New Pocket Champ, or Pocket Chump on Megapixel Steroids?
By Stephen Gillette
Those of us who are rather serious about our photography (and that would be nearly all TOP readers) divide into two camps. Camp One has a difficult time with the notion of small-sensor cameras being being good for much except casual social photography and possible use as door jams. The second camp is open to the idea that these digicams are capable of producing serious work.
Readers of this site have responded to Mike's idea of the Decisive Moment Digital, and have also been directed to Thom Hogan's Compact Camera Challenge. Both essays suggest the core attribute of a breakthrough compact camera should be an APS-C sensor. But what if a camera designed around a small sensor could deliver image quality close to that of a DSLR, in both ideal lighting conditions and very low light? With full manual controls? And what if the camera was available at a very reasonable price—in September? What if?
Fuji announced a camera several days ago that gives us all—compact-camera scoffers and proselytizers—something to chew on. The FinePix F50fd, part of a five-camera roll-out by Fuji, caught my eye. This camera builds upon the strengths of the F20-30-40 series, but adds a bit of revolution to the evolution: honest-to-goodness CCD-shift image stabilization.
Now, some folks might rightly recall that their earlier F-series Fujis already have a dedicated "stabilization" button on the camera back. Unfortunately, this button was concocted more in the marketing department than over in the engineering department at Fuji. It allowed Fuji marketing to jump on the VR (vibration reduction) and IS (image stabilization) bandwagon, at least in terms of product promotion. Otherwise, all it did was jack up the ISO to allow faster shutter speeds, as well as activate the flash in certain situations.
At long last, Fuji has implemented a true VR system by way of sensor shifting. Gyros in the camera report camera movement to the sensor during capture, which physically shifts position to counter that movement. Canon digicams (including the mildly controversial but certainly able G7) employ the other leading form of mechanical VR, shifting elements within the lens instead of moving the sensor. Which is better? Some claim that optical VR has the edge, but not all. Sony carried on the Minolta-developed sensor shift in their Alpha A-100 DSLR. And of the two new and positively-reviewed DSLR cousins from Olympus, the E-410 and E-510, the latter also has sensor shift VR.
So the die-hard skeptics in Camp One may have to accept the fact of a pocket camera that can not only approach big-sensor (DSLR) image quality under ideal circumstances, but comes very close in low-light capture, as well.
But wait...there's more!
The F50fd offers full manual control of ISO, shutter speeds, and aperture that's lacking in its predecessors. The camera also adds an "Auto/800" mode, which compliments the previous Auto/400 and Auto/1600 modes. This allows the camera to range automatically up to a set limit, great for quick shooting in changing light. While image quality at ISO 400 has been good for both color and black-and-white capture, ISO 1600 has played havoc with fine detail and resulted in images best printed at modest sizes. The Auto/800 is a modest but welcome addition to the kit.
And remember: the VR can deliver 2 extra stops into tripod territory. Black cats in coal bins, take notice!
Of course, big-sensor snobs (not that there's anything wrong with that) will quickly jump on the fact that the newly-enlarged 2.7" LCD (with a luscious 230,000 pixels) is the only viewfinder on the camera—there is no room on this small rig for the token crappy peephole. They have a point. And there is another question mark looming until reviews are published:
Fuji has taken a winner of an imager, the 1/1.6-inch Super CCD, and upped the ante by fitting 12 million pixels on it. (I hope these pixels are all good friends.) Will this rather unnecessary strategy significantly degrade the image quality that has become a Fuji hallmark? Only three clues have been dropped, so far.
On Fuji's F50fd web page (as of July 27th, 2007) is a link to three samples. One is a pleasant landscape that can be downloaded at full resolution. At first glance, pixel peeping onscreen at 100%, the image seemed quite soft. Of course, small sensors are not the first pick for landscape photography. And distant clouds in the picture suggest a somewhat humid atmosphere, which might further soften the details in the distance. When I applied some additional mid-tone contrast in Photoshop, things improved noticeably. Next, some high-pass sharpening...voila! Not bad at all.
The two sample portraits give perhaps a better assessment of the camera's image quality. On the plus side, Sample Two of a girl blowing bubbles has some high-contrast areas that would typically show strong purple fringing on previous F-series cameras. No fringing here. But the image, while showing ample detail, also shows a hint of noise and noise reduction artifacts. This, at ISO 100.
The third sample (left, detail above right), also a portrait, shows enough detail to determine the model is wearing contact lenses, and that she has some interesting skin features on her neck that have been only partly covered by makeup. But there is that same mild "processed" look that I'm not used to seeing from my F20 at ISO 100. (Of course, my F20 sports a 6 MP sensor, not a 12.) More samples are needed, at higher ISOs, in more challenging lighting conditions.
So, for those of us who work backwards from the results we want to the gear that can deliver those results, Fuji may have advanced the cause of the high-resolution, unusually versatile pocket camera. Full manual options, choice of memory cards (yes, SD and SDHC along with xD), big files and low-light shooting to rival some DSLRs. Or, the fattening of the pixel count may deflate the promise implied by the new VR system, giving Camp One the last laugh. For now, this is certainly a horse to watch.
The price: under $300. (Probably $250 or less by December.)
Stephen Gillette is an artist/photographer based in Southern California. His quest for the Ideal Pocket Camera has spanned more than three decades and filled several camera bags. His work (using small-sensor cameras exclusively) is available to view at his website.