I first discovered the Casio EX-P505 at the Photo Marketing Association show in Orlando, Florida, in February. After playing with it for a few minutes on the show floor, I realized this camera deserved deeper exploration. I've had one in my hands now for over a week, and I've found lots to discuss. I'll cover the highlights in this review.
The standout feature of the EX-P505 is its ability to capture full-size, full-motion video with stereo audio (yes, it has two built-in microphones), then squeeze all that data onto an SD memory card. The quality is remarkable for a digital camera, and I'll cover the movie-making details later in this review. This is not to say that the Casio cuts corners for capturing stills as well. It doesn't. The camera sports a 5-megapixel CCD sensor, 5X optical zoom, 2" swivel LCD, filter ring that doesn't require an adapter, and just about every fun control a playful photographer would want.
All this technology is packed into a handsome camera body that fits in the palm of my hand and literally turns heads. Many people have stopped and asked me what camera I'm using. When I tell them it's a Casio, they look at me and usually remark something like, "I didn't know they made such nice cameras." If that's a belief that you've held also, read on, because the EX-P505 is solid, and it's so much fun to use that it borders on being an addictive substance.
I'll start with movie capture because it is the Casio's most outstanding—and challenging—feature.
Digital cameras are notorious for producing mediocre video. Often you can get decent quality if you play back at 320x240, but full-size 640x480 display is usually disappointing. Combine this reality with short battery life and large file sizes, and movie mode soon loses its charm.
The EX-P505 changes all that. Thanks to Casio's intelligent electronics that provide great responsiveness and long battery life, combined with the choice of a particular MPEG-4 codec (which is also the challenging part of the story), you can record an hour's worth of top-quality video onto a 1GB SD card and a single battery charge. (You can shoot up to two hours at lesser-quality settings.)
To start recording, set the mode dial to one of the movie modes, swing open the LCD viewfinder, and press the shutter button. Unlike most other digital cameras, you can zoom in and out while the EX-P505 is recording. This is a major improvement that gives this camera a real camcorder-type feel. Audio is recorded through two microphones positioned on top of the lens barrel. And stereo does make a difference. To end capture, press the shutter button again, and the Casio immediately completes its housekeeping and is ready to record more video. As with all functions on this camera, performance is outstanding.
One note about audio recording. The sound quality can be amazing with this camera. Listen to this unretouched recording of birds talking, captured with the EX-P505. The trick was that I didn't have the camera zooming or focusing during the recording. Those actions create interference that is picked up by the sensitive stereo microphones and recorded as irritating, high-pitched sounds. To avoid this, select the "Scenery" mode in the video Best Shot options (or lock the focus by some other method) and don't zoom the lens during the capture. Note: Make sure that you have a high-speed memory card that can keep up with the camera during longish recording sessions.
I won't go into all the nifty capture modes Casio includes, but I encourage you to read about them on Casio's movie page. There are some ingenious movie modes built into the camera, and they work as advertised. You can't plug an external microphone into the EX-P505, so you're stuck with the onboard mics. You also can't lock the exposure in any of the movie modes, which disappoints me, because that's one of the best techniques for recording professional-looking video. Aside from these drawbacks, the movies you can make with this camera are impressive.
For those of you who enjoy immediate gratification (and who doesn't?), plug the EX-P505 into the TV using the supplied video cables and watch your movies. Here's a little sample footage that you can preview now. I recorded it indoors with existing light, at ISO 100, with the Casio mounted on a tripod. Music is playing in another room for ambient sound (bonus points if you can name the group). If you listen carefully, you can hear the high-pitched camera noises that I mentioned earlier. They are created by the lens zooming and focusing. Keep this in mind as you plan you shoot.
Note: the original Casio MPEG-4 file was encoded to a QuickTime MPEG-4 file maintaining the same frame rate and resolution. I compared the original footage played on a ThinkPad with Windows Media Player to the encoded version played on a Mac in QuickTime Player, and there was no degradation. We'll get knee-deep into this codec stuff in the next section of the article.
I won't go as far as to say that the playback quality is equal to my Canon Optura 40 DV camcorder (because it isn't), but it's certainly top drawer for a digital camera. If TV viewing is your primary method for watching these movies, your video life with this camera will be simple and fulfilling. You can even edit the snippets in the Casio, enabling you to cut out the junk you don't like. But things get more complicated if you want to view and manipulate the movies on your computer. So let's open that can of kilobits now.
