Nice things often come in very small packages. The Fujifilm FinePix JZ500 is no bigger than a Canon digital ELPH, and it packs a 10x zoom.
For some shooters, the JZ500's dearth of manual exposure options, lack of an optical viewfinder, and very limited user input may seem a bit disconcerting, but in reality, they are well matched to the needs of the camera's target audience.
BUILD AND DESIGN
There have been three ongoing trends in point-and-shoot digital camera design since the first commercially available digicam hit store shelves: smaller cameras, higher resolution (more megapixels) and longer zooms. Ongoing refinements in digital imaging technology over the past 15 years have resulted in cameras that have become progressively smaller, with resolution that has steadily increased, and zoom lenses that have (like Pinocchio's nose) grown longer and longer. Recently all these usability-driven design trends have come together in a whole new class of digicam: the compact ultrazoom.
The diminutive and pocketable Fujifilm Finepix JZ500 could easily act as the poster child for this new class of digital camera. It measures just 3.8 x 2.2 x 1.1 inches and weighs 5.2 ounces (without the battery, memory card, and wrist strap).
In appearance, the JZ500 is a fairly conventional camera that looks a lot like every other ultra-compact digital camera out there. While it's not as thin as some of its credit card-sized competitors, the svelte JZ500's 1/2.3-inch CCD image sensor generates 14 megapixel images; 4320 x 3240 pixels at the camera's standard 4:3 aspect ratio (3:2 and 16:9 aspect ratio modes are also available). The JZ500 also features a 10x (equivalent to 28-280mm) zoom and a big enough 2.7-inch (230k) LCD screen with 96% coverage. Fuji 's newest ultra-compact digital camera relies on a fully automatic exposure system and very basic controls/menus to make capturing impressive images simple.
Ergonomics and Controls
The JZ500 is a tiny camera, but it feels solidly built and somewhat heavier than expected. The camera fits nicely in your hands and is comfortable in use, even over long periods. The attractive black body (the camera is also available in silver) is shiny/smooth with rounded corners; the camera lacks a handgrip, so the inclusion of a wrist strap definitely helps. The Fuji JZ500's user interface is uncomplicated and consistently straightforward. The control layout is fairly typical and quite similar to most other recent point-and-shoots. Buttons are logically placed and come easily for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small. The mode dial is almost too small, but all controls are responsive and provide a confidence-inspiring tactile feel.
All controls, with the exception of the on/off button, shutter button, and zoom controller switch, are located on the back of the camera. Dedicated controls include the Mode Dial, review mode button, and Display/Back button. The compass switch (four-way controller) provides direct access to the exposure compensation function in shooting mode and the delete function (in playback mode), macro settings, the self-timer, and flash options.
The JZ500's controls are logical in their application with the exception of the Play/Review button. Push the JZ500's play button and the camera shifts from shooting mode to review mode. With most of the currently available digicams, when you are ready to return to shooting mode, you would simply press play once again, but not with the JZ500. You must illogically shift your grip on the camera and press the shutter button with your trigger finger (rather than simply using your thumb to press the play button) to return to shooting mode.
Menus and Modes
Fuji has a reputation for simple and uncomplicated menu systems and the JZ500 continues that tradition. The JZ500 provides a simple two tab/two page menu.
The JZ500 offers a fairly standard selection of shooting modes - most users will likely opt to shoot primarily in Program mode.
Like most currently available digicams, the JZ500 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder, so the LCD must be used for all framing/composition, camera status and menu navigation chores. The JZ500's fairly large 2.7-inch screen covers most of the available space on the camera's rear deck. The screen is super fluid; movement is smooth and natural as opposed to jerky (so the refresh rate must be pretty high), reasonably bright, relatively (230,000 pixels) sharp and hue (color) correct.
In dim/low light, the LCD automatically boosts screen intensity/brightness (brightness can also be adjusted manually). The JZ500's LCD is difficult to use bright outdoor settings; there were times when I could only see glare and reflections. A better anti-glare/anti-reflective coating would have made it much more useful. This is a very important consideration, since the LCD is the JZ500's only viewfinder.
