Mini Review: Fujifilm Finepix F31fd
by Eric Jeschke
I had been hankering lately for a new compact camera. Not so much that I was dissatisfied with my old one, but it was beginning to feel a little long in the tooth (in “digicam years”). I was hearing about new features like built in image stabilization, etc. And maybe it was too long since the last toy. But the biggest rational reason for my hunger, though, was that I craved better low light performance. My hand-held indoor and low light images always suffered from slow shutter speeds necessary to shoot at the ISOs that I needed to to avoid unacceptable amounts of noise. And although they are completely affordable now, and cost is not an issue, I’m just not a big SLR user (“D-” or otherwise) anymore. I like small cameras. I like not using a viewfinder (most DSLR viewfinders suck anyway). I like silent operation. I like the unobtrusiveness.
Enter the Fujifilm Finepix F31fd (hereafter referred to as the “F31″). For months I had been reading on the net about (and seeing) F10/20/30 images. Impressive images. From a ultra-compact? The size of a deck of cards? Apparently the reason photographers are getting them in droves (often as a “DSLR companion”) is the image sensor: a 1/1.7″ Super CCD HR with 6.3 million pixels. What makes this sensor special is its low noise/high ISO performance: a good 2-3 stops better than most other digicams in this class, according to sites like dpreview. Fujifilm makes their own custom CCDs and this has given them a market advantage in sensor noise levels for small cameras.
Recently, Fujifilm introduced an updated version of the F30, the F31. Same great taste. And although it sounded like the “enthusiast features” I craved were not in this camera, on image quality it looked to be trumping the other interesting compact cameras: the Canon G7, the Panasonic LX2. Whither my favorite camera maker, Casio? Alas, they seem to have abandoned the prosumer market. Reading the tea leaves from their recent product announcements, it’s more and more megapixels, more and more noise, more and more noise reduction, less and less control. The Ricoh GX-100 had not yet been announced, or I might have gone that route.
I decided to take a gamble on the F31. After all, I’d still have my trusty P600 around. Some of the criticism, good or bad, in this review is related to my intensive use of that camera, and the inevitable comparisons. If you are interested, you follow that link to see what the F31 was up against in my mindset.
I ordered from Amazon, and the camera arrived on 03.13. The F31 takes xD cards, so I had ordered a large capacity xD card to go with the camera, as my other cameras take SD and compact flash. (Yet another format? Hmmm…mark that down under “the bad”).
Upacking and fondling the new toy, I cast a critical eye over it. Body: solid metal construction, with a few plastic pieces. Definitely looks like it could take a ding here and there. Good. Uh-oh, what’s this? Another flimsy USB cover. Have they no shame? (Why spend good money making a decent body and then slap an embarassment like that on it! Grumble.) Oh dear, a PLASTIC tripod socket?!!
Ah, but it is an ultra compact. The comparison with a deck of cards is apt: about as long and wide and a little thicker than a deck of bridge-size cards. Clearly this is camera you can take places in a normal sized pocket.
Fujifilm thoughtfully included a printed manual. It’s getting rarer. Also included in the package is a video/USB cable, the camera/computer USB cable, in-camera battery charger (what!? no external charger?) and the proprietary NiMH battery. I insert the battery, plug in the charger, and impatiently wait for the battery to charge. This seems to be a ploy to get you to read the manual…
[ Fast forward a few weeks... ]
Screen, Controls and Ergonomics
Hmm…ah, where were we? Oh yes, I was finally getting back to this web page to tell you about my experience using the camera for the last three months.
The camera turns on and extends the lens in about a second, which is pretty decent compared to similar models. Shutter lag is present, but minimal, if you have focus locked (I always prefocus). I found it quite acceptable for my style of shooting. Card write times seem on par with typical cameras in this class. I have not tested maximum continuous image taking, as I rarely use continuous mode.
