Guest Post by Kevin Purcell
I raise the now traditional issue that "the X-Trans sensor is a Sony sensor."
And an "old" Sony sensor, too. It's the same one as in the Nikon Coolpix A, D7000, D5100, Ricoh GR, Pentax K-01 and many more 16-megapixel APS-C cameras, including some of Sony's. It's still a very good sensor. Has low read noise and high quantum efficiency; but that's not Fuji magic. It just has a custom color filter array specified by Fuji.
The X-Trans color filter array actually reduces acuity. Yes, really it does! So, as many people have found out, it's not great for images with lots of very fine repetitive detail (such as leaves in landscapes).
Take a look at the dpreview studio comparison (the playing card) for a Fuji 16-MP X-Trans camera and an equivalent 16-MP Bayer-array camera (e.g. the D7000 and the K-01). I do wonder if some people like this because it makes them think it looks more "film like." They could have left the optical low-pass filter (OLPF) in place and still got the same effect.
You can do the same thing and get the same "magical colors" with other cameras with the same sensor. Rob Boyer has shown this in his blog.
So there isn't any magic. Though some Fuji fans can get a bit worked up about this.
But—and I think this is the important bit—Fuji does make it easier to do things that lead to better photographs.
They start off by giving more "dynamic range," which means more headroom (i.e. how much light above the mid-tones before you saturate the pixels). They trade off more (shot) noise in the mid-tones and the shadows for the ability to capture another stop more in the highlights than other camera makers do. This leads to the claims that "Fuji is cheating on ISO" and "Fuji's 3200 is everyone else's 1600." They're not cheating; they just made a trade-off for a bit more noise against a bit more headroom. This results in more "film-like pictures" because the extended headroom is more like color negative film than the usual color slide film feel of digital. Most other makers set their camera's exposure system to almost saturate at 100% reflectivity (for JPEGs; with some headroom left in RAW). That works well in studio situations with very controlled light, but can fall apart in the "real world" with very bright sunlit highlights.
If that headroom isn't enough they include the "DR" modes (DR100, DR200, DR400) that work by reducing the ISO setting in RAW and JPEG to allow the user to "underexpose and push up in post" without thinking about it (if your post-processing software recognizes the DR modes). Even better, this works in-camera in the JPEGs. DR 100 is baseline, DR200 will get you another stop of highlights, and DR400 two stops. You need to set ISO400 to enable DR200 and ISO800 to enable DR400. Rather more effective at getting "the film look" than Nikon's Active D-Lighting. Each time you're trading noise for headroom (a.k.a. "dynamic range") but it's a tradeoff that can lead to nice images. And it works in Auto ISO too.
What Fuji does isn't magical (and it's not even related to the sensor), but it is good design. You can emulate all of those features with a bit of thought and some post-processing with other cameras with similar sensors. But Fuji makes it easy for anyone to get these effects by just using the camera. Even those who are just shooting JPEGs.
It's these ideas that seems to leverage Fuji's historical skills in recognizing what was good and distinctive about the film they make (and used to make). This feeling for the user's images seems to missing in the other camera makers who only made cameras and never made film.
Kevin Purcell is a street photographer from Seattle, Washington.
[A correction to this article was contributed by Peter Gilbert, to whom thanks. —Ed.]
©2014 by Kevin Purcell, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
BH: "All this stuff is what makes up the 'magic' to begin with. If you had to deal with all this nonsense yourself in post then it would be pretty tedious and not very magical. Thanks to Fuji you can basically 'set it and forget it' and end up with wonderful results that require very little, if any, tweaking in post. It might not be magic, but it's more than can be said for a lot of other camera out there. I trust the files coming out of a Fuji will be closer to what I want and expect much more than, for instance, a Canon. This is not insignificant."
Manuel: "As for me, I always found the lack of acuity Fuji's X-Trans sensors display a bit disconcerting. I've been through many studio test comparisons and Fuji sensors always underperform in this respect. Strangely enough, nobody seems to give it any relevance. No one mentions it when discussing Fuji's image quality.
"This unanimity makes Mr. Purcell sound like the boy in the Emperor's new clothes tale. I have doubts this lack of definition is deliberate in order to emulate the 'film look.' (Getting the 'film look' out of a digital camera is an utterly braindead goal. Want the 'film look'? Get a film camera!) I surely don't feel shortchanged when it comes to acuity with the film rolls I use, so I fail to see any logic in this statement.
"Otherwise I must say Fuji has come up with a pretty serious little system which I'm eager to try one of these days. If acuity is a trade-off, it's a well thought-out one. I want to see what the fuss is all about for myself. If Mike's happy with Fuji, there must be a good reason for it."
Mike replies: Everything's a series of tradeoffs, a balancing act. "Acuity" (sharpness) is only one property among many important ones, and we are far past the point of sufficiency on that score in general photography—my iPhone is "sharp" enough for me. (Ctein demonstrated that with his $19.95 "Big Print" sale, which demonstrated an ideally sharp 20-inch print made from a Micro 4/3 image file.) Tonal properties ("tonality" comes directly from music and sound, and refers to the way values of representation relate in a system or scale) are far more important. But sharpness gets way too much attention and tonality far too little. What's pointless is peering at 300% enlargements on the Web and declaring one camera "better" because it has a little better small-structure sharpness. For most people this doesn't matter. On the other hand, to misquote Shakespeare's Richard III, "Headroom, headroom! My kingdom for more headroom!" (Anyone else remember who Matt Frewer is? I just spent 10 minutes rewatching old mid-'80s Max Headroom videos.)
Curiously, headroom is a serious, well-nigh critical issue in digital music as well, cf. chapter 7 of Greg Milner's excellent book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music. The chapter can be read as an analogy of this post as well as being about digital sound. There really is some mysterious ligature between tones of sound and values of luminosity.
Technically I'm sure it's just a "moment," but Fuji's done a brilliant job with this sensor/processor, regardless of who fabricates the base part. I'll take their adroitly judged tradeoffs any day of the week and twice on Sundays.