A compact camera that aspires to appeal to veteran photographers. (May 13th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Fujifilm
- EXR helps dynamic range, less so noise.
- Large, good quality lens with 5X zoom.
- Presets skewed towards experienced users.
- Manual controls.
- Sturdy build quality.
- EXR aids aren't quite as good as marketed.
- Video mode underwhelming for the class.
- Expensive compared to most point-and-shoots.
- Proprietary data port.
image quality: regular shooting
One limitation of compact cameras that Fujifilm can't quite escape is the sensor size: it still has to be the same as for most other compacts, and that will limit both the light sensitivity and fine detail. There will still be moments where information is noticeably lost to blown highlights or to shadows, even if colors themselves are fairly vivid. We didn't notice much if any in the way of chromatic aberration -- that is, the "purple fringing" that occurs when a too-small lens is fitted relative to the sensor. The lens is actually surprisingly capable and, thanks to the 5X reach, is more likely to properly frame the shot without having to crop later (and lose detail as a consequence).
For most typical light levels and shooting situations, the F200 is quite capable; we had no issues with noise up to ISO 400, and even ISO 800 is often acceptable if the situation either demands it or else you're deliberately going for a film grain-like effect. ISO 1600 can simply be too noisy more often than not, however, and shows visible mottled colors rather than just additional grain. We'd avoid ISO 3,200 and would particularly use the extreme ISO, reduced resolution modes (up to 12,800) only as last resorts when flash is banned. To date, it's only high-end digital SLRs like Canon's EOS-5D Mark II or Nikon's D700 that can manage those levels without being unusable.
Flash performance is adequate to good. It would almost always create a pale tone and produce highlights, but it would keep a large amount of detail and produced surprisingly pleasing shots at concerts or in a dimly-lit pub, where the subjects weren't always very close to the camera and thus had the risk of being poorly lit by a flash with too short a range. Red eye didn't seem to be an issue thanks to the slow-synchro option.
An appreciated touch is a film emulation mode that lets photographers simulate particular types of conventional film, such as Velvia or Provia. These ultimately amount to color balance changes, but they can be useful for producing either punchy or soft color tones without knowing the intricacies of color temperatures.
image quality: EXR modes
Of course, the very selling point of the F200 EXR is its ability to overcome usual camera weaknesses, and it's here where it veers off the path of usual compact cameras. For all intents and purposes, the EXR (extreme range) sensor lets photographers make a direct trade-off between resolution and advantages in difficult lighting conditions. As the individual sensors are laid out in a cross pattern rather than a square grid, Fujifilm can alter the behavior of pixels while in many cases only having to drop the resolution in half and without noticeably worsening the look. To reduce noise, the F200 "fuses" pairs of pixels together to collect more light; to improve the dynamic range and thus reduce the instances of lost detail, it deliberately underexposes every other pixel.
It's a revolution, in theory; in practice it's still very good, but isn't quite as stunning or universally applicable as the marketing might suggest. We got the most use out of it in enhancing the image quality in well-lit but high contrast scenes. In shooting flowers, for example, we noticed that the flowers themselves showed more of their subtle creases and wrinkles, while there were far fewer blown-out highlights in the larger scene. We also noticed improved detail in darker areas at times: when snapping photos of a musician playing outdoors against a dark building, the details of those just inside the building popped into much greater relief.
The dynamic range mode isn't flawless, however. Because of the bias towards underexposure to improve range, it can at times actually render a low-light scene even darker rather than bring out the intended detail. Its behavior in dark environments sometimes seems a bit random, too, as at other times it would work more effectively than the low-noise mode at capturing a dark scene. As such, the dynamic range mode for EXR is best more for casual shooting in conditions that would already deliver usable shots rather than at the very edge of acceptability.
Flowers shot normally; notice the overly bright highlights.
Flowers shot with EXR in dynamic range mode; much more balanced.
A musician shot normally; the pub behind him is dark.
With EXR dynamic range, the pub shows much more detail.
Ironically, we got less significantly less use out of the low-noise EXR mode than we expected. While it's true that it reduces the total amount of noise, it won't do so to such an extent as to let you increase the ISO sensitivity to a high level (such as ISO 1,600) without a visible penalty. We primarily saw it eliminate the mottled color effect that often creeps up in high noise situations. There were even a few instances where it darkened the scene or, in one odd instance, led the camera to choose the wrong color balance. Ultimately, as with the dynamic range mode, it's more an extra safeguard for image quality at more common light levels like ISO 400 or 800 where that extra amount of noise reduction can produce an image more suitable to a blowup or to printing.
Normal mode with high noise.
With EXR low-noise on: mottled color is gone, but nets a darker scene. Dynamic range mode was more effective here.
While this suggests Fujifilm might be overselling EXR, and not without some merit, the truth is that we found ourselves invoking EXR mode more often than not, even at the expense of some control. It enhances image quality just enough in certain situations to compensate for deficiencies that would otherwise be inescapable in a compact camera.