Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR Review

Fujifilm FinePix F70EXR Review

Fujifilm's FinePix F70EXR is (as of November 2009) the "World's smallest digital camera with a 10x optical zoom." The svelte new F70 (which replaces Fuji's F60fd model) also incorporates the nifty EXR technology introduced earlier this year on the very popular Fujifilm F200EXR. What sets both EXR cameras apart from the competition is the new Super CCD EXR imaging sensor.

The F70's Super CCD EXR imaging sensor incorporates larger pixels and a novel new layout that (according to Fuji) permits the sensor to capture more light over a shorter period of time than standard sensor arrays. The Super CCD EXR sensor works in tandem with Fuji's new Real Photo Processor EXR for faster camera operation, lower noise levels, improved dynamic range, brighter colors, and sharper images.

The icing on the cake may be the F70's new color saturation choices based on well-known Fuji 35mm slide films like Velvia, Provia, and Astia. If all that's not enough, the F70EXR offers control-conscious shutterbugs an aperture priority mode and a full manual exposure mode. Other neat features include dual image stabilization, third generation Face Detection, a Portrait Enhancer mode, and sensitivity settings up to ISO 12800. That's a lot of functionality for a shirt pocket digicam.

Digital cameras, as a class, generate surprisingly good pictures in decent light. After the sun goes down, in dull weather, and indoors, most produce noisy images with flat contrast and dull colors. Fuji offered a series of digicams that did better than the competition in dim/low lighting and indoors. The chunky and un-sexy F30fd and F40fd produced noticeably better than average higher ISO images in natural light, low light, and indoors, but they lacked the svelte profile demanded by consumers.

Like Olympus, Pentax, and Panasonic, Fuji doesn't like being in the second tier behind Canon, Nikon, and Sony so they tried again to put themselves ahead with the F200EXR. The F200EXR featured an improved Real Photo processor and new EXR technology to improve high ISO image quality. The F200EXR created quite a stir, but consumers still wanted smaller cameras, more megapixels, and longer zooms - the F70EXR is a very conventional looking digicam that looks like every other compact digital camera, but it is eminently pocketable and while it's not as compact as some of its credit-card sized competitors, it does provide 10 megapixel resolution and a 10x zoom.

While most shooters don't need the multi-megapixel images generated by the great majority of currently available P&S digicams, some consumers may be troubled by the fact that the F70EXR is not a full-time 10 megapixel camera in its namesake EXR mode. The highest resolution (10 megapixels) is only available in the Resolution Priority mode. The High ISO & Low Noise mode and the D-Range Priority mode only generate 5 megapixel images.

Ergonomics and Controls
The F70EXR is a fairly small camera, but it feels solid and somewhat heavier than expected. The camera fits nicely in the hands and is comfortable to use even over long periods. The attractive gun-metal gray and silver body is shiny/smooth and there's no handgrip - nothing but a tiny decorative chrome ridge along the right edge of the body - so continuous use of the wrist strap is probably a good idea.

The Fuji F70EXR's user interface is uncomplicated and reasonably straightforward. The control layout is fairly typical and quite similar to most other recent point and shoots. Buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small. The mode dial is almost too diminutive, but all controls are responsive and provide a confidence-inspiring tactile firmness.

All controls with the exception of the on/off button, shutter button, and zoom controller switch are located on the back of the camera. Dedicated controls include the Mode Dial, play button, and "F" function button which provides a shortcut to a selection of settings/functions directly related to the selected shooting mode - for example in EXR mode the "F" button provides direct access to ISO, image size, film simulation options. The compass switch (4-way controller) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function in shooting mode and the delete function (in playback mode), macro settings, the self-timer, and flash options. Below the compass switch are the DISP (display) button and the direct access to the F70's third generation face detection mode which can detect up to ten faces and is (according to Fuji) faster and more accurate even when subjects aren't looking directly at the camera.

Menus and Modes
Fuji has always featured an easy to use menu system and the F70EXR is no exception. Selections/Options are straightforward, logical, and clearly thought out. The Shooting menu is covered in two pages and the Set-up menu is covered in four pages.

The F70 provides the standard selection of shooting modes plus several non-standard options, but many users will probably leave the camera in EXR mode full time.

