Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fujifilm X30 Review

Fujifilm's X30 is the followup to what has been on of the move beloved quirky camera lines of recent years. The first iteration was plagued by the notorious highlight orbbing issue, and in all honesty, the X20 was not bug-free when it first hit store shelves. Nonetheless, the virtues of an enthusiast-oriented compact camera with decent manual controls, a bright lens and a large(r) sensor speak for themselves. The pertinent specs of the X30 are:

  • 12MP 2/3"-type X-Trans CMOS II sensor
  • 28-112mm equiv. F2.0-2.8 lens 
  • New lens-mounted double control rings
  • Hybrid (contrast + phase detection) autofocus system
  • ISO 100-3200, expandable to 12800 (JPEG only)
  • 2.36M dot OLED electronic viewfinder with 0.65x (equiv.) magnification
  • 3.0" 920k dot 3:2 articulated rear LCD display
  • 12 fps continuous shooting
  • New 'Classic Chrome' film simulation mode
  • Built-in Wi-Fi, including remote control from a smartphone or tablet
  • 1080/60p, 36Mbps video, with built-in stereo microphone and external  input
  • Manual focus  during video
  • Improved battery life (470 shots CIPA) 
  • Initial price just under $600 USD

The fair thing to say is that the X30 has many usability improvements over the X20... but of course, the bulk of the attention will be focused on what it does have (EVF) and what is missing (1/1" sized sensor)...

Updated October 2014

Updated Ergonomics

Three things are apparent with the X30, the lack of the optical viewfinder window in the front of the camera, a flip-out LCD on the back and the addition of a control ring on the barrel of the lens. The tactile feel of the X30 is different from that of the X20; the thumb rest has a pronounce lateral hook and the shape of the front grip is redone. The sum total is that the camera feels more secure in your hands than the X20 while at the same time making your fingers feel slightly more cramped. The control ring on the lens barrel is a nice addition, but it is slender and mounted tight to the camera body; compared to similar designs on the Sony RX100 cameras and the Canon S120, it is not that comfortable to use.

Build quality remains excellent. Fit and finish is superb and the tolerances of the dials and switches are tight, perhaps the tightest of any compact camera on the market... including those that come with a red dot. It's normal to expect a bit of "wiggle" with camera buttons, but the X30's buttons are solid; when you press down, there is no lateral play to them at all.  The silver-topped version is fetching and has the same satin surface finish as found on the X100s.

The New Viewfinder

Left: X-E2    Right: X30

One of the hallmarks of the X10 and X20 cameras was the inclusion of a sizable (for this class) optical viewfinder. The X-E2 was even more unique in that it had an electronic overlay that projected a minimal amount of shooting information, as well as a rudimentary grip indicator that gave you a rough indication of where you were focusing. Even though the X20's viewfinder only allowed for 80% coverage and did not compensate for parallax error , it was one of the things that made it stand out from the other offerings on the market.

The new fully electronic EVF shares the same (or has similar) specs to the one that is used in the X-E2. From a manufacturing standpoint, this makes sense, as it allows Fujifilm to part-share with another camera line and to realize some economies of scale. So instead of needing resources to manufacture two viewfinders for two different cameras, the manufacturing can be consolidated into one production line shared across multiple models.

In usability terms, even though optical viewfinders provide a more immediate experience than electronic ones, EVF's are more practical. There is no way to manufacture an optical viewfinder that depicts the plane of focus in a camera of this price; with an EVF you can do so with the added benefit of focus aids like magnification and focus peaking. It's a fair trade; in the end, even though some of the charm of using the X20 will be gone, the consumer will be getting more with the X30 in this regards. For many people, the fact that a serious-enthusiast compact has a viewfinder of any type is a welcome relief.

World's Fastest...

Though the internet won't let Fujifilm off the hook, nowhere in the official press release does Fujifilm tout the X30 has having the fastest AF... with "caveats." One day that may be true, but the company has most definitely used up its goodwill with the photographic community when it comes to claims about AF speeds.

What the literature does say is that the X30 "he largest and fastest viewfinder in its class." That is not a hard goal to achieve as virtually no sub-$600 USD compact has an electronic EVF save for the Panasonic LF-1 or Nikon P7800, both of which are deep in their model life-cycles. The X30 EVF is even larger than the one on the RX100M3; actually, that is no big feat as the Sony is quite space limited, so its EVF is naturally small, albeit, reasonable crisp.

