(Pocket-lint) - Big zoom cameras are on a headstrong charge to cram as versatile a zoom range as possible into the latest models, as the Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR's 24-1000mm equivalent zoom is more than testament to.
This 42x optical zoom may be the first time we've seen such a lens from Fujifilm, but it's not the first time we've seen such an extensive range in a bridge camera - the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS's 24-1200mm equivalent has already smashed that figure.
The HS50EXR is Fuji's latest bash at showing the world it's not on the back foot when it comes to superzoom cameras. This latest model lumps in optical image stabilisation that was lacking in its predecessors and also adds in a brand new 16-megapixel EXR-CMOS II sensor with a hybrid autofocus system to boot.
Extra tech comes at extra cost, however, and the £469 initial price makes the HS50EXR closer - if not more expensive - than its equivalent competitors. Is it worth the extra cash and can its new sensor bring a new image quality high to the superzoom market?
What else is new?
Design-wise there aren't huge cosmetic changes compared to the HS30EXR model despite the new and longer lens - but we think that's a good thing. We like that the lens is controlled manually just as before, much like a DSLR lens. A twist of the lens barrel extends to the zoom rather than using the more compact-camera-like zoom rocker of some competitor models. There's also a manual focus ring tucked behind the extendable lens barrel.
But there are clear differences compared to before, some of which may sound small but collectively add up to a far more advanced camera overall.
The HS50EXR's LCD screen is mounted on a vari-angle bracket which allows it to be rotated through any number of angles beyond its predecessors vertical-only tilt-angle bracket. There's also a resolution increase: now with 920k-dots compared to the 460k-dots of before. That 50 per cent jump in resolution does carry through into real world viewing too, and the vari-angle bracket is of genuine use too.
But with the new screen's bracket to the side of the body means there's no room for the usual array of buttons to the rear left, and therefore the HS50EXR does embody a new layout. To its side there's a focus type selector - with single, continuous and manual options - complete with centre function button which can be used to adjust focus point position or magnify the zoom when manual autofocus is selected.
A new "Q" button acts as a quick selection menu that brings up all manner of options in a grid formation on the LCD screen too. It's easy to hop about and adjust the likes of ISO, white balance, exposure type, and even more detailed settings such as image quality right down to individual noise reduction, tone, colour and sharpness levels.
So it's not just that stonkin' great lens, optical image stabilisation system and new sensor that's new: there are plenty of little extras tucked away into the HS50EXR that make it all the more shiny and attractive than its predecessors.
One thing that's always riled us about the Fujifilm HS-series is the way that at longer focal lengths the preview feedback "freezes" while the camera thinks its way through autofocus. It means at those longer focal lengths a half depression of the shutter can result in visual silence and the subject may have wandered off before there's the chance to shoot it. Finally the HS50EXR means that's no longer the case - it sees performance tweaks from the EXR-CMOS II sensor's implementation which means it's far easier to continue tracking a subject at those longer focal distances.
The camera's autofocus system is still fairly typical of a current superzoom camera despite the inclusion of sensor-level pixels for phase-detection autofocus on the new sensor. Think fast at the widest-angle setting and you're on the money, but such speed isn't maintained: it dips incrementally as the zoom extends. At the 1000mm setting, for example, you may find many conditions mean that the camera drifts into focus with a more casual lean on proceedings - it's not the near-instantaneous results at the 24mm equivalent - but it still delivers results in a decent time frame.
Although the HS50EXR may look a lot like a DSLR, don't mistake it for one. This is quite apparent with the autofocus system's layout and versatility: we're happy with the camera's response for this class, but it doesn't offer up multiple positioned focus points on the screen as per a DSLR for example.
That's not to say that there aren't a variety of focus option of course, and the HS50EXR does include a multi-area option, albeit one where the camera will automatically decide where to focus rather than the ability to group by area. Much the same can be said about the continuous autofocus mode which lacks the kind of pep to keep up with fast-moving subjects - it's reasonable, but unquestionably falters.
However we found the the combination of both centre point or the user-positionable area focus types to be more than sufficient to deal with the majority of shooting situations. It's the aforementioned side-positioned function button that makes it even quicker to make adjustments within this latest model and, considering that it is a superzoom camera and nothing more, it really does deliver.
Close-up focus is also a gem, as at its widest angle setting the macro mode means it's possible to get right up to the point a subject is almost touched by the lens while maintaining focus. This isn't sustainable as the zoom extends, but the HS50EXR is still capable of impressively close focus distances as the zoom extends. It's a definite high point that's made shooting blossoming trees a treat.
The camera's built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) is another decent slice of tech, even if it bares no improvements compared to the HS30EXR predecessor. The 920k-dot panel is just as resolute as the camera's rear LCD screen, which is about as good as things get at this price point - only, now a little later in its life span, the higher-end Fujifilm X-S1 does offer a better EVF option alongside a larger sensor size at a similar-to-cheaper price point. That, at least to some degree, does throw the HS50EXR's high price point into some confusion, even if the X-S1 can't match up to the extensive zoom equivalent.
