Casio EX-FH20 Review
By Mike Flacy
Following the success of the popular EX-F1 from last year (2008), Casio has added yet another model to their line of 'High Speed' Exilim models, the Exilim EX-FH20. While the EX-FH20 is not quite as fast as the EX-F1, it does offer almost 50% more resolution with a 9-megapixel CMOS image sensor as well as a wider and longer 20x zoom range. Like it's sibling, this new camera is an 'SLR' style, prosumer model with vast exposure options. Advanced users can grasp as much control as they want with aperture priority, shutter speed priority and full manual exposure modes. Casio didn't forget about the beginners or novice users either, with an Auto (Program AE) mode as well as 18 pre-programmed Best Shot modes that will help these users capture the best possible shots in various shooting environments.
Other important features include: a high-speed CMOS image sensor, RAW and JPEG still image modes, 3.0-inch wide view 'Super Clear' LCD, high resolution EVF (Electronic ViewFinder), manual pop-up flash unit, 40fps burst speeds at 7-megapixels, 1000fps HS movie mode (no sound), 720p HD movie recording at 1280x720 (30fps), AA-size battery power, and a SD/SDHC/MMC memory card slot.
I was pleased with the build quality of the FH20. This camera offers an 'SLR' like feel with a nice large hand-grip and lens barrel. I especially liked the rubber accents on the front and back of the camera where your hand rests. Combined, these features help ensure you have a nice secure grip on the camera. While the FH20 is not a compact model, it is small enough to fit into a small camera bag, backpack or even a mid-sized purse. When you have 4 AAs installed, the camera offers a nice weight, heavy enough to feel 'well-made', but light enough for extended shooting. The various camera controls are all laid out comfortably, within reach of both your thumb and index finger. I was a bit sad to see that Casio did not include a separate Movie mode shutter release like we saw on the F1, and we also miss the nice Control Ring that was mounted on the lens barrel.
Framing, image review, and menu access is handled by the FH20's 3.0-inch wide LCD monitor and an EVF. Each display features over 200,000 pixels of resolution, which offers a nice clear viewfinder image. While the displays work well in various lighting conditions, I found the LCD could benefit from an anti-glare coating. In fact, the LCD monitor is very reflective and collects smudges and fingerprints easily. The EVF features a rubber eye cup to help make it more comfortable, however I found it was rather stiff. This, coupled with the fact that the eye piece is so small, discouraged me from using the EVF too often. When shooting in marginal lighting, like indoors, both monitors gain up nicely, helping you see your subject for framing. While both screens will display the menus and playback of stored images, there is an option in the Setup menu to set the priority to the LCD. This means, when you hit the menu or playback button, the live image will switch to the LCD. I favored having this function enabled during our tests; the default setting is off. The FH20's onscreen menu system is similar to the past models, so those who have had Casio cameras in the past will feel right at home. Overall, I felt the menu choices were logically organized and I especially like the 'Panel' shortcut menu. It allows you to change various camera functions (depends on the mode being used) right on the screen, without having to enter the menus.
Like we mentioned earlier, Casio has increased the zoom capabilities of the FH20 with a new 20x optical zoom lens that covers a broad focal range of 26 to 520mm (in 35mm equivalence). With a nice wide angle extreme and plenty of telephoto magnification, the FH20 offers a great deal of versatility for composing shots. At the 26mm end, you will have a nice field of view for indoor groups shots as well as nice wide outdoor landscapes. The mid range works nicely for tight framing of your subject(s), while the telephoto end will allow you to get up close and personal to far off objects. Overall, I found this lens helps the FH20 produce sharp images throughout the zoom range, with only a small amount of edge softness present. The lens also exhibits moderate barrel distortion at full wide angle and slight pincushioning at the telephoto end. Chromatic Aberrations (aka purple fringing in high contrast areas) are a common lens distortion on consumer models, especially super-zooms. Our sample images showed only a few instances of CA, showing that the camera controls this annoyance well.
Shooting performance was very robust for a super-zoom model. Start up time took about 3.8 seconds from power-up to first image captured. Shutter lag, the time it takes for the camera to capture an image after you have depressed the shutter release, was almost instantaneous when the camera is pre-focused and as fast as 1/10 of a second to 6/10 of a second including the autofocus system, depending on the amount of focus change required. In single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.4 seconds between frames without the flash, and 1.5 - 2 seconds with the flash. This was pretty impressive when you consider that this camera uses AA type batteries, which usually cause slower flash recharge times.
