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It seems that digital compact cameras come in two basic body shapes. You have the rectangular block, bearing at least a superficial resemblance to a traditional compact film camera, and then you have what is called “SLR-style”, which is usually denoted by a big chunky handgrip, a pop-up flash over the lens and a passing similarity to a high-end film SLR. Fujifilm has had a lot of success with this latter layout, adopting it for most of the higher specification models such as the S602 Zoom, the S7000, the S20 Pro, and this recent release, the S5500.
The S5500 is the replacement for the popular three megapixel S5000 launched in 2003. The new model adds an extra megapixel of shooting power and a superior 30fps VGA movie mode. It also features an improved continuous shooting mode, capable of 1.6fps up to the capacity of the memory card.
When it comes to the design, you’ll either love it or hate it. The S5500 looks a lot bigger in publicity photos than it does in real life. When you get it out of the box, the first impression is just how tiny the thing is. It looks like a camera version of those Micro Machine toy cars that were popular a few years ago, as though full-size features like the handgrip and lens had somehow been grafted onto a half-scale model of an SLR. However once you get over the initial fit of giggles and actually pick the thing up you’ll discover that it feels a lot bigger than it looks.
With a set of batteries installed inside the handgrip the S5500 feels solid and well-balanced, and is surprisingly weighty for its size. The build quality is top notch, with no loose joints or creaking panels. The sculpted rubberized handgrip is pleasantly chunky and fits the hand comfortably. Whoever designed the control layout deserves some kind of award, because it is possible to operate the camera, including almost every control, with just the thumb and forefinger of your right hand. For balance and overall feel this is one of the best cameras I’ve used.
Then you switch it on. Time passes. The Earth’s climate cools, a new ice age arrives, and human civilization falls as glaciers sweep down from the North. Ages continues to pass until, slowly, as the ice recedes, the last remnants of mankind crawl from their caves to begin rebuilding a new world – and hey, you’re ready to take a picture!
Seriously, the S5500 has one of the slowest start-up times of any camera I’ve recently tested. Because it has to roll out that big 10x optical zoom lens it takes nearly five seconds from flicking the power switch on until it’s ready to shoot.
In use, you soon realise that the 10x zoom lens is a bit of an oddity. Its focal length range, equivalent to 37-370mm on a 35mm camera, lacks any wide-angle facility and at its maximum extension it is almost impossible to avoid camera shake in all but the brightest sunlight, something we rarely see in the UK. A camera of this size and weight really needs image stabilisation to make a powerful lens like this a useful feature. Among the many accessories available for this model is a 0.79x wide-angle conversion lens (WL-FX9B) that gives it a minimum focal length of 29mm, but it costs around £100. For the same kind of money, there’s also a 1.5x converter lens (TL-FX9B) which will increase that impressive 370mm to a massive 555mm – definitely tripod territory.
Ignoring for the moment the dubious usefulness of the focal length range, the lens performs well. As you’ll see from the sample shots, there is almost no barrel distortion even at the widest angle setting, and pictures are sharp right into the corners. The autofocus system deserves some of the credit for this. The S5500 uses a multi-point AF system, with a manual option that lets you select an AF target point virtually anywhere in the entire frame. It is impressively quick and positive, and can focus in the dark thanks to an AF illuminator with a range of two metres.