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Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR Review
by Jim Keenan -  9/6/2011

Introduced at the 2011 CES, Fujilim's Finepix HS20 EXR ultrazoom compact digital camera (henceforth the HS20) is the replacement for the HS10. The new camera gets a hefty bump in resolution to 16 megapixels from 10 in its predecessor. More significantly, the resolution increase is accompanied by a slight increase in the physical size of the new sensor, which is of the backside illumination variety (BSI) that offers the promise of better high ISO performance over conventional designs.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

 

BSI technology isn't unique to Fuji, but EXR is and Fuji isn't shy about touting their newest iteration of this technology: "The unique EXR pixel and color arrays are key to image quality." Rotated by 45 degrees, the EXR pixel array increases both horizontal and vertical resolution. By using the diagonally-aligned twin pixels of the same color, the sensor can switch between HR (High Resolution), DR (Wide Dynamic Range) and SN (High Sensitivity and Low Noise) modes depending on the scene, ensuring that every moment is captured with the highest image quality."

The sensor is accompanied by a newly developed dual CPU, EXR core and reconfigurable processor that powers a host of functions including high-sensitivity HD movies and continuous shooting as well as expanded scene recognition and pro shooting modes. Continuous shooting rates can go as fast as 8 frames per second (fps) at full resolution and up to 11 fps at 8 megapixels. A new vector graphics accelerator drives the enhanced image quality of the rich user interface to "dramatically improve" the appearance of camera menus. Some additional attributes claimed for the processor include the ability to recognize 27 scenes when shooting in EXR mode, spot and reduce chromic aberration (purple fringing), and improve the resolution of the corners of an image for more uniform image sharpness. Full resolution ISO sensitivity range runs from 100 to 3200; 6400 and 12800 sensitivities are available at reduced resolution.

The 30x zoom lens covers the 24 to 720mm focal range (in 35mm equivalents) and is manually zoomed in contrast to the powered systems of most other compact digitals. Here's a look at that focal range at both ends of the zoom lens.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Wide Angle, 24mm

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Telephoto, 720mm

Fujifilm is also talking up quick shutter lag and autofocus (AF) performance in the HS20, claiming an AF acquisition time of 0.16 seconds. Along with the obligatory automatic and scene modes, there are full manual controls and a RAW shooting option; an articulating 3.0-inch LCD monitor and advanced anti-blur technology. The camera is powered by four AA batteries and accepts SD/SDHC memory media; SDXC media is compatible in the UHS-1 configuration. There are approximately 20MB of internal memory. Fuji includes four alkaline batteries, USB and A/V cables, a lens hood, camera strap, basic printed user's manual and CD-ROM software with each camera.

The specifications and ad copy for the HS20 make interesting reading - a big lens, good shutter and autofocus performance and a BSI sensor which is the latest in compact digital camera noise performance. Fuji pulled no punches in the camera's press release, stating "...this latest addition to the range of Fujifilm bridge cameras represents the perfect picture taking solution for photographers who want the specification and picture quality of an SLR without the heavy camera bag and huge dent in their bank balance." Let's get the HS20 out into the field and see if the performance lives up to the advanced billing.



BUILD AND DESIGN
A quick glance at the HS20 and Fuji's references to "SLR" don't seem so misplaced; the HS20 will fool a lot of folks into thinking it's a DSLR on looks alone. The body has the obligatory deeply sculpted handgrip, a myriad of external controls - many of them function specific, and a body covered largely with surprisingly nice feeling, tacky rubber material. The camera's overall dimensions are 5.1 x 3.6 x 5 inches with a weight (including battery and memory card) of 25.7 ounces. By contrast, Nikon's D3100 DSLR measures about 4.9 x 3.8 x 5.8 inches (with 18 to 55mm kit lens attached) and weighs approximately 23.2 ounces without a battery. Materials, fit and finish are in keeping with the HS20's price point.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

Ergonomics and Controls
It looks like a DSLR and it feels like a DSLR - there is adequate space between the handgrip and lens barrel for the fingers of the shooting hand, and the forefinger of the shooting hand falls naturally on the the shutter button, albeit at the second pad of the finger. A conscious effort was required to move the tip of the shooting finger onto the shutter button. Despite the camera back incorporating no fewer than 11 buttons and controls on either side of the 3.0-inch monitor, the thumb of the shooting hand falls naturally into a padded rest area without overlaying camera controls.

