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


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