In-depth review by Karsten Lemm
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What’s so special?
Making your camera go “click!” at just the right moment is crucial: Blink and you’ll miss it when your child scores a goal, a bee buzzes away from a flower, a surfer hits the waves. Most cameras can’t guarantee that you’ll capture a striking image when something happens in a split second – because even high-end models tend to top out at six or seven frames per second. The Casio, in contrast, manages to capture roughly ten times as many: up to 60 single images in one second. That should virtually guarantee a keeper, as it’s equivalent to the frame rate of slow-motion video.
Except we’re not talking about a video. These are 60 fullsize photos, each of them six megapixels in size. While that may seem relatively small by today’s standards, it’s easily big enough to allow prints the size of a small poster. For those preferring 9 megapixel photos, Casio offers a sister model to the EX-F1, the EX-FH20. (Catchy names!) The trade-off is a lower frame rate: The EX-FH20 takes a maximum of 40 pictures in one second – which is still plenty in most situations.
To make sure that you don’t miss a crucial snapshot, you can have the camera start taking pictures – buffering, in effect – before you fully release the shutter. After taking the 60 images you can either save them all or quickly review and choose which ones you’d like to keep.
The EX-F1 also offers high-definition video recording at both 1280 x 720 and 1920 x 1080 pixels, the standard HD formats. Alternatively, if you downsize the image to 336 × 96 pixels (micro YouTube format so to speak) you can shoot ultra-slomo video at 1,200 frames per second. No matter how useful that may be in practice, the impressive video tricks mean the Casio can serve as a very capable still camera one moment and a basic camcorder the next.
As a so-called bridge camera, the Exilim Pro sits between ultra-portable point-and-shoot minis and heavy, grown-up SLRs. At around $800 street price, the EX-F1 is much cheaper than a year ago, when it was introduced, but increasingly has to compete with very able entry-level SLR models, like Nikon’s D60, Canon’s Rebel XTi, and Sony’s Alpha A300.
The difference, of course, is that the Casio not only offers video shooting and 60 frames per second, but also a much stronger zoom right out of the box. It covers a lot of ground, beginning at near wide-angle (36 mm) and going all the way to 432mm. That allows you to get up close and personal from far away, even in relative low light, as the image stabilization will counteract any hand motion that would normally result in blurry images.
On the other hand, this is the one and only lens you get. It cannot be changed, as on an SLR, and similarly there is no optical viewfinder. Images are typically composed on the camera’s 2.8 inch screen, which we found to deliver a crisp and clear image even in bright sunlight. That’s a relatively rare feat, and a nice surprise, but all the more welcome as the only alternative – the electronic viewfinder – cannot be recommended except as a last resort. It’s dim and small and puts the image at such a distance that you may feel like a submarine captain gazing through the periscope.
In your hands
The Casio is relatively bulky and heavy, like similarly sized small SLR models. It’s not a camera you could slip into your jeans pocket and carry around all day. The target audience, clearly, are active photographers – those who deliberately go out in pursuit of the perfect picture. That’s why the EX-F1 supports shooting in RAW mode as well as JPG, recording uncompressed images that allow for maximum tweaking on the PC. The mode dial, too, speaks of the camera’s ambitions: It offers only four choices – automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual. Plenty of scene modes exist, too, but they are hidden in submenus.
Handling is hit and miss. A four-way button on the back controls many of the functions, and most of the basic settings, including aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation, can be accessed fairly directly, with just a few clicks. Anything more complex requires digging deeper into the menu structure. While this is better than the experience you get with most point-and-shoot cameras, in many situations it still feels woefully inadequate for creative photography. More than once I felt myself wishing for a dedicated flash button or direct controls for aperture and shutter speed, because clicking through the settings turned out to be far too time-consuming and cumbersome.
