Left in the dark?
In the constantly shifting camera market, 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.
Now Fuji has decided that they can offer it all and have built their Fuji F200EXR around a new 'Super CCD EXR' sensor which has 12 million pixels and still works in the dark. They claim the sensor offers 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 - implying that the alleged holy trinity aren't 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 Fuji F200EXR appears to be twin brother to the F100. Outwardly very similar they differ only in screen size - the F200 is 0.3" larger at 3" and separates some controls onto an extra dial. You would be hard pushed to separate them in a line up as those changes affect only the rear panel. Apart from the USB and battery doors the body is metal clad and although the buttons are plastic, there aren't many of them as the screen occupies most of the back panel. I got to play with a black Fuji F200 but polished stainless steel is available. It's not wafer thin but it's easy to stow in a pocket until the three section lens is powered up. The top and bottom surfaces are slightly concave to make it easy to hold and certainly succeed in adding a little style!
The matching Fuji WP-FXF200 dive housing is equally pleasant to play with. 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 didn't collect 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 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!
Colour issues & Macro aggro
We pocketed the Fuji F200 for a day in the Abbey gardens on Tresco and were in for a bit of a surprise. Mixed general scenes were sharp and attractive but close up it appeared to allow red, and to a lesser extent blue, to overload, rendering deeply coloured areas short of texture. 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.
Amongst the flowers it became apparent that while wide-angle macro performance is fine down to 3cm, when you zoom in it can't focus much less than half a metre away. A few cameras nobly maintain the minimum possible distance at each stage of zoom but the Fuji, like many, makes a sudden step up. You hit the happiest medium at around 1/3 zoom.
On a surface day out the F200 lasted for 206 shots, including lots of fiddling with menus and plenty of flash use. That's approximately 250 shots for a normal user, easily lasting for two 50 minute dives. Dive usage is quite different from land as the camera and consequently the flash tends to be on almost permanently. Most impressively the Fuji F200 showed no signs of fatigue even towards 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.
Low light, contrast and dynamic range
Around a pair of castles on Tresco the Fuji F200 compact digital camera 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 but was a trick it seemed to rely on. The Fuji F200 compact digital camera certainly does deliver good low noise and low light performance however.
Brain free operation
The Fuji F200 boasts a whole heap of modes including a 'Manual' mode, most of which are generic to almost all consumer cameras now; sports, flowers, night, portrait etc. but the limits are quite prescriptive. 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. Maybe there is a setting to remove the training wheels but I couldn't find it.
The Fuji F200 EXR digital camera's piece de resistance is its eponymous EXR mode which will try to sort out your life completely. It sets to work adjusting itself continuously which may hammer the battery life, the same way continuous auto focus does. Underwater waiting for the camera to shuffle around was a bit of a non starter - so it was ignored there. On a 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 Fuji F200EXR does not encourage interference.
Dive dive dive
In searching for the best initial setting for use underwater I was torn between Program and the 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 much more limited.
The Fuji F200EXR is 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 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.
The fit and finish of the camera is excellent and the controls are crisp, if small. To add spice most of the controls are concave and need the precision of a finger nail to operate. 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 close together, the dial remains small and in thick gloves with cold hands it can be quite tricky.
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 it's a bit of a Christmas cracker prize, the unit is actually metal cased and 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 quite a 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. 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 to. This seems to add another control for the sake of it - the slider for the pre-flash sync selection is 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. 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.
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 small and quite tricky 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 clear water only.
As a camera for the well heeled surface traveller the Fuji F200EXR won't disappoint. It is fast and, at a high level, responsive and nice to use. I'd happily recommend it for a technophobe who has a penchant for museums, sunsets and indoor events. 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 so Fuji have guessed right and the F200EXR is the best tool they could have for their snatched photos of their busy lives. I guess I didn't find the F200 to my taste but spoke to another diver who waxed lyrical about hers; the Fuji's strengths played to all her needs.
Underwater the case is excellent, aside from the small buttons, and the Fuji 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.
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 light, poor macro performance, complex menus, small buttons.
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 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.
8/10 build quality
7/10 image quality
This review and all images within it are copyright of Wex Photographic Ltd and Rob Spray 2009. www.1townhouses.co.ukBack to top