Sunday, January 6, 2013

Fujifilm X20 and X100s Launch Impressions (Updated)

Details leaked. If you waded through the press release, there's a lot to get excited about if you like the X-series cameras. A review of the headline features of the X100s and X20:

Fujifilm X100s 

  • New 16.3 megapixel APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor 
  • Image sensor has phase detection (PD) elements. Fuji is claiming " world’s fastest AF speed of just 0.08 seconds"
  • Burst rate to 6 fps
  • Upgrade to EXR Processor II
  • A digital version of the classic range-finder split-image focus aid mechanism, meant to aid focus at open apertures and macro shooting
  • Focus peaking, where the outline of the focus plain is accentuated in live view to aid manual focus while using the live view screen, like the system on the M 240
  • Improved hybrid viewfinder, 2,360K-dot and capable of displaying depth of field during maco shooting.
  • 60fps HD video recording (1920 x 1080 pixels), bit-rate of 36Mbps 

Fujifilm X20

  • 12 megapixel 2/3-inch X-Trans CMOS II sensor, replacing EXR CMOS sensor on X10
  • Sensor has built in phase-detection elements
  • EXR Processor II
  • 60fps HD video recording 
  • "Digital Trans Panel" used in new optical viewfinder, which Fujifilm is claiming to offer improved display of shooting information like shutter speed, aperture, etc.
  • Rear display screen unchanged at 460,000 dots and 2.8"
  • New faux leather / metallic top option in addition to all-black 

Fujifilm X20


Other than that, the lens specs for both cameras look about the same as their predecessors. The phase-detection upgrades for the sensors are a welcome improvement. If you've only handled a X100 or the X-Pro1, average-performing autofocus was all you knew. If you've used the X10, then claims of improved autofocus speed are believable. On-chip phase detection (PD) is where the industry is heading: a lot of people have missed out on what PD autofocus can do because the Nikon 1 system cameras have not sparked the enthusiast crowds interest, but if you handle even the first-generation Nikon V1, you'll know that the focus performance is excellent, and certainly next-generation stuff compared to traditional contrast-detection only sensors. In fact, Fujifilm was the first company to announce on-chip phase detection technology, where it was deployed on the F300R in 2010. However, by this time the F-series had lost most of the lustre of the F30/F31d era, so even though the technology made for some great press releases, the camera wasn't as big a commercial success as its fore-bearers; the market had moved on. The system works by using pairs of green photosites where each pair has half of the photosite masked.... as a whole, this means that the pairs "see" two images, and when the subject is in focus, the light rays converge on the detector pairs at the same angle. In other words, when something is in focus, both pairs "see" the same image. However, the PD elements are confined to the central portion of the sensor only, but to give some perspective of the sophistication of the system, the number of photosites involved is described by Fuji as being "several tens of thousands". This may sound like a lot but it's still a small portion compared to the over 16 million photosites in total.

All in all, a good sign. Fujifilm is more of an imaging company than it is a camera company. Past models certainly betrayed that and often offered great sensor output with mediocre camera handling. That we're seeing usability and operational upgrades is a good sign from the venerable company. Also take note of the purported burst rate of the X100s. ostensibly, the X series is for Leica wannabes (and aren't we all?) who can't afford the real thing. However, what Leica camera can do high-speed shooting with tracking autofocus? Just because the range-finder form factor is venerable doesn't mean that it shouldn't be dragged into the 21st century.

Update: Here is the first video of the split-image focusing function. Here is an early hands on video. The distance scale is the similar to the the one used in the X100.


Sensor-wise, Fuji looks like it is doubling down on X-Trans technology now; say goodbye to EXR CMOS. The EXR technology (first introduced on the F200) was interesting but didn't give enough "wow" factor over traditional sensors to really win people over. Of course, there was also the additional "orb" issue with the X10, and how it was handled. I think EXR technology would have had better market adoption had it been featured on a large sensor compact, as it offered the benefits of the old Super CCD SR sensor, but with added flexibility. With X-Trans, Fuji seems to be stepping away from the storied S5 Pro dSLR and it's legendary dynamic range, and is going after a broader audience with the sharper image quality of the X-Trans sensor.

