Friday, 27 June 2014

REVIEW: Casio EX-100 High-End Compact Camera

A Flagship with Many Flags
On paper, the Casio EX-100 seems the greatest imaging device in the history of our species.

It can do things that sound mind blowing for a camera this small and almost too good to be true for a consumer imaging device of any kind.

It features a 28-300mm range f/2.8 aperture 10.7x optical zoom lens. It has a 1/1.7-inch back-lit 12 megapixel CMOS sensor, tiltable 3.5-inch display (180-degree up and 55-degree down), Wi-Fi, 5-axis image stabilization mechanism, and a really fancy sounding engine (Exilim Engine HS3)

This camera has a list of features so long that, even in the 3 weeks I had to play with it, I couldn’t truly explore every single one of them.

Casio EX-100: Look Feel

With it’s black powder-coated metal chassis, glossy metal lens surround, and brushed aluminium top plate, everything about the EX-100 screams hi-end. It even feels more quality than most DSLRs. The metal shutter release, lens ring, and mode dial give the camera a satisfyingly mechanical feel even though it has no actual mechanical functions.

A finger grip on the front of the body and a thumb grip to the right of the video record button do detract from the aesthetics somewhat, but they are well placed and make the camera extremely comfortable to hold even for larger hands.

The tiltable screen action is solid, and the metal hinges feel more than capable of handling repeated actuation. Behind the screen is a metal stand that allows the camera to be placed on a flat surface and angled upward. There is also a shutter button on the front of the body, making selfies a lot easier.

Regarding build quality, the collapsible lens cover seems the only weak point. However, in the time spent with it, even when treated fairly roughly, it took the abuse well enough.

The camera is a little large for a compact, or, for that matter, some of the lower-end mirrorless systems out there. It is just barely pocketable, but it doesn’t share pockets. The size compromise, however, is well balanced by the camera’s versatility.

It’s fast. The silicon pushing the 1s and 0s is speedy enough to keep up with its insane 30 shots per second burst rate, and it’s capable of processing some impressive filter effects in the background while you’re lining up and firing off the next shot.

30 shots per second makes for some smooth gifs

The menus are quite easy to navigate, and unlike many other brands that release Asia/japan specific cameras, Casio has included an English language option in addition to Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hangul (Korean). That simple consideration is something that I’d like to see more of from other manufacturers.

The EX-100′s controls are intuitive enough that both seasoned shooters and beginners alike will be able to adapt relatively quickly. It straddles the line between ease of use and power-use quite well. Its programmable lens ring is a particularly nice feature and is both easy to assign functions to and quite responsive for most tasks.

There is a little lag between pressing the ON button and being able to shoot, but this and many of the other little frustrations that I had were more due my being used to higher-end professional kit. Compared to other compacts, most users will find the EX-100 to be extremely responsive.

Making Pictures with the Casio EX-100 
From the outset, I went into this review with two specific angles to explore:

• Whether it was a worthwhile spend for a compact camera user to upgrade, and;
• How well would it meet the needs of a pro or enthusiast who wanted something light to carry everyday.

The EX-100′s specs place it firmly in the ‘jack of all trades’ category, and it is really just that. Photo quality is good and when the light is right and you’re shooting in the lower ISOs, and it reproduces an amazing amount of detail. The lens is plenty sharp and is more than a match for the fancy German lenses used in its competitors’ cameras. It retains detail up to the edges of the frame quite well and if there is any distortion of shape or color at the edges, it isn’t noticeable enough to be an issue.

Let There be Light
The EX-100′s maximum aperture of f2.8 allows it to be quite capable in low light, but as the ISO increases, its smaller sensor introduces some noise. While you can manually control the ISO and jack it up quite high, in the end you don’t really wanna go over 1600 if you want the image to be useable for anything other than personal happy snaps. The F2.8 aperture also means that, especially when paired with the 300mm zoom, some excellent depth of field separation is possible despite the camera’s compact size and small sensor.

