The Fuji HS20 brings Fujifilm's EXR processing technology to the superzoom fold. But is this latest 30x optical zoom beast good enough to bring the superzoom market forward? The What Digital Camera Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review takes a look...
Last year we were impressed by the Fujifilm FinePix HS10‘s unique 24-720mm manual zoom lens. Since then there’s been the Canon SX30 IS and announcement of the Sony HX100V. It’s fair to say the competition’s more than hotting up nicely. But is the Fuji HS20 a step in the right direction; a new dawn for superzooms that can keep the hot-on-the-heels competition at bay? The What Digital Camera Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review takes a look…
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – Features
The Fuji HS20’s 30x optical zoom lens (24-720mm equivalent) is, without doubt, the foremost and best feature on offer. What makes it special is that, like the HS10, the lens has a manual zoom that’s far quicker and more accurate to use than the fiddly zoom toggle methods used by the competition. An f/2.8-5.6 aperture is also impressive when considering just how substantial the zoom’s top-end reach is too.
Behind the scenes and the Fuji HS20 utilises a 16-megapixel, back-side illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor with EXR processing technology and sensor-shift image stabilisation technology. While the pixels are rotated by 45∞ degrees for more effective capture of light, it’s the processing that mimics the EXR pixel array (as found in older Fuji ‘EXR’ models) for improved image quality.
Images can be captured from ISO 100-3200 at any given resolution, at 8MP for ISO 6400 or 4MP for ISO 12,800. In addition there’s a 1080p HD movie capture mode that use the H.264 compression codec for best possible quality.
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – HS10 vs HS20 EXR
Fujifilm Finepix HS20 EXR review – Design
The first resounding thing about holding the HS20 is that its cosmetics haven’t changed from the previous HS10. A shame as the protruding built-in flashgun atop the camera gets right in the way of being able to rotate the zoom in a single rotation. It’s clear that the flash has to sit forward to get a good reach beyond the lens, but at the expense of useage is a shortcoming. More advanced users may be interested to see the three-pin TTL hotshoe that can now cater for external flashguns.
As well as manual zoom there’s also a manual focus ring but it’s set so far back towards the camera’s body that it’s just not overtly practical to use.
Nor are there any design tweaks to be found in the 200k-dot electronic viewfinder either – an area which could have benefitted from seeing a little more work for a larger, brighter and higher resolution image. At present the size of the viewfinder is a little on the small side.
Quibbles out of the way, though, and the HS20 EXR does indeed make perfect sense. It’s got a bold grip that’s good in the hand, the button array is comprehensive (though the ‘press and hold’ method can become a little irksome) and the rear LCD screen can be angled 45∞ down or (in excess of) 90∞ upwards on the vertical bracket for more unusual framing. Should the sun be too bright then that electronic viewfinder, despite its shortcomings, is an absolutely essential feature to have and of great use for extra support when at the fullest zoom.
One issue that’s been rife from various sources is the apparent ‘overheating’ the HS20 quickly encounters. However, fear not, this is only a firmware issue for cameras running pre-v1.02 software. The camera doesn’t actually overheat, moreover ‘thinks’ it’s too hot when the internal sensor temperature is fine.
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – Performance
In use and the FinePix HS20 certainly delivers the goods. Using the zoom is effortless for framing up subjects at any given distance, though without lens-based stabilisation it’s not possible to see the preview steadied for improved framing. Instead sensor-based stabilisation provides that extra stability in the final shot only.
The autofocus system itself is snappy off the mark and accurate though playback will cease before final capture, so high-speed shooting and tracking moving subjects is tricky. There are a variety of options for Centre-point, Multi-point, Area or Tracking focus. Using the Area AF and there are 49 possible areas to choose from that cover almost to the very edges.
Selecting a point using the rear d-pad is simple, but the AF point will only become fixed upon pressing the ‘ok’ button, which seems a little backwards when compared to the aforementioned ‘press and hold’ style of selection. It’s all too easy to open the ‘AF’ menu and not even adjust the AF point position – yet the ‘ok’ button still has to be pressed. Failure to do so locks up the camera, preventing it from shooting which makes that extra button press feel just one too many.
Macro enthusiasts will be pleased by the close-up capabilities of the Macro and Super Macro options that can focus as near as 1cm to a subject at the lens’s widest-angle setting.
As well as JPEG files it’s also possible to capture Raw shots. While certainly a perk, the time taken to store a single Raw file to the card can take between 5-8 seconds and the camera is rendered inoperable during this time. It’s not the ideal option to pick if you’re the burst shooting type, though the ‘top 4′ continuous shooting option will snap away up to four frames at 11.2fps (at 8MP) in either JPEG, Raw or both Raw and JPEG simultaneously.
The fast burst rate is met with useful options in the drive menu such as Dynamic Range Bracketing or Auto Exposure Bracketing. Other options include ‘Best Frame Capture’ (i.e. standard bust mode) that shoots on a half-press of the shutter and then ceases on a full press, or even ‘Film Simulation Bracketing’.
