(Pocket-lint) - Superzooms are flying off the shelves of late. There have been plenty of new models in the past couple of years and, crucially, they’ve got a whole lot better than they used to be.
The Fujifilm FinePix HS30EXR packs in a far-reaching 24-720mm f/2.8-5.6 (equivalent) lens, a 16-megapixel 1/2in CMOS sensor with image stabilisation and a brand new electronic viewfinder to complement the rear LCD screen.
Initial news reports portrayed the HS30EXR as a subtle reworking of last year’s HS20 model. But, as we’ve come to learn, there’s more to it than first meets the eye.
Try shooting at 720mm (or another long focal length) and it’ll quickly be apparent that it requires a steady hand. More-seasoned photographers will know the advantages of a viewfinder – not only does it offer a great way to compose images, but the added support from your own body will assist in steadying the frame.
So here’s the thing: electronic viewfinders in superzoom cameras have been quite awful. Last year’s HS20 had an EVF akin to an old TV at the end of a blackened hallway. Good job then that the HS30EXR really ups the ante here.
The 0.26-inch, 920k-dot LCD panel is more than four times more resolute and a little larger than its predecessor. It’s not perfect, and it’s still quite small, but there’s nothing else in this class that betters it. You’ll need to plump for the pricier Fujifilm X-S1 if that’s a potential issue.
While the HS20 relied on bog-standard AA batteries for power, the HS30EXR also includes a rechargeable Li-ion battery. A small change, but one that makes a big difference and is in line with what competitor cameras have on offer.
To complement the viewfinder there’s a 3-inch, 460k-dot LCD screen on the rear. It’s mounted on a tilt-angle bracket to enable vertical movement into positions to assist with overhead or low-level angles. Bright sunlight can make composition tricky - as with most compact cameras - but that’s why the viewfinder can prove to be such significant use.
Full manual controls are available on the main mode dial, as are panorama, custom and auto modes. A one-touch button on the rear of the camera quick-activates the 1080p30 HD movie mode – clips are processed into MOV files for immediate use, both on or off the camera, no processing required.
Elsewhere within the options it's possible to switch on burst shooting. An eight frames per second burst is possible, though this is limited to taking five frames in practice.
Not only can the lens nab far-off subjects, the super macro mode works up to 1cm away from the subject (at 24mm only) which is perfect for grabbing dramatic close-ups. The wide-angle nature may make such shots look rather distorted, however, but the usual Macro mode is still able to focus reasonably close to subjects at other focal lengths.
How does it perform?
The first thing that’s noticeable about the HS30 is that the zoom is controlled by twisting the lens barrel itself. It’s rather like using a DSLR lens, and unlike other superzoom cameras on the market. It’s a cool feature and is backed up by a secondary ring for manual focus adjustment. The lens’s exterior has a prominent rubberised texture that makes holding the camera extra secure in the hand and the deep, protruding grip to the right on the camera is ample.
Put the camera to work and its autofocus is responsive, though less so as the zoom extends. Continuous autofocus, too, isn’t up to scratch for subjects moving at a middling-to-fast pace, so don’t expect to be snapping racing cars or other speedy subjects. It just won’t happen. Single autofocus delivers when it counts, but is plagued by a "cut out" issue. At the longer focal lengths where the image preview is showing in real time, a half press of the shutter to activate autofocus will cause the preview to "pause" for a brief moment. In that period of time it’s likely your subject may have wandered out of frame. This was an ongoing issue with the HS20 and one that the HS30 hasn’t addressed.
The camera’s autofocus options are extensive, though. Select from a 49-area multi, single centre-point, select a particular focus area from around the screen. Or you can pick "tracking" to lock-on to a subject and update focus accordingly. The tracking mode works well in conjunction with face detection, whereby the camera identifies faces in a scene and signifies it’s done so with a small green box around the face(s).
Compared to the competition the HS30EXR is on par with what else is out there. It’s not as fast as the Panasonic FZ150, but then the Fujifilm offers a longer focal range and variety of different features that lean in its favour.
The 16-megapixel 1/2in-size CMOS sensor can capture images at ISO 100 through to ISO 3200. Although ISO 6400-12,800 are listed, these are only available at 8MP and 4MP respectively.
Shoot at ISO 100-200 and shots are decent, full of colour and detail. But when zooming in and making the most of the 720mm (equiv.) zoom it’s less likely that low ISO settings will be used. First of all a faster shutter speed will be required to keep the shot steady, but with an f/5.6 limitation at the top end of the zoom the only way to get the settings for a balanced, sharp exposure will require the ISO sensitivity to be cranked up, which is where the HS30EXR loses its footing a little.
Although ISO 400 is reasonable, the ISO 800-3200 settings aggressively counteract image noise to the point that shots lack the crisp, sharp detail that you’ll want.
That’s not to say shots are bad, they’re not, but – and this is "realistic expectations time" – a superzoom just isn’t going to replace a larger-sensor camera, such as a DSLR. To be fair to Fujifilm, this is an across-the-board issue and the whole point of superzoom cameras is to offer a lot of features and a big zoom in an affordable price. That last part, where money comes into play, is where compromises begin to happen.
All things considered the HS30EXR offers good image quality for the price. Its sensor is a little larger than those found in most 16MP compact cameras, and image quality is comparable for the most part.
However, the HS30EXR does have a bit of extra imaging magic: flip the mode dial to the EXR mode and the camera will automatically select between shooting at full resolution (16MP) or by "halving" the resolution to 8MP by using two sensor-level pixels to one image-level pixel. This can offer either low noise or high dynamic range capture – and the results are superior to their full resolution equivalents.
Plus there’s also raw file capture. A rare but desirable mode where compact cameras are concerned, Raw files are like a "digital negative" with bags more information than the equivalent JPEG. Load up the provided Silkypix software on a computer and it’s easy to manipulate exposure, white balance and all manner of other settings.
What at first may appear nothing more than a subtle upgrade of the Fujifilm HS20 is a far superior bit of kit. The HS30EXR’s new viewfinder is best in class, the addition of a rechargeable Li-ion battery is very welcome, and small (but important) performance tweaks over its predecessor make all the difference.
The camera’s well-designed, easy to use and, for the most part, responsive in use too. Those in the market for a superzoom will want to give this model serious consideration.
However it’s not without fault. Image quality is the very same as the previous HS20 model, which is good but not great for all scenarios. Mid-high ISO settings lack the biting detail that’s necessary when shooting at longer focal lengths or in dim light. Don’t be fooled, the HS30EXR isn’t a DSLR replacement, but then it’s not trying to be. Within the context of the superzoom family it does a decent job across the board, and it’s not overpriced either. Impressive, but just a few steps shy of "super".