There are several CS or Continuous Shutter modes to choose from (High-Speed CS, Prerecord (still image), or Flash CS). The High-Speed CS mode is rated at up to 40fps at 7M, and allowed me to capture 40 frames in just 0.7 seconds! While not full resolution 9M images, these are still 7-megapixel images with plenty of resolution for large prints. After the 40th frame is captured a menu pops up asking if you'd like to Save Selected, Save all, or Cancel save. When you choose save all, it takes all 60 frames and turns them into a single animated file (kinda like a movie). You can then select the Divide group option in the Playback menu, and it will separate each frame into it's own 7M Fine JPEG image (quality depends on what you are currently using.) Via the Panel shortcut menu, you can set the max. frame rate as well enable the Prerecord function. Switching to Flash CS allowed me to capture 5 images in only 0.7 seconds (about 7fps!). Again, using the Panel menu allows you to choose the maximum number of frames the camera will capture in each sequence (1, 3 or 5). In HS mode, the LCD and EVF quickly show the last image captured, making it possible to track a moving subject. However, when using Flash CS mode both displays go blank until you are finished recording. The EX-FH20 also offers RAW image capture. Using this feature slows the camera's shot to shot performance quite a bit, as I averaged 6.2 seconds between frames. While this is Very slow, I don't really expect too many users will be using this feature. Our tests were completed using a SanDisk Extreme III 4GB SDHC memory card, Auto shooting mode, ISO Auto, flash off, anti-shake on, preview off, and all other settings at the factory defaults. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The Exilim EX-FH20's 9-megapixel Fine setting produces some very nice photos. The AE (Auto Exposure) system performed well outdoors, creating pleasing exposures. In fact, I found that these exposures were slightly under exposed, which I personally favor as you can easily bump up the brightness later, where as with an overexposed image you are pretty much out of luck. Colors are very natural, and the white balance system seems to do well in a variety of lighting conditions. I like the fact that you have the ability to be more creative and 'dial in' that certain look with various settings for contrast, saturation, sharpness, and color filters. As I mentioned earlier, the 20x optical zoom helps the FH20 capture nice sharp images, with minimal edge softness. The built-in Anti-Shake system helped me capture sharp handheld images at 100%, like our Eagle Crest shots.
Noise levels are a bit higher than I was hoping to see from the camera's CMOS image sensor. The lower settings (100/200) look relatively good, with small traces of noise visible in darker shadow areas of an image when viewing at 75-100%. At ISO 400, noise is a bit stronger in the low contrast areas, however these images still look very usable for printing, and should have no problems creating decent 4x6 to 8x10-inch photos. ISO 800 and 1600 look rather bad in my opinion. While the 800 setting has the possibility of creating Ok looking 4x6-inch prints, I can not say the same thing about ISO 1600. I personally would leave the camera at IS0 100 or 200, and only use a max of 400 when shooting in very dim lighting conditions where you can't use the flash; where the extra sensitivity will help increase shutter speeds. Luckily, the FH20 does offers in-camera image stabilization or 'Anti-shake', which will help you keep these settings as low as possible.
The FH20's pop-up flash offers a generous range of up to 23 feet at wide angle, using ISO Auto. I found the flash was quite powerful when using the dedicated Portrait Best Shot exposure mode. In fact, if I was closer than 5 feet away, the flash was a bit too strong. I achieved the best result from about 8 feet away using the mid range of the zoom (approx 139mm). The Face detection system had no problems locking on to our young subjects face, and overall the camera produced very pleasing indoor portraits. When shooting close-up objects using the macro focus mode, the camera controlled the output nicely to ensure it did not blow out (overexpose) the image. You can see an example by taking a look at the candy dish shot on the samples page.
One of the only issues I had with the EX-FH20 while out shooting our sample images was the AF system. It seemed to have a lot of trouble focusing on our brick building shots, as well as the WWII canon shot. These were very well lit subjects, and it was odd that the camera had any troubles at all. In order to capture the images on our samples page, I had to repeatedly press the shutter release half-way until the camera finally locked focus. Luckily, there is a manual focus option that will allow you to overcome this issue if the camera can not seem to focus properly.
The FH20 offers more movie mode options than most cameras on the market today as well as some of the fastest frame rates. Using the HS (High-Speed) movie mode, you can choose from frame rates of 30 - 1000fps. These are so fast, that the human eye can not even keep up. Luckily, captured movies playback in a 'slow-motion' style. The only issue I saw with the 1000fps mode, was the field of view is a very narrow (224x56) and hard to frame with. The 210fps and 420fps modes offer a bit better field of view, and should be great for capturing sports and other action movies. The only other downfall with HS mode is the fact that No sound is recorded. Also, because of the 'slow-motion' type playback, 10 seconds of recording time can end up being a 3 minute clip on the camera.
Other than the typical Standard Definition 640x480 (30fps) mode, you can also capture 720p HD resolution video at 1280x720 (30fps). Overall, I found the FH20's movie modes produced nice smooth video, with natural colors, accurate exposure, and average compression noise. One thing to consider is this camera records video in Motion JPEG (.AVI) format, which consumes a bit more space than the MPEG-4 (H.264/AVC) format that was featured on F1. So, if you plan on using this camera to record movies often, I highly recommend you purchase a large capacity memory card, like the 4GB SDHC we used.
Casio decided to use AA type batteries to power the FH20. While they do not offer the same battery life as Li-ion packs, these cells can be purchased just about anywhere, adding to the overall versatility of this camera. Casio claims you can capture up to 230 frames using Alkalines or up to 440 shots with high-capacity NiMH cells. In order to achieve the best performance from your batteries, be sure you tell the camera which type you are using via the setup menu (Alkaline or NiMH). I was able to capture about 135 image, several short movie clips, and conclude our other tests with power to spare from our Ansmann (2850 mAh) NiMH batteries.
Bottom Line - the Casio Exilim EX-FH20 was a bit of a mixed bag. While it produces very pleasing images and offers some of the fastest burst speeds available, the EVF and AF system problems I encountered hinder my full recommendation of this camera. Plus, with an MSRP of US$599, this model is priced $150 to $200 more than its competition; like the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS which is US$399, Olympus SP-590 UZ at US$449 or Panasonic FZ28 at US$349. At that price, we are crossing over into entry-level dSLR territory, and for the performance and features you are getting from the FH20, it will have trouble competing.
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