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Why buy a compact digital camera these days when every smartphone and tablet has a built-in camera? Amateurs and even some professionals are making impressive pictures with phonecams. Phones are almost always handy, and downloadable apps make them infinitely customizable. Just as digital cameras have all but killed film, now phonecams threaten to kill digital cameras—or at least the compact digicams, leaving DSLRs alive for those occasions when nothing but the best will do.
The Fujifilm X20
Nevertheless, there’s still a place for a good compact camera. Although most snapshooters may be satisfied with a phonecam’s sheer simplicity, enthusiasts still prefer the manual controls, bigger image sensors, lower noise, better lenses, faster response, and higher-quality results that are possible with a camera designed to be a camera, not a phone. Some photographers also prefer the option of composing with an eye-level viewfinder in addition to an LCD screen. Likewise, some folks prefer to build their own computers instead of buying a prefab PC, and others prefer the Linux command line to Windows 8. It’s an enthusiast thing. You either get it or you don’t.
Lately we’ve seen a surge of compact cameras designed for enthusiasts. As phonecams devour the low-end digicam market, the survivors are the high-hanging fruit. The newest such camera is the Fujifilm X20, which replaces the lookalike X10 introduced two years ago. Externally, the two models are almost identical, but the X20 has numerous improvements and one very useful feature never before seen in a compact digicam: a big, bright optical viewfinder that displays critical shooting information. Other standout features:
• A 12-megapixel image sensor that’s 50% larger than the sensors in other small-chip digicams, producing better image quality with less noise.
• A non-Bayer color-filter array that reduces moiré effects without using an antialiasing filter in the optical path, thus producing sharper photos.
• Fast phase-detect autofocus built into the image sensor, plus the usual contrast-detect autofocus.
• A 28-112mm (35mm-film equivalent) zoom lens with fast maximum apertures of f/2.0 to f/2.8, allowing higher shutter speeds, better low-light photography, and lower ISOs that minimize noise.
• Manual zoom control for faster, more precise composition.
• External controls for shooting modes, focus modes, custom-setting modes, a quiet mode, exposure lock, exposure compensation, and quick access to vital functions without diving deep into the menus.
• An extended dynamic-range mode that deliberately underexposes a scene to preserve highlight detail, then boosts the sensor sensitivity to recover the shadow detail.
• Optional RAW image capture, plus in-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion with customizable processing.
• Magnesium-alloy body with metal lens barrel and metal control knobs.
Of course, the X20 also has a zillion other features that define it as a high-end compact: ISOs from 100 to 12,800, mechanical and electronic shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/4000 second, JPEG frame rates up to 12fps with an 11-frame buffer, face-detect autofocus, macro focusing (down to 0.3 inches), lens-shift image stabilization, automatic scene-selection modes, two custom-setting modes, multiple metering modes, multiple bracketing modes, multiple autofocus modes, manual focusing with focus peaking, film-simulation curves, H.264 High-Definition video with stereo sound (up to 1080p, 60fps), 360-degree sweep panoramas with in-camera stitching, and a host of other features that fill the 141-page instruction manual. (And yes, the box includes a paper manual, plus a CD-ROM.)
All that fancy stuff is nice to have, but let’s get real. If you really want to shoot HD video, get a video camera. If you love panoramas, get a DSLR, a panoramic tripod head, and third-party stitching software. Camera manufacturers pack their digicams with fancy features because it’s expected. The true test of an enthusiast digicam is how well it functions on the road as a lightweight travel camera or on the street as a candid camera. And for that, only a few things really matter—usability, speed, control, and image quality. By these measures, the X20 shines.
The back of the Fujifilm X20
A Real Viewfinder, At Last
The X20’s most innovative feature is an eye-level optical viewfinder (OVF) that zooms with the lens and displays critical shooting information. It shows the focus point, focus confirmation, shutter speed, lens aperture (f/stop), ISO, over- or underexposure warnings, and slow-shutter alert. This kind of data is standard in DSLRs and cameras with electronic viewfinders (EVFs), but it’s never been offered in a digicam’s OVF.
Indeed, the vast majority of compact digicams have shed their OVFs altogether, leaving only the rear LCD for composition and data displays. Although composing photos at arm’s length has become ubiquitous, many photographers still like the option of eye-level viewing. It’s faster, more stable, and more usable in bright light. But only a few digicams retain OVFs, and those that do have perfunctory tunnel finders reminiscent of a 1925 Leica.
The Fujifilm X20’s optical viewfinder is handy for candid grab shots under any lighting conditions. (ISO 800, 1/40 second at f/2.)
In addition to displaying data, the X20’s OVF is noticeably bigger and brighter. A diopter adjustment corrects the finder for your vision, and a new sensor can automatically turn off the LCD screen when you raise the camera to your eye. Like the previous model’s OVF, however, the X20’s finder still shows only 85% of the image field. (Hint: You can make the OVF nearly accurate in the vertical dimension by changing the camera’s standard 4:3 aspect ratio to 3:2, the same as DSLRs and 35mm cameras. The X20 also has a 1:1 mode for taking square pictures, if you want to emulate a Rolleiflex.)
The improved OVF is a revelation. It sets the X20 apart from all other enthusiast digicams, such as Canon’s PowerShot G-series. Fujifilm worked this miracle by interposing a thin, transparent LCD in the finder. The data readouts even change color automatically in different lighting conditions to improve visibility or convey information. It’s still not as good as a DSLR finder, but it’s a leap beyond anything seen before in a compact digicam.
Click the next page to read about its controls and how fast the X20 can take images.