Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 review

A good zoom on a travel camera is a great idea, youll get closer to the action, and with cameras like this Exilim, you'll still be able to fit it in your pocket. And, although the original asking price was a hellish £299, we found the Exilim EX-ZR100 online for a much more competitive £179 at the time of writing.

So is this portable little shooter worth an investment, or is it something you should avoid at all costs?

Generous zoom

While the race for more and more megapixels may have slowed, if there’s one thing we can guarantee will have increased from one compact camera iteration to the next, it is that the zoom will have got bigger. Or, to put it another way, the focal range will have got broader. Here a 12.5x optical zoom may be modest in terms of the 30x super zoom or 18x "travel zoom" camera, but it helps further distance the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 from smartphones with built-in lenses. Of course a longer lens is more prone to the blurring effects of camera shake, especially when used handheld, so here it’s supported by the effective method of sensor shift image stabilisation as a form of counter attack.

Although on-board software enhancements can artificially extend this Casio’s zoom range to a crazy 600mm equivalent, the true focal range is 24mm to 300mm in 35mm film camera terms. So it’s as useful for squeezing a group of friends into frame at maximum wideangle as it is for pulling faraway subjects that much closer at maximum zoom.

Build quality and design

The coolly outwardly confident Casio’s construction offers a greater proportion of metal than plastic, and in terms of the black version that we had in for review looks reasonably sophisticated. Pictures and Full HD video are composed and reviewed via 3-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio LCD at the back, which offers a higher than usual 460K dot screen resolution given that this is a point and shoot. Yet the fact that an extra large zoom has been shoehorned in means that it’s a little broader in depth and slightly more of a squeeze for the pocket than less well endowed 3x, 5x or 7x rivals.

On the upside, this means that room has been found on the EX-ZR100 for a proper shooting mode dial. Dimensions are a manageable 104.8x59.1x28.6mm and the camera weighs 250g with SD card and battery inserted. Although battery life wasn’t given on our supplied literature, we managed a fair 300 shots before we needed to re-charge.

With a press of the recessed top plate power button this Casio readies itself for action in two to three seconds, focus and exposure set more or less instantly with a half press of the shutter released button ergonomically encircled by the zoom lever. As image review is disabled as a default, the screen doesn’t freeze immediately you’ve taken a shot, so it’s on to the next photo in practically the blink of an eye; so no complaints there.

Other key features worth flagging up include a 12.1 effective megapixel resolution from a standard size 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor, which here is back-illuminated, theoretically suggesting a better low light performance. Casio hasn’t pushed the boat out in terms of manually selectable light sensitivity settings however, which here are a distinctly average ISO100-ISO3200. Performance isn’t bad at all though, with barely any degradation in quality if pushing upwards from ISO800 to ISO1600. Plus, while detail is certainly softer at top whack ISO3200, we got results that were still usable and relatively noise/grain free. We did however find it trickier to avoid soft shots shooting handheld, especially toward the telephoto end of the zoom. That’s despite a thin leather-effect handgrip at the front aiding purchase.

Lots of shooting options

The smaller-than-dime-sized shooting mode dial spins from one option to the next with a thumb-flick, there are no fewer than ten choices. To kick off we have regular subject-recognising single-shot auto mode plus the Casio only Premium Auto - the latter of which analyses the scene and automatically enhances the image for you - along with manual, aperture priority and shutter priority settings. So we do at least get some degree of hands on control.

As well as Casio’s regular smattering of pre-optimised, scene specific modes - known as "BestShot modes" - there are also two modes given over to current fad for high dynamic range (HDR) shooting. In regular HDR mode the camera automatically evens out highlight and shadow detail that might otherwise be lost, leaving a fairly natural looking image. In HDR art mode the camera delivers an overtly-processed shot with garish colours and hard outlines. Don’t get us wrong; this HDR art option can sometimes prove effective, particularly in drab conditions where you might not otherwise bother even pulling the Casio from your pocket.