Casio's choice of a Windows-centric, MPEG-4 codec contributes to the outstanding quality of the capture, but when you bring the files to the computer, there can be plenty of pain too. The codec is designed to decode in Windows Media Player on PC hardware. Casio is up-front about this, stating in its documentation that computer movie playback will not work on a Macintosh. At first this concerned me.
Almost every other digital camera on the market is QuickTime-compatible, providing tremendous ease of use. QuickTime files play equally well on Mac and Windows platforms, are very portable, are easily editable, and can be cataloged in applications such as iPhoto 5 and iView Media Pro.
I began my journey by installing on an IBM ThinkPad the Windows-only movie software that came with the EX-P505. I was soon frustrated. The bundle is clunky at best. (Odd that a manufacturer that can make such a great camera falls down on the relatively more simple bundled software.) Finally, I just started double-clicking on the movie files and watching them in Windows Media Player. But unlike with QuickTime Pro, you can't trim, edit, or stitch together your snippets in Windows Media Player. Instead, you have to open another app included in the bundle, and trust me, that isn't much fun either.
I then copied the movie files to a Mac, which recognized them but couldn't decode the video track. QuickTime plays the audio just fine. In fact, you can use the EX-P505 as an audio recorder and extract the audio track in QuickTime Pro.
So what to do? I experimented with using my Canon camcorder as a pass-through device to convert the Casio's video to a FireWire feed. But taking a digital movie, converting it to analog, and then converting it back to digital compromised the quality too much for my tastes.
With a little research I discovered ffmpegX, which enabled me to take Casio movie files and convert them to QuickTime-compatible MPEG-4s. This changed everything. The encoding is very high quality, you have lots of options (if you want to experiment), and the process is simple and fast. You can use ffmpegX for free at first, then if you like it as much as I do, you pay only $15 to register it.
The irony is that thanks to ffmpegX, the workflow on the Mac for uploading, processing, editing, and cataloging the Casio movies turned out to be more enjoyable than using the bundled software for Windows users. Here are the workflows that worked best for me:
For Windows users, I recommend that you avoid the bundled Photo Loader app to manage your movie files. It's a terrible piece of software. I think working in the file system and using Windows Media Player is easier and more user-friendly.
Once you find the workflow that works best for your computer, I think you'll agree that the video capabilities of the EX-P505 will change your opinion of using a digital camera for creating digital movies.
After all the movie excitement, the still photo functionality seems almost like a delightful bonus. But I discovered that the Casio engineers approached this side of the hybrid equation with just as much energy and ingenuity.
The EX-P505 has a 5-megapixel CCD sensor that enables you to capture images at 2560x1920 resolution (or 2560x1712 if you prefer the 3:2 ratio aspect). JPEG is the only file format option, but you do have three quality choices. As I've written before, always choose the highest resolution and quality option, and that's definitely the case here. Along with that, keep the ISO setting as low as possible. The EX-P505 lets you choose among 50, 100, 200, and 400 settings. Image quality is very good at ISO 50 but noise increases noticeably as the rating goes up.
Overall sharpness is also good, but you need to use solid camera technique for the highest-quality photos (such as avoiding camera shake, underexposure, etc). Take a look at the goose image below. I captured the picture with the zoom lens extended all the way to 5X. Because it was a nice, bright day, I had a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second that helped eliminate any camera shake at that magnification. The aperture setting was wide open at f-3.6. I opened the image in Adobe Photoshop, displayed it at 100 percent, and then cropped the goose out of the overall picture. I didn't make any editing adjustments. I saved the cropped goose using the Save for Web command, at 100-percent quality.
As you can see, the detail and tonal graduations hold up quite well. My only real complaint with the Casio's JPEG processing is that it tends to over-saturate the colors. Sky and grass can look slightly surreal. Some photographers will like this. But if you don't, you can tone down the saturation in the menu options.
If absolute image quality is your number-one consideration for a digital camera, I wouldn't recommend the EX-P505. It doesn't have RAW or Tiff format options, and the lens is solid but not premium. I rate the image quality as "average" for this type of camera in the 5-megapixel class. That being said, when I show you some of the other goodies Casio has included for still photographers, you may not care that this isn't the sharpest 5-megapixel camera on the store shelve.
