Fujifilm X20 review
2/3in 12.0-megapixel sensor, 4.0x zoom (28-112mm equivalent), 353g
The Fujifilm X20 is the successor to one of our favourite cameras of 2012. The Fujifilm X10 was a delight to use with its luxurious retro design, plentiful controls and large optical viewfinder, and image quality was among the best we've ever seen from a compact camera.These are big boots to fill, but with the X20, Fujifilm delivers some significant improvements. Performance is faster, the controls are more responsive and photo and video quality are both higher. A year after launch, the price has dropped significantly as well, meaning anyone looking for a bargain camera should take notice of Fuji's stylish compact. It still holds its own against current compacts, and the retro design carries a classic appeal, so there's absolutely no reason to write it off for simply being "last year's model".The viewfinder now shows exposure settings, the autofocus area and various other useful information, overlaid directly onto the viewfinder image. This information appears in black when shooting in bright conditions but switches to green in low light, and red when the autofocus is unsuccessful. This isn't an SLR, of course, so the viewfinder has its own window on the front of the camera to gather light, and its own 4x zoom lens, which moves in tandem with the main lens. One downside of this is that – as with the X10 – the lens obscures the bottom-right of the viewfinder view at wide-angle settings. Another is that shooting nearby subjects can lead to parallax errors, where the viewfinder and lens see different slightly things. However, the overlaid information warns for that too. Not everyone needs a viewfinder on a compact camera, but this one is second only to the Sony NEX-6 and its 2.4-million dot electronic viewfinder.Another big change is the introduction of a Q (short for quick menu) button, which replaces the X10's dedicated raw button. Pressing it reveals a grid of settings, which are navigated with the pad and adjusted via the rear wheel or command dial. It greatly speeds up access to the settings that don't have a dedicated button. Elsewhere, the Auto ISO function now has customisable minimum and maximum ISO speeds, as well as a minimum shutter speed.The accessory shoe is primarily designed for external flashguns, but it can also accommodate the MIC-ST1 external microphone. We weren't able to get our iShoot wireless flash trigger to work with the X10, but we're happy to report that it worked perfectly with the X20. It even let us achieve flash sync with shutter speeds up to 1/1,000s. This let us control the amount of captured ambient light much more effectively than with an SLR, which typically has a sync speed of 1/250s or slower.We're relieved to find that the X20 allows settings to be adjusted while photos are being saved to memory card. This is impossible in all of the Fujifilm cameras we've seen in recent years. They're generally quick to take photos in quick succession, but taking a photo and then realising you need to adjust a setting before taking another isn't so immediate, especially when shooting in raw mode.PERFORMANCE AND FOCUSThe X20 was also quick to switch on and shoot, taking 1.3 seconds to the X10's 3.3 seconds. As before, powering up simply involves rotating the lens barrel from its retracted position. It captured a photo every second, and unlike the X10, it didn't slow down when shooting in raw mode. Continuous mode is twice as fast as before, capturing ten frames at 12fps before slowing to a still-fast 3.3fps. Continuous raw mode set off at 9fps and slowed to 1.2fps after eight frames. These are brilliant results that put many SLRs to shame. Various other compact cameras lay claim to a 10fps continuous mode, but most only last for a few shots before stopping for a rest. The X20's optical viewfinder comes in really useful here, too, giving an uninterrupted view of the action. The only disappointment is that there's no option to update the autofocus between frames in continuous mode.Autofocus was impressively quick in normal use. This may be thanks to the new phase-detect autofocus points that are integrated into the sensor, although the X10 was pretty quick to focus without them. Focusing errors were slightly more common than we'd like but it wasn't a big concern – they were usually pretty obvious from looking at the screen so it wasn't much trouble to take the shot again. It's easy to move the autofocus point to any part of the frame, and the subject tracking autofocus mode was extremely responsive and accurate. Face detection is available too, but it's a bit annoying that enabling it disables the autofocus and metering options. We prefer to be able to set the autofocus area manually, and for the camera to override it when it spots a face in the scene.IMAGE QUALITY - CLICK SAMPLES TO ENLARGEThe X10's sensor used a technology called EXR, with an unusual layout of red, green and blue photosites that's designed to reduce noise and increase dynamic range when the resolution is halved to 6 megapixels. However, one downside was that its 12-megapixel output wasn't up there with the best cameras at resolving fine details. For the X20, Fujifilm has adopted a different sensor technology called X-Trans. Once again, this uses a non-standard layout of photosites, but in this instance it's designed to minimise moiré interference – swirling patterns of distortion that appear on finely repeating textures such as fabric and bricks. Virtually all digital cameras use an optical low-pass filter, which softens focus a little to reduce moiré. However, the X-Trans sensor design has allowed Fujifilm to do without an optical low-pass filter to improve