The Film Simulation modes offer Fuji’s traditional film types: Provia (standard), Velvia (vibrant) and Astia (soft) as well as Black & White and Sepia options. Elsewhere in the menus it’s possible to customise Color, Tone, Sharpness and Noise Reduction and even a WB Shift for that extra level of control. Modes such as Pro Focus also offer a point-and-shoot way to shoot a subject with a blurred background.
The new Panorama mode is capable of capturing panoramic images in real time as far around as a full 360∞ rotation, though it’s only rendered as 1080-pixels high which may be too small for all potential applications. Other quirks include an electronic level to assist with aligning straight horizons that can be viewed in both the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.
Then of course the HS20 EXR also has a 1080p movie capture mode that uses the H.264 compression codec and outputs MOV files straight from camera (no computer-based processing required here).
Capture begins via the one-touch movie button, though this does prompt a screen blackout and brief delay before recording commences. During recording it’s possible to utilise full-time autofocus for continual focus adjustment.
However issues with over- and under-focusing (that renders into the final movie) are commonplace depending on the severity of movement, zooming and subject depths. Otherwise a centre-point AF option shoots with a fixed focus point that cannot be adjusted throughout shooting. The movie option’s a nice touch and the ability to use the camera’s lens to its full extent is great, though videographers looking for full control may feel let down by no manual options whatsoever.
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – Image Quality
Squeezing 16MP onto a relatively small sensor has very little benefit and, at full resolution, the HS20’s images are a step backwards from the previous HS10.
Pop the camera into the ‘EXR’ mode, however, or step the output size down to 8MP (or less) and it’s a bit of a different story: by using the full span of the sensor for an image of half the resolution, the EXR processing can garner the fullest dynamic range, colour detail and (in effect) twice the light by using double the pixels. The theory goes that this improves image quality significantly – but the HS20’s results still aren’t as staggering as we had hoped.
No doubt the EXR setting’s results (at 8MP or less only) are sharper, but the processing still produces too much smearing that lacks the full definition it ought to. Saying that quality is rather like that of other compact cameras with a similar sensor size. DSLR-beating this isn’t: and while these words may sound harsh, it’s in order to balance up against peoples’ high expectations.
The lowest ISO 100-200 settings produce reasonable images, but the mosaic of JPEG processing artifacts, lack of smooth gradients and smeared edging will render more far-away subjects as lacking in detail and quality.
From ISO 400-800 this becomes more pronounced, muting overall quality yet more. The higher ISO settings will have limited use for critical work, and the top-end ISO 12,800 can only be shot at 4MP (though it’s so riddled with image noise it’s not worth being included).
Given that the HS20 has been marketed as a 16MP camera, most users are likely to use it at the highest (and default) resolution setting. Fuji’s not been able to explain particularly well through its promotion and marketing that this isn’t always its most ideal setting – if the camera was destined to be EXR-output only then it should have been marketed as an 8MP camera rather than the 16MP that it is. It seems ‘big numbers’ are still delivering in the sell when this should be of little concern.
In terms of exposure the HS20 avoided bright skies or back-lit windows from dominating a picture, ensuring main subjects remained exposed. The inclusion of a Dynamic Range option (100, 200 or 400%) extends to ‘pushing’ shadow areas to bring out extra detail.
Shift over to ‘Spot’ metering, however, and the actual spot area is rather large by comparison to standard and may require additional fine tuning or manual exposure to acquire the exact results desired.
The bottom line is that the HS20’s images are perfectly good for day-to-day, non-critical shots in good light. In the 8MP EXR mode the shots still aren’t going to blow your socks off (a shame given that the Fuji X100 produced some of the most staggering images from an APS-C sized sensor we’ve seen), but it’s a marked improvement that is a must in use to get this most out of this kit.
Value & Verdict
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – Value
Brand new releases come with top-end asking prices, yet the £380 for the HS20 is about right. The only thing that’s going to usurp it are older models, including Fuji’s own HS10 (around £225 at the time of writing), that have been on the market for a little longer and seen a steep price drop. Even Canon’s SX30 IS has stooped to a £350 online price.
As the HS20 is powered by 4x AA batteries be sure to add on the price of some decent rechargeables otherwise the cost could spiral. The Panasonic FZ45, Canon SX30 IS and Sony HX100V all have included rechargeable li-ion batteries – a benefit or a drawback depending on your personal preference.
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR review – Verdict
Although the HS20 doesn’t propel the superzoom market further forward, it’s still a mighty camera to behold.
The 24-720mm manual zoom is a unique point that’ll hold of a lot of purchase power. A bit of a shame that image stabilisation is sensor-based rather than lens-based, but still an effective feature to have.
Where the HS20 comes a little undone is with its reasonable, though not staggering, image quality. The latest sensor is, frankly, over-populated in pixel count (the HS10 produced better images) and even the half resolution (8MP) EXR output can only provide so much of an improvement. For HS10 users hoping for a new revelation, this isn’t the worthy upgrade model.
All in all there’s a lot on offer here. The screen, viewfinder and lens combination provide a very useable and capable system that will come to good in a whole variety of scenarios.