Casio EX-FH20 Overview
Hands-on Preview: 09/16/08
Full Review: 11/18/08
In the runup to the annual Photo Marketing Association trade show this Spring, Casio announced what's arguably one of the most interesting cameras we've seen this year - the EXILIM Pro EX-F1. Capable of a frankly astonishing 60 frames-per-second when shooting at its full six megapixel resolution, the Casio F1 also offered high-speed movie modes ranging anywhere up to 1,200 frames per second (albeit at fairly low resolutions). Sadly, the combination of a fairly high $1,000 price tag and a hefty DSLR-like body with a somewhat complex user interface conspired to dampen the appeal of the Casio F1. That's where the new Casio High Speed EXILIM EX-FH20 steps in. With a simplified user interface, a significantly lower price tag, a smaller and lighter overall package, and updates to both the optics and imager, the Casio FH20 is obviously aimed at generating greater consumer appeal.
Casio EX-FH20 Features
The FH20 has a rather more svelte body than that of the F1, taking just a little off the width and height, and trimming the length of the lens by almost two inches. The FH20 still retains the SLR-like styling of its predecessor, but is now rather more compact than even the smallest digital SLRs. This is especially true when considering the strength of the FH20's zoom lens - a 20x optical zoom that yields a range from a very useful 26mm wide-angle through to a powerful 520mm telephoto (both figures being 35mm equivalents).
The CMOS image sensor in the Casio FH20 has sadly been simultaneously pared down from the original 1/1.8"-type in the F1, to a significantly smaller 1/2.3" - a change that will have proven necessary to match the smaller image circle of the new lens. The new imager boosts the resolution from the F1's 6.0 megapixels to a new high of 9.1 megapixels for the Casio EXILIM FH20, despite the smaller surface area of the imager. The resulting increase in pixel density is likely to bring increased image noise, but is in a way understandable. In a world obsessed with megapixels, the relatively "low" resolution of the Casio F1 doubtless counted as a negative mark in the minds of some consumers. Thankfully, the Casio FH20 retains the sensor shift type image stabilization of its predecessor, which will help to reduce the effects of image blur and mean that the ISO sensitivity (and resulting image noise) can at least be kept down somewhat.
At its full resolution of nine megapixels, the Casio FH20 captures images at a fairly unremarkable frame rate of 1.25 frames per second. Drop the resolution just slightly though, and the speed increases dramatically. At eight megapixels, the user can specify a rate ranging from one to 30 frames per second. For resolutions of seven megapixels or below, the upper limit increases to a remarkable 40 frames per second. In both cases, the maximum burst length is a surprisingly generous 40 frames. Admittedly it's a fair bit slower than the 60 fps of the Casio F1, but this is nonetheless exceptional for a consumer camera, especially given the far more affordable pricing of the Casio FH20.
Movie performance likewise ranges from fairly ordinary at full resolution to extraordinarily fast at low resolutions. The Casio EX-FH20 can record at 640x480 (VGA) or 1280 x 720 (high-def) resolutions at 30 frames per second. Drop the resolution to 480 x 360 pixels and the movie frame-rate can be set to either 30 to 210 frames per second. At 224 x 168 pixels the upper bound doubles to 420 frames per second, while a postage stamp-like 224 x 56 pixel (a short, wide stamp) movie mode offers a whopping 1,000 frames per second if you're willing to squint a little to see it! The Casio FH20 also offers the ability to "pre-record" up to 39 images or five seconds of video into its buffer while the shutter button is half-pressed, and then save these along with any images or video it has been configured to capture after the shutter button was pressed - effectively reaching back in time, in case your reflexes aren't quite good enough to catch the start of the action. (And whose are?)
