Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 review

A member of the relatively new breed of pocket megazoom cameras, the 12 megapixel, 12.5X optical zoom Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 offers manual controls for advanced users who want to stretch their photographic skills. But it's also for novices, thanks to extensive automatic shooting options that make capturing snapshots easy.

The greatest strengths of this camera, however, are its specialty modes, namely Casio's signature high speed still and video capture capabilities. Overall, it's a well-rounded camera that, considering its feature set, offers more versatility than a typical camera. And with a CIPA rating of 450 shots per charge of its rechargeable battery, it's a great camera for users who'd rather leave the charger at home.

Hardware and design

Like many recent compact cameras, the ZR100 is built around a CMOS sensor that, at 12.1 megapixels, provides plenty of pixel power while keeping image noise relatively low. One of the camera's advantages is its sensor-shift-stabilised 12.5X zoom lens, with a versatile 24mm to 300mm focal range. The lens isn't particularly fast, it has an aperture range of F3.0 to F5.9, but that's not uncommon in the realm of high zoom compact cameras.

A small, raised portion of the front panel with a rubberised strip is the closest the ZR100 comes to having a grip. In addition, the camera's top-mounted physical controls are fairly tiny, including the mode dial, the low profile power button and the continuous shutter button (which toggles between single shot and high speed capture modes). Photographers with small to medium-size hands should find the camera comfortable to hold, people with large hands should probably try the camera on for size before buying it.

The rear controls are larger and much easier to operate. The rear panel is home to a red one touch movie record button, capture and playback controls, a four-way keypad with an OK/quick menu button at the centre and a dedicated menu button. You can customise the keypad's left/right keys, and the up and down keys make it easy to change the display information and flash settings.

The quick menu provides instant on-screen access to such important settings as white balance, exposure compensation, image quality and flash. The number and type of settings depend on the shooting mode you select. You can also use the quick menu to change aperture and shutter speed settings in manual exposure modes.

As is usually the case with today's point-and-shoot cameras, the ZR100 doesn't have an optical viewfinder. But its 3 inch, 460,800 pixel LCD works well under most lighting conditions, though it's a little reflective under direct sunlight.

Available in black or white, the ZR100 measures 4.1 inches wide, 2.3 inches tall and 1.1 inches deep, small enough to fit into most pockets. At 7.2 ounces fully loaded, it has enough heft to be well balanced, yet is light enough to dangle from a lanyard around your neck for spontaneous shooting.

Shooting modes

The ZR100 is loaded with shooting options beyond its manual, aperture priority and shutter-speed priority exposure modes. In addition to offering common options such as scene modes and automatic modes, the camera uses its high speed capabilities and unique in-camera effects to boost its versatility.

In High Speed Best Selection Mode, the camera automatically shoots a series of images in rapid succession, and then selects the best one according to several parameters (including whether the subject is smiling or blinking). Slide Panorama, which is similar to Sony's Sweep Panorama, is sort of like visual surround sound, capturing up to 360 degree views.

The ZR100's main performance strengths involve its high-speed continuous shooting and movie modes, feats that few cameras can match, especially at this price. For still images, the ZR100's high-speed mode captures up to 40 frames per second at 10 megapixel resolution. The high speed movie mode can capture silent clips at up to 1000 frames per second, which play back in superslow motion. The faster you shoot, the less resolution you'll get (224x64 pixels at 1000 fps, 224x160 at 480 fps and 432x320 at 240 fps).

At 1000 fps, you get just a sliver of a movie strip, so don't expect to see great resolution on a large screen TV. Nevertheless, even at that small size, the clips are great for posting on the web. Full HD video is available at 1920x1080 resolution at 30 fps, and Casio has thoughtfully included a booklet explaining how to use the high speed modes.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is very popular these days, and the ZR100 offers two options for capturing HDR images: HDR art and multishot HDR. The former applies special effects to simulate an intense, paintinglike HDR look. Multishot HDR combines several images to extend the photo's dynamic range for a subtler look. Beyond of those in-camera tricks, Casio's Imaging Square site provides further artistic effects and creative options.

Best Shot is Casio's name for scene modes, and the ZR100 comes with 33 choices (with explanatory text for each). Several modes use the ZR100's continuous high speed shooting to capture images of children, pets or sports, while others cover more traditional portrait, landscape and fireworks modes. For settings tweakers, the ZR100 permits adjustment of sharpness, contrast, saturation and other parameters. Users also benefit from features such as face detection, a grid and a live histogram.

Performance, image quality and video quality

In subjective tests for image quality, the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 stood out for its colour accuracy and exposure quality, earning scores of Very Good in both of those categories. It received a score of Good in our distortion tests. Image quality is generally very pleasing, with crisp images and accurate colour rendition. The camera keeps image noise under control up to about ISO 800, but even so, you should use lower ISO settings for larger prints.

The ZR100 earned a relatively low score of Fair for sharpness. In my hands-on tests, close inspection of images sometimes revealed slightly heavy-handed processing, with sharp gradations along edges rather than smooth transitions, possibly a reason for the camera's mediocre score in the lab-based sharpness tests.

In my hands-on tests, I found a few other weak spots: a not-so-snappy start-up time and a delay of a few seconds while the camera saved groups of high speed shots. On a more positive note, the camera's autofocus is fast in good light and slows only slightly when the lights are dim. And as you might expect from a camera with fast action shooting, shot-to-shot time is swift, as long as the camera isn't in the process of saving a batch of images.

In subjective video tests, the Exilim EX-ZR100 performed fairly well, though it didn't post high enough scores to crack our chart of the best point-and-shoot cameras for video. The camera earned a video-quality score of Good, heavily skewed to its performance in well-lit situations, and another score of Good for its audio recording.

In high definition or standard definition, an almost silent zoom and generally effective autofocus complement the ZR100's movie mode. Under bright light, videos look pretty good. Colourful and smooth, but a bit soft. In our low light lab test, the camera didn't brighten the scene much. In slightly better-lit low-light situations, I found that image noise tended to degrade the footage, rendering it suitable mainly for small screens or the web.

Usually, a camera with such far-reaching features pays the price in shorter battery life, but the ZR100 backs up its in-camera arsenal with a long lasting battery. With a battery life rating of 450 shots per charge, the ZR100's battery runs laps around the 300 shot norm we usually see in the pocket megazoom class.

OUR VERDICT

We're witnessing some pretty heavy competition in the advanced compact camera market these days, and the ZR100 distinguishes itself with its high speed shooting modes. Given its moderate price point, strong feature set, superb battery life and long zoom lens, it offers a lot of versatility for the money.

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