Among those 11 buttons are controls for ISO, exposure method, autofocus and focus mode, white balance, one touch video capture and a handy RAW selection feature incorporated on one of the axes of the selector button. You can select RAW via internal camera menu and the feature stays enabled until you disable it - or, you can designate the camera to shoot in RAW on the spur of the moment via the selector button. The camera will stay in RAW mode until you take a first shot, then after it completes writing the file and presents the shooting screen again you have about 5 seconds to take another shot in RAW before the camera reverts back to the non-RAW mode you were using prior.



Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

The command and mode dials are located in close proximity atop the camera body and I found when scrolling through shutter speeds or apertures by way of the command dial that it was often possible to nudge the mode dial out of the selected shooting mode. Resistance to turning seems about right on the command dial, but if I were Fuji I'd add a little bit more to the mode dial.

The zoom ring on the lens barrel requires a bit over 90° of rotation to take the lens from one extreme of the focal range to the other. The zoom action is a little uneven feeling, and if you begin the zoom from full wide-angle with the left hand from normal two-handed shooting position your thumb will contact the built-in flash housing and require you to reposition your hand to complete the zoom to full telephoto. The manual focus ring is narrow and located at the base of the lens barrel, where the proximity to the camera body makes manual focus a bit clumsy.



Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

Menus and Modes
Menus are simple and intuitive and, as promised by the new processor, legible and easy to read. There are three primary menus - shooting, set up, and playback. Depending on the particular shooting mode chosen, menus can vary in length: the EXR mode - four pages; auto and scene modes - three pages; panorama mode - two pages; and manual modes - four pages. The setup menu is universally six pages in length; however, depending on the particular mode not all features may be selectable. The playback menu is three pages long.

Shooting modes are the typical compact digital camera mix of fully automatic and dedicated scene modes along with full manual control and nifty panorama capture mode.

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the HS20 has approximately a 460,000 dot composition and is articulable: the monitor can swing away from the camera body and rotate upwards through approximately 90° - rotation downward is limited to about 40°. Rotating the monitor to the 90° up angle makes for a handy waist-level viewfinder, and I found the HS20 monitor relatively usable in outdoor conditions. Even with the ability to adjust angles on the monitor, there were times in bright outdoor conditions when the monitor was difficult to see for image composition or capture.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

The monitor produced a 467 nit peak brightness and 993:1 contrast ratio in our studio measurements of its performance. The peak brightness value is a bit under the 500 nit threshold that generally delineates monitors that do better in bright outdoor conditions, but the contrast ratio is well above the 500 to 800 range considered desirable for outdoor work. The HS20 monitor's 460,000 dot composition is twice that of its predecessor on the HS10 and may contribute to the outdoor performance as well. The monitor offers approximately 100% coverage.

The electronic viewfinder has an approximately 200,000 dot composition and offers 97% coverage. Composition of the viewfinder has actually dropped some 20,000 dots over that in the HS10. Somewhat annoyingly, the viewfinder seems to suffer from pincushion distortion on all four sides of the frame no matter what focal length is selected on the lens. I often found myself being briefly distracted during image composition as my eye was drawn to the inwardly curved sides of the frame. The viewfinder features an eye-activated switch that turns off the monitor and activates the viewfinder when your eye is brought to close proximity with the viewfinder; this feature proved at times to be a bit slow to make the transition.

PERFORMANCE
Fujifilm calls the HS20 the perfect solution for photographers seeking DSLR-like specifications and image quality without the size, weight or expense of a true DSLR. Expecting DSLR image quality and performance out of a compact digital is asking a lot - let's see how close the HS20 comes.

Shooting Performance
Right out-of-the-box the HS20 lets you know that while it may look like a DSLR and feel like a DSLR it doesn't start like a DSLR, taking about 3 seconds to present a focus icon after powering up - glacially slow compared to a DSLR and slower than many cameras in the class. Single shot to shot times take about 2.5 - 2.75 seconds with a class 10 SDHC (30MB/sec) card.

Fire an 8 shot burst at full resolution and JPEG fine image quality with the camera's 8 fps continuous high-speed shooting mode and the write time for those shots approaches 19.5 seconds - make that burst a RAW/JPEG combo and you get only six shots as well as a 30 second write time. Switching to a 45 MB/sec card produced 19.25 and 25 second write times for those same bursts, respectively.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.01
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.01
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.01
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.03

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix P500 0.30
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 0.33
Canon PowerShot SX30 0.35
Olympus SP800-UZ 0.45

Continuous Shooting

Digital Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix P500 5 10.0 fps
Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR 8 8.0 fps
Canon PowerShot SX30 1.4 fps
Olympus SP800-UZ 10 1.2 fps

The HS20 is pretty good about displaying images during high-speed captures - there's a brief blackout after the first shot but succeeding shots come up quickly and tracking moving subjects is easier than with many other compact digitals. Of course, shooting full resolution at high speed you're finished in 1 second, but if you opt for the 11 fps rate the camera can capture approximately 32 images and take about 3 seconds to do so, so the ability to visually track fast moving subjects is a plus.

The HS20 features a panorama shooting mode that can stitch multiple images together to form single images with 120, 180, or 360° fields of view. This mode is simple and easy to use, rivaling the Sony A55 DSLR for ease-of-use and overall performance.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

Fuji reports a 0.16 second AF acquisition time for the HS20 but our studio measurement came in at 0.33 seconds - well short of the claimed figure but right in the ballpark with the better performing super zooms we've tested recently. In the field the camera seemed fairly quick at wide angle in good light. More significantly, this perceived speed carried over to telephoto in good light as well. But while the HS20 performed steadily in quick autofocus acquisition at the wide-angle end of the zoom, as the lens was zoomed out towards maximum telephoto the camera became a bit inconsistent in acquiring focus - not an unusual occurrence in compacts zoomed to long telephoto focal ranges.

I had a difficult time trying to isolate hummingbirds in flight against a busy background of foliage and other backyard objects - the HS20 doesn't allow the user to size the focus area as some compacts do, and the camera kept selecting the background over the bird. The ability to minimize the focus point size for more precise focus selection would be a welcome addition to this camera's feature set.

Hummingbirds are an admittedly tough assignment to photograph and my best results (which weren't DSLR-esque) came by establishing focus at a point and then waiting for a bird to insert herself into the shot. By contrast, the same angle shot with a DSLR produced consistent results with the ability to isolate the bird in flight against the background. The HS20 produces good AF results for a compact, but it's not in the DSLR's league in this respect. Shutter lag seemed quick in the field and our studio results confirmed this - the HS20 produced a 0.01 shutter lag time.

The FinePix HS20 specifications list sensor shift (mechanical stabilization) as the image stabilization (IS) mechanism, but both the basic and regular user's manuals briefly mention a dual IS system utilizing both sensor shift and high ISO sensitivity. This dual system is enabled continuously by default - the user may opt to activate it in the act of shooting only or disable it altogether. Fuji recommends disabling the system when the camera is used on a tripod, which suggests that stabilization is an all or nothing package - certainly there are no menu items that allow the user to enable sensor shift while disabling the high ISO portion of the equation. In practice, shooting in the manual modes with ISO set by the user to something other than auto, the HS20 did not change ISO with the dual stabilization system enabled, so apparently you can keep the sensor shift stabilization and dispense with high ISO by going manual.

When shooting dark scenes or using the telephoto in EXR auto mode, the HS20 offers an "advanced anti blur" feature - disabled by default - that uses the camera's high-speed shooting prowess to combine four frames of higher ISO images at reduced resolution into a single image. I left this feature disabled for the review.

And while not stabilization per se, there is also a " best frame capture mode" that starts recording photos at 11 fps at 8 megapixel resolution with a half push the shutter button. When the shot you're waiting on appears, fully press the shutter button and the camera captures up to 16 frames including pre-recorded frames, giving you the opportunity to select the best shot.