The Casio EXILIM FH20's 20x optical zoom lens has a maximum aperture that varies from F2.8 to F4.5 across the zoom range, while the minimum aperture is F7.9 regardless of zoom position. The FH20 employs a contrast detection autofocus system which allows for face detection, AF tracking, and manual positioning of the autofocus point within the frame. Manual focusing is also possible, assisted by a very nice level of magnification on the LCD screen or electronic viewfinder, to help you find best focus. Ordinarily, the minimum focusing distance is 15.8" (40 cm). In Macro mode, this drops to 4.7" (12 cm), while a Super Macro mode allows for focusing down to just 0.4" (10 mm). As you'd expect, there's no true optical viewfinder in the Casio FH20. Instead, it offers a choice of either a 0.2" LCD electronic viewfinder with 201,600 "equivalent" dot resolution (it seems to be using an LCOS display with full-color pixels), or a 3.0" LCD display with a slightly higher resolution of 230,400 dots (320 x 240, 3 colors per pixel).
The Casio FH20 offers sensitivities ranging from a minimum of ISO 100 to a maximum of ISO 1,600 equivalent. Shutter speeds from 30 to 1/2000 second are possible ordinarily, but when shooting in high-speed continuous mode the shutter speed can be restricted to as brief as 1/40,000 second.(!) As well as 18 scene modes, the Casio FH20 provides both shutter- and aperture-priority modes, and a fully manual mode. Exposure metering modes include multi-pattern, center weighted, and spot. The FH20 offers eight white balance modes, including auto, manual and six white balance presets. A built-in popup flash strobe is rated to a maximum of 23' (7 m) at wide angle or 14.4' (4.4 m)at telephoto, and offers four modes including red-eye reduction.
The Casio EX-FH20 stores images Secure Digital cards (including the newer SDHC types), and is also compatible with both MultiMediaCard and MultiMediaCardplus types. There's also 31.9MB of built-in memory. Still image file formats include both JPEG and Adobe DNG raw, although the high-speed modes allow only JPEG images to be captured, and DNG files can only be recorded at the same time as JPEGs. (There's no RAW-only capture mode.) Movies are saved as AVI files with Motion JPEG compression and include monaural sound. Power comes from four AA batteries, and the Casio FH20 is compatible with either alkaline disposables or nickel metal hydride rechargeables. Battery life is rated at 400 shots with high-capacity rechargeables, or 230 shots with disposables. Connectivity choices include USB 2.0 High-Speed for transferring data to a computer, and NTSC or PAL standard definition video output for viewing images on a TV.
Casio EX-FH20 Pricing and Availability
Priced at US$600, the Casio EX-FH20 is expected to reach US retail from October 2008.
Casio FH20 User Report
by Dave Etchells
The Casio FH20: High Speed Shooting
These days, it's rare to hear of a camera that offers something truly new, but with its high-speed (and super high-speed) capture capabilities, the Casio EX-FH20 clearly does just that. Properly speaking, the previous Casio EX-F1 first offered this "something new" when it was introduced at the beginning of this year (January, 2008), but that model had only limited distribution in the US, and we here at IR never saw a review sample. With a lower suggested retail price of $599 and the promise of broad availability through big-box consumer electronics outlets, the Casio FH20 will open a whole new dimension (literally) for amateur photographers.
Continuous shooting modes are common on digital cameras at every price point, but it's unusual to find continuous rates higher than three frames/second for full-resolution images, and most current digicams labor to hit even one frame/second in continuous mode. Some high-end professional SLRs reach 10 frames/second, but even frame rates that high require skill on the part of the photographer to capture exactly the right moment. Some consumer cameras have offered capture rates as high as 60 frames/second, but only at drastically reduced resolutions, and usually only for a fraction of a second of total elapsed time.
The Casio FH20 takes the concept of speed in a digital camera to an entirely new level: It can capture high-resolution (7 megapixel) images at up to 40 frames/second, for up to 40 frames, or 8 megapixel images at up to 30 frames/second. That's pretty fast, but even at that pace, the FH20 is only getting started: Its movie mode ranges from speeds of 210 frames/second at a resolution of 480 x 360 pixels, all the way up to an astonishing 1,000 frames/second, albeit at a tiny, short and wide resolution of 224 x 56 pixels.
