28 April 2009

Casio EX-FH20BK EXILIM 9-Megapixel Digital Camera - Black

Casio took the theory of high speed digital cameras to the extreme with its 6 megapixel EX-F1 with blazing 60 frames per second continuous shooting and 1200 fps high speed movie mode. Following in the F1's footsteps is the smaller, lighter, and less expensive 9 megapixel Casio Exilim EX-FH20.

Although not quite as fast as its older sibling, the FH20 still offers mind-boggling velocity at 40 frames per second continuous shooting and 1000 fps high speed movie mode. At the same time, with its 20x optical zoom the FH20 easily fits into the highly-competitive ultrazoom category. But is the FH20 a one-trick pony, or can the camera hold its own when the high speed factor is removed from the equation?

At its core, the 9.1 megapixel, CMOS-sensor equipped EX-FH20 meets or exceeds the definition of an ultrazoom camera. Its 20x optical zoom lens starts at what is becoming the wide-angle norm of 26mm and extends to 520mm (35mm-equivalent). Sensor-shift image stabilization helps avoid blur when shooting telephoto. And, like other ultrazooms, the FH20 offers a wide range of manual and automatic settings so experienced-and not so experienced-photographers can easily take advantage of this camera's zoom and speed capabilities.

The FH20 has four basic manual shooting modes, as well as a full auto setting and a unique Best Shot mode.

* Program AE: The camera sets the shutter speed and aperture but the user has the option to set a full range of camera settings.
* Shutter Priority (Tv): Shutter speed is set by the user; aperture set by the camera
* Aperture Priority (Av): Aperture is set by the user; shutter speed set by the camera.
* Manual: Both shutter speed and aperture are set by the user
* Auto: All but a few settings are selected by the camera.
* Best Shot: The camera chooses settings according to one of the 18 scene options selected by the user, including standards such as Portrait, Scenery, and Night Scene Portrait as well as specialties such as Multi-image Motion.

The FH20's Best Shot mode has several functions that go beyond a basic "scene" position. The aforementioned Multi-image Motion option, for instance, captures continuous action images and combines them into one photograph, which is great for capturing the step-by-step swing and hit of your child's homerun or his or her gymnastic moves. You can also create your own Best Shot mode, saving your favorite settings for focus, white balance, flash, ISO metering, dynamic range, color filter and more. Just be aware that since this information is saved on the camera, it will be deleted if/when you format the internal memory.

Other Features
Of course, the main attraction of this camera is its speedy continuous shooting and movie modes. The former presents a great opportunity for grabbing a series of images that, upon close inspection, reveal the minutest differences in a subject's movement from one frame to the next. My first encounter with this feature was at a Casio press conference with three hockey players running some drills on a public ice skating rink.

Shooting with the FH20 was exhilarating but, in some ways, overwhelming since the camera is capturing images so quickly and it's easy to feel like you have no control. And, in some ways you don't have any control since the flash is off, the zoom doesn't work (which really doesn't matter because you won't have the time to operate the lens once you start shooting) and, at 40fps, the resolution is lowered to 7 megapixels. If 40fps is faster than you need, you can adjust the speed in the camera menu and, at about 1-30fps, increase the resolution to 8 megapixels.

After you finish shooting at high speed, you can choose to save all the images shot in a single sequence or pick and choose the ones you want to keep. The latter process is a little time-consuming (as is the time it takes for the camera to write all the images to the SD/SDHC card) but you can also arrange the images into groups that make sorting through them a lot easier. And, for fun, these images can be played back like a short animation.

Another method of capturing sequential action-and to make sure you don't miss the key shot-is the FH20's pre-record shooting mode. Essentially, the camera continuously captures the scene and keeps up to 5 seconds of the latest action in the buffer. When you press the record button, the camera saves the previous 5 seconds and continues to shoot and save images in real time. This feature is not new but it's useful when you're anticipating that something important will happen, i.e. your child is running up the field towards the goal and you want to make sure you get the shot(s) if he or she scores.

Move In CS and Move Out CS options are kind of interesting. Similar to the pre-recording mode, Move In CS automatically captures the scene immediately before and after the subject moves into a shot. Move Out CS works the same way except that it's triggered when a subject moves out of a shot.

The camera also offers continuous shooting with flash. Just pop up the flash, choose if you want 1, 3 or 6 fps image capture and shoot away. You can also set the camera to record up to 10 images in this mode, keeping in mind that the reach of the flash decreases as the number of shots captured increases.

