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.
Fast Enough for Street Photography
Most digicams suffer from frustrating shutter lag that makes action photography almost impossible. The X20 is nearly as fast as a DSLR. An external control selects among AF-S (single), AF-C (continuous), and MF (manual) focus modes. You can let the camera select the focus point or use the default center point. If you want, you can move the focus point anywhere in the frame and adjust its size.
In AF-S mode, the X20 usually locks focus very quickly, even indoors. The instruction manual recommends AF-S for stationary subjects and AF-C for moving subjects, but AF-S is so fast that it’s suitable for almost any subject. As one of our test photos shows, the X20 locked focus on the legs of a tattooed man who was walking briskly on a city sidewalk. Even though both the photographer and subject were in motion, the X20 captured a sharp image of the Blues Brothers tattoos on the man’s calves. The subject was not a model and was unaware he was being photographed. And this photo wasn’t cherry-picked from a multiframe burst—it was the only frame.
Even in AF-S mode, the Fujifilm X20 was fast enough to lock focus on this man’s rapidly moving legs. A high shutter speed helped freeze a sharp image of the tattoos on his calves. (ISO 100, 1/550 second at f/5.6.)
So yes, the X20 is a good choice for urban street photography. Any camera fast enough for street photography is fast enough for almost anything else. For rapid sports action, DSLRs are still faster, and they accept longer telephoto lenses. But a honking-big DSLR with zoom lens can be intimidating on the street or attract too much attention when traveling abroad in nontourist areas. The small X20 is much stealthier and less obtrusive.
Almost Too Many Controls
Diving into menus to access vital functions is a pain in the butt, so cameras designed for advanced amateurs and pros have numerous “hard controls”—external buttons, knobs, rings, and switches. The X20 has plenty of those. Like almost all digital cameras, however, it omits the straightforward shutter-speed dials and f/stop rings of classic cameras. (Fujifilm’s higher-end X100, X100S, XPro-1, and XE-1 are rare exceptions.)
The X20’s top mode dial includes the M(anual), S(hutter-priority), A(perture-priority), and P(rogram) exposure modes that enthusiasts demand. Of course, the camera also has full-auto and automatic scene-selection modes, so you can hand it to anyone for a casual snapshot.
Unlike most digicams, the X20 also has a top-mounted exposure-compensation dial that adds or subtracts up to two stops of exposure in 1/3-stop increments in the auto and semiauto modes. During testing, the X20 fiercely resisted the blown highlights of overexposure, consistently delivering correct exposures or slight underexposures. If your experience varies, you can use the compensation dial to bias the exposures either way.
On the camera’s back, a control wheel, control ring, four-way cursor switch, electronic-flash switch, and eight buttons provide additional inputs. The most vital of these controls is a little wheel recessed horizontally above the thumb rest. In shutter-priority mode, it controls the shutter speed; in aperture-priority mode, it controls the f/stop. In manual mode, it controls both, because it’s also a click wheel—press it once to switch between the two settings. You can also use the control ring surrounding the four-way switch to change these values, but the wheel is handier when using the OVF.
When shooting, the four-way switch lets you move the focus point, change the flash mode, enter the macro-focus mode, or activate the self-timer. A center button displays the menus on the LCD. A nearby button lets you lock the exposure, the focus point, or both. Another button alters the information displayed on the LCD; pressing it for a few seconds longer forces the camera into “quiet mode,” suppressing the flash, focus-assist light, and all sounds. Next to it, another button opens a single-screen Quick Menu containing 15 important functions. To the left of the LCD, four more buttons let you review pictures or change the white balance, drive mode (single shot, burst, etc), or metering pattern (matrix, averaging, or spot).
The electronic-flash switch manually raises or lowers the built-in flash—with the X20, you need never worry about the flash popping off when you don’t want it to. In addition, the X20 has a standard hot shoe, so you can attach any accessory flash unit. (In another homage to classic cameras, the X20’s shutter button is threaded for a standard mechanical cable release.)
What’s missing? A dedicated ISO button is the most notable omission. However, the Quick Menu includes this setting, and a programmable function button on the top deck provides even quicker access, if you want. The previous X10 model had a RAW-format button, but the X20 replaces it with the Quick Menu button. (You can select RAW or RAW+JPEG format in the menus, or program the function button for this purpose.)
Overall, the X20’s controls are far better than those on typical digicams and rival those on DSLRs. The absent ISO button was missed most, but the alternatives are tolerable. Indeed, the X20 has almost TOO MANY controls for such a small camera. It’s easy to accidentally bump a control when handling the X20. Fortunately, pressing the menu button for a few seconds disables the four-way switch and Quick Menu button. (Hint: because the control ring is rarely needed, it can be discreetly disabled with a piece of electrical tape.)
Small cameras are understandably popular, but the X20 is one digicam that could stand to be a little larger. It’s slightly too large to be a true pocket camera, anyway (except for coat pockets), so a bit more girth would make it easier to handle.
Click the next page to read about the X20's image quality.
Image Quality Excels
Image quality is the most critical aspect of an enthusiast camera, and the X20 belongs in the top rank of digicams. That said, it’s not a DSLR; it’s a small-chip digicam. In the analog age, bigger film negatives always recorded more detail with less grain than smaller negatives. In the digital age, bigger image sensors always record more detail with less noise than smaller sensors. Size matters.