The Casio FH20's frame rate is quite a bit higher than than those of even the fastest high-end professional DSLRs, although both its focusing speed and overall image quality are both quite a bit lower. Consumer users of the FH20 probably won't care about producing flawless double-truck spreads in national magazines, though, so its image quality will undoubtedly be more than sufficient for their needs. The modest focusing speed may require some working around, but for many applications it will be a non-issue.
People have always talked about using digital cameras' continuous shooting modes to help study and refine golf and tennis swings, but standard continuous-mode speeds are simply way too slow for such use. With the Casio FH20, all manner of time-motion studies suddenly become not only feasible but dead-easy. I can see all sorts of applications for a camera like the FH20; the aforementioned golf and tennis swing coaching, but lots of other sports training uses as well, such as baseball/softball pitches, competitive diving, track and field events like hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, equestrian events like jumping and steeplechase, the list goes on and on. And how about high-school or college physics labs? The high-speed movie modes in particular seem ideally suited to force/mass/acceleration studies. On a more practical, everyday note for many consumers, the FH20's high frame rates could be just the ticket for capturing the perfect expression on a squirmy toddler, or the perfect moment as the birthday candles are blown out. Once you've shot with it, you'll quickly realize how many more "keepers" it could bring you in many common shooting situations.
I had a lot of fun playing with the Casio FH20's High Speed Continuous mode, take a look at the examples below to see the sort of results it can produce.
Of course, any time we need some fast action to capture here at IR, we immediately think of Charlotte the Wonder Dog. She loves Frisbee, is convinced she's the best Frisbee dog in the world. (We've been careful not to say anything that would disillusion her.) I took advantage of a sunny afternoon to run some tests of the Casio FH20 with her, with the sort of results shown above. The camera performed brilliantly, although I did find that best results were when I could get her to run across the frame, rather than toward or away from the camera, due to the FH20's focus limitations. (At 40 frames/second, there's no time for the camera to refocus with each shot.) In terms of the action, though, the best sequence was the one above, where she ran quite a ways toward the camera. Even though she came perhaps halfway toward the camera from the point of original focus, the final shots were still sharp enough to yield decent 8x10 inch prints.
Simply seeing the shots above may not fully convey just how much faster the Casio FH20 is, when compared to conventional cameras. To give you an idea of just how great the difference is, I put together the table below
|Casio FH20: What's in a frame rate?|
at 40 fps
at 10 fps
at 5 fps
at 3 fps
|(2 more frames till next shot)|
This table should help make the case for just how fast the Casio FH20 is in its Continuous Shutter (CS) mode. Note that even a high-end professional SLR shooting at 10 frames/second could easily miss the critical moment entirely. Five frames/second would be close to hopeless, and a "fast" three frame/second digicam would be purely a matter of luck and endless repetition. As noted above, though, it's important to remember that a 10 frame/second pro DSLR would have much better image quality, much better high-ISO performance, and a considerably faster autofocus system. - But then, a camera of that caliber would also cost eight or ten times what the Casio FH20 does, without a lens!
One thing I particularly liked about the Casio FH20 was how easy it made it to navigate through the hundreds (and hundreds) of photos you can quickly rack up in its High Speed Continuous mode (my term, Casio calls it Continuous Shutter, or CS mode). It organizes groups of CS images into figurative stacks, with the first frame displayed on the top of the stack on the camera's LCD. You can then "play" the stacks in an interesting hybrid of a movie and a slide show; with easy forward/back navigation and the ability to zoom in all the way to 1:1 on-screen, to watch fine details evolve. The movie above (it's a big file, be prepared for a slow download) shows playback options including variable speed, playback forward and backward, zooming and panning, etc. Other options include splitting up CS groups and copying single images of a CS group, so they'll appear on the memory card separately. Also nice is that, after shooting a CS group, you can choose to save only certain images to the memory card, pressing the shutter button for each one you want to save. This can huge amounts of card space, since in many cases, the whole object of CS shooting will be to capture just one specific moment: The rest of the images in the group may be superfluous.
