X10 - Experience Report
Edit 12/11/11: Added Autofocus speed and reliability, Image Stabilization, Noise and Detail, Video and Handling speed (at the beginning of the Handling section).
This is a rather technical (as in: more about function than about photos) report of my experiences with the Fuji X10. Originally it was meant as a simple forum post, but I quickly reached the word limit of 6000 chars. So you might miss some nice images and more story-like writing here.
I am a beginner photographer and this is the first more or less "serious" camera I ever bought. It has to serve the following usage-cases and the jury is still out of whether to keep it or not (1 week left before I would have to return it). You won't see any photos yet.
Main purpose of buying the X10: Shoot sharp, bright and detailed enough photos of my kid(s) in often rather bad lighting condition without having to deal with the bulk of a DSLR system.
Work: Occasional shots of technical equipment that I am testing/reviewing. Should offer enough control to handle the demands of the corresponding situation (including "screenshots" of what is shown on a LCD display).
Other things: Explore possible fun of portrait, night, street, macro or whatever shooting that I find myself become interested in once I get the grip on a nice cam.
At the end of this article I will contribute my own analysis of the white disc/orb/blooming problem. While I may be a beginner photographer I literally make a living from analyzing technical issues and finding possible workarounds. And while lots of words have been lost over this issue I hope to start a more "technical" than "emotional" discussion with more profound arguments on what's going on under the hood. In the process I hope to learn a few facts and and corrections to my interpretation as well.
Even though reviews of current cameras praise their "high" dynamic range and "good high ISO noise and detail" I still find cameras' performance to be /very/ underwhelming when compared to what you see with your naked eye. To (technically) master photo-shooting seems to be mostly about working with and around the limits of cameras. Even after decades of development it's still all about worrying to get the right exposure. Knowing that these limits are a reality and that a good camera should help you get away with them I had the following reasons trying to replace phone-cams with a good "real" camera.
After one week of mixed testing in various modes I can say so much:
For me this is the most important aspect that has to be weighted against all the other points I make below: Kid photos work! I got a whole number of sharp enough low-light indoor shots that are very usable for what we want, namely looking at photos on screen (30" display, laptop display, HD projector) and printing them in photo-books at up to A4 sizes (usually smaller). Results surely best any phone-cam shots easily and also beat grandma's Samsung S850 P&S clear enough to see the benefits of a pricey (in its range) cam like the X10.
Auto Focus speed may be a problem when kids move towards you, but I have to test all the possibilities first (face detection, tracking focus, manually presetting a focus range). Using Auto EXR is a considerable problem with movement (different exposure of half of the pixels), but it's a starting point for learning how to handle the beast. Next week will show how much light and detail remains when exposure times are down to "kid is running around wildly" settings.
One drawback of the 28 mm wide angle vs. a 24 mm is that when kids come close to you indoors (like "hey, papa has that photo toy holding up again, let's go and see what it can do") you quickly run out of angle. So you often end up cutting off feet or even arms/hands from the picture when the little folks come too close. Strangely EXR Auto mode chooses Macro mode automatically while AUTO Auto mode does not (still focuses down very close though). On the other hand you cannot chose 1 cm Super Macro in EXR mode while it is available at AUTO mode.
Autofocus speed and reliability
AF in good light is fast (enough) and in low light still faster than any iPhone camera is ever going to be (even when the iPhone is helped by the X10's AF assistant light)! Comparing it to a Canon S95 and Nikon P7100 in typical fluorescent store light showed the S95 to be considerably slower and the P7100 to be somewhat slower. The most important thing for me is that I can shot kid(s) while they are sitting in one place (may still be moving wildly), but hopefully it will also work with running kids (still have to try). I also successfully shot moving kids that where thrown around by their parents during a swimming session. ;)
Autofocus reliability is something that needs to be judged by time and shots, but it can be thrown off very visibly by bright reflective non-plane surfaces where the P7100 has a little less problems (but still has). I found that decreasing focus area size (in Area mode) help to get around that simply by allowing me to easier aim for an area where no bright reflection from lighting is happening. According to a forum thread the manual warns about that and I assume it is a common problem for contrast detection based systems.
It works! I'd have to do serious testing to tell how many stops you can win by using IS, but I can get sharp enough handheld shots with little available lighting, fully zoomed in at F2.8 and 1/4 s exposure time. Sure, with such a long exposure time most shots are not going to be sharp, but they are sharper than without IS. Most important: some shots are sharp and overall all shots are consistently sharper than without IS.
As I will most often do handheld shots under low lighting conditions (except for sometimes using the rather weak flash) this is a very welcome addition. Sure I'd like it to work even better, but "working" is better than not available at all.
