I picked up my review sample from B&H on my first day in New York; I spent several days solidly shooting it alongside the Nikon Coolpix A, and the Olympus OM-D I normally travel with. Many of you are going to (and have already) ask why I didn’t review the X100s instead, all the more so given that the wide converter would turn the camera into a 28/2 equivalent. Short answer: there wasn’t one available, and it’s something I still hope to be able to try out at some point.
I’m always on the lookout for what I like to think of as the perfect ‘off duty camera; the kind of thing that is light, unobtrusive, delivers great results and moreover makes photography fun when the fancy takes you, but you don’t notice you’re carrying when you’ve got other priorities. Cameras like the X20, RX100, GRD series and Coolpix A – amongst others – fall into this category. I have a mental boundary, though; it starts when these things won’t fit into a (largeish) pocket and start requiring neck straps. That’s when you notice you’re carrying a camera.
The X20 sits on the borderline; it’s almost small enough to be pocketable, but is best deployed around your neck, or tucked under one arm. It’s an update of last year’s X10, with a couple of notable differences: firstly, there are now phase detection photosites for autofocus on the sensor, which is now an X-Trans design similar to the X100s, X-Pro and X-E1 cameras that utilizes an unusual color filter array layout designed to reduce moiré, but not at the expense of detail].
Resolution remains at 12 megapixels, laid out on a 2/3” size array. There has been much ado about software, image quality and raw file handling, with Adobe releasing an update to Camera Raw that’s promised to drastically improve image quality whilst avoiding introducing any odd ‘gritty’-looking artefacts in the conversion process. We’ll return to this later.
The overwhelming impression of the camera is one that’s superbly well built, and has the tactile element of things just right; I had the silver version, and everything that looks like metal, is. It’s cold to the touch and nicely textured, unlike the painted surfaces of my X100 (they were metal, but didn’t feel like it). The controls have the right weight and damping; I’d much prefer to have a shutter speed dial to a mode dial, but I understand the average buyer of this camera probably would like easy access to automatic and scene modes. Still, it’s pleasingly notchy – same with the exposure compensation dial – and a pleasure to use. Operation speed is pleasingly responsive – snappy – in all aspects, and the quick menu makes changing settings a breeze. It could use a bit more playback zoom, though; the current maximum doesn’t quite magnify enough to determine if things are critically sharp or not.
My brother, who lives in the UK, owns an X10, and I had the opportunity to play with it at length during one of the last times we met up. This was pre-X20; I found it felt great in the hand, the optical finder was handy to be stealthy or stable (you can brace a camera with an optical finder up to your face, which is infinitely better than holding it at arms’ length). But there were a few things that bothered me: the beautiful metal lens cap is something that has to be removed every time before shooting; that and the power switch on the lens barrel means you’re not going to be doing one-handed fast-draws to grab a wide angle frame. (You’d be surprised how often I do this when an opportunity strikes; I missed a large number of images I’d easily have nailed with an RX100, the Coolpix A, or even a Canon IXUS.) It was a bit slow to focus, too. Add the initial ‘white orb’ issue, and I wasn’t convinced of the value of the price of entry.
The X20 unquestionably fixes the focus issue; it’s DSLR-fast, and locks on with uncanny accuracy in situations where other contrast-detect AF cameras would have issues such as very, very bright (overexposed) highlights. And it got confused between foreground subject and background far less, too. Fuji have even added an LCD overlay in the optical finder (which still remains one of the best in a compact) that shows the focus point in use, as well as exposure information. I found myself in two minds about it after several days: on one hand, it was great to be able to shoot it DSLR-style, and have that optical finder; on the other hand, the shooting information was nearly invisible most of the time – the dark green backlight used is very, very dim compared to most scenes. On top of that, the frame coverage was really inaccurate – much like all compact tunnel finders – necessitating either guesswork or heavy cropping. And with 12MP to begin with, you’re quickly into the realm of not having enough file left to work with for some applications.