The Casio FH20 also includes a continuous-mode shooting option that Casio was the first to pioneer a number of years back: The ability to capture images before you press the shutter button! No, the camera's not psychic, it just enters a mode where it's continuously grabbing images and circulating them through a portion of its buffer memory. Once the requisite number of "pre-shot" frames are captured, it just drops the oldest image from memory as each new one is captured. When you press the shutter button, it stops dropping the oldest images, and goes on to grab as many new frames as the buffer will hold. If your reflexes are like mine, you probably have hundreds of photos that you snapped just after the key moment had passed. With its pre-triggering capability, the Casio FH20 makes this a thing of the past. The animated screen shot above right shows the setup option for this feature. This control behaves a bit differently depending on the frame rate you've selected. You can always turn it off completely (0.0 second of pre-capture, shown in the blue box at the left end of the scale), but the smallest amount of pre-capture you can add always amounts to about a half-second. In the screen shot above, the camera is set for a shooting speed of 40fps, so the first increment of pre-capture is 20 frames, exactly half a second. Beyond this initial half-second step, the number of pre-capture frames can be increased one at a time, up to a maximum of 39 frames. In other words, regardless of the setting, there'll always be at least one shot captured after you press the shutter button. A very, very handy feature; it's hard to overstate its usefulness of when you're shooting live (and unpredictable) subjects.
Casio FH20 High Speed Movies
The Casio FH20's High Speed Continuous mode is pretty amazing at 40 frames/second, but at that rate, the camera's only getting warmed up. Several High Speed Movie modes are available, trading off resolution for speed. Options begin with 480x360 pixels at 210 frames/second, move on to 224x168 pixels at 420 frames/second, and wind up with 224x56 pixels at an incredible 1,000 frames/second. At 1,000 fps, the image is just a narrow strip with pretty abysmal image quality, but if you need to capture really fast for less than $600, it's the only game in town. The examples below show a movies captured at 210 frames/second and 1,000 frames/second.
|Casio FH20 High Speed Movie Mode|
|210 frames/second||1,000 frames/second|
|At 210 frames/second, the high JPEG compression makes for images that are less than razor-sharp, but the detail you can see is still pretty impressive. One advantage of the lower resolution is that focus becomes a lot less critical: In this sequence, focus was fixed where Charlotte first took off from, but she never gets too out of focus, even when she's at her closest to the camera.
Trimmed clip, MOV file
21 seconds, 18.3 MB movie
Original, untrimmed AVI file
(48 seconds, 41.5 MB)
(Please be gentle on our bandwidth)
|If you need to capture something really, really fast, don't care too much about image quality, and your subject can fit into a short, wide format like you see above, the FH20's highest-speed mode may be just the ticket. This movie shows our shutter-lag timer running at 1,000 counts/second. If you scroll through the MOV file one frame at a time, you'll see that it's actually capturing each click of the timer!
Trimmed clip, MOV file
7 seconds, 3.1 MB movie
0.215 second actual elapsed time
Filming high-speed super slow-mo video with the Casio FH20 reveals minute details you'd never see with your naked eye. The FH20's slowest High Speed Movie mode offers what seems to be a pretty good trade-off between resolution and frame rate, recording 480x360 pixel images at 210 frames/second. As you can see from the example above, this is enough resolution to see quite a bit of detail, and the 210 fps frame rate is enough to slow down most human-speed (or animal-speed) actions enough to see what's happening moment by moment. Files also remain at relatively manageable sizes, at least for viewing on a computer. (Hard on email or website bandwidth bills though. ;-)
Casio FH20 High Definition Movies
I was so enthralled with its high-speed modes that I completely ignored the Casio FH20's normal-speed movie recording capability in my experimenting, which includes the ability to capture either Standard Definition (640x480) or High Definition (1280x720) movies at 30 frames/second. Movie clips may be limited by card speed, but with a fast card, the FH20 appears to be able to record to the limits of the card's capacity.
While the Casio FH20 can record High Definition movies, the camera itself is limited to standard NTSC or PAL composite output. To see its HD movies in true high definition, you'll have to copy them to a computer or other playback device for output to a computer monitor or HDTV screen.
