The Fuji FinePix F31d is legendary among serious photographers for its superior low-light performance, something that set it apart from its peers when it first debuted. Poor low-light performance is a common frustration for photographers, one that we see time and again in our Q&A section here on Digital Camera HQ. Cameras need light; when light is scarce, cameras aren't happy. Still, people desire (nay, require) that their cameras attempt to defy physics and render their dark scenes with accuracy and vivacity.
The Fuji FinePix F200 EXR is an attempt to recapture the low-light glory of the F31d and the F30, in a camera that everyday, casual users could feel comfortable with. It has a robust automatic mode (including intelligent auto), as well as full manual controls. The "EXR" in the camera's model name refers to the camera's CCD sensor, which can be set in three different "EXR" modes that prioritize different aspects of your scene. The F200 EXR strives for versatility. Whether such versatility is implemented successfully is not as clear. Ultimately, the F200 seems to lean more in the direction of a middling point-and-shoot than a camera with real power behind it.
The F200 EXR is a ultracompact camera, though a little thicker and weightier than comparable models from other manufacturers. The F200 feels dense. It's encased in a sleek, black plastic body that flares out slightly at the edges, so the camera is not entirely square, but rather adorned by subtle concave curves on its top and bottom.
The F200 has a large, 3.0-inch LCD display that is vivid and easy to use. There is a rather annoying issue with the LCD, however. Occasionally, the LCD display will flicker after a photo is taken. It will turn itself completely off and then "reboot," which takes a few seconds. It's a very unusual habit of the F200, and presented itself more than a few times during my test shots, though I could not specifically pinpoint what was causing it.
The 5x optical zoom lens provides good coverage, but presented another annoying idiosyncrasy. The lens motor had difficulty keeping up with the zoom control. I would retract the lens and it would stutter, drawing back dramatically and then shooting forward to reach the correct extension. It made it difficult to judge whether the camera was really responding to my input accurately, and was far more herky-jerky than I've seen on other compact cameras.
Overall, the design of the F200 is simple and straightforward. Everything is where you'd expect it, with few real innovations or curveballs. The button layout is clear and comprehensible, neither too big or too small. I will say that the menu interface is rather clunky and, frankly, ugly, looking like it was designed on a Commodore 64, with blocky text and low-resolution graphics.
Simple interactions with the camera are needlessly complicated, for instance, to switch from shooting mode to preview mode, one presses the "Preview" button. To switch back to shooting mode, one must press the shutter button. Why not just make the preview button do both jobs? When you do press the preview button again, instead of bringing you back to shooting mode, a warning is displayed, telling the user they must press the shutter button. So clearly they anticipated this mistake; Fuji should have just made it toggle back and forth instead of forcing people to hunt around for counterintuitive paths to the various modes.
The camera's marquee feature is its EXR mode, which is actually separated into four different modes. The first, EXR Auto, is an intelligent auto that automatically shifts the camera's scene mode to properly fit the environment. This is a newly popular feature on many point-and-shoot cameras. The remaining three EXR modes adjust the sensitivity of the CCD. EXR HR, or Resolution Priority, is "suitable for shooting subject in detail." EXR SN, or High ISO & Low Noise, is "suitable for taking clear shots with minimal noise." EXR DR, or Dynamic Range Priority, "prevents washout and captures tonality in bright scenes."
HR: Resolution Priority
The EXR HR mode, or Resolution Priority, is meant to provide "crisp, clear shots," according to the user manual, and claims to accomplish this by "deploying all 12 million pixels." That's not a very deep explanation of what EXR HR does. Doesn't it always deploy all 12 million pixels, anyway? Unfortunately, the resulting images don't do much to elaborate. Compare the EXR HR photo on the left to the photos taken in EXR Auto in the right-hand sidebar. The differences (if there are any) are minimal. It's difficult to see what all the fuss is about.
Presumably, the EXR HR is making use of a complicated re-arrangement of how the camera interprets the information that hits its sensor. When not in EXR mode, high-resolution shots are processed as they would be in any other camera. The alleged advantages of Fuji's new EXR mode, though perhaps substantial from a technical perspective, are not immediately obvious in the final photos.
SN: High ISO & Low Noise
The set of photos above show the same scene taken at the four available ISO settings, in regular automatic mode, and a fifth shot taken in EXR SN mode, which is supposed to reduce noise in low-light scenes. The EXR SN mode again uses a special arrangement of pixels and color processing that differentiates it from traditional digital photo processing. The EXR SN photograph is taken at an ISO of 1600, so it is best to compare it to the traditional auto ISO 1600 photograph.
In a direct comparison between EXR SN and the regular ISO 1600 photograph, a reduction of noise is noted, though noise is not substantially eliminated. The EXR SN photo appears smoother and less grainy, but it's still a noisy shot. The ISO 3200 photograph actually compares favorably to the EXR SN mode, showing that the F200 is a fairly capable low-light shooter. Again, the value of EXR mode is perhaps more apparent from a technical perspective than in the final photo.
DR: D-Range Priority
EXR DR, or D-Range (Dynamic Range) Priority attempts to compensate for brightly lit scenes by taking two six-megapixel photos simultaneously, instead of a single 12-megapixel photo. The camera then combines the two six megapixel exposures into a single photo, a low-rent version of HDR (high-dynamic range) photography.
The two photos on the left were taken of the same scene, one using EXR DR, the other in traditional auto mode. The EXR DR photo does seem to have some minor effect, but it is not very dramatic.
In the end, the much promoted EXR features were generally underwhelming. While the technological aspect of the EXR sensor is surely important, the final results seen in the test photos did not impress enough to justify the camera's above-average price tag. That, coupled with the irritations and annoyances present in the camera's core features like the LCD display and zoom motor, make it difficult to recommend the Fuji F200 EXR, especially when other cameras with comparable specifications offer clearer, more satisfying photos at much lower prices.