Review: FujiFilm FinePix F900EXR

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If you’re reading this on CreativePro, chances are the iPhone has changed the way you take pictures. Even if you don't have an iPhone, the industrial designers at Apple have likely influenced the look and feel of your mobile phone, which probably takes remarkable photos. 

At some point I realized that I was only using my once beloved 35mm SLR Camera to shoot portfolio pictures of my art, while carrying an inferior compact 35mm camera only while traveling. Then, while writing a post on stitching seamless panoramas for CreativePro in 2003, I discovered a line of digital cameras that inspired me to start shooting photos again. That camera was about half the size of a 35mm, with manual aperture, speed, ISO, and white balance, with a built in 10x zoom, and (essential for me) SLR-like framing (the camera records the exact composition displayed by the preview). This Olympus C series camera required no additional lenses and was small enough to carry everywhere.

Over the years, I got back into the practice of shooting pictures, and I upgraded this camera as it morphed into to the Z series with double the pixel resolution and zoom levels (up to 20x), and with significant improvements to the initially lagging turn on and shutter response, and the added feature of reduced shaking effects. When RAW file formats were introduced to the series, it replaced my 35mm camera as well. But of course, when the iPhone 4s shipped, the universe shifted. As we all know, the iPhone camera optics are darn good. Using apps like Pro Camera, the iPhone’s photo controls improve even more, allowing for multiple and timed shots, and splitting of controls for focus and exposure.

Sometime in 2012, I realized that except on a tripod shooting RAW, my “good” digital camera wasn’t taking pictures as crisp or clear as my iPhone. Especially in low light, the photos taken with the camera had more artifacts, plus the camera took significantly longer to turn on and snap the shutter. And most important, while the iPhone was always with me, I had all but stopped carrying the comparatively large camera with me. 

However, as amazing as the iPhone and its competitors are, I have been frustrated by some things that the iPhone can’t do. At the top of my wish list was the lack of a powerful optical zoom—with the iPhone I can’t get that snapshot of that hummingbird in the tree, or shoot a closeup of a moonrise. I am aware that there are adaptors for the iPhone, but if the point is to shoot quickly, then fumbling for and attaching devices isn’t the answer. I began to wonder if the technology improvements that brought us the iPhone finally meant that there might be a camera that was:

1) small enough to fit in a pocket,

2) equipped with a 20x or greater optical zoom and macro settings,

3) fast to start up and shoot,

4) stable enough to hand-hold a shot of a hummingbird in a tree (or my nephew at his soccer game),

5) equipped with manual controls for aperture, speed, white balance,

6) able to shoot in Camera RAW, 

7) equipped with a viewfinder to see the potential image in bright light. 

Throughout 2012, I looked at different cameras that came close but were missing something major from my list. Looking at the 2013 crop of cameras, I realized that these cameras were getting closer to meeting all my needs, but also that what I want in a camera has now been influenced by the way I use the iPhone. Connectivity from a camera to my iPhone wasn’t even on my radar in 2012, but now I can’t imagine a camera that didn’t give me a way to download pictures to my phone. And of course we now also expect to be able to shoot video from our cameras as well. 

So added to the list was:

8) It should quickly and easily connect wirelessly to my smart phone/computer.

9) It should shoot HD video.

Then, a few months ago I was at a party with my friend Kurt, looking at our iPhones and talking about how good the camera is when I mentioned how it wasn’t enough, and that I was on a hunt for a camera that met a whole list of criteria, whereby he pulled a FujiFilm FinePix F900EXR camera out of his pocket.

 

One by one, I went through the list of what I wanted in a camera, and this camera had almost all of them. I had seen reviews of this FujiFilm camera at the time, and had ruled it out because it didn’t have a viewfinder. But a funny thing had happened in the year since I started looking for a camera: I'd become so accustomed to using the iPhone camera that I had acclimated fully to using the screen to frame my shots…and so, at that moment I crossed the viewfinder off my “must have” list.

This camera takes astoundingly good photos. The detail that can be captured from a tight zoom while hand-held is downright scary. If you shoot at the full 16MP and zoom 20x, you can capture essentially 40x closer than the iPhone! The shots below show the view out my window using my iPhone, the wide angle from the FujiFilm, the tightest zoom on the highway in the distance, and then zoomed in to 1 for 1 pixel. Not quite NSA quality but you can almost read the license plates on the cars moving 60 MPH that are close to 3 miles away.

Snapshot out my window with areas of zoom indicated

 

Highway area zoomed in fully

 

The zoomed in photo above, viewed at 100%

 

Shoes on the roof zoomed in fully and viewed at 12.5%, you can see pebbles, laces, and read the brand

Shooting Modes

There are a variety of shooting modes, including Manual, Program, Shutter and Aperture priority, and a range of pre-sets including Sports (for rapid shots), sunset, etc. In addition, this camera includes FujiFilm’s proprietary EXR shooting mode that is purported to increase the dynamic range captured in a photo.

Viewfinder and Focus

Now that I was willing to forgo the viewfinder I have found a few other cameras in the same size profile, also with 20x zooms, but the FujiFilm F900EXR is apparently the only camera in its class that shoots in RAW and RAW+JPEG. Unlike other digital cameras, in manual mode, the LCD isn’t a true indicator of the image that you will be recording. As with a film camera, the light meter gives you the true feedback and not the image you see in the LCD. This is, of course, essential if you’re shooting in RAW because you want to maximize the data captured and not be lulled by the JPG preview. Although I’d read reviews of this camera that complaining how you could only focus in the center of the frame, you can in fact, easily change the focus setting so you can off-center the subject after locking focus. You also should be aware that in order to pack such an astounding zoom with fast shutter speed into a camera significantly smaller than a detachable zoom lens of this range, you won’t be able to achieve nearly the depth of field dynamics that are possible in a full-sized SLR.

Shortcomings

There are a few areas where this camera doesn’t quite keep up to its competitors with similar size and zoom profiles (I looked at the Canon PowerShot SX280 and the Panasonic ZS30. In comparison to those cameras, the FujiFilm zoom operation isn’t as responsive or as smooth, which is most noticable when shooting video. In addition, the motor sound is louder in the sound recording (though my audio-pro husband says you should NEVER use the camera mic anyway!). The WiFi connectivity is a bit more cumbersome than its competitors, requiring a few coordinated steps on both the camera and phone. Lastly, this camera doesn’t provide any touch screen operation, though I suspect that future models of this camera will improve connectivity and introduce touch-screen technology, as FujiFilm already uses touch-screen in some of their other cameras (the 2014 crop of cameras ship in early Spring).

Final Thoughts

Priced at under $400, this uber-compact, super-zoom camera would likely be a significant gift for yourself or a beloved photographer. Competitors might offer more in the way of better implementation of “modern digital” features, such as zippier and smoother video recording, easier WiFi connection, touch screen access, but the FujiFilm F900EXR stands out by providing the highest resolution, traditional manual exposure feedback and controls, and in being the only camera of its class to allow you to shoot in RAW or RAW+JPEG. Although it won’t likely replace your iPhone or high-end digital SLR, carrying around this extremely powerful and very small camera would significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll capture that magic photo as you move through everyday life.

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