Noise and Detail
Coming from phone-cameras and P&S every detail coming from the X10 is a big step foward, so I may lack comparison with what other quality systems can offer. That being said, I saw plenty of shots from beginner's DSLR cams in various reviews over the last few years (couldn't decide to jump on the DSLR train) and what I'm seeing from the X10 seems to cope well. Noise is visibly present with higher ISOs but upto 1600 ISO enough detail is preserved to enable good looking crops. Even ISO 3200 seems usable enough, especially since the general noise pattern seem to be more luminance than chroma heavy. I like some luminance (aka gritty) grain in dark shots, so it's a welcome tendency.
The fast lense really helps to get better shots in AUTO modes and a lot more creative/technical options once you know how to handle the beast. Being that fast wide open allows to keep ISO down (aka details up) and that a beginner like me can get away with doing crops until he knows how to compose properly. And even a seasoned photographer will always enjoy the options. That the lense remains fast at tele means that you can zoom in for better detail instead of losing detail due to having to use much higher ISOs.
A wide range of ISO settings fortunately helps to deal with all these situations by somewhat intelligently chosing in-between steps. The X10 offers ISOs 100, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, 2000, 2500 and 3200 for both AUTO ISO and manual settings. And seeing that on the X10 ISO noise seems to increase quite linearly (also shown by some review site) it's comfortable to know that the camera has these in-between steps at its disposal. Higher than ISO 3200 is done by interpolation (=smaller picture size) and I still have to try if there is any usefulness with these.
Having a fast lense and usable high ISO available again can be important for doing kids shots as it allows to use faster exposure times. I rather take a somewhat grainy but otherwise sharp picture of a moving kid than getting no usable picture at all. And when I zoom in to take a portrait of my son's stunning eyes I very much appreciate the protected detail.
I deliberately did not take a single look into the documentation yet, but did read several reviews and forum posts to get an idea what the X10 has to offer. First I want to see if the X10 works for its user or needs its user to work for the cam. So far I seem to understand all the controls, get quick enough access to the most important settings.
The menu is easy enough, but would benefit from more tabs instead of having to scroll through several pages. Waiting for the animated page flip whenever you choose a submenu also gets old quickly. Overall I wished for the menu to be snappier, but found out that only the displaying on screen lags behind while all button presses are recognized instantly. The latter doesn't help too much if you first need to read what options you got before pressing a button, so the animations are a nuissance. For some reason you can only set AM/PM time, but not 24h.
Writing times do not seem to get in the way as writing is done in the background (indicated by the AF LED flashing). Interestingly there is no discernable difference between using an old 1 gb TrekStor cheapo card and and removing the SD-card all along (only using internal buffer). Autofocus and especially "Processing" takes up most of the time. And while you can keep shooting when the LED is flashing you cannot enter the menu or start playback. That made me wonder at least for using only the internal memory. Getting a fast Sandisk 30 mb/s card will show if there is a discernable difference.
Some blog reviewer wrote that the soft thumb grip should be placed where the lower control wheel is situated, but I disagree! It is exactly at the right place to give a good and balanced grip when holding the camera with the right hand only (pulling out of pocket, pressing left-hand buttons). There while shooting there is little problem with placing the thumb just on the control wheel. Even though the wheel itself is a bit too loose for my taste you have to seriously twist your hand before you accidentally change a value your your thumb.
Playback/display of recorded shots is quick and controls seem to make sense. There are some niceties like pressing the upper wheel for quick zoom in/out and being able to flick through shots while the current zoom level and position is kept fixed. Interestingly flipping through shots of the Samsung that still were on the SD-card is considerably slower unless you zoom all out where it shows a preview of several shots in a grid. Not offering a RGB histogram on a modern cam is a bit of a let-down though, and would be useful when dealing with specular highlight (+white orb problem).
The stiffness of the mode and especially EC dials surely help to protect against unwanted switching, but counter the usefulness of "Quiet Mode" with their audible clicking noises. Surely having +-3 EV would have been nicer.
I read that the X10 allows to trigger shots when the AF is not yet done, which has its very own advantages and drawbacks. One drawback would be that it makes the camera less appealing to my wife who surely doesn't like to do shutter half-presses all day. But it seems that in auto modes the camera does wait for focus to be attained before shooting (at least long enough for getting sharp enough shots). This is something I need to read up in the manual and try out some more.
The X10 fits into the pockets of my winter jacket, but today it happened that the flash popped up inside the pocket. I am not sure how much mechanical stress this little thing can withstand in there. Getting that stylish original leather case/bag might be a good idea. It seems to hold the lens-cap inside and doesn't add much to the dimensions of the X10. But it also doesn't seem to offer any compartment for a reserve battery and might be less protective against water and dust. And it's relatively pricey for what it does (not) offer.
