Casio Exilim EX-Z850
A do-everything ultracompact camera for both photo enthusiasts and budding snapshooters, the Casio Exilim EX-Z850 squeezes a gazillion features into a package small enough to slip into any pocket. Of course, every silver lining has its cloud, and for the EX-Z850, it's the lens: a limited 3X zoom that inflicts painful fringing artifacts on otherwise healthy photos. Even so, most users looking for a versatile ultracompact digital camera will likely accept the EX-Z850's failings in exchange for its toy box full of useful features. Assuming your fingers can accommodate the miniaturized controls, the Casio Exilim EX-Z850 is a breeze to use, with buttons, levers, and dials arrayed for easy access to the most accessed features. For example, there are, in effect, three power switches: a conventional sliver of an on/off button on the top edge, as well as playback and record buttons on the back panel that power up the camera in picture-review and picture-taking modes, respectively.
Once this 3.5-by-2.3-by-0.9-inch, 5.7-ounce camera comes to life, you can single-handedly raise the optical viewfinder to your right eye, steady the camera with the side of your nose, and thereafter easily manipulate the shutter release and its concentric zoom lever with an index finger. A one-handed stance is also possible, though less comfortable, when using the 2.5-inch LCD.
The back-panel mode dial has notches for manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and automatic exposure modes, plus Best Shot (35 scene modes), movie, and movie scene modes, as well as audio recording. There's a display button to change the LCD information screen--which includes a live histogram with overall tonal curves, plus separate red, green, and blue curves--and a menu button for accessing recording settings, quality, and setup options. If you're in a hurry, press the Ex button on the left edge of the camera to jump directly to resolution, white-balance, ISO, and autofocus zone settings.
A four-way cursor control pad with central set button, while small enough to stymie those with large thumbs, can be used to set flash options (down), or cycle among macro modes (up), while you can define the left/right keys to activate one feature, such as EV adjustment. A separate button on the left edge can be used to set the burst mode. There are no DC-in or A/V-out jacks; the Casio Exilim EX-Z850 must be popped into its cradle for USB picture transfer to your computer or to recharge the lithium-ion battery.It's possible to experience feature overload when considering the Casio Exilim EX-Z850's capabilities. The 38mm-to-114mm zoom lens focuses down to an unassuming 4 inches, but this Casio automatically switches between the standard and macro focal ranges as necessary. With the cursor-pad macro button, you can switch between normal autofocus, infinity focus, pan focus, and manual focus. Infinity focus speeds up shooting by turning off autofocus when photographing distant subjects, while pan focus fixes at the hyperfocal distance for the current focal length, the distance at which everything from roughly half that distance to infinity is sharp. In manual mode, the central area of the frame is enlarged, and a distance-indicator bar appears to aid focus using the left and right keys.
But wait, there's more--just for focusing. You can select from spot autofocus or multipoint autofocus, where the nine focus areas appear on the screen with the selected focus zones highlighted in green. Then there's Free autofocus. In Free mode, crosshairs appear on the screen with positional coordinates. Press the cursor keys to move the focus point anywhere within the central 80 percent of the frame. Because it gives you the coordinates, you can duplicate the exact focus point in the future.
The EX-Z850's exposure modes are a little more conventional. You can select from matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering, with automatic, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and manual exposure modes. Aperture-priority is not as useful as you might think--f/2.8 and f/4 are your only available choices in this and manual modes--but shutter speeds range from 60 seconds to 1/1,600 second in shutter-priority and manual modes.
Casio supplies its usual abundance of scene modes, which you select from three screens of example thumbnails; a flip of the zoom lever summons an explanation of each presets' features. Available scenes include Auto, Portrait, Scenery, Sunset, Sports, Night Scene, and Fireworks, along with some quirky options such as Soft Flowing Water, Splashing Water, Natural Green, and Autumn Leaves. Several modes, such as Old Photo, Business Card, and White Board, perform image fixes such as automatic keystoning correction to reorient shots taken from a slight angle.
Extending these preset capabilities, the Z850 can save custom scene modes comprising EV, ISO, white-balance, flash mode, sharpness, saturation, intensity, and other settings, using your own snapshot as an example thumbnail. These custom scenes are stored in the EX-Z850's 8.3MB of internal memory, which is too small for storing images anyway.
If you manage to shoot a stinker despite all of these aids, there's an impressive amount of image manipulation that you can perform right in the camera. Keystone correction, as well as white-balance, brightness, and contrast adjustments can be applied after the shot is taken; pictures can be cropped or resized to 6 or 4 megapixels and can also be reduced to VGA size for e-mail. Your revised image is saved as a separate file in addition to the original. You can also apply filters such as sepia, black-and-white, purple, or pink, as well as record or rerecord audio accompaniment for each still shot. There's even an ID Photo feature for creating a page of ID-card-size images.
The Casio Exilim EX-Z850's flash features also exceed the ordinary. It fires the flash just prior to capture to determine the correct exposure, and in addition to the usual flash on/off, auto, and red-eye options, there's Soft flash, which reduces the intensity level, and High Power flash, which triples the range in automatic mode from the default distance of 14 feet by boosting sensitivity to ISO 1,600. One of the continuous-shooting modes is a flash burst, which snaps off three pictures of subjects at close range in about 1 second, with a single flash firing. Oddly, however, the camera lacks a slow-sync mode.
Movie fans get lots of options, too. The EX-Z850 offers two 640x480-pixel, 30fps modes; a low-compression/high-quality mode; and a higher-compression option for fitting longer clips on the SD card. A 320x240-pixel extended-recording option allows even longer minimovies. There's a Best Shot movie mode with nine predefined scenes and space for user-defined presets.