It have been playing with Fujifilms 16 megapixel, 15x optical zoom camera the F550EXR and I am thoroughly impressed with the performance of this pocket sized baby. For a camera this size it packs a lot of punch and captures amazing images up to ISO 1600. It is one of the fastest compact clickers around.
For a while now Fujifilms low-light miracle the F70 EXR has been my favourite. For me it is the camera for concerts and natural light photography. I love natural light photography, capturing the scene exactly as I see it, no flash please. The F550EXR makes a very slight compromise on the low noise characteristics of the F70EXR by squeezing 16 megapixels (more on this next) from a 1/2" CMOS sensor, but adds a load of very useful features.
Lets start at the heart of the camera, the digital light sensor. The F550EXR uses a 1/2" 16 megapixel CMOS sensor loaded with Fujifilms EXR technology. What this means is the sensor performs at its peak when the camera is used at half its megapixel capacity i.e. at 8 megapixels, because it can combine adjacent sensor pixels to increase light sensitivity giving excellent low-light performance and high dynamic range. So for all intents and purposes I would consider this an 8 megapixel camera. Whats more the CMOS sensor is fast which means all the EXR goodness is available at a whooping ISO 1600.
A lot of compact cameras have the ISO 1600 option but pictures taken at this setting come out looking garbage, full of chroma noise (mottling). Not so with the F550EXR. In moderate daylight ISO 1600 delivers exceptional images with lovely film grain but no chroma noise. Combining this with the 15x optical zoom wide angle 24mm - 360mm aspheric fujinon lens allows you to get very close to the action. The extra-low dispersion (ED) glass used in the lens dramatically minimises chromatic aberration at the telephoto end of the zoom.
Digging into the menu options of the much improved camera software (v1.1.3) you find are hidden high speed continuous shooting functions that allow you to capture upto 16 frames1 at rates raging from 3fps to 11fps. Finally Fujifilm have equipped the camera with a dual core image processing CPU which processes all that image data in a snap.
All of the above features when taken together make the F550EXR an excellent compact wildlife photography camera. Anything that moves too quickly for other compact cameras the F550EXR can handle. It lets you zoom close to the action, freezes motion using the high ISO sensitivity and allows capturing subject-in-motion shots using the excellent continuous shooting functions. Whats more while the camera advertises Full HD movie recording, the real gem is it allows a 640x480 resolution movie to be recorded at a 80fps and 320x240 resolution movie at 160fps!2 Which means you can potentially capture a hummingbird in flight and then use a movie editing tool to slow down the frame rate to get a slow motion movie showing the exact movement of it wings.
Of course to do justice to the high speed shooting functions you will need a high speed SD card so the camera can save your images as quickly as it acquires them.
The F550EXR is not just an outdoor camera. It retains almost all of the low-light shooting goodness of the F70EXR at 1600 ISO or lower. It continues to include the pro low-light mode which captures four shots in low-light and combines them to give a ISO 400 level low-light shot. This works extremely well as the four shots are taken in quick succession at 1600 ISO minimising blur due to camera shake between the shots.
The features of the camera don't stop here. It includes a GPS receiver for saving location information with pictures, RAW shooting options, 360 panaroma mode, portrait mode which takes excellent people pictures with beautiful skin tone, upto 1600% dynamic range retention in the EXR-DR mode and more. You can view the full specifications on the Fujifilm website.
In terms of looks the camera is available only in black with gun-metal trimmings (sorry ladies you'll have to wear black shoes when carrying this one out). Fujifilm have gone for the most compact body possible and instead of a rectangular slab the camera feels like it is waiting to burst out of its chasis. Bottomline it looks gorgeous.
Before you jump into purchasing this camera however you should be aware of its weaknesses. While Fujifilm advertise Full HD movie recording on the camera, video recording is not its real strength. If you need a video recording camera look elsewhere. The GPS function on the camera drains battery and takes quite a while to get a fix on your position. The camera is an advanced compact intended for people with good knowledge of digital photography, or a hunger to learn. While it can be used as a point and click camera it is designed with the intention of you tinkering with the settings to customise it to your taste and application and get the best shot.
While Fujifilm fans will feel at home with the menus and the onboard software, newcomers may find the menus confusing. Read the manual to find settings not obvious at first sight. Once you know where they are they are a breeze to find. Remember, to use the high speed shooting options on the camera you will need a high speed SD card (class 6 or above). Finally, the camera firmware should be updated to at least version v1.1.3 as previous versions have issues which have now been fixed. The update requires you to fully charge the battery and drop the update file on a blank formatted SD card, stick the card in and turn on the camera. Full instructions are on the Fujifilm support website.