Review: The Fuji FinePix X20

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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.

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Quick first thoughts – Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20

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I recently picked up review units of the Nikon Coolpix A and Fuji Finepix X20 at B&H – the store itself is an incredible experience for any photographer, by the way – after a few days of intense shooting during my Making Outstanding Images workshops, I’ve had a chance to put together a few quick thoughts on the two cameras. I will be doing more complete reviews once I get a chance to shoot further with them and pore through the hundreds of images. Until then, this should tide over the curious.

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Review: The Fuji FinePix XF1

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One of the more interesting compacts in recent memory is the Fuji Finepix XF1. Announced at Photokina 2012, it’s a pocketable metal-bodied camera with a moderately sized sensor – not the 1″ of the Sony RX100, but not the usual 1/1.7″ type either. It shares a sensor with the Fuji X10 – the 12MP 2.3″ EXR-CMOS, presumably it’s the updated version without the white orb issue; I certainly didn’t see any during my testing. The camera is definitely retro-styled, with a faux-leather skin covering the middle portion of the body, with warm silver metal covers top and bottom – presumably anodized aluminum. It’s certainly a pleasingly tactile object to handle. For the style conscious, the camera is available with black, tan or red pleather; I opted for red since the camera was ostensibly a present for my wife.

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The camera’s biggest party trick is its lens: a 25-100/1.8-4.9 equivalent that both sports a mechanical zoom ring – slowly becoming a rarity even for M4/3 cameras – and a collapsing mechanism that lets it drop back into the camera body to keep things pocketable. Presumably it’s an evolution of the design used on the X10, though obviously not as fast due to size constraints. Again, like the X10, it also powers on the camera. One twist into standby mode puts the camera either into ‘ready’ position (if enabled, eats battery); another twist to the wide end of the zoom turns the camera on. I would love to have a separate power switch, too – this would make it a fantastically responsive camera as you could have the desired focal length preset before powering on; something I wish the otherwise very fast Sony RX100 could do.

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Lens in a range of positions from fully retracted to fully extended.

Needless to say, zooming is quick and easy. The mechanism itself is reasonably smooth, but it could use a bit more damping to give a higher quality feel; you have the impression of a lot of light pieces of plastic or thin metal moving around inside the lens barrel as you turn it. In fact, the camera is quite light – generally a desirable quality – personally, I’d prefer a bit more heft. Finally, stiffer detents between the 25mm position, STANDBY and OFF would help avoid accidental power ups/ shut downs. The only other notable mechanical gubbin is the release lever for the dinky pop-up flash hidden in the top plate.

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It would seem that the feature race hasn’t ended for the enthusiast-level compacts; the XF1 is packed with all sorts of modes and customisability; the only three that are of any real note are the dynamic range optimiser, built in level and customizable buttons. The former does some strange things with the sensor and ISO range to extend highlight and shadow dynamic range in JPEG files only; it seems to work. I’ll say more on this in the image quality section. The built in level is an unobtrusive horizon line through the middle of the frame that works for roll only, but shows a single green line when the camera is level. It’s actually quite handy on a camera of this size, because it isn’t always easy to hold it stable with one hand – not that you’re going to be shooting the XF1 singlehanded with the mechanical zoom.

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Traffic. Fuji XF1

Finally, there are effectively no less than seven programmable buttons: pressing E-Fn brings up a virtual overlay where the user’s choice of shortcuts are assigned to the four directions of the D-pad, playback and record buttons on the back; there’s also another function button on the top plate behind the shutter. Annoyingly – perhaps out of muscle memory – it’s in exactly the same place as the power button on just about every other compact, and I find myself repeatedly hitting it and wondering why the camera won’t turn on or off, but instead bring up a menu. The only function which I’d want to assign to this direct-access key (you don’t have to press E-Fn first) would be AF area – and guess what, this also happens to be the only one of the customizable functions that’s missing from the list of possibles for this button. Grr.

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Yard abstract. Fuji XF1

It’s worth noting that there is no way to separate AE lock and AF lock from the shutter button – so the half-press-and-dance routine may result in some undesirable metering. The XF1 also has a lens-shift based image stabilization system that moves a group of four elements. The best word to describe it is ‘aggressive'; it reminds me of the early days of IS where the image would sway a bit as the stabilizer locked down. I’m estimating it’s probably good for 2-2.5 stops. It certainly isn’t as effective as the Panasonic OIS system, which I think is probably still the class leader for compacts.

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Camouflage. Fuji XF1

Overall, there are a lot of things I like about the UI, and a number I don’t. Playback is done well, for a change on a compact – you can power on the camera straight into playback mode by holding down the play key; there’s no need to extend the lens. Then, press in the top command dial in to go to maximum magnification, and then you can compare images at the same zoom level and position by moving the rear dial. But this is where another issue raises its head: the camera has two command dials, which is the same number as any camera of this size and most pro DSLRs. Yet by default they seem to be dormant or redundant most of the time – only in M do the two dials do anything independently. It would be sensible to have one serve as direct acesss to exposure compensation and the other as program shift/ aperture/ shutter speed in the other modes, but no. You have to press up on the D-pad to enter exposure compensation, then use either dial to change it. And then press up again to go back to changing the main exposure setting. Still, at least it’s a shooting priority camera. It just seems that there are a lot of wasted opportunities here that would have let Fuji knock one out of the park with this little camera’s handling. There’s still hope for a firmware update, I suppose – Ricoh’s GRD series is very much the leader when it comes to compact camera handling; and it’s done with no more buttons than the XF1 has.

