Fujifilm FinePix E550 Review
As the flagship model of its 2004 "E" series camera line, Fuji equipped the FinePix E550 with its proprietary Super CCD HR (High Resolution) sensor system with a native resolution of 6.3-megapixels, and in-camera interpolation of 12.3-megapixels. But Fuji didn't stop with the image sensor; the E550 received an upgraded lens, enhanced shooting performance, and more flexible focusing and metering modes than the E500 and E510 models we reviewed earlier in 2004. While the E550's more advanced features will have great appeal to the experienced photographer, it has retained the Automatic and Scene modes of its less-capable siblings, accommodating the needs of the beginner.
The E550 is equipped with a FUJINON 4x optical zoom lens with a range of 32.5mm to 130mm in 35mm equivalence. The lens' 4x range is more versatile than its 3x competitors, providing more field of view at wide angle and greater magnification at telephoto. The lens produced sharp results throughout its range, even at the corners. There was noticeable barrel distortion at full wide angle, but no pincushioning at full telephoto; some chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was present throughout the zoom range in high contrast areas, typical for a camera in this class. The operation of the optical zoom is smooth and quiet, but not continuous; it moves through its 32.5-130mm range in 13 distinct steps, adequate for composing most shots. Fuji offers 0.76x wide-angle 1.94x telephoto conversion lenses that extend the zoom range to 24.7mm-252.2mm; those accessories were not tested.
The FinePix E550's shooting performance is outstanding. From power up to first image captured averaged about 1.6 seconds, while taking an image from power-saving sleep mode took less than 1 second. Shutter lag, the delay between pressing the shutter release and capturing the image, measured less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 4/10 of a second including autofocus; the LCD viewfinder adds about 1/10 second to those numbers due to the delayed live image. Shot-to-shot delay averaged 1.5 seconds without use of the flash and between 4.5 and 9 seconds with the flash, depending on subject distance. The LCD viewfinder is turned off during flash recharge. The E550's continuous shooting modes capture 4 shots in 1 second; Final 4 mode releases the shutter up to 40 times, saving only the 4 images captured before removing your finger from the shutter button, while Top 4 mode captures and saves the first (and only) 4 images. The E550's responsiveness nearly matches the performance of consumer-class digital SLR's; you'll be able to capture most unposed moments and sports action without the delays typical of most consumer digicams. Our tests were done using a Fujifilm 512MB xD-Picture card, 12M/Fine size/quality, preview off, flash off (unless otherwise noted), and all other settings at default. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The fourth-generation Fujifilm Super CCD imager captures a native resolution of 6.3 megapixels (2848x2136) with an in-camera interpolation function to record images at 12.3-megapixels (4048x3040). We've never been big fans of in-camera interpolation, and the E550 has not changed our opinion. It's our experience that interpolated images are generally soft and offer little to no improvement over what can be obtained from the interpolation function of an image editor. However to obtain the camera's highest quality images, you'll be forced to use it; Fuji has eliminated image quality settings (JPG compression level) when using an image size other than the interpolated 12-megapixels. In our sample photos we posted both 6M and 12M/Fine shots so you can compare this for yourself. The E550 image quality settings include 12M Fine, 12M Normal, or your choice of 6M, 3M, 2M or 0.3M without control of compression. Although the E550's 6M images are aggressively compressed and unusually small at approx. 1.5-megabytes, we were generally pleased with them.
Other than the 6M with aggressive compression versus 12M with interpolation issue, I was pleased with the E550's outdoor results. The images were well-exposed and richly saturated. The lens and autofocus system combined to produce good image sharpness. The 4x optical zoom lens has plenty of field of view at wide angle for landscape shots, and the magnification at the 130mm telephoto end will bring your distant subjects closer. The LCD viewfinder has no anti-reflective coating; it was somewhat difficult to use for menu navigation and image review in bright sunlight despite its brightness adjustment.
I usually advise against the use of digital zoom, but the Fuji E550's is effective. To use it, set the camera to record at less than full resolution; digital zoom essentially performs an in-camera crop without degrading image quality, digitally zooming up to 1.4x for 6-megapixel images, 2x for 3-megapixel, 2.5x for 2-megapixels, or 6.3x at 640x480 resolution. If you need more magnification than the 130mm telephoto offers, and don't require the full 12-megapixel resolution for those shots, the E550's digital zoom is worth using.
Indoor shooting benefitted from the relatively powerful flash (14.8 foot range at wide angle) and better than average field of view at the wide angle end of the zoom range. The combination is good for portraits of individuals and moderate sized groups, but don't expect to illuminate a banquet room. You'll be able to include yourself in group portraits thanks to the E550's tripod socket and self-timer. Although it has no focus-assist lamp, the E550's autofocus system performed quite well in conditions of low ambient light, easily achieving focus lock in average incandescent room lighting. The LCD is not very useful as a viewfinder indoors, failing to "gain-up" the live image in conditions of low ambient light; you'll prefer to use the optical viewfinder. The E550 did a good job of squelching its flash during macro-photography, and would make an acceptable camera for online auction product shots. When using the Macro focus mode, the optical zoom is locked at wide angle.
The E550's body is small and light, easily fitting into your pocket or purse. Despite its small size, the controls are well organized and not subject to accidental activation. My only criticism of the body is that the battery/memory door access is blocked when the camera is mounted on a tripod. The E550's battery life is very good. Using a single pair of AA NiMH 2400mAh rechargeable batteries, I was able to capture about 200 shots before a low battery warning occurred. We always recommend using NiMH batteries when possible, they last longer, save you money, and you should always have an extra freshly-charged set on hand to avoid the disappointment of a unique photo op meeting a dead battery.
The Fuji FinePix E550, like its E500 and E510 siblings, has features that will please photographers of every experience level. But it greatest appeal will be found among advanced users; Fuji added ISO 800, Custom White Balance, Average metering mode, Continuous shooting modes, Exposure Bracketing, Continuous AF, AF Area mode, and a 640x480 30 fps movie mode to the rich feature set available on the E500 and E510. Its outdoor results are terrific, making it a good choice for your travel photos. Its shooting performance is impressive, making it suitable for action shots. Its 6-megapixel images are capable of producing high-quality 11x14-inch prints, and its movie mode is handy for capturing high quality short clips of family events. The E550's indoor results benefit from its wide angle zoom, good autofocus performance and adequate flash range. If you're looking for a stylish, pocketable family digicam with impressive performance and high resolution, the Fuji FinePix E550 is worthy of consideration. And with a street price of under $400 at the time of this review (September 2004), it's a good value.
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