Massive Zoom Is Massive
With the equivalent focal lengths ranging from a wide 28mm to a stalker-like 300mm, the EX-100 is amazingly versatile. Even more impressive, however, is that the aperture remains constant throughout the zoom range, which is something that one doesn’t often see in even hi-end compacts. Especially the ones that fit in your pocket.

Zooming all the way in doesn’t extend the lense out of the camera much farther than it is at it’s widest point, so it’s extremely, almost dangerously inconspicuous. When taking street shots in particular, the fact that you don’t have a big honking zoom lens means you will garner no unwanted attention whatsoever. One could easily take some impressive sports photos and live music photos at venues that don’t allow interchangeable lens cameras.

Focus on Focus
The zoom range is only as useful as the camera’s ability to see what you’re shooting; this was one of the biggest things I had trouble adapting to coming from pro-er kit. Like all compacts and most mirrorless cameras, the EX-100 uses a contrast-detect autofocus system. While the MILCs have really pushed contrast detection to levels where they can take on all but the most expensive DSLR phase detection systems, Casio seems to have not quite gotten there yet. It’s not inaccurate, in fact it’s quite the opposite, but it does seem a little more sluggish and decidedly more consumer grade than other aspects of the camera.

Initial subject acquisition is fast enough, but continuous autofocus often wants to fish about, especially in low light. Refocusing on subjects moving toward the camera is also a bit sluggish and initially this was a bit frustrating.

There is a little workaround though. If you shoot in the Intelligent Bracketing mode, you can fire off 3 shots in quick succession at slightly different focus points – meaning that, even if your subject steps out of your initial focus, the camera can still get them.

Intelligent What Now?
Intelligent Bracketing is an interesting feature introduced with the EX-100. It allows creative aspects to be played with without needing to manually change settings; you can choose exposure, white balance, focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or a number of preset combinations thereof. When you press the shutter release, the camera fires off between 3 and 9 shots depending on your selection, each of which has a different value for the selected variable.

It’s a particularly useful feature for a compact because, while people may want the creative freedom to manually set each shot, sometimes you just wanna shoot quickly. This gives some creative freedom while still minimizing the button pushes needed to take the shots. 

Where the Intelligent Bracketing really shines lies in how it provides an instantly visible example of what happens when you change settings on a camera. This is invaluable for new shooters who are trying to figure out what all the crazy crap in the menus actually means. Intelligent Bracketing gives practical examples of what the settings do and will help those new to the game become better photographers should they choose to pursue the hobby further.

It may even teach people that there is more to photography than stupid instagram filters (but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one).

What is it with Filters, Anyway?
For those who do like filters, there are a number of interesting options like HDR, Sepia, Black White, soft focus, tilt shift, blah, blah, hipsters… It must be said though that some of the filters impressed even me.

Gallery Links Below

The black white and HDR modes were particularly impressive. The BW gives some very creative options for moody, grainy, and film like looks – straight out of the camera. The HDR is impressive because it actually is HDR.

What do I mean? Most HDR in cameras and phones is pretty pathetic. It boosts underexposed areas and colour saturations, but it doesn’t take different exposures and merge them (which is how we pro types do it manually)… The EX-100 does just that and processes/outputs images to one of 5 preset looks all in-camera. It’s like built-in Photoshop. Ok, it’s not as good as you could get it to look if you shot and processed them yourself, but they are 80% there in 5% of the time.

It even has a built-in ND (Neutral Density) filter which has nothing to do with the filters in the previous paragraphs. Essentially, it allows you to shoot at wider apertures and in brighter conditions to increase depth of field. It also allows shooters to get longer exposures in sunlight without overexposing the shot.

Enough about the Fluff Already?
For purists who don’t want all the gimmicks, you can set the ex-100 to shoot RAW files in full-manual mode, and you can even set the lens ring to act as a manual focus ring, giving you pretty decent analogue to analogue photography. It’s never going to be like shooting on your old Minolta XD, but you also don’t wanna carry your XD, extra rolls of film, and a lens or 2 with you everyday.

