composite body with rubberized material in strategic locations to facilitate a firmer grip. The composite might be a bit underwhelming for a camera body with an asking price north of $800, but the rubberized stuff feels about right and the overall build quality looks to be good.

Ergonomics and Controls
In typical DSLR fashion, the A550 features a deeply sculpted handgrip front and built-up thumb rest rear - the shooting finger falls naturally to the shutter button. The top and back of the body are covered with buttons and controls except for the thumb rest area, and the overall spacing and layout of the controls doesn't present any obvious conflicts that might encourage inadvertent activations. The most likely candidate for such a problem is the control dial which sits below the shutter button - in the manual or semi-auto shooting modes it only needs to be moved to change camera settings, but in practice it proved immune to accidental inputs.

The camera body has buttons providing quick access to ISO, shooting drive mode, dynamic range management options, auto exposure lock and exposure compensation. A "function" button takes you to a menu offering additional inputs: flash mode, autofocus (AF) mode, AF area, metering mode, flash compensation, white balance (WB) and creative style color options.

Live view fans can switch to the Quick Auto Focus live view mode by simply selecting the live view setting on the external live view/optical view finder (OVF) switch. From there, they can jump to the Manual Focus Check live view mode by merely pressing the MF Check button; in the alternative they may proceed directly to the manual mode by pressing the MF Check button without first switching to the auto focus mode. Here's a sample of a screen in both auto and manual live view - there are other overlays of information possible in both modes, including a histogram in auto that is not available with manual.

The Help Guide is activated with the "function" button and is on by default - it can provide guidance to folks unfamiliar with the controls, settings or potential impacts of changing settings on the camera. The shots that follow show the initial screen after pushing the function button and the subsequent screen after selecting "DRO AUTO"; the third screen is typical of the presentation when switching to a shooting mode, in this case shutter priority.

Menus and Modes
While offering the usual DSLR manual and semi-automatic shooting modes, the A550 retains a fully auto mode and six specific scene modes that offer only the barest of user inputs.

* Auto: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Portrait: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Landscape: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Macro: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Moving subjects: Camera handles all settings, user can select high speed or speed priority continuous shooting and self-timer only.
* Sunset: Camera handles all settings, user can select self-timer and flash only.
* Night scene: Camera handles all settings, user can fire shutter via self-timer or remote commander only and has flash available.
* Program auto: Camera handles exposure settings, user has wide variety of input including drive, flash, AF and metering modes; AF area, ISO, flash compensation, WB, dynamic range management and creative style color options.
* Aperture priority: User sets aperture, camera sets shutter and user has all inputs listed for Program auto.
* Shutter priority: User sets shutter, camera sets aperture and user has all inputs listed for Program auto.
* Manual: User sets aperture and shutter, same inputs as Program auto.

Menus are simple and intuitive in the A550, running only about seven pages internally.

The A550's 3.0 inch LCD monitor has 921,000 dot composition and features automatic level adjustment as the default setting; five levels of brightness may be selected manually via an internal menu. The monitor is articulated and may be tilted up or down through 180 degrees as well as moved away from the camera body.

The monitor could be difficult to use in some instances in bright outdoor light, but the articulating feature was of some help in this regard. Coverage is 100% in playback, but only 90% in live view - framing and composition in live view will not show some parts of the final image. The shot below was composed in live view so the picture and its frame filled the monitor - the sections of wall at the sides were not visible when the shot was composed.

All of you who skipped directly here from the Help Guide section to find out the first feature to disable should be ashamed. But since you're here... during the shoot for the first impressions story on the A550, nothing much jumped out as being of concern. Once I started wandering about doing more extensive shooting for the main article the A550 started behaving oddly.

I had the camera set for continuous AF, which should take place as long as the shutter is held at half-push. The problem was I could feel and hear the A550 doing its AF thing as I walked along with my finger nowhere near the shutter button. Setting the camera to auto and single-shot AF didn't fix things, nor did trying every shooting mode available. The camera was doing AF all by itself, and I'm thinking maybe I've got a faulty camera. After spending about an hour going over the instruction manual (when all else fails, read the manual!) it turns out the A550 was operating perfectly.

"Eye start AF" is an A550 feature enabled by default that causes the subject located in the viewfinder AF area to come into focus automatically as you look into the viewfinder. I wasn't looking into the viewfinder all the times the camera did the AF routine, but I was walking along carrying the camera in my shooting hand and as my arm would swing as I walked, the camera interpreted the proximity to my leg as the camera being looked into and activated the AF.

It's actually a pretty neat feature, but depending on how you carry your camera it does have the potential to drain the battery sooner due to performing AF unnecessarily. Personally, it would be the first thing I'd disable.

While the A550 can carry both Memory Stick and SD memory media, the type it use is designated by flipping a switch in the memory card compartment. I'd liked to have seen Sony set up the camera to automatically move on to the other media when one got full, rather than require the user to go into the compartment and switch the camera over.