Several movie mode options are also available, including high definition, standard shooting and high speed. There's also a YouTube mode that records movies with a choice of sizes and speed ideal for YouTube. (Casio includes a YouTube uploader application with the camera but the software only works with Windows; Mac users will have to use another method of uploading – not a big deal, though.)

But the high speed movie mode is what really sets this camera apart. You can change the fps count from 30 to 1000fps. Obviously, the 30fps isn't high speed but the other options are. What's so cool about high speed movie recording is that it plays back in slow motion. For example, a 10 second clip shot at 210fps will take about 70 seconds to play back. The only drawbacks are that the higher the speed, the smaller the file size. For example, shooting at 1000fps delivers a 224x56 pixel clip – a very narrow (as though it were letterbox) low resolution video that's good for the web but not for much else. And, there's no audio recording in this mode so you'll have to add your own soundtrack or watch a silent movie. Still, it was fun to record and play NYC traffic in motion, with cabs moving at a fraction of the speed they normally do.

Some of the other notable features on this camera include DNG (a type of RAW file), on-board help, face detection, built-in color filters (b&w, sepia, red, green, blue, yellow, pink, purple) and a myriad of adjustment options. For example, the dynamic range can be adjusted in high contrast shots to help maintain shadow and highlight details and saturation, sharpness and contrast can be tweaked in record mode. If you're not happy with your images, playback mode also allows you to adjust the white balance and brightness and saves a separate file of the corrected image.

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.

Styling and Build Quality

It's no surprise that the FH20, like many ultrazooms, has the look and feel of a small digital SLR.

Ergonomics and Interface
Featuring a nice-sized grip, the FH20 is comfortable to hold and feels pretty solid in the hand. Even with the camera's anti-shake mechanism, it's important to have a substantial size and weight to counterbalance its long zoom and the FH20 provides enough of a grip and weight to help steady the camera when shooting.

When I first unpacked the FH20, there was a huge surprise, though. The mode dial – which usually provides access to shooting options like Auto, Aperture-priority, Shutter-speed priority and Manual – was pretty bare. There are five icons on the mode dial: Single Shot, High Speed Continuous Shooting, Flash CS, High Speed Movie, and HighDef/Standard Movie.

There are a number of dedicated controls scattered on the camera's surface including Display, Best Shot (scene mod) Menu, Set, and LCD/EVF (a button to switch between viewing on the LCD and the Electronic Viewfinder), as well as a green Playback button and a red Record button that, in addition to the standard power button, also can start up the camera. Macro and AE lock buttons are located on the lens barrel.

Most functions, however, are accessed via camera menus. For the most commonly changed settings, all you have to do is turn on the camera's Panel-a vertical, on-screen menu that is operated by the four-way controller and Set button. For example, you can easily change the shooting mode (i.e., Auto, Aperture-priority, etc.), the file size/ format, ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, metering, AF area (spot, selectable, tracking) and flash modes. If you'd rather have the full LCD view with no menu, all you have to do is press the up arrow on the four-way controller to quickly open the Panel.

Like all ultrazooms, the FH20 is equipped with both an LCD and an EVF (electronic viewfinder). The high resolution (230,400 dots) 3.0 inch LCD is clearly visible under most lighting conditions. My only complaint is that it really didn't gain up under low light.

The EVF is a little small but otherwise works well and is good alternative to the LCD under very bright conditions. Additionally, holding the camera up to your eye provides an extra level of insurance against blurry pictures since you'll have a firmer grip on the camera. While the FH20's sensor-shift stabilization works well, a little extra help keeping the camera steady is a good idea when shooting telephoto.

Timings and Shutter Lag

Obviously, the FH20 is a speed demon when it comes to continuous shooting, although the highest resolution you can attain in burst mode is 8 megapixels. But that's fine, especially when you consider the camera can attain a speed of 30fps at that resolution. The camera will capture up to 40 frames at that speed, which is just a little over a second, but you'd be surprised at how long a second really is considering how much action you can capture in that time.

How does the FH20 perform otherwise? Pretty well, actually. Overall the camera is responsive and, when prefocused, has barely perceptible shutter lag. Start-up time felt about average for a camera of its class: slower than standard point-and-shoot models, but about the same as ultrazooms. If you want to be ready to capture action, don't turn the camera off since you'll have to wait 2-3 seconds for the FH20 to power on and extend the lens.

