Fujifilm makes an extremely long range ultrazoom with DSLR control. (June 5th, 2010)
Ultrazoom, non-DSLR cameras have almost always been exercises in compromise. They can shoot long distances, but the optical quality often takes a dive to reach such extreme lengths, and the control is rarely any better than on a point-and-shoot costing half the price. Fujifilm's FinePix HS10 tries to change that with sensor tricks to improve quality and controls you'd normally expect only on an SLR. We'll learn in our HS10 review if these amount to real changes or if an entry DSLR is still a better pick.
Product Manufacturer: Fujifilm
- 30X lens with few artifacts.
- Good image quality up to ISO 1,600.
- 1080p video and HDMI out.
- Powerful, comfortable DSLR-like controls.
- Articulating display.
- Fast autofocus.
- Panorama mode.
- Sometimes imprecise autofocus.
- Pro Low-light mode not very effective.
- 1080p video bitrate could be higher; motion blur.
- Still an insistence on proprietary USB out.
- Odd choice of AA batteries for power.
The body: build quality, controls and ports
The in-between quality of ultrazooms often manifests itself first in your first grip of the device. They're usually not as well-built as a DSLR but still somewhat higher than a typical compact camera. Some of that manifests here: the HS10's body is clearly plastic in most areas. Having said this, it's very well-constructed: no parts felt flimsy or like they would fall off after repeated use, even with the flip-open doors. Fujifilm has given the camera a good amount of heft without it feeling artificially heavy, as you might expect with such a large lens. Comfort was good enough that we could see ourselves holding on to the camera for extended periods without cramps.
Where it truly starts to break away from other ultrazooms is in the control. Many cameras in the class can't help but feel at least somewhat SLR-like, but here it's taken to a much more conspicuous level. For a start, there's no real mechanized zoom. Like an SLR, you need to rotate with the lens barrel and can manually refocus from there as well. That gives much more control over composing a shot; about the only caveat is that video recording might suffer, as anything less than a perfectly smooth zoom or refocus will show itself.
It's just as serious on the body, although traces of the camera's compact roots are in evidence. Anyone who has used a DSLR will feel immediately at home: an entire column on the left provides quick shortcuts to ISO, autoexposure, the autofocusing mode and the white balance. On the other side are similar touches like an AE/AF lock and a dedicated navigation dial next to the mode dial. About the only concessions to newcomers are the typical four-way shortcut pad and a mode dial split equal between the usual PASM (program, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual) controls and scene presets. All of it falls quite quickly to hand, and we found ourselves intuitively sitting a thumb on the navigation dial.
The software interface will seem familiar to anyone who's used one of Fujifilm's EXR cameras, such as the F200 EXR. Most of it is intuitive and only requires a few short steps, although the physical controls smooth things out significantly by saving you the trouble of entering the menu system in the first place. There's no shortage of options, even beyond those you would expect in this category. Other than obvious changes, it's possible to tune the camera's enhancement of the dynamic range and otherwise massage the picture. You can flip the camera to fully automatic if you like, but it's much easier to grow as a photographer with the HS10.
As usual, the only real faults on this external level for Fujifilm are the ports. For USB and analog video, the only choice is a proprietary cable. Space would make it difficult to implement separate mini USB and RCA jacks, but we suspect there will be more than one owner who can't attach to a computer or TV Thankfully, the size allows a mini HDMI connector that does have broader support and, of course, allows previewing photos and videos at much higher resolution. The SDHC card slot is on the opposite side.
What may confuse buyers, especially those used to SLRs, is the battery area. Instead of a lithium-ion pack, the HS10 takes four AA batteries. Fujifilm is clearly aiming at tourists with the decision; they won't need a travel AC adapter for vacations to Europe or other countries. All the same, it makes using the camera potentially expensive and virtually necessitates either getting into the habit of periodically buying batteries or else getting a set of rechargeables to cut down on costs. The choice is far from a deal breaker but is something to factor into long-term use.
The electronic viewfinder and display
The HS10 isn't a true DSLR, so like many mirrorless cameras it needs to use an electronic viewfinder for those who want an up-close image. Fujifilm's example is high resolution and still gives a good idea of how the shot will come out, but it's still noticeably limited compared to the LCD below. There's not as much space for on-screen items, and it sometimes feels cramped. We ended up using it more often than not for composition, but there were moments when the sheer volume of information or the nature of the shot suited itself better to the LCD.
Using that external display is sometimes, though not always, a pleasure. Color output is reasonably accurate and the visibility is good outdoors. It's unusually low-resoluton, though. At a time when compacts like the Canon G11 have extremely sharp detail, the less than VGA resolution image complicates previews. With the external display, we didn't find it as easy as we would have liked to determine whether or not a subject was properly in focus or if there was too much visible noise.