* Auto Mode: The camera makes all exposure decisions - just point the camera at the subject and press the shutter button.
* Program Mode: Auto exposure with limited user input (metering, white balance sensitivity, etc.)
* Manual Mode: User selects all exposure parameters including aperture and shutter speed.
* Aperture Priority Mode: The F70EXR only provides two aperture options - wide open and stopped down - the actual f-stop is dependent on the focal length setting of the zoom lens. The maximum aperture (at the wide angle position) is f/3.3. Zoom the lens out to the telephoto position and the maximum aperture drops to f/5.6. At the stopped down position the minimum aperture ranges from f/6.4 at the wide angle end of the zoom to f/11.0 at the telephoto end of the zoom range.
* Natural Light w/flash Mode: This setting captures two images with one press of the shutter button - one with fill flash and one with only natural lighting and then saves both.
* Natural Light Mode: Auto exposure biased for natural lighting.
* Pro Focus Mode: The F70 utilizes some very impressive multi-frame technology including the pro-focus mode which replicates the out-of-focus backgrounds loved by portrait shooters. When the shutter button is pushed in pro-focus mode the F70 captures three simultaneous images and overlays them to create an image with a sharply focused subject and an apparently out of focus (de-focused) background.
* Pro-Low Light Mode: Captures and then combines four high ISO images to decrease noise levels.
* Movie Mode: 640x480 VGA video clips with monaural sound.

EXR modes include:

* High Resolution Priority Mode: full resolution at 10 megapixels.
* D-range Mode: (Wide Dynamic Range mode) When the camera is in D-Range Priority mode users can set the Dynamic Range to either 100%, 200%, 400% or 800%, or to the Auto setting. When the camera is in the Program, Aperture Priority, or Manual shooting modes users can set the Dynamic Range to 100%, 200% or 400%, but the upper limit range is linked to the ISO sensitivity selected - for example ISO 100 equals 100%, but ISO 200 allows 100% and 200%, and ISO 400 allows 100%, 200% and 400%.
* High Sensitivity/Low Noise Mode: limits noise at higher (ISO) sensitivity settings.
* EXR Auto Mode: Automatically selects one of those three modes described above and (depending on conditions) and automatically shifts (based on what's in front of the lens) between Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Backlit Portrait, Night, and Night Portrait scene modes to select the optimum scene mode for the lighting and subject.

Like most recent consumer digital cameras, the Fuji F70EXR doesn't provide an additional (optical or electronic) viewfinder so the 2.7 inch LCD screen is utilized for all framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores - the LCD is viewable at 160 degrees both vertically and horizontally.

The F70's LCD is fairly sharp (230,000 pixels), bright enough, hue accurate, relatively fluid, and the info display provides all the data the camera's target audience is likely to need. The user-enabled LCD grid-line display is a nice (and useful) touch, but the LCD is very shiny so it tends to fade a bit in bright outdoor lighting. The display gains "up" (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting.

I'm a bit puzzled as to just who the F70EXR's target audience is. The camera is very compact, easy to use, features a 10x zoom, and at least some of the time generates 10 megapixel images - so clearly it should appeal to casual photographers and snapshooters.

The F70EXR also provides some impressive usability and an astonishing level of personal input into the photographic process for more serious shooters, but it lacks the higher resolution of the competition, doesn't have an optical viewfinder, there's no RAW file option, and the 10x zoom is not as good as a shorter, less complex lens might have been. It seems that Fuji tried to please everyone and ended up creating a very interesting camera that provides a little something nice for everyone, but not quite enough substance for anyone.

Shooting Performance
The F70EXR is pretty quick across the board - it beats the average in shutter lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused) at 0.01 seconds. AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus) is a bit slower than average at 0.42 seconds. In continuous shooting mode the F70EXR is quicker than most of the competition at 2.6 fps.

The F70EXR's TTL Contrast Detection AF system provides both center and multi AF point Auto Focus. AF is fairly quick and dependably accurate - in face detection mode the F70EXR's AF system can track up to 10 faces. The AF system works nicely in decent (outdoor) lighting, but it often has difficulty locking focus in dimmer (indoor) lighting. Focusing is also noticeably slower in poor light.

The F70EXR's Auto White Balance setting did a consistently good job outside, but it struggled to get the hues right indoors. White balance options include - Auto WB, Automatic scene recognition, Fine, Shade, Fluorescent light (Daylight), Fluorescent light (Warm white), Fluorescent light (Cool white), Incandescent light, and Custom.

The F70EXR features a Dual Image Stabilization system that provides both mechanical sensor shift to counter camera movement during exposure and a digital Image Stabilization system that boosts ISO and increases shutter speeds to help counter shooter instability and to compensate for minor subject movement.The camera also provides 47MB of internal memory and also stores images to external SD and SDHC memory media.