ON switch issues
Having the ON-switch on the lens-barrel is ok for me, but in the end not much more than a gimmick that might haunt us in the future with its "mechanical" weaknesses. My ON switch got stuck several times already, hitting a hard "wall" just at the point where the camera already switches on, but not even half-ways to its 28 mm starting point. Force didn't help, switching off/on again sometimes did.
By pointing the lens into different directions (up, down, upside-down) while switching on/off I seem to have solved the problem. But further inspection showed that there seems to be some kind of resistance when you push the barrel upwards while turning the switch. And that "pushing upwards" more or less happens by itself by the sole fact that you carry part of the X10's weight with the barrel holding left hand.
Another drawback of the barrel-switch design is that you cannot secretly switch on the cam in your pocket or on its way to aiming and have a quick snap with one hand. So for all shots where you don't need the zoom at all, but need quick ON access you are effectively slowed down a bit.
While doing a medium fast "Series" shot I had the camera firmware/software crash today, or rather hanging at the animated boxes that are shown while data is written to SD-card. I left it running for at least 15 minutes and it seemed that the cam got a bit warmer (screen kept running, too). Switching OFF did not help, but only removing the battery did. I likely lost that last series, but cannot tell for sure.
I noticed that only 19 mb where left free on the SD-card, so likely it went out of space during writing. But that situation should have been handled more gracefully by the software.
High humidity issues
I went to shoot photos of my baby-boy swimming with the rest of the baby-class today, which happens in a small room with low ceiling and relatively high temperature (both water and air). Coming from a 10 minutes walk through December temperatures (sunny though) the X10 was cold enough to catch lots of condensing water from the air humidity. While I could just whipe the screen and outer lens glass clean after just keeping it OFF for some minutes the innards of the lens barrel captures moisture after I started shooting (like worsened by zooming the barrel in and out).
And while my shots stayed foggy for quite a long time (especially the left-most side did not clear up at all) I saw all the plastic P&S people shooting happily. There also was one guys with a Canon DSLR who shot away photo after photo even though he entered the room roughly at the same time as I did. I can only speculate that the plastic housings of the other cams where less susceptible to temperature changes and maybe they where stored in more protective bags.
When I came home I let the X10 sit on my table turned on at tele range in order to let it dry up any remaining moisture. Works without problems again.
Nothing to write home about, it hardly held a day - if even half a day - while I was playing around it with. What makes me wonder is that the screen keeps running at full brightness while you transfer files via USB. This obviously sucks the battery dry even though the screen says nothing more than jsut displaying a moving "USB" text.
Viewfinder and display
The eye-piece is too small for me, my eyelashes get into its way! Also you have to really look straight through the center to get a sharp image. Any slight movement into any direction by just a millimeter will already lead to visual deterioration. Also it's a bit awkward to zoom without getting your own fingers getting in the VF's way. I take it as a bonus for when you need a composition help for Quiet mode (display off).
The display seems nice and usable. Turning brightness up over 0 will turn highlight grays into full whites, so it's use is somewhat limited. I wish it could be turned down more for when you shoot in a dark room. Not having any articulation is a serious drawback for doing kids photos. The small ones are mostly walking/crawling at ground zero and when they sit drawing pictures at a table that is facing a wall you can only reach around them and aim blindly (a Canon G12 would allow to flip the screen all the way to the front to see what you are doing while holding the cam reverse).
Fortunately viewing angles of the screen are very usable!
This is likely going to be the least important, but still nice to have feature for me. I own a HD projector and high resolution computer screens, so full HD capture is a welcome bonus. Much more important is that the fast enough autofocus and manual zoom capabilities make the video mode really usable. You can even use the exposure compensation dial during video shots.
Unfortunately focus noise is very audible on the audio track of the X10's videos (as will the clicking sound of the exposure compensation dial). It's a nagging sound that's neither pleasant nor unnerving. It's unfortunate that you cannot connect an external microphone, but not really a show-stopper. When you are using an external microphone you are going to use an external recorder anyway (either because the mic is as recorder like my Zoom H2, or because you are putting some sophisticated audio interface in between). So the main drawback is having to get video and sound together in an additional post-processing step, and for any video you care about taking external sound will have need post-processing anyway.
Blooming (aka white disc/orb specular highlight problem)
It does happen and it doesn't take much to make it happen. When I shoot down our street at night with all its bright lanterns on the sidewalks but dark trees in the middle I get rather pronounced blooming results on all lanterns. Another example was a shot of wet leaves reflecting sunlight that came from the right side of the picture. While a lot of leaves where overexposed only a few of them caused small orb like forms to bloom over the leaves shape. Time and practice will tell if this is going to be a real-world problem (especially with a supposed firmware improvement on its way).