The FinePix JZ500 provides some impressive usability, but not much personal input into the photographic process, which may be a serious concern for some shooters. Overall, Fuji 's new compact ultrazoom does a pretty good job, but competition is fierce in this point-and-shoot class. As one of the leaders of the parade, the JZ500 is helping to set the standard for this new marketing niche. I predict that by this time next year small cameras with big zoom lenses will be leading the pack in sales and that all the OEM powerhouses will have jumped on the bandwagon.
The JZ500 is quick enough to handle most general action photography. It was able to capture this colorful skateboarder in mid-air.
The JZ500's TTL Contrast Detection AF system provides both center and multi-AF point Auto Focus. AF is fairly quick and dependably accurate; in face detection mode, the JZ500's AF system can track up to 10 faces. The AF system works nicely in decent outdoor light, but it often has difficulty locking focus in dimmer indoor light. Focusing is also noticeably slower in poor outdoor light.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Fujifilm FinePix JZ500||0.01|
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||0.01|
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||0.02|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||0.02|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Fujifilm FinePix JZ500||0.38|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||0.39|
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||0.41|
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||0.68|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7||3||1.8 fps
|Fujifilm FinePix JZ500||3||1.4 fps
|Sony Cyber-shot S2100||∞||1.0 fps
|Canon PowerShot A3100 IS||∞||0.9 fps
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" denote the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The compact ultrazoom class has ballooned from just a few models a couple of years ago to the much longer list of entries currently available, which means each new camera needs to include a feature to make it stand out from the rest of the pack.
To that end, Fuji has expanded its face recognition capabilities since most of the photos shot globally are informal portraits and pet pictures. With the JZ500 and its siblings, take a picture of someone, then tell the camera who that person is (Dad, Mom, GF, BF, Wife, etc.), select a category (friends or family) and add the individual's birthday. The next time you take a picture of that person, the camera will recognize this face through the JZ500's new Picture Search Tool and your Face Recognition data (name, birthday and category) to help you find and play back your favorite photos quickly and easily. If all that isn't "over the top" enough for you, the JZ500 also provides a similarly featured pet recognition option.
A current product development struggle for manufacturers is to create a digicam capable of capturing sharply focused, high-resolution, noise-free images under a broad variety of shooting scenarios. Image stabilization (IS) has become essentially ubiquitous these days; a digicam rarely doesn't feature an Image Stabilization System. Most digicams from top-tier manufacturers provide either optical IS or sensor shift IS.
The JZ500 features Dual Image Stabilization, a combination of sensor shift image stabilization, which allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 EV slower than would have been possible without IS, and Picture Stabilization, which is Fuji's version of digital IS. Digital IS boosts shutter speed and increases sensitivity to reduce blur. Shooting at higher sensitivities (combined with faster shutter speeds) allows users to avoid blurry images that result from camera shake or subject movement, but as sensitivity (ISO) increases, noise levels also rise.
The JZ500 draws its juice from a proprietary Fuji NP-45A Li-ion rechargeable battery. According to Fuji, the JZ500 records up to 230 images with a fully charged battery, but that seems a bit optimistic to me based on my experiences with the camera. It's difficult for me to keep track of exposures because I shoot, review, delete and re-shoot often.
Here's an important note for purchasers of the JZ500: when Fuji says "low battery," they aren't kidding. When the JZ500's low battery icon appears, the camera almost immediately goes belly-up powerwise; you might get to capture one or two additional still images, but no video clips. I ran into this sudden power crash situation twice during my tests of the JZ500.
The JZ500's built-in multi-mode flash provides a fairly standard selection of external lighting options including Red-eye removal OFF: Auto, Forced Flash, Suppressed Flash, Slow Synchro, Red-eye removal ON: Red-eye Reduction Auto, Red-eye Reduction & Forced Flash, Suppressed Flash and Red-eye Reduction & Slow Synchro. According to Fuji, at the wide-angle end of the zoom, the maximum flash range is about 1.6 feet - 8.5 feet (50cm - 2.6m) and at the telephoto end of the zoom, it's about 3 feet - 5.6 feet (90cm - 1.7 m).
