The S5500/5100 has six white balance presets (daylight, cloudy, fluorescent 1, 2 and 3 and incandescent), plus auto and custom (manual) measured WB - something sorely missing from predecessor the S5000. In everyday shooting we found the white balance to perform very well, with daylight pictures very slightly warm, but not so much that you really notice unless you measure the colors. Indoors the S5500/5100 deals very well with fluorescent lighting, though it struggles with low level incandescent lighting (most households at night), producing very warm images with a visible orange cast. It's by no means the worst offender we've ever seen (step forward virtually every Canon compact), but you'll still want to switch to manual white balance when shooting indoors if you want to guarantee no color casts.
Outdoor - Auto WB
|Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red -0.1%, Blue -2.6%
Incandescent - Auto WB
Although there is a slight tendency to underexpose slightly, flash performance is actually very good; after using the S5500 extensively over the festive party season we found it one of the better 'superzoom' cameras for use in dimly lit social situations. We rarely saw any blown-out results, even when shooting from relatively short distances (under 1 meter), and the flash is positioned far enough away from the lens that red-eye is rare, even without use of the anti red-eye pre-flash. On a side note, focus was excellent in low light, thanks to the powerful AF illuminator, which allows the S5500 to focus in complete darkness at distances of up to about 1.5 meters with about a 90 per cent success rate. Note also that the underexposure seen in our test shots (which contain a lot of white space) was much less pronounced in real world photographs.
Excellent color, some under exposure
Excellent color, some under exposure
The S5500/5100 can focus down to around 90cm/3.0 ft (wide) and 2.0m/6.6ft (tele) in normal mode, which means you often need the macro function even when shooting in social situations (such as sat around a dinner table). Whilst there's no 'super macro' setting (as seen on some competitor models), the macro mode is pretty respectable, getting you down to around 10cm at the wide end and 90cm at the long (370mm equiv.) end of the zoom. Although you can fill the frame with a slightly smaller (approx 79x59mm) area at the wide end of the zoom, the performance at the long end of the zoom (which fills the frame with an area around 91x68mm) is almost as good. This makes a nice change from the usual situation, where macro only works at the wide end of the zoom. Although inevitably there is some corner softness (and a touch of vignetting) at the wide end of the range in macro mode, it is less pronounced than many models, and is all but gone by the time you reach the middle of the zoom range.
Barrel and Pincushion Distortion
One of the inevitable consequences of producing zooms with a wide (10x) range in such a compact form is that some distortion is unavoidable, but the S5500/5100's lens does a good job of keeping things under control. 1.1% barrel distortion is fairly low (and certainly won't mar everyday shots), and there is only the tiniest (0.1%) amount of measurable pincushion distortion at the long (370mm equiv.) end of the range. Most of the mid-zoom settings are also almost distortion-free.
|Barrel distortion - 1.1% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 37 mm
|Pincushion distortion - 0.1% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 370mm
Here for visual comparison are four identical shots taken at 64, 100, 200 and 400 ISO settings in our studio. There is virtually no visible difference between ISO 64 and 100 (although there is a slight measurable difference), and ISO 200 is very clean too. ISO 400 noise is actually very well controlled compared to much of the competition, though its good to see Fuji decided not to use such aggressive noise reduction that fine detail was lost. Not bad, not bad at all.
|ISO 64 100% crop
ISO 100 100% crop
|ISO 200 100% crop
|ISO 400 100% crop
Specific image quality issues
Overall impressions of the S5500/5100 are very positive indeed; the results are sharp,well exposed, have natural color (if a little subtle compared to many consumer cameras) and focus is very reliable, even at the long end of the zoom (except when light levels drop too low). We found the usual problem of limited dynamic range (which isn't helped by the rather high contrast of the images), though the S5500/5100 tends to underexposure slightly in these situations, meaning at least you don't lose highlight detail. We found the need to do a little post-processing to bring out any shadow detail in very contrasty scenes. Otherwise our only real issues were the need to switch to macro mode when shooting portraits (the focus struggles a little in normal mode when you try to get close enough to fill the frame with a face) and some vignetting and edge softness when shooting at wideangle/max aperture.
Color fringing/corner softness
Although we did find some purple fringing at the wide end of the zoom, it was rare, and confined to scenes with foliage in front of very bright, slightly overexposed skies. Not a serious problem at all compared to many competitors. We also found some slight fall off in corner sharpness when shooting at the widest zoom setting and widest (F2.8) aperture, though this is only visible if you zoom in to 100% on-screen, and is unlikely to mar your everyday shots. The softness disappears as you stop down to F4.
|100% crop||37 mm equiv., F2.8|
We did find mild vignetting (darkening of the corners of the image) in non telephoto shots (at zoom settings from the widest 37mm to around 65mm equiv.). It is visible to some extent in most wide shots containing a clear blue sky (and to a lesser extent in wide macro shots), though it does reduce as you move up the zoom range.
|100% crop||303 mm equiv., F4.4|