Nevertheless, sensor technology keeps advancing, and today’s small-chip digicams are much better than those of a few years ago. In its class, the X20 excels. To start with, it has a 2/3-inch sensor, the largest of any digicam in the small-chip category. This sensor is 50% bigger than the 1/1.7-inch chips in similar digicams, such as Canon’s highly rated PowerShot G15 and Panasonic’s Lumix LX7. And it helps that the X20 doesn’t surrender to megapixel mania. The sensor has “only” 12 megapixels, which is plenty. Image quality erodes dramatically when small-chip cameras squeeze too many pixels onto their sensors.
Fujifilm’s X-Trans CMOS sensor replaces the Bayer color-filter array used in almost all other digital cameras with a unique array that has a less-regular color pattern. This array is designed to reduce moiré effects—the pixel aliasing that distorts colors or produces false-color artifacts in subjects with finely patterned surfaces. The X-Trans sensor enabled Fujifilm to omit the antialiasing filter that covers the image sensors in almost all digital cameras. Removing this filter from the optical path noticeably sharpens the photos, and no moiré effects were evident during testing.
Judging the image quality of any digital camera can be a harsh exercise, because image-editing software can magnify digital images on the screen to dimensions much larger than common print sizes. Film images were rarely viewed so large. This “pixel peeping” at 100% magnification reveals flaws even in the best prime lenses mounted on pro-quality DSLRs. Compact digicams fare worse, because their small-chip sensors capture less detail and suffer from more pixel noise, even at relatively low ISOs. And indeed, magnifying the X20’s images reveals some visible noise in shadow areas, even at its base sensitivity of ISO 100. However, the noise is invisible in 8.5x11-inch prints.
Noise always rises as the ISO climbs. In X20 images viewed on screen, noise is acceptable until the ISO reaches stratospheric heights. (The camera’s maximum sensitivity of ISO 12,800 is strictly for the desperate.) By ISO 800, the noise and noise-filtering artifacts are plainly visible at 100% pixel magnification on screen but are barely noticeable in 8.5x11-inch prints. ISO 1600 is acceptable in smaller prints. These results are surprisingly good for a small-chip camera.
In a low-light shootout against a Nikon D80 DSLR, the X20 was astonishing. At ISO 3200—the D80’s highest sensitivity—the X20 showed barely more noise, and only when closely comparing both images at 100% screen magnification. What’s more surprising is that the X20 recorded equivalent detail with fewer color artifacts and more-neutral white balance. Of course, the Nikon D80 is 2006 technology. Still, it’s remarkable that a small-chip digicam can run such a close race with a DSLR—and the D80 was fitted with a Nikkor AF-D prime lens. (Both cameras were mounted on a tripod, matched for equivalent focal lengths, and stopped down to f/5.6.)
The closeup views of these two ISO 3200 images were cropped at 100% magnification. Left column: Fujifilm X20; right column: Nikon D80 DSLR with Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 AF-D lens. (In both cases, the equivalent 35mm-film focal length was about 36mm.) The X20’s auto white balance is clearly superior, and image detail is virtually identical. The D80 shows only slightly less noise. (ISO 3200, 1/30 or 1/45 second at f/5.6.)
Even wide open at f/2, the X20’s images are sharp. One exception, common to small-chip cameras, is when photographing subjects dominated by random detail. Examples are foliage and wood grain. Small sensors have trouble rendering that detail as smoothly as larger sensors do. Again, though, these differences are noticeable mainly when viewing images at high screen magnifications, not in prints.
Some people object to the overly aggressive noise filtering that’s often visible in highly magnified images from small-chip cameras. Their firmware suppresses noise even at low ISOs, tending to smear fine details. The X20 lets you increase or decrease the noise filtering, but some manipulation looks evident even at the minimum setting. If you abhor this effect, shoot in RAW format and use third-party noise-reduction software. Or, better yet, use a camera with a larger sensor.
Click the next page for the final verdict.
Designed for Photographers
Overall, the Fujifilm X20 is a well-built, high-quality compact camera with unique features that set it apart from all other small-chip cameras. Among the dwindling number of digicams with OVFs, it has the best finder by far. The X20 is fast, controllable, stealthy, stylish, and couples an excellent lens with an excellent sensor. It’s one of the few compact cameras that feels like it was designed for photographers with significant input by photographers.
On the downside, the X20 is a battery burner (at least one spare is mandatory), relatively expensive ($599), has a nonstandard filter size (39.5mm, although a 52mm adapter is available), is too big to be comfortably pocketable, and has a crowded control layout (though no worse than comparable digicams).
Wish list: increase the OVF’s accuracy to 95% and make the camera slightly larger. It’s not a pocket camera, so an extra inch would make handling easier and create room for an articulated LCD, which is valuable for sneaky waist-level shooting.
For family photography, lightweight travel, and street photography, the X20 is one of the best alternatives to a bulky DSLR. Even the new wave of small mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses can’t match the X20’s zoom range and lens speed in the same compact package. If phonecams ever succeed in killing off digicams, at least the cameras aren’t going down without a fight. In the analog days, 35mm film shooters would have killed for a camera like this.