Casio FH20 Look and Feel
In its overall appearance, the Casio FH20 resembles a lot of other long-zoom digicams, with a large lens barrel and hefty hand grip on the right side. I liked its grip quite a bit, found it quite comfortable in my long-fingered and, but think it'd be quite comfortable for people with smaller hands as well. This definitely isn't a pocket camera, but for the special situations that call for its unique qualities, size and portability aren't likely to be major concerns. It has a pleasant heft, and its general feel suggests high build quality, as would be appropriate for a $600 digicam.
The Casio FH20's control placement is generally good, with most of the controls clustered conveniently on its top right panel or on the right side of its back panel, where they're in convenient reach of your thumb. In a number of situations, I found the lack of standard PASM (programmed, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual exposure) exposure modes on its mode dial annoying, when I wanted to switch between programmed and aperture-priority shooting mode, something I find myself doing quite a bit. In truth, though, I wouldn't move the PASM settings from the menu system back out onto the mode dial: That would mean you wouldn't be able to select between the PASM modes when you were in one of the camera's high-speed shooting modes, and I found it really essential to be able to set shutter-priority or manual-mode exposure in my high-speed tests with the FH20.
While really more of an operation sort of thing than a look and feel issue, I'll mention here anyway the annoyance I felt at having to deal with separate Record and Play buttons. Most annoying (particularly on a camera aimed at capturing critical moments) was that touching the shutter button in playback mode wouldn't bring it out of that mode and prepare it for capturing images. True, the shutter button is used to save individual shots out of a just-captured High Speed Continuous group to the card, but couldn't some other button have been used for that? Or, couldn't that be left as the one mode where the shutter button didn't return you to image capture? This might have been so annoying to me because I'm more accustomed to shooting with DLSRs, which are almost invariably "capture priority" devices. At least some of my irritation, though, was because of the kind of subject I was working with -- which would be an issue for many users of the Casio FH20.
Casio FH20 Viewfinders
The FH20 has both a rear-panel LCD and an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Both worked quite well in my use, and the EVF even did a better job of holding onto highlight detail than I'm accustomed to seeing. (This is one of my biggest beefs with EVFs, namely that they tend to lose detail in highlights, often making it difficult to compose shots properly relative to cloud detail.) The refresh rate on both displays was good (important in a camera to be used for capturing fast action), and the EVF's screen had excellent resolution: Its pixels were small enough that I was almost entirely unaware of them. (I was surprised to read in the manual that Casio only rates the EVF's resolution as "equivalent to 201,600 dots," it seemed sharper than that to me. Looking at it closely, I think it uses an LCOS sequential-color display chip, which as full-color (RGB) pixels, as we also saw on the new Panasonic G1.)
As is true of most cameras with electronic viewfinders, framing was very accurate with the Casio FH20, regardless of whether I used the EVF or the rear-panel LCD. Again, an important characteristic with a camera for shooting sports: You need to be able to see exactly what the camera is seeing, no more, no less.
As an eyeglass-wearer, I also appreciated the nice, high eyepoint of the FH20's EVF optics: I could see the entire active area of the viewfinder display without having to mash my eyeglass lenses against the viewfinder bezel. That said though, the viewfinder screen appears rather small and cramped, even compared to the viewfinders on cropped-frame DSLRs. It's certainly usable enough, but might feel a little claustrophobic to someone whose other camera is an SLR. On the other hand, the dioptric adjustment worked well, able to compensate for even my extreme nearsightedness (close to 20:180). I did find the dioptric adjustment knob a little difficult to work, though, as it was so close to the viewfinder, and on the wrong side for a right-eye-dominant person like myself. Not that big an issue, because it's an adjustment you don't make all that often, but I did find it annoying.