Zoom control, similarly, is a letdown. Casio opted for the electronic controls typical of superzooms and point-and-shoot cameras, which makes exact framing very hard. These systems have a tendency to overshoot in both directions, meaning you often lose precious seconds trying to zoom in or out a little bit more. It doesn’t help that the zoom is not exactly fast. SLRs have a clear advantage here in that you can manually adjust the focal length within a split second.
The autofocus generally works well – except when shooting video. With moving images, the Casio occasionally loses focus and starts to hunt for a sharp picture, especially when zooming or shooting in low light.
The EX-F1 is at its best outdoors on a sunny day when there’s some action to capture. Under these ideal conditions, images are crisp and clear, and shooting in high-speed mode is a lot of fun. Things get more tricky when the lighting becomes more challenging. White balance is often unreliable in our experience, and images tended to be underexposed in back-lighting conditions (that is, facing the sun). Ideally, the Casio should have activated the flash automatically to brighten the subject.
Low-light performance is fairly typical of cameras with small sensors: Noise is generally well controlled up to ISO 400, and the camera’s automatic ISO function, which decides when to choose a higher, somewhat noisier setting, does a good job. ISO 800 and 1600, however, result in visible image degradation and should be used as a last resort only. That’s a shame, as shooting indoors – say, at a party or a basketball game – usually requires a minimum of ISO 800.
For all these reasons, it would best to shoot in RAW mode, which allows for ultimate editing options in Photoshop & Co. – but unfortunately the otherwise speedy Exilim takes up to 4 seconds to save a single RAW file, even if you use a high-speed memory card.
The bottom line
Casio’s Exilim EX-F1 is – no doubt &nda
sh; a very innovative camera that offers a true feat of engineering: Capturing up to 60 fullsize frames in the blink of an eye can deliver stunning pictures that would otherwise be impossible to take. It’s no accident that Casio has won multiple awards for its EX-F1. Too bad, then, that this inventive superzoom is merely mediocre in many other ways. The unique high-speed capture of action, for example, is hampered by the slow and imprecise zoom. Maybe you won’t miss your best shots anymore once you’ve framed your picture – but getting there can be awfully time-consuming. Low-light performance and handling are sure to disappoint ambitious photographers, which means the EX-F1 is basically a point-and-shoot camera on steroids, with a very expensive price tag.
Additional Information and Remarks
Out of the box, the Exilim Pro comes with plenty of basic accessories. Lens hood, strap, battery charger? It’s all there.
If you have trouble operating your new camera, it doesn’t mean it’s broken – all it means is: it’s another gadget designed by engineers for engineers…
…and it doesn’t help if the manufacturer wants to save money by printing one manual for all the world. On the upside, here’s your chance to learn how to say “digital camera” in 18 more languages. Go for it! Photo: “White Balance..”
White balance can be hit and miss. Here, in the shade, the Casio is clearly confused and turns the white seagull mostly blue – despite the fill flash being used on purpose to brighten things up.
Generally, the Exilim does a good job finding the right exposure – even in tricky situation such as this one, where the camera had to find a compromise between dark foreground and bright background. The ferry in front of the Golden Gate Bridge pays the price with some slight overexposure, but overall the Casio struck a good balance.
…but the powerful zoom (432mm maximum) allows you to get close, even when you’re actually far away. Here is Alcatraz, as seen from San Francisco’s Aquatic Park.
Even at 35mm, some barrel distortion is sometimes clearly visible – witness bending lampposts in this image.
Here, the EX-F1 flunked the back-lighting test: in automatic mode, the camera should have recognized that the robot would be underexposed because the sun is in its back – time for the flash to brighten things up.
The onboard flash isn’t always particularly flattering – typical of this kind of flash. Since the head can’t be adjusted, it doesn’t allow for any kind of indirect lighting, such as bouncing the flash off the ceiling.
Thanks to the Exilim’s image stabilizer it’s possible to take low-light photos and still get decent results without a tripod. At 1/5th of a second, as in this example, you may have to press the shutter a few times more often, though, to end up with a keeper. Reliably good results, in our experience, are possible right down to 1/20th of a second.