Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fujifilm X20 Review




I'm going to be honest with you. The last two times that I went on vacation, I left the DSLR behind and took my compact camera. Did I miss the image quality? Yes, but...

Updated  January 2014.
Actually, I didn't mind all that much. When I sift through those vacation pics, I don't notice the image quality so much as I like going through the memories. Since none of my recent vacations have been in the "trip of a lifetime" category, it's not likely that I would have uncovered something completely new that had been unseen by the thousands of tourists that had gone before me. But sophistry aside, the real reason why I am getting more reluctant about bringing a DSLR is because I prefer to not check my luggage. When you are on the go, you just want to grab your things from the overhead bin and be on your way (I'm a light packer). That means you get a suitcase and a carry-on bag. Limited space. Hence the obligatory advanced compact camera, fashion accessory for all who own a serious DSLR. Enter the Fujifilm X20.

Body and Design





Not much has changed since the X10. It's still a handsome retro-styled camera with perhaps the most solid feeling build quality out of all of the high-end compacts. The classic all black version looks serious and down-to-business, but the black and chrome version is visually the little brother of the X100s. This is easily the most solid feeling of the advanced compacts: purposeful, good button placement and fits it in your hand in a way that makes you feel like a photographer. In some ways, the X20 feels like more of an "LX" camera than even the Panasonic LX-7 is.




There's a new eye-level sensor for the optical viewfinder, which includes a  new electronic overlay within the display that's fairly crisp and easy to read. The EVFcan even indicate the active area of focus... however, don't expect a high amount of precision, as the display isn't sophisticated as in the X-100s or X-E2. The viewfinder is rated at 85% coverage, which on paper sounds like a downer, butit's much easier to use than the tunnel-like optical viewfinder on the Canon G-series.

Operation-wise, Fuji hasn't changed many people's opinion of their menus and controls. It's a great camera to hold in your hand. It's still a somewhat perplexing camera to change settings and menu dive with. Take for example the dedicated white balance button.... it's great until you realize that ISO, which you use more often, does not have a dedicated button. ISO is automatically mapped to the configurable Fn on the top of the camera, but to me that's a mysterious choice of function prioritization. The Q button brings up a menu of the shooting parameters. It's the same as as the one on the firmware upgrade of the X10, and is better than what the older camera originally shipped with.

Image Quality


Here's a JPEG sample straight out of the camera, with the camera shooting at f/2.8 at a fairly close range object:

Fujifilm X20, f/2.8
Though compact cameras can't develop meaningful bokeh at useful subject distances, at close focusing range there is a a workable sense of depth and background blur. To give you an idea of what the lens focal range is like, here's a shot of the product wall with the lens at widest zoom. The camera was left to its own devices to see how it would render this seen. It struggled, as would most. There's the bright florescent light (bit of a green cast) and the deep blacks on the camera boxes. The exposure isn't really a good one, it's a compromise of all of the different elements, with noting prioritized.

Fujifilm X20, ISO 200, f/3.2, 1/300s, 28mm equiv pattern metering


And here's an adjusted sample of the same picture prioritizing the camera boxes. That means that the lighting is blown out, but overall, even though I was working with a JPEG file, it handled well with modest post processing. This just goes to show that the last frontier for compact cameras is dynamic range. Yes, the resolving power, image noise and depth of field control are not the same as on a dSLR, but it's always the lack of dynamic range that I notice first and find the most objectionable. I don't think the older X10, with it's EXR sensor, would have done any better. I am looking forward to the objective tests pitting the X20 versus the X10. The X10 used Fuji's dynamic range extending EXR technology, but the feeling seemed to be that it only offered a modest real world benefit, maybe even minor, at higher ISO's only. The X20 sensor, on the other hand, is now a backside illuminated design, which gives improvements in noise and dynamic range.



Going back to the original file, here's a crop from the center portion of the lens. Everything is neat and tidy as it should be. This is as the camera chose it, without resorting to anything sensible like spot metering or actually adjusting white balance before shooting. The lettering will look crisper with a better exposure setting, but it's about what you would expect. (Note: Yes, this review was first written when EOS M's were still in existence in the North American market.)

Center Crop

And here's crop from the extreme right side. Not quite as crisp, but something that you would expect from this class of camera. Across the frame, you can make out a bit of barrel distortion and softening as you go further out. Again, expected.

Extreme right crop

If you point the camera at a more detailed scene, the X-Trans sensor, which lacks an anti-aliasing filter produces crisp results with high contrast edges, but loses definition with soft detail that is strong in either the red or blue colour channel. However, this is not so much a weakness as it is a bit of a balancing act on the part of Fuji. The result for the most part is pleasingly crisp images:



Just a note. At normal(ish) viewing sizes, diffraction limitation limitation starts creeping in around f/5.6, which is where I would also expect the advantage of the filter-less X-Trans sensor to start giving way.... if you shoot any smaller than this, the differences will be subtle. However, because of the small size of the sensor, you generally won't need to use the smaller apertures unless you have need to cut down on the amount of light and you've maxed out the shutter speed. Put another way: for the X20, LX-7, P7700, et. al., just remember that f/4 is the new f/8. Do that and you will be fine for extracting the most out of the camera lens.