There is a few seconds wait while the camera does its extra processing, but anyone selecting this effect isn’t going to be prioritising writing speed. Best shot selection gives a rapid fire sequence of images in "Normal" quality setting and a Panorama mode completes the shooting mode line-up. A helpful feature of the latter is that we were able to view our Panorama ‘building’ in a letterbox at the bottom of the screen as we were shooting it by panning from left to right holding down the shutter button.

Other features separating the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 from the herd are the stereo microphones located on the top plate, where they’re sufficiently away from the ‘business end’ to help avoid overtly picking up the user’s finger movements. Plus there's a dedicated high-speed shooting button - a result of the Casio unusually deploying dual processing circuits - where a smart auto option might otherwise be on a rival, such as Panasonic’s Lumix series. Up to 40 shots-per-second at 10-megapixels isn’t bad at all, but high-speed capture isn’t available in every mode: notably not in premium auto.

Video is easy

As is increasingly the case, on even the humblest of digital stills compacts, top right of the backplate we find a dedicated video record button. Give this a thumb press and no matter what stills shooting mode is currently selected on the dial - video being notably absent- filming will commence. Should a stills opportunity present itself whilst 1920x1080 pixels video is being recorded the shot can be taken, but resolution is reduced down to a still acceptable 10-megapixels.

This being a Casio, slightly more is eeked out of the video mode than on competing brands, namely the ability to create slow motion footage by shooting at ridiculously high frame rates. On the ZR100 we have the ability to stretch up to 1000 frames per second (fps), opt for 480 fps or 240fps. It goes without saying that resolution drops in these modes also and so they should be viewed as fun extras rather than more ‘professional’ features.

However we did enjoy the final video option, which is the ability to vary shooting speed between 30fps (normal capture speed) and 240fps mid flow, so users can slow down portions of a sequence rather than shooting the whole thing at a pre-set speed. Though you can’t alter framing once you’ve begun recording, thankfully the full extent of the optical zoom can otherwise be accessed when recording ‘normal’ 30fps video as it can when framing up a still. Though its mechanical adjustments are noticeably slower, which not only has the effect of partly covering up its low mechanical buzz but also avoiding jarringly fast jumps. Should you want to hook the camera directly up to a flat panel TV for replaying HD video or photo slideshows, HDMI output and a separate joint AV/USB 2.0 port are hidden under a sturdy side flap. As usual there’s no HDMI cable in the box.

With separate image capture and playback buttons at the back, preferable to one of those annoying switches for otherwise swapping between them, the user has the advantage with the EX-ZR100 of being able to immediately jump back to capture mode in the midst of reviewing shots with a mere half press of the shutter release button. This is much more intuitive, and means you can leave a forefinger hovering over the shutter release as the thumb of your right hand operates the playback button.

In terms of said image quality, like most point and shoots this Casio suffers from visible pixel fringing between areas of high contrast – dark branches of a tree set against bright, blue skies for example - and this familiarly appears as a purplish halo effect around the outline of an object. Although, as noted earlier, we did get occasional soft results when shooting at maximum telephoto, for general use the quality is more than acceptable, with bright colours that just stay the right side of natural and flattering skin tones. Plus, if you are faced with dull conditions or subjects, then there is the HDR art feature to fall back on, in order to ‘rescue’ the shot.

Verdict

The Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 misses out on some travel zoom features of cameras around the £300 mark, such as the built-in GPS facility of the Panasonic DMC-TZ0. That's handy for recording longitude and latitude data with each image file so intrepid types can retrace your travels via image data, but most regular users simply looking for a large-ish zoom in a small-ish camera won’t find this omission a deal breaker.

Indeed, being able to get that much closer to your subject without having to shuffle your feet forward is still chiefly the over-riding appeal of the ZR100, over and above the low-resolution slow motion video modes and artsy HDR stills. Like most cameras of its ilk you will get soft shots and visible wobble if attempting handheld images at the telephoto end of the zoom, but the Casio is capable of presenting bright and colourful results. Though there is little that’s all that exciting or a technical revolution here, if you do manage to pick up the EX-ZR100 for under £200 there is equally little chance you will be disappointed.