The F70EXR draws its power from a proprietary NP-50 3.6V - 1000mAh - Li-Ion rechargeable battery. Fuji claims up to 230 images with a fully charged battery- which is a bit less than most of the competition. It's difficult for me to keep track of exposures because I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot, though Fuji's figures seem to be fairly accurate based on my experiences with the camera.

The F70EXR's built-in multi-mode "Super Intelligent" flash sounds more impressive than it actually is - the super intelligence may be a bit of hyperbole - what "super intelligent" really means is that the flash automatically scales back its output as it gets closer to the subject. The F70EXR's flash provides what is actually a fairly standard set of external lighting options including Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Synch, and Red-Eye Reduction. Fuji claims the maximum flash range is almost 14 feet at ISO 800. The flash is positioned right in front of and just below the shutter button/zoom controller which results in an occasional stray finger blocking the flash.

Lens Performance
The F70EXR features a Fujinon 10x, f3.3-f5.6/5mm-50mm (27-270mm equivalent) optical zoom lens with super EBC coating to reduce ghosting and flare. Close focusing (macro mode) is 2.0 inches.

When the F70EXR is powered up the zoom extends automatically and when the camera is powered down the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth and fairly quiet. The F70EXR's zoom performance is pretty good, but images do display noticeable corner softness and some minor vignetting (dark corners). Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is noticeably higher than average, but pincushion distortion is essentially invisible at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration is slightly above average - purple fringing is visible in high contrast areas and to a somewhat lesser degree in color transition areas - especially where foreground objects (like trees) subjects meet the open sky.

Video Quality
The F70EXR provides a fairly unexciting 30 fps VGA (640X480) or QVGA (320X240) movie mode with monaural sound. This certainly won't compete with a dedicated video camera or the HD video offered by some of the F70EXR's competition, but it will work well enough for generating e-mail video attachments for friends and family. Video duration is limited only by the 2GB maximum file size. Unlike many other digicams, the F70EXR permits aspiring directors to use the 10x zoom while recording.

Image Quality
Image quality is where the F70EXR really shines - this camera offers an unprecedented level of individual tweakability and personal flexibility in terms of color palette, noise management, and dynamic range. Most P&S digicams boost color saturation because amateurs and casual shooters like bold bright hues and harder contrast - veteran shooters call this "consumer color". Unlike most of its competition the F70EXR's default color is actually pretty close to neutral, but with color saturation choices based on well known Fuji 35mm slide films like Velvia, Provia, and Astia the F70EXR eschews the boosted saturation and hard contrast consumer color of its competition and instead allows each individual shooter to custom tailor hue and dynamic range to genuinely reflect their own personal photographic vision.

Outdoors, in good light, image quality is dependably very good. Exposures are consistently accurate although there is a very slight tendency toward overexposure and highlights are sometimes burned out. Set the mode dial to EXR and the whole world changes. Image quality can be tailored to produce high-resolution 10 megapixel images with the vibrant colors and precise detail that look like Provia slides, or high ISO low noise natural light images that look like Astia slide film available light shots, or wide dynamic range landscapes that glow with light and exuberant colors like Velvia slides.

Indoor image quality is noticeably better than average, but as sensitivity automatically rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise rises exponentially and color accuracy suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite low, well below average up to ISO 400. Noise becomes more obvious at ISO 800 and 1600 in the images cropped at 100%.

I really liked the F70EXR and I had lots of fun shooting with it. We are right in the middle of our fall color peak here in the Ohio Valley and I shot the digital equivalent of dozens of rolls of film trying to capture that once-a-year riot of autumn/harvest hues. The F70EXR did a good job and never let me down (although when the battery icon says Low Battery, it isn't kidding) but in the final analysis this camera just misses greatness.

Almost anyone who buys the F70EXR will like it - the price is right, it is amazingly flexible/tweakable, it produces superb images with bright colors, wide dynamic range, low noise levels, and it is easy to use. So what's the problem with the F70EXR? This camera really could have put Fuji on the map. Add more flexibility in selecting image resolution, add a small EVF, and enable RAW file capture and the F70EXR could have been a baby G11 - with more flexibility and more natural colors.


* 10x zoom
* Great pictures
* Fuji Slide Simulation Options
* Incredibly flexible
* Nice Price


* Certain shooting modes limited to 5 megapixels
* No Optical viewfinder/EVF
* No RAW file mode