Casio FH20 Optics
A long telephoto lens is often useful in sports applications, so it's nice that the Casio FH20 sports no less than a 20x optical zoom lens, with a range extending from a very wide angle 26mm all the way to a 520mm telephoto, a focal length that can really reach out and bring your subject closer. Almost a necessity with a zoom that long, there's also an optical image stabilization system that can be turned on or off as desired. We didn't subject it to a formal test, but my sense was that the FH20's IS worked well enough, but couldn't compensate for camera movements as large as those that other systems can handle. I need to say that this is just an impression, but I did have a sense that the system let through quite a few jiggles when I watched it working in its Demo mode that I think the best competing IS systems would have caught. That said, though, the Casio FH20's IS system definitely improves steadiness significantly relative to trying to shoot with it disabled.
When it comes to optical quality, the Casio FH20's lens does very well when it comes to sharpness, but considerably less so in terms of chromatic aberration (CA). CA is a frequent bane of long-ratio zoom lenses, so it's no surprise to see it in the FH20.d It's pronounced enough that it deserves particular mention, though. The telltale purple and green fringes of CA can be seen clearly around objects at the edges of the frame at both telephoto and wide angle focal lengths. The spread between the colors is pretty large, but strength of the coloration isn't as bad as the worst we've seen.
Operationally, the zoom works well, moving at what I'd consider to be a good pace as the camera moves from wide to tele and back again. Focusing speed ranges from exceptionally fast (0.129 second) at the wide angle end of the lens' range to just average (0.784 second) at the extreme telephoto end. Continuous focusing seemed to track subjects really well, as long as I didn't expect it to have SLR-level performance. (As alluded to earlier, I found it best to prefocus on a specific point where I expected the action to happen, rather than relying on the camera to track the action on its own.) Manual focusing is done via the rear-panel right and left arrow keys, and the viewfinder display automatically magnifies while you're adjusting the focus. Unlike some cameras we've tested, the Casio FH20's magnification level is high enough to let you determine focus pretty accurately from the LCD screen.
The Casio FH20 has great macro capability, with the best macro performance occurring at the wide angle end of the zoom range, as is usually the case with digicams we test. It has a Super Macro mode that fixes the focal length at 57mm equivalent, and in that mode lets you focus down to just millimeters from the front of the lens. At the other end of its zoom range, though, "macro" focusing gets a little dicey: As you zoom toward longer focal lengths, the minimum macro distance increases substantially, and the range of macro focusing decreases. At the maximum 20x zoom setting, the "macro" range extends from only 4.92-5.57 feet. Chasing butterflies around our front yard, trying to get close-up photos of them proved to be a somewhat frustrating process: They were somewhat skittish, so I needed to shoot at the maximum 20x zoom setting, but then found myself having to act as "human focus rail," moving forward and back until the camera would focus, rather than the camera's optics being able to do so on their own. Not an issue if you can get fairly close to your macro subjects and so shoot at shorter focal lengths, but at its maximum 520mm equivalent focal length, the FH20 is anything but a "macro"camera. (Things do get considerably better as you zoom wider. Somewhere around 100mm equivalent, the macro range extends from 0.65 - 1.96 feet, and at 82mm and below, the range drops to its minimum, at 0.32 - 1.64 feet.)
Casio FH20 Battery Life
While it carries a pretty generous CIPA battery life rating of 400 shots with fully-charged Sanyo Eneloop NiMH batteries, we found the Casio FH20 to be a fairly power-hungry camera to shoot with. Normally, a camera's LCD panel is the big power hog, but in the case of the FH20, we suspect it's a case of it simply taking a certain amount of power to capture and process images, and when you're burning through them at 40 7-megapixel frames/second, there's just a lot of data crunching to be done. (Actually, the camera was almost certainly doing better than its 400-shot CIPA rating, that'd mean only 10 40 frame bursts before it ran out. The CIPA figure assumes significant amounts of LCD usage between successive shots, which obviously isn't the case with 40-frame bursts. Battery life for a camera like the Casio FH20 might be better expressed in elapsed time, and our sense was that we had to stuff fresh batteries in it much more often than we normally have to with other cameras we test.
