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UK Diving
Tropical
Temperate Back to index  Trip info
(on its way)


Fuji F200EXR
clever sensor, cute package
On land and underwater: Using the WP-FXF200 housing, SS-120N Slave strobe and UW-120N Strobe housing

Camera supplied by Fujifilm and reviewed for Warehouse Express
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Left in the dark?

In the constantly shifting camera market there's sometimes a dividend to be gained from ploughing a different furrow. Most brands have tried to establish a USP (unique selling point) to claim a niche for themselves and for Fuji it is the dark. When low light performance was the bane of digital photography they built a reputation for clever solutions and held a brave resolve in sticking to larger, lower resolution sensors rather than rushing into the unproductive megapixel race a few years back. This served a well informed area of the market with cameras which by all accounts gave great results but lacked the finesse of competing products when it came to niceties like user interfaces.

Now the ex-champions of conservative pixel counts have decided that they can offer it all and have built their new F200 around a new 'Super CCD EXR' sensor which has 12 million pixels and still works in the dark. They claim the sensor can offer high resolution, low noise and capture highlights. Then they muddy this by saying that it can switch between these three modes on the chip itself – thus implying that the alleged holy trinity aren't really all available at the same time. As a photographer I'm happy with good pictures so we'll have to see whether the hype stacks up.

In the hand

The F200 has followed the F100 and appears to be its twin brother. Outwardly very similar they differ in screen size – the F200 is .3” larger at 3” and separates some controls onto an extra dial. Otherwise you would be hard pushed to separate them in a line up as those changes affect only the rear panel. The F200 is the kind of solid, well built trinket which anyone would welcome. Apart from the USB and battery doors the body is metal clad. Although the buttons are plastic, there aren't many of them as the screen occupies most of the back panel. It's not wafer thin but is easy to stow in a pocket until the 3 section lens is powered up. I got to play with a black F200 but plain polished stainless steel is available. The top and bottom surfaces are slightly concave which is supposed to make it easy to hold and certainly succeeds in adding a little style to the oblong profile.

The matching WP-FXF200 dive housing is equally pleasant to play with too. Reassuringly rigid and devoid of vulnerable protrusions it should survive life on board even UK dive boats and so should be easy to keep safe in the tropics where things are more genteel. The most notable feature of the case is the clever way it includes two 'o' ring seals on the back door, a unique feature in a case this size. It's a very neat arrangement which has a piston type 'o' ring on the door – like Canon cases do – and a gasket 'o' ring inside – the style that Olympus prefer. Either should be enough and they're both well screened from falling silt within a deep groove so they don't need cleaning all the time. Throughout a week of use the 'o'-rings never collected the slightest speck of dirt. This is a very well designed sealing system which makes the set ideal for a school set up where maintenance and care might be 'variable'.

The only feature which seems absent from an otherwise well thought out little case is a shutter lever. A simple direct button does work but underwater it can be very difficult to feel for the half pressed position when your hands are cold, wet and gloved. The shutter button itself is a little wobbly as it has to 'reach' across under the zoom control. This kind of wobble can wear a sealing 'o' ring faster than normal and since I hope you'll be using the shutter button an awful lot you had better keep an eye on it!

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Colour issues

The stock in trade of a slick compact is saving memories on a trip out, so we pocketed the F200 for a day round the Abbey gardens on Tresco and were in for a bit of a surprise. Mixed general scenes were sharp and attractive but significant areas of red or orange were somewhat overcooked. Far from being sophisticated the F200 is a bit of a raver and returned some lurid versions of the brighter exotic plants which were way outside the realms of normal white balance latitude. Especially close up it appeared to allow red, and to a lesser extent blue, to overload, rendering deeply coloured areas posterised and short of texture. At first I thought that it was simply poor flash control at close quarters but some shots of a chicken's comb at well over a metre away were suspect too. Of course I'm being forensic to review the camera, most normal people wouldn't 'pixel peep' like this, so it may never bother them.


Macro aggro

Another thing which became apparent amongst the flowers was that while the macro performance is good on paper, down to 3cm, as soon as you zoom in that's long forgotten. By the time you are fully zoomed in it can't focus much less than half a metre away. Some cameras nobly maintain the minimum possible distance at each stage of zoom but the Fuji, like many, makes a sudden step up. This severely limits what you can do close up, but it's not a unique failing. You hit the happiest medium at around 1/3 zoom but basically you have to get closer for more magnification so there's hardly any point zooming in. It's simply not a great macro lens though the results are very sharp, there's nothing wrong with the quality of the optics.