Auto Focus
Three auto focus modes are available on the FH20: Spot, Free, and Tracking. Spot AF is pretty self-explanatory – the camera focuses on a small area in the center of the image. Free, also known as selectable AF, allows you to move the focus frame to the area of your choice. Tracking, as its name implies, will track a moving subject throughout the frame; all you have to do is half-press the shutter button and hold it down. Face Detection is also available and, like Tracking AF, it works pretty well in most cases.

But the FH20's auto focus isn't nearly as impressive as its continuous shooting speed. While it can hold its own against much of the ultrazoom competition – and will work for most situations – the FH20 doesn't have the zippiest AF on the market. The exception is probably at full wide angle, when the camera does a good job of quickly locking in focus. Also keep in mind that when shooting in high-speed CS, the camera sets the focus in the first shot and it remains fixed for the remainder of the burst.

Lens and Zoom
Like many of its competitors, the FH20 offers a 20x optical zoom with sensor shift stabilization. Starting at 26mm and extending all the way to 520mm, and equipped with macro and super macro options, the FH20's lens meets or exceeds the needs of pretty much all photographers. Those of you who like to photograph close-ups of flowers, insects and other tiny objects will especially appreciate the camera's ability to focus as close as 0.4 inches in super macro mode...you'll need to stay at wider angles for the best macro shots, though.

It's hard to avoid lens distortion when equipping a camera with such an incredible focal range. That said, the FH20 does a pretty good job at keeping barrel distortion (bending outward of straight lines, like a barrel) to a minimum at wide angle. Unfortunately, there's some pin cushion distortion (bending inward of straight lines) at telephoto but in most scenes, you probably won't notice it.

At f/2.8 at wide angle to f/4.5 at telephoto, the lens is relatively fast. Naturally, the camera's sensor-shift stabilization will help if/when you need to shoot at slower-than-average shutter speeds. Use the EVF instead of the LCD to help brace the camera against your eye and body to add a little extra stability under low light conditions.

The on-board flash provides a decent range for most shooting conditions. At wide angle, the flash covers a range from 1.3 feet to 23 feet, which is more than sufficient for illuminating a group of people in a relatively large space. Coverage for telephoto changes to about 4.3 feet to 14.4 feet.

The FH20 doesn't have a hot shoe, but you can adjust the intensity of the flash output by +/-2 EV, which gives you some flexibility.

Image Stabilization
Casio has equipped the FH20 with three possible options to combat camera shake. The first, and the most desirable, is sensor-shift IS, where the sensor moves when camera shake is detected and the ISO can be set manually to a reasonable (non-noisy) level.

The second anti-shake option boosts the ISO so you can shoot at a higher shutter speed. And, finally, you can utilize both the sensor-shift IS and high ISO anti-shake.

Obviously, you'll get the least noise when using sensor-shift stabilization and, while it's not the best IS system on the market (you might gain one or two stops, especially at telephoto), it's certainly a better option than the noise-producing anti-shake high ISO modes.

The camera is powered by four AA batteries, and Casio includes a set of AA alkalines with the camera to get you started. However, you're much better off using NiMH rechargeables not only because it's better for the environment vs. using disposable AAs but also because NiMH batteries almost double the number of still images you'll be able to shoot on a single charge to 400. Also be sure to use a high speed, high capacity SDHC card for the optimum performance when shooting since a 1GB card holds only about 4 minutes 22 seconds of HD movies (and only a minute or 2 more in 1000fps mode). I tested the camera with an 8GB SanDisk Extreme III card, which provided more than enough room for a day of still and short movie clips.

Casio has really pulled ahead of the pack when it comes to high speed shooting with the FH20. This camera is like no other on the market (well, other than the Casio Exilim F1) and, in that regard, is a star.

Unfortunately, as a high speed camera and as an ultrazoom, the FH20's image quality – both still and video – isn't great. But if capturing action is your thing, then you should definitely check out the FH20.


* Amazing, and unique, high speed still and movie capture
* Full complement of manual and automatic features
* Image adjustment, including white balance, available in playback
* Generally good shooting performance
* High-resolution, 3.0 inch LCD
* Natural looking colors


* Images are relatively soft and image noise creeps in even at mid-ISOs
* Purple fringing is noticeable along high contrast edges
* Lens distortion at telephoto
* Image stabilization offers only slight benefit at full telephoto

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