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Fujifilm Finepix F30 Digital Camera User Review
by factus8 -  7/12/2006

The Fujifilm FinePix F30 is the successor to the popular FinePix F10 compact released last year.  The F10 was frequently noted by users to have good performance in low light (or "available light") environments.  The F30 continues down this road by offering several features designed to (1) maximize the use of available ambient lighting and to (2) minimize reliance on the flash as a way to illuminate the scene being photographed.  The result is hopefully an attractive picture that captures the mood of the scene better than ordinary compact digital cameras.

Fujifilm heavily markets this camera towards those seeking good available light performance.  This performance is gained through high ISO sensitivity and intelligent flash management.  According to Fujifilm,

"The FinePix F30 utilizes Fujifilm's new 6th generation Super CCD-HR to capture more light with less electronic noise. Combined with the RP Processor II and an aspherical Fujinon lens system, which are used widely in professional broadcast TV cameras, the FinePix F30 can reach ground-breaking levels of sensitivity, up to ISO 3200 with very low noise, which can cause grainy pictures. This ultra-high sensitivity means you can capture the perfect picture, even in low light, just as your eye sees it. And all with extremely fast operational and processing speeds so you never miss a shot."

"Fujifilm's new i-Flash system ensures your image is always properly exposed with just the right amount of light. The results are more natural looking subjects and backgrounds that are bright and full of crisp detail, so you capture the picture just the way you see it."  (Source: Fujifilm USA) (http://www.fujifilmusa.com/JSP/fuji/epartners/digitalF30Overview.jsp).

So, does the F30 deliver great available light performance?  And how does the camera perform?  Let's find out!

Specifications

Form Factor

The camera feels fairly solid and well put together.  While the finish is not as impressive as some other models I have used (particularly the Sony cameras I have owned), the camera overall feels very solid.  The buttons are logically placed and it is easy to hold in your hand without accidentally putting your finger over the flash or the lens.  The rubber USB/power connection cover feels a little flimsy, but overall the camera looks and feels good.

Front: Here is the front of the camera.  When powered on, the 3x optical zoom lens quickly extends from the camera, retracting when the camera is powered off.
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Rear: The rear of the camera contains a 2.5 inch LCD screen with approximately 230,000 pixels.  While this is not the largest LCD screen I have seen on a camera this size, it is a good size and it is more than adequate.
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Notice that the back of the camera contains a "menu" button and also a mysterious "F" button.  This F-button (also referred to in the manual as "F-Mode") is intended to provide quick access to frequently used settings (such as image size, ISO sensitivity and color modes) instead of burying them deep within the camera's menu system.  It is essentially a "dumbed down" menu that is context-sensitive given the particular shooting mode you are using at the time.  Although I was initially confused by the concept, it is a good idea and works well in practice.

Bottom:  Here is the battery / memory card door and tripod mount.
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Left Side: This is the power connector and USB plug.  Unfortunately the plug is not a mini-usb connector but is a smaller type so you may run into trouble looking for a replacement USB cord should you need an extra one.
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Top: Here is the power button, shutter release, and mode selection dial.
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Although this camera is not the thinnest nor the lightest camera I have ever used, it is small and light enough to be slipped into your pants pocket without too much trouble.

Specifications

The camera features a 6.3 megapixel CCD, which sharp readers will notice is the same resolution as the FinePix F10.  Apparently 6.3 megapixels is the new "sweet spot" for portable digicams that feature a managable level of sensor noise.  The camera also features a 18.5x "Total Zoom," which is really a 3x optical zoom coupled with a 6.2x digital zoom.  The advertised ISO sensitivity settings are 100/200/400/800/1600/3200.  More on this later.  The camera features USB 2.0 connectivity, 640x480 movie mode, and battery life that is advertised to get you 580 shots before the battery runs dry. 

The lens is advertised at the 35mm focal length of 36-108mm. This means you get decent wide-angle performance plus decent zoom performance.  Aperture range is F2.8 - F5.0.  The camera features a macro mode for closeups as close as 60cm / 2 feet. 

The memory card format is the xD-Picture format jointly developed by Fujifilm and Olympus.  Cards currently are available up to 1GB in size.  Currently, 1GB is the largest size xD-Picture card available, so if you plan on taking lots of pictures, you may have to buy more than one card.  The camera has internal memory of 10MB, which is only good for a couple pictures at the highest quality settings. 

Image Stabilization

Fujifilm somewhat confusingly describes the FinePix F30 as featuring "Picture Stabilization Mode."  A couple minutes spent on Google will reveal that this feature has generated a fair amount of confusion.  Many users take the "Picture Stabilization" to be the equivalent of the "Image Stabilization" systems employed by other manufacturers, in which the lens or image sensor is shifted to accommodate for camera shake.  Canon calls this system "Image Stabilization"; Sony calls theirs "Super SteadyShot"; Panasonic calls it "MEGA Optical Image Stabilization"; and Nikon calls it "Vibration Reduction."  The F30 does not feature this type of system but instead uses the "Picture Stabilization" feature as another way to describe the high ISO sensitivity of its sensor.