READ: Fujifilm X-S1 review
It's the HS50EXR's mega lens that's among one of the biggest reasons to consider the camera above other superzooms. But it's all just a bit plasticky. Using the manual focus ring doesn't deliver as silky smooth a user experience as we'd like, but we love the presence of the ring-driven focus. If the camera wasn't on the approach to the £500 price point this would be less of a criticism.
Still, for the money, there's plenty of extra tech packed in here. The inclusion of optical image stabilisation is something we've been banging on about for an age and the HS50EXR finally invests in such tech. Previously it was sensor-based which meant no advantage to what was seen in preview - a real bum note when zooming in to those high triple figures. In the HS50EXR it's an essential that works well, though at a 1000mm equivalent you'll need a steady hand and firm hold to make the best of it.
Elsewhere there are only a couple of foibles that grind our gears: the EVF on/off sensitivity is hyper which can cause excessive screen cut ins and outs when a stray finger gets in the way during button presses; and the camera goes into an irretrievable hibernation mode when left on for too long - it'll need a full off and on motion to fire it back up rather than a quick press of the shutter.
Superzoom image quality is one of those unavoidable areas of compromises. And that's the case whichever camera happens to be on the table. The sheer fact that a small-bodied camera such as the HS50EXR can deliver a 24-1000mm equivalent zoom range is a minor miracle in itself, but it means a variety of limiting optical factors that, by and large, affect the widest-angle and longest-zoom output to some degree.
Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR - 1000mm equivalent sample image
Keeping the physical size down also often means a balance between sensor size and available aperture values. In the case of the HS50EXR that means a 1/2-inch sensor - a teeny bit larger than that found in most average compact cameras - coupled with an f/2.8-5.6 maximum aperture range is on show. That's pretty good going: it means f/2.8 can be used at the widest-angle 24mm setting, decreasing to f/5.6 at the longest 1000mm equivalent, which means two stops less light are available between the widest and longest settings.
Fujifilm does have some "secret" tech up its sleeve though: the latest EXR-CMOS II sensor and EXR processor II make for the the sequel but, you know, one of those sequels that's genuinely better than before.
Fuji's not pushed the resolution, but instead focused on the EXR Auto modes which can utilise the sensor in different ways depending on the shooting conditions. This breaks down into three outcomes: 16-megapixel high resolution which uses individual sensor pixels; wide dynamic range which snaps two pictures to output as a single 8MP image with better shadow and highlight detail in the one image; and high sensitivity low noise mode which uses neighbouring pixels to deliver more data to offset against image noise for a cleaner 8MP output image.
Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR - 24mm equivalent sample image
For the most part these options work well, although when the camera requests a steady hold is maintained as it snaps away multiple images it's not uncommon for the resulting image to lack any critical sharpness whatsoever. But you needn't use EXR if you don't want to - and, indeed, can't if you want to capture raw files - as there are all the usual manual controls on the mode dial as well as the EXR setting too.
Image quality itself is good but, again, don't expect DSLR-rivalling results. The thing that holds the HS50EXR back from greater things is just how well its top competitor, the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, manages to perform.
With the HX50EXR the 1/2-inch sensor can capture images from ISO 100 through to ISO 3200, with half-resolution ISO 6400-12,800 options also available.
Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR - ISO 160 sample image (100 per cent crop)
We found that the lowest sensitivity shots were full of detail and colour throughout much of the range, including plenty of detail in close-up flower shots that we took. There's some fall-off in sharpness towards the longer end of the zoom, but that's the be expected from such a camera.
However, the JPEG files do produce occasionally "mottled" results from around ISO 400 and above where fine details lack. Beyond this results fairly quickly dive into noisy results from ISO 1600 and above. However, even some colourful ISO 800 shots did come out looking decent at full resolution in our tests.
Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR - ISO 800 sample image
The HS50EXR is definitely a step forward in image quality terms compared to its predecessors, but less of a leap compared to some of the outsider competition, in our view. Have realistic expectations and that's impressive overall: up to to the level of the Panasonic Lumix FZ200, albeit minus the maximum f/2.8 aperture throughout.
Of all issues the biggest qualm that we have is slight overexposure, which isn't uncommon in a variety of shooting situations irrelevant of metering type.
Movie mode also sees a push forward - at 50fps or 60fps it's now able to resolve double the frames per second compared to the HS30EXR. An obvious improvement.
The Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR represents a definite step forward for the series, at times pushing towards a giant leap. The positives are clear: there's a more responsive autofocus system than before that's now always engaged even at the longest of focal lengths, alongside improved image quality and the eminently usable design.
The only thing that's really holding this latest superzoom back is what else is out there in the market: the likes of the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS stills wins on the image quality front, while the Panasonic Lumix FZ200, despite its shorter zoom capacity, has a constant f/2.8 aperture throughout its range. The Fujifilm FinePix HS50EXR does muster f/2.8 at the widest-angle setting and offers up a 1000mm equivalent, but at its £469 price point it's not got that single trump card nor the undercutting value to be deemed as the best of the bunch. Even the higher-spec Fujifilm X-S1 is more affordable at that price and that's not the plasticky fare of the HS50EXR.
We like the FinePix HS50EXR a lot: it's an accomplished superzoom that's put Fujifilm right back up there and in the mix and shown just what this brand can do. It can hold its head up side by side with the levels of its nearest competitors, it just ought to be a touch more cost effective by comparison.