The good news is that the X20’s lens – same as the X10’s 28-112/2-2.8 equivalent, with mechanical zoom ring and integrated power switch – remains, and delivers strong performance at all apertures. Central sharpness is good across the range, though the corners are always slightly soft and require stopping down a little to bring them up to par to match the center. The camera also has very effective image stabilization, which combined with the fast maximum aperture even to the telephoto end of the range, extends its shooting envelope considerably.
This is fortunate, as the sensor performs best at ISO 100, with clear compromises as you go higher up the sensitivity range. Images are crisp to the pixel level, and you don’t see the same mush in fine detail areas as you would with a regular sensor – clearly Fuji are on to something with the new photosite layout. (Note: I used ACR 7.4 to convert the camera’s raw files, which has the new demosaicing algorithm.) Performance at base ISO is a clear step up on the other 10/12MP 1/1.7” sensor cameras, with crisper details and slightly more dynamic range; having recently shot the Leica D-Lux 6/ Panasonic LX7, I can say that there’s a clear step up between the two.
At higher ISOs, the difference is less pronounced; as low as ISO 200, shadow noise starts creeping in, extending into the midtones by ISO 400, and being objectionable by ISO 800. (We’re talking about RAW files via ACR 7.4 here still.) The JPEGs are a little better, but exhibit some odd watercolor texturing even with noise reduction set to the lowest possible level. What’s even more odd is that by default, the camera tends to make some strange exposure choices. If any of the extended dynamic range modes – DR200 or DR400 – are chosen, then the camera tends to default to higher ISOs under bright light, (presumably to save the shadows) which is precisely the opposite of what it should do; yes, there is definitely a visible improvement in highlight dynamic range with smoother rolloff before clipping, but oh boy, those shadows are seriously noisy. To make things worse, because you’re running at ISO 400 in bright daylight, the lens is stopped down well past the diffraction point – f11 wasn’t uncommon. This happened even in DR100 mode. Independently, what I don’t understand is why the camera’s program mode tends to default to smaller apertures instead of raising shutter speeds; I never saw anything above 1/750s, even though the camera is capable of several stops more.
It seems to me that to get the most out of this camera’s image quality, you have to do a few things: firstly, shoot it in DR100 mode; secondly, shoot RAW; thirdly, use aperture priority. It doesn’t normally make any difference to depth of field when your sensor is this small and the real lens focal lengths you’re dealing with are fairly short, but in this case, we have to manually force the lens to use its optimum aperture* instead of the smallest one. That’s quite a lot of fiddling if you’re in a hurry, and though the image quality is a cut above the other premium small sensor compacts, it doesn’t justify the extra effort.
*This is in direct contrast to the LX7/D-Lux 6, which even has a choice for its program mode – whether to shoot at optimal apertures or not (though why you’d choose anything else is also beyond me).
Ultimately, I was left with very mixed feelings on this camera. I really wanted to like it; it simply felt right in the hand in a way that few other modern designs have managed to; color rendition and native tonal response render both very natural color images and subtly toned black and white ones after conversion. Above all, it was very, very enjoyable to use. The trouble is, I can’t help but feel the size to image quality tradeoff isn’t a good one; if I’m going to carry something that large and not particularly pocketable, to be honest, I’d rather have the OM-D – which moves me up a couple of sensor classes entirely. Furthermore, despite being physically large for its sensor size, the battery is rather small – I averaged about 250-300 frames before running dry. You’ll definitely need a spare to get through a day; it was often dead by noon, though I probably shoot a lot more than the average person (I managed to exhaust the X20 regularly despite also shooting the OM-D and Coolpix A in roughly equal amounts).
This isn’t to say that the X20 is a bad camera; far from it. I think if you’re not particularly picky about image quality at 100%, then it’ll really put the fun back into photography for many; both because it’s responsive and because it’s such a tactile pleasure to handle (especially the chrome version). Moreso if you don’t care to shoot RAW and postprocess afterwards; like all of the Fujis, the out of camera JPEGs are very pleasing indeed, with excellent color and tonality – especially if you do use the enhanced dynamic range modes. I might see if the wife fancies an upgrade to her XF1…MT
The Fuji Finepix X20 is available here from B&H.
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