Fujifilm X20 review

When it comes to high-end compact cameras there are now plenty to choose from on the market. But the Fujifilm X20 offers something that bit different: its retro styled, all dressed up in a trendy silver - or black if you'd prefer - yet completes its suave exterior with equally desirable inner features. Despite its looks, this is a camera for camera-heads first and foremost.

The X20 is out with the old and in with the new: the camera's brand new 2/3-inch 12-megapixel X-Trans CMOS II sensor may not be higher resolution than its X10 predecessor (phew), but the latest model has done away with its predecessor's imaging issues and stripped out the low-pass filter for sharper results too.

READ: Fujifilm X10 review

Add an optical viewfinder with a new digital overlay for feedback, the same excellent 28-112mm f/2.0-2.8 equivalent lens and we're scratching our heads as to whether there's anything else Fuji could have put into this high-spec compact camera. Is the X20 as good as it sounds on paper, and is it worth that rather bold £499 price tag?

Hubba Hubba

A camera may only be a light-capturing box - and clever one at that, we admit - but we think Fujifilm's got the X20's style down to a tee. That retro look may not suit all, but to our eyes it dresses up the camera into a subtle yet eye-catching design object in its own right. It's an all-metal body too so there's no scrimping on build quality whatsoever and that sturdy finish sure can be felt in the hand.

Such a design hasn't cost functionality either. Okay, so there may not be a touchscreen mounted on a variable bracket, but we can live with that.

Instead there is an optical viewfinder - a rarity among compact cameras - that, despite its limited 85 per cent field of view window on the world, is able to zoom through the equivalent lens' range. The image is larger and brighter than near competitors - considerably more so than the Canon PowerShot G15 for example - and also includes a new digital overlay to display focus area, aperture and shutter information. That's something X10 lacked and a huge step forward for the X20 - it's worth upgrading just for that if you're a heavy viewfinder user.

Of course it's not the perfect viewfinder, it's the solution that makes the best of the given situation - we'd rather have seen a better field of view, and less distortion at the widest-angle setting. The lens barrel and fingers can also obstruct the view a little, but that's part and parcel of such a design.

READ: Canon PowerShot G15 review

On the top of the X20 there are mode and exposure compensation dials - both made of metal - alongside a small function (Fn) button and traditional screw-thread shutter button.

The back of the camera opts for more plasticky buttons - which still feel fine to the touch - arranged with a four-way d-pad that doubles-up as a rotational dial to complement the secondary rear adjustment dial above. Alongside these are a host of quick-access buttons that include "Q" to bring up the on-screen "quick menu". And rather than an on button a twist of the X20's lens activates the camera - a quirky touch.

Performance

On the front of the X20 there's the same focus-type selector dial as in the X10's original design. It's useful to jump quickly between single autofocus (AF-S) to manual (MF) or continuous autofocus (AF-C) options.

We tended to use the X20 in its single autofous mode where the camera can be left to focus on what it considers to be the focal point - usually the highest point of opposing contrast towards the centre - or otherwise the user-defined single point can be positioned throughout any of the X20's 49 positions, as shown on the rear screen.

Unfortunately these 49-positions don't translate into the viewfinder's digital overlay - something not entirely possible as the area of focus is more expansive than the viewfinder's area of view. However focus areas can show up as confirmatory green box areas through the viewfinder when focus is achieved, though that's not always the case. There's a limit to this based on the focus distance and distance to subject which depends whether a focus area will show up within the viewfinder; instead you'll often be dependent on seeing whether the various settings light up green or red to know if focus has been achieved or not - something considerably better than the X10's zero feedback viewfinder, but not as complete an experience as we'd like.

Autofocus speed is also a step up from the X10. It's fast enough to work in all given situations we threw at the camera, while even doing a decent job of autofocusing in very low-light conditions.

Hyperfocal Fun

If focus isn't achieved then it's often because the subject is too close to the lens - and that's where macro mode comes in. A left click of the d-pad will bring up the options for standard, macro and super-macro focus which can achieve focus far closer to the subject. And we mean closer than 1cm from the subject at the widest-angle 28mm equivalent. It's impressive stuff, particularly when combined with the f/2.0 aperture and that the centre of resulting images return super-sharp results too.

 

ISO 100, macro mode - click for full-size raw sample

Elsewhere there's continuous autofocus which fails to impress much, but then that's the general nature of such a focus system from a compact camera. By default a half depression of the shutter button locks exposure and focus, so AF-S is deactivated. It's only just before pressing the shutter that the AF-S is truly active, which means additional to-and-fro is required to then gain focus - and that's just not quick enough where moving subjects are concerned. In general the X20 is that casual street photographer's kind of camera, not a super-fast DSLR for shooting F1 races and the like.

That's where manual focus comes in. There's no focus ring on the lens itself, so manual focus is controlled via the rear rotational d-pad instead. A focus distance measure shows up on the rear screen - in either feet or metres, your choice - and even displays acceptable focus depth based on the selected aperture, otherwise known as hyperfocal distance.

 

ISO 500 - click for full-size JPEG sample

So, for example, a subject 1 metre away at f/2.0 has a tight depth of field that looks to be approximately around 5cms front and back of the focus point, whereas dipping to f/11 provides an in-focus area from around 60cm through to 2.2-metres (with the focus point still sharpest at 1-metre) as shown on the focus scale. It's not a totally accurate measure of hyperfocal distance by any means - partly because of the small scale and variable distance within the measure - but it's a decent enough guideline. That's further helped along by a "peak" option within manual focus assist which not only magnifies the area of focus on the camera's rear LCD screen but also then adds an embossed highlight peak to those in-focus subject edges to act as visual guide. All a helping hand, and particularly useful for close-up macro work of flowers and other such subjects.