While I'm not a big fan of live view, the A550 has the best system I've come across so far. The quick auto focus live view mode makes use of a separate imager that dramatically cuts AF time - and in fact you can shoot at speeds approaching 4fps in this live view mode! The A550 makes it easy to transition to either quick AF or the manual focus mode live view, but one drawback with going to manual is you'll be trying to focus by working against the focus motor in the camera unless you take the time to switch both the lens and the camera from AF to MF. Without the switch, manual focus is stiff and imprecise at best.

Shooting Performance
As one would expect from a DSLR, the A550 starts promptly - sensor cleaning is performed on shutdown by default - and acquires focus and shoots on a par with other competitors in the class. We measured shutter lag at 0.01 seconds and press-to-capture with no pre-focus at 0.20 seconds.

Continuous shooting rates are up to 5 fps in high speed mode, and up to 7 fps in speed priority mode. Our studio tests actually got 7.6 fps in speed priority, much better than advertised. The A550 generates that high fps rate in speed priority by establishing exposure and focus for the first shot of any sequence and applying those values to all subsequent shots. The 5 fps rate is made with exposure and focus calculated for each shot.

AF with the A550 was generally quite accurate in good conditions with the spot AF mode set - the wider area AF modes would sometimes hunt a bit before settling down on the AF point, which wasn't necessarily the point intended. There is an AF assist lamp with a range at 200 ISO of up to about 14 feet - it doesn't operate when the camera is set to continuous AF or in Auto AF when the subject is moving.

The A550 flash is listed as having a guide number (GN) of 12 (meters) at 100 ISO, even though the nominal ISO sensitivity for the camera is 200. Flash range at f/5.6 is in the vicinity of about 9 feet, so if you plan to do a lot of shooting with flash at greater distances an external flash would be a good idea - the A550 is equipped with an accessory shoe that can accept a wireless flash. Flash recycle times are given as 4 seconds by Sony, but in practice our flash recycled a bit quicker than that in moderate lighting with a high battery level.

Sony's "SteadyShot" image stabilization system is on by default in the A550, and is of the sensor-shift type. The camera will display a "camera shake" warning on the OVF or monitor if it senses the shooting conditions are beyond the system's ability to stabilize the image. There is also a "camera shake status" indicator to display the relative degree of shake at any particular time - Sony recommends shooting when this indicator is low. Stabilization should be disabled if the camera is mounted on a tripod.

Sony rates the battery in the A550 for approximately 1000 images using the OVF and about half that in live view, according to a CIPA standard that has proven reliable in my experience. The camera displays both a battery "fuel gauge" icon and battery life remaining as a percentage in the upper right of the graphic display on the monitor.

Battery charging is a little convoluted with the A550 - a steady green light on the charger means charging is underway. When the light goes out the battery has a "normal" charge, but it takes another hour after the light goes out for the battery to be "fully" charged. My vote would be Sony have the charger display a flashing green for charging, steady green for the "normal" charge and lights out with the "full" charge.

Lens Performance
The Sony f3.5-5.6/18-55 SAM zoom lens is fairly typical for kit lenses offered on this class of camera. There was some barrel distortion present at the wide end of the zoom, but pincushion was largely absent at the telephoto end. A bit of softness and a tiny amount of vignetting in the corners at wide angle was again balanced by a fairly even performance across the frame at telephoto. Chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present in some high contrast boundary areas, but the defect was virtually impossible to detect at 100% enlargement on our sample shots.

Image Quality
When I first shot the A550 and examined the default results at 100% enlargement I had the feeling the images looked just a bit too soft for my taste. I still feel that way, but upon further consideration I can also see where a lot of folks would have no problem with the images as they come right out of the camera, particularly if they never get involved with large prints. At large magnifications I think the A550 needs additional sharpening above the default values to maximize the image quality, but at the smaller end of the spectrum it can be hard to tell a default shot from one sharpened to my liking. Here's a pelican image captured at default settings, and the same image post-processed with added sharpening. If you have a hard time telling the sharpened shot from the default at the small size you're not alone - I can't either.

The downside to this is the settings are available in the manual and semi-automatic modes - folks shooting full auto or the scene modes will have to post process if images produced in these modes don't meet their expectations.

Aside from sharpness, default images out of the A550 were generally accurate with regard to color fidelity.
The A550 is equipped with a "smart teleconverter" offering 1.4 and 2X multiplication factors - the feature downsizes image resolution by making use of smaller portions of the sensor to obtain the magnification factor. Here are shots at 55mm, and with the 1.4 and 2X converters enabled.

Sony's Alpha DSLR-A550 offers beginners and advanced shooters alike an instrument that each can embrace. On the newbie end of the equation the A550 offers automatic and scene modes that require little input from the user, as well as the opportunity to explore the more advanced shooting modes and have the camera explain the nuances of each to them as they go. For those folks who are inclined to shoot at a more advanced level, the camera offers a 5 fps motor and dynamic range management tools to exert some serious creative input into the process.

