Friday, April 25, 2008

Casio Exilim EX-F1 Slow-Mo Super Cam Full Review (Verdict: Totally Unique, Shockingly Powerful) [Digital Cameras]


OK, say it: What the hell? What's with all the Casio EX-F1 love? It's because this camera is the most underrated gadget to hit the market in at least a year—the camera fiend's equivalent of a jungle gym, with slow-mo, super slow-mo, high-speed stills, and simultaneous HD video and full-resolution still shooting, to name a few of its unique talents. If you're a nature lover, an explosion lover, a blender lover, a party goer, a pet owner, a parent, grandparent, godparent, secret agent or all-around creepy stalker type, it will rock your little tiny world. It's not flawless, but damn if it's not a beautiful and one-of-a-kind invention.

You've already seen the slow-mo tomato blending, and you've seen the slow-mo DIY backyard Discovery Channel. You get it, it can do slow-mo. But there are other features that stand to be demo'd on video, so take a look:
Let's recap exactly what talents the camera has that have not, in any meaningful combination, been seen before in a consumer-level camera:
• Slow-mo video shooting at 300, 600 and 1200 frames per second
• Fast-slow-fast shooting from 30fps to 300 and back to 30 — I call this the "she walked in the room" mode, because it's what they do in cheesy 80s movies to indicate the protagonist's love interest
• High-speed 6-megapixel shots at 60fps
• Strobe shooting of stills at 7 frames per second with standard flash; 60fps with LED flash
• Full-resolution still shooting while capturing HD video
• Fly-in and fly-out auto modes, which capture still shots at 60fps when the subject enter or exit the frame

EX-F1 as Camcorder
As a camcorder, it covers a lot of bases. In HD mode, it can shoot 60 "fields" at 1920x1080—that's code for 1080i—and 30 "frames" at 1280x720, all the while letting you take a total of 20 6-megapixel still shots. Since David Pogue's review ran, Casio published firmware 1.02 that fixes a major complaint: When shooting video, you now can actively use the 12x optical zoom lens.

We've covered the slow-motion camera already quite a bit, but let me be clear: it shoots 300, 600 or 1200 fps and encodes them on the fly to an H.264 file at 30 frames per second. So 1 second of shooting equals 10 seconds of footage. This causes some challenges, like long periods of lag between action, but there's a very easy in-camera editing tool that deletes all unneeded footage. You can't use the zoom in high-speed mode, but trust me, there's no time to zoom when you're shooting like that.

As you saw in the video above, there's also a mode for going from standard-def 30fps to slow-mo 300fps and then back again, what I call the "she walked into the room" mode. It's pretty cool, and probably more useful than just standard slow-mo.Also, to recap: when shooting at 300fps, you get "standard" video resolution of 512x384. At 600fps, it drops to a tolerable widescreen, 432x192. But when you shoot in 1200fps, you end up with a bizarre 336x96, really long and thin. There's also a major loss of light when switching from standard to slow-mo, and then each subsequent jump. 1200fps is only good outdoors on a very sunny day, but even 300fps is no good in any kind of dim light. It makes sense, of course, but you need to consider it, especially if you're into experimental amateur porn cinematography.

Auto-focus is decent for still shooting, but I sometimes found for slow-mo video that it was simpler just to go manual. If you start recording slow-mo video out of focus, there's very little hope that it will focus during your shot.

One other frustration I experienced was that videos occasionally came out garbled or unreadable. I hope the 1.02 firmware update has a fix for that—I can only assume it's a known and fixable problem, albeit an annoying one.

EX-F1 as Still Camera
To be clear, this camera is the anti-DSLR. It's as digital as you can get, so you have to expect some photographic shortcomings. But the tradeoffs are reasonable, with still options that are not available anywhere else.

You can shoot full-resolution 6-megapixel stills at up to 60fps, to ensure that you get a decent pic of a fast-moving subject. I preferred to use something more like 7fps or 15fps with pets and kids, since they're not that fast, and you have no idea how annoying it can be to flip through 60 or more identical-looking shots. As with slow-mo video, you do lose the higher f-stop settings when you set it for 60, as everything would just be pitch black. What you do get, though, to compensate, is a strobe flash. Though Pogue thought it was too explosive, I thought it works well when you need it. As you can see from the screenshot above, you can use a real flash up to 7fps, and then you have to switch to a mellower LED light, which can't illuminate everything, but is better than nothing. We intend to subject this camera to some further in-the-trenches club shooting courtesy of Gawker video guy Nick McGlynn (shown here helping me demonstrate flash-strobe mode): The coolest easy-to-miss still settings are the fly-in and fly-out modes: You train your shot on an object like a birds nest or hummingbird feeder, press the shutter and wait until the critter arrives. The camera shoots continuously at 60fps, but only starts saving when it detects the motion, presenting you with a solid set of 60 stills for you to choose the best ones. The other mode does the opposite. You aim it at a critter that is not moving, and when it starts to move, and exit the frame, the camera saves the shots, so you get a dramatic action shot of its departure. As I hinted, low-light shooting isn't great, and the tiny, experimental CCD CMOS in the camera is especially noisy! . ISO 16 00 is a rainbow of nastiness, and should only be used as a last resort: Shadows are even pretty noisy at lower ISO settings—here's 800:Annoyances aside, I found the EX-F1 to live up to our Bestmodo status because of its versatility and originality. It's nice and rugged, too, capable of withstanding being flung into the air (what good is slow-mo if you can't move fast?). It had a nice long battery life, too: I shot for six days straight—gathering plenty of video and tons of rapid fire full-resolution stills—before the battery died.

Update: Some of you asked about memory capacity, and even though I was shooting with an 8GB SDHC card, the hard limit is 4GB of video. For stills, the buffer can hold 60 shots. Here's the details, from Casio:

The limit would be 4GB of [video] recording. So at 1080i you are looking at about 40 minutes. Now if you had a 8GB card you could [stop and] then take another 40 minute video, but the file system hits 4GB and has to stop recording. [For stills] you can take 60 shots before the buffer is full. So you can do 60fps for 1 second or 30 fps for 2 seconds, 20 fps for 3 seconds, etc.
So ultimately there's just this small issue of the $1000 price tag: Is it worth it? My answer is this: if you're looking for a great video camera that also takes decent stills, then yes, it's worth it. But if you're looking for the perfect still camera, it's a far cry. But you might miss it when you go on safari, or to a baseball game, or when you're lighting off fireworks, or when your pets are doing goofy shit, or when... Okay, maybe it is worth it, no matter what your purposes. [Product Page]Casio_EX-F1_Shot_1.jpg