Conveniently, playback mode is enabled by pressing a dedicated playback button instead of having to rotate the top dial out of shooting mode. To return to shooting mode, just lightly press the shutter button. This makes it much more convenient for chimping. Speed of flipping between shots in playback mode is decent (not quite as good as the P600, but close). There is an ergonomic image rotation mode, which lets you rotate lots of images in camera very easily during playback. I also appreciate the calendar function, that lets you browse photos by the date they were taken.
The LCD is large, high resolution and reasonably bright. When working in bright sunlight there is a “high brightness” mode that can be enabled with a touch of the 4-way controller. This is important because there is no optical viewfinder. This is not a big negative for me, because these days I generally prefer working at arms length and seeing the 100% coverage of the LCD anyway. Dropping the optical viewfinder does lead to a smaller package as well. In any case I really like the F31’s LCD, although it does seem to lack a good protective finish. It looks like it could scratch in your pocket quite easily. I had read that the LowePro Rezo 15 was the ideal accessory pouch for carrying these Fujifilm compacts and had ordered one separately–I can vouch that it fits perfectly, does protects the camera pretty well, and you can still stick it in your pocket afterwards.
The ergonomics on this camera are a little hard to judge for me. It may be that I’m just too used to my old camera, and haven’t quite had this one long enough to get used to the differences, but the controls don’t seem quite as logically and intuitively arranged to me. I’m hoping that will change as I gain more experience with it. The camera is fairly straightforward to operate. I just don’t understand why they made some of the choices they did. For example, there are two menu buttons on the back of the camera: the “F” button (a kind of quick shortcut settings button for record mode) and the “menu” button in the middle of the 4-way toggle. In the mode that I use the most, the “F” menu has selections for ISO (makes sense), quality/size (doesn’t make sense, I always leave it on maximum size) and color (doesn’t make sense, I usually shoot in normal color), while the other, fuller “menu” has the more frequently adjusted settings white balance, AF mode, and metering buried amongst all the other possible settings. Why not put the ISO/WB/AF mode/metering on the quick access “F” menu? I am also trying to get used to having the 4-way toggle turn on and off various settings in addition to its job of navigation; I find myself constantly turning on the flash or self-timer when I just wanted to navigate to something in a menu. Fujifilm could take a few notes from the Casio P600 design methinks.
A final note in regard to ergonomics. The various modes of the camera don’t always seem to operate in clearly understandable, composable, orthogonal ways. For example, “auto iso” mode is not available in aperture or shutter priority mode (you have to pick the iso manually). Various little inconsistencies like this make the various modes seem rather idiosyncratic compared to other cameras.
Lens and Focusing
The lens on the F31 is a 8-24mm, equivalent to approx 36-108mm in a 35mm camera. This is a decent range. As always, I wish it were wider on the wide end. Like 28mm. I’d give up range on the long end to get it too. How about 28-70mm, like a lot of typical SLR zoom lenses? (Of course a 4X 28-105mm would be the best). The lens is also a little slow at the long end of the range (f5.0), but this is offset by the camera’s good high ISO performance.
What’s interesting is how sharp this lens is. My P600 has a Canon made “L” lens, and I honestly didn’t expect the F31’s lens to match it, but at this point I think it may be better! It provides really tack-sharp images, that have noticeably less barrel distortion at wide angle. The lens is really one of the strong suits of this package. Others have noted that this camera does suffer some purple fringing in high contrast scenes. I have seen this, but the problem does not seem overly pronounced, and in most images/prints you won’t notice it.
Autofocus is fairly quick, and doesn’t seem to have too much trouble with hunting. There is a bright focus-assist light, which is activated if needed and which lets the camera focus in dark situations. Thankfully it can be deactivated. I turn it off most of the time because it is quite distracting when photographing people, and focus seems to lock fine without it in all but very dark situations. The F31 lacks any manual focus, unfortunately. I do find it quite handy on occasion.