No matter which end of the spectrum they're at, any user will appreciate a quick start up and responsive shutter along with a reasonably quick AF system. For those who just can't divorce themselves from using the monitor for image capture, the A550 offers a live view system that's quick and easy to use.

Image and color quality is good, and if shooting in the manual or semi-automatic modes there are substantial user established settings available to tailor output to virtually any taste. Noise performance is about par for the class, the plastic on the body might look a bit cheap for the price point and the battery charging cycle is odd, but these are really minor gripes for a camera that goes about its business in a very capable manner.


* Good shutter and AF performance
* Excellent live view system
* Versatile dynamic range management options
* Large articulating monitor


* Plastic body material a bit cheap looking
* Dual memory card slots not linked

Editor's Rating: Impressive


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR

Fujifilm FinePix S200EXR

When Fujifilm announced the Finepix S200EXR ultrazoom in late July 2009, Fujifans everywhere may have been hoping for a design to close the zoom gap between the 18x of Fuji's top offerings and the 24 and 26x competition. That wait will continue - the S200 is the anointed successor to Fuji's S100fs - but while the S200 has a lens with the identical 14.3x zoom multiplication of the older camera, its 30.5 to 436mm (35mm equivalent) manual zoom lens is a bit longer.

Besides the lens, the two cameras have nearly identical external dimensions and appearance, and both offer a video capability that tops out at a pedestrian 640x480 resolution.

But the big news with the S200 is the inclusion of Fuji's new Super CCD EXR sensor and EXR processor, hardware developed by Fuji with the avowed purpose of mimicking the performance of the human eye as closely as possible. In Fuji's own words:

The Super CCD EXR provides superior picture quality, enabling a "3-in-1" sensor combination of Fine Capture Technology (High Resolution), Pixel Fusion Technology (High Sensitivity & Low Noise), and Dual Capture Technology (Wide Dynamic Range). With an innovative color filter array and image processing technology, the EXR ensures an advanced reproduction in imaging with exceptionally balanced quality.

Super CCD EXR technology debuted back in February in the Fuji F200EXR and has also appeared in the F70EXR announced with the S200.

The S200 gets a bump up in resolution to 12 megapixels (up from 11.1 megapixels in the S100) on its 1/1.6" sensor (which is physically a bit smaller than the 2/3" sensor of the S100). Full manual controls return in addition to the usual suite of automatic and specific scene shooting modes and a few interesting EXR technology-driven options that we'll discuss in more depth further into the review. The camera can shoot RAW, JPEG or RAW/JPEG combinations and utilizes SD/SDHC memory media. There is about 47MB of internal memory.

Fuji includes a battery and charger, lens cap and strap, shoulder strap, USB and A/V cables, a basic printed user's manual, CD-ROM complete manual, and CD-ROM software with each camera. There was a cautionary note from Fuji in the box explaining that the bundled FinePix Viewer would not be able to decode RAW files until an update was produced in November 2009, but the version included on the software worked fine, so perhaps Fuji is ahead of schedule with their RAW processing in the S200.

While ultrazooms typically look like slightly downsized DSLRs, the S200 dispenses with the downsized part - its overall dimensions of 5.3 x 3.7 x 5.7 inches are practically identical to the Nikon D3000 with an 18-55mm kit lens: 5 x 3.8 x 5.6 inches. The S200 actually outweighs the Nikon by about 5 ounces, probably not completely surprising once you remember that the S200 lens has about 353 more millimeters of focal length than that kit lens.

The body is of composite materials that appear to be of comparable quality with the better entry-level DSLRs. Overall build quality looks to be solid.

Ergonomics and Controls
The S200 has a deeply sculpted handgrip-style body with a patch of nicely tacky rubberized material wrapping around the front of the grip. There is adequate clearance for the fingers from the lens barrel and the shooting finger falls naturally across the shutter button.

The body is festooned with buttons, dials and switches everywhere but the camera bottom and grip area, but Fuji has managed to install them in such a way as to minimize the possibility of activating one by mistake. The S200 has a nice overall feel.

Menus and Modes
The S200 has an abundance of menus (and sub-menus), but they are largely intuitive. One surprise was that the selection of JPEG, RAW or RAW/JPEG as the shooting format is made in the setup menu rather than the shooting menu.

Otherwise, selecting a shooting mode via the mode dial brings up that mode, and the menu button will then display available options. For example, selecting "EXR" on the mode dial and then pushing the menu button gives you page 1 of 3 in the EXR shooting menu for the "HR" (high resolution) mode (simply because HR happened to be the EXR mode that was last selected).

The arrow pointing to the right next to the "HR" icon indicates there are other EXR modes available, and scrolling to the right with the selector button gives us those options.

After keeping "HR" as the EXR mode by pushing the menu button again, we are returned to the first page of the HR mode shooting menu (menu 1 above), and by scrolling up or down we find two additional pages of settings in the HR menu.