Because X-Trans technology does away with the low-pass moiré filter, Fujifilm claims an increase on 20% resolution and 30% in sensitivity over a conventional Bayer sensor. Traditional thinking is that the low-pass filter on a Bayer sensor reduces resolving power by 5-10%... the claimed 20% improvement in resolution is a bit of a stretch. OF the comparisons that I've seen, yes, there is a benefit, but not that much. (By the way, Ken Rockwell's attempted a nickname the X-E1 is ridiculous and as the saying goes, "not a thing".) As well, 30% improvement in sensitivity is really only about 1/3EV, and given that the X-Trans sensor has proportionally more "green" photosites than a Bayer array, is is expected... but this is assuming that the sensor is manufactured on the same process. Theoretically speaking, if all things were equal, you would expect the APS-C X-Trans sensor to given sharper looking images with more acuity bite than images from a Sony 16mp sensor (Nikon D7000)... but when viewing at the same image magnification, the 24mp Sony output from an NEX-7 is slightly better than both; 24mp being roughly 20% more linear resolution than 16mp, and the fact that when you down sample to the lower resolution of 16mp, you are truncating more colour information into a smaller space. How I would sum up the X-Trans APS-C sensor in its first incarnation: it seems to preserve edges better than the equivalent Bayer sensor as the ISO rises, but that there is a corresponding deficit in resolution in reds and blues.

Subjectively, harder edge acuity seems to be more of a crowd-pleaser than outright colour accuracy, so its hard to argue with the initial success that Fuji has had with this technology. Also, as innovative as Fujifilm is with sensors, it must bear repeating that they are motivated to develop non-Bayer alternatives, as the Bayer filter patent is (was?) held by the Eastman Kodak company, Fuji's longtime rivals. However, the X100s announcement doesn't come with news about the RAW conversion. This is something that the more serious photographers are watching, as third-party software (Adobe Camera RAW, etc) has had a difficult time with the Fuji sensor, leading to colour smearing and fractal-like artifacting. This appears to be improving as the RAW conversion peopl improve their code, but it remains probably the single biggest stumbling block for further professional adoption of X-Trans. (BTW, what goes for RAW on also goes for in-camera JPEG processing. X-Trans needs more computing power to process than Bayer sensors, so X-Trans equipped cameras need more processing power to achieve the same performance as conventional Bayer cameras.)


However,  I think the X-Trans sensor in the smaller 2/3" sensor size might be a good move. Some people like the sharp punchy images and don't mind (or don't see) the reduced colour accuracy. On a smaller sensor, acuity is weaker than on APS-C (particularly at higher ISO's, where X-Trans does offer a benefit) and outright colour detail aren't as big priorities, so the adoption of the X-Trans sensor may make for an interesting compact camera. Nonetheless, even if all of the theoretical sensitivity benefit of the X-Trans sensor is completely realized, the X20 will likely not be as good at high ISO as the Sony DSC-RX100; the difference in sensor size and resolution outweighs X-Trans' paper advantage. That said, I am looking forward to what the real world tests will say about the X20, as I much prefer the build and handling of the X10 to the RX100 as is. One thing I will be watching closely is the video quality of the X20. On the X-Pro1, the video functionality was ostensibly not as good as with Sony, and the file quality was not as good as the class leaders as well. Video matters more to me on the X20 than it does on a larger camera, as I prefer the smaller size for vacations... and vacations do mean video. Cosmetic wise, the new two-tone metal top/black faux leather body looks elegant, and though ostensibly derivative of Leica M cameras of the past, the execution is done fairly well.

Value Proposition

All in all, this is fairly exciting news for followers of Fuji digital cameras. The usability improvements to the X100s over the X100 keep the camera fairly up to date, but more importantly, signal Fujifilm's seriousness about developing the "X" brand into a competitive line of photographic tools. Too often in the past, Fuji cameras gave the impression of being technologically ambitious one-off's, even if they persisted for more than one model cycle. It'll be interesting to see what a potential X-Pro 2 will look like with the X100s' improvements. One final note: Assuming that you you aren't looking for the ultimate in ISO performance and resolution, which would you actually buy: the Sony DSC-RX1, or the Fujifilm X100s? Both are "compact" by dSLR standards and offer the classic 35mm equivalent street photographer's field of view with a dedicated fixed lens. There's no arguing that the Sony with its Carl Zeiss lens is superior choice on paper, but once you get down to real-world budgeting the X100s improvements seem to have reinvigorated the concept of the X100.

Fujifilm is becoming an interesting company to watch. A lot of gear heads that I know have been attracted to the X-Pro1 and X100, and I would say that this consumer subset would have probably ended up with a Nikon, Canon or Sony dSLR had there been no other alternative. They are definitely looking for large-sensor quality, but are willing to give up the the size of a reflex-mirror system. I think the X series appeals to this subset more than the Sony NEX series... hold an NEX in your hand, and you feel like you've got the latest in consumer electronics, but holding a X100 or an X-Pro1 makes you feel like... well, a photographer. It's something intangible... sort of like how listening to the theme to Backdraft might make you wish in a small way that you were a firefighter (or a fancy chef...). With these updates, I'm glad to see that Fuji is concentrating on the photographic experience, the feeling and operation of the camera in your hands, and not just the image quality.

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