Fujifilm lists a flash range of about 23.2 feet at wide-angle and 12.4 feet at telephoto; these values are obtained with ISO set for auto. Users can expect to not reach these figures using the built-in flash at the camera's base 100 ISO setting, but the flash power seems about average for cameras in this class. Recycle times range from 3 1/2 to about 5 seconds.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

Battery life is listed as 350 shots with alkaline batteries; 400 with nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) and 700 with lithium.

Lens Performance
The Fujifilm HS20's 30x zoom lens starts at a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at wide-angle and ends up an average f/5.6 at full telephoto. By the time the lens reaches approximately 30mm maximum aperture has started up to f/3.2 and f/5.6 is reached at a bit past 300mm. There is barrel distortion (verging on moustache distortion) present at 24mm which gradually decreases and then disappears at about 55mm; 55 to about 130mm looks largely distortion free with pincushion distortion commencing around 135mm on out to full telephoto.

Edges and corners of the frame are a bit soft at the wide-angle end of the zoom while the telephoto end looks uniformly a bit sharper across the entire frame. There is chromic aberration (purple fringing) present throughout the focal range in some areas composed of high contrast boundaries, but the effect typically requires enlargements in the 200 to 300% range to become readily noticeable. The EXR processor of the HS20 reportedly can identify and reduce chromic aberration, but whether it's the properties of the lens, characteristics of the processor or little bit of both, the HS20 does a fairly good job of dealing with purple fringing. It's not the best super zoom I've seen in this regard but certainly far from the worst.

Video Quality
Video capture in the HS20 is a simple matter of pushing the dedicated video button. Clip length for either full 1080 or 720 HD captures is 29 minutes; 640 x 480 resolution is 120 minutes and the three high-speed video modes are limited to 30 seconds each. Lens zooming and continuous autofocus are available during video capture but the camera will record the noise of either in operation.

HD image quality is good but the continuous AF option will sometimes hunt back and forth when it can't decide which portion of the frame to focus on. Because the HS20 uses a CMOS sensor rolling shutter effect must be taken into consideration. I noticed a bit of rolling shutter present when panning at unreasonably high speeds, but overall the HS20 does a pretty good job of dealing with this effect, which causes vertical lines to take on a skewed appearance when the camera pans quickly across them. Sound is recorded in stereo but the camera is susceptible to wind noise and there is no wind cut feature.

Image Quality
Default images out of the HS20 proved to be largely color accurate and pleasantly sharp. Here are examples of full auto and EXR auto along with aperture priority with sharpening and contrast increased - there is not much to choose between the default shots and the manual mode.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Auto
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
EXR Auto
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Aperture Priority

Image quality was even more impressive when I started pixel peeping at 100% enlargements. Full resolution JPEG fine quality images out of the HS20 seem to have fewer non-noise related artifacts than many other compact cameras I've encountered. Couple that with low noise at the 100 and 200 ISO sensitivities and the HS20 has the potential to produce some nice still imagery. The ability to designate the ISO sensitivity is one reason I encourage compact camera users to get comfortable with the manual exposure controls if their camera has them.

I spent a day at the beach and the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park shooting primarily auto and EXR auto to get an idea of what a user who never strayed from auto might expect in the way of images. It was interesting to note the camera selected the high resolution (HR) mode for the beach shot in bright conditions, and opted for dynamic range (DR) in the three zoo shots, which were taken in heavy shade or shaded areas. By going to DR the camera cuts resolution and ramps up ISO, and image quality takes a hit.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

It's fairly easy to handhold cameras at the wider angles without introducing camera shake (assuming an appropriately fast shutter speed) but with today's super zoom class featuring lenses in the 600, 700 and 800mm range at the telephoto end users need to give serious consideration to some form of camera support if they plan to shoot extensively at long end of the focal range. With their narrow field of view, large telephoto lenses (even stabilized) can be very unforgiving of camera shake induced by a shaky hold, punching the shutter button or other motion imparted to the camera by the user during image capture.