This is not at all clear from Fujifilm's website, which trumpets the camera's picture stabilization features as follows:

"Fujifilm's new Picture Stabilization mode eliminates blur due to subject movement and camera shake; even in low light backgrounds. Simply select the Picture Stabilization icon on the dial on top of the FinePix F30, and you're ready to shoot. Picture Stabilization automates professional photographic techniques to deliver clear images with true color and fine detail." Source: Fujifilm (http://www.fujifilmusa.com/JSP/fuji/epartners/digitalF30Overview.jsp). 

Note that, despite Fujifilm's claim that the Picture Stabilization of the FinePix F30 will eliminate blur due to camera shake, the camera does not feature optical image stabilization.  Instead, Fujifilm's Picture Stabilization is based on the fact that the F30 can utilize faster shutter speeds due to higher ISO sensitivities.  Therefore, where other cameras might need to use a slower shutter speed (thus benefitting from optical image stabilization), Fujifilm's FinePix F30 will not be as susceptible to blur because it will hypothetically be able to take pictures at faster shutter speeds than comparable cameras. 

On one hand, I have found optical picture stabilization systems to be of limited use in low-light settings, when taking pictures of friends or other moving subjects.  In this scenario, all the image stabilization in the world will not stop blur caused by subject or background movement.  Here, higher light sensitivities and faster shutter speeds should achieve better results.

On the other hand, Fujifilm seems to be promoting the high ISO settings of this camera twice, by promoting it for low-light photography, and then again promoting the same feature (high ISO sensitivity) as "Picture Stabilization."  This is confusing as it suggests that Picture Stabilization is a separate feature, when in fact that it is not.  Further, Fujifilm's marketing materials are ambiguous about whether "Picture Stabilization" implies some sort of optical image stabilization system.  This has apparently succeeded in confusing people.

Speed and Operation

Startup times, focusing speeds, and shot-to-shot cycle times were very good.  I was initially concerned about the speed to read/write from the xD-Picture memory card due to many comments I read on various forums from users complaining about the speed of xD-Picture media as compared to other types of media.  In a sense, this discussion does not mean much because the F30 does not accept any other type of media, so if you want the F30 you are going to have to use xD-Picture media.  On the other hand, I purchased a "high speed" (Type H) 1GB card, and the speed seemed to be about the same as other cameras I have used, and it was not noticably faster or slower. 

Shooting Modes

The F30 offers the following shooting modes:

Shooting Mode Description
Auto Automatic Setting for easy point and shoot
Manual White Balance / Exposure Compensation / Exposure Control / AF Mode
A/S Aperture priority auto - used to increase / decrease depth of field
Shutter priority auto - used to freeze motion or to create motion blur
Movie Video record/playback with monoaural sound, 320x240 or 640x480
Picture Stabilization Prevents blur caused by subject movement or camera shake
SP (Scene Position) Natural Light / Natural Light & Flash / Portrait / Landscape / Sport / Night / Fireworks / Sunset / Snow / Beach / Underwater / Museum / Party  / Flower Close-Up / Text

Although the F30 offers numerous picture modes just like every other camera (i.e., "twilight," "beach," "portrait"), the mode that interested me the most was the "Natural and Flash" mode, which shoots two images per shutter press - one using available light only ("Natural"), and one using the flash ("Flash").  Both images are then displayed on the LCD and saved to the xD-Picture card.  This lets you compare the two pictures and see which one turned out better.  This feature was most interesting to me because I typically take my camera out to bars and clubs and have had many pictures ruined by tricky lighting environments. 

I tried out this feature at a local bar/pool hall.  As many readers are aware, bars are notoriously difficult places to take an attractive picture, because they are often (1) dark places with poor sources of light; and (2) dominated by neon or colored lighting.  This bar was no exception.  I found out that even the F30's high ISO sensitivity was brought to its knees by such poor lighting conditions when the camera was used to take pictures of distant objects.  For example, the following pictures show the difficulty in capturing the ambience of a private game of billiards - the first picture ("Natural") is ruined by excessive noise (not surprising, the picture was taken at ISO 3200), and the second picture fails to capture the ambience of the environment:

"Natural" Mode (ISO3200, no flash)

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"Flash" Mode (ISO800, with flash)
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Now before you start getting depressed, let's take a closer look at these pictures.  First of all, note that the "Natural" mode photo does pretty much what it sets out to do - namely, capture the ambience of a dimly lit pool hall.  Obviously the picture is very noisy, but it does what it sets out to do.  The choice is yours whether you can live with the noise level, to capture such a scene.  With the "Flash" mode, you will see that most of this ambience is gone, but when you take a closer look you will notice that the noise levels in this picture are not too bad - especially not bad considering the picture was taken at ISO800. 

As with any camera, it's good to know your limitations.  Let's see if we can get a better result taking a picture of something a little closer to the lens.