No Neutral Ground

The X20 features the same 4x optical zoom lens as the X10. This 28-112mm equivalent optic may not sound like a huge range, but given that it has an f/2.0-2.8 maximum available aperture it delivers plenty at this level. Blurred backgrounds are easier to achieve and lower ISO sensitivity can be used in low-light situations.

Problem is that wide aperture can become useless in bright light where shots will overexpose and, bizarrely, Fujifilm's still missed out building in an ND (neutral density) filter. It lacked in the last model and it lacks here again. Although the camera is capable of 1/4000th second shutter speeds, this is capped at 1/1000th second for wider aperture values, or the same as two stops' worth of light. It's an unavoidable restraint given that the X20's shutter mechanism can't clear the physical aperture size at the faster shutter values, which would otherwise result in bodged exposures and a "crushed-bokeh" effect - hence the shutter speed capping. But the fact that's not been countered with an ND filter makes us a little bit sad. It's our one biggest gripe with the X20 - although the inclusion of a filter thread on the front of the camera's lens is some recompense.

All About Image Quality

It's clear to see that we have a plethora of raves about the X20 and minimal rants. With the X10 predecessor this was much the same, but the older generation camera's ups and downs in the image quality department ultimately cost it a few points.

Not so with the Fujifilm X20. The arrival of the latest X-Trans CMOS II sensor is a big deal.

ISO 100 - click for full-size JPEG sample

Firstly the technology used is the same as that found in the Fujifilm X-Pro1, albeit on a smaller scale, but as that means there's no low-pass filter and, therefore, no anti-aliasing to produce sharper, crisper shots.

READ: Fujifilm X-Pro1 review

Secondly the X20's 12-megapixel resolution spread over the large 2/3-inch sensor size means a decent size per "pixel" on the sensor itself. Fujifilm's not gone overboard and lumped a couple of dozen megapixels into the X20 which gives the initial capture more room to breathe. Think about it: these larger areas can capture more light at a higher quality which should result in better image quality.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 review

Which is exactly what we've got: the X20's images are a sublime slice of imaging pie. The low ISO settings in both their raw and JPEG versions show off the camera's sharp lens with fantastic amounts of detail. We're really impressed.

 

ISO 200 - click for full-size raw sample

However, there is a reasonably steep curve away from the ISO 100 perfection. Even from ISO 250, more so at ISO 400, there are some JPEG artefacts visible, while raw shots show up the unfiltered image noise in shots more prominently. And yet, from a compact these still look excellent; there's something rather charming about unobtrusive image noise such as on this near-monotone table and cutlery shot. Click the shot to see the raw file at 100 per cent scale and there's still plenty of detail on offer at this ISO 250 setting.

ISO 250 - click for full size raw sample

That wide aperture setting comes in handy to keep the ISO sensitivity down, but if conditions do demand a greater push of signal then the full ISO 100-3200 range is quite useable throughout. Much like any compact camera there is an increase in softness and presence of colour noise towards the top sensitivity setting, but for JPEG shots the X20's EXR Processor II engine does a decent job. And if you don't like it then there're in-camera adjustments for Color, Sharpness, Highlight Tone, Shadow Tone and Noise Reduction, as well as, of course, the original raw file to tinker with if that's your preference.

The raw files do also reveal that comparative JPEG shots also take on board some other processing to corrects for some chromatic aberration - found as subtle purple fringes to some subjects' edges - as well as barrel distortion as seen in wider-angle shots that flatten out images to avoid any puffed-out curvature. There are also visible colour and contrast tweaks between the two file types; indeed some of the mid-level colours - such as the trees below - can look a little flat.

ISO 400, click for full-size JPEG and raw file samples

We couldn't finish up talking about X-series image quality without making mention of the X10's "white orb" fiasco. This processing issue caused specular highlights to morph into white orbs but - a big yay right there - that's no longer a problem with the X20 from what we've seen. Anyone that was put off buying an X10, let the X20 take you under its photographic wing - you won't have any regrets.

Verdict

The Fujifilm X20 is not only the camera that irons out its predecessor's orb-related imaging issues, it's also the camera that pushes image quality up a notch to class-leading levels.

The chunky, retro-styled build doesn't make the X20 the tiniest of models and the design, even just aesthetically, won't suit all tastes - but we're big fans and think its looks are just as stand-out as its images.

The advancement of the camera's optical viewfinder with its digital overlay is also welcome, even if the limited field of view and inconsistent - yet unavoidable - presentation of focus areas can frustrate a little. Yet, and in context, we can't think of a better OVF in a camera at this price point.

There may be no touchscreen and no vari-angle bracket mount, but we have no care. The one thing that the X20 has missed out on - in order to make the very most from its 28-112mm f/2.0-2.8 equivalent lens - is a built-in neutral density filter. Sounds small, but we're surprised at its omission.

That small blip aside and this is high-end compact camera perfection. We've got a lot of love for the X20, and it's given us a lot of love back. The high-end compact camera hierarchy has a new champion: all hail the Fujifilm X20.