Fujifilm FinePix HS30EXR Review
Fuji's HS30EXR is a compelling choice among the ultrazooms that crowd the market, can it outshine its predecessor?
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Of the many ultrazoom cameras in this crowded section of the market, Fujifilm's HS series stands out as one of the most compelling to enthusiasts. Like the HS20 before it, the HS30 is distinguished by a mechanical zoom ring surrounding the lens, plus a by-wire focus ring further up the barrel, making this fixed-lens camera feel less amateurish than the competition. Aware of their audience, Fujifilm added core improvements like a new sensor and the ability to shoot RAW, instead of extending the lens past 30x, which would've risked a drop in image quality.
New sensor or not though, image quality is still rather mediocre. Hit-or-miss white balance tends to ruin the camera's best feature, color accuracy, and both sharpness and noise reduction lag behind the competition. Image quality is extremely poor at the longest focal length, and shots at every zoom ratio are affected by distortion as well. We dislike the menu, which is slow and inefficient, and the camera body itself -- no different from the older HS20 model -- is a let-down too. It feels cheap and the placement of the flash is obstructive. Nevertheless, this FinePix HS30EXR is still a better value than Fujifilm's overpriced X-S1. The FinePix is priced consistently with the competition at $499.95, and comes only in black.
Design & Usability
Some aspects of handling are distinctly high-end while others are just the contrary.
Bridge cameras like these are modeled after ergonomic SLRs. Texture and extra sticky rubberization surround the body, making it very easy to grip (Hey other manufacturers, are you paying attention?). The HS20 is—let's face it—completely identical to its predecessor, the HS20. Woefully, we still hate the placement of the flash, which sticks out and over the zoom and focus rings, making it very difficult to turn them all the way around without impediment. This is most unwelcome, because zoom action is a little sticky to begin with and the focus ring is pesky too, seeing as it's a "by-wire" solution (meaning your input doesn't directly manipulate the glass, but rather triggers a motor which moves the glass). The body still feels cheap too. We patiently await the redesign.
Overall, this probably isn't a great camera for beginners, but experienced users should adapt pretty quickly. The button layout is divided between the right and left sides of the body, so shooting is two-handed. The menu system is a high contrast, low resolution interface that displays too-few options at once across many pages of settings. Finding the one you're looking for is a slow process. The entire default color scheme is a low-end eyesore, and the interface can also slow down dramatically at times. Finally, there is no "quick menu," but that's because most of the appropriate settings get their own physical button instead. This is ideal, but again, will take some getting used to.
Fujifilm focuses on features that lend more control
Enthusiasts will appreciate how ancillary features are dropped in favor of flexibility and control for video and drive modes. For a $500 camera, video sharpness is very disappointing, but the HS30's key feature is in fact its lens. This is a 30x optical zoom barrel, unique for its mechanical manual ring, found only on Fujifilm ultrazooms. This lens is capable of zooming in or out much quicker than even the most responsive competitor, and the ability to focus close-up is just amazing. With "Super Macro" focus mode, it's possible to lock as close as 1 centimeter away—with subjects nearly touching the glass. Three shooting resolutions of varying size are available for each of three aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, 16:9), for a total of nine size options. JPEG compression quality may be set to either Normal or Fine, and the HS30 is even capable of shooting in RAW or RAW + JPEG simultaneously.
Like the HS20, the HS30 also has an electronic viewfinder, which senses when the eye peers through the finder and automatically swaps the display from the LCD. The screen has decent resolution and even pivots to help frame shots, but rendition of color and detail are harsh and response time is too slow for action photography. There are two automatic modes to shoot with, or three if you count EXR.
The full-sized mode dial features all four "PASM" shooting modes, a custom mode, two scene mode presets, and dedicated stops for EXR and panorama modes. With all the priority modes available, achieving correct exposure is nearly as flexible as it would be on a DSLR. Lastly, continuous photography is possible with four different speeds, and there are also brackets for exposure, dynamic range, and film simulation settings. Fujifilm lists the best full resolution shooting speed at 8 frames per second, but the best we could do was 7.5. What's worse, the buffer fills up after only four or five shots, after that, speed is reduced to the vicinity of 0.5 frames per second (RAW is even slower).
The HS30 struggles from afar, excels up close
In terms of image quality and performance, this HS30 has excellent color accuracy, wonderful macro focus... and not much else. Regarding color accuracy, this Fuji produced results just short of what we expect from DSLRs. Colors were nearly perfect aside from a bit of over-saturation here and there. If possible, try to manually white balance when shooting, because when the white balance system fails, it fails hard. White balance malfunctions occurred under all indoor illumination, and even sometimes in outdoor daylight, producing unpleasant, tinted images.
Another problem to be aware of is that performance and image quality drop drastically at 30x, which is just too much for this Fuji's glass. Happily though, we were impressed by the macro focusing capabilities, which allow focus on subjects even if they're touching the very lens itself. Fujifilm marketing materials advertise this feature prominently, and for good reason.
Be aware too that, without reduction software, noise pollutes an image at every ISO level. By ISO 800, noise weighs in at an unacceptable rate, which means low-light photography with this camera is basically not an option (why the HS30 boasts ISOs 6400 and 12800 is mysterious indeed).
Try, try again, Fujifilm (and once more, please).
