Operation and controls

You cannot help but be impressed by the design and layout of the controls on the FinePix S5500/5100. In fully automatic 'point and shoot' mode it is as easy to use as the most simple snapshot camera, whilst getting your hands onto the more advanced controls is intuitive, fast and simple. The few minor annoyances noted when we reviewed the S5000 have mostly been addressed, and the simple, fuss-free design means it not only looks like a miniature version of a conventional SLR camera - it handles and operates like one too. It is nice to see that Fuji has retained the use of external controls wherever possible on the S5500/5100, meaning you don't need to use the on-screen menu system all that often in everyday shooting.

Rear of camera

Like its immediate predecessor (the S5000), the back of the FinePix S5500/5100 is clean and thoughtfully designed - and very reminiscent of a conventional 35mm film SLR (albeit a rather old one). Above the small screen sit an activity LED and two buttons; one switches between the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen, the other is Fuji's now ubiquitous 'F' (photo) button, designed - like Canon's FUNC button - to offer fast access to settings you're most likely to use in everyday photography (excluding those given their own external controls): Image quality/size; ISO sensitivity and color effects. To the right of the screen - from the top - are the zoom buttons, a DISP/BACK button (used to change the amount of information overlaid on preview/review images and to cancel some menu operations). Next down is a MENU/OK button surrounded by a circular four-way controller, used to navigate menus and change exposure settings. The left and right arrow also control macro and flash settings in record mode. Finally there is a 'Low Light Viewfinder' button, which can be pressed to brighten (gain up) the display in low light. Although many cameras do this automatically, I actually liked the fact that I could choose when - and if - I actually needed it.

Top of camera

The top of the S5500/5100 is fairly straightforward, and shows perfectly how closely Fuji has stuck to the 'SLR-like' design ethos that pervades this camera. Note the fairly chunky controls, deep grip and careful use of space.

Display and menus

The S5500 shares the same basic menu system with the rest of the FinePix range. It's colorful (some might even say gaudy) in places, but is fast, easy to use and easy to see. Compared to much of the competition the interface is mature, attractive and - most important of all - effective.

At its most basic, in Auto mode, the record display shows only the preview image and a camera shake warning if the light is too low to get a high enough shutter speed. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will set the exposure (AE) and focus (AF), indicating the focus point chosen (in Multi focus mode) and giving a warning (as shown here) of any focus problems. There are three focus modes; Multi (the camera chooses the focus point based on the content of the scene), Center (focus point fixed in the middle of the frame) and Area (you select from one of 49 different focus points).
Pressing the display button allows you to bring up an overlay of shooting information, including exposure mode, shutter speed and aperture, focus area, metering and flash mode, file size/quality, ISO setting and remaining frames. A nice touch is the live updating of exposure values, something many cameras only show you with a half-press of the shutter. Another press of the DISP button brings up a 'rule of thirds' grid, useful not only for composition, but also to ensure your horizontals and verticals are straight.
Another nice touch - and one that makes the P (program) mode infinitely more useful - is a program shift function. Press the up or down arrow keys and the shutter speed/aperture values will move up and down their respective scales without actually changing the exposure value. Press the 'drive' button and use the arrow keys to choose from one of the four options (top 3, last 3, long time continuous and AE bracketing). The AE compensation button works in exactly the same way.
Pressing the 'F' button brings up the 'Photo Mode' menu ,which offers control over image size/quality, sensitivity (auto, 64,100,200,400) and color mode. Normally this appears as an overlay on the preview image, we've used a black background here to make it easier to see. The record menu (again usually shown as an overlay on the live preview) contains eight menus covering self timer, white balance, focus mode, metering mode, bracketing, flash output control, sharpness setting and setup.
In playback mode there are two basic display options (with or without file number and date/time overlaid), but pressing the AE compensation button on the top of the camera brings up much more detailed information. Here you can see not only exposure and file information, but also a small histogram (a new feature for the S5500/5100). Pressing the right (T) zoom key lets you magnify images in 32 steps up to around 14x. The four arrow keys are then used to scroll around the magnified image.
The DISP button changes to a 3 x 3 thumbnail display. The playback menu is home to the usual suspects; image deletion, protection and slideshows, plus voice memo and image trimming (cropping) functions. The DPOF (print ordering) functions are accessed via the 'F' button.
Accessible from both record and playback menus, the set-up menu consists of four pages of camera-related options (date/time, beep and shutter volume etc), plus card formatting and - oddly - raw shooting mode. Once raw mode is activated you cannot switch to JPEG shooting until you've come back to the set-up menu and turned it off again. Although the LCD/EVF do not automatically 'gain up' in low light, you can do it yourself by pressing the dedicated button on the rear of the camera.