Back in the film era it was perfectly possible to buy a compact camera that could match an SLR in image quality terms. Sure, you might lose out on some advanced features, and for the most part you were stuck with a fixed lens, but deep inside, whether you were shooting with an Olympus XA or an OM1, the image was formed on a frame of 35mm film.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s and photographers without the need – or funds – for one of the new breed of ‘affordable’ (sub-$1000) consumer DSLRs had to swallow a much more serious compromise. The minuscule sensors found in pretty much every model on the market in 2005 meant cameras that were limited to around ISO 320 or 400 (or if they went higher, they did so using hideous pixel-binning techniques – more on that later).

It’s no coincidence that smartphones, which use similarly diminutive sensors (though with the advantage of a decade of hardware and ISP development) still suffer from similar limitations when shooting in anything less than bright daylight. On top of the terrible low-light performance, all but the best compacts in 2005 were also still plagued by slow operation and poor battery life. Things were getting better, slowly, but the inability to produce decent results in low light was not one of them.

As someone who had spent nearly every waking hour testing, shooting with and writing about compact digital cameras since the late 1990s, by 2005 I was resigned to the fact that I was going to have to wait a long, long time before I could enjoy the convenience of a small camera without having to restrict my shooting to daylight hours. And that’s why I will always have a place in my heart for the subject of this week’s TBT: the Fujifilm FinePix F10 Zoom; it gave me hope. Hope that technology could, in fact, rid the compact camera of its Achilles' Heel, and that one day, perhaps, a point-and-shoot wouldn’t turn into a ‘point-and-pray’ as soon as the sun went down. It was also the camera I used to take the first picture of my first child just after he was born, which probably adds a little extra rose-tinting to my memory of the F10.

Hidden talents

The camera itself is – and was at the time – unassuming, unremarkable even. Its design was boxy and inelegant (certainly compared to some of the sleek, slim models it was competing with at the time), it had no manual controls to speak of and its lens, a 38-108mm F2.8-5.0 equivalent zoom, was nothing to write home about (by this time 28mm zooms were becoming much more common). And although it had a larger (1/1.7”) sensor than most of its competitors, by the time it launched in February 2005 the premium compact market was already moving from 7MP to 8MP, making the F10’s 6MP output a hard sell in a market defined almost exclusively by megapixel counts.

FinePix F10 Zoom: In good light detail and color were excellent

And then there was the fact that the FinePix F10 sported yet another iteration of Fujfilm’s proprietary ‘SuperCCD’ technology, which used a novel honeycomb pixel layout and had, in previous generations, promised a lot more than it actually delivered - most controversially by scaling up the sensor output to produce files with double the megapixels actually used to capture the image. The general consensus about SuperCCD was that although the technology was certainly impressive, the obvious interpolation artefacts and ugly noise reduction made it far less groundbreaking than the marketing materials suggested.

All such concerns were forgotten when we started testing and using the FinePix F10 Zoom. Not only did the new 6.3MP SuperCCD HR sensor outperform many seven and eight megapixel conventional CCD cameras in bright light, it offered high ISO performance that – though perhaps unimpressive by today’s standards – set a new bar for what a small sensor could produce.

Back in 2005 very few compacts even offered an ISO 800 or ISO 1600 option. Those that did were either painfully noisy or offered a very low resolution, very low fidelity pixel-binned mess.

It’s worth remembering that in 2005 most compact cameras didn’t even offer settings above ISO 400, and those that did used destructive hardware and software tricks to get there (the most common being pixel-binning, which produces results so horribly lacking in detail that we rarely had anything to say about them beyond ‘I guess in an tight spot it’s better than nothing’).

The FinePix F10 Zoom’s surprisingly capable high ISO performance wasn’t just down to the unique design of its SuperCCD sensor (though the efficient pixel design certainly helped); the 5th Generation ‘Real Photo Processor’ (the ‘brains’ of the capture hardware) was critical, too.

In the same way as modern Smartphones owe much of their improved image quality to advances in signal processing (the hardware itself is limited by cost and the laws of physics), Fujifilm had taken a big step towards overcoming the limitations of a small sensor in low light and the result was nothing short of revolutionary. Even flash exposures (which were again controlled by the new Real Photo Processor) were streets ahead of most competitors.

ISO 800 - remarkably usable for a 2005 compact camera

And it wasn’t just the image quality that impressed. Despite looking like a truck, the F10 performed like a sports car, with (for 2005) very short startup times, fast focus and, thanks to a huge lithium-ion power pack, class-leading 500-shot per charge battery life. This really was the compact camera equivalent of a sleeper car.

Room for improvement

Of course it wasn’t all good news – using the camera today I am reminded of just how ugly Fuji’s user interface was back then, how crappy low res screens look, and just how limited the feature set of the F10 was (even by 2005 standards) – though I would add that the performance (speed) and image quality have both held up better than the camera itself. Perhaps the biggest annoyance was the use of a separate ‘terminal adapter’ – Fuji’s designers apparently couldn’t fit A/V, charging and USB ports into the F10’s body (or maybe they forgot and it was too late to fix), so they were supplied separately on an easily misplaced dongle thing.

The genius that was the 'Terminal Adapter'.

The F10 also used Fujifilm and Olympus’s proprietary xD Picture Cards (introduced a couple of years earlier) for storage. xD, the unwanted successor to the awful, unreliable SmartMedia card, was slower, less capacious and more expensive than the most common format (at the time CompactFlash, itself soon to be displaced by SD cards in compact cameras).

In 2005 this was as good as ISO 1600 got from a small sensor

If I remember correctly, the FinePix F10 didn’t do that well for Fujifilm – it was hard to sell a 6MP camera against similarly-priced but slimmer, prettier, more feature-laden 7 and 8MP competitors. And, inevitably, it wasn’t long before every compact camera added high ISO options that, despite essentially being so bad they should’ve been classified as crimes against photography, were easily spun by marketing teams into ‘amazing low light sensitivity’.

The FinePix F10 was eventually succeeded by the F30 - considered by many to be one of the few real 'classics' of the compact point-and-shoot era.

However, it earned a loyal following and over time Fujifilm ironed out some of the kinks - the FinePix F11 followed quickly, adding aperture and shutter priority modes and a higher resolution screen. In 2006 Fujifilm launched the FinePix F30, which offered even better low light performance at up to ISO 3200, and is considered by many to be one of the few ‘classics’ produced during consumer digital photography’s frenetic first decade.