In a recent post I listed some of the reasons why I decided to purchase a Fujifilm X20 compact camera as an alternative to lugging around my SLR. Today, I’m going to give my initial impressions of shooting with the X20.
Unpacking the Fujifilm X20 Camera
When I first unpacked my new toy I was pleased to see the familiar PSAM (Program/Shutter/Aperture/Manual) modes on the main command dial right where I expected them. I was also happy to see the exposure compensation dial next to the main command dial. That’s a feature I often use on my Nikon D7000 and it’s even easier to access on the X20. With the Nikon you have to hold down a button and simultaneously rotate a dial but with the X20 you can just turn the dedicated compensation dial. The X20’s exposure compensation dial has markings in 1/3 stop increments from -2 to +2 so you don’t even need to look at the LCD screen to dial in the desired value. But if you do want to see the current exposure compensation value in the screen you can get a scale on the left side of the display by choosing the Information2 display option.
I was also pleased to look through the optical viewfinder—that feature is one of the reasons why I chose the X20. Most compact cameras have only an electronic viewfinder and I’ve found outdoor shooting to be difficult with a washed-out LCD display. But the X20 does have an optical viewfinder and it even includes a diopter adjustment. But an important distinction is that the X20’s optical viewfinder doesn’t look through the lens so you’re not seeing exactly what the image sensor sees. So, unlike an SLR, you have to remember to remove the lens cap!
Fujifim states that the optical viewfinder displays about 85% of the actual field of view. For reference, an 85% fill/crop factor with a 400 x 300 pixel image translates to a 27-pixel border all around. The gray-white rectangle at right shows what that looks like. I knew about the 85% field of view before making my purchase decision and I figured that wouldn’t be much of a problem since I was guaranteed to get at least as much as I was seeing in the frame. But in my first real outing with the camera I was disappointed to discover that framing was more difficult than I expected. Even with the 15%-extra factor I found that, in some cases, I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Fifteen percent sounds like it ought to be an adequate safety factor but, even so, I found when checking my captured images that sometimes I was still cutting off features that I wanted in the frame. Exactly how much of the actual image shows in the viewfinder seems to depend, to some extent, on the current focal length. At least, that was my impression. These initial observations on framing come from only about ten minutes spent playing with this in the field. Obviously, framing accuracy is critical so I will be studying this more carefully and reporting more about the issue in the future. Of course, you can always resort to the EVF to get precise framing, assuming the display is bright enough.
Another issue with the viewfinder is that the barrel of the lens protrudes visually into the frame when looking through the optical viewfinder. Again, I knew this going in but I didn’t fully realize the effect until I got the camera and could see it. What it means is that the lower right corner of the frame is occluded by the lens barrel when zoomed out (wide field of view). The practical effect is that if your composition includes important elements in this corner framing will be more difficult. Most of the time this isn’t a big problem and much of the time it isn’t a problem at all. The lens barrel is only visible at focal lengths less than about 35mm (equivalent) and it is barely visible at that point. As you zoom out more the lens occupies a progressively larger portion of the lower right corner of the frame. But even when zoomed all the way out to 28mm the portion of the view that is obscured is less than about 15% of the frame (estimated by eyeballing it).
One pleasant surprise about the electronic viewfinder is that there is an option to brighten or darken the display. Brightening it makes it noticeably easier to see in conditions of bright ambient light while darkening it conserves power. Conserving power is important with this camera; more on that below.
The menu system initially felt a bit non-intuitive and I often found myself making the wrong choices. I spend a lot of time using my computers, my iPad and my Android phone so I’ve developed certain reflexes which allow me to quickly respond to various icons and menu choices. For the most part, these reflexes work well with those devices but the X20’s menus don’t use all the same conventions for making selections. As a result, I initially found that I was frequently making the wrong choices by quickly selecting “OK” when I didn’t mean to. I don’t want to say the X20’s menu system is poorly conceived or is non-intuitive. It’s just that I found it different than what I’m used to and it’s taking me a while to develop new “muscle memories.” (Or maybe I’m just too twitchy or am getting too old :-))
In addition, the X20’s menus don’t always stay open until you make a choice. The main menus, accessed with the Menu button, do stay open until you either make a choice or cancel out. But other menus, like the Information display menu and the Macro mode menu, only stay open for about two seconds. If you don’t make a choice right away the menu disappears and you have to reselect it in order to make a choice. As I’m learning all the features of this new camera I often have to stop and think about the choice I’m making and the 2-second timeout is just too short. I’m not sure why Fujifilm felt the need to make these menus time out and, in particular, why they chose such a short timeout delay. There is a dedicated Back button which could easily be used to close the menu if you decide you don’t want to make a choice.
All of these issues with the menus are minor things, though and the real questions are how the camera performs when shooting and what the image quality is like. I’ve included a couple of sample photos in this column; you can click on them to see the full-size images if you like. I’ll probably be making a more careful study of image quality as compared to my Nikon D7000 later. For now, if you’re interested in a detailed critique of image quality you can read this detailed review of the Fujifilm X20 on the DPReview website. And check this blog later for more about my experiences shooting with this camera.
The battery drains rapidly. On my first serious outing with this camera I burned through a battery in less than two hours. I was shooting a lot during that time and had probably captured several hundred images by that point. There was no low battery warning and I hadn’t been watching the battery indicator so I was taken by surprise when the camera just shut down unexpectedly. Fortunately, I had a spare battery so I just popped it in and continued shooting. But if you’re going to use this camera seriously or be away from “shore power” for any length of time you’re going to want at least one spare battery. Fortunately, they’re small so it’s easy to carry an extra. And they’re only about $15.
To conserve power the camera shuts itself off after a couple of minutes. For the next few minutes you can wake it up by depressing the shutter release button or the play button (review images). I don’t think the other buttons work for waking it up during this time.
After a bit longer the camera goes into a deep sleep mode and can’t be reawakened by pressing any button. At this point, you have to rotate the lens all the way to off and then turn it back on. (That’s how you power on this camera—rotate the zoom lens from an off position to the 28mm position.) That takes at least a couple of seconds and also changes your focal length. The camera enters this deep sleep mode fairly soon so I find I’m often having to rotate the lens back and forth to wake it up. This is probably the most annoying aspect of shooting with the camera that I’ve yet experienced.
So far, I’ve been pretty happy with the Fujifilm X20. After a couple of test outings and one “real” outing I can tell that it will do the job I bought it for. I still have a lot to learn about the camera though and need to get some more hours with it under my belt so that I don’t have to spend time figuring things out while I’m shooting. I’m impressed by all the features and functions provided. In fact, the X20 seems more complex than my D7000 because of all the special functions and processing modes it offers. I’m not sure how much I’ll use all those as I don’t really like gimmicky effects. In general, I prefer to bring my RAW files into Photoshop so I’ll get the best possible quality and have complete control over the image processing. Still, not every photo is destined to be a serious work of art and some of these features may well put some fun into shooting. I’ve already experienced some of that fun just by virtue of the camera’s small size and light weight. And the fact that there’s no lens mount means I don’t have to carry around extra lenses and be constantly thinking about which one would be optimal. That’s a limitation, of course, but it can also be freeing and that’s part of the compact camera experience.