Whatever the case, while we didn't formally test the camera to the CIPA standard, we did find it easy to run through a set of freshly-charged Eneloops in the course of a morning or afternoon's shooting. If you don't already own one, make sure you pick up a good-quality NiMH charger and two or three sets of high-capacity NiMH cells to use with it. (We've found that Sanyo Eneloops work well in higher-drain digicams like the Casio FH20, even though they don't have as high a rated mAh capacity as some competing cells: The Eneloops apparently have lower internal resistance than others, and that helps them handle high current drains better.)
Casio FH20 Image Quality
So far, we've been talking about the Casio FH20's high-speed prowess, but how does it do as a still camera? Skimming through our test shots, I think the short answer is "good but not great." Despite its relatively lofty price tag for a long-zoom camera, the Casio FH20 won't compete with the best in the field, based solely on the quality of its still images.
Probably the closest competitor to the Casio FH20, in terms of resolution, zoom ratio and price tag, is the Panasonic FZ50. The FZ50 has "only" a 12x zoom lens, but in our estimation, its lens is sharper and Panasonic's image stabilization works better. Comparing image samples between the FH20 and FZ50, the FZ50 clearly has an edge in resolution and subtle detail.
|Image Comparison at ISO 100|
|Top image: Casio EX-FH20|
|Bottom Image: Panasonic DMC-FZ50|
The images above were cropped from shots of our Still Life target, captured with both cameras at ISO 100. The image from the FZ50 is just slightly larger, reflecting the modest difference between the resolution of the two cameras (9 megapixels for the Casio FH20, 10.1 megapixels for the Panasonic DMC-FZ50.) The FZ50's edge in sharpness is immediately apparent, and it remains even after careful processing of the FH20's RAW images in Photoshop. (Some of the missing detail in the FH20's shot above is the result of the camera's noise reduction processing. Even when processing its DNG-format RAW files in Photoshop with Photoshop's NR turned off though, there's still more detail to be found in the images from the FZ50.) (It's important to note here, though, that we're pixel-peeping pretty hard: The images from either camera will produce very sharp looking 8x10 inch prints.)
|Image Comparison at ISO 1,600|
|Top image: Casio EX-FH20|
|Bottom Image: Panasonic DMC-FZ50|
At ISO 1,600, the differences between the two cameras diminish considerably. The FZ50 still has an edge on sharpness in high-contrast edges, but the FH20 actually holds a bit more detail. Here, results from both cameras underscore one of the major differences between small-sensor cameras like the Casio FH20 and the sort of DSLRs we were talking about in our discussion of frame rates above: Almost any consumer grade DSLR will deliver much cleaner images at ISO 1,600.
We've come to expect problems with cameras' automatic white balance systems under highly colored light sources, but the Casio FH20 does quite a bit better than most in this area. The shot at right shows our "Indoor Portrait" test image, shot under household incandescent lighting. This is a very tough light source, as it has a very strong yellow cast to it. The FH20 handled it pretty well in Auto white balance mode: There's still some coloration left in the image, but some color is desirable, as it helps call the original scene lighting to mind.
The Casio FH20 is also slightly wide of the mark when it comes to color accuracy. Its images generally look pretty pleasing, with natural color, and the camera in fact does a good job with most colors, except for a range of the spectrum from yellow through orange. Yellows tend to come out with a somewhat greenish cast, and oranges are shifted towards yellow a fair bit. In the color error plot at right, the round dots show the color of the original target, the squares show the color as captured by the FH20. Radial position corresponds to the hue, the distance from the center shows the saturation (intensity) of the color. As you can see, most colors from the FH20 are fairly hue-accurate, but the yellows and oranges are shifted laterally quite a bit on the diagram. Saturation is also generally accurate (contributing to the generally natural appearance of the Casio FH20's images), with only strong reds and blues noticeably oversaturated. (Note, though, that consumers tend to prefer bright color, so some may find the FH20's more technically accurate saturation levels a little dull for their tastes. If you like your color a little brighter than the Casio FH20 delivers by default, though, you can easily boost it a notch in the Quality menu.
