Most Fujifilm cameras look slightly odd. Don't get us wrong, we like the occasional quirky styling of the S5600, or the chunkier-than-expected body shape of the excellent F11, but when it comes to good looking we remain to be convinced.
The Z series is where Fujifilm's designers cater for the masses and offer the common (or beer) garden snapper a camera that looks good and is slim enough that friends with a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T7 or the latest Casio won't start giggling when it's whipped out.
Another problem Fujifilm has is persuading punters that megapixels are not the last word in digital imaging -- the Z3 boasts a reasonable 5 megapixels alongside a decent feature set for a style-led camera. But in a market place where 6-, 8- and even 10-megapixel compact cameras are grabbing the headlines, is it enough?
Any camera that shares a name with a sporty BMW touring car had better be a good-looking chunk of technology, and the latest instalment in Fujifilm's catwalk-friendly Z series is certainly that. The Z3 boasts the same clean lines as its predecessors, with an attractive curved design and a smart sliding lens cover that doubles up as the on/off switch. The whole shebang is made from sturdy aluminium, and it feels as solid as any compact camera on the market.
Our only gripe with the design is that while the colour range has been increased to three models, the classy black and silver number has fallen by the wayside. Instead, we keep the cool silver, and are offered boy and girl versions in a baby blue or soft pink finish.
It may not be as slim as say the Cyber-shot DSC-T7, but the Z3 is a tad shorter and still cuts a slimline dash at 90mm by 55mm by 20mm. It weighs in at a handbag -- or manbag -- friendly 150g with card and battery on board. There's little in the way of protrusions, too, and the lanyard slips through a couple of embedded slots on the right-hand side of the camera.
It may be small, but the extra depth compared to some compacts means it's reasonably easy to get to grips with, and fingers and thumbs don't get in the way of the lens and flash. This makes for steady images, especially when you rack up the ISO settings -- more on that later. The sliding cover can sometimes be a pain, though, and it feels clumsy getting your hand from opening the camera to ready to shoot, even though start-up time is a racy 0.5 seconds.
With an understandable lack of originality, all of the important controls are located on the top and back of the camera. The top lip features a mere two controls -- the shutter release button and a switch that moves you from still to movie mode. There's also room up there for a very small microphone, which is located just about where your left forefinger would be if you were trying to hold the camera very still, so beware when shooting film. The speaker is located on the left-hand side panel of the camera.
The lack of top lip controls obviously means more buttons squeezed onto the back panel, and at first glance it does look bit of a mess. At the top, right under where our thumb sits, resides the zoom controller, which is quite large for a compact; bigger than, for example, the one on the Kodak EasyShare V610. Below this are three lights that display different colours depending on what the camera is doing -- a green flashing light means that the auto-focus is locking in; solid red means the battery is charging and blinking orange means the flash is re-charging. The seven combinations are really too much to remember, but hopefully most of the warning ones won't arise.
Below the traffic signals there's a five-way controller for getting into frequently used options, such as macro and flash; a button to enter the playback mode; and the Fujifilm 'f' button, which provides you with quick access to important tweaks such as the number of megapixels shot -- from 0.3 right up to the full 5 -- and ISO and colour settings.
The rest of the back panel is taken up with a 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen. It boasts an impressive 230,000 pixels and proves itself to be an invaluable tool for framing and reviewing images -- especially as there's no optical viewfinder available. It even passes muster in bright sunlight, although with the sun directly behind our back we've encountered better screens.
At the bottom of the camera a flap pops out to reveal a compartment for the battery and memory card. Being a Fujifilm camera, it's no surprise to find that storage is via the xD card format, which are now available in sizes of up to 2GB for around £60. We have no real issues with xD, but when you consider the lack of compatibility with other technology it may be a problem -- Samsung's debut Blu-ray player, the BD-P1000, has a multi-card slot that covers most of the card formats, except xD.
Finally there's a small, mini-USB sized socket which allows you to connect the Z3 to the supplied docking station. You'll need this to both transfer images via USB and charge the camera, which means one more thing to pack if you're going on holiday. It's also is the only way to attach a tripod, and isn't the most elegant of solutions.
The Z3 benefits from the lack of a protruding lens. Instead of popping out the front of the camera, the 3x optical zoom actually sits sideways across the body of the Z3, with a prism to redirect the light through 90 degrees onto the 5.1-megapixel CCD.
The 38-108mm zoom falls between two stalls and is ideal for neither wide-angle scenic shots nor long enough to get really close to far-away subjects. We rarely wished for more in either direction, but on the odd occasion we wanted to shoot a panorama it was frustrating. For getting up really close the 80mm macro mode is great for shooting plantlife and the like.
If you are feeling adventurous, accessing the main menu allows you to take the camera out of automatic and into a number of pre-programmed shooting modes. There may not be as many here as on the average Pentax point-and-shoot, but natural light, natural + flash (which takes a natural light image and a flash one so you can compare), portrait, landscape, sport, night, fireworks, sunset, snow, beach, museum, party, flower and text should cover most bases.
If not, there's a manual option, which allows you to monkey around with numerous settings. These include exposure compensation (±2 EV in 1/3 EV steps), focus mode (centre or multi) and white balance (auto, fine, shade, fluorescent light 1, 2, 3 and incandescent). There's no way to set the white balance manually though, which is a shame. The whole menu system is simple and user friendly, and as the results of tweaks appear immediately on screen it's very easy to get the right settings for your shot.
Perhaps the most important feature on the camera in terms of shooting is the Z3's incredibly wide ISO range, with settings from ISO 64 right up to 1600. This relates to the film speed in 35mm cameras and allows you to shoot in lower light without the need to resort to the lightweight flash. Fujifilm is keen to get the message across that this figure carries more weight than the number of pixels captured in an image.
If you can accept the company's claim that the majority of images are taken in low light situations -- and most of ours when not on holiday are -- then this makes perfect sense. The results with the higher ISO are very atmospheric, and while there is some trade off with an increase in digital noise printed out on standard 100x150mm (4x6-inch) prints, this failed to ruin any of our shots. What is certain is that the results were far more pleasing than the washed out images we took using the flash. Used in conjunction with the anti-blur system -- accessed by a button on the back of the Z3 -- it really is possible to take good images in quite poor light.
Shooting modes include a 2-second and 10-second self timer, plus a continuous shooting mode which keeps going as long as you press the shutter release, and can be set to save all the images or just the last three. Finally, there's a 30fps (640x480-pixel) movie mode with sound.
This kind of lens system on a compact camera generally means that a price has to be paid, and often this is found in barrel distortion and chromatic aberration (unsightly purple fringing). The good news is that there's very little of the latter in evidence, but there was a hint of the former, especially when the lens is at its wider settings.
That aside, the Z3 proved itself a capable compact, with good levels of detail for its 5.1-megapixel resolution and little in the way of digital noise, unless the ISO is ramped up to max. The high ISO settings proved invaluable when shooting images in the evening, especially as the flash wavers between bleaching out subjects under a metre away and failing to light any further.
In brighter situations skin tones were respectably normal, and colour performance was good overall. We did find ourselves notching the exposure down a setting or two one crisp autumn morning, but generally the automatic settings worked well and the basic white balance settings proved useful.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield