If you were tempted by the five star-rated Fujifilm X-S1 and haven't yet indulged yourself, hang tight for the next 1,200 words.
The Fujifilm FinePix HS30 EXR outguns the X-S1 in several respects, with a higher resolution and 30x zoom. Compare it with a regular 35mm film camera, and the glass in this device delivers the same effect as a 24-720mm lens. Not only would that be heavy and bulky on a regular dSLR, it would also be prohibitively expensive, but the HS30 EXR delivers it in a small, light body for around £380.
The question is whether this makes it not only different, but better than its chunkier sibling.
Design and build
So what's it like to use? In a word, lovely. The controls move freely, with little resistance, but snap neatly into place so you don't sweep past the settings you want. There's a fine balance to be struck between dials so rigid they're uncomfortable, and so lacking resistance they're easy to knock unintentionally. On the HS30 EXR, Fujifilm has got it spot on.
Indeed, my only complaint in respect of its build is the siting of the focus ring, which sits behind the zoom control cuff, a little too close to the body for comfort. However, its integration with the camera's firmware is excellent. Switch to manual focus and twist the ring and it not only enlarges the central portion -- a common approach -- but overlays it with a live bar graph showing how close you are to achieving what it considers a pin-sharp focus. That's useful if you have trouble judging it by eye.
There are controls everywhere, with the familiar focus, exposure, sensitivity and white balance buttons I saw on the X-S1 running down the left of the screen. There's a regular four-way controller to the right. A multi-function control wheel is situated on the top of the body, which changes the active variable for whichever shooting mode you've selected. In aperture and shutter priority mode, that obviously means the aperture diameter or shutter speed. Switch to manual though, and you can control both of these, alternating between them with a quick press of the exposure compensation button.
The 3-inch screen is bright, fine-grained and refreshes smoothly. It's articulated to tilt up and down, which makes overhead and low shots easy. It's not until you've got used to a camera with this feature and switch back to one that hasn't that you realise how much you come to rely on it. It may sound like a gimmick but it isn't. In my book, it's a very firm tick in the 'reasons to buy' column.
There's also an eyepiece monitor rather than an optical view through the lens. This isn't quite as smooth to refresh as the rear LCD, but it is fine grained and sharp enough to replicate the camera's regular menus, so you don't need to take it away from your eye when tweaking your settings. A sensor beside it detects when you've brought it up to your face and switches from LCD to eyepiece, while a diopter -- a small dial connected to the viewfinder -- on the other side lets you move it back and forth until you find a comfortable focal position.
It's not just the hardware that's constructed well. The menus are too. Everything's easy to find and there's plenty of help dotted around. Switch to panorama mode and a horizontal line helps you stay level as you sweep across the scene, while switching between the various film simulation options throws up a short description for each one. Astia, for example, has 'softer colour and contrast for a more subdued look', while Velvia delivers 'vibrant reproduction, ideal for landscape and nature'.
The shooting specs are up there with the best. Native resolution is 16 megapixels, producing 4,608x3,456-pixel images. At that resolution, sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200. If you want to push it to ISO 6,400, the resolution halves. In the unlikely event you want to take it to ISO 12,800, it's halved again to just 4 megapixels. Compensation is +/-2EV in 1/3EV increments.
Shutter speed runs from 1/4,000 second to 30 seconds in manual mode, at the longer end of which you'll be able to capture some great night-time shots with streaking headlights and illuminated buildings. Maximum aperture is an appreciably wide f/2.8 at wide angle, allowing for some great detailed shots with a rapid fall-off in focus, and a still respectable f/5.6 at full telephoto.
So how does this translate into photos? I tested the HS30 EXR on a very mixed day, with both rain and direct sun, and results were generally impressive.
Focus was nice and snappy which, combined with the smoothly geared zoom mechanism, made it easy to get the shot I was after in every instance. Even at maximum zoom, it was easy to isolate the subjects I wanted in focus, thanks to the fairly generous maximum aperture.
It's very easy to fix your focal point by setting the focus mode to Area and using the four-way controller to position it, which saves you reframing after you've set your focus. Alternatively, for sports and wildlife photography -- or indeed, kids -- there's a tracking mode which, once set, will follow your subject for as long as you keep them in the frame.
Macro performance was excellent. Supermacro lets you put the lens just 1cm from the subject, but even regular macro, which takes you to 7cm, has no trouble clearly isolating the subject from its surroundings.