The menu process remains essentially the same for every shooting mode selected via the mode dial, and in the case of the manual modes, user-established settings may be varied from mode to mode. For example, you may set ISO to 100 in aperture priority mode, but set another value for shutter priority and the camera will keep the settings for each mode. Automatic shooting modes such as the specific scenes have fewer user inputs available, but those may be varied from mode to mode as well. Changing the default settings on the various modes can be a time consuming exercise depending on the number of modes and actual changes involved, but the S200 offers users a great deal of flexibility to tailor images to their liking.

There are 11 primary shooting modes:

* Auto: fully auto mode, user can select ISO ranges with upper limits on sensitivity (auto/400, auto/800, auto/1600 or auto/3200) as well as image size and quality, film simulation (Fuji's term for standard, vivid or soft color) and high speed shooting.
* Program auto: auto mode with additional user inputs: dynamic range, WB fine tuning, color, tone, sharpness and noise reduction, AF mode and flash compensation.
* EXR: there are 3 program auto-like modes here, but 4 options for the user - in EXR auto the camera determines which of the 3 modes to use (resolution priority, high ISO & low noise or d-range priority). User inputs are limited to auto ISO, image size and quality, and standard color, B&W or sepia color options.

The user can also select any of the three options manually, and have the auto and program auto inputs available. However, image size is limited to a maximum of 6 megapixels for both the high ISO/low noise and d-range priority modes (whether selected via auto or manual means) - the resolution priority mode retains the full 12 megapixel image size.

* FSB (film simulation bracket): the camera makes three captures - one in each color mode (standard, vivid and soft). User inputs are same as auto/program auto.
* Scene Position: user can select from 17 specific scenes, including pro focus and pro low light (more about them later). User inputs are limited to image size, quality, film simulation and high speed shooting.
* Movie: user can select 640x480 or 320x240 resolution, both at 30fps.
* C1 and C2: Two separate positions on the mode dial that allow the user to create two shooting modes with their choice for settings: ISO, image size and quality, dynamic range, film simulation, WB fine tune, color, tone, sharpness, noise reduction, AF mode, AE bracketing, flash compensation and high speed shooting.
* Aperture priority: user sets aperture, camera shutter speed; user has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.
* Shutter priority: user sets shutter speed, camera aperture; user has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.
* Manual: user sets aperture and shutter speed, and has same inputs as the C1/C2 modes.

The 2.7 inch LCD monitor is of about 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for 11 levels of brightness. The monitor is generally good outdoors but can be overwhelmed by the right combinations of bright outdoor light. Coverage is 100%.

The 0.2 inch electronic viewfinder is of about 200,000 dot composition and offers the 100% coverage and 11 level brightness adjustments of the monitor.

In its press release announcing the arrival of the S200, Fuji U.S.A. proclaimed that
"Users of the FinePix S200EXR will find their results equal or superior to D-SLRs, principally due to the revolutionary design of Fujifilm's EXR CCD sensor technology."

The camera is sized like a DSLR and the MSRP is in the entry-level DSLR league, so let's find out if the end product lives up to the ad copy.

Shooting Performance
The S200 powers up and displays a focus icon in about 3 seconds - I was able to get off a first shot in about 3.4 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times run about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s memory card. The camera shot 6 full resolution, fine quality JPEGS or 3 RAW files at a slightly faster than advertised 1.8 fps in our studio tests, with write times of about 13.5 seconds for the JPEGs and 11 seconds for the RAW files.

There's a blackout of the monitor or viewfinder after the first shot in the series, and once the picture comes back it's lagging one behind the latest shot, so panning on moving subjects can be some work, especially if you're filling the frame with the subject. Here are two consecutive shots in the continuous mode - it always surprises me how much a scene can change in a second or less.

AF acquisition times were generally good, and in the range of most of the competition - we measured a 0.55 second press to capture time with no pre-focus. Things slowed at the telephoto end, but not out of the norms for the class - the S200 had a hard time picking out a small subject in front of a busy background (hummingbird hovering with palm trees 50 feet behind), but that's a tough assignment for any ultrazoom. Shutter lag is nothing more than an afterthought at 0.01 seconds.

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

† Note: The Casio Exilim FH20 has no continuous shooting capabilities at full resolution (9 megapixels). It is, however, capable of shooting at 30 fps at a slightly reduced 8 megapixels. Given this relatively high resolution, we have included the FH20's continuous shooting numbers in our comparison.

Flash range on the S200 is listed as ranging from 23.6 feet at wide angle to 12.5 feet at telephoto, both at auto ISO. I tried shooting with manually set ISOs and it appears that the S200 needs ISO 400 at least to make the published figures. Recycle times were good at 100 ISO, ranging from just under 3 seconds at wide angle and a moderately lit scene to about 4.75 seconds for what was probably close to a full discharge - f/8 and telephoto in a near pitch black garage.

The camera has a hot shoe with which to mount an external flash, but the shoe is not dedicated - there's no electronic connection to the camera so TTL (through the lens) exposure metering with external flash is not possible. Flash units that provide aperture adjustment, external metering and sensitivity control may be used with the S200.

