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Casio Exilim EX-FH20

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The Casio Exilim EX-FH20 megazoom digital camera looks and feels like a small, entry-level SLR, with its oversize 20X-optical-zoom lens, pop-up fill flash, and big, beefy right-handed grip. But the camera is as easy to use as a point-and-shoot--and a lot more versatile, thanks to its high-speed shooting modes. It's a follow-up to last year's innovative Casio Exilim EX-F1, and a big sibling to the pocketable, high-speed Casio Exilim EX-FC100.

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 you press the shutter button), Single Shot, HS for high-speed movies, and HD/STD for normal-speed movies at 1280-by-720-pixel 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 (Best Shot) button on the back of the camera and select any of 18 presets, including standards such as Portrait, Sports, and High Speed Night Scene. A few of the preset modes--such as Multi-motion Image (which lets you shoot multiple images of a scene that the camera then combines 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)--let you have a little fun.

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 adjust the white balance and image brightness, as well. You can easily navigate all of the controls by pressing 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, a small LCD that produces flatter and fuzzier colors than the 3-inch LCD. Switching between the electronic viewfinder and the 3-inch LCD is as easy as pushing a button. When you're using the electronic viewfinder, however, you're dedicated to it--while switching presets, you have to peer through the electronic viewfinder to navigate the screens. The camera doesn't switch to the 3-inch LCD when you're adjusting the camera and then back to the electronic viewfinder when you're done and ready to shoot, which can hamper your efforts if you're trying to adjust the camera quickly.

Typically, you'd set a camera to single-shot auto mode to take a run-of-the-mill picture. But with its megazoom and high-speed modes, the Exilim EX-FH20 is a camera built 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. If you have the audio turned on, the camera will still make the shutter noise for every still you take, even if you're shooting 40 fps. Though Casio says that in High-Speed mode the camera will continue to shoot as long as you keep the shutter button pressed, in actuality the camera will continue until you've filled the memory cache; it then stops and asks if you want to save all of the pictures, a select few, or none. Saving all of the pics not only takes several seconds (the more frames shot, the longer the process) but also consumes precious memory-card space.

If you're taking photos of, say, a sporting event, you might use the High-Speed mode often in order to get a special action shot. When I used a 2GB SDHC card, I had room for 446 photos at the highest quality--that translated to only 11 different "shots" if I had the camera set at 40 fps. Sure, as you go, you can try to select pics to keep and others to dump, but then you wouldn't be paying attention to the event. The best solution is to use a 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 looking at the camera, the three flash bursts can be a little blinding, but this mode is useful for action shots when the subject is looking in another direction. The flash doesn't pop up automatically; if you enter Flash CS mode with the flash closed, the camera merely shows you an 'Open the flash unit' message on the LCD or electronic viewfinder.

While the name of the HS mode stands for high-speed video, the actual result is a slow-motion video with, disappointingly, no sound. The camera records normal-speed videos at 30 fps, but in HS mode you can capture videos at 210 fps (480 by 360 resolution), 420 fps (224 by 168), or 1000 fps (224 by 56)--the higher the frame rate, the slower the motion and the lower the resolution. The EX-FH20 also has a 30-210 fps mode, in which you can switch between 30 fps and 210 fps by tapping the directional button while you are shooting, a trick that allows you to create movies that alternate between normal speed and slow motion. You can have a lot of fun in HS mode, and even find some creative uses for it.

Aside from the inability to record sound, however, this HS mode feature involves two major compromises. First, the video resolutions are smaller than standard: If you're putting together a movie by compiling normal-speed clips with footage shot in HS mode, the clips won't match in frame size. Second, you can't zoom at all while in HS mode.

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 "the moment" will appreciate these modes, too. On top of that, the EX-FH20 has a Prerecord Movie setting that you can activate; with this on in HD/STD mode, the camera records 5 seconds' worth of video in a memory cache before you press the record button. (In HS mode, it's 2 seconds.) This feature is another great aid in getting the shot you want; when you use it, you're in less danger of missing action due to a slow shutter finger.

In PC World Test Center jury evaluations of the Exilim EX-FH20's still photos, the camera earned an overall imaging score of Very Good. It scored well in our color-accuracy tests, though its images weren't as sharp as we had hoped. Images had very good exposure, and we liked the lack of distortion. In my informal tests, the quality of video matched that of the camera's stills. The amount of noise at ISO 1600 was quite noticeable, however, especially when I used the high-speed modes in dimly lit areas.

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

For nonprofessional photographers who want to take action shots frequently, the Casio Exilim EX-FH20 is a godsend that drastically reduces guesswork. For the photographer with established skills, the Exilim EX-FH20 can be a nice secondary camera, though such advanced users may desire more fine-tuning controls in the EX-FH20's manual mode.

Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.

This story, "Casio Exilim EX-FH20" was originally published by PCWorld.

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