As the first of Casio's Exilim digital cameras to carry the Pro designation, the 6-megapixel, 4X-zoom Casio Exilim Pro EX-P600 faces stiff competition from an increasingly crowded field of prosumer models. Luckily, the P600 combines a mile-long list of features with an excellent user manual and built-in guidance system, making it an appealing option for enthusiasts and enthusiastic newcomers alike. The camera lacks a raw-capture mode, and its distracting live histogram takes some getting used to; in addition, the P600's 320x240 movie mode can't match the 640x480 resolution offered on newer cameras. But the P600 offers solid image quality and very good battery life, which, combined with its versatility and accessibility, help to distinguish this model from its higher-resolution competitors.
A departure from the pencil-thin profile of typical Exilim cameras, the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P600 is a little stockier and heavier -- it weighs 260g with the battery and the SD card -- but is still small and light enough to stash in a good-sized pocket. The overall design doesn't tug at our aesthetic heartstrings, but the P600's hand positioning and control layout are quite well executed, considering that the bulk of the camera's back is occupied by the large, 2-inch LCD screen.
The standard four-way selector and menu buttons are to the right of the LCD, but several additional controls are placed on the left of the screen for convenience. One provides instant access to a menu of white-balance, ISO, metering, and focus-area settings; the second is dedicated to autoexposure lock; and the third reveals a long list of bracketing options.
The P600's collection of LCD modes varies slightly from the norm; to access the camera's live histogram function, you need to enable the bizarre EX Finder graphical overlay. Though EX Finder surfaces frequently accessed options, its overwrought design limits your effective field of view to a fraction of what you'd normally be getting. Though it's not impossible to get used to this distracting graphic, we wish that the live RGB histogram could be extracted and used on its own.
EX Finder mode aside, we love the P600's menu system, as well as the visual and textual explanations of each of the camera's 25 Best Shot modes. But the P600's killer feature -- at least for those with minimal understanding of aperture and shutter settings -- lies in the camera's unique guidance system. In shutter-priority mode, for example, pressing the central selection button pulls up a visual representation of how a higher or lower shutter speed will affect the overall sharpness of your shot. You can also set your shutter speed or aperture setting from inside the example menu, eliminating any confusion about whether f/2.8 will give your shot a wider or narrower depth of field. Granted, this feature won't be of much use to seasoned photographers, but newcomers to manual priority modes will love the seamless education it provides.
Casio also provides an excellent -- albeit electronic only -- manual with the camera, probably one of the best we've ever seen. What sets the P600's user guide apart is that in addition to showing you how to operate the camera, it provides solid, easily understandable information about digital photography in general.
Other than a raw-image capture setting, a live histogram separate from the EX Finder overlay, and a focus-assist lamp, there isn't much missing from the Casio Exilim Pro EX-P600's feature set. This camera is equipped with pretty much every feature imaginable and then some. But don't let that turn you off if you're just starting out -- you can play with as many or as few of the settings as you'd like.
In addition to full manual exposure, ISO sensitivity, metering, AF, and white-balance controls, the P600 offers a full array of bracketing modes. You can set bracketing for exposure, white balance, and focus position, and there's a multibracketing feature that controls colour, sharpness, and contrast. If you learn nothing else on this camera, get up to speed with the bracketing feature.
The Best Shot mode comes in handy when you're not quite sure how -- or don't have the time or inclination -- to set up a shot. We found that in the right situations, choosing one of these preprogrammed settings yielded results nearly as good as those from our manually composed shots, though there was the occasional misfire. Thankfully, you can also create and store up to 99 of your own Best Shot settings, so there's no need for manual photographers to reinvent the wheel each time they turn on the camera.
Other notable features on this versatile camera include autofocus area selection and a robust continuous-shooting mode. We were less impressed with the camera's low-resolution video mode, which captures 320x240 clips with sound at a mere 15 frames per second; many consumer models are now capable of recording 640x480 movies at 30fps. Purchasing a high-capacity SD media card is an absolute must with this camera, as the P600 comes with only 9MB of internal memory, enough to hold about 5 or 6 high-resolution images.