The focus lock LED, which is also used to indicate exposure problems and other faults, could also benefit from a little bit better design. Sometimes a half-press of the shutter button will often complete with a beep (as if everything is fine), but the led blinks green instead of solid green. This seems to indicate that there is a problem. Fine, but is the problem with autofocus or exposure? If you investigate further there are other clues to tell you the answer, but somehow seeing that blinking green led makes me wonder whether the camera locked focus or not. It seems overloaded with a few too many fault indicators.
Of course on this kind of camera you are going to have discrete zoom steps, which means you cannot frame a shot precisely from a stationary spot as you can with a manual zoom lens. With my Casio, this really bothered me at first. I think that camera must have got me conditioned to it, because the F31 has the same issue (not enough discrete zoom steps), but it doesn’t seem to bother me as much now.
The lens focuses down to 5cm (in wide angle) for macro work, which is more respectable than my P600. However, the macro mode must be engaged when the subject distance drops down to a couple feet or so, and this seems like a rather large distance at which to have to switch to macro mode. I’ll find myself thinking that the camera autofocus can’t lock on to something and keep retrying to focus, only to finally realize that the subject is just a little too close to me and once switched to macro mode the focus locks immediately.
It would be lovely if the camera offered an infinity (hyperfocal) focus setting, but it doesn’t.
Sensor, Metering, Exposure and Image Quality
The sensor I discussed earlier: 1/1.7″ Super CCD HR, 6.3 mpix. Reportedly very low light capable. I had high expectations from what I had heard about this sensor. It didn’t disappoint. The camera has very clean images up through ISO 400. ISO 800 is quite usable and 1600 can be used in a pinch. ISO 3200 is not. I would say that the F31 is somewhere between 2 and 3 stops better than my P600, which is quite an advantage. A lot has been made of lately regarding the new image stabilization that is being built into various cameras. It’s a nice feature that can let you hand-hold the camera at lower shutter speeds by a couple stops. However, a higher ISO is more useful for all around use because it lets you keep the camera at a higher shutter speed that stops the movement of subjects in the frame.
The F31 offers 3 metering modes: multi, center and spot. Metering seems accurate–reports were that the F30 metering clips the highlights a bit and the consensus on the forums seems to be to routinely dial the exposure down 1/3 stop. For the F31 I’ve not found this to be routinely necessary, although if I do use exposure compensation on this cam it’s usually to dial it down a bit.
My biggest hurdle with this camera (and I don’t want to harp on this too much because I knew this going in), is that it lacks true manual controls. The shutter and aperture priority modes allow you to cope with subject motion and some depth of field issues, but without a true manual mode I am forced to use exposure compensation to try to tackle every tricky lighting situation (e.g. sunsets with foreground matter, contrasty scenes, etc.). Unfortunately that is a bit of a laborious process: check metered values on a part of the scene, commit to memory (mine!), recompose on desired composition, dial in (potentially lots of) exposure compensation to get the same EV, then prefocus on selected object in frame, recompose, expose. Chimp. Possibly repeat, with bracketing. Aaarrgh! If they had only added one button–an autoexposure lock button (separate from focus lock)–95% of these situations could be handled with ease. The procedure: meter the subject for the exposure you want, press the AE lock button, then focus on the OTHER subject that you want in focus, lock that with a half-press of the shutter button, finally recompose for the final composition in the frame and press the shutter the rest of the way. Dead simple. This is a feature that is sadly lacking on many of the new compact cams.
On a good note, the auto white balance is about as good as I’ve seen on a digicam. Of course it is still desirable to manually override the camera’s idea of WB on occasion (especially as this camera has no way to save a RAW file), but the auto WB is definitely a notch above other similar cameras in this class. The sensor color is not overdone (supersaturated) like on some cameras, but subtle and true to the scene. There are also “chrome” and “B&W” settings for when you are in the mood for something different straight out of the camera.