Fuji rates the S200 battery for 370 shots using CIPA standards that are generally pretty accurate.

Lens Performance
The S200's 14.3x zoom features an f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide angle that matches the competition in the class, but the f/5.3 at telephoto is slower than most but a bit quicker than the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS.

There is a very slight amount of barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom, and edges and corners look a bit soft. The telephoto end looks pretty good across the board - very slight, if any pincushion distortion, and a small amount of softening in the corners, but really quite good overall. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) can be present in some high contrast boundary areas, but the fault is difficult to see below 300%+ enlargements - for most folks and normal size prints there won't be many complaints in this regard.

The lens with its manual zoom is a joy to use - much more precise framing than is possible with the power zooms found on most ultrazooms. Rotation of the zoom ring through about 90 degrees takes the lens from wide angle to full telephoto. The lens will focus as close as 0.4 inches in super macro mode.

The basic and complete manuals identify the stabilization mode as optical (lens shift), but the press release from Fuji USA mentions a dual stabilization system incorporating automatic high ISO adjustment in addition to the optical mode. Shooting primarily in programmed auto or manual modes, I didn't come across any instances where it appeared an auto-ISO stabilization system was at work.

Video Quality
In a class where most of the competition is packing at least 720p HD video, the 640x480 resolution of the S200 puts it behind the others in this category. The zoom function of the lens is not available during movie capture per the basic manual, but in practice if the camera focus mode selector is set to continuous, it will re-focus after zooming - you'll lose focus during the zoom but the camera refocuses fairly quickly once the zoom ends.

Image Quality
Default images out of the S200 were generally good as to color reproduction and overall image quality in good light. The default auto ISO setting for auto shooting is auto/1600 and you don't want the camera to go towards the upper end of that setting if you can help it. With a full set of manual controls, special scenes and a large number of user inputs available, the S200 offers a wide variety of ways to capture images.

The EXR shooting mode is one of the special modes available in the S200, and I tried the auto setting on one of my usual high contrast scenes, the fountain at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California. As advertised, the camera selected the d-range shooting option.

The auto and manually selected d-range options both shoot at a 6 megapixel reduced resolution, and while the histograms are very similar, the manually selected d-range has just a bit more detail in the dark areas of the fountain. The aperture priority shot (at a full 12 megapixel resolution) is quite similar to the two EXR shots, but examination of the histogram for this shot indicated some clipping of highlights that was not present in the other two images. Keeping the camera in EXR auto mode and training it on a normally lit scene resulted in the camera selecting the high resolution option; the camera opted for high ISO/low noise in a dimly lit indoor scene. In short, the EXR auto mode performed as described.

The lower resolution files produced in the d-range and high ISO/low noise modes produced files of 2816x2112 pixel dimensions; the full res files are 4000x3000 pixels.

The FSB (film simulation bracketing) shooting option makes three images with a single push of the shutter button; colors are the standard, vivid and soft settings.

Not a lot to choose from between these three images. While a single push of the shutter takes the three shots, you have to hold the camera on the subject until the third shot is completed - the camera makes a single image in each color rather than a single image and then processing it in each of the three color palettes. Next, here's a shot in standard color and the same shot with color, tone and sharpness settings all maximized from their default values.

Pro focus and pro low light are the two shooting modes in the scene position menu that aren't found in most other cameras. Pro focus takes up to three images when the shutter button is pushed once (you have to hold the camera on the subject until the shots finish), using the multiple shots to produce a sharp main subject with a blurred background. Pro focus is limited to 6 megapixel resolution.

Pro low light takes four shots for each push of the shutter button and combines them to produce a single image. You have to hold the camera on the subject until the fourth shot is taken and the image is at 6 megapixel resolution. Here's a shot of Bandit using pro focus and an image captured in pro low light (shutters closed to darken the room).

Default exposure calculation is via 256 segment TTL multi metering; there are spot and average metering options available. Multi proved largely capable across a broad range of lighting conditions, but it could lose highlights in very contrasty conditions such as the white water portion of breaking waves.

ISO noise performance was good - Fuji's Super CCD sensors have earned a deserved reputation for providing some of the best low light noise performance in compact digitals, and my impression of the S200EXR is that it has about 1 stop better noise performance than all the recent ultrazooms that I've reviewed.

Looking at the studio shots and particularly the crops, 100 and 200 appear practically the same, with a slight bit of noise showing up at 400, and a bit more at 800. The most dramatic change in the crops occurs between 800 and 1600 - but the S200EXR looks cleaner to me through 800 than any other 12 megapixel ultrazoom I've shot personally.

Even though 100 and 200 look very similar, 200 is a bit noisier as can be seen in these two beach shots when viewed at the large size.

When Fuji USA announced the S200EXR, they referred to the camera as a "bridge" unit offering a long zoom and excellent image quality without the bulk associated with the DSLR and its interchangeable lenses. They then went on to say users of the S200 would find their results "equal or superior to" DSLRs.

