While the F550 offers a generous range of shooting modes, autofocus options are less flexible – especially for advanced photographers used to choosing their own specific point of focus with a DSLR. In total there are four AF options: Single-point, Multi-point, Continuous and Tracking. Our criticism isn’t so much with AF speed, in fact the F550’s contrast-detect AF system is impressively fast when the camera is used outdoors or in generous light indoors, but rather it’s creative limitations.
More specifically, in Single-point AF the camera limits you to using the static central AF point. This essentially forces you to use the focus-recompose technique if you want to focus on a particular point other than the centre. While this wouldn’t be an issue on a low-end point-and-shoot compact, it’s something we might expect to see on a more advanced model like this.
In addition to Single-point AF, the F550 also offers a standard Multi-point AF that, unless face detection is switched on, tends to automatically latch on to the nearest object. The other two AF options are Continuous AF and Tracking AF. Continuous AF, just like Single-point AF, is limited to the central AF point and is also noticeably slower than half-pressing the focus/shutter button in the usual way. Tracking AF performance, meanwhile, is adequate so long as your subject is in good light and isn’t moving too erratically.
Metering options include Multi-area, Average and Spot settings. While the first two might sound similar, there is actually quite a marked difference between them, especially when confronted with high-contrast scenes. Multi-area metering tends to favour shadows, and is occasionally guilty of over-exposing images to retain shadow detail. In total contrast, the Average metering setting is weighted more towards the preservation of highlights, which tends to result in darker images containing less shadow detail.
Spot metering needs to be used with care, but is more than capable of picking out detail in areas that would otherwise be mere silhouettes when used correctly. Like Single-point AF, Spot metering can only be achieved with a central metering cross, and because there’s no AE/AF lock button this makes it impossible to focus on one specific area while metering for another. Again, on lower-end compacts this wouldn’t be an issue, but as the F550 has its sights set on enthusiast-level photographers we do feel a bit more entitled to grumble at its omission.
One thing we’re definitely not grumbling about though is the design and finish of the F550. With a predominantly aluminium finish, the body of the camera feels reassuringly weighty and solid. Overall styling very much follows the FX300 and, as such, will be a matter of taste, although we rather like its accentuated curves.
The rubberised finger grip on the front of the camera, while hardly the most pronounced, does enable you to get a good purchase, as do the six raised thumb ridges on the back of the camera. Buttons and controls are generally well laid out. The angled shooting mode dial is easy enough to operate one-handed with your thumb without having to adjust your grip, although the one-touch video recording button proves much harder to press without the aid of a second hand steadying the camera
Delving into the F550’s menu system doesn’t present any great problems and while the camera doesn’t present any explanations as to what any of the features do, most should be fairly self-explanatory to advanced users. If you don’t want to trawl through the main menu, then the F button located below the D-pad wheel brings up a quick menu that allows you to change regular settings such as ISO, image size and Film Simulation type as well as turn the GPS on and off.
Speaking of the GPS, as per usual it work indoors but outside, the time it takes for the camera to lock on to a passing satellite can vary widely, although it generally takes longer on a first attempt with subsequent attempts quicker to lock-on.
There are three GPS settings to choose from, all of which have a direct impact on battery performance. We see little reason for there to be an 'always on' option considering the 'when camera is on' option still tags every photo and the former drains the camera's battery even when not in use. For the most part, we preferred to keep the GPS switched off and use it only when we wanted to.
The GPS proves accurate to within a couple of feet when data is displayed in standard longitude-latitude co-ordinates, but less so when the automatic place name option is selected instead. For example, when we shot a number of images at Widemouth Bay in north Cornwall, the GPS recorded the location as Bude, which is a good five to ten miles to the north. Similarly, Trebarwith Strand was recorded as Tintagel, which is actually a few miles up the road.