Optical Sharpness and Chromatic Aberration
Long-zoom cameras often trade off some optical quality in order to achieve their long zoom ratios. (It's awful hard to optimize a lens across a wide range of focal lengths, from wide angle to super telephoto.) The Casio FH20 does better than many long zooms in the overall sharpness department, but does suffer from significant chromatic aberration in the corners at both ends of its zoom range. The crops below show what this looks like at maximum telephoto. The effect is somewhat less (and the colors shift in the opposite directions) at maximum wide angle; somewhere in between the extremes, the CA crops nearly to zero: At "normal" focal lengths (close to 50mm equivalent), CA is quite low, although what's there does extend fairly far into the frame.
Exposure Accuracy and Tonality
We found that the Casio FH20 exposed images quite well, doing better than most cameras we test with some of the difficult lighting we confront them with. It did have a tendency to lose detail in strong highlights, although its Contrast and Dynamic Range Expansion options help quite a bit with this. The DR Expansion works mainly to keep the shadows from plugging (oddly, it seemed to have the best effect on images at the +1 setting, rather than the maximum of +2), while the Contrast control helps with both shadows and highlights. The examples below show the effect of the Contrast control.
Casio FH20 Summary
While the Casio FH20 is a competent enough long-zoom camera, that's probably not the main reason you'd buy one. If a long-ratio zoom is all you're looking for, there are other cameras on the market that will do at least a somewhat better job at the same or lower prices. On the other hand, if you need really fast continuous-mode or movie-mode performance, nothing else on the market comes close, other than Casio's own EX-F1, which is also a good bit more expensive.
It's interesting how different people view developments in the photography field, guided by their own particular backgrounds. When I look at the Casio EX-FH20, my background in engineering and science immediately leads me to see a superb tool for studying motion and time in minute detail. Applications like sports training and basic physics immediately spring to mind. Of course, there are plenty of other subjects characterized by fleeting moments: Squirmy kids, skittish birds and other wildlife, candid photography (where the difference between the perfect expression and a poor snapshot is often the matter of a tenth of a second or less) and on and on. For these applications, the Casio FH20 is a superb tool at a very affordable price. - And as noted, it's not a bad long-zoom digicam either. For a completely different take on the FH20's elder brother, read Michael Reichmann's review of the Casio EX-F1. Michael's background as a video producer gave him a rather different viewpoint in his evaluation of the F1. David Pogue of the New York Times had a view more similar to mine: Check out David's review for an interesting read, and don't miss his humorous video about the F1's features.
Bottom line, the Casio EX-FH20 really opens up a new dimension (time) for amateur photographers and I'm sure will find broad application in a wide range of uses, particularly in sports training. Don't discount the size of the market for family or wildlife photography either, though! Relative to the earlier F1, its $400 lower retail price and much broader distribution should do well both for Casio and for the large numbers of people who could make use of its unique capabilities. The EX-FH20 looks like a real winner for Casio!
Casio FH20 Conclusion
With the exception of its immediate predecessor the F1, the Casio EX-FH20 is literally a camera like no other. It opens the dimension of time to photographic exploration to a degree never before accessible to amateurs (or to all but a precious few professionals, for that matter). For so many subjects (sports action, active children, wildlife, candid street photography, to name just a few), having a camera that lets you pick just the right 1/40 second slice of life will result in vastly more "keepers" than could be produced with any other photographic tool out there. And if you really need to get down to the nitty gritty of time and space, the FH20's video modes reaching well into the hundreds of frames/second can provide amazing images and insights.
To find this level of time-stopping ability in the same package as a very credible long-zoom digicam, all for under $600 at retail represents an extraordinary bargain. We think the FH20 will be a huge success for Casio, if they can only communicate its advantages through the US retail channel -- a channel that's shown itself to be almost incapable of communicating anything other than the concept that more megapixels are better. We certainly wish them well on this task, and hope that our meager efforts here will be of some assistance: There are tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people out there who need this camera: Hopefully this review will help at least a few thousand of them find it! Definitely a Dave's Pick.