The S200EXR is an excellent camera and I would have to say the best ultrazoom overall that I've tested. Image quality is very good and no one in the class has better ISO performance. The camera offers a full range of manual and automatic shooting modes, and a host of user established settings to manipulate images in just about any conceivable way. Shutter lag is minimal. AF performance is on a par with the class competition.

As good as the S200EXR is, it still falls a bit short of many DSLR performance standards, particularly in the ISO noise arena. But as an ultrazoom that packs a modest wide angle to long telephoto capability in a package sized like an entry level DSLR with a short zoom lens, this Fuji is pretty hard to beat.


* Very good image quality
* Good shutter performance
* Best in class ISO performance
* RAW capability


* Cost
* Video trails competition
* 30.5 to 436mm lens range exceeded greatly by some competitors

Editor's Rating: Very Good


Friday, January 15, 2010

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FP8

When Panasonic announced the Lumix DMC-FP8 (henceforth the FP8) in late July, a casual glance might impress onlookers that here was another rectangular, standard zoom compact digital with the 12 megapixel sensor resolution that seems to be almost obligatory in this class. More astute observers might have wondered where Panasonic put the lens, since the front of the camera was remarkably clean and appeared to house only a flash, an assist lamp and an electronic viewfinder.

Turns out the FP8 doesn't have a viewfinder but it does have a 4.6x Leica foldable optic zoom lens tucked into that small rounded rectangle on the upper right front of the body. Foldable optic means, among other things, that this lens never protrudes from the camera, zooming through its 28 to 128mm range (35mm equivalent) from behind the clear cover of the housing.

Panasonic also put in "high speed auto focus (AF)" and their new POWER O.I.S. (optical image stabilization) system that "doubles" the shake repression power of their earlier system, MEGA O.I.S. The processor is the current generation Venus Engine V, there's a 2.7 inch LCD monitor, approximately 40MB of internal memory and 720p HD video capability. The camera accepts SD/SDHC memory media and Panasonic includes a battery, battery case and charger, USB and A/V cables, basic printed operating instructions, CD-ROM software, a CD-ROM of complete operating instructions, and a hand strap with each camera.

The FP8's rectangular aluminum body fits the general "deck of cards/pack of cigarettes" size template that has been the standard for this class of camera for some time. It may be a bit slimmer than many competitors, but this difference doesn't really impact its shirt-pocket portability. The lack of a large, round lens centered on the front of the body is easily the most distinguishing characteristic and the camera has a solid, well-built look and feel. There are silver, black and red bodies available, depending on the sales area.

Ergonomics and Controls
Some subtle rounding and contouring of edges and a sort of terraced slope approach to the upper camera back are about the extent of the FP8's concessions to making the camera feel secure in the hand(s). The sloped part works well, but the attachment lug for the wrist strap protrudes from the right front of the camera body and lies right under the middle finger of the right hand during shooting. There are two ways to look at this - the protruding lug offers an additional bit of security in the grip, or an uncomfortable annoyance. I tended to find the latter more applicable.

The location of the lens on the FP8 brings up some potential to partially obscure its operation by users who tend to wrap their left fingers around the front of the camera when shooting, so a bit of attention to grip with the left hand is in order for you folks.

Aside from the relocation of the "set" button from the center of the directional buttons, control layout is straightforward and typical. Power, zoom/shutter, and intelligent auto buttons are arrayed across the top right of the camera body, with the record/playback selector switch just below on the sloping portion of the camera back.

The 2.7 inch LCD dominates the camera back and a vertical array of eight lighted control buttons sit alongside. The buttons illuminate briefly upon power-up and again when one is pushed, but the illumination is not sufficient to render the button descriptions legible in dim light - you'll need to push one and bring up the associated camera function unless you've committed the layout to memory.

The intelligent auto button is the selector for the camera's full auto shooting mode (all other shooting modes are selected via the control buttons on the camera back): a push of the button translates the camera into full auto, and a second push returns it to the previously selected mode.

Menus and Modes
Menus in the FP8 are fairly intuitive, which is good since the basic printed user's manual provided with the camera mentions the existence of "my scene" and "motion picture" shooting modes but offers not one word of advice on how to proceed if you've selected them. I had the same gripe about the Canon SX20 IS - a partial manual in the box with the complete document elsewhere - but this looks to be the way the industry is heading. At least Panasonic included a CD of the whole manual with the camera.

FP8 shooting modes are simple - much like Henry Ford's Model T that could be had in any color "so long as it is black" - the camera can shoot in any mode so long as it is automatic.