Though the Fujifilm FinePix HS30EXR is a solid superzoom, we come away from this review a bit disappointed. When we heard the HS30 would stick with the same zoom ratio as its predecessor, we thought "perfect, they're going to work on image quality instead of just more and more zoom." Yet here we are again — one year later — talking about a camera we want to love, but don't.
Despite a supposedly-new sensor, image quality remains less than remarkable. Hit-or-miss white balance, so-so sharpness, and mediocre noise reduction are all disappointments. Design-wise, the body still feels cheap, giving us little confidence in quality and durability. The obstructive flash is still a bother and the menu system remains slow and inefficient. At the end of the day, this seems like a unit that was cheaply and easily manufactured to help scrape up some extra revenue before a true update arrives next year.
What Fujifilm needs to do to bring this series into contention is...well, exactly what we thought they were going to do. Stick with 30x zoom, stick with the manual rings, and focus on image quality. Improve the glass so it still looks sharp at maximum magnification. Start over with yet another new sensor. No, not the one from the X-S1—that camera takes lousy pictures too—unless the price comes down, because $800 is not an acceptable price for a superzoom. That's the formula, but until our dreams become reality, the HS30EXR is just another superzoom and can be safely ignored.
Armed with an extensive set of standardized, scientific tests, we set out to see what this FinePix could really do. We tested white balance, sharpness, speed, color, and much more. The results were mostly disappointing, as the HS30EXR does not dramatically improve on the predecessor's mediocre scores.
Color accuracy seems to be one of the HS30's best features, though at times the white balance automation threatens this performance.
The HS30 returned an uncorrected error value of only 2.62, which is better than average and just shy of what we expect from DSLRs. Looking over the gamut, we can see that errors are largely restricted to bright reds and oranges, with all other shades nigh on perfect. Saturation is over by about 8% though, and this will cause scenes to appear a little more vivid than they should.
On a related note, color modes on this camera take the form of Fujifilm's "Film Simulation" modes, which harken back to the company's old line of traditional film brands (including Provia, Velvia, and Astia). The most accurate one is Provia, and we recommend shooting with it at all times. The other two worsen color accuracy dramatically, and each increase saturation to around 120%. Two other color modes for monochrome and sepia are also available.
We should mention too that were problems with this camera's white balance. The automatic white balance algorithm was very unpredictable under all indoor illumination, and below average for outdoor daylight too. This was a huge issue at times. We saw shots cast in a green tint, or even bright pink. Inside our controlled test enclosure, incandescent light was off by as much as 2000 K, but manually white balancing reduced all errors to less than 200 K in all lighting situations.
Without reduction software, noise pollutes shots at every ISO level, especially at 800 and above.
For consistency's sake, most of our testing requires deactivation of extra shooting enhancement like sharpness correction or, in this case, noise reduction. When configured like this, the HS30 is very weak.
Fujifilm is at least honest about their noise reduction settings, at least we assume so, because the "Low" noise reduction setting appears to make little or no effort at all to remove noise. Artifacting rates start off at a too-high value of 0.85% at ISO 100, then immediately cross 1.00% at ISO 200. By ISO 800 noise is already weighing in at an unacceptable 2.51%, then the algorithm kicks things into high gear, reeling in noise for ISO 1600, but then spiking again at 3200 for a maximum full resolution noise rate of 2.89%.
So the result of this noise distribution is a graph with two "peaks," one at ISO 800, and one at ISO 3200. That plays a role in the perception of dynamic range, as beyond ISO 800 the increased noise reduction gets rid of a lot of shadow detail, making it difficult to recover.
The native sensitivity spectrum ranges from ISO 100 to 3200. Why you should want to go higher than that—considering this camera's performance—is beyond us, but the option is there: ISO 6400 and 12800 are unlocked, but each cause a drop in resolution.
30x is too much for this glass, and severe fringing becomes apparent while zooming in
Chromatic aberration is largely controlled in the center of the frame and at modest focal lengths, but things go downhill quickly at maximum zoom. The center of the frame is still okay, but the glass just cannot keep up anymore at the corners, and severe, obvious fringes appear. Expect these to manifest themselves as bright purple borders in high contrast areas.
Radial distortion is severe throughout the focal range. We observed over 1.00% pincushion distortion at both middle and maximum focal lengths, plus 1.11% barrel distortion at the closest focal length.
We've only tested a few fixed-lens cameras for dynamic range, but this one is at the bottom of the barrel.
Dynamic range is poor, even for a fixed-lens camera. The best performance can be found at ISO 100, where the HS30 can manage 5.72 stops of dynamic range. By ISO 3200, this figure drops to 0 stops.
...wait. Zero stops? That doesn't make any sense.
Here's the thing. Our dynamic range test, in its current state, is based on signal-to-noise ratio. Our specially-designed chart displays light levels with a controlled drop off through isolated patches. The chart gives us 20 full stops of dynamic range, which we capture with the test camera. We then measure how many patches each camera can expose with a signal-to-noise ratio of more than 10:1. Now, we already know the HS30 is a very noisy camera, so noisy in fact, that by ISO 3200, there are no zones left at all where signal-to-noise ratio is better than 10:1.
This isn't terribly uncommon in point-and-shoots, but it's never a good thing.
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