Battery life

The battery in the F200 is pretty small, barely larger than those in some of the smallest cameras so it's no surprise that it has limited life. On a surface day out the F200 lasted for 206 shots, including lots of fiddling with menus and plenty of flash use. That might translate into approaching 250 shots for a careful, normal user. It's far from spectacular but easily lasted for two 50 minute dives. Dive usage is quite different from land as the camera tends to be on almost permanently and flash is often used all the time – but there is a gap of 2-3 hours to recover between dives. Most impressively the F200 showed no signs of fatigue even toward the end of the second dive and the flash was still cycling impressively fast – easily fast enough to cope with moving from shot to shot every few seconds.

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Low light, contrast and dynamic range

Around a pair of castles on Tresco the F200 made a great attempt at some very difficult interiors, dark walls with bright exterior views through windows and sullen skies. Often it was holding detail in deep shadow we hadn't seen with our eyes, whilst also coping with bright areas. To do this it rarely dropped below ISO200 which didn't appear to compromise quality too much but was a trick it seemed to rely on a lot and many scenes which appeared quite unremarkable were shot at elevated speed too. This resulted in a strange mixture of surprise and disappointment where chance shots taken to see what would happen were really quite good and easy shots taken to keep seemed rather lifeless. Perhaps controlling the highlights and capturing the shadow is all very well when required but like the child who can only play one tune on the recorder the F200 really needs to learn when to try something different.

The F200 certainly does have good low noise and good low light performance but I'm not sure it should be resorting to raising 'film' speed whilst still losing light by increasing shutter speed and closing the aperture way beyond what is required. If the ISO100 performance isn't better than the ISO200 and 400 performance then why is it included? A curious user (i.e. me) might suspect something... is this simply required because a limited choice of lens aperture needs ISO to be the main mechanism for light control?


Brain free operation

The F200 boasts a whole heap of modes... including a 'Manual' mode which is really very nominal – the aperture can be set only fully open or closed. That's 3.3 or 9 at wide angle and 5.1 or 14 zoomed in – absolutely no use for finely balancing strobe and ambient light. A three stop step (1/8 or 8x as much light) just isn't a fine adjustment. Clearly the emphasis is not on independent creativity, but it encourages safely guided fun through its various scene modes.

Most of the modes are generic to almost all consumer cameras now... sports, flowers, night, portrait etc. but the limits are some of the most prescriptive I have come across. In sports mode you aren't allowed to engage macro, so you can't put two and two together and decide that it might be the mode to capture fast moving small animals. In flower mode you can't engage flash so the night garden is off limits. Why this level of obstruction is required I really don't know. Maybe there is a setting to remove the training wheels but I simply couldn't find it.

The F200's piece de resistance is its eponymous EXR mode which is such a full auto that it will try to sort out your life completely. Apparently this is a full time job and it sets to work adjusting itself continuously even when set down on a table pointing at a static scene. I'd imagine this would hammer the battery life, the same way continuous auto focus does. It's also very annoying to have a camera that rattles and clicks as though it is operated by clockwork. If the results speak for themselves perhaps this could be forgiven but underwater waiting for the camera to shuffle around was a bit of a non starter – so it was ignored there. On rare sunny day I turned the dial, which is very easy to spin as you pick it up, to EXR and watched it cope with extreme highlight and deep shadow around a concrete quay and glittering sea. Shooting into the sun or shadow the camera switched modes to keep exposure under control under real duress. This was a real tour de force of the EXR sensor, holding onto a blazing sky behind a badly lit smiling face. Boats which were silhouetted in the bay weren't flat black or eroded by burnt out highlights. A really impressive performance – great dynamic range, highlight control and clean shadows with detail. This makes it a great bet for days on the beach and stunning sunsets but on its own terms, the F200 does not encourage interference.

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Dive dive dive

In searching for the best initial setting for use underwater I was torn between Program and, to my horror, the Noddy Underwater mode. There's not much to choose really but if you do slide around to P you can select goodies like centre focus, spot metering and exposure compensation. In Underwater mode control is severely limited – you can go to the ISO item in the menu just to discover you can't change it!

The F200 is also impressively fast for a compact. Focus snaps in predictably and accurately. Underwater the yellow focus confirmation generally means sharp results, which is good as it's hard to hold half pressed. This makes it very useful as a note taking camera, you can move from subject to subject almost as fast as you can find them – it has no trouble having the flash ready for the next shot.

In general the best aspect of the camera is its build. The fit and finish is excellent and the controls are pretty crisp – but they are also very small. To add spice most of the controls are also concave and need the precision of a finger nail to operate. I have small fairly hands and even the tip of my index finger can cover the four way pad and menu button entirely. I'm not sure what someone with big banana fingers would make of it! In the dive case this isn't so much of a problem but the buttons are still very close together, the dial remains small and in thick gloves with cold hands using it is harder than it really needs to be.