The JZ500 records images to 40 MB of onboard storage or to industry standard SD memory media, which leaves Sony as the only proprietary memory media holdout.
When I first read the description of the JZ500's features I thought that the JZ500's 10x Fujinon 5-50mm (28-280mm equivalent) f/3.3-5.6 optical zoom might be the same excellent 10x optic that graced last year's impressive Fuji F70EXR, and that appears to be the case - at least all the specifications are the same. The JZ500's zoom features Fuji's super EBC coating to reduce ghosting and flare.
When the JZ500 is powered up, the zoom extends automatically and when the camera is powered down, the zoom is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth and fairly quiet. The JZ500's optical performance is pretty good, but images display noticeable corner softness and some very minor vignetting (dark corners).
Barrel distortion (at the wide-angle end of the zoom range) is noticeably higher than average, but pincushion distortion is negligible at the telephoto end of the zoom. Chromatic aberration is slightly above average; purple fringing is visible in high contrast areas and color transition areas. The JZ500's zoom covers the 35mm equivalent of 28mm to 280mm, which is a very useful moderate wide-angle to medium telephoto focal length range that should provide essentially everything this camera's target audience is likely to need. Minimum focusing distance (in macro mode) is 2 inches.
The JZ500 captures HD video at 1280x720 pixels and lower resolutions (24fps/30fps) with monaural audio - the 10x zoom can be used during video capture. Videos tend to be properly exposed and run smoothly. Video quality is about average.
Some of Fujifilm's cameras really shine in the image quality department, though the JZ500 doesn't quite rise to the level of Fuji's better digicams like the F70EXR. Most P&S digicams boost color saturation because amateurs and casual shooters like bold bright hues and harder contrast, but the JZ500 (even with the Chrome color option enabled) is actually pretty close to neutral, but with slightly softer contrast than most of its competition.
I would have liked to see the JZ500 offer the color saturation choices (based on well known Fuji 35mm films Velvia, Provia, and Astia) that made the F70 EXR so tweakable, in terms of color saturation/intensity. Outdoors, in good light, the JZ500's image quality is consistently very good to excellent. Exposures are dependably accurate although there is a noticeable tendency toward overexposure in pictures with a lot of sky, and highlights are sometimes burned out in brightly lit outdoor scenes.
The JZ500's Auto White Balance setting did a dependably good job outside, but it struggled a bit to get colors correct indoors. White balance options include Auto WB, Automatic scene recognition, Fine, Shade, Fluorescent light (Daylight), Fluorescent light (Warm white), Fluorescent light (Cool white), Incandescent light and Custom.
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light
The JZ500 provides a decent range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to 3200. ISO 100 images show bright colors, slightly softer than average native contrast, and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a little less snap. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a barely perceptible loss of minor detail.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 800 images are very noisy, but they should be OK for email images and 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 inch prints. Above ISO 800, images are way too noisy to be useful for anything aside from tabloid-style shots of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.
Additional Sample Images
In my opinion, the JZ500 is a bit pricey, but I like it and I had fun shooting with it. We are right in the middle of our spring color season in the Ohio Valley and I shot the SD card equivalent of exposing dozens of rolls of slide film trying to capture that almost riotous explosion of nature's colorful exuberance. Overall, the JZ500 did a good job for me and with the exception of its sudden power crash tendency (when the battery is exhausted) and its irksome play/review button, I have no complaints about the camera.
The JZ500 is obviously targeted toward snap-shooters and casual photographers rather than photography enthusiasts - and that's OK. The JZ500 is a very good choice for someone who wants to take good pictures but doesn't want to get too involved in the photography process; someone moving from a fairly basic first digital camera like the Canon A3100 IS would love the JZ500's 10x zoom and easy pocketability. It is also a very good choice for travelers, backpackers, hikers and mountain bikers who want a tough, lightweight, "go anywhere" camera.