I used a monopod extensively when shooting telephoto shots for this review, but other options include a tripod or something as simple as a beanbag that can be placed on an object to serve as a base and help stabilize the camera during telephoto shooting. And even if you're not shooting telephoto, a tripod would have allowed for the zoo shots described in the previous paragraph to be made at 100 or 200 ISO with a longer shutter speed for better results.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

The HS20 offers the user a color palette (film simulation) based on the image performance of various Fuji films, but for our purposes we'll just refer to them as standard (the default), vivid, soft and black & white. There's also a sepia option. Here's a look at the colors and B&W:

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Standard
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Vivid
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Soft
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Black and White

I used auto white balance for all the images captured for this review and it performed well under a variety of lighting conditions, but I found it shot a bit warm under incandescent light. In addition to auto there is a custom setting as well as presets for direct sunlight, shade, daylight/warm white/cool white fluorescent and incandescent light sources.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Image exposure in the HS20 is accomplished by a 256 - zone system incorporating multi, spot or average methods. Multi is the default setting and uses a scene recognition program to adjust exposure for a wide range of lighting conditions. I used multi for all the images captured for this review, and in general it did a good job on normally lit subjects. Shooting high contrast scenes at the beach and in the wild animal park caused the HS20 to encounter more than its share of high contrast scenes. As with most compact digitals, the camera could and did lose highlights on occasion in some of these high contrast situations.

With resolution jumping from 10 to 16 megapixel, even considering a slightly larger sensor with backside illumination, it's understandable that folks might hold their breath while waiting to see what sort of high ISO noise performance the HS20 produces. And that answer is: not too bad.

ISO 100 and 200 sensitivities are relatively clean and difficult to tell apart; 400 ISO shows some faint vestiges of noise beginning to crop up in shadow areas while 800 is clearly becoming impacted by noise considerations - more visible grain and increased loss of fine details in portions of the picture. ISO 1600 seems to trigger a fairly healthy dose of in camera noise reduction, as the graininess that became more apparent at 800 seems reduced at the expense of an overall fairly significant softening of the entire image.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 100
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 200
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 400
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 800
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop


ISO 3200 offers increased graininess and image softness overall, but surprisingly is still retaining a few fine details in areas such as the AutoZone coin. For serious large print work 800 is about as high you'd want to go, while 1600 can probably be used for smaller prints and 3200 is best left for Internet or "when all else fails" type situations. There are 6400 and 12800 ISO sensitivities available, but at dramatically reduced resolutions. Here's an example of each.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
ISO 12800

Once again, clearly ISO settings of last resort.

Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image
Fujifilm HS20 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
The FinePix HS20 is Fuji's latest entrant in the ultrazoom compact digital sweepstakes, and while the camera size, shape and feel mimic that of a DSLR and Fuji ad copy makes references to DSLR - like performance and image quality, potential buyers of this camera should understand that, first and foremost, this is a compact digital camera with a very large focal range. That has always been the major attraction with super zoom compact digitals and it is the major selling point for the HS20 as well.


That big lens is supported with the latest in Fuji's hardware department, a newly designed sensor and processor, as well as a variety of automatic and manual shooting modes, face detection and recognition technology, and a true HD video capability.

It doesn't power up as quickly as a DSLR, AF acquisition times are slower than a DSLR and AF isn't as precise as a DSLR. Still image quality, while quite good for a compact digital camera is not up to DSLR levels. High ISO noise performance is not as good as a DSLR. And nothing in this paragraph should be construed as an indictment of the HS20's performance.

The HS20 is a fine super zoom with still image quality that is among the best I've seen from a camera in this class. In a way, I think Fuji did a disservice to the camera in suggesting it as a DSLR alternative, because in so many performance parameters the HS20 will finish as the runner-up when in fact it's being compared to a camera class that is very clearly configured for image capture performance at the next level. Better for Fuji to promote the HS20 for what it is - a very capable super zoom with good still image quality, good shutter lag and auto focus acquisition times, competitive high ISO performance within its class and a host of other features designed to appeal to both novice and advanced shooter like.

Pros:

Cons: