Casio Exilim EX-FH20

With its 20x zoom and high-speed capture mode, Casio's Exilim EX-FH20 is built to handle action shots, especially when you can't physically get up close to your subjects.

The Exilim EX-FH20 looks and feels like a small entry-level SLR, with its oversized lens and pop-up fill flash, and its big, beefy right-handed grip. But the camera works like a point-and-shoot. The mode dial has only five settings: Flash CS (consecutive shots with flash), High-speed CS (according to Casio, this mode will continue to shoot as long as the shutter button is pressed), Single shot, HS for high-speed movies, and HD/STD for normal-speed movies at 1280-by-720 or 640-by-480 pixel resolution, both at 30 frames per second.

When the camera is in any of the still photo modes, you can press the BS button on the back of the camera and select from one of 18 presets, which include standards such as Portrait, Sports, and High Speed Night Scene. A few of the preset modes let you have a little fun, such as Multi-motion Image, which lets you shoot multiple images of a scene and then the camera combines the pics into a single image, or Digital Panning, which combines multiple images into one picture where the subject is in focus and the background is motion-blurred.

Besides the presets, you can also set the camera for aperture priority, shutter speed priority, manual, or automatic. The ISO range is from 100 to 1600, and you can also adjust the white balance and image brightness.

All of the controls are easily navigated using the directional button and the Set button on the back of the camera with your right thumb. The Menu button on the back lets you access other camera settings.

The Exilim EX-FH20's 3-inch color LCD looks nice, though I did have trouble seeing it in very bright sunlight. In such instances, you can use the camera's electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF is actually a small LCD that produces color that seems flatter and fuzzier than the 3-inch LCD. Switching between the EVF and the 3-inch LCD is as easy as pushing a button, but when you're using the EVF, you're dedicated to it--when you're, say, switching presets, you have to peer through the EVF to navigate the screens. The Exilim EX-FH20 doesn't switch to the 3-inch LCD when adjusting the camera and then back to the EVF when you're done and ready to shoot. This will slow you down if you're quickly trying to switch presets or adjust the camera.

Typically, you'd set the Exilim EX-FH20 to Single shot mode to take your run-of-the-mill picture. But with its megazoom and high-speed modes, the Exilim EX-FH20 is a pretty good camera for action shots. In High-speed CS mode, you can set the camera to shoot 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, 30, or 40 frames per second (fps). If you have the audio turned on, the camera will still make the shutter noise, even if you're shooting 40 fps.

Casio says that in High-speed mode, the camera will continue to shoot as long as the shutter button is pressed. In actuality, the camera will continue to shoot until you've filled the memory cache, and then stops and asks if you want to save all the pictures, a selected few, or none. Saving all of the pics not only takes several seconds (the more frames shot, the longer it takes to save), it takes up precious memory card space. If you're taking shots of an event like, say, your kid's soccer game, you might be using the High-speed mode often in order to get that one special action shot. When using a 2GB SDHC card, I had room for 446 photos at the highest quality. That's only 11 shots if you're set at 40 fps. Sure, you can try to select which pics to keep and which ones to dump, but then you wouldn't be paying attention to the event. The best solution is to use large-capacity SDHC card--multiple large-capacity SDHC cards, if you can afford it.

The Flash CS mode takes three shots in rapid succession, with the flash bursting quickly three times in a row. If your subject is look ing at the camera, the three flash bursts can be a little blinding, but you would use this mode when there's action happening and the subject isn't looking at the camera. The flash doesn't pop-up automatically and if you're in Flash CS mode with the flash closed a "Open the flash unit" message appears on the LCD or EVF.

While the HS mode stands for high-speed video, what the actual result is a slow-motion video with, disappointingly, no sound. Normal speed videos are recorded at 30 fps, but in HS mode, you can capture videos at 210 fps (480 by 360 resolution), 420 fps (224 by 168), and 1000 fps (224 by 56)--the higher the framerate, the slower the motion. There's also a 30-210 fps mode, where you can switch between 30 fps and 210 fps by tapping the directional button while you are shooting, which means you can create fun  movies that switch back and forth between normal speed and slow motion. You can have a lot of fun in HS mode, and even find some very creative uses for it.

There are two major compromise in this HS mode feature, though, besides the inability to record sound. First, there's the small-than-standard video resolutions. If you're putting together a movie by compiling normal-speed clips with clips shot in HD/STD mode, the clips won't match in frame size. The 224-by-56 pixel resolution of the 1000 fps setting, ends up being a challenge to use, because the frame is very narrow. And you can't zoom at all while in HS mode.

You can zoom while shooting a movie in STD/HD mode, but images become more and more jaggy the closer you zoom in.

Overall, the high-speed video and still modes are great fun. Novice and intermediate photographers who love to take action shots but are continually frustrated by missing that precise moment  will quickly appreciate the high-speed modes. There's also a Prerecord Movie setting that you can activate; with this on in HD/STD mode, the camera records 5 seconds of video in a memory cache before you start recording. In HS mode, it's 2 seconds. This feature is another great aid in getting the shot you want.

In our lab testing of the still photos taken by the Exilim EX-FH20, the camera earned an overall score of Very Good. The camera scored well in our color accuracy tests, though its images weren't as sharp as we hoped. Images had very good exposure, and the liked the lack of distortion. Video quality mirrored that of the camera's stills. The amount of noise at ISO 1600 was quite noticeable, however, especially if you're using the high-speed modes in dimly-lit areas.

The Exilim EX-FH20 uses four AA batteries. In our lab tests, the batteries lasted for only 264 single shots in a row. Granted, you probably won't sit there with your finger on the shutter for 264 shots at once, but we've come to expect over 300 shots from different cameras in our battery tests.

Macworld's buying advice

For non-professional photographers who want to frequently take action shots, the Exilim EX-FH20 is a godsend that helps reduce what seems like guesswork. The Exilim EX-FH20 can be a nice camera for the photographer with established skills, though such photographers may desire more manual controls.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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