* Prices may differ from that shown
The Fujfilm FinePix E500 (henceforth in this review "the E500") is a 4.1-megapixel camera which dates from late 2004. It was introduced as the base model in a range that also included the 5-megapixel E510 and the six-megapixel E550, which other than resolution are very similar. The E500 is of course no longer available new, but it is a fairly common camera and if you have a bit of patience £30 should suffice to buy an example in quite good condition from eBay. You needn't worry about finding the right battery either, as this camera takes two standard AA cells. High-capacity NiMH rechargeables are, as always with digital cameras, strongly recommended.
The E500 is an interesting camera, in that Fujifilm took a slightly different approach from what was then the norm - a 3x zoom lens providing the equivalent range of roughly 35 to 105 mm on a film camera. Instead, the E500 offers a 3.2x zoom and a considerably wider range of 28 to 91 mm. Few inexpensive digital cameras could match this wide-angle ability at the time, and it does give extra flexibility for landscapes or interior shots, though you do lose the ability to bring distant objects very close. The lens is averagely bright, ranging from f/2.9 at the wide end to f/5.5 at full telephoto. In both cases, f/8 is as far as you can go in the other direction. Shutter speeds can be from 1/1000 second up to 2 seconds, a reasonable though unexciting range. There are two macro modes, the closer of which allows you to get to within 3 cm of your subject.
This camera was a budget model, and this does show at times in the physical construction. The body is of silver and grey plastic, and although I wouldn't call it flimsy it does creak slightly alarmingly if much pressure is put on it. The door to the combined battery/memory card compartment is irritatingly positioned on the underside, and has a fiddly catch. (Talking of memory, the E500 uses the tiny xD card format, which is still available new but slowly becoming rarer.) Finally, the rubber cover for the USB and DC ports is not actually attached to the camera, so can ping off entirely if you're not careful, thus leaving the ports exposed to the elements. On the plus side, the hand grip is substantial and solid, providing considerable reassurance.
If you can deal with the less than professional finish, though, you do get a lot of features here. The E500 provides shutter-priority, aperture-priority and full manual modes, as well as a small number of scene modes (night, action, landscape and portrait) and the usual fully automatic option. The mode dial is quite small, but clicks with a nice, precise action. There is a dedicated exposure compensation button, a very unusual offering in this class at that time, and ISO options between 80 and 400. There's manual focus (though, as on most compacts, this is very fiddly), and you can even adjust the power of the flash, another rare feature on a camera at this end of a range. The menu system itself looks rather creaky nowadays, but it works efficiently enough.
The LCD screen is two inches in size, which is small in 2009 terms but very respectable by the standards of five years ago, especially as space is restricted by the small and uncomfortably placed optical viewfinder above it. The screen is reasonably bright, and doesn't suffer as badly from lag as some of its contemporaries. Unless you choose to turn it off, the screen displays quite a lot of overlaid information, such as resolution, photos remaining - a 256 MB card is enough for about 125 photos at top resolution - and even a recommendation to flip open the flash. You have to do this manually, but I rather like that as it prevents an accidental discharge if you're in a place where flash photography is banned or inappropriate. The camera will also show you the aperture and shutter speed selected - either by you or by the camera - when you half-press the shutter to focus. These values are shown even in fully auto mode, which I liked.
Indoors, the flash proves itself reliable and quite bright, and the recycle time is only a few seconds; those like me who have suffered the seemingly interminable wait for a Canon PowerShot camera to recharge are likely to be pleasantly surprised. Alternatively, if the available light is not too dreadful, you can try disabling the flash and setting the camera to ISO 400. This often produces horrible noise problems on compact cameras, but Fujifilm seem to have a better handle on this than most; while results from the E500 are nowhere near those from the company's remarkable F10/F20/F30 range, I think they are really quite useable for small prints.
That said, my impression is that Fujfilm's main target market with the E500 was landscape photographers who worked in good light. The camera, though no slowcoach, is not really quick enough for capturing fast-moving subjects such as children, pets or most sports. In any case, it has no continuous-shooting mode and its video capability (320 by 240 at just 10 fps) is laughable by modern standards. In general, though, these restrictions tend to be rather less of a problem when photographing a mountain!
Finally, we turn to photo quality itself, and the news is again good. Naturally a four-megapixel camera is not going to give much scope for cropping and reframing, but full-frame prints (at least at low ISO settings, where noise is very well controlled) are pretty sharp, and acceptable up to around 10 by 8 inches, or for viewing on all but the largest monitors. Colour is a bit less strong than on some cameras, with a more "film-like" impression than, say, Canon cameras tend to provide. Happily, quality does not noticeably fall off at higher zoom levels, or towards the edges of the frame. There is one bad point here: I tend to think that results are not quite so reliable with flash as without, producing slightly blurred edges a little more often than I would like.
I like this camera quite a lot. It's different from most of its contemporaries, most notably in that 28 to 91 mm lens, and in the pleasing level of manual control available. This allows photographers to learn as they go along, gradually making use of more and more of the creative options rather than simply relying on the auto or scene modes. Combine that with the attractively bright and colourful photos it turns out, and even with the various flaws mentioned above, the E500 is a camera worthy of consideration at the aforementioned £30 price point.