To sum up this section I would say that overall image quality is quite good. About the only defect that I see not infrequently is that I find the results a little too contrasty. This can be corrected in post-processing, of course, but I’d rather be beefing up the contrast (if necessary) rather than trying to turn it down. On the plus side this makes for great B&W conversions, which tend to look better with lots of contrast. Sharpening and noise reduction seem to be reasonably tuned, which is good because there are no settings for adjusting the contrast, sharpening or noise reduction!
Other Features and Extras
Although I don’t buy a still camera for it’s video capabilities, I find it a huge bonus if the video is decent. I hate lugging a video camera around even more than I hate lugging a DSLR around, and I’m looking forward to the day when a small camera like this will do it all. Although the video from the F31 is nowhere near that of a decent DV camera, it’s actually pretty good. 30fps at 640×480 for as long as your memory card holds out. No zoom during video, though. The camera produces motion jpeg AVI files, so they are large, and contain artifacts that you won’t see on “regular” video cameras with less heavy-handed compression. Nevertheless, I’m pretty impressed by the quality of the video (and audio). Playback on a tv through the USB/video cable is pretty nice.
Given the decent quality of the audio, it would have been nice if they provided a dedicated audio recorder feature. The F31 does have a still picture audio annotation feature (very useful at times), but it requires too many button presses and is limited to 30 seconds of audio. Still, better than none, when you need it.
A huge plus for me is that this camera is very good on battery life. It’s rated for 500+ shots per charge. I haven’t been keeping track, but it seems better than my Casio, and that camera was very good in this regard. (I’ve heard the bretheren cameras, e.g. the F20, do not do so well). With the F31 I have gone for weeks without changing batteries. I would still recommend (as always) ordering a second battery with the camera. Finding yourself in front of a great photo op with a dead proprietary battery will forever disabuse you of the notion that a single such battery will suffice.
Another feature that looks cool (although I haven’t played with it much) is wireless infrared image transfer. Apparently, if you have a compatible device (such as a friend’s F31), you can beam selected photos over to that device. This would be slick for downloading to your computer, although slower than USB. It’s somewhat annoying in this day and age that one has to plug into their laptop or desktop to download photos. It would be nice to just set the camera down next to the computer and press a button. Bluetooth, anyone?
And speaking of easier ways to transfer photos, this is my chance to complain about the F31’s shortcomings even hooking up the old-fashioned way. The camera rates it’s USB connection as a 2.0-compatible interface, but due to its use of the PTP protocol (rather than acting like a USB generic mass storage device) and the slow xD card means that image transfer is neither as fast, flexible, compatible or convenient as it could be. Nevertheless, most operating systems that have been updated with the USB signatures of the latest camera models should recognize the camera and fire up the correct application to upload the images.
The F31 has a number of “scene modes”, a feature that is quickly becoming ubiquitous, and therefore probably needs little explanation here. Most photographers will not use these modes. However, as with another feature discussed below, these can be useful if a snapshooter is borrowing your camera. Suffice it to say that these modes work reasonably well for what they are designed to do. Probably the most interesting mode of them is the “natural + flash” mode. This mode takes two pictures of a scene in quick succession, one without flash and one with. Then you can compare the two and pick the one you want.
I specifically put off discussing the F31’s “face detection” capabilities, a feature that Fujifilm marketing felt so strongly about they felt compelled to add “fd” to the model name (“F31fd” is the official model name). Mainly this is because I find this feature to be somewhat of a gimmick. Most photography enthusiasts will correctly focus on that part of the composition that they are interested in, whether that is a face, rock, flower or… whatever. They don’t need a camera to find the face in the frame. And although enthusiasts are snapping these F31’s up, it is clearly not marketed toward them. But, ahem, I digress. In a nutshell, the face detection mode works, and it works decently. You will find it useful (for example) if you ask a waiter or a tourist to take a picture of you. Put the camera in “natural light” scene mode, press the face detection button, and hand them the camera. You will have a much better than random chance that you will be in focus and have a decent exposure to boot.