Especially the wet leaves in sunlight shot seems to confirm the "blooming" explanation. Only those few reflections where the angle of leave and/or water-drop likely pointed the sun-reflection directly towards the sensor seem to suffer from orb like overexposure, while lots of other leaves clip just the same but stay "in shape". Even while CMOS sensors are meant to be "naturally" blooming resistant, they are not free of it (as far as I know, there even is a patent for a CMOS anti-blooming mechanism).
Since CMOS sensors handle each pixel separately (as far as I understood) and the process is likely controlled via firmware software, Fuji might have a way to handle the blooming a bit more gracefully than just overworking the "after-effects". Maybe they can adjust the fine-control of single-pixel electron read-out on a finer level (cleaning electron sinks before they start overflowing into neighbor cells).
I analyzed my own pictures and various others that were posted here and on other sites and came to the following results:
1) There are no "pure white discs" in any of the sample shots! Many of the "orbs" in photos posted by others don't even have much pure white pixels at all, most of them are light greys (around 230 - 256 range) with only one or two color channels clipping at full 255. Which of the channels is clipping and what form the pixels take (one shot had "bands" of colors) depends solely on the overall color balance of the photo (can be any red, green and/or blue channels).
2) Some orbs have square areas of either pure white or two channel clipping inside the "orb", but not necessarily at the full center of it. I suspect that /this/ is the phenomena that Fuji's firmware is trying to mask by drawing a more orb-like structure around it. It may also just be that the "natural" blooming pattern of the CMOS chip behaves like this, but considering that there are also orbs that do not show this /really/ square clippings I wonder how much the firmware contributes here?!
3) Dark outlines around orbs seem to be sharpening artifacts, mostly by the JPG engine. As such they appear more visible when a bright round orb object sits in the middle of a darker surrounding. RAWs don't show these strongly pronounced outlines and having a light/bright surrounding around the orb also helps (see the big orb on the infamous car-glass shot).
Unfortunately turning down sharpening for JPGs to "Soft" doesn't help much at all. Also the sharpening algorithm of the Fuji firmware seems to behaves a bit erratic. It happens that white objects (be it orbs or white text on black ground) have sharpening outlines to one side (sometimes with some corresponding colored halo) but a non sharpened gradient on the other side. The latter was always /blue/ to /purple/ in my shots, looking a bit like color fringes, but extending to a broader area. Maybe the color depends on the overall color balance.
It's not unlikely that the source of these "fringes" are hand-shake movement. I need to do some tripod shots of our street's lanterns to see how that affects the outcome.
It's also seems like the sharpening engine may apply visually stronger sharpening (artifacts) to specific forms and shapes and the "orbs" seem to fall into that category (see 4, too). But generally it's not uncommon to see dark outlines around bright objects with clear shapes (and bright outlines around dark objects) when sharpening is applied.
4) Blooming can happen without forming orbs, too. Albeit this one is hard to separate from simple overexposure. While far away (aka smaller) lanterns in my night shot become more and more round/orb-like with increased exposure, the closest lantern (less than 10 m away) shows the same behavior of eating away its own lamp-hood - even while shot from slightly above (!) - and showing sharpening artifacts outlines.
5) Exposure control (compensation, F-stops, exposure time aka higher ISO) can keep blooming artifacts in check. DPReview showed that in their quick ISO comparison shots, but unfortunately they did not explain how increasing the ISO changed the other parameters (and the Olympus overall still clipped less than the ISO 800 X10 shot). Just increasing the ISO does not help against the blooming, but reducing exposure time correspondingly does.
Increasing ISO will increase noise/grain and when exposure times/f-number are not modified accordingly the whole scene (surrounding) will brighten up. Both can help with getting less offensive orbs with JPG, because both lessen the sharpening artifacts/dark outline. Overexposure might help in some situations, too, because it will not only brighten up the whole scene, but can also affect the shape and especially size of specular highlights.
All in all this still leaves the X10 seemingly suffering more of blooming phenomena than most other cameras whose specular highlights are less obtrusive both in shape and especially size.
So much for sharing my experience after a single week with this overall nice little camera. Feel free to give feedback, start discussions, correct me and overall contribute to all our knowledge about how to use this toy and tool best. But please keep it reasonable and not too emotional (especially concerning disappointed expectations). Also do not only take a look at my "orb" related points, but also the other one (especially the ON switch issue is something I'd like to get feedback on).
Thanks and have fun! ;)
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