Opinion: Do we really need the Fuji X30?
With the camera industry moved on somewhat since the birth of the Fuji X series compact, is there still room for a 12-million-pixel compact in a less-than compact body?
|The X30 (left) positioned alongside its predecessor the X20. The two cameras share the same 12MP X-Trans sensor, but the X30 boasts some worthwhile refinements, including a built-in EVF, articulating rear LCD and much better battery life.|
I wonder if we should expect the third incarnation of any camera to be rather more significantly different from the first than Fuji's X30 is from the original X10. We are still looking at the same lens, the same pixel-count, and largely the same body design. Is it just Fuji that feels the series needs no more than better battery life, an EVF, a new control ring and a new film simulation mode, or are we largely happy to continue looking at and buying the same camera as we did in September 2011?
I remember seeing the X10 for the first time at the IFA Show in Berlin when it was still a painfully slow pre-production sample, and being struck by how cool it looked and how much the Fuji X series would benefit from exactly such a camera. Its only-just compact dimensions kept it small enough to be portable, but large enough to demonstrate immediately that it was somewhat more than simply a compact point-and-shoot model. The size of body seemed to aptly indicate that within lay a sensor larger than those of the usual compact camera crowd, and indeed its 2/3" sensor was a step away from even Canon's expanded 1/1.7" high end model used in the 10-million-pixel Powershot G12. In 2011 there wasn't much else like it, and certainly nothing with its very cool looks: the combination of traditional controls with not-quite-compact body and not-quite-big sensor allowed it to stand on its own in the market and made it a success.
Have the X compacts kept up?
Although the exterior design and general principles of the X compacts have remained the same since the X10 there has actually been significant internal development as the models advanced. The X20 dropped the EXR compact-camera-technology sensor of the X10 and adopted Fuji's X-Trans CMOS sensor to lend it the same image quality advantages that were getting attention for the company's X-Pro1 and X-E1 compact system cameras. The X20 also introduced a clever mixture of optical viewfinder with electronic information overlay that caught the spirit, if not the complete functionality, of the system we had so admired with in the X100.
What is of concern though now is that the market and technology has moved on quite a lot since the X10 was introduced, and the concept of slightly larger sensor that houses only 12 million pixels may not be quite as attractive as it was initially – especially as the X30 has grown in size compared to the X20 it replaces, and that an optical viewfinder is no longer part of the proposition. The optical viewfinder of the X10 and X20 was a considerable part of its appeal for many, even though the lens blocked a good portion of the view at wider focal lengths. It is hard to measure how these two 'negatives' (that is it bigger and has no optical finder) will impact on the popularity of the new body. The optical viewfinder disappointment might be off-set by the fact that the new EVF it is pretty good – that's a very difficult thing to demonstrate to a doubtful potential user unless they are in a position to pick it up and look through it.
The compact system threat
The rise of the compact system camera market, particularly that of the Micro Four Thirds system, since the birth of the X10 may also have an impact on how well received this new model is. We might assume that the majority of X10/X20 cameras were bought by DSLR owners looking for something smaller and more portable than their main camera, but which was able to step beyond the usual compact camera quality. Now the choices that fit that bracket are far greater than they were.
In Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GM1 you can have an interchangeable lens system camera that offers all the same controls as your DSLR, which offers a larger sensor than the X30 and, incidentally, a much smaller body. The GM1 kit zoom only offers 24-64mm equivalent focal lengths compared to Fuji's 28-112mm equivalent, and an aperture range that lets in less light, but it also allows you to adapt the body with faster prime lenses to become an entirely more flexible machine - with more pixels into the bargain.
Obviously the GM1 has no viewfinder at all, but head one step up to Panasonic's Lumix DMC-GX7 and Olympus' OM-D models and you have cameras of a similar size that use bigger sensors, sport excellent EVFs and are part of a wide ranging system. Fuji's own X-E2 is only just bigger than the X30, not a great deal more expensive and features an APS-C sensor – but much, much bigger lenses. While the size and price of CSCs individually vary from those of the X30, they are becoming closer to satisfying the handy-camera desires of the DSLR user at the weekend that were formally quenched by top-end compacts.
|The Fujifilm X-E2 offers interchangeable lenses and a 16MP APS-C format sensor.|
The compact camera offering has moved on since 2011 as well, and some of its developments take a little of the shine off the X30's unique feel – but primarily in more expensive models. Canon's Powershot G1X II is an obvious example, with its all-but-APS-C sensor, similar lens and fractionally smaller body, but it costs 2/3rds as much again and has no viewfinder. The Powershot G16 might be another candidate with the same pixel-count but on a smaller 1/1.7" sensor, optical viewfinder and plenty of DSLR-like controls with traditional styling.
Others seeking high end compacts with larger sensors might look at the Ricoh GR (smaller, more pixels on an APS-C chip, but no zoom and no viewfinder), the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II (bigger 1" sensor, more pixels, similar zoom, cheaper, much smaller, but no viewfinder and more compact in style than mini-DSLR). The Sony Cyber-shot RX 100 III is pricier, but offers a similar feature set to the X30, including a built-in EVF.
Larger sensors are available
Had Fuji decided to use a 1" sensor instead of the still-large 2/3" unit in the X30 its position as a top-flight compact might have been clearer. It would be easy enough to fit such a sensor into a body the dimensions of the X30's I am sure, but the sacrifice would have come in the increased size of the lens required. To create the same coverage of angles and apertures in front of a 1" sensor would require a much broader, and longer, barrel. As the X30 is coat pocket rather than trouser pocket sized anyway, perhaps the disappointment of the extra width and depth would be more than cancelled out by the appeal of the specification, but Fuji doesn't have a 1" X-Trans sensor yet.
Personally, I think it would have been a greater loss to relinquish the X-Trans sensor for the sake of the 20 million pixels on the standard Bayer 1" CMOS that is making the rounds – however good that is. The X-Trans sensor is still a unique attraction of all X series products that use it, and in my opinion this is reason enough for the X30 to exist and do well.
In the X30 Fuji offers a still unique combination of X-Trans sensor, traditional styling and controls, in a relatively small body that uses a relatively large sensor – and that marriage of characteristics is still very attractive to enough photographers for the X30 to work. The loss of the optical viewfinder will be off-set in the market by the fact that there are fewer compacts that offer a viewfinder of any type at all, and the extra size of the body must be weighed by potential users against the additional functionality of the flip-out screen and the adoption of the X100's bulkier NP-95 battery and its greater capacity. And the X30 still has a manual zoom ring, which makes it look and feel like a 'real' camera – now supplemented with an aperture ring – and that is something invaluable to many. That's not to mention the screw thread cable release socket in the shutter button!
Still a solid proposition
Despite the fact we are still looking at a 12-million-pixel less-than-compact camera with the same 28-112mm equiv f/2-2.8 zoom, the fact that the camera produces very good images (at least in the pre-production model I have used), looks very good and now offers a flip-out rear screen and a nice viewfinder will help it to win through.
Design is disproportionately important to all X series cameras and I suspect a very large percentage of users are drawn by the way the cameras look and handle before they study the specification and read the test results. There's nothing wrong with that. Retro cool will be a winning factor for the X30 as much as it was for the X10 - and there will always be room for nice looking cameras that make it easy to take good pictures.
Damien Demolder is a senior contributing writer for DPReview and the former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine, the world's oldest weekly photographic publication. www.damiendemolder.com