The Strobe

The cute little slave flash which can be bought as a set with the Fuji underwater models is another idiosyncratic beast. It is small in its housing and truly tiny in the flesh. Although its minute size gives the impression that it's a bit of a Christmas cracker prize the unit is actually metal cased and surprisingly well made. That's relative praise as no one could really expect a 100 slave strobe (underwater a flash is called a strobe!) to be made well but it's not bad for the price. Considering the mount, a flexible arm and tray, are thrown in for just 45 more it's a really neat, complete package.

Unsurprisingly it has few controls, and some of those show that it's a very generic piece of gear. For example it can be set to fire with the 1st, 2nd or 3rd flash from a camera – very versatile. Many digital compacts use a pre-flash to help judge scene exposure so any slave needs to ignore it. Syncing with the 2nd flash suits the Fuji and with the 1st might suit a true manual mode - I'm not sure which models would use 3. As well as setting to sync with the Fuji, it can also be set to 'Auto' or 'Off but On' – this second setting would be to stop it firing when you didn't want it but would rather not turn it off. This seems to add another control for the sake of it – the slider for the pre-flash sync selection is the real  power switch.

The 'Auto' setting may give some people the wrong impression. This unit is a simple slave which is fired at a preset power whenever the camera flashes. You can select one of three power settings - amounting to flat out, minimum and half way between. Perhaps there's a around a stop between them. The strobe is simply fired at your choice of power in time with whatever the camera does. In any automated mode it will simply add light to the scene – no bad thing, but with no regard to what that scene is. This is a manual flash and asks you to judge by trial and error how much light to add. If you need less light than the minimum setting there is a choice of diffusers. These fiddly sheets fit in a fiddly panel which clips onto the front of the unit. I can't see this lasting long under any kind of duress and with more than the mildest diffuser plate in I'd be surprised if the strobe was more powerful than the built in flash... in which case the job of adding more light won't go too well.

Even though it only holds a pair of AAA batteries the strobe is easily able to fire full power as fast as the camera can cycle its own flash – the green ready light never goes off – so it's very well matched in that regard. The controls on the unit need a dig with a finger nail and those on the 60m rated housing are very small and hard to use with gloves.

The biggest weakness of the system, as supplied, is that there is no way of triggering the flash without the internal flash lighting the scene. This kind of triggering relies on enough light being reflected back from the scene. So it's not 100% reliable and on top of that it doesn't reduce backscatter much either. The camera has to fire anyway, perhaps at a slightly reduced level as the strobe is supplementing it, but in murky waters this is going to be almost pointless. If an optical fibre was supplied to trigger the unit and a plate supplied to blank the camera flash this would be a viable budget system. Even then you would be using the system manually, without the benefit of the camera's various clever systems, but it would at least significantly cut back scatter. The diffuser holder does have ports for a fibre but the camera does not, there are simple ways to do it so that's not much of an obstacle. As it stands it is suitable for very clear water only.


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Conclusion:

As a camera for the well heeled surface traveller the F200 won't disappoint for general use. It is fast and, at a high level, responsive and nice to use. Unfortunately digging deeper isn't rewarded as most of the magic is only available in automated modes and trying to go your own way won't get much better results.

The F200 EXR still needs some polish to be an unreserved success. It looks and feels accomplished but has odd lapses – the 2 position aperture for example – and it really, really wants to interfere. I'd happily recommend it for a technophobe who has a penchant for museums, sunsets and indoor events. It makes a good fist of that most difficult of roles - the camera that can give good results within seconds of being picked up by a novice. The problem may be that few novices are demanding enough to notice the subtle benefits which the F200 can offer whilst the more experienced may find it frustrating. I have to concede that I am a camera nerd and maybe these days a lot of people don't have the time to learn how to work all their toys and Fuji have guessed right and the F200EXR is the best tool they could have for their snatched photos of their busy lives.

Underwater the case is excellent, aside from the small buttons, and the F200 remains easy to use. Its tendency to elevate film speed even under close up flash can be overcome in Program mode and it is fast and fun if you don't need to do much macro work. The strobe set isn't ideal for the UK and I'd suggest this package for tropical divers only as our home waters really need more advanced gear. Strobes are a complicated area and this is very basic, perhaps worth considering as a cheap taster before you take the plunge and buy a more capable system.

On land

Pros: Fast, well built, strong totally auto camera work for a normal user, good in low light, low noise at high ISO. Retains highlights tremendously well.

Cons: Over enthusiastic reds in strong or flash light, poor macro performance in practice, complex menus, interfering scene modes, crippled 'Manual' mode, tiny buttons.

Underwater

Pros: Tough very secure and easy to maintain housing. Small and easy to use major functions. Accessory shoe for lights etc. Good value package with strobe.

Cons: Macro limited. Flash coverage uneven and flash control unreliable, controls too small for cold, gloved hands, no shutter lever. Boxed port limits additional lens options. No remote link for manual only strobe.


Camera supplied by Fujifilm and reviewed for Warehouse Express
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