Fujifilm FinePix A500
Casual photographers on a tight budget will appreciate Fujifilm's no-nonsense FinePix A500, a compact 5-megapixel snapshooter. Unfortunately, the camera's low price comes at a cost: a limited 3X zoom range, no manual controls, just four scene modes, and a tiny 1.8-inch LCD. It has no burst capabilities at all beyond a 320x240-pixel, 10-frame-per-second Silent Movie mode. Image quality is only average, and perks such as batteries and a decent memory card will cost you extra, but you can tuck this little camera in your pocket for less than $200. If you're really strapped for cash, the almost identically featured 4-megapixel FinePix A400 goes for about $50 less.
This solidly built, 6.5-ounce, 1.1-inch-thick camera's attractive finish looks good, though the company cut some corners. Some may be disappointed with design weaknesses such as the lack of a rubber cover for the A/V, USB, and DC ports. The A500 sports both an LCD and an optical viewfinder, the latter proving invaluable when the tiny, 77,000-pixel display becomes unreadable in direct sunlight. The optical viewfinder has a handy pair of notches near the top of the frame to mark the "safe" area when shooting at parallax-inducing closer distances.
The A500's sparse controls are simple and easy to learn. The top panel has only the shutter-release button and a tiny, recessed power switch. The back panel contains just three stand-alone buttons: picture review, menu/OK, and display/back. A pair of left/right buttons flanking an up/down zoom lever sit at the top-right edge of the back panel. Besides menu navigation, the left/right buttons can activate macro mode and adjust flash options, respectively.
The lack of choice makes this camera simple to operate. Besides auto, there are only four scene modes: Portrait, Landscape, Sport, and Night. The camera has no options for exposure or focus other than EV adjustments (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps) and normal/macro autofocus. A manual mode provides access to white balance (six presets and automatic), EV adjustments, and two flash options: red-eye correction and slow sync for balancing the flash with ambient illumination. Flash on/off, red-eye, and auto options are available in all shooting modes. Sensitivity settings include ISO 100, 200, or 400.
The Fujifilm FinePix A500 uses a 64-zone matrix to determine exposure, with shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 1/1,500 second and apertures of either f/3.3 or f/8.5. The 38mm-to-114mm zoom lens (35mm-camera equivalent) is narrow at the short end of the scale and produces nearly unusable photos at the far telephoto end. The macro mode lets you get as close as 3.9 inches, however.