Moose Head - "Natural" Mode (ISO3200, no flash)
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Moose Head - "Flash" Mode (ISO800, with flash)
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This scene is much more forgiving of both picture modes.  You can see with the "Natural" mode, although the picture does exhibit noise (again, this picture was taken at ISO3200 sensitivity), the colors and ambience make it relatively pleasing.  An interesting thing to note about the "Flash" mode is that the camera has kept the ISO relatively high (ISO800) and has likely underpowered the flash somewhat so that the flash does not overwhelm the ambient lighting of the scene.  Although neither picture came out perfect, they both have their own appeal.

One thing I noticed about the "Natural Light" mode was that it was very eager to jump to ISO3200 sensitivity.  I would have liked to see the camera use other ways to get more light into the camera (for example, by changing the aperture value, changing the exposure settings, etc) instead of jumping so quickly to its maximum ISO sensitivity.  This is particularly true when the maximum sensitivity is so noisy, it almost ensures that you are going to struggle with the camera's results. 

Knowing when to use "Natural Light" modes and when not to.

Again, it's always best to know the limitations of your camera before you shoot. This is especially true of the FinePix F30, since the camera features many scene modes that would seem to provide similar results (what's the difference between "Natural" mode and "Night" mode?).  That's why you need to be careful when selecting the appropriate shooting mode.  Here is an example of this, using a picture I took on July 4th, shooting from the roof of a building down towards the parking lot of a shopping mall where fireworks were about to take place:

"Natural" Mode (ISO3200, no flash)
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"Night" Mode (ISO200, no flash)
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As you can see, the "Natural" mode comes out pretty ugly, with lots and lots of noise, particularly in the night sky.  But the "Night" mode photograph is actually quite pleasing.  So what happened?  Here, the "Natural" mode exposed the shot for a mere 1/20 of a second, while the "Night" mode exposed the scene five times as long - 1 second.  Therefore the Night mode was able to take in more light while keeping the ISO settings low for a decent picture without excessive noise.  Keep in mind, however, that with such a slow shutter speed, it would be very difficult to take pictures of your friends since the shot would likely be ruined by camera shake or subject movement.  Here, I was able to keep the camera from moving during the picture, which enabled me to take an effective picture using a slow shutter speed.

Well, let's stop torturing this camera for a while and see how it performs in everyday use!

Uncle Sam (Auto Mode, ISO200)

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This picture was taken in the late afternoon sun, and captures the scene very well.  Sharpness and detail are excellent, and the color reproduction is very good.  Where focus is achieved, the sharpness is very good and almost creates a three-dimensional effect.  You can just about make out every blade of grass on the ground. 

Uncle Sam 2 (Auto Mode, ISO200)


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Another angle of the same scene.  Again, detail and colors are very good.  The image conveys a nice depth, and the colors and contrast are very good.  There is some purple fringing evident but it is not too distracting. 

King & Queen Building (Auto Mode, ISO100)
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This picture has a wide dynamic range, from the bright sky down to the dark foliage near the bottom of the picture.  The camera handles the scene well, although the picture seems a bit contrasty and some of the foliage details are hard to make out.  Colors appear accurate.

Macro Mode - Flowers (Auto Mode, ISO200)
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Although this picture was taken in macro mode, I used the zoom to force a narrow depth of field.  You will notice the focal point appears to be between the fuschia flowers in the foreground and the yellow flowers in the middle.  The colors are very vivid and maybe a little blown out, but the picture is very striking.

Light Pole Against Building (Auto Mode, ISO200)
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A nice, sharp picture.  I do not see any serious purple fringing in the picture, even though it was taken in the bright morning sunlight. 

ISO Comparison

Here are sample pictures taken at various ISO sensitivities.  Note that you can only change the ISO settings in "Manual" mode, not in "Auto" or any of the scene modes.  These pictures are 300 percent zooms to show the detail:

ISO100

ISO200

ISO400

ISO800

ISO1600

ISO3200

As you can see, things start to get ugly starting around ISO800.  But keep in mind that these pictures are tightly zoomed and cropped, and in real life your pictures will not look this noisy.  In fact, I found that in most cases ISO800 looked quite good, whereas in other cameras I have used, ISO800 gives you about the same results as ISO3200 on the F30. 

Overall Impressions

Overall, I was pleased with the pictures from this camera, particularly when the camera was not pushed to (or beyond) its limits.  Daytime pictures were very sharp and well-balanced, and colors were good.  The camera performance overall was also very good.  Startup time and shot-to-shot times were quick.  I did not have the opportunity to run through an entire battery during shooting, so I don't know if the 580 shot per battery claim is accurate, although I had plenty of battery life left over during my testing. 

Is this camera the holy grail of low-light photography?  No, but then again I can't always get great low-light shots out of my D-SLR either.  Considering that the F30 is a moderately priced compact digital camera, it gets very acceptable results, even in tricky lighting situations.  I am not quite sure that the camera lives up to its marketing hype, but it's performance is very good considering the price point and form factor.