Much will be forgiven with the articulating display, however. It's not a true swivel display -- you can't swing it out left or right -- instead, like the Nikon D5000, it's intended mostly for common off-angle shooting scenarios. The LCD tilts up or down and extrudes partially from the body so you can either hold the camera over your head or literally shoot from the hip. Concert goers and low-to-the-ground photographers will love this display, and the only real thing it lacks is the option of flipping the display closed when it's not needed.
We did encounter one regular annoyance. A sensor automatically turns off the LCD when it believes you're close enough to be using the eyepiece. While this is great for saving power, it's extremely aggressive; there were several times where the LCD would repeatedly turn itself on and off as we were just close enough to trigger the sensor despite no intentions of looking through the viewfinder. You can train yourself to avoid the issue, but it will cause confusion for awhile.
Image quality: the lens
When your camera's design centers on a 30X zoom lens, you can't help but use that range as a defining element of image quality. As a 24-720mm equivalent, the kinds of shots you can achieve are exceptional in themselves. Minimum zoom produces noticeably wide angle shots that cover a very large amount of the scene at once. And of course, extending to telephoto distances is astounding in just how far you can reach. We took shots where a person or object barely visible on the horizon suddenly filled a large part of the frame. It was even feasible to get a well-composed shot of the moon; amateur astronomers might want to take note.
Of course, the usual caveats about telephoto-grade lenses still apply. Even with image stabilization turned on, the likelihood of a stable shot at high zoom went down quickly as even subtle movement is exaggerated. We'd strongly recommend a tripod or similar mount if you plan to capture photos at the far end of the range, especially in low light. There's also a mild amount of chromatic aberration, or the purple fringing that occurs in high contrast situations, but we noticed it surprisingly little, even at extreme zoom levels.
What surprised us most was how well the lens worked up close. Unlike most long-zoom SLR lenses or some ultrazoom compacts, the HS10 has a fairly wide f2.8 maximum aperture and doesn't balloon the aperture much in common shooting; the maximum is f11. If you use either aperture priority or full manual and keep it in check, you can very easily produce the shallow depth of field that accompanies macro lenses on SLRs, even if you have to zoom in to a mild degree. It won't substitute for a quality macro or prime if you're a skilled photographer with the budget for a high-end camera, but it's good enough that a rookie or a capable amateur won't have to switch to a regular point-and-shoot or a DSLR for close-ups.
Image quality: the sensor and Pro Low-light mode
As much as we're keen to celebrate the lens, the sensor doesn't quite reach the same levels, even if it is fairly good. It's a CMOS sensor inside the HS10 rather than the usual CCD, so it does have the benefits of good sensitivity to light and low noise. The camera shoots at up to ISO 6,400 without having to drop the resolution, though as always the actual usable range is considerably less. We'd put the noise performance roughly where you'd expect: it's better than a typical point-and-shoot but not as good as a CMOS-equipped DSLR. Depending on the scene, we could comfortably use up to ISO 800 or 1,600 before noise got to be too much, which is impressive for the price but strictly average at most for a DSLR (or some Micro Four Thirds examples) made within the past one to two years.
That it's not a DSLR-sized sensor did become obvious in testing, and the sensor certainly wasn't flawless in other areas, either. While again a virtue of the lens, there were some instances in moderate to low light where the camera simply couldn't take a blur-free shot. We also noticed that colors were occasionally muted, particularly reds. It's true that you don't want to oversaturate the shot, as some camera makers are guilty of doing, but we noticed that a few images seemed to lack the punchy colors we knew existed in the original scene. It did, however, faithfully catch many less extreme colors such as orange or purple.
In truly dark scenes, there is the option of using the pop-up flash or else a hot-shoe flash. The former still has the risk inherent to any flash of flooding the subject with light, but as a DSLR-style flash it's much more powerful than on other cameras. Fujifilm rates it to a maximum distance of about 13 feet away and ISO 800, but we'd get significantly closer and at lower sensitivities when possible to avoid pronounced shadows or excessively bright highlights.
The real mixed bag for the camera is its autofocusing system. For sheer speed, it's excellent; not as good as a DSLR with a fast prime but noticeably faster than in most compact cameras, and indeed in the live view modes of many SLRs. We wouldn't, however, call it precise. It wasn't rare to take a deliberately framed macro photo and find that the camera focused on a subject well behind the intended target. As there isn't very fine-grained control over the focus point or method, the reality is that you may need to take multiple shots to guarantee your results.