That aside, the X30 EVF is like the one used in the X-E2; that is a good thing, and is more than what we are used to in the advanced compact class. Moving up the family tree, the EVF on the X30 isn't as nice to use as that on the X-T1, but it does produce a generally lag-free image. There's minimal  jutter or tearing when you pan rapidly across a scene. However, like all EVF's it is difficult to accurately judge focus without using one of the electronic focusing aids.

What, No 1" Sensor?

Early rumours in the summer of 2014 pointed to the X30 joining the Sony RX100 cameras in the 1" sensor class. That was not an unreasonable proposition, but it easily became the most credible-sounding rumor that obviously wasn't true, as the purported announcement day came and went without so much as a word. In one sense, the X30 would be a wonderful camera to bring up to the 1" sensor mark, but in another, it's a risky proposition. As much as the RX100 series has been successful, that success is defined in the high-end premium category for compact cameras. There is only a limited pool of money that will flow into that segment of the market, and if too many companies try to follow Sony, the end result would be unprofitable for all involved. Plain and simple, a $600 cameras is not a $800 camera. Getting more camera for a more expensive price is not progress; getting more camera for the same price is.

Another factor to consider is that Fujifilm doesn't have room in their lineup for a $800 compact camera; they don't have the luxury that Sony does to spray models all over the spectrum, and must move carefully. A high-end compact camera is a nice idea, but it detracts from the focus of the mainline APS-C X-system. As pointed out with the RX100M3, a 1" sensor with a f/2.0-2.8 lens gives a similar "effective aperture" as an APS-C camera with a cheap f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Sony almost gets away with giving the consumer that dilemma, but few other companies are willing to put competing models next to each other on the store shelf.

However, because of the speculation leading up to the launch of the X30, the lack of a 1" sensor will be seen as a letdown. For the most part, the lens/sensor combination remains the same, which is a good thing, but the X30 faces stiff competition, as it will be competing against the RX100M2, which has come down in price since the launch of the RX100M3. The virtue of the X-Trans 12Mp sensor is that it can work without an anti-aliasing filter, so what you have are big photosites on the sensor that produce sharp looking pixels with a lot of acuity bite. This made the X20 competitive against other cameras of it's like, but if you put the 2/3" Fujifilm output next to the 1" 20MP Sony output, there's no comparison. The Fujifilm looks sharp at first glance, but upon closer inspection you'll find that it muddies very fine detail. The Sony output looks sharper just because of the sheer brute force of having more pixels.

The X30 makes up for this by having a brighter lens. "Wait, what?" did you ask? Even though the RX100M3 lens is rated at f/1.8-f/2.8, in actual fact it very quickly becomes a f/2.8 lens even if you zoom in with just a nudge of the zoom control. The X20 and X30 lenses are more progressive, and are brighter throughout their focal ranges than the RX100M3.

Improved Focus on Video

As with every new camera update, the X30 has some improvements for videography, including manual focusing during video and new microphones. The upshot of this remains to be seen, as video output is a weak point for the X-Trans sensors. The pseudo-random nature of the X-Trans colour filter array helps with producing sharp-looking still images, but it also hinders video output because the non-green photosites are farther apart than they are on a conventional Bayer sensor. Simply put, as make-do video devices go, the RX100M3 is superb, the RX100M2 is good and the X30 will be primarily for occasional  use.

Concluding Thoughts

Left: X30          Right: RX100M3

The X10 and X20 were cameras that "made you feel like a photographer" when you held them. The same is true of the X30. Though the RX100M3 gets all of the enthusiast attention it gives the impression of a being a delicate camera because of all of the movable parts. The X20 was quite solid in your hands, and once again the same is true for the X30.... unfortunately, some of that is also due to the fact that the X30 is a substantially-sized camera.

Overall, even if not a lot has happened on the core imaging engine side of the equation, the overall functionality of the X30 is improved over the X20. (This seems to have been a theme for Fujifilm in late 2014, as the same easily applies to the X100t vs the X100s.) For those that aren't seriously into cameras, this will be all the camera that they need, but as always, the X30 and others like it also make good secondary pocket cameras for those who are serious about photography.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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