This camera was a little of what I hoped it was, and a little of what I hoped it wasn’t. When the light is good, and it’s not a tricky exposure (i.e. straight up auto or maybe some simple exposure compensation), the camera works a charm. The lens delivers stunningly crisp photos, the colors are true, and the images are usually great right out of the camera.
It’s tricky lighting situations where this camera let’s me down–fast. Given that there is no true fully manual control of exposure, or even an autoexposure lock that you can set independent of focus lock, I am reduced in these sorts of situations to time-consuming rigamarole based on exposure compensation. This is very frustrating, to say the least.
For low-light work (but straightforward exposures) there is no comparison, the F31 is the undisputed king of the small sensor cameras. I routinely use exposures up to ISO 800, and even 1600 in a pinch. Shots up to ISO 400 are amazingly clean. Of course, tricky exposures in low-light situations will offer the same sort of frustrations.
In the end, I find myself preferring the control, ergonomics and consistent contrast of the Casio for good light photography and tricky lighting situations, but reaching for the F31 for anything from dusk to dawn, indoors, or when I need true pocketability. After seeing what a great point-and-shoot the F31 is I turned around and ordered an F20 for my wife. It reputedly uses the same lens and sensor as the F31, but retails for under $150. It has fewer modes than the F31, but offers the same image quality and most important modes, including exposure compensation. Since the F31 never really gives you full manual control anyway, it seems a compelling alternative. In fact, if I was able to do it all over again I’d probably order the F20 for myself (instead of the F31). I’ve heard Fujifilm has discontinued the F20, but old stocks continue to be moved. If you can find one they are a great bargain.
I’d love to see Fujifilm come out with a fully manual version of the F31 (in that same ultracompact form size, I know about the 6000fd!). Or for another manufacturer that is a little more ergonomically savvy to license the Super CCD HR and put it in their camera. Imagine a Casio with this sensor, or a Panasonic…ahhh, one can dream!
- outstanding low-light performance from such a small sensor–finally a decent compact for non-flash indoor or nighttime work;
- suprisingly sharp lens, with very little distortion;
- auto white balance is good (better than most digicams I have used), although still benefits from manual override occasionally;
- responsive camera (reasonably fast start up, autoexposure, shutter lag, zoom, playback) compared to many digicams;
- takes surprisingly good video (but no zoom during video);
- absolutely outstanding battery life, good for over 500 hundred exposures;
- dedicated playback button with full functionality, returns to shooting mode with touch of the shutter button;
- sized to fit even a shirt pocket!
- easy “high-brightness” LCD mode for bright sunshine, etc;
- world date mode (although ergonomics are poor);
- view photos by date mode;
- face detection works decently (but only available in fully auto modes);
- includes printed manual (sad to say, but these days that is considered good–should just be expected);
- cool wireless (IR) image sending feature (if you can find another device that uses this protocol);
- durable case (with notable exceptions–see “the ugly”);
- limited manual controls (only exposure compensation) means time-consuming trial and error with tricky lighting situations;
- no controls for sharpening, noise reduction or contrast;
- lens a little slow (aperture) at long end of zoom (f5) and not wide enough (8mm (36mm equiv)) at widest;
- awkward limit for switching to macro mode (must switch sooner than you expect);
- no RAW mode;
- wierd limitations on modes (e.g. auto iso is not available in aperture- or shutter-priority mode);
- default contrast is a tad high (and no contrast adjustment);
- voice annotation is cumbersome and limited to 30 sec;
- Uses PTP protocol for USB connection, does not appear as general storage device (less compatible/flexible); file transfers are slower than they should be for USB 2.0
- proprietary battery;
- no dedicated autoexposure lock button (pet peeve)–this would solve many tricky exposure problems;
- xD picture cards instead of ubiquitous SD cards;
- extremely flimsy and poorly-designed USB/video port cover–begs to be broken off;
- plastic tripod socket (ugh!);
- no included external charger;