Call it a love-hate relationship: there are things we really like about the Fujifilm FinePix A350 and things we really dislike about it. Whether it's a good pick may depend on whether you're willing to live with--or adapt to--its quirks. The FinePix A350 is the flagship model for Fujifilm's A series of inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras. Its 5.2-megapixel resolution marks an increase over the 4 megapixels of its predecessor, the A340, and this camera slightly bumps up the LCD size from 1.5 inches to 1.7 inches. It also eliminates the need for a lens cap by incorporating a self-closing cover for its retractable lens. Other A350 features include a 3X optical zoom, a macro mode, and a continuous-shooting mode. Fujifilm often goes its own way in the physical design, menu structure, and image characteristics of its cameras. As a result, you may find the FinePix A350 an unusual bargain or harder than usual to master. The Fujifilm FinePix A350 camera body is constructed mostly of a silver-colored brushed plastic. With two AA batteries and an xD-Picture Card installed, it weighs just 6.3 ounces, and it's fairly compact, measuring 3.5 by 2.4 by 1.2 inches. You wouldn't want to carry it in your shirt pocket, but it could easily slip into a pants or coat pocket.
Many digital cameras have a zoom lever mounted on the back. It usually toggles left and right, which might be counterintuitive if it weren't so common, since the lens itself is moving forward and backward. With the FinePix A350's zoom lever, you press up to move the lens toward the telephoto position and down to move it toward the wide angle. If you're used to cameras doing it sideways, the up-and-down movement may take some getting used to.
Unfortunately, the back-mounted zoom lever and the three-position mode switch feel cheap. They may last for years, but their lightweight plastic doesn't inspire confidence. The rest of the camera is sturdy enough, so it's a mystery why the company chose to skimp on these items. The hard-to-grip zoom lever feels particularly fragile. It's sandwiched between two buttons that work as navigators when you're using the LCD menus and give you access to flash and macro settings when you're shooting. The menu selections themselves are colorful, logically organized, and generally easy to distinguish, with the exception of the setup menu, which uses a light-gray text that completely disappears when you tilt the camera down.
This FinePix automatically manages exposure control through a multipoint metering system. There's no provision for manual exposure or for choosing a center-weighted metering system. For a camera of this class, the lens has a relatively wide aperture range of f/2.8 to f/4.7, which helps with low-light photography. Unfortunately, there's no AF-assist lamp to aid focus in low light or to help you see what you're trying to photograph. Equivalent to a 35mm-to-105mm lens on a 35mm camera, the 3X optical zoom gives you a slightly wider angle than on many competing point-and-shoot cameras. That will come in handy when you're shooting in close quarters. You can also focus the A350 closer than some competitors allow. With the macro mode selected, you can focus down to 2.4 inches.
The camera saves all photos as JPEG files and all video recordings as AVI files. The video capabilities are geared toward casual use, such as e-mailing and posting on Web sites, rather than for replacing your camcorder. You can choose either 320x240 or 160x120 resolution--both at a slightly jerky 15 frames per second and with mono sound. Our performance tests revealed a camera that's about average in speed compared with other point-and-shoot models. The 4-second wake-up-to-first-shot time was a bit slow but not surprising for a budget-priced model. The Fujifilm FinePix A350's shot-to-shot time without the flash was a subpar 3.2 seconds, while its shot-to-shot time with the flash was about average at 3.8 seconds. And while the burst mode was able to grab five of the highest-resolution photos in 5 seconds, the camera paused as long as 21 seconds to process the data before it was ready for another round. Shutter lag was quite good at 0.4 second in bright light and 0.6 second in dim light. We found the knoblike zoom lever difficult to control, although you can jiggle the zoom in small steps. It takes about a second and a half to travel from one extreme to the other.
The LCD screen is bright and sharp, but it shows you only 90 percent of your image. It doesn't appear to be treated for glare. In direct sunlight, you can sometimes see more of your own face than the face of your subject. The optical viewfinder is small and inaccurate, showing only 75 percent of what the camera will record. That greatly limits the optical viewfinder's usefulness, except for extending your dying batteries for an extra shot or two (you can easily turn off the LCD display while shooting). The built-in flash has a limited range, as is typical of most point-and-shoot cameras. It illuminates slightly better in the center than on the sides of the frame. When it came to photo quality, we found an especially wide gulf between what we liked and disliked about the Fujifilm FinePix A350. On the plus side, many of the photos exhibited a broader dynamic range than we're used to seeing from inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras. The colors were richly saturated, but they didn't appear unnatural and generally had a vibrant and tactile quality that should transfer well to prints. Dark hues were often unusually lifelike.
On the negative side, many of our photos weren't as sharp as we'd expect from a 5.2-megapixel camera. Even in the best conditions--with bright exterior light and a wide aperture--our images looked soft and showed the kind of detail we'd expect in a 3- or 4-megapixel photo. Another problem was a slight reddish tint that was visible on many of the photos. This was less of a problem with our flash-illuminated images, though it popped up periodically in both interior and exterior shots. We also noticed a drop-off in focus accuracy in low light. Focus was sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition in moderately to dimly lit environments.
All things considered, we ended up with the kind of mediocre results we'd expect from a budget-priced compact model. You can take excellent exterior photos with the A350, though they may not be quite as sharp as they should be. It will be more of a challenge to produce interior shots of the same quality.