* Intelligent auto: full auto mode, with camera selecting aperture and shutter speed along with scene detection, stabilization, intelligent ISO, face detection, quick AF, intelligent exposure, digital red eye correction and backlight compensation. ISO can range from 80 to 1600 and scene detection chooses from portrait, night portrait, scenery, night scenery, baby or macro settings - if none of the scenes are applicable to the shooting scenario IA proceeds with the balance of the standard settings. User inputs are limited to burst or single shooting, picture size, LCD mode, and B&W or sepia color modes in addition to the default standard color and the face recognition feature of face detection.
* Normal picture: a program auto mode where the camera sets shutter speed and aperture but the user has a wide range of custom settings available, including picture size and quality, aspect ratio, intelligent ISO (which may have ceilings set by the user), ISO sensitivity, white balance, face recognition, AF mode, intelligent exposure, burst or single shooting, expanded color palette options and stabilizer mode.
* Scene: user selects from 28 shooting options and the camera establishes settings based on the particular scene with the user having some input available depending on the specific scene.
* My scene: allows the user to program 2 scenes from the scene menu for quick recall and the camera will establish settings according to the particular scene with user inputs limited to those available for the scene.
* Motion picture - can capture video at 1280x720 (HD), 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 pixel resolutions, all at 30 fps. Video can be captured continuously up to a 2GB maximum per clip.

One of the scene modes is "photo frame" which provides the user three options to overlay a frame-like border on images - here are two of those.

The 2.7 inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 dot composition and is adjustable for seven levels of brightness. In addition, there is an LCD mode available in the quick menu that has three additional brightness settings including one designed to work at high angles of view. Any of the settings could be overcome by the right combination of bright outdoor lighting conditions, but the monitor was not too bad in all but the worst outdoor conditions.

Monitor coverage is listed as 100% - there is no viewfinder.

With a fairly pedestrian sounding sub-5x zoom and the ever-present 12 megapixel sensor, Panasonic has wisely chosen to spotlight the performance features of the camera (image quality, fast startup and autofocus times) as a means to set it apart from the competition. Somewhat surprisingly, they left out any mention of shutter lag, but they shouldn't have.

Shooting Performance
Panasonic claims a 0.95 second start up time for the FP8, and while the screen goes live in about that time, it's a bit longer before the focus icon is presented. Still, I managed a first shot in about 1.75 seconds after power up. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, re-acquire focus and shoot) were about 2 seconds with a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s card. The camera produced 3 full resolution, high quality stills at a 2.2 fps rate in burst mode, and 5 at normal quality before the buffer took a break. The monitor blacks out briefly after the first two shots in burst and lags 1 shot behind, so panning with a fast moving subject can be problematic, even for the brief period the camera can shoot at full resolution. There is a high speed burst mode that fires at about 10fps with a brief blackout at the start of the burst, but resolution is limited to 3 megapixels or less.

AF acquisition times in good light were speedy across the range of the lens - we measured a 0.23 second press to capture time without pre-focus. Shutter lag came in at 0.01 seconds - this camera proved very quick to focus and shoot, and was quite pleasant to work with in good light. When I shot the camera for its first impression piece AF performance in low light appeared to be more in line with the class as a whole. After more extensive shooting in dim light the FP8 seems to do better than I first suspected - if there's anything with some contrast in range of the camera's focus assist beam it seems to acquire fairly quickly.

There are still times when the camera struggles like the rest in really poor conditions, but overall the FP8 was consistently faster to focus than the competition when lighting was good and generally faster when it wasn't.

Flash performance with the FP8 was very good with regard to recycle times with a fully charged battery. In moderate lighting conditions at wide angle and ISO 80, recycle times were in the high 2/low 3 second range. Shots in the same conditions at telephoto recycled in under 4 seconds. Switching to auto ISO produced similar times, and shots designed to produce a full discharge (80 ISO, telephoto, pitch black conditions) ran just over 4 seconds. At auto ISO flash range varies from almost 18 feet at wide angle to a bit over 10 feet at telephoto, but shooting at the low ISO sensitivities that produce the best noise performance impacts flash range dramatically - just less than 4 feet and 2 feet respectively for wide angle and telephoto at 80 ISO.

Panasonic rates the FP8 battery for 380 shots using a CIPA standard that generally produces accurate results in my experience. Our review FP8 produced 265 shots and about 7 minutes of video before the battery "fuel gauge" dropped to the last third, so this figure seems reasonable. Carry a spare battery for all-day shooting sessions.

Lens Performance
The Leica aspherical DC Vario-Elmar lens in the FP8 is "composed of 10 elements in 8 groups, including 1 ED lens and 5 aspherical lenses with 6 aspherical surfaces," not to mention the folding optics aspect which does away with the fixed lens barrel. In very general terms, the inclusion of aspherical elements is an attempt to optimize image quality at the edges of the frame while the ED lens is aimed at improving contrast and sharpness by reducing chromic aberration (purple fringing).

The FP8 was a bit soft in the corners at wide angle, but pretty good along the edges otherwise; corners were a bit better at telephoto and edges stayed comparable to wide angle. There was minimal barrel distortion at wide angle and a bit more pincushion distortion at telephoto, but both defects were slight. Chromic aberration was present in some images with high contrast boundary areas, but it too was slight and, overall, well-controlled.