Does it Video?

It does…hell, any camera in this day and age that doesn’t is just plain silly (Nikon Sigma, I’m looking at you). The modes are interesting though. The only full-HD mode is 1080p, 30fps. The cinema-like 24fps frame rate is surprisingly absent. While anything is possible, it’s not meant to be a camera for your next indy film project. It did acquit itself quite well at the NTT Docomo Summer launch event though. I had taken the video as test footage, but in retrospect, had I actually paid more attention to the the filming (instead of balancing it on a monopod as I took still photos with my Panasonic Lumix GH3), the EX-100′s video would have been more than good enough for publication.

The 5-axis image stabilization works really well, and even when shooting handheld while walking, the end product doesn’t induce nearly as much motion-sickness as that from the Panasonic GH4 and Canon 5DMKIII. That said, it was never meant to toe-to-toe it with hybrid cameras in quality, so rolling shutter is an issue. The sensor’s small size does manage moire and aliasing decently enough.

As a vlogger camera, the EX-100 is excellent. Mic quality is decent, and the 180-degree tiltable screen makes selfshooting a breeze. I actually used it to do one of my personal weekly VLOGs, and I am well pleased with the result. For the YouTuber on a budget who wants to shoot decent video and still have top tier photo quality, the EX-100 is well worth considering.

Time Travel
Beyond the nuts and bolts video, the EX-100 also does some interesting things with framerates. On the low end, it has a timelapse setting with a selection of options in both 720 and 1080p, as well as a standard interval timer should you prefer to shoot at full the full 12 mp and stitch the photos together yourself in post. Some options also use filters to create some interesting artistic shots without the need to waste time in a post-production suite. Just set, shoot, and stick it on the YouTubes.

On the slow end, there are 6 different high-framerate options ranging from 120 to 1000 frames per second. That wasn’t a typo it really does one thousand frames per second. The catch? It only does it at a pathetic 224×64 resolution…they could make for some great GIFs though. The lower the framerate the better the resolution, so 120 fps comes in at a more respectable 640×480. It’s not exactly HDTV material, but giving consumers the chance to play with framerates reserved for deep pocketed production companies is really awesome. Though, if it can do all of that, one wonders why isn’t there a 1080p 24fps and at least a 720p 60fps option as well. Hopefully Casio will add them in a firmware update (hint hint).

The Crunch
For the money, the Casio EX-100 truly is a lot of camera. It’s the Swiss Army Knife compact that can do everything pretty damn well, but doesn’t really specialize anywhere. Compared to other compacts on the market, Casio’s has the most creative capability, but they also made a few compromises to get there.

Were it my money, I’d have no trouble choosing it over any other hi-end compact on the market. But at ¥90,000 (~$900.00), it also has to take on mirrorless cameras. It’s easy enough to recommend it over the Nikon, Canon, and Pentax systems simply because their mirrorless systems are a joke. But put it up against Sony, Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic, and it gets much more difficult.

Judging whether the smaller size, better image and video quality, larger sensor, and interchangeable lenses on Panasonic’s GM1 are a better choice than the 300mm zoom, image stabilization, versatility, and sheer number of creative options on the EX-100 is a tough one.

But, if you could have only one camera, that does everything pretty damn well and fits in your pocket, the Casio EX-100 is currently the most attractive option I’ve seen thus far.

Reno… you should really consider getting one ;)

Reno’s Note:
Shudder, my two-year-old RX100!

• • •

All Photos Videos by Senior Contributor Nayalan Moodley, AKA DarcNoodles – Thanks to Ms. Nishizawa and Mr. Lau at Casio for providing a review unit. Offcial specs and information on the Casio EX-100 here.

Buying the Casio EX-100:
Casio does not retail this camera outside of Asia, but our partners at White Rabbit Express are happy to source and ship the camera anywhere on planet earth. Follow this link to get started with White Rabbit Express.

REVIEW: Casio EX-100 High-End Compact Camera

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