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Trash alley. Fuji XF1

Other little things – the LCD isn’t the highest resolution out there, with about 460,000 pixels; you can just about make out the pixel mask if you look closely, but most of the time it’s a non-issue. The screen gets pretty bright for daylight use, but of course that comes at the expense of battery drain. I’d like to see something a bit less contrasty, though; it doesn’t give that good an indication of overexposure – but there’s a blinking highlights warning in playback mode to get around this. Fortunately, the XF1 seems to be fairly miserly with power consumption, yielding about 300 frames on a charge of it’s quite physically small battery. The lens-based on-off switch makes it quite easy to power the camera off between frames, which of course helps with battery life. The camera also shoots full HD video at 1080p30, which is nice but not something I use – so I’ll leave it to others to test.

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Urban geometry around dawn. Fuji XF1

I was not impressed with its predecessor’s focusing speed – despite having ostensibly the same sensor and a faster lens, the X10 is not a fast-focusing camera. This isn’t the main problem, though – it freezes between half-press and achieving focus, which means that a) if you move slightly, and you will because it’s a compact, then you won’t see it until you get a sudden jump when the camera focuses; b) the delay is annoying. In fact, this was the main reason why I didn’t buy one. I’m pleased to report the XF1 fixes this. Whilst there’s still a very tiny perceptible freeze, it’s almost negligible. I certainly don’t notice it in practical use.

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Untitled. Fuji XF1

Overall; the XF1 is a fast camera and doesn’t keep you waiting. It shuttles around RAW or JPEG files with equal indifference, except perhaps write time is noticeably longer. That said, I wouldn’t recommend using this camera to shoot RAW even though it can; and this has a lot to do with the quality of the in-camera processing, and the absolutely crappy results obtained via ACR. This is a bit of a shame, as the lens quality is very impressive – better than the Zeiss-branded lens on the Sony RX100. It doesn’t suffer from the same flare or low contrast at wide angle and f1.8; the corners are also much sharper. More impressively, this level of optical quality is maintained through the telephoto end of the range, too. (It could also be because the lens has to cover a much smaller image circle than the RX100’s.) There is some CA in the corners, but flare is impressively low, microcontrast high, and color rendition pleasing.

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Spot the dent. Fuji XF1

Despite Fuji’s claims about the camera’s bokeh-generating ability (and 7-bladed diaphragm) – the reality is that you’re only going to get a tiny bit of background separation if your subject is close, you’re shooting at 25mm and f1.8 equivalent, and the background is very far away. The RX100 has more potential for subject isolation through shallow(er) depth of field, and I still treat that as a program mode-hyperfocal camera. As with every small-sensored camera, don’t bother with aperture priority: you have no control over depth of field anyway. I only use program and manual – either when the built in flash triggers speedlights, or in the case of the XF1, you need exposure times longer than a second – and remember to disengage auto ISO first, otherwise you can’t go any slower.

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Nature outgrows us all. Fuji XF1

I find the image quality of this camera paradoxical. On one hand, the JPEG output is amongst the best I’ve ever seen from a compact – especially when using the trick DR400 mode, which supposedly extends the camera’s tonal range by two stops – on the other hand, the RAW files are amongst the worst I’ve ever seen from any camera, and far below even its own JPEGs. The RAW files are far noisier, have poorer dynamic range, less detail and acuity, and just seem very dull by comparison; it’s akin to the difference between RAW and JPEG on other cameras, except in reverse. The only conclusionS I can come to are that Fuji has some extremely sophisticated processing algorithms inside this camera, the ACR converter algorithm just doesn’t work for this sensor, or both. It is widely known that ACR doesn’t really do a good job with Fuji files, but this difference almost defies belief. Needless to say, I’m not going to be using RAW mode on the XF1 it will be set to JPEG DR400 mode for my wife to use. For the purposes of this article, I shot JPEGs and did some minor tweaking to them with Photoshop.

Fuji XF1 RAW vs JPEG
What on earth is going on here? That’s not a mistake: the DNG (converted via ACR 7.2 from the original Fuji Raw file) is on the right.   Full size file here.

All that said, the image quality of the JPEGs is superb. Noise is low, detail is high (though oddly blocky in places, somewhat reminiscent of the older SuperCCD designs) and the tonal rolloff in the highlights is outstandingly well handled. Note that you really do have to use the DR400 mode to achieve this; otherwise the highlights blow just as fast as with any other compact. The files just look natural. The files actually remind me strongly of the 6MP SuperCCD FinePix F10, F11 and F30/31fd cameras; perhaps this is their spiritual successor. Of course, if you want there are also the usual super-saturated, B&W and toned modes; Fuji labels them with the names of its film – Provia, Velvia, Astia – though I doubt any of the XF1’s buyers even know what those things are, let alone what they should look like.