Good color reproduction in mid-tones
Two flaws: muted reds and a focus on the wrong subject
Fujifilm does have a pair of tools that theoretically help combat some low light effects. Dynamic range is adjustable to three levels to bring out more details from shadows and cut down on blown highlights. More importantly, a special section of the Advanced modes known as Pro Low-light is there to potentially create a better image in borderline shooting situations by taking a burst of shots and compositing them together. To be honest, we had little success with these modes; while dynamic range could bring out slightly more detail, Pro Low-light didn't seem to show any noticeable improvement. It may work well with a tripod, but in our testing it either had a negligible effect or actually backfired as slight movements ultimately blurred what would have been a sharper shot.
Special modes: Motion Panorama and HD video capture
Our time for testing didn't allow us to get to two features, a motion removal mode and a compositing mode that can put the same subject multiple times in one scene, but we did get to one key special mode: Motion Panorama. Not unlike Sony's Sweep Panorama, it automatically stitches together a landscape shot just by rotating the camera in an arc. Such feats aren't difficult anymore for modern cameras, but it's still impressive to see in action: the panorama automatically compensates for accidental movements and can work either left-to-right or right-to-left.
There are certainly some limits, though. You can't tilt the camera too far up or down; the HS10 will actively refuse to take the shot if it thinks it's at a significant incline. There's also no control over how wide an arc you can use. You also can't escape the reality of a stitched-together shot: quickly moving cars or people will show up doubled or with other odd effects. Still, as anyone who's visited the Grand Canyon can attest, a well-done panorama shot can be extremely valuable.
No matter how useful you find Motion Panorama, one long upgrade that's been long overdue is HD video. Previously, even Fujifilm's high-end EXR compacts would only shoot in VGA resolution. Here, it's possible to shoot all the way up to 1080p. The resolution difference is very noticeable and is very welcome now that sites as mainstream as YouTube practically demand it for maximum effect.
Anyone who expects it to entirely replace a camcorder will be slightly disappointed. The bitrate isn't high, even directly off the camera. Although great for web video, full-screen viewing on a computer or TV will show a mild but visible amount of compression. Motion is also something of an issue. We found the camera unable to keep up with a moderately fast pan in any 30FPS mode without blurring objects in the frame. If your experience and time allow, it's better to use the high-speed shooting mode and capture at 60FPS in 720p to preserve as much detail as you can.
The resulting clips are encoded in the recognized H.264 (AVCHD) file format, which usually extends the video recording time -- up to just over 18 minutes at 1080p on a 2GB card -- but more importantly makes them easier to edit. Unless you're using old Microsoft software or some versions of Linux, the video can be loaded directly into an app like iMovie or to a site like YouTube without having to transcode it beforehand.
One note of caution about the video mode: as we mentioned earlier, the lack of a mechanized zoom can create issues with movies. You're likely to jerk the shot around or to make uneven movements when using the lens barrel. The best experience, we find, is to either avoid zooming altogether or else 'crash' the zoom in quickly to where you want it to be.
When we started testing the HS10, we were worried we would have to pass on it like so many ultrazooms before. Most are made for vacationers and others who simply like the sound of a long zoom and don't care if the lens or sensor are deliberately compromised to get there. They also often occupy a dead zone for hobbyists, as they rarely have either the good close-up performance of some compacts or the manual controls you'd want when graduating to an entry-level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds camera.
At least for now, the HS10 is about as close as you'll get to finding an ideal middle ground. Aside from the odd autofocus accuracy, the camera seems to handle most conditions well. The controls are so close to that of a DSLR that it's actually less coddling than a consciously beginner-oriented DSLR like the Sony Alpha A230 or Nikon D3000, but yet it isn't so difficult that you need to be anything more than mildly experienced to get good results. More importantly, some longstanding Fujifilm hang-ups on high-resolution video capture and output have finally been quashed.
We mostly wish that the company had spent less time on novelties like multi-shot compositing and more on improving focusing and real low-light performance. Arguably, the EXR profiles on the F70 and F200 are easier to use and more effective than Pro Low-light. It also wouldn't hurt to use a sharper LCD or to switch to a rechargeable lithium-ion pack; an HS10 buyer is likely to be a prolific shooter and may not want to spend extra just to keep the camera going.
All the same, at $500 official (likely less at retail) this could be a bargain for a photographer who wants a very long zoom and good control but isn't prepared to buy a DSLR and a range of lenses just to make that happen. It does have stiff competition in very inexpensive DSLRs like the and D3000, Pentax K-x, not to mention mirrorless interchangeables like the Olympus E-PL1 and Sony Alpha NEX-3, but these won't necessarily be better. While they have DSLR-like sensors, they often have short-ranged lenses and quickly get expensive once telephoto distances enter the equation. There's no danger of the HS10 obsoleting either the pro compacts just beneath it or the interchangeable lens cameras just above it; what it does do is serve well as a capable all-purpose camera for the knowledgeable shooter.