sharpness.We didn't have the X10 to test alongside the X20, but we were able to compare it to the Fujifilm XF1, which uses the same sensor as the X10. The result was a significant improvement in the X20's ability to capture fine details. It wasn't so noticeable on bold, high-contrast details, where the XF1 (and X10) already coped well, but the X20's handling of dense textures was significantly improved.Both the XF1 (and X10) and the X20 handle high-contrast details well, but the X20 is able to resolve more definition in the statue and the bricks just below the chimney. There is no sign of moiré, despite the lack of an optical low-pass filterDense foliage reveals a bigger difference between the two sensors' outputThe sensor has done a fine job of picking out the subtleties of the lines of trees as they disappear into the distanceRAW WOUNDWe did notice one downside to the unusual sensor layout, though. Shooting in raw mode and processing in Adobe Camera Raw 7.4 (part of Photoshop CS6), we weren’t able to match the detail levels achieved in JPEGs. Default settings were a little softer, and ratcheting up the Sharpness control gave a synthetic appearance to details. We also tried the bundled Raw File Converter EX software, but it appears to use the same processing algorithm as the camera's JPEG output. Processing raw files normally gives a boost to detail levels for cameras with conventional sensor designs, but this isn’t the case here.The unusual sensor design means that shooting raw won’t give sharper detailsLENS AND SENSORThe lens is the same as on the X10, and it delivered on its side of the deal, giving impressively sharp focus right into the corners of frames. With optical stabilisation and a wide aperture throughout its 4x zoom range, it's arguably the X20's greatest asset.There's no faulting the lens, with impeccable focus and no hint of chromatic aberrations at the edges of framesThe 2/3in sensor is a little bigger than the 1/1.7in sensors used in rival premium compact cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7, and much bigger than the 1/2.3in sensors in most compact cameras. That makes a big difference for keeping noise levels down, and there wasn't the slightest hint of noise in JPEGs taken in bright conditions at ISO 100. However, there was some evidence of noise reduction, which took a toll on the subtlest details such as hair and grass. Ultimately, the X20 can't quite match the clarity of an SLR in bright conditions, but it's not far behind.These skin tones are immaculately smooth – possibly too smooth, even. It looks to us like noise reduction has glossed over some of the texture in the skin, fabric and hairThere's plenty of detail here but the grass looks a little processed – there's not quite the same crisp realism we see from an SLR or large-sensor CSCFor us, though, the mark of a great camera isn’t one that gives a few per cent of extra detail in unchallenging conditions, but one that holds it together in more demanding lighting conditions. It’s here that the X20 really excelled. The wide aperture, at f/2 for wide-angle shots and f/2.8 for telephoto, means the X20 can use relatively slow ISO speeds in low light, which helps to avoid noise. Even when the ISO speed was pushed up, noise remained remarkably low, with a small but welcome improvement over the superb X10.Shooting in gloomy indoor lighting, the X20 still maintains plenty of detail and shows remarkably little noise at ISO 1000The X20 includes the same dynamic range optimisation as the X10 to avoid clipped highlights in high-contrast scenes. However, without an EXF sensor, its only means of achieving this is to under-expose the photo and then boost the shadows digitally. This can result in noisy shadows, although we appreciate how Fujifilm makes this clear by raising the ISO speed, even when shooting in bright conditions. For example, the DRO400 mode under exposes by two stops and then boosts the shadows by 400 per cent, so the effective ISO speed is 400. If you don't like the effect, it's easy to set DRO to 100, which is effectively off.The camera has used DRO400 here to avoid over-exposing the sky – the downside some noise in darker parts of the photo, most visibly in these shaded skin tonesThe dynamic range optimisation has really paid off here, capturing these petals without any clipping and barely a hint of noiseVIDEOThe video mode is improved over the X10 too. 1080p videos are captured at 60fps for smooth motion, and improved anti-aliasing has largely eliminated the X10’s blocky artefacts. Video capture remains a point-and-shoot affair, though. It’s not possible to set the shutter speed or aperture manually for video, and the AE lock button doesn't work. The exposure compensation dial can be set before recording commences but changes while recording are ignored. 36Mbit/s AVC encoding keeps compression artefacts at bay, but without the ability to span multiple files, clips are limited to 14 minutes. It’s a shame there’s no 25fps or 30fps option, as this would have given longer clip lengths, better compatibility with YouTube and Blu-ray discs and smoother playback on modestly specified PCs.CONCLUSIONThe Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is a better video camera, and its even brighter f/1.4-2.3 lens makes up for its slightly smaller sensor to put it roughly level pegging with the X20 for photo quality. The LX7 is now available for a bargain £259 from Park Cameras (inc £30 cashback). The X20 meanwhile has dropped to £349; but with a superb optical viewfinder, superior controls and sumptuous design it's still very competitive. So while the LX7 remains our favourite premium compact camera, the X20 deserves nothing less than five stars.