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JPEG noise crops. Full size here.

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RAW (via ACR) noise crops. They just simply look worse than the JPEGs. Full size here.

On the noise front, I would have no qualms in using this camera up to ISO 800 in JPEG mode; 1600 and 3200 are noticeably softer, but surprisingly close in terms of both noise and detail retention. Thus, 3200 is probably a viable option in emergencies. Fuji does a pretty good job balancing noise reduction and detail here. Dynamic range noticeably decreases when you increase ISO, note that in order to expand dynamic range, the camera increases the ISO. This is presumably to allow additional sensitivity in the shadows. Yet the camera is smart enough to only increase the ISO past the sensor’s base of 100 if it detects that the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the sensor’s native capabilities – neat. This is why you might see EXIF data for a photo in good light with ISO 400 – it’s a wide dynamic range scene – or ISO 100, if the contrast levels are manageable. Note that you do see a bit of noise in the shadows at DR400 mode, but at least they’re not blocked up to black.

Fuji XF1 DRO JPEG
DR modes do make a noticeable difference. Note the garlic at the bottom; the leftmost image is DR100 (i.e. standard) mode; the right, DR400. Full size crop here.

Confusingly, Fuji makes the DR AUTO, DR100, DR200 and DR400 modes available both in the full-resolution 12MP mode, as well as on a separate EXR position on the mode dial. Here you can choose for dynamic range, resolution or low light priority; I don’t see the point unless you’re not going to do any processing afterwards at all. I suppose it must be a kind of smart auto mode, though there’s also the camera position, ADV(anced) and scene modes on the dial – how on earth does this many options make things less confusing to the camera’s intended audience, or more useful to the advanced user who just wants a good compact? Personally, I’m leaving it in P mode and DR400. If I want lower noise by pixel binning, I can do that myself afterwards in Photoshop – the results between the 6MP SNR (EXR Low Noise) mode and a downsized 12MP file in P mode look pretty much the same to my eyes. What Fuji should have done is made an auto mode that maintains best perceptual image quality: in good light, shoot at 12MP, say up to ISO 800; in high contrast situations, automatically use DR400; finally, when the required ISO goes to say 1600 or above, then start binning pixels down to 6MP.

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Bigger onions. Fuji XF1

So where does the XF1 stand against the other competition in this segment? In the same price and size bracket, we have the Panasonic LX7/ Leica D-Lux6; the Canon S110, and the Sony RX100 – though the latter is a bit more expensive. All are moderately pocketable. I’ve excluded the Nikon P7700, Canon G15 and Olympus XZ2 because I don’t think these are pocket cameras anymore. I’ve not used the Canon extensively, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that; it and the LX7 both use a smaller sensor than the XF1, and it shows. The Canon is perhaps at the greatest disadvantage because it has the slowest lens and the smallest sensor; the XF1’s image quality – certainly the JPEGs – are noticeably better. The LX7 has a lens that’s fast at both ends and optically excellent, which claws back some of the Fuji’s sensor advantage; it also has more isolation potential as the long end of the lens isn’t f4.9. I’ve always liked the LX series as macro cameras too; they focus very close throughout the entire zoom range, not just wideangle. This leaves us with the RX100: it on the other hand isn’t a very good macro camera at all because the lens performs poorly at close distances until f4 or so; and doesn’t focus close throughout the rest of the range. However, it does have the best sensor of the lot; clearly a notch above the Fuji, and challenging Micro Four Thirds. I wouldn’t use the Fuji at ISO 1600 and very low light; I’ve done higher ISOs with the Sony and still gotten pretty impressive results.

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Not a lot in it, size-wise.

In my mind, the final scoring stacks up this way:

Fuji XF1 if you are a JPEG shooter and don’t plan to do much, or any, postprocessing.
Panasonic LX7/ Leica D-Lux6 if you shoot macro, or want to try and get some depth of field control.
Sony RX100 if you want the best image quality in any compact camera available, period.
Canon S110…I actually can’t think of any good reason to buy this – if you need GPS, perhaps.

The overall impression one gets of the XF1 is a positive one. It has some endearing quirks – the mechanical zoom, for the most part – some less endearing ones (control idiocy and mode confusion) – but what really impresses are the quality of the JPEGs. And if you need something pocketable that delivers great results without too much effort – albeit without as high ultimate image quality potential as something that has a malleable raw file – then this is probably the camera for you. In fact, I think it’s the perfect camera for my wife – she likes to have something responsive, compact and (sigh) stylish, can process RAW files but never bothers, yet is frustrated at the limitations of the JPEG output of most compacts. Just think of it as a tax to appease the other half before you tell them you’re buying a Hasselblad. MT

The Fuji Finepix XF1 is available here in several colors from B&H and Amazon.

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