The lens is a bit slower than the competition at both ends of the range - f/3.3 at wide angle and f/5.9 at telephoto, but this is perhaps the price you pay for optical performance that is quite good otherwise. A slower lens means the camera will have to resort to increasing ISO sensitivity to maintain fast shutter speeds sooner than the competition, bringing into play the noise problems associated with higher ISOs. The camera can focus at just under 2 inches in macro mode.

While mounting a nominally 4.6x optical zoom lens, the FP8 has another trick up its sleeve to push that ratio out to as much as 9.1x (although at reduced resolution). In any still shooting mode where you can reduce the image resolution size to 8 megapixels or lower, the FP8 will enable "extended optical zoom" and capture images from only the center of the sensor, resulting in higher magnifications from the increasingly cropped sensor. An 8 megapixel image permits a 5.7x zoom; 5 megapixels permits 7.3x and 3 megapixels or lower produces a 9.1x. Panasonic claims no loss in image quality from this process. Here are shots at the standard 4.6x telephoto zoom as well as the 8, 5 and 3 megapixel sizes for comparison.

Panasonic shared some details of their new "POWER" optical image stabilization (O.I.S) system with us, and it appears the performance gains have been realized primarily through improved efficiency rather than a radical departure from the basic design of the older MEGA O.I.S. system:

Panasonic's O.I.S system includes gyrosensors detecting handshake and the lens system shifts to compensate, helping to prevent handshake from creating a blurry image. Power O.I.S. offers double the repression power of Panasonic's previous optical image stabilization system, MEGA O.I.S. The mechanical process itself is the same, the repression power has just doubled and is now more effective for at least an addition 2-3 shutter stops.

With the ability of the FP8 to utilize that extended optical zoom, any increase in stabilization capability is a welcome addition to a camera whose telephoto can run out to as much as about 254mm at reduced resolutions.

Video Quality
HD video quality on the FP8 seemed on a par with or perhaps slightly better than class competition. The zoom function of the lens is available during video, but it's rapid and hard to control with regard to making a smooth transition from wide to telephoto, or vice-versa. The microphone proved sensitive but also susceptible to wind noise in light airs. Panasonic recommends a media card with at least 10MB/sec performance for video purposes.

Image Quality
Default images out of the FP8 were generally good as to color rendition and overall image quality and sharpness - there are no in-camera adjustments to image sharpness or contrast per se in either the shooting or playback menus. Exposure compensation is available in shooting modes other than intelligent auto.

Normal picture mode provides an expanded color palette of seven color and monotone shooting options - here are the standard (default), normal, vivid and b&w settings.

Auto white balance did a good job with a variety of lighting conditions including bright sun, overcast/cloudy, open shade, flash and the yellow sodium vapor lamps used in many local cities to help the astronomers at the nearby Palomar Mountain observatory. The camera shot quite warm under incandescent light in the studio. There are daylight, cloudy, shade, and halogen presets along with a custom white balance option.

Intelligent multiple metering that reads points across the entire image in determining exposure is the only method available.

Panasonic didn't break any new ground with ISO noise performance in the FP8. The 80 and 100 ISO crop shots are fairly clean but look somewhat soft, with noise beginning to become apparent at 200, and to a greater extent at 400.

ISO 800 sees a significant drop in image quality and 1600 takes another significant turn for the worse. In the 80 and 100 ISO range, the FP8 is probably average in comparison to top competitors, and perhaps as well at 200. From 400 and up the Panasonic seems to fall behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've come across. The full frames don't look too bad across the board, which is the norm, and the higher ISOs are probably usable as long as print sizes stay small.

When I reviewed the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35 back in March 2008 I was impressed enough with that camera's overall performance to buy one for my sister. Subsequent Panasonic offerings that have crossed my path for review purposes didn't produce the same warm and fuzzy feelings as the FX35, but the FP8 has reversed that trend.

The FP8 is a desirable camera by virtue of its sparkling AF performance and speedy shutter lag alone - the camera acquires focus quickly across a broad range of lighting conditions and then takes the shot with little delay. The camera also powers up quickly, recycles its flash promptly and provides a lens that captures images with minimal distortion and defects. There's a 720p HD video capability for those who shoot movies.

ISO noise performance looks average at the lower sensitivities, but at 400 and above it appears to lag a bit behind the best 12 megapixel compacts I've reviewed. The lens maximum apertures are slower than most of the competition, which isn't a good combination with the unremarkable ISO performance.

With only automatic shooting modes the FP8 will appeal primarily to folks seeking minimal involvement in the image capture process, but Panasonic has put in enough user options in the normal shooting mode to keep the more advanced shooters interested, particularly once they get a taste of that speedy AF and almost non-existent shutter lag.


* Very good AF performance
* Very good shutter lag
* Good image quality, largely defect free
* Good flash recycle times


* ISO noise performance below average at 400 and up
* Minimal flash range at low ISO

Editor's Rating: Very Good