Fujifilm FinePix F80EXR camera
Available in the usual rainbow of colour options, Fujifilm's latest glossy metal construction pocket compact might just be as close to a convincingly high quality jack-of-all trades digital snapshot as we're likely to see at the consumer end of the market.
In updating last year's F70EXR, the F80EXR has upped maximum stills resolution from 10 megapixels to 12 megapixels. HD movie capability has also been added, whilst it retains a 10x optical zoom, providing usefully broad 27-270mm equivalent focal range in 35mm terms.
Guarding against the blurring effects of camera shake, the lens is supported by dual image stabilisation, in the form of both a CCD shift mechanism and a software based ISO boost. And all this within a body not much wider than a regular issue 3x or 5x zoom model, officially 22.9mm not counting protrusions.
Overall dimensions are 99.3 x 58.9 x 28.4mm while the F80EXR weighs 183g without rechargeable battery or SD/SDHC media card. Given its premium build quality and headline spec, the UK asking price feels very fair value indeed.
And yet the above, whilst impressive in itself, falls short of the full story. As the model name indicates, like its predecessor the F80 features a Super CCD EXR sensor. This chip is a thus far unique-to-Fujifilm innovation that is "switchable", meaning that it can, its manufacturer claims, be utilised in three different ways. Such a possibility is due to the different way Fujifilm has arranged the pixels on its EXR sensor - here, in parallel diagonal rather than vertical or horizontal lines. Furthermore, red and blue filters have been paired up and sandwiched between green filters. The result is claimed to be a doubling of sensitivity over the traditional layout, whilst noise remains minimal, leading Fujifilm, something of a pioneering force for higher sensitivity in low light on compacts, to offer a class leading high ISO 12800 option on the F80EXR. That's the kind of spec found on semi pro DSLRs, let's not forget.
However in practice a boosting of sensitivity is accompanied by a drop in resolution, but while that's one option available here - ISO 12800 only captured at 3 megapixels - it doesn't have to be that way.
By turning the mode dial mounted top right of its backplate to the "EXR" setting, F80EXR users have the choice of shooting at optimum 12-megapixel resolution in HR (High Resolution) mode as well as low light SN (High Sensitivity and Low Light) mode. The third main option governing how the sensor performs is DR (wide Dynamic Range) mode to even out shadow and highlight detail, while in addition the camera can be left on Auto EXR - a smart auto feature if you like - to choose which setting it deems most appropriate for the shooting conditions at the time.
The auto setting does a good job, though in truth we found it tricky to differentiate between results from the HR and DR settings when manually selected, subtle on most occasions if noticeable at all.
Feeling reassuringly solid gripped in the palm, press the on/off button, set into attractively tapering chrome strip on the top plate, and the Fujifilm F80EXR takes just over 2 seconds to ready itself for the first shot. As your forefinger hovers over the shutter release, your thumb comes naturally to rest on the shooting mode dial at the back. Whilst that's convenient for accessing its various settings with a quick flick of your digit, it's also possible in the same way to inadvertently jog the dial to an adjacent setting when your mind is focused elsewhere (on your subject).
As expected, photos and video are framed using the sufficiently large, bright and clear 3-inch, 230k-dot resolution LCD monitor at the rear. This takes up two-thirds of the available real estate in the absence of any optical viewfinder, with mode dial, control pad and four additional function buttons staking their claim to the rest.
One of these is a dedicated face detection button, though pet detection additionally features among the available scene modes, also accessed with a twist of the dial. Unlike the human version, the latter only works with the animal face (or snout?) facing on to the camera. Rather more useful in general terms is AF tracking, picking out a subject and sticking with it no matter where it may scamper in the frame.
Little touches like the above mean that operation here feels fluid, the camera responding instantly to each button press or dial twist. Its rounded edges and slightly slippery double gloss surface do however mean you'll want to use both hands to get a firm, steadying grip when shooting handheld. A screw thread for a tripod is of course provided at the base, here slightly off centre to allow room for a sliding cover for the joint battery and (optional) media card compartment.
This being a Fujifilm compact, the user is further provided with a "F" (for "Photo" button on the back plate, which acts as a shortcut to the most frequently used settings. There's otherwise a menu button resting at the centre of the control pad below. It's in "F" mode that, as well as being able to select ISO speed and image size/quality, users can dip into the camera's selection of film simulation modes, harking back to its manufacturer's "wet" heritage.
The standard/default setting is Provia (normal, naturalistic picture quality), whilst in Program mode Velvia additionally boosts colour saturation to give the greens and blues found in landscapes in particular an added vividness. The third film simulation option is the flatteringly soft Astia, useful for portraits, with more regular issue black and white plus sepia options rounding things off.
It doesn't stop there, however, with Fujifilm also offering an enthusiast-enticing background blurring Pro Focus mode, achieved not with specialist lens of course (the F80EXR's is firmly fixed) but via the combination of three separate exposures to form the one complete image. A separate Pro Low Light mode does much the same - but using four images this time - while a Portrait Enhancer option from among the scene modes does a good job of smoothing skin tones to ape that airbrushed look favoured by American magazines - healthy without looking plastic on this occasion.
With Natural Light and Natural Light with flash options further selectable via their own settings on the shooting mode dial, along with an exclusively manual setting, those who do want to get a bit more hands-on than merely pointing and shooting are well catered for. Indeed this is a camera that continues to reveal fresh riches the more you play with it: not what you'd expect for a price around £200.
In terms of video - here 1280 x 720 pixels rather than the Full HD 1920 x 1080 - and at 24fps not 30fps, though that frame rate is available at 640 x 480 setting, recorded sound is mono. Yet, on a positive, the full extent of the 10x optical zoom is accessible and adjustable mid filming. That said the built-in microphone does pick up a rather obvious mechanical gnat-like buzz as the lens makes its adjustments; often why competitors disable the zoom in their own movie modes.
We liked the vibrant look and feel of the still images the F80EXR delivered meanwhile, if, on close inspection, they seemed slightly softer than expected. Pixel fringing continues to be a problem for Fujifilm, and even a casual inspection revealed quite pronounced purple lines snaking around tree branches framed against bright skies. In general terms though we liked the healthy look and feel of the shots.
Whilst not perfect in every area the Fujifilm F80EXR is a largely successful addition to the ranks of "high zoom" compacts. Whilst that sounds like feint praise, it's not meant to be. Indeed the camera surprised and delighted us in equal measure - and it's very rare that, what is another point and shoot compact, warrants such emoting.
Ultimately the F80EXR is a good product at a good price that should please both beginners and more seasoned snappers wanting a compact that nods back to the days before digital killed off film at the consumer level.