There are so many nice touches on this camera that I hope I remember them all. I'll start with the filter ring. Thanks to the internally focusing zoom lens, Casio could put real filter threads at the end of the barrel. You can attach 43mm filters directly, or use a step-up ring to accommodate any 46mm or 49mm filters that you may already have lost somewhere in the sock drawer.
Once piece of advice, though. If you put a Sky 1-A filter on to protect the lens and to cut down on UV, make sure it's multicoated glass. That way your filter will have the same great light transmission as your multicoated lens.
I tested the EX-P505's infrared capability by attaching a Hoya R72 filter. I bumped up the ISO to 400 so I could shoot handheld in broad daylight. I'm happy to report that Casio's infrared-cut, low-pass filter doesn't eliminate its infrared capability. (You can read more about these terms on this Canon tech page.) Basically, all I had to do in post-production was bump up the highlights. See for yourself in the image below.
Because screw-in filters are so easy to use with this camera, I now carry the R72 and a polarizer with me all the time. Here's a tip: If you buy a SanDisk 1GB Extreme SD memory card, you not only get fast media that can keep up with the EX-P505's image processing, but you also get a nifty pouch that's perfect for holding filters up to 49mm. I keep an extra battery in one side of the pouch, a filter in the other side, and a second filter wrapped in a microfiber cloth in the middle. The zip-up pouch fits easily in my front pants pocket.
While we're on the subject of filtering, the EX-P505 also provides you with some creative internal filter options using the menu options. You can choose among B&W, Sepia, Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, and Purple. And you get a real-time screen display of each filter as you cycle through the list.
In Aperture Priority and Manual Exposure modes, you can activate a neutral density (ND) filter that reduces exposure by two f-stops. This is handy when you want to slow down the shutter speed or shoot at a wider aperture setting.
I very much like the swiveling LCD screen. The Casio implementation is similar to one of my other favorite cameras, the Canon G2. Casio adds a nice twist to its LCD, however; you can turn on a menu option that enables a grid overlay on the screen. This is just what I need to help me keep horizon lines straight and to aid in overall composition.
The EX button on the left side of the lens barrel provides quick access to white balance, ISO, metering pattern, and AF area options. It's very handy and easy to use. The left and right arrows on the multifunctional jog dial on the back of the camera serve as the exposure compensation adjustment—the best implementation I've seen to date on this type of camera. And it's a good thing because the Casio doesn't have an exposure lock. Crazy that the engineers overlooked that one, but it isn't there.
And what geek-friendly camera would be complete without the option to view a live histogram of the composition? In fact, as you cycle through the display options, you have four different screens to choose from. Again, easy to use and very effective.
Speaking of the LCD, when you swivel it open, the camera turns on and is ready to use by the time you have the screen positioned the way you want. When you return the LCD to the closed position, the camera powers down. I'm already spoiled by this neat trick.
I also want to compliment Casio's treatment of its 22 Best Shot scene selections. Generally speaking, I'm put off by predetermined scene settings. But these are like a mini photo course. You get a photo sample for each selection, plus text about what the camera is doing.
For example, for the Candlelight Portrait selection, the text says, "Soft sharpness and daylight white balance. Keep the camera still!" To access the Best Shots, just move the mode dial to BS, then cycle through the options until you find one you want. I actually use these, and that's a first for me.
Flash performance via the pop-up unit is very good. I experienced fewer instances of red eye, and the tones were well-exposed, even at close distances. But there's no option for an external flash useless you use a third-party slave model.
Outdoor exposure options for manual, aperture priority, and shutter priority settings give the control I want when I have specific shooting needs. Combined with three metering patterns to choose from, including spot metering, I feel pretty well equipped in the field.
After all the probing and poking, the real question is: Should you consider buying the Casio EX-P505? The answer is probably "yes," especially if any of these scenarios apply to you:
The EX-P505 is readily available for around $450. Budget for at least one high-performance 1GB SD memory card (the camera does not ship with a card). The standard kit includes a nifty compact battery charger that plugs directly into the wall and one battery. Buy a second battery (you'll thank me later).
PC users might want to opt for Windows Media Player over the bundled software to view and catalog their movies. Mac users will be happy to read that iPhoto 5 has no problem uploading JPEGs from the Casio and displaying their metadata. Add $15 to the budget for purchase of ffmpegX to encode the Casio's movies to .mov files. After conversion, they can also be imported into iPhoto 5.
And if it's not the right time for you to buy a new camera, sit tight. The Casio EX-P505 is a promising sign of how digital photography is going to continue to get better and better.
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