Fujifilm has spent the last couple of years getting in touch with its sensitive side by cranking up the usable sensitivity range of its digital compact cameras. The pinnacle of this work is the company's new FinePix F30, which includes a range of ISOs from ISO 100 all the way up to ISO 3,200. In the film world, you could get ISO 3,200 only with black-and-white film, and it had grain that was affectionately referred to as 'golfball size' by many photographers. While noise at ISO 3,200 is extreme, the F30 keeps imaging artefacts under control below that point, making for a breakthrough as digital compacts go.
The rest of the F30's features are pretty humdrum. For example, it includes a 6-megapixel CCD sensor, a 3x optical zoom lens and a 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen. Manual shooters will be pleased to see the camera's shutter and aperture priority modes, while fans of the automatic will gravitate towards its moderate selection of scene presets, or just use its full auto mode.
If you're looking for a solid all-around camera that's good for low light, the Fujifilm FinePix F30 won't disappoint. It doesn't include optical image stabilisation, but if you're shooting pictures -- even of a slowly moving subject, such as a group of friends standing around talking -- optical image stabilisation won't be as useful as the low-noise high-ISO settings included in this camera.
No one would call the Fujifilm FinePix F30 sexy, but behind its somewhat bland look lies a functional, smooth style that lends an air of class. At 94 by 56 by 28mm and 196g including battery and xD Picture card, this camera isn't quite as compact as most of its competition, but its rounded edges are comfortable, and a curved nub on the front, along with a patch of rubber beads on the back, make it easy to hold with one hand. Of course, it's still a good idea to use two hands for steadier shooting.
The button layout follows the usual pattern, with most of the controls grouped to the right of the 64mm, 230,000-pixel LCD on the camera's back. The only exceptions are the nonilluminated power button, mode dial and shutter release on the camera top. Unlike that of its predecessor, the FinePix F10, the zoom is controlled by a left/right rocker on the top right of the back, above the aforementioned rubber grips. Just below them are the remaining controls, comprising four buttons that surround a four-way rocker with a menu-enter button in its centre.
With the exception of ISO, image size and colour mode, which are grouped under the F button, Fuji organises most other non-hard-button controls in its intuitive menu system. The only confusing element of the menu system is Fuji's use of the word 'photometry' in place of the more typical 'metering'. Other than that, everything makes sense.
If you like to shoot in low light, you'll appreciate the wide maximum aperture of the 3x optical, 36mm-to-108mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-to-f/5 zoom lens, which extends a little more than 25mm from the front of the camera when in use. We would've liked to see at least a 4x optical zoom on this camera -- after all if it's meant to excel indoors in low light, chances are you'll also be in tighter quarters, such as a party, where wider angles keep you from backing into some of your friends to get pictures of others. As it stands, this lens's coverage is average.
Our other small gripes include the plastic -- rather than metal -- tripod socket, which isn't even close to centred under the lens, and the xD slot hidden on the bottom, inside the battery compartment. It helps that the battery is held in place and doesn't pop out whenever you change the card, but given its size, Fuji could have found a spot for a dedicated card slot, which would make changing cards easier when the camera is on a tripod.
As it did with the FinePix F10, Fuji is trumpeting FinePix F30's high sensitivity, which reaches a maximum of ISO 3,200, making it the first compact digital camera to reach that far. The company touts this as a substitute for optical image stabilisation, which is not present in this camera, though it is really entirely different.
Image-stabilised lenses keep images steady by moving one or more glass elements within a lens to compensate for camera shake. This lets you shoot at slower shutter speeds without blur due to your own hand and body movements, but it doesn't stop blur due to your subject moving -- your friend's waving hand will still become a blurred mess. Raising the ISO lets you shoot at faster shutter speeds, so you can nullify camera shake and stop your subjects' motion at the same time. Unfortunately, with higher ISOs also comes higher noise, though if you've ever seen ISO 3,200 film, you'll know that this has always been the case. Most manufacturers have been opting for either optical stabilisation or higher sensitivity, but the combination of the two is really the Holy Grail that photographers need.
The Fujifilm FinePix F30's exposure controls don't include full manual but come close enough with both aperture and shutter priority, as well as exposure compensation of up to plus or minus two stops in 1/3-stop increments. Strangely, the mode dial has a position marked Manual, though this would be closer to Program in most cameras, in which exposure is calculated automatically -- you can manually select options, including one of seven white-balance settings, three metering choices and three autofocus alternatives. Noticeably absent from this camera is manual focus, though this is admittedly a rarely used feature on most compacts.