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I WAS ACTUALLY GIVEN THE Fuji Z20 to review a couple of months ago, before I was laid off by the paper, with the intention of writing about it for an upcoming Valentine's Day section. I've probably been testing the patience of the nice people at Fuji's Canadian PR agency by holding on to it for so long, but here it is, finally - a very considered review of a very typical point-and-shoot camera:

THE AMATEUR MARKET IS AWASH in point-and-shoot cameras, and has been for years now, so it's no surprise that the companies competing for the $100-$250 you're generally willing to spend on a decent snapshot camera are generally reduced to competing either on style and size or with some small but marketable technical feature.

It didn't used to be so complex. The top shelf of my office bookshelf is lined with old snapshot cameras, from box Brownies to bakelite-bodied models to twin lens cameras that took larger format roll film. The one thing that most of them have in common is a simple shutter, adjustable in some models with a lever that changed the aperture depending on whether you were shooting in bright, direct sunlight or overcast.

photo taken - in very low light - by Fuji Z20

No one really bothered improving on this primitive exposure system for two simple reasons. The first was the increasingly wide exposure latitude of film, which by the '80s could be two or even three stops in either direction, virtually guaranteeing a usable print most of the time. The second was the shared consumer knowledge of how these cameras worked.

Generations of amateur photographers knew that you had to shoot outside, in bright sunlight, if you wanted to be sure of getting a photo, which led to that decades-old ritual of your dad or aunt or whoever trooping the whole family outside to a spot in front of a suitably pleasing background to make you all stand in a stiff, smiling group. That and the preponderance of vacation snapshots taken at the beach.

If you wanted to do anything more complex - like taking photos inside, or at night - you upgraded to a camera that took flash cubes or some kind of flash attachment. And if your ambition was even more overreaching, you bought a Rolleiflex or a Nikon and promptly stopped taking mundane family group portraits in favour of ever more arcane close-ups of flowers, or the sorts of covertly captured shots that grandma always hated.

This simple, mechanical exposure system remained basically the same for decades, until the last ten years of film technology produced cameras like Olympus' marvellous Stylus, which had a relatively sophisticated metering system that let you use the camera almost like an SLR. Flash bulbs and attachments gave way to tiny, on board flashes triggered automatically by the exposure meter, and the snapshot camera had taken the shape that it would pass on to its upstart digital cousins.

The only thing that was different was shutter lag - the bugaboo that made digital cameras so irritating to use for so long, not that it stopped us from buying them in record numbers. Unless you own an SLR, shutter lag remains a problem with digital point-and-shoots, though it's been shaved down from what seemed like seconds to mere milliseconds with each new generation of camera, from incredibly annoying to an occasional, shot-destroying inconvenience.

The snapshot camera is so loaded with metering options and menus of presets for almost every situation that shutter lag has replaced lack of light as the genetic flaw in point-and-shoots. It will, in all likelihood, get shaved down to an almost imperceptible fraction of a second one day soon, but the fact remains that, if you want to play Cartier-Bresson and go for those perfect moments, you're better off with an SLR right now.

Fuji's Z20 is priced near the mid-to-high end of the snapshot camera market ($179.99 here in Canada, $139.27 on amazon.com as I write this) so it's going to perform better than an entry-level model. Shutter lag is small, but still perceptible, and the basic layout is pretty standard stuff - 2.5" LCD screen on the back, next to two circular controllers with the usual compass point click selection. A button to switch from still to movie modes (video is recorded in mp4) is on the top, recessed next to the shutter.

The styling can best be described as classic Star Trek - more TNG than TOS - and features a sliding lens cover that doubles as a power switch, very conveniently and quickly turning the camera on with negligible boot time when you slide it open. It also comes in five colours - green, blue, pink, red and black - which means that it's definitely meant for the "feminine" part of the market, which means a camera designed to be in automatic mode most or all of the time. (Don't blame me for the presumptive sexism - I didn't make this stuff up.)

The camera was certainly easy to use, and delivered a decent ratio of usable photos at that most demanding of snapshot opportunities - a child's birthday party. It performed as well as it should when I took it along on a scout around neighbourhoods while house-hunting - the day was bright and clear, and the resulting images were sharp and bright, with skies so blue you'd almost think a polarizing filter had been used. The small, flush lens meant that lens flare was a problem when the sun wasn't behind me, however - a problem even the best digital point-and-shoots share with their box Brownie ancestors.

Lambton house - taken with Z20 in standard mode

The Z20 takes a 10 megapixel image to an SD card (though it'll apparently acccept xD cards as well,) and performs decently with the flash suppressed in low light conditions - not Panasonic Lumix LX3 decently, but better than previous generations of cameras in the same price range could have managed. Rooting around in its menu, however, produced some interesting discoveries.

Camera manufacturers are stuffing their point-and-shoots with software possibilities that are either miraculous or ridiculous, depending on your perspective. Red-eye reduction and face recognition have become standard, along with panoramic modes and photo stitching, so some of the new options are fairly unusual.

There's a "blog mode," for instance, which will re-size photos for the web, and an "auction mode" for eBay users, which will take multiple images and stitch them into a single photo to showcase an item. The skills required to do the first in a desktop image editing program are basic, but the latter requires some work, so you have to admire Fuji for focusing so particularly on the demands some potential buyers might have for a camera.

Everyone expects cameras to become more like phones sooner than later, and wirelessly transmit images, and Fuji has taken a step in this direction with the IrSimple wireless option on the Z20. Unfortunately, you need another camera or device with IrSimple to make it work, so I wasn't able to test it out - proof that, no matter how good the idea, it's almost useless in the absence of standards.

Finally, while rooting around in the Z20's menu, I came across the Fuji FinePix Color option, which basically allows you go choose between a standard mode and two others for "chrome" or black and white. The latter is self-explanatory, and probably very esoteric for most users, but the chrome option was interesting, and had me reminiscing about the last days of film photography.

Back when I made my living shooting professionally, Fuji was my transparency film of choice for two reasons - it tended to be the most vividly hued on the market, and had the most flattering skin tones before filter correction. (It was, thirdly, the film that produced the best results in cross-processing, a briefly voguish technique that's a footnote now in the age of Photoshop.)

The chrome option in the Z20 basically apes the character of Fuji's slide film by boosting the contrast and saturation of the image in the camera. As a sidenote, the white balancing in the camera also tends to produce warmer than average skin tones - a slight warming of the colour temperature that was considered a Fuji film trademark - and it's interesting to see that Fuji has persisted in retaining this character in the switch from film to digital.

While nothing like a leap forward for snapshot cameras - it's almost too much to expect anything like on the market right now - the Z20 is nonetheless a very usable, flexible camera with a couple of hidden features that might prove really functional if you're averse to desktop image editing software. For the rest of us, it's a better-than-average snapshot camera with the misfortune to be up against a market full of the same.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved


i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

rick -at- rickmcginnis.com


no comments - i can't be bothered with the extra work, to be frank - but if you have something to say, I might print it in the margin over here.

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