Using the soda fridges across from the camera store as impromptu ISO/dynamic range test targets yields this set of test results. Click to view at 100% crop size:

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 850
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

ISO 800 is roughly the comfort point for the Fujifilm X20. Going up one stop from this to ISO 1600 produces images that look smooth... too smooth for this class of camera, in fact, as the noise reduction is taking a toll on the detail. As per the larger size of the sensor compared to other compact cameras, the X20 does a good job with the highlights and reflections on the bottles, not becoming overly harsh until ISO 800 once again.

Conclusion


I first had a chance to try this camera at the same time that I was reviewing the Nikon D7100, and my experience with it was something of the reverse of the Nikon. With the D7100, I thought that I wouldn't be as impressed by the newer sensor and grew to like it as time went on. With the Fuji, I was expecting to like it from the get go (which I did), but the enthusiasm has gone down a bit, due in part to all of the little niggles and idiosyncrasies, particularly with the menus and controls. However, it's a camera to easily fall back into love with given how well it sits in your hand and how handsome and evocative it looks.

For the most part, the X-Trans sensor lives up to it's promise on the X20... sort of. The output is good, but I'm not sure there's that much of visual wallop over the X10, or the typically sharply tuned output of the Canon G-series. Since we're not talking about DSLR sensor size and DSLR quality lenses, any differences in sensor technology will likely show less of a difference in  image quality for this class of camera. Further compounding this is that noise reduction is usually always on in compact cameras, even if you turn it "off." If you truly want it off, then RAW is often the only way to go. Looking at other people's experiences, it appears that the tone curve for the X20 is different than for the X10, so there was some guarded optimism/disappointment in the Fuji community about the way the X20 images look. It wouldn't be Fuji if you didn't have to tweak around with it, and so this camera seems no different. The older EXR sensor was a bit too far off the beaten path for my taste; the X-Trans sensor is more of a known quantity given it's success in the X-series of interchangable lens cameras. Just remember that all of the comments about third-party RAW support (good and bad) that you've heard about the X-Series APS-C cameras applies to the X20 just the same.

Recommendations


Essentially, the X20 is in a space of it's own. The ISO performance is better than the Canon G15 or Panasonic LX-7; it would be a massive disappointment if it weren't due to the larger sensor. Yet, the difference is only 40% over the smaller sensors; remember, all things being equal, the sensor has to be double in size in order to see a stop's worth of difference in ISO quality. Also, at 12mp the X20 doesn't come close to the resolution that the Sony RX100 gives, but with what it has, the X20 does make good use of its pixels. It's definitely the leader in  body construction and style, and it has fairly quick phase-detection AF speed. However:

  • The LX-7, though probably the weakest in terms of noise performance of all of the advanced compacts on the market, probably has the best lens quality, and traditionally has had a more serious photographer-centric control layout. It also has the best image stabilization (so says me). If you want the widest and sharpest lens above all else, the Panasonic would be the one to get. Z
  • The Canon G15 and the Nikon P7700 don't excel in any one particular area, but offer longer reach, as well as the virtue of being the more known quantity in the bunch. There's one area that the X-Trans sensor is not going to win over the traditional cameras: that's in red/blue resolving power. If you like flowers, the Nikon and Canon are going to be modestly better. Not much, but probably enough. Going the mainstream route with these two cameras also means that your camera won't be obsoleted by the next model... pick and choose between any of the last couple of iterations of the G-series or P-series. Yes there's improvement, but it's usually not enough of an improvement to want to upgrade to, not unless you are skipping generations, or maybe even two generations.
  • The Olympus XZ-2 iHS is a difficult recommend for exactly the same reason why the Canon and Nikon are easy to recommend: Canon and Nikon command most of the retail shelf space in North America, your store might not even carry this Olympus model, saving what display space they have left over for the more profitable m4/3 cameras.
  • The Sony RX-100 (and version II) has the virtue of being the best in terms of outright image quality, but I've often argued that its price places it in a different category than all of the other cameras listed here. Sony still commands top dollar for this little kit, you can get an APS-C DSLR for this price.

All in all, the X20 is a beautiful camera to hold, and reasonably good picture quality. The only thing really holding a camera like this back are the expectations foisted on it... most obviously by anybody hoping for a massive leap in performance over the X10. Here's where perspective helps: yes the X20 is like a mini X100s, but even more so, it is like an upgraded X10. Keep that in mind and you won't go astray.



With thanks to Broadway Camera

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